Back to Black Rock

March 28, 2022

It was time to go back to Black Rock. Late March can be bonechilling cold in western North Carolina. Mountains are pretty much all you find out there. The old Virginia running group, Paul, Chris, Kevin, Kirk, Archie, and I heard conflicting forecasts in the days before the run. I hoped for better conditions than last year, when I failed just below the 5,800-foot summit, my arms and legs stiffening and shivering.

That day in mid-March a fast young man named Mike gave up his place in the field to help me stumble back down from the spot where I stopped moving to meet a volunteer, who packed me in an ATV and drove me to the finish. Mike had returned for his fourth go-round here.

Black Rock, between Waynesville and Sylva, is one high point in the jagged western end of the state, and not the highest. Mount Mitchell, just north of Asheville, is the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, at 6,684 feet. The Blue Ridge then stretches west to the Plott Balsam range near Sylva and counts four 6,000-foot-plus peaks, Waterrock Knob at 6,292, then Lyn Lowry, Browning Knob, and Yellow Face. The Great Smokies loom over Plott Balsam to the north and west. Just south are the Great Balsams, with nine peaks above 6,000 feet.

The Black Rock course starts at around 3,000 feet and builds in 2,700 feet of elevation gain over a winding three and one-half-mile ever-climbing rock-strewn double-track trail. Nearly 100 runners gathered near a warming fire at the start. I looked up at the trail as it fades into thick forest, recalling hours on the Foothills, Table Rock, and Paris Mountain trails. I wondered if all that pain would make any difference.

The race director sounded a horn and we bolted through the gate. Some of us bolted. Not my style anymore. The field quickly stretched out, the young greyhounds and some not so young sprinting up the first climb. The middle of the pack pushed forward, mostly leaving me as I leaned into the trail, getting my breathing sorted out.

I maneuvered along the edges of the trail, left-right then right-left, avoiding the rocky center, watching my steps then looking forward, measuring the trail as it curled higher, then higher. The pack was now out of sight around the first bend and probably the second. The trail snaked around and up one steep ridge, then another, then another. Two runners labored along a hundred or so yards ahead. I closed on them, they moved ahead, I drew closer, they moved on again.

I gripped the straps of my hydration pack and leaned into long strides then short ones, then long ones. I felt stronger, warmed to the pace. I knew the trail well from my “did not finish” (DNF) last year. I got through it a month later with Mike, who returned to haul me to the top (posts May 17 and March 29, 2021).

I sipped water, recalling the doc’s warning about hydration and kidney stress, a bit more critical since my high creatine reading two weeks ago. Creatine, the enzyme that powers muscle tissue, collects in the kidneys to be flushed from the body. Not enough water risks kidney injury. I recall, always, an unlucky run of February 25, 2018, my birthday, when I ran short of water during a trail event then ended up in the hospital for three days. I recovered to run a couple of ultras, but disease showed up that summer. Fourteen months later I lost the kidney.

So I guzzled, pushing forward. The folks in front of me slowed and I hoofed past them at the two-mile point. To the south the peaks of the Great Balsam stretched into the haze of the Blue Ridge that stretches for 100 miles. The surrounding vistas lift the runners’ spirits to the indefinable, exhilarating sense of living, simply being, surrounded by God’s sharp, rough beauty.

Around two-point-five miles the trail levels out, as if the mountain is tired of climbing. Mike flashed by on his return, we bumped fists. Chris was well ahead. Paul then steamed by. “Staying upright,” he yelled and disappeared down the trail.  I passed the intersection with the descent, a volunteer smiled and offered water, as the fast people already down from the summit raced past and turned onto the descending trail to the finish. “One mile to the top,” the volunteer yelled.

I picked up my pace. Minutes later I saw the turn onto the final one-third-mile, a tight 30-degree grade single-track to the base of the summit. I stepped up, balancing by grabbing rocks and branches. Kirk, Kevin, and Archie were maneuvering down, done with Black Rock.

As I slogged in “granny gear,” the folks whom I had passed ten minutes ago lumbered past me. I stayed with them then paused, caught my breath, and drank. The trail, heavy with mud, twisted left then right, obscured above by gnarled underbrush. I measured my progress in yards, then feet across the thick roots and over the boulders. One more rock climb, then another, and I was in the clearing below the summit, where I turned back last year. I lurched forward.

The forest thinned a bit and the trail wound sharply down into shadows around house-sized rock formations. The wind howled and rushed through my two thermal shirts. Last year the hypothermic chill paralyzed me. Now I moved up, then down, around the massive boulders.

Sunlight broke through suddenly and I was at the summit. I crawled up onto the surface and took a deep breath and looked out at the pale horizon, the mystical, intoxicating spectacle of endless mountaintops. The Smokies stretched to the west, the Great Balsams to the south. I gripped the rock for a quiet moment, then turned and slipped back to the trail and headed to the finish.

The Chest

March 21, 2022

Lent arrived promising spring. The sun shone and the backyard turned green, but the war ground forward. History is staring at us. We are reliving 1940, when the country didn’t want war, but Yanks went to England to fly with the RAF.

I went to an early weekday Mass. The elderly priest read the Gospel, then paused and spoke: “When things aren’t going well we always say ‘Pray.’ Maybe that sounds like a cop-out. But I don’t believe any prayer is wasted. They are answered, maybe in ways we don’t expect.” I heard him talking about Ukraine.

It is every morning, now for 25 mornings:  Zelensky’s and his countrymen’s nobility in the face of barbarism lifts our spirits, and we move forward. An HVAC technician came in to test the furnace and air conditioner. He looked at our dirty air filter, frowned, and recommended a high-tech air-purifier system for $2,500. I stuck his estimate and business card in a drawer. I then poured a tall glass of water. The nurse at our doctor’s office had called to say the blood she drew last week showed that my creatine, an enzyme that collects in your kidneys, is too high. Drink more, she said. They want to see me again.

In late afternoon we walked down the steep slope our street takes. A few doors away a sad-looking dog approached, Sandy petted him. The owner, a senior citizen standing next to his car, snow-white hair flowing down his back, said, “Hi, I’m Mike, my wife’s Lois. I used to walk this hill getting better after my surgery. I’d walk up, rest, then do it again.”

I asked him about the surgery. “Open heart,” he said. “I had eleven stents put in.”

I introduced myself. “So you’re Mr. Ed—I’ll remember that,” he said with a grin. “Well, that dates you,” I said. “See ya, Tom—what was it again?”

“It’s Mike. But call me anything, just don’t call me late for dinner.” 

We said hi to Mike again on our way back up the hill. I said his yard looked good. “I got a guy to take care of it after I got sick,” he said.

As we plodded on I mentioned that next week will be our one-year anniversary in the house. We said the usual things, like we can’t believe how the time has flown by. We looked at the front lawns along the block, most were in great shape. These people all have a lawn service, Sandy said. I answered that I’d never thought of hiring someone to cut the grass. “The service takes care of the weeds, too,” she said.

On the next street, in front of a stranger’s house, we saw it: a kind of low-slung chest with a sign taped to it marked “Free.” I stopped, Sandy stopped, we stared. The finish gleamed as if new—well, almost new. It was about four feet long. I noticed a few tiny dings. Tiny, but noticeable.

We had searched over months without much enthusiasm for some kind of chest or small table to hold plants. We looked at furniture stores, we looked at online sales. Then we gave up. The plants, the ones still alive, sat in vases on the floor near the back door.

I thought: I don’t really want something someone else is throwing away, something the owner now considers junk. Do we want to furnish our home by scavenging? Shouldn’t we be looking for a classy, beautiful piece, a shiny antique from a fashionable dealer, something we could pridefully show off to guests? But then, we don’t have anything else like that.

I thought about all that as I looked at the chest. As we cleared out our Virginia house I had dragged a few pieces of marginally serviceable furniture to the curb, hoping they’d disappear. I was pleased when they did. The homeowner who had stuck this chest on the curb probably had just spent real money on brand-new furniture and now wanted this thing out of his house.

We looked at each other, and at the chest. I walked around it. It was OK. And OK is about the speed we’re at right now. I had lost interest in slogging through furniture stores. Actually I’ve never had much interest in furniture. Not when I got my first apartment, not when we got married, not ever. Furniture was Sandy’s department.

“Well—what about it?” I asked. It’s all right, she said. At that moment, her heart wasn’t in shopping for furniture either. It’s inertia—you move into a place, spend lots of money on painters, plumbers, electricians, you arrange the furniture you’ve got, then rearrange it—then you run out of steam.

“The van is around the block,” she said. I set off for home. A few minutes later I backed the van along the curb close to the chest. It wasn’t heavy, but it wasn’t light. I spread a quilt on the asphalt and stood the chest on one end. Slowly I maneuvered it, end-up, around to the van’s back gate. Grunting, I lowered it carefully on its side and slid it in. I gasped for breath and grabbed hold of the van door and waited for my heart to stop racing.

I glanced at the house. It was still broad daylight. The owner probably was standing at his living room window peering out at us and grinning. Got rid of that junk, he was thinking.

I didn’t care. This thing would do for the plants. It had two shelves, where we could cram odds and ends. We’ve got plenty of those. We could wipe it down, clean it up. Some furniture polish might take care of the dings. Or they might be visible forever. But then—how much company do we really have? Who do we know who’s going to look at this thing and smirk?

I pulled the van back in our driveway thinking I’ll haul it in tomorrow. That’s what I did.


March 14, 2022

The rain fell, the wind blew, spring crept in around here while we settled into the new world of war. It snowed last week in eastern Ukraine. The news footage showed columns of refugees carrying children or holding their hands and dragging suitcases, nearly obscured by the wind-blown storm. They were the lucky ones. We also saw the bodies, casualties of shelling and long-range rockets, some covered, others lying where they died. The scene has been repeated, and repeated.

The news that day reported the temperature close to zero while the shells flew. Was this the way it was around Kyiv in the winters of 1941 through 1945? Here we debate the impact of higher gas prices. They are not the only thing to debate.

This land has been wracked by death. More than four million Ukrainians died in Stalin’s forced-collectivization famine of 1932-1933. Nearly seven million more, including 1.5 million Jews, were killed during World War II, when Nazis, collaborators, partisans, and Soviet troops massacred civilians and each other. The return of Soviet control brought back Soviet terror and a famine in 1946-1947 that killed one million, another half-million were purged and sent to prison camps. On December 26, 1991, after the USSR collapsed, Ukraine became independent.

In 1975, in the depths of the Cold War, New York Times military correspondent Drew Middleton wrote Can America Win the Next War? and concluded the huge Soviet and Warsaw Pact armies massed in Central Europe and primed to attack through West Germany might defeat NATO forces. The end of the Cold War and the stampede of Western businesses into Russia made the European war scenario seem dusty and quaint.

Putin’s assault on Ukraine shows he wants to turn back the clock. The hypothetical endgame then was use of nuclear weapons. It is again, today.

No one knows where this is going. The matchup of Ukrainians with Javelin anti-armor tubes and Russian tanks has produced a bloody quagmire. The wider war may come. Sanctions are pushing Russia into an economic stone age. The world could be dragged along.  

Last week James Grant, in Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, wrote that “in America, before the Russian assault, too much money was chasing too few goods. Post-assault, too much money is chasing even fewer goods.” He cited London Daily Telegraph columnist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who points out that “Putin has the means to cut off critical minerals and gases needed to sustain the West’s supply chain for semiconductor chips, upping the ante in the middle of a worldwide chip crunch.”

Evans-Pritchard added: “Furthermore, he could hobble the aerospace and armaments industry in the U.S. and Europe by restricting the supply of titanium, palladium, and other metals. If he controlled Ukraine, his control over key strategic minerals would be even more dominant … The Kremlin could unleash an inflation shock every bit as violent as the first oil crisis, with a recession to match.”

Aircraft builder Boeing has suspended its titanium contract with Russia’s VSMPO-AVISA, which is partly owned by the state conglomerate Rostec. The company said it had a diversity of titanium sources and adequate inventory. Reuters reports that Boeing obtained about one-third of its titanium from the Russian company; other major producers are China, Japan, Kazakhstan. French aircraft builder Airbus said that it would continue to rely on VSMPO-AVISA for half its titanium.  

Grant reminds that in 2018, when the U.S. sanctioned Russian aluminum producer Rusal, the consumer price index, the measure of inflation, rose by 2.4 percent. He adds that “Things are very different in this congressional election year with a CPI running above 7 percent.”

At the end of the first week we and everyone else tried to carry on. We went to the mountains for a 25-kilometer trail race, stepping back into a world I had lived in years ago. Runners focused on the task at hand, climbing Pinnacle Peak, the second-tallest mountain in the state. We hung around at the finish and visited.

The next day I spread one of those Home Depot lawn-care products on the grass then spent a half-dozen hours clearing the plot that last summer had been a garden. I dragged sacks of yardwork out to the street for the pickup guy. As I tugged on the bags the woman across the street waved. “Beautiful day,” she yelled. “Summer is here,” I answered. “I’m glad, except for the yardwork.” She said she and her husband hired a lawn service when they moved into their home. I wiped my perspiring forehead and looked down at my bags.

She said they would be moving to Ohio for the summer, her husband will be doing research at Wright-Patterson Air Force base. I wondered if he’s working on some top-secret project to upgrade weapons we’re sending to the Ukrainians. I said I’d keep an eye on the house.

Someone interviewed a guy from New Jersey who was volunteering for the “international brigade” the Ukrainian government is organizing. He had no military experience and hoped someone would train him to shoot.

The Grant predictions already are proving out, as prices for everything spiral up. The price of gas is now an American melodrama. Regular was above $4.00 this weekend in most states, diesel was closing on $6.00. The 7 percent CPI is out of date with the elections eight months away.

At this moment, in those frigid Ukrainian cities, men and women are shooting down Russian helicopters, evacuating women and children, digging trenches, making Molotov cocktails. They’re building tank traps, loading magazines, pulling victims from rubble, caring for their wounded and burying their dead, attending church services, getting married. They are teaching reverence for life in the midst of hell. Let’s offer a prayer with them, and pay for our gas.   

Hilton Head

March 7, 2022

The Stoney-Baynard ruins fits oddly within the sleek tourist world of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The ruins, a hulk of the remains of a 220-year old plantation house and three outbuildings, stand in a patch of woods near the island’s southern tip.

Sandy and I thought a two-day jaunt down to Hilton Head would be a good idea. We had never been there, we’d heard good reviews. At the time we were struggling to grasp the cataclysmic impact of Putin’s 120 tactical battalions murdering Ukrainians and demolishing their cities, the unleashing of pure evil against humanity. The Putin tank and artillery columns were abetted by the MAGA cadre of useful idiots and fellow travelers, who meanwhile cheered a “convoy” of adult crybabies driving trucks to D.C. to protest vaccine mandates.

We thought we needed a brief change of scenery. Getting out of town to walk on a warm and quiet beach seemed the right thing.

Hilton Head usually is mild in late February, but not this year. We gambled on the forecast and lost. The rain thundered down sideways on the five-hour drive that should have been four hours, as angry clouds coiled above us. Shivering, we checked into a hotel at the northern end of the shoe-shaped island. Still, we thought we should see the beach. “It’s a short walk just past the pool,” the desk clerk said with a smile. We slogged out there, our jackets pulled tight.

On a sunny day the beach would have been beautiful to those who enjoy beaches. The white expanse stretched in both directions to the horizon. The sand sloped gently into low dunes that vanished into thick junglelike forest, no sign of the reckless development that produces the grim three- or four-story rental properties found at many expensive shore playgrounds. Here and there we saw markings of protected sea turtle nests.

Dark gray waves pounded the sand, the wind howled. We hustled inside before our teeth started chattering.

The overcast held firm the next day but the rain tapered off. We drove slowly south, getting a good look at the area, which is swamp-flat, like the rest of the East Coast from Virginia to Florida.

I noticed the Stoney-Baynard site on a map as we found our way to Sea Pines, a cluster of upscale neighborhoods and strip malls and a couple of marinas at the southern end of the island. The Sea Pines Community Association charges admission (private cars, $8.00) to visitors who long to shop and dine there. With the lousy weather, sitting on the beach was out. We paid the eight bucks.

We drove through the tollgate and cruised under giant oaks festooned with Spanish moss, which evokes for me Old South mystery and romance novels and the shady wealth of modern-day pirates and reclusive retirees. The houses along the quiet side streets were mostly hidden by tall hedges and underbrush. Yard-care crews were trimming, mowing, and planting, as if anticipating the drive-by gawking season.

The ubiquitous semi-tropical green was soothing, but the place prompted intimations of exclusivity I’ve sensed in similar communities: the Hamptons, Kiawah Island just south of Charleston, and Sea Island, Ga., where residents’ net worth almost compels them to nest in such places. Golf, of course, was everywhere, with warnings of golf-cart crossings nearly every block. Living in these oases of greenery offers a choice of hobbies: golf, tennis, visiting other similar settlements, and watching your investments. Bowling? Unlikely.

After some car touring we walked through the strip malls, but skipped the spas and the boutiques. We browsed through shops at the “Salty Dog” complex near the water. They mostly resembled the souvenir outlets at Virginia Beach or Atlantic City: racks and stacks of tee shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned “Hilton Head” or “Sea Pines,” ball caps, towels, the usual. Even in late February customers were lining up at the register to buy them, some folks wanted two or three.

After getting lunch we were about to say so long to Sea Pines when I spied a sign for the ruins. This place surely has some history, I thought. I made a U-turn and we followed the directions. We parked near two other vehicles and hiked up a narrow trail through a bamboo jungle. Around a turn, in a small clearing, we saw the ruins. Another visitor was pausing to read the historical marker, we waited, he moved on.

The history of the ruins is that Captain Jack Stoney, who fought as a privateer in the Revolution, built a grand house on the site in 1793 using a Carolina-unique type of cement called “tabby.” Stoney was killed in a hunting accident in 1821 and his sons James and John inherited the property. William Baynard, a local plantation owner, bought it around 1840. One yarn that juices the history a bit is that in 1837 Baynard won the property from John in a poker game. Union soldiers arrived in 1861 and the Baynard family fled. The soldiers eventually burned the place.

What’s left is part of the walls of the main house and some of the tabby-stone blocks marking the site of the slave quarters and overseer’s house, and the foundation of a structure occupied by the soldiers. Like many curiosities of dubious historical significance (to me), it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

We stared at the remains of the plantation house. Another path through the woods led to the outbuildings. The other visitors had disappeared. We looked at the rest of the site then followed the trail, which curved through thick woods to a quiet street lined with large homes. We walked along the grassy shoulder under the trees. A woman with a dog gave us the once-over, no doubt debating whether to call the police. We nodded and kept walking.

Soon we found the trail back to the ruins. I reread the history of Captain Stoney and the strange end to his once-prominent plantation house. The clearing was quiet, deserted. The spot and its glimpse of local history rated only a brief stop. I wondered about those violent moments in 1865, when the house went up in flames. We paused. In that moment the images and sounds of Russian savagery returned. The silence and the soft feel of the green woodland offered a touch of calm. I thought of Ash Wednesday and Lent, the season of preparation and atonement. We turned and moved forward.