The last two days I made the wonderful drive up to Minneapolis, Minnesota and back. And I mean that seriously. It really is a beautiful drive.
Over the years, and for a variety of reasons I’ve covered that road up from Illinois to Madison and Tomah, over to Eau Claire and on a parallel to the Twin Cities. The drive takes about six hours, and the scenery is pleasant. North of Madison the landscape turns into sandstone hills where the Wisconsin River runs. Years ago a great inland sea dumped billions of tons of sand deposits that make up the bedrock of Wisconsin. Some hardened while others eroded, leaving crazy outcrops that resemble the hoodoos of southwestern Utah.
Depending on how you make the trip, it’s about 400 miles, which got me thinking during the drive. That’s probably the number of miles I ran this year. By comparison to many runners, that’s not many miles in a year. I’ve run as much as 2500 miles during peak training years. That included high mileage weeks of 100 miles as well as recovery periods of 25 miles.
I only hit 25 miles a week a few times this year. But I don’t take those miles for granted. Quite the opposite. They help me make life decisions and keep me healthy. Shed weight when I can, and shed problems if I’m lucky. It’s enough to get the job done for the most part.
And sure, there are days when it’s a struggle. For some reason last week was a slog after our speed work at the indoor track. Something in my system was off. Perhaps it really was the weather. All that damp and warm and un-December-like weather. There’s something to be said this time of year for being too cold to hurt.
While driving north I thought about all those running and cycling experiences over the years. With business to conduct in Middleton, I drove west on 14 through Cross Plains following the meeting. That’s a corner of the Ironman Wisconsin course that I’ve covered many times now with Sue and our triathlon teammates and friends. I got a wisftul feeling glancing at the road where we make the turn south. That part of the course holds the hills known to all triathletes as the Three Bitches. They are interesting climbs to be sure. One is gradual and long through a soft green woods. The second is abrupt and sharp on an open road. The final Bitch turns menacingly to the left in a grinding arc that makes you appreciate that Wisconsin is indeed not a flat state. Of geography. Or being.
I was homesick for those summer days or riding at that moment. I wanted Sue and our friends to be there to chuckle at our mutual sufferings on that course over the last few years.
Then I drove up past Devil’s Lake State Park, and the memories dove deeper. That was where our family used to go for summer weekends when the kids were young. We’d huddle into a pair of tents and then go for day hikes up and over the granite peaks. All of us got Swimmer’s Itch in that lake one summer. Our skin turned red with welts from the tiny nematodes that invaded the epidermis. What wonderful memories make up one’s family history! Nematodes!
It just proves that even our sufferings and sadness can make good memories. To the west of Cross Plains and Baraboo sits Spring Green where in 2012 I crashed my bike at 40 mph. And what a memory that remains. It took the help of friends to usher me through that night of Vicodin and getting up in a daze at 2:00 in the morning to take a shivering piss in the cold stare of moonlight outside the tent. “What the hell are you doing?” my best friend asked while regarding the patently blank expression of my ass crack a few meters outside the tent flap. I just laughed. “Taking a fucking piss,” I laughed while holding my crank in one shaking hand to make a jagged line in the campground dust.
It’s all part of a flow. Beauty one moment. Such pain the next. That is life.
Then there is the cumulative effect of all those years in our memory banks. Some of them are crisp. Some foggy.
Recent events necessarily mix with those of the past. I recall the moment driving south from Minneapolis to Chicago with my college girlfriend. It was late fall and goose hunters were planted in blinds taking aim at Canada Geese. As we drove along a flock rose in the wind and two geese fell out of the sky from the concussive strike of a shotgun. My girlfriend blanched, but I calmly explained that hunters actually perform a valid function in this world. Still, the impact was profound. Watching a living thing fall from the sky is something you don’t forget.
It seems like life hunts our hopes and dreams the same way at times. We can be innocently flying along when some shot of reality strikes at our hearts. We realize something we long believed was never true. “What a fool believes is always better than nothing,” the Doobie Brothers once sang. And that’s true for the moment. That’s one of those phrases that’s both true and untrue at the same time.
For example, several years ago while sifting through articles about my high school cross country career for a bit of information in this blog, I stumbled on the schedule on which I’d written each week’s results. I’d won an invitational and several dual meets early in the season, and always thought I’d had a very good year. But then I realized with cold rationality that I’d actually lost every dual meet once my mother had gotten ill. She was near death due to some internal surgery, and the sight of her lying in that hospital bed somehow gutted me as well. The fair confidence of those early season meets was lost at some point. Still, I rallied to 6th in the Conference and advanced through Districts Sectionals. In some ways that was the greater victory.
It shows you that we’re not immune to either moments or memories. I think about my own children coping to this day with the loss of their mother and it tears me apart sometimes. They have done their best adapting to life without her, as have I.
And for all of us there is no choice but to go on. Yet we have rallied as a family and defined the love we feel for each other in new ways. This has been both tested and proven. It has seeped into our conversations in new ways. I thought a lot about that on my drive north to Minneapolis on back. The Holidays are here. The beautiful sunset of the year past, and the dawn of a new one all at once.
During college I took a course in existentialism. We read Sartre and Camus, to name one or two. One of the concepts we studied was the irreversibility of time. And it’s true. Despite all our succulent wishes for time travel, we cannot enter the past. We are “frozen forward” in time.
The notion of time travel is tantalizing of course. I love the movie Midnight In Paris for that reason. It explores the notion that the past is not all it’s cracked up to be.
We imagine that time travel would give us the ability to solve all kinds of problems and discover all kinds of truth. But in fact, we’d probably be no more sentient in processing our experiences from the past than we are in the present. We still have the same brains, and encountering the same types of people would likely engender the same emotions we’ve always had. The time travel show The Outlander rather proves my point. The people we encounter in the past might or might not be willing to engage in our supposed insights about the future.
That’s how it is with our own minds as well. When we drive through a place full of memories, it is still the same brain in our heads trying to make sense of all we’ve experienced and are experiencing in the moment. Perhaps we make a cell phone call to a friend along the way. I did just that, making a call to a high school friend along the way. ” I’m driving past the place where you threw up that Boone’s Farm wine at Lake Delton,” I laughed. And he laughed. And that was it. The mists of memory.
Then I hung up the phone and kept driving, staring at the road ahead so that I would not drive off the road into the past. Memories are mist on the windshield of time. They are not irreversible, but sometimes you have to wipe them away to get where you’re going.