wreckage

 

Tom and I plunge headlong into the woods on yet another punishing hike up an icy mountain. Hours and hours of sweating in the woods is the regulator in the up-down emotional beating that is our world right now. It’s the fifth day in a row of some self-imposed all day grind up some mountain or another. He starts off grumbling (humorously) under his breath about how some people when they’re on vacation sit around and put their feet up and relax and maybe read a book rather than getting dragged on one adventure after another by their "batshit crazy" wife. Hmmm. This does ring true. Then again, he does continue to say yes and then follow me out the door on these outings.  I can hear Tom humming along behind me:  Drank a cheeseburger, ate a six pack, took a Darvon to kill the pain… the song goes on to say something about being a rodeo cowboy and living through it all so you can talk about it later. Jerry Jeff Walker, I think. Tom’s suffering generally comes off as comic relief.

 

To be honest though, by the end of the week I am in ruins. Trashed. A pile of wreckage. February has been quite a stretch of joyful highs and dark lows: A 17 year old becomes the youngest snowboarder to win an Olympic gold. A student opens fire on his classmates. The U.S. Women’s hockey team brings home the gold medal for the first time in 20 years. Parents bury their children in Parkland, Florida. The Olympics inspire and unify us as a nation and global community. Politics and fear divide us with equal vigor. Soar and glide. Crash and bleed. Pick yourself up. Repeat.

 

I don’t spend a lot of time on social media. I take regular “fasts” from the news. It’s not quite a head in the sand approach to survival, but I’m not proud of how close it comes to that. I learned years ago that I am easily jolted off balance and kept awake staring at the ceiling if I don’t keep the worry of the world at arm’s length, in stasis. It’s one reason I spend so much time in the woods where things make sense. We humans are a confusing mix of strong and fragile. Equal parts unmoving moss covered stone foundations in the Vermont woods and ... also a teetering tower of Jenga. We do our best to stand tall in a superhero pose, bravely pinging away with raised forearm the incessant meteor showers of bad news. School shootings. Ping. AR-15s. Ping. The Taliban. Ping. The national budget. Ping. Economics, sex trafficking, opioid addiction, student debt, health care. Ping, ping, ping, ping, ping. The second amendment, parents burying their children, the NRA, climate change. Ping, ping, ping, ping. But then, and somehow simultaneously behind the armor, also a forlorn weeping trembling rocking-in-the-corner puddle of uselessness. Keeping kilter is confusing, hard work, and sometimes only barely manageable.

 

I work in a school. My desk is the first thing you see when you walk in the front door. If our little school becomes next on the list, I will almost without a doubt be the first body to fall. While this thought has given me reason to shop the internet for my own personal bullet-proof vest, imagining my bleeding body on the floor is, oddly, not the thought that keeps me up at night. I can’t stop thinking about the kids on both sides of this story. For one child, things are so far gone that he sees his very best option as walking into a school with a semi-automatic weapon and opening fire. And for the rest, we adults, the ones who are supposed to be in charge of things and keeping order and making sure everyone is okay... we are either bodies on the floor or survivors who failed all involved in one way or another.   


The ongoing passionate debate about gun control vs. second amendment rights is missing the point. There are a lot of things that need to be figured out. A lot of brokens that need to be fixed. A lot of hurdles and obstacles demanding courage and cooperation and patience and resilience and creative navigation. In the meantime, there’s another factor at play that needs a little more air time in the collective conversation: there has got to be more that each of us can do to connect with the kids in our lives. In our classrooms, in the halls, in the lunchroom, on the playground, on the bus. The big and little ways each day we say to a child I see you and you matter this is everything.

 

We already know it makes a difference. We already know that bringing attention to the social-emotional learning of a child is just as important as the academic content of what happens at school. Robert Brooks's research tells us that "strengthening a student’s self-worth is not an 'extra' curriculum; if anything, a student’s sense of belonging, security, and self-confidence in a classroom provides the scaffolding that supports the foundation for learning, motivation, self-discipline, responsibility, and the capacity to deal more effectively with mistakes." Kids need connections. We all do. Resilient adults commonly report that they had what it took to get through adversity when they were younger because they knew they had someone in their corner, someone looking out for them, someone believing in them. We need to make contact.  And, also maybe spend as much time sweating (and singing) in the woods as we can.

the farm

the farm

I am sitting on the south-facing porch at the farm. The sun is rising, streaking cantaloupe peach strawberry runners through the valley. Water flows out of the south end of the pond, just near enough that there is the constant purr of water, but far enough that I can crisply hear other sounds: a 1-2-3 call of the crow making its morning rounds; the squeak of the sweet little gray birds warning each other that crow is up and about now. I saw four of them in the ancient butternut tree yesterday and am reminded to look them up in the bird book when I get home. Now other birds begin to sing too. It’s chilly. I’m bundled in a down parka with a hood over my two hats, winter boots, wrapped up in the wool blanket Tom gave me for my birthday this year. There is snow on the ground. Not a lot, but enough to cover everything. In the field, the blunt stub ends of grass poke through the top crust, freckling the otherwise unbroken snow. The purple martin bird house is still in the same spot. Now a small gray bird lands just a few feet from me, chirping and clicking and studying me sideways.

 

I can smell the wood smoke wafting down from above and behind me. I made a fire in the wood stove last night and have been feeding it since. Another bird scolds and chirps to my left as the mango streaks in the sky get wider and taller and fade into blue. The snow takes on a pink tinge, a faded more subtle version of what’s in the sky. The old farm road runs right through my view, slicing the canvas masterpiece laid out in front of me. Split rail fence. Swung open gates no longer serve a purpose. Sheep fencing. Greg’s rock. A barred owl calls from behind my right shoulder. Three times, now a fourth, and a fifth. The other birds go suddenly mute.

 

It warmed up in the 40s yesterday, softening the snow. Last night’s chill has set it again, crusting it over, making for noisy walking in the woods. The trails are calling, and the fingers of my writing hand sting uncomfortably, but I am hesitant to break this silence by crunching across the snow. I wait a little longer, still and watching. Now a raven. This is my favorite part: the light first emerging from darkness. Witnessing the world’s wake-up. The whole day of promise stretched out ahead like a clean slate. I want to slow it down, stretch it out, make it last as long as I can. The birds in the nearby tree must have forgotten me as I shift my weight and rustling noises come from my jacket, they sound the alarm and lift into the air, now gone, and I am alone again.

 

Yesterday I arrived here early afternoon, wandering from room to room in the farmhouse, remembering. Kitchen cupboards left open, empty. Rooms mostly cleaned out except for a dresser here, a couple of wooden chairs there, a few side tables stacked and waiting for their next home. The farmhouse was built in 1788. My great grandfather acquired it when its previous owners went down on the Titanic. Our family's great luck out of another's worst misfortune. The living room looks smaller somehow. I haven’t been inside this house in 20 years. I can remember just how it was arranged. The breakfast table here by the window. The sofa placed at an angle with a dog bed on the floor behind it, just next to the entry into the kitchen. Grandy’s chair in that corner by the door that leads out to the screened porch where we gathered in summer to eat corn on the cob and heavily salted green beans with butter and birthday cakes in July and August. This here was Nene and Grandy’s bedroom. Standing flat-flooted, my fingertips can graze the ceiling. There is one tiny closet evidence of a time when everyone had less stuff. This bathroom. Hundreds of times reaching into this medicine cabinet over the sink and squeezing toothpaste onto my toothbrush, then rinsing my mouth with the gray plastic sparkly cup that was forever resting in this holder. This room here had two beds. A lifetime ago I remember climbing into bed one afternoon with a headache, the fan blowing strong in my face. I woke late. Everyone had turned in for the night, but Nene was still up. She had saved me a plate of food and kept me company while I picked at it in silence. I realize now that the long-since painted over wallpaper in that bedroom was garish  every inch covered with woodland creatures but I loved it as a kid. On the kitchen counter to the left of the stove sat four aluminum canisters with flour and sugar and such. The smallest one at the end always had ginger snaps.

 

Right in front of where I now sit is open ground, just lawn. But there used to be a pool here. A heated pool. An unbelievable thing as a kid. We would swim all day long, until our fingers and toes were raisined and our eyes were foggy. Nene would bring out cucumber and tomato sandwiches, forcing a break to eat and drink her iced tea with fresh mint. A rickety clothesline outside the kitchen window held our dripping suits.

 

There are two horse stalls in the tiny rectangular barn. Three, if you count the one that just always had stuff in it. The little tack room is gone now. What happened to that, I wonder? When did that get taken down? It smelled of leather. And there was always a box of sugar cubes. The horses would take a cube from my flattened palm, their lips soft and their breath warm. A sugar cube for each of them and one for me too.

 

My frozen fingers will hold out no longer, and I can resist the call of the woods not a minute more. Off to explore. I grew up walking these trails with Nene and her dogs. She taught me that wintergreen berries are a tasty treat and that moss and lichen always grow on the north side of a tree and that if you ever get lost in the woods just find a stream and follow it because around here eventually water will always lead you to a road or to people. We would throw sticks and trail debris into the woods, making one of her dogs bark. Moss covered rocks were my pillows. Nene never hurried me when I would stop walking to kneel down and put my head on them. 

 

My mother inherited the wildest plot of land when my grandparents died. Her dream was to move back here one day and build a house. In the meantime it roils with wildlife and oak trees and mountain laurel. Ancient farm roads lead to a wild meadow with apple trees and an overgrown century-old foundation from when Doctor Beebe lived here. Crumbling stone walls. Trickling streams and abandoned beaver ponds and towering pines and birch stands. Winter exploration is the best: animal tracks are everywhere and when you climb this humble section of these 440-million year old Taconics, farmland views to the east and Tom Ball mountain are only possible through the leaf-bare trees. It's a tasty collection of winding narrow trails, woods roads, open meadow, tight, steep, flat, up, down, and water. Big beautiful hawk. Craggy old trees. Mountain laurel everywhere. Not a soul on the trails for three hours.

 

I return to the farmhouse and load up my car with family treasures: wool blankets, floor lamps, wooden end tables, two tiny pitchers, a hay fork, a basket, a hooked chair pad. Before I leave this place I want just one more tree climb. I haul myself up into the old butternut tree and look north across the old horse and cow pasture. My brothers and cousins and I scrabbled our way into this tree dozens if not hundreds of times. It has taken a beating in some recent winter storms. Haggard, but still it stands. I climb down and am on my way. Just past Seekonk Cross Road I see a bald eagle soaring and circling over a pine stand in a big field. A pair of inky corvids scold and chase. I put my hazards on and pull over to watch. As I step out of the car and close the door, I realize I have spooked another bald eagle perched in the tree right next to me. It screeches and takes off. I watch the two eagles rise and circle for awhile until they they are out of sight. Goodbye, Alford.

january 17th

I wake up today to find a note from Tom taped to the bathroom mirror. While I slept, curled up in blankets in the dark he was pouring his heart out to me: “Please know that I love you. And more importantly, I appreciate all that you do for me in my life and how easy you make it. It would be undoable without you. Without you, who would I love?” He comes into the bathroom to find me weeping. Bed-rumpled, unshowered, morning mouth. Feeling things. All raw and split open. I thank him for the note and cry into his shoulder.  I don’t know if he specifically wrote it because he was remembering today, January 17th, or if it’s just portentous timing. Doesn’t really matter, I guess. Wrapping his arms around me he says quietly, I made my wife cry… which of course makes me laugh. We both know it’s good. I am wound tightly. Intense. Tough. I think about things long and hard and deeply, but I work hard to keep a tight grip on my feelings. Feelings have a mind of their own. They are unpredictable and messy little buggers, wreaking havoc on my preference to be in control. I don’t cry very often. I desperately need opportunities to do so and this is a good one. Happy sad tears.

 

I am standing at the window as the morning light begins to reveal Breadloaf Mountain while fear folds itself around me, cold fingers on the back of my neck. I am letting it. I am allowing a moment to really let myself feel how very hard I love the people in my life. Not just a thought, but a deep soul knowing. It’s big, this chest cracking white searing happy sad. And I know I am lucky to be feeling it because it’s evidence that I am a human on this beautiful planet breathing in and out and living life. And it means that I understand what it is to love — to really really let yourself love and be loved. Loving like that and then losing it has broken me a little bit. I am weirder now than I was before Zach died. It changed me. I carry with me some magical scars and odd-ball baggage.

 

I met Zach the summer I turned 22 — the same age my daughter is now. I had just graduated from college, flying free, and decidedly not looking to encumber myself with a serious relationship or complicate my life by falling in love. Alas, the universe has its own plans. Our lives collided and I was never the same. Diving in was not even a choice. I was 100% swept away. About 7 years later, on his 38th birthday, he was diagnosed with cancer. Hannah was 7 months old, sitting on his lap at the time. It marked the beginning of one hell of a battle. Exactly one year later, on his 39th birthday, the cancer won, Zach struggled for his last few breaths, and was gone. There is something ruinously and tragically beautiful about that exquisite perfect circle.

 

Today marks 21 years since his death. It feels like lifetimes have happened in the meantime. My sadness today comes from thinking about all he has missed. 21 of Hannah’s birthdays. Her first day of school. Losing her first tooth. The chicken pox. Halloween costumes. Crying over 5th grade Language Arts assignments. The awkward bangs-growing-out pre-pubescent years. The heady teen years. Practicing for her driver’s test, going to prom, graduating from high school, packing up the car on the morning she left for college. He has missed all this. 84 times the seasons have changed. The sun has risen and set 7665 times and he has missed all of them. More than 250 full moons. Fresh snowfalls. Spring peepers, barred owls, and coyote tracks. Millions of hikes in the woods. The breeze at the top of a mountain. Opening the mail. Thunderstorms. Fresh bread and good beer. Laughing, crying, waking up to another day.

 

For awhile I created a belief that he wasn’t missing any of it. He was experiencing it somehow in the mists nearby, getting to feel it all, his presence felt by us. I wanted this to be true. I needed it to be true so I could survive. It’s too devastatingly sad otherwise. Rock-climbing in Joshua Tree three months after he died, clinging to a sheer pitch, afraid, I suddenly saw his face in front of me, felt him nearby, giving me courage. He was right there with me on a freezing January night skiing in the woods when the ice covered branches tinkled against each other like an enormous wind chime. I could feel him smiling. On rare nights when I was able to sleep, he visited me in my dreams. It confused me. How are you here? You died, I saw it happen. And then I would ask him, What’s it like where you are?  A kayaker with a rollicking sense of humor, he answered: Wet.  These visitations happened for years, catching me by surprise, comforting me, confusing me. They continue even now, after so many years have passed. Even after Tom’s life collided with mine, and I surprised myself by falling in love again, opening myself to the potential for this kind of soul-wrecking anguish all over again.

 

The heartache of my own loss over the years morphed into more of a grieving for what Zach was missing out on. But these sorrows can't touch the impossible sadness of what Hannah has lost.  Never knowing her father for herself. Her memories are all manufactured by those of us who knew him. We try to help create some sort of knowing for her, a sketch, a charcoal rendering of a man. It falls hopelessly short. None of us can begin to fill the chasm of her unknowing. All I can give Hannah are the treasures I have saved. Notebooks filled with his handwriting. A quilt made out of his shirts. His favorite books. Photos, of course. Stories and memories I hope she can carry like gems in her pocket.

 

And traditions. The traditions we have created around January 17th have changed as Hannah has traveled through babyhood, childhood, and now enters adulthood.  We have sent messages in bottles over the falls in Middlebury and put notes in balloons to release in the big field next to Breadloaf. Lit candles. Kneaded bread. Shopped for notebooks to fill with our feelings.

 

Recently we have been meeting in Burlington for a chilly walk along the lake and a meal together. We write down some of our favorite quotes or sayings on little pieces of paper, roll them into tubes, tie them with string, and then stash them randomly about the city. We know that some will never be found. They will become covered with snow, later disintegrating into the March mud when spring begs. Others will fall between cracks and disappear forever or become bedding in a bird's nest. The ones that are found might be discarded or ignored. They might be laughed at. They may be revered, treasured, taped into a journal.  Or maybe they are rolled back up and re-stashed for the next guy. We’ll never know. I like to imagine these little notes on a cosmic course with some future potential recipient, currently moving through life unaware. They will look up or down or over just in time to notice the tiny treasure poking out of somewhere, they’ll pick it up and read it and in this way Zach’s life will again collide with another, with any luck changing it forever.

pride

It’s 6 below zero when Tom and I set out from Forest Road 55 in Granville to find the Clark Brook Trail. I’ve got 5 layers on top, two hats, two hoods. In my pack are extra socks, extra mittens, one more hat, two more top layers, two thermoses of hot tea, a liter of water, a small bag of trail mix, microspikes, and a headlamp. Tom’s pack is twice as big as mine. I think he’s got a campstove and a couple of sleeping bags in there, plus all the extra layers and snacks,  a firestarter, hand and toe warmers, extra batteries, and an emergency tarp. The plan is to snowshoe up the Clark Brook Trail to the Long Trail, then follow the LT south to the Middlebury Gap where we’ve left my car. It's a little more than 7 miles.* We figure once we get up to the LT it’ll be mostly flat and relatively easy going, even if we don’t have tracks to follow. But Clark Brook Trail is an unknown. We’ve never explored this area before.

 

I sign us in to the register and notice that the last sign in was on December 9th. Looks like we’ll be breaking trail. We’ve had over two feet of snow since then. This is going to be work. Even so, we’ve got between 5 and 6 hours of daylight. Should be plenty of time if all goes as planned.


 

A few minutes in we see a sign that indicates we are, indeed, on the Clark Brook Trail. Off to a good start. It also says “WATER CROSSING .5 MI” at which point I remember noticing at the trailhead a sign warning hikers that the bridge is out. Things are interesting already.

 

After the water crossing I take the lead. I’m cold and I need the extra work of breaking trail to warm up. My toes are starting to bark at me and I know it’s easier to stay warm than get warm, so I begin to set an aggressive pace. The air is cold and my face is cold, but my core is toasty and as soon as I take the lead my heart rate goes up. There is an enormous difference between setting your feet in already packed snow and breaking trail. It takes about ten minutes for the blood to return to my toes. Much better.

 

It’s really beautiful in these woods. There’s not much undergrowth. It’s primarily beech, maple, and birch with the occasional century-old white pine rising out of unbroken snow. The trail is pretty easy to follow thanks to intermittent blue blazes and a common sense fall line. We only lose it once, but Tom finds it again almost immediately.

 

As we climb the snow deepens and things get much more difficult. We cross into some new alpine zone and gradually the woods change. More evergreens, much closer together, pinching us in from both sides. We take turns breaking trail now, switching it up every ten minutes or so. It begins to feel like interval training: pushing hard, quads screaming, heart smashing, sweat forming, hold it here, keep pushing, go anaerobic, then drop behind and take a break. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

 

From the trailhead to the intersection where we pick up the Long Trail is only three miles. I check my watch. We are moving impossibly slow. This is taking much longer than we thought it would. Still, it’s early, we have plenty of time. I don’t give voice to this thought, but I'm thinking we just need to get ourselves to the Long Trail, heave ourselves up to the top of this dang ridge and then we can reassess. I don't like the idea of not finishing this whole hike. I hope if we push hard we can get ourselves back to the Middlebury Gap as planned. Even if it means hiking the last couple of miles in the dark. We have headlamps. We can do it.

 

The snow is now close to three feet deep and the elevation gain is suddenly intense. Our snowshoes are small and each step sinks a dozen or so inches. Holy hell this is hard. Every step is a Herculean effort and I am not suffering silently. Despite Tom’s offers to take a turn breaking trail for awhile, I am still in front. Grumbling and swearing, I chide myself loudly for my mule-like unwillingness to yield. This hike is kicking my ass. I can hear Tom right behind me, chuckling. I am convinced we are close to the top so I refuse to give it up. I am stubborn and competitive and I’ll be damned if I’m going to turn over the lead to Tom only to have him reach the intersection first.

 

This thought, naturally, cues the forces of the universe that lie in wait for prideful humans to forget their place in nature.

 

All at once, we are decidedly in serious moose country. Huge tracks everywhere. Moose have not only been through here, they hang out here. Pooping, peeing, chomping off the ends of pine boughs, lounging. The woods are incredibly dense. Tom and I agree that if we somehow come upon a moose we are absolutely without a doubt 100% fucked. No one is moving anywhere fast through this hip deep snow. Not that we could outrun a moose anyway. But we sure as shit couldn’t move out of its way if it decided to come at us. We start making a lot of noise, just in case Mr. Moose hasn’t heard us clomping up the hill from a mile away already.

 

It’s at about this point that Tom’s left calf goes twang.

 

Well, shit.

 

We’ve been hiking nearly three hours and have covered less than three miles. The writing has been on the wall for awhile. I have already silently conceded that we are unlikely to complete this hike as planned. A new replacement plan is needed: get to the Long Trail, drink some hot tea, take in the view, and then head back. In light of this new development, abandoning both the original plan and now the new plan takes no thought at all. This is an easy decision. But it also fills my mouth with bitter disappointment.

 

The first few minutes of the hike down are a little unsettling. Now that we’re no longer climbing I’ve gone almost instantly from toasty warm and breathing hard to damn cold. And Tom can’t exactly limp at a keep-yourself-warm pace. I find myself jogging down the trail, then turning around and jogging back to him. How you doing? He's moving slow but looks cheery enough. Okay, I’ll be right back. I jog down the trail awhile, turn around, jog back. Still okay? Warm enough? He assures me he's doing fine. Off I go. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

 

Back at the truck we struggle to make our fingers work. Snowshoe bindings won't budge. Can't unclip backpack straps. Zippers won't unzip. Fingers fumbling for keys. Can't unlock door. Must start engine. So cold, so cold, so cold. Trying to move faster makes things worse. Drop keys in snow. Can't do it with mittens on but fingers won't work to take mittens off. So cold, so cold, so cold. Whoa, I'm thinking, are we really going to freeze to death outside this truck right now?  It takes four hands and 20 numb fingers working together to unlock the truck, fit the keys in the ignition and get the truck started. We climb in and sit on our hands and wait for the feeling to come back. The outdoor temperature reads -1. It's 3:30.

I know we are lucky to be back safe. But if I'm being completely honest, I'm frustrated about having to cut the journey short. I get a little quiet and kind of stew in our foiled attempt for a minute. I need to remember, though, that it was at the precise moment I was digging in my heels and holding fast to the stupid prideful course, nature reminded me that she is in charge, not me. Hmmm. Okay. I feel like I've been on the receiving end of this message before. Perhaps now the lesson is learned.

I run this "lesson learned" idea by Tom. He doesn't even pause. Yeah, but, you didn't. Learn the lesson, he means. He knows me so well.

*Footnote: Turns out the map figuring was a little off. We discover later that if we had completed the entire hike as planned it would have been more like 11+ miles. Woops. That overnight emergency equipment Tom insists on carrying everywhere might have come in handy after all.

 

last call

We are in the middle of a come-hither-if-you-dare outdoor playground: the Green Mountain National Forest.  All seasons, rain or shine, muggy or sub-zero, day or night. It’s right here, tempting us, begging us. We do not resist. 

 

Sundays all spring and summer Tom and I run the Snowbowl  the local ski area a mere 4-minute drive from our home. It's up the Proctor, down the Youngman, up the Wissler to the top of the Lang where we follow the Long Trail south back up to the summit, then down the Voter. It's not a lot of miles, but climbing and dropping 1000 feet a few times takes a couple of hours. We want to complete it, but we're not in a hurry. It's summer and we have all day. So much light. We stop and pick up a turkey feather, take the occasional pee break, pick up the heart-shaped rock, gasp at the views and exchange silent high-fives after a particularly rugged uphill slog. It's not easy. Some days it's actually a little bit miserable. But still we love it, and we do it because we can’t help ourselves.

 

 In late summer on the long dusk-touching run to Goshen Dam the look-at-me clouds become quickly darkening skies. Too quickly. We are summer spoiled and haven't entirely remembered that autumn light fades faster. There is not enough time to complete the whole out-and-back run, but we do it anyway. Not enough daylight left for us to pause at the turnaround point, but we do it anyway. As the light vanishes, we drink in the view in giant gulps, not ready to turn our backs to it.  We leave the last few rays of October sunset and re-enter the blackening woods. We run out of light and keep running. At some point we decide to leave the trail and bushwhack our way to the road just as dark as the woods, but the footing is a little more of a sure thing. It’s a long punishing run home through the blinding blackness, mostly downhill on hard-packed dirt road. 

 

It happens again on skis as the light is fading and leaving giant golden brushstrokes of yellow across Breadloaf’s snowy pines. Blair and I push along through a foot of freshly fallen whisper light snow. A stretch of leafless shrubline separates the pristine blanket of snow-road from the stark stand of evergreens. Viridian touching burnt umber touching titanium white, it is an artist's creation with oils on canvas. We turn around before we want to, declining winter's invitation to continue and then ski back in the dark. It reminds me of the Goshen Dam run and I tell Blair the story about standing there, breathing hard, chugging the view even though there wasn’t time. And indeed, it happens again: the light sprints away, the black air seeps around us, and on our skis we glide silently into nightfall.

 

In winter Tom and I go walking up the road in the freezing cold. Breath coming out of us in fat puffs. The sky just barely beginning to clear after so many days of low gray clouds. Just one star, then another. We don’t talk at all. Just walk, side by side, hands in pockets, elbows brushing elbows. As we approach the winter solstice, it seems we live in forever darkness. Rising in the dark, coming home in the dark, always dark. At the end of our walk we hear a barred owl calling from way up on the ridge. Just twice, two chilling pleas, wafting unanswered through the black unmoving night.

stepping up

In November I come up for air from an 11 week full immersion experience. To be fair, I haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve been here all along, living in my house, going to work, doing most of the things I do in my life. It’s just that to the mix I add coaching a high school girls soccer team, and from the middle of August until early November that is the entirety of what I think about. When I’m out for a run, I’m thinking about drills to encourage more aggressive play in and around the 18 yard box. Standing in my kitchen pouring coffee grounds into a filter, I’m planning that day’s pre-game speech. Driving myself home in the dark, I’m taking lessons from today and turning them into practice plans for tomorrow. When I’m lying awake staring at the ceiling, I'm replaying conversations with the girls in my head and hoping I got my parts right. When I’m doing ab work at the end of my morning workout, I’m thinking about ways we can improve our aerial game. And from mid-season on, I’m thinking about how to get us as far into the playoffs as I can and getting ready for the Senior Game and making sure we incorporate penalty kicks into every practice and planning the banquet and still all those other things from earlier in the season too. It’s exhausting and all-consuming and I don’t know how to coach any other way.

 

There is, without fail, a point in every soccer season in which I suffer from the imposter complex. I know intellectually that I’m good at what I do. But something will happen that will cast all that confidence into the shadows of doubt. It whispers and beckons to me from the dark. I know it’s full of shit, but I follow it anyway. In I go, into the dark corners and I sit there letting it wrap itself around me. I know exactly what is happening. I am completely self aware. And I let it happen anyway. The only one who knows this is happening is my husband. Outwardly I am no different. Outwardly I soldier on. I am positive. I am confident. I get things done. But inside, for a few days anyway, I feel completely responsible for every failure or shortcoming or bad thing that has happened on the team. I struggle with how to respond and how to correct it and help us move forward. It happens every single season, in one way or another. It’s painful and it sucks and I cry and don’t sleep and I flail and I question everything. And it makes me better. Like most painful things which completely suck while they’re happening, I recognize that when it’s over I come out the other side having learned something. I emerge from the experience a stronger, better, smarter version of myself.

 

This happens with the team too. It’s referred to as the mid-season slump, although I’ve seen it happen at all different points throughout our two months of togetherness. Everything is ducky and we are building and there’s momentum and we are working together and working hard and seeing it pay off. And then we hit a bump in the road or experience some kind of setback or simply just plateau, and things suddenly look different. It’s enough of a seam for things like doubt or self pity or negativity or fatigue and ambivalence to slip through. And then everybody’s job becomes a little bit harder. This is one of the most compelling moments as a coach. When this happens, it’s pretty interesting to witness how different individuals respond. And then to notice how that shapes how we, collectively, as a team, respond. It’s easy to show up and work hard and be positive and have fun when things are going well. But when things get hard, that’s when our true colors show. Those are the moments when people either step up or, well, they don’t.

 

My husband Tom does Spartan Races. Last winter he attempted the Agoge and found himself faced with some pretty extraordinary challenges out there in the February Vermont woods. He told me about how it was really a contest with himself and about the inner struggles of wanting so badly to just quit but also wanting so badly not to. He told me about how inspiring it was to be with a bunch of bad asses out there in the dark and freezing cold, problem-solving, and pushing themselves harder than they ever knew they could. And he told me about The Shirker. That guy in the group who quietly, almost imperceptibly, did just the bare minimum of what was required. Was he working? Yes. Was he working as hard as the others? Decidedly not. The Shirker did just what was needed and never an ounce more. He took more breaks. He let others shoulder more of the burden of the task while he rested. He took one turn at the hard thing when others doubled up. One could argue that he was the smarter competitor by adopting this strategy: he finished, and Tom did not. Isn't it painful and frustrating to give something everything you've got and still have it not be enough? Yes, it certainly is. But isn't it better to fail knowing you gave it your all as opposed to gliding across the finish line in someone else's tailwind?

 

But maybe that's not the whole tale. I try to remind myself (and Tom, as he’s sharing his narrative) that we never really know a person’s story. What looks like a mediocre attempt to me might be that person’s absolute greatest effort. I remind my team of this from time to time too, to help us stay positive. Your 100% might look really different from your teammate’s 100%. We are all at different starting points. Maybe The Shirker isn’t really, well, shirking. Maybe he's still developing the resources you already have to dig deep and push even harder. Maybe he’s only still in it because he’s watching your efforts and is inspired by them and is somehow, because of your example, finding a way to continue toiling away.  I have long believed that our purpose is to inspire each other and draw inspiration from each other. We do this both on purpose and by accident. You never know how the things that you say or do will ripple out and affect others. We all have different stuff going on beneath the surface. We are all struggling and feeling challenged to some degree or another. Give your pal the benefit of the doubt. Assume she is working as hard as she can right now. Some might say this mindset works not just for the sporting arena, but for being on planet Earth with 7 billion other people too. What if we just choose to believe that everyone is doing the best that they can in every moment, because here's the reality: at some point or another, every single one of us is going to look like some version of The Shirker to someone who does it better than us. Well huh. 

a few more sections

CT Section 6 Wednesday July 26 with Tom

After Section 5 we leave my car parked at Gringo Jack’s in Manchester to save on some driving. Three days later we return to pick it up and travel to the trailhead on South Road our ending point of Section 6. Back to Kendall Farm Road we go to park and get started on today’s run: a 9 mile mix of well-maintained trail, forest roads, dirt roads, open fields, and woods that will take us from Bromley to South Road.

 

Up the logging road toward the town gravel pit we see what looks like the world’s tiniest owl staring at us from a pine branch a few yards to the east of the trail. We duck into the woods, scoot around a marshy section, cross under a power line and take an old grassy (beautifully mown) service road that climbs straight uphill for over a mile. In winter when the deciduous trees have shed their leaves the views are beautiful. Today, we are trying to outrun the deerflies and pace ourselves up this long climb. We run through beech and maple filled woods wearing a cape of mottled sunlight.

 

A long, switchback descent through the forest dumps us out on Route 30 where we dodge traffic and pick up French Hollow Road, admiring some sweet little homes with pretty stellar mountain views. Forest Road 314 brings us away from the civilized world and back into the dense pines and maples where we fly up and down hills until a magnificent beaver pond stops us in our tracks. Such beautiful views of still water, deep green grasses, standing dead wood rising into bluebird skies. The work of the beavers is awe-inspiring. The trail has to be re-routed up the hill and around the pond as they have completely flooded the area. We spook a couple of ducks and a great blue heron as we pass through the north end of the pond. Thick bushes are laden with not yet ripe blackberries and the brambles destroy our legs. Something big has been this way which makes our work a bit easier for a few yards, but the animal doesn’t follow the CT so we are bushwhacking again soon.

 

As we climb we enter a heavily logged area and out into an overgrown path chock full of poison parsnip. We slow down and pick our way through it carefully, trying hard not to make contact for fear of the painful blisters that will cover us if the parsnip oil on our skin is hit by sunlight. We won’t know our parsnip fate for 24-48 hours as there is quite a delay between contact and outbreak. Fingers crossed.

 

Out of the woods and into an enormous field of wild grasses and ripe red raspberry bushes encircling a rock outcropping. We pick and eat for a few minutes in the hot sun, putting off the chore of locating the trail again. No markers, so we bust through chest-high grass and brush. Guessing, we aim ourselves mostly north and eventually find the next marker at the far end of the field. The final bit crosses what looks like someone’s well manicured driveway, then drops into a pine stand. We haul ourselves out of the woods and onto South Road. Section 6 is complete. It’s not hard to find a stream to cool off in and we scrub mercilessly at our skin hoping to rid ourselves of the clinging parsnip oil. A cold beer awaits.

 

CT Sections 7 & 8 July 29 and 30 with Jane

These two sections will prove to be the most impressively maintained sections of the Catamount Trail yet. I later refer to them as the “country club” sections: pine needle dirt, beech leaves and mosses, magical stone walls, carpets of wild blueberry bushes, rolling terrain, beautiful views. We interrupt our easy, run-all-day pace several times to eat fistfuls of wild berries. Somewhere around the Burnt Meadow Bridge and Mud Pond area about one-third of the way through Section 7 we pass through a heavily logged area. The trail has held onto some of the moisture of this rainy summer and a slightly muddy section offers the perfect cast for a freshly-made kitty track. We stop and study it and take some photos. This kitty is big. There are no claw indentations in the mud so we tend to think it’s feline, not canine. Next to my hand for scale, my palm and its print just about match in size. Even without my Ranger Rick badge I’m convinced it’s a Catamount track. Equal parts excited and nervous, we snoop around looking for more evidence and occasionally peer into the branches above us, just in case… The print looks pretty fresh, but I know it’s far more likely that this critter is long gone and not waiting to pounce on us from the trees. Even so, I’m feeling extra glad for Jane’s company at this point so I can keep the focus on how exciting it is to find this track and not succumb to a massive case of the yikes-who’s-watching-me heebie jeebies.

 

Saturday’s 9 mile run feels like a walk in the park in comparison to Section 8 on Sunday. Mostly this is because I start the day with a mistake (making mistakes seems to be some kind of repeating theme on this Catamount adventure) and fail to fuel properly in the morning. Before a long run I like some protein along with some veggies or fruit. My favorite would be a hard-boiled egg and/or a few bites of last night’s leftover steak, followed by some fruit or last night’s leftover salad.  But I forgot that I was beginning the day a bit depleted from yesterday’s run and failed to add some extra easy carbs. Oatmeal would have been a good idea. Shoot. I start slow and get progressively slower not that we’re going for any kind of speed record on these trail runs, but it’s oh so much more fun when I’m well prepared and have good energy and plenty of reserves. Every inch of today’s 10 miles is a struggle. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced the runner’s “bonk” but it’s got to feel something like this.

 

About 3-4 miles in, Jane saves me with some sort of sugary chewy gummy thing she pulls from her pack when she notices I just about topple over after stopping to tie my shoe. This pause in the run gives us the opportunity to notice a humble but spectacular hand-constructed stone bridge. All the stone work old foundations, miles and miles of stone walls deep in the woods, this bridge they all remind me that we humans have gotten kind of soft. It’s inspiring to think of bygone farmers clearing these fields by the strength of their backs, humble plows, earnest animals, and strong will. I doubt they had a stash of quick-energy gummies in their pockets when they felt their energy lagging. That thought both shames and inspires me. Time to toughen up.

 

So on we go, piling on the miles through hard-wood maple and beech groves that stretch forever. Running is joy, even when it's a struggle. Today it's hard, but it's not a race and we're not going for time and there's nothing much at stake except a strong desire to complete this thing. We do it because we can and so that we can, and not many things are more happy-making than that.

 

 

got anything left?

Before we can even begin running Section 5 of the Catamount Trail, there is a lot of driving to do. More, actually, than is necessary, it turns out. But that is to become the theme of the day. More driving, more running, more wrong turns, more back-tracking...

 

Tom and I drive two vehicles from home to the end of Section 5 on Kendall Farm Road. We park the truck and get in my car to drive to the start. The first mistake of the day is to leave the shuttle driving directions at home. The CT does an excellent job of helpfully spelling out exactly where to leave your vehicle at any drop off or pick up point anywhere along the trail and the best route from that point to the start. Googlemaps not so much. So we fumble along consulting the printed google maps directions and the Vermont map to get ourselves awkwardly and inefficiently from the end of Section 5 back to the beginning of it. It takes us about 90 minutes to navigate the convoluted route through remote single lane river-winding dirt roads obviously hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene. (At the end of it all, we realize there was a much more direct route which took only about 20 minutes to our earlier 90. Tom reminds me for the millionth time that there is really nothing about any of this thing I'm doing that’s efficient. I need to let it go.)

 

Running a half mile or so down Kelley Stand Road toward the beginning of Section 5 we pass the LT/AT parking area, climb a hill, and find the CT heading into the woods on what looks like an old logging road. It feels great to be back in the woods again. My ankle has healed up well and feels strong. Within a few minutes we are consumed by deerflies and find ourselves calf deep in a soggy muddy bog of moose heaven. I search for the high ground and pick my way through, holding onto the idea of keeping my feet dry for as long as possible. Tom splashes right through, transitioning quickly and easily to the “get wet and muddy” part of the adventure. Years ago we had an Australian Shepherd, Sully, who went out of his way to seek out the puddles and dive right into the slop. Tom is an open channel to Sully’s spirit on the trail.

 

We continue to slog through the moose and deerfly soup for another mile or so until the trail ducks into the woods and climbs to a bit of dry ground. We find ourselves on a well-traveled section of trail which comes out at Stratton Pond. People! Here the Catamount Trail briefly joins the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail which we know because of signage and white blazes and really smelly backpackers. Not that we smell good. Only a couple of miles in and we are both sweat- and stinky mud-covered. This is where the adventure first becomes interesting for awhile. And by interesting I mean we spend the better part of an hour trying different trails that branch out from Stratton Pond and following them for awhile wondering where the CT signs are. Of course, because this is how the universe works, the correct trail is the very last one we try, and so, early into this 10 mile run we’ve already added at least a couple of extra miles. Better to make that mistake while we’re still fresh and energetic and are making jokes about it. A very nice AT hiker gets out his smart phone and tries to help us figure out where to pick up the CT, but all he’s got is the AT mapped out on there. Not a very smart phone if you ask me. Tom wants to stand around and chat but this guy, very nice and all, smells. Like, really really smells. Not his fault, of course. He’s hiking the Appalachian Trail and probably hasn’t seen soap or hot water in weeks. Also, he’s wearing one of those performance moisture-wicking shirts (read: hold onto the stink like you’re life depends on it shirts).

 

We discover that the CT piggybacks on the AT/LT for a little while and, assuming we’ve got that silly losing the trail mistake behind us we float along without a worry in the world. Trail running does mean keeping your eyes down a lot, what with having to watch how you place your feet and all. Especially for those of us (me) who trend toward the dorky end of the spectrum and can sprain the living crap out of an ankle on a perfectly flat section of road. (See last blog entry if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) So, with the eyes focused on the trail in front of you, sometimes you will miss a sign. As I explain to Tom, it’s also easy to miss signs when you’re running as fast as we are. He agrees, adding it’s amazing we haven’t started a forest fire with this blistering pace.

 

Stopping for a snack gives SBD (Smelly Bearded Dude) enough time to catch up with us. He is, apparently, the fastest hiker in the world because how else would he have caught up to us? We’re running!  Anyway, with a friendly smile he asks if we’re lost again. No, no, we got it, we finally found the trail. He kindly mentions that he thinks the CT branched off of this trail awhile back. Sure enough, we backtrack and see the spot where earlier we had zipped right past the sign indicating that the CT North goes that way. Disaster averted. I wonder how many more miles we would have run before we remembered we were supposed to be looking for blue diamonds, not white hash marks. Thank you, SBD!

 

The route description provided on the CT website describes all of this in a really helpful printout which I like to carry with me for each section when I run, just in case something like this happens. In the winter, it’s probably easier to figure it out, what with ski tracks to follow and all. If I had not left said printout in the car, we’d be golden. Dumbass.


Three thousand hours and a few more oops missed the trail again detours later we descend a reeeaaaaaallllly lllloooooooonnnnnggggg sssstttttteeeeeeeep hill past a couple of big piles of bear poop and some of those neato translucent peace pipe mushrooms pushing up out of the leaves. At one point the CT seems to go two directions at once, one of which leaves the steep downhill and is labeled “easy way.” Tom and I look at each other, briefly tempted, considering our options. Screw that, we agree. After all this we’re not taking the damn “easy way.” Our knees and hips and lower backs curse us as we continue down the hill. Crossing a beautifully built bridge we come to an intersection with a sign telling us we’re still 3.7 miles from the truck. Either that or it’s less than that if we go this way instead of that way. Or it could be more. Who knows? On we go.

 

At some point I guess I just black out because I don’t remember much else until we climb up onto Kendall Farm Road a little ways from where the truck is parked. I snap out of my trance at the sound of Tom's voice as he taunts me with Got anything left? which is what we like to say to each other when we know we’re less than a mile from the finish and one of us wants to race. I won't share all the details — some of what happens on the trail needs to stay on the trail. All I'm saying is that while I would prefer to beat him fair and square, I really need that head start. 

the first part

Section 1, July 4, 2017

The first section of the Catamount Trail is an abandoned railroad bed turned moss-covered and grassy, with occasional spikes and ties poking through the detritus and mud. We run 1.8 miles south of the “start” to tag the Massachusetts state line, then turn around and retrace the route that hugs the shoreline of the Sherman Reservoir. Shaded from the hot sun, we can see the bright blue water through the leaves.  Leaving the RR bed to parallel it, passing an ancient trestle, and then returning to the RR bed. Emerging from the woods and losing the trail. Climbing a steep hill in the wrong direction and asking a local for help. Turning around and running down the hill to the highway. Still not finding the trail but feeling our way through something that looks kinda right. Wrangling a rose bush. Climbing over and under debris. Finally finding the trail and bushwhacking our way through a tangle of side of the road opportunist weeds. Winding along the Deerfield River, the trail is mud, streams, and soft pine needle dirt. Emerging from the woods at our destination, Mia and I are surprised that it's over already. The first 8 miles are behind us. 

Section 2, July 5, 2017

This section skirts the Harriman Reservoir on the same ancient railroad bed. Just before entering the woods we find a broken robin’s egg lying on the few remaining strands of nest. Grateful for the shade from an 80 degree day, we are off to a good start. Well, almost. About a half mile in I realize I've left my keys (the ones we'll need at the end of our run today) in Mia's car. Okay then, off to a bit of a clunky start. But at least I remembered nice and early in the run. I shudder to think what we would have done if at the end of 10 miles we reached my car only to be locked out of it. Thank you whatever spirits were floating by in that moment for yelling at me about my forgotten keys! I leave Mia on the trail and retrace my steps to get my keys, and we are off again. Flat easy terrain along the edge of the reservoir. Dramatic rock cuts tunneling the passage of long ago trains. The long gentle river-grade trail becomes a service road. Perfect raccoon prints in the mud. Easy endless gliding strides bring us out at the northernmost end of Harriman Reservoir. Following the trail / road through the crowded public picnic area, we glide past people lounging and grilling and swimming and boating. Leaving the road to bushwhack through beaver and hay meadows, we make our way through grasses as high as my chest, carefully avoiding the poison parsnip. More bushwhacking through an old apple orchard. More grasses and pricker-laden berry bushes and very slow going. Climbing and dropping and following a power line. Discovering wild blueberries. Following the prints of deer who use this trail as easier travel. Emerging on a busy highway. Crossing a high bridge with cars flying impossibly fast. It's hard to imagine skiers navigating this part when the roads are winter-covered. But now we have reached the car and today's 10+ miles are complete. On a long run in remote wilderness, company is better than solitude. I am about to find this out on Section 3.

 

Section 3, July 6, 2017

Heidi joins me for the first mile or so. Glad for her company and enormously grateful for help with shuttling cars. It's an easy start: beautiful, grassy, gentle, and flat. Parallel to the highway and river it takes a little while for traffic sounds to fade and water sounds to gain. Soon I trade my easy run-all-day pace and forgiving dirt trails for slopping through the mud and waist high weeds. Things slow down. Pretty soon the trail climbs up into a beech stand and things begin to look more like the Catamount Trail I recognize from running around Ripton. And then things become darker, denser, and something changes. Subtle, indiscernible at first, but soon I am uneasy. The woods are closing in and I'm feeling some seriously bad joo-joo in here. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Holy hell I am so uncomfortable. But what can I do? I slow down a little, try to make a little more noise, push down the anxiety, keep the legs moving. Heebie jeebies wash over me, whisper in my ear, tap me on the shoulder. I keep going, having a conversation out loud with myself about the winding trail and a couple of broken bridges in need of repair and the mama bird I spooked that tries to distract me from her nest and now look, moose prints, and here are some berries that will be ripe in a couple of weeks. Past a couple of beaver ponds, through the hilly woods, taunted by the musty smells of forest life and my discomfort keeping pace alongside me. But little by little I am getting closer to the end of today's trek. I can see the sky opening up ahead as I approach the reservoir. Climbing out of the woods and there is my car at the south end of Somerset Reservoir. Today's 8 miles are done. 

Section 4, July 7, 2017

After much logistical chin scratching and brain yoga, I figure out that I will drive my car to the end of today’s run at Kelley Stand and then bike to the start where yesterday’s run ended at Somerset Reservoir. Then do the 10 mile trail run, drive back to the start to retrieve my bike, and head home. The bike ride is 14 miles on dirt forest service road 71. Mostly flat or downhill with a couple of gentle ups (but also a couple of miles of not so gentle ups). It takes awhile, longer than I thought it would, to bike this part. I find a tree off the beaten path and lock my bike to it, eat a little cashew butter, regroup, take a deep breath and head into the woods at an easy jog. The trail skirts the entirety of Somerset Reservoir. Most of it is frequently traveled so it doesn't look like I'll be doing much bushwhacking today.

I am hoping hard not to repeat my "Mole in the Wild Woods" experience of yesterday. Side streams feeding in from the east flow into the reservoir on my left. I get frequent and stunning glimpses of the open water and mountains beyond. Mosquitoes and deer flies swarm madly the couple of times I slow down or pause for photos or a pee or to pick my way through a tricky stream crossing. This section feels effortless and it's a relief to just focus on breathing and stride and bird song and blues and greens and the joy of being in the woods. I'm certainly feeling the demands of being Day Four into the challenge, but I’ve got some good flow. On I go. The miles fly by. Under two hours in, I enter the Grout Pond area. Many campers are quietly going about their morning rituals as I cruise past. Their presence energizes me. I know I am close to completing Section 4. The trail is easy here. Just humming along and feeling great. As suddenly as they appeared, the campsites begin to fade behind me and the CT becomes wild again as it branches north. The grasses and ferns are knee and thigh high here, but I am almost there. I can see the trail opening up and things brightening ahead and know I am close. Emerging from the woods onto Grout Pond Road I have just 1.8 miles to go to get to my car. One untied shoelace flapping. I trudge on. Legs and brain are fatigued but I feel great with the anticipation of completion. Up the hill, onto Kelley Stand Road, and I have arrived.

 

Re-entry July 8, 2017

Holy hell, re-entry is weird. This day is unexpectedly difficult. Arrived home last night tired but energized from my adventure. Today has been strange. I forgot to prepare myself for the bumps and downhill slide of returning to regular life. Especially as today is a rest day much needed but not necessarily welcome. I have been up up up and now… a slower pace and the reality of bills and weeding and laundry and returning calls and emails and a reminder that life has been going on as always while I’ve been in the woods. I miss my endorphins. I am struggling through this day, unable to find any kind of groove. Productive even so: laundry, unpacking, tidying up, cleaning. And the outdoors are calling: gardening, weeding, mowing. Still, nothing is quite right. The indecisive weather is not helping. It rains. The sun comes out. It gets hot. Oppressively humid. It clouds up. The temperature drops. It pours. The sun is out again. The weather is a mirror to my all over the place unsettledness.

Settling in July 9 & 10, 2017

Things on the home front are cool. I’m back in the swing of non-trail life again. I get a lot done at work. I'm remembering how this part of life works and that it's summer and there's so much to enjoy about being home. I have this great conversation with my friend Kate. I tell her about the Section 3 spooky woods experience. Kate lives in Tucson and knows a thing or two about the natives in her area. She tells me about the Tohono O’odham and their closeness with the land and their custom of giving thanks to the land for its many gifts. When things are unsettled or feel threatening, whether in the form of an animal threat or dangerous weather or what have you, they simply “talk to it.”  And offer blessings. Maybe just a little pinch of cornmeal thrown to the wind and a whisper of thanks. Not sure I'll have the presence of mind to remember it the next time I find myself inexplicably fearful in the woods, but I am suddenly madly in love with this concept.

 

Shitfuckdamn July 11, 2017

On my sweet little 4 mile trail run this morning, I zip along unburdened, enjoying a jolly and effortless pace. I know the trail well and remember the places to stop to eat a few wild blueberries. I do a little hill work for good measure and fly around corners and up hills. Pleasantly sweaty a mile from home on a no-brainer section of dirt road, something… happens. I still don’t know what. I must have stepped on a rock or onto the edge of an unnoticed pothole. My left ankle buckles and rolls violently. I’m floating along one second, and hobbling the next, releasing a blue streak of obscenities, bent over, hopping on my good right foot. What the actual hell? Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit. In a few moments I realize I’m okay enough to put weight on it, okay enough to get myself home. But just like that, everything changes.

 

Dr. Mirkin’s 1978 recipe for RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) a protocol coaches and athletes have been following for years is now out. He recently published a paper about how the first two components of RICE, rest and ice, can actually delay healing. Inflammation serves a purpose. When tissue is damaged, the body responds by sending microphages immunity cells and proteins to the traumatized area. The body receives the pain messages to slow down or stop, the area becomes inflamed, and the cells go to work. Our typical human response is to relieve that pain, maybe throwing an ice pack and an ibuprofen or two at it. Turns out, this is not helpful. It’s good for the pain, but not the healing. I am sidelined. And my happy little endorphin fix is the last one I’ll get for awhile.

 

I go about the rest of my day as best I can. Alternating between walking oh so gingerly and elevating. I have an appointment to give blood. I decide not to think about how long it might be before I can run again. Instead I will focus on the life-affirming act of handing over a pint of the good old universal O positive. My finger is pricked to check my hemoglobin and… I fail. Somehow, despite a diet consisting almost exclusively of red meat and leafy greens, I fall below the acceptable level of iron for blood donation today. This day is making me sad. I hold it together and march (okay, limp) bravely through the rest of today's to-do list. At least until Tom comes home. Then, because I can, and because I have been a very brave soldier all day, I fall apart. He helps me come up with a plan and some rehab exercises for sprained ankles and reminds me, sternly, 17 times, that this could very well mean I will not be running again for many days and probably a couple of weeks. No 10K race this Saturday. No Catamount Trail section 5 on Sunday. No Catamount Trail section 6 on Wednesday.

 

It’s embarrassing to admit to the level of despair I am feeling. Poor little white girl can’t go for her daily run. Boo-hoo. I am acutely aware of my privilege in this moment. That I can even conceive of an adventure like running the Catamount Trail in its entirety that my needs are so well met that this can even enter my thought process as a personal goal to go after… this is privilege. Having first become aware of my white privilege in 1985 at St. Lawrence University, I am familiar with the feelings of guilt that come with it. I still don’t quite know what to do with it, but I think that's a post for another day. In the meantime, I am hearkening back to my conversation with Kate a couple of days ago. I think of the Tohono O’odham and how when things get dicey they just start talking with the thing that’s presenting a challenge. Engage in a conversation with it. Make friends somehow, or at least go gently eye to eye with it. And then sprinkle an offering its way and say thanks.

help

For the past couple of years I've been chewing on this idea of running the Catamount Trail — a cross country ski trail that runs the length of Vermont from the Massachusetts border to Canada. A few months ago I watched the documentary about Nikki Kimball, an endurance runner who set the record as being the fastest woman to run the length of the Long Trail. She inspired me to finally take the idea of running the Catamount and put it into action. Nikki was going for a speed record. I will not. Nikki is a sponsored endurance runner. I am not. Nikki has a support team that runs with her, sets up camp, keeps her hydrated, and reminds her to keep going when she'd rather pack it in. They take care of her feet. Her sponsors cheer. Then there's me. No one knows I'm doing this. Well, you do, because I just told you. But no one else knows. I will be running alone. I do have supportive friends and family members, many of whom were quick to give me the thumbs up "like" on this project and some of whom expressed support with a generalized let me know how I can help kind of response. (P.S., for future reference, this is very nice, but not helpful. You'll see why in a minute.)

Skiing the entire length of the CT gets you bragging rights as an “end-to-ender.” I think the Catamount Trail Association sends you a mug or something. But as far as I know no one has ever achieved end-to-end status by running it. Or if they did they kept quiet because it's a ski trail which is (sssshhhhh) technically "not open" in the summer months. If I'm being honest, this is part of the appeal. Am I breaking any laws? Will I get in trouble? What kind of shape is the trail in during summer months? Neck-high nettles? Impassable swamps? Lots of question marks, but this is part of what drives the adventure. Onward. So begins the planning. I figure, as a quasi-responsible adult who works full time with a couple of part time jobs on the side, it will take me 3 summers to complete the task. I mapped it out to run the first 10 sections (there are 31 in all) this summer.

Exciting stuff back in March and April, but now, with my start date fast approaching, I find myself in a state of anxiety wholly of my own making. I am flailing about in a sea of questions: What am I doing? Why am I doing this? How the hell am I going to pull this off? It’s not just the actual running part — I’ve been sticking to the training schedule. Aside from giving in to my guilty pleasures of Vermont cheddar and Fiddlehead, I actually feel reasonably prepared for the physical demands. It’s all the other stuff. The logistics. The nitty gritty of figuring out how to get myself dropped off at start points and/or picked up at end points. How do I ask someone to give up a sizable chunk of their day and put all those miles on their car to be pit crew on this hare-brained adventure?  All kinds of possibilities are presenting themselves to me as a way to avoid having to ask this of someone.

I could just run each section twice: I'd park at the start, run to the end of Section 1, turn around and run back to my car. Repeat with Section 2, etc. The fact that I’m seriously considering this as an option could be a strong indication that I’ve lost most of my marbles. The first section is 8 miles. So... math. That would be a 16 mile run. I’m not going for speed here. I’d be tired, but it’s doable. But that’s just Section 1. And the way I have this thing planned out right now, I’m trying to do the first 4 sections back to back 4 days in a row. That turns an 8 mile run into 16 on Day One, a 10 mile run into 20 on Day Two, a 7 mile run into 14 on Day Three, and an 8 mile run on Day Four into another 16 miler. More math... If I run the whole thing like this, I take a 300+ mile adventure and double it to over 600 miles. Hmmm.

Maybe I could just ask someone to help with shuttling cars.

Enter all the re-questioning about why the hell I’m doing this in the first place. Why do any of us do anything above and beyond survival? What’s it for? When it comes down to it, don’t we all just end up as dust or worm-food anyway? What does it matter what we toil away at all the live-long day? Why not just sit on the deck and enjoy Vermont cheddar and Fiddlehead? Bragging rights? No one cares. I mean of course they care. If they care about you then they care. But the world doesn’t care. The universe doesn’t care. All the shitty race and economic and political and climate problems are not going to get solved by me spending hours and hours and hours of my life running around in the woods trying not to get eaten by bears.

So not only am I not doing anything productive at all by embarking on this adventure, I’m asking people to give up their time to help me. They could be knitting hats for cancer patients if I hadn't asked them to spend the day in their car.

Except that I’m not asking. Because as it turns out, I can’t. I just can't bring myself to ask someone to do this for me when it has basically no purpose and serves no greater good and just feels, well, selfish. Even if I don't have to ask and help is just offered, saying yes to it is so. very. difficult. It generally does not feel good or even okay. Clearly I have issues. I suppose if I were donating a kidney, I could muster what’s needed to let someone drive me home after. But only because the favor of a ride home would be balanced out by having just donated an organ. 

Nope. I’ll figure it out on my own. A slightly less crazy idea emerges: I have a bike. I could drive to the end point of my run and leave my car there, then ride my bike back to the start, run the section back to my car, drive back to the start and get my bike.  This actually feels like a decent plan. It’d be like doing two-thirds of a triathlon. Cool. So now all I need to do is put air in the tires and make sure the gears work and I should probably get myself a bike lock and maybe see if I can find someone to loan me a bike rack. Oh and I guess I better get myself a helmet.

When things get hard, my patterned response is to work harder. Nothing wrong with that. It has served me rather well. I can get quite a bit done in 24 hours. I’ve developed a pretty kick ass work ethic along with some fierce independence and self-reliance. Oh, and also a crippling inability to delegate responsibility or lean on others. Or ask for help. Oh for the love of Pete. I have gone full circle and again, I remind myself that this entire thing is of my making. I hatched the plan. I have created this situation. Why? Why manufacture this summons to contest? Isn't life hard enough? Why do we humans so desperately need to challenge ourselves?

I am reminded of something I knew all along, but maybe forgot for a minute: I do it because I can. I am privileged to have two working legs, two working lungs, and just enough stability and security in my life to pause from the daily whatevers and go after this thing. We seek out challenges because there is great value in it. Sticking it out helps us evolve. It is empowering. Challenging ourselves keeps alive our fiery passions and fuels our creativity. Going for broke and breaking through boundaries is good for us and inspiring to others. New experiences keep us interesting and interested in the world. Getting through the hard stuff helps us figure out what we’re made of and helps us build resilience. It makes us a little better able to handle the unexpected spray of shit that will inevitably fly off the fan of life. When we struggle, it builds compassion and empathy. In a word, it makes us better. And the world really needs each of us to be the very best versions of ourselves.

So on that note, does anyone have a bike rack I can borrow?