By Christopher Cudworth
Problem was, the car was a Toyota Supra with a stick. And I didn’t know how to drive a stick. Not very well anyway.
So it was strange that they let me leave their house with my bag full of running clothes and other crap stuffed into their car… when I could barely back the damn thing down the driveway. I stalled it again on the road in front of their house. But they stood in the driveway and waved just the same. They must have figured I’d figure it out.
Things went pretty well until the first toll booth on the Illinois expressway. Coming into the toll booth hot at about 45 miles an hour, I accidentally shifted from 5th gear to 1st. The engine whined and the transmission groaned, but it definitely slowed the car down.
Arriving at a stop in Pittsburgh provided no relief. That hilly damn down was tough to negotiate with a stick shift and little skill to operate it. Luckily I put on every parking brake I could find, or else the car likely would have rolled all the way to the Monongahela. As it was, a few years later my own stick shift car rolled down a hill and hit a tree. Some lessons once learned can be lost.
In Pittsburgh I went for a run in the hot June air and the pollution counts were high. The hills were also fearsome bad, steep and unforgiving. I arrived back at the house where my prim and proper aunt from Birmingham stood waiting while I walked up the drive of her Pittsburgh home (thanks to a transfer with US Steel) with sweat soaking my entire body and me smelling like the bad food I’d eaten the day before while on the road. She politely turned her Southern head and ignored the stench as I headed for the shower.
Our particular branch of the family on my father’s side was the seediest of the bunch. With four brothers and a harried mother we were always sweaty and stinking from playing one sport or another. I knew this was our heritage and tried to keep my clothes organized in the room where I was staying. But somehow they always seemed to escape. My running shoes stank like an unwashed recycling bin and my shorts hung on the chair like a rag full of disease. I felt guilty scooping up all that the next morning and tossing it in the car.
My gracious aunt was sweet and forgiving, giving me a big hug. I did not understand that the child of a brother or sister is nearly as dear as your own even (or especially) if you only see them every 5 years. It’s still a tangible connection. So I hugged her back, best I could.
The drive across Pennsylvania and into Delaware was uneventful, but rain started up in southern Delaware just as I was headed onto the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. If you’ve never driven that stretch of terrifying highway it is a combination of underground tunnel below the bay waters and a bridge that pops up over the ocean a couple hundred feet. Or so it seemed.
The rain pounded the car and puddles gathered on the low spots. Suddenly the car began to hydroplane. I steered into the swerve and got control, but barely, and the Toyota Supra was going slowly enough by then that 5th gear felt like the engine was made of clay. Frantically I downshifted and found some common ground between the car and the road at the same time. Traffic was swinging up from behind and it was scary to be sitting broadside on a blank road far above the gray bay waters.
The approaching cars did not even slow. They just tore by shedding rain sheets as they went. The Toyota groped its way back into gear and we proceeded on.
Slowly. I didn’t drive over 45 the rest of the way across the bridge.
Arriving in Assateague after running the guauntlet of towns named Thiskill and Thatkill, I wondered if everything down the seaboard really needed to be named “kill,” or was it just my imagination?
When I arrived the skies had cleared and the ocean at Assateague was bright and blue and bold. Brilliant waves broke on the shore and I shed my shoes in the parking lot and ran down to dive into the surf, throwing my shirt off along the way. It was like a homecoming. The salty ocean. The smell of sea breeze. Gulls floating overhead. Willets calling from the angled beaches, shining from the arrival and departure of wave after wave. I sat on the edge and let the clear water wash up and over me.
I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, but wished I did. The surf and shore are meant to be shared by someone else whose skin shines in the sun. That you can touch. Watching the other couples playing in the surf made me feel lonely and sad. So I cleaned up and drove off to find the house where I’d be staying.
The house was tucked into a pine woods on the edge of an inlet. That night another major rainstorm blew in from the ocean and I should have known better, but was reading a scary book about Blackbeard the Pirate, who used to hang out around Assateague and waltzed about with lit candles in his hair and beard, if I recall correctly.
About the moment the book describe his fellow pirates burying him up to his neck in sand as the tide came in, a windblown pine branch slammed against the window and I jumped clear off the couch. I thought Blackbeard’s Ghost had come to revenge his drowning death.
Still Life with Cowgirls. Or even woodpeckers get the blues.
So I switched attention to another book, this one by Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It was a sexually provocative book, just like the Robbins book I’d read the previous summer, Still Life with Woodpecker.
I read Cowgirls in a hammock. On the beach. Sitting in the car outside a restaurant. It was a book about traveling, and hitchhiking, and a girl with big thumbs who was really good at hitchhiking. Who got laid a lot. I wished she was real.
The naked shore
The next morning was a great day for running with a big breeze coming off the ocean to keep things cool, and the beach curled away miles to the north. So I set off running and let the minutes roll away. 10. 20. 30. 40 minutes I ran along the hard ocean edge. Then I slowed to a jog and peeled off a shirt. Then shorts. Then shoes. And went swimming naked in the surf.
Paddling around the big waves was liberating and fun. My legs weren’t yet tired from running because I was in 32:00 10K shape and there were days it felt like I could run forever.
Crawling out of the surf, I looked up to see a young couple naked by the shore. Perhaps they’d been camping in the woods and came down for a swim. Not wanted to intrude, I sat down with my butt cheeks sinking into to the hot sand and watched them through the haze of gathering heat. Her bright white breasts shone like seashells, and his butt cheeks looked the same.
“This is the way it should be,” I said aloud.
I still believe that. And we should engage in such fresh freedoms at any age. Take your bike if you like. Go ride hills and get lost. Stare into the haze over the ocean until something genuine appears. Listen to the gulls. Then you’re not so lonely after all. Everything has a purpose if you listen carefully enough. Everything comes to you if you let it.
I spent the rest of the week on similar runs, and birdwatching and sunbathing and generally avoiding reality. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was all the company one needed. Tom Robbins knows his way around a vacation.
Surfer dude and blueberry daquiris
Then I met a surfer dude who lived with two other languid women in a beachside pole house and got drunk with them on blueberry daiquiris till 4 in the morning. The next morning I was scheduled to fly from Assateague to Charleston, SC in a Piper Aztec to catch a commercial flight home. The pilot flying the Piper Aztec at 6 a.m. wryly said, “I hope we have enough runway.” The when we took off and just before we rose from the ground you could hear the sand on the tires.
I didn’t have my contacts in. Just trusted what he was doing. And I was drunk. And free. And young. And stupid. But it was a tremendous flight even though I wanted to throw up the entire first hour. Blueberry daiquiris will do that to you.
Bringing home a tan and a bunch of sand in your shorts pockets is a pleasure at any age. Not having to drive the Toyota Supra home was also, really good.
There’s still a lot of summer left, people.
May you find a good book, a few good runs or rides and maybe get a little sand in your shorts. But only if you’re running back from the beach.
Sand in your shorts and cycling lube do not go together. Trust me on that one.