Sunday, December 11, 2011

Skydiving

It should come as no surprise that I love birthdays. Anticipating them, planning for them, and celebrating them. Rather than dread my 30th birthday, I began to grow increasingly excited about the milestone (which helped me forget the crease on my forehead that just won't go away and the fact that I no longer get carded at bars and restaurants). No birthday is ordinary, but entering into a new decade is especially extraordinary.

Therefore, I was not all that disappointed when we learned that the half-marathon we were planning on running that day was sold out. In July. (My biggest regret was that I wouldn't get to make a shirt that said "Happy Birthday to Me!" on the front and "You just got passed by a 30-year-old" on the back.)

As fate would have it, I received a very important e-mail the very next week. That day's Groupon was for a discounted tandem skydive. That was it! I would skydive on my 30th birthday!

Even though I don't call it a bucket list, I suppose I do have a list of things I've always wanted to do. In the past few years, I have been able cross riding a mechanical bull off that list, as well as running a marathon and going to Prince Edward Island, Canada. That Groupon was divine intervention in my quest to put a check in the box next to skydiving.

So the plan was made. Despite the fact that everything was paid for months in advance and our reservation was set for several weeks, the reality that we would be jumping out of an airplane didn't sink in for Jon until we were en route. I think he doubted my resolve. One would think he would know by now that his wife is pretty stubborn and when she sets her mind on something, consider it done. And done.

In uncharacteristic fashion, we left for the jumping facility quite early, most likely motivated by the dream I had the week prior in which we didn't leave in time and missed our reservation. It was a good thing we did leave early. Road construction, an accident, and the fact that we were driving to the middle of nowhere caused us to arrive right on time. The weather on "the best day of the year" was beautiful, sunny and unseasonably warm. It was important to me that we jump on my actual birthday, and apparently Mother Nature agreed.

Immediately after our arrival, we were directed to the bathrooms. They were evidently quite used to brand-new skydivers. After taking care of that necessity, we were ushered into a room to watch a video--seemingly hosted by Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, circa 1985--that warned us of the dangers of jumping out of an airplane and made us promise not to sue if we died. Encouraging.

After signing the waiver, we were sent to the bathrooms again. But from then on, everything was laid-back and fun. Seriously. We were put at ease immediately when we met our instructor. He kept telling us how much fun we were going to have, and it was obvious that he loved his job. Once again, we were shown glimpses of a secret, underground community that we never knew existed, as all of the other skydivers present were just as easy-going.

Our instructor first told us that all we need to do was be BAD. This acronym stands for breathe (apparently some people forget), arch, and don't touch the tandem instructor. We then lay on the floor to practice the arch and then crawled in the airplane simulator to practice jumping out. Training done.

We then put on jumpsuits before our tandem guides hooked up the harnesses. I opted to get a video (thanks for convincing me, Mom) and had to go outside for my "interview" next to the skydiving facility's official vehicle.

Reassuring
I had expended all my nervous energy worrying about the weather and whether or not we would arrive on time, which masked my actual fears of jumping out of an airplane. I knew that it would be an awesome experience...but I also knew that moment right before jumping would freak me out. It turns out the seven-minute plane ride to an elevation of 14,500 feet was the worst part.

I really don't mind flying all that much, but sitting on the floor of a tiny plane, directly across from a clear plexiglass door was enough to make my stomach start to do flip-flops. During the ride to the drop zone, our tandem guides attached our harnesses to theirs, in a way that "didn't quite seem legal" (their words, not mine). As promised, the plane rose and then dipped, bringing us to our feet. What happened after that occurred extremely quickly...thank goodness.

The benefit of doing a tandem jump is that you don't have a choice--you're jumping whether you're ready or not
Suddenly, we were hurtling through space. We were told on the ground that if we screamed, that would help us remember to breathe. I took that advice to heart and pretty much screamed the entire freefall. It was such a surreal experience with the wind pounding in my ears and whipping at my face. It sounds totally cliché, but I felt so alive.

Look, Mom, I'm flying!
Suddenly I noticed my videographer right up in my face, and like he warned, he began making faces and giving the thumbs-up sign, which I, of course, returned. I'm pretty sure his helmet-cam was set to take rapid-fire pictures every second or so because I have an exorbitant amount of pictures of me with essentially the same look on my face...which I will title "Exuberance."

The videographer titled this look "big, goofy grin"
On the ground, we were told that we would have no idea how high we were, how fast we were falling, or how long we were in the air. All true. Our freefall only lasted 60 seconds, but it seemed so much longer. Since we did a tandem jump, we got to experience all of the fun of skydiving but none of the responsibility. I was 100% confident in my instructor and his ability to pull the cord on the parachute at the exact right moment and land us on the ground in the exact right spot. My confidence was well-founded. All of a sudden--after being told to hold on to my harness--we were sucked up in the air by the parachute.

Yup, still screaming
And then we floated. It truly was the tranquil experience I expected. That rush of wind immediately stopped and everything grew very quiet. My instructor let me guide the parachute and we spun in a couple of circles before he grabbed the reigns to steer us to our landing area. As I told him in the air, he has the coolest job ever. He acknowledged how lucky he is in that he gets paid to do what others have to pay for.

We landed safely on the ground shortly before Jon and his tandem guide. After getting unhooked from the parachute and harness, I finished my "interview" with the videographer and reunited with Jon. Awesome doesn't even begin to cover the experience. For once in my life, words fail me. My 30th was definitely a birthday I will never forget.

"We can't believe we jumped out of an airplane!"

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Travel Writing

On our way to Kansas City this past weekend for Thanksgiving, Jon and I were listening to a podcast. This particular podcast featured a former war correspondent who recently published a book about his family's vacations. When asked how the two genres were different, he brought up a very interesting point.

He said that as a war correspondent, everyone was on his side. Readers were glad that he was in a war zone because that meant they didn't have to be. However, when it comes to travel writing, no one wants to hear about how amazing the trip was. Readers are jealous because they are not in an exotic locale or enjoying a fabulous vacation like the writer. Therefore, this author said that the key to travel writing is to expound on the things that go wrong.

I understood where he was coming from as both a reader and a writer. While I enjoy hearing about the awesome adventures that other people have, I confess that it makes me extremely envious (although NOT in the malicious, I-want-to-slash-your-tires kind of way). Yet, as a writer, that is precisely what I do in the majority of these posts. Hmmm.

So, I suppose I should apologize for any jealousy that this blog may induce. I don't mean it, really, I don't. Plenty of things go wrong on our various adventures (try being in a foreign country for four days without your luggage, or sleeping in the airport two nights out of three). In fact, when faced with ridiculous situations, we often remark that "at least it will make a good story."

But I'm not sure that I want to apologize, though. I will try to include more travel mishaps in future posts. When something unexpected happens, I'll write it down. When travel karma doesn't work out like it's supposed to, it will end up in this blog. However, it's also going to take some effort on your part. We hereby invite you on any future trips. The more the merrier. As you can probably tell, we're up for pretty much any adventures, so don't be jealous...join us!

Asheville: Portland of the East

11/11/11: Uber Veterans Day

In order to commemorate this once in a century occasion, we loaded up the car and drove to Asheville, North Carolina. We'd never been to North Carolina before, but the real reason we were headed east was to visit a friend currently living and studying in Blacksburg, Virginia. Asheville is not exactly half-way (at all), but it was a cool location that we all wanted to explore.

Since Jon had Veterans Day off (as he should), we left on Thursday night. We made it all the way to Knoxville, Tennesse--six hours away, plus a time change--before stopping for the night. Further confirmation that Tennessee is a long state.

I'm a fan of maximizing travel, trying to do as much and see as many people possible in one trip. So, the next morning, we met a high school friend of mine and his wife for breakfast. It was nice to catch up, and the big breakfast powered us up for the last leg of the journey into North Carolina. I'm glad we got to drive that part in the daytime because eastern Tennessee/western North Carolina is quite beautiful.

When we arrived in Asheville, we headed to our vacation rental. I was impressed by the organization of this house and immediately began taking mental notes for when we have our own brewery/B&B someday...when we retire and are independently wealthy, of course.

The view from our rental house
Shortly thereafter, our friend arrived in town and we began our tour de breweries. It was at this point that we began to suspect that Asheville is eerily similar to another beer town: Portland, Oregon. Both locations have incredible scenery and provide lots of outdoor recreation. The population leans toward the eccentric and the beer flows like water. We were hooked.

We made it to about four breweries the first afternoon/evening, appreciating the time to catch up in such a laid-back atmosphere. By laid-back, I mean that a couple of the breweries are actually located in warehouses. Our house had the feel of being out in the woods, yet we were still fairly close to town, so when we went back out for dinner, we actually walked downhill.

The next morning, we headed out to Mount Mitchell and even drove for a bit along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I confess that the winding, uphill roads were a bit much for me, although I guess one could argue that the copious amount of beer I drank the day before had just as much to contribute to my queasy stomach. Regardless, the scenery was beautiful, and we were rewarded with some incredible views of the Smokey Mountains when we reached the top.

View from Mount Mitchell
We continued to "fake" hike a little more by stopping at a couple more locations along the road back down and following the paths to additional scenic viewpoints. Jon and our friend did not let the rock barriers stop them.

Deep in thought
When we got back to Asheville, we had a goal to accomplish, so we hopped on our bikes and went in search of more breweries. It's not that I'm not a bike rider--I sometimes bike commute to work--but I was definitely the most inexperienced of the group. Plus, the memory of falling off my bike in the middle of the street in front of our building a month prior was still fresh in my mind (darn trolley tracks). However, the guys didn't leave me in the dust, even as I cursed them for leading me into traffic, which I hate. At any rate, we found more breweries, and at the end of the night, we got a free work-out by having to ride a steep hillclimb back to the house.

And just like that, the weekend was over. We had a long eight hours back to Memphis, but despite spending that much time in the car, we really enjoyed our trip. Asheville is a great town, and as always, it was wonderful catching up with old friends.

David Cook, In Concert

"Hey, Mr. Jaguar, I went to BSSHS with you!"
Attending a David Cook concert was a surreal experience. There I was, surrounded by a throng of screaming adolescent girls--and some "cougars"--listening to this guy I've known since the seventh grade (David was only a sixth-grader at the time). The last time I'd heard him sing live was in the Performing Arts Center at Blue Springs South...before that was his musical debut at Georgeff Baker Middle School.

I couldn't be more proud of David, as he genuinely is the nice guy he appeared to be when he won American Idol in 2008. Seeing him live in concert, however, was very different than watching him on TV.

I must confess that I entertained grandiose visions of reuniting with David after all these years and getting to hang out with him and the band backstage or something. He would, of course, remember exactly who I was, and we would reminisce about the good ol' days in Blue Springs. We might even hang out the next day while he was still in town, and perhaps he would even come and talk to my classes about the importance of writing.

Right.

I figured that I would be the only BSSHS alum in Memphis at the concert, so my odds of actually talking to him were decent in my eyes. In order for my plans to come to fruition, however, I would have to get his attention. I made a sign expressing our shared high school experience, and even added some Jaguar logos printed off the internet. I decided to keep it understated, so no glitter. Maybe I should have used glitter.

I had a moment of panic when the ticket-taker at the door had to ask someone if it was okay to have signs. What if that hour spent drawing and sniffing permanent marker was all for naught? But alas, I was allowed to take the sign in, and I held it patiently during the two acts that performed before David.

It wasn't the first time I'd been at a concert for a band/singer I didn't know well, but this time, I took more seriously my role as observer. It was really interesting to watch all the die-hard fans sing all the words to all the songs by Carolina Liar and Gavin DeGraw (who was technically the headliner). I sacrificed the hearing in my left ear as I spent that time inching forward toward the stage in order to ensure that I would be as close as possible for David's set.

Even though I had to wait until after 10:30 (on a school night, no less) for David and his band to take the stage, my strategy worked, as I was fairly close to the front. I'd moved over more toward the center so that I would be closer to the overhead lights so that maybe, just maybe, David would see my sign.


video
David takes the stage

I didn't want to be obnoxious, so I tried to time my sign-waving to in between songs. I was beyond excited when I saw the recognition flash across his face as he called out, "With me?" (as in, you went to high school with me?). I knew my time had come when he asked who was holding the sign--it was dark in there and he had stage lights in his face.


However, every time I opened my mouth to shout out my name, some "woo girls" screamed. David even tried to shush them, to no avail. Undaunted, I figured I would try again later. The show went on, and I really enjoyed the music. I was amused that random people were singing along, but glad that I had done my homework by listening to David's albums because I recognized most of the songs, too.

video
Witty banter between songs

David is still pretty much the same, slightly dorky, guy, as evidenced by the above clip. He and one of his bandmates continually flicked guitar picks at each other, and at one point, David played an entire song with one stuck to his forehead. I didn't know what to say when the woman in front of me gushed about David and how she wished the pick she almost fell on me to catch was the one from his face.

video
Encore?

All too soon, however, the concert was over. David played his encore as part of the show, and I didn't get the chance to wave my sign again. The band was gone and the lights came up. How could I have been so close and not gotten to talk to him?

Not wanting to leave without trying to see David, I went up to the stage and asked some of the concert security guards if they knew how I might get to say hi. They recognized me as the girl with the sign who went to high school with David, so one of them encouraged me to wait outside by the tour bus.

So there I was, a groupie for David Cook.

I waited outside for probably too long (maybe 15 minutes) when another security guard said the bands were still inside. There was a long line to meet members of all three acts, but I'm not 100% sure how one got access to that line. I'm pretty confident that it involved the purchase of albums I already owned and t-shirts I felt weird wearing, so needless to say, I never did get in that line.

Completely bummed out, I tried to check out the tour bus on the opposite side of the building, but that was a dead-end, too. I went back inside for one last attempt. As I was feeling pretty sorry for myself--and silly for feeling that way--I ran into David's band. I asked them to pass along a message for me, but who knows if that actually happened. Still, better than nothing, I suppose.

After all of that anticipation, I drove home with ears still ringing and no enthusiastic reunion. I was--and still am a little bit--disappointed, but when I think about the fact that I saw David Cook following his dreams by playing the music he loves, I feel pretty proud of him. Like Jon said, "Local boy does good."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My Bookprint

When I turned eleven, what I really wanted for my birthday was one of those ridiculous stuffed troll dolls, dressed as a pirate, or a cheerleader, or some other such nonsense.

What I received instead literally changed my life. An equally bookish friend gave me the complete Anne of Green Gables box set. I have always been a reader and at the time was grateful to have something new to read. However, I had no idea how much the books would consume me. I had heard of the story but knew nothing about it. I didn't even know there was a movie version (which, while excellent, is of course far inferior to the books).

So, after getting over my birthday disappointment--having purchased a troll with my birthday money--I plunged into the Anne saga. I don't know at what point I got hooked, but somewhere along the way, I became an Anne fan for life.

I'm not sure exactly what drew me to the spunky redhead. Our childhoods were vastly different. I grew up in a loving two-parent household, in twentieth century America, far from a nineteenth century orphanage in Prince Edward Island, Canada. I hate to admit that I didn't posses a "scope for imagination," at least not in the same way as Anne, for I was--and still am--a rule-follower, not having much of a penchant for "getting into scrapes." I was much more of a Jane or Diana, actually.

But, I suppose, like millions of readers, I recognized a kindred spirit. As I continued to read through the series, I felt as if I actually knew Anne. I became part of her world and she, mine. I recognize how cheesy that sounds, but it's true. And a real testament to Lucy Maud (L.M.) Montgomery and her ability to paint such vivid characters. The only other author I can think of who does that just as well is Jane Austen. It should come as no surprise that I compared the two in a paper I wrote in high school.

It wasn't long before my life began to emulate Anne's. It really wasn't that much of a stretch, for we are/were interested in a lot of the same things, like literature and writing. What was unexpected, however, was how subconsciously my imitation came about.

The Anne books are some of the only books I've read multiple times. There are so many books in the world that I simply don't have the time to read the same thing over and over. But I keep returning to Anne. Each time I read, I connect in a different way, and I've found that as I move through each stage of life, there's an Anne book right there with me.

The first couple of reads through the series, I related most strongly to the young Anne and her schoolgirl stories. School was important to me, and like Anne, I constantly strove for the top. I even fabricated rivalries amongst unknowing classmates, well aware of my standing in the class in comparison to others, Anne vs. Gilbert-style. I also began participating in speech competitions, just as Anne repeatedly was asked to "recite" as an elocutionist.

Everything after that first book was projecting into the future. As I grew older, I found myself living out the story of Anne's college days while I, myself, was in college. Anne of the Island quickly became my favorite of the favorites. Like Anne, I had a wonderful relationship with my roommate(s), and once again, school was at the forefront. Her greatest strength is in English, which happened to be my major. Anne even dabbles in writing; I continue to dream of publication. I know I'm really making myself sound like a colossal nerd here, but it's something I've come to accept--and embrace--about myself.

My favorite part of that book, however, is the romantic tension between Anne and Gilbert. I, of course, couldn't relate to that aspect of the story at the time, but it certainly shaped how I perceived romance. In fact, I truly expected that I would initially hate my future soulmate before having a life-changing epiphany that I had loved him all along. Perhaps that is why it took me so long to realize that I did indeed love Jon without hating him first. Whoops.

After college, my Anne connection went out of order slightly as I regressed into the second book: Anne of Avonlea. I was at the cusp of my first teaching job and felt great solace as I recalled Anne's failures, jubilation in her successes in the classroom. No, I didn't teach in a one-room country schoolhouse, but teaching is teaching. Interestingly enough, a lot of Anne's teaching philosophies are quite progressive, evidence, I suppose, that the pendulum in education philosophy/theory/reform constantly swings back and forth.

My life continued to parallel Anne's in ways I could never have expected. While I never hated him, I did fall in love with my best friend. Like Anne and Gilbert, we were separated for quite a while.

Anne of the Island ends with Anne and Gilbert's relationship, and originally, the next book picked up with their wedding three years later. L.M. Montgomery wrote Anne of Windy Poplars several years after the publication of the series to account for the time lapse. In this late addition to the story, Anne moves to a new town to teach while Gilbert toils away in medical school. Each maintained an independent existence, yet their relationship blossomed through written correspondence.

Throughout Jon's and my time apart, we also relied on written communication, dating via e-mail, if you will. It may not have been ideal, but having to talk to one another without the luxury of going out to dinner or a movie or a ballgame like most couples really forced us to be honest with one another. I truly believe that we grew closer in those ten months, and it should come as no surprise that our reunion contained a marriage proposal.

Book five in the series, Anne's House of Dreams, relates Anne and Gilbert's newlywed days. This book had new meaning for me when I read it for the first time after being a newlywed myself. The couple finds themselves in a new locale as they create a new life for themselves, which is definitely something I can relate to, having moved halfway across the country days after getting married. I understood the joys of setting up a home, making "his" and "hers" into "ours". I knew what it was like to make new friends while missing those who were far away. We've been married for several years now, but I am still in this stage in my life.

The remaining three books in the series--Anne of Ingleside (another late addition), Rainbow Valley, and Rilla of Ingleside--focus on Anne and Gilbert's family. We're not there yet, but perhaps someday when I re-read the Anne books again for the umpteenth time, I'll discover new connections.


*I had a profound revelation about my Anne-ness one day, which prompted this post. Providence intervened when a link to the following article showed up (from the Anne of Green Gables Facebook page, of course) in my Newsfeed shortly thereafter: http://thestar.com.my/lifestyle/story.asp?file=/2011/9/25/lifebookshelf/9498707&sec=lifebookshelf. This article led me to Scholastic's "You Are What You Read" page: http://youarewhatyouread.scholastic.com/adults/. What's YOUR Bookprint?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

There Is No Place Like Nebraska

When we got married, we never thought that college football would come between us. In fact, I would wager to say that Jon liked the fact that I am a football fan. However, for the third time in the span of a year, we found ourselves at odds with one another.

Last September, my family descended on Seattle with thousands (I'm not exaggerating) of Nebraska Cornhusker fans. The sun shone down on a healthy mixture of purple and red as my beloved Huskers laid a beating on Jon's Washington Huskies. Thankfully we did not sit with each other, and I was free to display my exuberance at each sucessive Husker touchdown and Blackshirt hit.

Fast forward to December. Due to a loss in their final Big XII championship game (and because they were jumping ship for the Big 10, I think), the Huskers slipped in the polls and were invited to play in the Holiday Bowl...against Washington. While it is absolutely no excuse for such a shoddy performance, Nebraska played like a team that oozed disappointment from every pore. They had been hoping for a more prestigious bowl and were playing a team they had trounced several weeks prior. Not exactly where they envisioned their season ending. Washington, on the other hand, was a team heading in the opposite direction. Their conference season had been successful enough to make them bowl-eligible for the first time in years. Their coach had brought a new excitement to the team and to the fans, and when taking all this into account, it is really no surprise that Washington won (or rather, Nebraska lost) the re-match.

I know I can't blame him for supporting his team, but it was beyond annoying to hear that Husky Stadium siren Jon played from his iPod as he snarfed down stinky smoked oysters. All this while at my mother's house surrounded by loyal Cornhusker fans. At least he had the decency to stay out of the "Red Zone," a family tradition involving a red Herbie Husker blanket in front of the TV that no one is allowed to walk through.

So, needless to say, I was ready for redemption this fall. My grandpa has had season tickets at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln for as long as I can remember, and while he and my grandma stopped going years ago, he kept his tickets for my immediate family to use. I have been to several games this way, and I can honestly say that Memorial Stadium on a game day is the most special place for a college football fan to be. (Yes, I'm biased.) People in Nebraska live and die with the Huskers, and it should come as no surprise that Memorial Stadium is the third most populous location in the state when there is a game. Seriously.



Way back when we found out about the Nebraska-Washington series, we put in a request for tickets with my grandpa. Not only did he honor said request, he also played the role of host to a "T." He baked us a pie--which he tried to serve us when we finally rolled in after midnight--and even bought four different types of milk because he couldn't remember which type we preferred. Even though there is a zero percent chance that Grandpa will read this because doesn't have--or want--a computer, we would like to publicly thank him for his hospitality.

But back to the game. Saturday morning dawned overcast and chilly. Thinking back to the year previously, it was a bit ironic that the game in Seattle was sunny and warm, while the game in Lincoln was drizzly and cool. Apparently, the faithful Washington fans brought their weather with them. Undaunted by the threat of storms, Jon and I headed out early to join my cousins at a tailgate several hours before kick-off. I love my family tremendously (duh), and it was so great that the whole group was able to come out at various times during the day. Jon left for a bit to attend a Washington Alumni party but was back in plenty of time for some more good-natured teasing. Actually, I think he found all of the Nebraska fans--both related and unrelated to us--to be quite courteous.

Mmm...so good
About an hour before game time, we headed into the stadium and up to our seats. Every time I enter Memorial Stadium, I get that special feeling...and no, it's not just that my hunger is abated by the runzas and Valentino's pizza. I think Jon felt it, too, although I doubt he would admit it. I was just excited for him to experience the whole thing. I'm well aware of the fact that my vague descriptions are not doing Memorial Stadium and Nebraska football justice, but for those of you who have been there, you know what I'm talking about.


At any rate, when the game started, we both began cheering our respective teams. I confess that it was slightly awkward at times sitting next to each other, and I was conscious of not being too obnoxious. But when chants of "Gooooo Biiiiiggggg Reeeeeddddd" rippled through the crowd, I did what any self-respecting Nebraska fan would do and echoed in reply: "Go Big Red!" Other than shouting encouragement for the players on the field, though, we were pretty quiet. Our only real communication was exchanging the binoculars for every offensive possession.

The game was fairly close in the first half with each team experiencing some success. Things changed in the 3rd quarter due to some big plays by Nebraska and big mistakes by Washington. The Huskers took game three by a comfortable margin, although they didn't quite make the 17-point spread. This fact, which I tried to point out tactfully at the conclusion of the game, was of little consolation to Jon. I wisely kept my celebration in check while Jon heatedly expressed his supreme disappointment.

We returned to the tailgate area after the game where many of my cousins were still hanging out. Jon was mostly out of his "Debbie Downer" funk so we had a good time there, and later at dinner. The best part of the weekend was truly the family time, so despite the outcome of the game, we're both glad we were able to make the trip. And as much fun as I've had watching these Husker-Husky games over the past year (well, 2/3 of the time), I'm just fine with returning to a football season in which we can each cheer on our own teams and genuinely be glad for one another.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Civil War Roadtrip

The first time we visited Memphis, we took the night train north to visit friends in Chicago. Jon had our playlist planned, and as the train chugged out of the city, Willie Nelson's "City of New Orleans" filled our tiny sleeping cabin. Even though I'd most likely heard the song before, I didn't pay close attention to the lyrics and was confused as to the relevancy until Jon pointed out that the song was about a train. The train we were currently riding. The route has since been reversed, but the endpoints are the same. The Amtrak City of New Orleans train travels from Chicago to New Orleans.

Having taken the train north a couple of times, I've been itching to head south to New Orleans. Jon went last winter on a work trip but didn't have a chance to explore the city. We thought that Labor Day would be our perfect opportunity to go to the Big Easy. However, Tropical Storm Lee put a damper on those plans. Literally.

Rather than brazenly move ahead with our plans in defiance of Mother Nature, we decided vacationing in a hurricane would not be much fun. Neither would vacationing in a town preparing for a hurricane. So we scaled back our travels and opted to check Alabama off our list of "states to see" on our quest for Civil War history.

Being Yankees--kind of; I'm from a border state and Jon is from a state that didn't even exist until 1889--we're at times tickled and at others disturbed by the pride of the Confederacy. Even in the "Mid-South," there remains a fierce loyalty attached to the "Stars and Bars." After all, it's a matter of states' rights (tongue firmly in cheek). Regardless, there is history in our own backyard and we were on a journey to find it, whichever way that history was slanted.

Yes, there is plenty of history in Memphis, but since we had two days remaining of a long weekend, we set out Sunday morning to Shiloh, Tennessee. There we got to watch a ridiculously out-dated movie (I swear we could hear the "dings" telling us to advance the slide projector), check out some cool historical artifacts, wander around the cemetery, drive around the battlefield while discussing military tactics, and watch an artillery demonstration.

Ready, Aim, Fire!
I learned more than I ever thought I would about the Battle of Shiloh. I certainly learned more by visiting than I did from my history textbooks. Funny how that works out, isn't it? Our admission for the National Park also got us in to the Tennessee River Museum in Savannah, Tennessee, so we made that our next destination. It, too, had a lot of interesting information and artifacts--another hidden gem in a small town.

Despite our best intentions, Lee's wrath had crept far enough north to turn our overcast day into a rainy one. Undaunted, we continued eastward toward Alabama. Being much too far from anything of significance, or at least anywhere we have heard of, our venture into the "Yellowhammer State" (I just had to look that up) was a quick one. To appease my engineer husband, we did stop at the Wilson Dam. We also--accidentally--drove through Helen Keller's hometown of Tuscumbia, although unfortunately the museum was closed for the day.

"Dam, we're in Alabama."
We drove through the increasingly heavy rain to our third state of the day, having made reservations at the Generals' Quarters Inn located in Corinth, Mississippi. Finally we encountered the bias we were anticipating, as the museums and visitors' centers had portrayed both sides of the Civil War as accurately as they could. This bed and breakfast really got into the theme, as this was the picture at the foot of our bed:

Jon and new friend General Beauregard
After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we headed to the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center. Fortunately their Battle of Shiloh video was much more up-to-date. We strolled through the exhibit, gleaning even more knowledge about this strategic stronghold, but I must admit the rain that was still falling did take away from the peaceful ambience of the symbolic water feature outside.

Since we had to return to reality the following day, we headed back to Memphis. We did make one more stop, however, since we were "in the area." It was kind of out of the way, but we couldn't imagine driving to Tupelo any time soon, so we headed toward Elvis Presley's birthplace. We've been living in Memphis for almost exactly a year but haven't even made it to Graceland yet. A pilgrimage to Tupelo was the least we could do. The very least we could do was not even pay to go inside the house. Rather, we just took a picture from the outside.

Elvis's humble beginnings
Having checked everything off our to-do list, we were back on the road to Memphis. Not going to New Orleans proved to be a good idea, even if we did get rained on most of the time. As we are officially in the sesquicentennial years of the Civil War, we hope to do more such historical roadtrips soon.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

No Fly Zone

We hate to fly. No, not because we get airsick or are scared of crashing (although who doesn't get a little nervous during take-off and landing?!?). Rather, we hate all of the potential ways we can get screwed over.

Sure, the idea of flying is great. It's amazing that we can wake up in Memphis and be in another part of the country--or world--in just a few hours. However, it's also incredibly frustrating, right from the beginning of the experience. Like everyone else, we are annoyed with the ever-rising cost of tickets and endless fees. I can't count how many times we've chosen an itinerary only to have the price leap hundreds of dollars by the time we're ready to commit a few days later. But, after swallowing that exorbitant expense--and in all honesty, forgetting about it--we typically reach our destination without incident. All that changed this summer.

Really, we were due for some complications. We've certainly tested fate more than enough. We've rushed through security at the last minute. We've run through the airport to make a connecting flight. We've slid into our seats as the flight attendants go over the safety precautions. So, yes we were due.

When you think of it that way, it's really no surprise that we've had a bit of, um...difficulty flying this summer. In fact, when we got bumped from our flight to Norway, we took it all in stride. Karma, right? The airline promptly rebooked us, compensated us for our troubles, and sent us on our way. When our luggage didn't arrive at our final destination, we were confident that it would only be a matter of time before we were reunited. Four days--and lots of money spent on international phone calls to resolve the matter--later, and we finally were. While Jon remained fairly calm, I was a mess, and my good-natured acceptance had been shaken.

However, we considered it an isolated incident. Just an unfortunate consequence of computer problems. After our next trip, it was hard not to believe that some evil forces were working against us. Our travels began innocently enough. It was to be a quick trip to Nebraska for a cousin wedding. We booked our tickets early enough and were able to fly into our actual destination of Lincoln, which is typically more expensive than Omaha. Security was a breeze and we boarded the plane without another thought. The plane even pulled away from the gate. Until it stopped. And pulled back in again.

It's hard to complain about safety, so there was really nothing to be said when the captain explained that maintenance was checking out a suspicious gauge. We "de-planed" (such a funny word) with the rest of the passengers until the matter could be resolved. All in all, it only took about 45 minutes to diagnose and repair the problem, so we re-boarded. However, that was just enough time to miss our connecting flight out of Chicago. We were informed we would not make our flight to Lincoln...which happened to be the last flight of the night.

With little other choice, we resigned ourselves to a night in Chicago. For whatever reason, the airline didn't have any hotel vouchers available, but luckily we were able to stay in the USO at the airport. We were booked on the first flight to Lincoln in the morning (still giving us plenty of time to make the wedding, thank goodness), which was another reason to stay so close. The USO volunteers were so welcoming to us weary travelers, and even though there were no beds, they helped us get settled in the lounge. So, there we were: me on a lumpy couch and Jon on the floor, trying to get some sleep to the soothing sounds of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which happened to be on TV at the time. All in all, we slept okay...until waking up in the middle of the night surrounded by sailors. Apparently a group of "kids" had just completed basic training and were on their way to their various training locations. They were clearly excited--especially for 3am--which frankly was a bit annoying until I realized that we were the only non-Navy personnel in the joint.

Needless to say, we didn't have a problem waking up and headed down to pass through security once again. Minus my eye twitching uncontrollably, we were no worse for the wear. Until we read the giant Departures board. Our flight to Lincoln? Cancelled. It was about this point when I started to get nervous. But we're seasoned travelers, so we quickly picked out at least three flights to Omaha that would still "get us to the church on time." Walking with purpose to customer service (again), we were informed that we were already re-booked on one of the Omaha flights. Like the best-laid plans o' mice and men, our trip had gone completely awry. But we made the wedding and had a nice story to tell.

Our story on the return trip was not so nice. We made it out of Lincoln just fine, returning once again to Chicago O'Hare. We had a lay-over and so did what we normally do at O'Hare: head immediately to the Goose Island bar for some overpriced beer. It had started raining, but the storm was brief, so we didn't give it much thought. We headed down to the basement where the hoardes of regional economy jet peons were waiting and discovered that multiple flights had been delayed. But ours was still on time, so we settled in to wait. And wait. And wait. We got excited when the gate agent announced that our flight had arrived...and were disappointed to hear that our crew had not. We were assured that they would get to the airport soon, so after briefly debating taking the overnight train back to Memphis, we ultimately decided to wait it out. It was only 7pm, after all. Sneakily, in 30-minute increments, our flight continued to get pushed back. We grew restless. The prophetic passenger next to us predicted that by the time the crew arrived, they would have run out of flying time.

Finally, at 10:30, the dreaded announcement was made. Our flight had been cancelled. Our neighbor was correct. The crew had spent too long in the air and were mandated by law to take a break. By this time, the train had left and there was no way we could make it to the Greyhound terminal. Even the Mega Busses were about to leave. We had no other choice than to join the ever-growing line of disgruntled passengers in the customer service line. We knew that Jon would be late for work the next day (fortunately I was at the beginning of a three-week break from classes), but were upset to learn that the earliest we could get confirmed seats to Memphis was 9:30 the following day. 9:30pm. Defeated, we headed back to the USO (no hotel OR food vouchers this time).

We attempted three times to fly stand-by, even volunteering to travel separately so Jon could get back to work. Finally, a more helpful customer service representative informed us that we just needed to get out of town. She routed us through Huntsville, Alabama so that we could get back to Memphis approximately 24 hours later than scheduled. When we added up the time, we realized that we had spent more time at O'Hare than we had in Nebraska, 33 hours to 27.

With such a bad travel taste in our mouths, it was with great trepidation that we embarked on our next trip, a mere three weeks later. Another cousin wedding, but this time in Seattle. We wisely opted to avoid Chicago and flew through Denver. It felt like deja vu when the captain came over the loudspeaker and informed us that there were mechanical problems on our airplane. Murphy and his law were hard at work and the airline decided to switch aircraft. Fortunately, we had no checked baggage, so we were able to get on another flight a few gates away. But the damage had been done. We were delayed again.

Yet, we made it to our final destination and had another fun time at another wedding. Potential disaster struck again on the return trip when after Jon received his boarding pass, I received the dreaded "departure management card." Even though I had reserved and purchased a seat, it wasn't guaranteed. I will never understand this dirty airline trick. Usually, everything works out fine, but based on our recent experiences, we weren't very confident. This is precisely what had happened to us when we tried to fly to Norway. How the airline can give away a seat is beyond me. I get the fact that they don't want to fly a half-empty aircraft, but there is no excuse for such blatant over-booking. The flight was boarding and I was still on the "yellow list," not quite stand-by but not quite confirmed. I had readied myself to fly at a later time (which would have been okay since I didn't have to teach until the following Tuesday), when suddenly, my name was on the "green list" with zero explanation.

We spent another three weeks recovering from this flight before heading out of town again, back to Nebraska, but this time for a football game (see future post). Learning a little from our mistakes (which I blame mostly on bad luck), we refused to fly through O'Hare again and even found a direct flight. Since Jon has been spending a lot of his time working in southeast Missouri, he was equally close to Memphis and St. Louis. We were able to book a direct flight from St. Louis to Omaha, which left fewer opportunities for errors and delays. We certainly had to drive a lot more (I stayed an extra day on both ends in Missouri, so as to not have to make the Memphis-St. Louis drive all at once), but it was nice to not have a lay-over. Our flight out of St. Louis was only delayed 30 minutes, small potatoes these days. Once again, our trip was worth the hassle, as we had a lovely time with family.

However, we panicked briefly in Omaha on the way out when the ticket kiosk spit out not one but two "departure management cards." Apparently the airline's policy is to issue the final 15 seats at the gate. I guess we should have checked in on-line...but excuse us for staying with a relative who still has a rotary phone. Thankfully, we did get seats--crappy middle seats in the back, but seats nonetheless.

After this last adventure, we have made a pact. While we love you all dearly, there will be absolutely NO FLYING...at least until Christmas.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Norway, Part III

Having conquered our half-marathon in Tromsø, we were ready to relax. Fortunately, we still had another week left in Norway in which to do that. You may have gathered from previous posts that we like to take advantage of every moment of our trips and are not very good at the lay-on-the-beach-and-do-nothing types of vacations. But in Mehamn and the greater Finnmark area, we only felt a little bit guilty about sleeping late, reading books, watching movies, and generally not having much of an agenda at all.

Our stint in northern Norway didn't begin that way, however. After riding what was essentially an "air bus," we landed in the northern town of Mehamn. Once again, we had the good fortune of family to stay with, yet another of Jon's dad's cousins. As soon as we had finished dinner, our hostess declared that it was time to work. She wasn't kidding.

Our hostess is a member of the festival committee of Mehamn, a village that reminds me an awful lot of Brainard. The task at hand that particular night was to inspect the fest tents for damage and to clean them for presentation. So, there we were, in a tiny community center in northern Norway, scrubbing tents with industrial strength wet wipes. Our hostess was sitting cross-legged on the floor with her sewing machine, and other committee members were on their hands and knees spreading epoxy and fixing tears. Jon and I remarked more than once that all of the crouching and scrubbing was making us more sore than the 13.1 mile run from the day before. But we were happy to help; it made us feel as though we were earning our keep.

At some point during our trip, I asked Jon if he thought we would see reindeer. He laughed and guaranteed it. Yet even with that expectation, I was thrilled when we stumbled upon three reindeer the following afternoon. We just watched them in awe for the longest time, and even though they knew we were gawking, they continued about their business of grazing.

On Dasher, on Dancer, on Donner, on Cupid...
Riding high after this discovery, we were ready for our evening adventure. Once our hostess returned from work and fixed us a traditional dinner of pea soup and Norwegian pancakes, she ordered us to get dressed for an “easy after dinner hike.” While certainly not the most challenging hike I’d ever gone on, our climb up a mountain just outside of town took a bit of athleticism. I shudder to think what a difficult hike would entail.

Since Jon was helping carry the mailbox checkpoint we would be placing at the top of said mountain, I was in charge of the fancy camera we had rented for the trip.

We were amazed at the attention this photo garnered on Facebook
When our hostess encouraged us to look very closely in order to see the beauty that many others miss, I knew she was referring to more than just flowers; regardless, it was still good advice for nature photography. There were dozens of species of delicate flowers nestled among the rocks of the hill, and it was always exciting to notice something new. We did our best to capture the bright colors of the flowers and the vibrant green of the moss. If only we could somehow share the spongy quality of the tundra. It was like walking on the softest of carpets.

"Cat's claw" surrounded by that spongy moss
 We paused for a while when we reached the top of the mountain, both to install the aforementioned mailbox and to enjoy the view. The Hurtigruten cruise liner was coming into port at that moment, and in a bit of foreshadowing, we watched the big boat glide silently in and out of Mehamn.
 
The next day passed fairly uneventfully with another ramble about town before our nightly adventure. We endured fish balls for dinner...which really weren't bad, as long as I thought of them as dumplings and not processed fish parts. At any rate, we set out on our exploration with full tummies ready to see some animals. Our hostess encouraged us to keep our eyes on the sky for sea eagles. We passed any number of sheep grazing and saw, what had by now turned into a regular occurrence, herds of reindeer. Then our hostess saw it: the elusive sea eagle.
Sea eagle in flight
Thrilled with this sight, we kept our eyes glued to the windows as we drove on to Skjånes. In what seemed like a random location, our hostess pulled off the side of the road and told us to follow her. After prowling through the trees, we found ourselves climbing alongside a waterfall.

One of my favorite photos from the trip
There seemed to be no end to the surprises up our hostess's sleeve. She continued to show us various sights and somehow managed to conjure up yet another eagle. Whether leading us on a hike up a mountain, looking in the river near her cabin for salmon, spotting an eagle/fox/reindeer in the distance, feeding us Norwegian and international food alike, or letting us try on her Halloween costumes in the magic trunk in the guest room, our hostess went above and beyond the call of hospitality.
 
In fact, the following day, she even lent us her car, which we used to drive to Gamvik, where Jon's great-grandparents lived. His great, or "old" uncle usually spends the summer there, but unfortunately not this year. However, Jon was able to meet him on his last trip and so shared with me a bit of the history of the house and the town. During World War II, the town was burned not once, but twice, by the Germans interested in its coastal location. Jon's family actually lived in a cave for part of this time and then in a tiny shed while their house was being reconstructed.

The family lived in the shed with the grass roof during reconstruction
While in the area, we also checked out the Slettnes lighthouse. We quickly learned that everything in the area claimed to be the most northern __________. The lighthouse is the most northern lighthouse in the world and is also home to a bird sanctuary. We had a delightful guide take us up into the lighthouse, where we watched the birds and seals in the sea.

What the picture does not show is the incredible wind
After these adventures, it was time to get back to work. Northern Norway gets quite cold over the winter (as one might expect), so our hostess shuts the water off in her weekend cabin to ensure that the pipes don't freeze. Along with her brother, we dug around in the dirt and rocks for quite awhile to find the pipeline to reconnect the water.
 
Finally successful, we headed back to town where we continued our habit of lounging around. Since our hostess was officially on her government-mandated five weeks of vacation a year (fantastic idea), we had a movie night...which I'm sure Jon enjoyed immensely. By this point, we were starting to get accustomed to concept of the midnight sun. That didn't mean, however, that our bodies had adapted. Because it never got dark, we stayed up way later than we were used to, which resulted in our sleeping in the next day. This new schedule meant that we were wide awake when the movie ended at about 1:30 in the morning. Jon then had the brilliant suggestion to go for a walk.

We grabbed the camera and my sunglasses and were on our way. We knew that Jon's dad checked the Mehamn web cam on occasion, so we told him to look for us. Sure enough, he was able to spot us back in Seattle. During our late night/early morning wandering, we prowled about the hills of Mehamn and even saw a fox trotting down the street. It was all a pretty surreal experience.

2am in the morning
Needless to say, it was embarrassingly late when we woke up the next morning. We didn't do anything noteworthy during the day, but it was very nice to not have anything to do. We're not really used to that. On our final full day in Mehamn, we did have plans, however. Rather than take the Hurtigruten coastal liner all the way up the coast, we opted to take just a two-hour tour around the most northern spot on the European mainland (those distinctions are important).

Nordkapp coming into port
Boarding the boat in Kjellefjord, we watched on the deck until it became too windy to be fun. Resting comfortably in the lounge for the remainder of the trip, we watched as we sailed around the end of the world.

Nordkyn
And just like that, our trip was over. It was an adventure from start to finish, full of new sights and new connections. Like any international trip, there were parts that were uncomfortable, like the fact that we don't speak a lick of Norwegian. But any time you go outside your comfort zone, it's a challenge. This was the trip of a lifetime...and if you ask any of our family in Norway, it is one that will be repeated.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Midnight Sun Half-Marathon

The following post is an article I submitted to the local running group's newsletter. Since it was written for an audience of runners, I apologize if it's a bit heavy on the training details.


“Hey-ya! Hey-ya! Hey-ya!”
As the waves of cheers rolled over the hundreds of other runners we had chosen to spend our evening with, I felt propelled by the crowd. People of all ages lined the streets, waving flags and signs of encouragement. Flushed customers hoisted their drinks as they reclined comfortably at outdoor cafés. Groups of college students used the race as an occasion to throw a party and blasted rock music both for themselves and for the runners.

Adrenaline coursing through my body, I knew that we were taking part in something truly special, and overcome with that singular sense of clarity only found while running long distances, I realized that this moment was something I wanted to remember forever. For a fleeting moment, I thought that regardless of the outcome of the race, I would be satisfied with just having this experience. But then my competitiveness kicked in, and I began focusing on my breathing and mentally calculating times.


For my husband Jon and me, any long distance race is a significant event. Having run several half-marathons and even the full once, we know 13.1 miles is a good distance for us. It’s challenging, gives us something to train for, yet doesn’t consume our lives like marathon training. But this race was different for one key reason: it was in Norway. In the middle of the night (okay, so two reasons).

We’d been discussing traveling to Norway for years. Jon has family there and was anxious to see them again as well as introduce me. We tentatively began planning our trip for the end of June when Jon remembered that the northern city of Tromsø runs a marathon and half-marathon the weekend following Midsommer.

The Midnight Sun Marathon is billed as the world’s northernmost Association of International Marathons (AIMS) certified race. During the summer months, the sun in northern Norway never sets, instead hovering over the horizon all night long. Therefore, the marathon start time is 8:30pm while the half-marathon takes off at 10:30pm. It didn’t take us long to decide that this was a race worth running.

While we weren’t able to plan the specific logistics of the trip for a while, we did sign up for the run and begin training in earnest at the beginning of April. For past half-marathons, we made a six-week training schedule with shorter runs during the week and a longer run on the weekend. I had finally broken the elusive two-hour mark (for me, a huge accomplishment) and did not want to take a step backward, so we were looking for a more aggressive training program.

We modified Hal Higdon’s on-line intermediate twelve-week half-marathon plan, incorporating speed training into our work-outs for the first time. We also spent some cross-training time in the pool and occasionally on a bike. We still went on our long weekend runs, but the varying work-outs kept running fresh.

Although I’m originally from Kansas City, Jon and I have spent the past several years living near his hometown of Seattle. In Washington, I easily adapted to the freedom of being able to run outdoors at any time of day. Even when it rained, we would just wait an hour and be ready to go. It should come as no surprise that the muggy mornings and stifling afternoons of May and June took a bit of getting used to. However, we realized in our humidity-induced haze that training in the heat would pay off in a half-marathon where the average temperature was in the 50s.

In mid-June, we embarked on our Norwegian vacation full of confidence for the race to come. Jon was able to take two weeks off from work, so we decided to spend the first week exploring southern Norway, hitting coastal Bergen before visiting family in Stavanger. Despite our upcoming run, we hiked Preikestolen, or Pulpit’s Rock, and my ensuing soreness really made me question the decision. The hike and scenery were incredible, though, and my sore calves went away in a day or two, prompting us to considering mountain hiking as good pre-race cross-training activity.

We then took a scenic road trip near some fjords en route to the capital city of Oslo, where our luggage finally met up with us some four days after arriving in Norway. Needless to say, we carried our running clothes, shoes, and accessories in a carry-on bag for the duration of the trip.

After nearly a week of vacationing, it was time to head to Tromsø. We had the good fortune of family to stay with, which was nearly as good as sleeping in our own beds. The weather was fantastic, low 60s with full sun, which was still shining brightly when we finally went to sleep in the wee hours of the morning.

Race day festivities began in the morning with packet pick-up and a short breakfast run. It was at this point that we discovered how truly international the event was. There were economical Germans, worldly Brits, free-spirited Japanese, excited Brazilians, and lively Italians. We followed a brightly-clad Japanese woman who appeared to be doing tai chi as she ran, and once at our destination overheard a Brazilian man talk about the evening’s race, miming the running motion each time he said the word “run.” Regardless of nationality, everyone enjoyed a traditional Norwegian breakfast of assorted meats and cheeses, bread, yogurt, eggs, coffee, and juice.

While I appreciated the novelty of running in the midnight sun, that also meant that we had a whole day to spend thinking about the race, and in my case, worrying about the race. To take our minds off of it, we wandered around town for a bit after braving the crowds at the merchandise table (unfortunately they haven’t yet figured out the American tradition of free race swag) and then headed back to the house for a much-needed nap. We weren’t as concerned about how the late start time would affect us since we were still adjusting to the time difference, so a two-hour nap in the middle of the day felt great.

We were, however, a bit concerned about what to eat and when. That matter was solved for us when we were invited out for another Norwegian tradition, what I am now dubbing “Porridge Saturdays.” We both gobbled up the homemade rice pudding with just a bit of butter and cinnamon. This meal proved to be excellent fodder for a runner’s stomach.

Finally, it was time to head back to the race area. We received a ride downtown shortly before the marathon start, just in time to witness the dynamic group stretching set to the tunes of Ricky Martin. After the gun, we still had two hours to wait, which we filled as best we could with wardrobe adjustments, snacks, and nervous wandering about.

After our own stretching session with the perky blonde aerobics instructor, it was race time. Even though we train together, Jon and I run at our own paces, so we said a quick good-bye and good luck and got ready to start. As we crossed the blue mat, a cacophony of watches beeped and bleeped and we were off.

I have a tendency to be conservative at first and not go out too fast, not wanting to crash early. However, I’ve been trying to start faster and build up some lower split times, which is the strategy I used in this race. I felt good, really good, although I recognized that it was mostly adrenaline pushing me along.

Once we moved farther from the downtown core, it was the beautiful scenery that competed for my attention. We were fortunate to have such good weather, clear skies and temperatures in the mid-50s. This made the mountains stand out on the horizon and reflect on the water. “Beautiful” doesn’t seem like a good enough word to describe it.

I continued to record fast splits as the kilometers counted down, instead of up like we’re used to. Psychologically, I liked this change because I count backward anyway. Somehow, passing a sign that indicated only 15 kilometers to go was more motivating than seeing how many miles I had already run. In addition, starting after the marathoners meant that we were all running together at this point and passing them was good for the psyche.

When I got to the turn-around I couldn’t believe I was on pace for a 1:48. Jon typically averages around this time, so I knew that since I couldn’t see him ahead of me, he must have been having the race of his life as well. Even though I was running faster than normal, I still felt strong and that I could maintain this speed. Apparently all of those early morning sprints in the oppressive humidity around AutoZone Park were paying off.

The half-marathon course was a very flat out-and-back, so we were treated to a repeat show of snow-capped mountains, clear-as-glass water, and the chants of fans still cheering on runners. It was so surreal and I couldn’t help but wonder how we got to this place. How did we start our training doing tempo runs on the Mississippi waterfront and end up running on a path along the Norwegian Sea?

The kilometers continued to roll by and when I began to smell the finish line, I felt my reserves start to run dry. There would be nothing left at the end of this race. I knew I would break two hours easily—unless I had to crawl, which I suppose is always a possibility. I crossed the line in 1:49:28, shaving ten minutes off my previous PR; Jon ran a 1:41:53, seven minutes faster than his personal best.

The sense of accomplishment was overwhelming, making all those long runs out to Midtown and Mud Island totally worth it. We were in pain, but we were happy…and in disbelief that the sun was still shining at 12:30am.



Before

After


Approximately 1am

Norway, Part I

Ever since Jon returned from his trip to Norway in summer 2005, he has been itching to go back. I have had no problems with this plan, but it wasn't until this summer that we were actually able to make it work. We began discussing our trip probably a year ago--I confess to using Norway as a carrot to help me make it through the school year--but we didn't start planning in earnest until the spring.

We knew we wanted to visit/meet family and we knew that we were interested in running the Midnight Sun Half-Marathon (see subsequent post), but beyond that, we were up for adventure. Little did we know that adventure would begin at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

Despite the fact that our final preparations were planned much later than we would have preferred, all was going according to plan on the morning we were to fly. We arrived at the airport with time to spare, breezed through security, and landed on-time in Chicago. We didn't think too much of the fact that we weren't able to print off our boarding passes for our Chicago to Frankfurt flight...until we reached the gate. Earlier that morning I had heard something about some computer problems experienced by United Airlines the day before--I was not surprised to learn we were in fact flying United. Due to these problems, we and approximately 20 of our closest friends were bumped from our flight.

We were quite calm throughout the ordeal, slightly amused by the distraught passengers who persisted in harassing the gate agents despite the fact that there was nothing they could do. We felt we were repaid by karma when not only were we re-routed with little delay to our original flight plan but also upgraded to business class. Ah, business class. Champagne, cloth napkins, reclining seats with foot rests, personal video screens...I think the only way to make first class any better is to have actual beds.

Needless to say, we were feeling pretty comfortable and well-rested by the time we landed in Amsterdam. After a brief lay-over, we were in Norway. Our luggage, however, was not. Frankly, we were not surprised, albeit slightly concerned when the baggage agents couldn't tell us where our luggage was. We fully expected to be reunited with our belongings shortly and set off to explore the coastal city of Bergen.

Old Town Bergen
We repeated much of Jon's most recent trip to Norway, which was more helpful than annoying. I felt a little bad that he was doing and seeing many of the same things, but I really don't think he minded. Plus, we traveled in the opposite order, from southern Norway to the north, which was a change, and Jon made sure to include some new adventures as well.

Bergen is a beautiful city, even if it is a bit touristy. There is a quaint old town and a thriving fish market. The highlight for us was riding the Fløibanen funicular (mountain-climbing train) to the top of Mount Fløyen, where we were treated to some incredible views of the town below.

View from Mount Fløyen
There was still no word about our luggage, but we were so tired from all our travels that we were able to overlook that minor detail. We were able to take showers, and I at least, had a change of clothes in my carry-on. The problem, however, is that we were leaving Bergen the next morning en route to Stavanger, so we made a trip to a department store to pick up some extra clothes for Jon.

It was around this time that we began to fully realize how expensive Norway is. Once we did all the mental conversions and figured out that we had spent $20 on two coffees and a cinnamon roll, we vowed to eat a lot of sandwiches. Thus, buying new shirts and underwear was not the way we wanted to use our precious Norwegian kroner.

But we gamely traveled on. We had rented a minuscule VW Polo and Jon and his mental GPS took us exactly where we needed to go. The scenery was lovely, even from the highway, and the ferries were extremely efficient. Throughout the day, I began to get increasingly nervous about the status of our luggage (which Jon will say is an understatement), and so once we got to Stavanger, we made a quick stop at an H&M where I purchased quite possibly the ugliest shirt in all of Norway. Lesson learned: always try on clothes, even if you are parked in a 15-minutes only zone.

That night we met a couple of Jon's dad's cousins, one of whom graciously opened her home to us to stay the night. They showed us around the area, filling us in with more history and insider details than we ever could have received on our own, and we are very thankful for the connection we made.

Monument to the battle of Hafrsfjord at Møllebukta, near Stavanger 
After a traditional Norwegian breakfast of assorted meats and cheeses, including our favorite gjetost (sweet brown goat cheese), we were on our way to hike Preikestolen, or Pulpit's Rock. Our brand-new hiking boots and "adventure pants" would have been really useful on this adventure, but alas, day three of no luggage. At any rate, we enjoyed our hike immensely. The trail was full of hikers, young and old, which was impressive due to the treacherous terrain at some points.

We hope we can still climb rocks like this when we're in our 70s
We also crossed paths with a man dressed head to toe in Husker gear, proof that it truly is a small world. After some good-natured ribbing about the up-coming Nebraska-Washington game, we continued our ascent. I felt myself getting more and more excited the closer we got to the top. We were not disappointed.


Preikestolen
We still didn't have our luggage by this point, which I'll admit was quite distressing. We had been coordinating between two different airlines through a series of very expensive international calls and finally discovered that our bags were still in Chicago. At this point, we were concerned that we wouldn't have our running gear for our up-coming half-marathon in just a few days.

It was a fairly frustrating evening, both due to our luggage delay and our inability to find a place to stay. In our second small world moment of the day, we stopped at a campground owned by an ex-pat from Tennessee who had gone to Norway 15 years ago for mission work and never left. Even though all of his cabins were rented, he let us wait out a customer who hadn't shown up yet. During our wait, we heard wonderful news: our bags were in Oslo, where they would be waiting for us the following day. We had a lovely chat with the ex-pat proprietor and we got to stay in the cabin after all. Plus, we were greeted with the following view in the morning:

Ah, fjords
With this sight in mind, we set off for Oslo. Now that I am a "skilled" manual transmission driver, Jon chose this leg of the trip to have me drive...which was a huge mistake. The fjord roads are essentially one lane, and driving  80+ kilometers an hour in the face of on-coming semi trucks is not my idea of a good time. About ten minutes in--after I had pried my white knuckles  from the steering wheel and stopped hyperventilating--Jon returned to his post as driver.

We chose to take the scenic route, so even though it was quite late by the time we arrived in Oslo, it was well worth it. Our first roadside stop was the stave church in Røldal. This pilgrimage stave church is still used today. The woodwork is exquisite.

Circa 1200-1250
Our path then took us through the Hardangervidda, or Hardanger Plateau. We drove alongside fjords on more narrow roads, eating gjetost open-faced sandwiches for both lunch and dinner. We saw sheep on the road, a glacier in the mountains, and goats on the roof of the nature center.

Baaaaack off

Hardanger Glacier

If we had a yard, we'd use goats instead of a mower
After our stop at the Nature Center, where we found ourselves in the midst of a German seniors tour, it was serious driving to get to Oslo. We had already arranged a pension and were relieved to find our luggage waiting for us. Finally.

We spent the following day exploring Oslo. We ran through Frogner Park and all of its delightfully weird statues before hitting up the three tourist sites we had chosen. First was the Norwegian Resistance Museum. I hadn't really thought much about Norway's role in World War II before and found the history fascinating. I knew that Germany had invaded the country, like so many others, but it was interesting to see artifacts from the underground movement.

There is an island a short distance from Oslo's downtown core that houses a number of museums. We chose to check out the Norsk Folkemuseum, aka Norway's Missouri Town. Rather than churning butter, however, the highlight for us was the lefse. There were also traditional dancing demonstrations and activities for the kids. But, really, we were all about the lefse. Who says Norwegian food is bland?!?

Don't worry--we got the recipe
Our next adventure for the evening was a trek out to Holmenkollen, home of the Olympic ski jump in 1952. This trip was especially important to Jon, whose grandfather was once a competitive ski jumper...until he broke his leg. After seeing the ski jump up close, I can understand how that could happen.

It's a long way down
We sought out a traditional dinner and then went to bed early. We were headed north to Tromsø the next day and had the half-marathon to look forward to. An uneventful flight and an eventful cab ride (our driver received a $400 traffic ticket) later and we were at Jon's second cousin's house. She very warmly welcomed us into her home where we were entertained by her adorable children. Despite the language barrier, we were still able to play with the kids, Jon especially. We even learned the words for "fart" and "butt," which apparently have universal appeal.

Our time in Tromsø was dominated by the half-marathon, but we had a nice time with family, playing Settlers of Catan until the wee hours of the morning. You wouldn't have known it, however, for the sun was still shining brightly. Next was a 21 kilometer run and before we left town, we went for a nice long walk.

But back to the half-marathon. To be continued...

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