“When I look back, boy I musta been green, bopping in the country, fishing in the stream, looking for an answer, trying to find a sign, until I saw your city life, honey I was blind…”
Elton John, Honky Cat
I’ve written in the past about the fact that I’m a hayseed at heart. As a small kid, I spent a week each summer on a farm in Upstate New York. I liked shoveling the manure into the troughs behind the cows and rattling around the dusty hay mow. Mornings I’d catch leopard frogs hiding in the water-filled troughs left by tractor tires. Evenings we’d fish in the Susquehanna River. I was in my hayseed glory.
By the time I was twelve I joined my brother Gary for fly-fishing ventures on Octoraro Creek in Southeast Pennsylvania. That cold, clear water rushing over the feet of my waders felt like life itself. Pulling brown trout out of the stream by fly rod and reel was a pure and vital experience.
I kept at the nature thing once I became a birder in my teens. For this hobby, I took merciless ridicule from running teammates. “Birdman,” they’d chirp in a derogatory fashion. But I did not care. Being outside in nature was a soul-soothing adventure. Running was a big part of that.
Outside and loving it
Running kept me outside for long periods of time throughout my teens and early 20s. I attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where nature bumped right up against the campus and a National Wild and Scenic River flowed right next to the school. My 100-mile weeks were done on winding dirt roads that rolled in oxbows through the hills and bluffs that rose above. It all felt secret and wonderful to pass through those deep valleys running as fast as we could go. Sometimes we’d move as silent as a stream, our footfalls echoing softly off the limestone walls beside us.
The natural world beyond
When I joined the working world I’d ache to be outside on nice days rather than sitting inside some office building staring out at the natural world beyond.
Sometimes I’d sneak outside for lunchtime runs. The delicious escape often resulted in problems solved in my head while I ran. Often these would present themselves as some faster way to get a problem solved. Before the run, I’d be thinking about all the obstacles or bureaucracy that stood in the way. During the run, I’d get an idea that would break through the bends and twists in front of me.
This concept has a precedent in nature. It’s called an oxbow. That’s the process by which a stream or river pushes against at an opposing bank until it erodes away. Eventually, the stream cuts right through to the next section and leaves the former streambed behind. That’s an oxbow.
We all have oxbows in our life. Sometimes these are work-related. Other times they exist in terms of relationships or islands of grief or anger or personal difficulty against we bump like a swollen stream.
But in every case, they typically have something to do with what we believe about ourselves, or some situation. As a result, we might blindly work against that personal obstacle under the assumption that it will never go away. Then one day the preconception falls away by choice or by chance and we wonder why we ever let it stand in our way in the first place.
I’ve had these feelings of liberation many times in life. I wonder if you have too? Some believe these revelations to be the product of divine grace. Others are just happy that circumstances finally changed. In either case, when the time comes to move along, and the dam or oxbow breaks free, the sense of personal freedom can be overwhelming.
Often it is self-doubt that holds us back the most. As endurance athletes, we might dream of going up in distance or pace, but some bank of worry or fear stands in our way. We might go weeks or months or years bumping up against it and never work up the courage to break through on our own. “I can’t run a half-marathon,” we might tell ourselves. Or: “I could never do a half-Ironman,” our fearful brain ruminates. “An Ironman is just beyond me,” the self-doubt mutters. These beliefs may have nothing to do with reality, but they have everything to do with how we perceive ourselves. So we keep following the same old streambed. Taking the long-way-around. The long way home. The long way to personal enlightenment and actualization.
But take a minute to think through the things that are holding you back. And think about what you see when you attend any type of race. What you’re seeing when athletes cross the line with arms raised in triumph is a breakthrough on a personal oxbow. It is nothing less and nothing more. They have crossed an oxbow and come out ahead.
Of course, the oxbow process just starts all over again. That’s the nature of nature. These processes never end. They just take on new forms. New challenges. New oxbows to rub against and navigate.
And just like the former paths of streams that broke through the oxbow, we can see traces of our former selves in the landscape we leave behind.