We were nearing the top of the pass, the trail winding up and through an earth bowl carved into the jagged peaks of the Northern Cascades. Clouds a quarter full of autumn snow swirled above, sometimes spilling white sprinkles around us. All the while, wind danced around the mountains’ majestic crown, shredding white clouds from gray, random splashes of the sky’s blue pouring through.

I could hardly catch my breath. It was clear that fall was preparing to depart the Pacific Northwest soon. Meanwhile winter was busy moving in. Together they were gracious in sharing the beauty of which they had created. The colors of the sky, like pastel chalks, were shades of soft baby blues, turquoises, and purples. The dark greens of the thick forest below had thinned to alpines turned chartreuse glowing with leftover sunlight. A few more upward trail switchbacks, the chartreuse alpines would climb no more, leaving the last few trees brave enough to live in a place called Cutthroat Pass, now dressed in coats of furry grayish-maroon and white…

We could have easily missed this. The make believe Battlefield of the Land of A story* that had begun four days earlier had ended. However as what sometimes happens in the Land of A, the battle had taken a turn for the worse on day three, despite my optimistic belief that a ceasefire had been called. Autism’s OCD over-and-over verbal warfare with demands to recite back word-for-word coded responses while stooping over to yell instructions in my ear finally did me in. My patience gone, I had strung my pretend bow with arrows of my lost temper, letting them rain down fast and furious onto the other side.

It must have something to do with the laws of the land but fighting never works here. Soon enough, disgusted with myself, I had thrown down my bow, breaking in two the rest of my pretend arrows. In the mysterious ways things happen in the Land of A, the battle died down and a truce was finally called. Both sides agreed to the terms of the latest peace treaty and I was left to redirect my efforts to heal fresh soul wounds that had been layered upon old ones.

I knew of a place that existed on the fringe of the Land of A. To get there, a road trip followed by a two thousand feet or so upward trek. On the top of a mountain pass, shards of light and in the peace that the light brings, there was a promise of healing for our battle weary scars.

A decision made and we were on our way. One-of-my-Own was mostly content to play Minecraft after making sure I bought him a special treat at Starbucks. He even shared his game at 10:30, the time he had allotted during departure, with his sister sibling who had joined us on our journey. No matter that he was so impressed with the time slot he had arranged, he made sure to remind us over and over again. And that was OK.

Too fascinated to move beyond the subject, One-of-my-Own’s conversation fixated on the Magic School Bus reboot. I think he felt I should know how it was that Ms. Frizzle had acquired a sister named Fiona who was the class’s new teacher for he asked why at least a hundred times throughout the morning The reality of the long drive must have begun to way on his mind as well. He presented the idea that it would be best to run halfway instead of to the top of the mountain that was our destination for that day. And maybe it was the memory of the ten miles we were to run that triggered thoughts of dinner because I was next obligated to answer over-and-over a question that went a little something like this, “How about that pizza that was my idea to eat for dinner?”

For all the need to revisit this Dialogue of Three, I didn’t mind. The urgent demand to have perfectly recited answers that he dictated to complete his questions a hundred times or more, was simmering on low. Real exchanges of conversation which had been silenced lately by Autism’s OCD and TICS appeared like a promise of a miracle and were celebrated by myself, his sister sibling, but most importantly… by One-of-my-Own…

There is a point on the trail, cradled by the King’s of the mountains all around, where I always look up. I know the saddle of the top of the pass is there in the steep slope of alpine hill sliding down. It awes and confuses me in my perception of how far away it is and yet really it is so very close. I stop to take a picture because for every other time I have been in this spot before, I have had to keep on running because of the race I am compelled to sign up for every year. One-of-my-Own consents to the photo as does his sister sibling. The camera freezes time and the memory of below is in the past. The present is climbing to the top and when we reach it, we wait in the middle of something incredibly profound. Everything is changing in split seconds. Blue sky disappears and than sneaks back, clouds erase the mountains only to draw them jagged again. Wind plays around and hides under the mountain pass, mischievously creeping up from behind, to whoop it up in circles and wild whirls. When the snow comes down sideways, we stand in the shards of light we find there, peace quietly filling our hearts in the middle of nature’s panoramic view of what our life is. And I imagine that we have found for a brief second of time, what it is we started this journey looking for in the first place…

chris….
*Battle of the Land of A story…
http://chrisfraser.org/the-battlefield/

A Before and an After
(Land of A)
Mountain Trail…

There’s a little mountain trail race in the Northern Cascades that runs along a trail that just so happens to span three states beginning and ending, depending on how one considers it…Mexico to Canada. This particular race begins at 4,875 feet elevation, in a place called Rainy Pass, along State Route 20. Participants will run through some of the most gorgeous scenery in this country. The name of the trail race is the Cutthroat Classic and for me, it is symbolic of years navigating life with my son John, who was diagnosed with Autism at the age of three. 

To be honest, in my wildest dreams, I never would have imagined being able to run such a race as the Cutthroat Classic. I was the parent who spent the best six years of my life, happily watching my two older children run high school cross country practices from the passenger seats of two of Washington State’s finest cross country coaches. Back than, I was of the opinion that most high school cross country runners, including my own two children, were borderline crazy thinking that running was fun, let alone running for hours each week.

High school doesn’t last forever and with the end of it for my son, he adamantly declared that he was done running. For so many reasons, this just wasn’t an acceptable conclusion. My son John needed the life style that running had to offer. But how to keep him running without a team or somebody to run with him proved to be problematic. It wasn’t long until the solution became clear and that was the beginning of a new lifestyle for me. That was summer that I started running with John.

Fast forward a year and more later and we were shivering at the start line on a frosty-cold morning in the third week of August. Through morning clouds that draped above us, peeked slivers of crystal-clear blue. Just enough to realize that the sun still hadn’t made it’s way over the jagged peaks of the exceptionally tall mountains we were expected to run to the top of. More than nervous about running 11 odd miles, the first five miles some 2,000 feet straight up, I hadn’t slept the night before. I was scared enough to entertain the idea of sneaking back to the yellow school bus that had transported us up to Rainy Pass a short time before, and hide out there for the duration of the run.

The first race waves had started, ours was next, and sneaking back to the bus really wasn’t an option. There was no choice but to be brave and run. –Just like the day when John was three years. Gulping back sobs, and through my tears, I heard the self-proclaimed Autism expert doctor state matter of factly that John had Autism and there wasn’t a whole lot to be done to help him. The visualization I had at the doctor’s words were of being shoved out of a flying plane, falling and hitting the ground hard. Than running…because I had a little boy that desperately needed a lot of help.

I began to run…

The Cutthroat Classic Race begins at the Rainy Pass entrance road into a stretch of parking lot, before meeting up with the trail that I mentioned earlier, which by the way, is called the Pacific Crest Trail. I was already sucking wind and frantically wondering how many shades of loco was I to have believed I could run such a beast of a race. The internal dialogue in my mind at war, the winning side currently determined to keep on going –I’d experienced this feeling years before, not knowing how I was going to help my small son. He couldn’t talk or communicate, sleep through the night, didn’t eat properly, and mostly just screamed endlessly throughout each and every day. Through the chaos of the world of Autism, somehow I managed to learn of an unique in-home program that I began with my son, working with him 20 to 40 hours a week in a small playroom that our family built for him. Endless hours of very slow, minuscule gains but eventually a glimpse here and there of the world making sense to my son. The tiniest accomplishment, learning a new word when his peers could hold conversations… huge.

I thought I’d keep on running…

The trail begins winding through many brilliant shades of green forest, steadily climbing uphill. The sound of water splashing, than my running shoes stumbling over slippery, wet rocks in streams that intersected the trail along the way. The amount of runners passing me… overwhelming and embarrassing. Snap shots of the sun rising over impressively rocky, mountain peaks through the trees….glimmers of hope. I can do this, I can get to the top. –I remembered the years of sleepless nights when my son screamed all night, the years of being housebound in isolation because he was unable to process the sensory overload his little body would go through being in public places, around strange people, or even riding in the car. Than in the midst of our upside down world, maybe he would learn another new word or eat a new food, tolerate a car ride…. new hope.

I knew I should probably keep on running….

The trees cleared as the trail hair-pinned higher, the towering mountain peaks forming a craggy nature bowl around the path being climbed. Moving flashes of many bright colors, the shirts of runners dotting the landscape high above and far ahead, I could hear their voices echoing in a downward spiral. At an almost 2,000 feet elevation climb, I was having a hard time breathing. Still more runners passed me. What had I been thinking signing up for this hellish run? Shuffling around a bend in the trail, I thought I’d landed in Ireland, with an elf-looking hiker eating a whole watermelon, the inside gleaming bright red. He smiled and nodded me on to a woman at the next hair-pin, older than myself, bundled up in warm hiker attire, yelling through a bugle of all things. “Almost there, you can do it…..” She waved her trekking sticks wildly. –My mind wanders off as I remembered hour-long episodes of my son screaming in the middle of the night, shielding him from ramming his head into the wall in frustration. His endless lines of toys placed carefully around the house, and God help anyone that dared to disturb his magnificent creations. A child who refused to wear shoes, no matter if the temperature was 17 degrees outside, snow deep on the ground, in the dead of winter. But one day, a triumph, for that child of mine would reveal to me that he knew how to read. He began to look me in the eyes, and would let me join in his fascinating, private world of play.

I was exhausted but clearly not about to stop running….

More rock and boulders than trees and still the mountain top seemed impossibly high and far away. Would I ever reach the top? The sun had come out warming the air, and the sweet smell of the alpine forest below was all around. More runners passed. Wow, I really was slow, and what had I been thinking to believe I could run this never-ending race? I felt incredibly defeated. Around another turn in the trail, and there was a photographer with a camera with a really big lens. A group of of friendly hikers had stopped to watch, clapping their hands as runners passed, and several race volunteers called out as they motioned onward, “Almost to the top…keep on going…” –I thought about the numerous meltdowns that my son used to have in public places, and the people that had stopped and stared in horrified disbelief, whispering with frowning disapproval that I must be the world’s worst mother ever. Flashbacks of a list of parents who had petitioned to have my son expelled from the part-time visits in normal classroom settings because of his strange autistic mannerisms. They never knew of the intricate characters he had built from legos, and the imaginative play that grew from having his colorful character collections interact. Years of effort, he had started to speak with more than one word, small sentences that started to include a question from time to time. Growing hope that he might someday be able to hold a conversation. Enough to realize just how much was going on in his solo-world of one.

A lot farther to go…must keep on running…

A burst of energy, my legs moving little bit faster, suddenly up and over the top of the Pass. At 6,800 feet in elevation, the Pacific Crest Trail keeps going, intersecting with a trail that leads off to the right. This choice will allow for one to drop down off Cutthroat Pass, onto a trail of the same name. This is the course of the Cutthroat Classic, with still another 6 plus miles to go. But for a brief second… the triumph of running 5 miles up, feels like a win. Second over, I start running downhill and realize that I’m only barely, almost halfway through. Maybe this race is never going to end. –It’s hard to breathe, because in the beauty of it all, this feels the same as the years spent searching for the elusive answer to the question of how to help my son with Autism. The feeling of hope when finding a new therapy, treatment, or educational piece that may be another piece of the puzzle in easing some of his debilitating behavior patterns. The feeling when hope dwindles because what was found really isn’t the miracle after all. What seemed like the answer was one that only created more questions. So the search must continue. The reality being that I am in this for life with my son, that I will always be looking for that miracle. God, how I wish for that day when somebody might state the impossible. That my son has recovered from the Autistic traits that are like a door locking him from living a life that he so wishes for. One in which he talks about having a girlfriend or a wife, children, maybe a career he can be proud of. A life that most have the choice to live but he does not.

There was nothing to do but keep on running….

Cutthroat Trail gets a bit dicey with boulders, sharp and round rocks, slippery gravel and sheer drop-offs. The trail is in a downward zig-zag pattern going for what seems like forever. It’s a narrow trail and there’s no place to get around but they do. More runners pass me. By this time, I’ve really got to “go” but there doesn’t seem to be a place to stop. My legs feel like wooden logs, and I can’t seem to stop myself from tripping. The upside, I haven’t yet tripped over the edge of the narrow trail, which to my tired mind, would likely result in death. I can hear the sounds of the runners at the aid station whooping and hollering it up. Still very far from me and way down the mountain. Somebody was ringing a cowbell. –Reminds me of just when I thought Autism couldn’t kick my butt anymore than it had, my son developed migrating tics. Could that mean he was having seizures too? How many late nights, researching ways to help him? Finding new doctors, all of them scattered across the country, who were booked out for years. Knowing these doctors might be able to help my son but we couldn’t afford them anyhow. About that time he started sleeping through the night, a small miracle. He had finally grown to a point that sitting at the table in a homeschool environment, he could learn English and Math. Even though he had been hiding from the Instructor for years, insisting he was a very BAD man, one day, my son began Taekwando lessons, and years later, he became a Black Belt. There was hope in the chaos Autism brought…

There is no choice, must keep on running…

Arriving at that aid station is a joyous event. Gulping some water, tearing open a energy gel, looking around for somewhere to “go” but deciding not to. It was time to run again. I was thinking I was almost done… but I wasn’t. The trail disappears back into the forest, a beautiful thing, even if the remaining miles seem endless. Trip, stumble, almost fall again and again. Finally a volunteer standing past a fairly wide stream that crosses the trail, calls out, “Only 2 more miles…” I really thought that what she said was uncalled for. Words that mean the race is almost done, but not really. –I’ll never be done trying to help my son navigate his world of Autism, the good, bad, and sometimes really ugly of it all. Like the times he threw really big fits in pubic and he was a teenager. And those around him were horrified because they hadn’t yet figured out he was acting out in behavior generated from how Autism affects him. But the good, it doesn’t matter how small, we still celebrate it. Like the time he ran his first cross country race. No matter that he threw a monumental tantrum, throwing his body on the ground kicking his feet, fists pounding the grass because he wanted to get done. Afterward he got up and finished the race. And that was big…huge.

No quitting here, I’m still running…

I finally pass my first, and I think, one of only two runners. It wasn’t really something that I could feel proud of. He was limping, with blood running down his leg. A little farther along and there another runner, hurt as well, standing on the side of the trail. My feet were cold and wet from the stream I had tromped through and I decided to be extra careful, no use falling down now. I heard the sound of another cowbell and people cheering, just around the corner. -I think about how my son doesn’t want to grow up even though he’s 20 years old. Will I be taking care of him for the rest of my life? Probably. He’s obsessed with getting home in time to eat lunch and the whole day is ruined, for a while, if that doesn’t happen, and video game time is until 9:00pm every night, and he self-talks to himself, LOUDLY until 10:00pm or more. But he’s running this race too, and that is an impossible dream, and I know he must be way ahead of me…

I”m going to finish this race…

And I do.. and so does he. Somebody is still ringing that cowbell and a crowd is cheering. There’s a white sign with the red letters, “Finish”. Crossing a bridge over a stream big enough to be a small river, the mountains curving in a semi-circle, tall behind my back…I cross that finish line. With tears that won’t stop, I’ve done something I never thought possible. Small for most runners, huge for me. I ran that race. And so did my son… He’s waiting for me…

I think I will keep on running forever…

(After-more-thoughts.)
-Thank you and a huge shout-out to my daughter Alex who also ran with us that first year we ran Cutthroat. I will always have a smile on my face and tears rolling down my cheeks, remembering her voice cheering at the finish line, and the hysterical laughter episodes we had over the curious events that never cease to happen when we are together. Love you Al….

-Chris…