Portland, Land of Coffee and Donuts and Beer

We arrived in Portland around 6pm on April 29th, after another long day of northbound driving, punctuated by the jaw dropping scenery of the rugged Oregon coastline. After 800 miles in two days, we happily parked our rental at the Marriott Waterfront and struck out on foot, eager to stretch our legs and explore a new city.

Dusk was settling in as we exited the hotel and the air was warm and light with the perfect fragrance of late spring. A fading sun cast golden hues on the industrial buildings of east Portland as a rowing club wrapped up practice on the lovely and impressive Willamette River.

We walked west a half-mile or so in the fading light, admiring Portland’s handsome buildings and clean streets and there were bicycles everywhere – the one word that kept popping into my mind was “green”. We were instantly comfortable in Portland. It exuded that funky vibe and laid-back charm of a mid-sized town, not a city large enough to boast an NBA franchise.

After a wonderful meal at one of the city’s great seafood restaurants, Southpark Seafood Grill, (I did not carry my notebook with me that night, so the details of that meal are lost), we were anxious to get out for more walking and fresh air. We strolled through the darkened streets, feeling tired but wonderfully sated and excited about the prospect of very limited windshield time over the remainder of our trip.
After a nightcap overlooking the Willamette in the dimly lit 16th floor bar back at the hotel, we turned in, exhausted yet again.

The first day of May found us well rested and ready for a long walk. Our plan was to fall back into our “Paris routine”, which would involve lots of walking, interspersed by frequent breaks for eating and drinking coffee or beer. The weather was spectacular – cool in the morning with highs in the mid-70’s and not a cloud in the sky. Perfect for leisurely ambling.

We walked all over Portland, stopping first at the gorgeous International Rose Test Garden, then over to iconic Powell’s Books, where we had coffee and pastries before wandering around it’s shelves for an hour or so in that heady reverie familiar to all bibliophiles in such settings. For lunch, we stopped at one of Portland’s famous food trucks – one in particular, which we had seen reviewed, that specialized in Czech food. Melissa ordered goulash and dumplings while I ordered the “Schnitzelwitch”, a fried pork sandwich as big as my head. We walked several blocks to the riverfront and stood eating our lunch while gazing over the Willamette. Ravenous after miles of hilly trekking, we polished off that considerable lunch and basked in the warming sunlight while taking in the awesome people watching (of which Portland abounds).

After a while we strolled slowly, with leaden bellies, north along the river to Hawthorne Bridge and crossed over to east Portland and the city’s recently thriving warehouse district. We walked six blocks to Hair of the Dog Brewery where we sat outside in warm sunlight sipping on a pint of golden ale, which was refreshing beyond description. It was one of those perfect days, mid-vacation with still much to do and see, a marathon under our belts, a brilliant cloudless sky overhead and nothing to do but amble about at our leisure in an interesting and lovely town. We were in our element.

We continued in that walk/stop/walk pattern for the rest of the day until we had covered a good ten miles or so. For dinner we found Higgins at SW Broadway. We shared a wonderful charcuterie plate with local sausages, a salad and Oregon wine, then espresso after.

Thursday dawned and we were excited to be heading to Seattle later in the day, but there was still more to see in Portland. After breakfast at the hotel, we walked to the Oregon Historical Society Museum, then over to Barista Coffee – the top rated coffee shop in Portland, which is saying something as Portland has recently overtaken Seattle as the nation’s craft coffee hotspot.

We shared an excellent latte as we walked the half-mile or so to Voodoo donuts – a pastry shop with the punk attitude and quirky vibe of a tattoo parlor on the shady fringes of a middling seaport town. We had heard of this place from friends and seen it on the Food Network and were drawn by the novelty of eating donuts (and nothing but donuts) for lunch. After a 15 minute wait in line, we ordered two apiece – me the famous maple bacon and raspberry jelly (both awesome), and her the chocolate cake and their signature creation, the Voodoo Doll – a doll shaped donut with a stake through it’s heart from which raspberry jelly flowed, blood-like. We sat on a picnic bench outside of the shop and wordlessly polished off 1,000 calories each worth of Voodoo donut goodness.

From here we walked slowly, in a mild diabetic haze back to the hotel, glazed residue on our lips, veins coursing with sugar and finely crafted caffeine. Though we hated to say goodbye to Portland, we were ready for the short drive north to our final destination, Seattle.

Dad

My Dad has played many roles in his life. Father, husband, brother, uncle and son. Navy seaman, Army officer, successful businessman, civic leader, Sunday school teacher, coach and pilot. He has been a mentor and a friend and at times when I needed it, a disciplinarian. From him I inherited a deep and abiding love of the South, of Gamecock sports and of all things old and dusty and historical.

He passed on his great love of music – from Bluegrass to the Blues Brothers, from the Temptations to Hank Williams, Stevie Wonder to Bill Monroe and Electric Light Orchestra to Johnny Cash. My sister and I laugh often about him dancing in the middle of our living room, circa mid 80’s, to Cameo’s “Word Up” – stereo cranked, head down, fists pumping, and showing impressive rhythm for a man descended from East Tennessee hill people. These impromptu jigs always seemed to occur as he was dressing for work or changing clothes after, which resulted in an underwear and business socks ensemble, as if he was possessed by an urge to boogie too powerful for attention to menial details – like pants. He was a strange amalgam of pale Cliff Huxtable and Tom Cruise in “Risky Business”, but he taught us not to take ourselves too seriously, to be open to the joy of music and to embrace our inner James Brown on occasion.

When I was in second grade he held me out of class one morning and drove me out to Owens Field, the municipal airport in Columbia, where he took me flying in a rented Cessna 150. We flew over Williams-Brice Stadium and the buildings of downtown and out towards Northeast Columbia where we lived. We banked right over my school and our house on Weybourne Way. It was magical to see those things from high in the air – to have that expanded perspective. It was both comforting and impressive to see him confidently at the controls and talking with the tower in that mysterious and phonetic staccato of pilot-speak over the crackling and ancient Cessna radio. Later we had lunch together and he dropped me back off at class just in time for “show and tell” where I told proudly – breathlessly – about my awesome pilot-Dad and our early morning recon at 3,000 feet over the Capital City. And it just doesn’t get much better than that for a second grader.

We attended countless basketball games at Frank McGuire Arena and there was no better place to be on a cold winter evening than the cozy confines of “The Frank”. And even though Gamecock hoops was not what it was in McGuire’s glory days, we were not too many years removed and you could still feel the presence of those great teams. The building was equal parts arena and shrine.

We would park on Assembly Street or Main just south of the Capital building and he would hold my hand in those early years as we walked through the tunnel under Assembly Street to the Coliseum. The aroma of fresh popcorn would greet us as we walked through the doors and handed our tickets to the familiar and welcoming doormen in their garnet blazers. We could hear the squeak of high top sneakers on the old tartan floor as we pushed through the turnstiles, and the familiar baritone of court side announcer Gene McKay rang in our ears as we found our seats before tipoff.

The pep band would fire up “Step to the Rear” and “Go Carolina” and the retired jerseys of Roche and English and Owens and Wallace hung proudly from the massive rafters above. We pondered the history of that building, the “House that Frank built”, and there was an electricity there – a soul – that I have never experienced in another arena. And on those special nights when all 12,401 seats were filled and the team played well and the crowd was especially rowdy, I was as happy as any boy has ever been.

Every so often after a game we’d cross over the Blossom Street Bridge into neighboring Cayce and I would peak down at the moon splashed Congaree River flowing purposely below us. We would pick up donuts at the Krispy Kreme on Knox Abbott Drive, back when it was still very much a regional brand, known mostly in the Carolinas. On the way home we would always listen to the incomparable Bob Fulton conduct his post game show on AM 560, and he would delve into the stats and interview Coach Bill Foster and provide commentary. I savored that time in the dark of his car as we made our way along Assembly and Bull Streets and I-277 back northeast towards home, not wanting it to end.

We watched George Rogers’ electrifying run to the Heisman in 1980 and Zam Frederick take the National Scoring Championship later that year in basketball. We watched baseball games at Sarge Frye Field and took pride in that powerhouse program some twenty-five years before Ray Tanner’s magical National Championship squads. We took in road football games in those pre-SEC years at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest and NC State – lingering rivalries from the ACC days. I was obsessed as only a young boy can be with sports and Dad indulged that obsession and shared in it as well.

Later, during the searching and sometimes reckless years of my early 20’s, he held me close through our long-established bond over Carolina sports. And even when we could think of nothing else to talk about we could talk about that. Even now it is a rarity when we don’t talk by phone after games to celebrate or commiserate.

He stood up for me at my first wedding and then provided much needed counsel and hard-earned wisdom during the difficult process when that union failed. He has been a travel companion and a sounding board and a steadfast advocate throughout.

It astounds me when I consider that his father died when he was a mere baby – three months old and living in Erwin, Tennessee. All of his “Dad skills” came through on the job training. He was a quick study and embraced that role with the fiery passion of one determined to provide a better life. He has certainly succeeded in that.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Love you, man.

Dad & me

Piercy, California, and Other West Coast Towns

We were both excited as we woke Monday morning for the post marathon portion of our trip. Feeling a surprising lack of soreness from the previous day’s race, we ate early and were on the road, northbound by 8am, leaving the misleadingly named Seaside Embassy Suites in our rear view mirror. (the hotel was not seaside, as it turned out, but if so inclined, you could stand on your tip-toes, crane your neck at an awkward 110 degree angle and catch in your peripheral just the tiniest sliver of blue from room 404).

After passing through the sprawl of San Jose, we drove into San Francisco, and though the GPS instructed us to head north over the Bay Bridge and through Oakland, you just can’t drive through San Francisco without paying a visit to the always-inspirational Golden Gate Bridge. Finished in 1937, adorned in art deco detailing and painted in unmistakable “international orange”, the Golden Gate is widely considered the most beautiful bridge in the world and is a jaw dropping engineering marvel. When I first saw it in person in 2001, I was awestruck by it, and I fell in love with San Francisco in large part because of it.

As we wound our way through San Francisco’s Presidio and approached the bridge, it was as awe-inspiring as ever. Driving across the span, with the City and Alcatraz and the deep-blue Bay to our right and the vast Pacific to our left, we inhaled the salty sea air (along with a good deal of exhaust from the heavy traffic) and soaked in the amazing view.

After crossing into Marin County, US Highway 101 and California Route 1 split and we followed Route 1, because neither of us had ever driven it north of San Francisco. A serpentine ribbon of blacktop, it was a two-lane rollercoaster of a road, winding its way into the Marin highlands and providing post card views of the gorgeous and expansive Pacific Ocean. It was noticeably cooler here than it was when we started back in Monterey, and we each pulled on a fleece, not wanting to roll up the windows.

Hungry and needing gas, we rolled into Point Reyes Station, about an hour and a half north of San Francisco. It felt as though we might be on the set of a Hollywood western with its narrow main street and low slung 19th century buildings.  We fueled up and stopped for lunch at Station House Café on the main drag through town. While Melissa got an outdoor table in their garden, I walked half a block to the Post Office to send off a post card to our friends in Plesiste, Czech Republic, as is our custom when we travel. Back at the restaurant, we ate huge sandwiches – her a Rueben and me a blue cheese burger with sweet potato fries – the food was excellent. It had warmed again after coming down from the highlands and we lingered at the table, enjoying the sun and a break from the car.

Redwood and Sasquatch Country – evidently, the home of my brave ancestors

It was a brilliant, cloudless day – low 70’s and comfortable. A perfect day for driving along the coast if ever there was one. Despite that, we left Route 1 after lunch and made our way inland to the faster moving Highway 101, wanting to make some time and arrive at our destination for the evening – Eureka – before dark. It was at this juncture, while studying a map in her role of navigator for the trip, that Melissa discovered that we would be driving through the town of Piercy, CA, just a few hours north. Piercy, California! I had never heard of it, but I was instantly jolted from my mild, lunch-induced torpor.

I had Melissa do a quick Google search of the history of Piercy as I entertained visions of this instantly mythic town and my intrepid settler-ancestors – brave, virtuous, ingenious and good-smelling men and women, no doubt, who looked westward through eyes of chipped granite and carved out their own slice of paradise in the wilds of Northern California. My spirit was stirred – my hopes soared. I would meet with the mayor – there would be photos taken and I would no-doubt, receive warm plaudits from distant relatives who would look vaguely like me. Ah, Piercy, California.

You might imagine my disappointment to find, via Wiki, that Piercy was an unincorporated “community” (not even a town!), which had been named in honor of Sam Piercy, who settled in the area around 1900. That’s it! That was the extent of what we could find on the history of Piercy – we could find no information whatsoever regarding this mysterious “Sam” character, although I’m still certain he was brave, virtuous, ingenious and good-smelling. Further research revealed that Piercy was home to “Confusion Hill” – a small roadside attraction – classic Americana – that included a “gravity house” where evidently, you could stand in various gravity-defying positions, such as on walls, etc. Melissa made great sport of the fact that the only discernable attraction in all of Piercy was Confusion Hill – “appropriate” and “aptly named” were comments she made more times than I felt particularly necessary.

As we drove north, the air cooled again and the trees thickened – both in number and in girth, as we entered Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The canopy created by these towering conifers – some taller than 300 ft – cast a shadowy darkness on the road and though it was 2pm with blue skies and bright sunlight overhead, I had to turn on my headlights. I could see why a Sasquatch would live here, and I half expected one to lumber out from behind a redwood at any moment. All along this road, narrow ribbons of dirt hiking paths meandered beguilingly off into the comely woods and I wished we had built an extra day into our trip for backpacking and camping.

The mythic home of Sam Piercy

The mythic home of Sam Piercy

Drawn by morbid curiosity, not to mention the need to pee, we actually stopped after several hours at the one and only, Confusion Hill, just outside of Piercy. It was nearly 5pm and the owner was tidying up, getting ready to close. We chatted with him for several minutes and he shared that the community of Piercy had actually ceased to exist a number of years ago when the post office burned to the ground. Their address was now Leggett, CA, which deepened my disappointment considerably. He did manage to find an old postcard with the original Piercy address though and I purchased it, along with a horribly over-priced “Confusion Hill” refrigerator magnet.

We finally arrived in Eureka around 6:15 pm and after checking into our room at the Carter House, we ambled back out to find dinner, happy to be out of the car and walking. We ate Lost Coast Brewery, downtown, about four blocks from the B&B. There, we enjoyed excellent clam chowder, fresh oysters and good beer. After, sated and exhausted from the day’s travels, we walked back to our room and after half-hearted attempts at reading our books, were both asleep after a page or two.

Next: VooDoo Donuts, here we come – Portland, OR

California

Big Sur Marathon was everything I imagined it would be. After years of sitting in my bucket list and delayed by our immersion into triathlon since 2009, Melissa and I finally decided that it was time to do a marathon together. And, wanting to incorporate a trip to Portland and Seattle and a drive up the Pacific Coastline, Big Sur was a natural fit.

And so we found ourselves in the eerie dark and quiet of a tour bus which picked us and other runners up at our hotel for the 26 mile ride from Monterey to the race start near the village of Big Sur. As the bus made its way ponderously up winding curves and steep inclines through the 4am darkness, we could only sense what lay beyond the barely visible guardrails just beyond our bus window. I knew, from a previous drive on Highway 1 of the cliffs and sheer drop-offs along this road and it occurred to me that we had placed a tremendous amount of trust in this silent bus driver whom we had never met. We settled in, sipped our coffee and tried to enjoy the ride.

Grateful after our safe delivery to the starting area, we stretched, made final bathroom visits despite long lines at the port-o-lets, and waited in the chilly pre-dawn air for our 6:30am start. When the gun went off, early morning light streamed through the surrounding trees and we were thankful to get started after standing around in shorts and t-shirts for nearly an hour in 50-degree temperatures.

Once started, the course was nothing short of spectacular. After running along for a comfortable and gently downhill-sloping five miles or so, the real Big Sur finally revealed itself with the first of many challenging hills. This climb was offset though by inspiration when the rocky coastline came into view for the first time, and as we rounded a bend there were audible “ooohs” and “oh my Gods” from the runners around us. At one point, between mile six and seven, we spotted a whale, maybe a quarter mile offshore, jumping and rolling playfully in the surf, showing off for us it seemed, as if it somehow knew that today was marathon day and it would have an appreciative audience.

By the halfway point at mile 13, we crossed the graceful and iconic Bixby Bridge, perched high in the air – some 280 feet above where Bixby Creek flows into the Pacific – and were treated to the theme from “Chariots of Fire”, played on a grand piano by a man in a tuxedo. We knew this was a regular feature of the Big Sur race, so were not surprised, but it was still a really cool feature and a nice reward after a steady, two-mile climb up the aptly named Hurricane Point – the longest climb on the race course and one of the windiest points of the marathon.

From Bixby, we were treated to a series of rolling hills for the second half of the race and though it was challenging, we were still in good shape physically and felt that unmistakable momentum you get from crossing the halfway point of a race. For most of the day Melissa and I ran silently, transfixed by the sheer beauty of the rugged Pacific Coast. We would offer up encouraging words on occasion, but were mostly lost in the moment, happy to be there, sometimes overwhelmed by the scenery surrounding us.

All that beauty though comes at a price, and Big Sur exacts its pound of flesh before surrendering the well-earned finisher’s medals. It was so windy that at some points along the course, port-o-lets were tied down with rope and railroad ties, which left me to ponder what messy and surprising wind-blown misfortunes had befallen runners in prior races before officials got wise to tie-down precautions. We alternately dreaded the slow struggle on the up hills, only to amble painfully with protesting joints on the down hills. The camber of the road was slanted, punishing ankles and knees and hips, so that even the overwhelming ocular pleasures of the Pacific began to lose their charms by late in the race. This was Big Sur. Totally deserving of the “bucket list” status I had bestowed upon it a number of years ago – the most rewarding and challenging marathon course I have done.

When we gratefully crossed the finish line at 4:38 – not fast, but we were ok with it – we basked in the welcome warmth and sunshine. After grabbing a beer at the Michelob tent, we sat luxuriantly in the finisher area, medals around our necks, sunning ourselves and soaking in the glow of a goal achieved.

A little later, our friends Andre, Joanie and Lori joined us in the finish area – Joanie and Lori having finished against all odds through knee and calf injuries respectively. We sat and listened to a band and chatted about the racecourse and enjoyed each other’s company – happy to be done and excited about the rest of the trip. We might have stayed there all night if it were not for the one beer per runner limit – a clear sign, I thought to myself, of West Coast progressivism run amuck.

Dinner

After catching a shuttle back to the hotel, Melissa and I showered and napped, waking at 4:30 pm absolutely famished. It was just the two of us for dinner and we made the short drive to Carmel, arriving like a couple of blue haired seniors with creaky knees as soon as the doors opened at 5:30 at La Biceclette – a wonderful little French bistro.

It was a perfect day outside – blue skies and lingering warmth from the 71 degree high and we took our seats inside only because there was no outside seating available. We started with a beet salad topped with locally made blue cheese and escargot simmered with pine nuts in a wonderful garlic sauce. It was amazing. For the main course, we shared possibly the best pizza I’ve ever tasted – a crispy flatbread with lamb sausage, mint, black olives and red onion – again, amazing. We drank cool, crisp white wine from an area vineyard and chatted excitedly about the next few days of our trip – we were exceedingly happy.

After, we made our way back to Monterey and had espresso at Café Luminere, which was attached to an indy theatre. We had not planned to see a movie, but it was only 7pm and we were on vacation, so we watched “Mud” with Matthew McConaughey, which actually turned out to be one of the better movies we have seen in a long time.

After the movie we walked painfully, with almost comic stiffness back to the rental car and returned to the hotel. It had been an incredible day – the marathon, a nap, a wonderful dinner and a great movie. And despite lingering concern over how our bodies might respond to the nine-hour drive to Eureka the next day, we were happy and excited in that way you can only be in the early stages of vacation.

Next: the drive north and Portland

A Good Night in Altamont

Asheville has eluded me for two and a half years. Ever since I moved to Raleigh and began working in various towns across North Carolina, and into Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, I have longed for an Asheville assignment. I have traveled extensively throughout the region for two and a half years and the travel has afforded me the chance to get acquainted with my newly-adopted home state. But Asheville has always escaped me. Until now.

I have visited briefly in the past and have always loved Asheville, this cool, western jewel of the Carolinas, surrounded by the ancient Blue Ridge. There is a magic and a mystery to this place that is unlike any other town that I have known, with the possible exception of Charleston, though the vibes of the two towns are as divergent as their landscapes.

I have been reading Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” – a Christmas gift from Melissa. It is a gem of a book from a contemporary of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, London, Steinbeck and Faulkner. Wolfe is perhaps the most under-appreciated of the great American writers of the early 20th Century – and he was a North Carolinian. “Angel” does not even appear on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Greatest American novels, yet Pat Conroy wrote of Wolfe:

“I realized that breathing and the written word were intimately connected to each other as I stepped into the bracing streams of Thomas Wolfe and could hear the waterfalls forming in the cliffs that lay invisible beyond me. I had not recognized that the beauty of our language shaped in sentences as pretty as blue herons, could bring me to my knees with pleasure – did not know that words could pour through me like honey through a burst hive or that gardens seeded in dark secrecy could bloom along the borders and porches of my half-ruined boyhood because a writer could touch me in all the broken places with his art.”

Wolfe has deepened my already abundant love for this place with his prose. He referred to Asheville in his fiction as “Altamont”. There is an Altamont Brewery here. An Altamont Theater and an various other businesses around town which have incorporated the Altamont name. Wolfe’s cultural influence looms large.

It was a dreary day; windy and cold to the bone, though spring is near, and the days have already lengthened promisingly. It is winter’s last stand. After I could do no more work I walked from the Hotel Indigo across a bustling, early evening Heyward Street, to The Captains Bookshelf – a rare and used bookstore just a block away. Asheville has two amazing locally-owned bookstores in the aforementioned “Captains”, and Malaprop’s – both within an easy glance from my window at the Indigo. At Captains, I wandered the shelves for nearly an hour, perusing timeworn titles and inhaling the faint aroma of old books. I selected a paperback copy of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro ~ and Other Stories”.

The lady at the register was out of central casting. Aging and bookish,  her dishwater grey hair was assembled in a loose bun held by a pencil, and she wore a threadbare cardigan two sizes too large, which accentuated her frailty. As she reached for the book with a palsied hand, she sighed as she read the title. I daresay she nearly shed a tear, and she said in a wistful tone that it was a wonderful, beautiful book. I told her that I loved Hemingway but I had not yet read this particular volume. She looked at me as if I were a typhoid carrier. This is a serious bookstore.

As I left the store the smell of rain was heavy in the air, and I lifted my collar against the brisk wind. I cut across a parking lot beside a fossil-like shell of an ancient two-story brick building that has been repurposed as a parking garage. I crossed back across Heyward Street, past Malaprop’s and turned left down the narrow and steeply sloping Walnut Street, which reminded me vaguely of the ally ways in old town Prague. Just as it began to rain, I tucked into Zambra, a tapas restaurant and one of my favorite stops in town.

I settled into a small hightop table in the back of the dimly lit bar area, near the kitchen. I ordered a Tempranillo and sat reading Hemingway by the faint, yellow light of a wall sconce above my table while the wine worked its magic. While a steady, cold rain poured outside, things were about as cozy as they could be in the in the darkened warmth of the bar.

After a while I ordered a crawfish étouffée with mushrooms and a brown sauce that made me nearly emotional. I followed that with a Spanish tortilla with spicy beef sausage and sweet potato, which was wonderful. Finally, another glass of wine and boudin croquettes with kimchee aioli. I was supremely happy and could have only been more pleased if Melissa had been there with me to share it.

Following dinner, I ambled back out into the softening rain, which had washed the streets and left a satisfying petrichor of damp asphalt and soil. I made the short walk back to the Indigo, sated and happy. I’m having a nightcap now in the room, and as I write this blog my gaze is drawn west, out my ninth story window toward Wolfe’s rain-veiled North Carolina mountains. Despite winter’s clinging damp and cool, I am thankful for old books and good wine and the aroma of rain in early March.

It is a good night in Altamont.

20 blustery, cold, hilly, horrible, wonderful miles

Earlier today Melissa and I completed our first 20 mile training run in preparation for Big Sur Marathon in April. We have three more to go. Ugh.

As much as I love Umstead State Park – and it is without debate one of the things that makes living in the Raleigh area so special – today it inspired angst, loathing, and at points late in the run, silent but sincere wishes to be smitten by a meteorite. Lucky damned Russians.

It all started innocently enough. Last week we completed an 18 miler at the American Tobacco Trail (ATT) in the Cary/Durham area. This is a “rails to trails” path – formerly a railroad track, which has been converted into running and biking trails. As such, it is wonderfully, seductively flat. We ran with our friends Martin, Andre and Joanie, and between the flat course and the conversation of friends, the run seemed to fly by. We finished feeling pretty good and began to feel a sense of confidence about our 20 miler for this weekend. ATT had lulled us into a false sense of security.

We had a good week of workouts leading up to today’s run and woke this morning feeling cautiously optimistic. It would be cold – in the 30’s – but sunny and beautiful at least. We ate well this morning, dressed warmly and made our way to the Old Reedy Creek parking area in the Southwest corner of Umstead. From there, we would follow the Reedy Creek Trail to Graylyn trail, then follow the unadvisedly hilly Turkey Creek loop to the Southeast park exit, where we would run alongside Reedy Creek Road, crossing Edwards Mill and over onto the N.C. Museum of Art complex. Here we would turn around and head back into the park, following the Reedy Creek trail all the way back to Old Reedy Creek entrance and our car. (I realized as I typed that paragraph that the planners of the park and the folks who named the roads around it must have been possessed by a zeal for Reedy Creek that bordered on the fanatical).

We started the run at around noon, and as with all long runs, the first miles went by nearly effortlessly. We quickly settled into a comfortable pace and chatted intermittently, but were mostly lost in our own thoughts. Yesterday’s snow, though mostly melted, left traces of white beyond the tree line which gave subtle texture and depth to what is ordinarily a canvas of brown sameness this time of year, and it made for a welcome diversion as we cast appreciative, sidelong glances while plunging along. (Any diversion is a welcome diversion during a 20 mile run).

Friend sightings and the hills of Albatross (er, Turkey) Creek

As we made our way toward the five-mile mark, still feeling good and enjoying the fleeting downhill portion of Turkey Creek, we ran into our friends Lori, Sandra and Lonnie. They were on mountain bikes and we stopped to chat for a few minutes – another welcome diversion. After parting ways, we each took a gel, which provided an instant boost in energy, and we took off again. Lori was our roommate during the Ironman France trip in Nice last summer and happy thoughts of that trip carried us along the next few miles.

One hill led to another – an endless corridor of gnarled, winter-dead trees and hills. This is Umstead. But the sun was high, it was a gorgeous day, and we still felt strong. On we went.

By around mile nine, we exited the park and headed toward the museum. We could feel the wind on our backs and though this pushed us along nicely, we knew there would be hell to pay once we made the turn. Mile ten passed by – halfway home – mile eleven, then twelve, then the much-anticipated turn to head back to the car.

Lunatic Wind

As soon as we made the turn we were greeted by a rude blast of wind that traveled up loose shirttails and down collars, causing us to have to literally lean into the wind to keep our forward progress. We had three miles to go until we were back in the relative comfort and protection of that corridor of trees. Just when we thought the wind had died down, we’d take another body blow of icy gusts. It was wearing on us and taking all joy out of the run. We didn’t talk much during this stretch, other than the occasional expletive deleted which rose and fell in direct correlation to the gusts of wind.

Finally, back in the park at mile 15 – only five miles to go! But the wind and the miles had taken their toll – especially on me. I could feel the distinct presence of “the wall”, as if it were stalking me like some brooding, stealthy predator in the shadows, and I knew from experience that it was bound to appear within the next couple of miles. When I couldn’t stomach a gel at mile 16, I knew I was in trouble.

And so we more or less shuffled along, keeping a sub ten minute pace – not great by competitive standards, but about what we wanted to do – and we started breaking the remaining run down by the mile. Four miles to go – three – two, etc. Getting through these long runs and, by extension, the races themselves, is all about blocking out how many miles you actually have to go and focusing instead on incremental goals – getting to the next mile or the next aid station – or sometimes when it gets bad, just getting to that pine tree 100 yards up the trail. You have to compartmentalize, all the while telling yourself little lies of omission.

Getting ugly

By mile 18, I was blowing up. Every muscle and tendon and ligament in my legs were screaming protests and threatening boycott. I was hurting, slightly queasy and had slowed my pace dramatically. Melissa was still plugging away admirably and, though hurting as well, was faring slightly better. She would run ahead 200 yards or so, then wait for me to drag my carcass even with her, then take off again. My shuffle by mile 19 resembled Tim Conway’s “old man” character on the old Carol Burnett show. It was sad. Melissa, to her immense credit, stayed positive, chipper and encouraging even through her own pain.

Finally, the blessed sight of our car at mile 20, which caused my eyes to smart with tears of gratitude. With stiff, frozen fingers I grappled with the key and managed to unlock the door. We collapsed inside, totally spent, and sat there for a good ten minutes, letting the car warm and collecting ourselves before the short drive home.

Three more of those 20 milers to go. Bad as it was though, I know by tomorrow the pain will be a distant memory and we’ll be focused again on the fun to be had on our trip to the West Coast in April. I guess some people actually take vacations without doing races. We haven’t quite figured that out yet. Who am I kidding – we probably never will. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lance, we hardly knew ye

There was a time when I defended Lance Armstrong vociferously. I was not blind – I knew that he was likely guilty of some form of doping. But I was also well-versed in the story of Lance’s triumph over cancer and gritty comeback to cycling prominence. I admired his “f-you” attitude regarding disease and anyone who stood between him and the podium. I took inspiration from his work ethic, his fiery attitude and his magnificent exploits in the Alps the Pyrenees and on his victory laps along the sun-dappled avenues of Paris.

I also found the US Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into Armstrong to be more witch hunt than anything resembling actual jurisprudence and was uncomfortable, to say the least, with USADA head man Travis Tygart’s questionable motives, tactics and evident lack of any jurisdiction to even conduct such an investigation.

Then there were Lance’s vehement denials, his passing of over 500 drug tests, administered at times and places of the governing body’s choosing. In my mind, he was probably guilty of at least blood doping, if not synthetic doping, but I also could not understand exactly why putting your own blood back into your body would even be against the rules. Yet there was never any doubt in my mind that even if he actually doped, he still worked harder, rode faster and kicked more ass than any other doper out there.

Armstrong reigned in a period of ubiquitous doping, and had he not found a way around the rules, he likely would never have been competitive. The Tour de France, you will recall, is a 2,000 mile road race that takes place over the course of three weeks and is sometimes won or lost by a margin of mere seconds. It was a “dope or go home” culture that pervaded the cycling world and Lance found a way to make it work for him. A testament to the pervasive levels of doping in the sport is that the International Cycling Union – cycling’s governing body – chose not to award Lance’s seven vacated Tour de France titles (1999 – 2005) to any other cyclist because there was hardly another competitive cyclist available who had not been guilty of doping during those years.

In the end, much like Barry Bonds in Major League Baseball, Lance Armstrong will be the poster child of the “doping era” in professional cycling. God, I hate to mention Lance Armstrong in the same breath as Barry Bonds – it’s nauseates me.

When he quit his fight against the USADA back in August, I was still a Lance defender, right up until Tygart finally (and quite belatedly) released his evidence in October. And damning evidence it was. Though it was mostly testimonial evidence and, as far as I know, included no positive test results, some of the names of those testifying lent tremendous credibility to the USADA report. You can discount the likes of Floyd Landis, but when Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie talk, people listen. Accordingly, within the span of several days, Lance was abruptly and unceremoniously dumped by his myriad sponsors and cast aside by the cycling community. He was proven to be, ironically, a cancer upon the sport.

Why Oprah, why now?

Thus followed several months of silence from the Armstrong camp. As Autumn bled into the Christmas season and 2013 rolled around, Armstrong was mostly forgotten, replaced in the media and in our Attention Deficit Disorder-stricken minds by the latest bowl results or for the political-minded, by the ever-raging gun-control and fiscal debates – or perhaps for the truly stupid among us, by the Golden Globe awards.

And then it came – the announcement that Lance would appear on Oprah this Thursday to bare his soul. This was a surprise to me. I fully anticipated (and hoped for) a long period of silence from Armstrong during which he would reconnect with his family and begin to rebuild his life in a positive way. I figured it would be at least a year. But three months? Oprah?

If he must do it now – and his megalomania, I have no doubt, dictates that it must be so – wouldn’t he be better served to go on a real talk show – Jim Rome, lets say – where he can take real, hard questions? Instead, he is opting to appear on Oprah, where she will toss him softballs, give him a platform to shed a few tears, whereupon she’ll proclaim him healed and forgiven. I think it’s lame. And desperate. C’mon, Lance!

The American public is a forgiving one. We love a redemption story. But if you make fools of us, you’re screwed. Just ask Barry Bonds.

I’ll watch the Oprah interview on Thursday, mostly out of morbid curiosity. And if Oprah grills him, I’ll be both surprised and thankful. But I still have to wonder – does this man not have advisors? Does he not have publicists whom he pays to cultivate his public image? What are they thinking?

Fifty shades of grey – the troublesome case of Lance Armstrong

Let me state for the record – I was wrong. Well, sort of.

Two months ago, following the announcement that USADA would place harsh sanctions upon Lance Armstrong, including a lifetime ban from the sport of Cycling and stripping of his seven Tour de France titles, I wrote a rather blistering blog regarding USADA’s front man Travis Tygart and what I considered to be his witch hunt against Armstrong. Quite melodramatically, I titled the piece “USADA – Proof that we no longer reside in a democracy?” – but that is an accurate summation of what I felt at the time.

When I wrote that blog, I was disgusted by the way USADA prosecuted their case – their lack jurisprudence, their sole reliance on the testimony of shady characters, most of whom were admitted dopers themselves who likely harbored personal distaste for Armstrong. I questioned how an organization whose sole reason for existence on this earth is to monitor and regulate the compliance of Olympic athletes could spend such an overwhelmingly large amount of their time and resources investigating a retired cyclist – during an Olympic year, no less. I took issue with the very tone of Tygart’s press releases – their language spoke not so much of a determined legal obligation to shed light as it did bitter personal vendetta. I questioned USADA’s authority and jurisdiction to strip anyone of Tour de France titles. I admired Armstrong greatly and saw the entire episode as a miscarriage of justice.

Little happened to change my opinion in the seven weeks or so following USADA’s announcement of sanctions. They promised to produce a mountain of evidence to support their claims. As the days and weeks passed, I watched smugly as USADA missed their initial deadline to produce said evidence. I felt a growing confidence that in the end, Tygart would reluctantly and quietly close his case and retreat, much as US Federal Prosecutor Jeff Novitsky had earlier in the year.

That all changed late last week.

People need villains just as much as they need heroes

With USADA’s release of 1,000 pages of damning evidence against Armstrong, the former champ’s fall from grace has been harsh and swift – an unmitigated disaster for him, and a big disappointment for those of us who supported him. Just two days ago he was dumped by sponsors Nike, Trek and Anheuser-Busch, among others, costing him an estimated 30 million dollars annually in endorsement money. On the same day, Armstrong rightly stepped down as chairman of his highly successful cancer-fighting charity, Livestrong, in order to spare that organization some of the fallout from his troubles. He has been widely – and justifiably – criticized in newspapers and television and on radio sports talk shows across the country. He has gone from hero to villain, and it struck me this week that people need the one just as much as they need the other.

Say it ain’t so, Lance…

Lance Armstrong is one of the most polarizing sports figures of our time – perhaps of all time, and it will be interesting to see how his legacy continues to unfold going forward. To be certain, his brand has been devastated. His days of earning endorsement money is likely behind him for good – you just don’t pay someone to endorse your company who has approval and trust ratings lower than the United States Congress. But he is only 41 years old. He still remains active in Livestrong and he has an opportunity to slowly rebuild his image. We are a forgiving people in this country, but we only forgive those who humble themselves and admit wrongdoing. So far, Lance has admitted nothing and has even doubled down on the blame game. This doesn’t bode well.

Shades of grey

There are so many facets to Armstrong’s story. He is a cancer survivor who stared death in the face, then went on to inspire millions with his thrilling exploits in the world of cycling – winning arguably the world’s toughest sporting event a record seven consecutive times. He is also a serial liar, misleading the world for over a decade, raking in tens of millions of dollars in endorsement money – ill-gotten gains, as it turns out – in the process. He is the founder of Livestrong – an organization which has raised millions upon millions for cancer research and has provided much needed support for those grappling with that awful disease. He is also an out of control megalomaniac who has employed scorched-earth tactics against those who dared cross him and, it seems apparent now, even bullied reluctant teammates into complying with his systematic and pervasive doping program.

He is equal parts Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A hero, (though greatly tarnished now), and a villain. Fifty shades of grey – though most of those shades seem a little darker now than they did a few weeks ago.

If Lance were smart, or if he were able to overcome his ego long enough to listen to good advice, he might issue a statement explaining himself. He owes that to his supporters – because they are not simply fans, they are donors. Better yet, he should hold a press conference in which he finally comes clean. He should sit there and answer every last question from media and fans alike. And then he should go away for a long time – spend time with his family, figure out where things went wrong, get that ego under control and focus on quietly rebuilding his image in the coming years. Focus those considerable energies on the lighter shades of grey.

Still a fan

I am still a Lance fan. To be certain, I am bitterly disappointed, and I will never again trust a thing that comes out of the man’s mouth. He is a liar and a jerk and an off-putting, pompous ass. But then again, athletes at the top of their sports have a long and well-documented history of being off-putting, pompous asses (see Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods for starters).

I cannot ignore the overwhelming testimonial evidence in USADA’s report – especially the statements from those I respect, such as George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer. But I will always have fond memories of Armstrong’s amazing seven-year run in France, and the fact remains that even if he cheated to achieve those titles, he still pedaled faster, longer and harder than all of the other cheaters. I will always support and admire his Livestrong organization. What he has done for those battling cancer through that charity transcends anything he ever did on the bike – it makes him more important than any Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Despite everything he has gotten wrong – which is a lot – he has inspired millions of people to fight their disease. That achievement is separate from his current troubles and can never be tarnished.

I am still a Lance fan. A smarter one now to be sure, but still a fan, nonetheless. Life is complicated. One’s life is not written in bumper sticker slogans but rather in long, often complex paragraphs and pages and chapters. Here’s hoping for better times and happier chapters going forward.

A Two-Wheeled Freedom Machine

It was 1982, but it might as well have been 1952. I was a ten year old boy in suburban Columbia, South Carolina, but being 1980’s suburbia as it was, it could have just as easily been Kansas City, or Sacramento, or Buffalo. Mine was the last American generation of feral kids. We ran free for hours on end with no adult supervision. When not sleeping or eating or in school, we were outside.

Even then, the nightly news carried ominous reports which would strip future generations of that time-honored tradition of carefree play. A series of grisly child murders had recently taken place in Atlanta. Adam Walsh, had been abducted and murdered the previous year in Florida. Etan Patz, a kid my age from New York, had disappeared a few years before, leading to the ubiquitous photos of missing children on milk cartons. Times were changing, but in the still idyllic world of my youth, we roamed free.

I wore Toughskins jeans with patches on the knees. My friends and I played basketball and football and baseball in backyards all over the neighborhood. We played the violently titled “kill the man with the football”, aka “smear the queer”. We were young, and unaware of what queer even meant, but we knew we had to run like hell when we got the ball. We played “war” – similar to hide and go seek but with a vague adolescent bloodlust – and we would alternately practice the arts of hunt and evasion – stalking and hiding, hiding and stalking. We would tote bb guns into the nearby woods, where we shot rusted Pabst Blue Ribbon cans discarded by furtively partying high school kids. But when we weren’t doing these things, we were riding our bikes.

My best friend back then was Lee Pitts. His dad and my dad had gone to the old Columbia High School together and had remained friends over the years, eventually purchasing homes in the same neighborhood. Our back yards were separated by a run of chain link fence, which one of us was always jumping to get to the other’s house. We lived in Briarwood – a solidly middle-class assemblage of ranch homes situated off of U.S. Highway 1, which runs from Maine to Florida, but in Columbia is called Two Notch Road. The name came from two notches on trees which marked the trail long ago. At least that was the story we always heard.

We knew practically everyone in the neighborhood with the notable exception of a furtive German lady who lived next door on Weybourne Way. Whenever a stray football or baseball would find its way into her yard, which admittedly happened frequently, she would scowl at us, uttering something guttural and indecipherable.  Her yappy, wire-haired Dachshund would run toward the errant ball in a barking frenzy. Sometimes we retrieved the ball and scampered back to safety before the surly beast arrived, sometimes we didn’t. We learned at an early age that discretion is the better part of valor.

When we couldn’t round up enough guys to get a football game going, or when the football was held captive by the German, Lee and I would set out on our bikes. On weekends, we would ride for hours, all over the neighborhood – up to Windsor Elementary (our school), over to E.L. Wright Middle School, where the “big kids” went. We would roar at devil-may-care speeds down the long hill of Highgate Road. We explored every inch of that neighborhood, which led us one day to an over-grown back corner of the development at the end of Highgate. There was a sad little trickle of water which ran into a culvert. It was nearly covered over with cattails and brambles, and had an interesting aroma. Actually, it quite stunk. We called it Sabotage Creek.

To the left bank of the creek was a thin strip of sandy trail, meandering beguilingly off into the scrub oaks and heat-stunted pines. We didn’t know where it went, but as soon as we saw it, we knew we had to find out.

A secret path to Sesqui

One mean set of wheels…

My bike was an early 80’s model Sears Free-Spirit – black frame with yellow trim and knobby tires – an all-purpose kid’s ride with the heart of a mountain bike, years before mountain bikes were widely known or commercially available. It was my go-anywhere bike, and there was an unmistakable sense of freedom when riding it. Exploring uncharted trails in the fresh air, free of parental supervision. It was heady stuff.

We followed that thin strip of sandy path for miles, not knowing exactly where it would end up, and with no real expectation in mind, other than simply exploring. At one point we stumbled upon an old family cemetery of a dozen or so humble stone markers with weathered engravings, some dating back well into the 1800’s. Even at the age of ten, I had inherited my father’s great love of history, and I was fascinated that people had once lived in this seemingly remote place. I wondered who they were and what their life was like, and the cemetery deepened the mystery and adventure of our exploration.

After more peddling, which seemed monumental in scope at the time, but was probably not more than a few miles, we eventually discovered the trail led to an obscure and little-used fire road, which led in turn to Sesqui-Centennial State Park. “Sesqui”, as it is called, is located just a few miles north of Briarwood off of Two Notch Road. It was built by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps and opened in 1936, its name marking the 150th anniversary of Columbia’s founding. We had been there many times, but were elated to discover that it could be reached through little-known trails under our own power. Admittedly, we were not Lewis and Clark, but we felt pretty good about our discovery, nonetheless.

I remember riding around Sesqui for a little while and then heading back home. As we pedaled back down the now-familiar trail, past the intriguing family cemetery, then Sabotage Creek and on toward home, I remember feeling tired, slightly sunburned and maybe a little saddle-weary. Beyond those things though, I remember the feeling of adventure – of knowing that my legs could carry me to places I never even knew existed. It was a feeling of freedom and though I had no way of knowing it then, I had begun a lifelong addiction.

Sometimes even now when I’m on my mountain bike, I think about that ten-year old kid and I’m thankful that he had the opportunity to play and explore and discover. I’m thankful for hidden paths and the mysteries of trees and forgotten history waiting to be rediscovered. And I can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend in the trail.

USADA – Proof that we no longer reside in a Democracy?

I woke up this morning to the news I had hoped I would never hear – Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong had given up his fight against the USADA and, like jackals in the night, the agency moved in swiftly for the kill – stripping Armstrong of all seven of his Tour titles. Forget that the agency has no jurisdiction to strip Tour de France titles. Forget that they violated their own statute of limitations of eight years in bringing charges going back as far as 1996. Forget due process and the burden of proof and anything remotely resembling fairness. Forget it all. We no longer live in a Democracy.

Just this past February, US Federal prosecutors, led by Jeff Novitsky – the man who brought down Barry Bonds and Roger Clemmons – closed their investigation, which had been brought before a grand jury. After a lengthy subpoena process during which former teammates and international cycling officials were interviewed, blood and urine samples examined and all evidence thoroughly scoured, Novitsky threw in the towel. The evidence he had would not hold water in a court of law. Lance had been vindicated, it seemed.

If only Federal prosecutors were not subject to standards of proof – if only they did not have to deal with a pesky jury – if only they could cast aside due process and adjudicate on a whim. If only another organization not tethered to standards of fairness and law could take up this case…

Enter Travis Tygart and the goons of the United States Anti-Doping Agency

Created in 1999 (ironically, the same year as Armstrong’s first Tour victory) at the recommendation of the U.S. Olympic Committee to address and regulate the anti-doping campaign of the USOC – the mission of this quasi-governmental agency is to manage the anti-doping programs for Olympic, Pan-American and Paralympic sport in the United States. The USADA is not a government entity and as such is not subject to the aforementioned Constitutional standards of proof and due process. Yet, it receives a majority of its funding by tax-payer dollars through the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The non-profit status of the USADA also allows them to prosecute athletes with a lower burden of proof than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that the Department of Justice would have had to adhere to. Uncomfortable yet? It gets worse.

An article by Tim Dockery on the website xtri.com provides a chilling account of the inner-workings of the USADA’s tribunal process. The basics are as follows:

• Travis Tygart and his USADA staff serve the accused wrong-doer (in this instance, Lance Armstrong), with a letter accusing him of violating Anti-doping rules. As evidence of this charge, only prior drug tests (that Armstrong passed) and anonymous witnesses are cited.
• Armstrong then had ten days to provide a written response to a review board hand-picked by Tygart. He was not given the opportunity to personally appear in front of this review board, nor was he provided the names of the “witnesses” who accused him.
• This hand-picked “review board” reviews the evidence and decides whether the case should go to a full arbitration hearing, which in similar fashion to the review board, is a kangaroo court made up of Tygart-approved “yes men” who make a ruling.
• Unsurprisingly, cases that are prosecuted by the USADA are successful over 95% of the time.
• At this point, Tygart and the USADA board recommend sanctions, which include lifetime bans, stripping of titles and the like.
• No appeals process, no opportunity to cross-examine witnesses (who, in Armstrong’s case were all proven dopers offered immunity for their testimony), and apparently no thought or consideration as to the fact that the USADA has no jurisdiction to even conduct such an investigation, much less administer sanctions.

Dockery rightly points out in his article that in 2012 – a year when we sent our Olympians into competition in London – the USADA spent a vast majority of its time and resources not assuring the compliance of those Olympians (which, it should be reiterated, is the mission of the organization and the sole reason for its existence), but rather going after a 40 year old retired cyclist with unsubstantiated allegations of wrong-doing going back some 17 years.

Some men do great things in this world. Some men are achievers, strivers and world-changers. Other men exist, it seems, solely to tear great men down – haunted by their own shortcomings and the frustrations of otherwise insignificant lives. Decide for yourself who is the former and who is the latter in this case.

The USADA has made a mockery of justice. Their corrupt abuse of power is flagrant and shocking. I would expect this in North Korea, or Iran or the former Soviet Union, where tyrants and personal vendettas and secretive, one-sided hearings leave innocents subject to the abuse of the State. That this happened here leaves me wondering; do we even live in a Democracy anymore? If Lance Armstrong can be stripped of seven Tour titles without one iota of physical evidence, what’s next? Who’s next?

Still the champ…

In the meantime, Lance will move on. He will continue to raise millions for cancer victims through his wildly successful Livestrong organization. He will continue to live a good life and maybe one day the USADA will be discredited and his trophies will be returned – because he will always be the winner of seven Tours de France – nothing can change that. Until then, at least he no longer has to wallow in the mud with Tygart and his minions.