“I want to go on a run with my uncle,” I informed my mom when we arrived at the old stone house we were staying in at Shakertown. It was December 27, and we were on our annual family trip to Pleasant Hill, the rebuilt Shaker village outside of Harrodsburg, Kentucky.
“Sounds great!” my mother said, hiding her exhaustion from the long drive from Chicago. My older brother and I grabbed our bags from the trunk.“I’m sure your uncle would love that.”
“Maybe,” my brother said. “He’s pretty hardcore, though.”
Shakertown has miles of trails through woods and fields for hiking and horseback riding. Running on them is one of my uncle’s favorite things to do every time we come here. This year, I wanted to go with him and had brought some new running shoes.
Our first day together passed by quickly, and there wasn’t time to ask about a run. My uncle always seemed busy helping my aunt with their two little boys, or visiting with my mom and granny and grandpa.
When I went to bed that night I was still waiting to break in my first pair of running shoes with the guy I believed to be the best runner on this planet.
After breakfast the next morning I took a chance.
“Unky?” I said as we drove back to our house from the restaurant, which was in the big central building. “Can I go for a run with you today?”
“Really?” he asked with a smile. “Are you sure, kiddo?”
I could sense a slight tone of mockery. Maybe he thought it would be too hard for me.
“Please?” I said.
When we parked the car and went inside, he plopped his toddler down on the rug and took out a map. “Why don’t we try the Shawnee Run trail? That is pretty cool.” He pointed to a wavy red line on the map.
I said it sounded good to me.
“You got a hat?” he asked. “We’re going to get a bit cold out there.”
“Yep. It’s a neat one too. It has a hole to put my ponytail in.” I could hear the eagerness in my voice and hoped I didn’t sound like a little kid.
“Okay. Let’s saddle up and skedaddle before your aunt finds me a chore to do.”
“I’ll just be a sec!” I said, running upstairs to get my running clothes on and grab my hat.
Five minutes later we said goodbye to everyone and were out of the house and jogging toward the nice, easy gravel trail I thought we were taking.
Suddenly, my uncle veered left on a dirt trail that dived down a steep hill toward the woods.
“Wha—” I began to ask, then remembered, I’m not running with an amature, this is somebody who’d just run a marathon in NYC last month! So I decided to go along with it.
We entered the woods and ran downhill and then carefully stepped across a rushing creek on some big flat rocks. We ran for what seemed like ten miles for an out-of-shape runner like myself, but in truth was probably less then a mile.
We came to a small yet beautiful frozen waterfall at that point. My uncle showed me where the Shakers had had an old mill. You could still see the stones from the building.
But I couldn’t admire the scenery too long, because right away he took off and started to pick up our pace on the flat open trail that followed the edge of the stream.
Soon we came to another crossing consisting of more big rocks set into the stream with the cold clear water rushing between them.
“We can stop and take a break whenever you want,” he told me over his shoulder as we stepped our way across the rocks. I could tell that my heavy breathing was being heard by him. I tried to hide my struggle to keep up, though it wasn’t working.
The trail was flat as we followed it this up and down through the trees. At last we came to a stop when the path reached another stream crossing. The water here looked deeper. And this time there were no rocks to step across.
“How do we get to the other side?” I asked.
“We walk,” he said in his I’m hard core and tough tone. He sat down to strip off his shoes and socks and I did the same. We rolled up our running tights so as to not get them wet. Then he warned me that the rocks under the water would be muddly and slippery, so that I should just go slow and follow his lead.
With our shoes and socks in our hands we walked in together and never in my life would I have imagined it to be so cold.
The closer we got to the other side the more painful our feet felt from the freezing ice bath.
“Uhu-ah-haha-uh!” we both shouted.
Once we got across without slipping and falling into the water, we sat down at the edge of the stream to rub our frozen toes and bring them back to life.
“I never thought it would be so cold,” I said, finding it surprisingly hard to speak.
“Yep, this is definitely the coldest I’ve ever felt it,” he said with surprising ease. You could tell he had done this before.
“Hoh!” I shouted as I dried off my feet with my gloves and put my socks and shoes back on. It felt good getting them nice and warm again.
As soon as we got moving, I realized how thirsty I was, but I kept going. For a while, we just kept jogging. It was beautiful. Seeing the frozen icicles hanging from the cliffs, or the clean cut that the stream had made through the rock after thousands of years.
Eventually, I got too tired and thirsty to go any farther. I asked if we could go back to the house.
“Sounds like a plan,” my uncle said. “If we go on a little further, I think there’s a side trail we can take back.”
Turning around meant facing the barefoot stream crossing again and I would be happy to avoid that.
Except as we went ahead, we came to another crossing without a bridge.
“How about there?” I questioned, pointing to a path of rocks that could get us at least halfway across.
“Great. How ’bout we carry some rocks so we can throw them in farther?” he suggested as he knelt down to pick up a small boulder.
We tried many attempts but couldn’t make enough of a footbridge. So we continued our journey up and down the bank to find a way across.
“Here!” my crazy uncle said, showing me two giant tree trunks that had fallen across the stream. One of them was about six feet above the river and hung straight across. And another went diagonally across the water but was only four feet up. “Which one should we take?”
“Whichever is better,” I said, clearly clueless as to which one that might be.
“Let’s take the higher one,” he said. “It looks sturdier even though there’s a tricky spot in the middle.”
I looked at it once more and noticed it had a big branch growing straight up that I knew would get in our way. With a nod of agreement, we were soon on the log and butt-scootching our way across the rushing water. My running pants continuously got caught on the bark and I was worried they would rip. Luckily they didn’t.
“Okay,” my uncle said as he arrived at the branch. “You’ll have to swing your leg around it and twist your body so that you end up facing the other direction,” he said. “Watch me.”
I did and he made it look easy. By the time I reached the branch and was attempting this trick of re-arrangement, my uncle was already happily scootching his way off the log, backward.
Once we were off the log, we started running again and soon we came to a grassy clearing and one of the most revolting things I’d ever seen. “What is that?”
“Looks like a deer skeleton,” my uncle explained. “Picked clean by all sorts of animals and birds. See all that fur tossed around?”
“Gross,” I said, scrunching up my nose in disgust.
After passing that, we headed up a side trail that seemed to go straight up a hill out of the valley.
On our way up we passed a couple more trails and I could tell by the way my uncle was stopping and looking around that he didn’t know exactly where we were.
“Arr-rr-rr-rhhhhh!” An echo of ghostly barks and howls came through the trees from not too far away.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Sounds like hound dogs. Probably somebody’s hunting dogs. They hunt foxes down here. They must have heard you from their kennels at a farm over one of those hills.”
I didn’t say anything after that. No need to. We carried on for awhile in silence except for the distant barking.
“Are we lost?” I asked at last, though I knew we were.
“Just slightly mis-located. Don’t worry.”
My uncle would never admit to defeat.
“Okay,” I said, letting it go.
“Stay here,” he said. “I’m going to follow the trail up to that electrical tower at the top to see what’s ahead. I’ll be right back.”
Without waiting for an answer he took off.
While I waited, I was tempted to sit down, but was afraid I would never get back up again.
He disappeared over the top of the hill for a minute but soon he was running and hopping his way back down to me.
“We’re right on track, sweetheart. It’s just about a mile ahead,” he said, forcing me out of my rest stop.
On the last mile, I forced myself to run the entire thing. My uncle said he liked that I was finishing strong.
Soon I could see the old Shaker house where we were staying.
“There it is,” I said, pushing for home as fast as my long legs could carry me.
After a bit longer my uncle stopped and said we should walk the rest of the way to catch out breath.
When we got to the door, he looked at me. “Now remember. You must waltz into that house showing no struggle.”
“Right,” I said. “Gotcha.”
“How was it?” my brother asked as I walked in, feeling dizzy from my adventure.
“Oh, it was pretty easy,” I said.“I am pretty hardcore, you know.”
olivia griffin is in sixth grade. She lives in Chicago, too far away from her uncle in New York City.