While driving from Batavia, Illinois to Decorah, Iowa for a reunion at Luther College this past weekend, I performed a little math in my head. In a way I’ve always loved numbers, but adding them up in my head is has never been an easy enterprise. Still it seemed important to do a rough calculation on the number of times I’ve driven to Decorah and back.
During college each year there were six to 10 trips each year during breaks. So that adds up to about 30 trips in four years.
After college I worked admissions in Illinois for a year, a position that required driving back and forth to Chicago and Illinois every week from September through November and again from February through May. That adds up to another 30 or so trips.
For the next twenty years or so I’d visit campus or meet up with friends at least twice a year for road races or reunions. That’s another 40 trips at least.
In the last 10 years or so the trips diminished a bit as my late wife had grown tired of trekking to the same place and back. Can’t say that I blame her.
Except Decorah, Iowa has a strong call with its natural beauty and exceptional topography, great for running and riding, cross country skiing and paddling the Upper Iowa river.
The 100 or more trips I’ve made over the years from the Chicago area to Decorah and back have made those roads a template for memories. The trip involves a northwesterly shot up I-90 through Rockford to Madison, then rolling through Verona, Mt. Horeb, Dodgeville and Fennimore to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi. From there its a 40 mile jaunt through the Driftless Region to the town of Decorah on the national wild and scenic Upper Iowa river.
This time of year the leaves on the tree-covered bluffs along the Mississippi turn the river valley into a candy-colored joy. My art professor Douglas Eckheart often travels the forty miles down from Decorah to stand on Pikes Peak, a park overlooking MacGregor. His paintings of that area over the years have taken wonderfully bold turns over the years, celebrating the feeling of the place as much as the reality.
I share those bonds, having studied with Doug at Luther College and sold work through his gallery. Over the years it has been a pleasure to stay with him at his home on Day Street. That tradition has covered many years. First it took place with a college girlfriend with whom I was much in love, but it did not last. During 28 years of marriage to my late wife Linda there were many such visits. She shared the struggle with cancer with Doug’s wife Georgiann, who fought breast cancer during the same period my wife was being treated for ovarian.
There are special bonds that form from such struggles. As it turned out, my freshman year roommate and fellow cross country runner at Luther College also lost his wife to ovarian cancer two years ago. The odds of life are sometimes strange.
He has been Class Agent for 20 years or so after my 10-year stint in the role. At this year’s 35-year reunion my longtime friend received a standing ovation for his service to our class. He’s turning over the reigns as he has his own serious health issues, as random as cancer, to address in life. They slow his speech and his physical affect.
But to me he will eternally be the friend in full flight, possessed of a stride that was both fluid and strong. He won our college conference meet before back problems his senior year caused him to miss most of the training that season we took second place at nationals.
Quick wits too
He was always an insightful sort, quick of wit with a sort of sardonic sense of humor that on more than one occasion left me chuckling for hours after a prime joke. At one point he took aim at a freshman teammate that was trying to prove himself smarter than the rest of us in some way that was far too obvious. “Matt,” he barbed. “You’re such a thick quinker.”
Another cross country teammate attended the reunion. We got out for a 7-mile run on a crisp Saturday morning. The route we chose was a standard during our college days, yet never loses it beauty. It hides under tall limestone chimney bluffs in several places, then loops up and over a park that stands 150 feet above the city of Decorah. The hill is a tough climb. The back side of the park is these days lined with mountain biking trails that everyone in the Midwest should experience.
In fact Decorah is a bit of a dream place for runners and cyclists. My girlfriend Sue and I rented fat tire bikes and pedaled out onto the back roads north of town. “It’s like going back in time,” she observed, and it’s true. Nothing has changed along the gravel roads around town. Farms built into the sides of steep hills resemble Wyeth paintings. Bald eagles nest in the area and wild turkey lurk in the dark canyons.
Sue and I pedaled deep into the hills and stopped briefly along Malanaphy Springs, a linear park that leads to hillside waterfalls emerging from the limestone hills year round. Later we stopped for a rainy visit to Dunning’s Springs, where the waterfall serves as the sight for hundreds of reunion photos and wedding proposals.
It’s funny the hold that natural places like this have on you. Yes, the Luther campus is more beautiful than ever, graced with new buildings and landscape that pulls you through the bluff-top scenery in all seasons.
But a big part of the reason I attended Luther College was the draw of nature. Our running routes were both gorgeous and difficult. The route my companion and I rode was called Wonder Left, and to my surprise I did not recall that going counterclockwise meant a lot of climbing. Yet the fat tire bikes we rented for the journey made the climbs fun even on thick gravel.
In college we my teammates and I ran 100-mile weeks on those roads. The twisting routes took us through dark hills and cedar-lined bluffs. Mornings were often bone-chilling cold in winter. The roads in deep shadow were blue as arctic ice. In spring the rains turned them to mud, yet the rich gravel gave us footing. We suffered ourselves to fitness over and over again. We wore out shoes on those roads, for all soles are mortal.
And yet there is a feeling of immortality in returning to that place. The memories roll along with you or pop up in conversation.
Lying in bed I could truly feel the years. For one thing, my calves and thighs hurt from the hills! But that was just a temporal sensation. What I could really feel was the relationship with that place, both in time and in the present. This weekend was thus a journey through both time and the present with my friend Sue, who enjoyed a good dose of Decorah hospitality in getting to know the place.
One is capable of loving in the moment, and also loving over time. Perhaps love is the fuel of the immortal soul, not discriminate by time, but sustaining in truth. We travel to find ourselves standing still in the moment, trusting our minds to make sense not just of the journey, but the company as well.
When we attended the Sunday morning chapel service in the Center for Faith and Life building that was constructed during my years at Luther College, it was impossible not to feel lifted up in the eternal tones of the music rising from the bell choir and the amazing choral groups that sat in the seats with us. Their voices immersed us in that sad and yet joyous beauty of Christian liturgy and song.
In the end it is true. There is only so much running and riding we can do. At some point we must be carried along by music and time and memories.
Yet while we’re living and can keep moving, these experiences are like time travel, going back and forth from the past to the present. Mortal soles blend into immortal souls, and we imagine the future into being. That is as it should be.