The Trials of Trail 27

Sunday is my ‘long-run day’, and when in Turin, it’s the day I go up and over the one big hill close to the city, which is Superga. Although this hill has several forest trails, I prefer the road because it’s easier to measure the distance that way and also it’s just easier: I don’t have to think about where I’m going, the ground is even and there are no fallen trees or rockslides to contend with.

Much to my consternation, though, a large crowd of runners had gathered at the foot of the hill, waiting to start a road race. The usual, comfy route was off-limits! With great reluctance, I trotted off in a different direction, seeing where my feet would take me.

Things started out well. I saw a big old villa with fancy statues on the gate, which was interesting for a few seconds. But soon the road turned into a fast-car-only affair and I glumly considered giving up, turning back home and starting all over again. At that very moment, however, I looked across the road and saw a trail leading up into the forest: Number 27.

 

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It was fated; the sign had spoken. Besides, there is always an inviting sense of mystery in an overgrown trail, especially if you don’t know where it leads. I crossed the road and peered at the informative sign. Summoning all my powers of Italian-deciphering, I read the following:

 

Vines and Villas

The Traverse Road crosses many old villas. Nearby we find the Richelmy Villa, of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which sits on the rural side along the foothills and has a large portico in its inner courtyard. The little isolated chapel can still be seen, which was reportedly built in 1626.

Downstream from the Richelmy Villa, the course passes the eighteenth-century Villa Bocca, previously Villa Capello, and affords glimpses, upstream, of Villa Cannone. These are three precious examples of the residential houses typical of the Torinese hills, built between the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, to which has been given the name of Vines. This term aptly represents the buildings’ dual role as holiday houses of nobles and wealthy bourgeois and as sources of agrarian income from the planting of vines, fruit and vegetables.

 

The prospect of gawking at old buildings definitely added an extra incentive to the climb, so I ignored the other sign about how the hill is infested with wild boar and set off.

Almost immediately, running turned into walking. The path was very steep and root-riddled and to my mind, walking up hill counts as running. Geoffrey Kamworor, who just smashed the half-marathon record this week, would probably beg to differ. He can run 13 miles an hour, whereas my average is about 4. “But Geoffrey, Geoffrey,” I would tell him if he were there to tssk at me, “Imagine all the nuances you miss by rushing around as you do. Life is not a race, my man! What about all the little butterflies? The way you rush about, they probably die on your forehead as if it were the grille of a Maserati. By contrast, they are completely undisturbed by my elephantine grace—” I stopped talking to myself abruptly at a horrifying sight.

 

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LOG

 

The log was about thigh-height and there wasn’t enough room to crawl underneath, which meant I had to actually climb over it. There was a time when I was a great one for climbing over logs and even up trees. I have a distinct memory of sitting atop a macrocarpa hedge giving condescending praise to my little playmate Damien for his feeble efforts. Alas, those days are gone. What would have once been the work of five seconds now took me a full two minutes. First, I had to decide where to put my foot, then what to grab onto, then how to pull myself up off the ground. Once on top of the log I needed a short rest to take a breath, but I still had to keep my balance. Then came the business of figuring out how to get back down. Exhausting.

Luckily, that was the only log incident on the trail. In fact, after about five minutes the trail disappeared altogether and became a paved driveway. There was a sign saying ’27’ though, so I knew I should keep going. Items of interest included this sign warning against a ‘Guard Poodle’ and a large house that looked like an historic villa but there was no official indication of the fact.

 

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Chinese Lantern

 

A little way on, the trail became an actual trail again and I was immersed in something approaching wildlife. There were small strange strawberries, a fluffy yellow sort of flower and a physalis alkakengi or ‘Chinese lantern’. All this greenery reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my parents on Skype the day before. Shortly before my mother had started playing with a phone app. that turned Dad into a fire-breathing dragon, he mentioned a plant called the ‘Touch-me-not’, which shrinks from contact with any person it doesn’t ‘know’. Apparently, once you’ve approached it daily and given it water and complimented it on its looks, for about three months, it tolerates you and no longer retracts its leaves. This in turn reminded me of another odd creature boundary between ‘animal’ and ‘vegetable’, the Elysia Chlorotica, a sea slug that steals plant genes to make chlorophyll and execute photosynthesis.

Whilst musing thus on various forms of plant life, I happened across a crumbling archway, probably belonging to one of those Vine-Villas.

 

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ominous portal

 

This was the stuff. Abandoned ruins! Moldering stone choked with greenery and a deathly hush broken only by the gentle buzzing of bees! Actually, the buzzing wasn’t so gentle. It was very loud and a bit ominous. There must have been at least two hundred of them lurking about. I hoped they were honeybees and not wasps, for instance. I hoped they wouldn’t mind my passing by. Eventually I came to a large shrub where they seemed to be concentrated. They were going mad for its flowers and didn’t even seem to notice I was there, even when I shoved my camera in their faces.

 

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This got me thinking about the human apocalypse. “If it has to happen,” I thought, “For God’s sake, let it happen before the bee extinction. That way they’ll get some time to make their honey and do map-dances in peace.” It was amusing to think of great metropolitan areas such as New York or Rio de Janeiro turned into jungles filled with the sound of bees.

 

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calves of steel

 

All of a sudden, I popped out of the forest trail and back out onto familiar territory, the road. There were no other runners in sight—they must have passed by ages ago—but there were two cyclists bravely pedaling up the slope. Cycling is a big pastime here and there are always a few elastic-legged specimens, usually men in pairs, though today I saw one lone woman.

From there it was only about a kilometer to the town of Superga, where I was hoping to buy some Powerade at the little shop. Unfortunately, it was closed but there was one of the distinctive-to-Turin water fountains in the shape of a bull’s head, where I stopped to fill my water bottle up and to eat some gummy bears.

 

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fangs of tungsten

 

From Superga to Baldissero Torinese I don’t remember much, except that all the dogs were very happy to see me because I gave them the chance to show what excellent guard dogs they all were. One dog saw me coming and barked its head off, thereby alerting the dog next door, which did a little dance of joy but held its bark in until I was right next to the gate, when it really let loose. Then the dog next door to that one had its turn. It was like a dance—each dog waited impatiently for its chance to give me a good telling off. The loudest greeting committee was probably this trio of chihuahuas, or two chihuahuas and one miniature Dachshund, which stood threateningly at the gate and roared like a bonsai Cerberus.

 

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Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.

 

After much slog, I was finally headed back down the hill and paused to take a picture of hazy Turin, when I noticed something on the road. It looked like a little ball and I saw that it was some kind of fat little wood mouse. Alarmed, considering the speed and frequency with which cars come along at that spot, I scooped it up and noted with interest that it didn’t seem to mind in the least. In fact, it rolled back onto my palm with a blissful compliance, as if still drunk from all the sun it had been soaking up. Finding a dark, leafy area away from the road, I placed it in the litter and hoped it wouldn’t be clever enough to find its way back to the death trap. 

 

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When I got back, I told John all about the mouse and he asked me queasily whether I’d washed my hands, which I had, but I could still almost feel the silky, warm surprisingly heavy heft of it. 

 

 

 

Turin’s Big Brains and Deviant Apples

The other day I had an hour to kill in Turin’s Crocetta district, so I went to three museums in the same building—the “Luigi Ronaldo” Museum of Human Anatomy, the “Cesare Lombroso” Museum of Criminal Anthropology and the “Francesco Garnier Valletti” Museum of Fruit.  All three are historical museums, in the sense that their pieces were collected in the nineteenth century, though multimedia and informative signs provide some historical context.

The “Luigi Rolando” Museum of Human Anatomy

Luigi Rolando (1773-1831) was an anatomist who spent most of his career at the University of Turin devoted to the study of brain anatomy. He pioneered research in brain localization of function—partly through experiments involving electrical stimulation. At least eight neurological entities are named after him, which must be confusing for brain surgeons. Rolando willed his skeleton to the museum and I spent a few moments noting that he was pretty tall and had a good mouth of teeth. His brain was between his feet, looking like a bumpy toupee.

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The Rolandic fissure aka the sulcus.

Medical students have to get used to looking at stomach-turning things because that’s part of being a doctor, surgeon, nurse or medical researcher. I, however, am not a medical student. When I see a pickled brain, my only reaction is to immediately wish I hadn’t. A shelf full of foetal skeletons arranged to stand like little monkey soldiers from The Wizard of Oz fills me with horror. And a skinless wax cadaver may provide useful information as to the whereabouts of the femoral artery, that’s fine, but for God’s sake don’t just stick it there in full view of everybody without any warning signs.

In short, I got out of that museum pretty quickly, feeling nauseous and ashamed. Where would the human race be if everyone had my weak stomach? Not very far along! Dry heaving two steps from the Cenozoic starting line.

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Rolando

The “Cesare Lombroso” Museum of Criminal Anthropology

Ezechia Marco Lombroso (1835-1909) spent the last three decades of his life in Turin, during which time he founded the Italian school of criminology, holding that criminality is apparent and measurable in certain physical features. He believed that about 30% of criminals were ‘born that way’ and recognizable by such signs as a protruding jaw, drooping eyes and large ears. In his view, criminality was by and large an inherited trait. This was at odds with the Classical School of criminology championed by Cesare Beccaria, which held that criminal actions were fully in the control of each individual.

Lombroso

In the museum, special care has been to contextualize the collection in the age of Positivism, when people believed Science could cure all manner of social ills. It was a time of revolutionary inventions and discoveries: electric light, the telephone, the car, antiseptic surgery, the Theory of Evolution and a bunch of vaccines.

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The Delinquent Woman, lecturing pigs

The museum visitor is introduced to this era through old film reels, as well as clips of psychiatric patients in bowler hats walking in the courtyard of Turin’s Cottolengo Hospital. Next we see a variety of medical equipment like something out of a Steampunk comic book. The museum proper, though, begins with Dr. Lombroso in a glass case. The most striking thing about him (apart from being human remains) is that he seems quite small—these days he’d need to shop in the children’s shoe section.

According to an excerpted letter on display, Lombroso started out his research by keeping skullls in his room, a ‘bugbear’ for his landlady. Once, whilst carrying a sack full of old skulls, he was surprised by Piedmontese villagers, who fortunately assumed they were pumpkins. Anyway, the point is that Lombroso certainly collected a lot of skulls and spent a long time measuring them.

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One room in particular, containing artefacts made by mentally ill people, is quite sad—half-finished embroideries, writing and pictures scratched on to water jugs and little clay figurines dramatizing the moment that must have loomed large in every prisoner’s life—the trial.

Lombroso was interested in the link between genius and madness. In 1897, he attended the Twelfth International Medical Conference in Moscow and chaired a session on mental illness. During this time he conceived the idea of haring off to Yasnaya Polyana, 200km to the south, to meet Lev Tolstoy and measure his skull, supposing (based on the sublimity of his work) that Tolstoy would be “cretinous and degenerate looking”. The meeting did no go well. Tolstoy recorded the occasion in his diary on 27th August, 1897: “Lombroso came. He is an ingenuous and limited old man.”

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“Hold still Lev! I just want to measure your cretinous bumps!”

By the time I got to the end, I was feeling a little overwrought. After an hour or so, I tend to reach saturation point when it comes to museums, and besides it’s wearing to be confronted with an endless succession of skulls and innards. If I saw another cranium I’d probably launch into Hamlet’s bit about fellows of infinite jest. So a museum about fruit seemed much more my speed.

The “Francesco Garnier Valletti” Museum of Fruit

valletti

This museum showcases 1,100 pieces of artificial fruit. When you have said that you have pretty much said it all.

Most of the pieces were modelled by Valletti himself, who was an industrious artist and botanist. He was very good at making models of fruit—most of them look so life-like that I felt like taking a bite out of them just to see what they’d taste like. Beyond that, there wasn’t much I gathered from it. Part of this was, as I said, I’d reached museum-saturation point, and part of it was also my deficient Italian but I do think it could have been made a bit more interesting. For example, there might have been more about Valletti himself, or information about growing fruit trees or recipes… or something.

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A pear

 

Lost Cats and State Secrets in Vermont

“But…we’re in the middle of nowhere!” It was not the first time John had said those words nor would it be the last.

The bus dropped us off in Vermont outside an establishment called Zooey’s Double Hex Restaurant. It was a large wooden building next to a highway. It had a lovely flower garden, bird houses, a totem pole and a giant bronze owl. Beyond it there was nothing but forested hills and lush meadows. It was certainly a beauty spot but there was no denying its being a peculiar choice of transport hub.

“Excuse me,” John approached the bus driver. “Could you tell us which way to town?”

“About three miles that way.” He looked doubtfully at our luggage and scratched his head. “It’s a pretty long hike.”

We looked around the parking lot for signs of a taxi or local bus stop, fruitlessly.

“Well,” I sighed, “Let’s go into the restaurant. I can charge the phone and call a taxi inside.”

In we went, with our giant backpacks and sense of doom. The waitresses and diners regarded us apprehensively. Feeling like the stranger in town in a Western movie, I scanned the place for an electricity outlet. Success! We pounced on a table and ordered a coffee and pie. There was no wifi but the waitress produced a phone book with a post-it stapled to one of the pages—the only taxi in town, apparently.

 

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Bluebarb pie

 

Ten minutes later we were riding through the little town of Manchester: solid white wooden houses on smooth green lawns, an old cemetery, outlet stores designed to look like wooden houses on green lawns.

“So how come you’re here?” asked Rob, our spry septuagenarian taxi driver.

“I’m running a race in East Dorset tomorrow,” I said. “It’s called the Lost Cat.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Huh. Well it’s part of the East Dorset Running Festival?”

“Never heard of that either.”

“Huh, well I hope it exists!” I tittered nervously.

 

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“So I’m guessing you’re from Britain?” he asked.

“Close,” I said, “New Zealand.”

“New Zealand!” His eyes widened. “I have family there.”

“No kidding! Whereabouts?”

“Well, I don’t remember the name of the town but my aunt Jane decided to immigrate there back in the fifties. We’re all from Scotland you see, the Highlands, and my dad and most of the family decided to immigrate to the States but Jane went to New Zealand. She visited us in the sixties and taught us Highland dancing…”

As Rob reminisced at length about Aunt Jane, I looked out at the rich houses and golf courses, hearing nothing until we got to a little motel in a picturesque spot on the edge of a little forest and surrounded by grassy marsh spotted with wildflowers.

 

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As he pulled up, I realized that we were miles from anywhere and I had no transport.

“Um, about that race tomorrow, would you be able to drive me to Dorset in the morning?”

“What time?” he said.

“Six o’clock,” I said.

He winced.

“OK, I can do that,” he agreed.

***

At five-thirty I pulled my clothes on, laced up my shoes and grabbed my little backpack full of provisions. I ate the oatmeal I’d left in the fridge overnight and noticed that it had icicles in it, an interesting taste sensation. Rob showed up ten minutes early and I hauled myself in, leaving John to huddle in the warm bed.

“So where are we going?” Rob asked.

“The East Dorset Town Hall on Mad Tom Road.”

“Right,” he nodded. “I looked up the race. It looks like a tough one. Goes through a marble quarry up there.”

“That’s what I heard,” I said.

“Better make sure you don’t get lost!”

“Like the cat,” I chuckled. “Well, I have a powerful whistle.”

“Good idea,” he nodded. “I myself have a real English bobby’s whistle.”

“How did you get that?” I asked, intrigued.

“Well, it’s a long story,” he began, “My mother used to work at a grand old house called Black Hole Hollow Farm on the border between New York and Vermont. It was originally built in the eighteenth century. When my mother worked there it belonged to Ivar Bryce, who married the A&P heiress Josephine Hartford O’Donnell. Have you heard of A&P?”

 

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Portrait of Josephine Hartford O’Donnell by Salvador Dali

 

“I’ve heard of the A&P Fairs.”

“Well, A&P was like the first supermarket chain. The Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. They were founded back in 1859 by George Gilman, and then later he passed management over to George Huntington Hartford. You could always tell an A&P store because they used to put red Chinese lanterns outside and it.”

“Ah, branding.”

 

early a&p

 

“Ivar was a peer of the British realm, you know, a cousin of Lord Montbatten. A very sad day when he died.”

“Yes,” I murmured.

“He was also a great friend of Ian Fleming. He’d come and visit him in Vermont and wrote some of his books there. Word is that Bryce  got Fleming a job at the BSC.”

“What’s that?”

“It was a sort of British secret service unit in World War II, based out of New York. But they used to have secret meetings here in Vermont, at the house.”

“Huh! I guess it makes sense, they could pretend to be playing golf and stuff.”

“Yes. And riding. The Lady, Josephine Hartford was very fond of horses. She bred racing horses.”

“Anyway, when Mrs. Hartford died and the house was sold, they found a secret cupboard where she kept all her love letters, and my mother was very protective of her memory, she insisted on keeping the letters private.  Apart from that, everyone who worked there was allowed to take some kind of keepsake. My mother took a tin of A&P tea from 1860, oolong, which I keep in my pantry at home. My son came home last month and told me that he’d just had the best cup of tea he’d ever tried and I told him he’d just used my 150-year-old tea. But the other thing my mother took was the bobby’s whistle.”

 

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By the time we got to Dorset, it was misty and freezing cold. I wondered if it was always like this at six o’clock in the morning and I just didn’t know it because I slept in so much. I asked Rob to come pick me up at three o’clock, hoping I’d have finished the race by then.

At the town hall, race volunteers had only just arrived and were sorting food into piles to send to various aid stations along the course. It was too early to register, so I headed to the General Store to get some coffee. It was so warm in there I lingered looking at s’mores ingredients, Vermont postcards and other knick-knacks. I bought a coffee and slunk around the store, loathe to venture back out into the chill mist. Looking out the window, I saw cars starting to arrive and people starting to gather around. Finishing the coffee, I threw the cup away and headed back up the hill. Sure enough, a line had formed in front of a fold-out table and we were given T-shirts and bibs.

Standing around waiting for the race to start, I chatted with a woman who’d come from Death Valley, California.

“I had the weirdest experience yesterday,” she said, “The bus dropped me off next to this restaurant, but there was nothing around! I looked for a taxi but nothing. And my hotel was four miles away. So I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m walking four miles!’”

I mentioned the same thing had happened to us and wondered exactly how often it happens on any given week in Manchester, VT. We observed how casual this race seemed to be compared to others we’d tried and suddenly realized that everyone had lined up behind us and that the race was about to start.

 

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starting out

 

The first part of the course was along tree-lined gravel roads that took us past a maple-syrup farm, an apple orchard, a horse-training facility and an atmospheric bog. None of us knew where we were going in advance because the organizers had kept the course secret. One rationale for this could have been that rich property owners didn’t want too much traffic. Another might have been so that we could have a genuine ‘lost cat’ experience, wandering cluelessly through the wilderness.

 

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At the first aid station there was a table of maple-syrup shots and I downed one in one gulp. About five minutes later I felt like a giantess and powered past a bunch of slow-pokes on a busy highway. Aware that we had some hills ahead (the directors had hinted that much), I wanted to make as much speed as I could on the downhill. We got down the road to a national park where we had to do a ‘lollipop loop’ that was a lot less pleasant than it sounds, an undignified scramble up a narrow dirt track criss-crossed with thick trip-wire roots. Chugging up the hill I was surprised and touched that a young woman stepped aside and spoke some encouraging words to me. The conditions were not conducive to kindness–most of us were in a pretty bad mood. Three cute-but-sadistic signs anticipated this, posted one after another on a particular steep bit:  

 

Maybe I

Should Have

Trained More?

 

Whenever I enter a race I end up in awe of the people who express kindness and encouragement in spite of the physical difficulties everyone is having. This seems like an almost unattainable level of social grace. 

This forest course included a little bit of quarry—a marble slide covered in dirt and rocks. By this point, I could feel that I was reaching the peak of the maple-syrup high and that lactic acid was streaming through my legs and that there could be hell to pay, especially since we were not yet even a quarter of the way through the course.

 

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Thankfully, the next stretch was relatively easy, a jog around the lake shore. The problem was that people were being too damn slow, fearful of roots and rocks. Remembering the South American desperadoes of my race in Patagonia, I thought they wouldn’t have been bothered by the roots the way these scaredy cats were. I dodged around them and hoped that I wouldn’t tire out and be passed by them in the near future.

There was another big hill but by this time I was buoyed by my magnificent performance around the lake. After a mouthful of gummy bears, I chugged up the hill with little trouble, reached the aid station and chomped a ripe banana.

I don’t remember a lot about what came next, except a brief feeling of euphoria and fellow feeling for everyone as we all set off downhill. The houses around us looked so pretty and the grass looked so green. The white road wound for miles through trees and pastures until we got to an aid station and I thought, ‘Can’t be long now!’

‘What race are you doing, the half-marathon?’ A kindly man with a clipboard asked me.

‘No, the marathon.’

‘Ah, OK, so you have to go down that road and then come back.’

 

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race marker

 

Unaware of how many miles I’d already done, I hoped that meant it was a quick little ‘lollipop loop’ and set off optimistically down the road. To my surprise I saw two of the race leaders—the shirtless gazelle boys who’d sped off at the very beginning. They were coming back, presumably after doing the little loop, and looked tired.

When the third one passed, walking, I asked if there was far to go and he laughed bitterly.

“You could say that,” he said.

What followed was a strange experience—for about twenty minutes I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me or behind me. Then, I heard soft voices conversing, as of angels. I wondered if it was a hallucination but it turned out to be two women I’d seen earlier—they were running the whole thing side by side.

“Just one little hill and it’s over,” said one of them as they passed me.

I laughed, since the hill we’d just come down was not exactly little. In lock-step, feet crunching on the gravel in unison, they advanced into the distance. I caught up with them at the next aid station, where the girl volunteering said that they’d forgotten to bring knives so we’d have to spread peanut butter on the bread with a fork. I took a couple of pretzels and asked what mile we were at.

 

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penultimate aid station

 

“About 21,” she said, and I felt a surge of hope. We all pushed off again and again the dauntless duo disappeared into the distance. I felt the familiar feeling that comes near the end of a long run, a sort of lonely melancholy that reminds of me of the dying insect in Ted Hughes’s poem “Cranefly in September”:

 

Aimless in no particular direction,
Just exerting her last to escape out of the overwhelming
Of whatever it is, legs, grass,
The garden, the county, the country, the world –

 

I tried to ameliorate the feeling with a pep-talk: ‘Well, I’m doing the best I can right in this moment’. It was demonstrably true and seemed to help.

Then came the hill. This was not bad because I met a lot of people going down who looked at me with a funny kind of respect in their eyes. I could see the dynamic duo up ahead and though I knew I probably wouldn’t catch up to them, it helped somehow to have a moving target.  

 At the final aid station, I saw the duo turn the corner where an arrow indicated  ‘50k’.

‘What race are you doing?’ The volunteer asked.

‘The marathon,’ I said, feeling lost again.

‘You only have about a mile to go,’ she said. ‘Go along that road and take the first right, then turn left where you see the arrow.’

 

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?

 

I followed her directions and eventually found myself in what looked like a dry riverbed, a stony, rubbly slide of definite ankle-breaking proportions. This was the place in the race where I considered swearing out loud but decided against it because I suddenly saw someone sitting on the ground and thought with alarm that he’d probably come to grief and I’d have to scrape up rusty memories of first-aid. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that because he jumped up and started taking pictures. I’ve never understood why people want pictures of themselves running. Maybe there are some people who look their best after 26 miles of gut-churning exertion, pouring sweat and chafing in every crevice, but I’m definitely not one of them.

It was shortly after this that I came out behind the General Store and realized there were only a couple of blocks until the finish line. Hallelujah! 

I stomped out onto the flat asphalt and ran the sidewalk where some kids were ringing cowbells for every runner that passed and an elderly couple on a porch clapped encouragingly.

Back at the East Dorset Hotel, there was a gathering of kind people clapping for everyone who finished. One I reached the end a girl gave me a dog-tag and a pint glass and I wobbled over to a clear area to stretch. At that moment a man came over and gave me a coaster saying I’d finished second female in the marathon. This surprised me because I’d taken five hours and fourteen minutes, which isn’t exactly a blistering pace, but it was certainly nice to be holding some kind of prize.

I spent the next couple of hours in a shady spot by a church watching the other runners come in and eating a sandwich, feeling pleased. 

 

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Giants of Syracuse

Last year John and I spent a few weeks near Siracusa, the birthplace of Archimedes and site of a massive stone amphitheater where the plays of Aeschylus were once performed. Now it was time to see Syracuse, New York,  “The FIRST to Say Yes to Education City in the Nation” and erstwhile home of L. Frank  Baum.

 

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could do with some hyphens

 

We were decanted from our coach into the bus station, a multi-national scene smelling of the quasi-herbal fragrance emitted by the Subway franchise. Leaving John with the luggage, I set out to locate a taxi stand and found one at the front of the station. A cab happened to be leaving right at that moment, which suggested that the stand was not defunct.

By the time we’d hauled all our stuff over to the stand, however, doubt had crept in.

“What do we do if he doesn’t come back?” John asked.

‘Well, we’ll just call another one,” I replied.

“How? Everyone uses Uber now. We don’t have Uber. We are primitive people.”

“OK, I’ll go inside and ask someone.”

I ventured into a little shop inside the bus station and asked the young woman at the cash register if she knew whether taxis waited outside as a rule.

“I don’t think so,” she shrugged.

“Well, do you know the number of any local taxi company?”

“No,” she said, but then her face brightened. “Why don’t you just call an Uber?”

“We don’t have the app on my phone and my phone is nearly depleted of battery power due to our faulty charging cord.”

Her eyes glazed over.

“Well, have a good day,” she said crisply, closing the interaction.

I walked out with a heavy heart only to see John piling our stuff into a taxi. A broad-chested guy was assisting him.

“How are you folks doing today?” The driver asked as we set off.

“Fine. We’re glad to see you; I wasn’t sure how we were going to get to our hotel.”

“Oh we’re there all the time,” he said. “It was just that a train had come through ten minutes ago so we were all busy, but I came right back.”

So the shop girl was wrong! What did she spend her time thinking about, I wondered. Gel nail designs?

“This your first time in Syracuse?” The driver asked.

“Yes.”

“What brings you to our little town?”

“My wife’s running a trail marathon in Vermont, like a loon,” said John.

“Marathon huh? And are you underweight? Overweight?”

“Uh, probably a little overweight. But I’m not a competitive runner. I like to go slow.”

“Ah, a turtle,” he nodded.

 

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“It’s a good way to see the countryside,” I replied primly.

“It’s been a long time since I did any running,” he mused. “My kneecaps are gone.”

“You played football?” John asked.

“Football, basketball, baseball, you name it. Not anymore though,” he laughed sadly.

“I heard they can do things for knees now,” I said helpfully.

“Oh no, I’m not going near any doctors. Don’t trust ‘em.”

John agreed enthusiastically.

“Now, to your left is the local football stadium, and there’s the local farmer’s market. Empty now but busy as anything on weekends. Another thing we’re known for here is fishing. Either of you fish?”

“No. But I’ve heard there are big salmon around here.”

“Huge! My granddaughter fishes too, she’s nine.”

The driver was certainly very chatty. He kept up a patter all the way to the hotel.

 

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Mostly what we did in Syracuse was sleep but I did go for a run to see more of the town. The part near us was mainly highways, fast-food outlets, a railway, industrial warehouses and parking lots reverting to Nature. 

 

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As I turned right on James Street, though, a real town gradually came into shape. There was a tattoo parlour, a theatre where an improbable number of people were queuing at 6 o’clock in the evening, several real estate offices and beauty salons and a big used-book store.

Moving east, the streets turned from dog-eared businesses to grand old mansions exhaling odors of the past. The most imposing building was the Barnes-Hiscock mansion, former residence of George and Rebecca Barnes, heroes of the Underground Railway in Syracuse. Together with other influential families in the neighborhood and the Rev. Jermain Loguen they held anti-slavery meetings and helped prevent fugitive slaves from being caught or paid their bail.  

 

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Stamped on the sidewalk every 100 meters or so was the face of someone named Henry McConnell. I thought this must be some historical personage until I looked him up and saw that there is a company called Henry McConnell Concrete Floors Inc. in Syracuse.

This mix-up reminded me of the Cardiff Giant, which was ‘discovered’ just south of Syracuse in 1869. This was a little practical joke played on the locals by tobacconist, atheist and all-round ratbag George Hull. Here is the whole sordid story from Wikipedia:

 

“Hull hired men to quarry out a 10-foot-4.5-inch-long (3.2 m) block of gypsum in Fort Dodge, Iowa, telling them it was intended for a monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York. He shipped the block to Chicago, where he hired Edward Burghardt, a German stonecutter, to carve it into the likeness of a man and swore him to secrecy…During November 1868, Hull transported the giant by railroad to the farm of his cousin, William Newell…Nearly a year later, Newell hired Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, ostensibly to dig a well, and on October 16, 1869 they found the giant.”

 

Newell soon found a way to turn the discovery into cash, charging people to come see one of the Giants of Yore. Pretty soon P.T. Barnum wanted in on the action and muscled his way in. Ultimately, Hull confessed everything to the press. 

The spirit of entrepreneurship remains alive and well in Syracuse, as I discovered during breakfast in Dunkin’ Donuts. A burly man sat explaining sincerely why his renovation services would cost twice as much as originally agreed; a smartly dressed man in a suit was making a pitch to a smartly dressed woman and some secret goings-on were happening between four or five citizens in the ‘Community Room’. As I chewed on my delicious cheese-and-egg English muffin, I thought that they could do with another Giant, updated for the new audience. What are people looking for these days? Peace-loving aliens? Paleolithic Russian invaders?  

 

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Buffalo and Bus Rage

The other day, we spent a night in downtown Buffalo. Perched on the eastern edge of Lake Erie, Buffalo is the second largest city in the state of New York and used to be the one of the wealthiest city in the US. Reminders of its importance can still be seen in the imposing buildings designed by famous architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Hobson Richardson and the ‘Father of American Architecture’ Louis H. Sullivan. The last of these was responsible for one of the most striking buildings I’ve ever seen, the Prudential (Guaranty) Building (1895), which has a steel structure but is covered in terracotta tiles carved with intricate designs.

 

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Another amazing building was Buffalo City Hall, an Art Deco creation designed by John Wade and George Dietel, which was also the tallest building constructed in the 1930s. I only saw it from a car but even so the relief sculptures were spectacular.

 

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All this architectural splendor was the setting for our meeting with our friends Felipe and Eileen. For a couple of hours we forgot the travails and terrors of travel in the pleasure of sympathetic and entertaining company. It must have been how an old desert nomad felt when he got to an oasis where he could park his camels, set up camp and chew the fat with his pals before heading back out into the sandy plains. Unfortunately, it had to end and we were back to the travails and terrors of a Greyhound bus station. 

 

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When I informed John that we would be travelling from Buffalo back to New York City via bus, he blanched.

“We’re taking the bus?” he quavered.

“Yes, the bus,” I said firmly.

“But…this is America! No one takes the bus.”

“Well that’s silly,” I shrugged.

Why the bus?” he asked.

“I don’t think there’s a train that goes all the way.”

“No flights?”

“No,” I replied, without actually knowing. “Besides, have you considered the climate emergency? What would Greta Thunberg say if she heard about us flying a mere few hundred miles?”

“Hmmph.”

It seemed to me that John’s view of buses was shared by a lot of otherwise reasonable people. I ascribed this to the fact that from an early age Americans absorb a love for private automobiles. Taking a bus is practically an affront to the Declaration of Independence.

At the same time, I did recall in the back of my mind an incident in which Greyhound passenger Tim McLean was stabbed, beheaded and cannibalized. At the time it happened, Greyhound Canada hurriedly retracted a series of nationwide ads including the slogan “There’s a reason you’ve never heard of bus rage.”  

 

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The bus station was reassuringly not awful. There were plenty of people milling about, some of them clearly mentally ill but none obviously murderous. There were a few college students, elderly ladies, immigrant families and hung-over looking young men who, I speculated, may have lost their licenses in DUI incidents. A couple of kindly and officious ladies were having a conversation with a driver to make sure that their charge, a very frail and scruffy old man, got to New York City.

Our bus turned out to be an hour late. When we finally boarded it, it was quite full and smelled of pee. John and I had to sit apart. I ended up next to a soft-looking youth and John sat next to a quiet African-American lady. A family of four from the West Indies walked around trying to negotiate with other passengers so that they might sit together. No one was willing to oblige so they turned to the bus driver, who replied that life isn’t perfect and that they were ‘an irregular group’, whatever that meant. The bus stood idling in situ for about half an hour. Finally, a North African man with a long white beard asked when we were going to get going because he had a sick baby.

Soon after that the driver asked for a show of hands as to who was going to the airport. He then told them all to get off because an Uber was going to take them there.

“A Ooper?” a German lady asked, frowning.

“A cab is going to take you,” he explained.

“Ahab? Who is Ahab?” But she got off anyway.

 

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Finally we got moving. At that point my seat-mate awoke from his slumbers and started watching a TV show on his phone without wearing headphones with the volume way up high. That was OK. He also commandeered the armrest. Fair enough, after all, he was large-ish and the seats weren’t very big. However, what happened next made the iron enter my soul.

John stood up and addressed the boy.

“Excuse me, would you mind swapping seats with me so I can sit next to my wife?”

“No, I’ve got the window seat sorry,” the boy replied, clearly completely un-sorry.

It wasn’t the refusal per se that infuriated me but the tone in which it was delivered—premeditated, curt, luxurious. Everything about this person became instantly loathsome to me. His neck cushion, his sweat-pant shorts, his blankie, his TV watching and sprawling, the unwelcome brush of his flesh on my elbow. He put on his eye-mask and settled into his seat like a water buffalo easing into a mud pit.

I decided to retaliate. Seeing his left knee was pressed up against a power outlet, I reached for my laptop and produced the cord.

“Excuse me,” I said coldly. No response. “Excuse me.”

He stirred and lifted a corner of his eye mask.

“I need to plug my laptop in,” I pointed to the outlet.

“Oh, excuse me,” he murmured with a conciliatory smile. I  shoved my adapter in, but it was loose and promptly fell out, spoiling the effect. I shoved it in again hoping it would hold this time. To my relief it did, and his meaty leg was now confined to its allotted space. I proceeded to use the laptop for the rest of the journey, hoping the tapping of keys would annoy him but instead they merely seemed to lull him to sleep again.

A couple of hours later he woke up and shifted restlessly, finally aware of his confinement. After a few moments’ thought, he got his phone out and fumbled about with it in a clumsy countermove. He couldn’t get it in because my adapter was too big and blocking the other outlet. Satisfied that he had at least registered discomfort, I graciously withdrew the adaptor.

At about this time, John got up to use the restroom and on his way shot me a look of deep reproach.

“Please forgive me,” I whispered, full of remorse.

 

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