Above the Clouds

April 27, 2020

I left home about noon Friday for the Massanutten Mountains. It was time. “Stay-at home” isn’t that bad, it forces me to do yardwork. But I wanted something besides fresh air. I wanted to climb Kennedy Peak.

The Peak rises about 2,500 feet above and just northwest of Luray, Va. I had passed the Kennedy access trail a half-dozen times on ultrarunning events along the famous 70-mile-long Massanutten Trail, but had never attempted it. I loaded the van expecting rain. In addition to the tent and air mattress I brought the camping cot for sleeping in the van and wet-weather gear because you can hike in rain and I didn’t want to put this off. Sandy, enduring the effects of her allergies, turned down my invitation. She’s not a fan of mountain trails anyway. Not Massanutten trails.

wp-15879024008053254058707814934890.jpgAlthough national and state parks are closed, trails in the George Washington National Forest, which parallels the Virginia-West Virginia border for hundreds of miles, are open, probably because the trailheads are so remote it would be impossible to enforce closing them. Not that they’re all that popular. Casual dayhikers don’t frequent the Massanuttens, which offer razor-sharp rocks, near-vertical climbs, and twisting, narrow ledges, deep in dense forest.

For me, the most direct route is I-66 to Front Royal, then U.S. 340 south to Luray, then across the north fork of the Shenandoah River and a steep climb up VA 675—about 95 miles. I headed for the “horse lot” near the Camp Roosevelt campground, which is closed. The lot is used as a jump-off point for hikers and trail runners. Three years ago in February I car-camped there on a Friday night for an early Saturday event. As I neared Luray the snow started and the freeze set in. I lived through it by starting the engine a half-dozen times through the night.

The lot was open and empty, I was alone. I parked at the far end near the Stevens Trail trailhead. It was overcast but comfortable, in the 50s. Kennedy Peak by the most direct route is only three or four miles up the Massanutten Trail from my parking spot. An alternative is the Stevens Trail: three miles of easy, rolling trail then two miles of hell, then one more mile to the Kennedy Peak trail. I chose the shorter, easier way.

wp-15879024943793702556329189878009.jpgI strapped on my hydration pack and started up the trail. The first mile winds up, up, around 35 minutes to the Massanutten eastern ridge, where it opens to a spectacular panorama of the valley. I paused and looked at the sky and pushed on, here the trail is an old fire road. Another mile-and-a-half brought me to the final climb. I could see the dark silhouette of Kennedy through the treetops. The wind moaned, I felt raindrops. I had forgotten my rain shell. This can wait, I decided, and turned and hoofed it back to the van, about two hours total hiking. The rain held off.

I guzzled water per doctor’s orders, then lit off my camping grill and cooked the dinner Sandy had made. Since it was still light, peaceful, and pleasant, I pulled out my chair and read for a while before calling it a night. I nixed the tent and went with the cot-in-van, and crawled into my sleeping bag as darkness fell. Wearing my headlamp I read a bit longer, then closed my eyes. Hours passed, I was restless. As the night lengthened the temperature plunged, I guessed to low 30s, upper 20s. I got into sweats and a thermal shirt, grabbed a blanket and wrapped the sleeping bag tighter. My fingers grew stiff. I pulled on gloves.

Sometime during the night I could feel the chill penetrating. This is no fun at all, I told myself. I ditched the Kennedy Peak dream and decided to head home early.

Eventually I fell asleep. When I awoke, the night was glowing with stars, the dark cloud cover was gone. I stared up the brilliant wilderness sky and faced the obvious question: Am I supposed to do this? I said a short prayer and watched dawn break to a delicate blue, the sun pink on the horizon through the woods. No breeze disturbed the treetops, the silence was absolute. I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and wondered: how about the longer route?

Kennedy trail

In my trail-running days I descended the Stevens Trail maybe a dozen times. Coming down is fun, tapdancing through the rocks. Down is easy. I could recall climbing it twice, the last time maybe three years ago. Try it now, with next to no training? Sure, why not—I didn’t have anything else planned. Going up Stevens meant descending on the Massanutten Trail, the same route I had taken Friday, for a total of about nine miles.

I made a pot of coffee and ate my oatmeal. The sun poked above the trees, filling the lot with warm daylight. I dressed and pulled on the hydration pack. The Stevens Trail, marked by yellow tree blazes, rolls nicely due north for two miles, actually directly away from Kennedy. I made good time, maybe 20 minutes for the first mile, then the second, falling into a nice rhythm with my hiking poles. I stopped for water. The third mile got tough as it wound gradually east. I stopped again, sat on a stump and checked my pack. Running out of water would mean turning back. I was okay.

Massanutten trail

Now it was time for “granny gear,” one foot barely in front of the other, sticking and leaning on the poles. The trail was a linear mass of rocks stretching up, turning, then up again. I stopped and drank. I kept going. Another 35-minute mile, I guessed. My thighs felt like rubber. I watched the next turn, then the next, then the next as the trail snaked up the ridge. The turns came to me, foot by foot, rock by rock. I looked at my watch: 4:45 miles. I could see the intersection with the “M” trail. At the top I stood still, my lungs burning, and drank. From there it was a level mile to the Kennedy Peak trail. I strode easily, thin clouds hanging below me over the valley between the Massanutten ridge and the Shenandoahs, which loomed ten or fifteen miles east.


The Kennedy trail, maybe a quarter-mile long, was another granny-gear slog. I inched between the long shards of granite that shape the trail, leaning on the poles, at times edging the cliff. Slipping there would end things quickly. But soon I could see the top. I could make out the outline of the observation tower. Then I was there. I climbed the stairs to the platform and settled onto a bench and caught my breath. I looked north and south, east and west. The deep green of mountain forest paints the graceful peaks that stretch for a hundred miles in every direction. I closed my eyes. Then I crossed Kennedy Peak off my list.

The Plan

April 20, 2020

We went walking again, a slow stroll through a picturesque but unfamiliar neighborhood. It was only a couple of miles from ours, but we had never ventured there.  We trekked down the nearest main thoroughfare then turned onto a quiet woods-lined road.  It was sunny but blustery and the course included some long hills. The distance was maybe four miles total. It was the fourth walk this week.

That’s a good thing, walking helps circulation and heart rate. But other than a homeowner getting his mail and a lone jogger, we saw no one, and this was around noon. A day earlier we picked up some groceries at the nearby Wegman’s. The store was crowded, we wore our homemade masks, like a few others, but only a few. The cashiers were protected by plastic shields, they sprayed down the conveyers after every transaction.

We walked down the adjacent commercial strip, which is lined with shops and restaurants, it was deserted. Businesses were closed and dark. A few restaurants advertised plaintively “open for carryout.” We didn’t see anyone go in. It’s like that everywhere.

“April is the cruellest month,” T.S. Eliot wrote nearly a century ago. April 2020: millions are suffering. For those out of work in most places, the “stimulus” payout is not going to cover rents or mortgages and groceries past a month. Unemployment assistance, for those who get it, doesn’t replace paychecks. There’s a vast bounty of charity and good will everywhere, offered by church and civic groups. But people want to live their lives, not survive on government handouts and canned tuna from food banks.

Thousands have stepped up to support first responders and those who are hurting. For others, shelter-in-place is getting old. Reporters have interviewed dozens of people about their schedules: sleeping until noon, video games, soap operas, exercise routines, checking Facebook and Instagram, and of course, going for walks. Parents are herding restless kids. Some people get to work at home, tuning into “Zoom” sessions, firing off emails, scheduling meetings for who knows when.

Some folks are reading books.

We’re all obsessing on getting to normal. Sandy says the pace of robocalls has picked up again. Maybe the telemarketers are back to work. I noticed that Wegman’s had an abundant stock of toilet paper. Shoppers were walking by the stacks, ignoring them.

Some talking heads say start right now, that is, today, buying into “the cure is worse than the disease” shtick. We’ll see. Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has offered a three-phase plan, but he allows that he can’t be sure about “normal.” Fauci warns that the coronavirus “is an extraordinarily efficient virus in transmitting from one person to another.” Do we trust him or the talkers?

Back from the walk, I got a call from the oncologist’s office.

“How are you feeling?” the nurse asked.

“I feel good, Brenda,” I said.

“Well, the blood they took last week showed your kidney reading a little high,” the nurse said. “You need to drink more water.”

“I drink a glass of water when I get up, then have a couple of cups of coffee,” I said.

“Coffee is a diuretic, it doesn’t count as water. You need to drink, drink, drink, all day,” she answered. “You’ll need to get the blood work done again before you see the doctor next month.”

“Thanks, Brenda,” I said. I poured some water.

It’s been just over a year since I was at the oncology office every week for chemotherapy. Brenda was a huge help, the person you want as your nurse. Then in October the kidney came out. So I should pay attention when she says my kidney reading, the one left, which is the right one, is a “little high.”

wp-15871469290738654356936903177101.jpgI went back to puttering. I tried to fix the dripping bathroom faucet, but couldn’t loosen the fitting that needs to be replaced. I set the tools aside and went out and weed-whacked the long grass, that is, the weeds, in the front lawn. I had put some seed down (from Home Depot) but the heavy rain the other day washed it away. I proposed to Sandy that we sneak out to the Massanuttens and camp out, up high, away from the fire roads. She wasn’t interested. I might still go.

The casualty updates remind me of the weekly reports of American deaths out of Vietnam in the late 1960s. I was tucked away in college, by the time I faced the music it was almost over. Almost exactly 52 years ago, in late April 1968, a huge North Vietnamese Army/Viet Cong force attacked a Marine regiment near a place named Dai Do and killed something like 80 Marines and about 30 Army soldiers in a five-day battle. Hardly anyone remembers Dai Do.

Two presidential administrations were clueless about the war but obsessed with the next election, the next poll. All those years, some things still the same.

We’re sharing prayers for the victims and the docs and nurses. I think about Brenda, on the front line with those immune-compromised cancer patients, and say an extra prayer.

Then I recall the second line of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “… breeding lilacs out of dead land, mixing memory and desire … .” We’re waiting for the lilacs, but barely notice that spring is bringing longer days, warm sunlight, a soft green to the hills. We tell ourselves this will pass. In late April I’m usually out in the mountains. Instead, I’m pouring more water.

Holy Week

April 13, 2020

Holy Week and then Easter Sunday passed quietly. Millions tuned into “livestreamed” services. We could sit at home to celebrate the sublime mystery of the Resurrection and ponder what it should mean at this moment.

On Good Friday Sandy and I watched the commemoration of the Passion and Death of Christ at Saint Anselm Abbey in Manchester, N.H., which included the ancient veneration of the Cross. The abbot calls on the Lord’s mercy for his people, millions of whom are now enduring the covid-19 scourge and facing the paralysis of daily life. The church was closed, the pews empty.

On Holy Thursday the Labor Department released the new unemployment figures: 6.6 million applications, bringing the three-week total to around 17 million, not counting the untold thousands still trying to apply.

wp-15867159441683041845879117983580.jpgAt this moment we see courage and compassion that is, in one word, steadfast and yet—overwhelming, in the doctors and nurses in the ICUs; the low-paid aides at assisted living facilities caring for the most vulnerable; the people who check out our groceries; those who prepare our carryout meals. They show up, risking contact with an invisible killer.

Because of those people we’re able to see beyond the disease, and beyond the dreck and seaminess of public life: the now-former acting Navy Secretary who attacked an aircraft carrier commanding officer for stepping outside the chain of command to protect his crew; the indifferent preachers who hold public services that invite wildfire infections; the Republican apologists who worry that the pandemic makes Trump look bad.

Last Sunday I tried to shake off the numbness by paying attention to the some of the nuts and bolts of life. I ordered grass seed and a garden hose “online” from Home Depot.  I found them on the website, checked “add to cart,” typed in my credit card number, and clicked “store pickup.”

Just the day before we had called in a carryout order at Panera. I reached through the open door and grabbed our stuff from a shelf—no human contact, which is the point of shutting down thousands of restaurants and other businesses, throwing those millions of people out of work.

At Home Depot, instead, a line of 30 people waited outside the store, near strips of tape laid down to encourage social distancing, which extended the line around the side of the building. Wearing my bandanna mask I headed for the end of the line. Just then, an employee called for everyone picking up online orders to go on in. I congratulated myself on my foresight. I had to enter the store, but I guessed it would be quick.

The store was bedlam, crowded with customers and employees, probably just as nervous as me. I waited for the cashier on the floor tape marker at Customer Service. I noticed the people ahead of me were flashing their cellphones at the cashier.

My turn. I stepped up to the cashier, keeping my distance. Neither he nor any other employees were wearing masks. He was a short middle-aged guy with glasses and a scruffy beard. I gave him my name. No, I didn’t have an order number. He turned to his computer and looked me up. Nothing. “When did you place the order?” he asked. About two hours ago, I said.

“I don’t see anything,” he said again.

“Well, I ordered grass seed and a hose on the website, using my credit card,” I said.

“It didn’t go through. You didn’t a confirmation email?”

“No. Can you look it up by my card number?”  I gave him the number. He looked it up.

“It looks like the last purchase was for window blinds in February. Before that was paint—let’s see—last June.”

Around me, customers desperate for hardware, tools, gardening equipment, plants, etcetera, were clustering, bumping into each other, carrying their purchases, asking for directions.

So—overconfident in my computer skills, I had failed to complete the online order. Clicking through the transaction, I thought I was finished when I pressed “store pickup.” I left off the last steps. No confirmation number, no email, no purchase.

“Look, I’m here. Can you help me?” I asked, lamely.

“Let’s see.” He opened the store website and found the seed and the hose.

“Be right back.” He grabbed a shopping cart and headed for the garden department. I stood at the register. Ten minutes passed. I looked over my shoulder. The line was getting longer. People were glaring at me, impatiently shifting forward. In the main aisle others were lugging boxes, pushing carts, yelling for assistance. I took a deep breath.

Ten minutes later the cashier returned, pushing through the crowd. He had my seed and hose. Quickly he swiped my credit card and gave me a receipt. I thanked him and ducked out. Six employees bracketed the exit. I slipped past them into the parking lot.

At home, the TV was on, someone was saying, “Stay at home, keep your distance.” I thought about the cashier. He could have brushed me off with “Sorry,” and called the next customer. Instead, he ignored the chaos and helped me.

That evening the network news showed snippets of Trump with his bevy of hangers-on and a couple of doctors crowded on a stage. Yes, social distancing still is critical, one of the medical people said. “We can’t let up now.” Trump looked on sullenly.

Easter 2020 came with people of all faiths beaten down, as those early Christians were on that first Easter before they saw the stone rolled back from the tomb. Two days earlier at Calvary they had felt a chilling spasm of evil. Starting that Easter, they converted much of the world. Now evil has returned, camouflaged as a pandemic. Like those early witnesses, we’re called to the mission of Calvary: fortitude, courage. Death will be overcome. Easter endures.

Time of Pandemic

April 6, 2020

The Virginia stay-home order allows getting out of the house for exercise, so Kirk, Kevin, and I, all who remain of our neighborhood running group, showed up for the regular Thursday morning run. No problem with social distancing, they’re a quarter-mile ahead of me within five minutes. Before starting, while standing at least six feet apart, we updated each other on being stuck at home. Chores and some reading sums it up. Like everyone, we wonder what lies ahead.

Unemployment may hit 30 percent, and the docs say we’re weeks away from the peak. Governors are bidding against each other for ventilators and other equipment. Doctors and nurses are reusing their masks.

We’re putting on our best front. Last week I got my latest upper-body CT scan. To me, it looked like a “pass.” I see the oncologist next week. So far he’s still taking patients. Cancer still is out there, after all.

Social distancing was unheard of when America last experienced pandemic disease. The New York Times, looking back, reports that some 675,000 Americans lost their lives in the Spanish influenza outbreak between 1918 and 1920. About 20,000 New Yorkers died, or 4.7 of every 1,000 citizens, a lower rate than Boston’s (6.5) and Philadelphia’s (7.4).

Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland kept New York public schools open on the theory that children were safer in their large, roomy school buildings than in the crowded tenements where most lived. New York’s new subways and elevated trains created crowded rush hours. Businesses were allowed to stay open, with staggered hours. So were theaters because, Copeland said, they provided an educational opportunity. The Times quotes Copeland: “In every theater, before the entertainment began, someone appeared before the curtain and explained the danger of infection from coughing and sneezing.” Boy Scouts were drafted to warn against spitting.

Copeland’s education campaign consisted of posters and leaflets. The public were instructed to wash hands and faces before eating; gargle with salt and water; use a clean handkerchief every day. Sick people were urged to take castor oil, citrate of magnesia, or some other “physic” while waiting for a doctor. The sick, The Times says, overwhelmed hospitals. Nurse teams were sent to 150 health centers around the city to care for the afflicted. Eventually, patients were quarantined.

The flu first arrived in New York carried by passengers and crewmen aboard a Norwegian ship. They were rushed to hospitals. Then American soldiers carrying the virus began returning from Europe. The bug spread quickly through the crowded city.

Researchers believe that the first U.S. covid-19 infection was detected January 21 in Snohomish County, Wash., in a man who had visited Wuhan, China, site of the first outbreak. We know the rest. At this juncture, it’s beside the point.

Right now, Americans are waiting for payments from the $2.2 trillion “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES)” Act, as IRS employees, trying to keep their social distances, work overtime to get the money out. Both those affected by the virus and those who are not will pay bills and pay down credit cards. If you’ve been watching TV (who hasn’t been?) you know the auto companies are offering three or four months of deferred first payments on new vehicles.

Some thoughtful people wonder where the money is coming from, and what more massive government borrowing really means for the economy and, for the long haul, our grandchildren’s tax bills. James Grant, in Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, cites a gleeful Trump tweet: “With interest rates for the United States being at zero, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill. It should be very big & bold, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country.”

The President, Grant says, leads his readers to believe that the coronavirus is preempting the idea of scarcity. He notes that Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, when asked on the Today show about the risk of inflation, said, “You know, we don’t really see that.” Grant goes on: “We say that the titanic interventions of the past week have opened a new monetary epoch in America. Nothing will be the same with money—come the next crisis, the Fed must do its all.”

wp-15861046688576834521251252425407.jpgYet amid the sad coronavirus economics and even sadder politics, Americans are rising in courage and charity to save lives to assist victims and victims’ families. Hospitals and food banks are overwhelmed by donations. The nurse’s offices of locked schools are scrounging up supplies for the exhausted medical personnel, who are becoming victims themselves.

So—where are we right now? What do we hear? Each evening Trump demands that governors and reporters be “nice” to him.

Then, a week ago, Pope Francis delivered his Urbi et Orbi message, “An Extraordinary Prayer in the Time of Pandemic,” in dark, rainy, deserted St. Peter’s Square. Millions watched the video.

He said: “For weeks now it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by ….

“It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people … who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women … who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves. In the face of so much suffering … we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: “That they may all be one” (John 17:21). How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility …”

Shared responsibility: shelter in place, keep your distance, wipe things down. Go for your walk or your run. Follow docs’ directions. Do what you can, if you can do something. Remember the victims. Remember all others.