A promise is a promise

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Last fall, my friend Melanthia asked me when I might return to Seattle.

We’d been colleagues at the Associated Press, where I was a staff photographer and she was a military reporter. I left the job and the state and had returned only periodically. For her wedding. To meet each of her three children. Her youngest is now four and it’s been nearly four years since I’d been back in the Emerald City.

Why, I asked.

I’m going to run the Seattle Rock ‘N’ Roll Half Marathon for my 40th birthday. OK., I said. I’m in. I’ll be there.

I said this in the fall of 2016. I had plenty of time to train. I knew what it would take and I knew I was nowhere near prepared. I had two marathons under my belt; they were both in the distant past. I was lighter, younger and better trained the last time I’d run any distance.

I had gained weight and lost muscle and endurance since I’d returned from Afghanistan in 2011. All my attempts at a return to fitness had fizzled and fallen short of my goals. I’d pushed too hard. I wrestled with too much stress.

I chose a fresh start with a new job in a new state in the fall of 2016. Melanthia and I now live in states that border different oceans on separate coasts, three time zones and a continent apart.

When I set a lofty goal, I draw inspiration from a quote by William Hutchison Murray from his 1951 book entitled The Scottish Himalayan Expedition. (The original of the couplet at the end, which Murray attributes to Goethe, has been debated.)

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”

I had my share of setbacks and excuses to bail. I hung onto the quote and my promise to my friend.

It took me several months to find a place to live. It looks several 20-hour solo roundtrips by car to move my things. By the end of the year, I hadn’t started training. I hadn’t even unpacked.

I had started shedding pounds though. I knew I needed to be lighter if I were going to pound the pavement for 13.1 miles. I started walking and I watched Melanthia’s posted training runs. My trepidation increased with her increasing mileage. I was not matching her miles or dedication.

By April, I still hadn’t run much and I hadn’t bought my airplane ticket. I called Melanthia. I didn’t want to let my friend down and I didn’t want to hold her back.

And yet, a promise is a promise.

Are you doing this? I wanted to know before I booked the ticket. I also wanted her to know that I wouldn’t be a pace-setting partner. I explained that I hadn’t trained enough and I wasn’t as fit as I once was.

We set a simple goal: finish the race. The race rules warn runners that they will be yanked if they don’t finish in under four hours.

I’m going to run-walk, she said. I can can keep pace–and keep her company, I thought. I booked my ticket.

Yesterday we picked up our race bibs and packets.

See you at the finish line.






Ask and You Shall Receive

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Last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I had plenty to be thankful for. I was cold, alone in the dark and weary on my long walk home.

I started walking to campus because I was restless and bored after being cabin-bound for days. I wanted to be outside in the light and fresh air. And I wanted to mail some documents to Tina Ullman, a designer in Ohio who is in the final stages of completing my brother’s website, and I’d promised to deliver the final edits on the text.

As I crested the first hill, I met Nancy, and her dog, p.d. (puppy dog). As we walked and talked, she asked which route I take to school. I follow the roads from Yankovich to Ballaine. She suggested I take the trails to campus.

“Oh it’s much shorter,” she said.

I’d been curious about the trails, so I followed her advice and entered the trails across from the musk ox farm.

Pretty. And tough. The ground was uneven with the frozen imprints of other walkers and boots after the previous days of freezing rain.

I walked and walked. I stopped at a crossroads to check my way—I had picked up trail maps—I’ve been told it’s “verboten” to walk on the ski trails, so I was making sure I stuck to the “walking/snowshoeing” trails.

Occasionally, a skier shussshed passed. I checked my watch. 12:46 p.m. I’d already been walking an hour and I was nowhere near campus. Another hour and I reached campus, but I was on the West Ridge. I had to ask my way and then walk more than a mile back to the Wood Center.

I was tired and grumpy—and then I discovered the post office was closed.

I couldn’t get warm and I didn’t want to make the four-mile return trip. After a brief stop at my office, I drank a half-liter of water and started home on my regular route. My gloved fingers stung and I shoved my hands in my pockets. I started thinking about the wilderness first aid course I’d taken the previous weekend. I was breaking the rules already.

I needed help. It was getting dark. The wind picked up and I was weary. I called my friend’s cell phone. No answer. I called their house. My friend answered and said they were all warm and snuggled in front of a fire. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for help and inconvenience them.

I resigned myself to the long walk home. I bowed my head against the cold and falling snow and called on my will, which refused to come out and play.

I lifted my head and said out loud: I would really like a ride home, please.

Fifteen minutes later,  as I shuffled along Yankovich: Cheryl.

A voice in the darkness calling my name.

“Cheryl, do you want a ride? Get in.”

I recognized Steve, a Native Alaskan and one of my students. Not a fairy-tale knight in shining armor. The Alaskan equivalent: an Eskimo in a white Ford Explorer.

And the timely answer to my urgent prayer.

“Thank you. Thank you,” I said as I tugged the car door shut.

Need a Ride?


After listening to Morning Edition on KUAC on my shortwave radio, I dressed for the 3.8-mile trek to campus and headed out the door.

I don’t have a backpack, so I stuff everything in my Eddie Bauer duffel bag and make due. Change of clothes. Books. External drive. Yellow legal pads. My journal. Letters to mail. I tuck a Canon Elf point-and-shoot in one pocket of my goose down vest and my cell phone in the other. I slip my left arm through one bag handle and hoist and sling into onto my back in one quick, clumsy motion. Right arm through the other handle and I’m ready to go.

The orange glow of the low rising sun pierces the spaces between the white-bellied birches as I climb the first hill. The snow sparkles and I take turns treading in the bare black lanes where passing cars and trucks have cleared a path and the slippery packed snow on either side. It’s quiet, only intermittent noises. My snuffles as my nose runs. A raven squawks overhead. And the gentle crunch, crunch, crunch as I heel to toe, heel to toe, making steady progress.

As I turn on Yankovich Road, a tall male runner passes me.

“Do you do anything special to your running shoes?” I call after him.

“I put screws in them,” he says, turning his head and looking over his left shoulder for a brief moment to answer me, never breaking stride. He’s over the hill and gone and I keep walking.

A few minutes later, I hear two voices, their banter as light as their footsteps. A man and a woman with a dog on a leash pass me, on a seven-minute pace, I’d reckon.

“Are those normal running shoes,” I shout.

The woman turns her head slightly to the right and shouts back.

“Yes, Normal running shoes. We’re crazy,” she says. Then she turns her head again: “We put spikes in the winter.”

I envy the light, sure-footed, happy, healthy runners passing me. And it dawns on me: it’s not yet winter. Heck, it’s barely a month into fall. I’m definitely not in Oregon anymore.

I like walking. It gives my mind time to wander. I write. I compose lists of things to do. I study the landscape and marvel at the light.

A nondescript maroon four-door car stops. (I’m as bad at car identification as I am at identifying the assortment of tracks in the snow around my cabin.)

A woman opens the driver’s side door and leans out, calling back to me.

“Need a ride?”

“No, thank you.” And I start running toward the car. This is the first person who has stopped to offer me a ride in the six weeks I’ve been walking. I want to meet her.

I reach the car. She’s Native, I’d guess. But I don’t ask and I regret it later. I’d like to know what tribe she’s from and what her family’s story is. She has a fistful of popcorn in her right hand so I don’t shake her hand.

“I’m Cheryl. I’m new here.” “I’m Ruby. This is my grandson, Silus.” I notice a young, dark-haired boy in the back seat.

“And who’s this?” I ask, spotting a probable German Shepherd pup next to Silus.

“Jack Jack.”

“Thank you for the offer, Ruby.” “It’s Birdy.”

I make a flapping motion with my arms. “Birdy?”

“Birdy. My daughter lives out this way.”

“I live down the down the road, off Dalton.”

“If your feet get tired and you see this little red car…”

Birdy shuts the door and rolls away, leaving me with an open invitation and the open road.