My freshman year, I spent several nights running laps in a reflective vest around Old Campus. It’s unclear why I was wearing such a vest in a place with no cars. What was clear, though, was my fear of New Haven nights. Later that year I bucked up and broadened my night-running range to Hillhouse Avenue, where I did suicide sprints up and down Yale’s pretty and short street. Eventually, I made my way up to the farm, making sure to loop back down to well-lit Whitney Street. By spring I raced between the orange-lit spots of Prospect Street that punctuated stretches of darkness, until the dark stretches grew too long for comfort, and I turned back. I’d always wanted to run at night. Night is when, and running is how, I forget everything other than the rhythm of my breath and sound of my feet.
My sophomore year, I shut my mind up and ran where my body really wanted to go. My first time, I fell. Hard. I tripped over a knobby root on an East Rock trail, skidded onto rocky ground and ran home with bloody knees and elbows. I was hooked. Coming home from night runs since, I’ve seen shooting stars from Cross Campus.
These days, or nights rather, I go where I want. I put on my shoes, tie up my hair and soon enough, find myself somewhere like the bridge over Mill River, watching water move in pleats below the wiry silhouettes of trees. I get lost a lot, too, sometimes following trails that aren’t really trails at all, having to hop over a pile of felled trees with thorny branches that tear threads from my T-shirt or prick scratches in my skin.
When I run, lost or wounded or happy, I feel like this city is mine. I forget other parts of a New Haven night: the narratives crafted in emails from Chief Ronnell A. Higgins, the ones that trigger images of stunned graduate students being approached by troops of teenagers on bicycles. Too many of those narratives in my head can make the wind hitting the leaves behind me sound like footsteps chasing me; they can turn each tree stump into someone crouching in the distance, ready to attack.
When I run, I shed those narratives. I speak a spatial language different than the one I hear whispering in my head (against my will) when I am walking home to Dwight Street late at night. Over the years, the vocabulary of this other spatial language, the one that pops up when my body moves toward the trees and the rivers, has expanded. It grows with each nighttime journey, the landmarks echoing former moments of exploration and play. I turn the corner onto an East Rock trail and see the network of roots where I have so often stood on my head, kicking my feet against the bark above. I follow the river where I waded into the water at midnight on my December birthday, bringing in 22 with shivers and gasps. I stride below the tree near the lake where I have climbed an arched branch and listened to distant sounds of honking ducks. I jump up the stone stairs to the grassy spots on top where I’ve watched stars become dizzying streaks that split into lines and spread across the sky.
My night-running spatial language helps me be fluent in play; it encourages me to stand on my head again, climb more trees, lie on the ground and watch the sky move. I run to lose the language that fills the rest of my life, and engage place through movement instead of words. My mind empties and my body takes me where I need to go: the elephant-skin willow trees that blot out the outside world when their branches have bloomed, or the shore for that moment wading into the river when the cold water stings your skin, fills your ears with gurgling sounds, and washes away everything but your breath.
There are reasons to feel fear. I know the source of that other spatial language that can fill my head walking around the city at night: there is violence and crime here. If we try to forget that fear sometimes, though, we might be able to break out from our reflective-vest-clad laps around Old Campus (a universal experience, I’m sure) and begin navigating public space as not just something to get through, but also something to celebrate. Running around and playing in the dark, this city can feel particularly ours. We might find more reasons to celebrate it if we move through it more, do cartwheels onto the grass and look up. I’ve seen shooting stars, lying on the ground, passing early mornings on Cross Campus.
Diana Saverin is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .