Some time around 2014 my phone rang and showed an unknown number. The caller identified himself at Keith Richardson and said he’d found a blog site where I mostly wrote about our adventures building a house and living part-time in Ecuador. He wondered if I had time for a few questions. I said, sure.
Six years later, Keith and I are close friends. He is a man I admire. Smart as a whip. Moral. A learner. Compassionate for those less fortunate. A giver. Both a lawyer and a minister by profession. We communicate frequently as friends and consider ourselves traveling companions. We’ve spent a week together in Ecuador, and last year logged about four thousand miles together on a round-trip, road trip to Nova Scotia. I consider Keith a part of my inner circle.
Beth’s name began popping up in my social media feed during my 2015 pilgrimage on the Way of St. James. She and her husband had walked just months earlier and she re-lived her experience through me, though it was quite different from hers.
Writers pay attention to how others write, even on social media. I immediately
recognized her as a skilled and thoughtful writer, one of the best around. That alone drew me to her as a friend. Little did either of us know we’d both spend the next couple of years writing about the walking experience. Her book is Walking to the End of the World. Our friendship also became a professional relationship. I’ve consulted with Beth on several writing projects, and she is the lead editor for The King of Highbanks Road. Beth blogs at caminotimestwo.com and bethjusino.com. She is one of those people whose opinion is important.
Annie introduced herself to me the same as Beth. Social media comments here and there during pilgrimage. Because the pilgrim population is a tight-knit group, I knew of Annie’s work on a developing documentary called Phil’s Camino. It was an honor having Annie in the conversation.
I’d actually first seen Annie in her own documentary, Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. The film captured Annie’s physical pain with several miles yet to go. She was
genuine, authentic and raw in that film, and I knew I’d like her immediately.
We became close enough friends, and Annie identifies with my writing enough, that I asked her to write the foreword for Pilgrim Strong. She was the perfect person in that moment. Our names are forever intertwined in that relationship.
We get to hang out occasionally. We spent a day together at the Hot Springs Film Festival and watched the total eclipse together near Kansas City in 2018. Annie is an incredible artistic talent.
He is the rock star of the pilgrim community.
Phil Volker is the focus of Annie’s film, Phil’s Camino, the story of a man who overcame all odds to walk the Way. Phil, too, followed along as I walked in 2015.
He is one of the most inspiring men you’ll ever meet. My favorite Phil Volker quote:
“There is a difference in being cured and being healed. At this point in life I’m focusing on the healing which means all the important things in life are reconciled like my relationships with my family and with God.”
It was one of my greatest pleasures walking with Phil on his camino in 2018, and I’ll see him later this year at a gathering now known as Philstock. Yes, he has his own annual gathering. That’s how much people love him.
Susan & Kym Gardner
Another Camino connection. Susan and I were first connected until I met both her and her husband, Kym at the Gathering of Pilgrims in Asheville last year. This North Carolina-based couple is kind and generous, and have found a way to use their resources for the greater good.
For the last two years, they’ve organized groups that are part of a long-term project to carry a young man named Gabriel across the Way. Physical limitations confine Gabriel to a wheelchair. The experiences they’ve shared as part of Gabriel’s camino are amazing.
Some people are just extraordinary. Brien Crothers is one.
Though we connected through pilgrimage, I am most impressed with Brien’s adventures as an endurance athlete. He’s run several ultra marathons across several deserts on several continents. He’s complete the Western States 100 on multiple occasions, and he’s just a super nice guy. He allowed me to tag along last year, observing an aid station around mile 70 of this spectacular event.
Brien and his wife, Kathey, opened their home to me in 2019 during a book tour through California. We have the same eccentric qualities with an interest in many things and Brien is steadily working on his writing craft.
I never realized how many friends I’ve developed just because of pilgrimage. Roni is another.
Her comments on my social media thread in 2015 struck me much in the same way Beth’s did. Roni was clearly educated, thoughtful, and articulate. I eventually learned she was closing in on her doctoral degree in communication and was studying how the use of technology impacted pilgrimage with people who used it. I was the perfect mouse in the maze to observe on that topic.
She’s since completed that degree, frequently demonstrates an amazing flair for photography across rural Oklahoma and the world, and she travels. Roni’s headed back to Camino in just a few weeks.
The only person on this list I’ve not met personally.
Suzan and her husband’s work in travel writing first caught my attention back around 2010. They were writing a lot for a publication known as International Living, and Ecuador was a frequent topic. Their writing piqued our curiosity enough that Dana and I made a 3-week exploratory trip to Ecuador in 2012. It’s a long story after that, but Latin America has since become a big part of our lives.
I was on a train to Pamplona when Suzan wrote and asked if I’d consider writing a story about pilgrimage for International Living.
I ultimately learned Suzan has considerable roots in Arkansas and an impressive list of writing credentials. She is one of those folks with a solid world view based on real experience.
If you have a wooden sign in your home about your pilgrimage experience chances are this Minnesota man made it. Tom has a great Etsy business making commemorative camino signs and he’s one of the kindest men you’ll ever know. After reading Pilgrim Strong, Tom sent me several pieces of his work as “thanks” for the book.
When Tom passed though Arkansas last year, he and his wife spent a night with us. We made him an honorary citizen of Wynne, AR, just forty miles south of here.
It was my first literary gathering – The Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference in Asheville, NC. A particular book in the bookstore drew me toward it and I began flipping through. The voice from behind is one I’ll never forget.
“My mother just LOVES that book,” the voice said. And I wondered who this strange man was, and why he was talking to me.
He was the author! What an honor!
I followed Jim’s career from that moment. A New York Times best selling author, he’s achieved the highest awards in the world of Christian fiction. And he’s an amazing person.
I attended his Rubart Academy last year just so I could get to know Jim better. It was time and money well spent. I’m hopeful I’ll get to say more about working with Jim in the next few weeks.
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely that what others think of you. The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” – Coach John Wooden
Is your character worth a penny?
Lake County has been the poorest of Tennessee’s ninety-five counties for a long time. It’s mostly two small towns with thousands of acres of the world’s richest farm land. This Mississippi River twists and turns through its heart, and the land is so flat you can see forever. There aren’t more than eight or ten families who farm all that land now, so the jobs aren’t all that plentiful.
“You don’t just put any yahoo to operating a half-million dollar cotton picker,” as one local resident recently noted.
Jimmy Lee Tucker remembers the late 1950s when his father worked as a commercial fisherman on Reelfoot Lake. “If he had a good week, I got 25 cents on Saturday,” he said. “If it was a bad week I got nothing. The 25 cents would get you a Coke, a big Baby Ruth and enough bubble gum to last for the week.”
But Tucker, now a census worker for the government, remembers an abrupt change that came to his weekend routine one day.
“The Cokes went from a nickel to six cents. You put your nickel in the slot like always, and they attached a tin box to the outside where you placed the extra penny. They called it the honesty box. Paying six cents for a Coke was a big deal.
“Hardly any of the kids did it, and so it wasn’t a year later before they just upped the price from six cents to a dime. That showed us.”
When I was younger it didn’t bother me so much taking a pen from the bank or just accepting the extra french fries when the order got mixed up. And I must have left a hundred shopping carts right there in the parking lot.
That conscience, though.
The older we grow, I think, the more self-aware we are of that person we see in the mirror. I’ve realized that among all things, I have to live with that guy, and I don’t want him feeling guilty about some small, silly thing.
Dana and I once spent a five-month stretch in Ecuador not knowing if we’d ever return to the US. It was on the back side of a tough time, emotionally, economically, and lots of other ways. The thing I realized most from that adventure is that wherever you go, you take yourself with you. There’s really no hiding from yourself.
Everybody has an honesty box.
COMING FRIDAY: Dates for the 2021 Tranquility Base Writers Retreats
Any writer would have a difficult time counting all the things that affect his or her work. Places, different environments, other writers. Lots of things.
People inevitably affect the way we write, some from a technical, craft kind of standpoint, others from a place of voice and how we see the world, and tell the story.
These are ten people who’ve shaped the way my mind develops a story, and conveys it in black and white.
My Mom: After an unhappy first freshman semester at the University of Central Arkansas where I majored in public administration, I decided transfer to Arkansas State University with no idea about my life’s future. “Why don’t you talk to the people in the journalism department,” said said. And that’s where it began.
My Dad: Pat Conroy once said: “My father’s violence is the central fact of my art and life.” I didn’t live with a father who displayed violence anywhere near that of the Great Santini, but he was rough and tough enough. It was my father who evoked the strongest emotions I’ve known in a lifetime. Fear. Embarrassment. Gut rage anger. The strongest desire to do anything that would make him proud. It’s a strange thing to say, but my life is richer for my father’s rigid ways and a lifestyle more about his next beer than anything that had much to do with me. The stories born from my childhood and adolescence are a storyteller’s paradise.
Arkansas State University’s Journalism Department Triumvirate (Dr. Joel Gambill, Dr. Gilbert Fowler, and Dr. Marlin Shipman) : These three men were the foundation of ASU Department of Journalism for a good two decades. The foundational skills they passed on to me are are invaluable, and their great friendship was an uncommon encouragement.
Jesus: It’s pretty simple actually. Jesus was the greatest storyteller of them all. He was a master. Jesus used common, everyday, slice-of-life stories to teach the masses about God’s Kingdom. His parables have been a model for my work from the beginning. For me, no story is greater, no image more amazing, than the prodigal son’s father running toward him upon his return.
J.L. Kimbrell (representing so many others): J.L. Kimbrell was an average, ordinary man from my hometown of Monette, AR. He was a farmer, a war veteran, loved his wife, told great stories of his own, and he was kind to everyone he met. He was like so many men in my hometown who, over the years, I had the chance to observe as they gathered at the local gin, or the implement company, or the duck blind. Watching their mannerisms and their language, even the way they crossed their legs was an extraordinary education. There are too many to name here. But I loved those men.
Fernand Brault: My French-Canadian friend told me an incredible story one day about his solo adventure from Montreal, Canada to the Bahamas on a vessel called Windseeker. To that point in our relationship, he’d never shared with me a story so captivating. As he shared the emotions he encountered when it came time to turn around and sail home, I was speechless. Fern’s tale was a great reminder that we all have a story. There is really no boring life.
Vegan Jake: That’s not his true name, but the name I used for the villain in Pilgrim Strong. Jake was a midwestern, number-crunching, vegan, atheist, extreme liberal of Polish decent, who believed it a sin to use things like washing machines, or lawn mowers, or even drink a Coke. As we spent time together on the Way of St. James, it seemed he expressed his disdain for my ways at nearly every turn. One day I surprised him. “You can act as though I disgust you, but deep down inside you like me,” I offered. “You’re likable enough, High Roller,” he countered. He was a two-week lesson in conflict.
Jeannick Guerin: Another pilgrim with whom I spent considerable time on the Way. As we stopped one morning for second breakfast and Jeannick explained his reason for walking, it was clear that a terminal illness had brought him from Australia to his homeland in France so that he might say “goodbye.” I never asked another question about it. Some things are more important than the story.
Bradley Harris: My first editor. Upon our agreement to work together back in 2013, Brad was pretty straightforward about his toughness. He asked me to picture a dial 1-10 and give him a number representing just how much I could stand without having a meltdown. I think I offered a nine. Brad taught me so much. Mostly that every story that gets told can no longer be about me. It’s all about the person reading the words.
I’ve never met Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller, but his work has guided me for years. His recent book, Building a Story Brand outlines a simple, three-pronged idea for how stories can best hold readers’ attention. The writer first addresses a problem, then a solution, then explains how life is better because of that solution. Simple really. It’s a theme in many stories I write.
(Coming Wednesday: The Honesty Box)
“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody who stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” ~Abraham Lincoln
We called him the most trusted man in America. It seems so very long ago.
But each evening for two decades an expectant public kept a collective appointment with Walter Cronkite as he delivered the nightly news to a nation desperately searching its own identity in an era that shaped us, arguably as no other.
The experts said Cronkite’s stellar reputation evolved from a strong work ethic, impeccable timing, and unique brand of heartland cadence. Beyond tone and timing he also wisely knew when the moment called for silence. His wife once told Parade magazine she thought he simply came across like the family dentist.
Shortly after the new year in 1962 Cronkite gave a legendary account as astronaut John Glenn made three orbits around earth pioneering a decade of space exploration. A year later he struggled holding back tears delivering the news of President John Kennedy’s assassination. On April 4, 1968, you could sense the broadcast veteran’s suppressed anxiety reporting Martin Luther King’s murder in Memphis. He would wring his hands and rejoice as Neil Armstrong made his way slowly down the lunar module ladder planting man’s first footsteps on the moon. His words: “By golly, I’m speechless.”
After thousands of young lives were lost for an unknown cause Cronkite told us the Vietnam War would not be won. He reported that our president betrayed the sacred oath of office.
Even today a quick search for “most trusted man” will produce Walter Cronkite’s photo at the top of the list.
Fast forward almost fifty years. The polar realities are staggering.
Public officials elected to the government’s highest levels use strategies once unimagined to drive conflict, division, and misunderstanding. Incredulous conspiracy theories now originate at the top. We speak of alternative facts, the non-existence of facts, and are told we’re not seeing what our eyes just witnessed, or perceiving what our ears just heard. It didn’t happen. It was fake, phony, and a fraud. And by the way, your microwave may be watching you.
There’s a harsh reality about fake news that we don’t much discuss. Falsity is not promoted and cannot be widely disbursed in a vacuum. The high-octane fuel for today’s fake news is a population willing to accept any and all information supporting its current viewpoint regardless of the narrow a source from which that viewpoint developed. Fake news originators just light the match. It’s the virtually brainwashed cheerleaders who breathe contagious life into the fire.
In the present day we so vehemently wish for truth in certain circumstances that we instinctively ignore the contrary facts and declare them true. This is especially true with our labeled identities that for some reason have become all important. In the process we’ve lost touch with the fundamental reality that such hope doesn’t make something true. We’re unwilling to consider as the faintest possibility that our opinion may be wrong.
Stable institutions, long a part of the nation’s history, are now weaponized against us in a manner that divides families, friends, and once like-minded groups with common purpose. It wounds relationships as a jagged knife, creating toxic animosity, and destroying community.
As we find ourselves in a national environment where there is no longer a fundamental factual baseline for truth on which we agree, many are soulfully searching their relationships once sustained by love where it now seems there may never have any shared common values to start. And so we mourn the unforeseen loss of friends with grievous pain and wonder how it happened so fast. The wounds from our blindside are often the most difficult we bear.
All is lost in the former world of compromise, common good, diplomacy, and respect. Our mouths are fouler, our minds and spirits more self-centered, and it’s a new era when so many now believe that by shutting the other side down or shutting them up, we’ve somehow revealed the truth. Social media’s passive nature is helping civility all but vanish and we are downright hateful toward anyone expressing a contrary opinion. The cost of our self-righteousness is coming at an irredeemable price.
This calculated manipulation to divide community is compounded by modern realities and a proven history showing that all good things eventually get hijacked and used for the self-serving alternative purposes of those in power. Trust and unity simply aren’t good for the new world economy.
It’s caused a painful anxiety for me because it’s especially true in the two areas most representing the core of my own identity—mass media and Christianity.
Denying the parasitical relationship between egocentric public servants and the broadcast news networks is a fool’s game. We’ve all watched it develop at an especially alarming rate during the last two years. The broadcast media’s former sense of responsibility has evolved to an anything-goes reporting style and a complete willingness, even an eagerness, permitting the manipulation of their resources at a moment’s notice. The self promotion of both parties, public servant, and media, is disguised as breaking news. There is no drama that is too much drama. Across the spectrum of time an irresponsible viewership becomes desensitized, sees it all as the new norm, and accepts, even models, the new and crazed behavior that both the media and the leadership promote to keep a sheeplike public off balance. We’ve completely taken the bait.
The Christian label is a word I no longer know how to use, because I honestly no longer know what it means. Everything I see, read, or hear indicates something different. I do know, however, what my friends in the non-Christian community tell me they see.
They see wealthy mega-churches locking their doors in towns where people just down the street have no food, water, or shelter in the wake of devastating floods. They see charismatic, bible-toting men of God recounting their divine revelations about the need for jet planes. They see prominent evangelical leaders cozying up to publicly endorse political candidates and posing for photos as those photos also capture the candidate’s image on a framed copy of Playboy magazine in the background. Non-believers see the evangelical community embrace public figures who mock the disabled, strategically and methodically steal from the poor and pay them off for pennies on the dollar, and who use the foulest language in the book referencing the homelands of the most brokenhearted people groups. You’ll find the gospel proclaimers espousing so many of these ideas along the shelves of your local bookstore in the sections labeled “Christian Living.”
These things are difficult to reconcile and any Christian who scoffs at the notions should try having the conversation with an atheist or agnostic. If we can’t have these conversations it’s time for some serious self-examination of the heart.
But this book isn’t about politics or the media. It’s not even really about religion. In a new era apparently forever absent public figures like Walter Cronkite, it’s about the ongoing quest pursuing answers to the most important question I’ve ever asked myself, and I believe the most important question of our time.
“Whom shall we trust?”
In 2010 I began a slow, on-again, off-again recovery from the deepest and most agonizing of my bouts with depression. When the fog from that episode eventually cleared nothing else came close to the new thing that became most important. I wanted to know what I believed and why. And this meant trusting someone or some thing—completely.
I’ve pursued the answer to this question ever since, and never looked back.
I was already a Christian, but a black and white Christian who now believed there was so much more to see. I was hungry for the color of it all.
In his book, Falling Upward, Father Richard Rohr says, “There is a God-size hole in all of us, waiting to be filled. God creates the very dissatisfaction that only grace and finally divine love can satisfy.”
As writers, we’re told to avoid clichés like the plague. In all the metaphors and all the parables, you’ll never hear me talk about going on a journey. I’m so sick of journeys. Everyone and their brother is on one these days. Talk to people about your journey and they’ll probably yawn.
But talk to them about your quest and everything suddenly changes.
My quest for the truth began thirty-four years ago on a dead-end country thoroughfare in the middle of nowhere.
The quest I’m still on today began on Highbanks Road.
I’ve thought a lot about roads lately–especially the ones that seemingly end in the middle of nowhere. We call them dead ends.
One day, thirty-two years ago, I had a revelation on an old dead-end road. It was a moment that still guides me.
Everyone back home knows it as Highbanks Road. There are no directional signs that point you there. None that identify it by name for that matter. But it’s a two-mile east-to-west passage “out in the country” as we say, between Arkansas Highway 139 and the St. Francis River dead ending into the muddy waters flowing along the western edge of the heart of the old Macey Community. It’s unremarkable and undistinguished, a few homesteads along the way, most dotting the corners of 40-acre cotton fields, and each with a signature name like Tiny’s Forty, Turkey Run, or Bobby Joe’s down on the corner. When two vehicles meet on Highbanks Road the drivers wave to one another. It’s the code of the community.
It’s also the road where I grew up my first twenty years, and it taught me a lot about life.
County Road 514 as it became known in the progressive 90s was a simple gravel thoroughfare maintained by the county road department. What that really meant was a monthly pass with a road grader, and you were sure-as-the-world bound to get a nail in your tire next trip to town, so you cussed every time the grader appeared knowing you’d have to spend money at Dean’s Tire Store. The grader driver had a big mustache and kept a big coffee Thermos in the cab. I remember that. He looked so comfortable in the air-conditioned cab on those oppressive July days when I chopped cotton on our home place and he’d creep by with the cringing noise of blade against rock. But he always waved. So I waved, too, but couldn’t stop thinking about how hot I was and how cool he must feel. Youth on the farm was so unfair.
Each winter season for two months sportsmen from across the countryside pulled camouflaged boats and motors with pickup trucks to Highbanks Landing lickety-split before sunup every morning. They were in search of mallard ducks from the surprisingly cozy confines of their heated duck blinds. Some loved the hunting, others were just along for the fellowship and tall tales. A few sought undeserved respite from their wives who wished their husbands would do more productive things than hunt ducks, drink beer, and fall asleep on the couch.
The town drunk, Oscar Wiles frequented Highbanks Road in an old brown Ford Maverick. Old Oscar got drunk three times a week on whatever he could find and you’d often find him passed out in a ditch snoring, tobacco juice running down his chin and onto his shirt. Depending on the angle Oscar hit the ditch at least one of the Maverick’s wheels revealing balding tires was always suspended mid-air. People said Oscar never broke a bone because the booze loosened him up so much.
“Having trouble?” my dad would ask as we pulled up on the scene. Oscar growled unintelligibly. “I’ll be fine. Go on,” he’d eventually say.
We pulled him out from road ditches a hundred times if one. Oscar eventually died in one of those accidents when he crashed into a ditch and the car went ablaze. People secretly swore a local troublemaker killed Oscar for sport. He was surely mean enough the story was credible.
Someone gave me a pair of roller skates for Christmas the year I was eight and I wondered how in the heck they expected me to learn skating on a gravel road. Might have been the most disappointing gift I ever got. Funny thing is, I actually tried. You got really bored sometimes on Highbanks Road.
A few years later, daddy thrilled me when he bought an old rusty go-cart frame and a brand new four horsepower motor to drive it. I recall it as the most adventurous summer of my life loading up bait and fishing pole each afternoon heading to the ditches toward the river and pulling in endless stringers of bream, goggle-eye and perch. Going fishing alone on that old rickety four-wheeled-bucket-of-bolts contraption made me feel like the king of the world, the captain of my soul. Remembering it makes me so happy for how that young boy felt. It was pure liberation.
The summer of my eighteenth year is a time I still recall as critical in shaping a personal life view. It seemed abrupt that summer season that I had no girlfriends to date, no buddies with whom I could spend time, and it was the first time I remember feeling truly lonely. It may have been my first introduction to depression. But it was a time of extended contemplation for a young man beginning to think about things in a deeper way.
I spent a lot of time reading the bible that summer and also fighting the anxiety that comes with a personality always looking for the next thing. Waiting has always been so hard. I also spent considerable time each evening around sunset riding a bike or just walking along Highbanks Road. As the sun would slip past the treeline marking the river and setting the sky ablaze as red fire, I’d wonder about the other side of the world where the sun now rose. People of different skin color, languages, customs, things I’d only read about in the leather-bound Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias. Big dreams of faraway places were born on Highbanks Road that summer.
One especially tranquil sunset that summer brought the most peaceful hope when it made me think about the rural, isolated dead-end road, and how it lead out on its other end to Highway 139. From there, it lead everywhere. You could go north to St. Louis or south to Memphis and from there, well, nothing stopped you from there.
In that moment, everything changed. The epiphany was almost spiritual.
Highbanks Road wasn’t a dead-end at all. It was just a starting point to all other destinations. It would take you every other place in the world if you’d let it.
But getting those places was my responsibility. No one else would take me there.
From a dead end, all you have to do is turn around and go the other way. And from Highbanks Road, all things were possible.
(Blogger’s Note: Brien Crothers of Hidden Valley Lake, CA and I “met” online a few years ago because of mutual interest in the Way of St. James. Just last year we missed one another at the end by only one day. But Brien is much more than your average Camino pilgrim … he’s an extreme athlete with dozens of achievements to his credit around the globe. In November, he’ll tackle the world-famous Marathon des Sables, 155 miles across the deserts of Peru. I asked Brien a few questions as he prepares for this incredible event. Brien has written a book on the Camino de Santiago titled Su Camino… and you can follow his adventures on his blog at grandpasgoneagain.com)
Q: What prompted your interest in outdoor activities like hiking, walking, and running?
A: Growing up in a very small rural community on the north coast of California, in a time when we were encouraged to get outside and play, I knew every kid on my street. Hiking, exploring, fishing, building forts and creating our own toys were how we filled our free time. Also, my father and his four brothers grew up on a ranch where we, as I got older, would get together, usually to trek around in the hills hunting deer. It was great passion for them, less so for me, but I enjoyed and came to respect the outdoors. After our daughter was grown and my career brought better finances, running and cycling put me back in the outdoors.
Q: It seems you’re even more drawn to distance events in extreme conditions. Why not just take an easy walk in the park? Why the extreme?
A: There are two answers to that, I suppose: In my late thirties, I was introduced to a group of people who ran marathons, ultramarathons, and did extreme events like Eco Challenge and serious mountain climbing. For whatever reason, I found myself drawn to the extreme stuff. Now, I jokingly say that I am not a fast enough runner (with a 3:52 marathon personal best), so I do the longer events so my slow pace doesn’t show so badly. Second, and more accurately I think I just don’t want to be average. To look at me in a crowd, I’m average, white, and forgettable. I don’t want to be average.
Q: List for me the extreme or ultra events you’ve participated in.
A: California 1995 Mt Whitney climb*
Several summits of Mt Shasta*
Washington 1996 Mt Rainier climb
Kenya & Tanzania 1998 Mt. Kilimanjaro climb
Peru 2000 Inca trail and Machu Picchu trip*
Viet Nam 2002 Raid Gauloise ten-day adventure (multi-sport) race
Nepal & Tibet 2005 Everest advanced base camp hike, north face of Everest
Russia 2007 Mt. Elbrus climb
South Africa 2010 Cape Epic 440-mile eight-stage mountain bike race
Argentina 2003/4 Aconcagua expedition (unsuccessful attempt to summit)
2009 Aconcagua expedition (unsuccessful attempt to summit)
2015 Aconcagua expedition (unsuccessful attempt to summit)
(Aconcagua is the tallest mountain in the western hemisphere.)
Morocco 2014 Marathon des Sables 155-mile six-stage foot race
Spain 2015 Camino de Santiago via Camino Frances*
2016 Camino de Santiago on Via de la Plata*
Have completed over forty marathon and ultramarathons, including Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, 3 times (WSER is considered the premier 100-mile trail run in the world).
* = Not terribly extreme, but fun
Q: What are the unique challenges in the upcoming Peru event?
A: The unique challenge of such events is why the organizer has created the race where it is and containing what it does. For Peru and the Ica desert, it’s all about sand and distance. There’s also the route. You can pick just about anywhere for a race and take an easy route or a difficult route. Race officials always find the tough stuff. The required course will direct runners over mountain passes and through vast sand dunes rather than through a valley, for example. To top it off, there’s the 50-mile stage that runs well into the night hours.
Q. Discuss both the physical and mental preparation techniques you use.
A: Physical: Run, eat right, rest, run again. I use a progressive training program. One that builds up mileage requirements over four weeks then is reduced, only to build to a higher weekly mileage in the next wave. This schedule has me running 100 miles per week by the first weeks of November. Mental: I’ve never had much trouble here. I know I’m not likely to win a race, having done so only once (it was a small field), so I go out with a pace I should be able to handle and then adjust up or down as the race unfolds. I have a competitive nature, and use that to push myself harder when I can; I see a runner ahead and start tracking them down.
Q: Speaking of mental and physical, what are the unique challenges you encounter in events like this?
A: Finishing such events is all about managing resources and staying healthy as a result. One must manage water, as it is rationed out at checkpoints; manage to repair, or have repaired, blisters and any other injuries before they become serious, race ending; manage input and output, meaning eat your daily allotment on schedule, and run as hard as your conditioning will allow. It’s all about making it to that last mile and putting out that last bit of stored energy before the finish line.
Q: In what ways does the benefit from these experiences carry over into your every-day life?
A: I’ve come to understand that when we push ourselves beyond normal comfort zones [perceived] hassles of everyday life just don’t seem like a big deal. Our capitalistic society is built on a trance of scarcity, one of lack, and a sense of not being worthy, not pretty enough, not perfect. That’s all bollocks, and we (well, I) need to be reminded of that reality, of my own wisdom.
Q: One thing we share is our experiences along the Camino de Santiago. What are your feelings about the Camino?
A: Wow, that’s a big one. I’m not religious, but something called to me when first introduced to the Camino. On one level the Camino is physical, challenging. On another, it’s adventurous and outside normal life, outside that comfort zone. But, the real reason I have enjoyed every kilometer of the two Caminos I have completed is spiritual. I feel as if I am walking in a peacefulness and calmness that I believe to be the combined traces of energy fields left behind by all those that have taken that path before me, for their cause, in common cause, to find ourselves, to find or be with God.
Q: I’ve always said that everyone knows what it’s like to be tired, but very few know the sensation of complete physical/mental depletion. Would you agree, and can you describe that?
A: I certainly agree that most of us won’t actually dig down to complete depletion. In our modern society we just don’t ever have to go there. Sometimes, when I have been in that state of complete exhaustion but still moving forward, I have experienced some freaky hallucinations. Those occurrences have been like what I might imagine it to be when experiencing hallucinogenic drugs. I have marveled at and enjoyed those experiences, enough so that I look forward to them, but not enough to take the lazy approach.
Q: Not everyone is cut out to be an extreme athlete. What words of encouragement would you have for people who just wish they were in better shape and would like to make some lifestyle changes for the better?
A: It takes some serious self-evaluation to know what your own goals might be. I am driven by accomplishment. The best advice I can give is just get out there and walk. I know a lot of people who haven’t walked more than a few blocks in decades. I don’t get that, but to each their own. For those who do ask me, I’ll ask, what do you want from your question? (I’ve not met anyone ready to do what I do.) Nearly all have said they just want to be healthier. There is nothing easier than walking your way to better health. Start with a city block, then a half-mile, working your way up to whatever works for you and have enough time for. This is very important: do what you can make time for. The key is, consistency. I train six days a week. Five is good. Three is okay. For most people, working up to and walking three miles, three times per week will bring a level of healthiness they haven’t felt in years.
BONUS QUESTION: In the days/weeks following an event like this do you experience a certain emptiness or depression because the lack of intensity and anticipation in your life is temporarily gone?
A: Yes. I always enjoy the reduced urgency to be out there for hours at a time, but I also feel that something is missing, there’s a hole in my day. The best thing for me at that moment is to find the next event. Even if it’s months away, I have something to sink my teeth into.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add about your interest in these events?
A: Yes. For several years now, I have been involved at the local level in the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life. The Relay For Life campaign is one of the most successful fundraisers in America. And, the advisers and students at my alma mater, Middletown High, are the absolute best. Also, staying on the school track and running as much as 100 miles in 24 hours has encouraged others to get involved, to be healthy, to understand the benefits of pushing beyond perceived limits, or at least question their own self-imposed limits. For the Marathon Des Sables Peru, I have partnered up with our local Rotary club (my wife, Kathey, is president-elect of that club) in a campaign called “Polio’s Last Mile” to raise funds for Rotary International’s End Polio Now campaign—to finally eradicate polio from our world.
From a recent article in local papers: “Rotary International has been instrumental in collective efforts around the world to put an end to the dreaded disease that once crippled 35,000 children a year, in the US alone. The Rotary Club of Middletown has long been active in raising funds toward that end.” Year to date, there have been nine reported cases worldwide.
Rotary International and the Gates Foundation with a two-for-one fund match are making a big push this year, because “We are this close.” #poilioslastmile
“My brokenness is a better bridge for people than my pretend wholeness ever was.” ~ Sheila Walsh
Seventeen years ago, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wrote and conveyed one of the most significant social phenomena of our time. His book, Bowling Alone, demonstrated statistically how over just a few years American society has moved increasingly further away from so many of the social constructs on which it was founded.
A simple research illustration in Putnam’s work shows that, while the number of people who bowled during the last twenty years has increased, the number who actually bowled in leagues has decreased. They were bowling alone.
Carried further, his data show dramatic decreases in group social affiliations that were once important to us—Parent-Teacher Associations, church, political parties, evening dinner parties. Neighborhoods where children once roamed freely and without care have evolved to fenced-in burgs where families don’t know their next-door neighbors, and everyone looks at one another with panicked anxiety when the doorbell rings. We’ve personally disengaged with society to the point, Putnam diagnoses, where we are less healthy, less happy.
Simply stated, Putnam’s book addresses the truth that no one really talks to anyone anymore. We self-seclude. I understand this in an acute way.
It’s exhaustingly painful to hide behind a mask every day. Thank God I’m becoming more like Tim.
Certain stories resonate more than others along the Camino, and among the family herds. I’d heard Tim’s story weeks before I met him and he was gracious enough to share it with me in detail only a few moments after we met in Leon’s iconic Parador Plaza. It’s the kind of sharing that’s a Camino trademark, the antithesis of Bowling Alone’s conclusion. The Camino fosters a genuine transparency you find in almost no other setting. That’s the very lesson Heinrich shared with me three weeks back in Pamplona.
I knew from conversations with other pilgrims that Tim had come to Spain to heal from the unexpected loss of his wife, but I wasn’t completely prepared for the clear picture he painted so soon about the loss.
A self-described Alaska couch potato who’s always enjoyed watching football, Tim was in good spirits from a 40-kilometer walk the day before—the equivalent of a full marathon—when he stepped on a scale to realize he’d lost 20 pounds. I asked him why he’d come so far.
Right away, Tim said he’d come as a tribute to his wife, who’d died 18 months earlier. She was a physical therapist and lifeguard out for an afternoon walk when she experienced a seizure, fell to the ground, and drowned in a six-inch puddle. Instantly, Tim and his family were overcome with the void left by her death. She was his best friend. It didn’t bother Tim one bit to let me, a complete stranger, know how much it hurt.
“She loved long walks. This is for her. She would have enjoyed every step,” he said.
The following day Tim placed a few of his wife’s ashes at Cruz de Ferro, the place where, for a millennium, pilgrims have left the hurt of their burdens behind.
I understand better as time goes on: Pain doesn’t have to be private. We don’t have to pretend. No matter how much things hurt, it’s okay to be you. And by being the real you, you might help someone else. One of my goals is that, each day, I become a little more like Tim.