I head in the direction of Te Muna Road. The name is Maori for ‘secret place’.
When I get there, the blacktop surface angles up. This is the place where my body always starts saying it’s had enough, it wants to turn around and go home. The bed was so nice. The slope is too steep.
But a gentle breeze rushes though the pine trees on either side, and I keep running.
There’s an opening in the pines at the top of the slope, and I pause for a moment to look out over our little river valley. The view from this spot is amazing – paddocks, shelterbelt trees, grassy hills. This is where I live. It’s good.
I was 18 the first time I ever went running, during my freshman year at university. I was commuting to campus and still living with my parents in suburban Detroit. I ran around the block at home once. It was less than three-quarters of a mile (1.2 km), but it nearly killed me. I huffed and puffed the entire way and collapsed in a sweaty heap at the end.
The fact is that most people have more natural athleticism in their left earlobe than I have in my entire body. When forced to play sports in high school gym class, I avoided the ball like it was a biohazard.
So going on that first run on my own at 18 was a big deal. I was so embarrassed to be out doing such a thing in public that I ran at dusk, so nobody would see me. I ran on the sidewalk so cars wouldn’t hit me. I ran that way for nearly a year before I had the courage to run in broad daylight. Then I ran towards a nearby park and felt the solace of the trees over me.
The gravel begins
Just after the top of the Te Muna slope, the blacktop (called tarseal here) turns to gravel. It’s nice to run on gravel, feels softer somehow. The morning sun is already bright and warm on the back of my neck.
The road cuts down the middle of a wide, raised terrace surrounded by hills in the distance on all sides. One of the vineyards further up the road is called Big Sky. Looking up at all the open blue and clouds above me as I run, I understand why.
But I’m not at the vineyards yet.
On either side of me now there are open paddocks dotted with sheep and cattle. A pale beige shearing shed with a dark green roof stands solidly on the left. I love that shed. It’s simple and rustic and utilitarian and reminds me of this area’s connection to the land.
Up ahead there’s also a tree I really like. It’s tall and solitary in the middle of these expansive paddocks, and the wind seems to have trimmed it like a giant bonsai. The breeze in its branches is musical.
By the time I moved to Chicago for graduate school at age 26, running was a part of who I was. I lived in Wicker Park, a Chicago neighborhood that was still largely Latino then. Rents were cheap. My apartment was 3 miles (4.8 Km) miles from Lake Michigan. I would run past the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and then straight down congested, exhaust-filled North Avenue to get to the lake – a stretch of water that’s so vast it’s really like an inland sea.
It was a fantastic payoff to get to the lake, and I always ended up running along the water’s edge for longer than I’d planned. By that time I had grown to understand the simple pleasure of moving your body across the ground, the full and deep way you feel alive when your heart’s pumping, your lungs are working hard, and your feet are making a rhythm as you move.
I was reluctant to turn around and start the long jog back home. The lake was so beautiful. It felt so good to run. There and back I usually ended up running almost 12 miles, just because I never wanted it to end. I never wanted to turn around.
When CJ and I moved in together he found a beautiful, cheap apartment for us in a Chicago neighborhood called Edgewater. Suddenly I was only 2 blocks from the lake, and almost my entire run could be spent at the water’s edge. It was heaven. Who cared if I was greeted by prostitutes outside our apartment door?
Not long after I pass the big, musical tree, the vineyards begin. The vines are long and low against the sky, and their rows make amazing geometric patterns in front of my eyes.
By now my body’s really tired, although I’ve only run a short distance. I’m not 26 anymore, I’m 43, and I haven’t been running regularly since I moved out to the country. There are reasons for this, of course. The commute into Wellington cuts into my time, and there are always olive trees to prune, the chicken coop to clean, or weeding to be done.
But I miss it. I miss running.
I look out at the sunlight across the vines and continue on.
When we left Chicago and moved to Northern Japan we lived in the provincial capital of Yamagata, on the edge of the city. I would always run away from the city center, up into the hills or out into the rice fields. In spring, when the fields were flooded and the rice was low, the paddies were gigantic mirrors against the sky.
After CJ got a job in Tokyo and we moved there, I would run along the river in our little neighborhood near Osaki station. The water had become so walled in by concrete that it was more like a canal than a river. Buildings were packed in on either side. But there were cherry blossom trees along the waterway’s edge. In March, when the blossoms came and then fell, their petals blew around the sidewalk and onto the river like drifts of pink snow.
Redbank James Estate
When I get to the front gate of the vineyard called Redbank James Estate, I pause. I’m tired. The distance I’ve gone is nothing compared to my old Chicago or Tokyo runs, but I’m exhausted.
I look ahead. Further down lies Escarpment Vineyard. I’d like to run there. I have a fondness for Escarpment because I really like their Pinot Noir and I worked behind the scenes at their pavilion for Toast Martinborough. It’s just another mile away.
But I’m just too tired. I’m breathing so hard. My body screams no.
Not today, I think. My destination is here.
In all directions I’m surrounded by beauty. And that’s when I realize that in every place I’ve ever lived, running for me has always meant running away from the city, towards some small piece of nature. A small, suburban park. A vast inland sea. An urban river lined with trees.
Only here, living on the outskirts of Martinborough, I’m already in the middle of what I’m looking for the second I open my front door.
I turn around and head back in the direction I came, towards home.
Image credit: Thanks to Will, who was taking a stroll and snapping pictures as I ran by on Te Muna Road. The picture above is by him.