Tag Archives: Sierra Nevada

Peak Experience in the Sierras: Getting Our 100-Mile Runner Home

(This is the second of a two-part blog on pacing my friend, David Nichols, in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, one of the toughest running tests in the world and the most storied and prestigious ultramarathon.)

Read Part One

Pacing an ultramarathoner reminds me a lot of ghostwriting or co-writing books. As my friend, veteran ultra pacer and 50/50 marathoner (as in, 50 completed marathons spanning all 50 states) Kenny McCleary, advised me on Facebook before Western States:2014-06-28 06.13.17

Enjoy the day. A pacer has to be part navigator, part psychiatrist, part nurse, part minister, part drill sergeant. But most of all, just be a Barnabas today – an encourager. Only a few souls on this planet have the opportunity or the courage to experience what David gets to live out today. I hope you find the job of pacer/crewmate to be as fulfilling as I have.

With pacing, as with ghost- and co-writing, you check your ego at the door. The only run that matters is his. You do whatever it takes to bring out his best, and take care of him on the trail. No matter how many miles you run alongside, the only accomplishment that matters is your runner crossing the finish line and grabbing that belt buckle.

Pacers just starting off with competitors at Foresthill earlier in the day

Pacers just starting off with competitors at Foresthill earlier in the day

When we arrived in Foresthill, Dave was 15 minutes ahead of the clock. He’d been almost 10 minutes behind in Michigan Bluff, so he made up 25 minutes in seven miles. Substantial. After weighing in (he’d gained back two pounds) and eating from the quasi-buffet line of hot and cold foods (grilled cheese, soups, quesadillas, cookies, rice balls, etc.) that typifies a Western States aid station, we jogged cross-town and met Don and Craig. They noticed that Dave was a different person than the one they’d seen 90 minutes before. He sat down in the chair, and we went through our crewing ritual … while the clock ticked … and ticked …

Once we left Foresthill, it was pushing 11 p.m. A full night of trail running awaited. Dave and I got into a conversation about the last crew stop. “Do you think we needed to be there that long?” I asked.

“No,” Dave said as we jogged toward the woods.

“I don’t, either. That was too long, especially with the aid station right before it. Maybe we can go faster next time.”

After a moment of silence, Dave said, “I won’t be sitting anymore the rest of the race. I’ll towel off, grab what I need to grab, and go.” Nice sentiment, Dave, but there’s 38 miles left to go … about 11 hours at this pace … and you’ve already gone 62…

Mountain running, anyone? For 100 miles? This is the course profile of Western States. It hurts to just look at it.

Mountain running, anyone? For 100 miles? This is the course profile of Western States. It hurts to just look at it.

He didn’t sit down again.

At that time, we encountered a runner from Tennessee who couldn’t keep down food or water. She was heaving as we passed she and her pacer to begin another lengthy descent in yet another canyon toward Dardanelles. “You OK?” Dave asked. “Anything we can do?” He and I were thinking the same thing: Stop and help if she needs it. That’s the rule of the road, especially in ultra running.

“I’m OK, I’m OK,” she gasped.

Within minutes, she and her pacer were right behind us, and her spirits were lifting. “You know,” I said, “when I coached high school cross-country, we used to have mid-summer practices. When my kids got sick on the course, I told them they were now officially cross-country runners.”

She thought about it for a second. “So this makes me an official ultra runner, right?”

“You were that a long time ago, but yeah … right.”

She smiled. “Thanks for saying that.” She and her pacer promptly bolted ahead of us. We passed back and forth several times during the next ten miles, creating a nice camaraderie on the course.

Meantime, Dave’s legs had loosened up again, so we ran. And ran. This span between Foresthill and Dardanelles, and extending further out, was dreamlike. We talked, laughed, ran silently and marked each other’s pace while I beamed my headlamp on the trail ahead, and stuck my arm behind me to give Dave coverage with my flashlight. Every time we picked it up the pace, it felt like two guys pursuing something, tracking something … which we were. We were pursuing a belt buckle. I also called out trail obstacles. We marveled at the simple magnificence of running Sierra trails in the middle of the night, no noise other than our footprints and the occasional raccoon, fox, lizard, rabbit or skunk scrambling in the brush, no light other than our headlamps and the bobbing points of light we saw on the trails ahead of us. They looked like little stars dancing on earth. What could possibly be better than running with a friend in such peaceful, desolate surroundings?

I’m sure Dave had an answer: Being done.


The Ford’s Bar aid station, lit up in the wee hours of the morning. It was a welcome sight after the two miles that preceded it.

The approach to the Dardanelles aid station was marked with Halloweenish signs and a couple of cut-out ghosts (nice). The scene reminded me in a certain way of the R.I.P. tombstone sign we planted at the two-mile mark of our Carlsbad High School cross-country course in 1976. We put it on the middle of a steep, steep incline, nicknamed Riggy HIll (as in, Rigamortis Hill; I returned in June to run it again a few times to prepare for Western States). We averted our eyes; opponents stared at it and let the thought sink in as their legs wobbled. Game, set, match. “You guys were great hill runners,” my coach then and now, Brad Roy, recalled. We were also good psych-out artists, Brad. A funny memory, conjured up at 1 a.m. 600 miles and four decades away…

A Western States competitor, all lit up. Headlamps and flashlights got us through the night.

A Western States competitor, all lit up. Headlamps and flashlights got us through the night.

At Dardanelles, a volunteer, a veteran of a couple dozen Western States runs, pulled me aside as he watched Dave hover over the food table like a famished refugee. “Keep your aid stops to a minute,” he said. “That’s all he needs. Get in, get your food, get your water bottles filled, ask us about the next section of trail if you want, then get on with your run. You don’t have time for anything else.”

Great advice. We heeded it on every subsequent aid stop.

The next section was brutal, in every possible way: switchbacks, rocks and roots, tremendous drop-offs from canyon walls to the American River, steep inclines and descents, runoff grooves in the middle of uneven trails, sand, creek crossings … in other words, difficult to ride on horseback, let alone cover by foot. Especially at night. The frustrating part was that Dave had his second wind (or maybe his third or fourth; you gain several “second winds” during ultras), so we wanted to run … but couldn’t do so steadily. Every time we found a rhythm on the trails, clicking off a half-mile or so, the course threw something else at us.

The Rucky Chucky crossing -- a cooling, refreshing walk through the American River always helps before tackling the final 20 miles.

The Rucky Chucky crossing — a cooling, refreshing walk through the American River always helps before tackling the final 20 miles.

During one stretch, we opened up the pace on a pencil-thin stretch of trail, me leading the way. I looked to the right; a nice Manzanita thicket. I looked left; sheer blackness, nothingness. “Bob, is this one of those thousand-foot drop-offs we’re running next to?” Dave asked, his voice tinged with concern.

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Peering into the future: the scene awaiting us in Auburn — large crowds packing Placer High School stadium and the finish line.

Gulp. “You know what one of the great things is about running at night?” I didn’t turn around; I didn’t want to face him. “You can’t see anything but what’s in front of you.”

We ran directly into my headlamp beam, taking advantage of the night. The advantage? Were it daytime, we never would’ve run on thin single-track with such a precipitous drop-off. In fact, for the past two months, I’d broken into a few wee-hour sweats thinking about how I would pace Dave in these sections, and keep us both from sliding off the hill. Scrambling down a cliffside to retrieve a fallen ultra runner wasn’t on my agenda, though it was certainly on my mind. We kept running.

At miles 72 and 73, we didn’t run much at all. Survive is more like it. We heard Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” (appropriate) blaring from the nearby Ford’s Bar aid station. As we ran along the top of the hill, the music – and aid station – sounded a few hundred yards away. Double the acoustics in a canyon, so say six hundred yards. No more. We were pumped, now a good half-hour up on the clock, making it happen…

Yeah, it happened. The course happened. One of the nastiest curve balls of the entire 100 miles snapped at our legs and almost took Dave’s spirit with it. When did Clayton Kershaw show up? We found ourselves descending through a Manzanita grove, on slippery, chalky white hardpack trail with a runoff groove down the middle. The descent kept going… and going… and going… My quads hated the punishment, and I’d only gone 20 miles. Dave’s legs were practically on fire. We adjusted our foot strike posture and leaned back on our haunches, almost like skateboarding, so our butts could absorb much of the stress.

In the next three-fifths of a mile, we descended 1,200 vertical feet. Insane. It would all but fry a mountain goat. We heard the music again, and gave each other a smile and an “attaboy, we deserve this aid station” glance.

The course belly-laughed at us. After running out our soreness on a quarter mile of beautiful, slightly sandy trail, we faced the second half of this crucible: a fire road climbing into the sky, twisting and bending, its banks as steep as some racetrack turns. We grunted and groaned up 400 vertical feet in the next quarter-mile – then hit a short, steep downhill that dumped us into the Ford’s Bar aid station.

Remember all that time we’d gained? Well, nothing like a one-two punch to send us back into scurry mode. We loaded up at Ford’s Bar, and a gracious volunteer ran our refilled water bottles to us so we could keep moving. Unfortunately, the hills sapped Dave’s legs again, and he found it very difficult to run. We jogged a few times in the next couple of hours, but he couldn’t get it going, even during our final two miles before the Rucky Chucky crossing, when sandy bottom trail and mostly flat fire roads offered an opportunity to pick up time. I wanted to push him, as I had in previous stretches, but common sense kept telling me, “He needs to save it for the final 20 miles.” So, we power walked or did the marathon shuffle (the stride of a three-year-old, familiar on marathon courses the last few miles after people ‘hit the wall’).


Finally, we passed the Rucky Chucky metal gate, ascended a small hill, and dropped into a raucous river-crossing scene, at which runners and pacers cross the American River by holding onto a cable. We ran to our crew, now just 10 to 12 minutes ahead of schedule but far better than his status at dusk. As Dave walked through the aid station, I told Don, “He’s decided not to sit again until he’s done. His legs tighten up too much and he won’t be able to loosen them up.” Then I discussed Dave’s condition and mental acuity with Craig; his focus was still very strong, much stronger than some other runners I saw out there.

“I’m gonna have to push him hard the last few miles,” Craig said as we finished.

“He responded every time I pushed him hard,” I said. “We conserved energy the last five miles after these God awful hills … I’ll tell you later. He knows what needs to happen. You’re the man. Bring him home.”

My pacing was done. I wobbled around, spent after more than seven hours of trail running, wondering how in the world these people do it for 18, 24, 30 hours in a row. I always admired Dave, but now, my admiration went through the roof.


Dave prepares to enter the stadium, with brother Don running alongside. Our ace pacer on the last leg, Craig Luebke, is cheering at the gate.

Dave prepares to enter the stadium, with brother Don running alongside. Our ace pacer on the last leg, Craig Luebke, is cheering at the gate.

Six hours after Craig set out with Dave, and 90 minutes after seeing our glassy-eyed, exhausted runner at the 93-mile crew stop, Don and I arrived at the Placer High School Stadium in Auburn. What a scene: a thousand people on hand, the announcer calling out finishers, families and crew running into the stadium and around the track with their warriors, the monumental test complete. It had been a night and most of a morning since the overall champions, Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe, crossed the line. Krar became the second runner to ever break 15 hours in the event’s 40-year history, running 14:53:22, while Howe won the women’s division in 18:01:42, the fourth-best women’s mark all-time. They were magnificent, as were Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, whose performances enabled them to claim the series titles in the 2014 Montrail Ultra Cup, a mini-tour of six ultramarathons culminating in Western States.

Western States champions Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe talk trail story after their near record-breaking performances.

Western States champions Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe talk trail story after their near record-breaking performances.

Montrail Ultra Cup series winners Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, aka "Pixie Ninja"

Montrail Ultra Cup series winners Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, aka “Pixie Ninja”

Lickteig is known in the ultra community by her nickname, “Pixie Ninja,” perhaps the best athlete nickname I’ve heard in nearly 40 years as a journalist. I asked Stephanie Howe about it. “It’s perfect,” she said. “Kaci is an assassin out there.” Case in point: she won all eight ultras she entered in 2013, came to Western States despite basically no recovery from her previous ultra (a win) – and placed sixth.

Dave's victory lap, flanked by Don and Craig.

Dave’s victory lap, flanked by Don and Craig.

Our runner was magnificent as well. Dave took his victory lap at 10:45 a.m., flanked by Don and Craig, with me shooting photos from behind. Tears had been in Don’s eyes for twenty minutes; now, they also came to mine.

As we moved around the track, I thought of all the hopes, doubts, aches, pains, discomfort, dehydration, sunburn, scratches, bites, blisters, mental self-arguments and talks with Jesus Dave had in the past 29 hours, alone or with one other person on a trail that gave no quarter. I thought of Dave and Don, running the final 600 meters side-by-side, brothers in life and in this pursuit. For them, six months of planning and training culminated with the final piece of the 100th mile. It was an incredibly moving moment.

What it's all about – the Nichols brothers, moments after Dave crossed the finish line. A very touching moment.

What it’s all about – the Nichols brothers, moments after Dave crossed the finish line. A very touching moment.

After Dave crossed the line in 29:49 and received his medal, we waited 90 minutes for the presentation of the coveted belt buckles. Dave stretched out on a brick retaining wall, dead to the world. Don and I had some fun, taking a couple photos of our runner laid out on the rack, then Craig and I walked to the refreshment stand and grabbed breakfast. Craig hadn’t eaten meaningfully in a day, either, having somehow marshaled Dave’s energy enough to get him home in plenty of time. I still don’t know how Craig pulled off his pacing feat. I would imagine a few whipcracks accompanied the encouragement as they passed through Brown’s Bar, the Auburn Lakes meadows, up a final nasty hill at the 99-mile mark (that hurts just writing it) and into town.

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Finally, it was time for Dave’s crowning moment. We helped him to his feet and took a slow 200-yard walk to the awards tent. A few steps after reaching the grass, Dave winced. “Oh man, a hill.” I looked down. There was the tiniest bump on the football field, maybe six inches top to bottom. For a man who just completed something only a sliver of humanity would even attempt, and whose legs were barely functioning, a six-inch bump is a hill.

After watching the elites grab their prizes, for averaging 8:30 to 9:00 per mile for the whole 100 miles, we cheered madly as Dave received his belt buckle. It was his turn to plant the flag on the summit.

Dave collecting his belt buckle and accepting congratulations from Tim Twietmeyer, who won Western States five times among his 25 sub-24 hour finishes in the race.

Dave collecting his belt buckle and accepting congratulations from Tim Twietmeyer, who won Western States five times among his 25 sub-24 hour finishes in the race.

Then I remembered something: Dave is also a two-time Boston Marathoner. How many people have run both Boston and Western States, the most prestigious annual events in marathon and ultramarathon? In 40 years, only 7,500 runners have finished Western States – many of them repeat or multiple finishers. So let’s say, liberally, 6,000 different souls. Of those, how many own Boston unicorn medals? A thousand? Two thousand? Certainly not more. He joined an exclusive club.

Dave repeatedly credited all of us as a team, a nod to his humility. We appreciated his words, but sloughed them off. This is your barbecue, big guy. While Don, Craig and I became brothers-in-arms through our seamless support operation, that’s the extent of what we were on this weekend: support for the man with the belt buckle.

And with that, your hosts for this 100-mile Western States odyssey sign off, with our lead warrior, Dave Nichols, second from the left.

And with that, your hosts for this 100-mile Western States odyssey sign off, with our lead warrior, Dave Nichols, second from the left.



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Peak Experience in the Sierras: Western States

(Part One of a Two-Part Blog on this writer’s experience pacing David Nichols in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.)

I’ve enjoyed and written about many peak moments in nature — trekking in the Himalayas,

Dave Nichols stands at the starting line, all smiles. How would he feel 100 miles later?

Dave Nichols stands at the starting line, all smiles. How would he feel 100 miles later?

commingling with curanderos in the Amazon, countless hikes and river swims in the Bavarian Alps, Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Big Sur and dozens of other stunning places. I’ve also experienced a fair share of endurance running — ten marathons, a pair of 24-hour relays, and countless 15- and 20-milers deep into forests and along mountain ridges.

Never have I experienced a greater combination of nature and endurance than the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. And I wasn’t even competing. I was a pacer for David Nichols, who traveled from Lexington, Ken. to tackle the mighty Sierra Nevada and, more specifically, the same trail cut by the 49ers during California’s Gold Rush. Along with Dave came my fellow pacer, Evansville, Ind.-based marathoner Craig Luebke, and Dave’s brother Don, our crew chief – the pit boss for our “driver”, as it were.

Competitors mingling at 4:30 a.m. on race morning.

Competitors mingling at 4:30 a.m. on race morning.

Western States is the Super Bowl of ultramarathoning. The best 100-milers in the world, along with about 400 super-conditioned athletes, flock to Northern California to duel on terrain and in weather conditions that make you sweat just viewing the topographical maps. Between the start at the Squaw Valley ski resort and finish at the 50-yard line at Auburn’s Placer High School, there are mountains. Passes. Scree-filled escarpments. Nasty ascents and descents. Creek and river crossings. Rocky trails. Sandy trails. Single-track ridge trails from which, if you look over the side, you can see the American River a thousand feet below, ribboning toward Sacramento. Canyons. More canyons…

My guess is that Dave won’t be training through canyons anytime soon. I think after 29 hours of trudging up and down the American River canyon system in heat pushing 100 degrees, he’s good on that experience for a while.

Which brings up the weather. The Sierra Range in early summer is typically very hot, with temperatures approaching 120 degrees in the heat-protected river canyons. At the highest point of the Western States course, 9,000 feet above sea level, it can also be very cold, with several feet of snow still on the ground. Wind is almost always a factor. How does a person deal with all this, and still cover 100 miles in a day?

Our cast of characters after the Montrail 6K climb up Squaw Valley, which Craig and I ran.

Our cast of characters after the Montrail 6K climb up Squaw Valley, which Craig and I ran.

I drove up to Tahoe City out of both curiosity and commitment, part of a memorable year of racing. As one who will never run a 100-miler, I thought it would be great to taste the experience as a pacer. Also, I’d spent three years in nearby Nevada City as a college professor, during which I’d hiked and run countless miles on similar terrain; local knowledge never hurts. Plus, it would be fun to run with Dave again, after the 5K, 10K and half-marathon duels we had between 2006-2010.

The experience turned out to be far more than I could have imagined. It wasn’t a run. It was a testament to endurance, resilience, adaptability, strength, courage, determination and guts. I could go on and on …

…and that’s what we did. We ran on … and on … and on …

Dave, in front of the fully loaded crew SUV. We'd load and unload the back many times in the next 30 hours.

Dave, in front of the fully loaded crew SUV. We’d load and unload the back many times in the next 30 hours.

After three days shopping, running together, setting and re-setting plans for pacing, going to official meetings, and double- and triple-checking gear checklists, Dave and Don declared us ready. The first realization hit me: you are no longer in marathon land, Bob. When racing marathons, you typically don’t eat, nor do you stop for more than a few seconds – if at all. Ultras require eating to sustain the body, plus designated stops on the course for clothes changes, first aid, food, drink, pep talks, and getting weighed to make sure you haven’t lost too many pounds.

It’s not merely a different type of race. It’s a different world entirely.

Craig and I at the top of Squaw Valley's gondola lift, elev.  8,900 feet, aka the finish line of the Montrail 6K.

Craig and I at the top of Squaw Valley’s gondola lift, elev. 8,900 feet, aka the finish line of the Montrail 6K.

The morning before race day, Craig and I entered the Montrail 6K, a 3½-mile up-the-gut ascent from the base of Squaw Valley. We ran up an intermediate to advanced-level ski run, climbing from 6,400 to 8,800 feet. We also scouted for Dave, because he’d be moving up the same hill the next morning – for the first 3½ miles of his 100-miler. Yes, Western States leaves common sense in a cloud of Sierra dust. Aren’t you supposed to go down a ski run? A never-ending stream of quirky moments added to the fun, such as Dave asking me at mile 59 the next night, “Why are we stopping to look at the stars?”

“Because you’ve gotta see them,” I said, breaking into a teaching moment. Guess I reverted to my years at Ananda College, about 50 miles away. “They’re amazing up here… hey, there’s Scorpius. Cygnus. Orion. Cassiopeia…”

“If I miss my time by 30 seconds…”

I did have a reason (which I’ll share later). This type of repartee occurred countless times on the trail, multiplied by 369.2014-06-28 07.06.55

The 369 official entrants started at 5 a.m., and were cheered into the first climb by hundreds of crews, friends and family members. We hustled to Robinson Flat, the first crew stop at the 30-mile mark. We had to drive to Auburn, then drive right back up Foresthill Road – about 110 miles in all. Along the way, we passed through miles of charred forest from last summer’s fire, which would’ve erased this year’s race had volunteers and trail crews not spent nine months restoring 19 miles of trail. Craig and Don also received their first taste of narrow, windy Sierra Nevada upslope roads with their steep turns and four-digit drop-offs, which led to a comical moment involving fear.

“Oh yeah,” I said to Craig, at the height of his angst, “we’ll be pacing Dave on trails with drop-offs like this – at night.” I couldn’t resist.

I’m sure that Craig will exact sweet revenge on me one day in the future.

Where did the smile go? At mile 30, Dave looked tired and depleted. The realization of Western States' physical brutality had set in.

Where did the smile go? At mile 30, Dave looked tired and depleted. The realization of Western States’ physical brutality had set in.

We waited at Robinson Flat for an hour and a half, during which I marveled at the crew set-ups, the fantastic race organization, and the runners themselves. When Dave came through, he was on goal pace – but looked like he’d run through a desert and smacked a wall. We were concerned. This is not how you want to look or feel with 70 miles still to go and the midday heat cranking up. Don was already feeling an inner tug, as in, “do I act as his crew chief or his worried older brother?” He’d fight that fight a few more times.

A word about Don. The focus of an ultramarathon is the runner, and then the pacers enter the picture for the second half of the race. Hardly ever are support crews recognized. Don is a recently retired, fun-loving Midwesterner, borne of rock & roll and hard work, a former competitive runner in his own right. He did an incredible job keeping us organized with equipment, stops and taking care of Dave’s needs. Every stop required different gear. We made numerous adjustments during the race – the most significant of which I’ll get to – and Don left the running/strategizing portion to Craig and me. However, he took on the tough, unsung stuff, not the least of which was an agonizing instance where he had to talk to his brother about whether or not to leave the race. I vaguely knew Don before this weekend. Now, I know him. He is an amazing group leader.

We took care of Dave, sent him back on his way, and headed down to Foresthill, the only town on the Western States Trail.

Foresthill is a cozy hamlet in the Sierra foothills, about 20 miles outside Auburn. It serves as the symbolic center of Western States, even though it falls 100K (62-mile) into the race. Since we didn’t expect Dave at the next crew stop, Michigan Bluff, for several hours, we pulled up chairs, ate sandwiches, and watched the front of this race – the elites, astonishing in their fitness and efficiency. They passed through town running 7:00 to 7:30 miles, which I’d take for a 26-mile marathon any time. We watched eventual men’s winner Rob Krar run down Max King along the frontage road – one of two strips of pavement on the entire course. We also watched eventual women’s champ Stephanie Howe lope by, her long stride, waist-length hair and 5-foot-10 runway model’s body not what you’d expect for an ultra runner’s physique. Then again, these are outliers. What should we expect?

Craig figures out our revised pacing plan and the pace Dave needs to run, while Don does what any normal person would do on a beautiful, lazy summer afternoon in the Sierras.

Craig figures out our revised pacing plan and the pace Dave needs to run, while Don does what any normal person would do on a beautiful, lazy summer afternoon in the Sierras.

Meanwhile, we had work to do. Dave was struggling, and Craig, Don and I had to decide whether to pace him at Foresthill, or pick him up in Michigan Bluff, at mile 55. That would mean extra running for both Craig and me. While we thought about it, our numbers cruncher (Craig) got to work, figuring out what was needed for Dave to finish under time and get that belt buckle. Since I was the first pacer, I prepared my drinking belt, headlamp, flashlight, running gear and gels, and suited up.

Our decision was made after we arrived at Michigan Bluff, once a gold rush boomtown of 3,000, now a sweet enclave of 40 homes. Michigan Bluff was where Leland Stanford (he of the university) set up the first of his mercantiles and ferried supplies from the San Francisco docks to the gold rushers. (To this day, horseback riding remains a ready source of local transportation.) As the sun carried daylight with it into the far horizon, still no sign of Dave. Craig ran to the other side of Michigan Bluff to serve as our lookout. I started stretching as Don switched into big brother mode and entertained the idea of convincing Dave to bow out. “Problem is, he keeps thinking he’s gonna disappoint the rest of us,” Don said. “But I can’t let him stay out there if he comes in here all messed up.”

“I’d never be disappointed. Just getting out there and going this far, on this terrain, in these mountains is quite the accomplishment,” I told him. “I’m just happy to be here with him.” I meant it, though I did relish the chance hit these trails at night.

Finally, Dave popped into view, about 90 minutes behind what we’d expected. Why? He went through hell between 45 and 55 miles, where the American River canyon system kicked into high gear with bone-crunching climbs and falls in high heat. It used to claim prospectors back in the day… and took its shot at Dave as he baked in the relentless sun. Since Dave is from the Midwest, maybe the mountain remembered how it used to punish pioneers.

Dave weighed in – down nine pounds since the race began – and he and Don took the 300-yard walk to our pit stop. I can only imagine what was said. Minutes later, Craig ran up and told me we were pressing on. As I stretched again, Dave showed up, sat down, and we applied cold compresses on his quads, wrapped a cold towel around his neck, reloaded his drinks, and gave our little pep talks. I thought I was in a fight corner between rounds.


We set out at 8:56 p.m. Our goal: to make the river crossing at Rucky Chucky, mile 78, by no later than 4 a.m., hopefully sooner. While that sounds slow to a 5K or 10K specialist, consider the circumstances: Dave had covered 55 miles, the terrain was beastly, and he had to reserve enough strength for the final stretch.

After not running at all for six hours, due to the terrain and his flagging spirits, Dave started jogging again. We bit five minutes off the clock within the first two miles of flat and gentle downslope. Certainly, having another runner with him helped, someone to talk to, especially after spending 16 hours on the course alone. Also, he knew we were running against the clock – a daunting prospect when there’s still 45 miles to go. He had to negative split the race (run the second half faster than the first) … a concept I understand and have done in marathons and shorter races, but boggles my mind when you’re talking about 100 miles.

There was another big change: he began to rehydrate. He’d dehydrated himself beyond the weight crucible Western States sets: if you lose more than 4% of your body weight, they reserve the right to remove you from the race at a weigh station (every 10-15 miles). They rarely do it, but the fear was in his heart. He took extra drink bottles out of Michigan Bluff, and I kept telling him to drink. His legs loosened up, he started running better, and we clicked off time while enjoying beautiful Sierra foothill countryside, along with favorable trail conditions. His legs were celebrating after the mess they’d traversed all day.

At mile 59, as we ascended Volcano Canyon, I decided to make sure he drank up. That’s when I started pointing out the stars. Dave couldn’t figure out what I was doing, but when you’re in the Sierras on a warm summer night, the stars look like golf balls, and it can feel like you’re one with the heavens. If you bust your ass for a hundred miles, you deserve the experience. That’s what I told him. I also made sure that, while stopped and allowing his legs to relax, Dave took his mind off the race for a second and drank every drop, since he could reload at the Bath Road aid station a mile away.

All told, we stopped for a minute. I took a good-natured ribbing on the course for this move, and Craig and Don joined in later. (OK, boys, you’re right: I’m unconventional. But hey, whatever works…)

(Read Part Two)

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Why Back Stories Matter (part 2)

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Part One of Why Back Stories Matter appeared on the 366Writing blog. In part two, we look at the specific reasons people love to hear the stories behind the story – and I share a few as well from my newest collection of essays and poetry, Backroad Melodies, which will be released on Summer Solstice, June 21.)

Poring through some of 700 pieces of research at Skywalker Ranch for the book Blockbusting!

Poring through some of 700 pieces of research at Skywalker Ranch for the book Blockbusting!

WHEN WRITING BOOKS, authors spend months or even years pulling together backstory. Novelists must know the ins and outs of their characters, and their characters’ lives, loves and tendencies, before committing the first sentence to paper (or screen). Non-fiction authors must track down all available background information on their human subjects or central topics in order to present their material. In both cases, extensive research precedes any writing. It’s quite normal for an author to pore through hundreds of source materials (books, articles, papers, videos, transcripts, etc.) before writing a manuscript.On top of that, fiction writers invariably pull nuggets of experience or perception from their own lives, and weave them into their characters, plots, or subtext.

The final books that reach bookshelves, online stores, and our admiring eyes compare favorably to icebergs: ten percent of the research and raw material makes it into print. Maybe ten percent of that is character, subject or topical backstory woven into the fabric of the narrative.

As for the other ninety percent? Many writers like to entomb their source and research material into cardboard file boxes or backup drives, never to see the light of day again. As for me? I want to know the backstories, and I want to share them. For instance, in my novel Voice Lessons, I wove nearly a hundred personal anecdotes into the characters, events, lyrics, concerts, plot and subtext – not to mention the prose that took flame from research that included more than two hundred books and articles, two hundred CDs and another hundred DVDs. Will you know which anecdotes are from my life? Not unless you know me, well. Or unless I tell you. Behind each anecdote is another story, the agglomeration of experiences that created it. We could go on forever.

Which is the point: to give readers the experiences that shaped the wonderful experience they just had in reading a book. That’s why fan clubs exist. That’s why we comb through materials in all shapes and forms to find interviews, histories, biographies and reminiscences that add context, shape and perspective to what we just read. When we learn these back or side stories, lights switch on in our heads. Recognition parts our consciousness like Moses finding his groove on the Red Sea. “A-ha!” moments of realization break into smiles across our faces, accompanied by a warm, tingling feeling inside. Suddenly, we know more about what makes the author tick, what prompted him or her to write that passage in that way, or to drop in that particularly amazing detail. We feel good because we know more. Acquired and perceived knowledge always feels good.

51kzcyubVNL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_51S4MUUXEQL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_  Two of the best novels I’ve read in recent years – which I happened to read back-to-back in Spring 2013 – were Fobbit, by David Abrams, and Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. These two men were among four panelists at a Los Angeles Times Festival of Books discussion entitled, “Fiction at a Sideways Glance.” Well, as this piece might indicate, I’m going to be the moth drawn to any writing forum that looks at the craft from a different angle. Both men were engaging and insightful, their shared experiences delighting the capacity crowd. It so happens, too, that Fobbit and Beautiful Ruins are two of the most talked about novels of 2013.

Each book offers a fiesta for backstory seekers: Fobbit draws from a journal Abrams kept while serving as a public affairs specialist in Iraq, thus offering both a comedic (sometimes hilarious) look at the war and a troubling, in-the-trenches perspective we saw or read about nightly during Vietnam – the tragedy and heartache that happens before medals are pinned on our great servicemen and women – but which was expunged from our awareness by the 21st century Pentagon. Dark comedy? Fobbit is one of the best. You won’t think the same about the war in Iraq, or war itself, after reading it. (We will have the pleasure of hearing from Abrams later this month in a Word Journeys Blog interview).

Beautiful Ruins is an exquisite story of a romantic spark between two people that stretches across fifty years of life, in all its ups and downs, set against three backdrops that the author painted with a combination of personal observation, experience and research: the early production Italian set of the epic Cleopatra (or, to be more specific, what went on between Liz and Dick); a tiny hamlet with Italy’s majestic Cinqueterre coast; and the playground of golden dreams and brass-knuckle realities known as Hollywood.

I am a glutton for good stories, and all great books are loaded with creation points that spider outward as far as you can follow. They are all truly silken threads.

Snowmelt descending down the South Fork of the Yuba River

Snowmelt descending down the South Fork of the Yuba River

BACK TO THE BACKROADS. The roads listed earlier anchor the overall backstory of Backroad Melodies. Many of the poems were written about or on them. Since I’ve opened a can of worms, and encouraged everyone to either seek out or share the stories behind the stories, here are a few from this collection:

• “A Day on the Rake”:  I took a day of silence during a long meditation retreat in Northern California (on MacNab Cypress Road), grabbed a rake, and spent an entire day working on a mile of paths that wound between hundreds of plant species and statues of deities representing all the world’s major religions. Truly energizing.

• “Birthing a New Day”: An experience from the inception of my relationship with Martha, at the base of Mount Palomar, in her backyard on Ushla Way, twenty miles from the nearest town. Years later, I can gladly report that very day feels like this poem.

• “Fossil Light”: Standing outside on a crystal clear midnight in February, temperature three degrees above zero, viewing the stars through the prism of their original conception. What we see twinkling today is the way they existed before modern civilization, before humanity … even before dinosaurs. Fossil light.

• “The Way Stones Tell Stories”: Sitting in the San Luis Rey riverbed during dry season, holding a stone, admiring its age and stoic presence. Every sentient being has its storytelling style; our job is to know how to listen, and what to listen for.

• “Morning Prayer”: Driving through Capitol Reef in Eastern Utah just as dawn erupted on the cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges of this monocline, known to geologists as the Waterpocket Fold. I feel Native American spirit and energy most profoundly in the Four Corners region … as on this morning.

• “Ghost Riding”: This could be subtitled, “the songs of trees on back roads.” When wires, lights and busy minds aren’t present, wind feels and sounds like ghosts while whispering through trees.

• “Tea Time”: Over a three-year period, I had the profound pleasure of walking next door occasionally and drinking tea with my friend and favorite poet, Gary Snyder. Few people are more conversant on so many different topics.

• “Four Pool Quartet”: On a hot, late September day in the Sierra Nevada foothills, one of my students asked if we could hold an outdoor class. You don’t have to ask me that question twice. We loaded up cars, and I took them to an out-of-the-way spot on the Yuba River, reachable only by driving a road you don’t want to think about in icy or snowy weather, then hiking down a trail steep enough to tax a bighorn sheep. We sat on giant flatrock, deposited when the Sierra Nevada range was formed five million years ago, and wrote and swam for two hours. (“Did you know this snow-fed, rock-strewn river has five or six different currents,” I told them, “only three of which you see above the surface?”) This poem was one of my two contributions for the day, written behind a back road, while sitting in a river pool.

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10 Random Thoughts About Writing

While watching snow fall the other day in mid-April in the Sierra Nevada foothills — what some would call a highly unusual occurrence, what I would call part-and-parcel of the new climate in which we live —  a few random thoughts about writing, writers and our love of putting feelings, thoughts and observations to words:

1)   With the Boston Marathon’s latest running Monday (an event I’m proud to say I have raced three times), I always think of the similarities between running a marathon and writing a book. Both are long processes that we start with tremendous expectation and energy – sometimes, too much energy. How many potentially good books have fizzled out because we put everything we had into them in the beginning, only to burn out? Runners who started their marathons too fast can answer that question. How do runners deal with those middle miles, the 10- through 20-mile marks, after their initial adrenalin wears off and they need to push forward and conserve energy at the same time? Writers can let them know; it’s called the middle chapters.

And finally, how do you tie up the loose ends and conflicts in your narrative, and bring the book to its conclusion? Ask any marathoner who has successfully covered the final 10K of the 26.2-mile race; some even say “the race begins at 20 miles.” I agree: for running and for books. No matter how tired we are, how sick we are of the material, we have to summon our deepest reserves of creativity and energy, focus even more intently, and write or run to that finish line — well.

2)   In 1987, when Guns N’ Roses burst onto the national scene as the best American rock band since Aerosmith (and, some would say, better), who would’ve thought that their tall, rangy, rowdy bass player would evolve into a fine, evocative writer? Yep, you’re right: I didn’t raise my hand, either. But sure enough, as G&R takes its long-deserved place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, bass player and ESPN.com columnist Duff McKagan releases his memoir, It’s So Easy … and other lies. If you want to read a hard-hitting memoir about the rock music world and its excesses, actually written by the musician (and written well), grab this book. You will be delightfully surprised. Duff is one of the true success stories in rock music – as in, he successfully navigated some perilous waters to enjoy the life he now experiences with his wife and two daughters. The opening chapter alone is priceless — setting up his daughter’s 13th birthday party — and finding out he’s gone from rock star to “I want you to remain invisible from my friends.”

3)   There’s another Imagebook we need to read, not only because of its fine, incisive journalistic reporting with a crafty narrative non-fiction writer’s voice, but because of its pressing subject matter: Eaarth, by Bill McKibben. I’ve been reading articles and occasional books by McKibben since he wrote End of Nature in 1989, when I was doing some environment and food-based work for Earth Save. Eaarth is something quite different; it speaks of what has already happened to the planet from global warming and our addiction to fossil fuels, and what is coming. What struck me, through the tremendous writing and journalism, was not that McKibben was sounding the same warning call we’ve heard for years from others — but that the time is at hand. All you have to look at is the month of March: 15,000 high temperature records were set in the U.S. alone. Gas is $4 per gallon. What polar ice caps? I can’t wait to see him at Ananda College, where I teach, on Tuesday morning, and at his appearance with poet Gary Snyder Tuesday night in nearby Nevada City. As writers, we have the power to help create a more sustainable future with our hands, in more ways than one. This is a great and necessary read.

4)   The other day, I was talking to my advanced writing class about what really matters in education and in teaching the subject of writing. With so many great books on writing readily available at Whispernet speeds, it’s silly to constantly try to reinvent the wheel of material — though I can give it shot through two writing books of my own and 35 years of in-the-trenches journalistic, writing and editing experience. We hit upon two of my most near-and-dear perspectives on the teaching of writing, and of education at large:

a) The greatest task – and accomplishment – of all teachers is to instill a lifelong love of learning in their students, reinforced and expanded daily; and

b) Any good writing teacher meets the student at their present stage, takes them by the hand, and expands their horizon and possibility — and shows them how to continually take chances that tap the treasure of the truly insightful, innovative and meaningful. However we do it, that is our goal. Nothing less.

5)   I’m now wrapping up the novel that’s taken me forever to finish, Voice Lessons, about a rock music legend/legacy from the late 1960s whose reformed band becomes huge once again, in large part because of the protagonist’s daughter, a great young singer. In the midst, his other daughter, a love child lost to him in the early ‘70s, reappears in his life. This has been an incredible experience, as I wove through my characters through two quite separate but equally rich experiences — a fifty-year swath of American music and its deep-seated place in our culture; and what happens when relationships break … and then mend many years later. Will be shipping it off in a few weeks … look for it in 2013.

6)   Am getting ready to write a narrative nonfiction piece on the place where I teach college — the heart of California’s Gold Rush Country. What has struck me is that, from where I sit, there are four types of gold in these thar Sierra Nevada foothills: a) the gold that ignited the fever that changed this place, and America, forever (and there’s still plenty in the rivers and quartz veins); b) the inner gold, with some deep spiritual practices informing many residents and communities here; c) the intellectual gold, in this area where many scientists, educators and thinkers live simple, land-based lives; d) the literary gold, brought forth by numerous authors. Really going to have fun with this one.

7)   We’re having one of my favorite activities here at the college on May 8: our second literary night. If every elementary, middle and high school would have one or two of these nights per year, in which students read their writing to a receptive audience, then I feel more kids would get into writing. The written word comes alive when you put voice, emotion and presence to it, and nothing does that more than live readings. Four of my students will be using literary night for their oral final; that’s how important I feel it is. We’ll also have other readers from the student body and faculty. More than anything, we’ll celebrate our stories, poems and the beauty of writing itself.

8)   A fantastic writing book to pick up, if you want to work on diving deeper into the essence of your stories, characters, subjects and yourself: Ensouling Language, by Stephen Harrod Buhner. What a gem.

9)    If you haven’t already joined, welcome yourself into our Word Journeys — Resources for Writers group on Facebook. This is a great group: more than 400 authors, editors, publishers, publicists, agents and educators sharing their love of writing, along with a diverse array of traditional and digital publishing tips. Best part of this group? Since I know just how tough it is to market books, you can post your new releases in the group and give us links to them – as long as you don’t go advertising billboard on us! We’d love to see you there.

10) Finally, a challenge to all of you to literally write the spring: Write about green subjects, growth, expansion, spirit, community, friendship, love … all the subjects that cause mind and heart alike to expand in both depth and perspective. See if you can tap into the energy of the spring and write pieces that resonate with growth, promise and bounty. 


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Nature’s Half Acre: The Experience

The Sierra foothills lit up with sunshine and the warm scent of pine needles as one of my Ananda College of Living Wisdom creative writing students, Kevin Davis, and I walked down a grass, kitkitdizze and manzanita-covered hill to practice one of my favorite writing sessions — “Nature’s Half Acre.”

When I first gave this exercise in 2002 at Riverstone Ranch in New Mexico’s Hondo Valley, all I could think about was the award-winning Disney documentary I watched in elementary school, Nature’s Half Acre, which celebrated the volume of life in a small space. I joined the retreatants for the exercise, which for me became a trip down history lane, as we were sitting on the very place where Billy the Kid took refuge as his pursuers tracked him. This resulted in the poem suite, “Riverstone Runes,” which was published in my book Shades of Green.

Fast-forward almost nine years. I asked Kevin to pick any place in these prodigious pine, manzanita and oak woods, draw a visual circle 30 feet in diameter around him, and shut off everything beyond that point. Then tune into the place, listen to it, enter its world — in which, according to scientists, thousands of different living beings and organisms dwell. For the next 50 minutes, his world would consist entirely of what he observed, perceived, felt, thought, heard and sensed inside the circle — and the poetic or storytelling voages on which those observations and perceptions took him.

I moved to a place of my own, amidst a circle of old pines and oaks that were felled by a vicious snow and windstorm that laid siege to the Sierra late last November. Beyond my circle, I could see the cords of neatly stacked firewood outside the house of my friend and huge literary influence, the poet Gary Snyder.  But the session pertained to what stood within my 30-foot circle.

I saw old fallen pines and oaks. Ten of them. Moss started to grow on some; others truly looked like bodies that had given up the ghost. Butterflies, gopher holes and bobcat tracks occupied space, as did a small colony of busy ants, while the old denizens of Inimin Forest ground cover, kitkitdizze, poison oak and wild meadow grass, flourished around me. Some of the old tree bark, rough and knuckled, peeled back to reveal a soft, tender interior, made to nurture — an apt metaphor for the way we build shells around our hearts.

Next, I imagined the stories these trees could tell; some had been around since the Maidu Indians lived on this ground, which, like all of Mother Earth, they considered sacred. I thought of the countless storms, fires, intrusions by Gold Rushers and timber cutters, the saving grace of naturalist John Muir and, more recently, Gary Snyder, and the people atop the hill, whose meditations on divine love and peace cast a deeper serenity on an already serene land. What stories! What wisdom! I came up with a name for the poems I furiously wrote: “Council of Fallen Trees.”

Then I noticed the seedlings, none more than three feet tall. I counted them: ten.  Eight pines, two oaks. Exactly the same count as the fallen trees. Once again, nature saw fit to replenish herself, to restart her particular Shiva cycle — creator, preserver, destroyer. The trees rise. They live for centuries. The weakest then fall, usually in a deep snowstorm or harsh windstorm.

When I looked down, I’d written eight pages of poems and vignettes. In 50 minutes. Where did the time go? I walked over to Kevin, who not only wrote out the atmosphere of his 30-foot circle, but also created a wonderful tale that tapped into the age-old promise of the pioneer — just one more hill, just one more hill…

To me, this is the essence of writing — to go to a quiet place, draw an imaginary circle of any diameter, shut off the entire world beyond that circle, and commune with pen, paper, the senses, mind, heart and soul.

And now, I will polish up “Council of Fallen Trees.” It will appear in Backroad Melodies, my next poetry and essay collection.

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Maidu Storytelling: A Beautiful Language, A Haunting Evening

Moki’ ka’do yapen’imaat sol’dom okau’pintitsoia (His world created with indeed singing caused to sound pretty) — from a Maidu tale

The great Maidu world of Northern California revolved around singing — singing the world into being, singing spirit and presence into the day, singing joy and happiness, singing to meet and greet others. Singing to be allowed into the roundhouse. No verb form was used more often than “sol” — sing.

The music of story certainly filled the Sierra Nevada foothills on January 26, when Maidu storyteller Farrell Cunningham visited the North Columbia Schoolhouse, one of the nation’s oldest and coolest cultural centers. For almost two hours, Farrell told traditional tales in his native Mountain Maidu tongue, and filled in a full house on the Maidu’s 150-year history of contact and interaction with white settlers and the California state government. More on that in a moment.

Farrell’s story is remarkable in itself. In a world where we’ve taken for granted the extinction of plant and animal species, we’ve almost completely swept under the rug another form of extinction — the loss of native languages. Every time we lose a language, we lose a slice of our human brethren, our essential nature as a species. We’ve lost a lot of tongues in the last century. One of the most haunting essays I’ve ever read was Gary Snyder’s experience of joining a linguist to try to get the last two elderly speakers of a Northern California native dialect, one of whom also spoke English, to come together, to record their language for history’s sake. They refused, because they hated each other. The language joined the dinosaurs. Gary’s tears practically stain the printed page on which the essay is written.

Bad news, folks: here we go again. At age 34, Farrell is carrying the torch of the Mountain Maidu language, a beautiful, rhythmic spoken-song tongue that has always revolved around singing. His soft-spoken delivery, often while looking beyond the crowd to connect with Worldmaker himself, held the feeling of sitting in a roundhouse in the dead of winter, listening to an elder talk story. Farrell told the gathering, in both Maidu and English, “Worldmaker told us from the beginning, ‘Everything in this world will have a song. If you want to make things a little better in this world, you will sing.” Later, he added, “Anyone you want to know, anything you want to know, you sing. Then you ask the other to sing. That is how you will know them.”

What a beautiful language. It moves right to the heart and soul, in 18 letters and relatively few words.

For many centuries, the Maidu tongue and other dialects in the Maiduan family filled the Sierra Nevada valleys between Lassen Peak and Sierra Valley, and in the plateaus of the high northeast near Susanville. This included the San Juan Ridge, where the North Columbia Schoolhouse sits. He’s the only lifelong Maidu speaker under age 80 — and of that older crowd, only a very few remain who speak Maidu as their first language.

During the evening, Farrell told us stories about Worldmaker’s determination to walk forward with the creation of the world and its creatures, despite the desires of the beguiling, anti-hero Coyote to either eat or mate with — and then eat — Worldmaker’s creations. While Coyote kept proclaiming that he ruled the world, Worldmaker kept moving forward, creating. But it was the priority he placed in his creation that speaks volumes of the spiritual nature of the Maidu people, the truly spiritual nature of humankind. As Farrell put it in his native tongue before translating, “Worldmaker said, ‘This is going to be a world of energies and spirit, then the humans will enter.'”

Another entertaining tale was Coyote’s desire to fly, and the threatening way in which he demanded lessons from a hummingbird — only to climb a tree branch when the hummingbird consented and fall to his death. Farrell then spoke of the ancients’ resurrection tale, striking in its modern parallels: “In the very ancient days, people would come along and, if they saw your dead body or bones lying there, would throw them into a body of water. You came back to life at the next sunrise.”

Farrell grew up the youngest of eight children, in the Genessee-Pit River Valley area, “where the birds own the creek.” He is a half-Maidu descendant of gold prospector John Davis, who entered a Maidu family whose basketweaving prowess is renowned among collectors. He learned Maidu from his grandfather’s sisters, who used to take him wherever they went. They were the last generation to speak the tongue as a first language before the U.S. government forced them into boarding schools — part of a process of driving the Maidu from their land, resettling them into 160-acre parcels, then systematically shaving off pieces of that parcel. “My family parcel was 40 acres until we ‘donated’ four acres for a septic plant,” Farrell said. His 15-minute overview of U.S. government actions since the 1850s was a tale to make any compassionate person squirm, a story the Native peoples throughout the U.S. know all too well.

Now, Farrell is teaching the Maidu language out of the California gold rush town of Nevada City, which features a corner lot with a Maidu timber tipi on it. Since language is the expression of human life, here’s hoping that he reaches enough people to keep one of the most beautiful languages on earth alive — and continues to pass its musical richness into every heart and soul he touches.


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From “Morning Tea with Gary Snyder”

While inhaling the brisk, pine-sharpened air of the surrounding Animin Forest along the San Juan Ridge, high above the South Yuba River, I consider the facets of Gary Snyder: poetics, ecology, Native American myth and literature, the value of work, the greatest defender of the Sierra Nevada since John Muir, his translation and knowledge of Japanese and Chinese poetry. The San Francisco Beat movement. The latter ignited on an October night in 1955 when Gary joined Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia and their non-reading guest, Jack Kerouac, at the “remarkable collection of angels,” the Six Gallery Reading. Ginsberg debuted and immortalized “Howl.” Snyder, then 25, read his first poem publicly, “A Berry Feast,” now a classic. The Six Gallery remains the seminal poetry event in recent U.S. history — and for which, amazingly, no photograph or tape recording exists. Why? No one thought it was a big deal. They didn’t see what was coming. Except for the lookout, the erstwhile Cascade Mountain ranger and U.C. Berkeley graduate student, Snyder. “I think it will be a poetical bombshell,” he told Whalen. In a journal, he wrote, “Poetry will get a kick in the arse around this town.”

All of them became famous.

A few nights before, while having dinner, Gary and I talked about Kerouac. After the Six Gallery reading, and before heading to Japan for 12 years of study, Snyder took Kerouac up North Arete, a.k.a. the Sierra Matterhorn, a difficult six-hour climb just west of California’s Mt. Whitney. The two held a common devotion for Buddhism, but were otherwise as different as the West and East coasts from which they came. Not to mention that Kerouac wrote prose that sometimes rambled like an endless river (one particular sentence in his benzedrine-fueled novel, The Subterraneans, stretched more than 1,200 words). Conversely, Snyder lives and breathes punctuality, his work crisp and clear as cold, pine-scented air. In 1959, their Sierra Matterhorn climb appeared in Kerouac’s great novel, The Dharma Bums — along with a wise, resourceful protagonist virtually every reader before and since wanted to know like a next-door neighbor: Japhy Ryder.

Gary Snyder.

“That was interesting to see how he wrote about our trip, the things we did together,” Gary said. “He had a tough time getting up the Matterhorn, but he did it.”

“What’s it like becoming the protagonist of a novel?”

Gary looked at me, eyes sharpening to the point he was about to make. His next bite of food clung to his fork like a spacewalker. “I was the model for a fictional character. I’m no more Japhy Ryder than the next guy. He used a lot of what we did, and I liked the way he wrote the book very much — I think it’s Kerouac’s finest novel — but Japhy is fictional and I’m right here. I was just a model.”

An intriguing comment I read about Kerouac’s work came to mind, something relevant in this era of memoirs, exposes, autobiographical novels, what’s true in novels and what’s fictitious in so-called memoirs. “Do you think that if Kerouac were alive today, his thirteen novels — On The Road, Dharma Bums, Big Sur, Tales of Duluoz and the others — would be considered memoirs?” I asked.

Gary thought about it for a moment, leaving the food marooned. He shook the fork slightly. “That’s a very good question. But…no. He fictionalized quite a bit, changed some names, changed the sequence of events, made a couple of things up; it’s not true memoir. You could call it autobiographical fiction. But why not just call it fiction and enjoy it?”

Out rolled the raucous laugh, the fun-lover’s laugh, his eyes jovial as leprechauns — the side of Gary Snyder we all seem to forget while he’s reading his works and discoursing on everything from the dearth of deep thought in everyday life to instilling more arts into public education to conserving his beloved Sierra Nevada.

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Nature’s Best Friend: A Tribute to Gary Snyder

(This is a long blog, so I am dividing it into three parts — to run today, Monday and Wednesday. Enjoy)

(Talk delivered to the Ananda College of Living Wisdom, near Nevada City, CA on Monday, May 17, 2010)

I have been asked to talk with you tonight about Gary Snyder, who will be giving a reading here next week. This is both a privilege and honor, because in my nearly 35 years as a journalist, poet, author and, most recently, editor of the literary anthology The Hummingbird Review, no one has made a greater impact on my writing – or the causes, subjects, concerns and themes that have informed and populated my journalism, poetry, essays, narratives, the way I teach writing, and my present and future books.

Gary Snyder is one of the world’s pre-eminent poets and essayists. He belongs in the pantheon of the top 15 poets in U.S. history, his face on a prosaic Mt. Rushmore with, say, figures like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Anne Waldman, Allen Ginsberg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, and the foremost Native American poet, Joy Harjo. More than that, though, he is one of the most important literary figures, a man whose writings and activities bring out his brilliance, deep soul, compassion and childlike reverence for life itself. He’s a man of the wild, in both heart and place, who lives in integrity and full commitment to that which he cherishes – our backyard. He protects the Inimin Forest that surrounds us and the San Juan Ridge on which you have lived and studied with the love of a child and the ferocity of the mythical Nalagiri – half-tiger, half-elephant. Can you imagine angering such a creature?

But we’re not talking about anger, or confrontation – although the U.S. Forestry Service, Bureau of Land Management, State of California and numerous regional and local groups would beg to differ when they’ve had to deal with Gary as he fought to protect this area. If I were the Sierra Nevada, he’d be the first guy on my team. Actually, in a sense, the mountains have chosen him. Since he and his family moved here in 1970, a few years after joining Swami Kriyananda, Allen Ginsberg and Richard Roshi Baker to purchase 100 acres – the eastern side of which became Ananda’s first community, later the Ananda Meditation Retreat – Gary has sounded the proverbial conch for the ecological well-being of the northern Sierra like no other. When he blew a conch shell to call the fabled Human Be-In to order in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967, then recited poems and chants with Allen Ginsberg to the thousands gathered on this special day that also included music by Jefferson Airplane, Quiksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead, he essentially previewed things to come. That day heralded what we baby boomers know as the “back to the land” movement… intrinsically connected to Ananda’s history. Ananda turned out to be the most enduring of hundreds of intentional communities that sprouted nationwide from that movement – and certainly the most yoga-centered.

I first came into contact with Gary’s work when I was your age, a college freshman in San Diego. My creative writing professor, Dr. Don Eulert, was the founding editor of American Haiku magazine back in the ’60s. He and Gary were two of maybe five Americans who truly understood haiku at its deepest levels at that time, and they knew each other because of their mutual affinity for Zen Buddhism and love of traditional Japanese poetry. I’d already logged three years as a newspaper reporter, but I wanted to write books, poetry. Dr. Eulert deconstructed my inverted pyramid writing style – most important facts up top – and taught me to write subjectively, the way of the memoirist, novelist and New Journalism – inserting yourself into articles and essays as a participant, the rage of the day, the predecessor of today’s popular narrative non-fiction genre. Or, as Gary later put it: “Imagination–Direct Experience–the Ineluctable Present Moment.”

That’s my style now, to a T.

Dr. Eulert gave me some great books to read and told me to come back in two weeks, then we’d begin: they included White Album by Joan Didion; Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth; Sunflower Splendor, an anthology of 5,000 years of Chinese poetry; the then just-published The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe; On the Road and The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac; and one of his collections, Outposts: Letters from Buffalo Bill to Annie Oakley. He also gave me Turtle Island, Gary’s most famous collection, fresh off receiving the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. Immediately, I fell in love with the places about which Gary wrote, especially the ground on which we sit tonight. (Ten years later, my spiritual quest led me to Ananda, right next door to his place, Kitkitdizze. What great fortune to find both my spiritual and literary polestars in the same neighborhood!) Every poem and essay resonated –life on the Ridge, treasures from his years in Japan, mountains and rivers, the forests, beautiful interpretations of Native American myths, the creatures with which he co-existed as steward and equal, not exploiter and dominator. He showed the back-to-nature movement exactly what ahimsa, non-violence, looked like in practice.

(To be continued)

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Writing (Your) Place

I’m getting ready to write a print book memoir and an ongoing online blog-memoir, a series of digital postcards, if you will. (Note: The latter will be the new incarnation of my other blog, 366writing.wordpress.com, alternating with writing exercises). During these times when major book projects are percolating, I always seem to dive deeper into a sense of place – wherever that place may be. Which, with me, could be just about anywhere; somewhere along the line, I inherited an awful lot of gypsy genes.

Right now, am sitting in the Sierra Nevada foothills, at the Ananda Meditation Retreat, rejuvenating health, meditating, writing, editing my clients’ books, planning future teaching gigs, and mapping out the digital publishing side of Word Journeys. I always feel right at home here, deep in-place. Partly, it’s because after the past several years of living in Kentucky, the rural space – whether in hardwood forests, deserts or lush Ponderosa Pine mountains – feels very comfortable. Or maybe it’s because the greatest single influence of my writing life, the great Pulitzer Prize-winning poet-essayist-conservationist-ecologist Gary Snyder, is hanging out at his home not 500 yards away, taking in a rare mixture of rain and snow in mid-May, perhaps reflecting on the 80th birthday he celebrated Saturday. Or, Gary being Gary, moving forward, finding the next text to study, the next piece of firewood to chop, the next poem or essay to experience, then develop. (I am very proud to state that, for 31 of those years, I have been reading, studying and learning from his works.)
I don’t know. What I do see, though, in more and more writing – especially in this new era in which anyone can publish, anytime – is a lot of descriptions about places, without actually writing from within the place. It’s like the difference between us describing Nature and Ecology: Nature is a thing, an object we categorize, define or otherwise try to relate to; Ecology is movement, relationship, the interweaving and interaction of all elements that share the same space, the same place. Nature requires us to write from past or even future; Ecology is all about presence. The difference between the two is the difference between a photograph and a movie. And our goal, as writers and as citizens of this planet, should always be to not only watch the movie, but find our place within it. The great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore put it this way: “Center everywhere, circumference nowhere.”
When we write from within a place – whether it’s our home, community, place we visit often, or somewhere that transforms us, like a beach – we write with strength and conviction. Readers not only surmise that you know what you’re talking about; they can feel it in every energized word. When we can take our readers by the hand and anchor them into our setting, or place – whether in a poem, an essay or a story – we’ve got them. The common perception is that we can accomplish this through facts and crafty word choices, but that’s only the window dressing. The real writing, the real value, comes from feeling the pulsating heart of the earth, or a tree, or a river flush with winter’s snows, or the vibration of a hummingbird’s wings, and sharing the wealth.
Unfortunately, in our haste to crank out the next books, essays, articles or poems, we often miss this point. We miss the ecology, the entire relationship of place in which we exist, and settle for the nature.
I have a couple of exercises in my book The Write Time that help develop the skill of writing within a place that I’d like to share:
1) Sit outside, in a setting that comforts you – a lakeshore, riverbank, woods, garden, beach or even your backyard. From where you sit, visually create a circle surrounding you, 30 feet in diameter. Drop the curtain on everything beyond that circle; your world now exists totally within the circle. This is your place, your oikos (root word of Ecology). For the next 30 to 60 minutes, write your place. You can start by writing about the place, describing things, but turn inward as soon as possible and become the center of the place – write from its heart.
2) Try writing haiku – tiny three-line poems. True Japanese haiku doesn’t use the 5-7-5 syllable rule; rather, it focuses on the simple dynamic of a moment in time, in place. For the purpose of this exercise, observe a movement around you, and put it into three lines. Go with the 5-7-5 syllable count, simply to practice economy of words. As you write your haiku, focus solely on the wholeness of what you’re observing – and keep yourself out of the picture. You’re writing the moment, not your interpretation of it.
See how these practices help with writing place. This skill is essential, no matter the genre. I know one thing – editors and publishers find it very hard to put down manuscripts or collections that are rooted in this way. Readers can’t put them down, either. And there is little more satisfying to writers – whether professionals, journalers or letter-writers – than knowing you have not only described a place well, but written the heart and spirit of that place.
Finally, a little morning moment, using haiku in the popular 5-7-5 format:
Pungent wood smoke scent,
driven down and scattered by
rain and hummingbirds

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