I need miles today to start my week right and I head for one of Pittsburgh’s major parks to find them. Mine is one of two cars in the gravel lot I choose despite the fact that this is a weekend morning and there’s no shortage of athletes in the vicinity. Covid fears reign in the metropolis but on the wet and wooded trails the fearless reign today.
Then there’s the rain, which began about the time I pulled in. It’s not truly heavy rain but I wouldn’t call it light. Oh well, muddy trail suits my current regimen.
My legs don’t feel like a nine miler as I begin building momentum and there’s no certainty I’ll meet up to the expectations enumerated on my little running chart. I’ve been at this for months though so I have some history with tough and soggy days. Still, it almost hurts to leave the easy main trail half a mile in and begin climbing up a slippery single track mountain bike path.
My hope is that the weather will keep the bikers home. On a fair-weather Saturday, these trails can be hazardous places for runners. This is new trail to me and I’d just like to see where it leads before I end up on gently-graded park paths again.
The first set of switch-backs bring me up to a point where the trail divides and I choose the outermost way, in keeping with my search for the park’s perimeter. As my legs relax for the first time, it begins feeling good to be out, alone and exerting through a sodden forest, master of my own path.
The young folks who crave propulsion by BMX and Huffy have done fine work here and now I’m in more of stunt bike obstacle course, something more artful than normal trail. Here I pass or leap over rails, pits and jumps that hadn’t just been parts of the landscape but rather had been carved into the face of the earth through countless combined hours of wheelbarrow toil, laying one year’s clay iteration upon the next. A “freeride” they might call it but they guys with picks and rakes know it wasn’t really free. Give the kids a hundred years and I might return to find pyramids and aqueducts.
The trail choices become truly multifarious now to the point of confusion. No doubt each of these little paths has a suggestive name like “Dragon’s Teeth,” “Quicksand Swamp,” or “the Torn Patch.” I was a kid once with high BMX ambitions – I remember. But it was apparent that much more than play had been going on among the off-the-beaten-track groves; real work had taken place here.
The rain was, if anything, intensifying, not passing on in a concentrated east-bound cumulus mass. Still, I was smiling. Here I was in the heart of Pittsburgh, surrounded by woods and, moreover, following miles of trail I’d never encountered, sloppy though it may have been. The foliage was only just beginning to paint my surroundings a dappled green this spring and so I enjoyed a long view as I found myself atop the valley wall of the Monongahela River. The mile plus of downhill that followed could only be described as a joy, tired shins or not. I got sweaty and muddy and rain-soaked – all the signs of a really great run.
Here too, inestimable work had taken place, cutting a not-too-steep track gradually down toward the river. Ancient road beds were put to uses their Nineteenth Century originators had never intended and landslide piles had become ramps for daring aerialists. The course was decorated with the refuse of civilization, things long ago hurled from the cliff-edge above, things that were simply “gone” to the denizens of the civilized places above. Here’s an old aluminum bike fork and here, a fridge door now serves as ramp and here, cinder blocks have become steps in a place just a bit too steep for the sturdiest thighs or cranks.
The hearty trees of the slope drew up the incessant rainwater all around, reminding me that I’d left the paved and planned regions for the moment. This place was organic and its paths no less organic. This winding trace was alive, bending, twisting, turning and evolving over time, following as much the whimsy of vigorous young men as the contours of the Monongahela Valley. If they’d felt there should be a jump here, it was sculpted and if a tree had fallen, maybe there was a rail to ride now.
They’d made the best of what nature had given them – they couldn’t control that part – but they could control what they made of it and today it seemed that they had surely made the best of it. Hitting the bottom, I vaulted between the cars of a stationary train and gained the riverside now. It’s likely that no planning authority had handed the youths of the hillside a mandate for five miles of new trail needed by the city or that anyone had completed a 3-year feasibility and environmental impact study of the nascent trail system. Those things pertained to official city trails – the boring, evenly graded, lawsuit-averse lanes of the park above. The off-the-grid trails I’d encountered here were different beasts though – they were something wilder and the thoroughfares of wilder men.
I found myself jogging through the post-industrial wasteland of the Monongahela floodplain now, sometimes on gravel and sometimes on crumbling asphalt. I’d often associated wildness with distant mountain regions – where the wild things were. But today, setting out under bleak skies, I’d hardly expected to traverse one of Pittsburgh’s wild enclaves, a refuge of both wild creatures and wild people. This was a place where one went to feel adrenaline and speed and the wind in your face. It was a place where one went to escape the over-supply of protocol and conformity and procedure; in short, to depart the park of modernity for one hell-bent plunge over the valley wall, hurtling along precipice and tire-shredding steel, learning hairpin bends at thirty miles per hour. For this, it was worth the summer days with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow, setting the stage for greatness.
Closing on my eighth mile and pointed back toward the point of origin, I thought about the very inverted world I occupied. Shouldn’t the liberty and opportunity seen here be the norm, with bastions of conformity and compliance perhaps relegated to the periphery? How is it that the best parts of Pittsburgh are the least well-known, the least visited or publicized? How did we let someone else’s perception of aesthetic perfection eclipse our own chances to create without boundaries? And how repressed are we when we follow apps to official, designated, government-sanctioned places of recreation, eschewing the uncertainty of the crags of the river wall?
How much disservice have we done ourselves when we need predictability and safety to be the norm and how oppressed are we when that stasis becomes statutory through the meddling of petty government bureaus?
Wringing out my shirt at the car, I thought that it had been a good run.