My buddy Ken is 85 years old. He’s a old vaudevillian who hit the road before he was 10, playing the accordion and tap dancing through Missouri, Kansas and Iowa, the remains of the old RKO circuit.
He met his wife in New York. She was singing for Benny Goodman.
Ken is fascinated by my running. He claims to be the least athletic man who ever walked the earth. He cannot comprehend how anyone could possibly run 100 miles through the mountains, but unlike most people when faced with something they can’t comprehend, Ken doesn’t reject it but is fascinated and wants to know more.
Today he asked me “Do you find serenity when you run?”
“Yes,” I said. “Partly I think it’s because I have to concentrate. I focus on the ground because these are rough trail and if I’m not paying attention, I’ll trip and fall.”
He nods. Ken remembers my broken finger after AC100, and he’s seen my scabbed knees in the summer.
“Playing music is exactly the same for me,” he says. “Were you always a runner?” he asks.
“Naw. When I was a little kid I messed up some tendons or something. I had to wear these wingtip gimp shoes. I couldn’t do gym class or anything. And then one day I took off the gimp shoes and ran a race in gym class and beat everybody. Nobody was more surpassed than me. So I ran another race just to see if it was a fluke, and I won that too. Before that day, I felt like I was a really weak little kid. After that day, I kept running.”
Ken smiled. “That’s exactly how I felt when I finally got my braces off,” he said. “All of a sudden, I felt free.”
I started the run at Red Box. Two miles of pavement up the Mt Wilson Road, and then ducked down onto the Mt. Lowe Road, which isn’t really a road at all but a rocky trail, through the Mueller Tunnel, to the intersection of the Mt. Lowe Road, East Mt. Lowe Trail, and the Mt. Disappointment Trail.
The last month has been stressful. A move, the new car transmission, nearly getting fired, primarily due to my spectacular inability to deal with people. By Thursday I realized that I was just really really tired.
Climbing the East Mt. Lowe Trail, I was having conversations in my head with coworkers. explaining things, trying to get my point across, but really what I should be doing is shutting up, both there, and, especially, on this rocky, beautiful, and sometimes icy and challenging singletrack.
There was none of the serenity I told Ken I found on these trails.
I started meditating – a simple concentration meditation, counting breaths. The conversations quickly disappeared.
I’m still learning my way in these mountains. I took advantage of the pipe telescopes on top of Mt. Lowe to get my bearings. Mt. Baldy, covered in snow, right where I thought it was in the distance. Mt. Disappointment – the second set of radio towers, and Mt. San Gabriel in between Disappointment and Mt. WIlson.
The West Trail was too icy doing down to find traction. I headed back the way I’d come, and then headed up to Mt. Disappointment on a series of rocky switchbacks. From Mt. D I headed down, across and up to just below the peak of Mt. San Gabriel. Icey, again, and there were crows making a lot of noise and diving down on the trail.
Down in the city I look around and it seems like a young person’s world. I’m not a young person. I’ve been around long enough that my sense of time is very different from the sense of time that, say, the average hipster kid in Echo Park has. What seems interminably long to him seems like a quiet moment to me.
Ken has been married to Mitzi longer than I have been alive. I was conceived, born, grew up, been married twice, lived an unstable life all around the world, all in less time than they’ve been together. Ken’s wife is ill. She has Parkinson’s disease. She’s now bedridden. She’s impatient with the debilitating effects of Parkinsons. A few weeks ago that impatience drove her to get out of bed unassisted, and that led to a fall which in turn led to her being placed in an assisted living home after hospital. She’s angry at Ken. She feels he’s not doing everything he can to get her out.
Ken plays the piano, and she sings. They’ve been doing this together for over 50 years, but now she’s bed ridden. I wonder if Ken still plays without her.
On Sunday I’ve come off the Winter Creek Trail and am heading up the last mile of the Mt. Wilson Tollroad who who should come down but Jorge Pacheco, his wife Mari Lemus, and Ulises Reyes, who paced me the last 25 miles of AC100. We stop to talk. I mention that I was almost fired at work. “I’m going to need to kiss some ass,” I say. Mari laughs and gives me a high five. Jorge shakes his head. “Just be nice,” he says.
On Wednesday I learn that Deer Park Monastery is opening signup for a retreat in October. Thich Naht Han will be leading the retreat. Deer Park Monastery is a beautiful place. I wonder whether or not they would take me as a monastic. Could I still run every day, and would I be able to bring my cat?
“You’d make a good monastic,” my friend Erin says. “You’re mostly there already.”
Postscript: Mitzie passed away June 10, 2014. Her LA Times obituary is here.
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