On Founding a Running Club

by Jack Kohl Jack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and the forthcoming You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press. 23.02.2018

For two years I was president of a member group of the Road Runners Club of America. I enjoyed my service, but I did not seek a second term. As my own interests changed, it became difficult to officiate over a club founded principally on a sport dedicated to finishing one’s task as quickly as possible. I grew tired during certain workouts of being told that if I could talk, I was not working hard enough. I wished to run as I used to walk before I was a runner, going over the woods, beaches, and odd places of my native north shore of Long Island, near New York City. I had already run my Boston Marathon, and was now content to look north across the Sound for other reasons. 

Jack Kohl, the author

If I were to carry on with company on my new runs, I wished to find those content to run as a hiker won’t, and the willingness to stop as a runner will not. I wanted to go about slowly and look about carefully, and to hunt for arrowheads and fossils, but wanted to go where a runner can – which is everywhere. Wear running clothes and be in the act of running, and one can trespass almost anywhere, and one is already in the act of flight if chased. I wanted also to confine myself to a range, and realized I was blessed by the boundaries of an island. But with time I found that range unnecessarily large, and recognized boundaries principally set by Hempstead Harbor in the west, Mt. Sinai Harbor in the east, Route 25A on the south, and the shoreline of Long Island Sound at the top. 

I could with ease contract this area much more, for some of my greatest adventures in running have come during loops on a track and even during the solitary confinement on a treadmill. But it has been unnecessary to pare down my range to that extent. Going over home ground repeatedly rewards the dedicated student. This is perhaps reinforced by the tendencies conditioned in me from my vocational piano studies, for imaginative repetition is everything in that pursuit. 

As pianist Marian McPartland paraphrased Bill Evans: “Practicing one tune for twenty-four hours is better than practicing twenty-four tunes in an hour.” It is a good thing to practice such discipline everywhere in these times, for not since forty years ago, in the hallways of my elementary school, have I seen anyone use a pencil until it is ground down to the eraser. Today we never use things up. I cannot bear unfilled notebooks. And I note in myself the tendency, as well, that if I own two copies of the same edition of a book, I do not feel I have read the book until I complete the reading in one volume. The same part of my spirit winces when I listen to so many of my compatriots boast of their travelling. I must remind them of place names when they share their own photographs. They ignore the wild in the near. There are now coyotes in New York’s Central Park. 

Only one member of my old club followed me into the woods. After seven years of meetings, we remain a two-member organization with neither membership gain (though we have endeavored to recruit) nor attrition. Our club is known as The Unanswered Question Free Running Compact. The Unanswered Question part of the club’s title references an orchestral piece of the same name by Charles Ives, and honors Mr. Ives’s role as a trailblazer in music and philosophy. Free Running has also been part of our title since our founding in November 2011, and it was invoked without reference to or knowledge of the book and unrelated discipline conceived by Sébastien Foucan. We refer commonly to our group with the name shortened to The Unanswered Question. 

The other member of the club, and its co-president is Mr. Peter Klann. In the woods, Peter Klann is Mr. Klann to me, and I am Mr. Kohl to him; the woods have taught us a mutual respect that leads to formality rather than away from it. Mr. Klann is a man who has worked for many years in the wholesale and retail vinyl record industry. The arm of a record player moves inward, following very fine groves, despite the centrifugal force of the turntable. This constant example of balanced forces, in part, may account for Mr. Klann’s strength as a running companion. He is calm and steady in the midst of crowded oaks or straphangers. He is also able to assess the quality of a vinyl pressing without playing it. This may account for his observational powers amidst vast collections of autumn leaves. 

As well, I have noted to him, that though English is his only language, many of the principal people in his life – mother, father, fiancé – have been non-native English speakers, and would this not give him an advantage in detecting meaning over style? Over hundreds of hours on trails and shoreline I have learned slowly of his solid Catholicism. He is driven at times to wash the front steps of Our Lady of Pompeii Church on Carmine Street in Manhattan. After listening to me for the same amount of time, Mr. Klann has suggested I speak more in an Old Testament strain. Perhaps at our best, in certain rare moments on the trail, together we make for the faith of one whole Bible? 

If pressed, I would identify myself as a Transcendentalist, that shadowy means of prayer defined, for me, by a comprehensive heterodoxy tempered by an unremitting conscience. Yet on our longer adventures, when the irreligious miles of return trips are often endured, we have merely passed much time pitting famous actresses on opposing Venus pedestals. For some time Jessica Alba reigned. But the game lost meaning after the invocation of Julie Newmar. For a time we reinvigorated the comparisons by announcing the contestants in voices that parodied Schoenbergian Sprechstimme, but that was short-lived. 

One now has an appraisal of The Unanswered Question’s membership. Our meeting times? At the hours most conducive to traditional, to other kinds, of work, or in conditions most inclement to recreation. Time and weather can render any census false, so we pay in subtle ways for that advantage. The locations? Anywhere in the range given above. But none of the locations are so remote that one cannot leave the woods in some direction and ask for directions. Yet finding others is rarely a reassurance. We once encountered a man who volunteered guidance that contained no details, and in another instance Mr. Klann asked a postman if he knew the best way for us to regain beach access: “I only know the mailboxes,” the letter carrier confessed. 

Yet go to the woods or the coast between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., or after midnight, or during a storm, and on Long Island’s north shore one can have Nick Carraway’s “consoling proximity of millionaires” without ever having to see them. Perhaps they see us from time to time. But we are always moving, and thus are too much trouble to oppose. Manhattan’s hardest working modern tycoons labor as if to maintain open spaces for us, excluding even themselves from spoiling our solitude. Mr. Klann and I must have hundreds of audition cameos on security cameras, yet we have never received a callback. Rarely a living trophy wife is seen to challenge the power of Miss Newmar. She is safe in the forest ponds like a Pre-Raphaelite mermaid. When we cross private driveways in the woods we sometimes encounter delivery trucks. The drivers wave and presume us to be the natives. 

We started in the forests at first. After 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, hundreds of ancient trees were overturned, and it has become our habit to pause before the umbrellas of their exposed root systems. They seem to suggest opportunities for the arrowhead collector, but we have yet to discover even a single example from a Stone Age hunter. I know that continued diligence will one day yield a find of the pre-Columbian type, but if one broadens the definition of vanished hunters, then it is as if the eye plows the entire field of the woods and exposes countless spear points from a vanished civilization. Take the dilapidations of the Gold Coast’s baronial mansion builders for vestigial spear points, and the histories of countless Wall Street big game hunts can be retraced amidst the second growth trees. Yet these are arrowheads too heavy to carry away, even when they lie in isolated fragments of stone filigree. Nothing important is really vulnerable. 

Stand in the woods before the derelict amphitheater or the ruinous swimming pool of Rosemary Farm, and there behold the arrowheads of Roland Ray Conklin, as a “Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord.” Or observe a hush in the midst of King Zog the First’s wreck of a manse in Muttontown, all this amidst a rapidly returning forest and herds of whitetail deer. Conjure the idea of listening to Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in the midst of Concord, Massachusetts’ Estabrook or Walden Woods, and one has an inkling of the grand conflation suggested by such an arrowhead. Or turn the incongruity on its head, and envision the days when the mansion was new, and at that time asking Charles Ives to play the “Thoreau” movement of his Second Piano Sonata in Zog’s ballroom. 

Wander on the beach and find arrowhead shards that did not tip shafts but once sat atop great columns, these lying contentedly amidst the vast piles of acorns that come with the richer autumns. No matter the tribe from which one seeks arrowheads, I have found Robert D. Richardson’s Thoreauvian concentration about the search to hold true: that one should look for them on high ground, near water, in March – though the industrialist’s artifacts are not as dependent on spring rains for their revelation. 

Because of the sandy nature of Long Island’s soil, a result of its birth by glacier, it is hard for the adventurous runner with eyes trained upon the ground to have much hope of finding traditional fossils. But if one again permits a more liberal hunt, the midnight hour, acting like a freshet to a paleontologist, clears the road and permits one into the center of the street, leaving one undisturbed to study the surface as if it were recently revealed. At the intersection of Main Street and Norwood Avenue in Northport Village, stand over, of a midnight, a fossil trackway of a vanished moment from a less litigious age, when a dog at liberty thought it amusing to leave record of his jog across wet concrete, immortalizing himself like a sauropod. One must wait for the traffic tide to be low to study such things with uninterrupted scholarship. 

Yet if one applies their liberal hunt to moments that cannot be preserved by either natural sedimentation or impressions left in man’s pavement, behold the rarest of instances on the windy winter beach, when looking back at one’s own steps reveals a layer of snow below the sand. At the end of that January run of bitter cold and wind, a police officer approached us in his car. He rolled his window down. I expected some sort of reproach. He only observed, having seen us early in the run, far out on the sands that extend into the east edge of Port Jefferson Harbor (quite near where I had noted our remarkable footprints): “You guys are animals!” His words had come to fossilize our fleeting tracks of white. 

But the glacier did not fail to leave a collection of immutable things when it created Long Island. The largest of the glacial erratic boulders most often stand singular and separated, either on the shore or in the forest – individual boulders sometimes as large as cars or small structures stationed apart from one another by miles, like foundation stones to the lost glacial mansion, ruins from the Ice Jazz Age. Hence the erratics are as figurative arrowheads, as well. The Dodges, who presided at one time over a large tract of farmland, yet somehow suspecting, perhaps, that they would never leave baronial ruins, long ago carved their family name deep into the side of an enormous erratic on the shore. Thus they chiseled their arrowhead almost after the Indian fashion. But when such boulders are positioned yards away from the Sound, and when the tide fails to cover the last inches of their tops, Mr. Klann and I have spent many a pause, sometimes more than once on one shoreline run, fooled by seemingly animate thrashing at and just below the water’s surface, only to realize at last it was merely a “rock seal.” 

Sometimes these erratics stand in groups. I like the collections one finds in the forests. I can never resist standing on them, for then only a succession of mosses or lichens and microns of erosion stands between one’s own and a vanished Indian’s foot. Mr. Klann and I have also paused before many aging, enclosed, burial grounds, where men have endeavored to leave their own erratics. Some of the headstones are so ancient, that trees emerge directly up from the grave sites. The skeletons in those graves have wooden stakes driven through their hearts from below. They are joust losers from a fight with an acorn.

Just to the northwest of a group of glacial erratics in one forest we came across a tarp hanging over a set of chairs, an impromptu fort built by teenagers. I used to come across such forts in the woods quite often when I was a child. On our present runs we almost never see them; the woods, on this count, seem increasingly pristine in The Unanswered Question era. But like glacial erratics in this particular State Park parcel, there are several of these impromptu forts. One had a young person’s science book propped into its side wall. Another was constructed entirely of sticks. But usually these teen forts are made from castoff artificial materials mixed with old wood (branches from trees and castoff boards). They are usually surrounded by fire circles and broken bottles – and, in my youth, steel cans. These sites seemed fearsome and dissipated to me when I was child; they still do, in some way. They demonstrate an impulse to start chipping away at the creation of an arrowhead. Better to work away at figurative quartz in the hand than to worship the smooth edges of a phone.

The search for Long Island arrowheads makes one listen, as well. The woods in March are often as mute as a silent film. Mr. Klann has noted in one year’s March that not a single bird has sounded during the course of a run in a vast forest only to note the same thing in another year’s March in a neighboring woods. Then come May runs, and I note birds in motion all about me, near on the ground, on twigs, and in flight. And it is then that the ears come alive suddenly with recognition. I am sure the sound was there already – as sound is present even when we are sleeping – but I become suddenly figuratively awake to the sounds of the woods. Does one not listen, at times, in the transitional weeks, to the birdsong equivalents to the first buds and shoots? I think not. For a moment after registering the intense visual impression of May birds before me, the woods present themselves as if in a premiere of “The Jazz Singer.” The birds sing their complement to the 1920s arrowheads.

There are also warning sounds – especially the crackle of leaf litter – as soon as one takes a step off of a blazed trail at night. Yet one must always be the student, for sometimes even natural certainties are disavowed from the source. For example, a Long Islander always knows that if he travels far enough north, he will hit the Sound; if he travels far enough south he will hit the Ocean. Traveling east, one knows that the Sound is on one’s left, the Ocean on the right. Blindfold an observant Long Island native and take him closer and closer to a coastline; he will be able to tell you which body of water he nears by listening. The Sound is without sound. The ocean makes as much white noise as white foam. But on a day when a distant Atlantic storm is subtly affecting Long Island, an observant native would feel that his inner compass had been sent spinning. A studious native would feel that the poles had reversed. And though Mr. Klann and I moved north one early autumn afternoon and ascended a steep dune in the midst of harbor hill moraine territory, out of sight of water, we heard the Sound speak hoarsely. “That can’t be traffic,” Mr. Klann said after I exclaimed, “What can that be?” 

But most formal trail systems have blazes. White blazes are common on Long Island. However, sometimes the snow in winter leaves patches on the sides of trees, all the size of blazes, inviting one to follow bushwhack trails in 360 degrees of horizontal direction, and 180 degrees of vertical. I have seen the snow when it was so new on the side of the trees that it appeared Nature had left blazes pointing in all directions.

Living whitetail deer take the place of the vanished taxidermy of the ruined mansions, and the deer, like the snow, discourage the use of formal blazes. I followed a small herd once along a trail. Then the deer fled off of the path, raising their tails. One in particular caught my eye; one whose hide almost altogether blended with the lovely gray November scene before me. He raised his white tail and seemed to carry a moving trail blaze behind him. Come chase me cross-country, he exclaimed. This example left such an impression on me, that once, even years later, I mistook a clump of new snow, falling from a tree, for a deer’s tail, like a diving marker from one of St. Nick’s voyages. 

Yet The Unanswered Question often runs at night. Then one begins to see with one’s feet when running on a trail. The process is like sight-reading for a pianist. One cannot look down at their hands when sight-reading. The tree roots which surface on trails may seem like a threat to the timid, but the roots are really like the tactile guidance of the black keys to a pianist. One learns to welcome the roots. The road or the track is as a keyboard made up of only white keys. The woods demand that one play in all keys, more than just C major. 

But like a pianist who places too much reliance on his stand light, Mr. Klann and I have given way, at times, to a slackening of self-trust, and when we have lost faith in our eyes at night, it is then that we become the dupes of our efforts at safety. Once, near the edge of the woods, at the northwest corner of a forest opening, we saw what we were sure was some kind of phantom or supernatural appearance. It seemed to move, to hover just above the ground – tall as a man, or taller. It was hard to tell if it was near the ground or near the branch line of the trees. As we approached, it started to appear as an object covered by Christmas lights. I was already chilled by its supernatural appearance, but when it started to suggest an object, small structure, or a figure covered in electric lights, I felt a bit of real fear – fear that it may be the construction of a sort of madman, upon which we were intruding in the dead of night. 

But when we were close enough we could see that the object was only a group of nearly spent birthday balloons – of that kind made from silvery, thin, shiny, plastic. Our headlamps had provided all of the light. Mr. Klann detached the spent balloons from the group and then allowed those that were still air-worthy (maybe five or six) to drift up beyond the woods. They cleared the trees and vanished in a northwesterly direction, to land perhaps in the adjacent neighborhood, or perhaps to have a long journey across the Sound before landing again to wish just about anyone who finds them either a very early or very belated happy birthday.

The Unanswered Question Free Running Compact makes its way in its history, at last, to the water, and we have often left the dark woods via power line right-of-ways, and I have remarked that it appeared we were moving up the endless aisle of a cathedral with no altar and no end, and that the high grasses on both sides, shining white in the moonlight, were a congregation. 

When we reach the shoreline, I note other lost, silvery, balloons. Every time a piece of driftwood, any kind of detritus of the sea, or a ball comes into our path, Mr. Klann cannot resist casting it into the water. Once we came across a vibrant bright green softball in the sand. I tossed it to Mr. Klann. He thanked me particularly for this example, perhaps because the ball was in such good shape. Out into the water it went. I have asked Mr. Klann why he feels compelled to send into the water all things he finds on the beach. He has given different answers at different times. I suspect he feels something for the shoreline of his native island akin to his regard for the steps of Our Lady of Pompeii on Carmine Street. Mr. Klann would have the steps of Creation as clean as an unscratched vinyl pressing. A week after finding the green softball near Port Jefferson Harbor, we found it again in Mt. Sinai. Perhaps a rock seal had sent it back. But I believe it was because we post the best messages-in-a-bottle to ourselves. 

On the shore I sometimes look inland and up to the high sandy cliffs, wooded at their summits. They give often the impression that the island is uninhabited. But once I saw a miniature Niagara of growing daffodils flowing down such a cliff, hinting at the natives that live above the sand and within the trees. Not long ago, when the tide was very high on Asharoken, we were met with a slight challenge from a woman when the tide sent us near to her yard. But if one waits for the moon to change the boundaries, it gerrymanders in favor of the explorer who does not mind sharing the trail with horseshoe crabs, an ancient equestrian trail. At the lowest tides – when the exposed floor of the Sound allows one to run as if on the throat ridges of rorqual whales, as if upon the thumbprint of the Creator - we have navigated almost the entire edge of our North Shore range (again, from Hempstead Harbor to Mt. Sinai Harbor). 

At last, it is the shape of these native harbors that has granted the most for me to consider. It is easy to see this range on a map even without consulting the names. On the top of the island it is the series of indentations – pushing water inland in the shape of grand piano lids, in U-shapes - that suggests the finger impressions in the handle grip of God. 

Every day when I rise I have a view across Northport Harbor – across one of these U-shapes, a shape of water thrust into the land by Long Island Sound. Or it is not so much a thrust from without as a vestigial flowing from a vanished glacial river. Via The Unanswered Question Free Running Compact I have earned the right to meditate the labor it takes to travel the circuit, the edge of this U, to reach the other side on foot – and also most of the U-shapes from Hempstead Harbor to Mt. Sinai Harbor, but most intensely those from the Northport Bay area to Oyster Bay. Any attentive scholar’s range narrows as his insight broadens. 

As a child, I have travelled across by boat from Northport to the Centerport side of Northport Harbor – by means that are ostensibly direct from shore to shore. But by The Unanswered Question Free Running Compact I have worked the edge of the U.  Only working one’s way around the entire U of the harbor on foot rewards one with the remembered reversal of their profile though they move in the same direction! Metaphor is only earned by the hardest path. The straight line is not direct to metaphorical result. A simple crossing by boat yields little. The straight line to metaphor is the full following of the U – and then, after the metaphor is realized, the essence of the interstitial space is removed though its labors are not forgotten. 

This U effect: It is a metaphor of metaphor formation. This then is the crux of The Unanswered Question Free Running Compact for me. The U effect stands in analogy to all supposed inclemencies – late or early hour; any seemingly prohibitive conditions; lost shoes in the mud – that reveal metaphor leaps and realizations not found by direct routes; that are yet, however, hidden right in our native places.

I sometimes pause during our shore runs and imagine the experiment extended to the greater scale of the Long Island Sound, following its great U-shape west along the shore until one reaches New York City, then making one’s way across the bridges and continuing west along the Connecticut edge as best one can. I would have time, then, to meditate and reconcile my westward-looking profile of Long Island (looking toward Manhattan and my inward and ongoing pull toward an infinite heterodoxy) against my eastward-looking profile on the Connecticut side, the former still in awe of an opposite shore, of a vast and unremitting New England conscience. I am the agent of the green softball’s return.

The Unanswered Question adjourns without fail to Dunkin’ Donuts after each mission. There we review our notes, and there we partake of large iced teas, which we consecrate as The Tears of Newmar. 


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