The first horseless carriage driven cross-country? The Winton.
A Dr. Horatio Nelson bet fifty bucks in San Francisco in 1903 that he could drive to the East Coast.
The challenge? No roads.
The auto he chose? It was invented by Alexander Winton, the Scottish-American automobile engine designer who used racing to inspire Americans to imagine the need for long distance hiways.
Reminds me of dad, Hal Winton. Born of Swedish and Scotch-Irish parents he had uphill plans. Even before retiring as an engineer he collected feats. He climbed Mt. Whitney, ran the John Muir trail, traversed the Grand Canyon back and forth any number of times and at age 60 completed multiple 100-mile mountain races in one year, what ultrarunners call The Grand Slam.
A long hard trek through wild country was to drink the nectar of life. Each summer he ran twenty-four hour loop behind our family cabin in Trinity County, navigating ridges with no trails and in the dark. My sister and I partly joked that he might end his days next to a rock somewhere. He had a trac phone, but few had his number. We had to prepare ourselves for whatever might happen.
For thirty years he co-directed the annual Angeles Crest 100 mile Endurance Run with Ken Hamada. The athletes called him Uncle Hal and took orders from him on mandatory pre race trail crews.
At 75 he took on the Hard Rock 100 with a sprained knee. Summiting the Rockies required 3,050 feet of climb and 33,050 feet of descent for a total elevation change of 66,100 feet. He managed the first 29 miles of the Hard Rock with the mindfulness of a monk, walking backwards downhill to manage the pain.
At 85 he completed his 35th straight Catalina Island Avalon 50 Benefit Run as their top fundraiser with his friend Gary Hilliard at his pacer.
He never spoke of feeling lonely nor did he see pain or fear as a roadblock. Even on his deathbed I saw no panic, only frustration.
What makes a person do crazy things? To keep going, to stand discomfort long enough to reap rewards. Is there an unquenchable curiosity or greatness coded into human beings who do unheard of things? Is it DNA? When his dad was asked, “Do you climb mountains, too?” Grandpa was blunt. “No. That’s what Harold does.” But grandpa proved himself. He built his cabin by hand, lifting massive beams into place forever earning his son’s admiration.
Horatio Nelson was an endurance freak. An adventurous son of a minister, a cross county feat was high play. With a bicyclist from Tacoma and a dog called Bud chosen especially for the trip Horatio was not stopped by
- the fuel leak that drained his gas tank forcing him to rent a bicycle, ride 25 miles, fix a flat tire on said bike, return to the Winton with fuel, drive back the 25 miles to fill er up and start over.
- losing his coat with most of his money in Idaho. He said it wasn’t missed.
- Everything else in the way of arriving in New York City July 26, 1903, two months after beginning.
Dad didn’t stop at running. He was a trail activist. He wanted to keep the mountains and the wild open to people. Because of this the Angeles Crest National Forest Service learned that Hal was a force of nature. He was certified to wield a chainsaw in the San Gabriel Mountains, was proud to clean toilets for the short-staffed forest service, and served as Trail Consultant for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Caballeros. He’d hound public officials until they kept trails open.
Did this perseverance grow from pushing against other’s low expectations? Or was he impelled by a Love that would not let him go?
Reading his Bible got him through the Korean War. When his Navy shipmates went offshore he stayed onboard and read. On his dying day his bed was piled with Bible commentaries and books. One friend said, Hal, how do you find anything with all those post it notes in your Bible? “That’s the one book where it doesn’t matter where you open it. You’ll always find something,” was his response.
With “Winton for Jesus” on his T-shirt, his faith was uncurbed, immediate, and physical. Miracles were everywhere. He credited the Holy Spirit whenever a circumstance or person was at the right place. One day friends Hardy and Jutta left him doing trail work. Deciding to return with a picnic, they found him dazed and bleeding. He’d been knocked out trying to move a big rock. “Could they take him to the hospital?” “No!” Instead they took him to their home and fed him pie. Between the pie and the rock, he saw it all as perfectly coordinated by the Holy Spirit.
Of course zeal and force of will demands a counterbalance. With a detailed mind of an engineer, he was long winded in a way that would wear you out. His slow methodical rituals were torturous when you wanted to get on with it. His bossy manner could put you on edge. His unchecked passion could hurt.
Fortunately, he had equal amounts of good-humored affection, honesty and humility. He knew how to rest and show up for you. He slept on my living room sofa every Christmas without fail saying it was the most comfortable bed in the world. As his kid he loved you ALWAYS. You knew you were lucky.
He slowly learned that he couldn’t fix people, though he never remarried, choosing freedom over compromise. He grounded himself with God, regular routines, impeccable notes, and long friendships. He was frugal, filling old Sprite bottles with water, buying cheap groceries at Smart and Final, and fixing everything thing he could. This included consenting to five ablations and a pacemaker to stay active. He griped at pacemaker engineers who’d set it up for sedentary people. To exert more energy he tapped on the device under the skin on his shoulder to get his heart rate up.
He was careful. He had everything you needed in his green fanny pack or the back of his Ford. He was never rushed when it came to safety. Nor was he suspicious or fearful. As his kid tagging along in the wild a certain look in his eye meant he wouldn’t be back for a while. By dusk I’d noted every landmark with growing anxiety. But, he always came back. He must have trusted the woods and me.
His last last month he felt like a dinosaur. Snails couldn’t go slower. He saw more and more doctors and was profoundly upset with a medical system that required him to manage five specialists without getting to the bottom of things.
He had new love for the taste of celery and said more than once, “We just don’t know what an incredible gift health is. We take it so for granted!”
His legs grew so heavy with fluid that it took ten minutes to lift them into the car. A week before he died, at the last Forest Service meeting he attended, he got locked on the wrong side of the gate from his car. Unable to climb the fence like he used to, and with an unwanted ocean pressing on his lungs, he hiked the fence until he found an opening. Given his health this acheivement was epic!
I happened to be in his neighborhood the Monday he needed to see two doctors. He looked awful. He hadn’t been sleeping. Each appointment required wheelchairs. The next day we went for a PET scan. He wasn’t well enough for it. “Dad you need to go to the ER to get back in balance.” He finally relented, “I guess that’s where it’s at.” But when the ER nurse offered to cut off his 35 year Avalon 50 shirt to make it easier he blasted out. “Hell No!” The shirt was saved.
Dad was a Leo, a lion, born August 7, 1931. So, it should be no surprise that his last ounce of endurance he pushed up of the bed and growled, “I have to get off this bed! I have to go home!”
Just as suddenly the pain medication hit. He relaxed. Those were his last words. As soon as they wheeled him to the ICU he coded. Dad crossed the finish line with his three kids holding his hands, singing him songs. He took his last breath at 6:11 am, Wednesday May 24th, 2017.
I don’t know what shape the Winton automobile and Horatio were in when they got to New York. I just know that to finish a great trek is heroic. To inspire others is historic.
Crazy! Doing inexplicable things is a mystery to all but the one doing it. Or as a Chinese proverb says, “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.”
Hal Winton dad, left a great legacy to my brother, sister, our family, kids, and all who knew him. He exemplified courage, determination, affection, moral integrity, and playfulness. As we unfold our own tales of perseverance a lot of it traceable to him.
Dad, we see you everywhere. We love you. Thank you for helping keep all the important trails open. Until we see you again, thanks for loving us all just the way you did.