In what already feels like another lifetime, I was once a very serious nonfiction writer. This was, much like ultrarunning, something I learned to do to process and understand a childhood in an abusive home, cyclical Appalachian poverty, and why everybody in my kindergarten class called me the little brown boy and made fun of my big ears. I put writing on the shelf after deciding to head to the University of Chicago for grad school, a place where elite academia would burn me out and leave me moving back to Ohio 20lbs overweight, dead broke, fresh off a breakup, and with a couple of stress fractures to heal. Fast forward about a year and I’m moving away from Ohio and to Missoula, MT, much fitter and happier and with an intact right foot, but again fresh off a breakup. All I’ll say about that here is that it makes a great time to move. During this whole period, I didn’t write a word except for one or two moments of surprising inspiration resulting in first drafts relegated to a folder on my computer I haven’t opened in months, until today when I started writing this. That old desire, runaway thoughts from a place somewhere deep inside me yet to be controlled or honestly understood was brought back now by a whirlwind weekend in Grand Teton National Park with Wesley and John. After a 7 hour drive south from Missoula into yet another big sky sunset that looked and felt like a once in a lifetime gift, my Subaru was attacked by a bull elk not 5 minutes from our campsite. Somehow, that would actually become one of the least memorable moments of the weekend.
Grand Teton National Park, named after the highest peak in the range, is located south of Yellowstone National Park in Northwestern Wyoming, flanked to the west by Idaho and the many cows and potatoes that greatly outnumber the amount of people living there. First occupied by the Eastern Shoshone, who referred to the mountains as teewinot and themselves as tukudika, a nation of people who migrated between alpine summers and winters in basins and mountain valleys. They recognized the great spiritual power of the area long before John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, and for their work and attachment to the place they were violently removed to the Wind River and Fort Hall Reservations on either side of their ancestral homes, far from the areas where they earned their name hunting bighorn sheep. The anglicized name we know the area by today comes originally from French fur traders who arrived after John Colter struck off from the Lewis and Clark Expedition and was the first European-American to lay eyes on these mountains. They referred to the range’s three highest peaks as “les trois tétons”, or, for us English speakers: the three tits. If this foresaw the many blue jokes I won’t repeat here made while climbing, filtering water, or sitting by the fire at camp between Wesley, John, and I, I would not be surprised. The stated goal of our trip was simple: celebrate the 3rd anniversary of Ridge RUNers with a 36 mile jaunt around the entire park on Sunday, preceded by a trip up the Middle Teton on Saturday. Wesley, bringing much more fitness to bear than John and I would, had promised to carry his Sony A7iii on every step to document our experience in the hopes of making a film I had been promised, I think mostly to soothe my anxiety, would only be about 1/3rd about me. That camera was my first introduction to the boys after too long of not seeing them, directed at me as I sat in the driver’s seat with the window down, still dumping adrenaline and recounting all the animals I had seen in the road on the way down: mule deer and pronghorn and a black bear and oh so many elk, the last of which was that big 7×7 fella who, after I stopped in the road to look at him in dumbfound shock, lowered his head and prepared to show me exactly what he thought of me getting into his personal space. I set up my tent and drank a beer without even stopping to think or realize fully where I was until a red fox cut through our campsite the way any ordinary squirrel would have on College Green. With all this and more dancing around in my head, I somehow still managed to crawl into my sleeping bag and tried to sleep, sure the shit-eating grin I seem to have permanently started wearing since arriving in Montana for the first time was all over my face.
I woke up Saturday morning still excited, I think somehow still feeling the Red Bull from my drive. After 3 fitfull hours of listening to John snore and the elk bugle, a little too cold to be comfortable, I shivered my way out of my tent and started making coffee for the group, hoping another of the nearly-domesticated foxes in the park would make an appearance at our campsite. John was up shortly after me, and we drank organic instant coffee from Missoula’s own Black Coffee Roasting Company and waited on Wesley’s iPhone to bring him back from wherever it is people who can stomach melatonin go to when they sleep. I even brought him a cup of coffee I was sure he would spill on himself to the Kia, where after waking up to say thanks he quickly powered dahn again while John ate Mountain House scrambled eggs and I tried to figure out if Wyoming smelled more like Montana or Utah. Our late start was not for the best, as by the time we reached Garnett Canyon it was later in the day than it should have been, and we passed quite a few groups on the climb up to the Garnett Canyon couloir. Once there, however, our pace slowed to a crawl, hopping between boulders and trying to rely on moves I learned in a campus climbing gym more than 4 years ago. It was one of those days, for me at least, where I could have laid down on the softest rock nearby for a quick nap and woke up feeling like a million bucks, but instead I kept pushing behind John and Wesley, feeling dead tired, incredibly hungry, and far over my skis. Given the slow speed we were moving through the coulior’s boulder fields we bailed on the summit attempt at the saddle with the promise of being done prior to 8 total hours on the day and the powerful lure of a cold beer(s) at the Signal Mountain Lodge. Once back, almost all of these problems were quickly solved by Specter IPAs from Draught Works, splitting a plate of nachos roughly a foot tall between the three of us, and hamburgers the menu promised were from local cattle. That night after we got back to our campsite, I built the campfire while trying to figure aht just how I had gotten drunk after eating nothing but Z Bars all day before immediately drinking alcohol instead of, you know, the water my body needed. For more on this day, check aht JD’s Road to 100 vlog about it here.
Our 2nd day was much more eventful, beginning with a flurry of activity in the morning which included, at least a little bit to our surprise, Wesley strolling around camp prior to dawn and grabbing b-roll of us tearing down camp with the A7iii, which had somehow managed to survive the entire day in the boulder fields entirely unscathed. Coming off a night of sleep where I think I was asleep before I even fully laid down, I was feeling better about today than yesterday until the moment I put my pack on at the trailhead, feeling just how heavy it was for the long day ahead of us and also finally realizing that I was the only one with bear spray, fully entrusted by John and Wesley to confront a bear for the team if we ran into one. The rhythm we fell into as we started running, however, was as easy as putting on your favorite pair of old jeans; that’s the way it is with these old running friends. Stopping to film, eat, drink, filter water and remove and add layers, we kept a slow, comfortable pace as we slowly climbed around the backside of the park and into the alpine behind the saddle we had reached the day before. We saw backpackers and backcountry hunters and innumerable views that you really just have to earn by offering up the miles and that I won’t do any justice here with words. It was all wonder, frankly, indulgence in something most won’t ever see or do. On our first section of alpine, over the saddle of a pass above 10,000 feet, we ran the downhill over the grey slate.
Stopping before fully dropping down from the ridgetop, Wesley turned the camera on me and asked me what the mountains meant to me. This is a question I knew I didn’t have the time or capacity then and there to answer honestly or beyond trite and oft-repeated buzzwords like freedom, joy, spirituality, sense of oneness and connection. It’s hard to think about what something so abstract and yet so visceral means – “mountains”, in that vague sense, are merely a concept, just another idea when not speaking of a specific range. Had Wesley asked me what the central Appalachians, or the Bitteroots, or the Bryce Canyon Hoodoos meant to me, that would have been an entirely different conversation. But here I was, a DSLR that he had lugged deep into the backcountry pointed in my face, trying to sort through vagueness and my place in human history and make some concise and pithy statement to cut into the video Wesley planned to make about our trip circumnavigating the Tetons. I punted; told him I’d need some time to think about, mumbled a few things that he seemed okay with putting the camera away after I’d said, and we descended a few more miles till we stopped near a creek to filter more water.
What I understand now, given some time to think (and the long drives between Missoula and Logan make for plenty of time to think) is that mountains are the reminder that my soul lives in a body, and that however I get in touch with them under my own power – running, backpacking, cycling, etc – shakes me just gently enough to remind me that I live here, and that I need to be here and not stuck up in my own head wondering about the grand ramifications of things, everything that could go wrong or all the things that have gone wrong for me. I’m trying to live a life with both feet in, and exit this world with nothing left in the tank. Mountains are practice for that, practice for committing, for believing, for flowing between joy and heartache as they come to you and not, like the Headspace app cheerfully has instructed me to, just watching them pass like clouds, but living fully in them while still moving forward and treating others the way they deserve to be. I first learned about the idea that my soul lived in my body, and that my body was my home more than any place I could point to on a map while, in a bit of a late teenage religious crisis, I was reading Thích Nhất Hạnh’s “Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers”. I latched onto it immediately, recognizing the intimate understanding this statement had on the resentment I felt towards my hometown but the deep and profound connection to the land that my upbringing had given me. My grandmother had been quick to hand me down books written by Steve Chapman about how to talk to God while deer hunting, assuming that it would be hard to keep me out of the woods and in that clapboard, 40 person Methodist church in Dundee, Ohio. Funnily enough, I was the last member of my family to slide into a pew next to them, spending the last few months of my grandfather’s life sleeping on their couch and helping to care for him as Alzhiemer’s robbed my greatest role model of his dignity while I struggled to figure out a way to live in the world, finally landing back on running as something to do in the woods out behind the house to get me unstuck from inside of my own head. Plenty of writers almost entirely considered more important than me have written about the connections between running and writing, or running and spirituality. Given where I am in my life and the timeline I’ve given myself, I’m not even going to attempt something like that. But I remember during one of the most difficult times of my life, trying to figure out where and how I could belong in a world none of us ever asked to be a part of, and running was there to help me figure that out, and ultrarunning arrived to show me exactly where I could belong and what I could mean to others, and what they could mean to me.
The day ended, after seeing 3 moose calmly eating, well, whatever it is that they eat that grows deep underwater in these mountain lakes, with some all too human moments of weakness and stomach issues that left me alone, hoping I was far enough away from the trail to not be seen, while John and Wesley waited on me at the trailhead at the end of the loop. But that’s what makes days like this all the more lovely, right? That you have to be fully human in order to get to experience them. Annoyed deeply not a moment after embarrassingly climbing back onto the trail by a group of climbers hiking down while blasting EDM music from a speaker in open defiance of Leave No Trace principles and general trail etiquette, I began finally to draft this in my head, feeling something I can only quote place in the words of others. I am a writer after all other writers, after all, so I leave you with Jack Kerouac from The Dharma Bums, a long lost and problematic hero from my late teenage years: “The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify by their own lonesome familiarities to this feeling. Ecstasy, even , I felt, with flashes of sudden remembrance, and feeling sweaty and drowsy I felt like sleeping and dreaming in the grass.”
If you’re interested in seeing more of this sort of thing, please let us know. I’m sure we all either lived through or have heard plenty about the halcyon days of the early 2010s when the majority of ultrarunning news was distributed through blogs and listservs, a time that people describe exactly the way my high school football coaches talked about the 1980s. Despite being the Wing-T of media, I’ve always found reading and writing to be particularly helpful in better understanding these things, so we’ll make sure to keep writing if you want to keep reading.