I have many stories about Alex, but I will share one. I once made the mistake of telling him about the railroad trestle I had found trail running in Ashland. That, in itself, wasn’t the mistake. The mistake came later. Of course, as soon as I mentioned the trestle, I knew we were going there. The thing is 200’ high in the center span, if it’s an inch. They give you open steel grids to walk on, or the railroad cross-ties, with six-inch gaps. The steel grids bounce and flex when you walk on them, and some of them are not completely tied down, and, if a train comes – which has never happened in the dozen or so times I’ve run across the thing, but is bound to happen eventually – then God help you. So as soon as the word “trestle” left my mouth in Alex’s presence, I knew we were going there. Word, deed, fait accompli.
The next morning, we decide on a hike rather than a run, and leave the car where the tracks pass near the road. We hike in for an hour or so, and came to a tunnel. This is a small tunnel, maybe 150 yards, and you can see light at the other end. Immediately afterward is the steep shortcut trail that cuts off another two miles of track with a switchback and a Really Long, Dark, Curved Tunnel. I start up the shortcut, and Alex asks where we were going.
Now comes the actual mistake. Terminally honest, I explain about the shortcut, with a sinking feeling, instead of just lying and saying, “this is the way to get to the trestle.”
After a few minutes of friendly debate, we agree to go look at the mouth of the other tunnel, but there will be no coercion, and we’ll turn around and come back after we’ve looked. As soon as he sees the mouth of the tunnel, Alex says what any of us could have predicted: “Oh, we have to walk through that.”
“Are you crazy? We’re not walking through that.” (Colorful, emphatic idioms omitted). Try to visualize this: we are at the mouth of a tunnel built on a curve in the tracks. It is, as a friend used to say, darker than a cat’s ass at midnight on a cloudy new moon in January. Google Earth tells me that the tunnel is three quarters of a mile long, and curves 45 degrees in that distance. And Alex wants to walk through it. “We’re here,” he says, “how could we not walk through it?”
“Very simply,” I replied, “we can turn our reasonable, rational asses around, walk ¾ of a mile back to the cutoff, and then hike out to the trestle.”
We continue in this vein for a few minutes and then I find myself in a very strange situation. I am old enough to be his father, for God’s sake, but Alex’s enormous personality somehow makes me the timid younger brother who would do anything for the big brother’s approval. Of course we walk into the tunnel. Of course, we have no light source. Of course, within 200 feet, we can’t see anything: rails, ties, walls, each other, our hands in front of our faces and, least of all, any light from the other end of the tunnel.
It takes forever. We check in periodically. We figure out that if we each walk just inside one of the rails, we can probe the rail with our toes and figure out where to put our feet. The experience of absolutely no discernible light at all is very, very strange. I experience terror, both rational and atavistic. The rational terror is this: I have spent perhaps 30 or 40 hours running on these tracks, and never yet encountered a train, but given the idiotic thing we are doing, one is practically guaranteed to appear. And then? I can think of a few choices. One, lie down in the gravel, hands over head, and hope the train isn’t dragging anything. Two, stand in one of the pockets between two of the ten- or twelve-inch ribs in the walls, press my face into the wall, and try not to fall backward in the roar and the shaking and the gut-loosening terror. Even thinking about Option Two makes my guts feel funny. Option Three is to jump in front of the train and abbreviate the terror.
I don’t share this with Alex. We trudge, trip, trudge and strain our eyes. For a while, I walk with my hands straight in front of me, irrationally scared that I’ll walk into something that will poke my eyes out. We don’t talk much.
At one point, I trip and almost go down. We stop periodically, thinking we’ve heard something. Our eyes play tricks; one of us says, “stop!” and we both strain our eyes to see the light that one of us thinks he’s seen. No light.
And then, finally, maybe there is a little light. Both of us think so. Another few minutes, and we’re sure of it. Not the end of the tunnel, but the faint outlines of the rails, a couple of hundred yards ahead of us. We test by waving our hands in front of us: sure enough, the rails go away when our hands are roughly in the right position. We still have to walk slowly, because we can’t see feet, track or anything near us.
When we emerge a few minutes later, it doesn’t take me long. “You bastard. You’re totally impervious to fear, but I was more scared for the last half hour than I’ve been in twenty years. I was sure the train was going to come and we were going to spend forever pressed up against the wall of that damn tunnel, crying for mama and pooping our pants.”
He replies, “Are you kidding? I was petrified. About ten minutes in, I could have sworn I heard a guy walking behind us and breathing. I could hear your breathing, and my breathing, and then this third dude, in a completely different rhythm. I was sure we were about to get knifed in the back for most of the walk.” That was the first I’d heard of it, of course.
Then he says this: “What a great adventure! Utter darkness and absolute terror! Doesn’t it make you feel alive?”
Half an hour later, as we are staring down at the tops of the firs far below, he exclaims, “Wow! Isn’t this open space awesome? We need to come back with a long rope and rappel off of this thing!”
Later, when the tracks come out of the woods near a freeway exit, he realizes where we are, and explains that we can take a shortcut to the car. It does involve a bit of a mud glissade down steep hillside, and then running across I5. Oh, and scrambling over the concrete barrier in the narrow median. As I wait on the other side of the barrier for a couple of trucks to roar down the grade in the far lane, I can tell, at the edge of my vision, that Alex, already across, is up to something. As I sprint, I realize what it is and yell, “you bastard, don’t you dare!” as he clicks the shutter on his iPhone. When I’m across, he shows off his picture of me in full sprint, raincoat flapping, with the back end of a truck just downhill. “OK,” I said, “I won’t make you delete that picture… but Jeannie must never see it.” He vows discretion.
That evening, after we had recounted our adventures and Jeannie had – of course – seen the picture, we fell to discussing that particular part of the highway. He noted that he’d often ridden down it on his bicycle, as a shortcut back into town when he was doing repeat training on the brutal uphill to Mount Ashland. That way, he explained, he could spend more time going uphill and enjoy a briefer, but more intense experience of going downhill.
“How fast do you think you go?” we asked.
“Probably forty-five or fifty. But actually, that’s nothing. Last month, I figured out that if I timed it exactly right, I could wait at the top of the on-ramp, and as soon as I saw a semi crest the hill, I could pedal as hard as I could, and hit the bottom of the ramp at exactly the right time to come up behind and draft behind the trailer. If I’m about 30 feet behind the trailer, it just pulls me along as it gathers speed. Half a mile down, we’re going seventy, easy.”
On a bicycle. On a six-mile downgrade. At seventy miles an hour. If you mess up even a tiny bit, we inquired, aren’t you going to die pretty quickly? “Oh, of course,” he replied. “One time, I passed what I think was a bottle cap. I realized if I had hit that, it would all have been over. When you’re going that fast, you don’t even shift your weight like in normal riding; all you do is think, as gently as you can, about how you want the bike to move, and it does. Everything quiets down and you get very focused. You notice every breath, and you feel tremendously alive.”
The hard truth is that people who live like this – in the brilliant life that exists just a whisker from death – sometimes don’t live as long as we wish they could. But thank God that they live!
Many of us need demigods, saints, to mediate for us in the life of the spirit. The Divine Mystery is too abstract, and often too scary, for most of us to grok, most of the time. Saints let us approach It in human terms.
So, let those of us who wish now canonize Alex in the cathedrals of our hearts. Let him be our patron of open-eyed, stone-cold-sober, sacred madness. Let him be our avatar of the unlimited friendliness in the diamond-clear Life that exists only in the immediate consciousness of death. Let him remind us to invite a friend for dinner instead of working late; let him counsel us to do that utterly irrational, absolutely essential thing; let us follow his example and push ourselves until our eyes bleed, just because it’s fun.
I won’t ever be Alex, and it’s not my job. The race that he ran in 4:20 took me 6:18; he finished with a smile, and I couldn’t stand up. I can mentor one young person at a time, and that from an arm’s length. But I can bring a bit of him into my life.
At his memorial, I did maybe ten percent of what Alex would have done for me. I packed four rocks from the Old Siskiyou Barn – a sacred and beautiful place near where Alex lived – to the memorial. They’re a peculiar, glacier-smoothed stone that looks good enough to eat, and that Alex dearly loved. Three of them bore the letters “L,” “O” and “V.” The fourth is waiting to be inscribed with “E”, to replace one lost in a winter mudslide.
Then, as Alex might have done, I took them for a trail run. Of course, I went 6 miles and 1200 vertical feet. Alex would have gone 60 and 30,000.
It was hot, and I was slow.
I stopped to take pictures.
Here, the rocks and I pause to honor Sam Holmes, who was playing “Wild Horses” on the second-to-last switchback of Horse Trail the year I ran the Mac 50. Then, when his daughter showed up, he strapped his guitar on his back and ran the last eight miles in with her. Pretty Alexian, in my opinion.
We made the top of Dimple Hill; this is the view that made me know I wanted to move to Corvallis, back in 2000.
But the biggest lesson from Alex is that adventures are just punctuation between times with the bodhisattvas with whom we learn, laugh and love.