Monday, March 7, 2011

Pittsfield Paradiso

My roommate, the amazing, irrepressible Jason Jaksetic, stumbled in at about 2:15 am last morning, completing the 100 mile snowshoe race exactly 62 hours from when he began, in blinding snow, suddenly gaining a new moniker, "the barn animal," but a wounded one as he let out the occasional agonized scream last night. Carrie Adams, Nebraskan, Spartan Race nutritional blogger, support team and Jason's good friend, and I excavated the ice from his boots and undid buckles, peeled off layers of wet technical gear as he stood shivering in his skivvies. She led him to a warm shower to reverse the early onset of hypothermia. Joe D, well versed in extreme endurance sports and having faced bad conditions many times over, accompanied him on his final lap. And even a jaded athlete such as he could only conclude that it was totally fucked out there.

But nevertheless, Joe D eats this stuff up. The course markings were obscured by the heavy snow and the groove pounded in by hundreds of citizen snowshoe racers a short time before was almost completely obliterated. Joe D had arrived a short time earlier, video cam in hand, and almost giddy, or as giddy as a gruff dyed in the wool Brooklynite can be. Jason headed up the barn bridge in a zombie like lope almost laying down for a nap right then and there, in poor shelter from the near blizzard conditions and mere feet from the warmth of the barn.

Joe D had spent much of the previous 24 hours contriving the mythology to build a Spartan Race legend. Barely half way into the hundred miles, Jason was delirious and physically spent. His ankles were swollen and he started to talk gibberish on the trail. If he continued, Carrie and I and eventually Jason himself agreed, he was on the trajectory to do permanent damage to his body or possibly to place his life in jeopardy. This was his first attempt at an ultra race with hardly a month of serious training. This one need not be the be all end all. At least five more races of this kind lay directly down the pike. Learn from this one. Move on.

But rest only caused his hypercompetitive juices to seethe and boil. I was relaxing by the fire that evening, hours after Jason's "final decision, " and there he came plodding down the stairway, risen again like out of some B-movie horror flick. Before it could even register, Andy the Undertaker, race director for all the Pittsfield ultra races, asks me if I'm going to snowshoe with him. Awoken out of my stupor, I say, yeah where are the snowshoes? Joe D having heard the news chimes in with facebook posts plausible in spirit if not completely accurate. "Jason, in a comeback move outrivaling Rocky Balboa's, has reentered the race. The rumor is that he slept in a coffin last night and feasted on cow's blood."

The night air was strangely soupy and warm. It felt as if I just entered a gigantic mouth, the enormous maw of the mountain. I hoped this didn't mean it was about to bite down and devour us. Jason, who I assumed would be in a severely compromised state was surprising difficult to catch. My senses were sharpened in the darkness and I occasionally caught a whiff of almond soap. And on tight switchbacks I saw his headlamp flashing several tiers above me, but all in all he was incredibly elusive. He was moving at a two hour lap pace through snow that had devolved into slush. He was averaging over three miles per hour and given the 1300 hundred feet or so of elevation gain, this was a respectable pace for a reasonably fit person on fresh legs doing a lap or two, and an incredible pace for someone rounding their tenth lap.

I summited at the bald peak of what has come to be known as Joe's hill, scooped a few handfuls of cold chicken noodle soup into my mouth from the now abandoned aid station and continued my vain pursuit. I finally was able to close the gap on the steep downhills, but only because Jason's knees had been pounded into submission. When I caught Jason it was at the start of a treelined chute, formed from a thousand snowshoe impressions, that pointed steeply downhill. He turned around to face me and said, "Hey Matt, watch this." He got down on his butt, lifted his feet in the air, and sledded down the chute for at least a hundred yards and I did the same. "I'm having fun again,"he said.

We started the second six and a half mile loop joined by one of Andy's former students from Illinois. Already feeling fatigued, I fell behind on the uphill. I felt it in the hips. Jason, experiencing no such limitations, would attack the steeps, letting out a roar, and plodding up them clearly possessed. A light rain shower grew heavier. I fell behind by a half mile or so, but then caught up once again on the downhill where Jason went for another ride. Revitalized, but more mindful of his limits, Jason took a nap in the barn. Joe D somehow reinterpreted the night into: "Jason completed several more laps last night and was found later passed out and convulsing in a chicken coop."

We slept in the barn, in fact, on a rainy night, and Jason woke up relatively recovered and revived….or, "Jason woke up in the coop severely pecked by some rogue chickens." He was in good spirits, but the course was a total washout. He waded through rollicking streams that didn't exist the day before. At one point he fell through a snowbank into over two feet of water, or, "He fell through a snowbank and slid fifty feet into the river and he is now hobbling through the course on broken snowshoes."

Carrie and I read the blog posts and had a good chuckle. We were half expecting the next blog entry to read something like this, "A tornado has lifted Jason Jaksetic off the course and into a strange land of munchkins, witches and flying monkeys. He snowshoed to the emerald city in search of new snowshoes. The wizard demanded domination over the rest of the mud race series or he would not be granted his wish. It was discovered that the man behind the curtain was Joe D himself who eventually relinquished a new pair of snowshoes. Jason clicked the snowshoes together three times and uttered, 'There's no place like Pittsfield, There's no place like Pittsfield….' "

The rain changed to a driving snow and Jason carried on heroically all the while with not much to goad him on except the supportive barking of Bella the sheep guarding Great Pyrenese dog and the sprites he would hallucinate flitting through the tree branches.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Snowshoe Carnival

We’re gearing up for the big snowshoe race. If you look up Pittsfield in Wikipedia, this is what we’re famous for, this and almost nothing else. Entry level is a six mile non competitive fun run, and just to put things in perspective, most normal snowshoe races are six miles at the most.

The mileage options grow exponentially from there, 12, 24, and a few twisted souls are embarking Friday afternoon for the 100 miler, possibly with confetti and C and C Music Factory blasting from the PA system if I have any say in it, and I’ll be there to shoot off the starting gun (which will be my thumb and forefinger and me shouting “boom.”) for that particular division.

A much smaller version of The Death Race will be taking place simultaneously. There is an air of mystery surrounding it. Even the farmers, Liz and Russell, who usually know all the gossip around the farm, haven’t got a clue. There is even some doubt that the race directors, Joe D and Andy the Undertaker, know what exactly will transpire. In fact, I’m pretty sure they don’t.

So we’ll attempt to learn from the past. Last year it was ten or so martyrs, chopping wood, wading through a frozen river carrying ten gallon buckets of water for a mile, attempting to push wheelbarrow fulls of split wood through three feet of snow, drinking a gallon of warm milk in a 33 degree pond while wearing a shirt laced with itching powder, attempting to push the Olympic wrestling captain out of a ring with a floor of snow, all the while enduring the heckling of Joe D himself. And though this was the so called snowshoe division of The Death Race, and the racers carried the appropriate equipment, they were not allowed to wear them once.

I marked the six miles of the snowshoe race last year, so I know from experience that it’s a relentlessly steep three miles up and just as steep down. It twists through confusing, dark, spooky pine glades in between. But despite this, or perhaps because of this, the whole event is a blast with bonfires, cheerful volunteers, food, cows, chickens, moose, and nearly 200 amazing participants. I’ll probably be up for 48 hours straight this weekend and loving every minute of it.

Monday, February 28, 2011

I Don't Know Why I Swallowed the Fly

My story is interrupted, for the moment, by one of those days that seem ordinary at the onset, then, snowball into something special just from one errant misstep. I woke up slowly that morning from my torpor fueled by the brewpub fare I ate the night before. Platefuls of soft pretzels, horseradish mustard, sauerkraut smothered pierogies, sausage, which I washed down with several pints of hoppy brew were now doing a little polka in my intestinal tract, but nothing can rival a good sauerkraut burp.

The forecast the night before was for an inch of snow, so of course we woke up to nearly six, but it was the kind of snow that one could dispense of with a feather duster. I ate a banana to coat my stomach for the onslaught of espresso, put on some pants for once, and got to shoveling.

I revved up the snowblower to clear out some parking spaces for a mountain bike meeting in the afternoon, but barely made two passes before the farmer Liz Roma came out to tell me how I was out of my gourd to even attempt such a thing and that she would plow it with a tractor.

So with my plans blown, and nothing else to do in this sleepy town of 500, I got in the farm utility vehicle, known as the green truck, and went across the street to Amee Farm Lodge to retrieve and return a few dozen pairs of snowshoes to The General Store. Conditions were a wee bit treacherous, but I figured with four wheel drive and the immense size of the pickup truck in my favor, I should just man up and do it.

Half way up the access road, fifty yards in, I slid into a two foot high snowbank and promptly dug my tires into a ditch. I wasn’t going anywhere. I stepped out of the truck onto a road that was a luger’s dream, a hundred yard ribbon of smooth, slick ice set at a steep pitch. I went back across the street, brushed the snow off a wheelbarrow of frozen cinders, wheeled the thing across the highway, and ran it up the hill as fast as I could manage until my feet started losing purchase.

Roma made short work of the parking spaces and now spotted my debacle from across the highway, and sped, reaching upwards of ten mph, to my rescue. Liz Cotter, the farm Bikram Yoga instructor and wedding planner, having just finished running a yoga retreat, walked from the opposite direction.

We took turns shoveling, cindering, and deciding who was the most skillful with a truck. I was eliminated from the running immediately; Roma, who spends every day of her life driving heavy machinery was the clear winner. She promptly backed up into a much deeper ditch and the truck careened at such a steep angle that the driver’s side wheels were lifted slightly off the luge run.

If there was any hope at all, the tractor was going to have to pull the truck out. Roma drove it towards the top of the road and then almost pulled off, unintentionally, the first documented farm tractor doughnut. Fearing that the tractor would continue its slide, Liz Cotter and I jumped into a snowbank.

As it stood, the green truck was tilted ominously in a ditch, the tractor was poised sideways on the road on a sheet of ice and Liz Cotter’s jeep was stranded in the Lodge parking lot. I brought the wheelbarrow back to the farm to resupply with sand. I found some sandbags sitting in an ATV trailer and loaded up. When I returned, Roma was not happy, “These are frozen! Matt, you are the goofiest guy I know!” As we bashed the bags on the ground, I tried not to stand too close to Roma fearing that she would crush my metatarpals with solidified sand. I went back to the farm and found a bag of play sand just in time to save my hide.

Meanwhile, yoga retreaters, toting a week’s worth of luggage, filtered past the wreckage stepping gingerly down the luge run to their ride waiting at the entrance. After dumping fifty pounds of sand on the ice, the tractor wheels still spun, and the tractor slid, but never broke loose. We called tow trucks, the closest one with an hour ETA. Liz Cotter made coffee. Hypoglycemic, and beyond humiliation, I grazed on some Luna bars, “nutrition for women,” from the Jeep, and started singing “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly,” until Roma, who, even though it was mid afternoon, didn’t eat a bite, told me to shut the fuck up.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Great Dessert Rebellion of October 2010

Pies, great flaky vessels of fruity confection lining the countertop of the General Store deli case, and we couldn’t touch them. Joe D didn’t like them. We had a different opinion. The uberblond consumed upwards of a five digit calorie count, whole pizzas, the slices dipped in yogurt, cottage cheese, blocks of cheese, half gallons of orange juice. No meat, since he was vegetarian, on a bet, but if he could find a piece of meat from an animal he knew personally, he was down for it.

But the General Store chef denied the uberblond a piece of pie. He didn’t like it. We thought it was unjust, un-American even. Amee Farm, room and board for work, with the exception of apple pie. Maybe that sort of thing plays in Cuba, but I have my doubts.

The Italian bruiser, Queens born and raised, not one to miss a dessert himself, never heard anything so ridiculous in his life. He bought out the shelf of pies, divvied them up and we all got a slice of pie that night, Joe D and his ascetic, no frills, nutritional Phillistinism be damned. We’ve been eating dessert ever since.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Gyre of The Vortex starts to Turn

I was taken to the Riverside Farm that morning, a crisp early October day in no way a harbinger to what turned out to be a lame, relatively snowless, winter. The young yoga teacher and the Quebecois drove me there, but I got there most other days by riding an orange mountain bike with a bank logo stuck on the top pipe of the frame. I was given a shovel, rake and loppers and directed to start chopping off the stalks of tree roots poking out of the ground and continue doing so until I reached the end of that particular trail, Noodles Revenge, over two and a half miles.

The trail was dug out by an excavator which has the consequence of leaving a pattern of sheared tree roots sticking straight from the ground like gigantic stubble. It got somewhat tedious at times but I found a certain satisfaction from clearing the trail and seeing my progress each day. I was ensconced within a bright yellow and orange canopy and when the breeze picked up, a light leaf snow ensued, and I began to feel that I would last more than a week.

The extreme farmers were lagging and it was Pedro’s job, as a finance intern, to manage them, to their extreme dismay. The Quebecois was pining for her extradited beau almost constantly. A retired couple ran the inn, also part of the farm, across the street. The husband was an older Italian bruiser who is so tough that he attempted The Death Race a year or two earlier. The only thing I knew about the wife is that whatever I did, people told me, she would note and report.

Things seemed to be unraveling and I entered into the midst of it. The Quebecois decided that she couldn’t function without the marine and retreated to Montreal. Pedro grew increasingly frustrated with the farmers who rebelled by going to the climbing gym at every opportunity. The turmoil made me value my trailside sanctuary even more. I shoveled, raked and lopped with impunity.

We were there under the minimum terms that our room and board was covered for the time we worked there. Anything more than that was negotiable, but we understood that with someone like Joe D the negotiations would be tough.

It didn’t take long for me to learn just how tough. That weekend I decided I would explore the full extent of the trail system I had been working on. I blithely hiked for miles following wherever my whim and glucose stores would take me. I got back that early afternoon to find that a manhunt was in progress at the farm, and I was the fugitive. Joe D, barefoot, rode a bike over to where I was and clarified that farm workers were expected to put in hours every day. Oh, I said with a sinking feeling. That’s the way it is around here, sighed the extreme farmers, and I wasn’t so sure about lasting out the week once again.

I think I got the glimmer of hope I needed from the Great Dessert Rebellion of October that arose a short time afterward which I’ll describe in my next entry….

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Into the Vortex, continued

….Woke up the next morning, 6am, for a 6:30 meeting (according to Awshucks) at the General Store, watering hole, company store, tourist attraction and headquarters of sorts. My Midwestern roommate, it turns out, isn’t such a straight shooter after all. The store was closed and I was fibbed to. The Quebecois is there, though, checking her emails and chatting with the manager and lets me in.

I meet the rest of the cast. An uberblonde behemoth of a guy asks me if I fight and if I would like to fight. In retrospect, having almost sustained crushed ribs from one of his overzealous hugs, a single punch would have been equivalent to the swipe of a paw from a grizzly: death, dismemberment, or a little of each.

There was a couple who were skateboarding, climbing would be organic farmers. The farm fell into their lap and they were struggling to balance their free spirited extreme lifestyle with the realities of farming—moving shit and dirt around to your best advantage every fucking day of your life. They grew more resentful and angry by the day, producing, in the single month that I knew them, enough greens to feed a one child family on a strict starvation diet for a lone meal.

This couple’s Appalachian Trail hike was verifiable and was done as a multi week trail run with five pound packs. It sounds implausible until you learn that they resupplied as needed from a supply bucket they mailed to themselves from town to town all the way north until they were stymied in Pittsfield by an injury. They made it from Georgia to Vermont, though, making incredible time, but the desire to live a life of adventure, even one peppered with feats of endurance, doesn’t translate well to the rewarding, but often stifling existence of an organic farmer.

Their minds drifted to other things, constructing climbing walls next to the greenhouse, or perhaps building a pump track amongst the tomato vines and mustard greens. Last time I heard they were neck deep in powder in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah and loving life.

They were the last in the line of what I like to think of as the transient farmers. What I know about this era is hearsay, but reportedly there were farmers that were overwhelmed by paranoid delusions and driven away, farmers who succumbed to alcoholism, farmers who were actually on the track to being successful but happened to be shirtless at the moment a talent scout was taking a tour of the farm and signed up for a GQ photo spread.

The meeting eventually took place amongst the whole cast and Joe D himself and as would become a familiar routine, we spent ten minutes strategizing and the next twenty minutes listening to tales of Joe’s adventures, but that actually never grew tiring (To be continued…)

Into the Vortex

We recently acquired two more barnmates, an extremely amicable couple, Joe and Rose who are purveyors of bean burger goodness, definitely not a Paleo cuisine, but I’m willing to make an exception (I’ll forage for any beans that happen to roll across the floor careful not to pick up any houseflies, though that would definitely honor the Paleo spirit). Though the situation they walk into now is not normal by any means, they know not what sort of twisted history they are entering forthwith.

I’ll describe my initial experience nearly a year and a half ago. I was picked up from the Rutland train station from the barn representatives at the time. A guy, a rugged looking preppy (he’d be the perfect model if J Crew and Woolrich ever collaborated on a clothing line.)and his friend picked me up in the boss’s truck and we drove through the mostly pitch black to Pittsfield. I remember thinking how there would be no escaping the isolation of this place, but it was lovely nonetheless. I entered the town at peak foliage, and the colors practically illuminated our way through the night. I carried all my belongings, fortunately stuffed into backpacks, from the estate to the barn, a mile down the road, and the rugged prep’s (I’ll call him Pedro Suave) friend offered to carry one backpack off my load. He was from the exact middle point of the midwest, so just as you would expect, he preceded most of his statements with “aw shucks, guys,” and ended them with a cornpone witticism (“there ain’t no school like the old school” was his fave.)

I stepped into the barn and was thoroughly charmed, as most everybody is, with the long, medieval looking, tables constructed from railroad ties and reclaimed barn wood, and the 25 foot or so tree shaft that is the slightly off center hub of the whole structure. I met a quirkily attractive young woman from Montreal who immediately tried to recruit my help for her current venture. I later discovered she was the drifting other half of an alleged royal marine who had been extradited a few weeks earlier back to some indeterminate shire in the UK. They had been hiking the Appalachian Trail anywhere from a few days to a month, though no one has been able to uncover the real numbers, when they arrived here the past summer. The story changes depending on whom they pitch their tale to. A group of hardcore survivalists, for example, might warrant the entire 2000 mile spine of the range and a couple of death defying bear encounters. A more casual group would only necessitate a thousand give or take a couple hundred and a few dozen deer and rabbit sightings. (All reliable evidence points to around 100 miles, but we had to send some of the evidence to Kazakhstan for thorough forensic analysis, so the truth may never be known.)

Nevertheless, she and her boyfriend/business partner, were on a chronic opportunistic venture, trying to gather resources for an adventure, zip line park of some sort, and ending up in Pittsfield, which is a naturally occurring vortex for those types. And like another well known vortex, often flushes them into a putrid, dank (not the good “dank“, homies) pipe and out to a fetid, algae ridden cesspool. But not always.

They found Joe D, the hyperpreneur, and the farm and this barn and made an allegedly successful backpacker hostel in a short amount of time. The boyfriend entered and allegedly co-won the infamous Death Race fair and square. Unable to entertain their alleged dream of a zip park, the couple started a wilderness survival camp and youtube channel utilizing alleged skills the boyfriend allegedly picked up from his alleged service in the marines, in which he was on an alleged career path, but he allegedly broke his leg so he had to retire prematurely, allegedly.

(One must be careful to qualify any statement about their lives since the boyfriend has apparently constructed his life using the business model of Professor Harry Hill of Music Man fame.)

Anyway......We walked up the spiral staircase twisting around the tree and up top it was wall to wall blue plastic cots provided with a pillow, thin blanket and liability form. The whole barn was heated with a large stone hearth, which contained no fire that night and most nights, on the middle floor. I curled up into the fetal position for warmth and contemplated how I would last out the week let alone the month I promised, as I sit here writing this almost a full six seasons later. (To be continued....)