The Trail

April 1, 2019

Dave picked me up at 3:00 AM and we headed for the Massanutten Mountains in western Virginia. We jumped on Prince William Parkway to I-66, then at Front Royal turned west on U.S. 55 to Fort Valley Road, which descends south through a vaguely bordered region called Fort Valley. We talked a bit. I nodded off until I heard a screech of brakes as Dave swerved to avoid hitting three deer on that dark, winding mountain road.

Dave was acting as race director or, as he says, “run manager” for the third training run (35 miles) intended to help prepare trail runners for the Massanutten Mountain 100-mile run (MMT) in May. Dave, himself a hardcore trail runner, arranges three of the training events, which he insists are noncompetitive runs, not races. We kept the times to keep track of the runners.

Run manager Dave

We reached the start, at a horse-parking lot at Camp Roosevelt, 25 miles south of Front Royal about 5:00. About 20 cars already had arrived, the runners mostly asleep. We waited a bit, then Dave and Tom, a longtime friend and a tough-as-nails veteran of these things, took charge of moving about 20 more cars into the tight parking space. Dave checked in the 55 runners. They wandered forward, a sea of headlamps. He barked some directions. In the darkness they flowed out of the lot and up the Massanutten Trail.

The northern segment of the Massanuttens, although only about 90 miles west of D.C., is an alien place. Casual hikers and picnickers mostly stick to nearby Shenandoah National Park, with its well-kept trails and comfortable picnic areas along the popular Skyline Drive. You don’t see families out for a fun woodland experience on the Massanutten trails—occasionally a few campers and hikers, maybe.

img_20190330_121237485_hdr2244592147017866575.jpgThe northern segment consists of two 100-mile-long ridges over which winds the thickly forested 71-mile Massanutten Trail, an oval-shaped north-south loop marked by orange blazes on trees, blocked in places by boulders and tree falls, and carpeted with razor-sharp rocks that tear skin and break bones. A southern extension loops 10 miles south of U.S. 211.

The Trail is the primary course for the MMT and other trail-running events, when these unique people, trail runners, slog up high ridges at remote places called Duncan Hollow, Kern Mountain, and Bird Knob.

Tom, Larry

Three years ago I snapped my ankle three miles out on this same event. Stepped on a wet rock and heard it crack as I went down. A big guy, another Dave, gave up his place in the run and in two hours hauled me back to the start. I drove home, then headed to the ER for X-rays.

The Virginia Happy Trails group has its greyhounds who can cover 100 miles in 18 hours. But most of the people in this late March event are not elite athletes. They’re men and women who resolve, for their own reasons, to attack these brutal trails, tramp over the endless rocks, climb thousands of feet of elevation, fall, get up, and move forward. Why? Desire for physical fitness doesn’t capture it. Closer: the determination, somewhere in their hearts, to confront a forbidding, unique, dangerous challenge, and succeed.


Dave, Tom, and another volunteer, Larry, and I stopped in Luray for breakfast, then headed to the Massanutten Visitor’s Center to set up the first of two aid stations, at roughly the 13-mile point. Trail-running guru Quatro joined us to work the station. Around 9:00 the fast guys came through, paused briefly for Gatorade and cookies, then headed up to Bird Knob, the highest point on the MMT course. Over the next 90 minutes the rest of the pack arrived, glad to see the aid station. A few dropped and cut the course short, most headed out to start climbing.

img_20190330_1212290041828914410614650871.jpgThey’re all “trail runners,” although much of the trail is too steep and rocky for running. The climbs up Bird Knob, Waterfall, Kern, and others: Habron, Signal Knob, and Short Mountain, take short step after short step in “granny gear,” making for 15- to 20-minute miles. Thighs, hamstrings, calves throb. Shoulders and backs ache from bending forward, water and mud leak into shoes where rushing creeks threaten runners’ balance. Hunger and exhaustion creep in, miles from aid stations. Limbs chafe where straps meet skin. Perception and brain function get fuzzy. The thought of one more banana or energy bar prompts nausea.

It’s possible to get seriously lost in the thick Massanutten forest. The trail is marked only by the tree blazes, which are easy to miss. Runners sometimes take crossing trails and disappear for hours, in the winter risking howling winds and temperatures in the 20s or below. Cellphones don’t work for most of the trail.

At around 11:00 we broke down the aid station and set up another, at the 24-mile point, at the junction of the toughest part of the course. Another volunteer, Tim, brought his gas grill and made quesadillas. The fast people came and went.  Then it got slow. The temperature rose into the seventies and beat runners down. Intervals between runners got longer, most showed the strain as they slogged in, some bent with exhaustion. They plodded on, ten miles to go. Then another long gap. Three runners out. When they showed up they were done, happy to take a lift to the finish.

There, back at Roosevelt—victory. Arriving runners shed their packs, sat, savored the achievement. This 35-mile stretch is MMT’s toughest. They had overcome it. They trickled in from the road, walking, then breaking into jogs when they saw the crowd. Time for refreshments, maybe a cocktail, time for stories, plans, first aid applied to cuts and bruises. For most, another bad one in the books. Dave’s “Chocolate Bunny” all-night run is coming up next month.

In the Fast Lane

March 25, 2019

Our TV weathermen have started their annual happytalk about the cherry blossoms, the ritualistic late-March deliberations about when they’re going to be in full bloom around the Tidal Basin—or not. It may be later this year. No wait—some of the trees have already bloomed, that sort of thing. Same every year. I went 20 years ago, that was enough.

Not to be grumpy, I was looking for real signs of good news, and got some: the last radiation session on Monday, recognized by the staff with a little pin and a rubber bracelet engraved “Survivor.” Had lunch with friend Alex (see this blog, Nov. 4, 2018), we talked about the chance I might join him for a jaunt out to the Shenandoahs—hiking, not running. The key word is “might.” Also, a highlight: the kids came up from S.C., Marie, Mike, grandsons  Noah and Patrick, our oldest daughter Laura. We visited and talked. Mike and I took the boys to the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, always a treat.

Noah at National Museum of the Marine Corps 

I did finish (for now) an acrylic of a Shenandoah mountain scene looking east, after hours working to get right that mysterious blue-white mist that wells up between those gentle peaks. Problem for me is the depth, it looks whiter closer in, or is that my imagination? Still, time well spent. Beats complaining.

Friends have checked in. Dan, a tough, standup Happy Trails guy whose wife fought off cancer and knows the drill I’m marching to, invited me for a mountain run with him. Dave, another friend, is taking me with him to help out at next Saturday’s Massanutten 50K (kilometer) run, my first time working this one after running it four or five times.

I’m struggling a little with aftereffects of treatment, but staying upbeat. We got a hint of spring, not every day was bitingly raw and damp. Still, most days are indoor days, and with no longer a doctor’s schedule to keep, time is available to think about and focus on the future, some of which is about changing the scenery, sure, but in the real world, the here and now.

For years, our obsession was old-age security. We attended enough financial planning sessions, or watched them on TV, to be seriously scared at the prospect of a senior “lifestyle” consisting of a cramped apartment, crushing medical bills, soup and beans every night, then being corralled into a barebones gray-walled nursing home run by neo-Nazi attendants.  A couple of medical close calls for both of us added to that: Sandy’s heart, my rhabdomyolesis last year.

We came within an inch of slashing our life policy to pay for long-term care insurance,  which I was convinced we had to have. It only takes one insurance company briefing to truly scare you about growing old: outliving your savings, developing nightmare health problems like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, the ones in the TV ads, then being forced to spend yourselves into poverty to qualify for Medicaid. Then Sandy was laid off. We junked the long-term care idea. The fallback is to “self-insure.”

Things are different now. We’re not richer. But close calls concentrate the mind, as the cliché goes. Our benchmarks on the future have changed. It now seems ridiculous to listen to those brokerage commercials that project we’re both going to live into our mid-eighties and then how important it is to have a “nest egg” put away for our nineties. My insurance policy won’t mature ‘til I’m around 100. Come on.

So having gone through all these medical appointments and paid all those bills (with help from insurance) we’re freer, in our heads, anyway, than we have been in years. What would we like to do? Travel—isn’t that what we should do? Well, where do people like us go? London, Paris, Rome? Hawaii, Hong Kong?

Laura, our oldest, spent a summer in Russia, later hiked to Macho Picchu. Our son Michael and daughter-in-law Caroline have been to New Zealand twice. Middle daughter Marie spent a year of college in Ireland, a month in Japan, then visited the U.K. many times. Kathleen, the youngest, went to Hawaii, Europe, Guatemala, and camped all over the Western states.

We’ve never done any of that. Sandy’s idea is to fly to Utah and see the five national parks there. I’d like get back to Texas and Florida. Then drive to Baxter State Park in Maine and climb Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Then drive south through New England, stop at St. Anselm’s in New Hampshire, a friend’s place in Connecticut, then ferry over to Long Island and visit a bunch of cousins there.

We then have Sandy’s nephew’s wedding in Georgia in September and a cousin’s wedding in Virginia Beach. Life in the fast lane for Ed and Sandy. We get around.

Hard Questions

March 18, 2019

On Wednesday we walked the Burke Lake trail. A 4.5-mile loop that circumvents the lake just off Rte. 123 in Fairfax, it’s a flat, well-manicured trail popular with runners, bikers, and walkers with or without dogs. I’ve run it many times with the THuGs.

I thought it would be a good way to get some fresh air and exercise, since I haven’t had much of either lately. Sandy was up for it, and she’s more of a walker than a runner. Doing something rather than nothing always is positive. And we’re trying, these days, to stay positive.

The trail started out dry, but after the first mile we found muddy water, and much of the last three miles meant skipping around it or through it. Not a dealbreaker, but the mud did remind that we’re still slogging, literally, out of a raw, nasty winter that has taught that life is fragile. More than that, a few hiccups in your formerly robust health can give you a case of what I call the “poor-mees.” You find yourself wondering what you’ve accomplished of value as the years flew by, and if you’re honest, maybe you’re not so happy with your score. And you wonder why.

img_20181029_1336102121112026330501721638.jpgThe outdoors does that for me. The Burke Lake trail wouldn’t appear on anyone’s list of the most thought-provoking, creativity-inspiring places. It’s just a mitten-shaped lake and a trail for people who live mostly in subdivisions. For serious hikers, the degree of difficulty is about one in ten. We finished, gasping a little, but happy for doing it.

That was Wednesday. Thursday the mass shooting at the mosques in New Zealand occurred, with all the features of these slaughters that still horrify but no longer surprise: automatic weapons. Tactical clothing. Video, live-streamed on social media platforms. Eloquent condemnations by most world leaders. And this time a “manifesto” that credited President Trump as a “symbol of white identity and common purpose.”

Because the killer’s words were so unhinged and paranoid, and yet carefully prepared, the predominant response to his announcement of his hatred for Muslims and non-European peoples was not only outraged horror, but also warnings about the growth of right-wing terror. Such warnings have been making the rounds even before Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comment about the Charlottesville riot of August 2017.

His moral equivalence following that event set the tone for the popular response to it, and now to Christchurch: shock, outrage, but also resignation that it will happen again. Elizabeth Bruenig, in The Washington Post, went further, fixing on the nature of evil, neutering it, somehow, with abstraction: “evil is unreflective, shallow, empty … it never really perceives itself, though it always considers itself an exacting and scrupulous judge of others,” she wrote.

In an early February piece she suggested that “the nature and essence of being an individual—what we’re really like, whether we’re really good or evil or suspended somewhere in between—goes largely unexamined.” She resurrects the case of serial killer Theodore Bundy, a rapacious murderer who also impressed as charming and shrewd.

But this turns evil into what? A character trait, maybe, that individuals may choose to indulge. In the February column she cites actor Liam Neeson, who revealed that at one time he looked for a black man to murder to avenge the rape of a friend, then suddenly came to his senses.

The problem of evil leads us back, once again, to the problem of the existence of God, with the perennial question: if there is a God, why does he permit evil? It’s the question asked, to name just one case, by the widows and widowers of 9/11 who stopped believing after they lost their spouses.

The Christian understanding may be the simplest: if we conceive of perfection, then evil also must exist. We know the “good” if we recognize its absence. In the Christian coda, God alone is perfect. It then follows that all else is imperfect, in an infinite series of degrees, e.g., from St. Francis of Assisi to Hitler. All men are flawed, corruptible: some people pilfer office supplies at work, others commit mass murder.

Sure, we all recognize that “nobody’s perfect.” And to credit “goodness” as a counterweight to the existence of evil seems neutral, banal. We need to feel anger, outrage, fury, at the existence of Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the Christchurch killer. To isolate evil as a kind of quirk, an indulgence, a bad habit, is to represent it as distinct from human nature, which is impossible—for example, to wonder whether if he had had a better education or better parents he wouldn’t have killed those people. And we know it will happen again, because we acknowledge that good in man’s nature foreshadows and coexists with evil. Where we ourselves reside on that infinite chain from sainthood to someone like Tarrant is forever a mystery.

The Burke Lake trail was unusually empty Wednesday, as we navigated the mud, our minds led to distant places, resigned to more challenges and choices in months ahead. Thursday came and summoned agonizing questions that all of us, once again, struggle to answer.

In the News this Week …

March 11, 2019

In this first week of March we observed Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. The evening of that solemn day we leaped to the CBS Evening News lead story on R. Kelly, a singer charged with 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse. For three consecutive nights, at least, the newscast showed the guy, while being interviewed, angrily denying it all while stomping around the room.

Am I the only one in America who had never heard of him?

In the same way I admit now to never having heard of another fellow whose face filled the evening news for more than a week, Jussie Smollett, the actor who has been charged in Chicago with filing a false police report about being assaulted by racists in the middle of the night.

The news show producers only have so many minutes in which they can cram stories, and the rules for organizing them to hold the viewer (or in the case of print news, the reader) haven’t changed: go with the gripping, attention-grabbing headline.

It wasn’t just CBS, these stories were everywhere. Is everyone else in the audience hipper, more tuned in than me? Is my cultural aptitude that stunted? Having just exited my 60s last week after the standard 10-year term, I know I’m in the advertising demographic trash heap. But the evening news is what “we” watch, based on the commercials for chemotherapy aids, bladder control, COPD support and similar stuff. I don’t enjoy them any more than the thirty-somethings. They may not watch the evening news, but they know about Kelly and Smollett.

Not to perseverate, but I didn’t lose sleep over my ignorance of these fellows and the trouble they found themselves in. Nor did anyone else I know. But watching the reports (until I changed channels) reminded me of the wide gap, at this moment, between my priorities, and the priorities of those whose cultural beacons are tuned to the Kelly/Smollett frequency.

img_20181125_121008511-27402437319582304364.jpgBy week two of radiation/chemo, we settled into the 8:15 schedule. The Monday through Friday visits to the radiology oncologist’s office became a ritual, like work used to be. The three young techs who run the operation run it as a friendly assembly line. The 8:00 AM patient leaves the lead-lined treatment room, we say hello, I go in. The techs ask me, every day, my name, birthdate, and the area being treated—a certification requirement.

They line me up with the laser markers crisscrossing my chest. The linear accelerometer starts spinning. I feel nothing. Six weeks after the first session I have a circle of sunburn on my chest and another on my back—the radiation passes through the body—and an internal burn on my esophagus, which is directly in front of the tumor and has been dried to the texture of a prune. Morphine helps.

Before I found myself in this fix, I knew nothing and understood nothing of the lives of others who face it every day, every moment. The silent faces of those sitting in the oncology waiting rooms reveal a mix of fear, resignation, and acceptance. They typically resemble me: late sixties and older, but not exclusively. My partners in the chemo pen range from early thirties to way up there, of a diverse mix of ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds: old white guys with Irish surnames to young black, Hispanic, and Muslim women, and everything in between.

The staff people are great, as they usually are in those professions. The nearby hospitals offer dozens of support groups, which I haven’t explored (Yoga for Cancer looks interesting). We met with a bright, caring social worker who loaded us down with brochures, way different from those we picked up at the Sunny Retirement trade show at Tyson’s last week.

What I’ve learned, too, is that my group here in Woodbridge, Va., cared for by one field office of an oncology practice with a dozen facilities in northern Virginia, is only a tiny cell in a population of millions of cancer patients across the country.

I’m betting that not many of my fellow patients are paying much attention to the problems of R. Kelly and Jussie Smollett. They may not even watch the evening news. They most likely do know, or appreciate, that roughly a half-million people die of cancer of all types each year in the U.S., mostly because their disease wasn’t detected in time for treatment to be effective.

I don’t mean to pile on CBS or the other popular media. They do report health-care news, mostly if it’s fast-breaking, like a flu epidemic or other wide-appeal stories which, again, is the bottom line in news. But never, ever will you see three straight days of lead-story coverage of the lives of cancer patients. Fact is, the patients don’t care. They’re more likely to be preparing for Lent.


March 4, 2019

We did it again. Getting those tickets in the mail to the “Ideal Living” expo, this year at the Ritz-Carlton near the Tyson’s Corner business ghetto in McLean, Va., was all it took. We battled Beltway traffic to tramp through the hotel conference center snapping up brochures, flyers, booklets, and catalogues about “55+” planned communities all over the Southeast.

At first we couldn’t find the place, Tyson’s is that disorienting to folks who never go near it. We ended up parking in front of the going-out-of-business Macy’s and trudging a half-mile through that giant mall, asking directions three or four times, before we found it.

img_20190303_1307079194752494824812781244.jpgWe got in line with the other sixties-something couples to recite our contact info to a guy at a laptop, that to make it easier for them to nail us with emails and phone calls for the coming year. Then we grabbed a canvas sack to stuff our winnings in. Entering the hall we saw a big sign for Currahee, which is in Toccoa, Georgia, accompanied by a giant photo of a golf course and hawking homes “from the mid-$300s to $1M.” We skulked on, passing The Landings, Savannah, flogging “coastal living, Savanah’s charm.”

We pushed on. The show highlighted the Southeastern states, but Delaware slipped in early with Bayside, in Selbyville, again “homes mid-$300s to $1M” and a booth-length shot of people kayaking a huge body of water (the ocean?). The aisles jammed with booths and other middle-aged couples were only loosely organized by state. We saw “Palmetto Creek of the Carolinas,” in North Carolina, next to or almost next to “Citrus Hills,” which is in Florida (hint: “Citrus.”). RetireTennessee.Org offers a video that shows the median home prices and property taxes in a bunch of counties where it owns properties. Solivita, in Kissimmee, Florida, says “we’ve thought of everything—our name means ‘soul,’ and ‘life.’” Dozens of home designs to choose from.

We know about Tennessee, since Sandy grew up in mid-state, and used to visit her uncle’s farm in Pikeville near the majestic Cumberland Plateau. To get to Pikeville you pass through Jasper, once a tiny hamlet on the way to Chattanooga. Now there’s Jasper Highlands, “Tennessee’s most scenic mountain community,” a massive retirement complex that sells only lots, for up to a half-million. Then you go through the “seven-step build process.”

Reading the booth marquees, squinting at the brochures, or thumbing through the 170-page “Ideal Living” magazine that serves as a program, you notice that, with a few exceptions, you’re seeing promotions for “communities,” not actual towns or cities. We did pick up paperwork identified with Aiken, S.C., Wilmington, Chattanooga, and Sarasota. But otherwise it’s “The Cliffs,” “Fawn Lake,” “Brunswick Forest,” “Birchwood at Brambleton,” and so on.

I mentioned our retirement/move away conundrum in my piece (Moving Home) of a couple of weeks ago. Hold on, we’re not there yet. But judging from the crowd, lots of folks our age are eager to escape. That is, to warm places that offer golf, walking trails, sunning or playing volleyball on beaches, sipping wine by candlelight, and more. In nearly every case, these places are selling homes far too large for retiring couples, who frankly don’t need four or five bedrooms and a massive deck, even one overlooking a lake, bay, or golf course. Of course, financing is available.

In every case, the fabulous real estate and surroundings are shown off by a smiling fiftyish or sixtyish couple with full heads of white hair, athletic, slim, and tanned. They’re strolling hand-in-hand, jumping through the surf, swinging golf clubs, or clinking glasses by candlelight.

The marketing and the clientele clash with an unsettling, dissonant clunk. The booths are staffed by enthusiastic go-getter young men and women, hardly any looking as old as forty. They’ll sign you up for a tour in a heartbeat. They’re in sales. They know how to get to “yes.”

So why did we go? For me, something different on a cloudy, chilly Saturday. Sandy will chat up salespeople, tell them what we’re not interested in before they flash their business cards. But again the big question is, where’s your next home? Palmetto Creek? Fairfield Glade? Westlake? Lake Park? Cresswind? Lakewood Ranch?

We wrestle with this, like lots of others. In the back of your mind is—or should be—a singular truth: you may well pass from this earth there, notwithstanding the warm sunlight, soft breezes, scenic trails and fairways, and the waves lapping gently on the white sand.

But who, in that place, truly will know much about you? Will your kids and grandkids remember you sitting by the pool, your nose smeared with sunscreen, or in that distant place they knew with affection as home? And, as you sort through your sack of multi-color heavy-stock brochures, how do we figure these things out?