The tempo of my walk has hardly surpassed that of a leisurely New Orleans stroll in easily over a year, and aside from the occasional set of stairs I have not changed the vertical position of my body by my own efforts in at least that long. Since I’ll be following my dad, who has won gold medals and set state records at the Wyoming Senior Olympics the past two years straight, up into the mountains in a couple days to search for mule deer, I was eager to see how I’d hold up on a practice walk with him out into the high desert. Granted, he’s 67 and I’m 28, and I’m not exactly a couch potato, but I do spend large portions of time sitting at a desk at work and slogging back whiskey in smoky bars at night, and the thin mountain air certainly does less for my lungs than the thick moist fare they’re used to sucking in at sea level.
My dad’s standard practice walk is the distance of a 10k race (about 6.2 miles) up and out of his neighborhood and into the desert on a dirt road, to the top of a ridge and off down its side into the flats, then he turns around and walks back. From my parents’ house to the top of the ridge we pick up 300 feet of elevation, then drop off about 400 feet to the turnaround point. Unless he’s carrying the 16-pound weight vest I gave him for Christmas a few years ago, which slows him down a bit, his goal is to walk the course in an hour and a half. That’s an average of more than four miles an hour on terrain that’s hardly smooth or flat.
I laced up the steel-toed boots I bought ten years ago to work highway construction and immediately noticed their weight. My dad was topping off half-full Gatorade bottles with water, informing me with a chuckle that they now sell Gatorade Light, which, to him, was akin to selling 50/50 antifreeze.
“You can buy a gallon of antifreeze for $4.50 or a gallon of 50/50 for $3.50,” he said. “It’s pretty funny how they can sell you a gallon of water for $2.50.”
My dad is an obsessive quantifier. He makes leaps like that to follow constantly (a gallon of antifreeze is essentially two gallons of 50/50, since 50/50 is half antifreeze and half water, so to obtain the equivalent of antifreeze by purchasing 50/50, you’d have to buy two gallons for $7, which is $2.50 more than the gallon of antifreeze). He says he first noticed his knack looking the back of UPS trucks, freshly loaded with packages in the morning, and being able, at a glance, not only to tell almost exactly how many packages were in the trucks, but how long they would take to deliver. My dad was a swing driver for UPS, which means he covered people’s routes when they went on vacation, so he had the advantage of knowing at what rate packages could generally be delivered on each route, but his accuracy still sort of creeped out his fellow drivers when he started giving out projections on a regular basis. It was then he realized his talent, and lamented that he hadn’t used it in some more lucrative profession.
So, our morning walk was filled with figures. Besides the time and distance, my dad knew the elevation we would gain from my parents’ house to the top of the ridge (about 300 feet), how much we would drop off the side of the ridge into the flats (about 400 feet) and how those calculations compared to various hills he and I regularly climb on hunting outings. He kept time according to landmarks, tracking our pace (we took 43 minutes to reach the turnaround) and compared it to his performance doing that same walk in years past (eight years ago, he could walk the same route in an hour and twenty minutes–we agreed that ten minutes in eight years wasn’t bad). He also watched the unobtrusive electronic contraption strapped to his wrist that monitors his heart rate, and that beeps when it sneaks above 160, the maximum at which a man his age should exercise. My dad is a stalwart believer in the use of heart monitors for exercise, because, he says, you can’t trust yourself to know whether you’re really pushing your limits. If you can tell how fast your heart is pumping and keep it at its maximum level throughout the workout, you’re making the most efficient progress. It beeped consistently during our walk back up the ridge from the turnaround point, forcing us to slow down.
At the top of the ridge is a cell phone tower that must not be Verizon, my dad tells me. He’s a patron of that service provider and gripes frequently about the poor coverage his phone has in remote areas. “Those ‘Can you hear me now’ commercials are bullshit,” he says.
Down to the turnaround
It turns out I can hike uphill just as well as always, able to walk the ass off a tall Indian, as they say. The flats and especially the downhill off the ridge toward the train tracks and interstate gave me problems, my toes scrunching into the steel fronts of my boots and my hamstrings tightening up. I’ve never been able to walk well downhill. It’s the opposite for my dad, who burns across the flats and downward slopes, throwing a hip forward with each stride to make up for his disproportionately short legs. He chugs and struggles uphill, though, and walking behind him this morning, watching him pull himself upward against gravity as we climbed back up from the flats to the top of the ridge, I began to think of the book Gravity and Grace by the mystic Simone Weil. Weil posits grace as a counterpoint to gravity, the only thing that can overcome it. Weil’s ideas are steeped in religious faith–gravity is the essence of creation, in that it’s both a byproduct of it and its essential element, while the process of de-creation, the overcoming of gravity and the discarding of its impediments, occurs only via grace–but I appreciate the secular connotations of the dichotomy as well. I thought of a ballet dancer and her perfect form in mid-jump, suspended far longer in the air that seems natural. I thought of the plastic bag narrated by Werner Herzog using the wind to float around the world in search of its maker. I thought that perhaps my ability to climb the hill had something to do with a certain degree of grace I possess, then I realized that I use essentially the same muscles to pedal my bike as to climb a hill, and since I commute 12 miles daily to work, that was probably it.
Once we reached the top of the ridge on our return my dad hit pace and almost left me in the dust. I managed to keep up with him, but my feet were plodding heavily on the dirt road, then the asphalt when we got back to the neighborhood. I reached my parents’ driveway a good fifteen seconds after my dad, and asked him how we did, time-wise. We had walked the route in an hour and thirty-one minutes, he said, which was pretty good, but it wasn’t an hour and a half.
My legs are going to be sore tomorrow.