‘I don’t smoke on the uphills’: Lazarus Lake walks across America (again) | US sports


Lazarus Lake is shifting in a straight-back chair, searching for the right spot to ease his pinched nerve. After days of steep climbs and steeper descents, the Capon Valley of West Virginia is a welcome oasis. The world is again mercifully flat, if only for a moment. Somewhere out there, the Alleghany mountains lie in wait. But Laz, the mastermind of such grueling endurance tests as the Barkley Marathons and Backyard Ultras, doesn’t want to think about that now; the pizzeria is filling up with smoke.

A 20-year-old scurries from the back to apologize while the man sitting next to us is still staring. He’s been speechless since Laz told him he’d just walked 17 miles over Timber Ridge to get here. Under a farmer’s cap pulled down to his squinty eyes, the man grins, rubs his jaw, and finally says: “Come again?”

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“Yeah, I started in Delaware.”

“I’ll be.” The man says, adjusting his cap. “And you’re going where?”

“San Francisco.” Laz let’s the pause linger till the man’s eyes grow wide before adding, “Doesn’t everyone walk across the country when they turn 70?”

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Gary Cantrell, aka Lazarus Lake or Laz, completed his first trans-continental trek in 2018. Self-dubbed Lazcon, it took him 126 days to walk from Newport, Rhode Island to Newport, Oregon. This year, the day before April Fools’ Day, he started on a second trans-con challenge from Fenwick Island, Delaware, to San Francisco. But there’s a different tenor now; this walk is against medical advice.

Last fall, a routine checkup ended with a diagnosis of a 90% blockage in a carotid artery. Despite being warned he could have a stroke at any moment, he increased his training miles. Brought in for a heart test before the surgery, he told the doctors, “If I fail it, I’ll just have to start my walk early.” In essence, nothing short of dying was going to stop Lazcon 2024.

It’s now seven o’clock at the pizzeria and Laz is finally finishing his 24-inch meat-lover’s. I can’t help but shake my head as he steps outside for another cigarette. There to crew him for 10 days and having worked on a book on him for two years, I know he’s a smorgasbord of health issues: a fused vertebrae in his neck, Graves’ Disease, a festering toenail, a blocked femoral artery in his left leg. But I’ve also come to understand he’s never met an obstacle greater than the call of the open road.

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Back at the four-room Firefly Inn, he spends two hours methodically chronicling day 15 for his online followers. His posts include historical markers, geological formations, and peculiarities along the walk. One day a new pair of denim appears in the grass – his size – and he keeps them. Another day, he discovers he’s worn his shorts backwards since morning.

His followers also track his mileage and know it’s been dropping. Laz hoped to do 23 miles a day and finish in August for his birthday. But the numbers now point more to October. And 19 October is his Big’s Backyard Satellite Championship – a hard cutoff for his walk. Earlier in the week he wrote, “Unsupportable. I will have to go faster, or I will end up having to stop.”

Two days after writing that, it seemed he might.

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Just outside Berryville, Virginia, at sun-up, the day began with a deadly dance on a shoulder-less backroad. Laz darts on and off the grass to avoid cars and after 10 hours of fighting an unrelenting headwind, he’s a meager 15 miles up the road. It’s five o’clock – stopping time – and I wonder if he’ll keep pushing. Instead, he’s leaned over his cattle-prod walking stick – done – his face a chapped leather mask of frustration.

That night, he moans in pain and twitches under the sheets till the alarm rings at five. Ashen and swollen, he sits staring blankly at his box of foot-fixing tools. He’d maybe better take the day off, he mumbles. For the first time since I’ve known him, he falls quiet. We just look at each other. Then, the nerve in his back pinches and he jolts upright in his chair. Somehow in this moment, he’s reborn. His face fills with blood, his eyes brighten, and an hour later we’re on the highway headed to West Virginia. He bounds along as fast as I’ve seen him. “Somewhere out there lies the ‘Alleged Heny,’” he says, pointing up with his stick. Since we hadn’t spotted the mighty Alleghany Mountains, he jokes daily that they might not exist.

Lazarus Lake walks on. Photograph: Hannah Yeost

The next morning, he’s even better, downright giddy. At 5am, he’s shuffling and grunting in the dark. “Farred up this morning,” he writes in a quick post. “Farred up. I am in by god west virginnie.” A quick piss, then he cracks open a Dr Pepper. Several gulps and a smoke, and he’s checking his left pinky toe. A nail as thick as a throat lozenge is purpling underneath. (He cut a hole in his shoe so it can stick out.) On the ball of his foot, he attaches a small grey neuroma pad the size of a dime. It alleviates some pain, but “damn it hurts” as he pulls on his socks and shoes. In the car, he chugs a Bang energy drink, 16 ounces of purely legal, calcium-infused, liquid speed.

But the road always holds surprises. A quick left turn sees the land tilt nine degrees skyward. It’s the foot of a multi-tiered climb known as Timber Ridge, and Laz has to stop 10 times. “Good God,” he says, pointing at a scree of fallen rock a thousand feet below. “When we started, I thought that was the top.” He leans over his knees and stretches his back. He wants a cigarette but resists and says, “I don’t smoke on the uphills.”

The rest of the day plays out as usual: a sip of Gatorade at 10, a chocolate milkshake for lunch around two, roughly five cigarette breaks and a grand finale at five with the coldest Dr Pepper in the cooler. In the Capon Valley at last, our senses are alive with the smell of pizza and pastures. Laz looks up at the horizon. “Is this the Alleged Heny?”

In his eyes they’re more than a mountain range; they’re a new physiographic province. He’d started on the Coastal Plain, made his way to the Piedmont Plateau, climbed the Blue Ridge, and entered the Ridge and Valley region of Appalachia. Next up: The Alleghanies. If they exist.

A walk across the country is in many ways a journey of past and present, of life and death. The rock cuts on the roadside reveal dark red bands of Devonian shale – remnants of a time when a shallow sea covered West Virginia. The guardrail terminals range from early models that could impale a car to newer versions made to absorb shock. Roadkill is scattered about in various forms of decomposition, and wildflowers crack through pavement to breathe. And highways don’t hum, they thunder – a rush of hot air as semi-trucks blow by – sometimes knocking you back, sometimes sucking you in.

The United States saw 7,443 pedestrians killed by drivers in 2021. The following year, there were even more. Laz is well aware of the danger. He walks with a bright yellow vest and waves proudly at road crews wearing the same – a “brotherhood of the vest,” he says. The only thing that scares him, he admits, “is not finishing”.

This singularity of focus leads to his grumpiest moments when movement and lost time lead away from the goal. Yet, the heart of his walk is an 18-mile detour south into Oklahoma – to Oologah Lake – to the memory of Alluwe, a once-booming oil town sunk beneath its waters. As a young boy, he watched the Army Corps of Engineers flood it and the old homes of his parents and grandparents. Some of his earliest memories are hunting arrowheads there with his father Frank. Now, Frank lies buried a few miles away next to Laz’s mother Earlene who passed away in 2022. Though he’s spent the majority of his life in Tennessee, Laz will forever be an Oklahoman. The state is burned into the leather of his belt.

My last day crewing him, I can’t help but stand and watch a little longer as Laz plods up an onramp. He says he’s ready to take on West Virginia’s Corridor H, a raised four-lane that climbs continuously to the top of South Branch Mountain. Timber Ridge, it seems, had merely been a warmup.

The last pitch is so immense, it stretches like a highway to heaven till it curves gently around a stand of trees. I drive a few miles up an old road roughly parallel to the corridor and park. From there, I can wait safely for a text if he needs anything before the next turn off. Across a meadow the size of six Central Parks, the corridor guardrail forms its own grey horizon.

For an hour I sit. No sight of Laz. My stomach begins to wrestle. I realize this mountain is going to be too much. Too much after the days and days of endless walking. Too much for his condition. I begin searching the map. Maybe there’s a way to go around. Then, there’s a seemingly unmoving speck of yellow, like the lint of a tennis ball cast against nature’s enormous canvas of browns and greens. I squint. It’s Laz, inching beneath a blue ocean sky.

When he reaches the summit, it’s nearly five. He stops twice in the next 30-yard downhill, then limps forward till he’s braced against the hood with both hands – his head down – the tip of a cigarette bright red in the wind. I grab the coldest Dr Pepper out of the slush of the cooler and study his face as he sits and guzzles it. His eyes come alive like a child’s as he points off to the west. “Look,” he says. “They are alleged no more.” In the distance a faint line of mountains cut across the sky. The Alleghanies.

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