I grew up in the Maryland suburbs, outside of Washington DC. I always wanted to claim Baltimore as the closest city, it had much more grit than DC, but DC was closer so what the hell. Fortunately, although it was the suburbs, and not far from traffic and crime and congestion, I had a veritable oasis in my backyard. I guess that there were more than 100 acres of woods back there.
The woods were a place that taught me many things, I believe that I discovered a lot about myself back amongst the trees and animals. And those woods lit a spark in me and it began my love of the outdoors.
I did all my running workouts in the woods, getting ready for football season, from the time that I was in 11th grade , all through 4 years of college. The reason why I started running back in those woods was because up until the summer of 11th grade, I mostly just lifted weights. I didn't really get the whole running thing. We would get tested in the mile run and I would just gut it out and I did fine. One day my Dad overheard a phone call with between myself and my buddy Carlo and Carlo was going running. I decided not to run with him, and my Dad asked, "How come you aren't running and your teammates are?" I said, "Ah, I don't need to run."
He looked at me and said, "Jimmy, you don't have a dedicated bone in your body."
And that's all it took, his words meant so much, he snapped me right back into reality. That day, I started my running program in the woods and never missed a day. I just gravitated to the woods, I always have done that, and I couldn't see myself running around a track or even on a football field. I felt as though the woods were calling me.
Dirt bikes had made trails through the woods and they were pretty much free of debris on them. There were different trails back there, and all of them had hills on them. It was just what I needed, those trails were "man makers" and the hills were always a challenge, to try to regain your breath before you went up another one. I believe that the reason that I was in the best shape of my life had a lot to do with the hills in the woods. Sometimes I would do a run twice a day, I had so much fun doing it. My workouts would last from 5-30 minutes.
There was definitely something primal about being in the woods, running, gasping for air, being alone, where the only other creatures around were squirrels and deer and other animals. And no humans whatsoever. I fell in love with it. Summers were the best, the Maryland humidity would be going strong, the weatherman would warn everyone to stay inside, but I would go out. I have always loved the severe heat and humidity, I have always felt comfortable in that weather. And the main thing was that when I went to North Carolina for college football, no day was as hot and humid as it was on a July day in Maryland.
I did like running by myself, especially in the woods. You talk about solace. I didn't have a walkman either, just the sounds of the cicadas in the heat and my footsteps and my breathing. I played mental tricks on myself, getting ready for those workouts. I'd say, today you are gonna go for an easy run, just look around, enjoy the scenery. Then I'd get going and invariably end up pushing that lactate threshold and dry heaving as I ran back to the house.
I had a ritualistic way of getting ready for my runs. My Dad had bought me some "irregular" adidas running shoes (never new shoes, only slightly messed up shoes from the Foot Locker outlet in Langley Park). Bright neon green, totally flat and I loved those shoes. I only wore them to run and when I would put them on and lace them up, my mind would shift into running mode. I would have the garden hose ready for the end of the run, when I was finished, and I'd sit in a lawn chair and hose myself down. The cold water felt amazing. Or if my dad was watering the flowers, he would squirt me with the hose, and then I'd take gulps of that cool, fresh water.
A bonus attraction running through those woods was a creek. "The Creek" was what we called it. Like, where are you going? Oh, I will be down at The Creek."
It was a winding, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, body of water that provided tremendous entertainment for a young boy. I guess at its widest that it was around 20 yards wide. It was one of the only natural trout streams in Maryland, and I fished it often. Along with trout, there were blue gill, suckers and even an occasional bass. I'd come home from lifting weights in high school and head down there for some peace and quiet. I'd use small hooks and dough balls and I don't believe that I ever left empty handed from my fishing forays. There were a few swimming holes in the creek, one was around 5 feet deep and a small waterfall led into it. I swam there plenty, and we caught eel and snapping turtles (big ones) in that hole also. I reckon that I never considered a snapping turtle biting one of my toes off. That wouldn't have been so great. When I really just wanted to be alone, I would just go down there to explore. Tracks from raccoon and deer would be all over the sand, and ducks would be in there swimming. Pileated Woodpeckers were there too, in those woods. And hawks and owls could also be seen and heard. You see, I loved it, but I didn't know how special it was. I was lucky. The creek used to have an old powder mill on it, and the road just off of the creek was called Powder Mill Road. Rumors that Teddy Roosevelt and or maybe Herbert Hoover hunted back there I heard for many years, including the fact that one of them had a cabin somewhere near the creek.
I remember one time when I was a kid, the Fish and Wildlife people were wading in the creek and they had these poles that shocked the fish and they were doing some fish count. They told us that yes, there were tons of trout and that the population was healthy , too.
And the woods are still there and the creek is still there and when I visit my parents, I recall so fondly the days spent in those woods.
Sometimes, I take my dog down there and let her swim and it still feels the same, wild and free. and I can still feel those woods and the creek deep in my soul wherever I am.