What are the Chances?

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Yesterday I wanted to run for an hour.  Not 59 minutes. The difference is psychological but real.  There’s comfort and completeness in that extra minute.

Sixty minutes means thirty out and thirty back.

Our home is surrounded by forest and trails.  I have many options, but one favourite – a short jog down the street and I disappear into the woods, unlikely to encounter anyone in a world of silence.

I climb, and descend, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, usually somewhere in between.  Yesterday I checked my watch, once or twice, determined to turn around at the thirty-minute mark.

Twenty-four minutes into my run, on an isolated hilltop that overlooks our neighbourhood, I sensed where the run would end.  I have been running long enough, decades now, to have a feel for pace and distance.  It’s almost instinctual.   

The tree.  I would finish at the tree. 

There are tens of thousands of trees within miles of our home. 

There’s one that stands out. 

Pictures don’t do it justice.  My pictures at least.  But it is wide and thick and towers above everything around it.  It’s a special tree.  The kind of tree that protesters would chain themselves to, if a logging company ever threatened to cut it down.

What are the chances?  What are the chances that tree, my favourite tree, would be exactly thirty minutes from my home, along my favourite route.

It got me thinking.  About something that happened two weeks ago.  I ran a trail race, with a friend.  “Trail’ doesn’t do the event justice.  Almost twenty miles long, with 4400 feet of elevation, it’s a never-ending series of ascents and descents.  Nothing is flat.  Nothing is easy.  Everything burns.

About four hours in, my buddy was in pain – run stopping pain.  He moved to the side of the trail and stopped moving.  He’d been hurting for awhile but had never stopped.  He’s not the kind of guy to stop.  Ever.  So, I knew he was in agony.  And just then, at that very moment, another runner came by, her palm open, salt tablets in her hand.  She offered him a handful.  He swallowed them.  And almost instantly his pain lightened.  His legs loosened.  He was moving again.  What are the chances?  We’d been on the course for hours.  He’d been stopped for seconds.  At that very moment, in his time of need, another runner, carrying exactly what he needed, came by. 

He and I talked about that moment.  We talked about God and chance, about life’s profound moments and what lay behind them.

I work in a unit that investigates homicides.  Fortunately, on the island we live on, they are relatively rare.  Relatively is a relative term.  Because our plates are full.  There is no shortage of work.  Even though sometimes months pass between murders.  Months. 

Until a few weeks ago.  When there were two murders within hours.  Over a hundred miles separated them.  Only minutes separated them.  What are the chances?

I don’t know.  Perhaps there are answers.  Maybe none exist.

Sixty minutes.  Salt pills.  A hundred miles apart.

One tree.

Scattered Bones

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Evidence of a kill. 

At the end of a side trail, not heavily used.  I might have been the first person standing there in days, weeks – maybe even months or years.

Scattered bones – bleached white.  A deer ripped apart, the spinal cord severed, a piece of a jawbone, a smattering of teeth.

An awful death.  Perhaps, mercifully, a quick one. 

A vivid reminder that our forests and trails, so near to our homes, are a different world.

I’d hadn’t gone this deep into the woods for weeks.  Since I’d seen a bear just minutes from our home.  That was six weeks ago.  On a well used trail at the junction of two paths.  If I left my home right now, I could be there in five minutes.  Or less.  My bear encounter happened at midday.  A warm day.  The perfect day for a quick workout.  Hill repeats.  Up and down, up and down.  Strengthen the legs, stress the lungs, tune out the world.  Music blasting in my earbuds.  I stopped tuning out when, on the last downhill, I glanced to my right and saw a black bear ambling up towards me.  Maybe 30 or 40 feet away.  A scenario I’d imagined a thousand times. I stopped running, pivoted, walked backwards down the hill.  Slowly.   Yanked out my bear spray.  Pulled the cord on the noisemaker clipped to my chest.  Knew in my head that black bears rarely attacked people.  Feared in my gut that this one would.  Kept retreating.  Got to the bottom.  Saw the bear at the top.  It looked at me, curious and calm.  And kept on going, towards the woods, away from me.

A few days later, I ran again on the same hill.  Head on a swivel.  No music in my ears.  A little scared, but knowing the longer I waited to go back, the less likely I would be to do so.  Still, that was close to home.  Close meant comfort.  At the junction where I’d seen the bear, I could see dozens of houses and cars passing below.  It was practically my backyard.

The side trail with the dead deer was not my backyard.  I’d planned this run for days, and then talked myself out of it the night before.  Because I was scared.  Scared to venture far from home.  Far from houses and cars and a pretty subdivision.  Into the land of cougars and bears.  I talked myself into a safer run.  Along well traveled roads, to a public park filled with hikers and mountain bikers. 

Then I woke up.  And talked myself out of the talking out. 

Maybe it was because an article from a trail running magazine popped up on my Twitter feed with an article about the rarity of bear attacks and the effectiveness of bear spray.

Maybe because I thought of my daughter.  The fears of a five-year old can be overwhelming – unfamiliar situations, unexpected change, a bug on our trampoline – overwhelming and every bit as real and powerful as the primal fears of an adult.  When my daughter is scared, my wife and I encourage her to face those things that frighten her.  To gain strength, incrementally, by winning small battles against little terrors. 

Or maybe it was just because I love to run on hard packed dirt, baked dry by a month of heat, in the midst of towering, never-ending evergreens.

So, I went for that run.  I added a knife to my arsenal.  Razor sharp, encased in a multi-tool which I carried with me for the entire run.  The multi-tool in one hand, a rock in the other.  I banged them together frequently.  “Make noise,” the experts say.  Scare the bears off before they see you. 

I made noise all right.  No earbuds on this run.  Blue Rodeo blaring from my cell phone.  My rock smashing into my multi-tool whenever I approached a blind corner.

I made noise, and scared a lot of birds, who flew off as I approached. 

I don’t know if I scared any bears, or cougars.  I certainly didn’t see any.

But I smelled death.  The unmistakeable odour of decomposing flesh hit me hard.  Twice.  The rotting carcasses must have been just meters off the main path that took me further and further out. 

Further and further out to the side trail, which ended with scattered bones and an awful death.

An awful death and a necessary run.

A run that replaced fear with confidence.

A run that reminded me of why I was scared in the first place.

Top of the Hat

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Deadly car crashes.

Endless road work.

Traffic congestion.

Incredible views.

All synonymous with ‘the Malahat’ – both an 1100-foot mountain and a twisting highway on Vancouver Island.

When conditions aren’t ideal it’s awful to drive – no lights illuminate the road, few barriers separate speeding cars from massive trucks, and rain, fog, and snow slicken the pavement and obscure already obstructed views.

Oh, but the view from the summit is extraordinary. 

Just hundreds of meters away from the congested highway is a mostly deserted trail.  Last weekend I ran to the summit.  In two-hours I saw two dirt-bikers and no one else.  On an island of several hundred thousand people, I was alone.

The trail to the summit was mostly satisfying – hard-packed dirt and gradual elevation.  Closer to the top, a rocky pathway replaced the earthen trail.  Running slowed to a jog, every step a potential twisted ankle or inglorious fall.

Soon after, running ceased altogether when I chose the direct route to the top.  Straight up a gully that must be a continual stream of water from November through spring.  But last weekend, on a hot dry day with summer on the horizon it was dry and completely accessible.  I grabbed a broken branch and used it as a walking stick to help as I scrambled my way up.

The scramble was worth it.

Oh, that view.

Blue sky, bluer ocean, distant mountains, a forest canopy, and an international airport as small as a postage stamp.

Travellers from across the country and around the world drive up the Malahat highway, exit at the scenic viewpoints, and revel at the glorious view.  Thousands – tens of thousands – do it every year.

Far fewer take the trail to the top.  Dozens.  Hundreds.  Runners like me.  Hikers, mountain-bikers and quad-riders.

We are drawn by the same thing.  Beauty.  Magnificence.  Nature’s wonders.

The attraction is so understandable.  The destination is worth the journey.

Which makes the next part so hard for me to understand. 

Garbage at the top.  Beer cans.  Plastic.  Paper.

Lucky lager cans tucked into the base of a hydro tower. A fire pit filled with garbage.

Who does that?  Who makes the effort to get to the top precisely because it is beautiful and then purposely despoils that beauty?  The beer cans tucked into the hydro-tower.  More cans, paper, and plastic left almost lovingly behind in the pit.

I don’t have the answer.  My gut reaction is that anyone who does that is an asshole.  I hate using that language in my writing, but it’s hard to feel otherwise.

But maybe that’s not fair.  Maybe the person who makes the effort to get to the top and then discards their trash for others to clean is me on a bad day.  Maybe it’s you.  Those people are someone’s neighbours.  They’re the people we see at the grocery store.  People we hire, work with, or work for.  Maybe our friends.  Whoever they are, they walk among us.

I try and understand.  Try to be sympathetic.  Usually, my anger and disgust overpower empathy. 

How are we supposed to understand people who clearly appreciate beauty, yet are so reckless in making the very place they worked so hard to arrive at, less beautiful?

There may be a million answers to that question. Philosophical, spiritual, practical.  There may be no answers.

I’ve given up trying to understand.  I find great wisdom in the words of Lee Child.  Author of the massively best-selling Jack Reacher series, something he wrote several books back has stuck with me ever since – “People are complicated.”

I’m not sure truer words have ever been spoken, and I don’t think a philosopher, or a Nobel laureate could say it any better than that.

People are complicated.  

Even at the top of the Malahat.

A Bear Out There

There’s a bear out there.  Not far from my home.  Somewhere.  Drinking from the creek that cuts through our neighbourhood.  Eating the berries along the trails that connect our community.  Foraging through bins on garbage day.

Signs at trailheads warn of recent sightings. It’s a black bear, not a grizzly.  While black bears are unlikely to attack humans there are no guarantees.  Google “Black Bear Attack – British Columbia” and you will get multiple hits – news stories that are weeks or months, but not years old.

It still feels very foreign to me, a relative newcomer to BC.  I grew up in Southern Ontario and the closest I came to a bear was at the Toronto Zoo.  A bear was as foreign and exotic as a hippo or elephant.

Not on Vancouver Island which has one of the densest populations of black bears in the world.  I step outside the house, scan the forests that surround our small town, and know that there is likely not one bear out there, but dozens.

That knowledge affects every trail run.  I do not obsess about it, but I am more than conscious that around every sharp corner, or in the deep brush beside me, a bear may lurk.  That invisible bear may not be poised to attack and is likely more scared of me, than I am of it.  However, more than once I have imagined rounding a bend and encountering a mother bear and her cubs.  Whenever that scenario plays out in my mind, it does not end well for me.

I take some precautions.  Or one precaution at least.  Jammed into the front pocket of my running vest is a large can of bear spray.  On most runs, I practice pulling it out so that doing so becomes as instinctive as a gunslinger sliding a pistol from his holster.  I visualize an encounter I hope never happens.  I startle a bear. We both freeze.  I hold my ground hoping it will just amble away.  It does not.  I yell, hoping to frighten it off. I fight my body’s instinct to turn and run.  I stare at the bear, continuing to yell.  The bear spray is in my hand now.  I back up slowly.  The bear is still.  Do I wait for it to pounce?  Or do I attack first, shooting a stream of thousands of distilled hot peppers into the bear’s face?  Causing it real agony to prevent my own potential agony?  What if I unload the cannister of spray at the bear – and miss – creating a very angry bear, and a very unarmed me?

Questions which I hope are never answered.  A scenario which I hope never plays out.

A chance I am willing to take every day I run in the woods.  Because of the beauty that surrounds me everywhere.  Mountains and forests.  Grueling inclines and distant vistas. Silence and serenity.

Something rustles in the underbrush.

Did I mention the cougars?

Cougar sign

Despair Soup

Big things crush small things.

Covid ravages nations.

A horrific death in Minnesota reverberates around the globe.

Really big things. Really bad things.

Overwhelming things.

It feels selfish to miss small things amidst so much death and suffering.

Too much death and suffering.

But I miss them. I miss them desperately. Baseball. My daughter’s dance class. Restaurants. The Tour de France – incredible athletes and stunning scenery. I gorge on the Tour for three weeks every July. But not this year.

It all makes for one giant recipe for despair. Despair Soup. Take one horrific virus – add a divided society – strip away the simple pleasures – simmer for months – await the explosion.

Maybe it will not explode. There might be a vaccine. We may all come together instead of pulling apart. But look south. To America. A country ripping itself apart. A country defined by left vs. right. Republican vs. Democrat. A global superpower coming apart at the seams.

Big things crush small things.

But not always. Sometimes small things win.

Running is a small thing.

Covid can cancel races but it can’t stop runners from running. That’s what we do. It’s our answer for everything. Feeling down? Go for a run. Feeling good? Great day to run. Body sore? Run to recover. Tired? Run to wake up. Can’t sleep? Run for exhaustion.

Overwhelmed by the world?  Run.

That’s what I did on a quiet morning when the sun made a rare appearance defying the dark clouds and rain which have settled over us for months.

I can’t say I was at peace when I began that run. Work stress. Life stress. World stress.

But I laced up a new pair of trail shoes and headed uphill. No music. No watch. Just a trail with roots and rocks and mud and horse manure. Switchbacks and inclines. Towering evergreens. Warning signs about bears in the area – because big bears crush scrawny runners.

But I didn’t see any bears. And not many people. Just me and my thoughts. And my no thoughts. Straining uphill. Testing my legs and my lungs. Then getting to the top and resting my legs and my lungs. Just enjoying the view. A beautiful view. A small moment of peace. A big view.

Big things crush small things. But sometimes small things win.

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Behind Yellow Tape

From a distance the park in our neighbourhood appears to be surrounded by police tape. Yellow plastic fluttering in the wind prohibiting children from swinging, climbing and sliding.

It’s a park we’re at frequently. Practically daily. Kids play, parents socialize, our community comes together.

Not anymore. You don’t. I don’t. We don’t.

Profound changes in our world affecting us all. For how long, none of us know. A virus that knows no borders has crossed all borders and injected itself into every moment of our lives.

Victims suffer. Their families grieve. Health care professionals risk their lives. First responders hold the line. Heroes work in grocery stores, pharmacies and in the utility companies that keep us warm, lit and connected.

The rest of us continue in a sort of limbo. Working from home, digging in our gardens, walking our dogs, avoiding strangers, standing six feet from friends.

For introverts this new world is familiar – introversion on steroids. For extroverts, it must be awful.

For the millions of newly unemployed it’s hell.

Where it all ends none of us knows. Hopefully well and soon. With shops and restaurants reopening and airlines flying and life returning to something like normalcy.

In uncertain times I embrace normalcy and routine. I ran on the trails near our home every day this week and savoured fresh air, pink blossoms and random beauty – a heron swooping down from the treetops towards the stream below. Another day, another run, I explored a different trail – darker and secluded – as the path ended I found a burnt chair surrounded by beer cans. A reminder that not all is right with our normal world. That some people seek out beauty and then desecrate it, dragging in their garbage and leaving their trash behind. The world we long for isn’t always that good.

Today, normalcy meant starting a quiet Sunday morning in the living room. Writing while my daughter sat beside me, crying real tears because her mom brought her peanut butter and jam and not peanut butter and honey. There is something very special about watching a 4-year old’s sadness that is so real and yet so fleeting.

Before the Strawberry Jam Incident my daughter had asked for the book and pen which were on the stand beside me. I always read with a pen in hand – constantly underlining passages. She has seen me do it a million times. And wanted to do the same. She took the book and the pen, and turned away, so I could not see what she was doing. As she drew she repeated over and over, “You’ll never guess what this looks like.”

This is what she drew.

Molly's Drawing

She was right. I couldn’t have guessed how beautiful her drawing would be.

“You’ll never guess what this looks like.”

Words that apply to our world right now.

A world living behind yellow tape.

 

 

A Different Kind of Marathon

I ran a marathon last week along an old railway track converted into a trail.  When I crossed the finish line I cried.  Which surprised me.  I’ve done a few marathons over the years.  After my fastest I vomited steps after stopping.  I barely remember any of the other finishes, other than being thankful that the pain was over.

Pain isn’t the right word for this marathon.  Thankfully.  There had been pain leading up to it.  A torn calf muscle which took weeks to rehab and put the race itself in doubt.  It got better and it held up to the rigors of the race.  As did the rest of my body.  No new injuries.  While the final ten miles of the marathon were uncomfortable, it was the expected discomfort of an endurance event.  It should hurt and it did. 

Maybe I cried because the hurt was over, and my body and mind could let go.  I’d run alone for the last few hours, mostly without music, mostly in the rain.  I saw a handful of other runners and hikers.  There were no spectators.  This was not a big city marathon. No funny signs.   No bands belting out music at the mile markers.  There were volunteers though.  Dozens of them at the aid stations.   Men, women and children who’d sacrificed their time to stand outside in the wind and the rain and hand out food and drink to lonely wet runners.  I should have cried at the aid stations, because that’s where I felt most thankful. 

Or maybe I should have cried in the first ten miles, much of which I ran with a new friend.  A talented runner who happens to have epilepsy.  A runner who could have a seizure at any time.  Who could be moving effortlessly along the trail one second, and crumpled beside it a moment later, head covered in blood from bashing it on a rock.  That could have happened.  But it didn’t.  She finished the race.  Courage and grit.

I got home a few hours after I finished, and it felt like a normal day.  Like I’d completed a long training running.  I ate a normal dinner, went to bed at a normal hour, woke up a little sore and a little tired and very ready to enjoy a week off work.

A couple days after the marathon I spent most of the day with my daughter Molly.  We skated and went to the park and played with her toys.  I battled a tantrum or two and spent about thirty minutes coaxing an exhausted and giddy child into her car seat.    We spent hours together that day.  I did exactly what my wife Sonja does every day I’m at work except I did less of it, because I didn’t have Molly for the entire day.  By dinnertime I was exhausted.  I ate early and crawled into bed.  Sonja told me I looked more tired than I did after running the marathon. 

She was right.  A marathon is a known entity.  26.2 miles.  A runner can train for it, set their own pace, and, especially with a little experience, know essentially what to expect.  Running a marathon, you can control your speed, and reign in your emotions.  You can evaluate your pain and respond accordingly.  That doesn’t make a marathon easy, but it makes it manageable and knowable, in a way that raising a child isn’t.

I have had moments of incredible frustration this week, emotionally and physically drained by a three-year old whose behaviour I can’t control.  Sonja and I search for ways to influence that behaviour.  When it works, like seeing Molly grow in confidence and independence, the feeling is better than any finish line I’ve ever crossed.  When it doesn’t, it feels like mile twenty of a marathon. Battered and bruised, you keep moving, knowing the finish line is still a long way away.

And I love every moment of it.  Both marathoning and parenting.  Maybe not in the moment.  It’s hard to be thankful for something that hurts when its hurting.  But pushing through the discomfort always pays off.

A week ago, I ran that marathon.  I’ve already forgotten the discomfort, and I can’t wait to do the next one. 

A week from now, a month from now, a year from now, I will not remember the specifics of any tantrum or angry word unleashed by my daughter who each day learns that this is a big world, and navigating it isn’t easy.  Imagine being three years old again and trying to find yourself as you’re bombarded by the cacophony of life.

A week from now, a month from now, a year from now, I will remember three things that happened this week. 

I skated with my daughter.  The first time I’ve been on skates in over thirty years.  I skated with my daughter.  A sentence I never thought I would write.

I watched my daughter dance.  In a class, at a studio with two other girls and two boys.  I watched my daughter dance.  For thirty minutes I stood with the other parents outside the window that separated us from our children, and I watched Molly dance.  She was graceful and confident and joyful.  She loved every second.  It was one of the best moments of my life.

A few days after the marathon Molly’s pre-school class went on a field trip.  I went with her.  The field trip was on an abandoned railway track.  A track that had been turned into a hiking trail.  The same trail I’d run the marathon on earlier in the week.  I watched my daughter and her friends sprint down the trail.  I saw the wonder in her eyes when she stood atop a refurbished wooden bridge and gazed at the river far below.  I sat beside her while she ate the teacher’s homemade zucchini loaf and asked me, over and over, why the railway had been “abandoned.”  She seized on that word, never tiring of hearing me tell her that the trains stopped running and the bridge fell apart, and then good people came together and worked hard and rebuilt it for all of us to use.  She asked about it dozens of times.  I never tired of answering.

A few days earlier I’d run a marathon along that trail.  Now I was with my daughter, running a different kind of marathon.  A marathon with an unknown finish line, a marathon that may be impossible to train for, a marathon that taxes the mind and body daily.  A marathon where crying is possible anytime along the trail, not just at the finish line.  A marathon where the joys and rewards of just participating are infinite.  A different kind of marathon.

Molly at the Trestle Rest Stop