Yi Shun Lai


     They called it “Squaremont,” and they called me a “townie,” but I didn’t know enough to be insulted.

     At college, in a small, eucalyptus-scented, no-man’s-land bordered by a quarry pit and a considerably more venerable institution, I was less than a mile from where I went to high school and about a half-mile from where I went to elementary school.

    At college, they asked questions a local should know, and I answered like a newcomer. I grew up in a deliberate fog of commerce and consumption: Malls and modeling school; Range Rovers and baby Bimmers in the high school parking lot, with my parents’ Merc or Lexus crouched among them.

     My classmates wanted to know where to go mountain biking; where the best hiking trails were; where they could, as minors, buy beer.
I didn’t know.

     One day at track practice, I was bundled into a van and driven up the hill to the local mountain, where I’d only been to ski once over a decade and a half of residence. (Far more mountainous pastures could be found two hours to the east, and an outlet mall was on the way.)

     Practice was hard that day. The constant elevation was grueling. I never knew such a hill could be found there. And yet, I remember it just barely.

    A scant six months later, some college friends and I took to the mountain again, this time for a day-long backpacking trip. I was way out of my element, struggling to look confident in my off-market hiking boots. My trailmates stood loose and strong as they slid down a hillside made entirely of scree, and I fought to control my limbs and my panic.

     That day, too, zipped quickly out of memory.

    But it must have made a difference: Over the ensuing years, I logged countless miles in other states and countries, from Paris to Maine and Taipei, and ran races on the trails of New York City and the streets of Washington, D.C. I rode my bicycle across Montana, and from Boston to New York.

     And then, one day, on a bi-annual visit back to Squaremont from my new home on the east coast, I laced up my tired running shoes and went for a run. On a lark, I followed some buried memory up a long asphalt hill and around a gentle banking right hand turn, and a muscular memory took over.

     My legs turned over and over, and the lactic acid beginning to pool in my calves and quads reminded me I’d been there before. But where? I breathed deeply of eucalyptus and cedar; had to refrain from slowing down to touch the firm paddles of the succulents growing by my feet, although I’d never noticed them before.

     I ran my palm through tall laurel bushes as I passed them, relishing the whip and snap of branches against my skin; ground pink and black peppercorns under my feet and regretted not taking more time to smell them as I left them. Soft, unruly groundcover spilled onto the sidewalk from otherwise well manicured yards, and I remembered the wild strawberries that passed for groundcover in my own childhood backyard and stepped gingerly through it, although I had no real way of knowing if there were strawberries in it or not.

     Just across the street, the black markings of a wildfire added insult to injury—I could smell the burned onion grass and sage, although the thing had happened months before this particular jog.

     I stepped into a deep wide swath of gravel, the chosen material for someone’s new driveway, and my ankles wobbled with the mostly forgotten memory of loose scree in my boots.

     My legs took me to the false top of the hill, and I jogged in place there for a moment. I could choose to continue up the hill, or I could make the right-hand turn, downhill, and make it an easy loop back home.

     Either way, it didn’t matter. It was all new territory.