A clear landscape through which to run and run and run. I had glimpsed it once, that simplicity, and whenever life wanted to turn me into a drone I thought of the North. But work and family and fitness can make us feel like the sorcerer’s apprentice conjuring the stumbling hordes of our own commitments.
So just after the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, an opening in the lurching balance offered a chance. On a last minute seat sale, I flew north to the Yukon, landing late at night with nothing but a running bag, three days clear, and three big runs planned in succession.
By the time I’d signed for my rental truck, I was the last one in the terminal and walked out to a empty parking lot. What if they held a marathon and no one came? I felt the urge to run - you could dance down the open streets and never have to pause for a light. Had my watch stopped? Eleven PM looked like mid-afternoon. The sun hung above the highway to Dawson City like a staring blind hole that had forgotten how to blink. It was both giddy and disconcerting. I drove through that first night – too excited, too bright – to sleep. My goal was to run those beautiful loping mountains that were clean of trees. This would include the Tombstone – a park of jagged peaks rising from the tundra, El Dorado – the creeks and domes of the legendary goldfields, and Top-of-the-World – the obscure and remote highway that chained ridge-crests for a hundred kilometers to the border with Alaska. What could go wrong? Digging for a jacket in my duffle I realized I had forgotten batteries for my headlamp – pshaw! – I couldn’t get benighted!
Still, the strangeness was creeping in. Early in the night I passed a quartet of cyclists on the empty highway as if it was normal to tour nocturnally. If the apocalypse happened, this was what it would look like. The light was dampened – like a thunderstorm had just passed and I basked in seeped rays. My ears felt muffled, slightly ringing. My eyes shuttered on habit, narrowing. The sun sank to a blood-melt, and then – smoothly, started to swing to a sunrise. Did I sleep? The sun was not doing this in the normal West-East routine, but all in my northern windshield. Already my body-clock was off. Something started to gnaw at me and I found myself constantly hungry.
My truck hit the Dempster highway gravel, waking me up. What time was it? I hadn’t slept and I needed to get out and move. Just inside Tombstone park I pulled over. Grizzly Lake, the sign said. I eyed it warily. A steep ridge run over a mountain to a lake nestled in the turreted base of some Middle-Earth fortress. At the trail registration post, a German group’s registration was unfinished, as if they drifted off mid-form, or something had scared them away. I started up and immediately feel better.
There was no one. After my breath there was silence. Everything was watching me. That’s the feeling. Maybe the distant roar of a waterfall or the screech of a hoary marmot. The peaks were straight bones spearing up like in Patagonia. It was just so empty. Time was meaningless with no deadline and the sun lost in a swamp of high clouds. I slowed down to enjoy the endless moment, the trail unwinding across the high tundra, no bugs, air light, warm and still. Just the padding of the feet, the huff of breath, the openness under your cheeks that stretches out and out until you think you can grow wings. I took almost seven hours to complete the twenty-four kilometer out-and-back with 1600 metres of gain-loss. I felt good.
Coming down I was surprised by an older couple moving up through the alder quietly, slowly, relentlessly. They seemed wasted. I thought, “They look like zombies.”
That got me thinking. At a little stream near the truck I heard voices. Whole conversations. There was no one there. I reminded myself I hadn’t slept in …what? What time was it?
Every place I passed had that abandoned disrepair look so common in the North. I decided to get off the Dempster before the big trucks making their way down from Inuvik and the Arctic Circle started to come by – after a thousand kilometers in an endless day those drivers could be spent and dangerous, rough and ready, and for sure they would sport shotguns. Maybe even the Remington 870 pump-action shotgun – the classic zombie killer. That’s how I felt after the run’s buzz wore down. My tired eyes sported a two kilometer haze. I must have looked brain-dead.
Back in Dawson I was so tired I just wanted to sleep, but it was late and Dawson’s bars were open – folks cackling and staggering about, drinking foul mixtures of brain-rotting elixir. I couldn’t rest there lest I be caught up and indoctrinated. I turned the truck south to the goldfields.
There’s a high point called King Solomon’s Dome from which all the creeks and ridges fan out. The ridge above El Dorado, the richest of the Klondike rivers, has an old wagon road called the parachute trail, since the supplies could be dropped down to the miners staked out below. It rained softly in the truck as I napped and tried to make a loop out of the various mining tracks, but I couldn’t find anything that worked out to less than 64 km. Too much, I thought. Out of range. I checked my watch. Now why did I do that? I had nothing but time. If I wanted to ultra, I could.
Then I realized: this Zombieland was merciless, you could run forever. Maybe you had to: there were no excuses. Where was I? What time was it? What did it matter?
I slammed the truck door and started off. The sound was like a shotgun in the quiet.
The Remington 870 pump – best selling shotgun in history. Made for 60 years and never improved upon. Perfect. Like the simplicity of running. Because zombies are relentless. They never stop. They get through steel doors. They find a way. Because with zombies, the only thing that can save you is a shotgun. Or running. But bullets? Bullets run out. Can running run out? Zombies will eventually get you when you tire and drop. So the only way is … to never stop.
A double-shot gel was my pump action. Chak-Chunk! Reload the mental focus.
It was a sandy trail through the willow and low aspen. The scraggy black spruce haunted the hillsides like forlorn miners. There was no sound of digging, of machines, but there was sign: mines sunk all over the hilltops, narrow black pits pocking the landscape, and down in the valley below whole banks had been clawed open, scratches in the tan soil marking another dead-end quest. Twenty kilometers along I dropped down into the creeks to see a trickle barely wending through the spruce, the few miners moved quiet and slow amid heaps of washed gravel.
It was astonishing to see what torture people would to suffer for the dream of abundance. But gold was not to blame, nor even greed. To tear up land and poison creeks that would sustain us could only come from a system of civilization that makes some powerful and others not – and not by merit or choice – which makes gold the only way to change our status. It was the agrarian society that did it. We should have never stopped moving, never started farming. When we did that we became feedstock. We should have stayed as hunters-gatherers. Stayed running.
When I got back, my truck smelled like old clothes and sweat – proof the zombies had been lurking around. I need to reset and focus.
One more on the list. I had no idea the time. I drove half-dead with exhaustion but determined with the fierce elation of possibility. I passed through a crazed Dawson City – a small dirt streeted town of wooden false-fronted buildings and laconically slumped people and staggering revelers.
I shuddered and didn’t slow down.
I crossed the Yukon River and drove up the Top-of-the-World highway. Now this was a view! You could see a hundred kilometers to the northern mountains. It was scentless. You could see the zombies coming miles away. So could the bears. In autumn, bears must love zombies.
The road ran along the ridge-tops in a soft track, winding, empty, like in a car commercial. Only a commercial for runners.
The truck’s clock said 12:00. Midnight or noon? The sun was low and warm and golden. It was perfectly still. The only sound were of rocks spitting out from my feet. I felt I was being watched.
I ran ten kilometers of the most openly exposed and beautiful section on the road. But after turning around, I felt my tiredness. My slowness. How long had I been running? Down each coolie of bushy alder I imagined a grizzly. I felt they were waiting for me. I knew I could not outrun one, but especially now, when my feet were a bare shuffle. I was so out there, so exposed. I held my breath for longer than I should have to listen for snapping twigs and rustling leaves. All the time the sun slanted at me, in comfort rays. Midnight arms.
It was almost 1 AM when I got back to my truck. It looked like 1 PM. I was exhausted. My body had no idea what time it was. I crossed the Yukon River at Dawson early in the morning and began the long drive south to Whitehorse. My left knee stiffened and swelled, forcing me to prepare my gear shifting. There was no one on the road. My right ankle was blown out as well – I kept it firm on the gas.
It was time for a rest, time for a bed stiffer than my IT bands.
I was on the plane and asleep before the safety card unfolded. I awoke in a daze: Calgary was too ordered and clean. The city of opportunity made me feel limited and caged and I resisted an urge to lurch blindly ahead into a trot, into another run.
Against the glass walls of the airport terminal’s concourse my face was haggard in reflection.
Then I got it.
It wasn’t them. It was never them. All along it was me.
I had become the zombie.