Bagpipes as a Zen moment? What can I say? I’m Scottish.
The soft skirl of the pipes drifted around the corner of the hillside. The first hill had been a pain. The incline did not challenge my body, but my patience had been sorely tried. Foolishly, I had begun the race in the group with the posted pace for a 10 minute mile. I knew I could keep the pace for at least 3 miles, though I was uncertain about the entire 6. As a road race newbie, I hadn’t realized that this group would also include every person who planned to run at least a little. A block or so past the start, the crush had thinned a bit, and my feet had found a rhythm. Just as I began to feel that maybe this crazy endeavor was doable, the mob screeched to a halt. Like gawkers at an accident scene, the masses ahead had hit the first hill and apparently said to themselves, “Oh, this is too steep. Maybe I’ll just walk this one.”
Needless to say, by the time I crested the hill, I was ready to bite someone. Then the moment arrived. The first notes wafted down just as I heard someone say, “Bagpipes? Really?”
Yes, really. Silhouetted on an emerald knoll, a group of kilt-clad pipers played against the mist. Perfect. Wrong tartan, but that was forgivable. My grandfather was a McIntosh. The clan motto is “Touch not the cat bot a glove.” Basically, mess with us at your peril. A stretch of asphalt opened before me and my feet found their cadence.
Back in May as I descended from the endorphin rush of my first 5K race, the 6 mile Wharf to Wharf (Santa Cruz to Capitola) seemed quite reasonable. ‘Two and a half months to train. No problem.’ Therein lays the danger of accomplishment. The human brain is never satisfied. I caught myself yesterday afternoon seriously contemplating a brochure for a half-marathon in October. Endorphins are insidious creatures. What I had failed to foresee in the balm of May was the effect of summer on my will to exercise, or really on my will to do anything. My physiology functions best from 65-80 F. I had also been unable to predict the case of shingles that made the notion of a sports bra unbearable for a full week before the race. Yet, here I was. 6 miles. The brochure stated quite sternly that runners must keep to a 15 minute/mile pace and that the course would be closed within 90 minutes. I envisioned myself dragging at the rear of a pack of thousands, calling my husband for a ride somewhere around mile 3, the pointing and mocking onlookers. I was dragged to the starting line by two factors. I had told the children that the weekend camping trip was so that mommy could run a race, and I didn’t want them to see me backing out of a goal. Also, my mother had told me that I should rest the shingles and scratch the race. 39 years, and my mother still hasn’t learned that the best way to get me to do something is to tell me I shouldn’t. Sorry mom.
Another hill, another corner. Passing a folk guitarist, a glimpse of the sea. A Kiss tribute band played on my left, my feet grinned. Pulling up a long slope I saw my favorite group of the run. 10-15 tie-dye clad musicians lined up behind a sign that read “Sons of the Beach.” As I passed, a tambourine and soap bubble infused version of “Rawhide” followed me. Ah, Santa Cruz.
Balloon arches marked each mile. The first split time depressed me so badly that my feet almost halted there and then. ‘19minutes, seriously??’ I told my feet that we had started at least 5minutes back and had been held up in traffic. ‘Get with it.’ The legs heard and obeyed. The second mile took just over 10 minutes. At each rainbow arch, my body responded to the called time as to a challenge. With each mile my pace increased.
Onlookers lined the roadway. Far from the jeering phantoms of my insecure imaginings, these people projected lifesaving goodwill. Generous with their cheers and encouragement, they gave the impression that each of us had our own personal pep squad. Some held out hoses or sprinklers for those of us longing for a shower. One lovely man offered a tray of strawberries and orange segments. The crisp sweetness of that kind orange carried me a full mile. One mother and her two children held out their hands to ‘high five’ each of us as we passed. Just past a percussion group, a lone man stood and banged with a mallet on the back of a skillet which rang sweetly across a slough.
‘Come on,’ called Capitola. ‘Come see me again.’
‘You can do it,’ Santa Cruz pushed me from behind. ‘You started here.’
Start there, I did. Certain places weave in and out of our lives like thin gold threads. From early trips to the beach and Boardwalk with our grandparents through my college years and into those of my sister, Santa Cruz and Capitola have flickered in and out of my life. Indirectly, my current adult life has its roots along that bay. Had I missed a party in Santa Cruz 20 years ago, I would not have met my husband 5 years later. Strange but true. After all, it is all Dave’s fault.
Saturday had been spent dragging the kids from one old haunt to the next. Plugging up the hill to the UC Santa Cruz campus, I demanded of the backseat, “Do you want to see where Aunt Steph went to college?”
As we entered the grounds, their enthusiasm turned to confusion. “Where’s the college?” “This is it.” “This doesn’t look like a school; it looks like a forest.” I grinned to hear them echo my first impressions. 20 years ago, my roommate and I circled the campus endlessly ‘looking for the college.’ It had seemed impossible that the random collection of buildings that sporadically dotted the forest was indeed a university.
Our next stop was Natural Bridges State Beach. Flashes of the essence of Santa Cruz drifted past: surfers floating like black seals on the waves, the requisite amateur-painted VW van, the skateboarder towed by a large, enthusiastic dog, the smells of brine, kelp, fog, and fish. On the beach, the kids caught a connection to home. “Come on, Aidan.” Caitlin dragged her brother to a specific vantage point along the shore. “Look! See it? See the rock; it’s the one from the painting.” They knew the story, knew that mom had painted the scene in oils from a photograph sent by a college friend. However, this was the first time they realized that mom painted actual places, and that they were visiting a place that had hung on the living room wall longer than their own lives. Ghosts of my past walked the sands where my children frolicked. Past and future joined near a crashing, grey surf beneath the spiraling wings of pelicans.
As we parked near the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a more distant past floated through my memory. The Boardwalk rang with the excitement of childhood. Screams and laughter danced above the rumble of surf and roar of rollercoasters. Grease, salt spray, and tanning lotion ran under the sweetness of cotton candy. Clutching the hands of my children, I became the child. My grandparents appeared at every corner. Glancing at the waves, I heard my grandmother’s mantra as my sister and I ran toward the surf, “Don’t go in past your knees!” We stopped for lunch and my husband’s jaw dropped as his calorie-conscious wife ordered deep-fried artichoke hearts and a linguica sandwich with grilled onions. As the crisp grease and metallic artichoke melted onto my tongue, my grandfather’s grin appeared. My children had a bag of plastic sand toys wedged under the table; the cups of neighboring beer drinkers evoked the memory of hops-scented sand castles. Grandpa had always saved his beer cup for us to use as a sandcastle mold. The first tower or two smelled faintly of beer and the paper had a tendency to disintegrate after a couple of trips to the ocean for water, but it was a tradition. As we draped our bright beach towels over our patch of pillowy sand, I felt the rough edge of brown and white striped terry-cloth. Grandma line-dried her laundry, and her towels had all of the pliability of coarse-grain sandpaper. As we emerged from the waves, sunburned, salt-scoured, and sand-crusted, Steph and I stood with meek trepidation as Grandma rubbed us down with the agonizing vigor of love. We were well into our teens before we managed to convince her that a) we could towel ourselves, and b) that we would really rather not change out of our bathing suits in the middle of the beach with only a towel tented around us. I resisted the temptation to similarly torture my children.
On the beach, the kids proved themselves as individual as their nicknames – neither clones of each other, nor of my childhood. Sierra, our “marmot” played happily on the sand, shunning the waves, like a good little land mammal. Aidan, the “alligator” was happiest in the shallows. An overly strong wave would cause him to tug at my hand with shouts of “Back! Back!” And Caitlin? Caitlin stood as far into the surf as I would permit. Two or more weak waves caused her to raise an eyebrow at the sea and ask sardonically, “C’mon, Poseidon. Is that all you’ve got?” (She’s re-reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.) “Do you really think it’s a good idea to taunt Poseidon while we’re standing in the ocean?” “Moommm, I’m an otter. I’m a creature of the sea.” And so she is.
Aidan’s hand tucked into mine as we stood in line for the Giant Dipper, reminding me of the mingled excitement and guilt as I held Grandpa’s hand in the same line 30 years ago. The thrill of riding a “really big, grownup rollercoaster” tangled with the fear that Grandma was right. Maybe he really was too old for “those rides.” What if he did hurt his knees or back or heart? As Aidan’s face went still as the lap bar engaged, the old fears seized me from behind. What if he was too young? He was just barely over the height limit; what if it wasn’t safe for him? What if he was scared? I screamed with laughter around the dips and turns darting glances at my son’s white face. The glory of risk-taking fought for supremacy with my need for a guarantee of security. There are no guarantees; I abandoned myself to the last swooping turns.
Buckled into the car, the first bite of my caramel apple caught my teeth and dripped down my wrist. In the back seat, the kids shared a bag of cotton candy. 30 years ago, the traditional treat “for the way home” invariably produced the need for at least one stop in response to my sister’s agonized cries of “I’m stickyyyyyy!” From the back seat, a voice asked, “Mom, do you have any wet wipes?” “Nope, they’re all in the back. Do you want a napkin?” “No, that’s okay.”
Feet flew the 6th mile past the coast and into Capitola. A man with a wig like a giant tribble skin ran on my right; I passed a woman with a tank top that read, “Never tutu old.” She wore a red lace tutu. I sprinted down the hill with the long galloping strides of my childhood. My own children and patient husband waited just beyond the finish as I ran from the past into my future.