Why We Run: Death in the Desert

The desert is an unforgiving, remote, generally deadly part of the world infested with rattlesnakes, wild horses, wild donkey’s, jackrabbits, cactus, and other creatures that hate human beings. The environment itself tends to hate humanity, often reaching temperatures that not only boils eggs but brains, too.

This is my backyard and where I run. The area I run in prohibits motorized vehicles, and is often marked “keep out”. There are trails (and some newer ones being created) that many weekend mountain bikers follow. But, being at trail runner, I often take the less travelled paths.

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On Google Earth, it looks like this:

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Not very exciting. But, I’m training for the Ultra-Adventures Antelope Canyon 55K. As an Ambassador, it wouldn’t do to fail to finish, and so that means running many, many miles. And I hate running on roads.

But running in these desolate areas can lead to fascinating moments. Today, I peered to the left and saw, in the middle of nowhere, a rather large Cairn.


Cairns, for those urban runners out there who may not be familiar, are often piles of rock that indicate the direction of the trail. With the advent of GPS, humans are losing the ability to have a sense of direction. Running in the desert helps keep that sense, but sometimes the trails can be obscure and these little natural markers can keep you on track.

This particular Cairn, however, didn’t appear to give direction to anything. It wasn’t located near a trail, along a river, and there were no other markers in sight.

It also felt… Different.

So I left the path to further investigate. It was far from the old miner’s road I was running on and I watched carefully for rattlesnakes.

As I approached, the hot desert day began to cool, and an overwhelming sense of sadness – even loneliness – swept over me in a cool breeze.

I placed my hand on the top rock, and for a moment I felt a connection to something. The Earth? The desert? Or was there something else under the earth? A former husband? Wife? Lover? Friend? I felt as if there was a story to be told if only I could hear it.

The cairn had been placed by someone who is lost to the eons of time. Once, this cairn symbolized something. The particular trail I was on was near the original Spanish trail. This was not a marker for that trail, as it wasn’t in the right location. But whomever placed this Cairn in this remote, unseen area of the desert had left it there for others to discover.

But we will never know the reasons. The purpose of this Cairn has been forever lost to the river of time. I felt that this symbolized loss to someone. There was a story here. I felt a connection to the land and the past, to the rigors that brought humanity to the desert symbol of hell on Earth.

When I removed my hand, the feeling faded, but I still felt an overwhelming presence of … loneliness and sadness. I looked closely to discover any kind of clue, found none, took a couple of pictures… And resumed my run. I felt as if I was the first person to see and connect with this Cairn in decades.

This is why we run. We see things that few other human beings see. We see sunrises that only our ancient ancestors saw. We see creatures and animals and feel a connection to them. We discover stories. We discover symbols and remnants of our deep past whose meanings have been lost to time, and whether it is our imagination or not, we feel a connection to that past. It felt real. As I ran with the dirt under my feet, I felt that connection resonating.

Later, I returned to the asphalt. It felt less real. I kissed my wife on my return home, and that felt real, but the house, the concrete, the computers… All of it seemed to create a noise and an ambient distraction to the connection that is our planet. The voice of Earth began to fade and be difficult to hear.

Why do we run? That is why we run: So we can hear the sounds of the world, hear the echos of the past, and feel a connection to the awesome planet we call home. We unplug from the noise, and plug in to the heart that is the Earth.

See you on the trails.