As a runner, I love the daily group of bicyclists who ride 26 miles around Higgins Lake, Michigan. The lead bicyclist yells “Runner Up” as they pass me, and the rest of the gang greets me with cheery hellos. After 25 years of running at paces varying between 8-minute miles and 12-minute miles, I find that I enjoy running more than ever. The fact that I have a stupid brain tumor, something I found out after I dropped during the Zombie race in Traverse City in 2011, I am more determined than ever to keep on running. As an added bonus, there is always the chance something unexpected might happen. Weird comments? Hands on my rear end? Dogs? Thunderstorms? Run, Melissa, Run!
I began running as a way of surviving my grief when my daughter Nicole died in 1988. Running became my high, and although I ran very slowly in the beginning, I kept chugging out miles, and people in my then Midland, Michigan, neighborhood cheered me on as I did my 1.4 mile loops, over and over again. Eventually, I courageously ventured out on roads a bit further from home, and that is when the fun began.
On my first encounter with random-stranger-weirdness, I was several miles from home when I sensed someone coming up behind me, close enough to feel the air from his spinning tires. As I turned, a young man on a bicycle looked at me and said: “Oh, you looked younger from behind.” What? My running shorts made my rearview look younger than I actually was? I did not know if I should slap this young man or give him a hug, but before I could respond, he sped off into the distance. This was just the beginning of running into weirdness.
During my first 10-mile Crim Road Race in Flint, Michigan, I decided to wear a water belt that held two small bottles of a water/Gatorade mix. I had no idea what to expect, and I wanted to be hydrated. About halfway through the race, I felt someone’s hands behind me, lightly touching my belt and my rearview, before I received a little swat. As I turned, a man about my age said “I like your belt,” smiled at me, and continued running. Once again, he must have liked my rearview better than my front view, but was it necessary for him to touch my ass? I ran the rest of the race snuggled into a pack of people who seemed uninterested in my rearview. I never wore that water belt again during a road race.
During another one of my training runs, a car full of men stopped me one day to ask directions. Seriously? Men asking for directions? I was running towards them, so they had not seen me from behind, so that could not have factored into the situation. I kept moving and pointed west and yelled out “two miles and turn right.” They thanked me as they drove off, so perhaps they really did need directions. Perhaps I was oversensitive.
On another training run several miles from home, I ran on a sidewalk next to M-20 in Midland, Michigan. M-20 is a nasty road with four lanes of traffic and a center lane in the middle. M-20 is also notorious in a weird Midland way. When I taught at Saginaw Valley State University, I once had a student from Midland inform the class that her parents would not let her drive out M-20 because “that is where all of the bad people live.” She continued her rant by informing the class that “all of the professional people live north of town,” and she was “so lucky to live there.” Since the Midland Princess had no idea where I lived, I let her dig herself into a deep hole, before I told her I lived out M-20, and I actually ran the roads out there. She seemed shocked that I would venture into this obviously dangerous part of her mall-induced-funky universe. But, as luck would have it, I did encounter a small gang of hoodlums one day.
As I ran on the north side of M-20, a group of teenage boys sauntered along the sidewalk on the south side of M-20. During a lull in traffic, one boy yelled: “Hey, old lady, can’t you run any faster?” His little friends laughed in solidarity. Damn whippersnappers. I ignored them as best as I could and continued running. Clearly the Midland Princess had been correct. There were some very bad people on M-20, and I hoped they all moved to the north part of town, up near the mall and the college girls who were afraid of them. Although I had never truly been afraid of people while running, I had an unfortunate run-in with a dog one day that actually did scare me out of my running nirvana.
Near the end of my run, I felt peaceful, happy, and tired. From the side of the road near a house I passed practically every day, a German shepherd charged out of the yard dragging a long chain connected to his dog collar. As I got closer to him, he started snarling at me and showing his teeth. Foam shot out of his mouth like some weird bubble machine. We began a careful dance. I heard someone screaming, and I realized it was me. “Come and get your dog,” I yelled in vain between screams. The dog continued circling me, and I turned into a statue in the middle of the road: A screaming statue.
I heard a vehicle come up behind me, and turned to see a man motioning for me to get into his truck. I am not sure if he saw my rearview, my face, or the dog, but my savior had arrived. He put his car into park, jumped out, and ran around the front of his truck. “Hop in. I will divert the dog,” he promised. The dog’s momentary confusion allowed me enough time to grab the door handle and slide my shaking body into his truck. The man ran back around the front of his truck with the dog following closely behind him, and hopped into the driver’s seat. After a few more minutes, the dog moseyed back into his yard as if nothing had happened. Although I only lived a half a mile away and had no idea who this man was, I gladly accepted his offer to take me home. It seemed like a very smart thing to do, and it was. If only I had used some common sense the day I tried to outrun a thunderstorm.
I somehow passed all of my math classes in high school, but I think teachers felt sorry for me. If only they had let me write poetry, I could have shown them I understood rhyme and meter, which is kind of like math. In college, my husband had to tutor an algebra-book-throwing-whiny-wife several times a week. If he had to be out of town, I somehow figured out the problems myself, but the way I figured them out always amazed my professor, and my husband began calling it “Melissa math.” On my sad attempt at outrunning a thunderstorm, I failed to figure out a simple story problem: You are three miles from the car repair shop. The storm is approaching at forty miles an hour. You currently run a ten-minute mile. The storm is approximately fifteen miles away. At what time will the storm reach you? Do you call someone to give you a ride, wait for your husband to get home and take you, or do you decide to run to the car repair shop to pick up your car?
Run, of course. About a mile from the auto shop, I heard thunder. I started running faster as the skies opened up. As I crossed the five lanes of M-20, ran up to the door of the shop and pushed open the door, a huge roar of thunder seemed to signal my arrival. Lightning seemed to strike the pavement where I had just been. The lady behind the counter took one look at my soaked hair, clothes, and shoes, and asked: “Did you walk here?” I said: “Nope, I ran.” She said: “Looks like you got here in time.” As I pulled out my charge card and attempted to squeegee it dry on a paper towel, I smiled and said: “Guess I should have run faster.” She handed me my car key and told me to have a safe trip home. I drove home with a new appreciation for the Weather Channel, but still doubted I would use a story problem the next time I wanted to outrun Mother Nature.
These days, I check the Weather Channel forecast and radar before I head out onto the road. I place my Road ID on my left wrist so that if I drop, someone will find me and call my husband. I am more afraid of someone touching my rearview or a thunderstorm than anything my body might want to do to me. I know that during a run, I will see a friendly face and receive a cheerful greeting from someone. I may never run a half-marathon again and say “I want beer” as I cross the finish line, but if I know I can go out on the road and hear “Runner Up,” well, that is more than enough for me.
In the song, “Don’t Want Lies” by The Rides (Stephen Stills, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Barry Goldberg),” Stills’ sings, “What’s the shape of my future / as my life goes whistling by?” The song, reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash from an earlier era, has a bluesy feel as it poses thought-provoking questions about someone examining his or her life. Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time with family and friends in the past few years, travelling places or simply sitting around a campfire on the beach, I have felt the slippage of time, especially after I learned I had a brain tumor. I embrace solitude, but to appreciate the silence, I need my family and friends to create an infusion of laughter, love, and mercy into my life. I have discovered that road trips are the key to my future.
Warm summer days and cool nights transform winter-weary wanderers into road-warrior travelers. My husband and I drove from Michigan to Florida in February to escape brittle winter winds and the stratified layers of snow and ice surrounding our home. Earlier this summer, my husband, son, and I hit the road again and spent a few days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When my son asked if I wanted to take a road trip to Colorado so that he could attend the wedding of a friend in mid-July, I jumped at the opportunity to spend time with him, visit friends in Colorado, and put a few more notches on my “have-driven-through-these-states” belt. At six a.m. on July 18th, we quietly slipped out of Matt’s neighborhood as we began our road trip.
Matt drove the bulk of the way, and I took a few turns behind the wheel. After a fairly easy day of driving despite the extreme heat and the steady hum and grind of the semis on the roads through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, we sought a break from our travel and spent the night in a motel in Kearney, Nebraska. The next morning, we ate our complimentary breakfast and prepared to check out. I pointed out an ironing board in the closet, and Matt said: “Do you even know how to iron?” As someone who eked out a “C” in Home Economics in ninth grade, and no memories of my mother forcing me to iron anything other than a wrinkled hem, I had refused to iron as a grown up woman, and I laughed as we headed out of the motel. Colorado awaited us.
With Matt at the wheel, he drove past the endless fields of corn, cattle, and hay along I-80 as we headed west. One of Matt’s favorite radio stations is Lithium on Sirius. At one point, I turned to him and said: “Is this the Alice in Chains station?” I quickly followed up my question by stating: “It’s not a criticism, a witticism, or dipshit-ism.” Matt looked at me briefly before turning his attention back to the road. Instead of commenting on his music selections, I started mooing when we went past fields straddled with cattle. If we passed a field dotted with crescent-roll shaped bales of hay, I simply said: “Hay.” I am fairly certain I annoyed the hell out of Matt, but his tempered response of a quick eye roll and subsequent search for a different radio station seemed to be all he needed to put up with me.
We eventually cut south towards Windsor, Colorado. When Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird” came on one of the stations, I said I would rather hurt myself than hear that song one more time. In my “mom-entary” moment of madness, and perhaps hearing that song one too many times over the years, I actually wanted to hear another Alice in Chains song or something by Nirvana. Perhaps I, the intrepid road warrior, had turned into the song police. Thankfully, Matt would be free of my endless babbling after he dropped me off at Susan and Dick’s house. As I watched Matt head off to Boulder, I wondered if he would remember to pick me up on his trip back to Michigan. As he waved goodbye, Susan and I began to talk. And talk. And talk.
I met Susan the summer before ninth grade, and we became friends. Although time and geography have kept us apart, we have managed to stay in touch. We had seen each other during a Pretzel Tour trip (my yearly adventures with Micki, Rachael, and Jeanne) four years earlier, and I met Susan and Micki for lunch in Denver two years ago when I was in town for a wedding. For this visit, I had invited myself to stay at Susan’s house, and she kindly agreed. Of course, this was before she rediscovered my endless enthusiasm for telling stories, particularly ones from our years as smoking-hot-high-school chicks. Well, that’s how I remember it, and I am the one telling this story.
The next day, we went to Micki’s house in Greeley, ate lunch with her husband, and then with Micki behind the wheel, me riding shotgun, and Susan in the backseat, we headed to Estes Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. As Micki steered us up highway 34 through the Big Thompson Canyon, I marveled at the beautiful scenery. There is something singularly breathtaking about the beauty of the mountains where sheer rock walls and hardy pine trees merge with cool rushing streams of water as gravity shape-shifts the land. Micki turned onto Glen Haven road, and we worked our way to Estes Park; an elevation of 7,522 feet. My home at Higgins Lake, Michigan, has an elevation of 1,150 feet, so as my brain and body adjusted to the continuous upwards motion, I realized that I was certainly in “Freebird’s” terrain.
While in Estes Park, we visited the Stanley Hotel, an inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, complete with a Jack Nicholson doppelgänger holding an axe while seated on the front porch. Although typically a photo-op poser, I refrained from forcing my friends to snap a picture. After a quick tour of the hotel, we decided it was time to head back down the mountain. We made a quick stop roadside and stared off into the distance towards Long’s Peak, standing tall at 14,259 feet. Perhaps on my next trip to Colorado, I can figure out a way to “get much higher” as Joe Walsh famously sang in “Rocky Mountain Way.”
Micki headed down the mountain via highway 7 south of Estes Park where serious cyclists going up and down the mountain seemed as if they were enjoying the rise and fall of elevation. We eventually joined up with highway 66 in Lyons where we drove past a hippie van parked in front of a bar/restaurant. I wondered if I had slipped back in time somehow. As if to add to my musical reverie of the past, John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” came on the radio. The three of us began to sing along, although I seemed to draw a blank on many of the lyrics, something I now blame on oxygen deprivation caused by the ever-changing altitude. Growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, with an elevation of 2,550 feet, I had probably listened to Denver’s classic song at least a thousand times, but I had never heard the song while sliding a few thousand feet down a mountain road made up of hairpin turns and the tops of trees indicating where the road ended and a Thelma and Louise moment might begin.
We returned to civilization, and we spent the evening at Susan’s house reminiscing. Micki and Susan’s husbands wandered off as we took yet another trip down memory lane and examined our high school yearbooks. When I started reading aloud what I had written in Susan’s yearbook when we were mere sophomores, the three of us laughed so hard I thought we might spontaneously combust. I had filled up a page and a half with my deep-introspective-full-of-myself musings. I had been full of dipshit-isms even then. I hesitated as to whether or not I should read Susan’s yearbook from her junior year. I noticed a half page of writing and a very long poem taking up a full page in her yearbook. Smartly, during our senior year, Susan did not allow anyone to sign her yearbook, most likely because she was afraid I would find it and write yet another lengthy soliloquy about life, love, and angst as a teenager in Dodge City, Kansas. Since our 40th high school reunion loomed ahead of us in a few weeks, I decided it was best if I stayed far away from yearbooks or reams of paper in case I felt compelled to pontificate, or worse, share some “mom-entary-isms” or “dipshit-isms” with anyone still speaking to me. With that thought in mind, I headed to bed early. Matt planned to pick me up at six a.m.
As I knew he would, Matt arrived a bit early, and I was ready. We drove through Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and into Michigan without much of a problem. We had been constantly checking our various weather apps as we watched an ominous-looking line of thunderstorms crossing Lake Michigan aiming, as if guided by Google Maps, exactly towards us. By the time we rolled into Matt’s driveway around three in the morning, my body seemed to misunderstand what it felt like to be stationary. After a few hours of sleep, I headed home. I don’t really remember driving, but the car seemed to know the way.
There’s something to be said for spending time with family and friends, but for me, I think it boils down to feeling damn lucky. I feel blessed that I have a son who actually wants to spend time with me, especially side-by-side in a car driving through six states. I am also grateful for great friends who still put up with me even though they have known me since ninth grade and have heard some of my stories at least forty times. I am starting to think this brain tumor thing I have isn’t so bad, since I am finally catching on to what really matters in life. Our homes, wherever we end up living, exist in the physical world, but memories allow us the ability to time travel between the multiple relationships and elevations that shape us into who we are.