I was born and raised in southeast Michigan, a place not widely known for its natural beauty. One of our favorite field trips in grade school was to the Ford Rouge Plant where we watched the union men roll out hot steel, and then watch new Cobras move down the line as more union men put on doors, grills, dashes. For a while we could also go down to the nearby salt mine. The Rouge River next to the plant was famous for being frighteningly polluted, and like the Cuyahoga, once caught fire.
But the Rouge River doesn’t start at the factory; it ends there as it empties into the Detroit River. Up where I am, it starts it’s journey to infamous Zug Island. Along the way it collects the storm runoff from oil-streaked streets, fertilizer, and everything else suburbanites discard. But I’ve started to see a different side of the river, and my physical environment.
When I’m out running, I follow a rail trail, but usually take a turn into the woods. Around here, there’s a lot of protected wetlands (and a lot of lakes, but most are lined by mansions and have little or no public access). The trail cuts through hardwood forest full of squirrels, muskrats, gophers, and deer. And the ponds and marshes are full of ducks and herons. When I’m really lucky, I’ll catch a goshawk sitting on a branch waiting. The river trickles through the woods, sometimes cutting deep ravines, sometimes widening into shallow swamps. Growing up much closer to Detroit, I had no idea all this was here.
I started running for a few reasons. I see a lot of people get sick and die, many of them too young. I have a wife and daughter who are counting on me not to drop dead. Running fits into an insane schedule; you can walk out the door and it’s there for you. I’ve gotten two terrific benefits, one expected, one not. I feel healthier (not thinner, healthier). I don’t lose my breath easily, I’m stronger. And for a guy who misses camping and being in the woods, it’s allowed me to discover that here in the burbs there is plenty of nature to keep me happy until my next trip Up North.
When I run in the woods, I don’t listen to music; I listen to the leaves rustling, a sound that changes with the seasons. I startle squirrels who startle me in return. I smell the rich, loamy aroma of the swamps. And often enough a deer will appear next to me and scare me out of my shoes.
What I tell my patients is a bit different from what I do. If they don’t exercise, I don’t encourage them to pick up a pair of shoes and start running. I tell them to walk out the door (if they live in a safe neighborhood) and walk down the block and back. Just about anyone can do it, and if you do it every day, you’ll feel the difference.
This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful not only for the usual blessings of family and friends, but that I’m healthier, and can help others get there. Bundle up, get out there, and get moving, even if it’s only a minute. Every bit helps.