My favourite song is about a trail – a simple, difficult track, running away from conventionality. “Telegraph Road” is a song written by Mark Knopfler and performed by the British rock band, Dire Straits. First heard live in 1981, the piece appears on a number of their albums, most notably, “Love over Gold” (1982), where its unrushed delivery balances its haunting lyrics with pure musical genius.
If I could go back in time to attend one live show it would be the performance of this song in the brilliant 14:18 minute final encore of the band’s Making Movies concert. Pure motivational magnificence, I tell you.
Truly, there is no exaggeration of how significant this one song has become in my life. My daughters know that I need no other farewell, when the good earth finally receives my ashes, than the playing of “Telegraph Road” and the sipping of a gentle single malt all the way through.
This song contained me when I stood next to my parents and watched the six paratroopers carry my only sibling’s coffin from the senseless wasteland of war into the church. Its words held me later that same day when I ran a trail for the first time, otherwise alone, desperate to burn off the plastic posturing of politicians and priests alike.
Every time in my life that I have had to choose between being accepted for whom I am not, or being rejected for who I am, this song has called me to make my home in the wilderness.
When I have obeyed that call it has given me the courage to trust myself, however fearfully. When I have disobeyed, and so betrayed myself and others, its haunting summons has been unrelenting in not letting me off the hook.
When we try to belong in places we don’t fit, we live dead.
Ten years before Knopfler, his countryman Yusuf Islam also protested the way in which so-called development damages our space to be and breathe. He also called on us to run the trail rather than the road in Where do the Children Play? released on the 1970 album Tea for the Tillerman, under his stage name, Cat Stevens.
“Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass, For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas, And you make them long and you make them tough, But they just go on and on, and it seems that you can’t get off”.
These two pieces of music, and many other artists throughout time, confront us collectively, and each of us personally with a fundamental choice. Will you pound the road, or take the trail? That is why running trails is so important. It allows us to do two contrasting things that promise life in an over developed world. Firstly, trail running brings us down to earth. The trail does not need us. It is unimpressed by who we are, how much we have or how smart we have made our personal branding pages in the social media.
Trails just are, and they invite us to just be.
They require less mad, busy, clever doing; and more basic, simple honest movement. They remind us that we are temporary. This gives us perspective and that gives us life. I once knew a man who after eight years of university study took his first salary cheque and made a large banner which he hung over the motorway at peak hour: “There is nothing at stake”, it said.
Secondly, although the trail does not need us, it receives us. Where the road alienates, the trail enlivens; where the hard surface resists, the earth collaborates. It does not jolt our joints; there is no threatening traffic. Leaves, not litter, scatter our path.
Trails are healthy, and they invite us to be healthy.
They require less combat, and more openness. They remind us that we belong. That gives us vulnerability and this gives us life.
I knew another man who was mugged while walking to collect his girlfriend for a date. They wanted his wallet; he gave them the bunch of flowers he was carrying. They left without the wallet.
Here’s the simple, difficult truth. Life is not as we dreamed it would be. And there will be more twists and turns to confound us yet.
Be sure that there will be coffins containing loved ones, and friends will forget. There will be challenges to your integrity when you feel most secure. You will make mistakes, some with open eyes. You will hurt and be hurt. And the older you get, the more these things will be true.
You can also count on it that strangers will smile when you are broken. Creativity will be born in your loneliness. Courage will follow your effort. You will discover in yourself the capacity for generosity. You will learn wisdom from necessary suffering. And even when you are young these things will be true.
To cope with this very real nature of life, we must be true to ourselves in a world that constantly asks, and sometimes insists, that we be someone else. It is the most important and difficult thing that a human being can undertake.
It helps to have a good theme song.
But it is absolutely essential to run trails regularly.
You may sleep in structures, visit in systems, eat in institutions, but never let these be your home. Keep the back door unlocked. Go often to the place where the houses end and the trees begin. Find a thin track away from the structures - physical and social. Run onto the trail with a sack on your back. Run fifty kays into the wilderness which is waiting to welcome you. Find yourself again. Work out what you think is best.
Never, ever, forget where the trail is, Friend. Live this one life.