These walks are beginning to resemble my ultra training. Back in those days I’d do long runs back-to-back without giving my body the time to fully recover. I’d run twenty-five or so on a Saturday, then a similar distance on Sunday. This would trick my body into thinking I did the two-day total all at once. Some people run 26.2 as a training run before running a marathon, but nobody in their right mind runs a fifty-miler before a fifty, let alone run a hundred before a race of the same distance. Back-to-backs are how endurance runners make those distances work for, and not against them.
It took me a while to learn how to train smart for fifty and hundred-mile races, but once I did, my overall weekly mileages decreased, as did the number of times I ran per week. The result—I got way faster and was rarely injured. I did less to do more.
This do less to do more adage isn’t about being lazy. More than anything, it’s about being mindful.
Growing up I was in the Boy Scouts. The longer I remained enrolled, the more I disliked it. The only reason I stayed in as long as I did was to make my dad happy. A strategy to earn his interest, I thought. But the harder I tried, the more obvious my failing strategy.
Over time I came to deeply resent the stupid uniforms, the waste-of-time weekly meetings, the power-tripping men whose eyes would glimmer with delight as they bossed other people’s kids around. I loathed everything about the Scouts—everything except camping. I liked the occasional outing in nature, even if too much time was spent earning badges I couldn’t care less about.
Once I understood how to camp properly—how to pitch a tent, stay warm, build a fire—I started rebelling against the micro-management of my beer-bellied adult overseers who sat around in their tight uniform shirts and aptly-rolled neckerchiefs. Too many of them took that “Leader” patch on their arms way too seriously.
But the learning curve to become a better camper was arduous. The couple-mile march from the parking lot to the campsite was often pure hell. My over-weighted backpack stripped flesh off my shoulders. The shoulder straps and waist belt collapsed my internal organs, which made breathing nearly impossible. In the midst of my suffering, the adult leaders did dumb dad stuff like slap their heavy dad hands on the top of my pack, laughing and winking at the other kids as my spindly legs gave out. They assured me I’d eventually learn how to do it right, but they were way too entertained by my suffering.
Once out of range of the dusky cars and into the moonlit forested, the troop would mellow into a steady slog. The collective beams from our flashlights made the world seem uneven—as if the earth’s surface was in motion—and I’d get queasy if I spent too much time with my eyes on the ground.
I rarely knew how far the site actually was from the trailhead—but it wouldn’t have mattered if I did anyhow. At age twelve I didn’t have context for the difference between one mile and three. Either distance was too far with a bag of bricks on my back.
During one of our after-hours approaches, I decided this was what hell must be like. Insidious discomfort for an undefined amount of time. Hell, I figured, is being constant agony. An oppressive lack of optimism. Hell is my inability to appreciate the next step. Hell is in knowing that any progress is actually no progress at all.
The first time I mentally disassociated with my body was during one of these hikes. My consciousness took flight and hovered above the snaking wobble of overdressed scouters. I heard their chatter, their crunching of boots on dried leaves, but I no longer controlled what my body was doing. My body was just down there trudging along. Nobody would have guessed that I had left it—but nobody was paying close enough attention to notice such things anyhow.
Hiding in those tree branches was both tremendously peaceful and the most terrifying moment of my life. I was the only person alive. Everything I knew was imaginary. A construct. A mysterious an unknown force kept me loosely connected to my consciousness.
This daze, as I called it, wasn’t a one and done. For the rest of my adolescence and into adulthood, I’d mentally disappear while my body went through the motions. Without warning, I’d vanish during social gatherings, road trips, long runs, in the middle of having sex. Like a tethered blimp I’d float away from the action, endure a moment of panic, regroup, then eventually I’d slam back into my body as if jumping awake from a dream.
After walking today I went grocery shopping. As I lugged way too many heavy bags up my three flights of stairs, I huffed and puffed as my arms swelled and numbed from the crushing handles choking my bones. Then suddenly it happened again. My mind escaped to the ceiling and all the pain I was feeling washed away in a blink. I glided up the final steps and stood before my apartment door, daring my body to release the heavy load. I stood for a long while until finally I dug out my key and released the latch. As the door slammed behind me, I rejoined my body and was full again.
My nightmarish fantasy of eternity is one of suffering. An eternal, Sisyphean hauling of an overstuffed backpack to a non-existent destination, bags upon bags of canned goods and heavy produce carried up a never-ending stairwell beyond the heavens. No matter how hardened my resolve gets, the task never gets easier.
Through the years, this horror has helped me endure. I arrow through pain and gore without worrying about the hereafter. Maybe disassociation was a coping mechanism that gave me refuge from trauma. And I’m not talking about Boy Scout trauma here—I hated the scouts but nothing scarring ever happened there. Maybe there’s something else, deeper down in the recesses of my memory, something pre-verbal and buried in the protective folds of my brain that switches on when triggered by discomfort.
I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to piece together various flashes of details collected over the years, and I still can’t quite put my finger on their origin. I’ve also reached a point in my life where I don’t need the answers. I’ve come to accept that they are me. And frankly, I’ve done a pretty good job at using them to my advantage.
Though my walk today was short, my thoughts were long. Sometimes that’s how it works—I do less to do more. And I am better for it.
Back to the VA for my second Moderna shot.
As the nurse injected the vaccine into the thirty-year old Donald Duck tattoo on my left shoulder, I was moved to tears. The moment felt historic. After affixing the bandaid, she gave me an off-center sticker. It announced, “I GOT MY COVID-A9 VACCINE!” She peeled the backing and stuck it to my flannel. Told me to sit in the waiting area for fifteen minutes.
I’d heard stories about this second dose and was a little concerned about my six-mile return trip home. But I rolled the dice and committed to a portion of an Audubon-Downriver neighborhood before being overcome with chills as the Spokane skyline came into view.
The Audubon-Downriver neighborhood is split in half by Northwest Boulevard. The Downriver portion straddles the Spokane River bluff, and the Audubon section, named for the famed naturalist John James Audubon, is grounded by Audubon Park—a popular area for birdwatchers.
According to the website, SpokanePlanner, locals often refer to the Downriver-Audubon neighborhood as “the poor person’s South Hill.” My quick pass through a small section proves why—the homes are large and well-cared for, the yards equally groomed and aesthetically appealing as the McMansions on the south side of town. The biggest difference, however, is the listing price on FOR SALE fliers. This northern part of Spokane is expensive, but far more affordable than the other side of the river.
In the early 1900s, an early “isolation hospital” stood on Downriver Drive. The hospital was reserved for folks suffering from acute infections like, “the white plague,” medically known as consumption or tuberculosis.
I imagine life then was similar to now. Everyone suddenly more germ-conscious. Signage and social norms discouraged sneezing, coughing, or spitting in public places. People exhibiting basic symptoms—fever, chills, coughing—were regularly tested for the disease. Infected folks quarantine at home or, in more severe cases, in facilities dedicated to the inflicted.
You—take a moment to think back to February 2020. Seems like forever ago, doesn’t it? In February of last year there had been only fifteen positive coronavirus tests nationwide. Fifteen! We had no idea what was coming.
Today, just like in the early 20th century, Spokane is home to one of the few isolation facilities in the nation. Sacred Heart Hospital (of the actual South Hill) contains a handful of secured airborne infection isolation rooms. In February 2020, the hospital admitted four of the first people on the planet infected with coronavirus (Covid-19). That’s right, the planet sent some of the first carriers of the virus to, of all places, Spokane.
These four patients had been passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, a luxury liner which disembarked from Japan’s Yokohama Port and scheduled for a 16-day round-trip voyage to Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Taiwan. The four were among the 2666 total passengers—700 of whom would also eventually test positive. At Spokane’s Sacred Heart Hospital, all four made a full recovery and were released in good health later the following month.
My mid-walk chills marked the beginning of a major punch in the face. My immune system went into overdrive as the second dose coursed through my body. I listlessly wandered around my apartment, feverish and confused. My body ached, my head pounded, my skin hurt. The rest of the day was wrought with discomfort and blah. But more than that—suddenly the big picture shifted.
For the first time in more than a year, I caught a glimpse of hope.
Twenty-eight miles walked in seven and a half hours. Not far off the pace of my first ultra marathon in 2005 (which I ran). It was the sort of race I had read about decades earlier in a Boy’s Life magazine. The sort of event that resembled the Sacramento Bee article titled, “100-Mile Buffet,” that got me wondering if I had what it took to be an endurance athlete.
Seven hours alone with myself always cooks up something interesting. Today I relived a moment in time scalded in memory. One of those moment that has since become a where-were-you-when question at dinner parties. September 11, 2001.
When the towers fell in I was working the early shift at a before and after school recreation program in Rocklin, California. I was almost thirty years old and part-timing it with teenagers as I wrapped up an anthropology degree and considered a doctorate in linguistics.
Late summer in Sacramento is scorching. By sunup it was already warm enough to take the top off my Jeep. As I commuted in, I cranked the radio to hear Howard Stern’s voice over the thick traffic on the 80. He and his crew were goofing on the pilot of an airplane that crashed into Manhattan’s skyline. They made it sound like a crop duster had lost its way and were having a real laugh about it.
I parked in the employee lot as I imagined how someone could accidentally crash into a giant building. The woman I was dating at the time had a twin sister whose husband died while flying a propellor plane over the Appalachian mountains. Nobody knew what happened. No remains were left in the wreckage. Just smoke and smolder and a lingering answering machine message at his home office. Maybe he fell asleep. Maybe the instruments went out and he didn’t realize he was flying headlong into a mountaintop. Whatever the case, the family was left with nothing but questions.
As I walked towards the portables, I thought of my girlfriend’s sister. I imagined her watching the news coming in from New York and reliving the moment everything in her life changed. A toddler, newborn, and new home in a new town were suddenly hers alone. I wanted to call her to check in, to tell her I was thinking about her, but I was already running late. So I didn’t.
Kids and parents filed in as usual, until one of the drop-off moms insisted we flip on the wall-mounted TV. Her nephew was a New York firefighter and she had spoken with him on the phone. Every channel carried the same live coverage. Howard and his cronies were wrong, there was no incident with an irresponsible pilot. The crash was the work of a terrorist.
As the adults in the room ingested this information, a few early kindergartners played house in the corner while others read books at the kid-sized tables. As I tuned away to fetch a toaster waffle for one of them, the firefighter’s auntie made a sound that brought the room to a standstill. The second plane had swooped into the second tower. The footage trembled as the screen filled with fire.
The grey sky hangs heavy. It winks open and light pours in on east-facing ghost signs. Alber’s Rolled Oats. Washington Cracker. I haven’t hit start on my Strava. Not yet. My steps are still unofficial.
I never know my route until I’m in the thick of it. I start with sort of a plan—a few map options that look like they’ll fit into how much time I’m willing to give the day. Then I take a blurred photo of the tiny swatch of streets, gridded or jumbled and get started. My plan is always simple—get there, walk the perimeter, then gradually chip away at the streets within.
This approach is easy when I’m working with straight lines. All I have to do is walk back and forth, moving north-south, then east-west, as I gradually complete the block. But sometimes the layout is less economical. Dead ends and curvy developments force a lot of backtracking. In such cases, I’m forced to think more. How can I most efficiently cover the spread? From afar this sort of neighborhood is way less-appealing and sometimes even stressful. But, like anything, when I’m in the thick of it, finally facing it for real, everything is easier.
As a teenager I decided that when I die I want to know all the facts. How many movies had I watched? How much time was spent worrying? How many gallons of water did I consume? How many breaths did I take? How many miles had I walked? I also imagined that death would give me answers to humanity’s mysteries. I most especially wanted to know about UFOs.
When I walked across America, I kept my eyes peeled for flying saucers. Especially when I was in the desert. I hoped that something otherworldly would happen and leave me with a chilling story to tell for the rest of my life. But it never happened. So I don’t really have an answer the common question, “Did any weird things happen out there?” Surely they did—I met a lot of characters, laid eyes on funky bits of decaying Americana, and happened upon an uncanny number of discarded sex toys. But no near-abductions or inexplicable machines zipping silently through the empty sky.
I am left wanting. Greedy for a twist in the drama. As if I need a better, more interesting story to outdo the narrative of having walked three-thousand miles across the continent.
I shake my head and wonder, when will enough be simply enough?
Have you ever just stopped? Like, really stopped and looked back and forth, this way and that, to take in the scope of a walkway or sidewalk or street as it disappears into the distance? It’s the sort of perspective I remember drawing in all my elementary art classes—everything’s big close up, then gets gradually smaller and smaller as the scene narrows and comes to a point. I remember being fascinated by the fact that everything still exists within that tiny dot.
I live in downtown Spokane, so I am constantly absorbing city sounds. On any given day it’s mostly sonorous cars, many of which beg for attention as their revving engines reverberate off tall, stone buildings. But the city soundtrack is also the sound of emergencies—sirens and horns scream orders at citizens—move this way or that, move out of the way, or stop right now because you’re not following the rules.
The score is also the sound of trains. And wind. And descending airplanes approaching a nearby runway. And of course it’s also the sound of people. The passersby. The squish of a runner’s shoe on cement. The rustle of bags from shops. The desperate screams of a junkie coming down from a high. The clatter of a shopping cart, far from its provenance, loaded down with a someone’s belongings as they try to get back on their feet. Sometimes, too, the theme is birdsong. When that’s the case, I remember how much I miss home.
Noise is a memory trigger. But it’s also a tool for forgetting, I think.
My apartment is on the third floor. It’s said that living any higher up causes the resident to lose identity with the street below. Sounds from four or more levels are distant enough to not rattle bones. Conversations lose meaning. Faces become less recognizable. The fourth floor and above shifts the viewer’s perspective from specificity to a general awareness. At points higher up, people no longer are the space—they are merely in the space.
There’s a strong difference between being and being in.
These Covid walks have been more about being in than truly being. When I did this project in Carrboro, NC in 2019, I spent as much time chatting with random strangers as I did walking. I remember their faces far more than I do the 200 or so hours of walking. But this version of the same project has been mostly solitary. Lately things seem to be changing enough to allow the social component to return, but now I’m facing a new challenge—I’ve changed.
When Covid hit, I was less than two months into my relocation to Spokane. I’d interacted with a few coworkers, my Indaba baristas, and a bartender or two at The Satellite Diner—a greasy spoon joint less than a block from my apartment (with a great fish sandwich). I messed around with online dating and did go on one date with a woman who, while we waited for our Ethiopian dinner at Queen of Sheba in the Flour Mill, referred to herself as a “legit snack.” I finished my meal and said goodnight. Deleted the app on the walk home.
Socially, however, I didn’t have time to establish a foothold. And though I’m good at being alone, quarantine gave me no choice but to master my skills. Life became a regimented routine, permeated with alone-ness.
These days it’s like I’ve forgotten how to casually interact with other humans. I’m overcome with a feeling of ineptitude when given a moment to idly chit-chat with a stranger. A twinge of discomfort rises up every time I’m faced with a social moment. This never happened before, and now I worry my awkwardness will stick with me like a bad tattoo.
I want to reincorporate human connection into my walking project. Hopefully this wanting will pull me from simply being in the landscape and allow me to be it. I imagine this intention is a good start, but after fifteen days of walking and saying almost nothing to the people around me, Ive settled into another antisocial groove. The project, as a whole, seems to be losing steam.
I’m tired of being alone in a new place. Currently this walking project is a vehicle serving only to exacerbate a level of emptiness I’ve grown too used to.
Something’s got to give.