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ConquerMountains.com

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The thoughts of writer John Rezell, who will write about anything, anytime, anywhere. So pay attention.

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Spirit of Adventure

Posted by johnnieraz on September 25, 2021 at 2:40 AM Comments comments (22)

By John Rezell

     As a parent, there are countless moments when your children reveal a pinch of their essence. You get invited to appreciate a rare glimpse inside.

     One of the biggest moments for me remains as crystal clear as the day it happened, many years ago.

     My stomach suddenly started doing handsprings in one of those moments of shock and disbelief filled with more fear than anything else.

     It wasn't terror staring death in the face fear. No, more like rollercoaster anticipation fear. Regardless, I found myself in one of those moments where I could have easily backed away rather than forge forward. Had I done that, we'd have no memories to share.

     Having gingerly climbed out to a somewhat lofty perch on the rocks overlooking swirling water below that had just crashed over the edge of Wildwood Falls, I faced a moment of truth.

      I looked down from the perspective of a protective father rather than the inspirational dad whose gut instincts brought us here just moments earlier. Then I turned to look at Sierra, sitting next to me.  I wondered just how in the world I got to this point.

      I mean, I know how I physically got there, to the edge of Wildwood Falls just east of Dorena.

      I stumbled on the picturesque spot during a bike ride. We were camping at Baker Bay, enjoying our first Fourth of July weekend in Oregon. I couldn't wait to show the girls the falls because, deep down, I knew something like this was bound to happen.

      We were one year removed from our epic adventure, when we spent the entire summer of 2005 traveling America's West in search of a place to call home. Both Sierra and Taylor grew magnificently before our eyes during memorable hikes at the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Yosemite, among other stops (that's all chronicled in "You Can't Cook a Dead Crab and Eat it").

     The real question: Did that adventure change them permanently, or would it remain a memory of one wild summer never to be matched?

      Debbie decided she had seen enough waterfalls in our first year in Oregon, and wanted to stay behind relaxing at the campsite with her book. We drove to the falls and looked at its beauty. Row River wasn't raging and wasn't too deep.

     I suggested we go to the top of the falls and take some photos. That's when Sierra flashed her devilish grin, and I knew right then I had pretty much been caught red-handed with my true motive revealed.

     We waded across above the falls in knee deep water, each daughter clinging to my hand as they felt the rush of the current against their legs. We took a couple of shots of some people taking the plunge into the refreshing water. Sierra's eyes beamed brightly as she soaked it in.

      That's when Taylor realized something was up.

      "We are NOT going to jump off the cliff, are we?" Taylor asked, already well aware of the answer by the look on Sierra's face.

      "Well, Taylor," I said, "You just never know. If you don't want to, don't worry, you don't have to."

      "I'm jumping," Sierra interjected confidently.

       "We'll see," I said, "We'll see."

       Let me note here that we had never jumped into a river from a rock, much less a high perch, so having it pop up like some piece of common conversation was bizarre enough.

       We sat atop the falls for a good 20 minutes watching others -- mainly teenagers -- jump. Then we maneuvered into position to check out the scene from the edge.

      "We're not jumping, are we?" Taylor asked again, trying hard to get a handle on a situation that made her more than a little uneasy.

       "Do you want to jump?" I asked her.

       "No!" she said emphatically.

       So, Taylor volunteered to take the camera and towel down to the bottom to record the proceedings.

      Next thing you know, Sierra and I are on the side of the rocky ledge looking down at the water. I began my lesson. We tested depth first by climbing down to the edge, dropping in rocks and watching them disappear (part of the beauty of Oregon lakes and rivers, where you can see to amazing depths. Crater Lake is clear to 140 feet!).

      Then we figured out what the currents were doing by tossing in a few sticks and watching them gently twirl before heading downstream. We weren't about to jump into the swirling whitewater at the bottom of the falls. We found a calmer, safer spot off to the side.

      I continued through my laundry list, explaining everything that would happen: How you have to leap far enough out, away from the rocks, to be safe. How you go pretty far under water for a spell. You might not know which way is up. You'll feel the current. Above all, just be calm. Confident.

       I kept taking my time, making sure Sierra had plenty of opportunity to change her mind if she wanted. But I'd turn and look into those eager brown eyes, and know that nothing was going to stop her.

      That's when I paused to take one more look down, and suddenly realized the height and magnitude of what might transpire in the next few moments.

      "Are you sure you want to do this?" I asked. "It's a ways down there."

      She looked at me with lively, steely eyes and said, "Daddy, I'm not looking down. I'm just jumping."

      I looked at Sierra in complete and utter awe. I couldn't think of a more inspiring response. I stood up on the edge and could feel a tremor in my knees and flutter in my stomach. I thought back. No way would I have done it my summer after fourth grade. I'm not convinced I want to do this now! But the only way to be down there ready to offer any assistance to Sierra is to get down there and know what it's all about. Show her how to do it.

     So I jumped.

     Of course, it was a gas.

     Oregon lakes and rivers -- even in the hottest days of summer -- will shock you. They are stunningly cold. These moments move with lightning precision, from a flash of complete terror to euphoria. I explain it to kids in my dream presentation as moments when every cell in your body screams at the top of its lungs: IT'S GREAT TO BE ALIVE!!!!

      When I bobbed to the surface I could see Taylor's eyes the size of golf balls. I looked up and watched Sierra quickly move to the edge. I could see her eyes concentrating as she went through her mental checklist. Then she paused. She locked her eyes on me, and I knew what she wanted.

     "One, two, three!" I shouted.

     On three she went flying. Just like her initial dives into Zion's Virgin River the previous year, the only real danger was her choking from laughing so hard. She erupted as she popped to the surface, screaming along with each of her cells.

 

     We crawled out of the water on the rocky shore to hear Taylor boldy announce, "I want to jump, too!"

      So, Sierra manned the camera. Taylor climbed up the rocks with me. We went through the whole checklist. I jumped. She got to the edge, and paused.

     "One, two, three!" I shouted.

      She jumped.

 

     Again, the look on her face as she broke the surface will be unforgettable. She laughed out loud, just like a third-grader-to-be.

       And so it went, for the next 45 minutes or so. Over. And over. And over.

      When we returned to camp both girls sported wild-eye grins. Debbie simply said, "No, you didn't!" They both exclaimed, "We jumped off the waterfall!!!!"

     Later that night at the campfire after Debbie finally calmed down, I told them that one of the reasons we left Tennessee last year for a summer of adventure was to show them how to make life happen. How to live life to the fullest. How to enjoy special moments.

      Of course, I added, you girls didn't need to learn that. You already knew.

 

Don't Stop Believing

Posted by johnnieraz on September 18, 2021 at 1:45 AM Comments comments (4)


By John Rezell

     A light at the end of the tunnel lifts my spirits most days. Today the light fills my soul. 
     I sit in my office nearly a year-and-a-half into my latest stint of unemployment and somehow my optimism tank still manages to read "FULL."
     Facing unemployment at any point in life can be a challenge. Having lived my life willing to take risks in hopes of huge rewards rather than settling in fear for whatever lot I have in life, I've been here before. Lots of times. But never like this last endeavor.

We've Endured Worse

     Oh, this is hardly the most challenging stint. That would have been after the Great Recession left me bobbing in a sea of doubt. Back in 2008, when the economy went into the dumper, I got laid off to jettison higher paid folks as newspapers began their quick descent. At the time I was only part-time, having opted for under-employment to continue the most important job I've ever had — stay-at-home Dad.
     See, when Debbie and I decided after 14 blissful years of marriage sans kids that we would start a family, we made one commitment to each other: One of us would be home to raise our children until the youngest hit at least middle school. We wanted to raise our kids, not have someone else do it.


     It's always easy to make a bold declaration like that, having debated the pros and cons. We accepted the fact that financial challenges would ensue. Yet we firmly believed it is impossible to put a pricetag on spending quality time raising your kids. Today I can verify that claim.
     In the midst of going more than two years without a job starting in September 2008 (BTW, Debbie crashed her bike four days after I was laid off and ended up in the hospital having surgery), Debbie also got laid off. For a short spell we both spent our days looking for work. Blessed with more job Karma than I have, Debbie's stint did not last long. As I said, my stint went more than two years.

Will History Repeat?

     So this time around, after getting laid off from two part-time gigs because of Covid-19, the hunt has been sporatic. Long bouts of silence interspersed with a few phone interviews and a couple of finalist appearances, but nothing to stake my claim to. My resume has holes and gaps as if it were hit by a shotgun blast.
     You name the economic bumps in the road over the course of the past 20-odd years, and you'll see my butt flying out of the back of the pickup. I had life by the tail riding high on thrilling ride of an Internet startup when the dotcom bubble burst in 2000. Company went belly-up, closing its doors on the day Dubya was elected President. Laid off.
         Just a year later, with recovery on the way and only a three-month stint on unemployment, everything was going splendidly until 9/11 sent the economy in a dizzy, and I got laid off again.
      That time I opted to stay home while Debbie went back to work. The plan was simple, once Taylor, my youngest, hits middle school, we both go to work and make up for lost time. Problem was, the 2008 crash hit before she got to middle school.

Time On My Hands

     That two-year unemployment ride came while I was working part-time at night, 8 to midnight, and working as Mr. Mom all day. So not working wasn't that much of a change in my life. This time?
      Whoa.
      This time around I'm not used to this much time on my hands. I tried not to think about the last thought I had before landing this previous job that is now history. That thought, since it was in the cycling biz and in Eugene was simply, "If I can't land this one, I might never work again." Seriously, the thought of never landing a job again enters your mind when you've applied for more than 300 over two years and never even had an interview.
      I've been reminding myself that the economy is better now than during that two-year hiatus. Besides, back then we made a commitment not to move our girls from Eugene until they graduated high school. I did a little moving in my youth, and it was not pleasant (you can read much of those memories in "You Can't Cook a Dead Crab and Eat It"). This time I didn't limit my search to Eugene. 
      Still, I have those holes in my resume. Gaps. Which just makes someone pause and realize just how many years of experience I have. Which brings up another challenge in itself at this point in life. (Notice how I never really mention the word age?)
      These are the times I look back and wonder in amazement, how did they do that? How did my parents instill this endless optimism into my spirit?



      I call myself an obsessive optimist. It's the one element, if anything, I want to instill in my daughters. I cried when I read a high school essay by Sierra that recalled how she never worried about our future during those long two years of unemployment. She noted how I always remained upbeat and positive. So I feel pretty good I succeeded, at least a pinch.
      While no one around me can see any difference this time around, I can. These quiet mornings, applying for yet another job I could do with my eyes closed, knowing the chances are high I won't even get a phone interview because I'm vastly overqualified, can be frustrating. I refuse to buckle.

Keep the Dream Alive

      Those tough times I'll sneak to the bedroom and pull out the folder I show kids during my Dream Presentations. The folder that's two inches thick with rejection letters (thank goodness my last three unemployment stints were in the electronic age, when rejections came via email, or I'd need a binder, or two).
      I show those to the kids and tell them they must never give up on their dreams. They will face hurdles and challenges. But you can't stop believing in yourself. You must keep the dream alive.
     The Dream Presentation reminds me that, yes, my childhood dream came true. That sparked so many others. That's part of the issue now. I've had some great jobs and beyond that, being able to spend so much time with my daughters as they grew up, I've enjoyed such an amazing life. A big part of me feels guilty even considering to ask for another round. How many great jobs can one have in one life?
        Time, of course, will answer that question for me. Which is why I never spend too much time contemplating it. I'm not a cat person, but I do feel as though I have nine lives. Or, at least the ability to always land on my feet.


Wakeup Call of 9/11

Posted by johnnieraz on September 11, 2021 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (20)

By John Rezell

     The soft morning light slowly unveils my long shadow dancing on the asphalt in front of me as I crest the short hill on my bicycle. Careless and free with elbows jutting outward from my handlebars, my silhouette swings back and forth, left and right — a rhythmic pattern in-sync with my effortless breathing — like Dorothy's Scarecrow skittering up the Yellow Brick Road, off to see the Wizard.

      The rising sun warms the nap of my neck and casts a golden tint on the stunning pre-fall colors, the maples and oaks pumping up to an intense raging green about to explode into a multitude of orange, yellow and red. Like a painter with smooth, confident strokes, the image playfully leaps to life inviting me to follow its lead.

      The scratching sound of the tires gripping the pavement set a hip-hop beat. The scent of pine flashes through my nasal passages, replacing the sweet forest aroma that transports me back to my youth, hiking through Bishop Woods on the last days of summer freedom before school would start again.

      Seven months earlier the physical effort to charge up this incline sparked an internal change of gears, from aerobic to anaerobic training. The shortness of breath and burn of lactic acid in my thighs seized control of my attention. Back then I was oblivious to the big picture setting, even though the light was nearly the same from the parallel positioning of the sun to the solstice. The temperatures were much more chilling then as winter transformed to spring, rather than summer to fall.

     But today, oh, today is so different. Change is eminent. I can sense it. Strange how autumn is my time of awakening instead of spring. I've felt it before, this overwhelming awareness of the moment. They call it "the zone" in athletics, when everything appears to move in slow motion, allowing the senses to create individual harmony. The mind and body become one, and magical things happen. In my life, these moments wake me up like splashing cold water from a mountain creek on my face.

     This wakeup call sends a clear message. Like a cold waterfall drenching me, every cell in my body springs to life. A chill runs up my spine, not down. My life, once again, feels perfect. The images that cascade through my head show Debbie, Sierra and Taylor. Three beaming smiles of the girls who make me whoI am. Their love blinds me for second. And what follows is the overwhelming feeling that life just doesn't get any better than this.

     As I said, though, I've felt this before. And I can never get enough of it.

     I experienced it on the eve of heading of to college, spending that evening with Tasha, soaking up every bit of its essence, instinctively knowing that when the sun would rise, things would never again be the same. And that would be fine. Better than fine. Actually, it would be inspiring.

     The first time I held Debbie in my arms it hit me, too. It felt so natural. No, supernatural. My heart knew we were soul mates even though we barely knew each other. Her kiss aroused a sense deep inside of me that screamed I want to kiss this woman for the rest of my life, and at the same time calmed me with the knowledge it will be reality.

     The wave of emotion also hit me the night we sat on the grassy knoll of Alpine Valley Music Theather, with a bright full moon rising over the forest beyond the stage. As purple lights bathed Bruce Springsteen sitting on a stool; with guitar and harmonica strung around his neck, he sang "Racing in the Streets" hitting me straight in the heart.

     "Some guys they just give up living,

      Start dying little by little,

      Piece by piece

     Some guys come home from work

     And wash up,

    And go racing in the streets."

    Not long after that Debbie and I were toasting a new adventure, heading off to California with no jobs or promises, just the essential belongings and our hearts filled with dreams.

     Of course, there was the night sitting around the campfire in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, when the light of the moon sparkling across the gentle ripples of Lake Alturus signaled clearly there was only one way to improve on the perfection of life we enjoyed. Eleven months later, after 14 years of marriage, Sierra rocked our world. Just two years later, Taylor followed. I don't know if most couples can feel the magic when it happens. For us, the moments of conception were as obvious as an California earthquake.

     These moments of epiphany seem to come more frequently as I get more in touch with myself. Abstinence created a clearer view of everything. Yoga brought the clarity to another level. Ginseng managed to crank it up yet another notch.

     At the same time that I feel on top of the world, I'm saddened. I remember countless times of explaining to friends and family these wonderous moments when I sense that if my life were any more full I might explode. I only see an emptiness in their eyes. They have no idea what I'm talking about. They haven't made it to this place yet. My single wish for the world is that everyone finds it not once, but often. As I do.

     The ability to wake up each day and know that it will be better than the last. To just know that life has much more in the future than you could ever imagine, then to experience it, and know that more is yet to come, makes my heart literally rise and float around the room like a graceful eagle in the sky, able to see the minute details that often slip past even the most perceptive people.

     That is the cloud of wonder I rode on this morning. I know things won't be the same again. Something is in the air. And like waking up on Christmas morning, I can't wait to see what it will be, because I know the change would be for the best. As usual, I must note the date for future reference: 9-11-01.

------

EDITOR'S NOTE: I sat down at my desk after my bike ride into work and wrote all of the above. Just as I finished, Joe walked in and asked if I have been listening to the radio. I said no. He said something was going on in New York ...

 

New Tricks From an Old Dog

Posted by johnnieraz on September 4, 2021 at 2:45 AM Comments comments (16)


[EDITOR'S NOTE: Our beloved black lab Ridgely left us in May 2021. This is a column I wrote about her four years ago.]

By John Rezell

     My black lab Ridgely lies across the floor appearing to play dead, even though that is not a trick in her repertoire. She will turn 11 in June, and Debbie continually voices concerns when she sees Ridgely like this after a day out in the woods. Ridgely might be out like a light, but I'm pretty sure she's listening. And frankly, Ridgely doesn't like to be dissed like this.

     That's the only explanation I have for her most recent behavior in the woods. As soon as it's time to hit the trail, she is off like a puppy. On steroids.

     It makes perfect sense, since she has ventured into the woods with me almost from birth. She loves the woods. She gets depressed if we don't make it out there at least once a week, and makes sure to let me know.

     Ridgely, named for the street she was born on, came into our family about six months into my stint as an outdoor columnist for The Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene. We hit the woods two, three sometimes more each week.

     Once Ridgely showed the strength to hang with me on some epic hikes of three, four or more hours, I introduced her to mountain biking. That's when she showed her athletic prowess.

     Her greatest feat came when she hung with my older brother Tom and I as we rode around Waldo Lake, which was billed as a 23-mile loop but for some reason came out closer to 28 by our estimates. It was a long day with plenty of stops for her to recover and cool off in the icy waters of Waldo. At the end, however, she was right there.

     As the years have gone by, I've dialed back on how long we hike or bike. When we return home, she will pass out on the floor and eventually hobble a pinch as she puts herself to bed around 8 p.m. But the next morning, on the trail, look out world.

     I write this because we got out on the bike last week with a wonderful winter day in Oregon. Nearly 50 degrees in the Coastal Range. I'm far from summer fitness level, so it all begins with training. We got out on a gravel logging road to climb for an hour, before turning around and coasting back down.

    But as soon as we started, she bolted with an added zip in her gait. I mean, she was sprinting up the climb, over and over, after I'd call her to get back a little closer to me. Her energy ratcheted up a few levels, like I haven't seen in years. All I could think of was Ridgely's pride, and her determination to make sure Debbie knows she's listening.

     I've never been a wild man on my bike heading downhill, so I pretty much ride the brakes all the way down to keep a very reasonable pace for Ridgely. It's more like a crawl. We stop at every creek that babbles down the mountainside. She drinks and plops herself down for a rest.

    With such a perfect day, it couldn't end there. We drove to the coast, and walked a mile down the beach at Oceanside before heading back. All the way Ridgely loving the beach as she always does — although this time deciding quickly she wasn't interested in drinking any salt water.

    She plopped down in the living room and didn't move for hours. She hobbled a pinch when she put herself to bed. And this morning, well, she's ready to do it all again. Take that!


    


Don't Read This

Posted by johnnieraz on May 29, 2021 at 1:05 AM Comments comments (25)


By John Rezell

     Whatever you do, don’t read this.

     I’m serious.

       Stop right now.

       Google something.

       Hit one of your bookmarks.

       Hell, go back a page.

       Turn off the computer.

       Whatever, just don't.

     Do not read any farther. Stop. Again, I beg of you.

     Just step away from your computer. Run like hell.

     Whatever you do, please, by all means, do not read to the end. Never, under any circumstances, share this. In fact, if anything, close this page right now and call/text/email/write everyone who means anything to you and simply share with them, my mantra:

     Whatever you do, don’t read this.

     If you insist, I'll tell you why. But then it's over. Got it?

     It goes something like this:

     I can’t remember exactly when I stopped reading fiction, but I sure as hell can remember why: My own life became much, much more interesting than anything I’ve ever read in a novel.

     I didn’t have to suspend my beliefs.

     I didn’t have to exaggerate my details.

     I didn’t have to enhance the quirkiness of the individuals buzzing in and out of my life.

     I didn’t have to, for any reason whatsoever, escape from my life.

     No sir. I had to dive into my life. Head first. Full throttle. I didn’t have time to waste with my head down and nose in a novel. I’d miss too damn much. Miss life. Not just any life, my life.

      I know. Enlightened ones tell you to read. Read, read, read and then read some more. That's the way to become a good writer. Read the good, the bad and the ugly. Then copy the formula. What irks me is that the reading considered to be good isn't writing about good at all, it's writing about the bad and ugly sides of life.

      The good? Who wants to hear it? I've been told if your life is great, keep it to yourself.

      Misery loves company. Maybe that's why I'm a loner. I've got a great life. Wonderful experiences. No super dramatic crisis to overcome. Anyone interested in reading that? Not according to publishers and agents.

      See, it’s like this. There are writers and there are writers. There are writers who listen to all that golden advice, play the game, and know the joy of seeing a book with their name on it sitting on the shelf in Barnes & Noble because they followed the same formula as the book sitting next to it.

     And, there are writers who just write.

     Not to make money.

     Not to become famous.

     Not to escape life.

     We write because that’s who we are. It’s what makes us tick. It’s our life. Frankly, we couldn't care less what someone else thinks of our writing. Because writing is not always about being accepted by everyone else, or revered by your peers, or sitting next to Oprah.

     For us, writing is about expressing ourselves. Chronicling our lives. There are countless writers who are the former and believe they are the latter. They’ll tell you that every writer wants to be heard. Wants to be understood. Every writer needs an audience. Acceptance. It’s the essence of writing, they say.

     Sorry.

     Not for everyone.

     Not for me.

     I’m a writer who writes for me. Audience of one.

     This all comes to light now for a couple of reasons. The other day it dawned on me that I can’t remember, ever, wanting to be someone other than myself. I never remember looking at anyone and thinking, “God, I wish I were him (or, probably more thankfully, her).”

     I can’t remember wanting to live anyone else’s life but my own. That’s powerful stuff. At least in my mind.

     High school, that's when it became obvious my life was more interesting than anything I’d read in a book. That’s when I found myself, and understood that the only voice worth listening to is the one that speaks from my heart. My soul. That’s when I entrusted my life to my instincts, and realized the power of the experience of life.

     As in living my life, not reading about someone else’s life.

     When I got dumped and had my heart broken, that pain, that agony — that tsunami of emotion was real. Not something concocted in someone else’s mind and put to paper.

     It was my emotion.

     My pain.

     I felt it, and as hard as it was, it let me know that I was alive.

     Connected.

     Living a life.

    Mistakes hurt. Badly. Disappointment and frustration are no picnic. Yet, lows make highs so much more fulfilling. Highs make lows much more tolerable. That wonderful, peaceful place in-between became the most amazing part of life. Nirvana. The place where, instead of reading about someone else’s life, I was living mine. Writing mine.

     I’d write about an amazing sunrise, stepping to the window in a small hotel room in Venice, watching a fishing vessel slice into the glassy glowing surface of the Adriatic as it headed out to sea. To deliver someone else’s life to destiny. I’d turn away, and savor the beauty of Debbie, asleep like an angel. Sure, Venice is for lovers. But that feeling takes my breath away wherever I glance at her. Venice. Austin. Boulder. Carlsbad. Dubuque. Eugene. Fort Atkinson. Galena.

     As I write, my fingers caress the keyboard with a tingle. I pause and read my work. A sensation bubbles from deep within, and rises to a grin cutting across my face. No, not a grin. My smirk. The ultimate fulfillment. Capturing the exact moment in the perfect words. My words.

     I’d write about other sunrises, dawning well into mid-morning in my noggin, as I type. Eventually, months later, after countless rejections, I’d wonder if it was just my imagination. If it was only in my mind that the words were perfect. Or, even true. I’d wonder if the sun could really flood the sky with a soft orange glow as cirrus clouds paint the edges of the horizon in stunning streaks of purple. Who the hell would believe that just because I wrote it? Can it really look like that?

     I’d debate it in my mind, almost endlessly, then load my daughters into the car, and drive to grade school. Just before we’d turn the corner, rolling through the hills of Tennessee, I’d peek in the rearview mirror, and see those bright, lovely faces of my girls. Sparkling eyes soaking in life, unfiltered, as only kids can.  

     My heart would skip a beat.

     My stomach would flutter.

     One of those moments, like writing my perfect sentence. True joy. Then Sierra would say, “Wow, Daddy, look at that sunrise!” I’d look. And I’d see the sun flood the sky with a soft orange glow as cirrus clouds paint the edges of the horizon in stunning streaks of purple. This is the magic of life. Of writing.

     Not for an audience.

     Not for anyone, but myself.

     My fascination with reality drew me to journalism. Non-fiction. I explored life through the eyes of countless people. My interviews became discussions. About life. I found truth to be exponentially stranger than fiction. Not to mention easier to find. It’s everywhere. All around me. Not bound in a book.

     I found that if I listened to my heart, my soul, my writing followed.

      My life continued to be my greatest work. I know because I’d see it in the eyes of the beholder. At parties. At interviews. At family get-togethers. At the checkout line. I’d see others bobbing in a sea of amazement. Wondering what it would be like to walk in my shoes. I’d wonder why others couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take those steps of faith on their own. Why they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, live life to its fullest.

      For a time, I thought my calling might be just that. Delivering that message to others. Helping them find the joy I find in almost every moment of life. How to do that? Writing, of course.

     I embarked on that crusade. I’ve had every door figuratively slammed in my face. Completely shut out.

     With a novel. 

     With screenplays.

     With memoirs.

     I don’t have what others want. 

     Want to read, that is. My guess is that it's a little to sugar-coated. The rah-rah cheerleader in me comes out. I don't shock just for the sake of shock. People will listen to me talk for hours. But the guardians of published writing appear to believe no one is interested in my stories. My life.

      I suppose I should be crippled by disappointment.

      Consumed by rage.

      Determined beyond measure.

      Obsessed to write, literally, this wrong.

     To please an editor or agent, if not an audience.

     None of that applies to me. Creating that drama would be fiction. It’s not part of life. My life. That’s what makes it, to this day, more interesting than anything I’ve ever read in a book.

     To most, I assume, it seems logical that writing and reading would be linked at their core. Yet writing is life in the moment, while reading is escaping the moment. At least your moment. Substituting a moment in my life for a moment in yours. The desire to do so is so foreign to me.

     I told you not to read this. You should be out living life instead reading a rant that is written, as I said, for me.

     This all started with my desire to actually write for a pinch about some books I actually have read recently. Trapped in the travel tunnel, waiting for flights to arrive and depart, hours in the air, I found time to read. I read biographies of Steve Jobs, Bill Walton and Phil Knight.

     Yes, they've done some amazing things in their lives. Nothing that would remotely interest me, or give me satisfaction. Still no, "I wish I was him" moments.

     No, more like, thank goodness I'm not like them.

    Great success, those books will tell you, comes at a great price. To a man they apologize to those closest to them. Their families. Their kids. Their soul mates. Their personal quests were at the top of their priority lists. Sad, but true. Some call that success. I call it tragedy.

    I wouldn't trade any of their successes for the relationship I have with my girls. Not for the honor of saying I changed the world through electronics. Not for the thrill of winning championships. Not for the ability to build stadiums in my honor.

    I told you not to read this.

   Go spend some time with your family.

     Get outdoors and let nature wash over you.

     Listen to the birds.

     Smell the flowers.

     Take off your shoes, and feel the Earth squish between your toes.

     Jump in a cold, crisp lake and feel every cell in your body scream IT'S GREAT TO BE ALIVE!!

    That's what I plan to do.

    But that's just who I am.

     Then I'll sit down and write about it.

     So go!

     Now!

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Once again, my Saturday Morning Blog will go on hiatus for the Summer because, well, you shouldn't be wasting your Saturday mornings reading my drivel ... See ya after Labor Day, when I break out everything white in my closet. Why? Heck, I'm a rebel, dontchyaknow!

The Amazing Human Spirit

Posted by johnnieraz on May 27, 2021 at 12:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Me and my mullet interviewing Clark Sheehan after his amazing breakaway victory. Copyright photo by John Rezell


EDITOR'S NOTE: My brother faces some challenging days ahead, so I thought I would revisit this excerpt from my book "A More Simple Time: How Cycling Saved My Soul" to remind him, and any others, about the amazing power of the human spirit.

By John Rezell

     Never again.

     Imagine hearing those words flowing from someone's mouth who you are programmed to believe — someone who supposedly holds the answers to so many of the secrets of the human body. It's as though Doctors spit out those words on a daily basis, these days becoming almost as common as the phrase "take two aspirin and call me in the morning."

      The average person puts a huge degree of faith in the words of a Doctor, at least in Western medicine. I can only wonder how many spirits have settled for less or began their countdown to the end of life as they know it after hearing such a phrase. Yet, the world is filled with contradictory evidence. No where is that drama of proving the establishment wrong more visible than the field of athletics.

      The average person may believe that athletes have a better chance of defying the odds because they are physically in much better shape than most. There is little doubt that has an influence. But most athletes share a trait that others can have — and can learn in a matter of seconds — that probably has a bigger influence on the outcome of a recovery. It's the ability to basically believe in yourself, believe in your body, and believe your inner voice. It is the ability to know that you hold the key to your destiny, and what some Doctor — or anyone for that matter — might say doesn't mean squat.

      Think of life as one massive experiment. Think about being a kid, and experimenting with a fly. You catch it, throw it against the wall, and see if it survives. If it does continue to wander around somewhat stunned, you up the ante. You yank off a leg, or a wing, then another, and another. And you see that the will to live, to continue, instilled deep inside every living thing. Cover a seed with a rock, and the plant emerges from the edge. Nip off a few leaves, and others appear.

      Everyone faces different challenges. Everyone tackles them differently. Here is a salute to another one of those I've had the honor of knowing, someone who knows the only voice to listen to is the one that screams from deep within.

     To know Clark Sheehan is to feel the unbridled human spirit. In a previous life he must have been a wild Mustang blazing through the wide open spaces of the American West. The zest for fun — read that as the powerful energy of life — that we all have as children has never subsided in Sheehan, not one bit. As a young man you can still see the boy who would run to the local bike shop in Boulder, Colorado, once, twice, sometimes three or more times a week, with a pocketful of a change. He would plop it on the counter as down payment for the bicycle of his dreams. He would ask how much more he needed to have before he could ride his magic steed. Then he'd go out and find a way to refill that pocket with change.

      Of all the sports I've covered, I believe the commitment to excel in cycling is second to none. The hours of training exceed anything, and nothing is as harsh or demanding on the body. It can be a deflating experience for the soul to some. To others, it is the fuel of life. Sheehan is one of those.

      I got to know Sheehan in my first few years covering cycling — first seeing him in that amazing Russian breakaway at Redlands — and always enjoyed the fevered pitch of our encounters. If you didn't leave a conversation with Sheehan wanting more out of yourself and life, you weren't paying attention.

      Because of that, the goosebumps on my neck were double and triple thick as I watched him ride off alone into the fog of a North Carolina mountain in May of 1995.

      Sheehan will proudly tell you that he grew up in Colorado with photos of top European cyclists hanging in his locker at school, dreaming of someday winning a major stage race with the panache and flair of Gianni Bugno or Laurent Fignon.

      "I'm a cycling junkie," Sheehan said, time and time again, always following it with his infectious giggle. "What can I say?"

      So when it came time to take a shot at his dream in the cold rain and fog just a half mile from the summit of Bull Gap during Stage 8 of the Tour DuPont, with the top sprinter in the world, Novell's Djamolodin Abdujaparov, covering his every move, Sheehan attacked with every ounce he could muster.

     "I knew I had to attack before the top of the climb," Sheehan said. "After that, I just gave it everything I had."

      Nine miles later, Sheehan slipped across the finish line alone, a mere seven seconds ahead of second-place Andrei Teteriok of AKI-Gipiemme, a paltry 10 seconds ahead of third place Laurent Madouas of Castorama and a precious 19 seconds ahead of the charging chase group of eight. He collapsed into the arms of his wife, Sandy, and one can't even begin to imagine the thoughts that flooded their minds and overflowed their eyes with tears.

      The cycling historian in Sheehan knew he had become the first American other than Lance Armstrong to win a stage at DuPont since 1993. He also knew the 115 miles he spent away from the field was the longest successful breakaway in DuPont history.

      Sheehan wiped some tears away from his eyes after his endearing hug, threw his head backward, burst into a wide smile and stuck his tongue out like a tired puppy.

     "Oh my gosh," Sheehan said, his voice cracking with his contagious youthful enthusiasm. "This is unbelievable. Finally the finish line came! It took forever!"

     The same could be said of Sheehan's comeback from a near crippling injury in February 1993.

     Sheehan suffered the worst injuries of a dozen cyclists hit by a drunk driver during the Tour of Mexico. Trapped between two crumpled vehicles, Sheehan had a compression fracture of three vertebrae.

     Doctors said he would never race a bicycle again.

     "Yeah, right," Sheehan said basking in the glow of success in Asheville. He would pause and look at the crowd, the banners, the vendors, the sky. He would listen to the cheers, the P.A. announcers, the honking horns. He savored the moment like someone who knows just how precious each breath of life can be.

      Just 12 miles into the 127-mile stage that included four major climbs, Sheehan, Abdujaparov and Ukraine's Anatoli Chubar escaped from the field. The experts picked this as one of those throw-away days of a tour. The day before the back-breaker to Beech Mountain. Perfect for someone willing to take a risk.

      Chubar dropped on the first climb, but Abdujaparov stayed with Sheehan for all but the final nine miles. All in all, Sheehan spent five hours and 20 minutes riding on a breakaway. The duo's biggest lead was 15:30, at just after the mid-point of the race.

     I spent the day covering the stage in a car with Steve Brunner, the media director for the Tour DuPont. Without the usual banter in the press van, there was more time to just sit and soak in the experience. Five hours. That's a long, long time to wonder what the rest of your competition is thinking. That's 300 minutes to wonder if you made a move of a lifetime, or a silly mistake that you'll have to explain to reporters afterward, and debate in your mind for, who knows, maybe forever? In the thick fog of the mountains, you could only imagine what was going through Sheehan's head, over and over.

     To the layman, a 15-minute lead may seem like an eternity. A true eternity is how time slows when that lead begins to disappear in chunks too quick to fathom. The chase was magnificent. First the main group cranked it up. Then an assault group launched like interceptor missiles. Up and down the mountains, Sheehan had to wonder as the time gaps vanished. Are the chasers still that strong? Or am I now that weak? In cycling there is an adage, "out of sight, out of mind." When Sheehan went way up the road and disappeared, the group may have forgotten about him. With the finish fast approaching, the small chase group smelled blood in the water — the chance to steal away a stage win from a tiring rider. They came oh, oh, so close to catching him. They could see him on the finishing straightaway. Imagine, five hours out there, and winning by seven seconds.

     One-one-thousand.

     Two-one-thousand.

     Three-one-thousand.

     Four-one-thousand.

     Five-one-thousand.

     Six-one-thousand.

     Seven-one-thousand.

     That's it, that's all. The difference between a dream and a nightmare.

    "I just wanted to go for it," Sheehan said. "It's like a dream come true. Abdu, he's incredible. It was like living a dream, spending all day with one of the best racers in the world. I just don't know what to say."

     Just then Montgomery Securites president Tom Weisel appeared. Weisel, owner of the Montgomery-Bell team, had promised a free ride in his Ferrari to any DuPont stage winner earlier in the year. Sheehan smiled when he saw Weisel, and laughed, "Where are the keys?"

END EXCERPT


 

Tales from the Ridgely Files

Posted by johnnieraz on May 22, 2021 at 1:40 AM Comments comments (4)

By John Rezell

     As the tear flow subsides following the loss of our family black lab Ridgely, more stories spring to mind in the celebration of one amazing life of a dog.

     One morning we headed up Foley Ridge Road from Highway 126 in search of the Rainbow Falls trail. We hit intermittent snowdrifts and eventually were stopped by a Honda van stuck in the snow. After helping them out, Ridgely and continued hiking up the snow packed road.

     The snow was deep quickly, and having noted on my last snow-road hike that a few feet into the forest, there seemed to be little snow, Ridgely and I opted for some bushwhacking.

     As we worked to stay parallel to the road, it dawned on me that I had a grand opportunity here, the chance to get really off the beaten trail for a change of pace. A little research on how to navigate through the forest seemed like a great exercise for the day.

     So I began to wander a little bit off course, on purpose, leaving behind plenty of markers of various types to make certain I could find my way back again. At least that was the plan.

     Eventually we intersected another forest road, one much less traveled, so we followed it for a while. When the snow got deep, we dipped into the forest, but stayed on track with the road all the way to its end.

     At its conclusion, I could hear the roar of the river in the valley, and could only wonder if a viewpoint to Rainbow Falls might be somewhere not too far away. After constructing a plan of action in my head, we went for it.

     First off, we followed a pretty well-worn deer trail that skirted the edge of the ravine. Again, I made it a point to leave plenty of markers for my return trip.

     After a while, it became apparent that we'd have to descend sooner or later, so, with another trail slipping down the side and huge downed fir to point us in that direction, we plotted a course and went for it.

     Not far down, I realized it was time for a review. Better make sure I know how to find my markers, since this became more challenging than paralleling a road.

     That's when I realized how quickly everything could start looking the same. I told Ridgely, time to head back. As I turned around, my nearly 2-year-old black lab marched to the front, crouched her head, stuck her nose toward the ground, and began trudging up the hill. I laughed to myself that I'd never thought to test her. Instead, she just decided to show off.

     I hiked in amazement as she twisted, and turned, up and down, over logs, slip through trees, leading me on a journey past all my markers. We made it back to the road, then made another dive down the valley, which Ridgely led me out of like nothing.

     All the way back, I'd just stop and let her lead. Even after some crazy snow frolicking, she got back on trail. She took me back to the truck, and left me know that I have a super valuable asset at my side on every hike.

      Ridgely's greatest asset for me was my fear barometer. That is, I never worried about anything in the woods until Ridgely did. If she freaked, that was time to respond.

     One day I decided to throw together a last second workout hike. With time a wasting, I hit the Eula Ridge trail off of Highway 58, just east of mile post 24 across from Lookout Point Lake.

    I picked Eula Ridge for two simple reasons: First, it offers a good workout no matter how far you hike on it and, second, I lost the top of my knife handle up there somewhere on my first hike a few weeks earlier.

    In my haste to hit the trail, I left my walking stick behind. Normally that wouldn't be a problem, but nothing about this hike would prove to be normal. It was hardly a bland rerun.

     A walking stick comes in handy on the steep grades of Eula Ridge, but to be honest, if you're hiking alone in the woods, a walking stick represents more than an occasional crutch.

     I ripped through the early switchbacks, and hit a portion of the trail where it levels off a bit and marches through a battery of downed trees. Here the forest looks more like a battlezone than anything.

     Some storm wreaked havoc here sometime not so long ago, since large trees criss-cross the path in areas that others have been cleared by someone yielding a chainsaw rather recently.

     For most of the first hour, it was nothing more than another hike. Then came one of those fresh thoughts that stopped me dead in my tracks.

     It wasn't so much a hunch, than a demand. I needed to get myself a replacement walking stick.

     NOW!

     I looked around the debris everywhere, and found a nice sturdy stick. But before I resumed my hike, another overwhelming message arrived.

     I need to sharpen the end of that stick, I was convinced, because I might need it to defend myself.

     These are not the types of thoughts one welcomes deep in the woods but again, I'm not totally alone. I had my year-old black lab Ridgely at my side. And you know the Ridgely Rule, I don't freak until she freaks.

     Ridgely frolicked about as I sharpened the stick. Then, I heard it. A noise I heard on my first Eula Ridge hike, that I'd forgotten about. A noise I heard up past the wooden sign nailed on a tree in tribute to "Wendy the wonder dog last seen 4-1-92."

     A noise that makes the hair on your neck leap to attention.

     It's a sound that could remind you of a woodpecker thumping on a hollow tree, yet to make such a loud noise that echoes through the woods, it would have to be one big woodpecker and one huge, hollow tree.

     It almost has a clicking texture to it, but it also sounds as though it could be a guttural growl slowed down to a very deliberate pace.

     In either case, it came from the direction we were heading. Unlike previous noises we've discussed here, Ridgely heard it. Without a doubt. But didn't seem too bothered by it, so we continued.

      I started counting, I heard it, counted to 22, heard it again, then counted to 16, then 12, then 10, then it got louder. A lot louder.

      We ducked under a tree blocking the trail, and it was very loud. Ridgely started jumping around and looking up the trail. It was time to turn around.

      We started making our exit, got back under the tree, and heard it one last time — this time up a couple octaves in pitch.

      Thinking it might be a mountain lion, we didn't run, although much of my essence had the urge to. We hiked down for about 20 minutes, with the tension winding down. Then, suddenly, a chill over took me.

     Something tweaked my senses somehow. I've never been so frightened in the forest before. I hiked the final 30 minutes with my knife drawn in one hand, my sharpened stick in the other and Ridgely close at my side.

     I could write a book on all our adventures. There are only a handful of trails in Oregon that I've hiked WITHOUT Ridgely because dogs weren't allowed. Other than that, biking and hiking, she's been by my side on them all. From here on, she'll still be right there in spirit.

An Adventure Ends

Posted by johnnieraz on May 14, 2021 at 9:55 PM Comments comments (2)


By John Rezell

      Oh yeah, and there was that time we found a hidden away lake in Northern California, the one only the locals know about. Yep, the one with the rock to jump off and the rope swing. She didn't want to jump. She actually whined and cried about it, sitting on top of that rock.

     Of course, that only made us all laugh, and that certainly didn't sit well with her. We hurt her pride. In her so typical Ridgely way she decided actions speak better than barks. You want me to jump? Oh, I'll jump like you'll never forget.

     She took our breath away. It wasn't the first time, and certainly not the last.

     I dug out 135 photos of Ridgely in our archives. You watch them like a slideshow and wonder who gets to live such a wild and adventurous life?

     You know, that time she followed Tommy and me around Waldo Lake, all 28 miles of it. Heck, we were on bikes and it was a killer day. She loved every minute of it.

      Like all those times she just decided to go out for a swim. Paddle out a ways, in a circle, and come back in. Shake like it was nothing.

     And that time I asked her to get us outta the forest and she turned and walked the exact path we took to get in.

     And the time she found the elk antlers.

     When she chased the bear cause he was 100 yards away.

     Heck, just Tuesday when she chased a wild turkey, who was freaking out because we stumbled on her chicks in the grass.

     Hard to believe that was just a few days ago.

     And it's been almost 15 years with Ridgely.

     It's a tough Saturday morning. We put Ridgely down Friday.

     She was the athlete I always wished I could be.

     I just know one thing: If reincarnation is real, I want to come back as Ridgely's dog.

 

The Beauty of Dog Years

Posted by johnnieraz on May 8, 2021 at 4:15 PM Comments comments (30)

By John Rezell

     I’ve often wondered about the concept of dog years, although never enough to actually research how or why we multiply an earthly number of years by seven to understand how old our canine companions might be.

     I never found need to do the math early in my black lab Ridgely’s life, relying instead on a simple visual evaluation.

     Once she appeared to be big enough to handle hiking with me, she came along. When it looked like she would be able to hang with me biking, she came for those outings, too.

      The first time I calculated her dog age — when she turned eight — I was blown away that she managed to continue to run wild like she had done at age two. Hmmm, a 56-year-old bounding through the forest like a 14-year-old. Impressive.

     Eventually I became the first to slow a bit. Super long hikes and bike rides were replaced by shorter ones, along with more time soaking in the experience rather than blazing to the finish.

     At 10, er, 70 years old, I’d look at Ridgely’s patches of gray hair and hope I’ll have that kind of vigor when I hit her golden age.

     Ridgely cruised to age 11, occasionally beginning to hesitate before leaping into the back of the Santa Fe. Her spirit wanted to, but her body questioned it. Eventually she always jumped in.

     Now she’s almost 15, er, 105. She still wants to hit the woods as often as possible. But once there, she doesn’t have the zip she used to. We take it easy. I get her out for her walks, and leave the longer, tougher hikes to myself.

    On those lone journeys now, I think about the outdoor adventures we’ve shared over the past 15 years.

    She has enriched my life exponentially.

    Heck, times seven?

    Hardly.

    More like a thousand-fold.

 

The Essence of the Ride

Posted by johnnieraz on May 8, 2021 at 1:45 AM Comments comments (0)

By John Rezell

     Some days the clouds appear to leap away from bright blue skies, demanding attention.

     Some days vibrant colors of stunning yellow mustard flowers, deep red clover or crystal white clover smother the fields to the horizon.

     Some days the cherry, peach, apple or hazelnut blossoms refuse to be ignored in endless groves lining the hills.

     Some days the flocks of geese command the skies; some days the lone flight of an eagle.

     Some days it’s deer.

     Some days turkeys.

     Some days it’s the lake.

     Some days the river.

     Some days it’s everything.

     Some days nothing.

     Everyday on my bike is a good day.

     Oh sure, back when this love affair began, it was always something — usually physical.

     Maybe the burn in my thighs.

     Maybe the gasps of air.

     It slowly evolved to my form.

     Relax my arms.

     Stretch my back.

     Pull on the upstroke.

     Rise out of the saddle.

     Eventually it morphed to therapy sessions — primarily mental.

     Maybe that story writing itself in my mind.

     Maybe plotting to meet that looming deadline.

     Maybe debating that job offer.

     Then? Then somewhere, sometime, it transcended to become part of me. Part of my essence.

     Some days it unfolds organically, and I’ll not realize it until I’m an hour into my ride that I’ve decided to ride today.

     Some days it requires a debate that seems to always end with a softer more gentle way of saying Just Do It.

     Everyone has a reason for riding.

     Mine is simple: It’s part of me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

M-M-My Generation

Posted by johnnieraz on May 1, 2021 at 1:20 AM Comments comments (33)


By John Rezell

      I've never felt old.

      Not when the first gray hair emerged.

      Not when my daughters turned 18 and 20.

      Not when I wake up with an ache or pain here and there ...

      Nor when I have to put on my glasses to read the not-so-small-print ...

      Nor when I have to say "What?" or "Huh?" or "Eh?" 50 to 100 times a day ...

      Not even when I woke up one morning and realized both my parents have passed away, ending a generation in our family forever.

      See that kid above? That's how I feel.

      I see the world through those same bright eyes.

      So many things to see, to touch, to hear and to learn. I can't wait to find out what's next.

      They say only the good die young. I say the good feel young when they die.

      They say life is too short. I say life is too long not to savor the simple moments.

      They say a lot of things that I just don't get.

      Thing is, my view of life appears to be so totally different from them. I'm OK with that. It's their loss.

      The Greatest Generation. Baby Boomers. Gen X. Millennials.

      I hear the stereotypical complaints fired from one generation to the next. But I think we're all a lot more alike than different.

      As a journalist covering sports most of my life, I see the different approaches over the course of time.

      I see today how so many kids run away from organized sports screaming.

      Did you know that 75% of kids quit playing organized sports by the time they are 13 years old? And we wonder why obesity seems to be the common bond for all generations of Americans.

      They quit around that age because that's when sports become a job rather than a joy. Parents and kids alike have visions of scholarships dancing in their heads. That's when they get down to business. Time to get serious. Time for the fun-lovers to leave.

      The money we dish out for this madness is crazy. I literally paid thousands of dollars to have two clueless coaches destroy my daughter's love of volleyball. It was painful to watch. Those coaches never batted an eye.

      While those coaches were screaming figuratively for their players to grow up, they were the ones who needed to do that.

      There is a lot one can do with a life. But if life isn't fun, then what's the point?

      I see a collection of generations scratching their heads, wondering what the hell is wrong with kids today. They'd rather be skateboarding or riding their bikes or playing video games than spending a few hours each day at practice with coaches orchestrating their every move.

      What we need is a new perspective on coaching and teaching. Have you ever watched those kids who spend all day with their skateboards and bikes and, yes, video games? They push their limits beyond what most crazy coaches would dare. They work on a trick for hours, days, weeks, months and yes, sometimes years — undaunted and seemingly never devastated by a setback, or two, or 10.

      They crash. They hurt. They dust themselves off and do it again. On their own. Until they get it.

      They don't need a coach telling them what to do or how to do it. They don't need someone reminded them of mistakes and how to correct them. They learn the way humans have learned forever. By experimenting. And that's where the fun lives.

       If I were a youth coach of, let's say for example, soccer. I would take my team to a local high school or college game to see how it is done. To see the excitement and thrill of playing. To hear the crowd.

       Then I'd go to the field and set up the goal. Throw each kid a soccer ball and say go out and play until you hear my whistle.

       I'd whistle near the end of practice, and just leave enough time for them to show each other what they learned.

       And if they didn't quite get it right, well, that's life.

       I wouldn't jump in and show them how it's done.

       I'd leave it up to them.

       They will find the fun.

       They will learn to live.

       And they might never feel old.



A Chapter Closes

Posted by johnnieraz on April 24, 2021 at 1:00 AM Comments comments (415)

      By John Rezell

      She hiked this trail many times before, enough that she knew where we usually dropped down to the shore for an icy plunge into the Little North Santiam River, or where a stream trickled down the mountainside for a quick drink, not to mention countless other features that escape my notice, yet interest her keen senses beyond my imagination.

      We hiked this trail in rain and snow and sun. But on this day she struggled up the steep climb and stumbled on slippery rocks in the stream. A gapping hole erupted inside my gut. Sierra sensed it immediately.

       “Are you crying?” Sierra asked. “Please, don’t get me started.”

       I sucked my emotions in and decided we would continue the short stint to the summit at her pace, at Ridgely’s pace. For that next five minutes our soon-to-be 13-year-old black lab showed her relentless heart, forging up the climb resisting the urges of her aging body.

      My mind flashed back to our first hikes with that little puppy, my grade school daughters Sierra and Taylor appearing as young and innocent as Ridgely. Today Ridgely gamely dug into the trail to keep pace with Sierra, now a young woman and recent college graduate.

      We reached the top and a tremendous view of the river valley spread below us as Ridgely danced to the edge as she always does. She turned to look at me and a flood of emotions washed over me like the stunning waterfall below.

      So many of life’s mysteries raced through my mind, like how you know when you’ve found your soul mate. The beauty, or possible curse, is that you just know. And, I knew.

      I knew at that moment this would be the last hike for Ridgely. This would be image of her that I’ll take to my grave, that will warm my heart on winter hikes and cool my soul each summer.

      Tears rained down my cheeks while Sierra dabbed her eyes. Ridgely, who seldom licks, lapped my tears away as if she, too, knew.

      We sat atop the ridge, Ridgely nuzzling my side, panting with her endless smile that she has carried through hundreds of hikes and bike rides, thousands of miles and millions of memories.

      Together we’ve explored Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Ridgely proved to be the athlete I never was. She would lead the way on mountain bike rides of four, five even six hours and attack five or six hours of hiking the next day with her effervescent spirit.

    

     We spent endless hours alone on a trail, our adventures beginning when I wrote a weekly outdoors column for The Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene, Oregon.

      We would hike or bike a couple of times during the week, find a trail to share with Debbie, Sierra and Taylor on the weekends, and then I’d write about it.

      We would cross paths with hikers who wouldn’t mention they recognized who I was, yet would look down and gush as they asked, “Is this Ridgely?”

      So many times I prepared for a day of leisure on the couch, only to be pestered until we were out on the trail. Oh, how she lives for the trail.

      For years my red hiking shirt ignited a frenzy. Most recently any mention of the world hike or walk sent her over the edge. So much so we had to spell those words in her presence. She would wait in the back of our SUV for hours, if necessary, until we hit the road.

      Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the end for Ridgely. I’m confident she still has plenty of years left, plenty of walks of easy logging roads, plenty of games of fetch, although they now end rather abruptly after a toss or two.

      This is just the closing of an epic chapter. One helluva mind-boggling chapter of Ridgely, who never found a trail she didn’t love.


Reviving the Soul

Posted by johnnieraz on April 17, 2021 at 12:00 PM Comments comments (5)

By John Rezell

     Warm rays of sunlight caress my cheeks with the sweet scent wafting off bright pink Plum buds, then swirling in my head as I pedal down along the Willamette River bike path.
     These sensory delights signal the change of season yet, until I see the Great Blue Heron high in the tree with its partner reclaiming its nest, I can't indulge myself with wistful thoughts of spring's arrival.
     Oregon's Willamette Valley bursts to life this time of the year, beginning with bright green stems of Daffodils poking through the earth before unleashing yellow explosions everywhere.


     One expects spring to sprinkle down upon us from the warming sun and heavens, yet it defies logic by ascending in the opposite direction from earth below. 
     Shortly after the Daffodils rise the Plums pop, quickly followed by white Magnolia and pink and white Dogwood.
     The process evolves slowly, like a symphony.
     The Great Blue Herons will have their nests prepared well in advance.
     Their chicks will hatch just as the green leaves begin to swallow the view alive until we are left with tiny windows to their home and the clicking sound of tiny beaks snapping together calling for breakfast fills the air.
     

     Instead of standing guard in the trees, the Great Blue Herons will be seen patiently wading in the river, ready to strike any fish that innocently swims within reach.
     Soon enough the Mallards will swim with a gang of fuzzy ducklings in their wake. The gangly gaggles of young geese -- reminding any man of his awkward adolescent years -- will graze in the grass under the watchful eye of their Canada Goose parents, who occasionally offer a menacing open beak and hiss as I roll past.
     With any luck, an Osprey will return to the nest that has been left abandoned for the past few years, and I'll feel compelled to put my ride on hold as I watch it patrol the river, soaking on warm spring breezes.
     It's a wonderful time to be here. And the curtain opens, as usual, with the Great Blue Heron.


      

My Quest is Simple

Posted by johnnieraz on April 10, 2021 at 3:35 AM Comments comments (0)

By John Rezell

      Somewhere along the line joy became my goal in life.

      Not fortune.

      Not fame.

      Simple joy.

      My life has been full of joy nearly nonstop since the day I graduated high school. I wouldn’t trade anything in my life since then — not that I necessarily would trade anything before that because I am the sum of my total life experiences.

      Good and bad.

      Yin and yang.

      I spend most of my days and nights in awe of the life I’ve enjoyed. I call myself an obsessive optimist, always finding the light and denying the dark. Maybe I’ve lived a life of denial and, if so, it has been a wonderful experience that I would recommend highly. Life can be what you want it to be. I want mine to be filled with joy and laughter. And, it is. It’s so by choice.

      Don’t misunderstand me. I’ve had my share of challenges, without question. I'm facing some right now. I’m sure a pessimist — who doesn’t even need be an obsessive pessimist — could pick apart my life and argue that I have little reason to feel joyful. That would be his or her loss, not mine. I just view my life through a different set of measures than most. Many things that keep others awake at night are not worth the time and energy to worry about, so I sleep like a baby.

     Our evolution from survivalists to greedy hoarders hasn't served us well. It seems that for so many individuals, no level of acquisition is ever enough, which I find rather odd since in my mind the only thing worth pursuing — happiness — has no degrees to it. You are either happy or not. You’re not more happier than just happy. And you can’t stockpile it, either.

     Nonetheless many continue to search for happiness in all the wrong manners. Believing that the proper acquisition of a material good or mass of goods will bring the elusive joy.

      What so many people fail to realize is the reality of America's obsession with success. Not simple modest everyday life successes, but extravagant successes. It's as if the simple American Dream of a modest house and a healthy family has been super-sized. The house is never big enough. Relationships are never satisfying enough. Health is vastly overrated until it falters.

     The urge to super-size has overblown America's emphasis on careers as the determination of your identity — of who you are. It blurs the real issue at hand. While it is fantastic if you can love what you do in your career from 9-to-5, true happiness is defined by who you are 5-to-9. In those hours away from your job, with your family, with yourself. That's what defines me.

     We often ask kids growing up the question: What do you want to be when you grow up?

     We seldom promote the answer: I want to be happy.

     A career, just like alcohol, drugs, sex or gambling, can be addictive.

     Career addiction can take over a life. You need more and more and more out of your career. Nothing will ever be enough. You're so addicted that you cannot see the damage you are doing to your family, even though you probably defend your actions by saying you are doing it for your family.  You leave before they wake up and return after they've gone to bed. You might as well have spent that time in a bar or casino.

     Just as parents want the best of everything for their children, children want everything for their parents. One can define that "everything" in a number of manners. I just prefer to define it as happiness

     And ask me who I am? I'm a Dad.

OK, You Asked for It

Posted by johnnieraz on April 3, 2021 at 3:00 AM Comments comments (2)

Editor's Note: So listen, it goes like this: An author offers an excerpt from a book so readers get excited about it and buy the book — not so readers get intrigued and email for said author to share more for free. But hey, I know, it has been a rough year or so, and if you haven't bought my book by now chances are slim I can find any way to change that. So, as requested by more than one avid reader/not-book-buyer/friend and/or family, here's the last day and a half of my San Francisco to San Diego bike ride (and if you want days 2-6, well, you just have to buy the book).


By John Rezell

     I didn't have a goal to start day 6, but as it wore on near 4 p.m., my goal became obvious. Make it past LAX before dark. I didn't want to start the morning trying to negotiate around one of the world's busiest airports. I've ridden around the airport before and I wouldn't suggest it on my worst enemy. I should have stayed along the coast through Playa del Rey, but NO! That would have tacked on another 5 miles or so. Instead, the course I took probably tacked on 15-20 miles. I've ridden in some heavy traffic areas, but suddenly I found myself being swallowed alive by traffic. Right near LAX, Highway 1 is Sepulveda Boulevard, which is famous to anyone who ever stayed up late listening to Johnny Carson tell jokes about Southern California.

      I confidently hammered south when I realized that the road morphed into four lanes of traffic and not much of a shoulder. That's when I noticed an entrance ramp to my right, and that disheartening sign prohibiting bicycles. I made a quick dash up the concrete embankment, not waiting for the next exit. I didn't want any part of this freeway business. I got to the top and headed south down another road. At the end I saw a toll booth, as if it was a LAX parking lot or something. I figured the attendant could help me out.

      As I approached the empty booth, a huge 747 jet taxied behind the booth, just 100 yards in front of me. Close enough to see the eyes of the co-pilot pop when he saw me. I almost took a turn onto the LAX runway! Seriously lost, I turned around, and found myself at the end of the terminal, looking down at a long string of taxis being filled by passengers carrying suitcases. I spent most of the next hour riding on the sidewalks, trying to find my way back to the coast. Eventually I made it, and bedded down in Hermosa Beach for the night. I found a motel with a kitchenette, so I was ready to pig out. I took a shower and started to head out to the grocery, first checking the mirror. Six days of riding gave me a raccoon tan, my eyes white from my sunglasses. Two days of growth on my beard. I knew I was going to be hassled by the cops for loitering. I could see myself heading down to the clink for being homeless. I decided not to spend a lot of time outside.

      I got back to the motel, made a huge course of spaghetti and garlic bread, and hit the sack. I woke up about 9 (having passed out around 7) and went out for peanut butter and jelly. That finally filled me up, and I passed out for the night.

******

      There was little doubt I had just one day of riding left, no matter how far I made it. From the moment I climbed on my bike in the morning my uncomfortable butt and sore knee made it obvious that wherever I ended today would be it, even if it meant having Debbie come rescue me. I did my best to ignore the pain that steadily increased in my knee. It hurt the last half of the day Monday with Jeff and Dan. It hurt most of yesterday, fading in and out of my attention span.

      The first business of the day felt uplifting. I couldn't carry the peanut butter, jelly, cheese and bread with me, so I went in search of someone looking for food. I found him sitting on a bench in a park in Redondo Beach. This ritual coincided with returning to Southern California. For the past six days there was nary a sight of a homeless person. It took less than five minutes to find my first of the morning. After a while it’s easy to become immune to the homeless, which is a sad fact of life in Southern California.

      The moderate climate and some of the highest benefits in the US draw them to San Diego. I know because I helped Pop write a term paper on the subject. We spent a day touring the streets of San Diego with a camera in hand, interviewing the homeless, learning first hand the hopelessness they endure each day.

      Their life is a Catch 22. To get out they need to get a job. To get a job, they need to have an address. The scariest thought is that there is no turning back. There were men we talked to who spent their last pennies traveling to San Diego thinking life would be better here. When they found it was just as bad, possibly worse than where they came, there was no money to go back.

      The saddest part was seeing the shame in their faces and hearing what little bit of pride they had left as they explained how special it made them feel to have someone actually talk to them for a change instead of turning the other way. It pains me to say so, but I have turned my head on occasion. The truth is, you could go poor giving each homeless person a dollar any time you pass one. In any event, I made one man happy for one day and I'm sure he shared the wealth of food with his friends.

      That didn't do anything to alleviate the pain in my knee. I took a couple of Advil and resigned myself to an easy, slow pace, figuring the moment it got to be too painful I'd just stop right there and wait for a ride. By focusing all my attention on my knee the first hour I made a critical error. I got lost on the Palos Verdes peninsula. Then I hit a detour and had two choices. Ride straight uphill over the peak of the peninsula or turn around and make a 10-mile detour around it, with no guarantee that the detour wasn't just as hilly. Up the hill I went. Then down the hill I went.

       That left me smack in the kind of neighborhood most people say you should try to avoid in LA, an ethnic neighborhood near Long Beach. When I have my druthers, I prefer Hispanic neighborhoods because there is a family air around them. I'm sure they give people like me a false sense of security, but when I see kids running around the neighborhood with mothers and fathers, I feel safe. Strange thing is, you don't even see kids out in the nicer neighborhoods in Southern California unless they are Hispanic barrios. Go figure.

       In any event, I was in an area that I really shouldn't be in, so I had to pick up the pace a bit, not an easy task on a sore knee. I made it to the beach and Long Beach, which meant a nice breakfast. It also meant about 70 miles remaining to Carlsbad, most of it along the beach. That I can handle.

      There's something about the Pacific Ocean that brings out the best in me. Maybe it's the large body I water I needed to replace Lake Michigan, having grown up in Milwaukee among the Great Lakes. I believe I lived in California in another life. Too many things here seem familiar and comfortable at such a deep level. Still, whenever I need to be motivated, all I need is a walk along the beach and before I know it, I'm practically running home to get going on my latest project. That feeling returned particularly strong as I hit the areas I've ridden before, along Huntington Beach, through Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and San Clemente. It's a little scary, but once I reached Dana Point, I knew I had 40 miles remaining, and my attitude was simple: I did it, the ride is over.

      I cruised through San Clemente and Camp Pendleton as I have hundreds of times in the past eight years, but this time, instead of dreaming of someday riding a long tour down the coast, I clicked through a flood of memories of the past week. Somehow I forgot about my knee and I felt as though I'd been riding seven minutes, not seven hours. Before I reached San Clemente my mind turned into silly putty again. I coasted down a hill, leaning to the side to keep my rear off the seat because it felt as though my shorts were filled with broken glass. I kept the pressure off my right knee, leaning heavily on the left. My mind thought, "I guess we should try to match our usual time from San Clemente to Carlsbad."

      Never mind that any other occasion is the second half of a 60-70 mile ride and this was the end of a 600-700 mile ride. Then I looked down at how I positioned my ass on my bike and laughed. Just making it would suffice. When I cruised into Carlsbad just five minutes off my fastest time, I realized the adrenaline rush pumping through my body.

      It felt like coming home after being away for years. Sights that were mundane scenery a few days ago took on new life. The sun shining brightly. The ocean glowing. Life was grand. I stopped along the beach and looked out over the same stretch of sand that has drawn me here over the years, the same parcel where I wondered what our future out here would hold, whether or not we had made a good decision or a poor one coming here in the first place. As usual, the answer from within sizzled with obvious affirmation.

      I found a retired couple standing a few feet away, enjoying the view. I asked if they'd watch my bike while I jumped in for a quick dip. I explained I hit the climax of a week of riding, and they agreed, looking more surprised at my proposal than my accomplishment. The water felt warm and refreshing. I looked around at the dozens of surfers bobbing in the water, the herd of tourists walking along the beach and I realized none of them knew or cared about explosions of fireworks popping in my stomach and head. Just another day in paradise. Life goes on. The only difference is there's one less goal on my list, which makes room for a new one.

A Tribute to Those Who Changed My Life

Posted by johnnieraz on March 27, 2021 at 3:00 AM Comments comments (3)

By John Rezell

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an excerpt from the opening chapter of my book "A More Simple Time: How Cycling Saved My Soul."  Just why did my soul need saving? When Hank Gathers died on the basketball court on March 4, 1990 it shook me to my core. I knew Hank quite well from covering him for two years and spending a lot of time interviewing him for an indepth feature I wrote for The Orange County Register

BEGIN EXCERPT

     I wrote a feature on Gathers almost one year to the day before he died. I shared his amazing story with thousands of readers. It was the greatest story I had written, on a multitude of levels. Most of all, for me, the story of Hank Gathers represented hope and confirmation of the one element of covering sports that drove me on and on and on: Dreams do come true.

     You see, Hank grew up in North Philadelphia, where everyone goes into an eerie hibernation in the cold, desperate winters. The vigor of the ghetto that thrives under the summer sun disappears.

     Father Dave Hagen described the scene outside the window of his North Philly row house on a February afternoon when we spoke. "This is the pits. The buildings are falling down. There are probably 22,000 abandoned units around here. The whole place is just falling apart. Each year it gets older, and worse."

     Across the street from Hagen's house sit the asphalt courts of Franklin Douglas School. On that cold day a handful of kids shoot hoops. It's nowhere near the turnout of crowds that emerge when the weather warms up. Many kids spend winter days at school. Why? Simple. It's a warm place to stay.

    "There's always someone playing basketball," Father Hagen said, "that never changes."

     Hank found an escape from the hopelessness of the slums at Father Hagen's house and on those Douglas School courts. Basketball forged the ambition and ammunition he relied on to escape North Philly.

     "When I was growing up, if I wasn't at home, I was either at Father Dave's house or across the street playing basketball," Hank told me in one of a series of interviews. "Father Dave's house was like a little island. It was a place to hide from the rest of the neighborhood. If you were with Father Dave, nobody messed with you."

     Hank grew up in the Raymond Rose Housing Project, a circle of 13-story apartment buildings that tower over the blocks of older, beaten down row houses. In the projects, the elevators seldom work and the dark, trash-littered stairways reek of urine.

     "In the winter, I don't know where they all go," Father Hagen said of the locals. "The scary day is the first warm day of spring when everyone comes out again and the streets are buzzing. It's a creepy feeling, wondering where they have been all these months."

     A culture shock, not to mention three time zones, away in Los Angeles, the winter was neither quiet nor cold for Hank. Interviews and photo sessions kept him busy off the court when he wasn't earning them on the court.

     I watched as the 6-foot-7 junior center, led the nation in scoring at 33.5 points a game and rebounding with 13.7 per game. He provided the spark and the fuel for the highest scoring team in NCAA history. While he bathed in the sunlight and spotlight, he never forgot his roots, those folks back home, and those chilling winters.

     "Raymond Rose is just a bad place," Hank said, shaking his head and rolling a long draw on the word bad for emphasis. "It's the slums. It's not one thing; it's everything. I remember growing up just thinking that there had to be something more than all this.

     "It's not a great place to grow up, but I have great memories. I loved my childhood there. I have a lot of friends there. It's important to remember where you came from."

     Even more important to remember the people..

     Although North Philly was decaying, a spirit survives in those special individuals who refuse to let the place tear them down. Hank couldn't talk enough about the people who helped fire his drive to get out and do better,. People who were still back there gazing out their windows.

     "It's just starting to snow right now," Gathers' mother, Lucille, said, looking out the window of her row house just down the block from Raymond Rose where she raised three sons in a small apartment on the ground floor. "The snow makes it look a little nicer for a while. But this is a tough place."

     Lucille competed against the overriding influence on most kids when Hank was growing up — gangs and turf wars. She watched those wars eventually be replaced by drug-induced apathy that permeates North Philly.

     "You almost can't not be in trouble," said Father Hagen, then 50, a priest, former basketball coach at St. Elizabeth and close friend of the Gathers family. "It's nearly impossible to live here without being influenced by everyone else."

     Impossible without a mother such as Lucille Gathers and a friend such as Father Hagen around.

     "It was tough on my Mom," said Hank, sounding like a 21-year-old going on 40. "Looking back I realize how tough it was raising three kids in the projects, where the kids can be so bad that it's a miracle if you can get out of the neighborhood."

     Lucille Gathers wouldn't tolerate apathy from her sons Hank, then 21, Derrick, 20 (who played at Cal State Northridge) and Charles, 19, (who played at Keystone Junior College in LaPlume, PA). They lived under her constant vigil.

     "Hank says I was overprotective," said Lucille, 42, who worked in general services at a hospital as she has for years. "Sometimes, I guess I was, but it was for his own good."

     She was a single parent just as her mother had been, one of the legacies and realities, she said, of life the ghetto. Gathers' father was an alcoholic who stayed away, according to Lucille. She didn't have a lot to offer, but what she had, she gave.

     "You wouldn't do anything bad because if you did, you'd have to answer to her," Hank said.

     Said Lucille, "Hank never did like spankings."

     As an adult, Hank became the one who dishes out punishment. On the court, his wrath is unleashed on opponents who try to deny him his specialty: rebounds. If you asked Hank, he would say that he led the nation in scoring simply because, "If you shoot enough, it isn't hard to score 30 points per game."

     He led the nation in rebounding because it reflects his life, his struggle, and his personality.

     "Rebounding is from the heart," Hank said proudly, his beaming smile bursting across his face while his eyes blaze. "There's really no half-stepping in terms of rebounding."

     Half-stepping isn't Hank's style, not his way. His chiseled body: thick chest, bulging biceps and powerful legs show off evidence of his greatest asset, which pounds feverishly under his shirt.

     "His personality is one of tireless effort," Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead said. "Nothing is ever enough. He wants to be in every play. He wants to take every shot. He wants to rebound every miss. He's like a kid in the candy shop, you let him in and he wants it all. He's an upbeat, aggressive person."

     He molded his style on the courts at Douglas School, where Hank said he would sometimes fight for his chance to play and sometimes cry when the opportunity didn't come.

     A chance was all he wanted.

     "What I like best about Philadelphia ball is they respect your reputation, but once they throw the ball up on the court they come right at you," Hank said. "You have to prove yourself every time you play."

     That means pouring out his essence whenever he steps on a court.

     "I would probably describe myself as being very dependable, independent," Hank said. "I'm witty. I'm caring. I carry all that onto the basketball court.

     "The thing about the projects is that if you are an athlete, everyone leaves you alone. They respect you and leave you be. That's something I respect about the projects."

     Hank concentrated on basketball, playing for Father Hagen at St. Elizabeth. Later, he starred at Dobbins Tech with teammate Bo Kimble. They both went to USC as freshmen. At the end of that season, coach Stan Morrison was fired. Gathers and Kimble saw their scholarships taken away, so they both transferred to Loyola Marymount.

     They led Loyola Marymount to its best record (28-4) and an NCAA tournament berth in their sophomore years. Hank garnered gaudy statistics and raised enough attention that many wondered whether or not he would leave school early for the NBA draft, where he was considered a sure-fire first round pick.

     Lucille Gathers wanted Hank to stay in school. At that time she was taking night courses with hopes to begin college herself the next fall. Her influence wasn't lost on Hank.

     "Right now I'm about 60-40 to stay because I put a lot of work into school and it wasn't easy to find discipline within myself to do schoolwork," Hank said, adding that his ability to work through college classes is a source of pride. Something he never thought he would be able to do.

     Just like his mother, he would like to be a strong parental example for the kids who read about him from clippings hanging in the window at Izzy's corner store. And, for his 5-year-old son Aaron, who lives down the street from Lucille Gathers with his mother.

     "It's important to me that I go back and teach the kids there now what I learned," Hank said.

     Fathering Aaron at the age of 16 was one of Hank's' toughest lessons.

     "I made a big mistake and it was hard," Hank said. "The worst part was I thought I'd have to give up basketball, but my mother stepped in and said we'd find a way to get through it."

     Aaron is raised by his mother, but Father Hagen and Lucille keep a close eye on him.

     "Whenever I call anyone back there the first thing I ask is, 'How's Aaron?' " Hank said, his bright eyes firing up to another level of brightness when he speaks of his son.

     Hank wonders about the future. If he has the means, he might be tempted to pull Aaron out of the projects. He leans toward keeping him there.

     "I guess it's tougher there now," Hank said. "But I made it out. I might keep him there, but keep a close eye on him and not let him get into trouble. There's a lot to learn there."

      The biggest lesson Hank learned is one he never forgets.

     "If you can get out of Raymond Rose Projects," Hank said, "you can accomplish anything you want."

     When Hank told me that line, we were sitting alone on the bleachers in the practice gym. No one else around. He took a deep breath and paused. He looked out at the empty floor and squeezed the basketball rolling around in his huge hands. Then he repeated it again, just a little quieter. And one more time, just barely audible, he simply said, "Anything."

     It had been years since someone reintroduced the magic of sports back into my life. The magic that sparked the flames of possibilities over and over and over again in my childhood growing up in Wisconsin.

     Magical moments like Bart Starr sneaking his way to put the finishing touches on the Lombardian Legend for the Green Bay Packers. Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson somehow coming together in Milwaukee, of all places, to give two legends — one rising, one fading — a championship for the ages with the Bucks.

     There was Oregon’s All-American runner, Steve Prefontaine, coming into my life through the magnificent prose of Kenny Moore in the pages of Sports Illustrated, and leaving it just as abruptly. And, of course, Marquette’s Al McGuire and his scintillating farewell trip to his NCAA Championship, part of which I got to witness through my own, teary, eyes.

     Those events and those incredible larger-than-life personalities seemed gone forever. Their imprints in my mind slowly had been buried, if not erased — worn down by the egomaniacs who have taken sports hostage as they demand compensation and public reverence for their God-given talents.

     I fought hard to keep that cynicism out of my writing and out of my life. It isn't easy when your job brings you up-close-and-far-too-personal with the jerks who make up most of professional sports.

END EXCERPT

FINAL NOTE: The story I wrote prompted the greatest compliment I ever received for a piece. The copy editor called me immediately and told me how good the story was. That was great and all, but what happened next made it the best. He said there was one problem: I didn't include the dateline, should it be Philadelphia or North Philadelphia? I said neither. I never went to Philly, and garnered all that material through telephone interviews. He was blown away. Now, the rest of the story. I was pissed when they refused to send me to Philly to research this story. That's when a great friend and even greater editor, Robin Romano, stepped in. Robin challenged me to find a way to make the story everything it should be. Robin had an amazing gift to know how to push someone to the next level. She taught me with this story that being creative is more than writing a clever line. Creativity is finding a way to use all your talents to rise above and deliver. We lost Robin much, much too soon. She changed my life.



Blinding Comfort Memories

Posted by johnnieraz on March 20, 2021 at 3:20 AM Comments comments (0)

    

By John Rezell

     Nostalgia appears to be rampant during these days of Covid, those of us born of a once dynamic and inspirational generation somehow losing that fire in our eyes that thankfully has been rekindled recently in the eyes of America's Millenials who are hellbent on guaranteeing that we don't return to those "Good Ol' Days."

     Selective recall of comfort memories — much like comfort foods — ease our frustrations each day and somewhat blind us.

     Technology moving humanity forward at a dizzyingly fervent pace that we dreamed would have landed a man on Mars by now find Baby Boomers falling farther behind the pulse of modern life, our smartphones purchased way, way back in 2016 screaming to Millennials just how out of touch we are. How much we need to get with the times.

     We huddle in groups on Facebook and other Social Media much the way we did in the safety of our neighborhood tree forts or playgrounds, reminiscing about the arrival of daily life-altering inventions like color TVs, touch-tone phones and electric typewriters, or dietary game-changers like 15-cent hamburgers, margarine, TV dinners and diet soda.

     We recall how we could chug a glass of Nestle's Quik Chocolate milk and devour a bowl of Captain Crunch or Super Sugar Crisp in nanoseconds after school, and bolt out the door only to return hours later to sit down to a home-cooked family dinner each night to rehash the events of the day with Mom and Dad both in their first and only marriage.

      We were unaware that the buddies we envied who skipped dinner and stayed out well into the night only did so to avoid going home to inebriated parents who beat the hell out of them or took advantage of them sexually, sometimes depending on the gender, sometimes not.

     We seem to forget that after dinner we would rush back outside while our parents watched the evening news filled with story after story of struggle, frustration and mayhem smothering our nation in those turbulent decades of the ‘60s and '70s. Rioting for Civil Rights, violent protesting of wars and corrupt government, bombings throughout America a daily occurrence.

     We held our breath when our older brothers turned 18 and received their draft card in the mail. We said goodbye to older guys we adored as heroes dressed in uniform with clean crew cut hair, who would woo us with tales of their daily adventures, only to see them return in shambles with long hair and beards never to mumble a peep about their latest experiences.

     Depending on how much your parents shared, you could be immune to nearly all of it, aside from the Atomic Bomb drills at school when you silently marched to the basement in utter terror wondering how covering your head with your hands might save you from the humongous mushroom cloud you've just saw on the Civil Defense Drill film.

     You could drive through town standing in the back of your station wagon looking down at your city's river, its water a disgusting color that was impossible to categorize and its stench so horrible you had to crank close the car windows even on the hottest summer day. Trash littered the edges and floated down the main channel.

      If you were lucky you drove right past those long lines at the gas station, where the choking fumes of car exhaust made you sick to your stomach in a flash.

      For the past 20 years I've been comforted knowing that my daughters don't have those memories.

      Oh, sure, they have vivid memories of each economic hiccup — the dotcom bust, 9/11 and the Great Recession — spitting me out of the workforce like a watermelon seed at a summer picnic. Long stints of unemployment and under employment when we never really faced serious financial struggles, but never ever really felt super comfortable, either.

      Visions of me working long hours at concession stands or cleaning up stadiums to pay for gymnastics and volleyball to reward them for their long hours at the kitchen table studying to bring home those 4.0 report cards that parlayed into scholarships that have them so, so very close to graduating college debt free, which will allow us to finally begin saving for a day when we can afford not to work because we can, not because we can't find a job.

     Each night I'm thankful that I have it so good, knowing full well that millions hope someday to ascend to this cushy life I enjoy.

     At the same time, I'm just as fearful that a tunnel vision focus on our economy has blinded us as we slowly see a return to those "Good Ol' Days" of social unrest, war mongering and environmental destruction — true measurements of the quality of life, that appear to be acceptable collateral damage.

     They certainly aren't acceptable in my memory.

My Madness endures

Posted by johnnieraz on March 20, 2021 at 2:50 AM Comments comments (0)

By John Rezell

     There are times in everyone's life, I assume, that they pause and warmly remember a moment that prompts them to fondly recall, "I'll never forget it. It changed my life."

     I say I assume this because, frankly, I don't know for sure.

     When I'm rambling on in my storytelling mode and share these profound moments from my life, I sometimes see nothing but confusion in the eyes of others. I hope, deeply, others take time to reflect and savor grand moments in life. If they don't, well, I suppose that's what people call stuck in the fast lane. All I can say is then it's time to change lanes.

     Each March, as millions get caught up in the excitment of the NCAA basketball tournament, I have quiet moments when my own "One Shining Moment" rolls through my mind. It's a time I'll never forget.

     Midway through my freshman year of studing journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, I slowly came to understand what it meant to be a journalist. A professional journalist. Just about the same time, my life as a fan and future as a reporter crossed paths in the dusty, sparse plains of Oklahoma City.

     Growing up in Milwaukee as a basketball fanatic, I dreamed for years of attending Marquette University. The day the acceptance letter arrived was one of the greatest of my life. In the end, however, I couldn't afford to swing it.

     Hey, I was going into journalism. One bit of advice I heard over and over from college advisers was that journalism would not make you rich. You study it because you love it. I came to grips with that. I’d never be making serious cash. Not enough to pay off a private school education. So I ended up at the UW-Whitewater, while a number of friends stayed home to attend Marquette.

     Of course, the biggest part of a Marquette experience that I wanted was basketball. All my memories growing up were running to look at the rankings in the Milwaukee Journal each week to see UCLA No. 1 and Marquette No. 2. Once, maybe twice, during the regular season you might have to endure the agony of defeat. Then you had to survive the NCAA tournament, and tortures the Warriors would face each year coming close, but never cutting down the nets.

     That basketball season of my freshman year, I watched as Marquette seemed to crumble. Losses were mounting. Things simply could not get any worse for a Marquette fan, or so we thought. Then, we learned otherwise. It got worse beyond comprehension. Al McGuire announced it would be his final year.

     McGuire had a great impact on my life. His zest for life, and his ability to see sports for what it was, simply a game, forever changed my life. His flambouyant style combined with outrageous success made my head spin. Yet, through it all, he remained so grounded.

     One of my best friends had close ties to McGuire. Donnie's parents were good friends and season ticket holders. When the NCAA tournament came along, Donnie landed four tickets to the Midwest Regional in Oklahoma City. There were three of my high school buddies going to Marquette. They offered me the fourth ticket.

     We jumped in Donnie's big old Chevy and drove down, straight through the night, for a magical experience.

     It was a Thursday-Saturday regional. Marquette's first game was Kansas State. We didn't get Marquette student tickets. No, these were VIP tickets. We were right behind the Marquette bench. The intensity level transcended anything I could remember, shy of Bart Starr's quarterback sneak against the Cowboys. This wasn't just a game on the line. This wasn't just the NCAA Tournament on the line. This was Al McGuire's swan song. Lose, and it's over.

     After a thrilling victory where we screamed our voices dry, we went back to the hotel and called the gang of buddies at the University of Wisconsin. They said they saw us on TV. It would have been impossible to sleep that night had we not driven through the night before.

     On Friday, Donnie hit the links with the VIPs. Schlag and I got antsy, and without a car, we wandered about Oklahoma City on foot. Eventually we stumbled upon the Myriad, the arena where the games were being played. Too cool.

     We wandered up to the door and peeked in. We couldn't believe our eyes. Marquette's players raced up and down the floor in front of empty stands. We looked at each other just stunned. We could have stood there forever and considered it the best. Then we tried the door. It wasn't locked. We snuck in.

      Just as countless athletes get overwhelmed as they run from the lockerroom onto the court or field, I found the true ambience of the NCAA tournament swallow me whole as we walked in. There were Rick Majerus and Hank Raymonds, McGuire's assistant coaches, running the team through Wake Forest's offense.

      Wake Forest's star forward Ron Griffin was the ACC Player of the Year. At 6-foot-7 we watched him and his team dismantle Southern Illinois the night before. Majerus took Marquette's ultra-talented back-up forward Bernard Toon and schooled him on Griffin's signature moves. Meanwhile, Raymonds plotted with the Marquette defense on how to respond and defend.

     The intensity of the practice hit insane levels. Pushing and shoving. Toon hellbent on proving he was Griffin plus one. Diving for balls. Astounding.

     I took a moment to soak it in, and scanned the empty arena. Then it hit me. In the top row of the stands with a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal, Al McGuire sat with his feet up on the seats in front of him with a crow's nest view. As the precious final few minutes of practice ticked away, McGuire descended from his lofty perch, and ratcheted the intensity of the practice beyond belief. Hair stood on end.

     We turned to head home, and Donnie's mother was there with Mrs. McGuire. We told them we had walked down from the hotel, which stunned them. In yet another of a string of pinch-me moments, they offered us a ride back to the motel on the team bus. Amazing.

      To this day, those images remain more entrenched than the games themselves. We sat on the bus as one-by-one, the Marquette Warriors walked onto the bus. As the players filed on, we looked to the side. McGuire slipped out of the lockerroom and onto a Harley-Davidson waiting for him. He revved it up big time, and roared away.

     On the ride back to the hotel, we sat among the Marquette players. The buzz on the bus was UCLA’s loss the night before to idaho State, a huge upset. As the players joked, Butch Lee, who would eventually win the Most Valuable Player Award as he led the Warriors to the National Championship, barked out loud, “We ain’t pulling no U-C-L-A!”

     Schlag and I looked at each other in disbelief.

     Saturday afternoon, Marquette played a crafty game. We watched Rod Griffin's every move, and knew exactly how the Warriors would counter it. The brillance of the coaching staff blew me away. I found a story behind the story. The essence of every event I would ever cover as a journalist would drip with the story behind the story. While I might never write a sentence about that background vibe, it becomes part of the story that finds its own way to manifest itself in what I write.

     The Warriors won, and as the closing seconds ticked away, all eyes fell upon one soul. When the horn sounded, Al McGuire turned to the roaring crowd, just 10 feet in front of us, and thrust his hands into the air. He was on his way to the Final Four. I've never seen the replay of that on TV, but I swear I left my body and swirled around the rafters, plopping down in that seat on the top row, and took it in.

     We stayed, roaming around in a haze, until the arena was empty. We looked in one last time at the trash littered floor where more than one dream came true that afternoon. Finally, we jumped back into Donnie's Chevy and drove straight through the night.

     We pulled down the street of my parent's home just as the sun began to rise on a magnificent morning. It felt like we had left the Myriad just moments ago, the adrenaline still sizzling through my system as we talked nonstop for 15 hours or so about the experience. I stepped out of the car and reached into the paperbox, pulling out the Sunday morning Milwaukee Journal with the headline roaring. I showed it to them, and they drove off. Sitting alone at the table, sipping coffee, enjoying the morning light, I opened the paper to read the story. But I already knew it well.


The Beauty of Authenticity

Posted by johnnieraz on March 13, 2021 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (2)


By John Rezell

     I arrived In Redlands that early March not sure what to expect. I quickly realized I was not alone.

     Many years had passed since the Redlands Classic Bicycle Race served as my introduction to professional cycling. Covering the event had become an annual love affair for me. I knew the locals, the riders, and the courses as well as anyone.

     This time would be different. Just a month earlier I became editor of VeloNews magazine. My relationship with most of the individuals in the cycling community began when I was a sportswriter for The Orange County Register. I left that post for a freelance career three years earlier to make cycling my focal point — my beat.

     I knew in my heart nothing had changed for me. Authenticity remained my guiding force, as it has since the day I figured out who I wanted to be.

     In preparing for my first assignment with this new title, I got a taste of how things could change.

     Felix Magowan, the publisher of VeloNews, is nothing short of a marketing genius. He never met a marketing opportunity he didn't explore. I learned that first-hand the day he walked into my office with an armful of VeloNews t-shirts.

     I fired a quizzical look at Felix as I thanked him for the welcoming gifts, and asked simply, "Why so many of them?"

     "Oh," Felix replied, "We all wear VeloNews t-shirts when we cover an event. It's part of our branding."

     A flood of images zipped through my mind of so many races over the years, each with me in my signature bright print Hawaiian/surfer/skater shirts and someone from VeloNews in a t-shirt surrounding some cyclist in an interview. Ah, yes, I guess they all do wear them.

     "Sorry," I said, "not me."

     Anyone who knows Felix might not believe this, but I rendered him speechless. He looked somewhat like a puppy the first time you throw a stick to play fetch. I could see the wheels spinning in his head searching for a response. After a long pause, he said, "But everyone wears them."

     "Cool," I said, "but not me."

     Felix then became pretty certain I was joking. He left the t-shirts and headed back to his office.

    I stuffed the t-shirts into a drawer in my empty filing cabinet and headed for Redlands, not thinking twice about my decision.

    When I got to Redlands I headed toward the team area — where team trucks, cars and riders form a little mobile village — I could see heads turn and eyes pop. The smiles that greet everyone at the first big race of the year warm your heart like no other..

    The team I knew best, who plied the streets of SoCal, was the Chevrolet-LA Sheriffs. As they showered me with congratulations on my new job I couldn't help but sense a feeling of relief not just wash over me, but cleanse them at the same time. Then Steve Hegg, the first professional cyclist I came to know, stepped forward and spoke for the peloton.

     "Great to see you," he shouted, "you had us worried."

    "Worried?" I said.

     "We all thought you'd show up in a VeloNews t-shirt," he said, "But it's good to know success didn't go to your head."

     I've been thinking a lot about authenticity lately as I search for my next career challenge. It has  been 11 months since I lost both my jobs to Covid-19 — my role as editor of an outdoors magazine as well as a substitute teacher.

     I yearn for another post as an editor. I love the creative experience, and inspiring writers, photographers and designers to hone their authentic voices. If I can only return to the classroom, my primary motivation remains the same. Find yourself and be yourself.

     My commitment to authenticity moves to the forefront this time of the year. I love watching the early stages of American Idol and The Voice, when singers begin their journeys original, raw and authentic.

     Starting a few years back, as each season progresses, I become less interested. I seldom watch finales.

     That's when I realized why. In most cases it's nothing more than watching each individual's authenticity getting whittled away, replaced by what's deemed as the formulas for success.

      I'm not much for formulas. Or t-shirts, for that matter.

A Reminder of Who I am

Posted by johnnieraz on March 6, 2021 at 1:10 AM Comments comments (0)


By John Rezell

     It's downright entertaining how we change throughout our course in life. I'm tempted to say we evolve, but, at least in my case, that might be a bit of a stretch.

     I think about life as a youngster when I could tell you the typical batting order for every team in Major League Baseball. These days I would be hard-pressed to name nine Major Leaguers.

     What really prompts this, though, goes much deeper. I remember days of my youth literally plotting and planning the type of person I wanted to be. What I would deem important throughout my life, and what I wouldn't waste mental energy on.

     These introspective moments happened on runs while training for cross country or track back in junior high, and later in high school on long bike rides. When I look back across my life, I see that I've pretty much maintained those core beliefs and stuck to them.

     At an even deeper level is who we are and what we tolerate, something that comes much clearer into focus as life forges on. This struck me one day.

     My co-worker and I discussed that we commute on our bikes every day and as such, we really have what I refer to as "commuter fitness."

     That's a polite way of saying that I probably can ride a lot farther than your average folks reading this on their couch with their laptops balanced on their tummies. How much effort that balancing act takes would tell me how much farther I could ride.

    Compared to the people out there who spend more time in Lycra than Cotton, well, the fitness level disparity is probably about the same as me and couch potatoes.

    To combat this, I mentioned that my commute straight to work and home would probably take 25-30 minutes each way. However, I take a longer route to attempt to be on my bike closer to an hour each way. My co-worker commended me on this, and simply asked, "Do you look for hills to climb?"

    I shrugged and said, no, not really. My black lab Ridgely and I usually save serious hill climbing for weekends when we usually get in one good ride.

    That's when I realized that, really, I spend the majority of my time just riding for fitness, not fun.

    Now I'm not a real testosterone pumped dude. Much more on the mellow side. And had my co-worker said, "Man, that's whimpy that you don't hammer some hills" I would have no doubt ignored the message completely.

    Instead, he got in my head.

    Next thing you know, I'm commuting to work and taking detours to climb hills. Cursing my co-worker the whole way up.

    My climbs are hardly the Alps or Rockies, but for a commuter, this is big stuff. I feel the difference in my legs. I feel the need for more.

     Ever since, I'm a climbing fool. I seek out climbs. My weekend rides are heading out to climb for 2-3 hours, then turn around and coast home. It's to the point where climbs have become the spiritual focal point of my rides.

     Nothing compares to the rhythm and cadence of a climb. You can't zone out and contemplate the meaning of life.You understand the micro differences of grade.

     You remain in the present.

     You feel your breathing.

     Hear your heart.

     Feel life.

     I'm pretty sure the essence of my climbing obsession boils down to the same reason I ride 26x2.35 knobbies everywhere, on the road, gravel and trails. If I rode on 700x25, I would have to be out hours longer for the same workout. Same with climbing. Two hours climbing 2,000 feet would be lord knows how many hours on a flat.

     Don't get me wrong: I love riding my bike. I just can't keep my attention span active more than 4-6 hours.

    Interesting how I forgot what my motivational buttons are. Evenso, it's good to know they still work. Up, up and away.



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