Today we feature Ogden-based Kase Johnstun and the opening graphs of his short essay The Drought of 2012. He is the author of the recently-released nonfiction work Beyond the Grip of Craniosynostosis (McFarland & Co), awarded the Gold Quill (First Place) in Creative Nonfiction by the League of Utah Writers for 2015. Both a memoir and a medical study, this unique work explores the extensive and tragic reach of craniosynostosis, the premature fusing of the cranial sutures in infants.
An avid runner, Kase here writes about a run through the fetid heat of a drought-stricken Kansas summer with his chocolate Lab.
So . . . curl up with your favorite cup of joe and enjoy Kase Johnstun!
excerpt from The Drought of 2012
forthcoming in Like The Wind Magazine (UK)
At three in the morning, I lay awake on the dewy grass along the edge of East Canyon Reservoir in Northern Utah. My brother and best friend slept next to me. RAGNAR teams cheered for their runners when they approached. Relay wristbands slapped against the skin of departing runners, and I thought about how good life had been, how, in the last month, I had ran epic races in Vermont, Washington, and Utah, striding through rows of Vermont maples, Washington pines, and Utah oaks.
I didn’t see how single-cell carcinoma, only a few short days in the future, would take hold of my father-in-law’s lungs and brain and uproot me and my family, moving us from the evergreen-walled and water-lined running trails of Tacoma, Washington, to the country roads of southeast Kansas. We had a home that looked out over the water of the Puget Sound. We had great friends and a monthly dinner club where we drank too much wine and never regretted what we said.
Sure, some things in my life could have been better, but while I lay there on the grass, I placed those things to the side and gave myself a pat on the back for acting so mature about the goods and the bads of life.
With running, I’m always chasing another goal, another race, another PR, and in life, I’ve always done the same, but with only two legs left in RAGNAR, my final race of the spring, I felt content; no, beyond content, I felt happily content, so a week later when we found out about Steve’s cancer, I could hold my wife and listen to her cry and just be there.
When my little family arrived in Kansas, the thick brush of the 2012 drought had painted a yellow, parched, farmland that stretched out for blocks of square mile after blocks of square mile, country roads framing the dying corn and wheat and soy, and as if the drought had made it into the living room of Mary’s childhood home, the same sallow landscape had dug roots in my father-in-law’s eyes.
There were new rules there, and one in particular made Steve’s cancer real, a tube of disinfectant wipes sat on the lid of the toilet bowl. Before and after each use, we had to wipe the seat down to avoid contact with chemotherapy discharge. The damp wipe saved us from what had been unnaturally pumped into his body and naturally disposed of by his body.
The temperature was 104 degrees, and I never go for a run above the 85-degree mark, but the house had closed in on me and the morbidity of the situation hit me when I had left the bathroom.
“I’m going on a run,” I said aloud.
Mary, my wife, patted the back of my leg and didn’t say a word. The pat said it all. She knew I needed to get out and that I would be a better, less-stressed person when I got back.
My chocolate Labrador stood next to me, ready to run, to chase cattle, to sniff the Midwest countryside. She too had gotten used to the Pacific Northwest with cool trade winds and overcast skies and breathing in the wet vapor of a recent shower that remained in the air, and there, in Kansas, her mouth dropped open, and she began to pant before I had finished stretching.
We ran only a few feet before the blacktop ended and the gravel road began. I wore no socks. My lab began to overheat. The grit of sand and dirt pressed through my lips and wedged between my teeth. Along the edges of the fence, cows scampered away when approached. My shoes had seen too many miles, and the big rocks hurt when they stabbed my arches through my thinned-out soles. My dog tugged hard on the leash.
She yanked me from one side of the country road to the other side of the country road, the manure too strong for her to ignore. She pulled and stopped to point at a herd of cattle that gathered under the shade of a tree. Her neck, as thick as a log, stiffened and became immovable, so I bent down and tied my shoe again to give her time to explore. The air became still, and we moved forward, away from the house where we wiped the toilet seat before and after each use to avoid the discharge of chemotherapy.
A lone tree sat at the end of the mile-long country road. Unlike the trees the farmers planted in rows along the irrigation ditches, this tree stood alone and broke through the cattle fence and dropped shade onto the road. On our early morning runs, I would aim for that tree, using it as our turn-around point, and stop briefly beneath in its shade to pet my dog and take in the beauty of the plains, but we kept running instead, and it hurt.
I had no physical need to keep running. We’d done what we set out to do. If we turned back at that point, it would have been a nice, mid-distance run, we would have exorcised our excess energy, and we would have gotten away from the house long enough to release the stress of being there, but I thought about Steve, a man I found it easy to love from the first day I met him when he stretched out his arms and gave me a bear hug and a body shake.
The heat began to drain me, to make my calves cramp up, and to bring on a pounding headache, but I’d been there before, I’d ran when it was too hot, and I’d even gotten heat stroke because of it, but I knew that even if I passed out on the side of the road, Mary would, eventually, come and find me, and with some liquid, some food, and some sleep, my body would recover. The run would make me stronger.
Steve had cancer that had progressed so far that the doctors didn’t even consider surgery. The thought of his pain pushed me farther down the road until we eventually turned around and headed back to where I would dry heave in my mother-in-law’s bushes and wobble into the house.
Want to read more? You can read a second piece by Kase, titled Homeless in Barcelona, here.
Kase Johnstun lives and writes in Ogden, Utah. His work has been published widely by literary journals and trade magazines, including, but not limited to, Yahoo Parenting, Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Coldnoon: Travel Writing and Traveling Poetics, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the co-editor/author of Utah Reflections: Stories from the Wasatch Front (The History Press) and his essay collection Tortillas for Honkies was named a finalist for the 2013 Autumn House press Nonfiction Awards. For six years, his work has appeared multiple times in The Good Men Project and The Ogden Standard Examiner. In January 2016, he was the artist in residence at JIWAR International Artist Residency in Barcelona, Spain.
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