Even at the idle hour of 2 a.m., the emptiness of the trailhead parking lot was jarring.
Over the past six weeks, I’d become expert at navigating trailhead gridlock, a minor annoyance exacerbated by social distancing as trail users in the Flathead Valley drive separately to engage in their active pursuits, maxing out parking lot capacity even as the trails themselves flow smoothly.
“At least people are going outside,” I lamely tell myself before departing a trailhead choked with cars and trucks, only to slip onto a ribbon of buffed-out single-track and hardly see another person for the next two hours.
As a runner who’s allergic to crowds and who seeks out the solitude of wooded trails on an almost daily basis, I’m cursed with a dual awareness that I am always contributing to the circumstances of my own aversion. In the infinity loop of that tortured logic, an empty parking lot is Shangri-La to me, but under these unique circumstances I was relieved when I saw a caravan of headlights pierce the dark chill of night.
One by one, the other runners killed their ignitions in the now-crowded parking lot and formed a semi-circle. At precisely 2 a.m., a chorus of digital chirps signaled that our watches were synced and we trotted down the trail, taking care to maintain six-foot distances between one another.
The plan was straightforward and motivated by a spirit of community — for every mile that users log on the Whitefish Trail system during the month of May, $1 will be donated in support of the nonprofit that maintains and protects the lands, the Whitefish Legacy Partners.
To kick off the fundraiser, a group of us decided to log five miles on a segment of the Whitefish Trail network — and then continue to do so every four hours for 24 hours, visiting a separate trailhead and running a unique route for each leg of the journey.
We’d share our efforts on social media and encourage others to do their part, ensuring the preservation of our beloved trails and furnishing protections on land facing heavy development pressures in the valley.
How hard could it be?
I soon found out when the alarm on my watch pinged at 5:30 a.m., rousing me from a nearly bulletproof catnap of less than 60 minutes. I drove sleepily to the next rendezvous and, with notably less chatter than our inaugural outing several hours earlier, we reconvened and began climbing steadily, if a little sluggishly, up the trail.
By the time we reached the turn-around point, the sun was bathing the larch in morning light and we’d begun to shed layers. The mood improved and the banter picked up and the day seemed full of possibility.
The rest of the day was perforated with high points and low points, but at 11 p.m. we finished our running just as we’d started it — standing in a semi-circle in the dark, our vehicles crowding the trailhead parking lot.
As much as I love to run alone, I cherished the company.