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?

There are 34 comments

  1. Derek

    What a great article! I'll turn 30 in 3 weeks, and I've been a runner for less than 2 years. I finished my first 50k a couple weeks ago, and though I don't think that particular race or trail will ever be "home" to me, this article stirred up in me an inspiration and excitement to find a race or trail that I call "home". I love how you have such an intimate relationship with the Western States Trail, and it's evident in your description. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. greg monette

    Wonderful piece. And while home is here in Western Mass., there's a certain dirt road after the trail through Hope Pass in Colorado upon which I have spent the past three years trying to live down my only DNF. It's a dirt road like any dirt road, but to me it is every dirt road I run now, and I've embraced it as my place. But not the spot where I totally lost it in the bushes, I'm over that.

  3. Andy

    Even for those of us who have not been so fortunate to have run States (yet!), this piece makes the Trail — with it's familiar landmarks and storied aid stations — feel like our place too. Thanks, AJW. Hope to see you down home one year very soon.

  4. Michael

    Write what you know. It works better that way. A lovely, personal, non ego centric( which is hard to do) piece of writing. T.Wolfe said the thing about not going home again but I prefer to hang with Bobbie Ann Mason who said that it was the obligation of the artist to go home. Roll on, AJW, don't let the wheels come off and burn.

  5. Gilbert

    That was a great article, Andy; your love of the trail wells up out of the words and memories. I've never spent much time on the WS trail (beside the portion that Way Too Cool covers), but you made me nostalgic for it, and for similar memories of my own experiences. Happy Memorial Day; enjoy your trip home.

  6. Gerell

    I remember pacing Bev Abbs at states in 2005 and seeing you out there in your "home", and you looked like a little kid in a candy store. You gave off a vibe of, "this is a blast!" It was a nice thing to see.

    1. AJW

      Art, in 2001 I was selected in the lottery. In 2004 I gained entry through special consideration (I think as a result of my 2003 Angeles Crest 100 finish). Since the 2004 race (when I finished 8th) I have gained entry by finishing in the top-10.

      1. art

        not being a front runner, and having failed in the lottery twice so far, this article makes me feel sort of like a homeless person, standing out in the cold, peering through the window of a fancy restaurant.

        1. AJW

          Art, you are not alone in this feeling and I can assure you that the WSER Race Management Team is aware of your predicament. There are no easy answers to the supply and demand problem with WS but attention is being paid to the issue.

        2. Andy

          definitely NOT alone. I suppose the easiest solution to the supply and demand problem is to increase the supply through other races, and that is certainly happening. They just don't have the names, the history, the legend and mystique like WS. But maybe in a few years other races, like UROC or RRR, will start to take on a similar "home" feel, at least for some.

          Art, we might never get a table, but there are lots of other places to eat!

        3. grae

          Now that you get a ticket for every year you enter and "miss", this should help some. Hang in there and keep entering, your time is coming.

  7. Dean G

    File this under:

    "So you want to know why I run ultras" — in the book of answers.

    Thanks, AJW. I've never been able to really explain to those who don't have the bug, what it is that makes it magical. You nailed it.

  8. Gretchen

    You always have a way with words, Andy, but this piece is particularly wonderful. Your genuine love of the trail is awesome. I'd built up enough memories in training miles, volunteering, and pacing, that by the time I finally ran western States (last year) it felt like a bit of coming home at last. Thanks for putting it so well.

    And what exactly did you say to Craig in that phone call?

  9. Steve B

    I've been out to States for the last four races (2X Runner/2X Pacer) plus the last two Memorial Weekend training camps. Not going to make it for either this year and I definitely feel a void, it's like an internal alarm clock goes off this time of year. Best of luck this campaign against another very stacked field and hopefully I'll be scrambling several hours behind you on the trail once again in 2013.

  10. the "other&quot

    Hey there kind sir,

    What exactly did you share during this pass?

    “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.

    I would love to know.

    Cheers sir and much love!

    – Geoff

  11. marco

    AJW, I told you this weekend during the training runs that you should write a book. I will say it again, write the book that will speak for all of us ultrarunners. Give us a voice. Thanks for the"tap room" hat, I will wear it during ws100 this year. Who knows, maybe I'll be top ten because of it.

    Marco D.

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