Ashes to Ashes: 2016 in the Rearview Mirror

Rosedeer Hotel, Wayne, Alberta
Rosedeer Hotel, Wayne, Alberta

New Year’s Eve at the Blackfoot Truckstop Diner

Blackfoot Truckstop Diner, in Calgary, watching fireworks go off at the zoo across the river with a handful of folks all of whom had seen better days. New Year’s Eve, Rhubarb Pie, having spent most of the day at the Peter Lougheed Hospital visiting my stepfather and last remaining parent, the Old Man, who’d ended up in the hospital after a fall.

Blackfoot Diner, Calgary
Blackfoot Diner, Calgary, New Year’s Eve

The Old Man didn’t have much patience for other people and always kept to himself, so when he took a fall in his apartment at the Rocky Ridge Retirement Center, it took a few days before anyone noticed they hadn’t seen him and went looking. They found him on the floor in his apartment, not particularly coherent and in bad shape as he hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink in a few days. It took a few more days before they took him to the hospital. He knew who I was when I showed up at the hospital. He was expecting me. Beyond that I’m not so sure how much he knew. He’d reverted back to infancy in so many ways, not least of which was requiring diapers. Long term memory was mostly intact, but short term memory was pretty much gone. His awareness drifted, and this was made worse by an inability to speak more than two or three words at a time, and those not clearly. We read to him from a crime novel we found in his room. He sat in his chair and listened attentively. He liked the sound of our voices, I guess, and the attention, and didn’t seem particularly sad when he indicated he couldn’t remember any of the story we’d just read him.

New Year’s Day: the first run of the year, up on Nose Hill, a park that used to be my back yard when we lived on Conrad Drive fifty years ago, (fifty years ago!), back in 1966, before John Laurie Blvd was built, when all that separated the hill from our yard was a small fence and an unpaved back alley.

I remembered the views of the city, and of the Rockies in the not-so-distant distance. A wave of homesickness began, a homesickness that has lasted through the year.

The Old Man
The Old Man

A Beautiful & Heartbreaking Homecoming.

The first week of 2016 was spent divided between Peter Lougheed Hospital and snowy trails, along the Bow River, in Nose Creek, down at Fish Creek, and out in Canmore. It was a beautiful homecoming, and a heartbreaking one.

An old man’s mind like clouds passing over the sun – sometimes everything is bright and clear, and then the cloud blocks the sun, and things go dark until it passes. Catherine was the Old Man’s date on New Year’s Eve, 1948. She said it much more eloquently than this.

“You’ve caught him on an upswing,” the doctor said, “As difficult as that might seem to believe.”

“He’s not ever going to leave here, is he?” I asked.

“I don’t think so, no.”

The Doctor couldn’t tell us how much longer the Old Man had to live. It could be years, but he doubted it would be anywhere near that long. An “Event” would occur, and that would be that.

I was feeling pretty raw when I wrote about that first week in January, called “The Old Man’s Last Winter”.

Not quite three weeks after we returned to LA, the “Event” occurred. Calico 50K was my first ultramarathon ever, and I was in the shower washing off the desert dirt after my sixth consecutive running of it when I got the call.

Barton Clark Bruce, July 4 1930, Glenavon, Saskatchewan – January 24th, Calgary, Alberta. Rest in Peace.

Goodbye, in the snow. Fishcreek.
Goodbye, in the snow. Fishcreek.

Home again, again.

May we were back in Calgary, scattering the Old Man’s ashes out in Drumheller. The Old Man and me – our relationship had always been a difficult one. We were not the easiest-to-get-along-with two men on the planet. Both of us had an excess of Prairie stoicism. His parting shot: a small payout to me; the rest of his estate, still considerable even after being reduced to a fraction of its former size because of investing in a Ponzi scheme, went to my sisters. A day or two after the ashes were scattered, we were out at the storage unit, me mostly there for labor as neither of the girls are in shape to do much. They’d reminded me in the days leading up to this that I was lucky to get anything; after all, I’d never been there for the Old Man. Nor had he ever been there for me – this was the problem I’d struggled with my entire life. I wasn’t expecting anything from him, but the rejection still hurt, especially in its finality.

It was also difficult because much to my surprise, Calgary felt like home. I remembered the neighborhoods. I remembered winters on the hill on Conrad Drive, and hockey on the frozen street in front of our house on Wildwood Drive. I remembered downtown. I remembered the river, and sausage rolls, Springbank, Kananaskis, the mountains. I’ve been living in Los Angeles for twenty-five years, and it doesn’t seem familiar to me in the way that Calgary does. Los Angeles will never feel like home. The absence of home has been a big theme for me as long as I can remember.

Nose Hill, Calgary, Alberta
Nose Hill, May

Me, Kananaskis
Me, Kananaskis

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

When considering where to scatter the ashes, one of my sisters had suggested we go to Vancouver Island and scatter them in the water, where Mom’s ashes had been scattered 22 years earlier, “So they can be together.” I reminded them that the Old Man hated the water, and hated Vancouver Island. The trees made him claustrophobic. He was a prairie boy, and he headed back to Calgary, the city he kept coming back to, where he lived for the next twenty-one years, the longest, by far, he’d remained in one place.

I asked the girls if they thought they’d ever come back to Calgary. “Why would we?” was their reply.

They packed up their rental minivan and headed back to Denver. Andrea and I stayed a few days longer. We spent a couple of them out in Kananaskis, running in the mountains. There was also one more trip to Nose Hill. I looked out over the city and cried.

Nose Hill
Me, Nose Hill, May 15.

Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island
Ashes to ashes, Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island, August, 1994

Drumheller, Alberta
Dust to dust, Drumheller, Alberta, May 12, 2016

Western States and Hard Rock 100.

December 5, 2015: Andrea and I had good lottery luck. After four years of dutifully qualifying, I was one of the last five names drawn for Western States 100. A few hours later, Andrea’s name was pulled in the Hardrock 100 lottery.

Rucky Chucky
Me, Rucky Chucky, Western States 100, photo by Keith Facchino
Saturday June 27 I was off to a good start. I took a couple of falls in the first 15 miles, and arrived at Red Star Ridge a bit of a mess. They bandaged me up and I was off. My handhelds were sticky with blood but I felt great. My hips were not feeling exactly right, especially after the falls, but I felt great. My hamstring was giving me a little trouble, as was my IT band, but I felt great. I don’t particularly like the 100 mile distance and I’m really not very good at it, but this was Western States, the Boston Marathon of ultrarunning. I was going to finish this race, and finish it strong, and then I’d never have to run another 100 miler again.

Somewhere around mile 40 the hips, IT Band, knees and hamstrings were all jacked up enough that I reckoned I might have to walk it in. Not a problem. If Plans A, B, & C all failed, I still had plenty of time. Yeah, there were a few low spots, but still – I felt great.

Somewhere around mile 70 things suddenly fell apart. I sat down to eat while my water bottles were being filled. When I stood back up, no more than 3 minutes later, my knee nearly gave out. There was sharp pain everywhere, and nothing felt very tightly connected, as though all the tendons and ligaments and everything else that holds us together had suddenly lost their elasticity, like the waistband on a pair of worn out underwear.

By mile 85, I could barely walk. Western States was over. (If you want to read more, here’s the Western States race report.)

I’d made a deal back in January, at Peter Lougheed Hospital, while the Old Man in his diapers clutched to me in desperation and fear as we tried to help him to the bathroom: nothing could ever be as bad as that, and unless it was, there would be no DNFs. This failure at Western States would haunt me the rest of the year.

A month or so later Andrea stumbled in to Cunningham Gulch aid station about 4 hours behind schedule. Ten miles and one more mountain climb, but time was running down. She was exhausted. She wasn’t sure her lungs were working right. They checked her out. Lungs sounded okay. Still, she wanted to drop. Luckily she was too tired to be anything but compliant when we told her no, she was going to leave the aid station and climb that mountain and we’d see her on the other side.

Treat yourself: go to Andrea’s website and read “Almost Too Wild…”, Andrea’s Hardrock 100 race report.

Andrea & Kris Kern, Hardrock 100
Andrea & Kris Kern, Hardrock 100

AC100, August. Andrea and I both signed up in the day-after-the-race signup-frenzy in 2015. She was determined to run it. I pulled the plug at about 3am race day. My heart wasn’t into it, the race has turned into a parody of itself, and the new course had traded in my favorite sections for pavement, running down the highway instead of up and down Mt. Williamson.

Andrea’s hamstrings failed her. She’d injured herself at Fatdog 120 the summer before and it had been a slow and incomplete recovery.

New Mexico.

A few months later at Mt. Taylor 50K in Grants, New Mexico, stressed from work, from living in LA, and from people in general, I got stuck next to some runner who wouldn’t stop talking about his race at Fatdog the year before, a race that ended with a DNF when he finished hours after the cut-off. He managed to cajole the race director into giving him a buckle anyway, and he said he wore this buckle with pride, which is something I would see a few days later at a post race party.

I needed to get away from people. Despite a small field, this race seemed very, very crowded. The guy was running about the same pace as me. I couldn’t get ahead of him. The only way to shake him was to drop from the race, and so I did. This didn’t work as planned either – folks at the aid station just wanted to talk, and talk, and talk – and I decided the only quiet place I could find would be back on the course. I un-DNF’ed myself and headed out for the second half. The Fatdog guy was well out of earshot, and I was running at a very different pace than those around me. I found a big alone space, and finished the race with my slowest time ever in a 50K.

Mt Taylor 50K
Mt Taylor 50K

Casper the bird dog.

The clutch went out in Andrea’s car, and we ended up stranded in her old home-town of Albuquerque for a week, graciously hosted by Ken and Margaret Gordon, the race directors of Mt. Taylor 50K and old friends of Andrea’s. Things were going sideways at work as people struggled to undo anything successful that others had built. I’d look at my laptop and read the lastest email salvos, and then out the window at the Sandia Mountains, straight out the back door, and wonder what the fuck I was doing.

The Old Man had his greatest struggles with this same kind of stuff. I remember his enormous, crippling frustration at the politics of his job. He was a scientist, and that’s all he wanted to do. He’d made some important discoveries – huge oil fields, mostly – exactly what he was paid very well to do – and couldn’t understand why internal politics were making such a mess of it all. People and their egos were things he couldn’t make sense of. His solution was to drink. The same thing that once made him the life of the party eventually allowed him to hide from the party altogether.

I put the bottle away nineteen years and nine months ago. I’ve never really learned how to deal with people without it, though. Running through the mountains, usually alone on trails where it’s unlikely I’ll run into anyone, has become the quiet place I need to cleanse myself of people, work, noise, and all the detritus of modern life.

The Old Man had his get away place, too. He and his best friend Stan would load up the Ford Galaxy 500 with Casper, his dog, a bunch of bread, cheese, salami, and beer, and their shotguns and waders and head out into the mountains for a weekend of bird hunting. It was seldom more than just the two of them. Sometimes they’d take me along.

These were quiet fall days, tromping through the frost and, often, the snow. Casper, a German shorthaired pointer, would point at brush, and they’d flush the pheasants. Casper would get impatient if the birds weren’t flushed and would go into the brush after them. Invariably the reason the birds didn’t fly was because they were skunks or porcupines, and almost every other trip involved carefully pulling quills out of Casper’s nose or else washing him with tomato juice to get rid of the skunk spray. There was a Casper care kit along with us at all times.

The Old Man and Uncle Stan would drink beer, eat salami and cheese, fart loudly, and if there were no birds to be found they’d get out the 22 rifle and we’d all shoot at cans and bottles. They’d joke about their wives, who invariably were pestering them with worries about one thing or another. The prairie and the foothills were worry-free zones on those days. The hunting was only a small part of the trips, but they always came back with birds, and the pheasant dinners afterwards were delicious.

Pheasant with wild rice – this is how I always remembered my mother cooking it. The dinners were great. There’s a Canadian birthday tradition of hiding a coin in a birthday cake. Whoever gets the coin gets first crack at the party games. There’d always be a few pieces of buckshot the Old Man had missed when cleaning the bird; to us kids finding the buckshot was like finding the nickel hidden in the birthday cake. It added to the fun.

And then the hunting stopped. Drinking took its place, but the bottle didn’t provide the spacious comfort of a good friend, a good bird dog, wide open Western Canadian prairie, frost on ground, and a shotgun. And there we were, decades later, at Peter Lougheed Hospital, the Old Man’s “failure to thrive” hastened considerably by alcoholic dementia.

Embudido Trail
Embudido Trail, Sandia Mountains, New Mexico.

He was a happy man when he was younger.

Catherine called a few days after Christmas. She said “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said, that Barton was not a happy man, and you’re right, he wasn’t a happy man in those last years, but you should know that when he was younger he was always the life of the party. Often there was some a little lubrication involved – Barton liked his whiskey – but when he was younger he was a very happy, carefree man.”

I’ve been thinking about it too. I’ve wondered how such a successful, intelligent, and well liked man came to be so beaten down. It’s only in the last few weeks that I think I’ve found the answer.

The Old Man bought twenty acres out in Springbank, which was then still completely rural; the huge farms only starting to sell off small acreages of land to folks like us. He had a huge house built on this land. We had a few heads of cattle and a horse he bought for us kids, a retired race horse, Lady Dewdrop, (Lady for short). There was a big garden. We’d attach toboggans to the back of a snowmobile and this caravan of kids would speed through the prairie snow. We were close enough to the foothills of the Rockies that there were gently rolling hills. In the distance was a river, and sometimes you might see a faraway moose. Freight trains would roll past near the horizon. Occasionally you could see and smell the bright yellow mounds of sulphur on the back of a train car. The were very few trees, the hills were gentle, the air crystal clear, and you could see everything with perfect clarity as far as the distant horizon on the Canadian Prairie.

We lived there for three years, maybe four, and then The Old Man took a beating on the stock market and suddenly we couldn’t afford it. He sold this huge and beautiful place that he’d built for his family, and we moved back into the city. The Old Man started working six days a week. He and my mother fought, a lot. He was drinking heavily. He was miserable. Life had defeated him and he was not gracious in defeat. The hunting trips with Uncle Stan ended. He was brooding and angry. I can count the number of times I saw him happy again on the fingers of one hand and still have enough fingers left over to point. I was sent off to boarding school, the beginning of an estrangement that never completely ended.

The failure in Springbank seemed to crush him. Men were meant to provide, and women were meant to be provided for. This is why I worked full time and paid my own way through a state university (back when you could actually do that) while the girls had their educations at private colleges paid for. This is why he bought one of them a house, and me a used car. Maybe this is why his two daughters split an inheritance and his two sons did not. The girls disagree, of course. They say it’s because I was a lousy son.

Barton Bruce
The Old Man as a boy, Brandon, Manitoba

Great Plains Drifters

One of my favorite movies ever is Terrence Malick’s Badlands, which is loosely based on the 1958 Charlie Starkweather/Caril Fugate murder spree which left eleven people dead across Wyoming and Nebraska.

Their crime spree takes place just below Prairie west that’s my home and heritage – a chunk of land that’s bordered by Banff (and Calgary) in the Northwest, Brandon Manitoba in the Northeast, Devil’s Lake & Bismark, North Dakota in the South East, and Billings, Montana in the Southwest. The land north of the Canadian border was my step-father’s land; south of the Canadian border my father’s land. Maybe my father’s land stretched as far as Minnesota – I have a half brother and half sister living there; I think he lived there for a while before he moved far away from that midwestern home, to Libya where he met and married my mother. It was back in the midwest that he died, 1963, in Minnesota.

My father was handsome, charismatic, a war hero, the life of the party, and given to violent rages that he usually took out on his wives. Maybe he had a little Charlie Starkweather in him. He died when I was three. My stepfather, the Old Man, was also a Great Plains archetype, this time from north of the border. A man of great and sometimes very labor-intensive self control, his smoldering anger very seldom spilled over into the violent rage of my father.

When a family is as small and distant as mine has always been, death seems to carve out a prairie sized hole. Family has been on my mind a lot this year, as has home.

I have a half brother and a half sister I’ve not seen since I was three. I have thought of them often in the past 53 years, and our paths come close to crossing every decade or so. The internet can be a friend here. Casually following a facebook thread this year I learned that I have a brother-in-law (ex, to be precise) serving a life sentence, no parole, for murder. Once again, I am reminded of the Starkweather/Badlands parallels, although this is an urban case, all about drugs and murderous ineptitude.

The past seems full of wide open space, and a lot of it is dark.

Family
My father.

Christmas in Mayville

Mayville Wisconsin, population 5,154. Andrea was born and raised there.

I’d never been to Wisconsin. It’s a little bit south and quite a bit east of my prairie west. On the map, Mayville, just an hour outside Milwaukee, looks far away from Alberta. In person it feels much closer.

Mayville, Wisconsin
Mayville, Wisconsin, population 5,154

Trump won Wisconsin narrowly. As was the case almost everywhere, the cities went blue, and small towns like Mayville were solid Trump territory. Andrea’s father voted for Trump. He’s a hunter, and he heard that Hillary would take away his guns. He tells me the NRA does hunters a great disservice by focusing so much on assault weapons. No hunter needs assault weapons, and he would probably be okay if those were banned, but Hillary, well, she wanted to take all his guns. He wasn’t as bad as some of the paranoid guys he works with selling farm equipment, but just to be sure he stockpiled on ammo before the election.

His sisters voted for Trump, too. They never thought he’d win, and they’re pretty frightened by the prospect of a Trump Presidency, but Hillary, well, she’s dishonest. Every other house in Mayville had a Put the Christ in Christmas lawn sign. Many also had I Support the Badge signs. Only one Hillary sign: Clinton for Prison, 2016, it said.

Mayville Country Road
Mayville Country Road

Alberta Highway
Alberta Highway

Four Strong Winds.

When I was a kid, I wanted to learn guitar. Four Strong Winds was the first song I ever learned, and it’s probably the only one I remember. If you are from the prairie provinces, it’s sort of the second Canadian National Anthem. Ian Tyson wrote it.

“Think I’ll go out to Alberta, weather’s good there in the fall
I got some friends that I could go to working for
Still I wish you’d change your mind,
If I asked you one more time
But we’ve been through this a hundred times or more

Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may
If the good times are all gone, and I’m bound for moving on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.

If I get there before the snow flies, and if things are looking good
You could meet me if I sent you down the fare
But by then it would be winter, not too much for you to do
And those winds sure can blow cold way out there

Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may
If the good times are all gone, so I’m bound for moving on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.

Still I wish you’d change your mind,
If I asked you one more time
But we’ve been through that a hundred times or more

Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may
If the good times are all gone, and I’m bound for moving on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.

I’ll look for you if I’m ever pass this way.”

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