Back in the 80’s, East Texas, about half way between Castor Plunge and Otis. Deep in the Piney Woods National Forest. A few of us used to run the annual Spiral of Death 13K Trail Challenge.
Single track, long forgotten Tonkawa Tribe trails. Waist deep swamp crossings. Cypress trees, burdened by Spanish Moss, menacing, dappled darkness, tenuous to treacherous footing.
No awards, no timing, no t-shirt, nada. Start and finish at Joey LeBlanc’s decrepit cabin. His piece of the swamp built on lost generations. One of the Original Thirteen Families to escape Northern Persecution, trekking from Prince Edward Island south until only marsh and swamp lay before, and beyond the Gulf of Mexico.
The only race amenity a huge cast iron pot, suspended over open flame, drowning ladles full of rattle snake gumbo. Tastes like chicken. A keg of Abita Purple Haze, bacon pocked cornbread, and little sympathy for the few of us that dared tackle the Spiral of Death. Sounds like a fun race and it wasn’t. Damned creepy too.
Joey gave the command “Geaux!” and would in a moment be lost in the fog that often descended on our start. We could hear him rustling and splashing up ahead, the only way to keep from losing oneself completely was to keep him within ear shot. Not many could and that explained the low annual turnout, always the same 8-10 runners. Tormented cadre.
The swamp is haunting, living, moving with ebb and flow. The course would by nature change every year. You could tell Joey delighted in the futility of our chase, us laboring, he cavorting. We needed our keenest senses simply to follow him. Once we were all huddled waist deep in the shadows wondering where to go next when he popped out of the murky waters right at our feet, laughing and off again in an instant. No one ever beat him.
Here’s the rub. Joey only ran this own race. Even though he was able to best by far a handful of the most talented runners in Texas. We knew it fruitless to encourage him otherwise and just accepted this denizen of the Piney Woods for the Free Spirit he was.
More curious was the fact that Joey was always Joey in the very strangest of senses. We would comment that he remained seemingly unchanged from year to year. Was it the gumbo? The chicory coffee? While the rest of us raced from our mid to late twenties and into our thirties Joey just didn’t slow down. Or age. At all.
I visited Texas in 2016. Retraced memory into the depths of the darkened conifers trying to find Joey’s cabin. Local inquiries revealed no memory of the man. I found a long unused logging road that was vaguely familiar and finally to his shack.
The front porch was caved in, moss covering nearly the entire structure. I made my way to the door half expecting to smell the wonderful viperous gumbo. No aroma and no answer. I hung around a while reliving memories of the race and of Joey. Winds rustled ancient pines as I walked back to the truck. Then the unmistakable laugh. Joey fast approaching from the East. Just returning with a medium sized gator slung over his shirtless shoulders, bound for the Dutch oven no doubt. He seemed not at all surprised to see me, almost as though he had been expecting it.
Me almost 60 at the time . Joey, the same boisterous and boundless energy and I would be a liar if I told you my blood didn’t run cold to see that he had not aged a single day in the decades that had passed.