Every time I fly into Phoenix, I look out this window and that window. I know I’ll never see it, but I look for Manzanita Speedway anyway. It closed unceremoniously in early 2009, was bulldozed into a pile, and it’s on the wrong end of the city for my flight path. The last time I was there was something like 1989 for the Western World. I look for it anyway.
We talk about going there. Or, I guess, I talk about finding it, just to see. And Dan talks me out of it. I don’t visit graveyards. Why would I visit Manzanita?
Dan ran Zane Grey again this year. Last year, he finished. This year, he didn’t. The 50 mile race, which runs on the Highline Trail and starts near Pine, Arizona, was shortened to 50k (31 miles) before it even started. The National Weather Service advised that shit would get real, and then it did. Flash flooding of the stream crossings, temperatures in the low 40s, snow, rain and hail.
We flew into Phoenix on Friday morning and grabbed a rental car. We’d agreed last year it would be an SUV this year, as I’d struggled to get from aid station to aid station in a mid-size. But an email from the race director before we left advised that road conditions were terrible and a volunteer had already rolled a vehicle. There was a photo attached. We decided I’d drop Dan off at the start line, attempt to make it to the Fish Hatchery aid station, which was nice paved roads, and then pick him up at the finish. Basically, not crew him at all. So we ordered up another regular old car and they gave us a Mustang.
It never stopped being ridiculous all weekend. What a stupid car.
We bought snacks and a cooler and sunscreen and my annual giant hat, stopped in Fountain Hills for a drink like always, and then cruised up 87 to Payson for packet pick-up and hotel check-in and a good night’s sleep. Our Best Western became a Quality Inn since we’ve been gone. I have places and habits on the other side of the country now, and that will never stop making me grin.
Dan made the start of his race, 5am on Saturday, at 4:59am per usual, shoes barely tied. It had already started raining, it was already freezing cold. I used the ridiculous Mustang to chase the sunrise around the ridge, looking for sweetness and light on a moody morning.
I love this trip but this race is so hard. I don’t presume to speak for Dan but I can tell you it’s hard on me. The stomachache has to be training for UTMB in August. I wish I could let go the way people tell me to, when they say to trust he won’t get into trouble up there, but damn. We drive to the start line in the dark and I love watching the sun rise but it lights up all the hard things about this place.
When I got back to the hotel, I fired up my laptop to process the sunrise photos and I clicked over to Dan’s personal GPS tracker page, to follow the dot. Every ten minutes a new dot, a comforting dot. Except no dot. A malfunction and while he could have alerted emergency services for himself – the primary purpose of the device – I could not track his ten minute dots. A minor thing but the best antidote to the stomachache. This race lights up all the hard things about ultrarunning.
The earliest he could possibly get through a 50k on this course at current training level was 10 hours so I planned on going to the finish line at 3pm and just waiting it out. I turned on the television to fall asleep and a couple of hours later, got up to shoo away housekeeping after the third round of loud knocking on the door. I opened the door to a soaked, shivering Dan and his new friend Jeff. They’d been pulled from the course at mile 17, missing the time cutoff in the driving rain and hail, and a volunteer had given them a ride to our hotel. Jeff couldn’t open a candy bar or get his gloves on and off by himself. Dan was shaking with cold but functioning much better. Zane Grey was over for 2014 before noon.
Dan showered and we went out for pasta and a movie, The Other Woman (great physical comedy, probably my new quote-all-the-time movie). He asked me to list off what hiking gear I had brought with me and we went shopping to fill in the gaps. He had something to show me tomorrow, on the Highline trail. “No whining,” he said. About two miles out and back. We could take all day. We could stop as much as I needed to. We’d start from Camp Geronimo, the second aid station on the course. Here, at that news, I briefly considered pulling up the elevation profile of the Highline, but I didn’t.
Here it is though. You can look before you go on, even though I didn’t. Our two miles out and back were the 8 to 10 mile portion of this chart. The part that goes straight up and up and up.
It’s a good thing I didn’t look. He said later it was a good thing he didn’t look either.
Dan filled the bladder in my pack while I was in the shower on Sunday morning. I added snacks and a bottle of Gatorade and a long sleeve shirt and a jacket and a spare battery for the cell phone I knew wouldn’t work anyway. He put all the survival things in his pack, the emergency blanket and the GPS locator and the water purification tabs. Then he added his front pack, totally unnecessary for this hike, so he had a place to carry my big DSLR camera where I could reach it. And I swooned. March me into any unknown pit of fear and danger, my love, just as long as you make sure I have my camera.
All of this was based on him saying he had something he wanted to show me. The only details he gave me were that “the trees do this thing, you have to see it”. I reached back to that time when he waded into a creek for me without knowing why without question, and I put on that 10lb pack and followed without whining.
I’d like to say it was easy for awhile before it got hard, that I had a few minutes of feeling like I could get the job done before I started to doubt, but no. It was hard immediately, got harder, and then got harder again. I sucked wind like a person who has never left bed or seen sunshine. It doesn’t help that I’m at my rock bottom right now, the most out of shape I’ve ever been. But every time I stopped to let my lungs scream because the elevation was bad enough, every time I cried (on the inside like a winner), he looked at me like it was no big deal if we ever took another step again, pointed out the view I missed because I had my head down, and then I kept going. I told him I needed blinders, that looking up and up and up was the problem. There was never a minute in the first hour that I wasn’t looking at my next ten steps taking me five feet higher in the air. We stopped a lot.
As we approached the clearing he was expecting, he mentioned that he hadn’t seen a trail blaze in awhile. We got to a spot he expected, but not on the trail he expected. We were on the Jeep road rather than the foot trail – instead of switchbacks, we’d had straight climb. From the clearing, it was just a little bit further to where he said “We’re here.”
I don’t know what I expected exactly, from “the trees do this thing” but I’d thought of things in giant proportions. Huge trees. Dense trees. Something grand that anybody would notice, just hard to get to. But I’d forgotten the key part of this – it would be a thing Dan would see. Which is never the thing anybody else sees.
We were standing in a forest of manzanita.
Evidence of a fire was everywhere. The beautiful thing about manzanita is how entangled the new growth is with the old and dead and sometimes even burned. The way you can look at it from bottom to top and only see death until suddenly it’s flowering again. The new smooth burled red bark emerging from the dry old growth like it has overcome it, but not shaken it off completely. Dan said in the moody gloom of the race day, in the driving rain, running into this patch of manzanita was like being inside one of those desaturated spot-colored photos. Everything grey except the new growth.
I thought of Manzanita again, capital M. I thought of how I don’t visit graveyards and yet I still stay tangled up in what is dead and gone, how I don’t let new growth through that mess very often. Dan pointed out another tree, its bark shaped like the siped tire of a sprint car. I wondered if he was in my brain right then. Probably. It’s happened before.
Dan and I are in the midst of a cycle of our relationship where people have been asking us when we’re getting married. It isn’t a constant thing, like many of my longterm coupled unmarried friends report. People only ask us when the new growth is most obvious, when the tangled dead branches fade in their greyness but the blooms of flowers and fresh leaves are prominent to outsiders. It always makes me laugh because it doesn’t always coincide with what’s going on inside our relationship, what’s happening with the green buds before they become visible. But sometimes it does. Maybe this cycle, it does.
I took a series of photos of our shoes together. His shoes beside my shoes, like the Caryl Mack Parker song I played on repeat as a teenager, before I knew those shoes would be an endless pile of Asics (until they discontinued the Cumulus Gel 13) and thus more recently, Salomon hybrids. Mine, brand new, his with one rainy 50 miler, one snow marathon, one frozen 17 miler, and a few training runs between.
These are possibly my favorite photos from our hike, even more treasured than the two rolls of manzanita or the sweeping panoramas. My dress shoes have been next to his, my sandals, my snow boots. But my Salomons have never been next to his, not in the mud, and definitely not at the top of miles of elevation gain. And for all of the dwelling on and wrapping up in things that might have been and things that burned to the ground, I feel like my shoes beside his shoes this day are the twisting soft green red branches that make you forget the fire ever happened.