A taste of flight

I sometimes run - up the driveway, a right turn down the dirt road to the white gate - to experience the delicious memory of how close I came to flying when I ran as a boy.

There was a sense of flight then, impish and illusory, that carried my sense of myself perhaps a foot off the ground like a harmless projectile humming effortlessly toward an outer edge of transparent speed. Two feet at work gave way to the beguiling motion of constant zoom. The earth shrank to a little ribbon, a path of exhilarating air that watched me outrun it like a laugh sent down a long hall. I was really flying, I thought.

I suppose, though, as I open the white gate now, that the memory is only an old song well remembered and that speed and flight had little to do with that sense of myself. Running was the antidote to confusion, as was the grace of playing basketball or seeing the burly mountains behind my home. What brought order was being involved in the rhythmic act of running and not just the mechanics of getting from here to there. The result, for whatever reason, was a sense of intimate flight, an aboveground detachment not dependent on anything but the acknowledgment that it was happening. Man as tuning fork, man as bellwether, boy having fun and feet with wings.

I open the white gate, lope across a grassy field under spreading oaks and along a wire fence. Then down a dirt road that cuts through vineyards and breaks into the curved openness of a huge, perfect valley known by Jack London as the Valley of the Moon.

It is close to dusk. A soft coolness fills the air. To the northwest a reddish haze forms an arc over the horizon and deepens to a tomato glow at the edges. To the south, just above the darkening mountain ridge, the edge of an astonishing white plate is moving upward in the blueblack sky. I run with the steady bam bam bam of my feet. Suddenly I wish that when I write this down I can reduce the saying of it to a whisper, a low voice that hesitates to deface the smooth plain of being here with any kind of wordy loudness. Enter photography. I snap a photo in my mind's eye, but still. . . .

I run up the asphalt road, teasing myself to run faster with the old swiftness that manufactures sweet flight. But I will not be tricked. Instead I am content to slow to a stroll and watch the tranquil valley that holds me in its palm.

The white plate has centered itself above the ridge. Trees have become black lace against dark blue. The deepening red melts into the pool of the horizon. Spellbound with the order of time and place, I stand on the little rise of a hill that allows me to see everywhere in all directions forever. So, I murmur, I will be tricked. . . .

I break into a run, down the hill, gaining speed, the boy substituting for the man as he and I search for old flight below a haunting moon. I accelerate, faster, faster, straining to break free of the earth and bask in the glory of what I remember as the purity of flight. I run and run and reach with the finger tips of the last burst of speed, and for all my effort over fifty puffing yards - with my mouth open - I am awarded with a stroke of humor. I swallow a bug. I can't believe it. My sentiment and drama are mocked by a speck of a bug. I stop, choking and spitting in the realization that it is well enough to leave well enough alone. And for the poor bug, to be in flight and suddenly swallowed by a giant, this is an end without merit.

I regain my composure. I can almost hear the footfall of the boy scampering away and laughing at me. Soon I am dignified again, even chuckling. Go away, boy. You had your chance. Leave me alone and I will leave you alone.

In the stillness I run quietly home.

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