“I asked for a roof, and the universe gave me a tent,” she exclaimed. Her name was Lioness. Well, technically it was something else. Cheshire maybe? And I think she was from Detroit, Michigan. But, here on Pikes Peak, Colorado she was Lioness. A wanderer really, she lived in the woods. Homeless? Maybe. I guess it depends on how you define that. After all, the universe gave her a tent. Actually, we gave her a tent, on her birthday no less, unbeknownst to us. Yet, I suppose we are part of the universe. So then again it’s like the homeless question. It depends on how you define it.
We were greenhorns that year. Fresh on the job at Barr Camp. Lioness was one of the first people we met. Sure, we encountered plenty of others, such is the nature of the job, but Lioness was one of the only ones to stick around. Perhaps other caretakers would have urged her to move on, or notified the Forest Service of her presence. But, she was kind, pleasant, respectful, and willing to pay for what little she desired.
Plus, my sister Ashley had just moved thousands of miles across the country to a remote cabin far from any town and Lioness seemed to give her some small fragment of community to cling to. Well, that and I’m not one for confrontation or kicking people out, so we opened our doors and welcomed her in. Like I said, we even gave her a tent. And sometimes, when she needed things, she would give me money and I would pick them up in town and run them up the mountain. It was a funny relationship we had, me, my sister, and Lioness; funny, but nice. We helped her and whether she knew it or not, she helped us. The universe gave us a friend. A wanderer, a nomad, a person of the woods, but a friend no less.
Fast forward three years and here I am in the European Alps and prepping for the upcoming UTMB. While I’m still a caretaker at Barr Camp, my role there has changed a bit. I now work a part-time position, one that allows me quite a bit of freedom to come and go as I train, race, and travel. This part-time gig is actually something that I have had for a while, but this summer is one of the first times that we have had enough hands on deck for me to feel comfortable stepping away for an extended period of time during the busy summer season.
So, here I am in Europe trying my hand at a focused training block without the distraction of Barr Camp. In a way, it’s really nice. And yet, at the same time, it’s very different for me. It feels like the roles have been reversed. I’m usually the caretaker at the refuge helping the folks who pass through. Now I’m on the other side. I’m the one bouncing around the mountain with my pack, bivy sack, and a handful of Euros looking for places to sleep and snacks to eat. I’m the one sleeping in the emergency shelter at the top of Col de Balme or on a grassy knoll high above Courmayeur. In a sense, I’m Lioness. Sort of.
And you know what? Lioness was right. The universe provides. Now I know this may sound strange, so allow me to explain. We humans have a real tendency to get stuck in our routines, our comfort zones, our safe spots, and our same-old-same-olds. We like to stay where we feel that we can take care of, manage, and provide for ourselves. We like to be and feel independent. That’s all well and good in a way, but I think that when we stay in our safe zone we can easily feel like we are providing for ourselves and fail to recognize or appreciate how the universe provides.
Here in Europe I have thrown away most of what I am used to. I’ve freed myself of the safe place. And you know what? The universe keeps coming through. Most days when I set out I have a general idea of where I may end up, but rarely do I have a hard-set plan. Not that plans are bad. In fact, they can be very good, but I’m the type that enjoys keeping them loose. What is more important to me is to be prepared. To be equipped and capable of taking care of yourself (hence the bivy, sleeping bag, water filter, emergency blanket, etc.), but free enough to go where the wind takes you. In essence, don’t be an irresponsible burden to those around you, but remove enough of the safe zone to allow yourself to see the universe at work. This is what I’ve done, and without a doubt, the universe has been pouring down.
My first night on the trail, it rained. Not just a little either. This rain was good and proper, complete with enough thunder to make me cautious to venture above treeline. And then it happened. Just as I was about to leave the thick of the trees, I saw a sign for a camping/bivouac site. As I banked left and ran into the site, a girl looked at me and gave a friendly “welcome!” Sure, it was still raining, but at least I had company and a safe place to camp. The universe came through.
Several days later I passed through the same spot in much better weather conditions. This time I climbed all the way to the shelter at the top of Col de Balme. With a light rain falling and no real need to continue on, I was happy to crash in the empty shelter where I would be dry and safe if the weather worsened. Once again, the universe provided.
The next morning the sun came out and I continued on toward Italy. All was going well as I climbed up and over Col de la Seigne. But then, about halfway between the top of the col and the turnoff for the Pyramids Calcaires, I caught a toe and went down. Hard. Real hard. It was the kind of fall that would usually leave cuts on your forearms and gashes in your hands. Oddly enough, my hands and forearms were barely touched. However, this was the problem. My hands and forearms got off easy because my face broke my fall. And in turn, the fall broke my face.
As I got to my feet I quickly tried to asses the damage. Blood was gushing all over the place and it felt like half my face had been ripped off. Where is all this blood coming from, I thought to myself. Some of it seemed to be coming from my nose, but a lot also seemed to be coming from my lower lip which felt like it was split in two. Fumbling around with my pack I eventually found a shirt with which to cover my face. Pressing the shirt to my face, I quickly made my way to a small building just a few hundred yards below. Though more of a tourism/information building than a refuge, the guy and girl inside kindly helped me clean my wounds. Expressing concern for the deep gash in my lower lip, they sent me on to Courmayeur to get it taken care of further. They told me not to run anymore, but they also expressed that I should get to Courmayeur quickly. I’ll let you take a guess at what I chose to do.
Once in Courmayeur, I quickly found a pharmacy, a doctor, a hardware store (for super glue, of course), and a public bathroom. On my way into the bathroom to take care of my busted face, I bumped into a friendly group of Americans. Naturally we talked about my busted face and one of them said, “You’re Zach, right?” A while later, after a very painful date with the bathroom mirror, some cleaning supplies, a bottle of Listerine, and a tube of super glue, I found myself walking through the rain in search of food. Passing by a pizza place, one of the same Americans that I met at the bathroom saw me and came out to invite me to dinner with he and his friends. Happy to have the company, I sat down and joined them. “Please excuse my lip,” I told them, “I glued it shut.”
With the rain still falling, dinner turned into an offer to crash with them for the night and by morning I left showered, rested, and with spirits lifted by my newfound friends. The universe gave me friends. And pizza. And a bed. Yet, the universe was nowhere near done with me. A day later I found myself terribly calorie deficient and bonking hard. Slogging my way out of Vallorcine after downing 1.5 liters of Coke in a single setting, I still felt awful. But that day the universe brought me a very nice Scottish man to bolster my spirits. He too had had an accident on the trail and was now out for a walk as he nursed the aftermath of a pretty horrific injury to his thumb. His kindness that day was so unexpected and yet so timely. The universe struck yet again.
Fast forward to today and the story is the same. Yesterday in the rain I met Alexi from Saint-Gervais. He caught me as I left town and ran with me all the way to Les Contamines. Then in Les Contamines I met the owner of the grocery store in which I routinely stop to shop when passing through. He said he had heard that I was out here training for the race and told me of his plans to do TDS. Noticing that I was buying an entire pack of pens, he asked if I wanted just one. I said yes, and he took me to a back room and found one for me.
And finally, today, as I was feeling a bit lonesome, I bumped into a couple of runners on the streets of Courmayeur. We took selfies and talked running/racing. One of them lives in Chamonix and even invited me to stay with him when I pass through. Once again, that universe thing.
I write all of this to highlight the idea that the universe has a way of having our backs. Some may call it by another name, or see it as luck or karma or God or fate or something else. I don’t expect us to all agree on what it is called, but I do hope that we get a chance to see that it is present. Maybe you see it all the time. Maybe you don’t. I’ll admit that at times it can be easy to miss. In the midst of our busy, regimented, technological world, it’s easy to get caught up in trying to always be in control. But still, we cannot control everything. The universe is still there. Sometimes we just have to turn things off a bit to notice it. Sometimes we have to be a Lioness and let the universe give us a tent.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- What is your relationship with control? Are you able to give up some control with ease to see what details the universe fills in? Or is it difficult for you to let something or someone else take charge?
- Have you ever experienced a similar kind of luck or karma or whatever you wish to call it as Zach has when you do give up control? What did that look like for you?