Old Women–Older Trees

I suppose there is a reason one thought, or story, or memory comes to the surface of our senses at some point in a day’s run. A loose correlation of time, weather, effort, wind direction, shifting tides, and the number of chestnut-backed chickadees in the area may shift our thoughts from one story to another. The algorithm for determining what is going to come calling takes up too much space on the scratchpad of my mind and so, today, as with other days, the result is all that matters.

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This morning found me listening to the crunch, crunch, crunch of frost breaking as I brushed the frozen grasses along the trail. I was running towards the upper bluffs–air just cold enough to wake the senses–fog wisps of breath trailing briefly. I glanced at the cloudless, barely blue sky. Today’s sky is paler than yesterday’s. Each day brings us closer to winter.

My passage interrupts chirpy voices and small winged-shapes flitting here and there in the firs alongside the trail. A passing group of chestnut-backed chickadees looking like Christmas ornaments as they hang upside down looking for food on the underside of branches is the source of the distraction. The summer just past had brought the fun of watching the newest chickadees learning to land upside down on the branch undersides. That is their food niche. Now they are showing me how well they have learned.

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I look at the madrone trees, reddish-brown bark glistening, their newly formed berries bringing the bright red of ripeness that attract cedar waxwings as they pass through heading south. Each morning winter is about fifteen miles closer on its southerly journey. Each morning there is a different audience of birds as I run. It seems like the snow on the shoulders of the Olympic Mountains is a bit wider, the peaks of the Cascades a little more rounded with another day of snow.

Soon the only dry ground will be under the drooping branches of the cedars. Cedars? Olympics? What? The old women. Oh. Here comes today’s memory. It was 1986 in late summer …

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Kathy (my wife) and I were going to run a twenty-something-mile loop in the southwestern part of the Olympic National Park in Washington State. We drove along the shore of Lake Quinault, deep into old growth forest. We passed a tree proclaimed to be the “Largest Western Redcedar in the World”, just over 19 feet in diameter and 174 feet tall. The largest in the world? Who would know, we asked each other as we drove to the trailhead.

We parked, pulled on fanny packs, and headed up Three Lakes Trail, our first running leg of the day. We were running under clear skies and the morning coolness was already gone. I rounded a bend in the trail and stopped. Kathy was stopped in front of an Alaska-cedar, or, as they are sometimes known, Alaska Yellow-cedar. Such deep beauty these old trees possess, wind-polished bark, trunks tall and wise, several hundred years in the growing. The sign-maker had been here too. “Largest Yellow Cedar in the United States.” The two of us could not touch hands trying to reach around it. One-hundred twenty-nine feet tall. We ran on.

Around another corner, up a small hill, past a few slim new Douglas firs, into a mountain meadow, and then I stopped, my turn to pause. Coming toward us were three old women, maybe not as old as the trees around us, but octogenarian old, each with a walking stick and a backpack that dwarfed their bent bodies. We stepped off the trail. They stopped and looked at us in our running shoes, shorts, t-shirts, and fanny packs. We looked at them with their hiking boots, long pants, layers of shirts, hats, dark glasses, packs, and walking sticks. My earlier thought of the beauty of the old trees seemed reflected in their eyes, in the color of their hair, the grey bark of the old cedars, in the lines on their faces, the wind-aged and sun-bronzed sculpturing of the old firs.

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The nearest woman asked, “How far to the trailhead?” I glanced at my watch, converting our running time to backpacking pace, “An hour, maybe a few minutes more.” She nodded and said, with a touch of sadness, “Oh. Well, girls, I guess we’re about done.” About done? “How long have you been out here?” Their stories poured out. A grandson bringing food up on the Hoh, traipsing along the Bogachiel, five days camping by the glacier…. Grandson? Bogachiel? The Hoh? “Stop! Where did you start?” “At Hurricane Ridge, what’s the date?” “July twenty-third.” She paused, thought, and then replied, “We’ve been out six weeks.”

“Oh,” was all I could say. Six weeks? We visualized the days, weeks, and miles and miles and miles they had been wandering in the vastness of the Olympic Peninsula. We thought of our own run, four, maybe five hours. A touch of envy entered our conversation. We parted, returning to our run, but a few steps up the trail a voice came faintly across to us, one of those old voices, “I wish we were young like them, so we could run like they do.”

And I, turning my head, said, not too loudly, “I hope we are still coming out here when we are their age.”

I sat there on the bluff for a while this morning, reliving that day. From where I am sitting, I can look across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Over to the west lies Hurricane Ridge on the north end of the Olympic Peninsula. Somewhere to the south lies the meadow where we saw the oldest Alaska-cedar and women who inspire. . “Old” lost its meaning somewhere along the way. We are still going out there.

There are trails in there, still calling.

—–Run gently out there—–