From the sky it looks like a puzzle piece, Presque Isle. The sort of piece that finds your hand first because it’s the most colorful, most distinguishable. It’s the one you want to begin with, fit the other pieces around. From high above, its jagged edges disappear into the blue water, and its magnificent green hues mix with soil brown and take your breath away.
There is so much to love about Presque Isle.
A bald eagle took my breath away there once as he soared along the shores of the bay. Three of us were lucky enough to witness his wide wings slowly and gracefully, rising and falling in flight. He was there and gone in an instant—a small, blessed piece added to each of our puzzles on a near-perfect morning.
I’ve logged over thirty years of Saturday mornings in the same manner. Running. Mostly on that little strip of land jutting into Lake Erie called Presque Isle State Park. And usually with my best running buddy, Robin. Runners have come and gone over the years, but Robin and I remain—a little slower, a little wiser, and, more profoundly, a little closer to gathering up all of our journey’s puzzle pieces and heading home.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” At a stone’s throw from sixty, I know the importance of the journey.
And that thirteen-mile stretch of road on Presque Isle State Park has been a big part of mine. Its contour is flat and lazy. Yet, there are times, bone-chilling mornings, when its frost and ice-bending trees hide the beauty within its edges, when woods and wildlife cower, but somehow I appreciate even its worst days with Robin and Heather and Carol and Laura and Jan at my side. Good friends and encouraging words firm up the slickest footing and most treacherous terrain. As we talk on those days when our breath fades into the air like puffs of icy powder floating away, we slip in and out of each other’s lives and forget the biting cold. Even in life’s most wickedly cold hours, the pieces snap warmly into place.
I buried a child on a cold February day. An infant. A little girl with a full head of hair that would be flowing over her shoulders by now if she had lived. For a long time afterwards it was hard to run at that park, nearly impossible to see its beauty. Yet every Saturday, my friends showed up and ran beside me, their shoulders so close to mine I could feel their warmth, their strength. They would not let me fall.
Life is precious. It’s sad to think of death on land so alive, and yet death, too, is a part of the journey.
So, occasionally when I run at Presque Isle, I reflect on my little angel or on other loved ones who have journeyed home, and my thoughts sometimes settle on a June Saturday in 2015. I began that morning as usual, congregating with other runners, leaning against my car, texting late friends, “Are you coming?” The mood was light. The conversation, jocular. I didn’t know my path was about to cross Death’s path once again. That Death would swoop down in front of me and claim another mother’s child.
He was seventeen years old, and seventeen is so much a child to someone finishing her sixth decade. My running buddies and I first saw him at the mouth of the Peninsula. A car sped by. He was a passenger inside. I don’t recall the exact time or the temperature or his face, but I remember the air was thick that morning. One runner mentioned the car’s erratic ride, but we began our run with hardly a thought of it. We were a mile or two down the road when we heard the crash, a half mile from the accident when the metallic smoke singed our nostrils.
A few minutes later, the scene was horrifically upon us. There was a cyclist standing near the car and two hunters came toward us, herding us away, saying we didn’t want to see inside. I remember the quiet anguish of the air. The stillness that fell on life. I will never forget that scene—that moment in time when the boy’s journey ended, when his path crossed other paths for the last time. A senseless car accident, metal against tree, and he was gone—a mere memory, one small but much-loved piece forever clicked into eternity’s puzzle.
I think of him whenever I pass his resting place. Pray for his family. Pray for my own children and my friends’ children, because on that little patch of road, I watched every mother’s fear come to life. I was ashamed that I knew her grief before she did. Hated that, really. His last piece falling to complete strangers.
Yet, one never knows how many lives they have touched until that final piece finds its place. I still take in the beauty of Presque Isle State Park, but I treasure the people who run beside me a little more now because of that child. He taught me that life is fleeting and that every encounter I have, no matter how brief, fits finely together with the others and shapes me.
Next Saturday, Robin and I will probably meet at Presque Isle. On that path of profound beauty, we’ll run alongside each other, placing one foot in front of the other until we finish our journey. We will talk about our families and the places we have been or the people we have met and the pieces we’ve gathered, because, like Hemingway, we know the journey is more important than the end.
And if our run becomes taxing and our legs heavy, we can remember that day we saw the eagle. Watched as his massive wings floated up and down in splendor. Took in his beauty as he sailed along the parkway. We can recall his flight toward the sky as he glided upward, soared, ascended like an angel flying home, and then gazed down at us as we journeyed up and down and over and around on winding path.
Yes, from above, the path looks unfettered and the journey amazingly clear, and Presque Isle, like a beautiful puzzle piece embedded in stark, jagged blue—and in me.
Cyndie “CJ” Zahner has lived in the Erie community her entire life. She is a retired grant writer/administrator and now writes fiction novels. She still spends Saturday mornings running with Robin, Heather, Jan, Carol, Laura, and LeAnn on Presque Isle State Park. She feels blessed to share a path with these women. Every year in June, she says a prayer for the boy who crossed their path on June 6th, 2015–as he traveled home. Follow Cyndie on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, BookBub, LinkedIn and purchase her books on Amazon. See her BookCircle Online interview here.