There is a point where you feel like you’ve expended every bit of energy you have, a point when you honestly feel like you could simply lie down in your tracks and give up. At the same time, it might be a place where you can’t give up, where stopping isn’t an option.
I can clearly remember the first time I experienced it: I was about 17 and I’d signed up for a cross-country ski race in New Brunswick, the North 100. Ah, youth: I was a regular cross-country skier, and I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be able to ski 100 kilometres in just two days. It was, of course, a time when I had no idea what 100 kilometres was.
There was a spot on that first day, my hands blistered and raw, the wilderness course extremely icy, when, having fallen any number of times, I fell sideways into the snow and simply couldn’t get up again.
The course was empty in both directions and, drained, I cried a little and wondered if anyone would find me.
Sleet was pelting down and I lay there and ate raisins and chocolate from my emergency kit until I could get up. (Forgive the introspection and you’ll eventually see where I’m going.)
I’ve run into that same kind of exhaustion again since, often miles back in the country bushwhacking my way back from a river I’d thought it was too difficult to batter my way back down.
Invariably, that’s a bad idea. Even having to make your way down cliffs is preferable to pushing through half-fallen spruce and peat bogs. You’d think I’d eventually learn that lesson, but I never do. I’d find myself sitting on some toppled spruce, soaked with sweat and bog, smelling of perspiration and wood smoke, ready to topple into the wet peat and just lie there. Hardly worth pulling another boot out of the sucking goo.
My most recent and similar experience? Finding myself at the bottom of a big and deep hole I’d dug, preparing to shift a new septic tank cover over a maw of substance most foul.
It turned out to be a tangle of truly epic proportions, complete with sensory experiences I’d inflict on no one. (There are places for descriptive language — this is not one of them. It is a spot, though, where I am once again reminded of how much I miss the writerly skills and careful discretion of Ray Guy.) I will leave you with this thought: things splash.
At one point, drenched with sweat, I simply climbed out of the hole and lay in the grass, looking up at the sky while Indian paintbrushes and other field flowers nodded all around me, thinking that years ago, I could never have imagined being 51 years old, even less being 51 and digging out a septic tank alone. I’m not the strongest guy or the fittest. Thinking that I didn’t have the strength to keep going.
Eventually, though, I finished the job — why? Because it wasn’t going to do itself, and there was no one else to do it — and leaving it open for another day was no option at all.
The next day, talking about it in the grocery store (I talk all the time), a store manager told me he would rather have been in that hole, filth and all, than where he had been: at the funeral for a friend who got up from the breakfast table and dropped dead in his kitchen.
The man was 52.
Now, that could draw you up short.
The point? There are not many 50-year-old things that you still see running on a daily basis. Not cars, not washing machines, not, for that matter, septic tanks.
We all expect to have many days — in fact, most of us don’t bother thinking about the time we might or might not have ahead of us. We just assume that time will go on, and so will we.
Use every bit of strength, and then keep going.
We can run pretty well for a pretty long time; we can run on empty sometimes, and we can be the better for it.
Sounds a lot like a sermon,
I’ll give you that.
But it beats a day at the bottom of septic hole, hands down.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.