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Running Thousands of Miles in Search of Yourself


The story of the striving, first-generation kid made good is a familiar one; Álvarez makes his ache. He excels in honors classes and is aware from a young age of a yearning to free his mother from “the assault of the fruit industry.” To do so, he knows he must outrun his geography — a metaphor he comes to embrace literally when in high school he becomes a serious runner. “When the rhythms of working-class life cut inside me like broken beer glass, I run,” he writes. He wins a full scholarship to Whitman College in Walla Walla, but is thwarted by his own high expectations and shame about his upbringing. The dining hall presents a challenge, as does going to class and staying on top of assignments. Only while running does he feel solid in his skin.

At a conference, he learns about Peace and Dignity Journeys, a six-month-long quadrennial run through the whole of North America, in which “numerous and diverse Indigenous nations reunite and reclaim dignity for their families and communities.” Pacquiao, the calm young man in charge of the journey, speaks of running as “connective tissue,” “a form of prayer” that “renews our responsibility to community.”

Álvarez drops out of college to join the group, never more than a couple dozen runners, in one of its early stops in British Columbia, and the intricately threaded narrative about his family morphs into a journal of his travels — on foot, and also, at times, in the vans the runners use to transport themselves and their supplies in their relay-style race across the continent. As they go, they learn the different ways “the rain strikes, strums and plucks at our skins.” They run through mountainsides, forests, small towns and large urban blocks. When they are dropped off for a shift, they receive few instructions. “When in doubt, turn left,” is a motto. Food is scarce.

Sometimes Álvarez’s language seems vague and overly laden with the weight of his mission. (“People’s paths are unique, beautiful,” he notes to himself upon meeting a new recruit to the team.) At other times, it’s not clear how this epic run, with its attendant difficulties, relates to Álvarez’s desire to help his family. At one point, alone on the trail in Oregon, he meets a snarling mountain lion. At the last minute, recalling instructions from an older runner about surviving such encounters, he remembers to “thank the animal.” Moreover, some of the marathon’s leaders behave in ways that border on sadistic. The majority of the runners are recovering addicts or otherwise seeking redemption, and, like many of them, Álvarez believes in the transformative power of extreme sacrifice. “I run to follow as closely as I can the path of those who came before me,” he insists. “I run to find fragments of my own parents sprinkled over the earth.” When the group enters his home state of Washington after a month of running, he realizes he is “submerging myself in pain … so that I may control the turmoil within me.”

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