Richard Benyo: Articles and Columns

Adventurecorps 2004 Badwater 135 Race Program

For Pete's Sake

It All Started with a Little Glass of Beer;
But Then, So Many Adventures Do.

It all started with beer. And ended the same way.

Between lay the opposite ends of a continent, more than three decades, and 300 miles of bad roads and trails.

The first beer appeared when I was six years young. Surreptitiously - and seemingly ritualistically - fed to me by Peter Herman, the patriarch of the Herman tribe.

Peter Herman was German. Germans drink beer. Peter Herman drank beer. So did his three sons: Puda (Norbert; Puda pronounced POO-da), Eppie (Edward), and Richard, after whom I was named. My "three musketeer" uncles.

I was special to Pete. I was not just the first male grandson of Peter Herman, but the first grandchild. Period. Still steeped in Old World customs, remnants of the rights of primogeniture, in which the first male offspring inherits the kingdom, I was treated special by Peter Herman. I was treated to Saturday afternoon - the holy hours in Peter Herman's week when he had about four hours to himself. Which he shared with me and only me.

Peter Herman was the janitor for St. Joseph's Catholic Church in what was then East Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. St. Joe's consisted of a huge church, a rectory, a parochial grade school, a residence for the Sisters of Christian Charity who taught at the school, and a mile or so away, a cemetery. The complex took up half a block of our little down-on-its-luck coal town. Peter Herman maintained the property through snowstorms, 5:15 a.m. masses, and annual top-to-bottom cleanings that would have stirred jealousy in a Quaker homemaker.

As a kid, I helped him maintain his own house by cutting the grass in the backyard and hauling ashes from the coal furnace in the basement. And was rewarded with shiny coins and with Saturday afternoons.

On Saturday afternoons Peter Herman would draw the shades in the front room, position his comfortable chair toward the clunky black-and-white TV, set up a dining room chair for me to sit next to him, and we'd spend the afternoon watching cowboy movies beamed through the world's first cable television system from stations in Philadelphia and New York City..

Peter Herman loved cowboy movies. And he had a marathon capacity to watch them. Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, Bob Steele. Hour after hour.

While we watched cowboy movies, Peter Herman drank beer, poured from a frosty bottle into a six-ounce glass. One day he brought in two glasses. And poured beer into both glasses. "Here," he said, handing me one. "You've got to learn to drink beer. Wash that trail dust out of your throat."

I tried it and made a face. He smiled; he seldom laughed outright; he was seldom out from under a heavy burden of worries and woes and physical pain. "You'll learn to like it," he said, "else you ain't much of a German." He smiled again, then became serious. "Don't ever tell your mother about this. This is between you and me."

He never gave me more than a six-ounce glass of beer. I learned how to nurse it all afternoon. From the cowboy movies like Roy Rogers' "Saga of Death Valley" (also starring Gabby Hayes and Don Barry), I learned about the infamous Valley of Death. From Peter Herman I learned how to hydrate for the dusty desert.

We never talked during the movies. The fact that I had become a severe stutterer in the wake of coming out of anesthesia early during a tonsillectomy at age five didn't bother him. After all, we were cowboys-in-training. We were supposed to be laconic.

Peter Herman, cowboy movie aficionado, never got to travel to the Wild West, much less than Death Valley. Hell, Pete Herman never got west of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. On a regular basis I told Pete Herman that someday I was going to go to Death Valley. He'd smile and raise his little beer glass and say: "Tell Roy Rogers I said ‘Hello!' And send me a postcard."

At the end of the afternoon, after the cowboy movies ended, he'd raise the shades and limp into the kitchen before my grandmother, Mary Herman (who towered over him), returned from her shopping trips and began to organize supper. On the way to the kitchen, he'd slip me a Senz-Senz to cover the beer on my breath. Whichever uncles were around would come by and we'd mosey up the street to the St. Joe's Club, where they'd drink nickel beers and I'd play the pinball machine. Pete Herman had been rippled in one leg as a child and he limped like a Pony Express rider who'd been in the saddle too long.

He never saw Death Valley. But he lived there once a week. For a few hours. Breathing in the alkali dust, squinting into the furnace sun, free to roam from Mauch Chunk to find some escape from the mundane, some peace while riding tall in the saddle with Roy and Gene and the rest.


Al Arnold was a big fella. Hulking, like a benign Frankenstein monster. Not your classic concentration camp skinny long-distance runner with spindly arms. But somewhat better looking than the Frankenstein monster.

He arrived at the offices of Runner's World in Mountain View, California one day in 1977. He'd called ahead. He had a story to tell us; pictures to show us. We were about to introduce a new magazine devoted to marathon running. Marathoning had outgrown itself and our February issue could no longer hold the annual marathoning summary so we were giving the sport its own quarterly magazine, The Marathoner.

Al had a fantastic story to tell of how he ran from Badwater in Death Valley, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, to the peak of Mt. Whitney, at 14,454 feet the highest point in the Lower 48. In the middle of summer. With temperatures in the 120s. He'd been crewed by Eric Rahkonen, a photographer for the Contra Costa Times. He'd almost died on the mountain when someone stole a cache of warm clothes he hid on the way up.

The 1977 first-ever successful solo crossing of the course had been Al's third attempt. He'd tried and failed in 1974 and 1975. He'd taken a bye in 1976 to get married.

Athletes had run the course some years before as a relay (in fact, a 16-minute film had been made of such a relay by Bruce Maxwell and Tate Miller; you could buy your very own 16-mm copy from an ad on page 137 of the February 1979 issue of Runner's World for a mere $195.), but it was felt that no runner was capable of doing the course solo. Big, tough, soft-spoken Al Arnold had proved them wrong.

The feature story in the first issue of The Marathoner (Spring 1978) opened the dam gates. Dozens of runners went to Death Valley each summer to attempt to do what Al Arnold had done.

But it took another four years until another runner succeeded. That runner was Jay Birmingham, who in 1981 ran the course in 75:34; Al Arnold had taken 84 hours to complete the distance.

But Birmingham didn't merely run the course. He followed it up by writing a book about the adventure, a book he called The Longest Hill, named after the 18-mile-long climb from Stovepipe Wells to Towne Pass, which effectively gets a runner out of Death Valley - and away from the worst of the heat.