Foot Fiction–Hiking with Hemingway in Pictured Rocks

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I’ve just returned from a second trek through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore’s 42-mile stretch of the North Country Trail, where I swatted mosquitoes and schlepped through boot-devouring stretches of muddy trail in search of some incredible lakeside views, primal, almost pleistocene vistas of glaciers that appear just recently melted into great, cold lakes. We listened to creatures creeping around our tent one night and to a thunderstorm sweeping off Lake Superior the next. We startled a family of ruffed grouse near Chapel Rock, and a bald eagle soared over our heads just after Au Sable Light House. Loon calls tinted eerie twilights, punctuated by the cracks of twigs breaking under heavier (likely scarier) beasts. We marveled at the biodiversity of ticks, slugs, and beetles crawling into pretty much everything. On Thursday, pestered by thick clouds of mosquitoes that don’t respect DEET let alone personal space, we hiked the final five miles out and promptly ordered a pizza. There is no better ending to a 5-day communion with Nature than half a pizza. (If you hike Pictured Rocks, call Main Street Pizza in Munising–they deliver to the Munising Falls Visitor Center upon request!)

There is plenty to say about Pictured Rocks, but I think I covered the nuts and bolts pretty thoroughly in my earlier write-up; you can read about that misadventure here.  Aside from finishing the distance from Grand Marais to Munising which made this trip significantly more fulfilling, my hike was also colored with the memory of Ernest Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories, a collection of short stories based in part on Hemingway’s boyhood rambles in our state’s northern forests. I taught the book last semester for the first time, and despite its cool reception among my sophomore students, the book continues to enchant me. Hemingway’s characters often bristle with machismo as a means of covering up paralytic anxieties (and especially gerontophobia), and Nick is no exception; Hemingway’s Nick is a less likeable Peter Pan, who, when not bumming along train tracks or seeking glory in European armies, hunts and fishes (often illegally) in the Michigan woods. Nick jet-sets across the world, to war and back, always with a big, two-hearted river in mind. “I would think of a trout stream I had fished along when I was a boy and fish its whole length very carefully in my mind, fishing very carefully under all the logs, all the turns of the bank, the deep holes and the clear shallow stretches, sometimes catching trout and sometimes losing them,” Nick says, lulling himself to sleep in the middle of the ocean, aboard a steamer headed for war (“Now I Lay Me” 144).

In this, Nick is like most Michiganders, whose lives and livelihoods are always shaped by the water that carves out the Mitten and the UP. While we often forget about the wealth of water in southeastern Michigan–this part of the state long ago buried its networks of creeks, streams, and eddies in tile culverts to create arable farmland–it is impossible to miss the sheer tonnage of water trickling through everything up North. You can see and hear, taste and feel the water moving beneath and around you here, turning solid cliffs into shifting dunes. On stormy days, including three of our five days during this early June hike, water envelops the entire landscape in trickles and crashes and squelches, defying efforts to keep it at bay. Immersed in rushing streams, pounding waves, and still, silent shorelines, hikers in Pictured Rocks are mesmerized by the lake, spirited by its spell.

This passage from “Big Two-Hearted River,” one of the first in the “Soldier Home” section of The Nick Adams Stories, captures the fluidity of our landscape and especially the magnetism that binds us to it (rather perfectly, I think):

He came down a hillside covered with stumps into a meadow. At the edge of the meadow flowed the river. Nick was glad to get to the river. He walked upstream through the meadow. His trousers were soaked with the dew as he walked. After the hot day, the dew had come quickly and heavily. The river made no sound. It was so fast and smooth. At the edge of the meadow, before he mounted to a piece of high ground to make his camp, Nick looked down the river at the trout rising. They were rising to insects come from the swamp on the other side of the stream when the sun went down. The trout jumped out of water to take them. While Nick walked through the little stretch of meadow alongside the stream, trout had jumped high out of water. Now as he looked down the river, the insects must be settling on the surface, for the trout were feeding steadily all down the stream. As far down the long stretch as he could see, the trout were rising, making circles all down the surface of the water, as though it were starting to rain (182).

Many readers often find Hemingway to be a bit boring, lost in the mundanity of his clean-cut style. But here, Hemingway lulls his readers into the magic of this scene with his repetitive, simple syntax, inviting us to follow Nick’s eyes and ears as he watches and listens to the river; the trout keep leaping, and we keep watching, mesmerized by the iridescent patterns they trace on the surface of the water. I’m especially struck by the quiet of this passage; the river slides by making no sound, fish feeding silently as day slips into night. I see swarms of floating insects, backlit like snowflakes, settling on the surface of the water. The river centers the scene, and our eyes–Nick’s eyes–watch its ecosystem perform a soundless symphony in a windless calm. It extends as far as we can see. Half-fantasy, half-reality, Nick’s perspective produces a landscape that threatens to drown us in its immersive beauty, sweeping us along in its quiet current. We aren’t sure whether to stay in this pleasant, perhaps dangerous stillness, or to struggle against it like fish caught on the line. Left in Hemingway’s hands, surrendering our imaginations to his slow description, we wait for him to start reeling in the line. When will this pastoral loveliness fracture? What ugliness follows? I’m not bored while reading this passage; I’m hooked. And I feel the same way about the Upper Peninsula’s quiet gorgeousness, centered by a lake from which I don’t want to look away.

Foot Fiction posts chronicle the stories that feed my wanderlust and shape my experiences of the places I visit; when I’m not on the road, I am at home in the library, reading. I’ll keep my literary thoughts short and purposeful, and I’ll include images from my camera, taken on the trail, in every Foot Fiction post. The photographs in this gallery are, like Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories, centered by Michigan’s endless lakes, flowing though everything, human and animal, stony and sandy. The camera, despite my mechanical ignorance, managed to capture the surreal loveliness of the UP in Hemingway-esque terms, highlighting water features both large and small, liquid and solid, in each shot. I hope they draw you to the UP next summer or even later this season, like a mosquito to bare skin, eager to jump into Michigan.

Ernest Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972. Print.

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At Any Rate, At Last, Spring is Here!


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Back in February, I wrote the following post, intending to return to my blog after a long graduate-school induced hiatus. I thought it was pretty good, but also, I love the sheer delusion that emerges here, as I sat in my house counting down days till Spring:

In The Bleak Midwinter

Here in Michigan, the first day of February is bringing us 10-14 inches of snow, and I have been snuggling up inside our house, baking cherry oatmeal muffins and simmering a pot of lemony carrot-cauliflower soup on the stove, reveling in the fact that the stars have aligned to bring me both snow and a serendipitous, if short lived, afternoon free from reading all the things that graduate school requires. My thoughts turned to this blog, long forsaken and ill-attended; today, finally, I am sitting and writing, watching snow fall, listening to soup bubble. And watching my pug take laps around the coffee table.

Usually, this time of year makes me crave summer rambles in the woods, and fall road races. Normally, I am riding the fine line between the winter blues and full-blown seasonal affective disorder, waiting for a trip to somewhere sunny to get me through the jokes-on-you Spring that we call March and April. But today, I’m so happy to see snow. Maybe I’m just getting used to Michigan, at long last. Maybe I now understand that things could be worse, that it could be -40 without the windchill, and that I could be walking around MSU’s vast campus, playing fast and loose with frostbite risk. Maybe, God forbid, I am starting to like winter, but you have to be careful with statements like that here. Weather juju is real, and it is vindictive.

At the heart of this unexpected (and probably ill-considered) happiness towards winter is the post-snow run. Dan and I moved to Chelsea, MI over the summer, a quiet tiny town outside of Ann Arbor. Our streets have that perfect silence after snow that only exists in small towns where no one needs to go out, because there isn’t much to do anyway. You run on the streets, after the plow shuffles by, because the sidewalks are still covered and that’s ok. Trees frosted thickly with snow drop funnels of flakes off their branches as you run past, drifting in wind. The town smells like clean laundry, fresh from the dryer, and cold. Your footfalls deaden in the stillness. Once in awhile, a cranky black squirrel cackles at you from his tree house, or a neighborhood dog joins you for a block or two, but otherwise, its just you and your legs, running up and over the train tracks. If you’re smart, you’re wearing something like yak-tracks, or maybe even trail running shoes, but if you’re like me and you run in your super-snazzy but poorly tread Nikes, you’ll feel like you’re running on a sandy beach. You may get lost in the daydream of sun and surf for a moment, remembering the run on the Mexican beach from two spring breaks ago, the last time you felt the ground shift under your feet. You were barefoot then, clad in shorts, and jumped in the ocean after your three miles. Rum drinks and guacamole ensued. It’s a post-traumatic reverie, to be sure; last winter taught you about the sheer power of cold. Bone-cracking, heart-stopping, fear-inducing cold. Tomorrow, after the snow ends, you may feel the cold snap you again, threatening to freeze your pipes, kill your car battery, make your run end before it begins. But today, you run silently, quickly, through snow banks, reaching home just as your lungs begin to ache from cold air, and you feel a part of winter.


It’s Spring now, friends, and I’m no longer (sickly) celebrating the promise of heavy snowfall. This summer, I’m reading for my comps exams, training for a marathon to benefit Girls on the Run of Southeastern Michigan, returning to Pictured Rocks, and doing quite a bit of traveling. Join me on my travels, and join the conversation.

It’s light till 9pm. It’s balmy, if drizzly. Our bodies are making vitamin D again. It’s time to get back out there, on foot.

Foot Fiction: School Days…And Wilkie Collins

Readers, life has gotten away from me like always, and I find myself longing to post about my running, hiking, and jaunting about in the beautiful fall weather.  The only problem is that all of this foot travel is happening on MSU’s campus, where I rush hurriedly from one place to the next, followed by hours upon hours of reading in my guest bedroom, which I now call the library (because libraries are fun, and offices are not). But my thoughts are not far away from this blog, even if I am far away from the trails and adventures of summer, and I found myself writing two different short projects last week that I think my readers might like to see.  Might is, of course, the operative word.

The first of them is below; if you are into detective fiction, nineteenth century novels, or crime dramas, then you might find my thoughts on fancy footwork in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale interesting. I hope the select group of readers who happens to care about these ideas enjoy my analysis.  If you haven’t read Armadale, I highly recommend it for the self-conscious absurdity of the plot, Collins’s masterful, tongue-in-cheekiness, and his shockingly bad–perhaps mad–villianess, Lydia Gwilt.

For the rest of you readers who are not willing to devote three 8-hour days to reading Armadale, stay tuned for a full report of the Manestee River Trail, soon to be conquered by two Greulichs, and written about here.

Happy Fall!

“A Movement A Foot”

Peripatetic and Verbal Dexterity in Armadale

In John Sutherland’s introduction to the Penguin Edition of Armadale, he states “Lydia Gwilt uses the machinery of the modern metropolis with the expertise of a Victorian James Bond,” comparing her criminal acumen with those of the twentieth century’s most enduring heroes (ix).  His statement brings up interesting questions about the longevity of the text in society; he claims that she coins several clichéd criminal moves, including “throwing the tail,” the “drop dead” routine, and the use of high-tech “stylish” tools to accomplish her murderous ends (ix).  I found this observation interesting in its acuity in reading her character and in thinking about the mechanics of the novel and its cultural potential. If we take Sutherland at his word and assume that Lydia’s character is the genre-setter of modern criminal modus operandi, then we can begin to look at Armadale as a novel that accomplishes the very kind of cultural infection that it meditates upon.

While there are many ways that we could think about how Armadale obsesses about the cultural reiteration of the criminal, I want to focus on dexterity—verbal and physical—as it applies to the novel’s characters. The extent to which characters are identified as hero, victim, and villain is questionable throughout the novel, and describing the dexterity of each is one way to help readers identify their role in the machinery of the text. Characters who exhibit dexterity on foot drive or complicate the plot in interesting ways, while characters who are not so light on their feet appear to become their victims.

Allan is a primary case in point. For most of the first three books of the novel, Allan could be read as the hero of the story, utilizing his Bond-esque confidence to dictate his life on the estate. His confident, athletic movements become superimposed on his athletic prose; his response to Darch is an especially self-aware moment of his verbal prowess: “As for your casting my invitation back in my teeth, I beg to inform you my teeth are none the worse for it.  I am equally glad to have nothing to say to you, either in capacity of a friend or a tenant” (193).  Allan’s boxing metaphor, denoting the quick footwork of argumentative parry, places the agency of the story in his possession, and for a moment, the day is his.

However, Allan’s verbal prowess is self-inflated, and readers (at least this reader) find his continual loss of verbal and physical dexterity disappointing throughout the rest of the novel. We cheer for Allan to win the day, but as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that his forceful, thoughtless rhetoric, like his impulsive actions, set him up as a victim who cannot save himself. Lydia’s diary chastises his flummoxed interpretation of verbal rules, conflating his verbal and physical clumsiness: “Armadale was present, and flourished his well-filled purse in his usual insufferable way. ‘I’m rich enough, old boy, and it comes to the same thing.  With those words he took up his hat, and trampled out on his great elephant’s feet to get the box. I looked after him from the window as he went down the street.  ‘Your widow, with her twelve hundred a year,’ I thought to myself, ‘might take a box at the San Carlo whenever she pleased, without being beholden to anybody.’” (555). In this diary entry, Lydia bemoans Allan’s clumsiness on foot and in word, and then plots his death shortly after, during a walk along the seafront (567). The passage implies the kind of street smarts that must be possessed in order to thwart our villainess, and Allan has neither the light foot nor the sly tongue to save himself. If we read Lydia’s diary as a moment of genre-definition, then it certainly seems that Allan is cast (perhaps coined?) as the archetypal bumbling victim.

Dexterity also defines our villainess, as Sutherland suggests, and although we could certainly argue whether Lydia is a victim of fate, industrial society, Mrs. Milroy, or perhaps even her diary, it seems evident that linguistic and literal footwork lie at the heart of Lydia’s villainy. In earlier sections of the novel, events are narrated through the vague phrase, “there was a movement afoot;” it is one of the novel’s many reiterated phrases and denotes both physical hustle and bustle, but also the rhetorical velocity of words and ideas, planted, overheard, and spread. At moments, it is difficult to tell the impetus of that movement, as in Brock’s letter to Midwinter in “The Plot Thickens;” “At any rate, she confirmed me in the suspicion that some underhand proceeding is on foot, of which Allan is destined to be the victim”(238).  As readers discover in the reading of her diary, Lydia herself is the “underhand proceeding on foot,” darting between alleys, walking deserted streets, and manipulating with words as quickly as she vacates her residences, always via foot, to avoid being traced in London’s urban jungle (539).

There is one other character that develops the dexterity that Lydia masters in the novel: Midwinter.  I use the word develop here purposefully; Collins does not always frame Midwinter as the possible hero of this tale, and his identity as the hero is questionable from his introduction as the taciturn minstrel of fate to his verbal and physical abandonment of Allan, to his love affair with the enemy.  Indeed, it is his ability to develop the dexterity of criminality that draws Lydia to him; she is impressed by his ability to handoff in passing notes between them, commenting that “I couldn’t help thinking at the time how that brute and booby Armadale would have spoiled everything in the same situation”(415). This passage occurs at the height of the plot, when it isn’t clear if Midwinter will devoutly protect Allan, or blindly follow Lydia.  And his dexterity in accomplishing the moves of the criminal infects his character with that evil potential.

But perhaps more importantly, Midwinter also possesses a persuasive force over Lydia, encouraging her to “trample” her “wickedness underfoot” (514). That ability to manipulate her character via his dexterity leaves the story without a centered hero-villain-victim triangulation.  In protecting Allan from poisoning via his midnight sleuthing, Midwinter becomes Allan’s hero and Lydia’s victim.  But in appealing to Lydia’s love, she becomes his hero as well as his tormentor, saving him despite herself. And Lydia becomes the instrument of her own torment and salvation, as she removes herself from the equation entirely, like the most compelling of Bond villains (who are also sometimes Bond girls, e.g. Vesper Lynde). Midwinter’s dexterity places him in a liminal space somewhere between hero and villain and victim—and blurs the generic lines among other characters as well.

In reading these characters through the scope of dexterity, we can return to Sutherland’s observations about the generic innovations of Collin’s sensation novels to ask some further questions. In what ways does the deconstruction of the hero/villain/victim relationship in this novel perpetuate further iterations of fictitious criminality? What traits survive the evolving characterization of heroes, villains and victims? Can we trace generic pathways among the sensation novel and crime fiction of later eras? What are the implications of this generic infection on the cultural consciousness of badness?  Of madness?  Armadale’s characters defy categorization, but whether the novel forecasts postmodernism’s anti-heroes by traversing the footpaths and alleys that exist between these archetypes is up for debate. My analysis begins to suggest that the footsteps of Lydia and Midwinter may precede James Bond’s complex and domineering heroism, but it certainly leaves open that possibility for exploration.

Works Cited:

Collins, Wilkie, Armadale. Ed. John Sutherland. New York; Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

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J’ai retourné!

On foot--and fin--in the Atlantic Ocean

On foot–and fin–in the Atlantic Ocean. Just one of the many places where I have been frolicking as opposed to blogging.

The great thing about writing a travel blog is that when you disappear from your web space for indefinite periods of time, there is a general assumption that you must be off doing undoubtedly exciting things.  At least that is what I tell myself when I go to a sensational place, take a slew of grainy iPhotos, and then feel guilty for not getting a post up soon after the trip is over.  But the assumption does hold true in my case because I have been off doing exciting things, and I have even bigger plans for the summer.

What can I say, Readers; I am not the best blogger.  I don’t have beautiful photography. I don’t have original artwork.  I don’t have a custom URL.  I write way too much and I know I lose some of you in my ramblings, as I try to tame the twists and turns and spray down the fly-away strands.  Sometimes I nerd out on literature-related topics–sorry not sorry.  I am not even sure that I have more than a handful of readers. But I am one thing, and that is consistent.  At least consistently inconsistent.  Or possibly consistently bad.

Over the next year, hopefully I will be changing from a consistently inconsistent blogger to a consistently consistent blogger.  And I am hoping to improve the quality of the blog too, little by little, post by post.  Here are my next actions:

1. write a post.

2. buy a camera and learn how to use it.

3. travel.

4. start keeping a notebook, you know, like real, grown-up writers do.

If time allows:

5. learn more about customizing my blog.  But don’t get your hopes up.

6. maybe think about writing a shorter post once in a while, just for fun (your expectations should also be equally low for this agenda item).

I am duly repentant for breaking the cardinal rule of blogging, which is to post dependably. I have toyed around with ideas like changing the blog’s focus/lack of focus, deleting it entirely and starting fresh, and giving up.  But someone has been looking at my posts–I’m not sure who, but someone checks out the blog almost every day–so inspired by these someones, I have decided to crack on, despite my obvious blogging shortcomings.  In an effort to be consistently consistent, Readers, I promise to post at least once a month, if not more.  Time to get to it.

A Hiatus

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As my Readers have probably noticed, À Pied is taking a hiatus throughout the fall and holiday months, due to re-structuring and professional initiatives (ie. I am fixing up the blog and also applying to PhD programs, a tortuous process which is a journey unto itself, but not one fun enough to write about).  Expect a return after the first of the year, with features on travel books, fall and winter destinations, winter running and much more.

Thanks to those who read regularly; your feedback and encouragement has inspired many new changes in my writing and blogging, and I am excited to turn your ideas in posts very soon.  You have made the pilot of À Pied this summer an encouraging and enriching experience, and we will be returning with travel stories, updated features, real photography, new posts, and much more foot travel–especially now that my concussion is healed and I am running again.

In the meantime, enjoy these photos of Michigan summer, and think longingly about the hazy, lazy days behind us.


Summer: Wins and Losses

The first of September is one of my favorite days of the year. I usually spend it watching the summer draw to a close in a barrage of firework displays along the Cincinnati riverfront. It is always a little bittersweet, as I leave the easiness of summer behind while looking excitedly forward to my most favorite season: fall. My blissfully long summer is over, and I am making the 45-minute commute from Ann Arbor to Jackson everyday to teach a fresh bumper crop of sometimes-sweet, often-delusional 18-year old freshmen, frazzled working moms and retirees. My doctor has informed me that my concussion is almost healed and that I have been suffering an extended sinus infection, so hopefully within a few weeks I will be running miles on Michigan’s glorious autumn trails again. The Reds are leading the NL Central by 9 games, and college football is buzzing along happily on TV. My birthday is just 27 days away. Pippin’s Halloween costume (Batman) is in the works. Fall is here.

The start of fall also means more weekends at home and more time to write. Like many travel writers, I am finding that it is almost impossible to write consistently when adventuring. My to-post list is growing by the day. Most of my posts will be reflections about summer travels and previous trips, including the rest of my Argentina series, which was interrupted in late June. I am teaching a class on travel literature this semester and will be featuring much more Foot Fiction as the weather grows colder and slips into a sharp Michigan autumn. While the Indian summer continues, I will be recapping the best of my summer adventures, including stories from Charleston, Michigan, and Tennessee. Like any summer vacation, these trips have been wrought with some triumphs and tragedies, wins and losses. Today’s post celebrates these bittersweet moments from summertime, organized geographically and chronologically. Enjoy these highlights from my summer travels.


I only lost one major item in Kentucky this summer: brain function. I lost the battle against my Mom’s pre-civil war cottage attic, and I lost many miles on foot, including one trip to Rocky Mountain National Park and the top of Long’s Peak. I learned that I am terrible about following doctor’s orders and that I have very limited patience. But I gained the opportunity to sleep 10 hours a night for 3 months, and to waste hours upon hours reading the Game of Thrones series. Everyone talks and moves a little slower in Kentucky anyway, so there wasn’t too much stress placed on my misfiring brain during my time there.

In the meantime, Kentucky gave me a new brother-in-law, some world-famous trumpet-playing friends, bourbon, and a flea-infested pug. All of the above, with the exception of the pug, were well-worth the trips to Danville in May and June.

Danville, KY and Centre College, from which I will be reporting on the Vice Presidential Debate on October 11th.


Geographically and culturally akin to my old Kentucky home, Tennessee and I spent a weekend together at the end of June. I floated in Norris Lake, drinking rum and diet cokes and spending time with college friends. I earned a slight sun-tan and utter relaxation on that trip, and I remembered exactly why places South of the Mason-Dixon have a mostly-specious reputation for sub-par intelligence. I think it has something to do with the 119-degree heat and the accompanying humidity, but Southerners–like me–lose a little brain function in the summer months.

Dan and I exhibited the symptoms of this Southern heat-stroke when we and our group of friends sunk our dingy, submerging the boat, us, and all of our belongings in Norris Lake. I convinced Dan to buy iPhones as a reward for spending the next eight hours in the car on the way home to Michigan thoroughly soaked, from head to foot to every electronic device we owned. I lost some confidence in my excellent college education in that lake too.


Despite a sleepless night spent in Fancy Gap, VA (and possible bedbug exposure), Charleston was an all-around winning trip.

Fancy Livin’ in Fancy Gap

I spent an entire headache-free week swimming in the ocean, eating shrimp and buying things. I gained at least one of my three new pounds in Charleston. I developed an actual tan (tan not developed at the taking of the below picture). And even though our day-trip to Boone’s Hall ended in a complete, Tennessee-style soaking, my iPhone survived and I even managed to blog from the field. Most importantly, I remembered why I don’t live further south: humidity, the threat of hurricanes, and an un-written code of Southern charm which I have never been classy enough to crack. I blame my Charleston-raised great-grandmother, who encouraged me to be barefoot at all times.

On foot–and fin–in the Atlantic Ocean


I gained the other two of my three summer/concussion pounds in Traverse City, when once again, a lack of raincoats and dry clothes prevented us from hiking and pushed us into wine-tasting and eating. We brought home 8 bottles of wine, a craving for salads and a desire for a vacation home on Old Mission Peninsula.

Old Mission Peninsula Lighthouse, before the storm.

I found new hiking trails in Ann Arbor and a strong dislike for The Jolly Pumpkin, a yuppie dining establishment which looks down upon customers who lack a certain crunchy-granola something. Overall, I appreciate Michigan more now than I did at the beginning of the summer, but not enough to not complain about it. You can read about my Michigan travels this week, as I reflect on what I learned about my new city and state. This fall and winter, I am planning to do some serious foot travel across Michigan in hopes of learning to love this place a little bit more. I am sure there will be more bloopers to report as I learn how to cross-country ski.


I have written a lot about Chicago in the last two weeks, so I won’t post much here about this favorite city. Read my posts on Crossfit Helga and The Knights of the Round Table for more details.

I didn’t write about the fiery, hypoglycemia-fueled loss of temper which I exhibited after an exhausting, blood-sugar draining day at Wrigley Field. Needless to say, I lost a little dignity and gained an appreciation of my husband’s ability to put up with me. I also got to see an undercover cop perform a drug bust on the Red line, which made me feel like my current hunger and dehydration were pretty darn trivial. Big cities have a way of either putting things in perspective or blowing them out of proportion, and Chicago had both effects on me that day.

Chicago, August 11, 2012


I am ending this summer as I began it in May, in Cincinnati. I picked up another half-marathon completion the week before I sustained my concussion at the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon and Half-Marathon. The Flying Pig is a tough half-marathon, and I am especially proud of running well in that race. It is where my sinus infection started, and where I learned the value of buying the right insoles and wearing the right socks. I also learned that pork is really what makes Cincinnati run.

Despite more exposure to bed-bugs in the Akron/Cleveland area, the best win of my Ohio travels was a steak dinner at Cincinnati’s best steakhouse, the Precinct, last night, in celebration of my in-laws 40th anniversary. There is something about Cincinnati that feels more like summer time than anywhere else: maybe it’s the smell of brats, or the smell of dew evaporating on metal in the early morning, but I always love ending my summer here, with friends and family, on the riverfront.

Finally, I am most proud of earning my first blogging award this summer! Thanks to Ingrid at livelaughrv for nominating my little fledgling effort here at à pied. I feel the need to be discriminating in my own nominations for this award, so I will have to do some scouting and recommend other blogs at a later date. Rest assured, I will! Thank you, Readers, for reading my stories. I have even met a few of you in the flesh (although I already know most of you anyway). Stay tuned, comment often, and read on for more summer travel stories.

Chicago–Myths and Legends: Take Me Back to Chicago

Chicago, August 11, 2012

Some places stick with you. They become part of your imagination, a Camelot of personal myths and legends, the settings for family histories and love stories. They have their own smell, feeling, and soundtrack. An image, a word, or a melody remind you of the imprint of that town, and the experiences you had there. These places are portals of nostalgia, and places for new discoveries. They bring us back to ourselves, and stretch us beyond our comfort zones too.

When I was a little girl, living in a pretty desolate part of Colorado, my list of mythological places included Disney World, New York City (populated by city-slickers, who I envisioned as leather-clad, cyclops-like creatures without an appreciation for Pace picante sauce), and wherever Chicago was. Chicago became part of our family history long before any of us actually stepped foot there.  Years before our odyssey east of the Mississippi began, my Chicago story started with another a theme on this blog: trumpets.

My father played trumpet very well, for someone who loved Einstein and engineering and ham radio, and he loved Chicago. The band, along with Willie Nelson and Herb Alpert, was the sound that brings my father back to me, any time, any place.  I remember the tunes the way little kids remember songs; indistinctly, not knowing the words or the artists’ names, but remembering the rhythm nonetheless.  You feel a kinship with that music, played over months and years of infancy and childhood, at parties, in the car on errands and trips, in the womb.  The songs become an extension of your family, the vehicle for remembering things before the age when logic starts doing remembering work and into that earlier time when memories are held in bodies, in muscles and joints and tapping feet.

Chicago’s greatest hits album is the sound of my dad, and one of the only things that I remember about him now, 21 years after his death.  When my mom pulled out a CD version of the album several years after my father passed away, the music was immediately new, and yet familiar all the same. I don’t remember hearing my father play along with the records, but when I picked up his trumpet and started tooting around, my mom regaled me with stories of his musical prowess; he could pick out any horn line from any song, and play it perfectly. I could hear him squealing out the tunes on the same trumpet that I was buzzing through.  I could see his hands, gripping the instrument in the same places that I gripped it, places where the silver plate had given way to corroded greenish brass.  I wanted to be a daddy’s girl.  He was, after all, an Emmy-award winning broadcast engineer, a trumpeter, a genius. I inherited his passion for excellence, but I craved being near him.  Trumpet made me excellent, while experiencing a kinship I wanted.

Much to the rest of the household’s chagrin, “25 or 6 to 4” became the machine that started to tie my random recollections of my daddy to Chicago, both poignantly and annoyingly.  And so my earliest memories of the city are not actually about the city at all; they are about whiskey-laced whiskers and practical jokes, played on me, of course, to teach me to develop a sense of humor, for which I had no patience as a child.  These memories are about afternoons spent watching M*A*S*H after kindergarten, and showing off my first report card to my Daddy, which was of course, all As.  Chicago/Chicago was safety and home and love, and some classic 70s trumpet licks. But these memories are definitely a childish chimera, even if they are happy, and they left me dreadfully unprepared for experiencing Chicago for the first time.

To some extent, I still keep these early illusions, but in each subsequent trip to Chicago, they fade in the real city’s vibrancy.  Just a few months after our last post-kindergarten pow-wow, my father passed away, and my mom, brother, sister and I rode the Amtrak from Lamar, CO to Harrisburg, PA to see our wild and massive group of cousins. I was seven. We stopped in Chicago to change trains and do a quick tour of the city during our layover. Coincidentally, I was suffering the first of my concussions at the time and remember Chicago as the place where I got car-sick taking my first cab ride (I also learned an array of new vocabulary words and hand gestures from our cabbie), and where I got sea-sick while touring Lake Michigan. It was the first time I puked in a cab. It was also the first time I puked off a boat. It was the first time that I breathed in smog and stared up, dizzy, at skyscrapers. It was not the happy-go-lucky place that I imagined from listening to Saturday In The Park;” it was huge, and nauseating, and full of people moving and going and living. I felt like I think we all felt: disoriented and afraid, without our dad there to show us the joy of this big, bustling city.

Puking your way through a town tends to ruin the romance of a place, but despite the fear and disgust, I left the city with a new myth, and a new hero. In the deep green tank rooms of the Chicago Aquarium, I stood entranced by sharks. The aquamarine silence of the rooms surrounded my brother and me as we stared up at the hugeness of the tanks, the stillness of the silent awe of visitors–whole families–watching fins and tails dive and swirl and occasionally bump the glass. I remember chattering excitedly at first, and then simply staring at animals I had never thought I would see–in a place I didn’t know existed–holding my big brother’s hand to stay found. In those big rooms, my Chicago myth began to take shape, and the city stopped being an extension of Daddy. Chicago, with its imposing grandeur and foreign urbanity, was also an indescribably lovely sanctum, a place to experience new life.

My mom stood in that room with us, quieting our concerns about the sharks breaking through the glass and biting us (and believe me, a few of us were very concerned).  It was there that I started to see her as the real epic hero of our family, the behind-the-scenes person who always made things work, but never got the glory. She proved her true grit in taking her three young, country-bred kids to Chicago by herself. Her white-knuckled death grip on my sister’s hand in Union Station belied her confidence, but she stormed her little 5’4 body through a crowd that could easily swallow us whole in its cogs and wheels and never-ending waves of feet, moving, marching, running. Even I held tight to my brother’s hand, forgetting to be affronted by the assumption that I was not, in fact, a big girl. In that immense crowd of people, a mom and her babies ran to the first adventure of a new life on their own. Despite the mingled tastes of fear and adrenaline (and honestly, a little puke), my revised memories of this city are flavored with courage and wonder. They are memories of a family knitting back together and learning how to heal.

In this 3-maybe-4-part series on Chicago, I am sharing some of my favorite experiences in a city that continues to be part of my story. This week, watch for posts that describe my love for the 1990’s Bulls, more nausea at the Chicago Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon, and a newly-found passion for baseball at Wrigley Field. Read about a city that has taught me a lot about gumption and love, and the healing that we find through adventure.

Lessons Learned From My Couch–Olympic Games Edition

I don’t know what I’m looking for.

I have traveled quite a bit this summer, with trips to Cincinnati and Charleston, Kentucky and Northern Michigan, Cleveland and Chicago. I have taken a pictures and tried to improve on my investigative reporting skills, although my hunt for scoop inevitably ends in a good restaurant with some kind of wine.  I have had fun on these trips, but I am still struggling to make sense of this summer voyaging.

My posts have featured some foot-travel, but I haven’t had the chance to write the kind of posts I really want to write, about races and trails and long days spent moving.  My trip to Traverse City–supposedly a hiking trip–turned into an eating and wine-tasting trip, and I don’t even really know how that itinerary got derailed so quickly.  I feel like my blog is leaving its path, changing its original intention.  It is off its feet, like me.

This has something to do with our lack of focus in Traverse City.

When I hit my head on the attic doorway in mid-May, I didn’t expect to be out of commission for the whole of Michigan’s glorious summer.  I didn’t expect to postpone marathon training and to miss out on road races and hiking trails in favor of sitting in a tub of Epsom salts and taking naps.  In all of my travels, I have been missing the activities that give my writing a goal, a niche, and hopefully–someday–maybe even some followers.  Injury has sidelined me, and my goals as well.

This week, I have been feeling the rust in my joints and muscles acutely.  It is because as I sit here waiting for sweet, headache-free recovery, I am watching the Olympics.  I am obsessed with the Olympic games and have been since I was a little girl; I ache for an achievement, in anything, that comes close to what our athletes achieve in their early lives.  I know that the ecstatic smiles on their faces are not just from the adrenaline rush of moving fast or well; it is because they have fulfilled the deep-seeded dreams of the pee-wee athlete.  I had those dreams too.

First-base girl; home-run slugger.

For me–and for many of us–my childhood dreams became lost in the need to survive.  I grew up fiendishly committed to school and trumpet, so that I could go to college without worrying about money.  I did, and I went to a world-class college and I did well there. Things were looking good for me, until my idealism took a harsh left-hook in the jaw from the Mike Tyson of the real world: financial responsibility.  My conversations with my job applications sounded like this:

Me: Who wants to hire an English major, without a focus in journalism or communications or even a useful minor?

Online job description: Not me.

Me: You mean I haven’t got two years in the publishing industry, or a chapbook, or even a published piece of literary criticism?  

750th application: Umm, your qualifications don’t really match those of an ideal candidate.

Me: But I am really good at playing trumpet!  And I can explicate Homer!  Surely, these are valuable skills.

Prospective employer: Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

Me: Are you sure you don’t want to pay me to read books? 

Happily unaware of my future career options.

I took the first job I could find because I had to.  I had a job with one of those meaningless Dunder-Mifflin titles like production assistant manager or regional sales executive, the only difference being that these jobs are actually well-paying, upwardly mobile jobs, and mine was not.  What I wanted–and what I still want–was a title like yogi or writer or musician.  The realities of living on my own in a new big city dampened my desire to achieve one of those titles, in favor of eating and sleeping in a sheltered structure, and I awoke one day to find myself in graduate school as a way to get out of working in an office.  I continued to succeed, albeit half-heartedly, because I am a perfectionist, which is a nice way of saying that I am neurotic.  But I haven’t been joyful in my work for a long time.

In making that leap from poor to upper-middle class–a leap that I know so many others make it their life’s work to accomplish–I lost faith in the talents that made me successful. They are unabashedly nerdy talents, but talents nonetheless. I lost faith in my ability to be a fabulous musician.  I lost faith in my ability to be an athlete. I lost faith in my talent for interpreting literature. I lost faith in my competitive nature. Ironically, my competitive drive is the part of me that got me to this good place, even if I am somewhat lost.  And I let it fall, like so many barely paid bills, into the office shredder.  I should probably be looking for it.

I am watching these athletes enjoy the peak of their talents with admiration, and honestly, some envy.  When McKayla Maroney sticks her high-flying vault or when Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings continue to dash the hopes of their irrepressible opponents, I am proud that these Americans had the guts to stick with their passions.  It is an important American ethic to do what one loves, because Americans have the freedom to do so.  We are an example to the world, and I feel the obligation to live up to that example.  I just don’t know which passion to rekindle and become hopelessly, tirelessly devoted to.  I don’t know which race to enter.

I think perhaps I feel a little (only a little) like Michael Phelps, who has been getting a lot of smack about being “off his game” in this Olympics.  The man has done what he always wanted to do; now he has to figure out what to do next.  He is showing an encouraging maturity in these games, allowing himself to experience the joy of being alive at this juncture in his life.  Our TVs aren’t showing the tortured perfectionist who forgot about the joy of swimming in  Beijing’s competition, where the expectations of every American (including and especially himself) pushed him towards 8 gold medals.  His eyes don’t bug out of his head anymore.  He simply looks happy.

Being forced off my feet has given me the time to recognize the real purpose behind all of this running and hiking and writing; the motivation behind this blog isn’t just to tell the stories of the places that I visit, or to force me to write consistently every week.  It is about being happy with where I’m at. While I figure out what it is that I love, running, hiking, and traveling keep me moving forward, in search of my next endeavor.  Sometimes I use these things to stave off the panic of feeling lost without a map.  But being on my feet keeps me reveling in the most important job that I have: being alive.

It has been a long summer without running, and only minimal hiking. I have missed the early morning summer runs when the trail smells like ozone and last night’s spider-webs stick to your forehead.  I miss being the first human on the trail, the first one awake and moving.  I miss the euphoria that comes from bounding up hills and sprinting down them, an euphoria that gives and takes your breath. I miss running with my wilder self on those long runs in the woods, when the joy I find is not from tracking mileage or running at goal pace, but the unadulterated joy of movement.

Last night, when I watched the USA win the Men’s 4×200 meter relay, I saw that same joy in Michael’s eyes.  After the race, his eyes got kind of squirrely (but not bugged out, which denotes an entirely different emotion), and he looked like the sweet, spastic little kid with big ears whose mother put him in swimming to preserve her sanity. He had just won a gold medal, sure.  But mostly he was living, and appreciating it too.  Sometimes I think that the competition is whack; the medals mean nothing.  I know this isn’t true; however, I like to think that maybe it is the pure joy of movement that motivates these athletes.  Maybe the only purpose of the gold medal pursuit is to feel moments of embodied euphoria, an utter happiness.  Maybe that is the goal.  If this is the case, then I might be close to finding what I am looking for. I might just be doing what I love.

Or I will be, when I can get off the couch and back on the road.

Greatest Ever. Pretty blissed out too.
Photo: EPA

Coming Soon

à pied

has been afoot for just over a month and a half, and I need to get my act together.

Apologies for the seemingly-random posts in recent weeks.  I have been experimenting with content and design, and am still figuring out the best method for sharing ideas before, during and after travel.  I plan to keep my Itinerary-In-Progress, From-the-Field, and Retrospect categories up and running, and you will see at least three posts about each destination, one in each category.  Some destinations will only be written about in the past, because the blog wasn’t up and running before and during those trips (like my Argentina series).  Thanks for your patience; keep reading and sharing my work!

After composing some widely-read and some not-so-widely read posts, and after 10-going on 11 weeks of injury which have kept me ironically, off my feet, I have several new and interesting posts to write:

1. More retrospectives on Argentina, at some point.  In the meantime, read about Mendoza.

2. Reflections on Charleston’s Southern hospitality, plus a photo album/poetry post inspired by the city’s architecture and food.

3. A spontaneous new itinerary!

4. Thoughts about injury, illness, and life on the trail.

5. A Weekend Suitcase feature, about hippies, expensive artwork and Ann Arbor.

6. Foot Fiction posts about The Sun Also Rises and A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.

7. My bloopers section, where I prove that well-educated people can be pretty foolish.


In Memoriam

Things have been sad at à pied this week. Instead of thinking about my next trip or adventure, I have been thinking about the last adventure of an especially courageous friend. I met her in the seventh grade playing saxophone in middle school band. From 1997-2003, we spent countless hours together, crossing the state of Kentucky in a yellow bus, decked out in band-geek chic.

Yes, I spent my Saturdays riding in the worst buses in the district, competing in marching band competitions and playing in honor bands. I am showing my nerd card here in the blogosphere (although I have probably already done that many times over anyway) in order to remember a class mate, band mate and friend. She is being put to rest this morning, by friends and family in my hometown. I have some things to say.

But first, a retrospect.

Marching band was my first inspiration for à pied; if you can play a trumpet on foot, then running a race or hiking a trail seems relatively easy. And as my band began to dominate the state with our ever-more-complex drill, it often felt like I was running and playing my trumpet, hitting my spots, toes up, watching intervals.

There was something incredibly powerful about being able to march well; I always felt taller on the field, stronger, more of a badass than I felt in the classrooms and hallways of our little old pedantic school. Over the years, I became a very confident/cocky performer; I was one of the best marchers and trumpet players in the state, and I knew it. It was on the black asphalt of Boyle County High School’s parking lot where I first experienced the joy and freedom of standing strongly on my own two feet, earning every ounce of self-respect and pride.

There was one interval in particular that my band mates and I knew to watch more carefully than others. When the trumpet section had to connect with the altos, we were on the lookout for Danielle, our sweet, kooky alto saxophonist with the bum knee. In my first band practice, I was shocked to witness Danielle’s kneecap twist to the back of her knee, causing her to simply collapse at attention. The saxophone went flying, but emerged unscathed. Danielle “sacrificed” herself often to the saxophone, keeping it relatively pristine for the amount of time she spent on the asphalt. Her knee would go out in at least one competition performance a year, and we would all roar with laughter–Danielle leading the ruckus–after watching the tape, late at night after a long Saturday competition.

Danielle was quick to crack a joke, usually inappropriate. She never took anything–band, Mr. B (our poor, bedeviled band director), herself–too seriously. The intervals in our motley alto section were often a little bit off; it was something I always appreciated about this goofy part of the band that wasn’t quite brass section, but not really woodwinds either. Their fearless leader, Seth, was always perfect, but his section mates would often get distracted, laughing about whatever penis joke Danielle had made, or simply not paying attention to Mr. B yelling at them, red-faced, from the tower. Jill, playing along with aplomb, would shift just a little too close to Clint. Danielle and Brandon would giggle through the next set change. If Danielle’s knee went out, the whole line of altos and whatever other section they were connecting to faced certain disaster.

Once, in a show, our unflappable tuba player actually stepped over her after her knee cap betrayed her. She cursed audibly and righted herself, and marched, toes up, to the sideline like the champion she was. I can still hear the judges’ commentary on the tape after that spill; they ran the gamut from nonchalance to utter panic:

“Oof–that’s going to hurt in the morning.”

“Nice move, sousaphone.”


“Good toes, sax. Well done.”

Without Danielle in the line, the whole show risked collapsing in on itself. She never let that happen.

She never let me collapse in on myself either. Danielle stuck it out with me in every single Honors and AP class, along with our little group of band friends, making high school bearable. We learned French for three years together with our tough-shelled but soft-hearted Madame Strickland; I still remember our French names–Colette, Claire, Danielle, Antoinette. We tried to make sense of our English class together. We didn’t learn anything in Chemistry, together.

When our senior band season came to a close, I felt lost without the strength and freedom that I had found and loved on the marching field, and through my trumpet. As I fell into the grips of depression and anorexia, Danielle’s sweetness, humor and light kept me focused on life beyond high school, on better times, on bigger adventures. She knew what she wanted, and where she was going. She was going to see the world, and she did. And as the years racked up between high school graduation and today–just over 9 years–I kept track of Danielle’s Facebook uploads and travels, watching her swim with sharks and eat giant pieces of cheesecake and geek-out in her ever-present Disney obsession. Danielle–and the girls who shared high school with me–helped fan the flame of adventure in my soul. It was also the flame of hope.

Last week, I lost my friend too soon, to violence that I can’t and haven’t tried to comprehend. I haven’t heard her voice since she cynically wise-cracked her way through our graduation ceremonies. We would post occasionally on each others’ Facebook walls, “Liking” funny comments and cheering for exciting life changes. In every post, she made me laugh, especially when sharing her unique perspective on the Occupy Wall-Street protesters blocking the entrance to her office.

Our contact since graduation has been minimal, the bare minimum. We should have talked more, about things that mattered. I haven’t told her what a light she was for me in the darkest time of my life. I wish I could have given her the same hope, in her hour of need. I wish I had been there to give her a hug. Most of all, I wish that we could go back to high school, where confidence was counted in State Championships and honor band chairs. I wish we could be together after a show, or in Madame Strickland’s class, laughing together at the world’s stupidity. I wish that this crisis would have never happened to Danielle. I wish that her injuries were the superficial injuries of growing up and moving on. I wish that we could heal each other, together.

I haven’t told her these things because I didn’t know, until now, that she changed me.

Now that connection is lost. And all I have left to show for a friendship are several nerdy band videos, a few pictures, and some conversations between me and the now-unnamed Facebook User.

And a wanderlust that keeps me living.

Requiescat in pace.