Sugarloaf Mountain, located in Dickerson, Maryland, about thirty miles north of Washington, D.C., is not much of a mountain. At only 1,282 feet above sea level, it’s more of a hill — a small hill. But set amid the rolling farmland of northern Montgomery County, it doesn’t look small. In fact, Sugarloaf’s summit is so prominent — and so close to Washington, D.C. — that Franklin Roosevelt considered making Sugarloaf his presidential retreat (before deciding on the nearby Camp David). It was from Sugarloaf that Union troops first spotted the Confederate Army crossing the Potomac River in 1862. I first began to notice Sugarloaf in 2009, on one of my frequent trips to the nearby Dickerson whitewater slalom course. I’d driven past this hill since my first trip to Dickerson years before, but it wasn’t until my fifth year of living in Washington, D.C. that I began to notice it. That fall, as I drove an hour north out of the city and across the flatlands, Sugarloaf — really the closest mountain you hit when driving out of D.C. in any direction, looked taller and taller — and all of a suddenly, I wanted very badly to be on top.
This was a real change for me. I spent most of my life looking down — into river gorges — not up. I wanted to go to the places on the map where the river left the roads and plunged into a canyon so deep that it was like a secret world. These were gorges you had to bushwhack for thirty minutes just to get down to the river — or else you had to own a kayak, in which case you could see the gorge in its entirety. I can’t say if I started kayaking because I wanted to explore these places, or if I wanted to explore these places because I started kayaking. I only know that, when I was 14 years old and had just started boating, every time we drove over the 60-foot bridge on Route 44 bridge near my house in Barkhamsted, Connecticut, I’d look downstream and see two cliffs towering 100 feet over the river and I knew that something about it didn’t look right. It looked more dramatic than the usual rolling hills of western Connecticut. Something had happened to the Earth there, some kind of violence. And I wanted to go down inside and see exactly what it was.
Over the past few years of living with my girlfriend, I have gained a lot of insight into the differences between men and women. Some of these differences have been surprising. That nobody would ever comment on my eating habits or physical appearance in public (or that their remarks would seem odd, not offending even if they did: “It’s amazing you stay so thin eating like that” would just bounce off me), or assume I would babysit their kids, or expect me to mother them through a crisis were all pretty surprising revelations for me that came about by living with a woman who was subject to those indecencies.
It is in just the same way that the past few years’ revelatory videos of police mistreating or killing African American men has made me reflect on certain events in my life — for example, I believe that the time a good ol’ boy southern cop exuding a Napoleon Complex pulled over a young man with a scraggily beard, Yankee plates, and three kayaks on his car on the pretense of running a stop sign (???) and queried him about drug running substances the young man had never heard of (most of which sounded like “Benzomaltrodextrineiclocyde — you know, Horse Dust!“) — might have ended drastically differently than the young man offering the officer one of the substances he did have (Newcastle Brown Ale) and both of them laughing had the young man had darker skin.
There’s something riveting about the idea of perfection in sports. We dream of watching a pitcher throw a perfect game, a football team have a perfect season, and for a long time, I dreamed about having a perfect run in whitewater slalom canoe racing.
Many years ago, when I was first starting out in whitewater, the late Jamie McEwan forwarded me an article about Olympic slalom kayaking called “Two Trips to the Top.” It was a fascinating analysis of the history of the two of the best whitewater slalom racers of their generation — Rebecca Giddens from the United States and Oliver Fix from Germany.
The author was former US Slalom Team coach Bill Endicott — probably one of the twenty most interesting people I’ve ever met: a Harvard grad, a Marines Corps officer, the architect of the wildly successful US Whitewater Slalom Team in the 1980s, a driving force behind starting the Slalom World Cup and in slalom’s re-inclusion into the Olympics in 1992, the Director of Research and Analysis in the Clinton White House, author of numerous books about paddling and about politics, and father of a rock star.
In “Two Trips to the Top” — written in 2003 after countless interviews — Endicott delved into the question of how Giddens and Fix took such different paths to international and Olympic success in whitewater slalom. The Giddens profile was remarkable in itself. Sometimes students ask me who the greatest athlete I’ve ever met was. I tell them: Rebecca Giddens. She was amazing (even better than my high school idol Matt Striebel).
Here’s the introduction to Giddens’s section in “Two Trips to the Top”:
It’s never a good sign when people come up to you at work and ask, “So how’s the commute going? You surviving?” I get this all the time.
Or when neighbors hear where you work and say, “Really? Wow, how do you even get there from here?”
Or, “What is that, three hours away?”
In fact, my commute — from the North Country of New Hampshire to Montpelier, Vermont — is 57 miles and takes 65 minutes. I cross eight towns, four school districts, three counties, and two states. I spend just over 11 hours per week in the car.
Last weekend, on October 31st, we didn’t get much Halloween traffic. We live at the top of the hill, and as a result the only visitors we got looking for candy were either the local kids who basically couldn’t stumble out of their driveway without cutting across our property, or some rather mature-looking elves and ghosts who looked like they’d driven themselves.
But the full pail of leftover Reese’s and KitKats wasn’t the only thing on my mind that evening. After all, trick or treating isn’t even the most significant ritual that occurs on Halloween — at least not to a guy like me, who doesn’t have kids. The most important ritual for me happened later, after all the trick or treaters had probably gone home. I had just finished watching the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets in Game 4 of the World Series. “The Royals just put the ball in play, that’s all they do,” announcers Joe Buck and Harold Reynolds kept reminding us — as though this were just a basic strategy that other teams had simply overlooked. (“That teacher just keeps changing kids’ lives, that’s all he does. Other teachers should consider trying this . . . “) When the game was over, I switched off the TV and headed upstairs. There, my eye was instantly drawn across the dark bedroom to the garish red letters of my old clock, the one still streaked with scotch tape from back in high school when I’d tried to bar myself from an easy alarm switch-off to avoid last-minute Calculus homework. Sadly and without a word I sat down on the bed and cradled the old clock in my hands. I hate this time of year. It was time to set the clock back an hour.
Then I fell asleep — and when I woke up it was cold and rainy and that afternoon, the sun set around 4:30. It was November: the dark time of year.