Yesterday was a wonderfully dank November day here in Illinois. I needed to pick up a prescription at the Meijer store in Geneva and drove up to the corner of Route 38 and Randall Road. Our dog Lucy came along for the ride because she gets bored around the house. Outside the store, I looked west and thought it would be fun to take a trip out through Elburn on my way back home.
What I actually had in mind was a walk through Elburn Forest Preserve. That woods was a natural refuge for my brothers after we moved from Pennsylvania out to Illinois in 1970. We’d walk the railroad tracks out to the forest preserve to go birding. The preserve back then was mowed all the way into the woods. It served as the site for the Kaneland High School cross country course.
As a freshman at Kaneland I ran on both the sophomore and varsity teams. The course started on a long stretch of grass and turned toward the woods at 400 meters. Up the gravel road we’d go as the incline increased. The last fifty yards were the steepest. The wise runner ran steady below and saved some gas for that last climb.
Then the course took a winding route through the woods. I well recall running that gravelly trail in my Puma kangaroo leather spikes with velcro tabs. Only once during those two years at Kaneland did I lead the entire pack in a race at Elburn Woods. It was a dual meet in which our top runner Bill Creamean had to withdraw with back problems. I took the lead at the mile marker and never looked back. There is no joy like that in the world.
A few years later, following graduation from college, I was invited back to run with the Kaneland squad in its preseason meet. By then I was much faster and stronger than most high school kids. I soared up the hill and found myself all alone for the rest of the race. But it was a nostalgic journey nevertheless. I so treasure those early cross country experiences for their influence on my life. Our coaches Rich Born and assistant coach Larry Eddington believed in us. It was always a thrilling experience to race through those woods as part of a team that was motivated to do our best.
The years have long passed since those days in high school cross country. I’ve returned many times to that preserve with binoculars and camera in hand for nature walks. It’s a strange sensation to realize that many of the trees I passed at full pace during races all those years ago are still standing in silent testimony to the years. Yet many have fallen as well. Now their trunks lay rotting on the forest floor where fungi grab hold and help turn them to soil. The fungi sport the pattern and color of nature’s uniforms. Human beings are no different. We decorate ourselves with colors and insignia to mark our tribal affiliations.
Over the last 45 years I’ve watched the lower woods at Elburn FP fill in with shrubs and trees where grass was once mowed and a white line once led runners through the trees. The grassy area where races once started and finished is now grown over with marsh plants in a soggy wetland. Going up the hill, a series of drainage ruts in the gravel road has grown so deep it would be a danger to legs and ankles if runners came through. It appears the racing days at Elburn Forest Preserve are well past. The forest preserve district has returned much of the property back to its natural state. And that’s fine with me.
There is no real loss in any of that. The shouts and cries of encouragement at cross country meets are both and ephemeral and eternal thing. The parents who once urged us on are also gone. Yet the clouds of mosquitoes that bit us on warm fall days and the falling leaves that riddled the course continue their rhythms unabated. Nature absorbs our energies and our memories.
Every cross country race is like that, a mix of brightly colored human endeavor amid autumn’s natural succession. All we can do is smile at those recollections and bear witness to the importance of these rituals to each new generation.
Our sweet dog Lucy is a puppy-level bundle of canine energy. She’s seven months old and loves running because she’s a 50% pitty mix with border collie, box and beagle mixed in. She has a nose for fun and isn’t afraid to run. Just like me.
Yet that makes it a challenging job to contain her behavior at times. She is still learning not to yank on the leash or follow her nose into the brush at ever scent. I’m always torn reining her in because her walks are obviously the highlight of her day. In summer she bounds after frogs into the green bushes. Now it has snowed. Everything’s brown and damped down. So now she sits and barks out the window at the fat squirrels hanging around our bird feeder.
But when she gets to the dog park it’s open season on fun. Trouble is, she can be overly assertive in her play. When the dog group is right she usually does fine. Her hyper nature passes after a few minutes and everyone gets along. But sometimes she sticks her nose where another dog doesn’t like it and some snarling ensues. Dog politics.
Of course dogs snarl when they’re at play too. Yesterday Lucy and a dog named Apple wrestled and played for a full half hour. While Lucy is fast, Apple was faster. So Lucy charged after her and Apple ran like a middle distance runner laughing at the 10K runner trying to keep up over a short sprint. Apple would glance back and you could see the playful look in her eyes while Lucy charged after with her back hackles up in frustration. Then they’d meet, wrestle some more and make a mess out of each other in the soggy grass. In fact she got so tired she trotted over to the gate and wanted to leave. That was a first for her.
Lucy has a white coat and she came home covered in mud. I took her to the tub for a bath and she was happy once she felt the warm water. Plus she smells better.
But thinking back to the dog park made me realize how much much alike dogs and people can be. The other dogs wrestled with Lucy over a stick and fortunately everyone got along. They usually do. But sometimes dogs get possessive and things get dicey for a moment. Just like people.
The sight of her running full bore around the big open field is worth the occasional intervention on my part. She’s getting socialized after being initially fearful of the whole dog park dynamic. Now my job is to teach her manners. That happens by regular visit. The other dogs also teach her too.
It’s all part of dealing at the dog park. Our goal is to get her tired enough each day to chill out when she’s at home. Then she can rest her head on our legs and dream about fun another time.
In November 1978 I was a senior at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Our team had just placed second in the NCAA National Cross Country Championships in Rock Island, Illinois. I was fifth man for the team that day after performing most of the season as our second runner on the varsity.
That was a large step up from the first three years of my college running career. I’d largely lurked in the bottom half of the Top 7, but still finished in the Top 10 in conference three times. So I was a contributor to our team success, just not the leader each season.
But thanks to my own running progression coming off a successful junior track season in which I set all my distance PRs from one mile to the steeplechase, I came to school that fall in good condition and ready to change my fate.
It also helped that I cut off the long hair and scruffy beard that had been my hallmark the year before. I fashioned myself a copy of Finnish distance runner Lasse Viren, and looked like him in the thinning hair and pale skin department. My thin chin beard also matched the look.
But it was time for a change, so that summer I told the barber to cut off my shoulder-length hair. That same week I got my first pair of contact lenses. I retained the mustache in keeping with a Steve Prefontaine or Frank Shorter look.
We ran hundreds of miles in training. Week after week I was second man behind my roommate, Dani Fjelstad, another Luther runner who took it upon himself to meet his true potential that season. He’d been similar to me in his cross country career at Luther, typically in the middle of the roster when he wasn’t hurt. He came to campus that fall in awesome shape, winning the Luther Invitational against a tough field, and many other races as well.
we pushed each other to lead the team, which was by happenstance beset by injuries to two of our best runners. That year a pair of freshman arrived on campus with keen credentials, so the stage was set for Luther to finally place at Nationals. We won several invites that fall, yet barely made it through regionals in 5th place.
So it was a shock to many that we placed second in the nation. Our margin of error was thin. We only beat the third and fourth place teams by a couple points. That made the sensations I felt in the last half mile seem surreal. I knew somehow that I had to pass people and let no one pass me. Time seemed to slow down.
After our triumph, I returned to campus to find myself behind in a couple courses. Our training and meets consumed so much time that I had to make up tests and finish other projects before the term ended. One of those obligations was a drawing course within my Art major. My professor John Whelan was himself a runner of note. But he believed in the merit of real college-level work in art. He informed me that there were still eighteen hours of outside-class drawing due to complete the course requirements. I had a weekend in which to finish the work.
So I recruited models and worked from studies of other great artists. The live models sat for me as life drawing subjects. But come Sunday evening everyone was busy with their own end-of-term work. So I sat down and started the self-portrait that would finish up the last two hours of drawing.
Recently while going through my portfolio drawers I stumbled on that drawing (first image in this post) again. I see the thin and determined face of a young man that had just completed one of the most challenging thirteen weeks of his athletic career. I was lean and fit as a hawk during hunting season. In fact the self-portrait has the head of a red-tailed hawk drawn next to it. That’s because I’d made a talisman from the talon of a road kill hawk and turned it into a necklace. It was my promise to myself that I’d get back to the art work after devoting myself 100% to the task at hand, a winning season.
Granted, I was not “national class” in the sense that I placed in the Top 25 to earn individual All-American status. I’d run 25:16 on a flat, fast Arsenal Island course on a cool fall day and placed around 60th overall. Dan Henderson of Wheaton College won the race in the low 23:00 range. A few years later I’d run 24:46 for five miles and that was as fast as I ever got.
But it took determination to do even what I did. Of that I’m proud and still feel those strains of determination within me to this day. It’s something you learn through effort, and keep the same way. The face may have changed with age, but the self portrait is a depiction of a spirit I’ll never give up.
Before hopping on the train to Chicago this morning, I slipped into the restroom at the Perk Up! cafe in the Geneva train station. The walls in that room were decorated with skeleton wallpaper.
The first image that stood out was the band of cycling skeletons.
I think I’ve ridden with some of those folks. Most of them seem to be wearing helmets. But not to worry if they’re not. It’s impossible to get a debilitating head injury if there’s nothing inside. And if you dare claim, “My legs are killing me,” the entire group ride will just laugh at you and say, “That can’t be true! You’re already dead!”
The next band of skeletons appeared to be having a fit of existential angst about their city life. I can certainly relate to their urban blues. Yet the pile of skeleton heads to the right is a bit disconcerting. But now it appears one of their kin is heading over to investigate. Perhaps he’s just looking for a friend. In the pile. Such is life in Skeleton City.
Whoa! Lookee there! If there’s such a thing as a Skeleton Hottie, I guess that babe with the boney hips with the cell phone and skelepup is one of them. Perhaps the skeledog walker had been trying to impress her with his deathly trie, but struck out because he couldn’t promise that he’d get a boner later on. Well, no worries. The gal in the sundress and shades seems to have gotten a chuckle out of that. Perhaps he’ll get lucky with her. Unless Mr. Alcohol gets there first.
But wait! It appears there really is romance in the skeleton world! Here’s a bride and groom about to bone up on their vows. They’ll love the part that says “Til death do us part,” because they’ve already knocked that one out of the park. Perhaps that’s the head of her Ex in the left foreground.
Who says skeletons aren’t up for a little old-fashioned fun? Here are a few skeletal folks enjoying the thrills of a Merry-Go-Round. Those first two horses seem jealous of the skeleton centaur in the lead. I guess the skeleton world is a bit more complicated than I thought. But the motif seems a little repetitive with skulls on top for decoration.
There you have it. So, from one bag of bones to another, here’s hoping your femur supports your tibia and all that nonsense. It’s all about putting one foot in front of the other in this life, even when you’re dead.
Last winter a friend advocating for gay rights through our church offered me a rainbow cap. It turned out the thing was comfortable, not cheaply made, and I wear it quite a few places. It keeps my head warm. But it also warms my heart.
The rainbow has come to symbolize LGBTQ rights in this world, and I fully support gay rights on every front. My son is gay and so are many of my friends and associates, and their children two. There is a gay female couple that lives at the front of our cul de sac, which fits the general diversity of our neighborhood with families that are black, Latino, Asian and white.
Recently while making calls for our Luther College class reunion, I touched base with a classmate that I knew was gay back in the day. But that period in history did not welcome people coming out of the closet. We talked at length about his experience during college and beyond. We compared notes about relationships and I was pleased to meet his partner at the class reunion.
It’s interesting to meet gay partners because it helps you realize that it is differences that make relationships work. My former neighbor was a gay man I’ll call Bill partner could not have been more different in personality from his boyfriend. While Bill was studious and religious in demeanor, his partner Derrick was rambunctious and irreverent. He loved to tease Bill’s mother Beth Ann, who adored the attention. Even Bill’s somewhat crusty, seemingly grumpy father Jack loved the celebratory nature of Derrick, who knew how to throw a party, among other things. And good old Jack loved a good party.
Those two gay men looked after Bill’s parent’s as age-related health faded for both of them. The other siblings helped some, but not much. They knew they could rely on Bill who took care of everything from the lawn work to gardening to their health care as needed. Jack almost died one year after contracting West Nile virus from a mosquito bite. Bill tended to Beth Ann in his father’s absence. It was not easy work. The complaint’s of elders can wear you down.
Bill and I had many long conversations about life and religion. He was deeply Catholic, loved to go to church and recommended many religious authors to me. Bill’s reverence for life was obvious, especially expressed through respect and love for his parents. He never pretended to be perfect and addressed his own notions of sin with honesty and pragmatic. But I certainly never considered him what some would consider a “sinful” man. He was quite the opposite.
Bill is one of many such men and women that I have met over six decades of life. While my attitudes about gay or queer men and women were originally shaped by cultural prejudice and fear, those outlooks changed quickly once I got to know people who actually were gay, transexual or gender neutral.
I’m fairly sure that one of my cross country teammates, if not several over the years, were homosexual. One once tweaked by butt in the showers after a workout. I jumped and told him not to do that again, but that’s as far as it went. I’m pretty sure he was conflicted about his feelings and found it difficult to come out in that era. But he had a nervous habit of pulling hair from the top of his head that I think was a redirected aggression from denying his true sexuality.
When I lived in Lincoln Park in the early 1980s, I attracted from gay men in the city. One followed me on and off the bus several times before I told him to stop with the pursuit. Frankly I was a bit flattered but also disconcerted. My sexual leanings simply don’t go that directions.
Yet a friend and I once attended an intentionally wild party on the north side of the city and we wound up drunk and dancing in a dark nightclub. My friend hit the floor quickly but I stood back a bit looking for someone to invite when I turned to a friendly face next to me and asked for a dance. The young man turned to me and said, “I’d love to.”
I was so shook that I took off out the door and ran home. The fear of “being gay” was still rife with me at that time. A long line of friends in sports had imposed their trepidation at “being queer” and in that moment, all those projected fears came together in a single instance. But what if I had stayed to dance that night? Would it have ended my world?
Likely not. It may have awakened me earlier to the notion that gay people are simply that. They’re gay. And they’re people. Their sexuality doesn’t necessarily determine who or what they are. Not in totality.
Which is why, by the time my own son came out to our family, I was fully reconciled to the normalcy of sexual orientation of many types. When my late wife asked my daughter, “What do you think of this,” Emily replied. “I think it means we both like good-looking guys.”
And that’s why I’m proud to wear the rainbow cap when I’m out and about. I’m pretty sure it raises some eyebrows among people who fear what they consider “gay culture” or the so-called “gay lifestyle.” There are many who claim that society is being taken over by people with a “gay agenda.”
If there is such a thing, it only means that gay people want the same rights as everyone else. Yet there are still court cases being tried on grounds that employers should have the right to discriminate against gay people and even fire them for their sexual orientation. Our own military is conflicted about gay rights, and the treatment of transgender people by the current administration is absurd.
It’s all the product of ignorance and for the most part, a product of religious prejudice and fears dating back four-thousand years or more. Select passages of the Bible indict gays as sinful people worthy of death. And some religious jerks still selectively emphasize those anachronism while dismissing other religious laws as irrelevant in the modern age. This is hypocrisy at its most hateful level.
The opposite is much more life-affirming. During a stop at our local Home Depot the other day, a young woman listened to me talking with a water heater supplier on the phone and realized that I might just be a nice person. Plus I was wearing my rainbow hat. Upon hanging up the landline phone at the desk, I smiled at her. She said, “I like your hat.”
I explained that my son is gay and she said, “I came out to my parents too. I’m really blessed that it’s no big deal to them.”
That’s how the world should be about the issue of gay rights. The ugly truth is that there are still people so selfish about their fears they feel the need to impose those illogical prejudices on others through cultural pressure and through law.
I’m going to wear my rainbow hat to challenge those perceptions in every way I can. People should not have to fear being gay any more than folks should fear being black, or an immigrant, or an artist, or whatever their orientation and pursuits may be. Life is far too short for that prejudicial bullshit.
So to hell with Trump and all this divisive dog-whistle bullshit that half the nation seems to admire. It’s all part of the same selfish, hate-based package. It’s a prejudicial, “I’ve got mine” mentality that feeds on notions of cultural entitlement and ugly tradition. I’ve run against that grain all my life, and I’m sure as hell not stopping now.
The day after the 2019 Illinois state cross country championship, I turned to the website of my former employer, the Daily Herald, to find a story by Michael Eakenof the record-setting run by a Hersey high school senior Josh Methner:
“Hersey senior Josh Methner ran to his second consecutive Class 3A title, running a time of 13:49.86 over 3 miles to set an IHSA state record at Detweiller Park in Peoria.
I was present the day in 1972 when Craig Virgin ran the course record that would last 47 years. As a high school sophomore standing on the sidelines with my Kaneland High School teammates, it was daunting to witness the soon-to-be-world class Virgin tear through the Detweiler Park course in Peoria, Illinois. How could anyone run that fast? My best times at fifteen years old were in the low 16:00 range.
It was not easy for a small school such as Kaneland to advance downstate in those days. I entered the cross country program at Kaneland as a freshman runner under coach Rich Born and assistant Larry Eddington in 1971. I ran varsity all season but dropped down to help win the sophomore conference title that year. The following year I was second man on the varsity squad that won the first-ever Little Seven conference title for the school. We ran in districts but did not advance.
That winter my father moved our family ten miles east to St. Charles. I led the team that next year to a district title and engaged in heady competition against runners in great programs from Elgin and Dekalb and Naperville in the Upstate Eight conference. Again our team did not advance through sectionals because we traveled east to compete in one of the toughest sectionals in the entire state.
Those were great experiences in both programs. In a result perhaps unique to my own running history, this year both Kaneland High School and St. Charles East won state titles in cross country. So I can share in the joy of those victories, having contributed leadership in the formative years of those programs.
I never got downstate in cross country but witness that record-setting victory by Craig Virgin was a formative experience all its own. A few years back, I reached out to Virgin to inquire whether he had ever considered doing a biography of his life and career. Indeed he was already working on a book about his life with a sportswriter named Randy Sharer, whose diligent research and documentary writing style provided a vivid portrait in the book Virgin Territory. It is a compelling read, a chronicle of the obstacles Virgin overcame in his career, and an honest one at that.
It was interesting in the wake of that contact to get to know Craig Virgin as a person outside his career as a runner. We had lunch together at a Panera in the northwest suburbs of Chicago to talk about running, public relations and life in general. I’d only met Virgin once or twice before, initially through acquaintance with a sports podiatrist, Dr. John Durkin. I also watched Craig run intervals on the indoor track at the East Bank Club in Chicago. Like a shark among goldfish, he was.
That was in 1983 or so. Craig was already a legend in Illinois running by then. As it turned out, his running career would wind down after the 1984 Olympics. He remains the only American to have won the world cross country championships. And he did it twice.
Craig was present downstate yesterday to witness the somewhat unexpected breaking of his course record in Peoria. It must have been wistful and perhaps shocking for him to watch. No one really anticipated that result.
Yet it must also be gratifying for Craig to know that something he’d done literally stood the test of time for so long. The runners who nearly broke his record or followed in his historic wake were the best Illinois had to offer. Many went on to become Olympians on their own. That was a status Craig Virgin achieved three times. Yet he was robbed of his best chance to medal in the 1980 Olympics for reasons that sound beyond ironic in the contest of recent history…”In 1980, the United States led a boycott of the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the late 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In total, 65 nations refused to participate in the games, whereas 80 countries sent athletes to compete.”
Of course the United States has now been meddling in the politics of Afghanistan for seventeen years. It is America’s longest war and largely the product of an unwitting devotion to ideology over basic awareness of the danger in this world.
It all demonstrates the hypocrisy of politics and the insanity of war. But through it all, some efforts stand pure and real. Craig Virgin’s race that day in 1972 was one of those events in life that I was grateful to have witnessed. There was nothing false or ironic about it. Just the reality of a well-trained athlete soaring across an autumn landscape dotted with fallen leaves. When he crossed the finish line, we not only cheered, some of us cried.
It was something to witness. It surely was.
But time marches on and this young man who set the new record is the product of a new generation of runners. It must have been something to watch. That should give us hope in a world where so much falseness and hypocrisy persists, and even presidents claim valor for things they did not do.
Here for posterity and a testament to things that are real is a listing of the top times in Illinois cross country history:
13:49.86, Josh Methner, Hersey, 2019 13:50.6, Craig Virgin, Lebanon, 1972 13:52, Chris Derrick, Naperville (Neuqua Valley), 2007-3A 13:54, Lukas Verzbicas, Orland Park (Sandburg), 2010 13:56.6, Tom Graves (Sr.), Orland Park (Sandburg), 1977 13:57.7, Dave Walters, New Lenox (Lincoln-Way), 1973 13:59.3, Craig Virgin, Lebanon, 1971 14:00.0, Jim Spivey, Bensenville (Fenton), 1977AA 14:00, Jorge Torres, Wheeling, 1998AA 14:00, Jon Davis, Fithian (Oakwood) [Coop], 2015-1A 14:02, Soren Knudsen, Minooka, 2016-3A 14:03, Donald Sage, Elmhurst (York), 1999AA 14:05, Jack Keelan, Chicago (St. Ignatius College Prep), 2012-3A 14:06.0, Bill Fritz, Glen Ellyn (Glenbard West), 1973 14:07, Evan Jager, Algonquin (Jacobs), 2006AA 14:07, Lukas Verzbicas, Orland Park (Sandburg), 2009-3A 14:08.0, Len Sitko, Niles (Notre Dame), 1986AA 14:08, Danny Kilrea, LaGrange (Lyons), 2016-3A
It hasn’t been by choice that I did not race a triathlon in 2019. The year started out strong with a training camp in Tucson. But perhaps there was an omen in that experience. While climbing Mt. Lemmon the temps dropped and the jackets we wore began to feel insufficient. On the way down the mountain we froze into locked positions on the bike and the neck problems I’d experienced over four days of camp turned serious.
On the way down a fear of crashing took hold. I pulled over to recover some feeling in my arms and my wife followed suit. We stood there a bit panicked at the prospect of riding more in that cold. When a gap in traffic appeared we eased onto the road and braked our way down the slope. The cyclometer still showed 26 mph.
At that moment a wasp flew at my face and stuck in the chin strap of my helmet. I felt a slight buzz and then a sharp sting as the insect tried to wrest itself free in the high wind. Two days later after arriving home from the camp my chin swelled up and my throat felt thick. Some ice took the swelling down but the incident scared me. You never know how your body is going to react to a bee sting from some place you’ve never been.
We kept training through April and chose to run a 10K in at the Morton Arboretum to prepare for the upcoming tri-season. The race finished in driving snow. That was the last time this year I’d make it to the starting line of a competition.
The weird luck on the bike picked up again in May when I was riding on an incline approaching I-88 west of our home. Two cars were parked flush on the side of the white line next to the road. Some guy was trying to get roadside assistance for his broken-down GTO and stepped out from behind his wife’s tall white SUV right in my path when I was approaching. The front tire of my Specialized Venge struck him flush in the back. The force of the collision popped the tube and bent the bike wheel. I wound up lying on the road with what felt like a broken wrist.
A few weeks later after the wrist had recovered some, but not much, I was playing Sherpa for my wife’s half-Ironman in Madison and went for a trot during her bike segment. I ran on the dirt path toward downtown. On the way back my toe caught on a root while rounding a tree and I fell face-side-first in the dirt. My body also landed on my sore wrist. The hand was bloody as was my face, and covered with dirt to boot.
Three weeks later a new problem cropped up with a sore tooth in my mouth. The root canal work took four separate tries with a real pro but the swelling in my face kept getting worse. And was it ever painful. I was exhausted for weeks from the stress of it all. The oral surgeon finally sat me down in the chair and said, without a hint of humor, “This tooth needs to come out or you could die.”
Such are the vagaries of second-rate dentistry…a few years back when I was self-insured or something I visited a dentist that did some bad work and it damn near killed me.
That scenario with the bad tooth took about seven weeks to take place. I wound up on heavy antibiotics and pain meds. Still, I was scheduled to race an Olympic triathlon in Lake Zurich and went to pick up my packet the day before. I stood at the Finish Line to take a pre-race photo because I hoped to make it there. But that afternoon the dentist called to tell me to be careful during treatment with anti-biotics. I couldn’t afford to stress my body much more.
It would all be for naught anyway. A storm blew in overnight and the entire race was canceled due to lightning and heavy rain. I turned my sights to September but logistically, those races were washed out as a cold month turned rainy as well. So here I sit in November without having done a triathlon all year. Even my plan to get certified as a triathlon coach got nixed when the organization holding the training lost my digital application. They called the week before and said “Hey, you’re in…” but it was too late. We’d made other plans.
The entire year was sort of a bust. I was signed up or in the queue to do no less than four different races. None of them happened. But oh well.
There’s a Turkey Trot in four weeks and a half-marathon after that. I’m not going to plan anything or hold my breath given the weird year of 2019. That said, I did some of the strongest cycling I’ve done in years using my newly converted Felt tri-bike. A cycling buddy warned me not to fix the thing up because he insists it could fall apart like a piece of old birch wood. But that’s the only thing that held together in terms of planning this year.
That’s one of the tarsnakes of life. You can never predict what kind of year you’ll have until you have it. Then all you can do is look back at the tracks of where you’ve been and try to make sense of it all.
Billions of years ago, a massive single land mass contained all the continents we know today. Through force of internal pressures such as volcanism, the shove and pull of plate tectonics and the mechanism of sea floor spreading, all the continents we in the world were distributed around the globe.
One of those chunks of land wound up sitting in the northern hemisphere far above the more habitable climates of the earth. That giant spit of land is still mostly covered in ice. But somewhere along the way the human race titled it Greenland in a strange little word game that seems ironic to many.
Thanks to the impact of human-induced global warming through climate change, that sub-continent northeast of North America may one day become the most habitable place on earth. Greenland may one day live up to its literal name while desertification takes over the much hotter beltline of the planet.
Scientists warn that when the icepack currently covering Greenland someday melts, the seas will rise by feet, not inches. That will inundate entire nations and submerge valuable coastline property under less-than-forgiving saltwater. The profiles of our supposedly immutable continental outlines will be radically changed.
It is hard to imagine such events until you actually fly over the land mass of Greenland and see how covered in ice it truly is. This past Sunday our flight back from Munich, Germany took us straight across the snowy guts of Greenland. We were chasing the sunset for six to eight hours, so there was ample time to study the peaks of mountains jutting up from the surface of Greenland. We could see glaciers too, rivers of ice with terminal walls where sediments were dumped.
This is how the Great Lakes were formed in North America. Billions of tons of water was left in the wake of glaciers that once stood a mile high and scoured the earth flat where there had once been hills.
I grew up running on the flatlands of Illinois. But I also attended college in northeast Iowa, a geography known as the Driftless Region. The glaciers left that part of southwest Wisconsin and Iowa alone.
So I have an intimate sense for what ice can do to the surface of the earth. I’ve run thousands of miles across flat Illinois topography and have climbed hills and cross country skied in the Kettle Moraine where terminal glaciers dumped gravel and emptied water down the gullet of the earth. These are evidence of how massive the force of the earth and nature can be.
And human beings tend to forget all that. It is far more convenient and often necessary to live entirely in the present. But that outlook has a price.
We all have a carbon footprint of one kind or another. Yet as I stared down at the surface of Greenland covered in ice and snow, it was hard to imagine it looking like anything else. Yet below that skim of ice and snow are fossils locked in stone that can be traced far back into earth’s history, long before the human race ever existed. That is the Greenland we need to imagine in order to understand the brevity of the human predicament in terms of consumption and sustainability.
The world we live on is both a patient son-of-a-bitch and a chronicle of the discipline dished out by Mother Nature over the ages. Whatever we know of God is a combination of these two things. We had better respect that. Both science and religion tell us that life on this earth is frail.
I took a break from blogging the last couple weeks due to a combination of trips, including one abroad to Spain, France and Italy.
We docked near the former city of Pompeii, the Roman settlement buried by volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius in the early part of the first century. As we walked into the large park where old stone walls have long since been excavated to reveal the borders of the city, my mind turned back to those images published in National Geographic fifty or sixty years ago.
As a child I stared at those images and wondered that someone could be frozen in time, solidified in a tomb of their own shape and size. Having heard the biblical term “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” as part of an upbringing in the Christian church, I wondered back then what it meant to be turned into a twisted relic of one’s self. What did that mean?
We climbed the steps up to the City of Pompeii and were met with a network of old Roman streets. There were ruts in the stone made by chariot wheels. Suddenly all of time shrank to an aural recollection of how that must have sounded to hear horse hooves and chariots clattering down those streets.
You certainly could not have run very far on them. Every step required a full attention span. The space between inlaid boulders was in some places three to four inches across.
Yet those roads have lasted forever. These days cyclists negotiate the former Roman roads made of rough pave in the north of France. They bounce along trying to avoid flats in the Paris-Roubaix spring classic. A modern competition on the roads of antiquity.
The sport of choice in Pompeii was something far more earthy. The sexual imagery discovered during excavation of the city was scandalizing to many who viewed it. Even the most casual demarcations above doorways were depictions of erect phalluses, a sign of good luck and fertility.
The local brothel did a brisk business with the seaman and merchants that arriving in port eager for food, drink and a romp with one of the enslaved whores in a district of town. Men were guided by to the whorehouses by pale white stones embedded in streets. These helped led them to their pleasures even in the dark of night, and when moonlight shone, their eyes must have glinted with the promise of sex soon to be had.
Not to leave anything to chance, the sex workers howled at night like wolves to attract their many customers. Talk about having difficult neighbors…
It is reported that following the burial of Pompeii under volcanic ash, even Rome’s leadership was not inclined to exhume it. Some believed the place was so cursed by its lusts that it was a condemnation of fate similar to the famed story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Judeo-Christian scripture. Could the allegorical reference be more similar?
Pompeii had things pretty well figured out on a number of fronts, but modesty and chastity were not one of them. Even the sanitation of the town was more pragmatic than considerate. The streets themselves were gutters down which flows of water and human excrement could wash to the low ground. The city could not have smelled good at all on hot days.
Yet the people who lived there also knew how to celebrate life in fine ways as well. The frescos on walls depict lively hunts in realistic fashion. The layout in many houses allowed people to recline on their beds while gazing upon large paintings such as these, often featuring gardens and wild creatures. Virtual reality is not a new concept to humanity.
The entire experience of visiting Pompeii made time disappear. As we rounded a corner I looked up to see Mount Vesuvius against a blue sky in the distance. I could easily imagine the 14km pillar of ash and gas billowing up in the sky. Then its weight grew so great it tipped and collapsed upon the city with great force and peril for all who lived there.
As we now know, the entire population was dramatically covered and entombed while going about their daily business. All of life within the city came to a sudden stop. Men and women and children were turned to hot ash in an instant. Streets and houses were consumed. Perhaps a few small pups like the dog in the photo were lying in the dust when the pumice and gas fixed them forever in time.
It’s not that hard to imagine. It’s certainly not hard to believe. Not with all this evidence of history still standing in testament to what life was like back then. We all like to assume that we’re immune to peril in our daily lives, that nature would never attack us, or our culture.
Yet we’re always wrong. But we keep on running ahead in hopes of avoiding the next towering plume of fate or the next round of dangerous gases sent by God or bad luck to whatever end awaits us.
I decided to take the back roads on the return trip from my college reunion in Decorah, Iowa. A simple tap of Directions on Google Maps set up a route through Lancaster and Platteville in southwest Wisconsin.
My childhood was actually spent in the city and county of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Those were delightfully formative years. I even attended school with children from Mennonite and Amish families. They’d sometimes come to school smelling like cow manure or some other earthy odor, but we didn’t mind. Well, we said we didn’t anyway.
The Amish children all seemed to disappear from school by the time they hit the seventh grade. Perhaps they stopped going to public schools and got the rest of their education at home.
In a tradition called Rumspringa, the Amish send their teenagers out into the world for a year or so to live it up before making a choice about whether they want to stay in the tradition. Trusty old Wikipedia describes it this way. “Rumspringa normally begins around the ages of 14–16 and ends when a youth either chooses to be baptized within the Amish church or to leave the community. For Wenger Mennonites, Rumspringa occurs between ages of 17 and 21.”
The Amish call it Rumspringa. The secular world calls it a college, or a Gap Year. Whatever the case, it is an acknowledgement that not everyone is ready to begin adulting at the same prescribed time.
I was thinking about all that growing up stuff while driving through southwest Wisconsin. I’ve been driving through the region for forty-plus years since I started at Luther College as a freshman. Along the way I’ve had my share of Rumspringas. Those college years of running 100 miles a week and drinking until I felt like a zombie were an intense way to experience the world.
As I drove through southwest Wisconsin where a number of Amish families now settled, I observed that the Driftless Region looks quite a bit like the land around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where I grew up. As I crested a hill just after dawn I spied an Amish buggy on the road ahead. It’s a courtesy to slow down when passing the Amish, so I slowed my Subaru to a crawl in the dawn’s early light and waited for an opportunity to pass.
Into the murky gloom
But I got a creepy sensation as I wheeled up behind the gray Amish cart. The spot on the back of the buggy where there’s normally an orange triangle to indicate a slow-moving vehicle was missing. That made me slow down even more. I waited to clear the hill and began to pull my Subaru around the buggy to move past. Rolling along at only ten miles an hour in the murky gloom of early day, I blinked at what appeared to be a foggy wall in the steep little valley below.
I’m quite used to the fogs and mists of southwestern Wisconsin in early autumn. But this fog was something else. It seemed to be composed of an impenetrably thick substance beyond the range of any fog I’d seen. I pressed my foot on the brakes and fell even in pace with the buggy as I passed. Then I looked over at the family and realized they were a band of living dead Amish.
Not a fan of zombies
Not being a fan of zombie shows, as I find them insufferable and fake, it seemed at first that the carriage full of zombie Amish was some elaborate Halloween prank being played by some Wisconsin locals. I laughed aloud as the fog around my car grew thicker and the windshield misted over. “Did I just see that?” I asked.
The road was hardly visible ahead. I had not even made it back into the lane of traffic for fear of cutting off the Amish buggy behind me. Then I heard a whip crack the back of my car. The massive black horse reared up and smashed the side windows with its hooves. At that moment I jerked the car to a halt and lurched out of the vehicle to protest that the prank had just gone too far.
The moment I got out of the vehicle a group of bony hands grabbed me on all parts of my body. I was lifted in the air and carried through a thick cornfield with the sharp edges of unharvested shocks tearing away shreds of my clothing. I let out a scream of sorts but my voice clung near to my face in the thickening fog. The noise of my captors stumbling through the fields was deafening, haunting and surreal.
Finally I got a glimpse at the creatures carrying me. I could see the flapping chins of two zombie Amish. Shards of thin beard were flapping about. They chattered away in a broken German tongue that was slivered by time itself. One of them glanced up at me and gave a sharp flex of its stinking hand into my shoulder. That forced a wince of pain. From then on I resigned myself to wherever they were carrying me, hoping to escape and outrun them if I could.
Soon we burst into an open field where they tossed me on the ground. I popped my head up to find an entire congregation of Amish zombies standing stolid and severe in the dew-covered grass. An area of pale light opened above us on the field. I could see a flock of crows that had risen from the trees. They were flapping silently overhead. It made me sad to think how many times I’d seen crows in the sky and taken them for granted. I wondered if these were the last crows I’d ever see alive.
The next moment a circle of Amish zombies was closing in on me. “Well, if this is how it ends,” I told myself. “I’m going to go down fighting.”
Then the Amish zombies stopped. One of them raised a ragged hand above his head. The entire mass of haggard souls began muttering one word… “Rumspringa,” they howled in wild German unison. They repeated it again. “Rumspringa!” Then louder, more insistently. “Rumspringa!!”
It all held a demanding tone. I reasoned I should do or say something. So I answered them in English. The words came out in a strange yet familiar tongue. I was speaking the same broken German I’d learned along with other kids in that little elementary school south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
That made the Amish zombies all jump back and begin talking to one another in soe form of the same broken language I had just used. The only difference was that their language was an equally broken version of English that they’d likely learned at the same age.
It appeared to be an Amish zombie standoff. Then one of them quietly stepped forward and extended a terribly mangled hand. With a questioning voice it repeated the same word again. “Rumspringa?”
Familiar face. Sort of.
Something in me recognized the tone and nature of that voice. I’d made one actual Amish friend in all my childhood days. He’d actually invited me out to play at their farm south of Lancaster one sunny Sunday afternoon. He was a bright kid, filled with curiosity and with such bright blue eyes it made me uncomfortable at times even to look at him.
The dim glow of those bright blue eyes was now shaded in cloudy grey tones that looked like cataracts had covered them over. He chuckled a low, throaty growl and said in a mocking tone, “Rum-springa.”
Was this a choice to become one of the living dead?
I stood up tall and tried to look very much alive. Then I chuckled back. “This… is Rumspringa? To you?”
“To you…,” the Amish zombie muttered back. “Kehre jetzt zurück… oder nicht…”
Which meant, “Now return, or not…”
“I’m sorry,” I told my long lost mostly dead zombie Amish friend. “I’ve actually got places to go. A life to live,” I shrugged. “Plus I’m entered in a half-ironman triathlon next spring and I’ve already paid the $600 entry fee.”
Zombies are not stupid. Even Amish ones.
“That sounds steep,” one of the zombies responded in broken German-English. “ Was ist triathlon??”
“It’s this sport where you swim and then you bike and then…” I heard myself saying those words and realized how amazingly stupid they must have sounded to a band of half-dead Luddites stuck between worlds. “It’s an English thing, you know. We do a lot of stupid stuff.”
At those words all the zombies nodded their heads in approval. “Yes,” one of the bearded old zombies retorted. “Sie Englisch tun…” one of the elder zombies intoned. You English do.” one of them translated.
Off they go
And in that moment the zombie Amish tribe dispersed into the cornfields. A harsh silence fell. Then a hissing noise accompanied the rising of the fog from the bottomlands. I was standing in a completely normal lawn with a fence leading back toward the barn. An Amish family was boarding its buggy wearing clothes and in a manner that looked like they were headed for Sunday services. One of the little boys looked up and waved, but the mother ushered him quickly into the carriage.
I walked back toward a road that looked like it headed in a direction that might lead me to my car. My senses were right. I’d found my Subaru with one wheel slightly down in the ditch. But the windows were intact. Everything else seemed fine.
Climbing into my car, I found the iPhone asleep on the seat. Taking it in my hands, I tapped the screen and entered the code to access Google Maps. Instead I heard the voice of Siri blurting out a question I did not want to hear.