I don’t know why I have this new tendency to sit on posts about epic travel weekends for two months. This is our trip to the Catskills/NYC in June for Manitou’s Revenge, a 56 mile ultra.

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    Our flights for the New York trip took us through four airports – Milwaukee to Detroit to Newburgh, NY on the way out.  LaGuardia to Milwaukee home.  Newburgh is the home of Stewart International Airport, which a lot of people use to get to West Point.  All of this is to say that GL and I were the only people on our plane that had hair.

    Upon arrival at Stewart, we grabbed a rental car and started making our way to Big Indian, NY.  We drove by Peekamoose the first time by accident, when we overshot the turn for The Weyside, where we’d be staying for two nights. We both noted it, for later.  We were a little early for check-in to our cottage (our! cottage!), so we went to the Big Indian Market for lunch. We covered our entire table with maps, trying to get a grip on the next day’s course.

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    These guys watched us eat.

    Whenever we have time to pre-drive the course and aid stations, I like doing it.  Especially in remote areas.  I don’t know if it gives GL any indication of what the race will be like, but I enjoy it.  Knowing I can find things at 5am in the dark because I’ve been there already is a big help.

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    After driving the course, we went back to Big Indian and hit Peekamoose for dinner.  We had caramelized onion tart, gnocchi, fresh baked bread, and goat’s milk cheesecake.  It eased the sting of setting our alarms for 3:30 the next morning for the race start.

    Manitou’s Revenge started at 5am.  Their website describes the course as such:

    This is a grueling, gnarly, nasty course with approximately 12,000 ft. of climbing, much of it rocky and precipitous.  To be sure, there are some runnable sections, but you will more often find yourself hiking uphill or down, sometimes hand over hand.  Expect this course to take you much longer than your average 50 miler. That’s why we are allowing 24 hrs. to complete this monster. Because of its remote and difficult nature, there will of necessity be a limited number of aid stations, 8 or 9, and runners should be prepared to spend up to 3 or 4 hrs between aid stations. You will have to be reasonably self-sufficient. To make matters worse, the course gets progressively more difficult as you go along! And to top it all off, the average runner will have to tackle this hardest terrain in the dark.

    For comparison’s sake, 24 hours is a frequent goal for people running 100 mile races.  This one is 56 miles.

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    Our rental was a Ford Fusion this time around, the new one with the Aston Martin-y nose. While still probably not the ideal choice for rural mountain driving, I spent very little time on unpaved roads this trip, and it was fine.

    At my first stop, the North/South Lake Beach aid station, I befriended John, waiting for his wife. He told me about the area where the Catskill Mountain House once was, just a short walk down the trail from where we were standing. When it was first built, the climb from the valley was a five hour stagecoach ride, then later a cable railway ride.

    “I’m going to stop complaining about my rental cars,” I replied.

    One of the faster guys came through, and the aid station workers rushed to help him. When one asked him what to fill his bladder (the hydration pack) with, he joked beer. The aid station worker said “I have some!” and headed for a cooler. He got water in the pack, but had a cold beer before he left. I grinned. It was going to be a good day.

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    I had a lot of time between aid stations.  I spent a lot of time looking at scenery like this and exploring little towns that sprang up around each bend.

    “Are your shoes comfortable?” she asked, and I didn’t turn around immediately, it didn’t connect that she was talking to me. She asked again, and touched my arm. When I spun, I was greeted with the warmest smile. She pointed again to my feet, my Vibram FiveFingers. I said yes, and gave her a brief rundown of all the activities I do in them. She asked where I was from. She told me about her friend, the only other person she knows who wears them, and then introduced me to three other friends standing behind her.

    We were in line to buy sandwiches at a general store in Tannersville. I spent an hour with them, eating lunch, and then another half hour, just talking about music.

    I got back into my car thinking, “Where am I?”

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    I’ve had but few moments in my life when I’ve felt a very strong sense of belonging, where I’ve felt intrinsically connected to others in a “this is my tribe” sort of way. And it’s usually on a very small scale. I remember sprinting with RunAway from a hotel lobby bar to our room, laughing at something so hard we could barely breathe, and even though I can’t remember what that funny thing was now, I remember collapsing onto the bed and catching my breath and looking up at her, looking back at me with the same expression, and feeling at home, in Boston, in another person. I experienced a very similar thing, in the snow in Veteran Acres a couple of Januarys ago, when I found myself telling Andrea all of these intense things about my life, hours after meeting her for what was really the first time that counted. Home. My tribe. Belonging.

    At the Platte Clove aid station, 31ish miles into Manitou’s Revenge, I felt like I was in my tribe for the first time ever with a large group of total strangers. Sitting on rocks and lawn chairs where the parking lot met the trail head, my tribe was three wives, a girlfriend, a husband, a brother, a friend, and me, all waiting for our people. One of them, Michelle, endeared herself immediately to me by saying “Which one is your person?” instead of “Who is your husband?”

    We were talking about wild animals on the trails. There were bear stories and snake stories and alligator stories and I talked about how excited I was about possibly seeing a javelina in Arizona for Zane Grey until I found out that a javelina was not an exotic cute wild I’m-not-sure-what-but-something-I-could-cuddle? and instead was a hairy stinky giant attack pig. It’s definitely an animal that is way more interesting until you know what it is. Thanks, Google.

    So I’m gesturing wildly while trying to explain what a javelina is, and then the woman who is on her way to Portugal next is talking about a bear cub, and then somebody is talking about last week, in Virginia, and this is . . . this is us. This is my world. We were all coming from somewhere, all going to somewhere, all perched on rocks at this crossroads and waiting, laughing, talking with our hands, connecting.

    GL came into the aid station and took a half hour rest. I gave him a back massage and his sandwich. While filling his water bladder, I overheard a runner – Steve from Toronto – drop from the race and ask about a ride back to the finish line. I offered to drive him, knowing that I had a ton of free time ahead and the dropped runners often wait for quite awhile before the shuttles get to them. Halfway back to town, after talking about the hundo he ran a month ago, he said “You guys run a really great race here” and I explained that I wasn’t actually with the event management, I was just a random eavesdropper, and he laughed and launched into five full minutes of thanks. Then he said “You know what I love about these events? Everybody here has a story from their last trip and plans for their next trip. You can see the whole world through the stories you hear at one of these races.”

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    The next aid station was the one with the hike.  I’d crossed two entire checkpoints off my crew list because they had descriptions like “1.9 mile very steep hike, we highly recommend you don’t crew this station”.  But this one said something like “half mile hike, you may get your feet wet”.  I could handle that!  When we pre-drove the course, we’d even walked a ways up the trail.  GL told me it was a half mile.  Ish.

    We’d gone nowhere near a half mile.  My pre-walk was like 1/10th of the total distance I ended up climbing to get to the aid station.  Much of it looked like this:

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    I did not enjoy the hike up.  I spent most of it convinced I was going to end up lost, never find it, miss him, get eaten by a bear.  It’s amazing how many different ways your brain can talk you into failure.  But once I got there, I realized it would be at least 2-3 hours before he came through yet, so I left his front pack with a headlamp and emergency jacket and candy for him, and I left.  The descent was beautiful and soulful and I stood in streams with cool water running around my legs feeling like I was living an Irish Spring commercial or something.

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    The trail head for this aid station was at the end of Mink Hollow Road.  It was one of the most beautiful and remote roads I’d ever driven, and I spent a good deal of time contemplating the idea of a place there.  What it would be like to hole up and just *be* on Mink Hollow Road.  To exist there for awhile, away from everything else.  Note this, for later.

    I washed the mud off of my feet and jumped back in the car and drove all the way back to our cabin in Big Indian.  I’d see GL next at the finish line, and it would be hours.

    Back at the Weyside, I ate and turned on the Blackhawks game, set an alarm for 11:30pm, and tried to nap.  I slept in fits, that type of sleep you have when you know that missing your alarm is just absolutely not an option.  The Blackhawks won.  I read a bit of the book I started on the plane – Carry On Warrior.  I showered and it was the most glorious shower I’ve ever taken.  I stood under the water for what felt like hours but was actually like fifteen minutes.  I wondered what Mink Hollow was like at night, how GL was doing.  I put on a dress, grabbed a cold beer to greet him at the finish.

    When I got to Phoenicia, Michelle was the first person I saw, and she said “Wow, you look amazing.”  I confessed to the nap and the shower.  At this point, we’d all been moving about these mountains, following and leading and bumping into each other in various states of hot and cold and tired and happy and grumpy, for about 19 hours.  I sat down on the lawn of the parish hall that served as the finish line and started talking hockey with a pair of Boston fans.  A black bear walked down the street less than a block away and I held my breath.  It felt like the opening credits to my Northern Exposure spinoff.

    Again, based only on the people crossing the finish line, I estimated several more hours before GL would get there.  The course description had not exaggerated in any way – this thing was a beast.  I hoped he’d make the 24 hour cutoff.  I figured he’d finish either way, even if it wasn’t official.

    It was right in the middle of this mental math story problem of mine that a truck drove up, and GL hopped out of the passenger side.  The answer was both – he was back before 24 hours, but it would not be an official finish.  I asked where he’d dropped, assuming it was at an aid station and he’d been given a ride back.

    “The intersection of 214 and the trail I wasn’t supposed to be on,” was his dejected answer.  He’d missed a turn, descended, and only realized he was lost when he ran into a highway.  Without the time to hike back in and find the correct trail, a way to communicate with the race director that he was doing so, or proper supplies to go 9 hours without an aid station, he’d started walking down the highway.  A ranger picked him up and drove him nine miles into town.  This was his first DNF (did not finish) that mattered. He traveled 45 miles on foot in 19 hours, counting the 3 miles of off-course trail leading to the highway.

    He ate dinner in the parish hall, explaining to the race director exactly what happened, and telling the story of the bear.  At some point during his descent, he came upon a black bear ahead of him.  Alone, with only his headlamp.  He made a bunch of noise and the bear scampered ahead on the trail, and he continued.  Only to encounter it again.  And then again.  He started getting nervous – how long would the bear keep running ahead and stopping before deciding that GL was chasing him and get defensive?  The bear finally left the trail.  It was one of a handful of bear encounters by competitors in the race.  It certainly made my main street bear sighting feel tame in comparison.

    I waited for him to completely break down.  To get sad, to get angry, to get . . . something.  But he didn’t.  He just looked me square in the eye and said “I had this.  I was going to finish.  I just missed a turn.”

    I knew then that this would be an event he had to come back to do again.  It wouldn’t end like this.

    We barely slept in, maybe 9 am or so.  We drove back to Newburgh to return the rental car and catch a train.  We were only halfway through our weekend.

    So I guess this is a good place to talk about the stick.  When he got out of the truck at the finish line, he was carrying a big ol’ stick.  He’d found it in the woods and decided to see if he could get it home.  It was a low attachment object – if it turned out to be too much of a pain to transport it, he’d abandon it.

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    The stick went to Manhattan with us, was checked as baggage by the Roosevelt Hotel bellhop, and was a carry-on for our flight from LGA to MKE.  The last I saw it, it was in the trunk of GL’s car.  You know.  Just in case.

    Our stay in the city looked like this a lot:

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    But we did get out quite a bit.  Shortly after we checked in, Jenny met us in the lobby, freshly entertained from her afternoon open bar boat party.  We took off for Mexican food – priority on an excellent margarita – and she took us to Sueños in Chelsea, which was fantastic.  Possibly the best carnitas I’ve ever had, which says a lot if you know me and my carnitas love.

    Spending time in the city with Jenny is fantastic not just because of her knowledge of the city, but also because of her LOVE of NYC.  The most mundane things are exciting and it never feels like a tourist experience whatsoever.

    Perfect guide or not, we were exhausted and spending all night on the town was not an option.  Of course, it was only after we arrived back in our room, kicked off our shoes and got comfortable, that we both decided we wanted dessert.  There is basically nothing that makes me feel more indulgent than room service.  GL had ice cream and I had cheesecake, which I ate in bed.  Room service cheesecake is my love language.

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    Our last day in New York was a hodgepodge of wandering about and following whatever shiny thing caught our eyes.  A trip to the Altar of St. Jean-Baptiste de LaSalle at St. Patrick’s.  A couple of wonderful meals.  A stop at The Art of Shaving for GL, because somebody has to be the guy who chases bears AND has dandy personal care routines.

    We had arranged a car service to get us to LGA and allowed for a decent amount of travel time because we needed to arrive at 5pm on a Monday.  Somehow our driver took us door-to-door from the Roosevelt to our terminal in 23 minutes. I wouldn’t have even minded an hour in that car – a Lincoln SUV with cold beverages in the cupholders waiting for us. I took a selfy just to remember the feeling of luxury that was going to punctuate this trip. (GL kept trying to warn me about LaGuardia, which I’d never flown through before, in gentle preparation for the not-so-luxurious experience I was about to have.)

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    So we were even earlier for our flight than planned, which makes GL crazy, and neither of us had bothered to look at a weather map. A line of severe storms stretched all the way down the country just west of us – nobody was leaving New York westbound any time soon. We spent the next five hours sitting on milk crates and then the floor of the hallway between terminals, watching a pair of Jack Russel Terriers (I don’t even understand airports and airplanes and dog rules, but nobody yelled at them.)

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    We boarded our plane home just in time to miss the entire Blackhawks Stanley Cup-clinching victory. When we landed in Milwaukee, we both immediately powered up our phones to frantically search for the game results.  The win was a nice Welcome Home.

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    Finishing this story now, almost two months later, has the advantage of cohesive updates, for both of us.  I wonder if in some ways, I was holding it back because I had unfinished business.

    About a month after we got home, my coach suggested that I work on a “totem” – some sort of physical object that helped to center me and remind me of my goals.  I made a ring.  It is a map of Mink Hollow Road.  To others, it just looks geometric and green.  Running my thumb over the bezel takes me back to a place where I felt absolutely myself and triumphant over all forms of negativity. The water ran cool across my feet and deciding to do something resulted in getting it done – alone.

    Making the ring, I searched the term “Mink Hollow” and was reminded of why it was such a familiar sounding thing to me.  Todd Rundgren’s Hermit of Mink Hollow was recorded on Mink Hollow Road, entirely by Rundgren, his first album to have no other musicians credited. “Determination” played through my head while I mixed and poured my resin.  A totem, indeed.

    And today, as I finally get around to sharing this with you, GL is preparing for a potential trip back to New York this weekend, to hike the Adirondacks with a group who did Manitou.  It isn’t set in stone yet, though Manitou’s Revenge is definitely on the 2014 calendar again.  We used to talk about being the people who end up in Colorado all the time, who have a dedicated escape spot, training in the mountains and recharging the soul batteries in a place that feels so much like a second home that you miss it after only one visit.

    I never dreamed it’d be New York.

    But Colorado still has a chance.  We’ll be in Estes Park for four days in September.  Hopefully I’ll tell you all about that sometime before December.