Letters

A few days ago, I made the trek from town up to Barr Camp, Colorado, where I live and work, with a load of groceries in my pack. As I ran, I racked my brain for something to write about in my column this month. I thought about the sermon I had heard at church the night before. I pondered the current weather, which was overcast and snowy. I searched for lessons in the world around me. Some of my thoughts seemed to have potential, but nothing grabbed me yet. Then, later that night, my thoughts drifted to my grandfather.

Grandpa is a writer. If you ask him about it, he may disagree. He might tell you that he is a carpenter, or just an old man trying to be useful. Whether he realizes it or not, he is a writer. While I don’t know when he started the habit, he’s been putting pen to paper for decades. Perhaps it was when he left high school early to serve in the United States Navy. I know he had a girlfriend at the time because he says that she was very faithful in writing to him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was diligent in writing back, but then again who knows. He was young, and when he returned home he says that he broke off the relationship as he was more interested in buying a Ford Model T than a diamond ring. The funny thing is, he fell head over heels for a new girl and never got the Model T. Nowadays, I call that girl Grandma, and he calls her his Model T, so I suppose it worked out.

Back to the writing, though. Like I said, I’m not sure when my grandfather started writing, but he does it a lot. When I was little, my grandma and grandpa lived in the same house as me, so there was no need to write letters. Once I moved away from home, however, he kept in touch by writing. No matter where I was, as long as I gave him an address, the letters came. In college, it was to my dorm/apartment in Rochester, New York. When I took a job working on cruise ships after college, my mother gave him addresses for various ports of call, and I received letters in all sorts of random places.

He continues to write, sending letters to the Barr Camp post office box in Manitou Springs, Colorado, and they are always a special treat. Usually quite simple, they tell me about things back home in ‘Ironville, USA,’ as he refers to it. Topics of interest are the weather, Penn State and Philadelphia Eagles football scores, Mom’s cooking, and well wishes for my training and racing.

Letters aren’t the only form of writing that my grandpa does. He also journals. I’ve never read any of his journals, but I know they exist because my mother talks about them. Like the letters, I don’t know when he picked up this habit, but at 92 years young, I can only imagine that he has filled quite a few pages. The wealth of observations, memories, and knowledge tucked away in those journals must be astounding.

My grandfather isn’t the only one with a habit for journaling. Just the other day I was at my friend Rachel’s house and noticed a tall stack of black books sitting on her bookshelf. Journals, and lots of them. She explained that she started the habit after seeing it done by one of her friends and deciding that she wanted a journal stack of her own. I kidded her that she just bought a bunch of journals, wrote dates on the spines, and stacked them up on her bookshelf. She laughed. I think. Humor aside, I imagine those pages are filled with all sorts of interesting thoughts.

You know what? Journals look really good on a bookshelf, but what a shame it would be if they stayed there, clasped shut and collecting dust. It reminds me of a story my mother once told about coming across one of my grandfather’s journals. I imagine she was tempted to read it, but she felt she shouldn’t. Journals are often viewed this way, as something private that shouldn’t be invaded by outsiders. When my mother told my grandpa this, he said that this is why he writes in his journals: so that one day others can read them.

It seems so contrary to the way we tend to view journals. And yet here is my grandfather storing away thoughts, not so they can be kept in secret, but so they can be shared. For the time being, some of these thoughts may stay tucked away in the pages of his journals, waiting to be revealed at the right moment. In the meantime, however, I imagine certain bits and pieces are shared. They likely surface in speech, deed, and of course, his letters. I like to think that who he is in real life is in some way a reflection of what’s written on those pages.

I’m not much for journaling myself. I jot down a few things in my phone, but I don’t have a tall stack of journals like Rachel and I rarely write a letter like my grandpa. As I thought back to my run up the mountain that day and how I racked my brain for a writing topic, I realized that running might be my journal. It’s the quiet part of my day when I can zone out, shut off, and think to myself.

Much like a journal, running can feel very personal and private. You can feel a need to protect it, to keep it to yourself. At times, I think that can be good as it’s nice to have time to oneself. To have a space to wrestle with your thoughts, unhindered by outside pressures. And yet, what a shame it would be if the journal stopped there, if the pages were locked shut and the key thrown away. How much better is it when our stories are a bit more shared?

I’m not saying that every little piece of ourselves needs to be shared. I imagine Grandpa’s journals are about some things that he never includes in his letters. But if we can take a few pieces of the run and share them with others, that would be pretty cool. Perhaps the thoughts, lessons, and stories will be shared on a another run with a friend. Or maybe they will be expressed non-verbally, by the way you conduct yourself. Just as there are many ways to write your journal, so there are many ways to share your letter. Don’t be too concerned about what the journal looks like, or if you get all the spelling correct in the letter–my grandpa is always crossing out words that he misspells. What matters is that he is sharing some of his journey with me. He’s running his race, and encouraging me in mine.

Write your journal. Share your letter. Because we all need a reason to check the mail.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you write and receive handwritten letters? From and to whom do you receive and send correspondence and what meaning does this have in your life?
  • How about journaling? If you journal, can you describe this habit for you?
  • Does running share a parallel to writing letters and journaling, as it does for Zach, in terms of having a venue for you to process your world?

Image: Zach Miller

Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 14 comments

  1. Karen

    What a gift and treasure you will have.

    I miss letters, but no longer write or receive many.

    No journaling, but some poems are jotted down often after a run.

    This was a wonderful read.

    Thanks for the mail.

  2. Helen

    I’m older than you, probably about your Mom’s age, when in school we had pen pals and I regwrote to my aunt in Canada who would write back. Then when I first left home, I would write to my parents. The telephone took over as our means of communication and now we use digital media. If We blog, I think that’s like journaling as we don’t always share all of our writings. Thank you for sharing yours x

  3. Adam Leadbetter

    Zach this is another great article.

    I loved seeing the letter your grandfather wrote to you about your running and Hilary’s accident and recovery when you posted it on Instagram. It’s great to hear some more detail about him here.

    My grandfather was a prolific letter writer too – and we still have some letters he wrote to my grandmother back during WWII. I hope I can be as inspiring as them one day,

  4. Zach Miller

    Adam, thanks for following along and sharing your thoughts! It’s nice to hear that there are/have been other polific letter writing Grandfathers out there! Letters are a special thing.

  5. Seth

    Thanks for sharing. Is there a certain aspect of running that when you experience it you feel like you have to share it and can’t hardly handle it if you can’t?

    1. Zach Miller

      You’re welcome Seth! Thanks for reading. As for your question, every now and there is an experience that I really want to share, but it doesn’t happen everyday. But the lessons and experiences accumulated over time are of value. They may get filed away and shared quite a ways down the road.

  6. Mat Sch

    Well written and I have had similar thoughts every once in a while, either while running or when letting my thoughts wander to connect with feelings and let the letters flow. Don’t know if this happen to anybody else (I reckon it does), but when I’m running and I’m digesting ideas/feelings after the run either I forgot what I was thinking or it just doesn’t feel the same, it lacks the intensity I felt while running.

    Well I don’t write letters, because my handwritting is terrible (sometimes even I can’t understand what I wrote) but there’s something special about sharing letters with someone, might be an email, a long text through social media. It’s simple,honest and meaningful. An as you said, if you write what ever it is, it’s better to share it!

    Enjoyed reading you.

  7. Ann

    Oh, this article is so touching. I’m sitting here pretending not to have tears in my eyes. You’re a very lucky person to have such a grandfather, even luckier to have his writing skills passed on to you. Thank you for sharing of such personal thoughts in your own writing.

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