March 29, 2021

Chris was the first to pass me, halfway up the Black Rock trail. Kirk and Paul followed. Bruce and Kevin were farther ahead, but they started earlier. Bruce and Kevin and I were in the first wave, jumping off in darkness to march up that first ascent, the first of many, many ascents on the “Assault on Black Rock” course.

It was Paul’s idea to converge on Sylva, in western North Carolina last weekend, the point being more the reunion of the old THuG running group than the Black Rock mountain climb event. He splits his time between Asheville and Wilmington, near Kirk’s new home. Kevin came up from Florida, Bruce from South Carolina’s Low Country, and I made the leisurely drive up from Greenville. We all registered, along with 125 others. Paul forwarded the course map. I studied it. Looks hard, I thought.

I got to Waynesville, 30 miles west of Asheville on Friday, the day before the run, driving through chilly drizzle with the clouds low over the Smokies. I found the hotel then, with the afternoon free, drove the 15 miles to the start just outside Sylva. I walked a quarter-mile up the trail. This will be very hard, I thought.

That night we got together for dinner and a chance to catch up. All of us but Chris had moved away from northern Virginia, first Paul, then Bruce, Kevin, me, then Kirk. Chris talked about seeing bears on Virginia trials, Paul had his colorful anecdotes. I’ve seen lots of bears, the last now three years ago. I’ve been away from the mountains that long.

In the 6:00 AM darkness at the hotel, the mountain chill penetrated; in the low 30s, I guessed. I pulled on my thermal jacket, but it stretched the straps of my hydration pack. For a seven-mile course most runners would carry a single water bottle, but the docs tell me to drink three liters every day. I needed the pack. I shucked the jacket.

As I gained elevation the cold closed in. My fingers felt numb through my gloves. I remembered my practice of wearing mittens in cold weather so you can pull you fingers together to warm them. No mittens today.

Bruce, Kevin

Chris hoofed it past me then turned up another switchback and started running. He’s our greyhound, always has been. He won’t be out here very long, I thought. My philosophy for trails is the old guy’s philosophy: if you can’t see the top, hike. Even the hiking was tough, up, up, tapdancing around the rocks. Other runners passed me, Kirk and Paul scrambled by. “Keep moving,” Paul yelled. No other choice.

The Black Rock trail elevates nearly 3,000 feet in 3.5 miles, the last quarter-mile about a 70-degree slope—almost vertical. Many runners staggered to the summit, took a deep breath and a photo, then hightailed it down in a joyful descent to the start, the fastest guys and gals got a belt buckle, maybe some adult refreshment.

On the steeper switchbacks I paused and drank. Close to the top the trail leveled off for a half-mile. After another turn two Rescue Squad volunteers, in yellow vests, stood near their ATV, apparently waiting for Black Rock victims. One of the team, I learned shortly later, was Josh. I stared at what looked like a gash in the mountain. “Is that the trail?” I asked. “That’s it,” he said, not smiling.  

I grabbed a root, then another, and pulled myself up. Runners descended from above, some leaping in a flying descent. Kirk and Paul slid past on their way down. “Lookin’ good,” Kirk yelled. “Keep it up,” Paul breathed. A few minutes later Bruce and Kevin shimmied down. “Take plenty of breaks,” Kevin warned.

I moved forward, foot by foot, pulling at roots and branches, planting each footfall, the cold taking over. I stopped and breathed, once, twice, pushed on, stopped, stepped forward.  Then I could see the last turn up to the summit. A runner swung down. “You’re shivering. I wouldn’t try it,” he said. He was right, my legs were numb. He and a woman runner helped me down, the Rescue Squad guys put me in their ATV. Josh talked about his experiences in the mountains as we careened down the trail I had just climbed. At the race finish two EMTs led me to their ambulance and checked my vitals. By then I was OK. They let me go.

 I was right about Chris. He brought home a buckle for finishing close to the top of the field.

So that was that. We drove into Sylva for lunch then headed for Asheville, a cute town made famous by breweries and, in recent years, “green” political activism. It had not warmed up. We checked into hotels, got naps, then reconvened for beers and dinner, quads stiffening. The walking helped, but our backs and legs would feel Black Rock in the morning.

We looked back, the way middle-aged and older-than-middle-age guys will do, to reprise life at that rich, happy moment. We got up to date on family, work, new communities, plans for down the road. We talked about the longtime friends who, like us, had scattered for careers, retirement, other things. As always, we invented schemes for the next reunion: back to Virginia for some running event—or maybe somewhere warm. Kevin, our Florida rep, is on board for a beach junket.

We joked a bit about the run, it never was the main event, and the weekend got better as we detached from Black Rock. We showed up, after all, got some fresh air and a mountain adventure, the fitness experience that reminded us of the things we did when we started doing this ten or more years ago. We were younger and stronger and life was simpler, and health problems were only a bad dream. We all get tired more easily now. We all know it. But there we were, together.      

Riverwood Acres

March 22, 2021

The “stimulus” payment landed in our checking account a few days ago, $2,800 for the two of us. We did catch the news report a week ago Friday of the family of five that got $7,000. Whoa. We didn’t have a pandemic when our kids were dependents, and Congress didn’t give stimulus payments for chicken pox or ear infections. But I did remember to thank our grandsons, since they’ll be paying for it.

I guess we’ll use some of it for “transition” expenses: the movers, the painters, the new stuff we need, those things that everyone needs when moving. Then we have to inspire ourselves.  The strangeness of the whole experience hasn’t worn off yet. At our age, settling into a new place brings a sense of the final step, the last big decision. We get the feeling that others are watching to see whether we’ll figure it out.

Our little homestead will be a little different than others in the neighborhood. Up and down the street I see two-car garages open and bursting with mowers, toolboxes, lawn furniture, bikes, sports gear. Giant SUVs and pickup trucks are in driveways or parked in the street. This is the South, after all. We won’t have any of that. My goal, since this is the first home we’ve ever had with a garage, is to use it as a garage. I’ve practiced inching the van into the confined space.

Judging from all the stray bikes and basketball goals, we’ll be the odd childless couple the neighbors will wonder about, the oldsters who didn’t default to some version of a “55 and better” community. My first idea was a secluded place in the mountains. That didn’t work out. When looking for our new nest we drove again and again out into the sticks. We saw Walhalla, we saw Tigerville (is it Tygerville?), Traveler’s Rest, Easley, a few others. What was it about those places that chased me back to the burbs?

I wonder now. Familiarity has to do with it, the odd comfort in stepping out the front door and looking at rows of houses on similar-sized lots up and down the street, kids’ toys littering the lawns, the occasional stroller who waves, the other things about subdivision living that tell us that life here is more or less what we hoped for. “Riverside Glen” is the name of the place, posted on a little sign at the intersection with a busy main street, although no river flows anywhere nearby. I’ve been calling it “Glenwood Estates” or “Woodside Manor” or “Riverwood Acres,” provoking Sandy’s impatience and her sense of “this is the way it is, get used to it.”

The remote places we looked at are on the northern fringe of the state, an hour or more from the city. They are pretty, lush with woods and views of the Blue Ridge. The houses are ranch-style, brick or frame, the lots generally are huge, resembling small farms, a long arms’ length from neighbors. The nearest business is a gas station or a Stop ‘N Go or Dollar General. Small Baptist and other Protestant churches line the country byways. The main highways, U.S. 25 and 276, which take you to North Carolina, are dotted with shacks under six-foot-high signs advertising “Fireworks” and flying Confederate flags. Grocery shopping would mean a ten- or 20-mile drive, minimum.

While speeding past those places you spot several retirement communities that offer through the woods a glimpse of a golf course or a lake, sometimes both. I recall they feature formidable stone walls and a guard kiosk. No locals would be getting in except to make deliveries. I forget the names, but they all have names: “Forest Haven” or “Mountain Aerie” capture the flavor.

I admit it was the same in rural northern Virginia: the more-or-less ramshackle small rural settlements with the modest little stores and churches around the Massanuttens and Shenandoahs are set off by pricey gated places and resorts. High-priced Rappahannock County, dotted with cute tourist spots like Washington and Sperryville, offered as many “Trump-Pence” signs as the boondocks counties farther south. But I never thought much about any of that because, as much as we liked puttering about the antique shops, we never considered moving out there. I drove through them to get to the mountains. The communities themselves were remote and alien.

We go to remote places, and sometimes seek to live near them, to restore something to our lives by being within the solitude of fierce, rocky forests, the Appalachians and their extended cousins. They call us in a mysterious way to learn something about ourselves and our connections to others, to truth, to God. If we’re inclined, we can recall that poor, rough-hewn people lived in those places a century ago, hacking a living from the hostile, rocky ground. They left something of their sense of life, a legacy of reverence for the earth and its connections to something non-earthly, that can restore for us a sense of the goodness, the holiness of life lived in reverence for others. So we keep going to those lonely, beautiful places.

But solitude and mystery and truth can overwhelm, and are best taken in small doses. We looked around the highlands and beyond, then beat a path back to what we know: the outer fringe of the urban world, not at the monster scale like Atlanta or even Charlotte. This place, Greenville, seems about right, and our kids are here. It’s a place I never thought about before they moved here. We took our best shot at what seemed like Shangri-la, country miles from Riverside Glen. But here’s where the journey ended.      


March 15, 2021

I set my cellphone down on the bureau to get dressed. Five minutes later I had no idea what happened to it. I searched high and low for my glasses, then found them perched on my head. I left my keys on the kitchen counter, then ransacked the place searching for them. I gathered my wallet, jacket, and phone to return a book to the library. I opened the door to leave, then wondered where is the book? It was wedged under my arm.

What is going on? Almost everyone over the age of 60 knows. The mysterious connections in my brain—some of them—have become frayed. Agatha Christie’s eccentric detective, Hercule Poirot, took pride in his “little gray cells.” I took pride in mine, too. But lately, less than I used to. I’ve learned how to focus intensively when introduced to someone. Otherwise my mind is blank on the person’s name twenty minutes later.

Neurosurgeon and CNN health reporter Sanjay Gupta explains what is going on in Keep Sharp: Building a Better Brain at Any Age, his eloquent, disturbing, scary, but finally encouraging analysis of the stages of the loss of brain function and how it can be confronted.  He reports that a 2017 UCLA study found that 47 million Americans show some evidence of preclinical Alzheimer’s disease, named in 1910 for its discoverer, the German psychiatrist Aloysius Alzheimer. By 2060, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s dementia or cognitive impairment is projected to grow from 6 million to 15 million. One new case of dementia will be diagnosed every four seconds. From 2018 to 2050 the worldwide number with Alzheimer’s will grow by 200 percent.

Nearly every adult, and many children, know someone who has experienced the tragic, sometimes terrifying consequences of severe cognitive decline. Sandy’s mother, in her seventies, would leave the house while unobserved. She hid the TV remote in her shoe. While home alone, she placed a coffee pot on the stove, lit the burner, then forgot about it. Her son and granddaughter arrived a short while later, smelled smoke, and shut the oven off before fire spread through the house. Within months she entered a facility that treated patients suffering mental decline. Shortly thereafter she was unable to recognize her children.

Gupta teaches that the brain, weighing roughly three pounds, “comprises all the circuitry we need to do just about everything.” The brain, he says, contains an estimated 100 billion brain cells, or neurons, and billions of nerve fibers linked by trillions of connections called synapses. These allow us think abstractly, feel angry or hungry, remember, rationalize, make decisions, be creative, form language, and on and on. Each part of the brain serves a defined purpose; all are linked to function in a coordinated manner.

Then, the decline. Gupta points out that “we often don’t and can’t know what triggers cognitive decline.” One uncomfortable fact: diseases like Alzheimer’s start twenty to thirty years before symptoms develop.

The great dilemma in research on cognitive decline is that no precise cause or causes have been identified. Gupta writes that what leads to grave cognitive decline in person A will not cause it in person B, C, or D. The “amyloid hypothesis,” he says, postulates that sticky proteins accumulate to form plaques that destroy the essential synapses that allow brain cells to communicate. Yet scientists aren’t sure whether the hypothesis is correct. Research has explored other possible causes of brain disease: genetics, infections, injury, nutrient deficiency, prolonged metabolic disfunction, exposure to dangerous chemicals, all of which can stimulate an inflammatory reaction in the brain. Inflammation, he tells us, is a common thread in all the theories about brain decline, and most other types of illness.

Gupta identifies three stages of decline: normal aging, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and dementia, in several forms. Vascular dementia is caused by insufficient blood supply to the brain. Dementia with Lewy’s bodies results from protein buildup in parts of the brain that control cognition, movement, and behavior. Frontotemporal Lobar dementia is caused by nerve cell loss in the frontal and temporal lobes, leading to behavior changes and poor judgment. Alzheimer’s, a progressive disease, accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, he says.

Dwelling on Gupta’s analysis is a dark experience. Yet he brings us back to light. With Keep Sharp he aims at training a resilient brain. He focuses on likely contributing factors that can be finessed by a transformative focus on resilience, and cites AARP’s five “pillars” of brain health: Move, Discover, Relax, Nourish, Connect. These lead just where they sound. Move: get regular exercise. Discover—do new things. Relax means get rid of stress. Nourish—get the sugar out of your diet. Connect: engage with others.

Gupta adds his own 12-week program, capturing all of those. “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” he reminds us. Exercise, get good sleep, open the mind to new challenges, form new relationships. Diet is a huge factor in achieving resilience. Gupta offers his own wrinkles, like “try to eat only when the sun is shining.” “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a peasant.” His quick take is his acronym SHARP: Slash the sugar, Hydrate smartly, Add Omega-3 healthy fats, Reduce portions, and Plan meals ahead.

We’ve heard the diet-and-exercise piece elsewhere. Gupta weaves it together with reminders for the folks most likely to be getting nervous about not remembering what day it is, what was for dinner yesterday, the last movie they saw. He writes for caregivers, pointing out that about 60 million Americans are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s—more than twice the population of Texas. He offers solid guidance for them on where to find support, social engagement programs, appropriate clinical trials, how to keep a home safe, making legal and financial plans, and building a care team. The caregiver, he notes, is the “invisible second patient.”

He comes around, as promised, to a bright note. Teams of scientists are doing breakthrough research on cognitive decline, for example, an experimental vaccine developed at the University of New Mexico. Yale researchers are working on a “drinkable cocktail of designer molecules” that has restored memory in mice. The future of brain research, he argues, is exciting. So go look again for your keys. And get going on Gupta’s program.

The House

March 8, 2021

Holding my younger grandson’s hand, I slogged along the Raven Cliff trail, my daughter and the older boy just ahead of us. To the north, South Carolina’s piece of the Blue Ridge towered above us. Looking south we could see for maybe 75 miles to the hazy, flat-blue horizon. The air was clear, pure, perfect. I was warm, since lately I overdress. The kids were fine in their teeshirts.

My daughter called me about a field trip up to Caesar’s Head State Park, off U.S. 276 just south of the North Carolina line. It was a natural for me, just over four rocky miles out and back, or to and from an overlook that offers a glimpse of spectacular Raven’s Cliff Falls, where Matthew’s Creek plunges 420 feet. Along the trail we looked up soaring, thickly wooded grades and down steep slopes crisscrossed with fallen trees. We moved slowly, climbing over logs and rocks. The trail narrowed and snaked through the woods, then opened up before the falls.

The mountains sweep from our minds the dreck of life around us: the persistence of disease and the daily political mudfights, the cold war wracking the country. Then they call us to look inward, to wonder about our mortality. In a strange way, wondering brought my mind to our new home.

We finalized the deal last week, signing all those forms at an attorney’s office. The next step was deciding what to do about the look of the house and the tastes of the seller, an elderly widow who has moved to a nursing home after twenty years in the place. 

The house is empty now, but I recall her furnishings and frills from our first look. The front bedroom had been used as a sort of office. A high bookshelf was stacked with Bibles and Baptist texts and tracts. Two photos, two only, stood at the end of the upper shelf, one of a couple, the other a formal portrait of a young woman. The realtor said she was the widow’s daughter, who had passed away some years ago.

I tried to form an idea of this woman who we will never meet. She liked a deep gray for the front rooms, pastels for the rest of the place, a delicate, feminine wallpaper pattern for one wall of the master bedroom. The house whispered to me of a singular way of life: tranquil, gentle, discreet, abiding in faith and neighborliness. It spoke of a life of the genteel South, well remote from the surly moodiness of some old-timers in these parts, the ones with the Confederate flags. The collection of books told me she was devoted to her church. 

The front yard is tidy, neatly landscaped to be compliant with the HOA conventions. The back yard is square and modest, bordered by a white picket fence; the tops of a couple of the pickets are broken. The soil is soft and moss-covered, but showed that someone cultivated something last summer. A large tree looms in the yard of the neighbor directly behind ours, promising shade. A small raised deck sits outside the back door, the wood getting soft and rotten, the paint peeling. I guessed the decline predated the owner, who probably had had no interest in sunning herself. She had other concerns. 

The entire house was spotless, including the kitchen appliances. While she may have suspected we wouldn’t go along with her color scheme, clearly she had seen to it that someone scrubbed the oven, refrigerator, and cabinets, everything. The countertop, although the builder’s standard economy-grade laminate, gleamed.

She paid scrupulous attention to details, including some odd ones. In a kitchen drawer we found the warranty paperwork and instruction manuals for things long gone: a coffeemaker, toaster oven, hotplate, clock radio. It occurred to me that that drawer may not have been opened in a decade.

Her nephew, who came by to help clear her things out, said she was at a place only a few miles away. He was holding garage sales to get rid of her housewares and selling her car, a 2004 Honda, which showed not a dent or a ding.  

I wondered about her thoughts right now. Like Sandy and me, she has left a home that was hers for decades to restart her life. She’ll be at a senior-citizen housing facility at close quarters with others. Was she happy about that? Was it her choice? How would she adjust to moving from life alone in a home of her own, to a furnished room in an institution with rules and policies? How does anyone?

I wondered whether, while living in the house that is now ours, she thought about her own future. Presumably she, or somebody, worked out the financial details for her new arrangement. What about the rest of it: is nursing home living permanent, the last stop? How do you say goodbye to your last home on earth?

We know that senior life is full of these questions. Some you can answer, some you can’t. You try, then move on. Say your prayers, and move on.

On Friday I finished my stint of 30 radiation sessions., Sandy and I brought brownies for the techs, I rang the traditional bell, for the second time. We finished our covid vaccinations. I got scheduled for another CT scan. We started hauling boxes to the house.

We walked through the place again and looked at the walls and the gently dated wallpaper. The paint colors were still deep and full, the molding joints flawlessly cut and fit. We thought again about the former owner, her satisfaction with her home, her way of life. We talked about it. Then we hired a painter to change everything, to remake, renew the place. The owner’s dark grays, the subtle shades that comforted her, will give way to something we picked. The house will be reborn. We’ll move on.