thanksliving, part ii.

"I am thankful, immensely, for my wife and hopeful that she and I will both still be drawing breath together decades from now and hopeful too that every now and again her hand will reach out to me or squeeze back when I reach out to take her hand in mine.

I am thankful, boundlessly, for my daughters and hopeful that they will never let what they know (or think they know) or all that they've experienced get in the way of striving for what they don't know and have yet to experience.  I am hopeful that they are never unaware of the love and faith in their abilities that their parents have for them.

I am thankful for my immediate, extended, and adopted families for shaping me, accepting me, and reshaping me anew when necessary (often) into a “me” that I too am able to accept.  I am hopeful that together we grow, flourish and continue to celebrate the myriad of ways in which we are different and the same.

I am joyfully thankful for this planet for both possessing natural, untrammeled wonders and for hosting the triumphs of civilization.  I remain cautiously hopeful that distinction and balance can be made between the two and that the failures of civilization aren't mistaken for triumphs and allowed to render nature extinct, not in my lifetime nor the lifetime of any creature that comes after.

I am thankful for hope.  Real hope.  Not sloganeering, not wouldn't-that-be-nice daydreaming, not wishful thinking without effort made toward realization.  Real hope with real effort.

I am thankful for dreams and hopeful for dreams, realized or simply sought after.

Dream on."


Apparently, I wrote those words three years ago (thanksliving.), so this is more a recitation than a creative post.

They've never wrung truer than now.

We received confirmation today that Lily's surgery will take place on November 28, so you'd better believe that hope and gratitude are very much on my mind.

The anticipation of that procedure is going to put a whole new spin on Thanksgiving this year.  All of the nearly unthinkable unknowns drive home the need to be grateful for time shared with the people we care for most deeply.  The potential to drive out the demon that is cancer and free Lil from its possession is wonderful basis for hope.

It's all almost too much.


It's a lot, but it's not too much.

Hope sustains and we thank you for the hope you have for Lily.


Pull your loved ones close and make sure they know they're loved.

No assumptions.

Assumptions of that sort are recipe for regret should time slip away.

Don't wait on Hallmark for your cues.  Hallmark doesn't care if you miss any given occasion because they've got a "so sorry" card at the ready for that situation too.

Don't wait.

Give thanks today.  Give thanks every single day. 



Dream on.


love thy neighbor.

"As the years go by and I watch my children already being better versions of me, as I continue to add names to the list of people I wish lived closer, led lives that managed to overlap now and again with my own or, worse yet, were simply still living, I get better and better at being mindful of all there is to appreciate. Focus drifts for periods of time, moods darken and the weight of day-to-day existence shrouds the holding up of all the good things now and again, but few days pass without my remembering my blessings."

I wrote those words more than five years ago, as Lil and then Pipe emerged from infancy and began to show the innate kindness and sensitivity inherited from their mother as well as unveiling their own unique traits. Each new day I see more to celebrate in their emotional and intellectual growth.

I wrote those words in reflection of lost loved ones and dispersed friends. Migration from this world and across the planet has continued.

Blessings still abound and my appreciation of them has only deepened.

I cannot effectively express, at least not fully, how loved and worried-over we've felt the last few days and how much it has meant. If circumstance is equitable enough to find us in the same place again, I hope to have the chance to pull many of you close in shared embrace, look you in the eye, and tell you directly of what your gestures have meant. Depth of emotion even then will probably make me bumble and fall short on the words, but I'll get the hug right.

Thank you.

Know that your kindness is noticed and cherished. Know that we anxiously await the opportunity to pay it back and pay it forward.

Know that the love we feel is love we hope that each of you feel from us in return and from others around you.

The news in all its forms points to our differences of politics, of religion, of heritage, of social or economic status, of interests, of lifestyle, of opinion and would have us "know" that all is lost. I look to my broad circle of friends, diverse in politics, religion, heritage, social and economic status, interests, lifestyle, and opinion and choose to see not "sides" but individuals trying their best to make sense of their short existence. I KNOW all is not lost.

Doubt, anger, and frustration are human inevitabilities but they need not steer entirely our perspectives.

"Love thy neighbor as thyself." It is a biblical imperative, but, you need not espouse Christianity or any other religion to understand that in the broadest sense, this is basically a natural inclination.

A child is faced with a life-altering (at least) medical diagnosis, a family sags beneath the burden, and instinctually you want to know how you can help. You don't run through some checklist to make certain that the girl and her family are on your side. You act. In those moments, we know there are no sides. Too often we feel otherwise.

From one neighbor to another, thank you. I love you and I thank you for loving me, loving Lily, loving all of us.

We've received an abundance of support of every kind, but, if we can, we ask one more favor. We ask that you remember the rest of your literal and figurative neighbors over the likely contentious weeks ahead.



But please don't let differences of opinion stand in the way of the need to care for one another. Don't let fictitious divisions become absolutes.

It's hard, but it's not as hard as we make it if we put love and human decency first.

Do glad.


let it be true.

(Note: If you’ve come here looking for my usual reflection on running, you need not read past the end of the next two sentences. So long as running brings you joy, I urge you to keep at it. Life being precious and short, if running is a chore or little more than a way to measure yourself against others, I plead with you to seek out new avenues for spending the days you’re given.)


Eight years ago, my firstborn daughter, Lily, slipped from my grasp and fell flat on her back in the grass at my feet. Instinct kicked in the moment she hit the ground and I swooped her up, rushed her inside, and then shuttled her off to the hospital before whatever emotions I might have felt had time to record as memory.

I cannot recall now how I felt then though the memories of the fear and trepidation of the hours and days that followed are vivid.

I cannot recall now how I felt then, but I will never forget how I felt last evening, eight years after, when Lily, having listened to a retelling of that story at her bedtime, assured me that I hadn’t dropped her, but had “saved her life.”


Preliminary results of a CT Scan at the time of Lil’s fall suggested a brain bleed, but careful scrutiny in the days immediately after and follow-up testing weeks later confirmed that the smudge in the films wasn’t bruising, but my initial relief at not being to blame quickly gave way to the understanding that the abnormality was far more disconcerting than a temporary wound.

That abnormality, situated in Lil’s left temporal lobe, an area of the brain employed in the comprehension of language and vision, has been the subject of monitoring ever since.

That abnormality has never stopped being disconcerting.

Mostly, though, it just was. It didn’t grow. It didn’t diminish. It didn’t cause any ill effects. It just was and its menace consisted solely of being there.

In time, twice annual scans were relaxed to annual scans and, as the results of those sessions remained consistently unchanged, time between scans was eventually stretched to two years.  And, with assurance from the surgeons that more time could pass between scans, that abnormality quietly, almost imperceptibly relinquished its menace. We never fully forgot it was there, but it ceased to be the sole cloud carrying potential for rain in an otherwise blue sky.

Those sunny skies encouraged us to close our eyes and bask in the warmth and we did, but when we opened our eyes the forecast had changed.

This past winter, in the midst of her 3rd grade school year, Lily began to complain about her eyesight and, just like that, we had a symptom for which we’d been cautioned to remain vigilant. Lindsay and I immediately realized that another two years had passed and Lil was again due for an MRI.

Lily had been seen at Johns Hopkins since she was two, but circumstance merited a move to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and she immediately felt more comfortable in this youth-centric facility.

By the time we visited for Lil’s initial MRI, she had already seen an optometrist and had been prescribed corrective lenses.  Her need for glasses wasn’t proof alone that there was great reason for concern, but we looked forward to verification that the old familiar abnormality still simply was.

It wasn’t.

There were signs indicating both structural changes and growth. A visit with an ophthalmologist corroborated the likelihood that the tumor was cause of the rapid deterioration of Lil's vision. Allowing for the fact that orientation from machine to machine can differ and it had been some time since the last scan, a follow-up MRI was slated for 30 days later. If it showed additional growth, we would need to consider what immediate action could and should be taken.  If it showed additional growth.

It didn’t.

We returned to watch-and-wait mode, heartened for the moment, but the wake-up call of that first sign of growth coupled with additional input from Lily suggesting that she was also having some cognitive issues, failing from time to time to be able to formulate the words that she had at the ready in her mind, kept us on edge. She told us she knew that it was growing, knew that something needed to be done. She asked, earnestly, if she would die. As parents, we’d been asked that question before and it’s a painful question to answer even when it’s brought on by the death of a pet, the passing of an elderly relative, or simply the developing youthful mind. It’s exponentially more difficult a question to answer when it stems from your child facing that very real possibility.

Lindsay and I were forced to discuss surgery and its implications, something we really hadn’t had to do since the first discovery of the tumor all those years prior.

This time there was a third voice in that discussion and, as it belonged to the person carrying the reason for the conversation, the voice was the most important of the three. Lily didn’t want to wait, she wanted to take action. She wanted to take IT out. She desperately wanted the surgery and didn’t understand why we didn’t just do it.

The surgeon we had first seen all the way back in 2008 recommended at that time that we move forward with surgery, remove as much of the tumor as possible, and biopsy it. Second and third opinions advised caution and ultimately convinced us to wait, primarily because of a lack of symptoms on Lily’s part and the imminent threat, based on the location and structure of the tumor, that healthy brain tissue could be compromised and survival was not guaranteed.

That threat remained imminent and was the very reason why we didn’t just schedule surgery.

September arrived and with it yet another appointment with CHOP’s Radiology department.

This time the results were unambiguous, the need to take action inarguable, and, in a cruel twist, at least for her parents, Lily would have her wish.


Our oncologist and surgeon have made it clear that while we should take steps to address the situation with surgery, the immediate risk is not so great that we can’t schedule the procedure at a time over the next 6-9 months that would be least disruptive for Lily and for our family, including her doting, adoring little sister, Piper Bea.

My daughter loves to dance. She loves to swim. Both of these activities are her most direct connection to life as it is and how she wants it to continue to be.  She does not want this…this thing in her body or its ominous shadow hanging over her any longer than it must. She wants it out and the sooner the better. The sooner it is out, the sooner she can dance, the sooner she can swim.

Yes, there are risks and, yes, there is potential that the procedure will not be effective, will not fully alleviate the issue, or could even cause other issues.  There is that potential.  That potential is not nearly so great as the absolute guarantee that doing nothing will ensure issues that neither Lily or her parents care to sit idly by and watch manifest.

Better to think of dancing, to dream of swimming. Best to dance and swim now, in the meantime, and as soon as possible after.

Endless have been the conversations that Lindsay and I have had over the years about that foreign castaway inside of our daughter. We’ve cursed its constant, silent presence and the way in which it so often made us second guess every odd gesture or peculiar mannerism that Lily had at any given moment, little happenings that other parents would have paid little mind, likely no mind whatsoever. Knowing that it was there was a strange chronic punishment but for what we weren’t sure.

It was a constant guilt I was resigned to shouldering for the remainder of my lifetime.

A nine year old knew better.

Without knowledge of its being there, that foreign body would have grown unwatched and by the time it made its presence fully known, we would likely be looking not at a tricky surgical procedure but faced with an inoperable tumor with a grip on Lily’s central nervous system that could not be loosened, a grip that would have put her very existence in jeopardy.

Eight years ago, I dropped my daughter and couldn’t possibly have imagined that, in doing so, I might have saved her life.

Please, please let it be true.


If everything falls into place, Lily will undergo laser interstitial thermal therapy in mid-to-late November. This neurosurgical technique will create a dime-sized hole in the top of her skull and allow a laser probe, steered by real-time computer guidance and informed by MRI-monitoring, to reach the tumor and then destroy the foreign cells by super-heating them. By employing this technique, we hope to minimize the damage to healthy tissue and lessen the potential for infection that comes with a traditional and more invasive craniotomy. It will not immediately remove the tumor or what portions of it would have been possible to cut away without too great a risk to healthy portions of the brain, but it is expected that the destroyed tissue will diminish with time and perhaps be eliminated entirely, something that subsequent MRI scans will need to confirm.

The greatest risks are the likelihood of visual deficits (think blindspots, not blindness) and potential for language deficits.  The fact that the tumor is surrounded by healthy tissue and in relatively close proximity to the brain stem brings graver concerns, but we have every confidence in CHOP and the precision of our surgical team.


We know our friends and family will have numerous questions and, as much as we’d love to answer all of them, Lindsay and I ask for your patience and understanding as we need to focus our energies on supporting Lily, reassuring Piper, leaning on each other, and attending to all of the logistics necessary to balance life alongside the preparations ahead of surgery and whatever our situation proves to be afterwards.

You can help us best by simply loving Lily as we know many of you do and sending her positivity by whatever means you believe most effective. The means of transmission isn’t important. She’s a sensitive child, always has been, and she’ll feel it, I can assure you.

If you feel compelled to pass word directly to Lily or should happen to run into her in the days ahead, all I ask is that you respect the gravity of what she’s facing and the immensity of processing that at any age much less at nine. She has been privy to every conversation with the oncologist and the surgeon and has been given the opportunity to raise concerns directly. No punches have been pulled by anyone in speaking to those concerns. Tears and heartfelt apologies, genuine as they surely would be, are not helpful and Lily will not respond well to them.

Trust me.

My daughter does not aspire to be extraordinary, even if her mother and father already believe her to be. Lily loves being "just a regular kid" and cherishes the moments that make her feel like she is just that. In that, she mirrors her father. She is sufficiently frightened about what lies ahead, healthily so, and doesn’t need the well-wishing but too-evident worries of others to make her that much more scared. She remains just a kid and when this is in the rearview, she still will be. Treat her that way and I promise that you’ll have helped. Remember that our Piper Bea could use a little love and attention too and I promise that you'll have helped.

Thanks, in advance, to all of you from all of us. Thank you for caring about us and for sending us positive energy.

It means much to us, as do all of you.


time to pretend.

My social media circle is crackling with excitement and fraught with anxiety.

Long hours of training, strategizing, and preparing have led up to race day and now it's time to see what the shaping, reshaping, and honing has wrought.

Friends are excited.  Friends are worried.  Friends are brimming with confidence or drowning in doubt, in some cases brimming with confidence AND drowning in doubt.

I am not brimming, nor am I drowning.  I am strangely calm and nearly numb.

Not because I am supremely confident (I am not) and not because I am particularly sure that I will fail (I don't believe I will).

As my race has approached, I have told myself that I am excited and asked myself if I'm ready to go or worried about the outcome and, honestly, I haven’t gotten much confirmation that I am excited or, frankly, much of a response at all.

Calmness.  Numbness.

With all that has transpired over the last year and all the real life challenges that I've experienced, witnessed, or have learned of others facing, to suggest that voluntarily running a race, even one of great length, extreme obstacle, and (apparently) less than ideal weather conditions...to suggest that it matters all that much would just be pretending and pretending unconvincingly.

Not to say that I am NOT looking forward to the Eastern States 100.

I am.

It doesn't mean that I am NOT super enthused to gather with the tribe again, share our individual stories, and write new ones together.

I absolutely am.

And NOT to say that the prospect of being out and on-the-move for 30+ hours in high temperatures, soaring humidity, and predicted powerful storms isn't daunting.

It is.


At this moment of my limited time on the planet, the “larger than life” narrative of running ultra distances is, well, nowhere near as large as life much less larger.  The ability to engage in aerobic activity that includes or transforms fully into physical discomfort or even pain is the privilege of those who are not weak, are not terminally ill, are in possession of the true luxury of leisure time, are among the living.  That realization lets a lot of air out of the ultra running balloon, but not nearly as much air as being weak, being terminally ill, not having leisure time, or not drawing breath takes out of life itself.

At no point during a race is my life at risk.  Even if failing to take proper care of myself nudges me in that direction, simply stopping alleviates the threat.  I have direct say in how at risk my life is when many do not.

Failing to reach the finish line won't bring life screeching to a halt any more than triumphantly crossing that same finish line will much improve my post-race existence.

It's amazing the trivial things that we elevate to such great heights and equally amazing the not-so-trivial things that we disregard or take for granted.

My legs will be tired and my feet will hurt.  Sounds nice to have legs that are tired and feet that hurt must think those that have neither.

My stomach will likely rebel and empty itself or refuse to be filled.  And then when the race is over, I'll eat as much as I want of whatever I want and my stomach will cooperate.  I will not go hungry and I will not be sick.  Others will go hungry, will be sick, as they have for as long as they can remember and as far into the future as they are able to imagine.

My distance to travel will diminish and in the end will be reached and should I fail to cover the desired distance on foot, I will get a ride to some other vehicle that waits to whisk me away to the comfort and safety of my home.  Guaranteed and never, ever in doubt.  Unlike those without a home or a means to get to where they wish to go or away from where they desperately need to be no more.

My mind will falter, will bend, and perhaps even break momentarily, but rest and sleep will return its faculties.  My brain will not cease to function, will not be damaged, or require parts of it to be removed.

No, I have not lost my want to physically challenge myself nor have I lost my admiration and respect for anyone who willingly takes on an endeavor that asks her or him to strive, to progress, to move, move, move!  I will forever cheer on friends and strangers alike and will laugh, tearfully, as they attain their goals and overcome those things that appeared to stand in the way of their progression.  I will continue to attempt the same and will shed tears and roar with laughter for my own efforts.


I have known true sadness and had some that lay dormant dredged back to the surface.  I've known anxiety and worry over matters that really matter.  Seen others’ health deteriorate, their finances vanish, even entire foundations of life crumble beneath them.  I've whispered goodbyes, wailed goodbyes, sometimes too late to have them heard.  I have felt truly powerless, BEEN truly powerless to right wrongs and save others from pain and sorrow.

All of which makes me human, none of which makes me unique.

Running and finishing (or not finishing) a race is full of symbolism and the before, during, and after are rich with life lessons.  Rich with lessons about life. But it isn’t life and shouldn't be mistaken or misrepresented as such.

It is play.  It is joyful, privileged play, but it is still pretend.

And so I am calm and nearly numb.

And for the better part of two days this weekend, I will embrace the absence from reality and the privilege of not worrying about anything that really matters for a short while.

I will play and I will smile, and laugh, and likely cry.

Time to pretend.



I'd been out all night.

Starting from the parking lot just off of Route 322 below the Clark's Ferry Bridge that crosses the Susquehanna at Duncannon, I had headed north on the Appalachian Trail right around dusk, climbing up Peters Mountain, continuing past the crossing of Route 325, making an abbreviated loop up Stony Mountain on a portion of the unofficial Buzzards Marathon course, before returning along the AT.

Pace be damned, I had clambered up any boulder that looked interesting, stopped as often and for as long as liked to snap photographs, chatted with the many deer crouching silently in the illumination of my headlamp with seeming conviction that so long as they didn't flinch I couldn't really see them, and even sleepily serenaded a porcupine with an infamous Sir Mix-a-Lot song when it would turn and offer only views of its rear end.  I had paused frequently to listen to the night sounds; the whoo-whooing of owls, the downward, downward, always downward rushing of water, the soft, nearly imperceptible sound of caterpillar droppings drizzling from the forest canopy (yes, that's a thing), and, in the deepest hours of the night, the elusive, mesmerizing sound of silence.

Just before daybreak, the rain had begun to fall and over the next several hours it showed no signs of letting up.  As much as I had enjoyed myself, the piling up of miles, the early stage of sleep deprivation, the relentless rocks of Peters Mountain, and hours of being wet and chilled had caught up with me and found me picking my way along one of the last rocky outcrops with tired, sloppy feet, beginning to dread the final few miles of steep descent back to the trail head.

The clicking of trekking pole tips on rock announced that a hiker was approaching from just below my perch and immediately reminded me that I hadn't seen a single person actually hiking since I'd started.  During the night, I had passed the tents of many slumbering backpackers and in the morning I had waved and nodded at many of them as they peeked out of their sodden tents, huddled around smoky campfires, or went through the motions of breaking camp and packing for the day, but at no point had I truly come upon anyone hiking.

I stepped to one side of the trail to allow the ascending hiker clear passage.  He lifted his head, squinted his eyes slightly, and declared, "I know you" in an unmistakable Pennsylvania Dutch accent that was familiar and welcoming despite my never having met the man before.

"Backcountry Edge," he said, proudly gesturing at his pack and adding that it was the one I had "advertised on the Internet."

I formally introduced myself and asked him his name and where he was from, learning that Amos hailed from a small town located 4 miles west of the even smaller town that I had grown up in as a small child.

Amos in turn asked how long I'd been out and I shared my overnight adventure and admitted that I was feeling pretty done in.  I posed to him the same question and he told me that his "speed hike" had begun a short time earlier from the same parking lot I was headed toward and would end, he hoped, around midnight where the Appalachian Trail crosses over Route 645 just south of Pine Grove.

That's a 42 mile done-in-a-day hike.  I would finish my night/day at 37.

Noting how little gear he was carrying, I wondered aloud, "Will you camp when you get there? Will someone be meeting you?"

He grinned, shrugged, and replied almost sheepishly, "I have one of those push scooters, you know that the Amish people have."  It was stashed near the trail head and once he was done hiking, he would scoot himself the 15 road miles back home.

Smiling broadly, I said, "Amos, you've got a big day ahead of you. Don't let me hold you up."

"This is unbelievable, meeting you out here on the trail like this," Amos replied with a warm smile of his own and a "gee whiz" shaking of his head.

"It's been a pleasure," I agreed as Amos turned to go.

I watched him deftly navigate the ledge, slightly stunned that I had made his day.

He'd certainly made mine.

Those last few miles back to the car?

They weren't so bad after all.


clockwise: another day on the black forest trail.

Three fifty-three in the afternoon.

We'd been following the Black Forest Trail in the same direction as the hands of the clock for hours and it wasn't until nearly 4 in the afternoon, by accident, that I happened to notice the time, a healthy indication that a day of days had been unfolding and continued to unfold.

It had been just shy of 3 years since I last went all the way round the BFT in a single push (http://thisbeesknees.blogspot.com/2013/05/erithizon-dorsatum-day-on-black-forest.html) but the many conversations had about the trail and my stumbly-bumbly circumnavigations since then made it feel far less than that.  So recent had that last visit continued to feel, I didn't fret much over the fact that I hadn't really revisited maps or my own report about that trip ahead of this one, as it all seemed very fresh and my navigational oh-I-know-where-I'm-going naivete remained undiminished.

photo courtesy of pahikes.com

To be fair, the trail and its frequent orange blazes are rather easy to follow, but that hadn't kept me from getting turned around more than once back in 2013 and head-down running and trudging has a knack for luring me off even the most well-marked track.  Forty-two+ miles and thousands of feet of gain (and loss) tend to produce some head-down periods even in the most ideal conditions.

counter-clockwise progresses from right to left on this profile
The course was the same as had been on the May day of my first thru-run, but the temperatures and the state of the trail were quite different. While this final weekend of February wasn't serving up the worst of winter, it was still quite cold and blustery and the trail, showing little sign of winter use, alternated frequently between leaf strewn, iced-over, muddy, and full blown underwater.

Other than going around this time in a non-traditional (for the BFT) clockwise direction, the most dramatic difference would be having company.


A neurotic confession:

I often struggle to describe or even define in my own head my relationship with running and other runners.  Much of what I love about trail running is the solitude and the stepping away from, if only for minutes and hours at a time, the ever present presence of other people.  I'm not a loner in the most literal sense, but I've got my me-just-me streak and attending to it with time in the woods makes me that much more the people-person I am, genuinely, most of the time.  That said, many of my fondest on-trail moments have been spent with like-minded friends and those experiences are surely richer and more deeply textured because of having shared them.

Running group dynamics and their undefined tipping points are a source of anxiety for me and, once that anxiety surfaces, my fixating on it leads only to its amplification.  I don't want to be the one holding up a group anymore than I want to find myself, especially on long, challenging projects, pushing too hard, consciously or sub-consciously, and digging a physical hole that leads to a miserable experience or a total blow-up and possibly even an unfinished route.  Remove time limits and checkpoint cutoffs of organized races from the picture and, rest assured, I will get from point A to point B, but predicting the time (or how many times I throw up while getting there) is a bet not worth making.

Getting to the "finish" is one thing, but enjoying the getting there is something else altogether.  Including others means complicating logistics and requires time coordination. Politics, religion, differing personalities, even just simply not being on the same page are threats to the individual and the entire group being able to walk away with the feeling that whatever occurred really did happen together and the experience was better than it would have been on one's own.

It only takes one and you catch yourself wondering "what was with her (or him)?"

And it's not just about "them", it's also about me not wanting to be the "him" for anyone else in the group.  A read back over the preceding paragraphs makes me feel like maybe I really am a hermit-at-heart, but I don't believe I am.  As the years pass and I consciously and determinedly expend more energy getting "out there" to experience nature, the deeper grows the awareness of just how short our lives really are and how little is the actual time to spend recharging in the outdoors and what a terrible disappointment to find the time but have it be the exact opposite of a recharge.


Three fifty three in the afternoon.

Three fifty-three in the afternoon and the only wasted time was whatever seconds I had spent beforehand fretting unnecessarily and irrationally (I know these people...I LIKE these people...I should consider myself blessed--I do--that anyone tolerates me!) over group dynamics.


The alarm on my phone woke me around 6:00 AM after a cozy night of sleep in my makeshift back-of-the-car bedroom beneath the nocturnal watch of a moon shining brightly enough to glow through my closed eyelids.  I was sitting up, but still drowsily breakfasting from the comfort of my sleeping bag when Jeff and Ben pulled up alongside me on their way to the agreed upon rendezvous spot in the parking lot of the Hotel Manor in the tiny village of Slate Run. It was not even a quarter of a mile from where I'd parked for the night and we found Mary and Tom already waiting when we pulled into the lot a few minutes later.

Instead of immediately crossing Slate Run to start the loop as would have been the case in the counter-clockwise direction, we left the creek behind us and would reach it only at the very end of the run many, many hours later.  I grinned at the sight of the lovely new footbridge that eliminates the once unavoidable requisite soaking of that leg of the journey. While the cool of those waters was actually pleasant in May, it would have been less so to kick off a 20 degrees morning.

Off we went, the five of us, up the short stretch of road along Pine Creek and into the woods. I didn't "write" a trailhead log entry, so much as I "pressed" one into the paper with a dry tip that refused to summon frozen ink from the bowel's of a feeble pen.  Tom's assurances that rescuers could always make rubbings to determine that we'd been there convinced me it had been an effort well made.

After a nice gradual start for the first mile-and-a-half, the Black Forest Trail rose aggressively into one of the steepest climbs of the day, but fresh legs and early-in-the-day enthusiasm got us quickly to the first sweeping vista. It had been quite dark and I had been in get-this-over-with mode the last time I'd stood here and it was a treat to soak in the view and get the first visual indication of what we we'd set out to tackle.  The wind blew tiny flakes of snow that seemed to emanate from the forest itself and dance in the air around us with no threat of developing into anything more than a nice aesthetic touch to the sweeping landscape all around us.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin J Mazur

The remainder of that climb followed a knife edge ridge and stayed exposed before the trail topped out and ducked in under the canopy of trees as it does for much of its length.  Up high there was still some remnant snow but it was losing ground to melt, evaporation, and the permanent blanket of rocks, roots, and dead leaves beneath it.  Snow-turned-water was on the move wherever able and in other places pooled within perimeters it could not escape, leading to wet and muddy shoes and feet.  Northern and western aspects of the trail held a thin and not always evident coating of ice that made for second-guessing especially when the trail tilted away from sidehills or bent around contours with open-air exposures for unsuspecting footfalls.  This slowed progress but none of us seemed to mind amidst shared conversation and scenery ideal for time taken to enjoy it.

Within a few miles, we reached Little Slate Run, the site of my strange encounter with a salt-scavenging porcupine three years ago.  I'm not a big believer in spirit animals, but am convinced that porcupines are for me whatever the opposite of a spirit animal would be considered.  Either it's that or perhaps the porcupine very much is my spirit animal and I'm just denying it in hopes of discovering a more inspiring alternative.  Either way, there was no sign of my nemesis today and that was oddly reassuring.

Another solid climb and a few more miles brought us down to and across a rushing Naval Run. I remembered, painfully, having not drawn water here on my first visit in the frustrated haze of getting turned around and adding bonus miles.  Trying to push hard and make up for lost time had led to dehydration and exhaustion as punishment for my haste.  This same recollection, however, also reminded me, that water had been plentiful leading up to that point and considering how much more wet conditions were this time around, I was encouraged that staying hydrated wouldn't be of issue today.

The views up above Naval Run are some of the best on the entire trail but hard-earned coming clockwise, as there is one long, seemingly endless Pennsylvania "up" required to get there.  Topping out together, we were rewarded with the postcard-worthy southeasterly views of the Pine Creek Gorge far below.

We'd reached the point on the trail where the calamity of my solo run was now behind us and perhaps not surprisingly the surroundings became a little less familiar for me, as the vivid details of the stretches of trail where the wheels had come off had overshadowed the memories of mile-after-mile of relatively smooth sailing. Long stretches of the trail now felt brand new as if I was traversing them for the very first time.

Hours passed like minutes and despite slippery footing and the hard work of another sneaky long climb, I was stunned to find that we'd come more than 20 miles and arrived at Route 44 and the location of the Halfway House aid station (mile 51.8) on the Eastern States 100 course.  The location itself is rather nondescript, an otherwise un-noteworthy unpaved roadside pull off, but it was where Mary's car was parked and where she and Benjamin had planned all along to call it a day.  Mary produced from her car a thermos of wonderfully hot black tea and an array of muffins and homemade energy clumps or balls or whatever-they-were...and whatever-they-were was delicious!  Delicious and invigorating.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin J Mazur

Solitude shmolitude.  At this stage of the adventure, it was sad to see any member of the group go, but it was time for our now group of three to get moving so we bid farewell, crossed Route 44, and returned to the BFT.

As nice as it was to have gotten some warm beverage and food into our systems, the sitting around had let the cold sink a little deeper into our collective bones and each of us agreed that the chill had set in.  Unsure of whether or not the winds would soon pick up, as the weatherpersons had predicted, and what might become of the temperatures as the late day sun eventually fell away entirely, none of us was yet willing to dig into the extra layers that we were carrying as doing so would leave us without the psychological boost of additional warmth to turn to later.

Movement brought about healthier internal temperatures even as the footing became increasingly wet and muddy.  Our feet certainly weren't getting any warmer or any more dry, but above the ankles, we were moderately comfortable.  The three of us speculated over the location of a high, open, boggy section of the trail and had half convinced ourselves that we'd somehow already crossed it when the trees suddenly grew more sparse and the broad meadow we'd been waiting for appeared.  Sure enough, it was a shallow sea of muck that offered no alternative to simply gritting teeth and getting through and across it in as direct a fashion as possible.  In the end, it was only a couple of hundred yards across and didn't live up to the full foreboding of floundering wallow we'd feared.  Still, it only ensured that our feet remained anything but dry.

Not that it would have mattered much.

Soon thereafter we hit the spot on the trail where a "High Water" alternate route is offered for instances where storms or runoff have elevated the creek that the trail cuts back-and-forth across repeatedly (I lost count somewhere around 12 or 13 and didn't bother tallying the many more that came after) over the next couple of miles.  We'd come to do the entire Black Forest Trail, so there wasn't a moment's hesitation or any discussion, as we ignored the alternative.

While I hadn't bothered to track our time or mileage at any point in the day, we'd made steady progress, especially when the trail was more or less runnable.  Here, though, our pace ground to a halt as we sought out downed trees, rocks, narrow gaps, shallow pools, or other, all-things-being-relative, safe passages from one bank to the other.  We nearly considered just sticking to one side of the creek, but with no clear indication of exactly how many times the trail crossed before peeling away from the creek, it seemed unwise to stray far from the orange blazes.

At one point, Jeff even did an upside-down, hand-over-hand maneuver across one of the broader sections of creek that I was sure would end in failure.  It wasn't me who'd had the idea, however, but a far more competent adventurer and it was actually one of the only "dry" crossings that happened in that entire section.

We were losing light quickly and while getting wet was inevitable, mitigating the time spent shin-to-thigh deep seemed worth the sluggish yards-per-hour pace to which we'd dropped.  Finally and with the sun now off to shine on other hemispheres, we put the last of the high water behind us.

Pausing just long enough to dig out the headlamps that would from there on be our guides, we worked our way down into the beautiful Algerines Wild Area, one of my absolutely favorite sections of the trail and a spot high on my list of "creek stomping" destinations for me and my daughters.  The only downside to going clockwise was reaching this area in the darkness but even without the sun to illuminate it, this lush, pristine cut is lovely.

Jeff relayed a story about the derivation of the term "Algerines" as a reference to pirates who thieved timber from the lumber companies in the 1800's by stealing logs before they reached the mills, sawing off the sections that held the company's claiming brand, and replacing it with their own before selling the logs off for their own profits.  I had no idea of whether or not that was true and even Jeff acknowledged that it was a "so I was told" type of tale, but I have since dug up the following from William James McKnight's A Pioneer Outline History of Northwestern Pennsylvania: "Along the lower end of our creeks and on the Allegheny River there lived a class of people who caught and appropriated all the loose logs, shingles, boards, and timber they could find floating down the streams. These men were called by the early lumbermen Algerines, or pirates."

While this doesn't quite live up to the swashbuckling images I concocted in my head upon hearing Jeff's story, it does seem to lend credence and I quite like that this truly wild remnant place in Pennsylvania bears such a name.

On this night, the only pirate we ran into was, you guessed it, a porcupine, and it didn't stand its ground, departing the side of the trail in a hurry (by porcupine standards) as we passed by.
borrowed, respectfully, from the interwebs

Other than late miles on cold, tired legs, the only real remaining obstacle was the challenging climb up along Red Run leading to the final ridge that parallels Slate Run and eventually leads to the namesake village. Coming counter-clockwise, this descent, done on still energized legs, is a super fun, technical bomb.  The "trail" here consists mostly of boulder hopping and route-finding with the occasional visual confirmation of a nearby orange blaze to confirm that you haven't strayed too far off course.  On exhausted legs and with runoff-turned-to-ice tucked here or there to complicate footing, the clockwise ascent is pretty punishing. Thankfully, it wasn't nearly as long a climb as I had remembered and, at this point in the day, going up felt a lot better than going down.

Topping out, we knew we were within 10 kilometers of the Hotel Manor parking lot and had nothing but rolling ridge top ahead of us until the final long descent to Slate Run.  With no ambient light to mask its glory, the clear sky rained down starlight and welcomed gawking at the Milky Way in all its splendor.  Were we not so depleted and the cold air not so capable of bringing on hypothermia to the unwary, we would have loved to perch up on the many rock shelves to spectate.

As had been the case all day long, stories continued to be swapped and laughter remained ever present as we power-hiked along. While the warmth of the car, a cold beer, and a hot meal were beckoning, these last miles weren't wrought with the desperate how-much-farther, how-MUCH-farther! that often accompanies the end of a long endeavor.

We joked of turning around at the cars to finish our out-and-back and even as we and our worn out knees clambered stiff-leggedly down the final quarter mile of hillside with the sparse lights of Slate Run in plain view, I couldn't help but think that going back out again didn't sound all that bad.

Next time, friends (if you'll have me).