The Message and the Messenger
By Nicholas Triolo
It’s Tuesday morning when three hard knocks arrive at your door.
There you find a man standing alone, flushed and panting. His heart rages and his legs burn red from running all day against a headwind in an effort to deliver a message, just for you.
You invite the man in and pour him a tall glass of water. His body odor is overpowering—salt, sweat, and sagebrush—but tending to this messenger is your duty, for he just traveled a hundred and sixteen rugged miles afoot to provide you with this verbal communiqué. After the man’s heartbeat slows he recites the message from memory, critical information about regional politics, before collapsing into a snoring heap right there on your living room floor. His job is done.
While absorbing the news it becomes clear just how tethered you are to this man, like two rusted soup cans connected by twine. Here the twine is a footpath, and his impossible journey reminds you of the respect you have for these cardiac couriers—for both messenger and message.
This winter I’ve been living in Northern New Mexico and have been reading a bit about indigenous running practices in the Southwest. It’s been said that native Pueblo and Navajo, Hopi, and other tribal groups used to run long distances carrying vital news, rarely written. Here, running wasn’t recreation. It was a mode of kinesthetic conversation, a way of maintaining contact across sweeps of land for survival, to mobilize against Spanish colonizers or rival tribes. Such transmissions traveled not in envelope or cardboard box; they arrived via breath and body.
It’s fascinating stuff, to be explored further through Peter Nabokov’s oft-cited Indian Running, which I recommend. But this idea of running-as-messaging stuck with me, and I began to ask myself:
Are we as runners—native or settler—still harnessing some messaging service in our practice, or have we lost it? If not, what kinds of messages might we be carrying around with us these days?
Springtime in the Southwest arrives in gusts. Strong winds bowl tumbleweed across my rutted driveway as they carry messages of renewal: cottonwoods dangle seed-fluff ornaments, purple crocus wiggles to the surface, jackrabbits court their mates in the hundreds. Leaning into the gales, I’ve been trying to recast my own running practice as a kind of messaging service. The first attempts bore little fruit. Carrying mantras under my breath, offerings to the more-than-human world, it all felt too forced—I just wanted to run. Other times I was far too preoccupied with a dozen other selfish things to infuse outings with heady intention—I just wanted to run.
But any proper correspondence requires both giving and receiving, and I’ve learned that running is no different. In fact, running might actually be more an act of reception than anything else—less talking, more listening. The word correspondence comes from the Latin root suggesting “congruence, resemblance, harmony, or agreement.” I like this. I like this because now, when I step outside, I’m enmeshed in some ecology of correspondence, or even better, a re-semblance of some long-forgotten conversation. Out there, messages come in crow-squawk, ponderosa bark, coyote yip, and ice thaw, gestures that scoff at consonant and vowel and prefer the sway of a branch instead, the twitch of a hare’s nose or the spiraling of sandstone. It’s my duty, then, to listen, to fold these messages in and return home with them, anew.
One of the ways I’ve found helpful to become a messenger while running is to step onto the trail with a question: How am I relating to the world today? Am I tight or disinterested, or am I fully engaged in texture and the slant of wind? Is the sunrise my optimal time to run, midday heat, or sunset? How come? What forms of life am I being drawn to? Why am I so irritable?
Last week on a run I came across an impressive mound of black bear scat. I turned it over with a stick and then spoke to it: What of this signature? What information here is helping orient my place in the world? After about a minute I felt 100% ridiculous for asking shit a question and quickly proceeded to pick up the pace, laughing all the way home.
The message? Tread with humility.
Every day I try and remind myself that running is a privilege, an excuse for unstructured play. Not every run ought to be so damn self-important, so serious. Such buoyancy is only reinforced when I start viewing my surroundings as full of messenger, full of correspondence. From juniper berries to cottonwood fluff, mule deer to coyote track, everything whispers. Even bear shit.
In January, a coalition of native and non-native citizens ran 250 miles across Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument carrying a sagebrush-eagle feather baton the entire distance, to send a message to the Trump administration that their decision to shrink these public lands in favor of oil and gas was unacceptable. Their film, “The Messengers,” (www.messengersrun.com) is a moving, modern form of messaging that matters.
Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. I’m trying. I’m just another creature who carries questions as I plod along, if only I can remember to listen for the answers. But in this I’m both message and messenger, participant and co-creator of some earth-old invitation to venture further afield, out into fields of correspondence all around us, from which my feet are doing the talking, my eyes and ears the listening, and my heart the carrying.
Nicholas Triolo is a writer, filmmaker, novice baker, and runner currently living in Northern New Mexico. He is Blog Editor for Orion Magazine, Territory Run Co. Runner of the Wild, Senior Mountain Guide for Aspire Adventure Running, and his stories have been featured in Orion, Trail Runner, Terrain.org, The Dirtbag Diaries, and others. Nicholas is working on his first book, The Way Around, about pilgrimage, ecology, and revolution. Read more at nicholastriolo.net or find him on Facebook (facebook.com/nick.triolo), Instagram (@nicholas.triolo), and Twitter (@nicktriolo)