Traversing the St. Mark's Trail to Posey's

By Gordon Cherr

Having moved back to Tallahassee from Asheville (don't ask, thank you), and after surviving laparoscopic surgery for what turned out to be a double inguinal hernia suffered after ingloriously tripping and falling during a mountain trail race in Tennessee (enough, please spare me any more jokes, I always was clumsy and now I am losing balance and eyesight with age), I found myself running on the St. Marks Trail on Christmas Eve Day, the annual Posey's Run.

As usual, Corey (my 24 year old son, the family member who can really run) and I arrived too late to start with the main crowd, maybe by 30 minutes, but he figured that with enough effort, we might catch some stragglers by Mile 10. Personally, I expected to just lope down the 15-16 miles at minimal effort. We never discuss such things in advance. We should. Corey never appears to be out of shape and really hasn't been since his high school and collegiate running careers ended. He is so skinny that all you ever see when he turns sideways is a rack of xylophone ribs.

Not that he has ever shown me much mercy on the run, either. My guess is that this is more payback for the time I ran him ragged on the Munson Hills. He was about 10 years old at the time. He logged the entire 10 or so miles on the Munson Hills course with nary a complaint, no water stops - nothing. He didn't talk much then, he still doesn't talk much now when we run together. We can run an hour together with hardly a comment passing between us. But, if you don't know, running with your children has got to be one of the most enjoyable endeavors God has allowed us on this planet.

Not that this morning is very enjoyable. Around Mile 2 (which Mile 2, there have got to be at least 5 separate and largely unrelated measuring systems being used on the trail?), the pace picks up perceptibly. And then some:

Father (between labored breaths): "What's your problem?"

Son (he isn't even breathing through his mouth yet): This is way too slow, we're gonna be out here all day...what's yours?"

That's about it for the first 8 miles. But still, even now pounding along beyond the edge of discomfort, at about a 6:45 clip, I am almost emotionally overwhelmed with gratefulness in being granted our private time together. Children do not understand this. They do when they are lucky enough to have their own. You understand, don't you? Sure you do.

We passed the entrance to the Munson Hills course a short time ago. If the soft sandy trails of the Munson Hills are not the most pleasant place to run in Leon County, then I don't know what is. I have seen such great wildlife out there: deer, possum, snakes, fox squirrels, gopher tortoises, pileated woodpeckers and even a stray coyote or two. No one to bother you, a few trail bikers here and there, maybe another lost runner to greet with a wave or a nod of the head. But my most vivid memory of the Munson Hills was an encounter with a homeless person, several winters ago, temporarily living in the bathroom at the trail head. We talked a long time, my run forgotten. He spoke of rides on trains and freezing nights, of drugs and a family long lost to him. He accepted the blame willingly, but expressed no remorse in what he had done to those he loved, much less to himself. I never knew his name, a fellow traveler on Spaceship Earth. Like the rest of us, just trying to get by. What a story some people have to tell. Not necessarily one you would want for yourself.

We pass through (or rather behind) Woodville, the pace has not slackened a bit. The temperature has risen a few degrees by now and we are looking for places to stash shirts and hats and gloves, which we hope to locate on our return trip later in the morning (that one by car). I am always amazed by the things we see on these runs when we pass Woodville - discarded tools, more clothes, old dirty diapers, one shoe or a boot (why is it always just one?). I find myself speculating whether there an old boot cemetery somewhere, like the legendary elephants' burial ground, but where there are no matching pairs. Dr. George Sheehan was right when he wrote that when he ran his mind spun out of control. I think the real reason is oxygen debt to the brain.

Our footfalls now beat together in perfect unison on the asphalt of the trail. Thump, thump, thump. That steady beat lulls one into a sense of peace and serenity. Well, it would for me but for being out of breath. Corey seems at peace and nearly effortless at this pace. It is a beautiful morning, the sun is still low and we run through long, alternating stretches of sunlight and shadow. If your eyes squint, you can imagine almost any scene unfolding before you, colors and shapes moving at odd angles. Maybe this is the much acclaimed runner's high? Maybe, but then I see someone walking on the trail, perhaps 300 yards ahead. I can't quite make out what it is that I am looking at. There is something amiss here. His head is terribly misshapen from this distance. I look at Corey and he looks at me, no words are spoken, none are needed. What is that?

The distance closes quickly and we run up on a man walking on the trail, with two large seat cushions resting on his head. They are perfectly balanced up there, his arms to his sides. Another glance to my side and I know what Corey is thinking. He knows that if he knocks the cushions off the man's head, then all he has to do is outrun me to be safe. No big deal there. I look at him and say "Don't do it" and we both start to laugh. You can't run while you are laughing and we slow to a trot. The man hears our laughter and turns suddenly, the cushions fly off of his head onto the dirt of Old Woodville Highway. He picks up his load and walks away, into the woods. He never changes expression or does anything but pick up the cushions and place them back onto his head, and we continue on our way towards Posey's. I know that you don't believe me, but that is what we saw. Maybe it was a shared illusion? Right about then the only illusion I am having is the one about making it to Posey's and drinking a cold one, for sure.

Somewhere south of Woodville the landscape changes, almost imperceptibly. The live oak start to give way to scrub oak, the planted slash pine is replaced by loblolly and sweet bay magnolia, while fan palm begin to appear. There is something about approaching St. Marks while running the trail which starts to resemble the tropics. It is just feeling more than anything else.

South of Woodville, the dominant life form on the St. Marks Trail becomes the mangy, roaming, mutt dog of undetermined ownership and origin. They are big enough to do you harm, but generally look too stupid to do much more than growl and froth at the mouth. They are the living hallmark of Wakulla County. As we run I am now thinking that all too many people down there seem to resemble their dogs, physically and mentally, and maybe I need to concentrate more on the pace and less on Darwin and concepts of convergent evolution.

Finally we pass Highway 98, not far from the old Olin munitions factory, now owned by General Dynamics. This is good because we are finally nearing the end of this run. I used to handle worker's compensation claims from this plant. You should appreciate your current job; you don't realize how many people have lost fingers, hands, arms and toes while working with explosive devices there. We have now started to pick up stragglers from the large group that left the parking lot about 30 minutes ahead of us, and a tail wind at around the ten mile mark (or one of them) that was like a blessing to me.

There is a tall security fence behind a portion of the old Olin property, maybe 12 feet high. Early one spring morning several years ago, I left out of St. Marks, on the trail, heading for Tallahassee, at a much more leisurely pace. I spotted the fence down a dirt road and decided to pull in for a pit stop, and at the same time, startled a yearling deer that was grazing there in the dim morning light before sunrise. I jumped back and the young deer simply jumped over that fence without a running start. To this day that is by far the most impressive athletic performance I have ever witnessed. It was astonishing to me then and is just as impressive a feat to me today.

Small talk of what we are going to eat at Posey's finally allows the pace to slacken some. Smoked mullet seems very high on our agenda. grits, fries and a Corona with a green lime, I can almost smell it now. We finally reach the parking lot across the street from Posey's and climb into dry, warm clothes, stashed in Corey's car. It looks like a good turnout again. Sure enough, walking in I see so many friends I have missed while being away. Several firm handshakes and many hugs later we are eating and drinking and telling lies like always.

Try not to let your life get so hectic that you fail to smell the roses (or the smoked mullet). Peace and a healthy new year.