Monday, December 26, 2011

Rangeley, Maine: ‘All my pores are open’

For the last several Christmas breaks, we’ve traveled to Peaks Island, Maine, off Portland, for a pre-Christmas stop with my parents and then driven with them to the northern Maine town of Rangeley. Rangeley is home not only to Saddleback ski area, but it also has many other small-town charms, including a great ice skating pond in the middle of town and a great sledding hill in the middle of a golf course.

I haven’t been running much since I had an episode of deep-vein thrombosis after a long flight to Manila in mid-November, but, now cleared by doctors to exercise on all sports that don’t include the risk of head injury (there goes downhill skiing), I’ve been slowly building back.

This morning, I checked the local Rangeley map and found a route along the Harold Ross Road, named after the legendary New Yorker editor who had the good sense to hire E.B. White. I admit to running slowly before reaching Harold Ross Road; to get there I had to run a good three-quarters of a mile along the Saddleback access road, and it was steep, befitting the beginnings of a good mountain road.

But once I reached the turnoff, I relaxed and fell into a steady rhythm. It had snowed an inch or two overnight and that made for the best type of winter running. I had soft landings. My footfalls were almost silent, save for a slightly squeaky land and push-off. The north wind pushed me south.

I registered only a few things along the way: some street signs – my favorite was Stub and Luraine’s Lane -- and also animal tracks. The deeper I ran down Harold Ross, the greater the number of tracks. I was running on a deserted road as well as an animal highway.

The most common track was moose. I stopped and put my running shoe next to a hoof print, and the hoof was significantly longer than my shoe, probably a size 12 man’s. I paced off the distance between prints, and one stretched five feet. I started out again and ran along the ridge, up and down, over streams, and pass pine wood, looking for but not finding moose.

Fifty-five minutes after my start, I returned back to our rented house on Rangeley Lake, called Windy Cross, perhaps because of the wind and also all the crosses in the house. I found my father, Mike. I had tried to persuade him the night before to go into the hot tub next to the house, and he had demurred, saying “let’s wait until morning.”

He was carrying bags to his car, getting ready to return home with my mother, Mary.

“Want to go in the hot tub, Dad?”

“Sure!” he said.

Five minutes later, we opened the hot tub and stripped down to our shorts. Barefoot, we made the short walk across snow and ice before submerging in the warm water. It was wonderful. (Check out the video.) Afterward, I asked my father how he felt and he said, “All my pores are open.”

How does that feel?

“I am feeling generous and benign,” he said.

We laughed, and he and I understood exactly what he meant. All is good.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Estonia: Running in the deep dark

During winter, I often run on weekdays in the dark. For the past few days in Estonia, in the far Baltic north, I’ve been running not in the dark but the deep dark. Night here in mid-December stretches for close to 17 hours; the sun sinks by 3:30 p.m.

Maybe it’s all in my head, but when I set off at 6:45, as I have in the last few days, it feels like late in the night, not early in the morning. The sun won’t rise until after 9 a.m. So when I set off, there’s no dawn peeking around the corner.

I’m in the university town of Tartu, and it feels very European. Fanciful truffles are in the windows of shops. Women wear thigh-length wool coats and knee-high black boots, brightly colored scarves knotted around their necks. Men, hair stringy, rush by in suits, scarves, cigarettes between their fingers.  They all watch their steps along the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Town or along the bridges that are for pedestrians not cars. Christmas lights are everywhere, strung up on lamp posts and bridge posts and high in the air above Town Square.

The Christmas lights don’t only raise holiday spirits, but they also raise spirits, period, it seems. They provide light. This morning, I ran underneath a string of holiday lights along the Mother River and up and over an impressive pedestrian bridge, passed by a few bikers wearing winter coats and scarves that flew behind them, flapping in the breeze. Then I headed along the river again on a long stretch of blackness.

When it’s dark, I often feel a lightness of being. I’m concentrating on not falling and I watch the ground for holes or humps. I’m not thinking. That is freeing mentally and sometimes, when my pace is just right, I can run for a mile or two and not realize it. Night makes you feel invisible. Night also makes others invisible, of course, which can be a problem. But when you see an occasional person, and when it's exceptionally cold (as it is in Tartu), and when wind is cutting across your stride, it is possible to relax into a rhythm and lose yourself.

On the run this morning, I retreated into this zombie-state and only snapped out of it when I looked up the sky and saw light. It was limited to a large circle in a bank of low-lying clouds. I couldn’t figure it out at first. But then it dawned on me that the lights from the street, Christmas decorations, and a nearby mall had reflected upon the clouds. It reminded me of one of those spaceship movies in which the scene is all black until shafts of light reach to the ground. Only in Tartu, the direction of the light is up, not down.

I don’t know why, but the scene almost made me laugh. It was entirely a man-made phenomenon, and it seemed a rare one. I thought to myself it’s not often on a run when you think of nothing in the dark and then you look up and think of spaceships.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

First run

I missed running. I didn’t know how much until now. I’m just back from a run, my first in 24 days. On my last run, I had to stop after three minutes. I could barely breathe. Days later, I learned that I had blood clots in my legs and my chest. I stayed in a hospital for three days and left with a pile of blood thinner medication and the words of a doctor not to exercise for a while.

So that stopped me. It stopped me not only from physically exerting myself but it also stopped me from thinking about running. I put it all out of my mind. I focused on my legs, my heart, my breathing, making sure I did a kind of internal body check-up several times a day. Everything was stripped back to the basics of being able to live.

My run today, then, is a step back to reclaiming something lost, or maybe even it is reclaiming my life. I didn’t have a euphoric moment. I ran for 25 minutes. I ran slower than normal, half the distance of my short daily run, consciously checking on my breathing. Was I breathing too hard? Was my chest contracting? Was that slight pain in my leg a sore muscle?

But when I finished, I felt a trickle of sweat twist and turn from under my running jacket and flow down my right thumb. I opened the door of our house and called for our dog, Juluka, and she knew what that meant; she shook her nine-year-old legs and bounded out the door. I ran around the block with her, tossing a tennis ball ahead of us so that on first bounce she could leap and snare it, and she did, again and again.

We stopped in an open area under pine trees. I stretched. I felt the aches of calves, of my lower back, of my shoulders. My hair was damp at the edges. Then I walked back into our house, took off my running jacket (which was wet on the sleeves), fed the dog, boiled water for black tea, and thought for a moment about how the pieces of a carefully constructed life are coming back. I really missed running.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I live, she dies: Access to quality health care

(A version of this blog appeared in Global Post)          
I am thankful this season for good health care, and yet I am sad that many don’t have it. Here’s why.
            Three weeks ago, I flew to Manila, stayed a week, and then flew back to Washington, D.C. My calves felt extraordinarily tight during the whole trip, and when I went running one day in Manila I had to stop every three or four minutes. I have run marathons, but I couldn’t breathe after three blocks. (And that's where I left things in my last blog post. See below.)
            Back in Washington, I walked up three flights of stairs and again had to stop to catch my breath. I knew something was wrong so I opened my computer and typed in Google: “calf pain + shortness of breath + long flights.” Google told me what I feared: deep vein thrombosis, or dangerous blood clots that could migrate to my lungs and possibly kill me.
I drove myself to an emergency room, where 15 minutes later a technician using ultrasound found two clots in my leg; a doctor told me the clots were also almost surely in my chest. A nurse injected me with blood thinner, and after a few days in the hospital, I am now out of danger. I left for home and now recuperating.
            I am fortunate. I know this from years of experience of reporting about people who have poor or no access to quality health care, from rural areas of West Virginia to Afghanistan to Zambia. But today I feel this deeply, in large part because of an email that I just received from Rudi Thetard, the country director for Management Sciences for Health (MSH), a Cambridge-based non-profit that works globally to improve health care.
This summer, I met Rudi in Malawi and he had introduced me to Lucy Sakala (see Dominic Chavez's photo above), an HIV counselor at Salima District Hospital in Malawi, about a two hour drive from Lilongwe, the capital of the southeastern African country.
            Lucy was battling cancer and I wrote about her difficulties in getting treatment. Here’s what she told me in July about how she tells people that they are infected with HIV:
            “I tell people who just learn their diagnosis that they should live positively,” Sakala said. “I tell them that there are several conditions more serious than HIV, including some cancers. And I tell them I have cancer, and it’s difficult, but that I live positively. Then I say it’s so important for them to take their medications properly so they won’t have opportunistic infections, and that they shouldn’t fear much. They should listen to their health provider.”
            Those patients, Sakala said, sometimes “feel sorry for me, and their problem becomes a little lighter. But I tell them not to feel sorry. I tell them to live as positively as I am.”
            The story documented how Lucy couldn’t afford the cost for chemotherapy. MSH staff around the world donated $2,000 for her treatment.
            In the end, it was not enough. Rudi’s email was Lucy’s death notice. She died a week ago from her cancer, which had spread from her uterus to her brain, esophagus, and lungs.
            Here’s what he wrote:
            “Lucy has for the last year battled her own cancer whilst continuing to counsel persons who have tested positive for HIV.  Her death has been felt strongly by MSH staff in Malawi as we had all hoped that she would recover.
            “Her story echoes the story of many other cancer sufferers in Malawi.  Following the diagnosis of cancer she was able to start with a program of chemotherapy which had to be supplemented by radiotherapy.  It is at that point that that the doctor advised a course of radiotherapy which was only available in Zambia.  MSH staff (in Malawi and globally) contributed generously to the expenses she incurred in travelling to Zambia and she was able to complete a course of radiotherapy.  She returned to Malawi a few weeks ago and had to face a reality of a shortage of essential chemotherapy – these drugs have been out of stock since September in Malawi.  She died this morning and was only 28 years old, leaving a daughter and husband.”
            I told this story to Dr. Kevin De Cock, a pioneering global health researcher who is now director of the Center for Global Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
            This story of the 28-year-old woman is regrettably a common one,” he said. “But at the same time we need to step back with non-communicable diseases and say where we are: The world is just starting to recognize the global problem. Not a large amount of resources are being made available to for specific non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. … Still, a great deal can be done through appropriate public health policies. This does not solve the problem of the sad story of this woman, but there is an awful lot we can do now.”
That is almost surely true. The reality today is that someone like me who was born in a middle-class family in a rich country has the means to access health care that can add years – maybe decades – to my life. Lucy Sakala, by virtue of being born in a poor country with poor health care, didn’t have that. Basic chemotherapy treatment was not available to her. And because of these facts, I live and she dies in November of 2011. It’s not right.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Manila: Xmas, shops, and ‘I want to marry that girl’

            HONG KONG – I’m now at the Hong Kong airport, on a layover, thinking about Manila and running and thinking about Manila and not running.

I had a run that I would rather forget. At dusk one night, I ran inside a gated Makati neighborhood – an exclusive part of the city -- and then rather foolishly went out the next morning at 6 a.m. A few minutes into the morning run, I wasn’t running. I was out of breath. So I walked. I started up again, and I stopped again, covering four blocks. My run-walk continued for a half-hour.

I’m not sure if it was the Manila humidity, the air, jet lag, or general fatigue from my life of too much travel, but it didn’t matter. I had one choice. No more running for a few days. And when I don’t run, a couple of things happen. One is that I have time.

So I explored Manila in a different way, just not in my running shorts.

It was hard to avoid experiencing how the city was gearing up for Christmas, even in the second week of November. My five-star hotel, the Makati Shangri-La, produced a “lighting of the (fake) trees” ceremony in its giant entryway.  The hotel brought out a choir of women all dressed in red floor-length gowns who sang from the top of a curving staircase. They hired a woman who wore a flowing golden gown and who belted out Christmas tunes as she walked down the stairway. She burst into a Motown song at one point, and the Filipinos in Red shook like they were from African-American sisters from Detroit.

The hotel also erected a two-story-high artificial Christmas tree, which stood in the middle of a forest of artificial one-story trees. And running around them were a bunch of elves, or girl-thin women dress in red skimpy outfits with caps on their heads.
A crowd witnessed the spectacle, of course. Who wouldn’t want to see this? Everyone had some sort of camera, either real ones or those on phones or other devices. (People were forever taking pictures in this hotel, even in the elevators, of themselves.)

Later, when I talked about this scene to a Filipino friend who had come to take me shopping (I had to find time for that), she said, “We’ve been celebrating Christmas since September! This is a late party!”

Shopping followed. Bernie, the mother of a friend in DC, took me to a shopping mall an hour’s drive away. Inside was a kind of an upscale flea market featuring knock-off brand clothes and bags, pearls, coral jewelry, hand-made bags, and Santa-and-elf figures. Plus a lot of Jesus statues.

(Did I mention the Philippines was “100 percent Catholic”? It’s not, of course, and in fact the Muslim population is large in certain areas, but people like to joke (sort of) about it.)

Bernie is a shopping pro. All foreigners need Bernie to take them by the arm. We had a short strategy session beforehand (I was looking for over-the-top pink/oranges/reds polos for my suddenly fashion-conscious 17-year-old boy; jewelry; anything locally made) and she marched into the place. I struggled to stay two steps behind.

We wandered into a maze of little booths selling thousands of strands of pearls and coral beads. We waded deep into the booths selling polos on major discounts. We found woven handbags, including some with coconut shells, and silk ties going for $5. “Give him your lowest price,” Bernie kept telling them.

When they lowered their price, Bernie would say, “No, I said, your lowest price.”

So we bargained and bought presents at their “lowest price,” and I filled a couple of bags, and felt like Christmas was here, even if it wasn’t.

But the best non-running moment was a third excursion – to a massage parlor. I went with my two companions on this trip. (The purpose of this trip, by the way, was to report on how the Philippines has attacked the ancient disease of tuberculosis.) Toward the end of the week, the three of us, all guys, found an upscale massage place and treated ourselves to an hour of massage.

It was heavenly.

When it was over, as I changed back into my clothes next to Riccardo Venturi, an Italian photojournalist who is working with me, I asked him how it was.

“Oh,” Riccardo said, “I want to marry that girl.”

“That good?”

“If I don’t marry that girl, the girl I marry will have to know how to massage like that girl.”

 We laughed. He said it was his first massage.

“First professional massage,” he said, correcting himself. “Shall we come again?”


“Tomorrow night?”

We later went out for a beer, a San Miguel, which everyone in Manila calls a “ladies’ beer,” probably because it’s so light. I enjoyed the ladies’ beer, the massage, the lowest-price shopping, and the elves and the two-story-high fake Christmas tree. This was not a running trip, perhaps for the best.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A first-time run in Manila and rule No. 18

The flight here was horrendous. Thirty hours door-to-door. One 16-hour flight in the middle, during which both of my legs cramped up. It meant I was really looking forward to my run this morning in Manila.

I’m staying at the Makati Shangri-La, a five-star hotel surrounded by malls on all sides. There’s a triangular-shaped park a few blocks away – I can see it from my 14th floor room. It doesn’t look so big, but it may be my best bet. A doorman pointed me in the right direction and also talked about going into a neighborhood “past the park.”
That’s the trouble, and the opportunity, when it comes to running in a place for the first time. I have been to Manila once before, in 2008, but I stayed in a section of town along the bay, about five or six miles away. It might as well be another country for this city of 12 million.

At first light, about 6 a.m., I found the park easily and started running around it. It took me seven minutes for the first lap. That meant it was too small. I want to run 40 to 50 minutes a day here, and I can’t imagine running around this park six or seven times a day. It’s leafy, it doesn’t have any traffic, but who wants to run in circles?
So after two trips around, I branched out.  I crossed a busy road for a smaller one and ran straight for a  half mile until I came to a line of cars waiting to get into a gated community. I ran past the guards without saying a word, appearing like I was staying at the place. That’s one of my rules of running, No. 18: Never ask permission to go into a gated establishment unless a) It’s an African game park; b) it’s a military installation; or c) You are in a country run by a dictator.

This was none of the above, and I had found a small version of running heaven in the middle of  a crowded humid city. I ran along the perimeter, passing large homes, men sweeping the streets with long-handled, heavy-straw brooms, and an occasional walker. One walker, an Aussie, was kind enough to tell me how to stay on the perimeter all the way along by talking a tiny alleyway that led to a bridge that led to a small pass-through, and then, he said, I would be able to run 2.5 kilometers (about a 1.6 miles) around. 

The run took me 45 minutes. I arrived drenched in sweat at my five-star hotel, found some free tea by the front desk, and hustled to my room. For a first-time run in a city, it was top-rate. I wouldn’t be running in seven circles every morning. I had found my gated community – not quite like my inner self, but not bad.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

An oasis in Nairobi

After spending a few days in western Kenya on a trip for a group that advocates for more global health research, I returned to Nairobi last night for just 24 hours. I went out with some friends to dinner and a nightclub, where we saw things we had never seen before. There was dancing that left little to the imagination, a big woman who gyrated her hips in such wide circles we were awestruck, and gumby-like men dancing with gumby-like women.

I didn’t expect to run this morning. But I did, joined by my colleague Michelle and her friend Natasia. The day was beautiful. Blue skies, 70 degrees, a light breeze. We drove to an oasis in the middle of the city, the Arboretum. 

Nairobi is traffic hell. A six mile ride can take two to three hours.  Buses and minibuses emit black smoke. But in the midst of these horrible road scenes is a protected forest with dirt pathways. One path around the circumference is two kilometers, or about 1.25 miles.

We set off under a canopy of mostly eucalyptus trees, an invasive species brought in years ago from Australia. The path was wet clay and soon we were running with inch-thick mud caked to our running shoes. But it felt great to be in a forest in Nairobi, almost euphoric, and we went down hills and up hills and along a roaring brook.

A monkey ran in front of me and scampered up a tree. It joined a family of monkeys and they all looked down on us as we ran under them.   We ended up running four laps, eight kilometers or five miles. We saw several other monkeys, red birds, orange birds, yellow birds.

I had to get back and pack my things for the plane ride home. I’m taking chunks of Kenya with me, clay caked to the bottom of my shoes. I packed them in plastic bags, and know that when I clean them at home I will get a good whiff of a side of Nairobi that I didn't expect.

Hippo Point, and Kisumu's wildlife

Runners love routine. They may have a variety of routes, but most run just a handful. I think it’s because sticking to a routine means there’s one less thing to think about. And there’s a lot to think about on a run.

So running while traveling often adds a degree of difficulty; it means finding a new route. I just traveled to Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city. It is in the western part of the nation, sitting on the shores of Lake Victoria. I had spent a few weeks in Kisumu a couple of years ago for research on my upcoming book, A Twist of Faith, and that meant I already had a running route.

I headed out to Hippo Point at first light. You can’t go earlier here. A motorcycle or bike or car or truck might hit you. There are also deep holes the size of car tires in the sidewalks. You could fall in and never crawl out. You can’t go much later either. Then the mixed traffic is a nightmare to navigate. Just when it seems safe a biker is flying right at you.

After a mile on the main road, I headed toward Lake Victoria. All downhill and dirt. My memories of the run started coming back to me: the old Sunrise Hotel, which now looked empty; large flowering bushes in front of large homes behind security walls; and the Kisumu Impala Park. A small herd of impalas, most with antlers, stood right by the fence and I stopped a few feet away. They were a little jumpy, but curious, too.

I ran around the park and came to the front gate, which was open, and I ran in a few yards. A sleepy park officer stopped me. He wouldn’t let me enter. The park has a leopard and a hyena in cages, and only the impala and a zebra or two wandering around. Next time.

Less than a mile down the road was Hippo Point. All the way, I ran through swarms of dragonflies. There were tens of thousands of them, hovering like helicopters about 15 feet in the air all the way to the ground. It felt almost like I was running inside a black cloud of insects. They maneuvered around me, not touching me once. I didn’t enjoy it, though.

At the point, hippos are said to come into the shore here, but I did see any. Instead, several fishermen readied their boats, and two gigantic black ibises cried out high in one tree.

The run is an out-and-back, and so I ran through the army of dragonflies, past the beautiful impala, up the hill, and on to the main road, where I avoided bikes, motorcycles, cars, trucks and large holes in the sidewalk. All is well in Kisumu.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Birthday run in Kenya: Crows and first steps

I turned 52 today. I arrived in Nairobi after a 19-hour flight from Washington. After I walked into my hotel room in downtown Nairobi, I laid down on my bed and surrendered. I slept for two hours, and knew I had to get up. It was late afternoon. I had to run.

Birthdays are important and birthday runs must happen without exception. There is something in the joy about being able to run, period. There is something about staying fit, no matter your age. But best of all, there are the sight aches and pains in legs and joints afterward that remind you that nothing happens without effort.

I ran to an old Nairobi standby: the Nairobi Club, an institution that started in 1901 and still has the feel of being in a place at the turn of the 20th century. You can almost imagine British colonial aristocracy sitting on chairs around the edge of a large green, oval-shaped field, politely cheering on the cricket teams.

Around and around the field I went, eight times in all, two minutes, 30 seconds a lap. African crows swooped over my head. A family of olive thrushes hunted for food nearby. The most impressive sight, though, was of a determined father and one-year-old son as the boy tried to walk on his own.

The boy had the look about him of a miniature Mr. T, the old TV show character. He was chunky for a one-year old, and his hair was cut in Mr. T's trademark thick Mohawk fashion.

Every lap I saw the boy walk a little farther. The father laughed and laughed, and encouraged him with each step. He even smoothed out the bumpy grass a half-step ahead of the boy. Still, the boy keep tipping, sprawling, nose-diving into the grass. Still, he pulled himself up and kept trying. He even laughed at his falls. I couldn't tell who was more determined: father or son. It made me think back to earlier birthdays, my 33rd, 36th, and 38th, when we had one-year-olds learning to walk and how completely astounding that whole experience was.

There were some parallel moments today on the Nairobi Club's cricket fields: a boy learning to walk, a birthday boy shuffling around him. A boy taking all the time in the world to learn to walk, a birthday boy taking forever to complete a few laps. It brought back memories of earlier time when first steps were the most glorious thing in the world.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A prayer for Stella

One of my favorite runs in the world – on par with running on tiny bridges over the Nile or on paths deep in the Vermont woods – is Central Park. And the best time to run it is fall.

It’s especially true on a morning like this: 54 degrees at 7 a.m., clear blue sky, a hint of a breeze, sun lighting up the Dakota building like a front-lit pearl.

I’m staying in a hotel on Park Avenue, around 38th Street, which is a little far to do my regular Central Park loop, which takes me around the reservoir, up to 96th Street area or so, and then back again. But I did it this morning, even with a late-ish 7 a.m. start. It required more dodging than normal, especially on the return, but the run was not too cold, not too warm, just right. And with the sun lighting up the NYC midtown skyscrapers, I felt I could have stopped for 10 minutes and just stared.

But I kept going – around the reservoir, around a loop in the park, out of the park down 5th Avenue, until I came to the St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I decided I should poke my head in. It’s a magnificent gothic structure and very quiet at 8 a.m. on a Monday. I wandered down one side of the church and came to an area for Polish saints, which had rows of lit and unlit candles in front of beautiful old drawings of the saints.

I am a lapsed Catholic, but I do remember the importance of lighting a candle and saying a prayer for a loved one, or a departed loved one. I immediately thought of my wonderful neighbor, Stella Donovan, who had a bad fall several months ago, breaking her upper fibula, near her hip. She has only been home for short periods since and it’s unclear whether she will move back into her home full-time.

So I said a prayer for Stella, and I took one of those long wooden sticks (skinnier than a chop stick) to light a candle for her. It was easy to light the stick, but I dipped it into each candle holder without any luck. It turned out that there was either no more wax in the holders or that the wick was buried in the wax. I didn’t really want to dig into any of the candles, so I stood on my tippy-toes, and did some candle hunting.

In the meantime, a priest started saying Mass. I was on my second fire stick. I was a little concerned I would have one of those Inspector Clouseau moments when I would reach, reach, reach, and tip over the whole box of candles, setting curtains ablaze, or something like that. Luckily, I found one holder with a teeny wick and a teeny pool of wax, and I got a little fire going. I said another short prayer for Stella and then I was off, stiff-legged down 5th Avenue, happy to have an unexpected moment to think about someone I loved.     

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Gavin's photo blog: Red Sox-Twins game

Here's the final blog from our trip -- a selection of Gavin's pictures from tonight's Twin-Red Sox game. You can tell from the quality not only Gavin's good eye but also his good seat. He and Lois sat in row M right behind home plate -- thanks to Tom's connections! Twins won 5-2.

The Twin's right fielder makes a catch on the warning track.

David Ortiz celebrates after hitting a home run

Kevin Youklis practices his hitting swing before an at bat.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A vote: Who has best facial growth?

Just before Gavin and I left St. Paul for our Dakota road trip, Gavin issued a challenge to Tom and myself: Let's see who can grow the best beard and moustache, he said. All three of us agreed, and here are the results:

Tom, who alone among us, didn't shave AT ALL for a week:

Then there's me, who gave a little shape to the whiskers:

And then there's Gavin, who on the last day of the trip shaved off what had become impressive sideburns and a wisp of a moustache, leaving just a few chin hairs. (Yes we need a magnifying glass.):

So who wins? I'm leaning toward Tom the purist as the only one who didn't shave at all. Look forward to your comments (or emails).

PS: This may be the last or next to last post from this trip, but I'll keep writing as I travel and as I run.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Water, water everywhere, and a restaurant scene

High waters approach this South Dakota farm.

Floods have hit the Dakotas, as most people know. We’ve seen it now from the southeastern South Dakota to the northwestern North Dakota. In Pierre, South Dakota’s capital pronounced Pier, the National Guard has blocked traffic from a long stretch of the Missouri River. Sandbags ring the shops on Main Street and houses along the Missouri. Some homeowners have gotten into spirit, spray-painting signs on front lawns that say things like “Fort Trachen” and “Fort Billingsley.”
I couldn’t find a Fort Donnelly, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Gavin and I are nearing the end of our 10-day, father-son road-trip, and the road out of the Badlands took us into the interior of South Dakota. He drove yesterday for a full two hours, and he hugged those yellow and white lines without having to say a word. He’s now up to 10 hours total driving on this trip (he is counting) and he’ll emerge – especially with some teaching ahead from Uncle Tom – with some newfound confidence in his abilities behind the wheel.
I ran yesterday and this morning. Pier (you have to get the pronunciation down) was a short run, more of an exploratory outing. After running along the river (and getting my feet wet as I trespassed beyond National Guard lines), I climbed a short hill to the black-domed state Capitol building and ran around the Governor’s “mansion.” It is a ranch house on steroids, beefed up in the middle, with a long circular drive, a basketball hoop off to the side, well manicured and quite approachable. I could have run up and rang the doorbell. South Dakota is not so worried about security.
South Dakota's Statehouse

I ran up to the Capitol building and decided to climb the stairs and go inside. I saw no one (it was 8 a.m.), took a self-guided tour booklet and learned about the 67 Italian stonecutters and artists who helped build it about 80 years ago. Each of the Italians, according to the book, had left a “signature” of sorts: a tiny blue tile on the multi-colored mosaic floor. Guided by the book, I started going up and down the marble stairways (only running into a few people who didn’t take a second glance at a fairly sweaty runner) until I finally found one of the blue tiles. That satisfied my itch, and I was out of the building, back to the hotel (where we had stayed up late watching the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the 10th inning on rookie Josh Reddick’s walk-off single), and then we made our way out of Pier.
We drove through the northeastern part of the state for what felt like hours and hours in a good way, under a big dome of a blue sky, corn to the horizon, water on both sides of the straight-arrow highways lapping the asphalt, and dead skunks by the dozens. We saw so many dead skunks that we were ready for each: T shirts stretched to cover noses, PEE-YOU exclamations after each passing (some were truly horrid), laughing because that’s what two guys do on road trips when it comes to smells.
Gavin, I would honestly say, wins the Inappropriate Traveler Stinker Award. He revels in farting, unfortunately (as we are in close quarters), and he does this in startling fashion in public as well as private. There was a moment on the western edge of North Dakota, traveling south out of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, northern site, when we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a late breakfast.
It was one of those wide-open dining rooms and I picked a place that I thought would be far away from people (for aforementioned reasons). But the place filled up and we were surrounded. To our left were two elderly ladies and the waitress asked them: “Just your regular toasts, ladies?” and they nodded, and the thought passed my mind, life without teeth. To our back were four other elderly people who were chatterers. There was so much crosstalk that I couldn’t distinguish voices.
I was eating eggs and toast when suddenly, with no warning, Gavin let out a burb for the ages. BUUUUUUUUURRRRRRRRBBBBBB. Or something like that.
There was silence around us. Gavin started to giggle. And to our backs, the four elderly people started to laugh. And laugh. They couldn’t control themselves. They slapped knees. They would laugh in waves, a slow period and then a big rush of laughter. I didn’t dare look.
We paid our $17 bill and walked out quickly, and we laughed, too, all the way down that North Dakota road, about a burb heard around a restaurant.
We’re now headed for St. Paul, to Tom’s wonderful apartment, to showers (yeah!), to a Red Sox-Twins game tonight and tomorrow night. I’m just back from an hour run around the Pickerel State Recreation Area (an above-average camp/swim site where we had a roaring fire last night) and I am experiencing a rare feeling on this trip: A chill. It must be 58 degrees and windy. I had the wind to my back on the way out, the wind in my chest on the way back, and, yes, I passed a dead skunk on the empty, empty road that had water on both sides of it and ducks scooting in the morning light. That skunk stunk. It’s all part of being on the road, a good thing.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

No match for a Badlands mosquito

We are in the Badlands National Park, and spent the night camping near road’s end, in a primitive campground named Sage Creek. It is Mountain Time Zone here, although we’re constantly confused. We have gone back and forth between Mountain and Central in the Dakotas, the states given split zones to deal with. So when first light came at 5:13 a.m., the time seemed a little irrelevant.

By 5:45, I was running. The first half-mile was hell. Mosquitoes bombarded me. The night before, Gavin and I were pestered by them as we played gin rummy under a half-moon and a dome of stars. But we were somewhat protected by long pants and long sleeve shirts.

Mosquitoes have never been much of a problem on runs. But not this morning. It was still, so a breeze couldn’t be my ally, but still: I couldn’t outrun a Badlands mosquito? They were landing on my arms, my legs, my shirt, my ears, my head. I was swatting as much as running, twisting and turning, a comedic sight if anyone were up to see it.

It reminded me of a run a couple of months ago in Juba, South Sudan. I was there on an assignment for a group called MSH (to write a book on its 40th anniversary). There, I made a major discovery on a run: a two-lane bridge that crossed the Nile. So I ran across, continued another few hundred yards, turned back, and on the way back, a couple of boys herding about 20 goats were crossing the bridge as well. We entered the bridge at the same time, the boys laughing at me, and we exited the bridge at the same time.

Truth is, at age 51, my running speed is somewhere between a South Sudanese goat and a Badlands mosquito.

It’s good to be humbled.

The breeze picked up, the mosquitoes were blown behind, and I climbed a steep winding hill on a road that led out of this beautiful national park (actually stunning, as wonderful as I remembered it while hitchhiking through 30 years ago). On the hill, I encountered bummer No. 2: A skunk crossed the road ahead of me.

It was porcupine-big and it slowly sashayed across the gravel road and disappeared into the tall grass. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I thought I could get by if I went slowly on the other side of the road, but what if I was wrong? Gavin would cry out. The whole campsite would be pissed. Still…. I walked past it, then hightailed it, faster than a mosquito perhaps, and I escaped smelling only of sweat.

I ran 55 minutes in all, under a rising sun and clouds the colors of pink, salmon, yellow, grey, and blue, across a plain of softly swaying grasslands. I spooked 10 pheasants. I saw the skunk no more. It was wonderful.
But the most wonderful thing in the Badlands hasn’t been the run, or the scenery, or the camping, but rather spending time with Gavin. He had a great day yesterday. At the beginning of a hike, as I went to retrieve my glasses from our car, he scampered up a pointy hill of eroded earth and called down to me. I couldn’t believe it. He was high, high up. I followed – part way.

More importantly, he learned to drive yesterday. He had put in 12-13 hours before, but yesterday he drove for the first time. Anyone who has taught a 16 year old to drive knows that there is a moment when it all comes together. That happened with him.  We were on a winding road through the park, and it was FULL of cars, RVs, buses, and especially motorcyclists (the Sturgis motorcycle event is just starting, drawing 500,000 motorcyclists to South Dakota). Gavin had been a tentative driver, wobbly even on straight-aways, but on this snake road I started treating it like almost a race.

“HUG the yellow line,” I would say on a curve to the left.

“HUG the white line,” as we curved to the right.

We would be midway through a turn and I’d say, “GIVE IT GAS,” and he did and he pulled through the turns beautifully. He was in charge, finally. He was a driver. At the end, he was very happy to give me the keys.

“That was intense,” he said.

“Yes, but you did well.”

He smiled. He asked to drive in St.Paul/Minneapolis “as practice for DC.”

Yes, I said.

Uncle Tom, we’re headed your way.