Wonder

Running has always been an escape for me. I’m currently not nearly as much of a runner as I used to be, but I still try to push myself. I would like to pause for a moment and assure my readers that this, by no means, insinuates that I am a good runner. Over the years, it’s been pointed out to me that my form could certainly use some work (“it’s like Flubber on wheels” one track coach commented). Furthermore, whenever I push myself beyond my comfort level, my breathing takes on a panicked pattern, and I have a tendency to spit into the wind, thus right back into my own contorted face. Combine that with a head of hair that inevitably goes “poof!” by the first mile marker, and I can assure you that at the completion of most of my workouts my image resembles less of a Lance Armstrong in running shoes and more of a misfit white boy who drools habitually and stuck a fork in an outlet right before collapsing in a panting heap on the ground. It’s disheartening really.

The point is: I run because I love to run. I have very little going for me in the running world and the day it becomes anything short of rewarding and personally enjoyable, I will probably stop. Yes, I am aware this makes me a freak. I’m also a boy named Bryn, so this is a running theme (pun!).

So I’ve begun running again. The other day, I woke up early on an overcast but unseasonably warm November morning to begin a 14-mile training run (Training for what, you ask? Well, follow my blog religiously for the next six months, and you’ll find out! Click subscribe now!). I set out in running shoes, shorts and a light pullover, and by the first mile I was already sweating.

From my house in Southwest Harbor, I set off down Seal Cove Road. About three miles outside of town, this street enters Acadia National Park and turns into a gravel road that leads to a network of similar roads all through the most remote sections of the park. In the winter, gates at either end of this road are closed and the route is completely abandoned…except for me. Few things excite me more than an empty gravel running path through the heart of otherwise untouched wilderness.

I passed the closed gate and kept running into the heart of the park. About four miles from home I reached an intersection with a right hand turn onto another branch of the road. I usually go straight; in fact, I had never turned at this point before. But something got a hold of me this morning, and I decided, what the heck, why not?

The path answered my question shortly after I made this decision when it immediately angled up hill. The next quarter-mile or so was a steady up-hill gait, and by the time the path had flattened out, the sound of my breathing resembled a whoopee cushion, and several spots of spit had ended their boomerang flight on my face. I kept jogging and the road remained flat, giving me a chance to catch my breath.

And that’s when I passed a trailhead. It wasn’t much but on the side of the gravel road was a small wooden sign next to an overgrown trail, which read “Mansell Mountain” above a right facing arrow.

I’d never hiked around Mansell Mountain and honestly couldn’t remember ever hearing much about it. The prospect of running up it that morning was tempting, but I needed to focus on my mileage. So I kept running.

About a mile up the road, though, I saw another trailhead. I stopped at the sign:

“Razorback Trail Head leading to Mansell Mountain” the sign read.

Now this just wasn’t fair. Razorback Trail? What a masochistically enticing name! Here before me was a path that lead to an unknown peak along a trail that promised the ability to slice objects (such as, say, lost runners) to shreds.

Furthermore, this was the second trail marker I’d passed in the last ten minutes, which obviously meant that God really wanted me to go up this mountain today. Please don’t question my logic on this one.

And so I turned and took off down the trail. I skirted a muddy path and splashed water up onto my legs. The trail steepened as a light drizzle began and the mud gave way to portions of open rock face. I quickly came to understand why this trail was called “The Razorback”. Several portions were narrow, spiked sections of rock, barely wide enough to walk across, with a four to five foot drop-off on either side. These portions were particularly slippery. I had to slow to somewhat of a speed walk for fear of losing my footing. Being in road shoes didn’t help either; I felt much as though I were running along a tile floor in fleece socks.

The tree line opened up and behind me I could see the section of the park I’d been running in, as well as Southwest Harbor off in the distance. Mansell Mountain appeared to be up to my north, with a valley and another peak (the name of which I also didn’t know) on my left. A mysterious fog settled above the trees between these two mountains. It was like I’d stepped from my house that morning, and just a few small steps later found myself in a world that was right under my nose, and yet completely unknown.

JRR Tolkien said (via Bilbo Baggins) that it’s a dangerous business stepping outside one’s door because you never know where you might be swept off too. As I continued running, I couldn’t help but wonder where I was, wonder where Mansell Mountain topped off, wonder how I’d never explored this section of the park before, wonder if “he died on the Razorback” would be a cool enough eulogy, and in general, just wonder at the wonder of it all. I wasn’t quite sure where I was, and really didn’t know where I was going. It was great.

Suddenly the trail flattened out and a small mound of rocks marked the top of Mansell Mountain, elevation 979 feet. I hit the pause button on my stopwatch and stood staring at the sign for a moment. I was covered in sweat, so a single gust of wind on the exposed rock sent shivers down my spine.  I took a quick glance around  but was hit with another chill, so I decided it best to start running again.

I hope I never lose my sense of wonder at the world because with it comes a sense of peace and understanding that I can’t quite explain. It propels me into a creation that is so vast, so magnificent, and so beautiful that I find myself with a comprehension that some things just can’t be comprehended. It’s only with this wonder, only with this fascination with all that lies outside my door, that I find peace in playing a small role in something quite large and wonderful itself.

I returned down the trail the way I’d come, much more slowly than the way up for fear of slipping while going full speed. That’s when I noticed what I hadn’t in my final push: a small but distinct trail leading to the right of my homeward route. I glanced at its muddy tracks, twisting and turning into the foliage and out of view.

I couldn’t help but wonder where it might lead.

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Stupid

Autumn hit Maine with the force of a hurricane, and for once I’m not being hyperbolic. On August 27, Irene slammed into the eastern coastline of North Carolina, and started working its way north to the chorus of doomsday predictions and worried mothers, one of which happened to be calling my phone.

“Hey Mom, how are yo-“

“BRYN! OH THANK GOD! ARE YOU OKAY!?”

“Mom? I’m fine…What’s wrong? Is everything okay?”

“BRYN! THERE’S A HURRICANE COMING TOWARDS YOU!”

I looked out my window. It was sunny outside, with a nice breeze, and down on my street a lady was walking with her child in the stroller.

“Mom…I’m fine. Really. It’s not here yet.”

I heard a deep breath as she calmed down. “ Okay, well, are you ready for it?”

“Yes.” I said. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure how to get ready for a hurricane, save for maybe buying a pair of goggles and kiddie floats. But I let that set of details slide.

“Okay,” she said, “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

I assured her that I was, and thanked her for the concern.

She got ready to hang up, then paused. “Bryn,” she said, “don’t do anything stupid…..”

“Of course no-“

Click.

            Hurricane Irene was at one time projected to generate winds of over 100 miles per hour with a storm surge that could potentially bring an end to New York City.  As Irene chugged up the eastern seaboard, and the media flew into a feeding frenzy, I received several text messages, emails and phone calls from various acquaintances, all wondering if I was okay. I assured them that I was (“but have you checked out my blog?”) and was somewhat befuddled when most of the conversations ended the same way as my mother’s: “Bryn, don’t do anything stupid.”

As I gathered my gear together, scanned nautical charts for the best places to catch the surf from the incoming storm, and secured a kayak on top of my car, I kept wondering what on earth they were talking about.

As it turns out, Irene headed inland and struck Vermont with more ferocity than my coastline. By the time it reached Maine, its’ strength decreased significantly. The day after what was left of the hurricane reached Bar Harbor, I awoke to sun and clear skies. I looked out my window, severely disappointed.

But then I heard the wind. Even in town, gusts were kicking it at 25-30 knots, which meant out on the water there would be some glorious swells…. which meant I wouldn’t be sitting in my house all day. I made some phone calls and soon enough I was on my way, a kayak tied to the roof.

I met two other Maine guides, Jeff and Chris, at a section of the park called Otter Cove. As we got out of our cars, we glanced out towards the open ocean.

“There’s some good action out by the rocks over there,” Chris said, pointing to the opening of the cove. The wind blew by me as I followed his arm. Sure enough, about a quarter of a mile out, I could see large waves crashing into the shore.

“Think it’ll be good?” I asked.

Chris shrugged. “Worth a shot!”

The three of us donned kayaking tops and helmets, loaded our boats, and then we were off. As we began paddling towards the open ocean, I could hear the sound of waves crashing. I suddenly realized I’d done something very, very stupid:

I had forgotten to turn off my alarm clock that morning; it’d probably wake up my landlord. I smacked my head with my kayak paddle a few times, muttering “stupid, stupid, stupid….”

We reached the opening of Otter Cove and faced the incoming waves. The swells increased until we couldn’t see over the top of them, and then lost sight of each other as we paddled along. The wind was blowing hard from the south and was almost impossible to paddle against. Every single swell lifted me eight to nine feet and then suddenly dropped as the wave moved on. It was like being on a roller coaster that could drown me.

We let the wind push us to the north, to a section of Mount Desert Island called Otter Cliffs. These are exactly what they sound like: cliffs lining the ocean, on which the massive swells were currently crashing with a vengeance. The point of our venture had been to ride some of these waves- surf them into shore. However, with the high tide, and complete lack of beach line, we quickly realized that surfing into shore would mean being caught between the waves and rocks….really big waves and really, really hard rocks. Instead, we opted to hang out just past the surf zone, catching the rim of each swell right before they broke into waves and smashed onto the rocks. This proved to be a thrill all in its’ own:

Each wave is, in itself, a circular movement of water moving in a certain direction (usually towards shore). What we think of when we hear the word “wave” is formed when the bottom half of that cycle becomes inhibited by the approaching shoreline. Thus, when we see a wave “crashing” on the shoreline, what’s occurring is the inhibition of the circular motion by decreasing lack of depth. This causes the wave to “crash” or close in on itself. For us to remain safe, while simultaneously seeking the biggest thrill, we had to ensure we were placing ourselves where that circular motion was at its peak (known as the “crest”), all while avoiding the whole wave-crashing-in-on-itself-with-us-squealing-our-last-words-inside-of-it part.

Thus, with each wave that came in, I felt myself lifted, suddenly elevated and moving towards shoreline at rapid speed as I talked to my fellow kayakers: “Wow, this is amazing! Oh man…oh man…look at those rocks! Look at these waves! Look at those rocks that are getting a lot clo- OH MY GOSH!” (Insert ferocious paddling and the squeal of an I-am-freaking-scared-to-death-Ohioan).

As the three of us paddled outside the surf zone, Jeff motioned towards the shoreline.

“I think we have some fans!” he said.

Sure enough, standing on the rocks was a small collection of people all looking in our direction, some of them with cameras. There were even a couple Park Rangers sitting and watching us; I’m guessing they had the rescue squad on speed dial. I can only imagine what the conversations must’ve been like:

First bystander: “Hey, do you see those kayakers out there?”

Second bystander: “What on earth are they doing?”

Park Ranger: “Being stupid.”

“Yea, it looks like they could get swept into the rocks at any moment!”

“Did you just hear that one squeal?”

“The one in the green…that looks like he’s from Ohio or something?”

“Yea, that one!”

Ranger: “Stupid Ohioans.”

As it turns out, my (newly employed) guardian angel did a pretty good job. As the day moved on, and the winds and swells died down, we edged closer to some of the rocks. Eventually, we decided to head in for the day, and paddled back to our cars, the sound of waves crashing echoing in the background.

As I drove back to my house that day, and apologized profusely to my landlord for the alarm clock that woke him up, the thought occurred to me that I had just kayaked in the remnants of a hurricane. It sounded like an adventure worth telling say -I dunno- on my blog (have you heard of it?). But then again, if it was posted online my Mom might be able to read it….

Man, I thought to myself, now that would be stupid.