Jon Shaffer took a road less-traveled on his last lap around the sun to fifty. He fine-tuned his already conscious awareness of the importance of diet and exercise. He ran often and far. Fifty wouldn't sneak up on Jon; he intended to chase it down.
For most people, age fifty is a strange landmark. A half-century is older than our youth-obsessed culture teaches us how to think of ourselves. We arrive at fifty with weird, irrational suddenness. We celebrate. We're teased with dark humor rescued from cruelty by friendly affection and much laughter. Privately, we reflect on what our lives have amounted to and indulge in a bit of wistful mourning for our bygone youth; there's no sense in ignoring it- sixty is lurking in ambush just a short distance ahead.
On 11/11/11, three days before his fiftieth birthday, I met Jon at his childhood home in Tiona where his mother, Judy Shaffer, still lives. It's a place of abundant memories and many landmarks of birth, death, love, and age. The ashes of his father, Hartwell were scattered there a few years ago. The morning greeted us with heavy, wet snow, but just as Jon considered postponing to another day, patches of blue sky drifted in from the west.
Reg Darling is the author of several books: Coyote Soul Raven Heart, Hartwell Road, A Story of One’s Own, and the forthcoming Boondock Politics. He lives along the Conewango Creek in Warren with his wife and two cats.
Jon began his personal marathon in the place that had shaped him and ran toward his next half-century by running deeper into the landscape of his origins. He followed School Street to Route 6 and headed westward to Cherry Grove Road, where he began his ascent from the Tionesta Valley bottom to the top of the Allegheny Plateau. His great-great-great grandmother had lived and died in Cherry Grove. I traveled ahead of Jon in my car with his wife, Dawn, and his mother. We waited for him, in two- to three-mile increments, to offer fresh bottles of water and retrieve the empties.
Jon ran through Cherry Grove to Vandergrift Corners and Minister Road. He crossed from Warren County into Forest County on what he feared would be toughest part of his route: Minister Road's steep, knee-punishing descent back to the Tionesta Valley bottom.
Jon: "I was surprised-it really wasn't that bad."
At Minister Creek, we passed Jon a fresh water bottle and then shadowed him through a series of sharp curves before driving ahead to the next water stop. We had thought of Route 666 following the Tionesta downstream as relatively level-even slightly downhill, overall-but creeks and roads flow by different laws. When roads diverge from creek banks the distance is vertical as well as lateral. The rhythmic rising and falling of the road as it traversed the side-to-side shifts in the creek's flood plain rendered the final stretch more challenging than expected. But Jon had momentum.
Jon: "That valley bottom was brutal-a lot more up and down than I realized."
Though the sky once again turned leaden, the snow held off until his final quarter-mile. He ran the last fifty yards to Mayburg Bridge in hard falling snow with his arms upraised in triumph and was greeted by his sister's colorful "Happy Birthday" sign. The previous year, we had scattered the ashes of his grandmother, Gert Miner, at Mayburg where the four generations preceding him had been born.
Reg: "This feels like a ceremony."
Jon: "It is, man, it is."
After congratulations and hugs all around, we drove back to Tiona and bought wine on the way. We toasted to Hartwell, Gert, good health, and happy birthdays. The sky turned blue again.