Clarapy: Clarity + therapy. During a phone conversation with my friend Darcy one day, one in which I was extremely stressed out, I tried to thank her for giving me clarity and free therapy. In a fortuitous slip of the tongue, I uttered “clarapy.” Since I have invented a new word, I guess I have to define it now that it is part of my daily lexicon. As Ray Charles, Humble Pie, and others have attested to in song, “I don’t need no doctor.” They insist they need their “baby,” but what I think they really needed was some clarapy.
Clarity: Lucidity. Understanding. Therapy: Treatment for some sort of disorder whether physical or mental. When I can’t figure out things for myself, I reach out to my friends. True friends. The kind of friends that put up with my crazy. In my case, they understand that there is a 100% chance I will swear, and they still answer my phone calls. I know, in turn, my friends will almost certainly need some clarapy from me during stressful events in their lives. I will listen for as long as they need to talk.
Since a falling out with one of my closest friends almost three years ago, I have been examining friendship relationships more than ever. I learned a lot from books about friendship and my own fractured friendship. True friendship involves a willingness to put up with each other’s junk. The crazy stuff. The “I-can’t-believe-you-did-that” moments. And, in turn, I must put up with their crazy. Clarapy is part of the deal.
In late January, my husband and I went to Florida. His mother was having some health issues, but under our care, she seemed to be improving. We went ahead with our previously made plans. I had agreed to power walk the Melbourne Music Half Marathon with my friend Pat. Despite the fact that I had zero training for a half-marathon, unless you count endless workouts on my elliptical trainer in Michigan, I agreed to give it a try. After all, I had run four half marathons in the past, so I figured I could pull off power walking one without any problem. After all, I had nine days in Florida to train before the race.
Around mile ten on race day, after Pat and I had maintained an under 14 minute-per-mile-pace for the entire race, I realized I had blisters the size of silver dollars on the bottoms of both feet. I also discovered that I had forgotten to put anti-chafing balm on my right arm. Where my arm had rubbed against my tank top, I had a blister/bruise the size of Lake Okeechobee. At mile twelve, Pat and I clocked a 13:29 mile. At the end of the race, I showed Pat my blisters and bruises while I gulped down pizza and beer. She asked why I had never complained during the race. I wondered about that for days and days afterwards while I nursed my sore body back to health. When my mother-in-law’s health suddenly took a dramatic turn and ended up in the hospital, I thought about this more and more.
After a particularly stressful day, I sat outside in the warm Florida sunshine as the sun began to set. A woman across the street rode her three-wheeled bicycle, circling a parking lot. Around and around she went as a small terrier rode in a white basket on the front of her bicycle. For some reason, I felt insanely jealous of this woman. I wanted her bicycle and her dog. What was wrong with me? Logically, I knew I wanted my mother-in-law to heal quickly. I wanted to ease my husband’s pain and stress. After watching me cope with my mother’s Alzheimer’s and my father’s dementia and cancer, a period of about six very stressful years, my husband understood all too clearly the crazy that comes with caring for an elderly parent. It can be the loneliest feeling in the world. I needed to be strong for him. How could I provide clarapy for my husband when all I wanted was to steal a woman’s bicycle and her dog?
Typically, a good run or a power walk works sufficiently for waking up those feel-good endorphins and prevents me from committing a crime. Despite the fact that the hot weather in Florida was the extreme opposite of Michigan’s frozen-lakes-in-winter syndrome with temperatures and wind chills in the negative thirties, I was miserable, but I wasn’t sure what would untangle the threads of craziness circling through my amygdala. I gave a little spin on Pure Prairie League’s song “Amie,” and sang, “Amy G, what you wanna do?” The answer seemed obvious: clarapy. I sent out a few text messages, and that’s when my friends began to offer up their own special brands of medicine.
Phone calls. Emails. Cards. Friends driving across the state of Florida to hang out with us and search for manatees. Eventually, my mother-in-law was in a rehab facility, and we were invited up the coast to stay with friends for several days. We were still just a short car ride away from my mother-in-law. In addition, I had long phone conversations with several Michigan friends where I ranted and raved about all sorts of things, and my friends did not hang up. Instead, my friends provided insights from their own similar situations, words of wisdom, or simply found ways to make me laugh. My friends might not wear capes or have x-ray vision, but they certainly have the power to heal what’s ailing me when exercise isn’t enough.
How was I able to finish the half-marathon when my body hurt so much? I could have stopped, slowed down, or started whining (or swearing which would be much more likely), but I did not want to let Pat down, nor did I want to let myself down. I knew I could do it. “Mind over matter” as my mother used to say. I knew my body would heal later. Why is dealing with a sick parent or child much more difficult? Why do emotions overtake our heart strings and play us like an out-of-tune harpsichord? When my mother-in-law was in the hospital, a woman in the next room kept loudly moaning that she was sorry. She didn’t mean to be bad. She wanted help. I began reliving my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and had to spend time in the chapel just to get my game face on for my husband and mother-in-law. I began to rely more and more on my friends’ gifts of clarapy.
And it is true. Friends are gifts to us. Over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to spend more time with my friends and my cousins. I have learned so much from them every moment we have been together. Many of them have seen me at my absolute worst: the death of my daughter, my mother’s illness, my brain tumor, the death of my dog, and the last few horrible months of my father’s life. These are the things that define me and have made me temporarily crazy.
After each sadness and heartbreak, the fogginess in my brain would begin to lift as my friends and cousins gave the gift of clarapy in their own ways. Those moments are stored in my memory so that I can pull them up at a moment’s notice as if I am opening the pages of an old picture book: Running in the Flint Hills with my cousin Sybil as an eagle soared overhead. After the death of my daughter, receiving almost daily phone calls or visits from my friend Vicki who listened to me talk. Or not. Hugging my friend Darcy at the end of my first road race after Gamma Knife surgery for my brain tumor. Receiving feedback on my writing from my friend Chris as I struggled with language and writing after the effects of radiation and medication. Watching manatees floating in warm waters with my husband and friends Peggy and John in Florida as we worried about my mother-in-law. Intentionally crossing the finish line in step with Pat at the end of a half marathon. The list goes on and on.
I am back in Michigan now running on the roads I find such comfort in. My mother-in-law continues to heal in our home. I try to make my husband laugh as often as possible. I have been working on my clarapy game with him and my friends. I will do everything in my power to give them what they need. It might be as simple as listening or running a race together. Perhaps sitting on a beach somewhere and watching the world go by in silence might be the order of the day. Or perhaps it will be in a way I have not yet imagined. I am ready. My blisters and bruises have healed for now. My heart strings are in tune. I am still thinking about the dog and the bicycle.
Excuse me? As I ran north in the bike path on A1A, just north of Ft. Pierce, Florida, and south of Vero Beach, I spliced my way through a contingent of men wearing hard hats repairing power lines and placing new poles at varied logistical points on the east side of the highway. I kept a wary eye on the traffic zipping along at 45 miles per hour about five feet to my right. Although the sidewalk is much safer, it’s also the absolute worst substance to run on. However, since I am accustomed to defensive running, I continued on my steady pace, occasionally glancing across the road, admiring shoreline vegetation creating a natural buffer between the road and the Atlantic Ocean. The color of the water reminded me of Paul Newman’s eyes. As Butch Cassidy once said to the Sundance Kid, “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” When a person is biking, walking, or running on A1A, it’s best to have one’s eyes intently focused on the road. I’ve got vision.
And I was paying attention even though my mind was on the fact that I was not in Florida on vacation. My mother-in-law fell and fractured her pelvis two days after arriving in Florida in early October, so my husband and I are here to help in any way we can. So even though my emotional focus was on her, mentally I told myself to keep my focus on road. No bike riders were approaching me, I was in a cone zone, and the “Sidewalk Closed” sign gave me no other option than to run on that noodle of a bike path. Suddenly a man in a black SUV slowed down next to me and screamed: “Get on the sidewalk” while he angrily gestured towards the ugly strip of leg pain. I smiled and motioned downwards toward the clearly labeled “Bike Path.” What was his problem? Get on the sidewalk? Had he completely missed the “Sidewalk Closed” sign? I flashed the peace sign and went on my way.
This wasn’t my first time running on this particular stretch of road. I am respectful of bicyclists, and I always move out of their way by easing onto the grass or the sidewalk next to me so that they have a clear shot of the road. I am constantly amazed at their skills as they negotiate this busy highway. I am quite used to bicyclists, runners, walkers, animals, and automobiles sharing the road where I live around Higgins Lake, Michigan. There are no sidewalks, and far less traffic moves on the road. On a typical fall morning there, it’s not unusual to see more wildlife than cars or people. I’ve yet to have a turkey or deer try to run me off the road. In Florida, it seems the ornery wildlife drives an SUV. The man’s neck looked like a turkey’s neck as he screamed “get on the sidewalk.” The thing is, I don’t know if he was upset because I was on “his” bike path or if he just didn’t like runners sharing the road. I will never know. He didn’t exactly seem like someone I wanted to have a conversation with. Ever. I wondered if he would have screamed at a man running on the road. Perhaps I needed to puff out my chest or look mean or something. Luckily, he continued on his southward journey down A1A.
The next morning, I checked the paper and saw that low tide would occur about the same time as I normally run. I’ve tried running on the beach, but I always feel as if my hips are being displaced because of the angle of the land or my arches will never return to their normal state after being subjected to the squish-and-release sand traps. I decided I would power walk next to the ocean. I headed out with my walking sandals on and hit the beach. Paul Newman’s eyes beckoned.
As I journeyed north, I listened to the light crash, splash, breathing noises the ocean made as I made my way over thousands of sea shells. Osprey, seagulls, and pelicans flew above the water searching for a morning snack. Sanderlings, small and very entertaining shore birds, danced near me, constantly pecking at the sand with tiny black bills in their quest for buried edible delicacies in the sand. Fishing boats occasionally puttered past me or headed out to sea. Several jellyfish lay helplessly in the sand as if waiting for the tide to rise again and return them to the sea. A coconut in the distance momentarily made me think of my beloved dog with its dark brown texture. How odd, I thought, to compare my dog, dead for two years now, with a coconut. My vision segued into hallucinations but only for a moment.
After walking for almost two miles, I spotted another person walking towards me. With the exception of the “Get-on-the-sidewalk” screamer, most folks in Florida are all too eager to say hello and give a hearty greeting. I realized I wasn’t ready to speak to anyone yet. I imagined that I had lost the ability to verbalize. My solitary sojourn had somehow changed me: I was at peace with the world. My vision was clear. Despite all of the upheaval in the world and in my personal life, something about the push/pull of the water, the stick-legged birds daring me to run, and the absolutely reckless abandon I felt at not uttering a single word for at least thirty minutes had hypnotized me and washed away all negative thoughts. This was a hallucination I wanted to hold onto. I turned around to head back and avoid speaking to the man coming towards me, and much to my amusement, there were about twenty people at various distances behind me. I would have to speak. I cleared my throat just before I offered a cheery hello to the first passerby.
As I made my way back to the condo, I greeted everyone I passed. I stopped to take pictures of two very different looking and very dead jellyfish. I picked up several seashells for my collection. Shore birds continued zigzagging near me. The waves continued their hypnotic heartbeat. I felt lucky to be alive. There is always something about the ocean, a lake, or a river that gives me sustenance.
The next day, I headed out for a six-miler on A1A. Because of traffic, I stayed mostly on the sidewalk. I absolutely hated it, but no one screamed at me. In fact, an elderly gentleman walking with his wife, told me I was marathon ready. I always appreciate words of encouragement no matter how off the mark they are. I’m just working on getting back to my half-marathon running body. Another man apologized to me for not moving over as I came up behind him. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you,” he said as he adjusted his headphones. “No problem,” I said and gave him a thumbs up. Although my legs were sore from the pounding of the sidewalk, I was happy as I returned to the condo and greeted my husband. It was time to shower, get dressed, and head to the assisted living place my mother-in-law is recuperating in.
There are people of various ages at the facility. They work on healing their bodies or their minds just so they can negotiate a room or a sidewalk. Getting dressed can sometimes take an hour. Memories of my mother and her losing battle against Alzheimer’s disease flood my brain as I greet every patient I walk by. I remember how lucky I am that my body still allows me to walk on the beach or run along a road. I know that can all change in an instant. Get on the sidewalk? Sure, when I have to. Until then, I will run and walk when and where I can. As Matthew Wilder once sang, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna break my stride. Nobody’s gonna slow me down, oh-no.” Run on, my friends, run on, for as long as you can.
Hey, Joe Jeep? Wasn’t my neon pink running shirt bright enough for you? Didn’t my bright pink shoes negotiating the treacherous roads stand out? Perhaps you dislike the color pink. The two lanes of the road where you had to drive were clear and dry, but the sides of the road and shaded areas where the snow melts and then refreezes onto the road were really tough to navigate. Trying to run-walk up my quarter-mile hilly driveway was tough enough as I began my run, but you, in your negligence or stupidity, almost forced me to hit the ditch on a sunny day when no opposing traffic was present on a long stretch of flat road. Fortunately, I did not have to drop and roll into an ice-crusted snowbank that was at least as high as a barstool. I was cranky to begin with since it was 15 degrees out, and the wind chill made it feel like zero. In my quest to cover as much of my body as possible, I wore two pairs of running pants, two layers of shirts, a hoodie, a hat, and two pairs of gloves. Joe Jeep—what is your goal? To own the road? To prove your Jeep is bigger and better than my pinkness? We will see about that.
I confess that I got used to running without tempting the grille or side mirrors of a pickup or SUV when my husband and I headed to Florida in mid-January to enjoy the sunshine and warm temperatures. Although sidewalks are the worst thing in the world to run on, I found a nice 4-mile loop along A1A to run as I tried to acclimate to heat and humidity that made me sweat before I even turned on my iPod or MapMyRun. I tried running in the bike lane when I could, but there are a lot of serious bicyclists in Florida, so it was a losing battle. Sometimes I ran laps around the parking lot at my mother-in-law’s condo. Since three times around equaled a mile, I could really get going on the flat asphalt as long as no one backed out of a parking spot or someone walking a small dog to the potty/poop area did not allow little Puffy Poodle or Snarly-Boy to bite me.
The owners of these dogs or other folks walking laps around the parking lot were quite friendly. These folks, most likely in their seventies and eighties, repeatedly told me how fast I was. Whenever someone complimented me on my blazing speed, I would turn and say, “It doesn’t matter how fast you are as long as you are out here moving.” After spouting this off a few times and sprinting past a van filled with men going bowling, I realized I had started to believe I was indeed the “Fastest Girl in Town” with apologies to Miranda Lambert. I’m fairly certain her song is not about running.
On one of my sidewalk runs along A1A, I ran past a dead possum, practically the size of a birdbath, and on my return trip towards my mother-in-law’s condo and air conditioning about thirty minutes later, three crows that looked like oddly parked Volkswagen Beetles were ripping into the ever dwindling possum’s body. I jumped across the grassy area towards the bike lane about the same time a woman in a Tennessee t-shirt coming towards me did the same thing. On my run the next morning, just a few bones and hair were all that was left of the possum. The cycle of life and death is always present when someone is running the roads it seems.
There will be consequences, Joe Jeep, if you hit something and leave it to die by the side of the road, so if you could just move over a little bit when you pass by me as I try to run cautiously over the ice and snow-covered roads, I would greatly appreciate it. When spring arrives, I am certain you will splash me as you drive through the small streams of melting snow, and I most likely will mouth naughty words or turn my arms into windmills of disgust. But as long as winter’s grasp holds the roads in turmoil, please remember that I do not want to suffer the same fate as Mr. Possum or end up frozen in a snowbank like Jack Nicholson’s character, Jack Torrance in The Shining. I wonder what it would be like to run in a labyrinth-like frozen wonderland with a crazed man chasing me, but then, the fastest girl in town wouldn’t have a problem, would she?
Twenty degrees, sunshine, blue sky, frozen lake, snow-covered roads with a hint of ice underneath: What should I do? Hibernate? Drink a hot toddy before noon? Join the snowmobilers or the cross-country skiers on the lake? I noticed that my new pink running shoes looked forlorn in the corner and seemed to be aware that I had once again considered heading to the basement to hit the treadmill. Since I had not run on the roads since my spectacularly nasty fall in November trying to leap over some road debris, I had nursed a sore hamstring with short walks outside and watching twerking videos on MTV while walking on the treadmill. I knew that when I found myself trying to analyze the difference in videos presented on MTV, VH1, and CMT that it was time to hit the road, my hamstring be damned. Since my beloved pink running shoes’ tread had begun to wear thin and had recently been attacked by a dog, I knew it was time to break in the new shoes.
I bought new shoes in November fully intending to break them in after Thanksgiving, but because I injured myself, I wore my old shoes when my husband and I decided to head to Florida to warm ourselves up for a few weeks before Christmas. While we were staying with friends in Naples, Kira, one of their Golden Retrievers, became quite affectionate with my left running shoe while we were out chasing alligators in our sandals at the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Although Kira left the shoe intact, the shoelace had been chewed apart in two places, and she had somehow managed to pull the lace so tight that I could barely fit my toes into the shoe.
After pulling and tying the lace together with several knots, I was able to wear my shoes when Jim and I began our drive back to Michigan. As we headed north from Naples, Florida, to Cleveland, Tennessee, the temperature dropped 40 degrees. We continued our streak of staying at Hampton Inns, and after I relocated nine ladybugs from our room to the hallway, a rather tricky move that involved catching them in a paper cup, we settled in for a good night’s sleep. Scraping the frost off of our car windows the next morning reminded us that we were indeed headed in the wrong direction.
After taking turns driving, I was behind the wheel as we passed by the “Welcome to Michigan” sign. Thus began the horrible drivers’ portion of our journey. By coincidence, if there is such a thing, I had just read an article that very morning in the USA Today newspaper which is provided for free at all Hampton Inns. Ladybugs are apparently optional. According to a recent poll by CarInsuranceComparison.com, Louisiana drivers are the worst drivers in the United States. Michigan drivers did not even make the top ten. The poll basis its outcomes on “DUIs, failure to obey traffic laws, [and] fatality rates.” Louisiana may have earned their number one designation, but it seemed that Michigan drivers had their taillights in a tizzy at not making the list, because we had just entered Michigan-driver-hell.
As I observed drivers passing by me on the snowy windswept roads, I wondered what the odds were of a driver crashing if he or she combined driving, smoking, and texting while cruising along at 80 miles per hour. Not using blinkers, cutting off drivers during a lane change, and releasing ice chunks from the tops and bottoms of their vehicles added to my distress. After a flying saucer-like pile of snow flew off of the truck in front of me, I reminded Jim of the time a semi-truck driver dropped an ice block off of the bottom of his truck in 2007, and I hit the ice block dead on which ripped open the bottom of my car. My insurance person actually asked me if I got the truck’s license plate number. Nope, I was preoccupied with the horrible grinding and dragging noise my car was making, and I was really bent out of shape about being late for work. Perhaps this memory, plus the fact that a rock from a truck had cracked our front windshield in Atlanta, Georgia, made me jittery. Or just pissed off.
My husband knew this was my kind of driving since I had an excuse to swear. Frequently. Loudly. After we passed Bay City, Michigan, the traffic thinned out, and we began watching the sides of the road for deer. They filled the open fields, and a few dared to stand near the edge of the roads as if tempting fate. We arrived home in time to watch the Lions on television, so we had something new to swear about. Jim doesn’t swear much, so I have to make up for both of us.
The next morning I surveyed my snow-covered surroundings. I wondered if I would ever see double digits on the outdoor thermometer again. Should we build a snow ark-mobile? Build a tunnel to the mailbox? When the snowplow and the snow-blower are getting more action than my running shoes, you know you are no longer in the land of alligators and ladybugs. Only the deer roam around happily as they make their nightly trek to our birdfeeders. I had a major case of cabin fever.
Finally, a break in the weather and the promise of 30 degrees and sunshine provided some relief. I hit the road. The main roads were plowed, but slush remained everywhere. It was a lovely day for a 3.8 mile run, although running up and down several hills I had to negotiate were best described as slip-n-slide. A little voice in my head kept shouting “Do not fall.” I figured if I did fall, the snowbanks lining the roads would at least provide some relief. As Allison Moorer sings, “I was looking for a soft place to fall.”
My new pink running shoes proved their resilience with their alligator-like treads, and I cruised down the roads expertly, dodging the local horrible Michigan drivers. Do drivers not understand the concept of splashing slush on someone running along the side of the road? The speed limit ranges from 35 to 40 mph, so it is not as if these drivers couldn’t slow down or move over, but they all seemed to be either texting, talking on the phone, or adjusting their egos. I finally decided to trot down the middle of the road and see if anyone would run over me. When I saw the snowplow driver heading towards me with his death plow, I quickly ran to the opposite side of the road. He smiled and waved at me.
As I approached the safety of my own driveway, I congratulated my new shoes on a job well done. I walked into the house and my husband looked relieved since the last time I came in from a run, I was bleeding and telling him how sore my ass was. I gave him my usual report about my road trip before yanking off two layers of running pants, my sweatshirt, base layer shirt, sports bra, socks, shoes, gloves, and hat. I longed for those days of shorts and a t-shirt. Perhaps in April?
I am looking forward to running in my new shoes in 2014. I haven’t retired my old shoes yet, because there are a lot of stories associated with those shoes. They sit in my closet, the left shoe with its strangely configured lacing system and Kira’s teeth marks, as if waiting for the next time we hit the road. In the meantime, if Kira shows up, I am hiding my shoes. All of them.
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.
My husband and I left the blowing snow of Michigan in February and headed south. Our final destination was Ft. Pierce, Florida, where we would stay at his mother’s condo, inconveniently located on the tenth floor of a tall building. I am allergic to heights. Listening to ocean waves crashing the beach and watching sharks migrate northwards from our upper perch is something I love, but that damn black railing, all that stands between me and some grassy knoll below, looks more like dangling strings of black licorice. But before I would have to conquer my fear of heights again, we had to negotiate the turmoil on Interstate 75 on a Monday and Tuesday prior to the Daytona 500. It seemed as if everyone on the road was training to get some speedway action.
We made it as far as Cleveland, Tennessee, before we settled in for the night. Despite the fact that the fire alarms burst into action five minutes after we arrived, and the man across the hallway opened up his door exposing a lot of naked skin and some ugly boxer shorts, we had a good night’s sleep. In the morning, it was my turn to drive. Throughout Michigan and Ohio, we had maintained a fairly steady speed, and state troopers, occasionally sprouted from the medians to remind us to slow down our four-wheel missiles. In Kentucky, speeding seemed to be the norm, so we upped the cruise control to 77 mph.
Around 8:00 in the morning, we left the safety of our not-burned-down motel and the semi-naked man. I drove down the entrance ramp towards I-75, and quickly realized I had to hasten my pace to keep up with this rat-race pack of early-morning drivers. As I stepped on the gas of my bad-ass pickup truck into the southbound lanes of I-75 while doing some Sirius tuning, I heard the distinctive sounds of Golden Earring’s “Radar Love.” The guitar intro seemed as if it were a menacing riff warning me of potential drama. The drums kicked in, or perhaps it was my heart beating as I made my way into the madness. I turned to my husband and said: “These drivers are insane.” As we began, as Golden Earring would say, “speeding into a new sunrise,” I set the cruise control at 85 mph, and my life flashed before my eyes.
In Michigan, most days I drive between 35 and 40 mph where I live, with the occasional bump up to 55 in permitted areas. I am used to cruising around on local roads where golf carts and Polaris Rangers express the natives or weekenders’ joie de vivre. There is no radar love here, and cops will pull you over, no matter what type of vehicle you are driving, if you dare to buzz past at a mere 5 or 10 over. The cops here are very cool, but they don’t like speeders, meth labs, or dead animals at the side of the road. Neither do we.
One day my husband and I walked past a woman in her SUV as she pled her case to the policeman who had pulled her over. “But I didn’t see the sign,” she said. My husband and I looked at each other and laughed as we went on our way. Since the only obstacles to observing the speed limit signs are mailboxes and critter-proof garbage receptacles, we figured this gal was in for nice little ticket. As runners, walkers, and bicyclists, we don’t want any stinkin’ speeders zipping up and down our roads. “I hate out-of-town morons,” I said to my husband as we continued on our way. Weekenders, trunk-slammers, whatever, they should obey the speed limit. Unless, of course, you live in or are driving through Tennessee or Georgia.
Apparently people in Tennessee and Georgia are in a big hurry to get somewhere. I’d say they are trying to “get the hell outta Dodge,” but as someone who grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, I am really, really tired of that analogy. As I drove like a flying monkey (I know, I know), I thanked God I was in a bad-ass pickup truck where I could cruise next to the massive numbers of semi-truck drivers heading south, and snowbirds trying to escape the reality of Michigan in winter. I learned that size really does matter. I felt as if I had my cowgirl boots on and could kick anyone’s ass, except for a semi-truck driver’s ass, as I ducked and dived my way through traffic, seated on my throne where I could look down upon smaller cars passing me, most likely driving 90-95 mph. Quite a few of these drivers were either texting, eating, or smoking. My husband got tired of my swearing, so he pretended to memorize the map. This is when I learned a new game: Avoid the Cube.
For those of you who don’t know, a Cube is a car, a very teeny car that reminds me of an old phone booth tipped sideways, jammed pack with people, and gliding down the road on top of a skateboard. Cube drivers have apparently invented a game where they dare to dart in-between semis and bad-ass pickups as a way of showing their disdain for anyone in a larger vehicle. Would these be eco-terrorists, or are these people just plain nuts? After using multiple swear words in rapid succession (drumbeats—“Radar Love”),” my husband asked if I wanted him to drive. Hell no! Memories of my Audi TT convertible played out in my head. I was a fox! A speeding vixen! I was Danica Patrick!
Eventually, we had to stop for food and gas, no pit crew to save us the trouble. I relinquished the driving duties to my husband. As we neared the Florida state line, we noted the presence of state troopers waiting in the medians like suicidal raccoons, just waiting to pop out into traffic and cause major mayhem. Jim slowed down to 75 mph as we kept up with traffic and out of the radar-lovers’ view.
As we breezed along A1A, the sky melted into darkness filled with thousands of stars. We pulled into the parking lot at my mother-in-law’s condo, commenting on the various license plates from Ontario, Quebec, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and one lone car from Texas. We climbed out of our bad-ass pickup truck and grabbed our suitcases. We rode in the elevator up to the 10th floor, and walked to the end of the hall. Jim’s mother hugged us and asked about our trip. Jim and I looked at each other, and smiled. “Long,” he said. I walked out onto the balcony and listened as waves crashed into the shore, morphing into the sound of soft brushes sliding over the surface of some faraway drum. I slid my body forward and traced the inner rim of the balcony railing. The noises of the road became a distant memory as I settled into a new kind of joie de vivre.