The Wall………..(Excerpt from “12 Million Steps: My Journey Across America)

September 4, 2014

“At mile marker 338, turn left, walk 100 meters and look for the stone wall” is all he said. I tried to get more information out of him but he did not budge. I was on the Natchez Trace Parkway and it was the middle of October. In less than a month I would be touching the waters of the Gulf in Galveston yet on this day it was very far away and as I ran off into the early morning fog I couldn’t help but wonder why I had been given such a message. Bill had been my host in Fall Hollow, TN and it was the night before I left that he told me I should make a stop to see someone. That someone was the “stone talker” and he was 67 miles away.

Just outside Florence, AL the Trace winds slowly through the countryside. A mind can sputter when staring at the cotton fields. Thoughts took me back in time to days when the fields were harvested by hand and broken backs. When dreams wilted in the heat but did not die. When sweat meant hope for another sunset. The red clay caked my bare feet as I walked, creeping up between my toes.I closed my eyes and listened, trying to get a feel for how it would have been to pick cotton all day under a scorching sun. Trying to understand a time when all men were not equal. The mind meanders and not always does it comprehend.

The road climbs and enters the welcome canopy of shade and up ahead on the left side of the road I see the green mile marker. Number 338. Normally I do not like to deviate from my route. The clock is always ticking and I knew there would be someone waiting for me at the end of my day, however I sensed that today time could wait.

Rising from the rust colored Alabama earth, the stone wall appeared up ahead. Upon closer examination this was no ordinary stone wall but something unique, solid and obviously built with tender care. From what I could make out, it wove its way through the woods in a straight line with ninety degree corners to go around trees. The stones were flat and of a shape and weight that most people could handle with relative ease. The height was four to five feet and the width at least twenty feet. Stones were laid in a tight pattern on both sides and in the center were loose rocks as if they were the water filling a moat. I made my way to the front of the property and walked in. There in a chair sat an old man with gray hair and a hint of Native American in his features. I spoke first. “I like your wall and I build walls too.” Producing my phone I showed him the wall of flags from Minnesota to that point. Each red dot, a name and those names had formed one long continuous line on my screen. “I heard of your coming and have been waiting to talk to you”, he replied. So the story begins…

“Have a seat my friend” he said. “I like what you are doing, and I can see in your eyes that you have a good heart”.

I knew that I was in the presence of someone special. The words rolled off his tongue  in a way that grabbed your attention like thunder on a summer night and I felt myself leaning forward in anticipation of his next sentence…..

“At the age of 10 in 1936, my grandmother started to share stories with me. Why the rivers sang. Why brother rabbit lost his tail, why brother turtle smiles. She has held my imagination ever since. I remember her disappearing into the woods  and returning hours later with a basket full of various types of plants and herbs She told me that the plants cured many things and she had learned the practice from her grandmother, my great-great grandmother. It was about this time that I was in the fourth or fifth grade that she began to share the story of her grandmother and now I share it with you.”

“The year was 1838 and Native Americans were being gathered up in northern Alabama and surrounding states. They would then be force marched to the west, to Oklahoma to reservations near Muskogee. Thousands would die along the way and it became known as the Trail of Tears. My great-great grandmother was Yuchy. She was only fifteen and lived not far from here in a cabin above the river near here, when her and her sister were taken. Before arriving in Oklahoma they were given something quite unique at the time. Something that would prove that what I am telling you is true. They were given brass tags, octagon shaped, to be worn around their necks. My great-great grandmother was Number 59 and her sister was Number 60. That first winter in Oklahoma was long and cold and one spring morning in the following year she slipped away and began the long walk back to Alabama. At the time she faced the risk of being hung if she was caught. It took her five years to make it back to this county. Five years of inhospitable conditions, hunger and thirst, and loneliness that shrouded her soul day and night. How do I know this to all be true? She is listed in the Oklahoma archives as Number 59, Alabama Female, Age 18, deceased.  I have in my possession tag Number 59 which she brought back with her, she did not die. The tag and story have been passed down to me. This is not the only record I have of her return. She was a magician with her medicines When she arrived back here she met my great-great grandfather and he took her as his wife. With her magical medicines she began curing many people and in a short time many people started to come to her. Many people. In 1845 a Methodist minister by the name of Wiley Edwards showed up, not only a minister but the top educator in the county. He came to her with some medical problems and she cured him. Wiley Edwards was fascinated by her. Not only by her homeopathic knowledge and cures for ailments but of her story of hardship and travel. On February 13, 1845 he sat down and began to record her story. He would come back almost daily for 2 years, till the fall of 1847. Meticulously, he would record his questions and her answers and though lengthy in time and relatively short in volume, he ended up with a 168 page journal. I have in my possession, that journal, passed down to me. To give you an idea of what this man did I am going to read you the first page……………..

 

 

The Air is Thin Up Here…..

July 2, 2014

With the Hardrock 100 now 10 days away I arrived in Silverton, CO for my final preparations. There is nothing easy about 100 miles. If it is flat it is hard, if it is in the mountains it is hard. It’s just hard period. So why do I do it? I love the community of runners. We are young and old, fast and slow and yet there is one common bond, love of the trail, of high places, of desert and plains. Love of the night and the stars, of pain and elation and laughter and tears. Our success is never certain and failure is not permanent. There are only 140 of us from all over the United States. Some have come as far away as England and France. For many it is there first time for others it has become a yearly ritual to travel to Silverton, to come home in a sense. For me it is the culmination of a long wait. Across America I ran, across Spain and around Kilimanjaro, dreaming of one more opportunity to run in the San Juan Mts. Of Colorado. You can put pavement under my feet but you can’t take the dirt from between my toes. Time to move now. The clock is ticking….on all of us….play hard!

Living With……..

August 4, 2013

A phone call had connected us. A car brought him to my doorstep. Eduard is his name and although he has only seen 22 years of life he carries wisdom beyond his years. We are fellow runners. He dreams of running across the country and is already preparing for his adventure. In his eyes I see determination and conviction. Not just for his grand plan but for his life in general. We go for an 8 mile run in the rain. Eduard has never been in this part of the country. He picks my brain on nutrition and training and clothing. He is like a sponge for knowledge. I listen to the slap of our feet in the rain. It is the slap of three feet and the shuffle of his prosthetic leg. Eduard lost his leg at the hip in Afghanistan on his 21st birthday. Certainly it has changed his life but he says, he can’t imagine a life any other way. He rises every morning, attaches his leg and the shoulder belt that holds it in place. He will run in the morning and at night. Day after day after day. He says that maybe he will find his soul mate and that she can find a use for all the new left shoes that will never be used. His humor is warming. He says he gets discounts on full body massages and pedicures. Nice. I take him up to our ski area where the trails are steep and rocky to test his skill. He runs with a slight hop, his right leg is thick and muscular. Not one climb, not one descent is an obstacle. I am aging mare, he is a young stallion. With all the troubles, self doubt, inconvenience and despair that could be part of his life, Eduard has chosen to live without them, without his leg….and really live with what he has been left with. Maybe if we had a little bit of that magic, if we truly lived with what we have, instead of what we think we can’t live without, then perhaps we would be like Eduard…unstoppable………….Image

ABC’s……

June 24, 2013

Winona, MN is a small town nestled between two lakes and the Mississippi River in south eastern MN. Home to Winona State and St. Mary’s College. The bluffs that are above Winona have looked down upon this town and its Norman Rockwell life for well over 150 years. Something about the midwest draws you in. A simple life in a small town is alluring. Maybe I should have owned a coffee shop or a running store or sold square ice cream from a bike equipped with a cooler and handlebar bell. Watched corn reach for the sky in the surrounding fields and smelled fresh cut hay in the sweltering summer heat. Popped tar bubbles in the street after it rains. Walked barefoot in river mud. Cursed mosquitos. Sat on a bench under giant oak trees. Wandered in and out of stores in a real downtown. Rode a bike down the street as cicadas sing. Rock on a porch swing and listen to Johnny Cash. Listen to children in the park playing and watch a full moon come up….

Ahhh yes, Winona…..also host to the Lifetime Fitness Kids Tri on June 8th created an atmosphere of activity for children ages 5-13 as they participated in, and completed a triathlon consisting of swimming at least 25 yards, biking at least 1 mile and then running a lap around the college track. The amazing thing for me was to observe the pre-race excitement in the kids and their parents. For many of the littlest ones it was their first time swimming or biking without Mom and Dad or big brother or little sister. Parents should be given credit for encouraging their children to take part and for many it was their third or fourth or fifth triathlon. It was so darn cute seeing these little ones jump in the pool and swim or pull themselves to the other end, exit and run to their bike. For many it was a Bmx bike or a “My Little Pony” deluxe cruiser complete with basket. A winding mile took them to the track where they left their bikes and ran as much as a 1/2 mile. Faces had smiles and faces had determination and some even a few tears as they crossed the line and received medals.

The Lifetime Fitness Kids Mascot is Trey, a giant three- eyed red ball of fur. Kids always like something big and furry and especially when it can dance. Trey wanders by the Hylands Booth and we head for the awards. As a Hylands Ambassador Athlete I am fortunate to share the benefits of an active and healthy lifestyle. When I actually see it up close and personal, when I see the smile on a child’s face and the joy in their parents eyes I know its a good thing that we all our doing. As I close out the awards I am left with a chorus of voices that will carry on to the next event in Plymouth, MN on July 14th…

Prior to the start there were 235 voices chanting “Yes We Can, Yes We Can” and now at the end of their day I am left with “Yes We Did! Yes We Did!”…..oh you most certainly did…Image

Concrete Fitness…..

February 14, 2013

The other morning as I ran along a dirt road north of my home in Hope, ID, I paid particular attention to those random thoughts that dart in and out of my mind when enjoying the forward motion of my body, propelled by an old pair of high mileage legs with worn treads.

What is it about a run, a ride, a walk that inspires us to stand, tie the laces, open the door and enter a world where are senses are awakened to fresh smells, sounds and sights? For  as long as I can remember I now think that there is a deep seated need to move, to achieve. Mankind has inherited this trait from our very beginnings. Somewhere in our psyche a desire to create, to have warmth, gave us the persistence to create fire. This in turn allowed us to achieve more as we migrated through various parts of the world. This “achievement” enabled us to expand our horizons, brought us more food, creative shelter and the rest, they say is history. Had we not set into motion a dream, a desire, a curiosity to explore we certainly would not be where we are, excited about where we are going.

It is a good thing to lie dormant. I can vouch for that. When I sit in a white rocker chair on our porch and look at the lake life is quiet. Then the thoughts come. It is then that I make a choice. Let some things remain thoughts or make them concrete.

When we are in movement be it running, walking, bicycling, swimming we are on the path of achieving goodness for ourselves and our body. When we finish it is real. We have succeeded in 20 min., an hour, a mile or ten miles. We have achieved and that is much more than a thought in our head that gets played over and over as we tussle with excuses to move or not to move. So perhaps you will listen to yourself and then act….

Make those thoughts real.

Make your your days concrete.

Amazing results and achievements await…..

Obstacles

January 3, 2013

I have fallen a lot in my life.

Luckily, I can say it was never brought on by alcohol though I probably would not remember if it was. As a young boy of four I ran on high octane. Seriously. My memory is gray these days but I can still remember the excitement I felt after the surgery. Oh, the surgery……..

I was born a severe club foot in both legs and extremely knock- kneed. It was, I am told, to a degree,  that walking was difficult and running absolutely impossible.” Its o.k. son, don’t wander off now. and stay close” my mother would say whenever in public. Try explaining that to a four year old.

I credit my mother for many things. She worked her entire life in factories. First for G.E. then Admiral, packing televisions and finally a hardware factory for thirty years where she ended up driving a forklift on the loading dock. When she left she was making $9.34. I give her credit because she worked hard. I never heard her complain. Never felt anything less than love from her arms or affection in her voice. She raised my brothers and I on that meager income and still, for whatever reason, felt it important enough to seek medical help for my condition rather than take the easy way out and let me adapt to my physical shortcomings. So at the age of four I found myself in Rockford Memorial Hospital being wheeled down a long, cold corridor with my mother beside me, headed for surgery.

In medical terms it was described as a “Tibial Radial Osteotomy in the lower legs with a bi-lateral wedge in both ankles (Fusion). Basically both legs were cut open then the tibia broke diagonally then rotated outwards which would pull my knees straight. Then a small piece of bone (wedge) was put in the outer side of the ankle after some cartilage was removed thus creating a fusion after it healed.

Pros: I could now walk and run normally. More specifically I discovered when as I got older, I would NEVER sprain an ankle!

Cons: Braces and corrective shoes post-surgery. Scars. BIG ones and unfortunately I would never be fast.

I remember many times pulling myself to the dinner table. Scooting across the floor with only my arms. I remember the day the casts were removed and how I thought the “saw” would not only cut the cast off but also my legs. I remember being handed little slippers and being told I may not be able to stand initially. Yeah sure. I had places to go and friends to play with and I was just like them now, or so I thought. The slippers slid on my tiny feet, the doctor placed me on the floor and to my dismay, my legs buckled and I crumbled to the floor like a wet, rag doll.

That would be the first of many falls.

The first obstacle.

Adversity…..

November 30, 2012

What prepares us for adversity? Those serious conditions or instances of continued difficulty that are somehow bookmarked in the halls of our brains from a very young age? It is a subject I have pondered many times, over many miles, across this country. I have searched for answers and under many circumstances they have been very different.  I can however only relate things that have happened to me that in some way gave me the tenacity and conviction to overcome those difficult periods.

As children, my brothers and I lived a simple life. Our home was small, really small and to this day I remember…..The three of us in the same bathtub together with my youngest brother in the middle so he wouldn’t slide down and drown himself……(we thought he was just holding his breath). The suds were made by Palmolive dish soap and the three of us loved our mothers caring hands when she washed our hair. I remember crawling to the dinner table with casts on both legs from a surgery to correct a defect in both legs. If I didn’t get up into my chair on my own I went hungry. At Christmas we each got one toy. We played a lot. We wrestled a lot and for whatever reason always seemed to be a problem for our stepfather. Where other children could do no wrong we could do no right. Ever. We paid for that. 

Pain can come in many forms. It can be a sting on bare skin from a leather belt. It can be in words that are yelled at you. Words that crumble self esteem. It can even come in a stare that instills fear in a little boys heart and it can even bury itself in the humiliation you feel as you were made to sit on a tiny bunk bed with sheets soaked in urine, confined for hours because the act was thought to be intentional. Actually you were to scared to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom. Afraid of that leather belt or hand that would swing at any time. When we sat in those beds my brother and I continued to play with our little Matchbox cars even though we were told to not have any toys. To deal with boredom and the fear of getting caught, my brother scratched a hole in the wall with his tiny fingers and we hid our cars there. Out of sight……forever…. we were never able to retrieve them. Well at least we won that small battle of wills for the price of a metal car. It made our Christmas list easy for the next year too.

I dealt with those childhood conditions of detachment and pain and an ongoing period of mental and physical abuse by dreaming. I would escape to my room and read and dream of living somewhere else or in the mountains, surviving off the land. I dreamt of running in the Olympics.  My dreams became a room in my mind that I could escape to at any time and close the door. It was a place where I became invigorated and confident and in the make believe races I ran, I always won. I believed the bad would pass. I believed there was always something better. I believed that as my life moved forward and I grew older that I would never be confined again by fear or self doubt.

During this run, when I was alone on some desolate stretch of highway, when the wind was blowing hard and the sun scorched me. When the stroller I pushed caused aches throughout my body, When miles of hard, hot pavement lie ahead under weary legs, my instincts took over. I had learned from a young age that no matter how bad it gets, it will get better. I had learned that I had to be responsible for myself and and also be accountable for my actions.  It was a startling revelation when it hit me. That moment of “What do I do?” and I realized that it was me and only me that could resolve this moment of adversity. I carried an arsenal of weapons and they were all in my mind. I carried the expectations of thousands of names that could only watch along the highways as they stood next to their flag. It was not a burden but something more powerful that could not be measured. I carried the strength and conviction of a little boy burying his past with every footstep. 

Yes, out on the road you think of many things. There is always adversity. Some days were not easy. The heat and humidity around Jackson, MS wilted me like a dying flower. Self doubt knocked on the door but I chose not to answer it. The decay of our nations roads made running with the stroller nearly impossible at times but again the door of doubt did not get opened. The body revolts at times and yet if you will it along, it responds and you move forward, ever forward.  Never succumbing to adversity means that you are still alive and with being alive comes that revelation of greatness that our dreams are truly attainable….

INSPIRATION

November 21, 2012

When I was a child I dreamt of many things. At the young age of six, I wanted to be an astronaut and somewhere in my trove of childhood drawings there is a picture of a rocket on a launch pad with my smiling face peering out the capsule window. A man on the moon? Holy begeezus. Neil Armstrong was my hero. I would gaze every month at the full moon and though it was impossible, I strained to see the Apollo spacecraft somewhere up there in the heavens. It was at that young age that I discovered inspiration and more importantly how it would guide me in my later years.

Websters defines it as the “act or power of moving the intellect.” or the act of “influencing or suggesting opinions.”

I was moved by Neil Armstrong. Muhammed Ali. Mickey Mantle. The majority of the time it was athletes that inspired me. They worked hard.  If they were great why couldn’t I be great? As I grew older I would dream 27 hours of the day about the Olympics. Running races over and over in my head as I circled our small yard, confined more often than not, for reasons that only a step-father could determine. I discovered that inspiration created dreams and those dreams were in a small room in my head. A room that only I went in and out of. Try and crush a little boys hopes. Try and discourage me. You would not win this battle of wills. I learned at a young age to build a fortress of determination and resilience and tenacity, yet at that age I didn’t even know what those words meant.

I can’t explain what Inspiration means to me only how it feels.

It is a pause in thought when I see the blue sky and an eagle. It is music on a cool, foggy morning on a no-name road in Mississippi. It is my breathing, in rhythm with my footsteps. It is leaves changing and water trickling, snow falling and the silence of a dark night with only the stars to hold my gaze. It is a child waiting with a flag along the road, to young to know about life and death but standing there waiting for me. It is a soldier with scars inside and out and a brain shattered by trauma who waits to shake my hand. It is a name on a flag. Someone from somewhere whose life is over yet who waits invisibly along the road, who holds out a hand and picks me up and passes me on to the next hand. They say I run, that I have run many miles but no, I was carried.

My inspiration is everything around me and it is conclusive in definition for I am moved and influenced. Fear of not doing enough has become my guiding light and in doing more perhaps that act will lift someone else to something larger than themselves…..

 

Kentucky Days……

October 9, 2012

I have been in this state for 5 days now and more than ever I feel like I am in the south. People gave been gracious, polite and appreciative in their actions. Paducah lies at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers and played a significant role in the Civil War as a strategic control point for the shipping lanes. On a small street lies a brick home. Once the residence of Gen. Lloyd Tilghman it now houses a Civil War Museum. Artifacts grace the walls, pictures tell a story in a way words cannot…I walk away humbled by history.
Somewhere on US68 I begin to negotiate with God. Yep we have a talk. Numerous ones. The road has narrowed, the shoulder disappears and there is nowhere, I repeat nowhere to run. So I place the left wheel of the stroller out in the road and go with it…He must have listened to my terms because I was safe as cars passed by only inches away.Some things you just can’t explain. This road is called the Trail of Tears because it is a route that the Cherokee Indians were forced to travel as they were pushed west to Oklahoma and the reservations. As many as 12-15000 Cherokee and mixed other tribes travelled through Kentucky and two Native American Chiefs are buried in Hopkinsville, scores of others are buried where they fell along the trail. Unable to use their traditional medicines and diet many died along the route. The conditions were harsh and unimaginable and yet I complain about the lack of asphalt to run on…….
On a lighter note, I learn funny things.
“Jeet Yet?” ……….Defintion for Did ya eat yet? Is on a billboard outside Paducah…
“Bout a quarter mile”………is how far most things are… a quarter mile can include most things up to 5 miles….
and
that I will know I am in Tennessee because they will be wearing shoes…
but the most important thing:
Kentucky Bourbon is better than Jack Daniels….
ouch..

Illinois and Heartache……

September 27, 2012

In the center of this state lies the community of Decatur. A large, bustling town that is surrounded by corn and soybean fields as so many communities are. It was also the home to Jesse Tilton, a medic in the Army who died in 2010 and whose flag has yet to be placed. His mother Julie was standing along the road at the end of my run today. She was there for him, but also for someone else she did not know. Army Specialist Julian Berisford was 25 years old when he died. His young wife and daughter Mya, carry on with their daily ritual of a life without Julian. Julie Tilton handles his flag, looks at the yellow ribbon before placing it in the ground. It is quiet. I do not know how much time I have left here in this world but she tells me that there is a place in heaven for me. A place next to her son and so many others. Says I have earned it.

History is all around as I move along. Clinton, IL and the American Legion hall have a framed tablecloth from the dinner provided to dignitaries on the USS Missouri the day of the Japanese surrender. It is stained with coffee spilled by General Douglas McCarthur. Fact and was acquired by a young Navy man from Clinton, IL who gave the mess hall attendant a month of his pay for the tablecloth. Fact.

Quote of the day: Your a hobo with a website……..Middle School Student


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