The Highveld is a region constellated by petrol stations that call themselves towns, and towns that call themselves cities. Places which you’d have no reason to know about if you weren’t born there – and even then. Places which, if they feature in your lives at all, are meant to be markers on your way somewhere nicer, vanishing points in your rearview mirror. Places like Kaapmuiden. Msauli. Barberton. Kinross. Nelspruit. Sabie. Names that stick in the throat like coal dust when people ask you where you’re from. That stick in my throat.
My family lived in one of these electricity-generating towns in the early nineties – steel mill to the north, coal mine to the west. My father was in his thirties, part of a small club of engineers that worked on rotation at the various Eskom plants in the province – men who shuttled into the big grey cloud-factories that broke the pattern of sunflowers, scorched earth and marsh around them; men with Marmite sandwiches and improbable moustaches and hatchbacks they were proud of. These were places where you had to drive two towns over to get to a cinema, and they didn’t have gyms. They maybe had a fitness center at the back of the golf club – and we weren’t golf club people.
Instead, these youngish men, with their wives and children and their braais and fishing on the weekends, would, if they had a break at the plant, pull on their dishwater grey shoes and their Teambuilding 1992 T-shirts, and climb onto the long smooth roads that connected the power plants and the mines and the refineries to the potholed highways. They’d go running, with the thin yellow grass rippling on either side of them, and the conversation about boilers, or about rugby, or about nothing, if it was winter and the air started getting thin. And because they were methodical, and competitive, they’d look into running clubs, they’d read books by Tim Noakes, and they’d start talking about local marathons.
It was by this vector that I came to know the no-name towns. One or two weekends a month, my sister and I would find ourselves getting scooped up an hour or two before dawn and tossed into the back of the Opel Astra with blankets and pillows and a thermos full of tea that we’d hold fast for warmth if we weren’t asleep again already. While my father pinned race numbers to his vest my mother would drive us to whatever one-horse town it was that was hosting the race, usually sponsored by the local chapter of the Rotary. She’d pull up near the starting point to drop off my father, then try and find parking at whichever school rugby field was closest. We’d usually be awake in time to see my father finish the race, and we’d stick around for a little while to see how the town had prettied itself up for the visitors – if the race was big enough, there’d be a stage with a band somewhere, playing something with accordions, maybe a couple of food stands – then head back to our secretly indistinguishable town, stopping at an Ultra station for the benediction of petrol stop lunches.
This wasn’t all grim. There were races in the Kruger National Park, around the Loskop Dam, and along the crueler coils of the Drakensberg. There were reasons for going out into the world other than dropping my dad off with a crowd of stretching men and women wearing black plastic bags with holes cut into them, waiting for the sound that would tell them it was OK to start running to the next town over, discarding plastic sachets of water along the way all Hansel and Gretel. There were runs along loam-smelling lakes ringed by reeds heavy with birdsong. There were evenings spent at the local running club where it smelled of sweat and dust and ash and pine and stale drink and we found some way to enjoy that. There were mornings where it was too dark to make out the runner before you, but the stars were all clearly there. There were nice things that happened because we all got dragged into my father’s dumb hobby in an abysmal part of the world.
But there’s too much sky in the Highveld. And I know this sounds like the effete complaint of some urban sad-sack caught in the sticks, but by some virtue of the altitude and the relative clearness of the air, and the self-evident smallness of a town where church steeples and water towers are prominent features of its silhouette, there were these vast, corrugated-blue afternoons – blackened first by the ceaseless blasting of mines just out of town, then by the resigned descent into twilight – that could become unbearable. Unbearable and uninteresting, which is worse; afternoons which could never coalesce into a story worth telling.
And you felt this harder on the three or four arterial roads leading in and out of town – the roads you’d end up using most, if you were running around there and wanted to avoid the suburban traffic. Sloping miles of browned nothing against a sky of grey-purple cloud, the air moving just enough to chill the sweat on your chest and brow, the last echoes of a white sedan already Dopplered away, among which you’re conscious only of your own breathing, of the necessity of each footfall, of the tree line fading in your peripheral. And then you round a corner to be confronted by a billboard advertising a paintball arena. Or a casino, or a car wreck, or any number of the small and sad and stupid things that happen everywhere, but seem to count for more in these towns.
The sublime has been described to me as being triggered by the image of a solitary figure standing on the edge of a vast, almost featureless beach. To understand the relationship between these small towns and the sublime, you need to imagine that figure standing on that same vast and featureless beach, but holding a fishing rod, and a small portable radio blasting Toto’s ‘Hold the Line’.
What I’m saying is that the small Highveld town is capable of turning the sublime into something banal. And I guess this is the thing – people have made points about the relationship between running and writing before, citing the long country walks of the Romantic poets, the bloody-mindedness needed to finish a marathon or novel, Haruki Murakami’s whole What I Talk About When I Talk About Running trip, or Susan Orlean. About the idea that the rhythm of thought and the rhythm of running have something to do with each other, and that the quietness and the noticing of long miles is related to the quiet noticing you have to do to write. Then there’s Bruce Chatwin in The Songlines making a whole meal of the notion that a journey on foot and the thoughts conducted on that journey are inextricable – such that a place becomes imbued with certain ideas or memories.
And – look, maybe. Some writers run, and some runners write, no matter how much we may try and do to stop them. But it’s probably useful, at this point, to draw a line between the kind of running you see along promenades and treadmills, the kind with iPods and smoothies and discussions about how that podcast is coming along, and the kind of running my father did, which went along bare stretches of freeway and back again, and an hour or two later, stopping at some point to eat the orange he’d maybe brought with him.
The thing to understand here is that running a marathon breaks your body in ways that it never quite recovers from. Young runners are warned away from doing marathons too early in their careers, because – for the majority of the population – once you’ve run a marathon you will never will your body to run quite as fast as it used to, ever again. It changes the way you move. You can spot it most easily in the middle-aged men and women running along the mountain roads in the wee hours of the morning, their every stride like a small collapse. This kind of running forces upon you an economy of motion that makes you move like a beggar whether you’re on your first mile or your twenty-sixth.
So, yes to the bloody-mindedness you need to run, really run, and the kind you need to write. But I don’t know how far I can convince myself that that kind of running is any kind of attempt at noticing things better, even if running was what got me touring up and down the Highveld for a little while. Past a certain point all you notice is that you have to keep going. Sometimes it seems to work like the opposite of fiction’s cloaks and rings of invisibility – instead of moving through a space unseen, this kind of running lets you move through a space without seeing it.
When I was about ten I started running with my father – short distances, obviously, but still. Dumb hobbies beget dumb hobbies.
When planning running circuits, he’d insist that we leave and arrive by different routes – departing to the north, and circling so we’d return from the south. He attributed some kind of military logic to this, ostensibly that one leaves oneself vulnerable to attack by entering and exiting an area by the same point. I don’t know if it was intended as a joke pitched a couple of feet above my head, or was one of those post-traumatic tics that veterans try and smooth into normal parts of their personality, or something else – but it stuck. When I run now, I try so far as possible to arrive by some avenue other than that by which I left. In the suburbs, this often proves difficult.
And this is the thing – that Chatwin bit about place and memory isn’t ridiculous, because there’s a stretch on Tafelberg Road in Cape Town where I always, without fail, recall the chorus to ‘The Jitterbug’, and there’s a spot near Rhodes Memorial where an incident of above-average embarrassment from my adolescence comes to mind, and there’s a route in Tamboerskloof that makes me think idiotically, recursively, of a run I took once in Ann Arbor. Which makes me think that my father’s continual, pointless insistence upon finding new routes was maybe a way of pushing against the runner’s tendency to colonize bits of terrain with memory – to keep flipping over to the cool side of the pillow, to avoid having to deal with the petty sameness of the small towns and the vast spaces that bled between them by being out of breath and chafed, to keep from being caught in his own snare of recollection.
But I don’t know – I’m not in the Highveld much anymore. It depresses me like it depresses anyone who’d care to notice. I run in places that are generically pretty – by the mountains, by the sea, by old cities. And at some point I want to stop and look out at whatever view I’ve reached, and do that Vonnegutty thing – you know, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ And on the odd occasion that I’ve brought my father along with me on these runs, wanting to show off the route I’ve carved out, leaving in one direction and returning from another, he’s demonstrated impatience; he looks out at whatever there is, nods, checks his heart rate, and carries on, right leg limping a little from a persistent calf injury. And I think to myself maybe it’s that running in the Highveld has taught my father this lesson of not stopping – of not pausing to be offended by the burnt-out pig farms mucking up the horizon, or the gutted SUV with Gauteng plates that crashed a month before, or the guys lining up for work on the westbound exit. Of not stopping when you’re running uphill maybe two blocks from home and the winter air feels so thin that you’re vaguely disappointed to find that the vapour rising from your too-fast breathing is a pale grey, no way discoloured by the blood that you can taste at the back of your throat. Because, of course, once you stop, you can’t be sure you’ll start again. Maybe that lesson’s harder to learn on routes that are easier on the eyes and lungs, in towns whose names don’t catch on the throat.
And maybe it’s an error on my part; maybe the thing I’m trying to take in by stopping – I am avoiding saying the beautiful thing – isn’t the view or the wind, but the fact of running along that view, trying to breathe with the wind ripping the air out of your mouth, occluding the sound of the freeway, carrying the smell of salt and fynbos. In the doing. There’s a bit in Spirit Level where Seamus Heaney, talking about a drive that takes him on a strip between ocean and mountain, suggests that it’s
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
So maybe when I’m pausing mid-run to look out at some splendid, distant scenery, telling myself I’m drinking in the beauty, all I’m doing is catching my breath. And maybe those faintly ridiculous men and women warming up and tying laces in the main roads of small towns with white cotton gloves and black plastic bags are preparing to open their hearts in ways beyond me right now – because they’ve had to work to find sustenance in their thin environments all their lives, while I’m sitting here at sea level with something beautiful an arm away wherever I care to reach. But then, I had to leave the Highveld to learn about Heaney. I don’t know.
Because maybe the lesson is this: that whether you’re running across a charcoal-grey landscape with too much sky and too little air, or along a beach backlit with the facile beauty of a sunrise, it’s all unimportant so long as you’re running. That stopping to take in how the clouds are drawing a veil across the mountain misses the point as thoroughly as stopping to watch a harried mother marching towards an SUV with a tardy schoolkid in one hand and a cigarette in the other; worse, in fact, because with the grand views you run the risk of never learning the lesson that stopping is bad, whereas in those grim hick towns – where there’s little to breathe in and even less to look at – it’s the only lesson there is.
Which means – if the analogy between running and writing holds – the real difficulty emerges, because then striving toward prettiness in prose is as senseless as going after prettiness in a run. There’s the possibility that the fact – the doing – of writing matters more than the vista offered by having written; that beauty might be besides the point, so long as you keep writing. And how far do we want to take that analogy? Does there come a point where the marathon writer comes to resemble the marathon runner in their fatigued progress, staggering from one sentence to the next, hoping to catch something while they’re passing through, largely indifferent to the ground they’ve already covered? To suggest that beauty is incidental to a writer, for whom (surely?) beauty has become an imperative, is a difficult thing. But there it is.
And there’s the other bit of fallout there: the mildly upsetting realization that writing, like running, only counts if you’re doing it. You’re not a runner unless you’re busy running, and you’re not a writer unless you’re busy writing. You never, ever, really get to stop. Until, of course, you have to.
But I guess maybe you knew that.
Liam Kruger is a South African writer, currently in the midwest; you can find more of his writing here.
Prufrock is a print quarterly of writing — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — in any South African language, started in 2013. You can subscribe, find out the nearest place to pick up the latest issue, and read the magazine’s submission guidelines here: www.prufrock.co.za. Follow Prufrock on Facebook and Twitter and find a piece of writing from one of their past issues on 10and5 every Wednesday.
Photographs by Anna Stielau.