A SHORT COURSE IN MIRACLES
Quenton Cassidy, author John Parker’s protagonist in Once A Runner and then again in the more recent but equally spellbinding Again To Carthage, returns to north Florida to regain an old chapter in his running life and to begin anew. Returning to old but still familiar running haunts, Cassidy observes:
“The trail went deep into the endless stand of blackjack pine and water oak and up by Otter Springs and then almost all the way down upon the Suwannee River, where in fact very few old folks stay. Four miles into the run at the bottom of a gentle rise that he called Blackberry Hill, he was startled to see his own ghostly footprints at the edge of the trail. He remembered the day he had made them long ago. It was rainy like this and he was skirting a big puddle, trying to keep his shoes dry as long as he could. Strange to think the evidence of his ephemeral passing would still be here hardened into the earth, partially hidden by encroaching weeds, like poor Lucy’s footprints on that plain in Africa, still there after three million years. Taking the hill with big strides he thought: We really never know what will happen to the scratches we make in this thin dust.” (John Parker, Again To Carthage, Breakaway Books, 2007).
I have likewise returned to Asheville and to my old running haunts, in a desperate effort to escape the early but brutal Tallahassee summer, to celebrate with Sharri our 38th wedding anniversary in our favorite place in the world, and to celebrate the fact that after nearly five years of one malady after another, I am running pain free (a miracle!). The mountains have been calling, I am helpless to resist and why bother? But the drive up is anything but regular. Although we have made this drive dozens of times, I somehow take a wrong turn somewhere in Georgia and the long and short of it (especially the long of it) is that I have turned a 7-8 hour drive into about 11 hours, and we arrive in Asheville at 2 AM. But we arrive (another miracle!).
My plan is to sleep in and schedules be damned, and then go run that seven miles up and down Reynolds Mountain later that morning. But the old internal alarm goes off at 5:30 AM. It is Asheville, man, get moving! Sleep is for the weak. Sleep is overrated. I make my way over to the old Central Avenue YMCA, where parking is free, and away I go. Stiff and tired at first, but as the morning unfolds, the run takes on a special aura all its own. The idea is to run uphill to thee bottom of Patton Mountain Road, but then head down through the Grove Park section of north Asheville, and back to the parking lot, 3.5 miles up, 3.5 miles down. It is a tough run up, a fun, fast run down.
After about 40 minutes of laboring I reach Patton Mountain Road but for reasons still inexplicable I abandon my planned run and take a right, up the steep mountain trail. This will easily add another 20 minutes of hard and relentless uphill running, I do not know why I did it, I just did. The sun has risen by now, the road is steep but deeply shaded, it curves this way and that, but always ascends. My mind and my pace have settled into this easy, peaceful place. OK, I’ll be honest, I was thinking about bears. You always have to think about bears when you run the trails up here. I have smelled them but have never really seen one, a bear awakening after a few months of hibernation has a special but awful aroma unlike anything else you will ever smell. You do not want to smell that smell. I have run with groups of runners who have become very nervous when that smell appeared. We have changed routes when that smell appeared, gone back the other way. Cans of mace and other concoctions have been produced in anticipation, even a gun once. I don’t have anything with me except the shorts on my butt and the shoes on my feet. And a water bottle in my hand. But basically I am zoned out, dorphed out, on a terrific high as I make my way up the mountain.
Then the unexpected. All of what I am going to tell you took no more than 15 seconds to transpire. I am running with my head down, I am watching the trail here, I come around the curve and a large, hairy black object fills my field of vision. My entire field of vision. I have suddenly come face to face with Smokey after all of these years. It is worse, he is not facing me but looking off to my left. I follow his gaze, there is a younger woman, another runner obviously coming down the same mountain trail, and he has cornered her against the high embankment on the side of the trail. She is backed up to the side of the mountain, she has nowhere to go and he is about 15′ from her and blocking her into the embankment, but she is standing her ground, standing tall and strong and trying to face him down. She is holding a stick over her head, but it is little more than a skinny switch and it probably won’t do her much good. I don’t know how long they have been there like that, facing off, holding their ground, or whether he was attacking or simply curious. As I come around the curve, he wheels around and faces me head on, we make some pretty good eye contact from maybe 50′ away, I am still laboring up this mountain and have been for 55 minutes now, all uphill. The adrenaline surges throughout my body and mind . . .
I cannot say exactly from where the wild growl came from, but it was not from the bear. It came from deep within me. And loud and angry, and now I am in full flight racing towards them as fast as I can sprint. Waving my arms and yelling and he is staring deep into my eyes and I am staring deep into his dark eyes as well, and I feel him reaching far into my soul. And I really have no idea as to what I am going to do if I get there and he is still holding his ground. In my core I know there is going to be a fight and I am not likely to fare all that well in such an encounter. I am running hard now, maybe the hardest I have ever run in my life and the distance between us is closing really fast, but after what seems like an eternity, he blinks, literally blinks and races off, up the embankment, effortlessly, gracefully, and unhurried. At his pace and really on his terms I guess. But gone.
The woman momentarily collapses back against the embankment, regains her composure, but she has started to cry. Just a little. In relief no doubt, she was a tough lady. She starts down the hill towards me and I can see the tears welling up in her eyes. I am still running up the hill, we pass, she touches my shoulder and says ‘Thank you for being here.” I don’t know if I said anything or just shook my head in agreement. We continue on our separate ways. I wouldn’t even know her if I ever saw her again. It is over, just like that.
The remainder of the run passes without incident but not without considerable thought. I tell Sharri what happened when I get back to out motel room. We discuss all of the coincidences that got me to that place at that time. A much awaited vacation, a long drive, a wrong turn, an early run despite no sleep, the chance change of plans to lengthen the run and the decision to run up Patton Mountain Road. It is confusing to me, do we float in the wind helpless like a feather or are our lives somehow pre-ordained? As always, Sharri gets to the real heart of the matter: “You were meant to be there”, she says, “You might have saved that woman today. It was one of life’s little miracles.”
The next night is nearly sleepless as I am thinking about all of the “what ifs” from yesterday and in all of our lives. But the sun rises and I know that I am here to run because I love to run here in this place. So I head out at before day break, to the Mountain To Sea Trail for another 10 miles. And whatever comes next. Bears are, of course, paramount in my mind.
The trail between Highway 74 and Highway 25/25A is gnarly, rooty, rocky, hilly and secluded, but it is frequented by runners everyday, and while I have been unable to get up with any of my old running mates here, I do not feel like I will be running quite alone. This is an out and back route and I am listening intently to every sound I hear around me. About three miles into the run I come upon a bad sign. There is an enormous pile of bear dung in the trail and then not too much further and right in the middle of the trail, the severed head of a tiny deer fawn is staring up at me, ears perked and eyes wide open but blank and lifeless. I shudder to a halt, transfixed. Just a head, small enough to fit into your hand, a very short life no doubt which met a violent end. Staring into my eyes, and just like the bear from yesterday, it is staring deep into me. I don’t know, maybe it is the dark magic of the Blue Ridge Mountains if such a thing exits. I think about turning back, but no, I need to keep on to the turn around point. Which I do. But not before removing Bambi, or what was left of him, from the trail, and giving him a suitable burial. I say a few words over the makeshift grave, I know that is silly, but we aren’t we all weary fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth, inextricably bound together in some ephemeral way? I believe so.
On to the turn around and back, and as the day progresses there are runners appearing on the trail, some alone, some in groups, waving and nodding the universal greeting that all real runners share. Not the blank stare into space or into the ground, but hold your head high and acknowledge your brothers and sisters. And I am feeling better now as I reach the last mile of this run, I have been out for about two hours now and these hills and the altitude of about 3500′ has started to take its toll on these old legs. I am running on a high exposed ridge when I catch my left foot on a rock and begin to stumble. You cannot tuck and roll here, you will seriously split your skull wide open if not worse. Plus I have gone over the side of the trail and there is not much between me and a dry boulder strewn creek bed about 75′ further down the steep side of the mountain. I am totally out of control, my body going down the hill much faster than my legs can ever keep up, leading with my head out front of course, and in an instant I know that I am going to fall and roll all the way down the side of the mountain and either crack my skull on a boulder or roll into the dry creek bed dead or paralyzed forever. No one will ever see me down here, so rescue is out of the question as well. I wonder if plane crash victims don’t have this same unfortunate clarity of thought when faced with their imminent demise? I once rolled a truck over four lanes of highway near Cross City and watched from outside my body as the scene unfolded in slow motion, waiting to feel intense pain and then death, and I was shocked when I survived with nary a scratch. I am thinking that perhaps I am out of lives and this truly is it.
Coincidence or not, a dead tree on the side of the mountain had fallen over and is laying at about a 45 degree angle to the downhill slope. Was it another one of those life’s little miracles that the tree was right there where I fell off the mountain? Or that it was laying crossways along my totally out of control path down the side of the mountain? Or that when I hit the tree full force under my left arm and on my rib cage I did not break a bone or collapse a lung? Or get punctured through and through had the tree been at a slightly different angle? Or rupture an internal organ and bleed to death down there? Or miss that tree completely? I don’t know. I do know that I was out for a short time, but woke up looking up at a blue sky through green fern fronds. And wondering for an instant how I got here, but remembering quickly. I was eventually able to climb out once I caught my breath, and then run back a mile or so to the parking area. Being sore and bloody for several days being a rather fair trade off for the experience tripping and then of falling down the side of a mountain and surviving to tell about it. Thank you for whoever put that tree there so long ago, and having it die and fall over at that place, in that way. A coincidence? Pre-ordained? Another of life’s little miracles?
Strange as it may seem, I would like to believe that crashing into that tree was a little reward for the helping that woman the day before. I think about it, but I don’t think about it too much. There are miracles, large and small, taking place around us everyday, all the time, everywhere. It is up to us to see them, recognize them, and appreciate them for what they are. Without the miracles in our lives, we would have no lives at all.