David blinked awake. For a moment he wasn’t sure where he was; the bed felt foreign, the weight of the covers not quite what he was used to. And yet, there was something slightly familiar about wherever he was.
The darkness was complete and pressed in on him so that he couldn’t make out any of the forms in the room surrounding him. Instinctively, he reached for his phone which he somehow knew was on the nightstand next to the bed.
As he pressed a button, the phone blinked on, its bright blue glow filling the room and momentarily blinding him.
He squinted. 3:59 am.
He held it in his hand as he rolled over onto his back and looked up at the ceiling.
The hotel ceiling. It came back to him, then, by the luminous screen of the phone. He was back up in Yellowknife, in northern Canada, in his room at the Great Northern Hotel.
David had been coming up here on and off for over a year, which explained the initially vague feeling of familiarity. He always requested the same room, and usually got it. Although, or perhaps because he spent most of his days in meetings, he liked to return each evening to recognizable surroundings. Room 307 was quietly tucked away in a corner of the brown-bricked, low-rise hotel. It was a sparse room with a king size bed, two dark wood veneer bedside tables and a matching desk, and a view out over the town which stretched to the shores of Great Slave Lake, and then beyond that out across the surrounding flat expanse of northern plain.
It had been a few months, though, since he had been here last; longer than usual. It had been autumn then. The trees had been golden, the hours of day and night evenly matched. He had seen the first snow of the year.
Now it was nearing mid-winter. There were only five hours of daylight these days; the sun rose at 10:00 am and set again at 3:00 pm. Snow blanketed this northern world and temperatures ran from -22 C to -40, with wind chills of -50 or colder. The lake was frozen and the ice road was up and running, connecting Yellowknife with the world to the south.
In the mornings before he left for his meetings, and in the evenings when he returned, David would stand at his window for a while and watch the lights of the trucks moving across the frozen lake.
Now, he lifted the phone back up to his face and pressed the button again.
Resolutely, he threw the covers back and swung his legs around, searching for his slippers with his feet. It was time to go for a run.
David had run almost every day for all of his adult life, whether it was in the heat of South Africa or in the cold of northern Canada. Today would be no different, despite the -52 windchill. He was looking forward to being back out in the wilderness of the north, among the trees, beside the smaller Frame Lake, under the star-filled sky.
He peered through the curtains into the dark night. The only light came from the lamps along the street and the headlights of the odd truck crossing the lake. The moon had already set and the sun was still a distant dream.
David let the curtains fall back and crossed the room in the dark to turn on a lamp. He opened the closet and took out his running clothes. He pulled three sets of black leggings over his long, powerful legs and donned the same number of wicking and woollen tops before he sat down to tie up his heavy black and red Snowcross trail shoes. Zipping the key card for his room into his jacket pocket, he slung the jacket over his broad shoulders, grabbed his mitts, balaclava and toque and headed out into the garishly-lit hallway.
Downstairs in the hotel’s bland but clean foyer, he nodded at the night watchman and walked over to the mirror beside the front doors. He carefully covered his short-cropped hair and bearded face with a combination of balaclava and toque, pulling the material up to his lower eyelashes, and down over his brow. Zipping up his jacket, he pulled on his mitts and then, placing his hand on the door handle, pushed open the door and slipped out into the dark, quiet night.
The crisp air hit his eyes first and he blinked a few times before setting off at a slow pace. His tall black form was a sleek shadow moving along between ploughed snowdrifts, with only the crunch of his shoes to suggest he was really there. He ran along deserted streets for a few hundred metres until he passed beyond the glow of the overhead lights, beyond the town limits, and found himself out in the surrounding countryside.
He breathed deeply through the balaclava’s material and looked around as he ran. Though he had covered this terrain many times before, it was unrecognizable in the snow. Without a moon overhead, it was darker than he recalled, though the snow seemed to emit a faintly blue glimmer, as though lit from below or perhaps reflecting the stars overhead.
For a moment, he considered running along the side of the highway, which would have been safer, but he really wanted to return to the forested shores of Frame Lake, to the trail he had run earlier in the year. He brushed aside the misgivings he had about taking the latter route, ignoring memories of tripping and slipping across the rocks which had already been icy in the autumn.
At a lakeside park, he turned right to run along a path in the snow which had been beaten flat by daytime pedestrians. This took him to the lake, where it met the edge of the forest.
He could feel the burn of the cold as it bit through his leggings and could sense the stiffness in the balaclava where his warm breath was condensing and freezing as it met the frigid air.
David’s heart beat a little faster as he merged with the forest shadows; it was darker than he had expected and the snow deeper. He ran for a few minutes before the path started its gentle climb up to the rocks. He began to loose his footing and slipped a few times, falling into the soft, cool snow.
How would anyone know where he was if he happened to fall and hurt himself? He tried not to think about all the things that could go wrong out here in the darkness, where no one would likely venture until the spring. He was all too aware that, though he was warming up now with the exertion, he would cool down quickly in these extreme temperatures if he had to stop for any reason.
The fabric of the balaclava kept shifting uncomfortably against his mouth and nose and he tried to make use of its frozen stiffness to bend it into a more yielding shape. As he did so, he tripped and fell into the snow. Standing to dust himself off, he bent his torso back to look at the sky. All he could see was the matted overhang of the trees.
The cold began to creep its way through the fibres of his clothes and he set off again, shaking out his ankle a bit as he did so. Had he pulled something when he had fallen? He hoped not. Just run it out, he thought, and he pressed on.
He must have taken a wrong turn in the woods, for he came out further along than he had planned. Before him in the darkness he could just make out the yawning pit of an old, abandoned mine. He was almost positive that the airport road was on the other side. It was a bit out of the way, but if he could make it to the road, he could follow that back into town.
Skirting the pit, he decided, would take too long and he hadn’t really wanted a long run this morning. Instead, he set off down the slope into the pit, thinking it would be faster to go through it than around it.
As he descended blindly over the rocks and lumps of earth hidden under the snow, he pulled again at the balaclava which kept twisting around and almost suffocating him. Though the material was stiffer now with frost, it still wouldn’t stay bent away from his mouth. Feeling slightly desperate and not wanting to stop again, he tried sticking his tongue out to hold the material away from his face, but in doing this he only succeeded in frosting the material to his tongue. Huffing warm air out through the space he had created, he pulled his cold tongue back into his mouth and concentrated instead on his descent.
He tried not to think of how rare it was for anyone to come to this pit these days. It had been abandoned to time, to the newer mines, and more recently, to the winter.
There wasn’t much else to do but stumble on, and so he did. Eventually, he reached the bottom, which he crossed quickly, and then began the ascent up the other side. This was harder going, as his shoes dislodged the loose debris that was scattered below the snow. At least going up the hill warmed him, and he eventually reached the top of the pit.
There, as he had expected, was the dark strip of black tarmac slicing through the white snow: the airport road. Relieved, he paused briefly to look back at the pit, wondering if perhaps it might have been faster after all to have gone around it. Turning away again, he set off through the snow toward the road.
Now that he was on flat, level ground and following a straight and sure trajectory back to town, his mind began to wander. He became aware of the shimmering sparkle of frost coating his eyelashes, the result of his warm breath escaping through the eyehole in his balaclava. He looked past them at the infinite dome full of stars arching overhead and stretching down on all sides to meet the horizon. He turned as he ran, taking in the great open vastness of the countryside which, he realized now that he was part of it, he had missed during the past few months back home.
David slowed to a walk in front of the hotel an hour and a half after starting out. He had only planned to run for forty minutes or so, but he felt good, better for having gone out into the elements.
On the bottom step, he unzipped his jacket pocket to pull out his room card. As he took hold of it, it shattered into shards between his fingers. He pulled them out and looked at them, smiling to think it was that cold. He’d have to ask the man at the desk for a replacement.
When he reached the top step, he pulled off his balaclava and hat. The icy air felt like a mask as it encrusted his face. His cropped hair crackled with frost as the perspiration and condensation froze instantly.
Fascinating, he thought, as he yanked open the door and was greeted, in contrast, by a gust of hot, dry air.
The night watchman had been replaced by the morning concierge, who was astonished to see someone materializing out of the early morning darkness. He couldn’t help but stare at this man who was fully encrusted in a layer of white, from the top of his pale head down over his black running clothes to his snow-covered shoes.
“Good morning!” he called across the lobby, in a tone that was a mix of surprise and concern.
David found his lips were tight with the cold, but he managed a greeting and then showed the man his key. “It shattered in the cold,” he explained.
The concierge’s eyes widened and he shook his head in wonder. “And you were out in that?” He had lived most of his life up in the north, and while the cold didn’t faze him, he didn’t think he would like to go out into it dressed like the man standing before him. He couldn’t quite imagine how you would stay warm in clothes that appeared to be so thin. Surely they would leave you exposed? “Weren’t you cold?” he asked.
“Only when I stopped,” David replied, before taking the new key and heading up to his room for a warm shower.
He felt revitalized, refreshed, and once again, full of wonder at the beauty of the wild north. He acknowledged to himself that it had probably been foolhardy to run through the woods and the abandoned mine, but he also knew that he would be out there again the following morning, and every other morning for the rest of the week.
He knew that he would miss it when he returned home, just as he would miss the sun’s honeyed glow as it skimmed along just above the horizon, and the way you could spend almost a full morning in pre-dawn darkness, before sunrise.