The summer solstice is a universal expression of our connection to the greater celestial forces. The celebrations pass like a wave across the earth, some on the very day, some on a prescribed day close to the actual event. The longest day of the year is like any other day, except there is more of it. I scheduled a photo shoot at the ruins of an ancient Quaker meeting house, a 5K race where both kids had something to do, followed by a hearty breakfast, and that’s all before 10 am. I figured if the day started off with plenty of momentum, we could do a bunch more things, and I hoped that we could entertain ourselves with spontaneous adventure.
Securing the photo shoot at the Quaker church was initially a pretext for attempting an electronic voice phenomena (EVP) on the grounds of the church, widely rumored to be haunted. The church was built from the stones of the original meeting house. I did extensive research into the history of the local Quakers. I didn’t really know anything about them beforehand. I contacted the caretaker of the property. I was struck by his effusive candor and interest in the preservation of the property. He agreed to let me visit and document the property as long as I didn’t write stuff about it that would invite spook hunters and drunken teen-agers. Judging from the graffiti inside the building, I could see his point. I dug into old books in two libraries, obtaining copies of books written over a hundred years old, checking sources. The more I read about them, the more became intrigued by their history. I had contacted a local magazine article and planned to write a piece to provide the sort of article that would bring the place attention of a nature to serve as counterpoint to the rash of paranormal claims made of the place. I got the idea to try to – the hocus-pocus route was well-tread and uninspired – draw upon the energy of the history of the Quaker church in the form of omnipresent light, to reflect the Quaker experience of “inward light” as captured in photographs in the dawn of the solstice. The photos will serve as a tone poem for revealing the history of the site in Pennsylvania’s history. I planned everything carefully, then things changed and my plans were disrupted.
The 5K was held by the Uniontown Striders. Last year I placed a medal in my age group in this event. i was going back to have my son run his first race, a 440 yd. run called the Little Scramble. I would push Jack in his jogging stroller in the 5K, so both kids could say they had their first race on this day, on the solstice, an easy day to remember. I wasn’t just going to have a family day, I was going to basically freebase it, and tattoo it in everyone’s brain. After the race, we would have cool snacks, buy token gifts, watch a movie, play, let the world slip on by, slowly, for the day would last seemingly forever. I mailed off my registration slips, gave my older son some good orientation on how to pace himself and blow it out on the final stretch – I gave him a strategy. We did practice runs. I took the baby on long, really long jogging runs after building him up all spring. It was going to be a fine day to race, and the charity event was featuring a free huge breakfast for all participants. Like I said, by mid-morning, our day would already be amazing. But things got sort of sideways, and then exploded in my face. All of my carefully wrought plans, consumed in the fires of chaos.
A 5K is not a good race for me. My lungs are shot. I’m off meds for bronchitis, but I’m not better. I’m going back to the doc again this week. I think it’s from the fracking chemicals. Anyways, since I like distance events, I decided to bike 9 – 14 miles to the Quaker church, take photos, possibly do a recording on analog equipment, then bike 14 – 18 miles more to the 5K. I would have a tight schedule, a disciplined activity that required copious planning and flawless execution. I had to make sure my bike was good, my lights worked, my cassette recorder and tape worked properly, my camera worked, I had supplements to push through hours of cycling to the race site with very little room to spare before striking out from the starting line with my kids motivated, able to enjoy the event. I had to be willing to spend the rest of the day totally devoted to entertaining the kids, hoping to imprint our memories with an everlasting familial bond. As I get old, I find myself organizing time and energy to achieve the framing of common activities in a way that they appear special, have a touch of enchantment that we can remember and hold onto. I gathered my gear, checked the pressure on my tires, the stroller tires, checked all gear, arranged everything and hit the bed for a half’s night rest. Everything was good except for the bike gear. I had mounted a front and rear LED light, got new tires and inner tubes, adjusted the spokes, oiled it up, attached a goofy rotary bell (early warning for farm dogs), gathered everything for a speedy 4 am exit from the house.
18-speed mountain bike:, really beat-up Schwinn, covered with stickers and mud and abrasions, new tires and tubes, bell, lights, pump, water bottle, helmet, mangled rear pannier rack, gears and brakes checked, quick-release wheels secured
Backpack: Camera, cheap portable cassette recorder, old Type II cassette (used, filled with ridiculous motivational speech made by illiterate scam artist) to maximize potential for noise and distortion, chamois, zip-close bags for electronics, 3 energy gels, a granola bar, change of shirt for race, Army issue compass, heavy stock paper and Ebony pencils for rubbings, step-by-step Googled biking route, cash, ID, list of interred at graveyard, including names not found in any books in last 100 years
Person: Headlamp, long-sleeve dri-tech shirt, shorts and socks, minimalist race shoes, GPS watch, Road ID bracelet
3:30 am: Awake, dress, eat, lube, depart at 4 am after 400 calorie breakfast.
5:30 am: Arrive at church, dump bike, begin 60 minute audio recordings. At 6 am, begin photographing and filming site, wrap at 6:30 am
6:30 am break> Stop at gas mart 1 mile away for cup of coffee and grab a local newspaper to see if anything cool was happening locally (Larry the Cable Guy or Gallagher the watermelon-smashing comedian is stuff we get here. Or heroin) Begin 14 – 18 mile bike ride to race site in Uniontown. Arrive at 8:30 am, breathless, get packet pick-up, water, cheer older son in race
9 am: Push baby in 5K, goal of not finishing last. have hearty breakfast. Return to house, shower.
12 pm: Be back out of the house to keep momentum going, hopefully en route to picnic or possible livestock gelding festival or whatnot
5 pm: return home destroyed, make dinner, send kids to bed, fall asleep reading good book or later, after some painting.
10:30 pm, end a twenty-hour day sated, hammered with sunlight and memories, falling asleep as soon as I crack open a book
No Such Luck
Storms moved in. I returned the cassette player to the store. Couldn’t destroy equipment. At worst, I could take photos through plastic bag of church, or take photos from inside the church.
The light on the front of the bike didn’t really work. A mile into the ride it had faded so much I set it to strobe. I was able to get out of the house at 4:15 am. I would have to bike harder to stay on schedule; I would run a slower race later. The directions I Googled did not match the GPS-assisted distances i found on my route. I missed a turn on a small country road and ended up turning a 9 mile ride into a 20 mile ride. I rode like a madman. I started in the dark, occasionally forced to the shoulder by teams of fracking trucks carrying “brine” from well pads to somewhere down by the river and back. My missed turn afforded me a chance to see a shift change at the Chevron Rosul pad. Drivers stared at me in passing with the kind of bovine attention that made me think of the sort of future that Pennsylvania was affording the people who would poison their own water supply for a new car, an above-ground pool, a full sleeve. Drivers hollered bracing insults at me in passing. My directions fell from my shorts pocket, but I didn’t need them. By the time I reached the base of the hill on Quaker Church Road, the birds were beginning to stir in the trees. Light crept into the fog. I flew along roads winding up and down through pastures and farms. My headlamp drew a staccato of lightning bug signals through the darkness, and lots of bugs. Insects buffeted my face, the air dancing with tiny flying things.
I took many shots. I hate my Nikon camera. I have more luck with Canon. I’m going to replace it soon. I was able to shoot for about thirty minutes before the flash killed the battery. The best ones I’m saving for my magazine article. here are some cool ones.
There were coins thrown in through the open door way, a bible on rocks in a fireplace, childish scrawled graffiti, the place in ruins.
Outside I located some tombstones of Pages in the SE quadrant of the hilltop cemetery. I photographed them to send to my family to see if and how we could be related.
The battery died and I packed up and left. I get to the main road I was to follow for about 14 miles and the back tire tube all of a sudden, with a whoosh, went completely flat. I walked it across the road to a gas station, borrowed a phone and left a message on my wife’s cell to rendezvous with me on the road. I would have to start running immediately to make the race. But first, a coffee. I am civilized. I tried to mentally prepare myself for this ordeal. It was 6:32 am. My wife would be up in a half hour, would feed the kids, dress, and pack before coming to pick me up if she was so inclined. I had a good 1.5 hours before that happened, so I needed to get going. The longer I waited, the later we would be.
My new goal was to get to the race to see my older son run in his first event at 8:50 am. I walked for five minutes sucking down the coffee. I should have, but didn’t, get more water. I’d biked twenty miles, eaten a granola bar at the church and a gel, drunk all but 4 oz of water. That I saved for my six-mile mark. I still had on my backpack. I put the helmet in it. i ran three miles to another gas station and attempted to refill the back tire. It got me across the parking lot. I kept going, one hand on the head tube below the handlebars.
It was difficult going. I ran over ten miles. Sometimes the shoulder was narrow and I ran in the grass or across crumbing chunks of macadam. If I came to roadkill, I rolled the bike over it. Possum, squirrel, groundhogs, cats, snakes, raccoon. I took a wide berth around fresh skunk carcasses.I saw four copperheads, three dead, one very much alive. At six miles I killed my water, took another gel. I had to contend with two big hills before I found some flat ground to make up time. I was crazy with thirst.
The minutes slipped away into hours. I started to flag, crushed with disappointment, yet determined to press onward. i wondered at 8:30 am if my wife had been detained for some reason, if the baby was ill, if they’d decided to sleep in. The town I was running to had a bike shop. I would need a new inner tube, I knew that much. It looked like I was going to miss the race entirely. At 8:40 am my car slides to a halt in front of me. I pulled the front wheel and seat, breathlessly jammed the bike parts in the back. i had to take the folded stroller out and basically wear it on my lap like a gorilla was sitting on me. The frame took up every inch of room between me and the dashboard, my face squished against it. My kids were excited to see me. I was crushed that we were going to miss my son’s 440 yd. race. I didn’t tell him until we were a short walk away from hash browns and juice, pulling into the parking lot beside the school stadium.
We missed my son’s race, oh god it just wrecked me. I saw the walkers pulling away from the starting line when we entered the school grounds. My older son was crying, my wife upset. i thought I could salvage things and, at least, take the baby so my wife and sad boy could go get some comfort grub. Things were turning crappy fast. I suggested they get the breakfast already. I still had time to run, so I sprinted to the registration desk, got my bib nd shirts (one for me, one for my son) and back to the car. I grabbed my 1-year old and planted him in the stroller. My bib wasn’t even pinned on me. I had it wadded up in my hand. Off we went.
I took the first corner off school grounds. People were clapping alongside the road, cheering me on. i rolled the stroller carefully across railroad tracks, took a turn, thought I saw the last of the runners ahead. I ran to a t-intersection, looked left, looked right, saw nobody for a half mile in either direction. I tried going right a quarter mile, saw no course volunteers, no squad cars, nothing. I doubled back, asked which way to go. The group of volunteers (kids, all of them looking about 14 or 15 years old) pointed the way. I’m running again along a street with spectators ahead. I pass them. The cheering is hearty. I pass the 3 mile marker…I pass the 3 mile marker, check my Garmin and see I’d only run a mile. I was exhausted, furious. Suddenly, behind me, the crowd erupts. Here come the first runners! In front of them a van is cutting its way down the street, and the passenger is yelling for me to get off the course.
I waved my bib, shouted that his volunteers sent me the wrong way. I let the first two runners pass me right before the finish line. I was shooting daggers out my eyes. The course was an out n back, and those race volunteers had motioned me to return to the stadium without thinking, you know, that an old man running slowly with a fat baby in a stroller should, you know, be holding his own in first place at, oh, a 4:30/mile pace, likely a state record pace. With not a soul behind him.
I’m a magical dad. I cross the finish line and just threw my bib number down with disgust. I told the people at the reg desk that I was frustrated having biked twenty miles, then ran ten more pushing a bike with a flat tire just so I could push my baby in a charity 5K. I put on my swag shirt in a bathroom, drained two water bottles, and started back to the car, so sad, so angry. A volunteer came back, apologized and refunded my money.
i returned to the car and explained what happened. My older son was so upset he wouldn’t leave the car. i told him I didn’t get to do my race either. I gave him a hug, put the stroller on my face, blasted the A/C and my wife drove us to a place for a hot breakfast. We ate, then went to a store for some shopping. I bought a pair of pink boxers with iced donuts all over them, and some shorts. I smelled like raw beef, and the change of clothes – my wife hadn’t see my gym bag stuffed with a change of clothes before she left the house to rescue me – made everyone a bit happier.
We came home and goofed off. The rain fell steadily outside on the longest day of the year. We all napped after a movie. We played, watched the World Cup, had some laughs. Having laughs always seems to outperform not having laughs.
My baby said his first word, “Hi”. He strutted around, saying it over and over to us, delighted when we repeated it back to us. I wish every day felt this way.
- So, I biked 20 miles to a ruin
- Biked a bit more and had a flat, walked a cup of coffee down
- Ran 10 miles to a race dragging a bike with a flat back tire while wearing a backpack
- And got routed two miles off-course and forgot to stop the Garmin until we’d driven away.