running for my life
I’m running for my life in Selma, Alabama. I’m not walking kinda fast for my life, and I’m not jogging for my life - I’m running for my life in Selma, Alabama. History tells me that I’m not the first person to have done so.
Selma, Alabama’s runs for life go way, way back and were often related to the institutions of racism: slavery, the Civil War, the eras of reconstruction, segregation, Jim Crow, and The Movement. This city was pretty much ground-zero for the civil rights struggle and the civil rights resistance, and plenty of people have had to run for their lives.
On this early morning walk, I was hoping to wander through the neighborhoods and the business district and to meditate upon this history, and maybe see if I could pick up a vibe of the place today - peaceful or menacing. But the hell with that vibe stuff, self-preservation is the only thing on my mind as I’m running for my life.
I’m in Selma as part of a family road trip, and that means I don’t have full control of my schedule. We’re spending a lot of time in the car and so I make a point to be up early for an outdoor walk in each new city. These morning walks burn a few calories, play to my exploratory nature, and give me some time alone, which is important for an introvert. Today is the first time a morning walk has placed me in peril.
The walk began pleasantly enough. My hotel is on the northwest edge of town in an area of medical buildings. It is mid-March and spring is a month earlier here than it is back home in Iowa. As I step out into the 5:30 darkness, I hear birds singing their early morning songs and I smell damp earth and the temperature is warm enough to be a treat for someone who has just driven two days from the still-frozen northern prairies.
I walk in the direction that I think will be toward the center of town, but I’m actually mistaken in my geography. There are no sidewalks, so I walk in the street - it doesn’t seem to be a problem at this time of day. I’ve brought a styro cup of hotel coffee and damn it’s hot - I have to wear a glove to hold it in my right hand.
Once past the lights of the medical complex I’m in darkness again and strain to see into the side streets. Low houses are single-storey shapes, maybe some chain-link fences, that’s all I can make out in the shadows. Invisible dogs bark at me.
In a coin-laundromat a lone person reads a magazine while two dryers spin. She’s either getting an early start or a late finish on a necessary household task. The laundromat is the only lit spot in this neighborhood, and it occurs to me that with the right soundtrack and the right depth of field, this light-on-dark scene of tandem dryers would make a great shot for a video. This is all before I had to run for my life.
I’ve reached my turnaround time and haven’t yet found the center of town. I’m not getting any sense of what the neighborhoods look like or feel like, or whether the business district is thriving. I haven’t found the famous bridge from the marches. That will have to wait for daylight and a trip in the car.
As I retrace my steps back to the hotel, I come to a point where the road climbs up and bridges over a sunken railroad track. Selma’s regular walkers probably know another way to cross these tracks, but I don’t have that local knowledge.
Half an hour ago I walked this overpass with no problem - there was no traffic then. It isn’t yet daylight, but now the city has awakened and the road is full of cars and trucks. It is a four-lane road - a major artery - with no accommodation for pedestrians. The guardrails on the overpass come right to the edge of the lanes of travel. I’m not sure how I’m going to get across safely.
I consider climbing down into the railroad cut to cross the tracks, but that doesn’t look like a good option, either. There’s a fence, the ravine is steep, dark, filthy and overgrown, and I can’t see what the climb up the other side looks like. So, I find myself stuck between a suicidal 100-yard dash on the road, and a muddy, vertical, tangle of thorns and garbage.
Unsure of what to do, I stand in the weeds by the guardrail and watch the traffic. Lines of sight aren’t good because in addition to the crown of the overpass, there’s also a slight curve in the road. The speed limit is 35, but cars look like they’re hitting the bridge at 50.
I consider the ravine again. It’s the kind of deep hole where twisted shopping carts and stained mattresses get thrown. It’s full of broken glass and gravel and things both sharp and slimy. I’m not going down there.
The overpass seems my only workable plan, but I’m on the wrong side of the road. Cars are coming from behind me where I can’t see them. My sweatpants and sweatshirt are black, so they can’t see me, either. It’s a worst-case scenario.
A stoplight two blocks back releases the cars in waves. They come racing toward me. I do some mental math, but it is all guesswork: does the traffic get from the stoplight to the overpass faster than I can run across it? I can’t possibly know - I don’t remember the last time I ran that far.
I’m disgusted with myself for not having an alternate route, but there isn’t really time to beat myself up - traffic is only going to get worse as the hour gets later. If I’m going to do this, the time to go is right now.
I walk as far as I can until the guardrail snugs up to the curb and I have no choice but to step into the roadway. I pull the black sweatshirt off over my head because I figure the white T shirt underneath will help with visibility. I carry the sweatshirt in my left hand.
Watch for the stoplight to turn red . . .
Wait for traffic to clear . . .
And run. RUN. I’m running for my life in Selma, Alabama.
My run for life has nothing to do with anger or racism or grand social justice issues like other runs for life in Selma, Alabama. I’m not running from a lynch mob or from a southern sheriff’s posse, but my run has the same fear and the same certain outcome if I’m not fast enough.
My heart is pounding a hole in my eardrums so I can’t hear if any cars are coming behind me. Please, God, don’t let me stumble over a crack or a crack pipe, don’t let my weak, old knees fail, and for Christ’s sake and mine, don’t let that traffic light turn green just yet.
If I were any more afraid, I would surely wet myself. And then I realize my pants actually are wet, and so is my right arm and so is my shirt. Why the hell am I still carrying this cup of coffee? It is splashing all over me with every step. I toss it to the side, over the guardrail.
I’ve never run so fast, and I’ve never run so slow. I’m bounding forward in huge, leaping strides, but the safety of the far side where the guardrail widens-out again comes toward me inch by inch. My legs are spinning crazy circles and my head and shoulders are lurching desperately forward and the arms of the sweatshirt I’m carrying are flying all over the place but I couldn’t care any less how ridiculous I look - I’m running for my life in Selma, Alabama.
Surely the traffic light has turned green by now. I can feel them coming two-wide and hell-bent like Dale and Jimmy down the front straight at Talladega.
Half way. Two-thirds. The bridge deck is vibrating. Three-quarters.
I certainly didn’t head out this morning intending to put myself into a dangerous situation. Likewise, the drivers of these cars coming behind me didn’t set out with the intention of running me down. They’re just trying to get to work, or to the first appointment of the day, and their morning drive is probably routine enough that they aren’t expecting a darkly dressed man to be running in their lane of travel. I hope beyond hope that they’re paying attention. I’m counting on them to not kill me in the next eight seconds or so.
Seven - six - five …. Safe!
I am immensely glad to hop back up the curb on the far side of the overpass. It feels strange to stop running so abruptly. I have enough adrenaline to run all the way back to the hotel. The short, intense burst has left me a little winded, but also invigorated, and to be completely honest, I kind of want to do it again.
As I complete my walk back to the hotel, my thoughts turn to Big Questions - “what if I hadn’t made it?” “If I died today, have I lived well enough and full enough already that my last emotion could be one of gratitude and satisfaction?” Would I go out thinking “hey, this life thing was pretty cool” or would I not?
The Big Questions will give my brain something to work on as we travel toward the gulf coast later in the morning. The answers to the Big Questions are that yes, if I hadn’t made it across that bridge, I could go out satisfied with where I’ve been and what I’ve done. But I don’t want to. There’s more to do, more to see, hear, and taste - more adventures to have and more learning to do - and at this point, I can say that life is certainly worth running for in Selma, Alabama.