Florida Flats

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Of all the runs I take, in all the different places, Florida is my favourite. Specifically Dania Beach. Even more specifically the run that starts on a dusty road in a shipyard south of the airport, and runs in straight lines so long you can see another pedestrian 20 minutes ahead. If there is one. Very few people travel these roads by foot. In a way, thats why I like it.

There was a video game when we were young called NBA Jam. We’d play it in a convenience store in eastern Scarborough, plugging quarters until we ran out, our unzipped parkas scratching against each other as we jockeyed the joysticks on Canadian winter days. When we ran out of quarters, we had somehow learned that if you held the buttons in a certain combination you entered a secret level.

It was strange, this game within a game. Your view was one of a very simple white triangle, flying point-first over a grid leading to the horizon, the lines denoting perspective, and lending movement to the scene as they passed beneath you. Only one player could steer the flying triangle over the featureless terrain, and my friends weren’t as interested. They would usually wander off to evaluate snack prices after a few minutes, leaving me in the flat, mostly empty expanse, flying aimlessly but enjoyably.

Don’t take this wrong way Florida, but that is what I feel when I run here. It is mesmerizingly flat. Some would call it boring, but – like most runners – the real reason I run is to meditate, and the empty strip malls, uniform motels, and abandoned tattoo parlours that look like museum exhibits from a future obsessed with they year 2010, are perfect. And when I am nicely lulled by the dusty uniformity of urban decay, I get to the parkland.

Here the straight road parallels a band of mangroves whose roots lie in the waters of the Intracoastal Waterway of Florida, a narrow tract of water that runs between the beach and the main body of land. It stretches the entire length of the state, this channel, like the space between the tibia and fibula of this lower leg of the United States.

The dense trees and lower bushes lead right up to the road here, and a chainlink fence which the local fisherman have cut numerous holes into, separates the growth from the thoroughfare. When I run this section before sunrise I see dozens of eyes gleaming, reflecting back the streetlights. The old Florida, the one that was here before the high-rises grew, and will be here after they crumble, is still in there, just beyond the fence.

After this I reach the bridge, which is the only elevation on the entire run. The bridge can raise and lower to allow boots to transit beneath it, and is manned by an operator here. They used to sit in a booth right at street level, much like a toll taker. We would wave to each other, and I have known an older woman, who was small and wore reading glasses; and a large man who always looked really surprised and then really pleased to see me; and another large man who must have been the world’s best crossworder, to be the operators at various times. But now the booth has been built up a level, and you can’t see in or access the operator anymore. This seems indicative, and representative of the times.

Then I reach the beach and I am among the people again. This is jarring both because it comes after the silence of running alone, and because these people are tourists, and in a special frame of mind. They get made fun of, these tourists, but I have to be honest: I don’t find them funny at all. I feel for them, in their new beach gear, pale hides, and nervous excitement at seeing the ocean, some of them for the first time. We are an odd species, in an odd time, one in which air travel can whisk us from the middle of a continent, where all we know is land, to the coast, to sleep in high-rises with a view of the gulf stream, and devour plates of shrimp pulled from the brine. Here too, you can see for miles, the long, unbroken stretch of moderately-priced enjoyment for once-a-year vacationers stretching to the horizon. Soon these people will depart for home, with sunburns that will fade, and photos in the cloud that will be found in a few decades’ time, to be marvelled over how young everyone looks.

After a while of running south through all this, I turn around to run back, and the experience is reversed. People, mangroves, buildings, shipyard. . Rain falls sometimes, and smells like hot concrete. Sun shines most of the time and makes the sweat run off the brim of my hat in glinting drops. All is flat, much is quiet. It is my favourite run.

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