October 26, 2020
At this moment of hellishness in public life, goodness, beneficence, generosity strangely appear. A group of old friends of Ed Cacciapaglia erected a simple wooden bench in his honor 18 months after his death. It now stands in the woods near Fountainhead Regional Park, in Fairfax, Va., along a stretch of trail called the Do Loop. I caught the story afterward from Virginia Happy Trails Running Club members. Others wish they were present. They’ll have a chance, though, to touch the bench and whisper a prayer when running the Do Loop.
Ed passed in April of last year, a few weeks before his 65th birthday, after fighting pancreatic cancer for five years. Hundreds attended his memorial service, the hundreds who thought of him as a friend. I remember writing at the time: “everyone knew he was happy in his skin from the get-go. He added to his life but never tried to reinvent himself. He became a bigger man. He taught: love your life, accept it, make it better, never run from it.”
The bench project was an echo of the memorial service. Nine club members came out for it, the group divided between those older and younger than Ed, a nice symmetry, since everyone recalled him as somehow ageless. The tributes poured in at the news of his death. He was that kind of man: loving, close to the Lord, bullish on every fraction of life, even when he knew he was close to the end. Because it was easy to fumble the pronunciation of his name, many called him simply “Cappucino.” That appears on the bench.
I recall him meeting him at my first ultra trail event 10 years ago, the Cowan’s Gap 50-kilometer run in southern Pennsylvania. He passed me on the second half of the course, shirtless, a water bottle in each hand, smiling as he floated by effortlessly, smiling, striding softly, fading into the greenery. He did it again a couple of years later, at Fool’s Gold in Pony, Montana, charging past me up a brutal climb, grinning all the way.
Three years ago, after his diagnosis, he still got out to the mountains. I finally was able to pass him on a steep trail in the Massanuttens. He was ahead of me but moving slowly. I knew about the pain. We all knew. He held up, took a seat on a log, and let me by.
The man left his mark on those around him, family, colleagues, friends. Many made donations to the Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center, and to the club in his memory, now enshrined in the bench.
What emerges now from the bench story is another story, a lesson in the diligence called for to preserve precious things, precious memories of a kind, good man. Those eight men and one woman who carried the bench across the reservoir and poured the concrete were moved by a form of grace, by openness to a spirit of gratitude and humility, which prompts the desire to achieve good at a time of grievous trouble for the nation. They all had their stories of Ed, hilarious yet warm, all of them revealing of goodness, not only of the man, but also of themselves.
The Do Loop, depending on how you define it, is roughly a five-mile-long lollipop-shaped piece of trail that extends south from the access road to Fountainhead. It’s partly a horse trail, partly a runners’ trail, a kind of spur off the 18-mile-long Bull Run Occoquan Trail. The Do Loop serves as the far end of several of the club’s organized events. It’s the final insult, a difficult, demanding stretch of short, abruptly steep up-and-downs, encrusted with thick roots and rocks that can suddenly fling a runner face first into the ground, into the roots and rocks.
The Do Loop can be a torturous grind. Because few use it, the trail is quickly obscured in the fall foliage for months. Because it’s a loop you can take it either way, but either way can send you off the trail and leave you stomping about, baffled. A stretch of the Do Loop straddles the picturesque reservoir that gleams through the woods. On the far side you see the boathouse used by high school and college crew teams. Often they’re on the water while runners are on the trail.
I slogged out to the site Thursday. The bench faces the water at a high point as the trail angles back into the woods. Another veteran club member had kayaked across the reservoir, he had the same idea. We sat on the bench and talked about Ed. We saw, both of us, that the siting is perfect, a place for taking the solace that nature offers. Runners, or really, anyone traversing the trail can take a seat and savor the Do Loop’s silence. It’s a place for reflection, for prayer, amidst the peace of the forest, today, while the nation is fraying at the seams.
Yet the team who tramped out on the trail to install the bench were not thinking of this moment. The bench went in to honor a man of courage and kindness. The folks who conceived the bench also made a gesture to heaven. They understood also that by remembering the man, they honor the virtues he lived, virtues that nourish in a sublime way the souls of men and women who know the goodness that resides in the human heart.