Black Mountain Marathon, virtually.

On Sunday I did a hard thing, and today I feel brave and empowered and energized and also very tired. Bone-tired. Happy tired.

I’ve had the Mount Mitchell Challenge on my radar for years, but the few times I’ve applied for the lottery, I missed getting a spot. It’s a 40 mile run from Black Mountain, NC to the summit of Mount Mitchell and back, in late February. I mean, anyone can see how this would be enticing, right?

In 2021, if you signed up for the virtual Black Mountain Marathon, you could run it anytime in February, submit your results, and you’d be guaranteed a spot in the Mitchell Challenge in 2022. Both races start in downtown Black Mountain, go through Montreat, then climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, mostly on the Old Mitchell Toll Rd. The Challenge course continues on, up the Buncombe Horse Trail and then a true slog from Commissary Ridge to the Mitchell summit. And back. Although the actual course was not required for the virtual marathon, I wanted to see what was in store for next year.

I left Raleigh at 5:25 am, parked my car at the finish, and walked a mile to the start on Cherry St. It was 9:30 am. I only had the course map pdf on my phone and the list of roads/trails written on an index card, plus snacks and water. I felt nervous and excited–worried I’d get lost, or I wouldn’t be off the mountain before dark. Bang, I’m off!

I ran through Montreat and found the Rainbow Rd Trail, but was surprised to come out on a road. I went up, then down, but didn’t see the trail continuation. I turned back and saw two women coming toward me. I asked and they said, “oh yes, you have to go down this driveway to continue.” I asked them about the rest of the course. “It’s next weekend. Wait—you’re doing it today? Like right now?” Sarah and her daughter Abby then offered to run with me up toward Sourwood Gap, and gave me instructions from there. It became a recurring theme that this race is beloved by locals and they are friendly and happy to share information.

At Sourwood Gap I came across a bearded hunter with a truck and a bunch of baying dogs. He confirmed that I was heading up the Old Mitchell Toll Rd. The Old Mitchell Toll Road was a wide path lined with large rocks, built in 1925. It was in decent condition and certainly drivable with an ATV, and it used to take adventurous tourists up to Camp Alice near the Mitchell summit for $1. The marathon course climbs nearly 3000 ft in the first half, but the grade was rarely too steep—what slowed me more was the loose rocks and trying to keep my feet dry and stay off the icy spots. Soon I came to what Sarah and Abby called the Crack Shack. Though apparently it is less of a drug spot than a gathering place for hunters whose shirts that don’t *quite* tuck into their pants.

I absorbed the forest around me as I climbed from acidic cove into beautiful and crooked chestnut oak forest. There was some northern hardwood forest with some Big Sug (large sugar maple), and one slope that was north-facing had a beautiful, mossy birch boulderfield. At one point the trail went out on a ridge and I spied pitch and Table Mountain pine and even some Carolina hemlock as I ate a mini pb&j. I watched the woods for my first red spruce. As I approached the Parkway, I came into high-elevation red oak forest, and finally nearly 100% red spruce (at which point I was probably at 5000 ft).

I recently finished Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass; her book spoke to me deeply as a forest ecologist and I have been thinking about land acknowledgment and ways to bring reciprocity into my life and teaching. I was inspired by the tradition of the Thanksgiving Address and have struggled a bit to cultivate personal tradition without cultural appropriation. A small starting place would be to express gratitude for the land whenever I travel, whether that’s Umstead Park on Saturday or a run like today. Water seems like a universal gift, one that I always have, precious and life-giving both to me and all living things. I planned to try this with this run–to share some of my water as I started up the trails. But I became caught up in finding my route and forgot. I was moving climbing the Toll Road when I saw it–Umbilicaria mammulata, growing on a boulder. There is a chapter in the book about this lichen, and I nearly laughed out loud at this synchronicity that reminded me of my intention. Gladly I paused and poured out some of my water over the peeling rock tripe, took in the view, and gave thanks in my heart for this beautiful place and the chance to be here. Perfection isn’t my goal; but I can work to be better than I was yesterday.

I saw just a few other people on my way up, finally coming to a gate at the Parkway. An older man was just closing the gate behind his pickup when I jogged up; he seemed surprised to see me. I tried to explain what I was doing in such a way that he wouldn’t think I was a weirdo, but failed miserably. His eyebrows shot up when he asked and I said I’d come from Black Mountain. Trying to connect, I told him that being outdoors on such a beautiful day was a way to appreciate God’s creation. “Well, that I can see,” he allowed.

The great thing about out-and-back runs up a mountain is that eventually you turn around and head down. Gravity felt great, even though my dogs were barkin’ at this point, running on rocks the whole way. The shadowy red spruce forest was getting that late-afternoon chill, the kind that seeps into your core, so I hurried down into the bare forest where the sun could still angle through. It was a pleasant trip though I was moving faster and had to be careful not to slip on icy spots.

Before I knew it, I was back at the Crack Shack. A young couple were there with their dogs and they cheered as I loped toward them. “Hey, are you doing the marathon today? Nice work! Need anything?” They offered me a pack of Cheese-Its, which were amazing in every way. They were also surprised I’d come up from Raleigh for the day. Both had done the race multiple times. Their names were Dan and Carrie, but I told them that we were officially The Cheese-It Friends and we made plans to see each other next year. I verified the instructions, thanked them again, and headed down toward Sourwood Gap. A very steep descent on Appalachian Way and then onto the greenway at Montreat, then eventually I decided not to chance getting lost in town and went back out to Montreat Rd., where I knew the way. I finished at the lake, changed clothes, and drove into town to grab a small pizza and root beer to go before heading home. First I promised myself that I would come back; this is a seriously wonderful town and I need to spend more time there.

It’s been awhile since I’ve spent a day like this on myself. I ate a package of M&Ms one at a time to stay awake as I drove and sang along with a radio station that claimed they play everything (I believe it; it was terrible), while my legs screamed louder than Bon Jovi.

It was deeply satisfying to feel wild again, and I felt like roaring.

Content

[I wrote this early this year–she continues to decline. I haven’t been able to see her since March 9th, due to COVID-19. But I think about her every day.]

Friends ask us
“how is she doing?”
and the good ones
really want to know.
But it’s a hard question
to answer quickly.
She has lost nearly all
of her speech.
She has things to say,
but it is a garbled stammer
unable to form but
a few discernible words.
Her quick walk has been
reduced to a slow shuffle
And she rises from her chair slowly,
after several tries.
Her hands are unsteady,
right hand stiff, curling inward
making it hard to grasp
utensils, so sometimes she
skips it, and
eats with her fingers.
Each new loss makes us sad.
We remember her vibrancy—
her fierce joy with the world
and the small things
that delighted her, which
she doesn’t seem
to notice anymore.
What I can say
is that she is content.
Not joy-filled, but quietly happy
—and maybe happy is
too strong of a word.
Content.
Maybe she is adjusting
to this new normal
better than we are.

Pandemic thrift

Each tiny thing is precious, I think,
sifting through the fabric scraps
as they tumble from a drawstring bag.
Some scraps are frayed and misshapen,
yet I see them through today’s pandemic lens
and wonder what can be made from them.
Pieces from the first quilt I made,
the one I just finished for the Spartina House,
fabric a dear friend brought me from China.
I smooth them under my iron,
and stitch them together, piece by piece.
Together they create something new;
something that has not been made before.

I think this thrift is what we must do, now,
in these uncertain times. Examining the pieces
of our lives, accepting what we have,
not worrying about what is missing,
and stitching them together.
Considering each scrap and how
it could be used and treasured,
part of something new.
This altered life we are creating is something that
we could not have made before today.

Isn’t it astonishing, this resourcefulness,
this hopeful promise,
that we can create what we need
from what we already have?
Our pieced and scrappy and disordered life
Stitched together into a new,
improbably beautiful,
whole.

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The scrap quilt I made during the 2020 pandemic for my kitchen wall. Although I debated several layouts, I loved how the small, irregular scraps pulled together into a bold whole.

April Rain

As I lay in bed, listening to the
drizzling darkness through the curtains,
I wanted to stay snuggled under my quilt.
But I once heard
that we must put ourselves
in places to see amazing things.
So I dressed, laced up and
stepped out into the rain.
It was still dark outside
but that half-hour before sunrise
is the chorus of morning bird song.
I ran down to the lake
appreciating the concert, and
blinking away raindrops.
The sky was brightening toward dawn
while darkening with storm clouds.
Thunder rumbled, and the rain
fell in sheets, pulling pollen from the air.
I turned toward home, drenched,
sunlight breaking through gray clouds
feeling cleansed.

Winter Clarity

Flowing creek cuts down
through red clay, over moss-covered rocks.

Curved contours follow coves,
as ridges weave through quiet forest.

Farm-worn furrows cross the flats,
whispering stories of families past.

Gray boles stand silent, stripped of embellishment;
neither dead nor asleep–merely waiting.

Shadows outline bones of the winter landscape;
revealing purpose without distraction.

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Teenagers

young bluebirds on beautyberry
The young bluebirds
converge on the suet
outside my window.
I am sure they are
from the same brood;
teenagers, actually.
Three young gents, two ladies;
they are skinny and awkward,
not quite muscled out,
politely waiting in the queue–
one on the feeder,
two on the porch railing below,
one on the swing, and
one on the nearby red maple.
Except when they’re squabbling
over the greedy one who
lingers too long.
All are much bigger than
the bossy Carolina wren
who chases them off;
but they defer, because
they are young, and he,
most assuredly,
knows what he’s doing.
They are too old to be fed,
too young to be alone,
uncertain of what they
should be doing,
so they stay together.
For now,
they’ll choose the familiar,
looking to each other
for food and safety.
My heart smiles to see
them out my window,
tentative but together,
as they try out their
adult wings.

After practice

There was a poem in today
about five forty-five
as I pulled between the parallel lines
turned the wipers to silence
to hear the light tapping of not-enough rain.
Like any good parent,
the waiting time was mapped—
a full slate of ways
I could, or should,
occupy these twelve idle minutes.
I considered each of them carefully
sighed,
then reclined my seat,
gave in to the rain-song,
and slept.

Kindness, served.

Wind and driving rain
Greet us as we emerge from memory care.
“Where do you want to eat?” he asks.
I shrug; indifferent.
“The Nepalese place is really good.”
I groan inwardly, petulant,
Like a toddler who only wants mac and cheese.
“Would you rather go somewhere else?”
I would. But I’m indecisive and don’t have any better ideas,
Nor the wherewithal to think of them.
So I shrug.
I really just want to go home and eat cereal.

We pull into the dated strip mall, brown and dingy,
And walk in, stomping our feet outside,
Shaking the water from our jackets.
I see a slight Nepalese man, likely the owner,
Peer at us from the kitchen as we walk in.
The dining room smells deliciously of curry and other spices;
My eyes take in the spotless tile, vibrant red walls, and
The faded but still spectacular
Photos of the Himalayan Range.
Two other families share the small dining room.
My gaze meets the dark eyes of our host and server,
Who smiles warmly and seats us.

We sit, mostly in silence, exhausted,
Feeling deep sadness, eyes averted. I feel sure that
If our eyes meet, I will start crying.
A few tears escape, anyway.
The owner comes to our table; he is polite and serious,
Inquiring if we had visited before.
I shake my head no, while my husband nods an affirmative,
But we are unable to make small talk,
And conversation does not take root.
I pick up the menu, which makes it clear
That all food is made to order;
And I sigh a little, and try to choose.

Our server returns with hot tea and crunchy naan,
I breathe in the spicy ginger and honey,
And take the steaming mug in both hands.
It’s early September, yet I crave the warmth that is offered.
I think he must sense our sorrow—after all,
It shrouds our table in fog.
But the fragrant tea is filling the gray space.
He gives us respectful distance,
Then returns to take our order.
His face is open, his smile genuine and kind.
He listens to and answers our questions with care,
Making sure the dishes we order won’t burn our palates.

We talk now, just a little, about the inevitable next steps,
Anticipating hard times ahead.
How it feels impossible to prepare our hearts,
Try as we might.
Knowing that today may be the best day we have with her,
And that each moment is a gift, we remind each other.
Yet we struggle to celebrate them.
Our exchange is quiet, and punctuated with silence.
I guess the meal takes a while to prepare; earlier,
I just wanted to be home in my pajamas.
But the warm tea sustains me, and sharing these sad feelings
With my husband, makes them bearable, if not better.

Our server returns to our table with steaming bowls of curry;
Tender lamb, savory spices, and fragrant jasmine rice.
We eat, and the owner comes by,
To ask how we like the meal he prepared for us;
Finally we can smile, look into his generous eyes,
And thank him with our hearts.
If food can connect people, I think we found it here.
Tonight, recipes shared from someone’s homeland
Sustain us, and fill our empty vessels
Allowing us to walk back out into the rain
Hand in hand, feeling just a little restored
Grateful, and humbled, to receive such kindness.

Photos from 919blog.com.

Roadside Butterfly

A flash of color tumbling through the air
graceful even in the wake of the farm truck
doing fifty-five on a country road;
The driver gave the runner space, but could not avoid the butterfly;
now fluttering unevenly to the pavement in the turbid after-current.

I thought she was dead, struck by the windshield,
but her wings and body and tiny antennae were intact;
I could not bear to see the delicate wings
crushed into the rough black pavement
as though her brief and beautiful life did not matter.

I bent to pick her up, gently clasping her wings together.
Standing there on the side of the road,
I silently admired the intricate patterns of color and spots,
the rolled-up tongue for sipping nectar,
her fuzzy brown body and spindly legs.

Her wings opened suddenly, orange and vibrant,
and I discovered that she was yet alive;
Perching unsteadily, and maybe invisibly damaged.
Beyond hope? I could not be sure.
I wondered if she could taste the salt on my sweaty hand.

Cupping her in my palm, helpless–
I walked into the ditch, the tangle of weeds and poison ivy,
opened my hand around the Queen Anne’s lace,
setting her down in the center, to rest awhile, or maybe to die
next to the blue chicory along the fence row.