Finalist : Terrain.org 9th Annual Contest in Nonfiction
 

 
   
To run “The Graham Loop,” you’ll start on the front lawn of 2801 Vine Street in Paso Robles, California, and head west past the houses with so many dogs the walls seem to bark, then the empty lot perpetually designated as a Habitat for Humanity site, and finally the Spanish-style house with the catawampus cacti, to eventually reach the rubble-spiked dirt road gamut that has never been paved despite being bookended by tarmac, perhaps to prepare travelers for the subsequent last four houses in what-we-call-town and the visible desolation of the steep, sickle-shaped hill they anchor, or which anchors them, and which, at the apex, provides an eastward view over Highway 101 clear to the burping hot springs and vineyard-whittled hills glimmering ochroid in the poached-yolk inland sun, and ahead, of a sloping downhill that arches immediately into another incline that bends around a curve and is lost to sight behind the live oaks bordering the road, whose stillness will tempt you to stop at this tip-top and breathe in the vista, to catch your chugging breath—but the distances on the map of the loop in your memory are forged in motion, not cessations, so you’ll instead plunder toward the next hill, around the curve, and past the abandoned house that was gutted by wind, vandals, and deer to become simply skeleton, at which point you’ll be relieved to feel the route iron out to a barely discernible acclivity canopied by white oaks and crisscrossed by squirrels and lizards, and this road you’re on with igneous fragments glinting in the sunlight will continue straight to the gate, which is aptly the name of another route, “The Gate” (the object itself is bronzed and locked and arbitrary in that the fence on either side is simply a knee-high wire you can step over to escape the simple out and back linear confines of the “The Gate” run, and enter the acute silence of somebody else’s property, so that you, yourself, will try to inhale and exhale more quietly as you pitter-patter past oversized stone piles appearing like cairns curated by giants, through a misty glen riddled with brittle meadow muffins, under mistletoe-knit oak crowns, and up a hillside at an arbitrary, pathless point to gain your bearings, having no map to follow, but creating one with each step, though you know this particular route will remain nameless in reverence of the overwhelming muteness of your trespassing, and from this higher ground you’ll find yourself marooned amid hills, the way back obscured by foliage, the way forward made indiscernible by the absence of any trails, and in the back of the distance, unreachable, a busy road become anonymous in your disorientation), but for “The Graham Loop,” you know you need not go so far: instead, where the road Ts, with ahead toward the gate and left up the steepest hill yet, you will choose left up the steepest hill yet, a slope that obscures the view of what’s beyond through pure grade, a slope embroidered with critters’ carcasses exhaling propane stank, as if even nature itself has been confounded by the severity of this terrestrial protuberance, a slope, which, finally, luckily, peaks to reveal a long sinuous downhill that snakes between grapevines that were once almond trees and two-story houses that were once foxtails, fiddlenecks, and mountain lions, and T-bones into a road that dead-ends at private properties on either side, but which diverges at an oblique angle toward a long and lumpy series of hills that you will, of course, ascend because a stopping is a stranding when on loops and there’s nobody out here but you to rescue yourself, mouth coppery with heart-strain and elbows heavy with the weight of your own hands (scary isn’t it, to realize that you’ve abandoned yourself to yourself within a hinterland of distance), so better to continue shuffling skyward through the narrowing pass that uncages you right when you begin to wonder if you should turn around and head back the way you came (indeed “The Graham Loop Backwards” is a simple reversal of the route you are on and traces the exact same distance, but because all of the uphills become downhills and all of the downhills become uphills, it metamorphizes into a journey diametric to the original, with the scenery revealed or hidden at different angles, and the body’s memory of pain at various waypoints confused by the inverted intervals, though the backwards version is certainly much easier, with all of the tribulation curdled into the first hill, reached less than two minutes after starting, when the legs are still awakening)—the current summit is the culmination of your journey, recognized once seen, the portal to a downhill with nothing to obscure the sweeping view of the far-off water tower on the golden slopes overlooking the little oak town along the river coursing north, and on your left, spindly almond trees like old friends, and on your right, a ranch-style house nestled on a plot of land made into a puzzle by hedges, garden figurines, and strangely, a tiny putting range in full sun, green against straight heat (from this house a German shepherd used to yip happily and barrel out to greet passerby at the edge of his property [also known as Graham’s dog, Graham being my brother’s friend during high school, and this being his family’s house that my brother would visit, dropped off by my father, who discovered the looping hills nearby as ripe for running, and although Graham no longer lives in this house, the name was embedded into the landscape to create a permanent route beyond official maps, with the landmark of Graham’s house serving as solder for a specific network of roads traversed by runners {the phrase, “The Graham Loop,” was initially circulated only among the Huff family, but because my father is the high school cross country and track coach, the jargon eventually escaped the confines of household colloquialism to become athletic lingo around town, and this is not the only such rearticulation of space based on a landmark identified by my father—all over Paso Robles, you’ll find official streets overlaid with loops impossible to find on any map and yet permanently engrained in local runners’ memories down to each harrowing step, with the entirety of each course signified by a single, vague phrase, such as “Smoker’s Trail” (make your way out the back of Paso Robles High School and onto the asphalt path of the immediately adjacent Centennial Park, turning left to jog within what seems to be a forest of oak trees, with rustles and soft coughs and the scent of Marlboros emerging from somewhere within the thicket of trunks, the culprits never visible, seemingly tucked into the treetops or under the feuillemorte leaves swaddling the ground, until the trail spits you out abruptly onto a cul-de-sac, the sudden civilization looming as a strange and unfriendly exchange for a full forest [at this point, you can turn around and trundle back to the high school, thus completing “Smoker’s Trail,” or you can continue forward to “The River Bed,” which involves taking the cul-de-sac outlet down through a series of forgettable houses, such that you will never quite remember this part of the run, just the fact that you cannot remember it, until you see River Road bisecting your path ahead, which will restore you to coordination and the knowledge that you must sprint across this busy street where the cars always rev through right when you decide to go, in order to reach the leveled dirt trail that follows the Salinas River from on-high for a mile in either direction, though left is the way you’ll choose because it weaves under Niblick Bridge, bringing you closer and closer to the riverbed itself, tantalizingly dry and soft with sand and empty of people, to deposit you amid a patch of purple thistles level with the banks, which you will clamber through to finally reach the wadi, where you begin the next leg of your workout that involves slogging through sand that floods your shoes and reeks of sulfur from the leaky downtown hot springs, onward toward the turnaround point of the sewer pipe overhead spanning the Salinas, divine in its inertia high above the sucking ground, such that you will rest under it when you finally arrive because you always underestimate the strength of the river even when the water is still cloud-bound]) or “The Access Road” (depart in the same direction as “The Graham Loop,” but before you reach the melancholy of the last four houses in what-we-call-town, veer right down the last road in what-we-call-town, which meets the Highway 101 off-ramp, cars coming this-a-way, and the Highway 101 on-ramp, cars going that-a-way, and since that-a-way is bordered by a shoulder just wide enough for a runner to head north like the upside-down river, you’ll fill it up with your moving self, taking care to look for king snakes taking sun baths on this dangerous brink, until you reach the subtle dirt mound landmark that signals to you, enter here, welcoming you to a deep-set, obsolete railroad access road that runs parallel to the highway, the dead expanse slowly reverting from asphalt thruway to terrestrial crust, cat’s cradles of goat’s heads, nettles, and foxtails bursting through cracks and snagging at your calves, rocks uprooting themselves, and wind-blown river sand collecting in small lumps on the pavement like time passed in an hourglass, but all of this planes out soon enough to a maintained road that courses north for miles and miles to the threshold of San Miguel, and that bears along the way a field of rubber thingamajigs, an equine sanctuary molting a grainy-grassy manure aroma, a yard overgrown with corpulent rusted agricultural machinery, and a permanent billboard intended not for the tiny runner passing on the empty lane below, but for the hungry drivers whizzing along the nearby highway [though the hash browns in the picture never fail to make your belly grumble and remind you that you still have to decide where to turn around {that’s the beauty of “The Access Road” run: as long as you reach the billboard of victuals, you get to choose how much farther you want to go; some days you’ll make it to the porta-pot farm far ahead, and some days you’ll about-face immediately at the shadow of the oversized ad, but no matter where you turn back, the whole run is still “The Access Road,” liberating in its nebulousness and ideal for days when you had too much coffee and want the flexibility to head home at the first tug of your bladder, although this has led to a strong, self-perpetuating association between “The Access Road” and your body’s feral hankerings}]), and this overlay of vernacular routes has been etched into the Paso Robles topography for so long that hybrids, reversals, addendums, and redactions have all cropped up as the terrain was developed, altered, and closed off, but what roots the routes has remained, with the unchanging terminology underscoring the tenacity of oral designations}]) and because you know this is the waymark where you can let go because the finish is closer than it is farther, you hotfoot it into the slingshot of the downhill that continues past the cul-de-sac that trickles into the Huff backyard if you don’t mind trespassing through some other yards first which you don’t but other people do so you instead continue on by and make a sharp left onto Lake Nacimiento Road where you sidle along the margin as fuddled drivers towing boats whisk by and you hurdle the bloated body of the dead deer always there to veer left up a tiny hill that delivers you onto the citrus tree-laden crest of the final downhill manifest as a boulevard-wide street dirty with fallen fruit and dazzling with crocodile cracking before swiveling west onto Vine Street to charge the last 400 meters to the Huff house front lawn so you can finally stop.

 

 

Hannah HuffHannah Huff is an essayist and poet who fell in love with California as a literary muse. She grew up in Paso Robles, California, earned an MFA in creative writing from California State University, Long Beach, and now wanders among books at her job in the Irvine Valley College Library.
 
 
 
 

Header photo by Dudarev Mikhail, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Hannah Huff courtesy Jax NTP.

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