September 28, 2020

Alex and I stamped our feet and shivered in the falling darkness. We stood at a place called Blackrock Summit, a bend in the Appalachian Trail maybe 30 miles from the southern end of Shenandoah National Park. In the light of our headlamps we had set up a makeshift aid station, four boxes of snacks and bottles of water, two hundred yards up a rocky grade from Skyline Drive. Will, our runner, still was a couple of miles away, according to the GPS sensor he carried. We were his support crew.

We had met Will about eight miles south at Turk Gap, his first stop for aid 12 miles after he started running at Rockfish Gap, near I-64 and about midway between Charlottesville and Staunton, Va. He hoped to break the record for the “fastest known time” or FKT, for traversing the 107.8 miles of the Appalachian Trail that passes through the Park. He is very fast. The record, set just 36 hours earlier, is 23 hours, 14 minutes, 23 seconds. If anyone can break the record, it’s Will.

It was chilly, probably in the low 40s, when we arrived at Turk Gap about 6:00 PM. The clear mountain air has a sharp bite to it. I pulled on two thermal shirts and a hooded sweatshirt. We hauled the aid out of Alex’s truck. He had packed food and snacks, cold-weather gear, water, and Tailwind, a powdered energy drink mix. We set up a table and chairs. Promptly at 6:30 Will emerged from the forest. He nodded, grabbed some cookies, refilled his water bottles, and disappeared up the trail. That’s how you get to fastest known time.

Something wasn’t right when we got to Blackrock Summit. We drove a bit further, looking for a white AT tree marker, then backtracked and parked. Alex ran up a short spur and found the AT. He checked his watch. We waited. We pulled on our gloves as our fingers grew stiff. Alex’s phone rang, it was Will. We were off—the rendezvous was Blackrock Gap, a mile back. Will good naturedly ran the extra mile. He fueled up and was gone. As we drove towards Doyle’s River Overlook, we saw Will’s headlamp flash through the trees as he crossed Skyline.

At Doyle’s we had gained elevation and could pick out in the distance the twinkling lights of Charlottesville. The cold took our breath away. We parallel-parked our vehicles to deflect the wind. I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders. Alex lit his propane stove and cooked us a hot meal. We sat huddled, guzzling steaming ginger tea.

Above us a bright quarter-moon had risen, the stars glowed brilliantly in the wilderness sky. The wind abated, the crisp mountain air revived us. We got Will’s gear ready, then saw his headlamp moving toward us. He trotted in looking strong, but a little strained. He had taken a spill miles back, his knee was acting up. He now was a few minutes behind his projected arrival time. He grabbed his refilled drinks and a sandwich and headed into the darkness. Eight miles, or two hours, to the next rendezvous.


At Ivy Creek Overlook we backed Alex’s truck up to a chain across a fire road and set up the aid station. Since we had time, I slumped in the van and closed my eyes, my blanket pulled tight. For a while I heard the soft twanging of Alex’s country station as he heated up Will’s soup. I slept for an hour.

We went through the aid-station drill when Will arrived. He had pulled on his long-sleeved running shirt. We handed him a cup of the hot, savory chicken soup, just the thing for a trail runner at 35 miles. Will stuffed a peanut butter sandwich and some cookies in his pockets. He was ten minutes behind his projected time. We walked with him to the trailhead. “Razzle-dazzle,” Alex yelled, and Will was gone.

Smith Roach Gap was another quick stop, seven miles up. The wind had abated but the chill still penetrated. We stood peering into the darkness. Will showed up in good spirits, but still behind schedule. He lingered, gulping soup, then waved and reentered the trail.

To get to South River we drove five or six miles to our point of entry to the Park at Swift Run, then three more miles up the Drive. We found the trail access point, then had to hoof it, carrying the boxes of aid a hundred or so yards to the AT. At that point the trail descended from higher ground, Will could coast in. We waited. Alex checked his watch. We walked a short way up the trail and listened. Nothing. We turned back. Soon we heard footfalls and saw the glow of Will’s  headlamp. He was walking. For the first time since we met him, he sat. The knee injury from the fall had stiffened. He stood and stretched, then took a few tentative steps and felt pain. He rubbed the knee and pondered going on. A few minutes later he dropped from the run. He had covered 50 miles. We picked up our aid boxes. Will limped with us back to the vehicles. It was about 4:00 AM.

In this time of pandemic, the AT still beckons. Virginia has more than 500 miles of the Trail, the longest segment of any state. Shenandoah National Park’s 108 miles is the northern segment. Further north are the rocks of Pennsylvania and Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness. You jump on the trail and go, watching for those unique white blazes.

A few years ago, on a bitterly cold January day after a fresh snowfall, two friends and I climbed the Pass Mountain Trail, which links with the AT west of Sperryville. We passed an AT shelter, folks were camping. They waved, I shivered.

The AT always is in season. It conveys something mysterious, something magical. Not escape, exactly, but the awareness that traversing rugged places trains us to persevere, to move forward, to overcome. The Trail is about climbing rocky ascents to see the pale sky of the western horizon, the green hills to the east, then descending through deep gorges along plunging streams. Will knows he’ll get his FKT. The Trail is long and tough. We’ll be back.

The Path

September 21, 2020

We’ve been glued to the tube in the evenings watching news footage of the holocaust in California and Oregon, the Gulf Coast floods, the still-spreading pandemic, the scary clown show in Washington. But we quit our all-day house fix-up grind for a few hours to have lunch with a friend, a woman who came to the U.S. from Guatemala years ago. We kept in touch after she lost her job as administrator of the food pantry where I volunteer. We last saw her in February, just before the pandemic shut Virginia down. She and her husband now are doing well, both working, daughter in college, son nearby.

A day or so later I heard from an old colleague. We lost touch years ago. Recently I read that she had just published a novel. It’s an intense, passionate drama of a woman living through the American Revolution and the savage Cherokee wars in East Tennessee, a time of violence and hardship we now can barely comprehend. The title contains these words: “The Story of Hope.” She’s now planning her next book.

A friend in Florida contracted covid-19. She was sick for weeks but recovered. Back to work. Our youngest daughter, studying for nursing school in Colorado, learned she made the “President’s List” for the summer semester.

I got out of the house Saturday to volunteer at Athletic Equation’s “social-distanced” 12-hour run at Prince William Forest Park. Runners cover either a 6.5 or 11-mile course for a maximum of 12 hours. Few stay in that long. The winner is the guy/gal who racks up the most miles. I ran one loop. Good clean fun, but after a couple of loops you need spunk to keep going.

We all could use some spunk. Like the baby turtles pushing out of their shells in those PBS nature flicks, life keeps pushing us. For fun we drove past the three other for-sale houses nearby.  We agreed that ours, next to all three, is a gem, a palace. Right?

Not exactly. Not by a mile. We patted ourselves on the back for getting the place painted, then looked closer and found more nicks and dings, chipped caulking, spilled paint, a broken wall outlet, cracks in the concrete walkway. All that is on us, we’ve blown the budget for contractors. We need new outlet facings, new stones on the stone walkway, mulch in the front yard, back yard, etc.

I didn’t know moving was a sentence to hard labor. But then, it’s housework, after all. We now know this is what everyone does. We’re not griping as much. This is no joke, but it’s become easier to laugh at ourselves.

You can’t go backward. My former co-worker from Guatemala, seeking work, persevered, said her Rosary, and eventually found a good job close to home. The Tennessee novelist spent countless hours in front of her computer screen bringing her thoughts to life. Our friend in Tampa fought the virus, took her medicine, and got better. Our daughter cracked the books day and night to earn those As. These stories repeat themselves everywhere, every day.

I know enough to appreciate and treasure those things; I got sick and had my dark, not-feeling-very-good moments in recent years. We remind ourselves that many Americans are living with stunning tragedy, unspeakable heartache.

We can’t comprehend the experience of the victims of the pandemic, the wildfires, the floods. Still, we all know others who have taken or are taking their turn in the mill, struggling with serious illness, struggling to find decent work. In an entirely different universe, others confront personal challenges to achieve something singular and unique, like writing good fiction.

Amid your own hardship, you may come to realize that you have no alternative but to go on. Struggle and pain in human experience can in some unknowable way teach fortitude, courage, strength, thereby offer a path to recovery. In this hellish year, as millions suffer, perseverance and faith can carry us. They emerge from love, the relentless, mysterious gift of God.

They carry us back to the richness we can find around us. We find it by welcoming new things, experiences, people into our lives. We find it also by facing down difficulties, unique or mundane: the job search in times of trouble; the serious illness; even the blank, unforgiving computer screen that tortures the writer with doubt.

The things we wrestle with aren’t always life-changing. I’m preoccupied with nuts and bolts, nails and hammers. I wonder if anyone else is trying to install an outdoor electrical outlet facing, spread concrete on a cracked driveway, build a stone path. Really, in our besieged country right now, this slog through amateur house touch-ups to make the place presentable for would-be future owners seems a petty, self-indulgent sideshow.

But it isn’t, not really. Someone has to do it. Seems that after all these years we’ve come up with something like a plan. We’re worried about what lies ahead, but we’ve unmoored ourselves from this place. Whether it’s Trump or Biden, we’ll be somewhere else, close to kids and grandkids, but still somewhere strange, somewhere alien to our up-to-now closely regulated lives. We’ll be planning our next adventure in a new place. This house, the toolshed, and this scruffy back yard will belong to someone else. All that work, all that living, behind us. It’s time.

Heart of Darkness

September 14, 2020

Our friends are on the road. They’re heading to Sedona, Ariz., Albuquerque, N.M., Southport, N.C., Sarasota, Fla., or already have arrived. They chose the seashore, the deserts, the mountains. Others left town for jobs—Austin, small-town Alabama, Saudi Arabia. The plan is normal life in the time of Trump, amidst the cult of Trump, which will be with us when Trump is gone.

I talked over coffee with a friend who had just returned from Idaho, Wyoming, Montana. We compared memories of tall mountains and small towns. Places with dark forests and snow-capped peaks, places we passed through on our summers of adventure.  A few years ago we had fun thinking of moving out there. Family and weather reports induced some sanity.

Since then we’ve looked at the places our friends landed. Now, though, we factor in covid-19, which is Trump’s legacy, along with the popular trends in camouflage uniforms, Confederate flags, AR-15s and bandoleers in public.  Arizona and Florida became disease hotspots. After killing thousands in the Northeast, the pandemic raged amid the palm fronds and gentle breezes along the Gulf Coast, and across the rugged deserts and peaks of the Southwest.

Normal life ended in the spring of 2020. We persevere in our routines, those of us whose lives have not been wrecked by infection or loss of livelihood. We endure as best we can the bitter war between two societies: one that recognizes Trump and Republicans as purveyors of the nation’s multiple, still-unfolding nightmares, and that other universe, the “base”: the White-race culture warriors, the so-called evangelical Christians, the chasers of paranoid conspiracies, the pundits and propagandists of Trumpism.

The virus now has killed more than 190,000 Americans. On Thursday a man at the Trump rally in Michigan said, “I think he’s done a wonderful job.”

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” Robert Duvall famously said in “Apocalypse Now,”   a film that echoed the fear and horror of Joseph Conrad’s narrator in Heart of Darkness, thereby to clarify for Americans the viciousness and futility of Vietnam.

Today in America we have entered our own heart of darkness. We created it. We can’t escape it in warm, beautiful places. Americans, starting with the election, may overcome the tragedy we now endure. Overcome it, or perpetuate and deepen it.

The mask thing became a curiosity. Did wearing it make you a Democrat? We still see news footage of crowds without masks, at beaches, in bars, on college campuses, and two weeks ago at the White House. Who’s making critical decisions on covid policy, Fauci, or that renowned epidemiologist, Trump? On our June visit to South Carolina I drove past shops and restaurants. Didn’t see a mask. I recall, only a few months ago, promising Sandy that on our next road trip we’ll make it to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, S.D.  For sure!

Yet people are pushing on with life: They’re moving now, as they’ve always moved: to turn the page to a new serenity, a new peace. My sister and brother-in-law settled in the Seattle area, my brother moved to Delaware. The tax situation in Delaware is better, but the Cascades are more spectacular than Rehoboth Beach. We know lots of folks who transplanted to North Carolina. A retired Navy captain I know and his wife are looking at New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Skiers, maybe. Adventure always presents: our son got a job offer in New Zealand. Fortunately, he didn’t take it. The covid-19 safeguards are more effective there. I know people who have moved from quiet places, the places they were born, to settle in congested, expensive northern Virginia suburbs because their children are here.

The alternative—stay put. I look around at Mass and see oldsters I’ve known for thirty-plus years, now white-haired and slow-moving, still here, going nowhere. They think: why leave just because others are leaving? Their homes are paid for, their kids, maybe nearby, maybe not. Maybe no kids. I see widows and widowers. Here for the long count.

Picacho Peak S.P.

I thought we were members of that crew. As readers here recall, we talked and talked about what to do. We could sit tight and avoid the move hassle, the real-estate search rat race, the change of cemetery plans. We argued for and against cities and small towns, villages, and hamlets. Western North Carolina, East Tennessee, North Georgia, southern Virginia. Occasionally for fun I’d throw out Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador (I have a cousin there).

As we debated, at least a hundred times I’ve reminded Sandy of our pre-covid night at Picacho Peak State Park in Picacho, Ariz., two years ago. It was mid-September, hot as blazes. We gasped and sweated in our airless van. Finally we fell asleep.

Around 2:00 AM I awoke and stepped out of the van. It was cool and clear, the moon bright above us, lighting the desert. I climbed a slight rise. I could see for miles across the sand and scrub the glowing headlights of long-haul trucks crawling along I-10. The place was silent and lovely, a setting of peace. I felt in those moments the presence of God. Sublime, in a way that could never be routine. That was then. Now, I look for my mask.  

The Sign

September 7, 2020

A county DPW crew began tearing up our neighborhood streets last week, just before we got our “coming soon” sign. In 90F heat we watched the huge, noisy milling machines chew up the old asphalt and spit it behind them. Bobcats scooped it up and poured it in dump trucks, the kind with eight spare wheels. The workmen stopped on our lawn for a break, relaxing in the shade. We brought them water. Hot weather, hot work.

Amidst all that, a Long & Foster guy finessed his way in and put up the bright red sign in the middle of the yard, reminding us that our life is about to become truly bizarre. The idea is to get closer to our daughter Marie, son-in-law Mike, and grandsons outside Greenville, S.C. For my last place on this earth I like the idea of looking out the front door down a mountain. The Greenville-Asheville-Knoxville triangle has plenty of those. My idea, not Sandy’s.

The kids arrived late the night of the sign-mounting, for a last-ever visit to the house Marie grew up in. The next morning the paver chugged through. I walked with the boys down the block to watch. A vehicle fitted with a rotating set of teeth tore into the milled surface and reduced it to dust. The bobcat scooted through and grabbed the residue. Then the paver appeared from around the block, linked with a truck that fed fresh asphalt into the paver’s maw. The giant machine spewed the hot mix of chemicals and stone onto the milled surface and pressed it flat. Workmen followed, shoveling a rough slew of stones on the steaming surface. A giant roller then bonded the asphalt and stones to create the new street.

Later that morning the agent dropped off flyers for a box next to the sign. I smiled at the blurb: “well-maintained home ready for you to start the next chapter of your life.” Who’s “you?”

It’s the standard real estate jargon. I’m hoping the flyer isn’t pitched, maybe unintentionally, only to people looking to start a new chapter. They can do that without the expense and hassle of buying a new house.

I get strung up by family about my pencil-chewing way of looking at things. Yes, we’re relocating to someplace else. We don’t need the melodrama. The old chapter is okay, basically.  

We expected the sign to get here end of the week, allowing a few more days of doubt, ambiguity. It showed up early. We looked out the window, there it was.  I felt my throat tighten. No turning back.

I looked at the freshly paved, freshly pressed new street. Something metaphysical about that? A new street, a new start. Too cute.

It’s there, in front of us. This place, somehow, no longer fits. People we’ve known for years have left or are leaving. We ask ourselves: after 33 years in a subdivision built for commuters in a forest of subdivisions built for commuters, what else is there? How would somewhere else be different?

Whatever there is, we have to earn it. The discipline needed to improve and upgrade still is alien to me.  The agent advised “refreshing” the kitchen. That evening I removed the cabinet doors, then gave a day to sanding, tacking, priming, and painting. They look better. Not beautiful, but better.

At least a dozen chores remain undone: the dent in the siding. The flaking caulk near the door. The amateur repair job on the downstairs molding. The flecks of misplaced paint. And so on. Our buyer will have to endure his old chapter a little longer

They’re undone because for so many years we looked away and did other things. I went back to school and got my master’s. Sandy worked for three different federal contractors. We escaped a lot. We visited our kids in Pennsylvania and Colorado. We traveled to Wilmington, N.C., and Tallahassee to see friends and attended the Florida State graduation. We got to Nashville to visit family and friends and run races. We both entered the Las Vegas marathon, finishing on the Strip, I recall, on a freezing November night. On that trip we drove to St. George, Utah, for lunch. I ran half-marathons in Tampa and ultra trail races in West Virginia.

We bought plane tickets to the west four summers in a row for trips that involved ultra events and created adventures. The main event started in the ghost town of Pony, Mont. Before the race we drove from Bozeman to Columbia Falls, skirted spectacular Flathead Lake, visited Glacier National Park. We explored the dinosaur museum in Bynum (pop. 31) and stopped at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, along I-90 just above the Wyoming state line. Sandy treated me to five-dollar haircut in Sheridan, Wyo. We walked around Devil’s Tower, north of Gillette. We visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton. We drove from Breckenridge, Colo., to Ennis, Mont., taking back roads through Steamboat Springs and Craig to Baggs, Wyo., and Victor and Driggs, Idaho.

Then there was the Road Trip that gave birth to this blog.

I kid Sandy about moving to Harper (her maiden name), Texas. We blew through it two years ago. An exotic animal farm just outside town. A home-cooking-style café. A city park, a cemetery. What else do we need?  She doesn’t laugh.

Through all those years I did the minimum: mowed the grass in the summer, put down seed, did some inside painting. We hired contractors for a new chimney, windows, roof, no longer new. After all these years the place isn’t finished. The sale goes “live” in three weeks. We’re scrambling on these things. Meanwhile our mailman is still showing up every day, but often not until late afternoon. Trump would like to see him take some time off, maybe join a right-wing paramilitary outfit. The parish is still holding a weekly holy hour for prayers to end the pandemic. We’re waiting for that new chapter. In the meantime, maybe the country will get one.