Sunday, August 21, 2011

Looking Back...

On June 23rd I was approaching the Thunder Basin National Grasslands with great anticipation.  I love wide open spaces, and “grasslands” suggested easy camping.  I had an interview late in the afternoon in the town of Wright, WY, which was sandwiched between oil fields to the west and the enormous Thunder Basin Coal Mine, one of the largest surface mines in the country, to the east.  I enjoyed the interview because the reporter/cameraman reminded me of a friend back home.  I was gratified that he filmed me selecting fruit, a rare buying option for me and a nice counterpoint to the latest media coverage that showed me shopping in the candy aisle. I left Wright at 5:30 pm with 20 miles still to go for the day, perhaps 15 of these miles through the mine.  Road construction slowed me further.  Road crews were sealing cracks with tar, which stuck to my tires picking up and retaining sharp objects, resulting in two flats.  The tar also trapped bugs which attracted birds, two of which became stuck as well. The roads seemed to be primary feeding grounds for all sorts of birds through the bulk of my trip, and car-struck birds were one of the most common roadside casualties I saw. The birds were easy to free, but their prognosis was uncertain with tar on their feet and wings.  It became dark and I was still surrounded by the mine. 

I was tired after a long, hot day, but my spirit was strong, and I felt no rush to get past the mine.  The mine in the dark was surreal.  The trucks were huge, with tires 14 feet tall, and they hummed around on the dark mine landscape with what looked like just parking lights.  When an “oversize load” chaperone truck would pass me from behind in this region, I would get off the road, because the “boxes” (the part that holds the coal) of these trucks took up more than the two lanes of road, and had to be driven to the mine over the roadways.  While there were signs warning of blasting and dangerous yellow clouds, the only mine activity I could observe was these trucks carrying huge loads of coal from the excavations to the train cars, the train inching forward a car length every minute or so.  As I passed the first engine of one of the trains, the engineer blew the train whistle.  An article the previous day in a Casper newspaper quoted me praising commercial truck drivers for their courteous treatment, and trucks had been beeping and waving to me all day as a result.  Whether or not the blast from the train was a friendly greeting or part of the business of hauling coal, I took it as a “hello,” and it added fun to the cool air and unhurried pace which characterized the last miles of most days for me. There were few cars on the road by now—it was 60 miles to the next town of Upton, and it was not near a shift change.  In the wide Wyoming sky I could see fierce-looking lightning way off to the south, but it was so far away that I heard no thunder.  The night seemed magical.  I left the coal mine near 10 p.m. and hoped to get several more miles in before setting up my tent. 

My headlamp was dull from old batteries, but it illuminated the road sufficiently that I could make sure I wasn’t stepping on anything, the biggest worry being the rotting carcasses of animals killed by cars.  There were snakes, too, attracted to the warm roads at night, but it had been a cold summer, so they weren’t numerous. Mostly they were bull snakes as shown in the photo, big enough to be creepy but not dangerous. There were occasional prairie rattlesnakes, smaller and less common but venomous and dangerous. As I entered the grasslands, coyotes yapped and howled from both sides of the road just up ahead.  I was not worried about coyotes—we have coyotes at home, and they are bigger back east—but it seemed prudent to let them know a big bad human was coming through just so they would not get any misinformed ideas.  Also, the roadside was lined with rocky terrain, good cougar landscape.  While knowledgeable people told me that I needn’t worry about the cougars in the area—baby antelope and deer were plentiful and much more appealing than a smelly, skinny runner I was told—I still couldn’t resist checking back with my flashlight periodically to see if I could catch a cougar mid-stalk.  Silly, I know, but it made me feel better. To forewarn the coyotes and cougars I decided to sing loudly into the night to announce my presence.  I can never remember any lyrics when in such situations, and this time was no exception, so I sang the only song that came to me with lyrics I knew (at least verse one), “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” but I tried to sing it with a “bad-ass” attitude, so it would sound threatening to the beasts around me, who of course would not know that the lyrics reveal me as a softy.  (It worked: I was not bothered by either of the two predators.) 

Meanwhile, the thunderstorm now seemed to be approaching quickly, and the thunder became audible and soon threatening.  I raced to find a suitable camping spot, lightning-safe and sufficiently off the road for privacy.  My headlight was too dull for this purpose, so I used the illumination from lightning and headlamps from the once-every-20-minutes passing car.  For each approaching car, I would cross the road so that I was on the opposite side, since the cars surely didn’t expect to see a pedestrian out there, no matter how reflective and blinking I was, and they were flying.  On one such crossing, mostly blinded by the approaching headlights, I saw a lump in the road and avoided it as I crossed.  When the car passed I saw with my headlamp that it was a prairie rattlesnake, a lucky miss for me, but my natural reaction was more excitement than worry. 

I found a place to camp just as the first big drops of rain began, and got the last of my gear into my tent when the deluge started.  I felt smug for a moment until I realized that I had forgotten my spot-tracker on my stroller handle, perhaps my most important possession and not waterproof.  Because my tent is so small, it is very difficult to put on or take off my shoes, so I decided to dash the two grassy steps to my stroller in my stocking feet.  On the second step I felt shooting pain in one foot, then in the other when I put it down, and I realized that I was standing on a prickly pear cactus buried in the grass.  The pain was sharp, but the disappointment that I might just have ruined my trip with a short lapse of judgment was what shot through my mind.  I had no idea what the consequences would be, but when I got back in my tent, I found that I was able to remove all the spines in both feet (though throughout the next day small spines would work their way into my feet from my socks, requiring many short stops.)  Turns out I was able to run, though the tenderness of the balls of my feet forced my running foot-strike to the outsides of my feet and heels. (This, I believe, was the first in a series of circumstances that led to my second debilitating injury in South Dakota a couple days later.)

In the morning I slept through my watch alarm. I was not using my impossible-to-sleep-through phone alarm because my phone was low on batteries and my father-in-law was having surgery the next day, so battery power was precious. I kept my phone off.  I awoke to the friendly-seeming good-morning beep of a passing truck just after dawn.  The later I set up camp, the lower my standards for privacy, and I often awoke in tent sites that were alarmingly public, though I was never harassed.  This morning my tent and stroller were in plain sight among the sagebrush.  I packed up my wet gear and hit the road for Upton, 50 miles down the road, expecting just an occasional ranch along the way.  The day grew hot, very hot; the sun was unrelenting with no place to go off the hot asphalt.  Also, the plums and quart of blueberries that I purchased on camera the previous evening were wreaking havoc with my digestive system.  Apparently I had become specialized in my ability to digest only junk food.   This was rolling terrain with poor cell phone signal.  Because I was camping most nights, I had few opportunities to charge my cellphone batteries (only when shopping for food), so I kept my phone off, turning it on at each hilltop to check in with my wife Colleen on how my father-in-law’s surgery was going. He had been feeling miserable, seemingly unable to digest food, for some time before I left, and I was grateful that his surgery day had finally arrived so he would get some relief. 

When I reached Colleen by phone after surgery, I learned that the surgery revealed the cause of the pain was a widely metastasized cancer, and his prognosis was bad.  A bad cell signal meant I could not hear most of Colleen’s words.  The essence was clear, but real communication was almost impossible.  When we hung up, I just sat down on the asphalt and sobbed. I felt so far away, such utter despair.  I continued on toward Upton, where I planned to spend the night camping in the town park; I hoped to find a place to charge my batteries overnight there. As the day became hotter, I felt increasingly vulnerable to the heat.  There is no shade in the sagebrush prairie. Though I stayed well hydrated and don’t think I was in much danger, I was going through my beverages more quickly than I had been, and there was a chance that I would have to find water to purify.   During this period a car approached and stopped to ask if I wanted a ride to get out of the heat. I was somewhat fuzzy-headed, and I didn’t realize at first that he was telling me that he was the one who beeped at me in my tent as he drove into work at the mine.  I told him I needed to get to Upton, still 30 miles away, on my own. He asked where I planned to stay, and he told me I could stay at his place when he learned I aimed for the park.  I barely noted the directions to his house because I really wasn’t up for being social that night, but I felt grateful for his kindness, stopping for a stranger along the highway. His name was Ray. 

Not long after Ray left, clouds formed in the center of the sky and darkened.  My gratefulness for a break from the sun turned to concern as lightning appeared.  Soon afterwards a blast of wind lifted me off my feet, and my concern turned to awe when the clouds became ominously black.  I took out my cell phone because this seemed like the kind of cloud that would produce twisters. (I already had a tornado plan and had identified a roadside ditch, for better or worse).  The power of the storm felt cathartic, but I realized that I was pretty vulnerable and tried to outrun it (meaning I hoped it would move west as I ran east).  However, the clouds spread from the center of the sky outwards, and I knew I was going to have to deal with weather soon.  Just then another car approached and stopped.  This driver, also traveling from the mine to Upton, told me that the prediction was for golf ball to softball-sized hail. We stuffed as much of the stroller in his trunk as we could and barreled into town.  (Turns out that a nearby town experienced baseball-size hail, but not along my route.) At my request, he dropped me off at a convenience store in Upton so I could buy some juice to drink, after which I walked up the hill toward Ray’s house. 

I reached Ray’s house just as the downpour started.  I was greeted at the door by Ray’s 21 year-old son who didn’t seem to know of Ray’s invitation to me and awoke Ray from a nap to let him know that I arrived.  I was not feeling very social, but Ray was assertive, yelling “Glenn!” when I lingered in the shower or down in the basement rec-room where I was going to sleep.  The room was set up comfortably with easy chairs for TV watching and proudly displayed pelts—bobcat, coyote, raccoon, and others—and impressive racks of elk antlers. Cowboy boots with intricate ornamentation were lined up in front of the door, my smelly running shoes alongside. We talked a bit at the dining table, the three of us, about their experiences ranching and hunting and mine on the road, before I excused myself to bed; I was physically and emotionally exhausted.  My plan was to walk down into town early in the morning and hitchhike back out to where I had left off 18 miles shy of town.  After working many days in a row at the mine, Ray was off the next day, and he could sleep in for a change—no long commute.  As I headed downstairs, Ray asked what time I was going to leave, and when I told him 6 am, he said he would give me a ride if he was up.   Just as I was about to turn out the light and settle into an easy chair to sleep, I heard a gruff “Glenn!” from the stairs, and Ray entered with a bottle and a dixie cup.  He said he had something to help me sleep.  I told him quite emphatically that I did not need anything to help me sleep because sleep came to me instantly, but he was insistent.  In my depleted state I was afraid to drink anything, let alone anything a cowboy would serve up to help me sleep.  Already feeling somewhat emasculated as a skinny-legged vegetarian wearing short shorts in a cowboy household surrounded by pelts, I was doubly worried about choking and gagging on his potion, removing any last grasp on machismo I might still have had.  But Ray, a man of few words, had very expressive eyes, and his eyes had a twinkle that convinced me to trust him.  “It is not what you think,” he said, perhaps in response to a look of utter terror that probably gripped my face.  Not knowing whether I should drink it in a gulp like a shot (which I have never done) or sip cautiously, I opted to sip and was treated to one of the smoothest, richest tastes I have ever experienced, Ray’s very own raspberry rhubarb wine.  Wow, was that fine!  In the moment before I fell asleep, I was grateful for the comfort in the most unexpected place, at the end of one of the hardest days of my life. 

When I woke to my alarm at 5:30, the stairway light was already on and Ray was there all dressed and ready to go. He drove me to the point on the highway where I left off, but it felt less lonely this morning.  Our conversation the previous evening was about our differences; during this morning drive it was about our more fundamental similarities. We both had two young-adult kids whom we loved and made us proud.  Ray shared his belief that it doesn’t matter what you do with your kids—work, play, or “nothing much at all,” you just need to be present with them.  This was certainly what I valued most growing up with my parents, and what I struggled with most as a parent myself as I continually overextended myself for reasons that I have yet to fully understand. As I ran back toward Upton, I was met by a reporter from the local paper who told me Ray had phoned her, and then Ray himself stopped by to harass me for running so slowly. (“My horse and I could walk faster than you run.”)

These two nights were not typical, but only because there were no typical nights.  Sometimes this trip felt Shakespearean, because incredible experiences were happening every day, and often all day long, as if time were compressed.  Though I was on a time-constrained long-distance journey, both time and distance often seemed beyond my grasp, I was so consumed by what was before me at the moment.  In this way the trip seemed otherworldly. And then I was almost home and then ­­there was the Atlantic Ocean.  How did that happen? I felt an odd feeling of belonging in the most unfamiliar places after a while, since I felt at home on the road and most people I encountered were so welcoming of me. “Community” expanded for me this summer to include wherever I was and whoever I was with. I have continually wondered, though I have more work to do understanding this, if there was something exceptional about this trip that shaped my experiences and other people’s generous reactions toward me.  Was this trip somehow larger than life and so the lessons from it not necessarily generalizable to the life I returned to?  I do not think this is the case; in fact I think in many ways the opposite is true.

While I was away on my trip, my wife and her family were surrounding my father-in-law Jim and each other with love, in the last weeks of his life. Jim, despite his pain and exhaustion, expressed his love and appreciation to those around him, often with humor.  He was preparing himself and others for his passing.  From afar I watched how this large, wonderful family came together to navigate impossibly difficult choices, celebrate a life, and to mourn. I was fortunate that I was able to fly out for a day before he passed. For me I needed to be a part of this, and I will always treasure this visit.  During his memorial services the next week I often thought about a tiny three-photo frame we have just inside our front door at home.  In the middle is a picture of Jim in the garden of my wife’s and my first house during a spring shower, joyously holding skyward tomatoes he just harvested in one hand and an umbrella in the other.  The photo is flanked by photos of each of my daughters when they were young, both with joyous smiles. I love the connection, and how this characteristic of Jim whether harvesting tomatoes, spotting a bear, or catching a fish is evident in the day-to-day lives of my daughters and Jim’s other grandchildren.  The interactions of everyday life are what matter, though sometimes we need to step away to see.

The best days of my trip were the two days I planned not to run, but not because I was not running.  I visited my daughters in Minneapolis and Ann Arbor.  They pampered me like crazy, but it was not even this that was so enjoyable.  Losing my dad to Alzheimer’s shortened and transformed the relationship between him and my daughters.  He would have loved them beyond words and would have been so proud of the adults they have become.  On these visits with them, I became much more focused on how he lives on through them.  Both my daughters visited my dad often, even through the late stages of his disease.  They knew the grip of his eyes when he would lock onto their faces, so soulful, so loving.  The potency of these moments of connection when my dad’s body and mind were so ruined by Alzheimer’s is too much for me to make sense of, and a very hard memory for me to revisit. I was reminded of these feelings when touring a memory care unit in Milford, PA last weekend.  I met a woman with advanced dementia—please forgive me for not describing her manner beyond saying that she did not seem to be in peace.  I tried my best to communicate with her—make a loving human connection.  I tried to understand what she might be wanting so I could help her find comfort, but I was unable.  I rubbed her shoulder and tried to cheer her up with conversation, but I saw no sign that she took any solace from this.  Upon leaving her room, all I could do was cry. There are no words.  It is so very sad.

Part of my motivation for my trip, the personal part, was to continue with my mourning process for my dad, made so difficult by the nature of Alzheimer’s.  Often throughout the trip memories would surge into my mind, most happy ones, some sad.  I often found myself sobbing on the highway, and I began to think this sobbing, whether when thinking of my dad or father-in-law or the many beautiful people in my life, less as a sign of despair, which is how it often feels, but more as deep recognition of the love central to my life.  After my dad died, I read (upon the urging of my kids) Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey, which examines the nature of love and the meaning of life.  I read the novel through the night, and the line “the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning” hit me with an emotional punch.  Being so attuned to my daughters’ love and my love for them during these visits to their homes was joyous. The anniversaries of my dad’s birth and death were during these couple weeks as well, and the connection between him and them was plain to see.

It was very hard to get on the road after my father-in-law’s memorial services, but I was motivated by his strong support for the trip right up to his passing.  Though it was difficult leaving family, I was not on my own.  I was blessed on this trip feeling like I was allowed to tap into many different webs of love, as if I had a special pass-card.  Friends of friends would help me, for example, and it always felt like the love these friends had for each other was being expressed through the support of me and alzrun.  What a privilege!  Love is the only way to describe the generosity I received.  The love was not so much directed at me as toward the greater cause of doing something about Alzheimer’s.  So many people told me as much.  Many wanted to be part of an effort to make some difference, to help end Alzheimer’s disease. Some were acting out of deep love for a family member or friend who had Alzheimer’s and jumped at the opportunity to do something to honor those afflicted. It is easy to feel powerless in the face of such a horrible disease. Our message is simple: we must find the resources to stop Alzheimer’s.  It was my honor to carry that message across the country.  To all of you, whether through donations or words or actions, did something to help stop Alzheimer’s disease, to end the suffering by millions of beautiful people like my dad—thank you!  In spite of a tough economy, many, many people made donations.  When I returned home Wednesday, I received a list of donors six pages long!  I cannot tell you how wonderful that makes me feel.  The Cure Alzheimer’s Fund will use every dollar to fund important Alzheimer’s research.  There is cause to be hopeful.  Much is being learned, finally, that I hope with all my heart will spare other families, and mine.  Thank you for being an essential part of AlzRun.  I feel so honored.


John Hoogstraten said...

Thanks for sharing your experience in such a personal and intimate way. Like you, I lost my father way too young (for him and me), and I found myself thinking of him often as I traveled vicariously across the country with you for the last three months. And, like you, I have two wonderful daughters reminding me always of the importance of family. Thanks for all you did for Alzheimer's research and for allowing all of us to accompany you on your grand adventure. We are all richer for what you have done.
John Hoogstraten

Roots of American Music said...

Wow .. Signing You are my Sunshine with bad ass attitude .. didn't know it could be done. Enjoyed your musings about the trip. What an accomplishment!