Calico 50K was the first ultra I ever ran, six years ago. My bib number for that race was 666, which disturbed a lot of folks who urged me to request a new bib or at least wear it upside down. This year, 2016, was the sixth time I’ve run the race. That’s a lot of sixes.
I went into the race feeling uncertain about fitness. Since my illness-DNF at San Joaquin Trail 100K in November, I hadn’t run anything longer than 11 miles. Work stress has been enormous, made worse by having to deal with the sort of personalities that cause considerable wear-and-tear on both the mind and body of introverted spies like me. We don’t thrive when dealing with emotionally driven, reactive people who need constant attention. On top of this, my aging stepfather had been hospitalized after taking a fall. Andrea and I spent the last day of 2015 and the first week of 2016 visiting him in Canada. Things were not looking good at all.
Calico 50K takes place in the Calico Mountains, out in the Mohave Desert, just outside of Barstow. It’s gloriously bleak land out there, and the rock formations are beautiful.
I have a thing for rocks. My father, who died when I was 3, was a geologist. My stepfather was a geophysicist, which is someone who applies techniques from physics to a study/mapping of what lies beneath our feet, mapping the Earth using gravity, magnetic, electrical, and seismic methods. I grew up in a geophysicist’s house, fossils and rocks displayed like artwork, playing out in the cuts of seismic lines in the mountains. I knew about the Athabasca Tar Sands when I was in grade school in the 1960s; it was considered bad, expensive oil back then. (Now it’s all that’s left). It seemed natural for me to follow them, and I did, or at least I tried, studying geology at the University of Texas at Austin, and working, briefly, on a geochemical study of the North Sea for Mobil Oil in Norway.
This was 36 years ago, and things were changing. Reagan had just been elected. Punk rock was in full force, and I was in full embrace of it as it gave me (and others) a place to channel all our alienation. The oil business was changing, too. In my father and step-father’s day, this was not work done in offices or labs staring at computers but out in the field, on foot in the mountains, or the desert. My job, were I to have followed the proper course, would not have been driving around the Sahara in a Landrover dealing with Bedouin Chieftains, or tromping along seismic lines in the Canadian Rockies, but sitting at desk in Dallas, Texas, wearing a suit and tie, looking at paperwork and occasionally heading out to Norway or Egypt for a week or two to make sure the locals were getting the job done. There was something very romantic about the Lawrence of Arabia job my father and step-father had done. There was something not so romantic at all about being a desk-bound bureaucrat.
My stepfather hated that work. He was stuck in Denver doing no exploration at all, just managing a bunch of geologists and geophysicists all of whom were frightened about job security, and rightfully so – the old man had a list of names of people to be fired, and the dates that he would have to let them go, dates sometimes a year in the future. His own name was on someone else’s list; his early retirement came just a few years later. He was miserable, and candid about it, which was exceptionally rare because he was a taciturn prairie boy. I can count on the fingers of one hand (and have fingers left over) how many times I saw him articulate his emotions.
And, of course, rebellious youth (I was one) reject following in the footsteps of our fathers, (even while secretly yearning for it, if the footsteps lead somewhere interesting, which theirs did). And I was intent on establishing myself as my own man, finally out from under the shadow of my long-dead father.
I left geology behind and went into the world of (post punk) rock’n’roll, the underbelly of Hollywood, and from there into fashion in Europe, and, finally, the fringes of the art scene, with an emphasis on works about identity and sexuality. There were dalliances in film, and a short that played a handful of festivals and won a few awards. It’s all stuff I pretty much cringe at now.
I did follow my father and stepfather in one thing: alcoholism.
And so there I was in Calico, the sixth year in a row, running through those glorious dusty rock formations that fascinate me still, even though I’ve long forgotten all I learned about the rocks 36 years ago at the University of Texas.
I was thinking about the old man.
I was thinking about rocks and about maps of the geology of the North Sea. I was regretting having forgotten so much about both. I regretted my youthful hubris and the rejection of all that the old men stood for because increasingly these years the world of art and music and culture and man-made artifice that I was once so immersed in doesn’t mean very much to me at all, and I’d rather have spent all the years in the desert or the mountains.
Calico is a rough, rocky course in spots, with long soft sandy stretches in other spots. The climbs are nothing severe, but the ground underfoot can be harsh. I was running in Brooks Puregrit, a much less padded shoe than the Hokas I’ve recently abandoned. The Puregrits served me well for 20 miles, but in the last ten miles I started to feel it in my left forefoot again. I also felt it in my quads. Hokas are like shocks on a mountain bike. The thick foam spares your muscles from having to absorb the impact of stride after stride after stride. This is at the sacrifice of speed.
My feet hurt, my quads hurt, I was out of shape, and as the miles after 20 added up, I felt a bit more tore-up than I might normally at that mileage in a race.
I’d already decided that this would be my no DNF year. There’s seldom a race when it doesn’t occur to me at some moment that this is stupid and that there’s really no point in continuing. I’d decided that when these thoughts came up, I would remember my stepfather – the old man – in his hospital bed, barely any of him left, unable to stand let alone walk without help but still trying, even though a journey of less than ten feet would take nearly twenty minutes and exhaust him for the day. If he can keep trying, than so can I with sore quads. I’d decided that 2016 would be the year of not being a pussy.
I spoke to one of my sisters the morning before the race. She was upset. Her name was not on the old man’s chart. “I’m the only blood relative!” she exclaimed, “And both of you have shut me out!” I told her nobody shut anybody out. All she needed to do was add her name to the list, just as I did. She said she had, neglecting to mention she’d removed everyone elses.
Fighting over the estate and who was entitled to what was already beginning with a jockeying for position. The girls were solidifying and articulating their own ideas about who deserves what, based on blood, or based on how close they’d been to the old man, or some other criteria. Perhaps I was, too. The old man had always looked after them more than he’d looked after me because it was chivalrous to do so, because men could and should look after themselves, and I didn’t really have any disagreement with that. I wasn’t expecting anything. I was okay with that, or at least I think I was; it made everything simpler, too: everything I was doing in those last days I was doing for him, in the very last days of his life. If there was any other motive, it might have been a last minute atonement. There’s always a selfishness to amends and atonement; we do them for our own benefit more than for the benefit of anyone else. And the old man and I hadn’t been close. Closer than the girls realized because the old man had a limited tolerance for family and told me on a few occasions that he sometimes found their attentiveness a bit smothering, (we shared many of the same traits) but not nearly as close as he would have liked. Somewhere in between checking in twice a week and twice a year would have been comfortable for him. We were two profoundly uncomfortable men whose time together was awkward at best.
And the race went on.
This was my sixth year running it, in a row. I know the course by heart. Nothing much changes out there in the desert, or if it does, it does so slowly, much more slowly than six years. Every rock was exactly where I remembered it. I stopped as always and picked up a shotgun shell – I bring one back every year as a souvenir. The mountains were as beautiful as ever. I felt tired and out of shape and knew I wouldn’t PR this year, but still, I hoped I’d come close. And I thought about the old man, and about rocks, and about the luxury of having quads that are tired from having run 32 miles through the mountains, and how there was really nothing I could do about anything except maybe to just deal with the pain of sore legs and try to run a little harder.
Yermo is a nearly abandoned town just north of Barstow. Route 66 runs through it, and folks used to get their kicks on Route 66, but nowadays Route 66 is a relic, near but not on the interstate, and Yermo is nearly a ghost town.
The original Del Taco is in Yermo, still, except that it’s now the Burger Den. Calico, the town, is also completely abandoned; it is now only a tourist attraction. The whole area is a place that time forgot. Some things change. Others just fade away. This is an area of fade away. Fading away is something that had been on my mind a lot. The Old Man had become a sort of human Yermo, or human Calico, largely abandoned (his own choice, that) and rapidly fading.
Two days after my sister decided that she and nobody else needed to receive the inevitable call, she got the call.
The phone rang as I climbed out of the shower. “He’s had an event,” she said. “He’s unresponsive. The doctor says maybe days, maybe hours.”
She called again a little while later. It turned out to be hours.
I had a voicemail from Catherine, the old man’s date on New Year’s Eve 1948, in Brandon Manitoba. She called while I was running through the Calico Mountains. She was down in Palm Springs, taking a beak from a cold Canadian winter.
I didn’t look forward to calling her back.
And now Calico 50K, my first ultra, becomes two anniversaries.
Barton Clark Bruce, July 4 1930, Glenavon, Saskatchewan – January 14th, Calgary, Alberta. Rest in Peace.