My predawn exercise of body and imagination

I almost stepped on it, twisting my foot just in time. By the light of the moon, I could barely make out the wriggling tail of a possum as it scampered into the brush. My heart leaped.

One of the benefits of running very early in the morning is the soothing blanket of darkness. It cloaks me in peace and solitude. One of the drawbacks of running early in the morning is the impenetrable blanket of darkness. The leaden cloak sometimes hides strange things that lurk in the night. Whether my running is refreshing or terrifying depends on what wild creatures I encounter.

When I lived in the city, my predawn runs were illuminated and tame. I followed the streetlights and stuck to the sidewalk on highly trafficked roads. Occasionally I'd round a corner and almost collide with another runner. Generally, the runs were quite predictable.

Running in the country, however, is a different story. No street lights line the Wisconsin hills I now traverse, so I purchased a headlamp.

"You look like a bedraggled coal miner from the 19th century," said my husband on the first day I donned my new gear.

"Maybe so," I replied, lacing up my running shoes, "but at least I'll see something before I step in it."

One Sunday morning I was circumnavigating our eight-mile block. The sun was playing peekaboo with the horizon as I came to the foot of what I call "the never-ending hill." Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I looked longingly at the apex of the hill, wishing I could magically transport myself there.

Suddenly, I realized a creature was loping down the hill toward me. Alone on that deserted stretch of road, I felt a finger of sweaty fear run down my spine. I sidled over to the shoulder, squinting to gauge the size and temperament of the animal.

It was large, at least as tall as my thigh, and brownish-gray in color. It had a bottlebrush tail and no collar. This was no neighbor dog; it looked exactly like a wolf.

Slowing to a walk, I maneuvered down into the ditch. Was it a wolf? It trotted down the centerline as perfectly as a gymnast navigating a balance beam.

I studied the creature with a sidelong glance. Curiously, it appeared to be studying me out of the corner of its eye, too. It looked a bit nervous, as though it was frightened of me. We passed each other without incident, and I ran up that hill faster than I'd ever run it before.

At the top I glanced over my shoulder. The animal had disappeared, apparently as eager to get away from me as I was to escape him.

When I arrived home, intact but frightened, my husband laughed. He insisted I must have seen a large dog, as there are no wolves in south-central Wisconsin.

"It looked exactly like a wolf," I insisted. "But it acted strange, like it was afraid of me."

With a sardonic grin my husband replied, "Go look in the mirror."

Dried sweat stood my greasy bangs on end; the headlight glowed from my forehead like a third eye. I was wheezing and gasping to catch my breath. I looked quite monstrous, I realized, far more frightening than a wolf.

Another time I jogged past a neighbor's farm where a herd of Holsteins placidly grazed. On my return, the cows had escaped their fenced field and were meandering up and down the roadside unsure of how to handle their newfound freedom.

Panic hit me as I flashed back to the memory of being charged by a cow in my youth. I had no choice but to walk among them now if I wanted to get home. I yelled, hoping to alert the sleeping farmers in the nearby house, but I didn't dare go up their driveway; a colossal cow was standing guard there, armed with a fully loaded udder.

Steeling myself, I slowly walked straight down the center of the road, darting glances right and left. Brown eyes glared at me as I walked the gantlet; jaws like steel traps moved mechanically. Toeing the centerline as the cows mooed, snorted, and snuffled alongside me, I realized I was imitating the walk of the wolf I'd met the previous day. One man's wolf is another's cow.

Wolves and cows may be nerve-racking, but they pale compared to a recent encounter.

It was a dark and foggy morning. My headlight barely pierced the inky blackness as I topped a hill about a mile into my run. Suddenly my eyes caught a greenish glow in the center of the road. I slowed down, squinting to make out the object. Two eyes gleamed menacingly at me. They were low to the ground, so I concluded it was another possum. I clapped my hands loudly, a technique I use often with great success. The eyes didn't move.

"Hey, whoa! Get out of here!" I yelled. This secondary tactic had worked every time. But the eyes still didn't budge. Possums are quite timid. Could this be a raccoon? A small coyote?

Just then the headlights of a car came over the rise in the road. The driver must have wondered at the strange sight:

A woman disguised as a 19th-century miner jogged in place clapping her hands at a skunk standing in the middle of the road with its tail ramrod straight in the air.

The skunk gave the car a cursory glance and then shot me a look that said "I'm not finished with you yet" before ambling into the undergrowth. Deciding that was enough exercise for one day, I turned tail and ran straight home.

Last week the newspaper reported that a mountain lion had been sighted a mile from my house. Perhaps it's time to purchase that treadmill I've been considering.

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