"Less than a mile to the car, you can do it," I repeated to myself like a mantra, sucking on my Camelbak hose in the hot July afternoon sun, my legs burning after hours on the dirt of Barr Trail, the 13 miles that lead from the town of Manitou Springs, Colorado, all the way up to Pikes Peak.
I was thinking of what I would eat on the way home and how good the air-conditioned car was going to feel, when I suddenly saw a ragged man with a foot-long beard come careening out the door of the Royal Tavern and onto Manitou Avenue.
He stumbled in front of me and nearly knocked me over in his long shorts, dirty tank top and cloud of alcohol. The Royal was a bar I had used my fake ID in 35 years before, too chicken to liberate my bra, as was suggested by the "bras optional" sign in the window.
He was so close to me that I smelled the liquor on his breath. Just as I tried to go around him, he stopped me.
"Jill, JILL," he shouted so loud that everyone on both sides of the street stopped to look at us. "It's Jim, it's me, baby, c'mon, you know who I am!"
Manitou Springs was where I spent my summers and post-college years; its bars, ramshackle houses and trails overlooking Colorado Springs was the place where I felt liberated from my sheltered world of studying, going to the right college, following my father's orders. Years later, I still drove an hour south from Denver, where I lived, to run there on weekends.
My best friend and I moved there after college, where we had just—in the immortal words of our favorite band, the Indigo Girls—"spent four years prostrate to the higher mind / got our paper / and were free."
We were all of 21. I had promised my father I would take a Kaplan course to try and raise my GRE scores for graduate school.
"Jerry called," my best friend would say when I came in, referring to my father's continued phone calls to make sure I was studying. We laughed.
It was freedom, the late nights at the bars, christening the lights of Colorado Springs below Cheyenne Canyon "the city of beads," as we talked until the sun came up. It was also where I had first met the unkempt and very drunk man standing in front of me all these years later: Jim.
"You sure are pretty. You want a drink?" he asked me one night, more than 30 years ago, dressed in painter's pants and a paint-speckled shirt at the Ancient Mariner, a Manitou bar that we considered our hangout. He even had paint on his arms, which were covered with tattoos.
"Sure," I said, smiling at him, looking into the bluest eyes I had ever seen, so blue that they gave off their own light. When he asked me to dance to the Allman Brothers "Midnight Rider" and held me close, I felt a warmth between us, more of a fitting together.
The next morning, he took me to a pancake place called Wade's and held my hand at the table. He started spending most nights at my house, where I became oblivious to what day it was, when I had to be at work. I woke up one Saturday morning in his arms, jumping up when I realized I had the GRE. I had stopped going to Kaplan. I ran the blocks to Colorado College, where the test was administered, borrowed a pencil, my hair a mess, eyes bleary.
The next year, at graduate school, he had visited, his semi parked on a quaint block in Evanston where I lived, my roommates gawking at this now long-road trucker in our apartment.
We slowly lost touch after that, even though I eventually moved back to Colorado. It was years until one of us reached out on the phone to say hello.
And now, this man, who I hadn't seen for at least five years, was unrecognizable to me.
"C'mon, baby, give me a hug," he said, trying to get close. He stunk of alcohol, smoke, not bathing.
I moved away from him as he pulled me closer. "Jill, come sit with me. Come talk to me."
But he scared me, not because I feared him, but because of how the years had ravaged him, how a man I had once felt so close to had somehow folded in on himself and shrunk away.
I saw that we had become these 50-something adults and it didn't seem quite possible that nearly 30 years had gone by, that we had taken different roads that tested us both but somehow brought us back together. He had become one of the men sitting at Wade's hunched over his coffee, talking to the other contractors about how he had to pop a handful of Advil—or something stronger—to carry as many shingles on his shoulder up a ladder now that he was, in his words, "an old guy."
I always expect to see him when I'm running through town, past the bar where we met so many years before and where he crashed into me drunker than I had ever seen him.
"Hey, who's that chick with the nice legs and pink Camelbak?" came a voice from a passing truck that slowed down next to me.
It was Jim.
"Hey, jump in. I'll give you a ride to your car."
I looked at him as he drove down the street, shifting the gear on his old truck. He looked tired, thin, his face haggard. "Are you OK?" I asked.
"So, I found out I have this condition," he said, passing me a water bottle. "Hemochromatosis. It means my blood can't get rid of excess iron. It's made me tired and I'm just beat a lot of the time, which sucks when you're trying to do a remodel. And I was drinking a lot for a while, when I saw you that time. Feeling sorry for myself. But things are getting better."
He told me about the steady work and his girlfriend. I told him about my world and how running Barr Trail was still my sanity.
"Give me a fist bump, girl," he said to me recently, after I had stopped at the Royal Tavern where he was painting the walls and redoing the floors on my way up to the trails. "Stop by on your way down, if you want a Coke or something."