Today I am going for a walk.
I take no water, and wear only regular shoes. I leave the music and podcasts at home. I don’t want distractions. I need to be here, now. I need to feel it.
As I head up the street from my house, I deliberately turn toward the busiest road. At the intersection I turn again toward the traffic. And again. And then I find my feet carrying me toward the overpass, the freeway streaming below, loud and alive, angry with cars. So many cars.
As I near the overpass, I cross the access road twice. Both times there is a crosswalk, where cars should give way. Both times, I feel my heart in my throat. I stay in it, the sounds, the sight of cars streaming toward me, behind me, below me. I judge the intentions of cars coming toward the crosswalk. I wait. I cross safely.
To my left, six inches of curb and maybe two feet of grass are everything between me and the hurried traffic. Eventually, I reach the bridge where a concrete half-wall provides more semblance of protection. I keep walking; gasoline burns my nose, the road vibrates beneath my feet, metal whips by my left side. When I stop, I’m near the middle of the bridge, by the railing. I look down at the freeway below.
My insides claw at my chest. Fear. It’s not entirely uncomfortable. It reminds me of the electricity before a race. Fear of the unknown. Anxiety too. But mixed with exhilaration, the thrill of experience. And awe at the power around me.
It was a normal run, just getting in the daily miles. But it was also abnormal, in that I was at my sister’s house. Her neighborhood has no sidewalks. You walk your dog in the street, kids bike in the street, people gossip over coffee in the street, and runners run in the street. I have run in her neighborhood many times. I love the hills, the trees, the older homes. I love its sleepy town vibes. The roads around my sister’s house typically have few cars, and those that have traffic are easy to avoid. I knew this neighborhood well. It felt safe.
The morning was cold, near freezing, and softly wet. Nothing to deter an excellent run. We had places to be that afternoon, things to do, so I was keeping my run short. Nice and easy, having fun with the hills. Thirty minutes in, and I was about to turn home, but I had one more hill I wanted to run before I headed back. This street had cars parked along both sides, pushing me more towards the center of the road. An elderly gentleman was walking his small dog a few houses down. I saw a car backing out of the driveway to my left. I moved over to let the car pass. I was wearing headphones, but they were bone conduction with the volume turned down. I could hear everything. Once the car was clear, I started to move back center to pass a parked car. And then I heard the soft sound of the electric engine behind me. There was a second car.
I swerve to the right side of the road. Maybe I should have gone left, facing into traffic, but I didn’t think. I had just been on the right side of the road to avoid the car backing out, and so I naturally went right again. I see the car over my right shoulder. It’s trying to go around on my right. Too close. Not enough room between me and the edge of the road.
I swerve left, to give the car enough room to go by. But now I see the car on my left shoulder. Closer. It swerved left too. Without slowing down or giving me more space. It’s on me before my brain can interpret what I see.
I remember hitting the side of the car. Glancing off really. It wasn’t a fast impact.
I remember thinking, “I’m getting hit by a car.”
And then, “It doesn’t hurt.”
I bounce off the car door and lose my balance. My trail legs kick in and for an instant I don’t think I’ll fall…
I hit the ground in a backwards roll.
My hands go up to my head, somehow my glasses and my hat end up in my hand. Did they come off on impact? I don’t know. My bone conduction headphones are a couple feet away. Of course I stop my watch.
I hear a car door and a shout “Are you okay?”
She helps me up. I assess everything. No blood, no broken bones. We exchange phone numbers. I ask her for a hug. I need the reassurance that she is real. That I am real. That this is real. She is headed to a wedding. She is sorry. I say, “this is a first for me.” She says, “me too.” We nod. She leaves. I turn to head home.
The elderly gentleman with his dog wants to walk me home, but I decline. Partly because I can run home more than twice as fast as he can walk. Partly because I am embarrassed and ashamed. I just want to be alone.
Everything feels fine as I run. Everything feels more than fine. The adrenaline gives my legs pop, my breath is even. I feel GOOD.
Until I stop.
Walking near the house to cool down my chest constricts. Tears pool at the edges of my eyes. My husband pulls up beside me in his car, and I climb in. We lazily loop the neighborhood as I relay the events. I fight the panic attack trying to choke me.
I’m ok. We have a day of birthday parties for my niece and nephew. Deep breath. I’m ok.
Let’s go inside.
I really am ok. Mostly.
I had a headache for an hour or so. I never even had a bump on my head from the fall. My back and butt became sorer as the day went on, and the next morning my neck was stiff. But nothing seemed too out of the ordinary for a fall on trail, much less one that involved pavement and moving metal.
I framed the “incident” as a good story. I could say I was hit by a car and walked away. Ran away actually. It was an adventure, a fun ice breaker. Isn’t that what makes a good story anyway? When things go horribly sideways and you live to tell the tale, preferably with a bourbon in hand? I literally went sideways. And here I was, telling my tale.
I was running again within two days, although I stuck to routes far from roads. Driving never seemed weird. I had metal and engineering between me and other cars.
But I jumped when walking in a parking lot and a car backed out near me. I skittered when a car drove through my neighborhood too fast as I ran to our nearby trail. And anger simmered when I walked toward a crosswalk in my local park, and a car pulled forward to block my way. Is my life not valuable? Do I not deserve to be on these roads too?
It’s not just a good story to tell over bourbon. It’s not just something I can wow with at parties. This happened and it was wrong and it impacted me in ways I don’t fully understand. I’m angry at drivers for not recognizing the frailty of the lives around them, for treating runners so casually. I’m sad that both I and the driver will have to live with those images, those fears. I’m anxious when I hear a car come around me too fast. I’m grateful that I got to stand up and walk away. I’m ashamed that I was hit to begin with. I feel guilty that I was running in the street, that I didn’t move over in time, that I swerved the wrong way. Even though I know that cars should always yield. I feel guilty and ashamed.
And maybe most of all, I feel small, insignificant, weak. On the roads I feel I don’t belong. Drivers make that clear, with their honks and gunning engines. Speeding up as you cross on a designated sign. Hovering impatiently if you take too long. Running is my home. And I don’t belong.
Which is why I am on the bridge suspended above the freeway, looking over the edge to the river of cars below. Some appear to come straight at me, while others hurry away. Another car whips by behind me on the bridge. I can feel the thump whump of the tires on the pavement seams louder than I can hear them. The hairs on my neck prickle with the energy around me. I force myself to breathe, deep and slow. Feel the fear, the anger, the anxiety. I can feel and I can stand here. I can be scared and I can stay. I can take up space. These are my roads too.
The freeway shifts in my mind. I have always loved running this bridge. The cars streaming below me, the wind around me; I feel like l am flying. I often throw my arms wide and airplane across the highest point, a smile widening as I run. When I first walked out today, I didn’t feel that exhilaration. Everything was too fast, too big, too loud. But now I feel a tremor of that old joy, the freedom of a bird in the sky.
Walking back over the bridge, the knot inside me loosens. Strands still wrap around my middle, a few will snag in the coming weeks. I know that. There isn’t a quick fix. Progress is never linear. Happily ever after is only in stories.
Two trees reach across the sidewalk as I leave the bridge and walk along the road toward home. One is golden, the other brilliant yellow. Two shades of one color, each radiantly the same, yet distinctly different. I pause to stand beneath their bows and smile, the same and different too.