Saturday, May 27, 2006

Great Ball of Fire.

Here is how it goes when Jill, my hiking partner, plans a hike for us:

I get an email with a link to our hike. The day of the hike, we arrive at the destination, and Jill gives me a copy of the page from the Hikes of Los Angeles book for my backpack, noting both length of hike and elevation gained. The hike is appropriate to our level of training and takes exactly as long as she has predicted.

Here is how it went this week when I planned a hike for us:

I sent her an email with a vague description as to the start point. The day of the hike, I forgot to make a copy of the hike webpage I had found…somewhere, possibly on No problem, I thought; it would be incredibly self-evident which one was the fourteen mile round-trip hike. Within a half-hour, we were on a fire road without shade, trudging like prisoners of war, with no indication this led anywhere but into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Being as Jill is terribly kind, she had the grace to label this a “Conditioning hike”.

We were chatting and slogging, with occasional stops for liquid [Oh, yes. I had forgotton to get bottles of water for myself, so I was wearing Daughter’s backback filled with, among other things, ten juice boxes], when the first bee flew past us.

Another few steps, three bees.

Another step, five bees.

While we couldn’t see a hive, it was becoming evident to even the dullest-witted (Hint: she’s the one holding the Powerpuff Girl juice box) that the bees lived somewhere around here. I put up the hood on my hoodie, and we walked calmly around the corner where they seemed to be congregating, giving them as much berth as we could without actually sliding down the side of the mountain and crab-walking through the brush. As we came around the curve, the bees lightened up quickly, so it was pretty evident we were passing them. No harm, no foul, no swelling. We both discussed how we should probably hike with an Epi-pen, because we have had reasonably strong reactions to bee stings in the past. We both promised to call our doctors upon getting back to our cars.

Another half-mile or so, it was decided this fire road probably travels the length of the San Gabriel mountains without ever having a natural endpoint or an attractive view. We estimated we had done four miles, all uphill, in hot and not very pleasant weather, and that we could call it a day, not to mention calling it a poorly-planned hike. We got to a slightly wider part of the road, and I sank down to open the backpack, get another juice box, and sit for a minute. Jill, still in the middle of the road, looked over at me.

“You’re probably not going to want to sit there,” she observed, “there seem to be some bees around.”

I focused beyond getting the little straw in the hole and noticed she was right; there were about eight of them drifting hither and yon, never more than about three feet from me. I stood up and walked over to her, and then we heard it.

There are certain sounds your body hears even before your brain does. The rattle of a rattlesnake nearby. The sound of a pump-action shotgun being chambered. And, as I now know, about 10,000 bees humming in concert. If we had been in a Warner Brothers cartoon, we would have looked behind us and seen the bees grouping together to form a bow and arrow, pointing at us.

Jill has had enough trekking adventures to be able to start anecdotes with “The first time I had dysentary”, and has an well-earned big-picture outlook on whatever Nature chooses to pitch at her. Nothing fazes her.

Jill said, “Holy shit.”

We looked at each other, and Jill said, softly but intently, “Listen to me. Walk, do not run. And do not panic; they smell adreneline.”

Okay, I could walk, and I could feign the look of a woman walking through the mall, but since my body had replaced all the traditional fluids with some combination of fear and jet fuel, I was really going to have to take a pass on not panicking. Jill and I started to walk away, slowly. I reached up to close the hood over as much of my head and face as I could, when I realized the hoodie was bright red. I racked my brain: bees have an opinion on bright red, but what is it? Affection? Loathing? A sense that no one has truly worn it well since Nancy Reagan?

Somehow, we slid down the path. The humming went from filling every available cell to being an alarming background hum. I kept my hood up for the trip past the original hive, but that one seemed to be gone.

Julie said, “There must be a wandering ball of bees hanging around the hill.”

Makes one long for ticks.

But, we’re training, and I think we’re going to be ready for Mount Whitney. We’ve done up to fourteen miles in one day without any real exhaustion, and we’re going to get in some altitude climbs as soon as the snow comes off the local tall peaks. Since September of last year, I have taken no more than three days off between training sessions. Am I proud? Not yet; I’ll be proud when we’ve accomplished whatever we’re going to accomplish on Whitney.

What I am…is bored.

When I first thought about training for Whitney, some part of me marveled at the elegance of training to do something I already do. “Walking!” I thought smugly, “Why, I walk all the time. I’ve been walking for years! I can read while training. I can listen to music while training. I could do walking meditations while training. I could achieve enlightenment and thin thighs in the same year!”

I’ve read.

I’ve listened to music.

I meditated.


I hate that treadmill.

I walk towards it with all the buoyant joy of someone being led to the guillotine. There is no variation of walking which inspires anything more than low-level hostility. This is Satan’s idea of an arranged marriage.

“But,” you reasonably protest to me, “the thin thighs!”

You’d think so, wouldn’t you?

Last month, I pulled out the summer clothing box. The weather didn’t warrant it, this was purely for my own entertainment. The shallow part of me wanted to look at any clothing which wasn’t my workout gear (Note to self; day after hike, create workout clothing funeral pyre). The shallower part of me wanted to see how I looked in shorts. Because, I’d been working out endlessly, and if working out makes you look better, working out endlessly meant I was going to have the thighs of a teenage track star who works as a runway model in her spare time, right?

I put on shorts.

I looked into the mirror.

I moved to another room and looked in another mirror.

I toyed with going to another house to find a better mirror.

My thighs resembled Serrano hams.

Because working out by climbing up hills might add muscle tone, but it leaves you with legs which scream to the world “After the oxen up and died, well, I jes’ strapped on the yoke and we still finished plowin’ the field afore sundown!” These thighs look most appropriate sticking out of the kind of shorts which come in olive green, have a matching canteen and sell themselves on their sweat-wicking ability.

The most accurate praise someone can extend to me right now is “Wow! Don’t you look … healthy!”

You’ll be seeing me on next month’s cover of Harper’s Bazaar, the Healthy Gal issue.

“See,” you say now, a touch plaintively, “even you admit you’re healthier now.”

Yes, but it might not make any difference. While walking on the treadmill, I heard a perfectly maddening Nova podcast on the subject of centenarians, people who live to be at least 100. They don’t eat any better than the average population, they don’t exercise with any more vigor than average, their alchohol intake level depends on the gender and the culture, but doesn’t seem to affect their longevity. So, why are they here long enough to meet their own great-great-grandchildren, not to mention try to figure out “Lost”?

It appears that at least 80% of these people have high “good” cholesterol levels, and a particular gene which creates a large version of this cholesterol. This larger version protect the person against diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cognitive function loss and hypertension. It is, in short, a longevity gene. What’s the best way to live a long, healthy life? Pick the right ancestors.

I walked and pondered. I thought about my mother’s friend, who had been morbidly obese her entire adult life and still lived into her eighties. I thought of artist Patrick Nagel, who died at 38 while jogging. I thought about the tiny elderly people I see at delis loudly demanding schmaltz, which is seasoned rendered chicken fat and should kill them merely by sharing the same restaurant as them. I thought of William Burroughs, the writer whose entire adult life was spent in some variation of an opiate haze, who lived to be eighty-three. Finally, I thought about Keith Richards, who is not only defying expectations by being alive at sixty-two, but whose last trip to the hospital was for falling out of a tree.

I finished my workout, but it’s possible I went directly from the gym to get a doughnut.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

as usual a very witty and entertaining post. Once again I must say I always come back for more of your writing. When did you say the book was coming? I know I catch up with you every now and then, but you never dissapoint me. Best to you and your family.

11:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quinn, I know you hear this all the time, but I LOVED you in The Goodbye Girl. In fact, it's my second favorite movie of all time. I applaud what you do and why you do it and I hope the best for you in the future. I'm glad I found this page as it's always nice to see someone we admire back in the "spotlight" as it were. :)

3:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quinn, you had me laughing out loud again. I, too, have field-plowin' legs after training for a couple of marathons. They may not be svelte, but they are definitely sturdy. Good luck with the training!

6:29 PM  

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