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Eastern Colorado. (photo: Garret K. Woodward) Eastern Colorado. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

It’s 9:29 a.m. on Tuesday at the Holiday Inn off Interstate 135 near the city of Salina, Kansas. Looking out the fourth-floor window, it was hundreds of miles of cornfields, grasslands, gas stations and truck stops. 

The morning sun is shining bright, as it has been for most of this two-week boomerang trip out West and back to Carolina. Thousands of miles already traveled on this solo trek in my rusty, musty Toyota Tacoma. Two oil changes and two new front tires in that time, too. 

Yesterday, I awoke at my friend’s apartment in downtown Denver, Colorado. He and his girlfriend were still at their house in Eastern Idaho, so I had the place to myself for the weekend. A few days of meandering around the Mile High City — this prairie oasis of people, places and things.

Getting out of bed in Denver, it was tough, seeing as I knew my western excursion would be over once I got into the truck and headed east over the state line into Kansas. The West has always held a piece of my heart since I first visited it as a kid from Upstate New York (and lived in it as a rookie reporter in Idaho/Wyoming). 

And I know, just like clockwork, that I have to always give this landscape back that piece each time I start to go east again. Thus, I found myself taking my damn time to pack up the truck, lock the porch door and return the key to its secure box in that picturesque Denver neighborhood, the immense skyscrapers looming overhead like the nearby Rocky Mountains. 

It’s startling how fast the view outside the windshield shifts from the high peaks and rolling prairie of the west to the vast, flat emptiness of the high plains. It’s as if God just simply pulled out an ironing board and started to get out the wrinkles, moving east until the Appalachian chain. 

Passing by the tiny outpost town of Burlington, Colorado, I had a flashback of when I stopped there for a beer on Dec. 31, 2007. Leaving my hometown of Plattsburgh, New York, a few days prior to start my first newspaper gig in the Grand Teton Mountains, I was 22 years old and traveling with my old friend, Rob. We had just entered Colorado and wanted to celebrate finally being in the West with a cold one. 

The only spot we could track down a beer was the local bowling alley. The bar was tucked into the side of the building. Few tables and an old pool table with crooked cues. Order a couple of Budweiser bottles and try to play some haphazard billiards before we continued on our way, eyes aimed for New Year’s Eve shenanigans later that night in Boulder, Colorado. 

And there I was yesterday, some 13 years later. Now 35, and no time for a brew at that bowling alley in Burlington. I still had several hours left to drive into Kansas and I’d yet to find a place to go trail run before the sun falls behind the Rockies in the rearview mirror.

Somewhere around Hays, Kansas, I was able to figure out a spot to throw on my running shoes and hit the trail. Apparently, an hour down Interstate 70 towards Salina, Kansas, there’s Wilson Lake State Park. Never heard of it. But, I needed to sweat a little and clear out the cobwebs of sitting in a truck all day. 

Exit 206 off I-70 and north on Route 232. Not a house, car or human being in sight. Just a straight horizon line of dirt along the road to Wilson Lake. Suddenly, the truck dips down along the road. A large lake appears, like some kind of mirage in the desert, surrounding by grasslands and sporadic trees with a tight, well-earned grip on the land. 

Parking the truck, I stood at the shoreline and was taken back by the sheer steepness of the cliffs, the undulating waves of the lake crashing into the rocks. I swear, if you’d had just dropped me there from above and asked me where I was, I’d have sworn I was at some desolate cove on the coast of Maine. 

It was surreal. Who knew such serene and splendid running trails existed in the emptiness of central Kansas, eh? Lacing up my shoes, I disappeared into the grassy hills, bouncing up and over rocky ledges and down dusty side routes. 

The sky went from a bright blue to a hazy orange. I knew I only had a limited amount of time to run around the lake. But, it didn’t matter. I was in the moment, my mind, body and soul soaking in the natural beauty of this place that was alien to me just minutes earlier. 

My eyes would gaze west and I’d think of my past way out there, those foggy nights, familiar faces and old newspaper assignments still lingering in the depths of my mind. I’d gaze east and ponder my present existence in Western North Carolina, the aspirations I’ve pursued and the life I continue to decorate with vibrant souls and dreams occurring in real time.

But, even in that thought process, I kept being aware of where I stood, physically and emotionally. Jogging along in the center of America, this careful balance of geographical landscapes and personal ideologies from coast-to-coast. In an election year of turmoil and disagreement, I remain optimistic. 

Nobody around, just me and a few miles left to go on the trail before I start the truck engine and tick down the miles back to Waynesville. And it was in that moment where my I thought of an old Ray Wylie Hubbard lyric, “And the days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, well, I have really good days.”

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all. 

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