Lake Logan magic

Lake LoganIt has become my favorite weekend of the year. Hands down. I love Lake Logan weekend.

When Melissa and I were getting into triathlon in 2009, we started looking for interesting races around North Carolina. Long enamored with the foothills of Asheville and points west, I stumbled upon Lake Logan International Triathlon, just outside of Canton, N.C. We first did the race in August of 2009, spending Friday night in nearby Waynesville, then Saturday night after the race in Asheville. I fell immediately and irretrievably in love with that weekend and in particular, Lake Logan.

We’ve done it five years running now and it has never failed to leave me deeply satisfied. Annually held on the first Saturday of August, Logan comes at a time of year that finds my soul in need of nourishment – deeply diminished by the grinding heat and humidity of a long summer and the bleak morass that is the sports world between the end of the Tour de France and the start of College Football season. Logan is a welcome retreat from steamy Raleigh into the high hills west of Asheville. As we make that annual drive up the mountain on I-40, my blood pressure drops in corresponding degrees with each west bound mile marker. Logan is medicinal – I daresay even spiritual. It is my late summer North Star and I am reminded each year of the simple, luxuriant pleasure of needing a long sleeve t-shirt against the cool morning air.

*****

According to the site digitalheritage.org, Lake Logan sprang up in 1932 when the powers that be at Champion Mill, located in nearby Canton, decided to dam the West Fork of the Pigeon River, resulting in an 87 acre lake that flooded the former logging community of Sunburst. Named for Logan Thompson, the son of Peter J. Thompson who founded Champion, Lake Logan soon became home to various meeting, sleeping and dining facilities constructed from logs of deconstructed cabins in nearby counties and served as a retreat for Champion Mill executives well into the 1990s. Many of the buildings survive today and were purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina in 2000 after Champion sold its holdings. The Diocese operates a retreat at Logan and in 2006 sponsored the first Lake Logan Multi-Sports Festival, which has grown to include international and sprint triathlons, an aqua-thon (swim/run) and aqua-bike (swim/bike).

*****

The swim portion of the triathlon is one of the very few wetsuit-legal swims (possibly the only one) in the summertime triathlon circuit throughout the Carolinas, which indicates that the water temperature is below the acceptable wetsuit cutoff temperature of 78 degrees. Usually it is considerably cooler and this year it was a bone-chilling 67 degrees. The last hundred yards or so of the swim goes under the Lake Logan Road bridge and directly into the chilly mountain stream which feeds the lake, resulting in a lung-seizing five to ten degree drop in temperature. In August though, you appreciate that kind of thing.

The swim itself is enchantingly beautiful, setting off just after dawn, the narrow lake bookended by hills covered in hemlock and fir and topped by a cloud cover almost low enough to touch, hanging grey and cottony like soiled gauze over the water. The .9 mile course runs in a long rectangle and as you advance in that strange watery silence unique to lake swims, the hills to your right and left rise up in your periphery. I feel totally at ease, peaceful and warm in the thought that there is no place on Earth I would rather be on the first Saturday in August than in this very place.

The bike course is 24 miles of mostly rolling hills through Southern Haywood County, bookended by steep climbs out of T1 and coming back, just before T2. It is Southern Appalachian farm country, generously dotted with picturesque and diminutive farms, ancient barns and the occasional work mule, brooding and contemplative in its pen. Mostly flat to downhill on the first nine miles, you don’t so much ride the bike course as float through it, enjoying the novelty of the cool air and the rustic countryside. You can almost hear banjo music in the air. Not in the moronic, clichéd sense of snickering Deliverance references, but deep in your soul, as if the hills are calling to you in bent, five string notes. And to me, it sounds a lot like home.

The last 15 miles of the bike are mostly up hill. The heady reverie a little less pronounced, the determined exertion a little more. Your average speed steadily declines as the hills exert dominion over any unspoken plans you may have harbored for a 22 mph average. The last climb is truly taxing. But Lake Logan is visible to the right, through the chlorophyll-choked cover of summer trees. You know you are closing in on the run and this carries you upward.

The run is a 10k. Three miles mostly uphill from the base of T2 along Lake Logan Road to Sunburst campsite just within the borders of Pisgah National Forest (the campsite takes its name from that long-forgotten logging community). This is followed at the turn by the much-anticipated pleasure of three miles mostly down hill back to the finish. The run is always an especially happy time as you pass friends either going or coming and contemplate the completed swim and bike in between high fives and shouts of encouragement.

The finish is always sun-splashed. The low cloud cover of early morning has burned away as friends gather to cheer each other and chat about the race. What went right, what went wrong, how cold the water was, etc. The temperature is late summer perfection – warm but not hot. We make our way to the food tent and eat sandwiches, chatting some more. We are pleasantly tired after 31 miles of swimming, biking and running and as we sit there amongst friends in the perfect post-race warmth, it is, how can I put this… exceedingly nice.

Later, Melissa and I always check in at the Hotel Indigo in downtown Asheville – an easy walk to all that downtown has to offer, which is much. After lunch and a nap, we’ll meet friends again for well-earned margaritas and dinner at our favorite Asheville establishment, Salsa’s. We’ll dine in the narrow alleyway outside and soak in the perfect mountain air. Saturday night after dinner can go late and on occasion ends early, but is always fun.

Sunday, we’ll sleep in and have breakfast at Early Girl Eatery or Over Easy. Afterwards we’ll walk over to Mast General Store and my favorite bookstore, Malaprops. Here I take almost as much pleasure eavesdropping on the aging hippies gathered earnestly to discuss new age mumbo jumbo as I do the truly wonderful selection of books.

We linger, not wanting to leave. We order coffee, we stroll. We take in Asheville and all of its charms. And then, reluctantly, we get in the car and head down 40 East. And on the drive home, we talk about our weekend and Logan weekends of years past. The four-hour drive breezes by.

It is Monday after Logan as I write this and we have already planned next year’s trip.

I told Melissa that when I move onto that great transition area in the sky, I want my ashes spread over Lake Logan. I can’t think of a better place to be – forever. I’m hoping though that we’ll have a lot more Logan weekends between now and then.

Portland, land of donuts and coffee and beer, I love you

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 – everything 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 often resulted in an underwear and business socks ensemble, as if he was possessed by a sudden urge to boogie much 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, Windsor Elementary and our house nearby 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 the old 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 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. The the squeak of high top sneakers on the old tartan floor and Gene McKay’s voice over the PA system 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 Roach 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 Gervais 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 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 the old 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, TN. 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, CA (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.