The weather station indicated a temperature of 39 F, intermittent rain, and gusty winds. Not a nice day in the conventional sense, but for those so inclined, a chance to get outdoors and mix it up with nature. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about the Yurok Indians of Northern California whose warriors would head out into the mountains during the stormy winter months to chase the Thunders, with the goal of demonstrating vigor and determination and, if they impressed the spirits, receiving special powers.
And so, I made my way to the paved trail that runs along the Chicago lakefront, but upon turning north, I found myself in for a rude surprise…
The winds were overwhelming. I was staggering around, doubled over, battered by the relentless flow, trying to hit my normal pace, but it felt like running in place. Along the shore of Lake Michigan, waves reared up ten or twelve feet high and slammed into the rocks, and then the wind flung the spray across the trail.
The day before had been an unseasonably warm 60 F and preternaturally still. I had taken off my sandals and run barefoot on the wide open grassy fields, dodging twigs and branches but otherwise flying across the cool, soft ground. The lake was flat, the sky was grey, the light was dim, as if dusk would last all day.
But now I was growing frustrated because I couldn’t run fast or easy, and the violence of the scene was alarming. The wind thundered in my ears. Ripples flashed across the puddles. To the north, rows of waves crashed against the shoreline as far as the eye could see, spray jetting into the air as if in slow motion.
I fought back against the frustration and alarm, made an effort to relax, swung my arms around to stay loose. and tried to channel my inner stubbornness, tried to just keep moving, knowing I could turn back at any time. My watch beeped at mile two, and I hung in there, stuck it out to mile three. Trees and tall grass provided some momentary protection, but then it was back onto an exposed stretch, and the wind howled in from the north, unrelenting. Now the trail was passing a boat basin; the wind shrieked and gibbered through the ships’ rigging, and bells clanged madly. Trash cans lay toppled. The green water churned, poured over breakwaters, spewed foam.
My right foot was aching, but I held out for five miles, just to prove the point, and then stretched it out to five and a half. As I reached the apex of the run and began to turn back, it was momentarily silent — and then as I headed south, the wind swept in from behind and now it was propelling me down the trail, as if hands had reached out and lifted me up, and all I was doing was moving my knees. I stripped off my shirt and ran comfortably but for an occasional chilly gust.
And so I flew back over the five and a half miles home, admiring turgid green waters, tawny shades of prairie grass, quivering trees. The waves reached out and tried to touch me, as if they were curious about this solitary shirtless runner, but I dodged their spray, feet tapping effortlessly along the path.
Upon my return, I looked up the weather station data and found the winds had been blowing from due north at 34-38 MPH. Whether the spirits took notice of the handful of persons out by the lake is hard to say. The next day the winds calmed, the lake turned a choppy slate blue, and small rollers licked the shore.
Thomas Buckley, Jr., Standing Ground: Yurok Indian Spirituality, 1850-1990
Weather data from the Harrison-Dever Crib, http://www.glerl.noaa.gov/metdata/chi/