Once, on a wet fall afternoon 16 years ago, a three-hour training run took me along a lonely ridge between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific. Ahead was a farmhouse and an elderly woman making her way against the wind to the mailbox beside the road. Once she reached her destination, she crouched, watching me approach.
"Where do you come from?" she called. I couldn't read her tone.
"Sacramento," I lied, driven by some demon of tiredness to be antic, to ask for it. "Is this the right road to San Jose?"
She regarded me stonily. "You're on the right road to the loony bin," she said, and drew back as I passed.
Sacramento and San Jose are about 115 miles apart, ample reason, it seems, to agree with her reaction.
In 1969, Bruce Tulloh, who won the 1962 European 5,000-meter championship for Great Britain, ran from Los Angeles to New York in 65 days, accompanied by his wife and son with a car and trailer. Tulloh wrote a detailed, analytical book called Four Million Footsteps about the adventure, during which he averaged 44 miles per day. Others had made similar runs before, among them Don Shepard of South Africa, who ran without aid and whose book, My Run Across the U.S.A., is as loose and chatty as Tulloh's is precise.
But these reports didn't alter this runner's conviction that such a journey by its nature could appeal only to the seriously different. I was sure I never wanted to do it. Now James E. Shapiro has done it, and written about it, and I'm not so sure anymore.
Shapiro has distilled the 80 days and 3,026 miles of his 1980 crossing from Dillon Beach, Calif. (up the coast from San Francisco) to New York's Central Park into Meditations from the Breakdown Lane: Running Across America (Random House, 237 pages, $12.50). He describes his own sensations and judgments with as much care and gift as he recalls the land and people and labor that evoked them. Almost at once, he has a sympathetic narrative flowing that will lead to the opposite coast. He's not a nut. He's not a driven soul. He's me, or close enough so the differences don't matter.
I was made to share something of Shapiro's panic over the immensity that faced him and to recall that, as he puts it, "The dimension of the feat does not necessarily still the homey chatter of the mind." And I have given my own voice to that most mortal of laments (as he writes on passing though the Sierras): "finding within an anticipatory sorrow that I cannot run through here forever."
It's this ranging, experienced mind, tuned and colored by the 10 and 12 hours a day of five mph running that Shapiro maintained, that lights this book. His descriptions of vistas, food (the good and the rotten) and women (kind waitresses and fragrant nymphets, passing with a glance) are all hungrily vivid.
Some of Shapiro's voracity seems to be a natural appetite for experience. He has worked on a freighter and been a Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil, and his photo on the dust jacket shows a grin appropriately wolfish for a man who would swallow a continent. Yet he was turned more ravenous by his prodigious work. He required 80 days to complete his run only because he was stopped by injury in Harlan, Iowa for five days. When sound, he ran as much as 58 miles in a day. A light lunch in Nebraska: "Three pounds of watermelon, a quart of milk and a half gallon of orange juice in 20 minutes."
And, if the engine was so lavishly fueled, the weight it propelled had to be kept as light as possible. On reading Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi along the way, Shapiro writes, "It seemed obscene to keep ripping out the pages as I finished them, but about weight there could be no sentimentality."
For a chronicle of such a painstaking and thorough endeavor, Shapiro's work gets rather a slipshod treatment from his publisher. There are too many typographical errors; one assumes, for example, that the Herefore cows described are, in fact, Herefords.
At least the author is on the right track. Should we wonder, out of past prejudices concerning ultra-long-distance runners, about Shapiro's emotional health, there's always the labor, the road, to give the runner stability. He writes: "There were several distinct running minds. One was a high-pitched yammering of endless babble.... Another voice was deeper, more philosophical.... Why I was out there, how I really felt about certain people, what different things meant.... They were explicit acknowledgments of limitations and definitions. Expressing them brought whole quiet pieces of the day....
"As for the third...once it occurred to me that I was expressing the will of the earth the way a cloud expresses the will of the sky."
This last is Zen student Shapiro's attempt to make what he felt sound in our ears. And, as Peter Matthiessen noted in The Snow Leopard (even as he ventured the same thing), it's doomed to seem nonsensical to ears unopened by the time and work of one's own journey. But to those of us who have had a taste of what Shapiro endured (and there must be millions by now who have), his attempt is not at all in vain. I finished his account with regret, and with the conviction that I no longer need to run across the country myself to know what it is like, or what it signifies.