Home on the [Western States] Trail

AJWs TaproomThe late, great Western American man of letters, Wallace Stegner, wrote, in his seminal essay, “The Sense of Place,” that, “a place is not a place until people have been born in it, grown up in it, lived in it, known it, died in it – have both experienced and shaped it, as individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities, over more than one generation. Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they are searching for. But whatever their relationship to it, it is made a place only by slow accrual, like a coral reef.”

On the eve of this Memorial Day Weekend, for me, the psychological opening weekend of summer, I am once again looking forward to grounding myself in place. You see, I have been a bit of a wanderer over the past dozen years or so as work and life have taken me from Arizona to California, from Idaho to Virginia. As such, I have sought a “home” not in a house or a community or a neighborhood or even a school, but rather, perhaps surprisingly, I have found a home on a trail. Since 2000, the place where I have felt most at home, the place that has grown on me and made me more of who I am, the place that I have made my own through “slow accrual” is the Western States Trail.

I’ll admit it, I love the Western States Trail. I love its dustiness, I love its smells, I love the way it punishes me and rewards me. I love how it wanders from the high snowy Sierra Nevada to the dry, desiccated canyons and along the way I love how it takes me through decayed gold mining towns, across crisp tree-lined ridges, and over historic, built-from-the-heart bridges. In short, I love how the Western States Trail feeds my soul.

And, like any home, it carries with it visceral human memories grounded in time, space, and motion. Like the time, in 2001, when I emerged off the trail at Robie Point and met my solo crew, my now ex-sister-in-law, who, upon seeing me and, more significantly, hearing me, said, “Did you get emphysema down there?”

Or, the occasion in 2004 when I was bobbing along the Quarry Road just before sunset with my pacer and good friend, Errol “The Rocket” Jones. We were just running along on the top-10 bubble when who did we see? None other than Dean Karnazes! At the time DK was moseying along in his bucket hat and ice filled bottles and we exchanged pleasantries as I passed. He, of course, passed me back just before the Cool Meadow, but I can’t run that section of Quarry Road without thinking of that time I blew by Dean at 12-minute pace.

2005 was my best race and, like any Harvard Graduate, if you hang out with me for more than about 30 seconds, I’ll tell you about how great I was that day but my best memory of that race took place when I rolled into the River after passing Vincent Delebarre walking backwards down the trail because his quads were trashed and then passing Jorge Pacheco lying down on the picnic table shortly after Sandy Bottom on Cal Street. When I got off the scale on the Near Side the guy with the clipboard said,

“Well, you’re in second. Scott crossed the river 24 minutes ago.”

My pacer, John Pearch, always the master of the understatement, said simply, “Anything can happen.” To which I said, “You think Dusty will challenge him to a cannonball contest off No Hands?”

I ended up finishing second.

There’s a distinctively special place about 200 yards out of Last Chance where my good friend and mentor Tommy Nielsen always likes to go to “fertilize the flora” of the Western States Trail. In 2006, as I was leaving Last Chance, I heard a voice from the bushes,

“AJ, is that you? Wait up!” it was Tommy.

We were walking the dusty short uphill on the road before the descent to the Red Gate that immediately precedes the rusty mining equipment that signals the beginning of the sharp descent into Deadwood Canyon.

“Dude, it’s hot out today.” Tommy said as we settled into a gentle trot.

“Yeah, I think this is going to be a Big Day.” I mumbled back checking my pocket for S! Caps.

“I heard they were pulling people at Robinson for losing weight.” Tommy said grabbing his hamstring in a pre-cramp pose.

“Not surprised, I ran into three guys who went in dry into Duncan Canyon and hit the chair.” I tried to sound authoritative while realizing I’d already drained half a bottle five minutes out of the aid station.

“How about we run the Canyons together today?” Tommy said and glanced at me like he always does.

“Sounds like a plan!” I said, relieved.

And, as we passed the “Dangerous: Steep Trail Ahead Sign” that noted the beginning of the drop to the Swinging Bridge, we both smiled…

In 2007, I was chasing Graham Cooper for 3rd place and my pacer Jeff Hutson was whipping me like a horse. He pointed out a couple particular places along the trail between Green Gate and Auburn Lake Trails that were important landmarks, but I knew we were completely geeked out Western States obsessives when he said,

“From here, where this old gnarly barbed wire fence ends, we have 6 minutes to the Aid Station.”

“Hmmph!” I grunted. Then, got pissed when we rolled into the Aid Station 6:15 from the fence. I never caught Graham that year, but my post race celebration ended up on YouTube and you would have thought I’d won the thing.

Finally, there is even a spot on the Placer High School Track that feels like home to me. It’s where I was sitting after finishing the race in 2010 when someone handed me a cell phone,

“AJW, talk to Craig, he’s on a cot at Highway 49.”

The five-minute conversation that ensued changed the way I think about life and living. And, I like to think, it also got my good friend Craig Thornley off that cot and on to the Finish Line.

Anyway, this is all to say, like any home, this place is filled with memories for me; physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.

I love the Western States Trail for reasons that are intensely personal and completely mine. It is a love built up over time and grounded in place. It’s a love that has endured and a love that is filled with hope. Joy, optimism, and dreams have found life in the Western States Trail and I, for whatever reason, have shared in that life.

And that brings me back to this weekend. You see, for the last decade I have spent Memorial Day Weekend on the Western States Trail, at home. It may not be all that much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s more than enough for me. So, if you’re looking for me this weekend, I’ll be at home.

Bottoms up!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Jack's Brewing CompanyThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Jack’s Brewing Company in San Ramon, CA. I used to frequent Jack’s when I lived in the Bay Area and their beer is good. Basic, tasty, no-nonsense. Their Boys of Summer Wheat is a great low-alcohol beer that seems appropriate in these heavy training days of May and June. And, here’s hoping you all get out on a great Memorial Day Constitutional!

Call for Comments (from Bryon)
Where do you call “home” and why?