I was 21 and I called the road my own
I don’t know when that road turned into the road I’m on.
~Jackson Browne, Running on Empty
I ran track for a short time in college. It was a total lark; the inane rules dictated you needed three women to compete in the broad jump and Centre College had only two. Ashley, the lead jumper, had heard I was a former gymnast and asked if I would consider being their third. “How hard could it be?” I thought. Turns out, very, very hard (the long jump is nothing like a gymnastics vault). At her best, Ashley could jump 18 feet. My best was an abysmal 12’3”.
But I loved being part of the team. No one expected anything from me except my presence. I also ended up being the official “raker,” leveling the sand pit after each jump. And training was a fun way to balance all of the late-night beer and pizza I was enjoying that year.
There was only one problem. The daily two-mile (DTM), which was considered our cool down. DTM was held strictly on the 400-meter track so the coaches could record our time. I logged at least 4 monotonous and dull rounds on that track at every practice.
Like a hamster on a wheel, I came to detest that track to nowhere. You couldn’t listen to music because you needed to be able to hear the coaches. I had no one to talk to, because I was by far the slowest runner there. The repetitive view was uninspiring, as the track overlooked the flat football field on one side and the equally flat baseball diamond on the other.
You would see members of the cross-country team all over town, running from charming downtown Danville out to the picturesque farmland of Boyle County. You know the running montage in Forrest Gump where Forrest runs across America to Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty? How romantic it seems to be out on the open road, how Forrest’s love of forward movement inspires so many people to run along with him? That was the exact opposite of the DTM.
Looking back on my life, it’s clear I am not a straight and narrow sort of person, though I certainly used to be. As a privileged white girl of certain intelligence, my path was more or less mapped out for me by society: Be good, be quiet, be polite. Get good grades and keep your legs closed. Go to a good college and graduate with honors. Get a job that will still allow you to be fully present for your family. Continue to be good, quiet, and polite. Stay in your lane and blessings shall be bestowed. Your peers are on the same road. Follow the crowd.
There were a few potholes and traffic jams on that road, but generally my life unfolded in the exact way I was told it would. And while conformity can be comforting, it can also be its own sort of hell. It took many years and a lot of heartbreak to discover that I would never be satisfied with the path of least resistance. I grew bored of following the crowd. As Albert Einstein reminds us, “The one who follows the crowd will usually get no further than the crowd. The one who walks alone, is likely to find himself in places no one has ever been.”
I now know I am a road less traveled sort of person. I like a scenic route, a journey that takes longer but has plenty of beautiful surprises along the way. I prefer a path of wild terrain, fewer people, and plenty of danger. My happiness demands peaks and valleys and while the hills are certainly harder on your body, they do wonderful things for your soul. It takes courage to choose the difficult and often unpopular path. I choose exploration over established, the dark unknown over the traditionally accepted. Even when I don’t know where I am headed, I know the right road is the less trodden one.