There is a story written and lived by John Muir (A Wind-Storm in the Forests) in which he decides one day to climb a tall Douglas Spruce tree in the Sierra Nevadas. He climbs all the way to the top. But he climbs during a strong wind storm. He climbs despite the fact that the tree is listing and bending and swaying heavily. In his words, “The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobo-link on a reed.” Muir describes the things he sees as he sways in ellipses about the top of the forest; and of the beautiful sounds he experiences with the wind moaning and rustling through the canyons and trees; and of the fragrances of the woods and of the sea. His exuberance is remarkable in the midst of a situation that might seem irritable or troublesome to most people. He purposely puts himself out on the exposed limbs of life so he can experience the unfiltered, unexpected and unknown.
Several months ago I entered a lottery to participate in a 50 mile foot race called the San Juan Solstice. And I was one of the 250 people selected to run on June 27 in Lake City, Colorado. In the weeks and days leading up to the race, reports began accumulating about late snowfall in the mountains. Info from the race director as well as trail reports from mountain climbers around the state indicated fast-melting but persistent snow above 12,000 feet and very high creeks and rivers. This being my first time in this race, coupled with all the excitement, speculation, and uncertainty about the conditions on the course (“He reports shamelessly resorting to crawling across the snowfields in places.”) made for a bit of nervousness on my part. That feeling didn’t subside when I got to Lake City and saw my fellow competitors, most of them elite ultra-runners.
I work a lot. Which means I don’t train much. But I trained a little, and I had a plan. I’ve been an athlete all my life, an endurance athlete since I was 21, and an ultra-endurance athlete since 2006. All these years of training and learning about how my body responds to different stimuli have helped me understand and shape my fitness at will. And I long to be the type of person who can perform whatever task is needed or desired at any moment without the cumbersome burden of specific training. So I drove to Colorado and arrived at a primitive campsite outside the town of Leadville on a Tuesday. Leadville’s towering mountains greeted me with the same enticement as usual and as I gazed up at their white flanks, my desire to summit began to swell. The desire to climb. Because I’m a good climber.
It’s fun to do something you’re good at. So at 315p* on Tuesday afternoon, I double-knotted my running shoes and hit the trail to see how I felt. The looming mountain above me, the tallest peak in the Rocky Mountains, disappeared as I entered its pine forested skirt. I knew I would suffer with the changes in elevation, having been at 740 feet above sea level 24 hours before and beginning my climb at 10,500 feet. And it was hard, but I climbed with as much forward, upward pace as I could muster. Up until the trees became shorter and sparse and then ceased to grow. I continued upward, leaving the effervescent forest for the airy open space above treeline. And I continued until the wind grew cold. The hard work of ascending kept the fire burning inside but the air became colder and colder, and I put on my jacket and hat and gloves. Each ascent of a knoll which seemed like the last, revealed another above, and eventually the trail gave way to rock stacked and scattered randomly like petrified leaves raked into a pile on a blustery Autumn day. The summit was biting and unprotected and tempestuous. But all at once, I could turn and see in every direction, and at 14,433 feet, the world around soared with the majesty of the greatest painting to ever adorn the walls of Gilcrease Museum. And my lungs, as wheezy as they were on the climb to the top, began to learn what I wanted them to do and my body started transforming itself into an oxygen-extracting machine. (*On an aside here, 315p is NOT an appropriate time to start a mountain climb. I usually start early in the morning so that I am off the summit by noon. On this occasion it worked out because of luck and speed. But don't try it.)
Nicaragua has long been on my radar because of the tasty coffees we’ve had from that country, and because my novice and infrequent cigar-smoking has led me to prefer Nicaraguan tobacco. A couple of months ago, I was invited to visit for the first time with the assistance and direction of a woman named Leslie Penrose, who runs a foundation called Just Hope. Just Hope seems to be the type of foundation that visits with individuals and communities and asks what they need, and then tries to figure out ways to help them get those things, mostly through micro-loans and sharing of information and resources. Not particularly knowing Leslie or having any idea where I would be going or what I would be seeing, I stepped onto a plane, sat in the window seat, and watched as a page turned and the world presented me with a new space to explore and learn. The drive out of the capital city of Managua could’ve easily been on the plains of Northern Tanzania, the earth dry and parched with savannah grasses bent with thirst. Large, thorny trees stretched out over the horizon and unseen residents built cinder- and mud-block houses with corrugated tin roofs. We rolled through the lowlands and ascended into still-thirsty, but highly vegetated mountainsides. This road brought us into the region called Matagalpa and to a town called Santa Emilia. My impression was more of a mood than an actual observation, but the country felt dingy and depressed, uncared-for, and troubled. A side-road in Santa Emilia led us to a farm of the same name, where we waited for an armed guard to open the gate to let us in.
Our living quarters for the next few days were primitive, but interesting. A series of bamboo-and-wood huts with grass roofs stood in rows, and within each were two sets of bunk beds and two full-size beds, complete with mosquito nets. The mosquitoes in Nicaragua carry malaria and dengue fever and a disease called chikungunya, which lasts a few months and causes terrible pain in the joints. Our small huts were spartan. There was no running water and we took something called a “Russian Shower” in which one pours cold water over their body using a bowl floating in a 55 gallon drum. And they fed us, rice and beans, three times a day. This is how the locals live. All the time.
In this region of Nicaragua, we visited coffee farms of different magnitudes. We toured the farm we were staying on, Finca Santa Emilia. It is a large, corporate, well-organized production farm “owned by a Turkish-American.” We visited a medium-sized farm called La Esmeralda, which is owned by an American couple who discovered Nicaragua on a mission trip and decided to buy a farm and “retire” in the tropical countryside. Though the work of managing a farm and the difficulty keeping good labor has worn on them, their farm was diverse and teeming with the multitudes of plants found on a 21st Century Central American mountain. The farm seemed a bit disheveled and wild, while the owners, Debra and Roy were as neat and hospitable and friendly as could be.
We drove just outside of that small town and parked on the side of the road. Here we disembarked and walked up a wide dirt-and-rock trail for a mile or so to a community called La Flor. A public forum ensued and we met a few farmers, sitting around a large circle in their community center, who told of their farming practices and the challenges they face as small landholders. The culture of over-spending in bumper crop years leads to over-borrowing in lean and underproductive years, and the cycle of a cash-poor farmer needing and promising never ends. The “coyote” lends money for fertilizer and buys the coffee 9 months later during harvest. The sloppy wet-milling performed at each little farm results in a volatile, fermenting coffee being sold to the dry mill. And the urgency with which the coffee must change hands in this fragile condition constrains the farmers to the market prices of the day. Or less, because they have no idea WHAT the market prices are. (Everyone seems to think they're getting ripped off, and maybe they are, but it's complicated.) And these people really are living a very simple life. We meandered around the community after our meeting and visited a few of the farms in La Flor. We climbed the hillsides and walked amongst the coffee. We knelt next to the small nursery where they grow seedlings for new coffee plants. We saw new water lines and pit toilets that were funded by loans through Just Hope. And we saw pride in the beaming countenance of a man named Geronimo as he showed us the beautiful, shiny new house he built with more assistance from Just Hope. Our main guide over the land was a young man named Freddy. He had earned a scholarship to go to the university and study agronomy, and so he was a wealth of information and experience, and his farm was the most healthy and pristine of them all.
All along our walk, as I hung back to take in all the little details, Geronimo would pluck an 18 inch seed pod or a red shell with horns like a bull and crack them open for a snack. He would always offer up a pea or something that looked like a slimy caterpillar, and much to my surprise they were all edible and some were even pretty tasty.
As I processed all the information about the people of La Flor and thought about the ways in which their lives could be made easier by working together, collaborating, and improving their coffee processing, pooling their purchases and maybe even their sales, my mind spun through the possibilities, not just to acquire coffee for the DoubleShot, but to walk away knowing these people had more opportunities than when I met them.
The San Juan Solstice 50 began in the early morning darkness with 249 runners trotting up a dirt road carrying water and snacks and clothing for unexpected changes in weather. We turned off onto singletrack that crossed a waist-deep, frigid stream several times, each crossing making my feet numb. That track persisted up and over a mountain pass and down into a valley where the sweltering temperatures had me dripping sweat. The second long climb of the day led up onto the Continental Divide, where we ran on trail and off-trail, through fragile, slippery snow, and tufted, patchy grasses, an ankle-sprain-in-waiting.
As expected, I was climbing well, especially for a flat-lander, chit-chatting and laughing at the suffering I sensed in the runners around me (and inside myself). I laughed about cold, numb feet; and about falling through a snowfield and post-holing for a few steps until I could regain my footing on solid snow. I told myself, "The higher I go, the stronger I get." And when a competitor asked me, "Are you enjoying the views?", I looked up from my feet and observed the barren sliver of land we were running on and how it fell away to both my left and right and on both sides of me were...
No. Not really. But I did notice after I arrived in Lake City that the place has a fondness for a fellow named Alferd Packer. In the winter which began in 1873, Packer and five other men ventured out into the Rocky Mountain wilderness in search of gold. ("There's gold in them thar hills.") They struck out from Montrose headed for Gunnison during an especially difficult season and got terribly lost. Nowadays, all you'd have to do is drive east on Highway 50, watch the road signs if that makes you feel better, and check the GPS on your phone occasionally to see how many miles are left. But in 1874 there was no highway and barely even a town at either end of that journey. So they got tremendously lost. (You should look at a map if you don't know how lost they got.) So lost that they ended up near the townsite of Lake City. (It wasn't officially a town until later that year.) Once the lost party ran out of food, they apparently began to eat each other. And Packer was the only one to survive the trip. Sustained by human flesh, he showed up alone in Gunnison a couple months later. While in Lake City, I ate most of my meals at the Packer Saloon and Cannibal Grill. Running through the same mountains where Packer ate his friends, I munched on a Cannibal Burger, which tasted like beef and was fairly delicious and sustaining slathered with ketchup.
Yes, I eat hamburgers during long runs. Ground beef is an amazing source of energy. I also drink coffee. The DoubleShot Coffee Concentrate went down so smooth at the 21.5 mile aid station and gave me the spark to get on up to the Divide. (If you've never stood on the Continental Divide, you should find a way to get yourself there. It's breathtaking.)
One thing led to another and I actually felt really good throughout the race. The final climb up a steep mountain called Slumgullion (which apparently is primitive Hamburger Helper) was brutal, and climbing through the only aspen forest of the day, the mosquitoes feasted on my human flesh. Swatting and laboring uphill, I finally came to the peak and ran down to the last aid station. The next 3 miles were very steep to my weary legs, and the loose shale singletrack trail tested my balance and braking. And finally I could no longer trust my legs to run down the ceaselessly steep terrain. So I walked it in, finishing in 14 hours and 10 minutes, exhausted. (The 122nd person across the line.)
I've always hoped that the things I have a knack for and enjoy doing could be useful at some point for the greater good of society. At what point will I be needed to throw on a pack and run up into the mountains to help some inaccessible population? For now, I feel like the traveling I've done and the information I've learned over the years about coffee farming could possibly be put to good use for more than the acquisition of delicious coffee for the DoubleShot (though that is good use). And that makes me hopeful. It's the result of climbing a tree during a windstorm in order to see what transpires. Now I just have to make something happen.