End of the Line: Ode to the Sky Steps in uncertain times

End of the Line: Ode to the Sky Steps in uncertain times
Max Owens - 04/09/2020

No one has ever asked me if I have a favorite Sky Step, but if they did, I would answer, without hesitation, #357. If you’re a frequent user of the Sky Steps – which snake up to the hill to Fort Lewis from 10th Street and 6th Avenue, you might know the one: It appears about two-thirds of the way up, just as the steps bend to the left before the first bench that overlooks town.

Maybe it’s a little silly to pick one step from over 500 to be my “favorite,” but whenever I round the bend and see the metal placard denoting 357 it always makes me feel good. Like many others, I occasionally run up and down the steps for fun and exercise and whatever, and by Step 357, I’m usually remembering just how out of shape I am. I’m basically there, I tell myself aloud, between heavy breaths. Three-fifty-seven is a chance to refocus my efforts and give it my all to the top. It reminds me that I can do it, that I am doing it.

But enough about lucky number 357, as I’m nearly three paragraphs in and I’ve yet to mention COVID-19, which is imperative. So let me say this: the Sky Steps, like nearly everything else, have changed as a result of the pandemic. There. And I would argue that in these uncertain times, they’re more crucial than ever.

I live in a house right at the base of the steps, and I’ve found that Sky Steppin’ (yep) makes a pretty great spectator sport. Lucky for me, because these days – and you know exactly what I mean by these days – I don’t have much to do but sit out on my lawn chair and watch the foot traffic go by.

As someone who now spends the majority of his waking hours people-watching at the base of the Sky Steps, here’s what I can report: 1) A surprising number of people can’t figure out how to open the trashcan at the bottom of my driveway to throw away their dog’s poop; 2) People are generally aware and respectful of the need for social distancing (and for those who step into others’ personal bubbles like there’s not a pandemic happening, I yell – or at least, think of yelling – “Hey! 6 feet, people!” Maybe I should get a whistle?); and 3) People have forgotten how to talk about anything not directly related to COVID-19. Or maybe they’ve just lost interest.

These days, the Sky Steps have something for everyone. They provide a respite from the inside world for all of us #stayathomers. The rec center may be closed, but we can still haul ourselves up those steps for some exercise. The public library may have shut its doors, but there’s still a tiny community library at the base of the  steps (and if you hurry, you could score a neat little cookbook called Absolutely Avocado s... just make sure you sanitize it before you bring it into your home).

From my perch on the porch or next to my living room window, I sip my morning coffee and take stock. I note that the students are gone, as are the tourists. Back in those carefree days of January and February, I reflect, I always enjoyed encountering the tourists. Huffing and puffing on their ascent, they would pause as I bounded past them in the other direction. “We gettin’ close?” they would wonder. “Closer every step!” I would cheerfully yell back to them over my shoulder, which probably was infuriating. Better than telling them they’re only on step 112 of 529, though.

Returning from my daydream, I notice that there are more runners than ever before. Sky Step runners were always a diverse breed, but this ... this I have never seen. Seems like everyone and their grandmother has decided that this really is the perfect time to get in shape. The old characters are still out there, like Ultrarunner Man (the fit, sinewy guy with the hydration pack and really fast sunglasses) and Casual Lumberjack, who powers out lap after lap in sweatpants, a sleeveless sweatshirt, and red bandana. But now they’re joined by a host of others I’ve never seen before.

Unfortunately, the desire to do more physical activity (and get in shape, for real) hasn’t made its way into my being, even though I have more free time than ever before. It’s OK though; I’ve read a couple of articles about why I shouldn’t fall victim to all of that coronavirus-inspired productivity. To do so, they say, would be to indulge delusion and denial.

Still, it’s impossible to live right next to the Sky Steps and not feel guilt when I know I should run but don’t want to. And all those people who finish their descent and immediately turn around to start running up again don’t help.

Neither does the loaf of banana bread next to me on the coffee table. I cower a little lower into the couch, lest Ultrarunner Man reappear and see me through the window, my mouth stuffed full. We’d lock eyes, and he would see right through my exterior and down to my lazy core: You know man, I live 4 miles away, and I still manage to run out here for some laps. And don’t you know? This is the perfect time to get in shape!

I swallow the lump of banana bread and cower even lower. Yeah, well, this isn’t going to eat itself. But he’s already gone, now on his 13th or 14th lap. I better finish the rest before he gets down again.

Even for the laziest of the lazy, though, there comes a point when you simply can’t sit in your lawn chair anymore. You’ve got to lace up your boots (or running shoes, as it were) and join them. Besides, Ultrarunner Man is right: most people don’t have the luxury of living as close as I do.

Still, I often wait to head up the steps until a special time of day, after the sun has set and most of the crowds have already walked or jogged back to their respective quarantine shelters. In the fading light of a gorgeous day – for COVID hasn’t changed the beauty of our town and its surroundings – I hit my stride, and lap after lap melts away. Soon, it’s too dark to see the metal placard denoting #357, but I know it’s there. And that’s enough.

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