The Cornfields of Lancaster At Night

With two young kids, we don’t get a whole of vacations these days. This summer’s big getaway was a trip over the 4th of July weekend with our friends, Tara and Henry, and their two-year old son, who happens to be Nat’s best friend. We stayed on a working farm outside of Strasburg, Pennsylvania, which is right in the heart of Amish country. Oscar and Nat were looking forward to seeing cows and goats and visiting a train museum; the adults were looking forward to spending some quality time in the country with our kids (and maybe having a few beers after they went to sleep); and I was looking forward to doing some running outside of the city for a change.

Shortly after we unpacked our bags, I was hanging out with Tara and Henry on the porch when my partner came out with a quizzical look on her face.

M: Chris, did you bring three pairs of shoes besides the ones you are wearing?”
Me: They’re my running shoes.
M: 
Three pairs of running shoes?
Me: They each have a purpose.
Tara: Chris, you brought a total of 
four pairs of shoes?
M: I need options!
Tara: That’s more shoes than our 
entire family brought.

Anyone who thinks that shoe obsessions are just for women hasn’t spent time around a runner. I had my Vibram classics for walking around, Vibram Bikalas for a barefoot run, Brooks Adrenaline for resting my legs when I ran the day after running in the Bikalas, and the Inov8-155’s for something in-between those two. We were there for three days, so three runs, so three pairs of shoes. Made sense to me.

But I don’t really want to write about shoes (though I’ll point out that I did, in fact, run in every shoe I brought). I want to write about running naked through the cornfields of Lancaster county.

*****

The first night there, I thought I’d take a short run around sunset: M would be putting Nat to sleep, and as soon as Angelica was out (which usually happened around eight) I could go for a run. But Jelly Bean decided to fight sleep, and was up cooing and smiling and laughing until ten, so by the time I was in my running clothes it was pitch black out. As I headed out the door, Tara asked if I had a headlamp. “No. I didn’t think I’d be running this late. I’ll just run slowly and be careful.” “Do you want a headlamp.” “Sure. Wait, why do you have a headlamp?” “Oscar is obsessed with headlamps.” Score one for the weird fixations of toddlers.

The paved road that ran past our farm was pretty busy, with no shoulder to speak of, so my plan was to follow the dirt tractor trails that crisscrossed the cornfields. I quickly found out that these paths didn’t go nearly as far into the farm as I thought, and they only added up to about a mile or so. Instead or running in endless loops, I decided to follow the train tracks that bisected the farm and see where they lead. It was perfectly safe, as the tracks belonged to a historical train that operated solely for tourists during the day. Some aspects of running along train tracks were ideal: there was a clear, wide path that was almost perfectly flat that provided a wonderful view of the darkened silhouettes that made up the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, the gravel that made up the fill between the cross-bars was exceptionally large and rough, which was particularly a problem as I was wearing my Vibrams. I followed the tracks for around two miles, before my feet couldn’t take it any more and I had to turn back (the next day, I had to wear actual shoes, since my soles felt bruised and it hurt to wear my Vibrams). My crapy point-and-shoot camera couldn’t capture anything in the dark, so you’ll have to look at the farm by daylight, and imagine what it would be like in the dead of night.

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There is something magical, almost transgressive about running at night. The Petzl headlamp I wore cast a small area directly in front of me into pale-blue relief, but the rest of the world was dark, black shapes vaguely outlined against the night-sky, which itself was aglow with hundreds upon hundreds of fire-flies. About a mile along the tracks, my headlamp picked out a pair of brilliant green lights gleaming by the side of the road, and then I caught a flash of grey as a raccoon scampered off into the underbrush. The air was warm but with a breeze that was cool across my skin, the way only a summer’s night air can be, and there was a slight edge of dreaming to everything: the sound of my feet on gravel, the rise and fall of my breath, the silhouettes of tents and stone farm-houses and a copse of trees, standing alone in a field of wheat. There was an ephemeral reminder of every summer’s night that came before — from the pine-tree convoked campfires of my childhood to the philosophical ramblings of high school to the wine-bottles and poetry along the Hudson of college to cigarettes on a fire-escape in Harlem — as if the darkness of July is singular, merely repeated and revisited time after time and year after year. I was alone, utterly alone, with just a moving patch of light and the presence of past and present trailing behind me in the dark.

Perhaps it was the solitude, or the sense of dreaming, or just the perfection of the warm summer breeze that lent an air of liberation to the evening, that midsummer’s eve qualities of boundaries removed, the barriers between waking and sleeping, reality imagination weakened. I had stripped off my shirt at the start of my run, as I usually do in the summer, and when I returned along the railroad to the cornfields that comprised our farm, I stopped to soak in the night. I heard the crickets and the horse-hooves from a horse and buggy along the road; the wind rustling the dry sheaves of corn to sound like water and the muted hum of a distant generator, felt the wind cooling the sweat in my hair and along my neck and chest. I stood there for a few minutes, surrounded by the night and the fields and stars, beneath the sky with the breeze running across my body.  And then I started running again . . .

*****

For the next two nights, the same pattern would repeat itself, with different mileage and different shoes. Sunday I ran five miles in my Brooks, along the tracks and then down some darkened side roads; Monday it was just 3 miles in my 155s, and only along the earth and gravel that ran the parameter of the farm. Each night, however, before heading back to a cold beer or bourbon on the porch with my companions, I would end in the middle of the field, and like some ancient, pagan harvest ritual, slip off my shoes and wade into the corn, feeling the loose plowed soil beneath my feet, the cool sheaves of corn against my skin, and stare out across the rolling hills and dark night silhouettes. Lancaster is rural enough to feel isolated, but close enough to Philadelphia that I was by no means in the middle of nowhere: the sounds of horse hooves were accompanied by cars and motorcycle engines, the whisper of the breeze in the corn was dulled by a passing airplane, and the stars were muted with the ethereal glow that haunts each night along the Eastern seaboard. And yet there was a stillness there, in the soil, in the breeze, in my pausing amidst it all, or rather a stillness in me that found the stillness that was there to be found. I stood there and let these stillnesses resonate with one another, soaking in the night.

*****

Eventually I turned back towards the farm house, slipping back into my shirt before I crossed the train tracks a quarter mile from the house. I rejoined the M, Tara, and Henry on the back porch for beer and bourbon, the warm burn of whisky being the perfect dénouement to my run. I sat in my chair letting the cold fire trickle down my throat, letting my eyes settle close, still feeling the close proximity of past summer nights, as if time had become unhinged and all summers swam together, as if I would open my eyes and find that I was twelve and sitting on the shore of Devil’s Lake in Michigan, or perhaps open them and be forty-five and Nat a teenager. It was almost a surprise then to open my eyes and be thirty-two, sitting with a glass of bourbon in Lancaster Pennsylvania, my partner asleep upstairs with our son and daughter and my feet still singing with the secrets of my run.

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About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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