That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval

In his forthcoming debut novel, Let the Wild Grasses Grow, Kase Johnstun reimagines the lives of his grandparents Della Chavez and John Cordova as they struggle through historic events—the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, WWII—yet remain rooted in the southern Colorado landscape of their childhood. In today’s That Thing With Feathers, Johnstun chronicles a red rock Utah landscape and a personal milestone in our current historic moment.

Three Runs in the Desert

by Kase Johnstun


Day One, Run One

January 26, 2021


I park my truck at the edge of the Cottonwood Trailhead, just off I-15, after my four-hour drive from Ogden, Utah, to Washington, Utah, an easy drive through the droughted, snow-covered mountains and valleys in the center of the state. We have had so little snow this year, and the new, lacey veil of white that covers the landscape gives me a slight bit of hope that we may get even more before winter ends.


We need it.

Framed by my windshield, a man hikes out of the red rock mounds of earth and across the white desert field toward me. He is done for the day. His truck sits alone in the parking lot next to mine, and I am dying to swap my driving shoes for my running shoes (ala Fred Rogers, like all runners), shake off the heavy feeling in my legs from hours of sitting, and run across that same snow-covered field into the navel of Cottonwood Canyon.


I am here this week to run, to bike, and to write, a COVID-19 solitary getaway to repair me, to hopefully give me the refresh I need to hunker down for another few months (optimistically speaking) and wait for my world—of teaching in the classroom, meeting friends to run and drink beer, and, most importantly, sitting next to my mom and dad and hugging them freely without fear that my trip to the grocery store will kill them—to return.


I run out into our southern desert of crimson red rock that hovers in contrast between white earth below and the silver and bright blue above. For a moment, when my heart begins to pump hard and when my lungs gasp for air, I live fully again without the worry of pandemic. A mile and a half later, I lose the trail in the recent snow.


But I do not care.


I stand in a dry creek bed between two ragged, red, and striated hills. My breath has come back to me. My heart has slowed. Clouds cover the sun. I am cold and hot at the same time, sweat chilling on my warm skin beneath my jacket and on my bare legs in the shade. I am completely alone in Utah’s wilderness, but this time, unlike the forced solitude of the global pandemic my family and I have embraced and grown horribly weary of, especially in the winter months of 2020 and 2021, I welcome it.


This is living.


I come here to be alone—and to be away from being alone.


Day Two, Run Two

January 27, 2021


I wake this morning knowing one thing: today, at 12:10 and 12:20, under the domed ceiling of the Dee Event Center in Ogden, Utah, a few hundred miles from where I wake in Washington, my parents will get a shot in the arm, the COVID-19 vaccine. This is the day my family has been waiting for, but I will not feel the relief of any of it until I know it is officially done.


After a morning of writing, lesson prep, and teaching online, I park my truck at the Grapevine Trailhead in search of the Church Rocks Loop a few miles off the road. It is cold again, with light flurries of snow sticking to my jacket.


But I do not care.


It is just past 11 a.m., and I hope to run the 5.2-mile loop in less than an hour so I will be back in the rented condo to monitor my phone when my parents join the vaccine crowd in the basketball arena, but I need the run to manage my anxiety, to tamp down the worry I have that something will happen and they will be turned away. This possibility, in this year, seems highly plausible in my mind.


Injury, like a physical emblem of 2020, plagued me over the last year. I only ran three out of the last twelve months. First, in late December of 2019, I yanked my knee on a run with my dog. It would take five months before I was able to run again, and I relished it like I had just been given my hand back after five months without it. I ran every day on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. And by July, my mileage had increased to running twenty-milers along the Wasatch Front. One marvelous morning, on mile nine, feeling strong and happy and joyous just when the sun peeked over Mount Ogden, I looked out at the city in prayer and thanks, and in that short moment I stepped on a rock wrong, ran directly on my ankle, and flew into a boulder. I barely made it off the mountain, sliding on my butt down the face to meet my wife. Like my body—with my body—the rest of my running year broke.

Today, the ankle hurts when I climb the first .7 miles up Grapevine, but the pain recedes with warmth. I follow my AllTrails map on my phone and move onto Prospector Loop and then climb again, this time on the single track of red dirt and fat-tire engravings. The winds are strong and cold, and I have yet to catch my breath fully when I find the Church Rocks Trailhead and descend into another red rock valley, just like the day before, and I feel my anxiety slide away like water on slickrock. I get lost a few times on the trail, but I find my way to Church Rocks after a number of rocky climbs and descents among the sagebrush and snow. I snap a lot of photos. My pace is slow.


But I do not care.


The loop turns and takes me back toward the trailhead. Halfway back, however, I get lost and my app loses signal in the crevice of giant rocks. I get flustered for a moment. I have to calm myself down, tell myself that I can easily trek over a couple hills to find the freeway if necessary or just turn around and go back the way I came. But there is always a moment of fear on a run when the trail fades and you feel like you’re in the middle of a desert, alone. I follow a trail to the top of a sage-covered hill and get signal again. I grab my phone from my pocket to see if the trails app will load. It turns out my gut instinct, something I’d honed from years without an app, pointed me in the right direction, and I am on the right path.


Right before I put the phone away and begin to run the two miles back to the car, a text comes in. It is a photo sent from my mom. There is a nurse next to my father. In her hand, she holds a needle, and his shirt has been lifted up to expose his arm beneath his shoulder. The skin is shiny from being wiped clean.


My wandering through the desert, losing the trail multiple times, has taken longer than I expected. But the universe is funny that way. On the top of a small hill, after I had just found my way back to the trail, I breathe out so heavily that my lungs have no more air. I do not want to be anywhere else on earth. Tears well up at the corners of my eyes. The wind, somehow, has stopped, and I take in a full, deep breath. This was the moment we have worked so hard to get to. All the distancing, all the sacrifices.


This moment.


My legs begin to move again. There are still two miles to run before I get back to my truck, and there are still months to go before we can get our own shots in our arms, but now I can see the trail ahead.


Day Three, Run Three

January 28, 2021


I find red dirt. The snow on the slopes and face of Snow Canyon, twenty miles across from me, shines bright on this fifty-degree morning. The world feels lighter. The mud cakes my treads, and I run up and down the rolling hills of Dino Cliffs Trail alone, looking forward to the moment when my wife and son will knock on the door later that day and share the world with me again—alone, together.

Kase Johnstun lives and writes in Ogden, Utah. His debut novel, Let the Wild Grasses Grow, is forthcoming in fall 2021 from Torrey House Press. Author of Beyond the Grip of Craniosynostosis and coeditor of Utah Reflections: Stories from the Wasatch Front, he teaches at the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, the Graduate School in Creative Writing for Southern New Hampshire University, Barton Community College, and Weber State University. His essay collection Tortillas for Honkies was a finalist for the Autumn House Press Nonfiction Award, and his work has been published in Label Me Latino/a, Creative Nonfiction, The Watershed Review, and elsewhere. He holds an MA in Creative Writing and Literature from Kansas State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. You can find him running on the trails of the Rocky Mountains along the face of the Wasatch Front.


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