The Long Dark Road

Rain hammered on the fire escape. Pre dawn, early November. A thin slit of light split the curtains. The street lamp outside.

I shifted beneath the duvet and buried my head in the pillows. I wrapped myself in my clean white sheets. The hypno-fog swirled as I lay in denial.

The coffee maker coughed and bubbled as it filled on the auto-timer. The smell pulled me to my feet. I poured a cup and shuffled into the bathroom.

The red lights were easy on my throbbing pupils . . . Side effect of the diphenhydramine. I splashed cold water on my face and let it run down my neck. I shaved the night before, knowing I would be up earlier than usual.

I pulled on a ratty field uniform and threw on my ruck.

Infantry standards mandate one twelve-mile ruck march per quarter. Thirty-five pounds, fifteen minute miles.

I’d only put the thing on my back one other time in six months. I didn’t care. I would suck it up for three hours and be done with it.

I put my ruck on a fish hook just before step-off. Forty five pounds. I stuffed a few rocks in for good measure.

Headquarters was the last platoon to step. They crossed the parking lot outside of the CP and disappeared into the gloom.

I picked up a shuffle and hustled after them. I had no intention of pushing myself. If I had three hours to cross the line, I was going to take three hours.

I cruised past the Headquarters boys and kept going. I settled into a long stride and kept pushing, stretching out the stiffness in my legs.

With every step I was waiting for the pain. That pain in my shins that would make the first four miles misery. It didn’t come.

Rain fell like tracers past the street lamps on the way to the gate. I partially unzipped my top and started to jog again. Up ahead I saw the first of the line platoons.

Outside the fence, the street lamps stopped. The platoon ahead disappeared into darkness.

I slowed only to stretch my hip flexors and kept running. I sped up as I approached the sound of marching feet in front of me. I trotted past. I said nothing and pressed on.

The road opened up and I passed a pitch black corridor of woodline. I could only see a few feet in front of me. Rain trickled down my chest. My boots were soaked.

I had been here before.

These were some of my favorite moments of the lifestyle. Cut loose to perform a simple task, ad nauseum. No supervision. No bullshit . . . just the push.

I tried to ignore it. I swore I wouldn’t do it. As soon as my heart was pumping, my body took over. The switch had flipped.

Four miles in I ran down the next platoon. They came and were gone before they knew I was there. Short, steady strides. Measured breathing to keep my pace up.

Running into the darkness.

Three hours is a long time to be on the verge of pain, with nothing but your thoughts and the need to keep moving. I did a self-assessment . . .

Is this pain . . . ? 

Only discomfort. Keep moving.

There was only where I had been, and where I was going. As far and as hard as possible.

In the darkest moments, all Soldiers have is each other. We spend so much time in forced company that the moments of quiet and peace are sacred . . .

Quiet moments are perilous.

That is when the circus music starts. Looking back. Looking ahead. It is never what lies behind that terrifies. It is the looking forward.

I thundered along that road. From darkness. Into darkness. With no vision of what lay ahead, I turned my eyes inside.

I was going to the dark place. I shook my head and focused on my breathing. The sound of my feet.

The swirling vortex of nihilism and hopelessness. Needing the “juice“, or something to pull me from the depths of what felt like a drug induced coma. The day to day grind. Excruciating and arbitrary.

I hit the turn-around at sixty-three minutes dead.

Blisters slowed my return trip. They ruptured and filled my socks with ooze. I hit the finish in two hours, seventeen minutes.

I dropped my ruck and loosened my boots. I told myself how idiotic it was. My aching knees. My bleeding feet.

There would always be the long dark road. Somewhere to run down the feeling that I was treading water, waiting to drown.

I sat on the tailgate of my truck and lit a cigarette.