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Chapter 23
WE WHEEZED into Creel well after nightfall, the bus shuddering to a stop with a hiss from thebrakes like a sigh of relief. Outside the window, I spotted Caballo’s ghostly old straw hat bobbingtoward us through the dark.

I couldn’t believe how smoothly we’d crossed the Chihuahua desert. Ordinarily, the odds ofgetting across the border and catching four buses in a row without one of them breaking down orchugging in a half-day late were on a par with beating a Tijuana slot machine. On just about anytrip through Chihuahua, someone is sure to have to console you with the local motto: “Nothingworks out according to plan, but it always works out.” But this plan, so far, was turning out to befoolproof, booze-proof, and cartel-proof.

Of course, that was before Caballo met Barefoot Ted.

“CABALLO BLANCO! That’s YOU, RIGHT?”

Before I could make my way off the bus in Creel, I could hear a voice outside booming away like asiege gun. “YOU’RE Caballo! THAT IS SO COOL! You can call me MONO! THE MONKEY!

That’s ME, the MONKEY. That’s my spirit animal—”

When I stepped through the door, I found Caballo staring in appalled disbelief at Barefoot Ted. Asthe rest of us had discovered during the long bus ride, Barefoot Ted talked the way Charlie Parkerplayed the sax: he’d pick up any and cut loose with a truly astonishing torrent ofimprovisation,seemingtobreathei(on) nthrough(cue) his nose while maintaining an endless flow of soundout of his mouth. In our first thirty seconds in Creel, Caballo got blasted with more conversationthan he’d heard in a year. I felt a twinge of sympathy, but only a twinge. We’d been listening toThe Mixed-Up Files of Barefoot Ted for the past fifteen hours. Now it was Caballo’s turn.

“… the Tarahumara have been VERY inspirational for me. The first time I read that theTarahumara could run a one-hundred-mile race in sandals, that realization was so shocking andSUBVERSIVE, so counterintuitive to what I had assumed was NECESSARY for a human beingto go that distance, I remember thinking What in the HELL? How in the HELL is this possible?

That was the first thing, the first CHINK IN THE WALL, that MAYYYBEE modern shoecompanies don’t have all the answers. …”

You didn’t even have to hear Barefoot Ted to appreciate his cocktail shaker of a mind; just seeinghim was enough. His outfit was a combination of Tibetan Warrior Monk and skateboard chic:

denim kickboxing pants with a drawstring waist, a skintight white tank top, Japanese bathhouseslippers, a brass skeleton amulet dangling to the middle of his chest, and a red bandanna knottedaround his neck. With his shaved head, cinder-block build, and dark eyes that danced aroundseeking attention as much as his voice, he looked like Uncle Fester in good fighting trim.

“Yeah. Okay, man,” Caballo muttered, easing past Ted to greet the rest of us. We grabbed ourbackpacks and followed Caballo across Creel’s one main street toward lodging he’d arranged onthe edge of town. We were all starving and exhausted after the long trip, shivering in the high-mesa cold and longing for nothing except a warm bed and a hot bowl of Mamá’s frijoles—all of usexcept Ted, that is, who believed the first order of business was continuing the life story he’dbegun telling Caballo the second they met.

Caballo’s teeth were on edge, but he decided not to interrupt. He had some terrible news, and hehadn’t figured out yet how to break it without all of us turning around and getting right back on thebus.

“My life is a controlled explosion,” Barefoot Ted likes to say. He lives in Burbank, in a smallcompound that resembles Tom Hanks’s kid-gone-wild apartment in Big. The grounds are full ofgumball-colored Spyder sports cars, carousel horses, Victorian high-wheel bicycles, vintage Jeeps,circus posters, a saltwater swimming pool, and a hot tub patrolled by an endangered Californiadesert tortoise. Instead of a garage, there are two giant circus tents. Wandering in and out of thesingle-story bungalow are an assortment of dogs and cats, plus a goose, a tame sparrow, thirty-sixhoming pigeons, and a handful of odd Asian chickens with claws covered in fur-like feathers.

“I forget that heavy Heidegger word, but it’s the one that means I’m an expression of this place,”

Ted says, although the place isn’t his at all. It belongs to his cousin Dan, a self-taught mechanicalgenius who single-handedly created the world’s leading carousel-restoration business. “Dita VonTeese strips on one of our horses,” Ted says. “Christina Aguilera brought one on tour with her.”

While Dan was going through a bad divorce a few years ago, Ted decided that what his cousinneeded most was more Ted, so he showed up at Dan’s door with his wife, daughter, and menagerieand never left. “Dan spends all day fighting with big, cold, mean, mechanical things and emergeswith grease dripping off his fingers like blood off the talons of a bird of prey,” Ted says. “That’swhy we’re indispensable. He’d be a sociopath if he didn’t have me around to argue with.”

Ted made himself useful by setting up a little online store for carousel trinkets, which he ran froma Mac in one of Dan’s spare bedrooms. It didn’t pay much, but it left Ted a lot of time to train forfifty-mile rides on his six-foot-tall Victorian bike and to cross-train by hauling his wife anddaughter around in a rickshaw. Caballo had gotten totally the wrong impression of Ted’s wealth,mostly because Ted’s e-mails tended to be full of schemes better suited to an early Microsoftinvestor. While the rest of us were pricing economy flights to El Paso, for instance, Ted wasasking about landing strips in the Mexican outback for a private bush plane. Not that Ted has aplane; he barely has a car. He sputters around in a ’66 VW Beetle in such coughing decline, hecan’t take it more than twenty-five miles from home. But that’s just fine by Ted; in fact, it’s allpart of the master plan. “That way, I never have to travel very far,” he explains. “I’m a pauper bychoice, and I find it extremely liberating.”

During his student days at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Ted had a major crush ona classmate, Jenny Shimizu. While hanging out at her apartment one evening, he met two ofJenny’s new friends: Chase Chen, a young artist from China, and Chase’s sister, Joan. Neither ofthe Chen siblings spoke much English, so Ted anointed himself their personal cultural ambassador.

The friendship worked out great for everyone: Ted had a captive audience for his symphonicstream-of-consciousness, the Chens were exposed to a flood of new vocabulary, and Jenny got alittle breathing room from Ted’s wooing. Within a few years, three of the foursome would beinternational names: Joan Chen became a Hollywood star and one of People magazine’s “50 MostBeautiful People.” Chase became a critically acclaimed portrait painter and the most highly paidAsian artist of his generation. Jenny Shimizu became a model and one of the planet’s best-knownlesbians (“a homo-household name,” as The Pink Paper declared) for her affairs with Madonna andAngelina Jolie (a career trajectory that, despite the tattoo on Jenny’s right biceps of a hot babestraddling a Snap-on tool, Ted never saw coming).

As for Ted, well…He did manage to crack the Top 30 in the world for breath-holding. “I got up to five minutes andfifteen seconds,” Ted says. “Spent the whole summer practicing in the pool.” But breath-holding,alas, is a fickle mistress, and it wasn’t long before Ted was knocked out of the rankings by othercompetitors even more dedicated to the art of inhaling less than the rest of us. You have to feel apang of sympathy for the poor guy, burbling away with dreams of glory at the bottom of hiscousin’s swimming pool, while just about everyone he knew was painting masterpieces, beddingsuperstars, and getting close-ups from Bernardo Bertolucci.

And the worst part? Ted holding his breath was actually Ted at his best. In a way, that’s even whatattracted Lisa, the woman who’d become his wife. They were roommates in the group house, butbecause Lisa was a bouncer at a heavy-metal bar and only got home at 3 a.m., her exposure to Tedwas limited to the dry-land version of the bottom of the pool: after work, she’d come home to findTed sitting quietly at the kitchen table, eating rice and beans with his nose buried in Frenchphilosophy. His stamina and intelligence were already legendary among his roommates; Ted couldpaint all morning, skateboard all afternoon, and memorize Japanese verbs all night. He’d fix Lisa ahot plate of beans, and then, with his manic motor finally running down, he’d stop performing andlet her talk. Every once in a while, he’d chip in a sensitive insight, then encourage her to go on.

Few ever saw this Ted. That was their great loss—and his.

But Chase Chen got it. His artist’s eye also spotted the quiet intensity in the aftermaths ofHurricane Ted. Chase’s specialty, after all, was “the dramatic dance between sunlight andshadow,” and brother, was dramatic dancing ever Ted to a tee. What fascinated Chase wasn’taction, but anticipation; not the ballerina’s leap, but the instant before takeoff when her strength iscoiled and anything is possible. He could see the same thing during Ted’s quiet moments, the samesimmering power and unlimited possibility, and that’s when Chase reached for his sketch pad. Foryears, Chase would use Ted as a model; some of his finest works, in fact, are portraits of Ted, Lisa,and their incandescently lovely daughter, Ona. Chase was so entranced by the world as reflectedby Ted that he released an entire book with nothing but portraits of Ted and his family: Ted andOna cooped up in the old Beetle … Ona buried in a book … Lisa glancing over her shoulder atOna, the living product of her father’s sunlight and shadow.

By the time Ted was pushing forty, though, his four decades of dramatic dancing had gotten himno further than cameos in another man’s masterpiece and a spare room in his cousin’s bungalow.

But just when it seemed he’d crossed that bridge between great potential and squandered talent,something wonderful happened:

He got a backache.

In 2003, Ted decided to celebrate his fortieth birthday with his own endurance event, “TheAnachronistic Ironman.” It would be a full Ironman triathlon—2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-milebike ride, and 26.2-mile run—except, for reasons only clear to Ted, all the gear had to date fromthe 1890s. He was already two-thirds of the way there; he was strong enough to handle the swim infull-length woollies, and he’d become an ace on his high-wheel bike. But the run— the run wasmurdering him.

“Every time I for hour, I had excruciating lower-back pain,” Ted says. “It so discouraging.Icou(ran) ldn’tev(an) enimaginebeingabletorunamarathon.”Andtheworstwasyetto(was) come: if he couldn’t handle six miles in bouncy modern running shoes, then he was in for a worldof hurt when he went hard-core Victorian. Running shoes have only been around about as long asthe space shuttle; before that, your dad wore flat rubber gym shoes and your granddad was inleather ballet slippers. For millions of years, humans ran without arch support, pronation control,or gel-filled pods under their heels. How the hell they managed, Ted had no idea. But first thingsfirst; he was less than six months out from his birthday, so Priority No. 1 was finding some way,any way, to cover twenty-six miles on foot. Once he figured that out, he could worry later abouttransitioning into the cowhide widow-makers.

“If I make up my mind, I will find a way,” Ted says. “So I started doing research.” First, he gotchecked by a chiropractor and an orthopedic surgeon, and both said there was really nothing wrongwith him. Running was just an inherently dangerous sport, they told him, and one of the dangerswas the way impact shock shoots up your legs and into your spine. But the docs did have somegood news: if Ted insisted on running, he could probably be cured with a credit card. Top-of-thelinerunning shoes and some spongy heel pads, they said, should cushion his legs enough to gethim through a marathon.

Ted spent a fortune he really didn’t have on the most expensive shoes he could find, and wascrushed to discover that they didn’t help. But instead of blaming the docs, he blamed the shoes: hemust need even more cushioning than thirty years of Nike air-injection R&D had come up with. Sohe gulped hard and sent three hundred dollars to Switzerland for a pair of Kangoo Jumps, thespringiest shoes in the world. Kangoos are basically Rollerblades as designed by Wile E. Coyote:

instead of wheels, each boot sits atop a full-length steel-spring suspension that lets you boing alonglike you’re in a Moon bounce.

When the box arrived, six weeks later, Ted was almost quivering with excitement. He took a fewtentative bounces … fantastic! It was like walking with Mick Jagger’s mouth strapped to thebottom of each foot. Oh, this was going to be the answer, Ted thought as he began bouncing downthe street. By the time he got to the corner, he was clutching his back and cursing. “The sensation Igot after an hour in running shoes, I got almost instantly from these Kangoo boots,” Ted says. “Myworldview of what I needed was shattered.”

Furious and frustrated, he yanked them off his feet. He couldn’t wait to shove the stupid Kangoosback in the box and mail them back to Switzerland with instructions for further shoving. Hestalked home barefoot, so pissed off and disappointed that it took him nearly the entire walk tonotice what was happening: his back didn’t hurt. Didn’t hurt a bit.

Heyyy … Ted thought. Maybe I can speed walk the marathon in bare feet. Bare feet certainlyqualified as 1890s sportswear.

So every day, Ted put on his running shoes and walked over to Hansen Dam, an oasis of scrubbrush and lakes he calls “L.A.’s last wilderness.” Once there, he pulled off his shoes and hikedbarefoot along the bridle paths. “I was totally amazed at how enjoyable it was,” he recalled. “Theshoes would cause so much pain, and as soon as I took them off, it was like my feet were fishjumping back into water after being held captive. Finally, I just left the shoes at home.”

But why did his back feel better with less cushioning, instead of more? He went online in search ofanswers, and the result was like parting the foliage in a rain forest and discovering a secret tribe ofthe Amazon. Ted stumbled across an international community of barefoot runners, complete withtheir own ancient wisdom and tribal nicknames and led by their great bearded sage, “Barefoot KenBob” Saxton. And luckily, this was one tribe that loved to write.

Ted pored over years’ worth of Barefoot Ken Bob’s archives. He discovered that Leonardo daVinci considered the human foot, with its fantastic weight-suspension system comprising onequarter of all the bones in the human body, “a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.” Helearned about Abebe Bikila—the Ethiopian marathoner who ran barefoot over the cobblestones ofRome to win the 1960 Olympic marathon—and about Charlie Robbins, M.D., a lone voice in themedical wilderness who ran barefoot and argued that marathons won’t hurt you, but shoes sure asshooting will.

Most of all, Ted was transfixed by Barefoot Ken Bob’s “Naked Toe Manifesto.” It gave Ted chills,the way it seemed directed personally at him. “Many of you may be suffering from chronicrunning related injuries,” Barefoot Ken Bob begins:

Shoes block pain, not impact!Pain teaches us to run comfortably!From the moment you start goingbarefoot, you will change the way you run.

“That was my Eureka! moment,” Ted recalled. Suddenly, it all made sense. So that’s why thosestinkin’ Kangoo Jumps made his back ache! All that cushioning underfoot let him run with big,sloppy strides, which twisted and tweaked his lower back. When he went barefoot, his forminstantly tightened; his back straightened and his legs stayed squarely under his hips.

“No wonder your feet are so sensitive,” Ted mused. “They’re self-correcting devices. Coveringyour feet with cushioned shoes is like turning off your smoke alarms.”

On his first barefoot run, Ted went five miles and felt… nothing. Not a twinge. He bumped it up toan hour, then two. Within months, Ted had transformed himself from an aching, fearful non-runnerinto a barefoot marathoner with such speed that he was able to accomplish something that 99.9percent of all runners never will: he qualified for the Boston Marathon.

Intoxicated with his startling new talent, Ted kept pushing further. He went on to run the MotherRoad 100—one hundred miles of asphalt on the original Route 66—and the Leona Divide fiftymiler,and the Angeles Crest 100-Mile Endurance Run through the rugged San Gabriel Mountains.

Whenever he hit gravel and broken glass, he yanked on rubber foot gloves called the VibramFiveFingers and kept going. Soon, he wasn’t just some runner; he was one of the best barefootrunners in America and a sought-after authority on stride technique and ancient footwear. Onenewspaper even ran an article on foot health headlined WHAT WOULD BAREFOOT TED DO?

Ted’s evolution was complete. He’d emerged from the watery depths, learned to run, and capturedthe only quarry he desired—not fortune, just fame.

“Stop!”

Caballo was talking to all of us, not just Ted. He brought us to an abrupt halt in the middle of awobbly footbridge over a sewage ditch.

“I need you all to swear a blood oath,” he said. “So put up your right hands and repeat after me.”

Eric looked over at me. “What’s this all about?”

“Beats me.”

“You’ve got to make the oath right here, before we cross over to the other side,” Caballo insisted.

“Back there is the way out. This is the way in. If you’re in, you’ve got to swear it.”

We shrugged, dropped our packs, and lifted our hands.

“If I get hurt, lost, or die,” Caballo began.

“If I get hurt, lost, or die,” we chanted.

“It’s my own damn fault.”

“It’s my own damn fault!”

“Uh … amen.”

“AMEN!”

Caballo led us over to the tiny house where he and I had eaten the day we met. We all squeezedinto Mamá’s living room as her daughter jammed two tables together. Luis and his dad duckedacross the street and returned with two big bags of beer. Jenn and Billy took a few sips of Tecateand began to perk up. We all raised our beers and clinked cans with Caballo. Then he turned to meand got down to business. Suddenly, the oath on the bridge made sense.

“You remember Manuel Luna’s son?”

“Marcelino?” Of course I remembered the Human Torch. I’d been mentally signing Nike contractson his behalf ever since I’d seen him at the Tarahumara school. “Is he coming?”

“No,” Caballo said. “He’s dead. Someone beat him to death. They murdered him out on the trail.

He was stabbed in the neck and under the arm and his head was bashed in.”

“Who … what happened?” I stammered.

“There’s all kind of drug shit going these days,” Caballo said. “Maybe Marcelino saw somethinghewasn’tsupposedtosee.Mayb(on) e they were trying to get him to carry weed out of thecanyon and he said no. No one really knows. Manuel is just heartbroken, man. He stayed over atmy house when he came to tell the federales. But they’re not going to do anything. There’s no lawdown here.”

I sat, stunned. I remembered the drug runners in the shiny red Deathmobile we’d seen on the wayto the Tarahumara school the year before. I pictured stealthy Tarahumara tipping it over the edgeof a cliff at night, the drug runners clawing frantically at their seat belts, the truck bouncing downthe canyon and exploding in a giant fireball. I had no idea if the men in the Deathmobile had beeninvolved. All I knew was I wanted to kill somebody.

Caballo was still talking. He had already absorbed Marcelino’s death and was back to obsessingover his race. “I know Manuel Luna won’t come, but I’m hoping Arnulfo will show up. Andmaybe Silvino.” Over the winter, Caballo managed to put together a nice pot of prizes; not onlywas he kicking in his own money, but he’d also been contacted out of the blue by Michael French,a Texas triathlete who’d made a fortune from his IT company. French was intrigued by myRunner’s World article, and while he couldn’t make it to the race himself, he offered to put up cashand corn for the top finishers.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you say Arnulfo is coming?”

“Yeah,” Caballo nodded.

He had to be joking. Arnulfo? He wouldn’t even talk to me, let alone join me for a run. If hewouldn’t go for a jog with a guy who’d come to pay homage right at his doorstep, why would hetravel across the mountains to run with a pack of gringos he’d never seen before? And Silvino; I’dmet Silvino the last time I was down here. We’d run into him by chance in Creel, right after I’dgone running with Caballo. He was in his pickup and wearing his jeans, the spoils from themarathon he’d won in California. Where did Caballo get the idea that Silvino would bother comingto his race? Silvino couldn’t even be induced to run another marathon for the chance of another bigpayday. I’d learned enough about the Tarahumara, and those two runners in particular, to knowthere was no way the Quimare clan had any intention of turning up.

“Victorian athletics were fascinating!” Oblivious to the fact that it suddenly seemed very unlikelythat any Tarahumara runners were going to appear, Ted was prattling on. “That was the firstEnglish Channel crossing. Have you ever ridden a high-wheel bike? The engineering is soingenious. …”

God, what a disaster. Caballo was rubbing his head; it was pushing midnight, and just beingaround humans was giving him a headache. Jenn and Billy had a platoon of dead Tecate cans infront of them and were falling asleep on the table. I was miserable, and I could tell Eric and Luiswere picking up on the tension and getting concerned. But not Scott; he just sat back, amused. Hecaught everything and seemed worried by nothing.

“Look, I got to sleep,” Caballo said. He led us over to a collection of neat, ancient cabins on theedge of town. The rooms were sparse as cells, but spotlessly clean and toasty from potbelliedstoves crackling with pine branches. Caballo mumbled something and disappeared. The rest of usdivided up into pairs. Eric and I grabbed one room, Jenn and Billy headed to another.

“All right!” Ted said, clapping his hands. “Who gets me?”

Silence.

“Okay,” Scott said. “But you’ve got to let me sleep.”

We shut our doors and sank into deep piles of wool blankets. Silence fell over Creel, until the lastthing Scott heard was Barefoot Ted’s voice in the dark.

“Okay, brain,” Ted muttered. “Relax. Time to quiet down.”


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