The Shenandoahs

November 26, 2018

I missed Vickie’s Death March, the 26-mile trail run in Shenandoah National Park put on by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club the day after Thanksgiving. The course weaves old Shenandoah trails with the Appalachian Trail, or AT, mixing deep-woods running with steep rock climbs bordered by thundering waterfalls. The Death March was beyond me this year, as I look forward to three medical appointments this week—maybe four. But last night’s rain stopped, the skies cleared, and Sandy and I drove out to the mountains. The point was to be there, to see those peaks, to breathe the air of Virginia’s wild country.

img_20181125_1243556321650006645513765300.jpgWe took U.S. 211 past Sperryville, a rough-edged little place that leads you into the park. I pointed out the trailheads, Buck Ridge and Pass Mountain, from which I started long slogs over the past five or so years, leading to the AT, Hazel Mountain, White Rocks, Hazel River, Sam’s Ridge, and other mountain trails. Some are popular with hikers. Others are too steep for most, or too technical, too suggestive of dangers of exhaustion, injury, or disorientation in the deep forest. Along some of them you recognize the ruins of stone structures erected by the people of the Shenandoahs before they were expelled in the early 1930s through eminent domain, condemnation, and eviction, as the federal government created the park.

Sandy nodded politely. As we crawled up 211 in the van, I wondered whether anyone was slogging those trails on this warm November day.

img_20181125_114242794_hdr4442747230145317125.jpgWe drove through the Thornton Gap entrance to Skyline Drive then headed south.  Sandy doesn’t like heights, and at some points the road brings you awfully close to the edge of the cliff. She stared straight ahead. Looking east, the Shenandoahs fade into the mesmerizing blueness that prompts the name “Blue Ridge.” Today the mountains are in their winter brown, tinged by sunlight. I could not look away.

The Death March crosses Skyline at Hawksbill Mountain, at over 4,000 feet the highest peak in the park. From Hawksbill runners jump on the AT to a commercial spot called Skyland, once a popular resort, now a welcome resting point, where until this past Friday you could get lunch. Today: closed for the season.

img_20181125_1101007891331286351028179881.jpgWe turned around at Skyland, which looks west towards West Virginia, 20 or so miles farther on. Skyline Drive northbound leads to the Stony Man overlook, that points to an eerie human profile gashed from the mountain.  We paused to gawk at overlooks as the road swings from the east to the west cliffs of the Blue Ridge.

I slowed down at the point where the AT meets the Nicholson Hollow trail, which takes you the final six miles back to the Death March finish. The trail passes the Corbin Cabin, a solid log structure in the thick of the forest that conveys (for me) an irrational sense of foreboding.

Skyline Drive levels out a bit beyond Thornton Gap and Sandy relaxed and took in the sights. On this less-forbidding stretch we saw more traffic, cyclists, and hikers. We passed another intersection with the AT, which takes you a tough eight miles to Elkwallow, a popular picnic spot. The Skyline continues to follow the AT, descending gently. Your nerves relax. The overlooks slide by: Hogback, Gimlet Ridge, Hogwallow Flats, Jenkins Gap, closing on the entrance just south of Front Royal.

Then you see it—Signal Knob overlook, but also the name of the dark peak that rises between Front Royal and Strasburg, ten miles west. That Signal Knob, the first (or final) stop on the Massanutten Trail, can be reached by a four-mile trail of knife-sharp prongs of pure granite. Don’t look up or away while attempting it.

Coming down from the Drive is an abrupt, jarring return from the grim beauty of that hundred-mile stretch of countless ancient peaks, gently rounded by millennia, that still promise to deliver men and women momentarily from the drudgery of the city, the suburb, the interstate, the cubicle, the doctor’s waiting room.

We go back to the Shenandoahs to discover in that misty blueness the resolve to overcome, or at least endure, what we face as our time races by: fear, pain, doubt. The peaks speak to us of challenges faced and others still to come. We feel the strength offered by those close to us. And then we feel the pure rush of joy that will come, that God gives us for a short time in the mountains.




November 19, 2018

“You are a rude, terrible person.”

“Good work by General Kelly for firing that dog!”

Who talks like that?

This is Thanksgiving week. Some Americans are thankful that, two years ago, we elected the source of these quotes as President of the United States. That’s one kind of thanksgiving.

But according to tradition, at this time we put aside our differences and express gratitude for the blessings we enjoy. We look about to find the good in our lives: the love of family and enduring relationships with friends, and through those things the happiness we hope to enjoy before we go to our Maker.

Yet every year some have to look harder than others to find those things. We see, every day in America, lives ravaged by tragedy: just last week in Paradise and Thousand Oaks, California; then in Pittsburgh, Mexico Beach, Florida, and elsewhere, only into the recent past. The British poet Matthew Arnold wrote this in Dover Beach:

“Ah love, let us be true to one another!                                                                                            For the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams,                                          So various, so beautiful, so new,                                                                                                    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,                                                                                  Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain …”

Dover Beach descends into a mood of bleak darkness. Arnold wrote it in 1867, a time of appalling poverty and suffering among England’s working people when, for many English, religious faith was replaced by cynicism and despair.

Reason for thanksgiving

The lesson of his words is an everyday truth: in every age, in every generation, in every life, good and evil impinge on each other. Thanksgiving comes to us as a happy legacy of the Puritans in Massachusetts sitting down to feast, first in 1621, with local tribesmen to celebrate the success of the growing season.  In 1777 the Continental Congress issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving calling for the acknowledgement of God’s beneficence, to be observed on a Thursday in November.  Presidents Washington, Adams, and Madison issued similar proclamations, and in 1863 President Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving shall be observed on the last Thursday of November.

Meanwhile, white settlers fought bloody wars with Cherokees, Seminoles, and later Apaches and Comanches; Southern planters enslaved blacks; Americans fought the Civil War, some  700,000 died.

Those presidential proclamations express sentiments that connote “Thanksgiving” the holiday as recognition of revered achievements of our history. It’s a national holiday, like the 4th of July, Memorial Day, and others.

Who should give thanks? Surely we excuse the victims of the devastating fires in California, the families of victims of mass shootings, those who endured the Gulf Coast hurricanes. And those suffering from cancer, schizophrenia, drug addiction, other ravages of the body and mind.  What about unskilled men and women with families laid off from minimum-wage jobs?

Yet we all have heard anecdotes of such people who, incredibly, express unique degrees of courage and resolve to triumph over the crises they endure. In nearly every case, they thank others.

We know, instinctively, that thanksgiving has to do with tangible things that evoke ideas and beliefs that matter. Why does a wife thank her husband for bringing her flowers? Not for the flowers. In the same way, why do parents thank God for their childrens’ good health? They love the children but meanwhile they are grateful for the gift—God’s beneficence—which the children represent.

That speaks to a subtle nuance in Christian thought: what is real consists of matter and form. What counts for the wife isn’t the flowers (matter). It’s the form (the love they express). And what’s important about the form is that it’s directed at another.

We enjoy the Thanksgiving turkey, the visiting, and Black Friday at the mall or now, in front of the laptop. Some of us pay attention to proclamations from by the president or the local Grand Poohbah. Some of us go for blessings at church, synagogue, etc.

That’s Thanksgiving the start of “holiday season,” to be followed by bills, too much food, too much traffic, and finally, the mystery of Christmas.

Thanksgiving, the third Thursday of November, does serve a purpose. It can be taken as an invitation to ask and answer that question: am I thankful? For some, the answers are cheerfully natural. “Sure we are,” they answer. Or maybe “Things are basically OK.” Or  “Well, considering the alternative.”

Part of the answer is another question: Thankful to whom? God, we may say, but he always has an agent. Gratitude must have a direct object: Our lives make sense when we connect as human persons, when we recognize others in our lives. Arnold, again, in his Victorian wisdom, recognized this with, “Ah love, let us be true to one another.”

So, thanksgiving (lower case “t”) calls us to ask ourselves if at times we’ve ignored the obvious—the people–who make our lives worthwhile. Most of the answers are mixed. None of us are absolutely content with things as they are. We’d change this, work on that. But we have an idea of what would make us thankful. If we’re honest, we acknowledge that it involves others. Husbands don’t buy flowers for themselves.



November 12, 2018

I got an email from one of the teachers with the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program conducted at a nearby parish, seeking a substitute for last Monday’s two-hour Intermediate II-level class. I taught in the Arlington Diocese Catholic Charities ESOL for three years after I quit working. I stepped away from it a year ago, but stayed on the substitute list.

ESOL textbook

I didn’t have anything pressing Monday, so I said I’d take the class. The teacher sent me her lesson plan. She then added a jarring note: only one student had attended recent classes.

I got to the classroom, at the parish school. I leaned against the door frame, waiting, and chatted with the woman who teaches the Beginner course in the next classroom, as her five or six students trickled in. I looked at my watch, 7:10.

At 7:20 Maria showed up, apologizing. She rides a local bus, which was stuck in heavy traffic today, as it is every day. I introduced myself—the substitute. She smiled, adding that she’s been the only student for a couple of weeks.

I gave her some textbook exercises, practice forming the future tense in simple sentences. She answered them all correctly. I added a few on the whiteboard. She got them all right, too. Grammar isn’t why she’s here. The next exercise is more practical: open-ended questions to prompt conversation. She mentioned her two daughters, both with college degrees, who are urging her to buy a laptop. Her pronunciation is passable, but with an accent she’ll never lose. Like the accents of my Appalachian-South relatives.

Maria isn’t a typical ESOL student. Most are new to this country, most are young and struggling. Her English comprehension reflects her 30 years in the U.S., allowing for life in a Hispanic community that defaults to Spanish out of familiarity or cultural loyalty.

One student—seems to undermine the argument of advocates of a compassionate immigration policy that Hispanic people are working hard to equip themselves for life in the U.S. But in the final weeks of my classes, attendance typically dropped from 15 to 20 students to between five to 10, sometimes fewer. This class went the same way.

Why the gap between the theory and the real? Because life intrudes. In my three years of teaching I guess I saw a couple of hundred immigrant adults resolutely sign up for English classes. For the first few weeks they show up with their new textbooks, dictionaries, and pencils. They thank me for the free notepads I hand out.

Then things happen. Some students have young kids who get sick. Many work long hours at exhausting low-level jobs, often far from home. They drive old cars that break down. Like the rest of us, they battle rush-hour gridlock. For some, the sense of being an outsider in a sometimes cruelly prejudiced work culture is a soul-wrenching grind. That over-the-horizon goal—a better job, the confidence that comes with language skills—can seem unreachable. And some fall away from class, maybe only for a semester; others retreat into nearly closed communities of those from their native place who for many reasons never assimilate. Some are deported.

ESOL doesn’t ask students about immigration status. Some are illegal, a challenge for the Catholic Charities lawyers. Others struggle alone to comply with the opaque procedures for obtaining a green card.

Many persevere. They finish their courses, move to better jobs and greater personal and community stature. And who are the immigrants? Unless your ancestors lived in tepees and huts on the plains and in the forests of North America, you’re descended from them. Your name may be Gates or Jobs or Bezos or Trump, but you came from immigrants. Those border arrest and detention statistics that alarm some of us also should prompt one contrarian thought: millions came from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, China, elsewhere. They became us—you and me.

ESOL doesn’t rationalize illegal border crossing or take sides in the grim politics of immigration. But while the feds threaten to deploy 15,000 Army personnel to face 4,000 hungry women and children hoping to seek legal asylum, ESOL and similar programs nationwide offer a solution to this human crisis—language and communication skills, the foundation of education, employment, and, ultimately, pride in being American.


At Prince William

November 5, 2018

Alex met me at the strip mall parking lot along Route 234 in Montclair about noon. It’s a popular spot for jumping off to run Prince William Forest Park trails. Across the highway is the intersection with a fire road that, about half-mile southbound into the park, becomes Burma Road.

We trotted across 234 then onto Burma, set our watches, and Alex took off, as he always does. He’s got 11 finishes in the Hawaii Ultrarunning Team (HURT) 100-miler as well as multiple finishes in such races as the Fat Dog 120-miler in British Columbia, Cruel Jewel 100 in Georgia, Massanutten Mountain 100, an exotic ultra in northern Greece, and others. I like to say that’s because he’s 20 years younger than me.

The photo below shows Alex and another friend, Amir, who runs with us when he’s in town.

The first half-mile down Burma is level and easy. You can then cross a footbridge over Quantico Creek to pick up the North Valley Trail, which in five miles takes you around to a spur up to the park visitor’s center. Or stay on Burma, which climbs gently for a little less than a mile to an intersection with a paved road, Scenic Drive, the main route through the park.

Today we stay on Burma and continue south on Taylor Farm Road, still an easy trail with a few rolls to it. Alex by now is a dot. I’m starting to feel loose. I don’t have those fast-twitch quads, so I take a while to get up steam. But I’m working on my stride, figuring out whether to extend to move a little faster, or pace myself to have some moxie for the return.

In a little less than a mile on Taylor Farm we turn west onto Old Black Top Road, the crossbar of a T-shaped course that would give us a modest seven miles. These are no

Alex & me with Amir

mountain trails, but I know my conditioning is shot. The road trip Sandy and I took (earlier posts), interrupted by doctor’s meetings and biopsies, meant almost no running for close to eight weeks.

Old Black Top, still a fire road, is a nice piece of trail, especially today. A mild breeze sweeps yellow and red oak and maple leaves onto the soft surface as I move at my codger’s pace. I feel a little thickness in my chest, the penalty for being out of shape. Or it could have something to do with whatever I’ve got growing in there.

Still, I feel great. For those who do it, moving smoothly along a woodland trail is an exquisite, spiritual pleasure. Most of my trail running is solitary, either because I usually go when others can’t get away or, in organized events, I fall behind the field. I like it that way. The silence of the woods, broken only by footfalls, is the reward.

Sandy gets nervous when I’m out by myself,  worried about me falling, getting lost, or attacked by a bear. On solitary runs on rugged Massanutten trails, just south of Front Royal, I’ve heard my cellphone buzzing as she futilely sends messages where no cell signal reaches. But the forest is a chapel, the trail the center aisle, the solitude transcendent.  Some of those treks have taken me six hburma road photo4820000116587515953..jpgours plus three hours’ drive time. I guess I’m done with all that.

Old Black Top takes you around a couple of bends and up gentle climbs. The “T” course gives you the up-tempo cardio that in theory reinforces the strength-building of long mountain slogs in the Shenandoahs, the Massanuttens, or on the Appalachian Trail, that serious trail runners need. In theory. Still, the fire-road trails demand more energy than running neighborhood streets. And today I feel the extra drain on my stamina, what stamina I’ve got left, even at the slower pace.

I recall feeling the same back in the spring, when I resumed running after laying off for six weeks to recover from three days in the hospital in late February. I landed there after finishing a long mountain trail event, down with rhabdomyolysis or “rhabdo,” caused by muscle waste inflaming the kidneys.  But I bounced back quickly and hustled to get ready for the Cruel Jewel 100-miler, a tough run in northeastern Georgia in May. I got 80 miles at CJ and felt good about it.

Today I can tell I haven’t bounced back. I ease off my pace, shorten my stride, work on breathing. I recall how good it felt when back in June, only four months ago, I finished a 50-mile night race on these same trails and was ready to go again within days.

The westbound cross of the “T” is a mile out and back, so I meet Alex streaking past after he makes his turn, we yell encouragement. I steam on, make one more turn and see the concrete marker for the Oak Ridge Trail. Passing the marker, you’re as good as finished with the “out” part of Old Black Top.

I make the turn, feeling good. On the return the trail dips slightly and I lengthen my stride, feeling a breeze as I pick up the pace. It’s a fast mile back to the intersection and I push hard past it, then head east toward the Turkey Run campground. I feel the chest thing still nagging. There’s Alex again, heading back now, half-mile ahead of me. We high-five and he’s gone, and—I admit it—I slow down. We’re not racing, after all.

In a way, we are, or I am. I need this slog. I’m moving well, the woods is flowing by, the trail a hazy vision through brilliant fall colors. The not-so-secret truth about these things: keep moving, never stop. A sudden spasm of pain rises from my stomach. I slug some water, then slug more. I wheeze a bit and let up. I’m back on the downside of Burma Road, heading for the bridge. From there, two more turns and a gentle climb to the gate at 234.

When I ran tough trails three or four times each week I flew over these fire roads. Things are different now. Highly unlikely I’ll be attempting Cruel Jewel’s Dragon Spine next May, as I hoped to just a couple of months ago. That’s tough on my ego. But it’s a dose of brute reality. After all, the joy of existence is in recognizing its nature, and its creation. That is, recognizing God’s defiant presence in our lives, whatever our lives mean to us, maybe in a sudden flash of understanding, maybe on a forest trail, somewhere, anywhere.

I see the 234 gate coming to me. Another small finish, another task completed. I settle into a slow, then a still-slower jog, savoring the physical rush, but then taking in the lesson hidden in the quiet of the woods: keep moving, never stop—persevere, face the pain and doubt, complete the mission, reach the trail’s end.