“This town is nuts, my kind of place”

As I write this, I sit across the street from a larger than life sized statue of Donald Trump, hair plastered to appear that it is waving in the wind. A few storefronts away is a two story building full of ninja stars, samurai swords and butterfly knives. Between The Donald and the Asian arsenal are tiny shops selling burnt wood signs, airbrushed t-shirts, and legal moonshine.

The air is filled with the smell of smoked sausages, vehicle exhaust and funnel cakes. In the distance, I can hear the sound of Indiana Jones’ theme music playing at a putt-putt golf course. The sidewalk is crammed with tourists including one portly fellow buzzing along in his motorized wheelchair; one hand on the handlebar, the other clutching a turkey leg. The small two lane road is packed as well, full of adventure vehicles, loud motorcycles and the occasional orange and green trolley.

It is a surreal sight to behold and I try my best to appreciate it for what it is worth, something I have not always been willing to do.

Consider the fact that less than a mile away from the above described chaos lies the boundary of one of the largest and most awe inspiring sections of federally protected land east of the Mississippi – an International Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most polluted parks in the country. That these two wildly dissimilar environments exist alongside each other is something I once took for granted.

I’m sure some of you have already guessed where I am by this point. Most likely, you’ve visited this town yourself or you know someone who has. Perhaps they even brought you some saltwater taffy or a sweatshirt with a family of black bears on it as a souvenir.

Gatlinburg, TN is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the country; bolstered by the fact that the Great Smoky Mountains draw somewhere around 11 million visitors per year (for contrast, Yellowstone receives less than a third of that).

Or at least the Smokies draw some of them…

Most are “windshield tourists” coming for the miniature golf, themed restaurants and any number of the seemingly endless attractions Ripley Entertainment manages to cram into the city. All of which helps to explain why less than 5% of the people who visit the Smokies ever set foot on a backcountry trail. Not that I am complaining…solitude in nature is a wonderful thing and it can be hard to find at times.

I don’t intend to sound as if I dislike Gatlinburg. No place outside of Georgia invokes more nostalgia for me. I’ve been visiting this small mountain town for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories include vacations here with my grandparents. We would load up my Pop’s green Ford pickup early on Friday morning and I would sleep on the bench seat in the back while he and my Nanny sang along with the local country music radio. We would roll into town and head straight to Jack Huff’s Motor Lodge. To this day, I never pass that little motel without a smile and maybe a tear.

Jack Huff was a prominent figure in the Smokies in the 20th century and as a young boy, I was fascinated by the tales of this mountain man who built the highest inn east of the Mississippi. Leconte Lodge has been drawing hardy visitors for longer than the National Park has been in existence and over 90 years after its founding, this cozy, rustic lodge remains accessible only by foot, helicopter or llama train.

Many of the hotels, stores and cliché restaurants from my boyhood days have come and gone. But Huff’s is still there. I spent the night at that little motel for the first time in over two decades recently and the familiar sights and smells that I encountered when I walked through the lobby door transported me back to another time. I was reminded of how my grandparents and I often ate lunches of Vienna sausages and saltine crackers in our motel room owing to my grandparent’s penchant for frugality dictated by decades spent working in the mills. I walked around the outdoor pool where I spent countless afternoons. I even swore that the elderly lady at the front desk looked familiar…

I felt nostalgia and my emotions begin to get the best of me so I set off for a stroll up the parkway that runs through the heart of town to perhaps clear my mind. But, everywhere I went, the memories followed me. I stood on the sidewalk outside an arcade where Pop fell one evening when it was becoming apparent that his aged legs were beginning to betray him. The next time we came to town, he too toured the streets in a wheelchair (minus the turkey leg). I walked past the Pancake Pantry where we would eat almost every morning and recalled the exhilaration of looking out over my plate of chocolate chip pancakes at snow falling outside. Snow in the morning meant that the road home between Gatlinburg and Cherokee would be closed and that we would get to stay another night. My Nanny was always as excited about this as me. Pop pretended to be bothered by the inconvenience but deep down, I think he loved it as much as we did.

My memories of this town don’t stop there. I was sometimes allowed to bring a friend along on our family trips to the mountains. My buddies and I loved spending our vacation days playing putt-putt, wandering through Ripley’s Believe It or Not and going to the haunted house at night. I went through the Mysterious Mansion so many times that I memorized the layout and would yell at hidden employees before they could do the same to me. I suppose I was and always have been easily entertained.

As my friends and I got older, we began to seek new adventures. My first experience hitchhiking came one summer day when a buddy and I hopped in the back of a pickup for the 15 minute drive to neighboring Pigeon Forge. Later that day, we visited that Asian arsenal and bought ourselves a couple of blowguns. We stayed up into the wee hours of the night practicing our aim by shooting the wooden mantle in my parent’s condo. This skill would come in handy years later when I was handed a homemade blowgun by a villager in rural Ecuador and promptly lodged a wooden dart into a mango some 15 feet away. My two friends who had seen their darts hit the ground in front of their feet just looked at me in amazement as did our tour guide. Rather than explain the backstory, I just grinned and chalked it up to beginner’s luck.

In the hostel later that night, I couldn’t help but think of how Gatlinburg and the Smokies had somehow impacted other areas of my life as well. Hikes in the park had sparked a love for the natural world and admiring relics and antiquities from around the globe in Ripley’s Believe It or Not had fostered a natural curiosity about faraway lands and adventures.

After high school, I continued to make my way to Gatlinburg, still seeking new adventures. The city and I seemed to grow together over the years and I began to feel like a local whenever I would come to town. Familiar restaurants and trails greeted me like an old friend and I loved sharing these places with others.

Up to that point, I never considered Gatlinburg any different from the other vacation spots my family frequented. Sure, the neon and airbrushed t-shirts were tacky but so were the ones in Panama City. And I didn’t mind tacky. I guess I just assumed that was all part of it. When you went on vacation, you got a colorful t-shirt and maybe a wooden keychain with your name carved on it. I never stopped to consider that the over the top kitsch somehow conflicted with the nearby natural beauty.

It wasn’t until reading Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” while preparing for my hike on the Appalachian Trail that I began to understand that not everyone thought so highly of my favorite little mountain town. I furrowed my brow when Bryson wryly pointed out that –

“For years, it (Gatlinburg) has prospered on the confident understanding that when Americans load up their cars and drive enormous distances to a setting of rare natural splendor, what most of them want when they get there is to play a little miniature golf and eat dribbly food.”

I was taken aback. What was so wrong with mini golf and dribbly food anyway?! I didn’t know it then but it would not be long before I obtained a bit of perspective and began to understand a little of what Bill was talking about.

Fast forward a few months and my buddy and I standing on top of Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail and just a short drive from Gatlinburg. We had been hiking for weeks and were looking forward to heading into town for a warm shower, a hot meal and a cold beer. We soon managed to use those hitchhiking skills I had perfected as a teenager to flag down a group of college girls who graciously gave us two stinky hikers a ride down the mountain into town.

I had looked forward to this part of the trip since we took those first steps off Springer Mountain in Georgia. My buddy had never been to Gatlinburg before and our girlfriends were driving up to spend the weekend with us. I was so excited to show them all around the town that I had come to know and love over the years. But, when we stepped out of that tiny car onto those neon lit streets, I noticed that things weren’t quite the same.

Things just did not feel right. “Why was it so noisy?” “Where did all these people come from?” I was then reminded of another line from Bryson’s book – “Gatlinburg is a shock to the system from whichever angle you survey it, but never more so than when you descend upon it from a spell of moist, grubby isolation in the woods.”

Ahhhh. So, maybe that was the problem.

Somehow, the flashing lights and carnival style food didn’t seem to hold the same sway as it had before. Perhaps Bill was right. Could it be that the last two weeks and hundreds of miles of walking in nature had sensitized me?! I was almost tempted to turn around and head back into the woods.

Although we all ended up having a great weekend in town, when my buddy and I left to resume our trek north, I remember thinking that I wasn’t inclined to come back to Gatlinburg anytime soon. I needed time to process how a place I once held so dear could now somehow seem so strange and out of place. And so I stayed away for a few years, uninclined to cast anymore shade on a place that my childhood memories held so dear.

I visited Gatlinburg once while in grad school but was met with the same conflicted thoughts. This was not the town I had grown to love as a child. It seemed fake and I felt in some sense that I had been betrayed by its inviting lights and cheap entertainment. Those diversions had distracted me from the true beauty that existed just a few miles away. And so I left and told myself that I was unlikely to ever return. Sure, I would come to the Smokies again, but not to this town, not to this cheap rip off of what I thought a mountain escape should be.

And so it went. I didn’t set foot on those neon lit streets for almost a decade. And then, last summer on my way to West Virginia, I missed a turn and found myself on an old, familiar road in north Georgia. I drove past the restaurant my parents and I used to eat at on the way to Tennessee. Further up, I slowed and admired the stately college prep campus that had fascinated me as a child. I realized in that moment where the road was taking me and I decided to proceed rather than turn around and backtrack. I told myself that I would just ride down Gatlinburg’s main strip as a reminder of how obnoxious it all was. A reminder that I had somehow matured beyond the corndogs and neon t-shirts. But, when I pulled into town, my gut and my heart told me that I would soon be stopping.

I found Jack Huff’s Motor Lodge at the edge of town and felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. I soon opened the door to my motel room and felt my grandparent’s presence stronger than I could possibly hope to describe here. I spent all afternoon walking up and down streets that I knew like the back of my hand. I ate a sausage dog on a spinning stool in an arcade just as I had done as a child. I wandered through the music store where I bought cassette tapes (man, am I old) for my grandparents to play on the drive home. I stopped at a small theatre I loved as a child and learned that my favorite actor there had recently succumbed to cancer. Time had marched on and this little town and I had both changed in myriad ways but we still recognized each other.

I thought about how silly I felt for having judged the neon and airbrushed shirts years before. People love the kitsch here and deep down, I do too. I cherish the mountain streams and trails that lie just outside earshot of the clamor of town but that doesn’t mean that I can’t also embrace their gaudy neighbor. These wildly dissimilar environments have coexisted for decades and I think I’m starting to understand why.

Exposure to one can help you appreciate the other. People who would otherwise never set foot in a National Park may be inclined to do so by taking a vacation to Gatlinburg. And self-righteous nature types who abhor flashing lights and carnival food might find out that a corndog and a round of putt-putt golf is just the thing to relax after a day (or week) spent communing with Mother Nature.

So, I guess I’ve come full circle. The next time I swing through Gatlinburg, I’ll probably load up on saltwater taffy for a snack on my hike and after I’ve scratched my nature itch, maybe I’ll buy myself an airbrushed t-shirt and a wooden keychain. That way, I can have a reminder of how much I love this little mountain town and all the tackiness and “dribbly food” that it has to offer.

Not the prize, but the struggle

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…”

I share the words above with almost every outdoor education group I have the privilege of leading. Not just because Teddy was the best President ever; or because dust, sweat and blood are part of nearly every outdoor ed trip, but because those words are timeless and universal. At some point on every wilderness trip, the typical youth will encounter failure of some sort. Maybe they set up their tent wrong and wake up soaking wet; perhaps they can’t keep up with their peers on a strenuous hike; some can’t deal with the homesickness and call their parents for extraction.

I want my campers to know that failure is part of a life well lived. I want them to understand that failure is not definitive, but how you react to that failure very well may be. I want them to see the illuminating insights that failure offers us if we are willing to take a close look.

Walk into a Crossfit gym, go to an AA meeting, hang out at an aid station late in an ultramarathon and you’ll see failure in some of its most poignant forms. You’ll see the shock of first time failure, the tears that accompany failure when the will to persevere can no longer be found, the frustration that comes with repeated and persistent failure. To fail, whether publicly or privately, once or repeatedly, by an inch or a mile, and to get back up and try again is one of the most powerful forces that exists in our world.

I share Roosevelt’s words for a deeper reason as well – because they resonate with me. They strike a chord deep inside. Like the man in the arena, despite my valiant striving, I too come up short. I too experience failure more often than my fragile ego would prefer.

Over the years and through numerous events, I have come to appreciate failure, to seek it out and to embrace it. I believe that if you are not looking for those areas of your life that scare you, where you come up short and where you fail, you’re robbing yourself of something amazing. Failure has valuable lessons for those who can put aside their ego and accept the painful truths that it will teach.

This is a bit of a detour away from my previous posts. If you like to keep your internet browsing superficial or of the feel good variety, please feel free to skip this one. I’m going to peel back a few layers of the metaphorical onion and hopefully I won’t shed too many tears along the way. I’ve chosen to share this story in the hopes that someone else will read it and realize that the failure they’ve experienced doesn’t have to define them or signal the end of their hopes and dreams.

When we peel back those layers, what we find at the bottom of it all is a flawed human being. Someone who has made a lot of mistakes. Someone who has quit and someone who has failed. Over and over again. But I believe in second chances. And third chances. And the fact that failure can bring out the best in all of us. It is those failures that helped make me who I am today.

Success and failure are two sides of the same coin and I’ve had the privilege of experiencing both in 2018. I think that the dual outcomes are important for a happy, healthy, balanced existence. But…only one of them teaches the hard lessons that so many of us miss out on in our pampered lives. Failure helps you figure out if you truly desire the things that you say you want. Failure helps shine a light on the areas in your preparation, planning or execution that could have been improved. And finally, after it has its way with you, failure will offer you a concession prize – the option to stay down, admit defeat and avoid crossing its path again. The choice is yours to make. Listen to the critics, whether external or internal, pointing out your shortcoming as a sign of weakness. Telling you that it would probably be easier if you just gave up the fight. Or listen to the voice telling you to get back up and press forward.

2018 got off to a great start for me. In late February, I battled sub-freezing temperatures and dozens of miles of soul sucking sand to finish my first 50 mile trail race at Antelope Canyon outside of Page, Arizona. Despite the less than ideal conditions, I ran a strong race and even set a new 50 mile personal best time. As my buddy and I sat around a campfire swapping stories after the race, I could not help but be slightly amazed that it had all gone so well.

I was extremely nervous in the days leading up to the race. I worried that I had not trained enough. I fretted that the extensive deep sand sections would wreck my feet or my stride. I laid awake the night before the race wondering if I would struggle to finish under the time cutoff. Surprisingly, none of these things happened. I had a great race in one of the most iconic environments of the American Southwest. I met some amazing people who helped me enjoy the experience more than I ever thought possible. The feeling of sitting around that fire after the race was one of pure joy and elation. Chucker and I had signed up for the race months in advance, put in countless training hours and miles and had successfully completed the most ambitious running undertaking either of us had attempted up to that point. We felt amazing. At least until we stood up and attempted to walk back to our cars…

sand
“Come play in the sand,” they said. “It will be fun,” they said

A couple of months after Antelope, I participated in the Goruck Battling Bastards Tough in Atlanta. This was a commemorative event designed to honor those who were a part of WWII’s Bataan Death March. Most Goruck events are a difficult affair, but commemorative excursions typically promise a little extra kick in the teeth and this one was no exception. I knew this going in, but worried little. I’d done over half a dozen Goruck events in the previous years. I knew what was coming and told myself that I was ready for it. Or so I thought. I found myself gassed and struggling from the very beginning and it only got worse.

Log PT is an integral part of most Goruck classes but it typically lasts only a few hours at most. Bataan was different. At the start of the event, the Cadre (former Spec Ops members who lead the event) took all our food and gave us 4 long sections of telephone pole in exchange. We carried those poles practically everywhere we went that night. And we carried them well into the next morning. 12+ hours after starting, Cadre finally relieved us of our logs, gave us our food back and announced that we had completed the event.

I was buoyed by my success at Antelope and Bataan and as a result, I slacked off in the following months. I “rested on my laurels” so to speak and didn’t keep my training or my discipline in check. I even joked to Chucker about this wonderful new hedonistic lifestyle I had discovered.

Somewhere along the way, we grew restless and decided that we again needed to challenge ourselves. Much like the idea that the sum can be greater than its parts, our collective appetite for suffering outweighs anything we would attempt to digest on our own. In our infinite wisdom, we decided to up the ante and run the Hell Hole 100K in Francis Marion National Forest outside of Charleston. That’s right. A 62 mile run. In a coastal swamp. In June. How hard could it be? It was only 12 miles more than what we had run in February and on a much flatter course. Neither of us saw the sucker punch that was coming.

Torrential rains in the days leading up to the race had forced a reroute of the race course since waist deep water, snakes and alligators had found their way onto the planned route. Whatever. We didn’t care. We laughed and joked the morning of the race like we were getting ready to run a 5K. We didn’t laugh very long.

Despite the course modifications, we still encountered mile after mile of shin to knee-deep, murky brown water in that blistering swamp. The sensation of unseen creatures rubbing against my leg caused my heart rate to skyrocket despite my slow and stumbling pace. After the first 15 miles, I was already feeling the effects of the heat and the deep water sections had substantially slowed my pace as I slogged through them in a mix of terror and caution.

swamp
The stuff nightmares are made of

The second lap only intensified the suffering under the full heat of the midday sun. The pace was slow and saw me coming to grips with the reality that I would almost certainly be finishing the last loop in the dark. Dealing with knee-deep water in the swamp in the daylight was intimidating as it was. The thought of doing it in the dark terrified me. So, I let that fear and my cramped muscles take control and I quit after 30+ miles. I wasn’t alone. Of the 13 individuals who signed up for that race, only 4 completed the course; a dismal finishing percentage by almost any race measure.

Looking back, it is clear that I could have finished that race. I did not reach a state where I was physically incapable of continuing. Despite my fears, I was not bitten by a snake or dragged underwater by an alligator. Rather, I lost the mental fight and threw in the towel because I could not, or would not, find the will to continue. Such is the case in almost all endurance event DNF’s. People don’t typically drop out on a 62 mile run because they break a bone or because their kidneys fail (although these things do certainly occur). People quit because the demands of the event eventually outweigh the desire and discipline required to continue. The pain, anguish and frustration grow louder and louder until you can no longer hear that little voice in your head reminding you “why” you signed up for the race in the first place.

And so it goes with life. People who accept failure’s concession prize and give up the fight rarely do so out of a complete inability to soldier on. They give up because they lose sight of their goal. They give up because their will gets eroded to the point where it can no longer stand. Or, as in the case at HellHole, they give up because the fear of the unknown becomes more powerful than their faith in themselves.

Chucker and I elected not to accept failure lying down and instead we signed up for the Daytona 100. Spanning the distance from Jacksonville Beach to Daytona, the race offered the opportunity to run through some of the most popular beach communities in Florida on one of the most iconic oceanfront roads on the East Coast. A1A Beachfront Avenue!!!

I ran religiously in the months leading up to Daytona and saw my running times reach levels that I had not encountered since high school soccer. Driving to Jacksonville on Friday afternoon, I truly felt that I was prepared. Unlike the nervousness that I experienced before the Antelope 50, I felt confident and ready. I had a great carb loading supper that night with Chucker and his family and slept better than I can ever remember before a big race. I felt very few butterflies when we took off through the darkened streets of Jacksonville Beach at 6AM the next morning.

A lot of things happened between that start line and my ultimate drop at mile 61 of the course. I saw a beautiful sunrise. I met a fellow runner who I would share the journey with from the very first steps to the last time I saw him somewhere around mile 45 (I later learned he dropped out shortly after). I met some truly awe inspiring race volunteers; including one who has run across the U.S. and rowed across the Atlantic. I fought gear and gastrointestinal issues most of the day. I watched a sunset of unspeakable beauty. I experienced highs and lows, often within minutes of each other. I laughed, I cussed, I prayed, I cried. And ultimately, I failed.

Just like HellHole, nothing that happened to me on A1A forced me to quit. I did not get heat exhaustion. I did not develop rhabdo. I did not get hopelessly lost. I simply reached a point where I could not find or force the will to continue. Somewhere along that dark, lonely stretch of A1A that parallels the Matanzas River, the answer to my “why” lies lost. I looked for it for hours before I finally called off the search.

It has been said that quitting is a stink that you can’t wash off. It is true. Despite having run over 50 races in the past decade, I can only vividly recall a few of the most important ones – my first half marathon, my first 50K, my first 50 miler, etc. But, I can tell you exactly where and when I quit every race that I ever DNF’d. I don’t think that I will ever be able to forget those failures. And you know what? I don’t want to. They inspire me. They keep me awake at night. They make me lace up the shoes when I want to sleep. They remind me of the things that I have sacrificed on the altar of security of comfort.

An oft read maxim in the ultrarunning community is DNF>DNS.

Did Not Finish > Did Not Start.

Teddy knew all about this. Like the man in Teddy’s speech, I have stumbled. I have erred. I have come up short again and again. But, I am not done. I will not let my failures force me to adapt a life controlled by fear. I will again toe the line. I will continue to attempt things far outside my comfort zone. And I will most certainly fail again. But, that is okay. It is not a life devoid of failure that I seek. It is not a life full of success and shiny medals either. Rather, I choose to travel this path for the strength and wisdom that comes from difficult experiences, regardless of the outcome.

“…if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

It’s not about the miles. It’s about the smiles.

I was at a birthday dinner recently where the possibility of an after party was being tossed around. I told my friends that I would have to bow out early since I still had to get in my run for the day. This led to talk about the training plan I was following for an upcoming race. One of my buddies just rolled his eyes and said what I was doing was “dumb”. While that is not necessarily uncommon to hear, it still stung a little. I was reminded then of the words of Ann Trason. Widely considered the greatest female ultrarunner of all time, she described running as “romantic” but was quick to point out that her friends “didn’t get it.”

Later that night, while getting my miles in, I still couldn’t quite shake my friend’s comment. I started thinking about how I got into running and why I continue to participate in events that many people consider ludicrous. I’m still not quite sure I know the answer but this is what I have come up with so far – like a large portion of things in my life, it most likely boils down to a series of questionable decisions.

I never really ran growing up, aside from what came incidentally from casual participation in recess and field days. I played soccer and basketball in high school but my lack of natural talent and halfhearted interest kept me out of most of the actual playing time. However, I did enough suicide drills and last man runs during practice to confirm my distaste for running.

The meager running that I did in high school quickly subsided when I entered college. I found myself relieved of the obligatory sports participation that athletic life in my extremely small high school had necessitated and was grateful for as much. I stayed active by playing (and routinely losing) tennis matches with my girlfriend. I rode bikes with her dad on the weekends and I even lifted weights with a coworker now and then. But I surely didn’t run.

Post-college days saw much of the same. I did a lot of hiking before I entered graduate school as my best friend and I walked almost the entire distance between Georgia and New York. It was on the Appalachian Trail that I first stumbled upon the phrase echoed in the title of this post. A wise, old sage by the name of Sourdough sat me down one night and explained that it wasn’t about how far you hiked. What really mattered was how much enjoyment you derived from whatever distance you covered. It made sense to me. I still didn’t run but I was beginning to see the appeal of self propelled locomotion.

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Does going on a beer run count?

It wasn’t until the start of my second year of grad school that I began to run with any sort of rhyme or reason. Several of my classmates were signed up to run the Atlanta Thanksgiving half marathon and seeking any excuse I could find to stay out of the law library, I made the spontaneous decision to join them. Like I said earlier, questionable decisions…

Some of my peers at the time were lifelong runners who took racing seriously. They were following training plans and logging mileage as they built up a base of aerobic conditioning that would leave them in peak physical condition when the big day arrived. Hearing their stories of speedwork and weekly long runs reminded me of the rigors of pre-season soccer training. I wanted none of it.

Luckily for me, one of my friends had completed the Thanksgiving half several times before and felt that running should be fun, not a chore. Bob’s running style was erratic and unorthodox. He ran when he felt like it and didn’t when he didn’t. He was more focused on enjoying the experience than tracking mile splits. I could see a little bit of Sourdough in Bob and that appealed to me.

I thought Bob was cool as a fan and his laid back approach to training suited me so I just started inviting myself on his runs. We had a great time getting ready for that race. We ran late at night, down alleyways, in parking decks and even in the rain while we blasted the Grateful Dead. Running with Bob was the first time I’d ever viewed running as something to be enjoyed, rather than tolerated. I didn’t see Bob on Thanksgiving since we started at different times but just knowing that he was out there somewhere, most likely singing and laughing, buoyed me through the harder miles of that race.

I continued to run after that half marathon but never more than a few miles here and there. I began to keep a training log tracking my runs around that time; something that I continue to do to this day. Most of the time, I just jot down the time and distance. Sometimes, I’ll make notes about things I saw or comments I received (as a general rule, the shorter the shorts, the more frequent and entertaining the passerby dialogue.)

In early 2012, I found myself living on St. Simons Island where I stayed active by riding my bike and going to Crossfit. I still didn’t run much unless the coach made us. Those workouts humbled me as I did my best to fit in at a gym full of firebreathers. I walked in one afternoon and saw a sign-up sheet advertising a 50K race that was going to be held outside of Atlanta in a couple months. At the bottom of that flyer were a few names belonging to some of the guys that I looked up to in that gym. Continuing my lifelong tendency toward bad decisions, I put my name underneath theirs. I conveniently ignored the fact that I’d never run further than 13.1 miles in my life.

I went home that evening and googled “SweetH2O 50K.” I was mortified by what I read. This wasn’t just a 31 mile run. This was a trail race with waist deep stream crossings, a time cutoff and some terrifying uphill section known as the “Powerline.” I felt nauseous. I began brainstorming how I could get my name off that list. Maybe no one had seen it. I could just mark it out with black sharpie. Nobody would be able to read the name. I’d be good to go.

I showed up at the box (Crossfit gyms are called boxes because cults like to confuse outsiders) the next morning before anyone else. I even brought my black marker. I walked up just as the head firebreather got out of his truck. “Don Jon!! You signed up for the ultra. Hell yeah!!” My spirits sank. I pushed the sharpie deeper into my pocket. “Yeah man, I’m stoked.” The pit in my stomach got bigger. I was on the hook.

A few days later, I sent an email to one of those grad school buddies with the training plan I had scoffed at years before. Surely there would be some sort of ultra training regime I could follow. I don’t remember his exact response but it basically questioned my sanity for attempting such a thing; especially considering I’d never even ran a marathon. To this day, despite completing over half a dozen ultras, I’ve never participated in the traditional 26.2 mile race so many runners consider the holy grail.

To make a long story not so long, I did find a training plan, halfway stuck with it and finished the 2012 SweetH2O 50K and promptly swore I would never do another one.
If it weren’t for an unexpected turn of events in South America, that might have been where this story ended.

sweeth2o
One and done. Or so we thought

But, on a warm, summer day, in a moment of flustered confusion, my backpack was stolen while I waited on a train in Buenos Aires. The contents of that pack are largely inconsequential today. Other than an Ipad, a hat and my travel journal, I couldn’t tell you what items it contained. The journal was the hardest pill to swallow. It detailed every trip I had taken since college. More than half a decade later, it still pains me to think about those memories that are presumably gone forever. My name, address and offer of reward if found were written on the inside front flap. I sometimes fantasize that one day it will show up in my mailbox, but I don’t get my hopes up.

You may wonder why I remember the hat. That precious yellow hat. You see, it was the finisher award from SweetH2O. Everybody that paid the race fee and showed up that day received a t-shirt. But only those who crossed under that finish banner got the hat. As I sat in the train station, kicking myself for being so careless, it occurred to me – “I have to go back.” I couldn’t replace that travel journal but I could certainly get another hat.

And so it went. The next April, I toed the line again at Sweetwater Creek State Park where I met one of those St. Simons’ cult members who apparently hadn’t gotten enough the first time. He still had his hat. I wondered why he even bothered. I ran the race substantially faster than I had the year before (or maybe I just spent less time at aid stations), received my replacement hat and again promised myself that I was done. No more of this nonsense. No more “dumb” decisions. Maybe I would take up golf.

Since then, I’ve done more races than I care to count. Twice, I’ve watched New Year’s fireworks in the midst of a 24 hour race. I’ve skirted alligators on a racecourse in Florida, been in the porta-potty when the starting gun went off for a night race in Macon and watched the first rays of morning sunlight illuminate the unspeakable beauty of Antelope Canyon in Arizona. I’ve even been a part of the largest 10K in the world. I’ve been privileged to run in some amazing places with some incredible people.

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2017 Peachtree Road Race

But, as any ultrarunner will tell you, there comes a time in almost every long run when a subtle shift occurs and the focus changes from the physical and the external to the internal workings of the mind. You stop thinking about your burning lungs and cramping quads and start probing the deeper recesses, searching for answers to questions like “why” and “can’t it just be over?” It can be a painful adjustment but that is where the real magic happens. My running odyssey has followed a similar path.

Much more important to me than the places I’ve gone running are the places that running has taken me. Over the years and through thousands of miles, I’ve found sources of strength and resilience deep inside that I never knew existed. I’ve felt the exhilaration of seeing my name in the 1st place finisher column. I’ve also finished DFL long after my friends had packed up and headed for home. I’ve been moved to tears by the simple act of crossing a finish line that mere hours before I was convinced I would never see. On another level, I never feel closer to my Creator than I do all alone, deep in some forgotten woods, miles from my car and the nearest human. In my mind, it is no coincidence that certain Native American tribes consider running a form of prayer.

Running has truly been a transformative force in my life. I believe it has made me a better son, friend and uncle. It has given me the opportunity to share the thrill of racing with individuals who otherwise may never have had the experience. Running has taught me to entertain pain and suffering; for they possess powerful insights for those who are willing to invite them in. Most of all, I am grateful that it has given me the ability to know myself, my strengths and my weaknesses on a level that I never before truly appreciated. I now believe I know what John Muir was talking about when he said “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out ’til sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

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We didn’t win. But I like to think we had more fun than anyone else.

In a couple of weeks, one of those St. Simons’ firebreathers and myself will attempt our first 100 miler. I’ll have at most 30 hours to ponder why I choose to do such “dumb” things. Maybe I’ll come up with a better answer than what I have so far. But, if I don’t, I think I’ll be okay with just chalking it up to bad decisions.

Thanks for stopping by and happy trails,

The Juandering Advocate

 

Sierra Sojourn

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness” – John Muir

6AM – Portagee Joe Campground, Inyo County, California

I awoke with a mild sense of confusion. A common experience when I am camping in a new place, it sometimes takes me a few moments before I can do the mental backtracking necessary to figure out exactly where I laid down the night before. As I stared at the ceiling of the tent and began to piece things together, someone shuffled in the sleeping bag next to mine. It was my buddy Jared. I had picked him up outside of L.A. the afternoon before and we had driven the 4 hours from the Elsinore Valley to the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. Arriving at our campsite well past dark, we hastily set up camp without being able to see the majestic mountains that we knew loomed over our makeshift digs. We crawled out of the tent in the pre-dawn darkness eager to take in the early morning celestial show that we knew would soon cast light on the enormous granite escarpment that lay just a few miles away. It wasn’t long after sunrise before we identified the peak we were after – Mt. Whitney. Known to the Paiute Indians as “Toomanigooyah,” or “the very old man,” Whitney was the reason that we were there. Fueled by the success of a hike the previous year, Jared and I had decided to up the ante so to speak and attempt to summit the highest mountain in California, the grand dame of the Sierras. From our viewpoint, Whitney commanded attention, her multiple minor summits appearing as needles jutting into the sky. It was crazy to think that if things went accordingly, we would be basking in those first rays of daybreak when they graced the summit the following morning.

I first met Jared in the summer of 2013 when we were in Alaska working on a Habitat for Humanity build. In his introductory bio to our volunteer group, Jared had written that “travel and open roads call to my heart and I love wandering around in search of new experience, adventure and people.” I found those words intriguing and since we both arrived in Alaska a few days early, we had decided to meet up to get acquainted and scope out the town. The day we met, we made a thorough round of Anchorage’s finest and not so fine watering holes, all the while imploring anyone who would entertain us about the best local hiking trails. One route in particular that we heard over and over was Bird Ridge. One of the most popular and difficult hikes in Chugach State Park, the walk promised steep climbs and stunning views of Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Mountains. We were sold. We closed down the bars that night, stumbled back to our hostels in the otherworldly Alaskan twilight and promptly drug ourselves and accompanying hangovers to the top of the ridge the next morning. It was a spectacular trail and years later, it remains one of my favorite hikes. Jared and I haven’t closed down a bar in a long time, but we still like to get after it. Which is exactly how we ended up standing underneath those Sierra sentinels on that late summer morning.

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Bird Ridge

4PM – The Alabama Hills

Jared and I pulled our hoodies down over our faces as a fierce wind pelted us with sand and small rocks. We were lying underneath one of the surreal rock formations that dot the eroded hills between the Owen Valley and Inyo National Forest. We had secured our Whitney trail permits earlier in the day from the impressive Eastern Sierra Visitor Center and in doing so had obtained one of the last pieces of our logistical puzzle. While standing in the permit line, we overheard rumors of people starting and finishing this hike in the dark. Early morning hikers often would not return to their vehicles until well past sunset. Jared and I exchanged confused glances as we eavesdropped on the conversation behind us. Surely that didn’t apply to us. It wouldn’t take us that long. Or would it?!  We were both avid, experienced hikers not subject to the same laws that govern the masses of weekend warriors who attempt to conquer Whitney. Right?! But, the seed of doubt had been planted and we began to question what circumstances we may have failed to consider.

Later, while wandering along Cottonwood Creek in the Golden Trout Wilderness, we decided that we would begin our push on Whitney shortly before midnight in hopes that we could watch the sunrise from the summit and be back into town in time for a late lunch. Faced with the prospect of such an early start, we had spread out in the shade hoping to grab a few hours of sleep before gearing up. The relentless wind storms and numerous, noisy off road vehicles traversing the hills soon proved our idea unfeasible. So, we laid there in nervous anticipation with the layers of dust accumulating on our clothes; every passing minute bringing us closer to our most ambitious undertaking to date. When the excitement became too much, we emptied our bags and geared up for the trip

10:30PM – Whitney Portal

Half a mile into our hike, water drops began hitting the back of my leg. Reaching around, I discovered that the bottom of my pack was soaked. Closer inspection revealed that the bladder carrying my 3 liters of water had cracked. “Must have happened during the duffle shuffle earlier today,” I thought. There was no easy fix for this. We had a case of bottled water but that was back at the trailhead. I had a Nalgene in my hip pocket but that wasn’t going to cut it. We were embarking on a 22 mile trek through the Sierras. I would certainly need more than one bottle of water to get me through the day. As we finished the first leg of our hike back at our Jeep, things didn’t seem too promising. So, this is how it begins? I gazed at Jared with a look of incredulity. He just laughed. I envied his seemingly indefatigable spirit.

5:15AM – Mt. Whitney Trail Switchbacks

Hours of hiking underneath the faint, red glow of our headlamps had only taken us up 65 of the 97 switchbacks that separate Trail Crest from Trail Camp some 1700′ below. The switchbacks seemed endless and we had fallen off our goal pace by a considerable margin. I was perplexed. “We should have been up on the ridge by now. No way are we going to make sunrise on the summit.” I couldn’t quite figure out why we were moving so slowly; or rather, what specific reason or combination thereof was to blame. Was it the fact that we were standing at over 13,500’? Our breath was ragged and erratic and we were not thinking clearly. The brain and lungs take hard hits in low oxygen environments and ours were no exception. We had opted to skip an acclimatization day due to our eagerness to knock Whitney off our list. We had other hikes we had planned for this trip and wanted to cram in as much adventure as possible. If it was not the altitude sickness symptoms, there was also the glaring distinction that neither of us had slept in almost 24 hours. The light delirium that accompanies lack of sleep was slowly being replaced by something more sinister. Whatever the reason, things were clear – this is not how we anticipated this going. We weren’t even halfway through this hike and we had already discussed turning around. We wondered if the guys who had adventured in Alaska would laugh at us now.

Years have passed since that summer in Alaska and despite being on opposite sides of the country, Jared and I have remained close friends connected by our mutual love of wild places, people and times. We’ve hiked in Colorado together, crossed paths in the Grand Canyon and even knocked out the infamous Cactus to Clouds hike last year; a trek that Backpacker Magazine rated as one of the hardest day hikes in the country. We knew that hike would be a difficult one to top which is one of the reasons we had picked Whitney.

By our reckoning, the ascent shouldn’t have posed such a formidable task given our experience and training. But the combination of less than desirable conditions had delivered a sucker punch that neither of us had anticipated. Despite the struggle, we knew we had to finish. I had flown across the country for this. Jared had left his family back at home to tackle this adventure. His wife, Hannah, had even prepared goodie bags full of homemade trail treats to power our push. Whitney didn’t care. She was handing out metered doses of humility faster than we could take them in. The headaches and inability to catch our breath just compounded the struggle up the relentless incline. We agreed that even if we had to finish in the dark, we had to get it done. We couldn’t go back and tell our friends and families we didn’t make it. So we pushed on. Lumbering and stumbling but at least moving forward. I kept reminding myself of a favorite proverb – “Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”

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Early morning at Trail Crest

6:15AM – Trail Crest

7 small plastic water bottles squeaked in my pack as I shifted my weight and spun in a slow circle. We were now standing on top of the highest trail pass in the country. The sun was rising and beginning to paint the higher reaches of the mountains around us. In my oxygen deprived state, I could almost see the colors change as they bounced off the granite reaches less than 1,000’ above. We were getting closer. Soon, we were able to spot the Smithsonian Institute Shelter that resides at the summit. Though only 2 miles away at this point, it appeared to be much further away than we had hoped. But our goal was now in view and we anchored our sights upon it, willing it to pull us closer. We shuffled along sharing words of encouragement with the hikers we passed and graciously accepting the same from those who passed us.

Those last 2 miles to the summit were the slowest of our entire hike. When we finally reached the top and soaked in the view we had worked so hard to obtain, we were overcome with emotion, fatigue and sleep deprivation. We embraced with an overwhelming sense of awe for our achievement and the natural beauty that surrounded us. But we also shared a sense of trepidation that our journey was technically only halfway done. We still had 11 miles to go and we were well aware that those miles would not pass without their fair share of suffering.

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Summit Selfie

When Jared and I finished our Cactus to Clouds hike atop beautiful San Jacinto in Southern California, only 5 miles stood between us and the Palm Springs Aerial Tram which would transport us back to the desert floor below, saving us many knee pounding miles and over 6,000’ of elevation loss. Whitney afforded us no such luxury. The return to the trailhead, a hot meal and a soft bed would only be facilitated by tens of thousands of steps down rocky terrain in ever increasing temperatures. The slog back down the mountain is not one I will soon forget.

When I first started hiking, I abhorred the ascents and delighted in the downhill. Aging joints and experience have caused an about face. These days, I relish a long climb but fear descents, especially the extended ones where the knees don’t enjoy temporary departures from the pounding visited upon them. Whitney Trail dealt this out in spades. Certain downhill sections saw us moving slower than we had on our ascent. We gingerly and carefully chose step after painstaking step in an attempt to minimize the jarring the large drop offs and unforgiving surface delivered.

1:30PM – Trail Camp

Jared and I didn’t talk much on our descent, each of us content to suffer in silence. As we sat underneath the shade of a boulder near the colorful tents that jotted Trail Camp, we stared at each other with a mix of elation and exasperation. Despite the assistance of our trekking poles, the descent was taking a toll on our knees and we wanted little more than to be done with the hike already. The descent of the 97 switchbacks had showed us little mercy and every lake we passed beckoned us to just drop our packs and hop in. But we both knew that if we stopped for too long, we might not get moving again. Something about objects in motion and objects at rest… Best to just push on through and finish strong. So, we crawled out of the cool shade, shouldered our packs and kept moving down the trail.

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Saying our goodbyes

3:30PM – Whitney Portal

When we finally arrived back at the trailhead that afternoon, we had been awake for over 33 hours. Our hike had taken us through a backpacker’s paradise and to the limit, both mentally and physically. We had stood on top of the highest peak in the contiguous U.S., battled internal and external demons that threatened our success and even managed to finish with several hours of daylight remaining. That afternoon, we found ourselves in the tiny frontier town of Lone Pine, CA eating platefuls of food truck tacos while recounting our adventure. We were exhilarated with our accomplishment despite the exhaustion we felt. However, we knew the importance of remaining focused on the task at hand. At the outset of this trip, we had decided that after Whitney, we would tackle Nevada’s highest mountain before turning our sights on the fabled El Capitan. With that in mind, we didn’t close down any bars that night. Instead, we found a cheap motel on the outskirts of town and slept the wonderful sleep of the weary with dreams of those new experiences, adventure and people.

I will leave the tales of the rest of our trip to another time and place. Both of the mountains that we climbed after Whitney have their own stories of struggle and success and to try to include them here would be to sell them short. Maybe I’ll include them in a future post. Until we meet again, I would love to hear about your favorite trails and/or mountains. Jared and I are already throwing around ideas for next year’s throwdown and we would greatly appreciate any recommendations or ideas.

 

Thanks for reading and happy trails,

The Juandering Advocate

Fly me courageous

“I wandered way out on a cliff with the brilliance of an angel…”

 

I’ve marveled at (and feared) the art of flying underneath a canopy of brightly colored nylon for many years. When I was a little kid on vacation at the beach, I would stare wide-eyed at the parasailers soaring over the waves and wonder if they could float up to the moon given enough rope. Years later, I spent some time taking scuba classes in the Dominican Republic. After dive lessons during the day, I would hop on a rusty, old motorcycle I rented from one of the local beach bums and I’d cruise down the coast to Cabarete to watch the kitesurfers in their evening sessions. It was like poetry in motion. Dozens of kites dancing amongst the waves pulled by a force that none of us could see but that we could all feel. I almost signed up for lessons then but I let my fear get the best of me… Fear of drowning, fear of looking like an idiot, fear of a catching a rogue wind and being swept off to Haiti.

Fast forward several years to one hot, summer evening when I’m scrolling through my Instagram feed instead of prepping for court like I should have been. One of my favorite social media accounts belong to Sean Blanton, otherwise known as the RunBum. Sean is a runner and director of some of the most popular ultramarathons on the East Coast; not the least of which is the (in)famous Georgia Death Race. He’s also a paraglider. It was Sean’s video that put everything in motion. I watched in awe as he soared above the Swiss Alps with his legs dangling in the air much akin to a child in a playground swing set. As I replayed the video, I felt simultaneous pangs of terror and excitement. Was that something that I could do? Where did he plan on landing? Would I enjoy such a thing or be too frightened to embrace the experience? Do they even do that sort of thing around here?

I closed out my social media and googled “paragliding in the southeast.” I soon found myself chatting with David Hanning of Flying Camp located outside of Chattanooga, TN. Dave reassured me that not only could I go paragliding but that I could do so with a seasoned instructor who would control everything and allow me to just enjoy the flight. It just so happened that Flying Camp was even offering a Groupon. And I could do this outside one of my favorite cities? Fine. Sign me up. Take my money. Fly me to the moon.  Or just get me back to the ground in one piece. Whatever works. Let’s just make it official before I talk myself out of it. I’ll deal with the fear later.

I booked my flight the next morning and sent the Groupon link to several friends as well. I was only slightly optimistic that I could talk somebody into joining me. The first few responses confirmed my suspicions. Yup, not gonna happen. This might end up being a solo excursion. Not necessarily a bad thing. At least none of my friends will be there to see my get cold feet.

But then, a few minutes later, I got a text from my buddy, Ben. I took this as a good sign. Since we were little kids, Ben and I have seemed to feed off each other’s appetite for excitement and we’ve had quite a few adventures together as a result. I won’t go into all that but if you want to read more, be sure to check out Ben’s account of one of our most cherished trips here.

Before I even opened his text, I could read in the preview screen something along the lines of “heights are not my favorite thing.” Yeah, yeah. I know where this is going. But, when I opened the text, I was surprised to see this at the end of the sentence – “but maybe it’d be good for me.” Nice! He was nibbling at the bait. All I had to do was play it cool and let the seed I planted do the rest of the work. I casually changed the conversation to some mutual friends and left it at that. Later that night, I got another text – “Ok – I bought the paragliding Groupon…let’s go!”

The next day we compared schedules and agreed to book our session for August 1st. My nerves increased exponentially as the day grew closer. On the eve of our flight, I called to check the paragliding forecast and was disappointed to hear that it wasn’t looking favorable. There was a high rain percentage with only a small time window where we might be able to fly. It was a crapshoot at best. A seven hour roundtrip crapshoot. We balked and rescheduled hoping for a more optimistic outlook. A month and two more weather related cancellations later and Ben and I are getting antsy. The rollercoaster of excitement, anticipation and disappointment starts to become a bit tedious. We’re ready to do this thing already.

And then, the day before our fourth scheduled flight, I get this message from Flying Camp – “Good winds from the SE which means we will be flying.” OH SNAP! It is on. That night, I lie in bed imagining what it will be like to fly off the side of a mountain. I can literally feel my heartrate increase as my brain begins running through the same old, tired scenarios. “Will I chicken out? What if I puke? Is there a parachute if something goes wrong? Maybe I should unfollow the RunBum.”

Sunday morning arrives and finds Ben and I cruising up Interstate 75 headed toward southeast Tennessee. We don’t talk much about the day’s planned activities.  Instead, we are content to catch up on family, work and travel. There is a nervous energy in the car. We are both aware of its presence but refuse to acknowledge it. The wheels are in motion. There is no turning back now.

We’re cruising through small mountain towns and turning on progressively narrower, winding roads that eventually lead us up onto a ridge section of the Cumberland Plateau. As we begin to gain clearance over some of the surrounding treeline, we see almost a dozen paragliders circling in the skies above us. We are struck by not only how many of them are visible but also how high up they appear to be. Some of the vibrant kites are hundreds of feet above us. How did they get way up there? The road doesn’t seem to go up that far. Is there another launch site that we don’t know about?

We find the address we were looking for and make our way out to the launch site where dozens of people are hanging out in various stages of fright prep. We would soon learn the answers to those questions we were pondering minutes before. Turns out that the road doesn’t go any higher; this is the only launch site here and those people above us got way up there through a thing called ‘lift’. This came as a bit of a surprise to me. When I pictured paragliding, I imagined flying away from the hillside and floating gently back to earth in wide circles much like the plastic parachute Army men I played with as a child had done. It never occurred to me that going up was also an option. An option it is and one that I later learned paragliders exploit to enjoy flights that can last over ten hours and cover hundreds of miles.

While waiting to sign waivers and pretending to be casual and aloof, Ben and I noticed a strange-looking vehicle sitting off to the side near a small shed. It was the size and shape of a soap box derby car but with an exposed frame and only three wheels. I had not seen anything like this in Sean’s Instagram videos. Could it possibly be for something other than paragliding? Perhaps racing down the curvy mountain road we had come up earlier? Chattanooga is known as one of the greatest outdoor towns in the country and people there are always coming up with new ways to enjoy the outdoors.

While admiring this tricked out mountain buggy, we noticed a guy in a wheelchair nearby who also happened to be eyeing this mysterious contraption. Introductions were made and we soon learned that Ryan was there to go paragliding for his wife’s birthday and that the chair we were looking at was to be his personal vehicle for the flight. Dave at Flying Camp is partners and friends with Project Airtime whose mission is to welcome disabled individuals, the elderly and veterans to the world of paragliding. The sensation I had at that moment is a familiar one. It is the one I get when I’m allowed the opportunity to examine my weak excuses through the lens of another who may have a genuine rationale for not engaging in a fearful, challenging or risky endeavor but chooses to do so anyway.

The enthusiasm that everyone there had for the adventure that lay ahead was palpable. Ryan and his wife, Sarah, were both so excited to be taking to the skies and the passion that Dave and his instructors had for sharing their love of flying with others was evident. I knew then that Ben and I had made the right decision. These are exactly the types of people that we love to be around. A few minutes later, we stood by and watched Ryan roll off the side of the mountain and start flying towards the clouds, wheels still spinning.

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It wasn’t long before it was our turn. We stood peering over the edge of the cliff at what lay below while our pilots fastened buckles and tightened straps. I heard Ben’s instructor yelling “Go, go, go” and turned to watch my friend run off the side of the mountain, lurch left a couple times and then soar away into the great blue yonder.

Seconds later, I was airborne as well. The initial sensation of falling as the mountainside dropped away below my feet was soon replaced by one of being carried up, up and away. The variometer strapped to our rig began to beep to indicate how fast we were rising. My heart seemed to match the beat. Not only were we hundreds of feet above the ground and rising but I could feel the g forces pressing me down into my seat as the updraft pulled us higher. It was simultaneously thrilling and slightly nauseating. My stomach was not entirely prepared for its sudden relocation into the base of my throat. It wasn’t long however before my pilot, Chris, took us into a slow turn where we leveled off and the beeping and my pounding heartrate began to subside. I relaxed the white knuckle death grip I had on my hand straps. The rest of my body followed suit and I settled in for the trip.

As the adrenaline rush started to subside, I began to notice the incredible view all around me. Deep, green forest stretched below me in every direction. I could see the Tennessee River and parts of Nickajack Lake to the south. Above was nothing but blue skies, white clouds and the occasional kaleidoscope canopy. Over a thousand foot below me lay freshly cut fields where other pilots were landing. The only noises were me muttering “wow, wow, wow” and the sound of the wind under the wing. I began to relax even more and leaned back fully into my harness allowing my legs to swing freely in the air below. All the anxiousness had subsided. The fears that had haunted me for weeks leading up to this seemed silly and out of context. I was now truly enjoying the experience for what it was completely unimpeded by any of those negative emotions.

The next twenty minutes were sheer bliss. Words fail me here. I can’t adequately describe the combination of excitement, happiness and pure gratitude for the beauty that surrounds us that filled my heart and soul. As we made our way to the valley floor, flying in those wide circles like the plastic army men of my youth, I was reminded of my need for experiences like these. The need to remember that most of the things I worry about never occur; the need to be reminded that sometimes it is best to just let go and relax and that when exploring realms outside your comfort zone, sometimes it is best to take an old friend along for the ride.

I’ve been back on the ground for several days now but part of me is still in the clouds. Ben and I are already trying to figure out our next adventure. If you have any ideas for us or would like to share a story of your own, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.

I hope this finds each of you doing well and I extend my heartfelt thanks for checking out another edition of The Juandering Advocate. Until next time, much love and happy trails…

 

This much I know

I turned 37 last week. I am now the same age that my mother was when she had me. When Mom was 37, she had been married for almost two decades, had a son in high school and had never been west of the Mississippi.

At 37, I’ve been west of the Mississippi at least once or twice, have never been married and have no children of which I am aware other than two furry half breeds.

Mom’s life and mine have been quite different but we have a lot in common. We’ve gone through some difficult times together and have experienced things that no wife, son, mother or brother should. As such, I’ve often had to turn to her when I didn’t understand what was happening in our lives. I’ve learned a lot from her. I like to think she has learned a thing or two from me as well.

But she hasn’t been my only instructor. Life has taught me a lot and I’ve been fortunate enough to have some great mentors along the way who have cued me into the more important things in life. I’d like to share some of these lessons with you.

A lot of this comes from personal experience but very little of this is truly original content. I’ve “stood on the shoulders of giants” so to speak in compiling this list. I’ve given credit where it is due.

Without further ado;  in no particular order, here are 37 things I’ve learned so far –

#1 – Flying a cut rate airline is rarely worth the hassle

#2 – Hugs > handshakes

#3 – If you order burnt ends at a BBQ joint & they don’t know what you are talking about, that might be your cue to go somewhere else

#4 – Traveling alone, especially internationally, will open doors and windows into your heart & soul that you never knew existed

#5 – Smile. Even if you don’t feel like it. Especially if you don’t feel like it

#6 – Everyone should drive Interstate 16 between Macon & Savannah on a holiday weekend at least once in their life so they can fully appreciate the rest of the country’s highway system

#7 – “The less you want, the more you got.” (You can find this sentiment in various religions and schools of philosophy going back to ancient times but I owe this particular phrasing to WSP)

#8 – Losing my grandfather was the hardest thing I have ever experienced

#9 – It can all change in the blink of an eye. If there is something you really want to do, somewhere you really want to see, something you really need to say, do it now. “Someday is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you” – Tim Ferriss

#10 – Moes > Chipotle

#11 – If you don’t want to read this list anymore, go watch some Seinfeld. You can learn almost everything you need to know about life & more from George and Kramer.

#12 – The half hour before the sun comes up & the half after it goes down are the most magical parts of the day

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Fire on the Mountain

#13 – A thin layer of mayo on your PB&J takes it up at least two notches. Thanks, Peanut

#14 – Toenails are overrated

#15 – Learn CPR

#16 – Be wary of Crossfit on military holidays, during the Open, when your trainer is in a bad mood, on birthdays, during the Games, when your trainer is in a good mood, during Hero Week, etc, etc

#17 – Most people are inherently good. Except for bad tippers, litterers, people who talk in the theatre, obnoxious types who wear their sunglasses inside & those jerks who cruise in the far, left lane

#18 – Pack light. (See #7) When going on a trip, lay out everything you want to take. Put half of it back in the closet & take twice the money

#19 –  DFL > DNF > DNS

#20 – Don’t rely on others to explain everything for you. You have Google. Use it

#21 – “People will tell you anything” – Mom. I think it was Poe who said you should believe almost nothing you hear & only half of what you see

#22 – I try very hard to not let my ego stop me from telling people I love them

#23 – When I feel I’m losing perspective, I like to find a dark spot & count stars

#24 – Do not get your car repaired at the dealership (See # 11)

#25 – It is ok for your best friend to be a dog

#26 – Removing or limiting negative people in my life has been one of the greatest sources of happiness that I have found. It is a cancer, cut it out

#27 – 2 wheels > 4 wheels.

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Put some fun between your legs

#28 – It could always be worse

#29 – If I could listen to only one album for the rest of my life, it would be Eat a Peach

#30 – “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one” – B. Lee

#31 – Everyone should work in the service industry at least once

#32 – Apologizing to people I have wronged in the past has simultaneously been one of the most challenging/rewarding things I have ever done. Most are gracious, some don’t respond, a few have told me to get lost. Either way, it doesn’t matter. It is not about me

#33 – Experiences > possessions

#34 – No matter what my situation or excuse for not doing something, there is someone who is in the same or worse position who is doing that very thing I think impossible

#35 – Lunch with friends, afternoons with my nieces and nephews & afternoon strolls are all markedly better when I leave the pocket computer in the car

#36 – Learning to stop making excuses & to start saying “I choose not to” instead of “I can’t” & “It isn’t a priority” instead of “I don’t have time” has literally rewired my brain

#37 – I don’t really care what you do for money or how big your house or bank account is. I care about what sets your soul on fire, how you treat your parents and the homeless people out on the street and what you’re doing for the less fortunate all around you

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoyed today’s post. Please feel free to leave any life lessons you’ve learned in the comments section below. If you’re enjoying The Juandering Advocate, I invite you to subscribe and join the tribe. Much love everyone!

These are a few of my favorite things

Before I get started, let me say that I was blown away by the overwhelming positive response to my first post. Thank you for all the love and comments. I heard from new friends, old friends, people at the gym, people out on the trail and even people in countries and on continents I’ve never even been to. THANK YOU. I frequently say that I’m the luckiest guy on the planet and it is precisely because of people like you. I am immensely grateful for all the incredible individuals in my life.

As promised, this post will focus on my favorite places, both near and far. All of these places hold special meaning to me and I hope that you are inspired to check out one or all of them in your future travels. And if you find you need an adventure buddy, tour guide or just somebody to make you look good in your Instagram photos, hit me up!!!

Las Vegas, Nevada

Yup. You read that right. America’s Playground. Before you click unsubscribe or go back to your social media, hear me out. Now, I don’t consider myself a city boy. Or a country boy for that matter. And it makes little difference to me if you happen to lean one way or the other. To each their own. But, whatever floats your boat or milks your goat, Vegas has something for you.

World class shows, five-star restaurants and high roller rooms where the minimum bet might be as high as $500. Not interested in squandering your retirement in a matter of hours? Fine. Buy some two dollar tacos, play the penny slots and check out the street performers. The world really is your oyster here. Want Thai food at 4AM? Not a problem. Care to see the Strip from the seat of a helicopter? Easy peasy. Want to go to a spa and sit on a heated bench while fake snow falls all around you? Yup, it’s all right there. In the middle of the desert no less.

But, let us just pretend for a moment that you can’t fathom setting foot in Sin City. The thought of all that neon and excess just rubs you the wrong way. So be it. Buy your ticket anyway. Why? The Colorado Plateau. That’s why.

Ever heard of the Plateau? Probably not. Most people haven’t. Ever heard of the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Zion, or the Colorado River? Sure you have. Know where you’ll find all those things and dozens of other mind-blowing landscapes? Yup. On the Plateau. The late, great Edward Abbey once famously described a piece of the Plateau as “the most beautiful place on earth.” You’d be hard pressed to find a larger, wilder, more beautifully diverse area in the lower 48.

You would be similarly hard pressed to find another major metropolitan area more conveniently located and prepared to equip you for your Plateau trip than Vegas.

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You can go from Vegas to here in a matter of hours

You can touch down at McCarran, pick up your rental car (I suggest red convertible), turn your tail lights towards the neon on the Strip and find yourself completely alone in a true desert paradise faster than it takes an Elvis impersonator to go through tonight’s selections of the King’s greatest hits.

Not a fan of the desert? No worries. One of the largest lakes in the Western Hemisphere is just a thirty minute drive outside of Vegas.

Prefer higher elevation? Head west out of Vegas up to Mt. Charleston where you’ll find plenty of skiing, hiking and camping to satisfy your adventure itch.

No matter which direction or adventure you choose, you can do it all within a few hours of the Strip. The highest and lowest points in the lower 48 and all the excitement that lies between are less than 200 miles away. Get out there and get after it. Just be sure to hit up a buffet and catch a show or two before you grab your redeye back home…

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Vegas Love in Container Park. Downtown Las Vegas

Circleville, WV

Population: 772. Home to Spruce Knob – West Virginia’s highest point.

I left my heart in the Monongahela National Forest. Part of it at least. I’m pretty sure one of my favorite sweatshirts is still up there somewhere as well. That’s ok though. I will be back soon enough.

This isolated spot in the heart of rural Appalachia is a magical place.

The magic might come from the near absence of cell phone and Wi-Fi signals bouncing around. (Spruce Knob sits near the middle of the U.S. National Radio Quiet Zone which limits the amount of radio transmissions in the area.)

Maybe it is the fact that this area boasts some of the darkest skies east of the Mississippi.

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I did not take this picture. But I enjoyed this view many a night. You can too.

Maybe it is the hundreds of acres of old growth forest filled with hemlock, spruce and pine.

Some people even claim that the magic comes from an energy vortex on the mountain.

Whatever the cause, it is tangible and one that I highly recommend experiencing for yourself.

I first learned about Spruce Knob shortly after I received my Wilderness First Responder certification. I worked as a field instructor at Experience Learning where I had the opportunity to share my love of the outdoors with children and adults of all ages and backgrounds. That was when part of my heart decided that it would stay there permanently. This is a common experience. Lives are changed on that mountain. It gets in your blood. You don’t leave the same person you were when you arrived. Some people just don’t leave.

Some great life lessons were given to me during my time on Spruce. I learned more important things there than I ever have in a class, office or courtroom. Some of my best teachers were still in single digits. I hope to share some of their tutelage with you as this blog progresses.

I could go on and on about Spruce Knob but I have my eye on a word limit and honestly I’m not gonna do it justice anyway. If you want to know more or you’d like to experience it for yourself, don’t hesitate to contact me. Seriously. We’ll climb a mountain or two, swim in an underground creek, pick some ramps and wild mushrooms to go along with supper and then relax in a yurt while we wait for the stars to come out. If you’re lucky…and you almost certainly will be, you will also get to enjoy the best s’mores you have ever had in your life.

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“I hear her voice, in the morning hour she calls me…Almost heaven”

Namche Bazaar, Nepal

Few places stir up as much wanderlust in my heart as Namche Bazaar. Even though I only spent a few days here going to and from Everest Base Camp, this tiny alcove tucked high in the Himalayas left an indelible mark on my soul. I’m a huge fan of watching the sunrise and the early morning celestial show around Namche rivals any that I have seen.

Imagine this…you’re awakened by the sound of bells and yaks hooves as a procession carrying mountaineering supplies passes by the window of the lodge where you lay under heavy, woven blankets. You reach the window in time to see dawn light painting some of the higher reaches of the peaks nearly two vertical miles above while the rural village in the valley remains shrouded in relative darkness. That is Namche.

My best view of Everest and its less famous/more beautiful sister Ama Dablam both came during these early morning hours before the clouds descended and covered the iconic peaks. The skies are generally clearer in the morning before the mighty giants pull their curtains closed and obscure their riches to everyone not brave enough to take an up close and personal look.

But Namche isn’t just yaks and views of the Himalaya. There are also enough gear and coffee shops hawking legit and not so legit merchandise to outfit your own personal expedition if you decide you need that personal look (trust me, you probably don’t).

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View of Namche from the ridge

Much better to sip your off brand Starbucks coffee and mingle with the locals and tourists alike while you walk around in a slightly oxygen deprived state of giddiness. Just remember to look up every now and then and take in the sight that is one of the most awe inspiring spectacles that exists anywhere on this planet.

And while you’re waiting for the clouds to pass, ponder this – for many years, this land was seen mostly only by those who lived there. No high end mountaineer equipment. No carts full of oxygen bottles. No helicopters buzzing the skies above. But then, Hillary and his British expedition came through and helped pave the way for aspiring individuals who want to take their chance at the tallest mountain in the world.  If it weren’t for man’s seemingly irresistible urge to conquer things; perhaps Namche wouldn’t even exist. Certainly not in the commercial form that it does today. But, I for one am glad that it does and I know at least one other Georgia boy who probably feels the same way.

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At the Khumbu Lodge where The Man from Plains and yours truly both hung out just a few decades removed

Zurich, Switzerland

I visited Zurich the summer after my first year in law school. While most of our classmates were getting their first taste of shuffling papers and learning how to bill hours, my buddy and I were bumming around Europe under the pretense of studying international law. We visited quite a few cities in the seven countries we visited while we were there but Zurich was undoubtedly one of my favorites.

I was training for a half marathon at the time and I ran in almost every city we visited during those six weeks. It was that first run in Switzerland that made me fall in love with the place. Yeah…I fall in love with a lot of places. Sort of a hopeless romantic when it comes to travel. It is a common side effect of the incurable disease known as “Itchy Feet.”

With the help of my travel journal, I can still remember the specifics of that run despite the passage of over a decade. I set out alone since my buddy needed a nap. I remember thinking right away that Zurich was one of the cleanest cities I had ever seen. The stunning architecture that greeted me at each new turn left vivid memories that I have not forgotten even a decade later. As any avid runner will tell you, certain runs stay with you. Excursions where the conditions were so right or so horribly wrong that your brain stores them in a protected backup folder that you can access months or years later.

I quickly got lost in the maze of streets and by the time I pulled out the paper map the hotel front desk had given me, my sweat had rendered it largely indecipherable. This oversight coupled with my inability to remember the hotel’s name ended up adding miles onto my route. At the time, I never ran more than around five miles at any given time so I became overly attentive of my surroundings looking for anything that seemed familiar.

I ran along the Limmat river, past the uber high end stores and bank headquarters of the Bahnhofstrasse and around a couple of Zurich’s famous cathedrals. And the chocolate stores. I’ve never ran by so many chocolate stores in my life. I knew exactly how I was going to replenish all those calories I was burning.

It was around that time that I seemed to let go of my worries over being lost and instead found myself enjoying the moment; willing to let it lead me wherever it may. Maybe it was the release of endorphins from the smell of the chocolate. Maybe it was my brain throwing its hands up in defeat. I don’t know what it was; but I do remember feeling like I was right where I was supposed to be.

As a runner, I long for moments like that. They are frequently few and far between. Most days, it is just the repetitive left/right/left/right. A process of trying to block out distracting thoughts so I can focus on my breathing; or my form, or ideally nothing at all. But, every now and then, the air beneath my feet becomes a bit more buoyant, my smell and vision slightly more crisp and for a few precious moments, the exertion becomes somewhat effortless as I become one with my immersive environment. That’s the good stuff and ultimately one of the things that keeps me coming back for more.

I could go on and on about Zurich’s chocolate, beautiful churches and the spotlessly clean streets, but if I am really honest with myself, it was that near perfect run that really made me fall in love with the city.

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This guy was admiring the view of the Limmat and the Grossmunster. I was trying to find high ground to see my hotel

And that was a few of my favorite places…

Thanks for stopping by. I hope that you enjoyed learning a bit more about some of my cherished spots on this giant rock that we all call home. I still have three continents left to check out. I am excited to add to my list that I’ve shared with you. And if you have any suggestions about places I should visit in my travels, please leave them below.

I also welcome any ideas for future posts comments about improving the blog or features that you would like to see added. I would love to hear your thoughts. One final thing before I go – If you haven’t done so, please click the link below so that you will know when my next post goes live. I thank you in advance for joining the journey.

Much love and happy trails.

The Journey Begins

Welcome!!! First and foremost, I would like to thank you for dropping by to check out my site. Whether you clicked through from my social media or heard about this from a friend, I extend my heartfelt thanks for checking out The Juandering Advocate. I know you have a virtually unlimited supply of options to fill your time on the interwebs, and I’m quite flattered that you decided to take a chance and spend a bit of it here with me. My hope is that you enjoy what you find here, and maybe even discover a takeaway or two so that this turns out to be something more than a waste of your time. Or mine.

I’m not entirely sure what a first time post is supposed to look like. Or how I even came up with the idea to start a blog. I do know that while I certainly desire to share my experiences with you, I also know well the benefits of journaling as a means of reflection and inspiration. Perhaps this can serve as a means to accomplish both.

For starters – a brief overview of who I am, the things that I enjoy, and what I hope to share here; so you can figure out if you’d like to come back and visit. I claim a myriad of titles and interests as I’m sure you do. But if I really boil it down, I’m a traveler, a lover of the outdoors, a son, an uncle, a brother, a Wilderness First Responder, a weekend warrior, aspiring stoic, volunteer and an attorney. Yes, I put that last for a reason. Priorities, priorities…

Moving along though, I am particularly fond of new places (and really old places), nature, adventure and food. More specifically, I like places where I can run, hike or bike on a trail or a country road, see some new or favorite sights and interact with the locals, both wild and domesticated. If given a choice, I’ll choose the wild ones almost any day!

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Before I talk too much about travel, adventure and the stories I’d like to share with you, I want to let you know one more thing about me, perhaps the most important. In addition to all those things I told you above, I am blessed. Extremely so.

I realize that term gets tossed around a lot these days, often for good reason, sometimes not. When Urban Dictionary described “epic” as the most overused word ever, I like to think that they considered “blessed” pretty high in the rankings. But, let me assure you, the word not only describes me, it literally defines who I am as a person.

I don’t just mean blessed in the typical middle class American style either, although that is certainly a large part of it. I mean far beyond anything I deserve. I mean being blessed with second chances. And third chances. And 74th chances. (I’ll explain that one in a later post.) For now, just know that I’ve screwed up a lot in my life.

I’ve made some horrible choices. Lives have been ruined or ended for less than what I’ve done. I’m still here – free, happy and healthy with only a few minor physical and mental scars to show for all the bad decisions that I’ve weathered. And the stories…

I’ve been blessed to have witnessed some of the most beautiful sights this world has to offer and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a handful of “once in a lifetime” experiences. I’ve been to 46 states and stood on top of 18 of them. I’ve visited 17 countries on 4 continents. I’ve had highs like hanging out at Everest Base Camp, lows like baking at Badwater Basin in Death Valley and even found myself smack dab in the middle at the equator.

I’ve been lucky enough to hike from Georgia to New York and from Mexico to the majestic Sierra Nevadas. I’ve gone scuba diving with loggerhead turtles in the Keys, kayaked through limestone caves in Thailand and ridden some of the best mountain bike trails a dirtbag could want.

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It’s been a blast so far; I say with full candor that if it all goes out the window tomorrow, I’ve lived a life that most people, living or dead, would envy. (As a sidenote, there is a good chance if you’re reading this, you probably have as well. But, I digress…) I am just going to leave it at that since my purpose here is not to talk about those things. I’m here to tell you about the things that I love and enjoy and the lessons I have learned along the way.

Close behind my love of travel is the love of talking about it to anyone who will listen. Which probably is as good an answer as any as to why I felt compelled to start this. I want to share the richness and varied experiences of the things I love with you. Which is exactly what I am going to do next!

When we meet again, I’m going to tell you about my favorite places, those here in the U.S. and those abroad. And I will even key you in on the places that I am most excited about visiting next.

I’d like to thank you for checking this out. I extend my most gracious invitation to come back for the next installation. If you have any comments or ideas for a future post, please let me know.

Until next time, I hope that you can take a few moments in the following days to just stop and appreciate how awesome an experience this life is, and perhaps share just a little bit of your light and good fortune with some of those around you.

           With the warmest regards,

                Don “The Juanderer” Johnson