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Zayde and Cormac: a marathon hiker finds new worlds in his grandson’s cul-de-sac amid COVID | COMMENTARY

Barney Scout Mann walks with his 2-year-old grandson, Cormac. (Trevor Johnston/Handout)
Barney Scout Mann walks with his 2-year-old grandson, Cormac. (Trevor Johnston/Handout) (Trevor Johnston/Handout)

I am 69, and I’ve backpacked the equivalent of two-thirds of the globe’s circumference. I am a “Triple Crowner.” I’ve hiked America’s three major trails: The Pacific Crest, the Continental Divide and the Appalachian Trails. There are fewer Triple Crowners than people who have flown in outer space. Three times between 2007 and 2017, I backpacked for five months.

Which is to say, I walk. Last spring those treks were eclipsed — by short walks with my 2-year-old grandson, Cormac.

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“Come NOW,” came the call. Jordie, our middle child, was eight-months pregnant. She’s a Bethesda hospital physician, and last March, as her COVID protocols multiplied, her message was clear — jump immediately from our suburban home to their basement bedroom or miss our second grandson’s birth.

Sequestered with our daughter, her husband and Cormac, I turned to that old friend: walking. At 11 a.m., the second morning at their home, I took Cormac out from their cul-de-sac to walk to the corner. We passed 29 homes with fear-shuttered doors.

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At first, Cormac had to be coaxed. Before this, long walks were in a stroller.

“Look, there’s a fire hydrant.”

“Let’s balance on that rock.”

I took sidewalk chalk and showed him how we could draw on asphalt, since there were no sidewalks. For weeks he couldn’t pronounce “Zayde,” Yiddish for Grandpa, and he called me “Ayda.”

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“Draw a truck, Ayda.”

Soon, the two of us had our favorite fire hydrant, and we redecorated it with chalk every day. We hiked one long block, a quarter mile. Out and back took an hour.

Neighbors peered through windows and then from front porches. Our walk became a daily event for many of them. Waves turned to behind-masks conversations. “Is he your grandson?” One day my wife was in the backyard with Cormac, noticed the time and cried, “Cormac, it’s time for your walk.” He ran to the front of the house.

“Zayde, I’m coming! I’m coming!”

Every day, seven homes down on the right, we moved Veronica’s garden gnomes a few inches. Then she played along, moving them to a different spot. I purchased a dozen rainbow pinwheels, and Cormac planted them in flower beds and in front lawns. Seventy-year-old Eliot mounted a 20-foot ladder and replaced his tree swing for us. We admired Steve’s peonies, and that afternoon a cut bouquet showed up on Jordie’s porch. Cormac and I watched the arugula in Eliot’s front garden sprout, flourish, go to seed and finally wilt.

“Talk arugula, Zayde.”

My wife and I returned to our own home after three months. Before leaving, I drew a map of our walk. “Annie’s house”; “Mosey the cat’s home”; “Ashby and Eli” and “Babe the Backhoe” (Neighbor Randy had a backyard backhoe named for the pig in the movie “Babe”).

I’m used to hiking 15 to 25 miles each day, a 2-mile-per-hour clip even uphill. Cormac’s legs, shorter than my calf, drove a different pace. His block became our universe, as large and diverse as my thousands of miles of trail.

When we left, our pandemic pod was reduced to the two of us. Like so many, for nine months I didn’t hug anyone other than my wife, didn’t go to a restaurant for a year. Going to the supermarket to buy food wasn’t a casual event, but a strategic one, often early in the morning to avoid crowds.

My latest book, “Journeys North,” was published last summer by Seattle’s Mountaineers Books, and in every virtual book talk, I told the story of that short hike: You do not have to go out for five months. Just walk out your front door. Outdoors you’ll leave your laptop behind, your smartphone might stay in your pocket. Even in masks, you will look passersby in the eye, and maybe you’ll see that crinkling next to their eyes that we now recognize as the sign of a smile. Maybe you’ll have a small hand in yours, or the hand of a dear one.

This spring I began the 800-mile Arizona Trail. I traverse desert landscapes worthy of Georgia O’Keeffe’s brush. Around any bend might be the completely unexpected. But nothing was ever more unexpected than to live with Jordie’s family for three entire months, to live with a pregnant woman again, to hold a newborn for an hour or two each day, to walk with Cormac for 90 days straight, and to hear him cry out as his little legs churned toward me, “Zayde, I’m coming! I’m coming!”

Barney Scout Mann (barneyscoutmann@gmail.com) is a long-distance hiker and writer. His most recent book is “Journeys North: The Pacific Crest Trail” (Mountaineers Books, 2020).

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