On Leaving the Trail: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Exhausted, I sat down on the ground next to a silver birch, facing the gravel roadway of the Hurricane River Campground.  Cars and trucks pulled in, carrying passengers dressed to varying degrees of preparedness for the mosquito-ridden trails; I internally scoffed at the Teva-sandaled buckwheaters stepping lightly to the trail-head, planning to hike the 3 mile walk to the Au Sable Lighthouse. I knew what kind of blisters they would get later. I was hoping that my pathetic posture/attitude would signal to some Good Samaritan that I’d had enough of Nature and needed a ride, but it was clear that Dan and I were too dirty to be respectable hitch-hikers.  I had just finished my 35th mile on the North Country Trail, and I wasn’t moving another step.


Lake Superior

Leaning back on my pack, parked against the birch, I gazed up at the sky.  Both relieved and irritated, I battled perfectionism’s irrational whispers, urging me to take another ibuprofen and march those last 7 miles to our final destination: the Volvo, parked at the Grand Sable Visitor’s Center.  I hate disappointing myself, and I was disappointed.  My right ankle, never before injured, screamed from strain when I put weight on it; I had straggled the last 11 miles of trail alternately cursing it and praying against a stress-fracture.  I sent Dan off to start looking for a ride to the Volvo, while Perfect Katie kept whispering in my ear:

“You are strong and fit and athletic.  There is no reason you shouldn’t finish this through-hike. Obviously, if you don’t finish, you are no true strong German wife.”

“This is a beginner’s back-packing trail!  You are too athletic to be a beginner–I know this is your first through-hike, but clearly, you’re at least an intermediate backpacker. Your body defies the laws of athletic conditioning.”

“Stress-fracture, shmush-shmasher.  Your ankle won’t get more injured if you just hike seven more miles. It could even help!  You’re just sore.”

“If you go home now, don’t you dare blog about this.”

“You are a winner; if you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Perfect Katie is unsympathetic to any and all weakness.  I can credit her with some really great English papers and my obsessive knowledge of geographic trivia.  And I can blame her for absolutely all of my over-training injuries to date.

Dan wandered around the parking lot, halfheartedly asking for a ride; I could tell that he didn’t want to go home just yet.  I stared at the blue sky. Clouds drifted overhead as Dan returned, unsuccessful (perhaps purposely); we leaned against the birch and together pointed out clouds that looked like the rabbits that are nesting in our backyard.  We dozed and snoozed, lulled by afternoon sun and 9 miles under our belts since breakfast.  And as we waited for some brave and understanding soul to risk picking us up, I recalled the last time that I was free to spend an afternoon gazing at a big, blue sky.

Except I couldn’t.

I don’t know when I last watched clouds pass with someone; it must have been in elementary school, when my brother and sister and our neighbors would spend our summer running wild over the Colorado farm.  Or it could have been in high school, when I spent the summer mowing the lawn and picking tomatoes.  Or it could have even been in college, on a fall Saturday with one of my roommates as we gamboled across campus looking for the next party.  But I know for a fact that I had never once sat and stared at the clouds with Dan.

“How could this be?!?” Perfect Katie admonished.  “You have never spent a romantic afternoon picnicking and watching the sky with the man you have been dating/married to for 8 years?”

Nope.  And I don’t think we are necessarily unusual in having missed that particular relationship milestone, although Perfect Katie has a point.  There are a whole lot of things that we haven’t done in our 8 year relationship, including holding stereos above our heads to assuage an argument or competing in a dance-off to win each others’ affection.  We just aren’t those kind of people.

But we have, as Wordsworth states “seen into the life of things” on the trail; as we chattered mindlessly through the trees, occasionally something would make us stop and listen.  We practiced capturing that perfect moment through the lens, the moment that we realized we are part of the goings-on of this trail, that while we feel like visitors in the forest, we are  involved in life here despite ourselves.

We see into the life of things.--Wordsworth

Dan kept hoping to see a bear; thankfully, we did not.

And we have watched and heard and felt water rustling from every corner of the park into a Lake that flows as far as we can see, to Canada and beyond. It is clear water, it hides nothing, and we have seen into its depths, from 200 feet in the air.


The Cliffs

We have seen the sun play tricks on our eyes on misty trails, as relics decompose.


On the Trail to Twelve-Mile Beach

We have stood on cliffs on which we felt a Whitman-esque YAWP, even if we didn’t actually YAWP–again, we aren’t those kind of people.


I looked on the rooftops of the world–I did not sound a barbaric YAWP.

We have camped on the shore of a quiet inland lake where the only sounds are the “parp” of bullfrogs (popping up like ill-timed farts) and the whistling pines.


Trapper’s Lake

We stared down the moment when fun began to pass us by, when hiking’s simplest task–putting one foot in front of the other–began to feel like work, and we have found the strength to give up and go home, taking our stolen images with us.


And we have popped and bandaged blisters where blisters should not occur, and we have loved each other anyway.

The sweet park researcher who finally picked us up laughed at our relief as we pulled into the lot next to the Volvo; she could see the weariness of three days of questionable nutrition and poorly packed packs on our faces and took pity on us (I actually think it would have been more work for her if I had broken my ankle in the sand dunes on the trail back to Grand Sable, thus requiring a rescue). Returned to our yuppie-mobile, Dan and I peeled off our boots and socks, slipping our yuppie boat shoes gingerly back onto our feet. We ducked into the car, mocking the mosquitoes dive-bombing the windshield, and pulled away, leaving the forest, the water, and the shame of not walking those last 7 miles behind us.  We had accomplished enough.

Creative Commons License
On Leaving the Trail by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at apiedonfoot.wordpress.com.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


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.


Foot Fiction: “Heart of Darkness” and Other Cheerful Reads for My Birthday

Twenty-eight years ago, on another bright and blazing fall Thursday, Samuel Adams, our Revolutionary forefather, was celebrating his 262nd birthday from the after life.  Meatloaf, that enigma of a singer, was turning 37.  Lil’ Wayne–my students’ favorite tatooed pop-culture hero–was entering his terrible 2’s, from which I am not sure he has fully emerged.  Most importantly, I joined the ranks of this legendary group of Libras in Aurora, Colorado, claiming my status as a Thursday’s child.  Just 14 years after me came the next great addition to American society: Google.

My mother would be appalled to see that I share my birthday with such ne’er do wells as Lil’ Wayne and Meatloaf; Sam Adams, despite his legacy, was no stranger to failure or personal vices either.  And Google, well, Google has a dark side.  My mom certainly harbors some suspicion towards Google and its other internet cronies, those over-thinkers who have since made her life increasingly digitized.  On the surface–and in its application–Google appears cheerful, fun, lighthearted and brimming with good intentions.

On the surface, so do I.

And yes, the caption reads, “Katie goes as a flower to her first Halloween.”

Just ask my students, who, after receiving the first drafts of their papers back from me, often find my sweet little teacher persona to be a front for some serious beefs with ESPN’s influence on the English language.

Just ask my husband, who, after seven birthdays together, has learned that I have a temper.  Somewhere in Kentucky, probably in a parking lot full of band kids, lies my patience.  I have been meaning to go back and get it.

Just ask my mother, who, after twenty-eight years of being my mom, has watched me struggle, descend into darkness, and come back out several times over.  Throughout my travels, my mom, like Joseph Conrad’s character, Marlow, has seen my heart of darkness.  Unlike Marlow, she still thinks I am amazing anyway.

Which leads me to our Foot Fiction features for this week: Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Joyce’s “The Dead,” and Lawrence’s “The Odour of Chrysanthemums.”

 I admit that it is a little morbid to be writing about these stories of death on my birthday, but all of them have moved me significantly in recent days.  I taught them on Tuesday night, to my class of literature students who are reading travel-themed literature, or literature written by travelers; these stories let us think about how travel irrevocably shapes identities.  When I first became enamored with travel, reading National Geographic magazines dimly lit by flashlights, I didn’t anticipate the ways that it would change who I am, for better or for worse.  Our writers this week deal with changing identities while taking on society’s problems in surprisingly current ways.  And their writing is really just lovely.  As one very smart student said to me after class, “Reading these stories just fills you up, fills you with phrases and words and ideas and emotion.”  I have to admit that after teaching these stories, my heart is very full, with joy, and thought, and adventure.

All of these stories were written around the turn of the 20th century, by writers who spent their lives writing in exile.  They blur the lines between fiction and creative non-fiction, using personal perspectives to fill these stories with rich detail and social criticism.  In an age of monumental social change (not unlike our own age), including the rise of capitalism, industry and imperialism, these writers found much within society to run from.  Joseph Conrad, born near Kiev, spent his life in the French and British navies, serving a stint as a steamboat captain, like his character, Marlow, before returning to England to write.  His journeys exposed an early mistrust with capitalism’s systems, and “Heart of Darkness” explores the effects of Modern era-capitalism on sanity.  James Joyce, torn by the sectarian violence and the rise of Irish nationalism, wrote almost all of his work in self-exile, finishing Dubliners and its final story, “The Dead,” in Rome.  It is a beautifully wrought pseudo-self-portrait exploring the ways that nationalistic extremism haunts people.  D.H. Lawrence faced real exile, having been asked to leave by the British government for his anti-militarist politics.  His tuberculosis also required that he leave England, and he spent much of his life on the road.  Like Joyce, Lawrence nevertheless continued to write about home;  “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” is a heart-breaking commentary on the mining industry’s effects on human rights. (Note: It is politics season, but rest assured, I am not making personal political statements in this analysis.  The stories make these statements, and they are impossible to ignore).

While the stories have many similarities, the commonality I am most fascinated by is the authors’ explorations of home. In all of the stories, homelands are characterized by darkness; Conrad’s Marlow compares Europe with the Congolese jungle from which he has just returned as “one of the dark places of the earth.”  Joyce’s Gabriel celebrates Christmas at funereal party, where a deathly snow is “general all over Ireland.” And Lawrence’s Elizabeth, living on a dilapidated, dying farm, cooks and cleans and sews as the afternoon light–and her marriage–slowly drains from her house, leaving her with a lifeless portrait of her life’s work.

Homelands are not just dark and quiet; they are also dangerous.  Landscapes swallow people whole in these stories. While the jungle through which Marlow searches for the celebrated and horrifying Mr. Kurtz is not his home, it is personified in menacing, primal terms:

“Over the great river I could see through a somber gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur.  All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered about himself.  I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace.  What were we who had strayed in here?  Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us?”

While Marlow escapes being “handled” too severely by this landscape; Kurtz is not so lucky, losing his mind and his life in the jungle where survival changes the rules of morality.  And indeed, Marlow is changed by this landscape more than he thinks; upon returning to Brussels, he succumbs to the strictures of an urban jungle, breaking his own moral code against falsehood.

Kurtz is not the only character eaten alive by landscapes among these stories; Joyce’s dinner party guests run the metaphorical risk of being eaten alive by Mother Ireland, represented in this story by Gabriel’s wife, Gretta.  Gretta is from Western Ireland, the seat of Irish nationalism, and it is for her love that a young man died long before she marries Gabriel.  This character, the patriotically-named Michael Furey, haunts Gabriel’s relationship with his wife, and thus his relationship with Ireland. Gabriel does not have the same love for Gretta, a disturbing realization for him. If we read Gabriel as Joyce–and many scholars do–then we get at the heart of Joyce’s self-imposed exile: a paralysis of place, simultaneously obsessed and troubled by his heritage. Like Marlow, Gabriel’s/Joyce’s travels leave him reeling for a sense of identity.

Finally (and I know, Readers, that like my students you are waiting for me to wrap it up), Elizabeth’s husband–with whom she is experiencing much marital strife because his employment in the coal mines and subsequent alcoholism–is trapped and suffocated when a mine shaft caves in around him. Again, landscapes fight back against society’s structures, with disastrous implications for humans.  Lawrence spent much of his traveling life writing about his father’s alcoholism and death in British coal mines; his writing about home is a foray into his own heart of darkness.

It was impossible to ignore the similarities between the story, and my family’s story.  My father’s alcoholism, exacerbated by the long stressful hours spent working in demanding conditions as a television engineer, and his death, changed our lives forever.  I thought about the landscapes of my childhood homes: unforgiving desert farmland which never felt quite like ours and Kentucky hillsides from which we barely scratched a living–places I loved, but places that were painful too. His story lead me towards my own dark place, which is home, and the death of my father; this is probably why I saw my mother in the pages of “The Odour of Chrysanthemums.”  The final paragraphs of this story, written in  gorgeous prose, gave me a new empathy for what my mom and my grandmother must have been thinking in those final moments with my dad.  I am not saying, of course, that the emotions expressed by Elizabeth were those that my mom felt, but I think they were probably pretty similar, especially when Lawrence writes, “she was grateful for death, which had restored the truth.  And she knew she was not dead.”  At the threshold of death, the oft clichéd “last frontier,” Elizabeth finds her identity: that she is alive.  The fact that we are living beings never changes, even when we feel completely thrashed by the world around us.

When I started traveling, I did not expect for my sense of self to become so thoroughly tousled.  I did not expect to eat grits and like them, or to learn to love baseball in Chicago or to even consider living in Michigan.  I didn’t expect to love New York City, or to find that Argentina felt so much like home.  I didn’t expect to capsize a boat in Tennessee. I didn’t expect to find a husband that finds my geekiness entertaining.  I certainly didn’t expect to ever think about the ways that Sam Adams, Lil’ Wayne, Google and I are connected.   These have all been surprises to me.

One factor has remained constant throughout these twenty-eight years: my mother.  She has been helping me with school projects, calling early on college Sunday mornings, and sending spite-filled emails about the evils of Monsanto ever since that long-ago September Thursday.  When I think of home, I think of my mom, who managed to instill in us an immutable part of our identities: an appreciation for living.  She was a beacon of that spirit, and my joie de vivre is a product of her hard work.  I have taken it with me on most of my travels (with the exception of that one time, in Argentina, when I spent the better part of an hour yelling at Dan to stay on the trail and to stop climbing large fallen trees), and I am resolving to pack it for the rest of my journeys.

So, yeah, these short stories are dark, and they are definitely morbid reads for a birthday.  But as my horoscope advises me to do for the coming year, I have found the silver lining in them.  They are joyous in the self-discovery that they inspire, and in the sheer artistry of the words on the page.  When you read them, expect to let yourself swoon at the beauty and fragility of life, at the good that can be gleaned from dark places, and the lessons we learn far, far from home.

Creative Commons License
Foot Fiction: “Heart of Darkness” and Other Cheerful Reads for My Birthday by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at apiedonfoot.wordpress.com.

Summer Fun: Ann Arbor–The Universe of Michigan

Many, many apologies, Readers, for accidentally posting a version of this essay earlier today.  If you read the post, then you got a nice little look at my writing process, which can be snarky and long-winded.  In the writing of this post, I struggled to paint the portrait of Ann Arbor, a town about which I have mixed feelings. I have been trying to appreciate the many lovely slices of A2 life the way that I know I should.  I know I am being a brat.  But there is something about this town that gets under my skin, confuses me, irritates me, alienates me.  Ann Arbor is not an easy place to love, and I am still working on making it my home.

If you have seen the movie, “The Five-Year Engagement,” then you have been introduced to Ann Arbor, Michigan–and you have a basic understanding of my first year here.  In this movie, Tom (Jason Segal), moves to Ann Arbor when his fiancé, Violet (Emily Blunt) is accepted to a post-doc program at the University of Michigan.  Tom leaves his successful job as a chef in San Francisco to work a grunt-work position making sandwiches at Zingerman’s Deli; I left my graduate program behind me to do the sandwich-making of the academic world: teaching as an adjunct professor.  Tom gives into the winter months here, falling on ice while scraping windshields; I not only fell on icy driveways, but totaled my Subaru on a tree.  Tom feels isolated from the University world; if I have ever been close to being part of the University here, it is only when forced to rub elbows with college girls in the bathrooms of the Blue Leprechaun.  We both planned weddings while living here, although my wedding planning was a much smoother affair, thank goodness.

Things don’t work out well for Tom.  He succumbs to the depressing Michigan winters, wearing his pink bunny suit to hunt deer and eat stale doughnuts, proving Violet’s hypothesis that unhappy people make bad choices.  I am trying to avoid this particular fate by shirking bunny suits, hunting, and stale baked goods, but I am also trying to find the things about Ann Arbor that I love.

I can’t let this happen.

I know that I love summertime here in Michigan.  There is no better place to laze away summer days; this year we had sunny weather, low humidity, and temperatures ranging from the high 70s to the mid-90s.  I spent afternoons by the pool of our condominium complex reading On the Road.  I wrote essays in my new backyard, with Pippin running around chasing bugs.  Dan and I spent many nights drinking at one of Ann Arbor’s downtown bars, blissfully free of undergraduates from mid-May through late August.  Professors are on vacation this time of year, or at least on vacation from teaching, and they are emerging from their school-year cocoons to relax about life for a few months.  Sweet elderly couples take Sunday walks, and young families kayak in Gallup Park, splashing their way up and down the Huron River.  Townies soak up sunshine, gorging on enough Vitamin D to last from October through April.  The tone of the city is entirely different from the self-absorbed, over-serious tone of the school-year; everyday is a holiday when the sun shines in our little Maize and Blue universe.

But because being too comfortable seems to be against the Ann Arbor ethos, the peaceful summer atmosphere is upended with the swish of flowing skirts and patchouli.  Something wicked this way comes around the end of July: The Ann Arbor Street Art Fair.

To be fair, there are many folks, even some of you, Readers, who place a lot of value in the Art Fair’s ability to “increase public knowledge and appreciation for contemporary fine arts and fine crafts.” This is certainly an admirable mission statement.  I happen to have a great appreciation for contemporary arts and crafts because of my first college roommate, Mary, who was an economics major and an art minor.  Her specialties as a potter are woodland-themed dinner ware featuring the creatures/culture of the American South.  She also does fine renderings of famous economists in clay.  Her artwork is either overt caricature or completely without irony–I have never been able to tell–but it fascinates me nonetheless.  I was thrilled when Mary decided to visit during Art Fair, to help me find the good in the disastrous maze of yard sculpture and perspective-puzzle paintings.  I needed someone with good wit and a steady sense of reality.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, immortalized in a cereal bowl. Artwork by Mary Turner.

Despite my appreciation for arts and crafts, I do feel like I need to explain to my readers why the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair is not one of my favorite things.  Art Fair has been an institution in this city for 53 years, beginning in 1960.  Things were very different in 1960 than they are in 2012, but Art Fair is a chance for Ann Arborites of all ages to regress to the behavior that made the festival politically revolutionary in the 1960s, and relatively mundane today.  The art itself is pretty, but little of it makes the grandiose cultural statements that made the festival a ground-breaking event.  There are some lovely booths still, but it has lost sight of its original mission (you know, about increasing knowledge of arts/crafts, etc). Now, I would revise this statement to state “increase public consumption of beer, street food, pretension and over-priced art.”  Festival goers drink in public, smoke pot almost-legally and look at pictures of naked people at Art Fair–dangerously cool stuff in 1960–but these subversive acts have become so mainstream that they aren’t subversive anymore.  Like any good subculture, Art Fair has worn itself out.

It is also, from my humble perspective, the magnum opus of the typical Ann Arborite culture, which is a mix of hippies and hipsters.  This culture is the heart of my problem; how am I supposed to find friends, me, a politically moderate, well-educated but farm-raised twenty-something?  I am not even sure what a hipster really is; all I know is that I am not one.  I don’t find a spirited debate about Nietzsche enjoyable. I am not currently pursuing a graduate degree, or teaching in one.  I have some regard for the lives of others behind the steering wheel.  I keep my politics to myself, unlike Ann Arbor’s ubiquitous bumper-sticker political junkies.  I don’t drink coffee in skinny jeans or big sunglasses. I don’t feel the need to tattoo my beliefs on my person.  Hipsterism is Ann Arbor’s new normal; a lot of Ann Arbor’s citizens from 25-34 do these things, find them normal, want them in their lives.  Not me.

Doing his/her part to start a revolution. If this doesn’t make a blazing rhetorical statement, I don’t know what does.

I am not the only person who has noticed Ann Arbor’s weird ability to be both new and clichéd.  My hairdresser has lived here her entire life and finds the city–and especially Art Fair–to be bizarre.  Many folks living in surrounding counties describe Ann Arbor as four square miles of idealism, surrounded by reality.  My students often don’t even know what to think about Ann Arbor; they either love or hate the football team, but the culture is a world unto its self for most of them.  From various foot adventures in and around Ann Arbor, I have noticed two over-arching attitudes about the city: 1. That it is a Mecca of intellectualism and contemporary liberalism or 2. That it is where the crazy people live.

I think both assumptions are probably correct.

It can be irritating to live inside this giant university’s gravitational pull. It is great to live in utopia, but even in the best worlds, something is always missing. Sometimes I feel that despite its best efforts, Ann Arbor lacks an awareness–a genuine awareness–of human life outside the sanctuary of fine dining and high-brow intellectual entertainment. Sometimes I long for some consideration of the things outside of this “Leaders And Best” universe.

The Big House, via the Ann Arbor CVB

When I first started writing about Ann Arbor, I had several cutting posts of snarky, judgmental commentary ready to roll, but something about my writing felt disingenuous.  I didn’t give the city the best shot to prove itself to me, and I focused more on the A2’s warts than its jewels.  I felt like a jerk for judging Ann Arbor so harshly. When Mary came in July, bearing harrowing stories of life in Louisiana’s bayou, I decided to stop being a whiny brat and start appreciating my new city, starting with a good walk.  While searching for the genuine culture of Ann Arbor, I found that touring Art Fair with Mary was the best way to find lovely things.  And no, Art Fair was not where I found the best and brightest stuff.   Honestly, the ridiculousness of Art Fair pushed us away from its orbit and out into the unexpected and unexplored nooks and crannies of my new city.

Most surprisingly, I have come to find that there is more to the A2 social scene than hipsters, and that Ann Arborites are really something to love.  These characters are funny and fascinating, even if they do let a touch of hipster or hippie peek out of their shirtsleeves from time to time.  Here are a few of my favorites:

The Lunch-Time Conference Caller: Start your touring by eating lunch at The Produce Station, on State Street, a lunch spot that features a beautiful, complex and yuppy-ish salad bar (think artichoke hearts and quinoa salad). Sit outside in the little eat-in garden shed–it looks better than it sounds–and listen to the sound of business getting done, Ann Arbor style. Everyone talks loudly on their cells in tight public places here, so just accept the social awkwardness and listen in. Demands to order more tabbouleh for the Saturday shift or changes to the African-drum choreography ring through the little garden shed, where customers take the opportunity to replenish their Vitamin D levels in the summer sun.  Mary and I sat here, ate salad, caught up on life, and drooled over the smell of meat on the grill.  It is a perfect place to while away an afternoon, and to get some grocery shopping done too.

The Professor: If you have eaten a big salad at The Produce Station, walk down to the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market in Kerrytown, or take the Ride, Ann Arbor’s public bus system. While perusing the stalls of fresh basil and Amish eggs, you will run across a world-class expert or two, stuffing their canvas bags with heirloom tomatoes and $12 loaves of artisan bread. They are prickly until you get them talking about their nuclear fission project or their new book on labor market economics. Once engaged, they will talk for as long as you can snack on samples. This is one of the great things about Ann Arbor; everyone is doing something interesting, and everyone can teach you something new.

The Summertime Festival Goer: Ann Arbor is home to several summer festivals, the most popular and extensive of which is the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, and even if you don’t attend Art Fair, you will run into the sweeping-skirted festival goer, most likely sporting tattoos and tangles. He/She may offer you a controlled substance. You will want to decline. They will engage your opinion on Romney’s political gaffs.  They will encourage you to dread your hair.  These conversations can go on for a long time when you are a polite person, so escape the heat, humidity and/or conversation, by stopping into the free University of Michigan Art Museum. Mary and I were very impressed by the extensive Asian art exhibits, including a statue made of re-purposed Cambodian weaponry, and this mosaic:

The University Art Museum is one of the few places on campus that actually feels accessible to the public, and they work hard to bring truly evocative art work to their space. It was my favorite find of the weekend.

The Student: When you have had your fill of artwork–and you will fill up on it at the Art Fair–it will be time to grab a table at one of Ann Arbor’s downtown restaurants. This town is known for some incredible cuisine, especially when the summer garden season is in full swing and eateries support our local Michigan farmers by designing menus around their efforts. My favorite spots are Pacific Rim for fish and shellfish, The Prickly Pear for the closest thing to Mexican food that you can get here, Grizzly Peak for reasonably-priced, local American food, and Palm Palace, when I am craving huge amounts of kitsch and lamb shwarma.

The shwarma, some stuffed grape leaves, leftover pita and hummus.

Mary and I had salmon and summer veggies (green beans) at Grizzly Peak, where we ran into the summertime student waiter. Most of the waitstaff in Ann Arbor in the summer are students who were having too much fun to go home, or graduate students who are paying the bills that their post-doc doesn’t cover by picking up a few tables. They are generally knowledgeable and helpful, like the staff that Mary and I were lucky to have at Grizzly Peak and Palm Palace (where we partook of some shwarma). Waitstaff are responsible for some of the best discoveries that I have made in A2, including The Raven speakeasy that has some delicious champagne cocktails, and the Blue Leprechaun’s karoke night, quickly becoming a favorite Wednesday night entertainment.

Other characters worth getting to know are the Stay-At-Home-PhD (incredibly well-educated Mommies and Daddies who now raise their children with an educational standard rivaled only by the Ivies), the Michigan Man (decked out in Maize and Blue from head to toe to pick-up truck),The Asian Grandma (tiny, grizzled and tenacious in the produce section) and the Runner (intense and hard-bodied, probably wearing minimalist toe-shoes).

I know that I am dealing in stereotypes here, a dangerous and limiting thing to do.  But there is something about the closely-knit university community that powers stereotypes into over-drive, drawing these characters in sharp relief against a backdrop of rural, conservative Michigan. Ann Arbor’s citizens are happy to live these characters too, something which I both admire and am puzzled by. This town is a far cry from the Western and Southern towns where I grew up. It still feels like a whole other world to me.

At the same time, I have just scratched the surface of the iceberg.  There are thousands of jewels to unearth here, and they are far less ostentatious than Art Fair.  For me, the hoopla of a festival pales in comparison to a favorite hiking trail, a perspective-changing plate of food, or a revolutionary piece of art.  These little discoveries remind me that despite the starkly-drawn borders of our city, Ann Arbor does have a cosmopolitan connection with the rest of the world. This is something I love about our town.

Stale doughnuts are looking less appetizing too, at least while the Vitamin D holds out.

Stay tuned this week as I finish up my summer series with posts on Ann Arbor area hiking–and some beginning thoughts on our first attempts at distance back-packing– gorging myself in Traverse City, and a languid reflection on Charleston.  A Foot Fiction feature on Heart of Darkness and Into Thin Air is on the schedule for early October.

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: Sir Lancelot, Sir Pippen, Sir Votto

Photo Licensed by creativecommons.org

Sometimes, buying into a spouse’s sports legend is important for a relationship, and not just on a logistical, I must-get-along-with-you way. The stories we cherish are the stories that create new family histories, and that make our own legends come to life for our kids (don’t read too much into this, Family Members). I think about Chicago fondly as an idea that inspired the myths and legends of my father and mother; but now, I know I am making the stories that I will tell my children, and they will tell their grandchildren.  In my last post on Chicago, at least for awhile, I am writing about faith, family, and the stories that we live for.

I live for sports. Chicago, as my readers know, lives for sports too. Its sports chronicles are epics, played out over decades of winning and losing, battles fought on the court and off. In Chicago, sports and stories are one and the same, a tradition passed down from family to family, season after season.

Everyone knows about Chicago’s sports mythology, featuring some of my favorite heroes, villains and supporting characters. We know who they are:

Michael Jordan=King Arthur

Scottie Pippin=Sir Gawain

The Black Sox=Sir Lancelot, that dirty betrayer

Phil Jackson=Merlin

The Cubs=the hapless knight, Sir Kay, who never manages to win a fight unless by accident, and whose bravery is always in question.

I could go on. I won’t.

Chicago’s sports legends are ubiquitous, influencing fan-bases very far removed from the windy banks of Lake Michigan.  This is why I was introduced to the city’s sports mythology, thanks to the grainy WGN station that our 1990s TV could just barely pick up.  In the desolate, wind-swept waste of cow feed-lots and alfalfa fields, my brother and I bought in, heart and soul, to the story of Jordan.

I was reading La Morte d’Arthur just about the same time that we moved to a house with cable access, and I was deep into the journeys of King Arthur and his court when I watched my first Bulls’ game on TV.  There are few epic tales that I like more than The Arthurian Legend (pushes glasses up nose), but the story of the 1990’s Bulls  bolstered my understanding of the heroics of Arthur and his knights in ways that my stilted, Americanized translation couldn’t do.  When I watched Scottie Pippen play beautifully, but still in the supporting cast, I could see in him the same patience that Sir Gawain exhibited quest after quest, always a hero and often taken for granted.  Maybe that’s why I liked Scottie the best; even his complaints about his role on the team didn’t phase me in my misguided but well-meaning characterization.

The Bulls were the knights of my Round Table, and I followed their battles as often as I could during basketball season. My brother and I would turn on WGN and watch Michael and Scottie make magic on the basketball court. We acted out their heroics on our back-yard basketball court, where I learned the power of practice and perseverance (and the pain of a basketball to the face).  I learned to love sports and athletic achievement in those years, dreaming of the day when the crowd would cheer for me, when I would be the hero of the hour.  I was enthralled by the story.

I certainly never expected to actually see a Bulls’ game.  I knew, in my heart of hearts, that there was not enough magic in my basketball talent to get me from Southeastern Colorado cow-country to the United Center.  Merlin would not get me to Chicago, and my height and my general tendency towards panic in game situations wouldn’t either.  It was the first time that I let a dream go, and when I moved from Lamar to Kentucky and my brother went to college, I had all but forgotten the longed for pilgrimage to our much idolized temple.

Imagine my surprise when, last Christmas morning, Dan pulled out a silver gift bag with sloppy ribbons and two pieces of printer paper sticking out of the top.  I was doubtful, but then I remembered seeing that cash payment out of our bank account to something titled “ChiBlls.”  I was expecting a t-shirt or pair of socks; I was not expecting tickets to my first Bulls game, in Chicago.

And so I became part of the story, when Dan took me to the United Center last March.  The roar of the crowd, mixed with the smell of popcorn and beer, made my blood race with an adrenaline I usually only feel when crossing the finish line of a race (or buying a new book). I gawked like a bumpkin at the retired #23 jersey and the six NBA championship banners. I cheered with the crowd, fulfilling my obnoxious childhood desire to boo the Pistons’ free-throw shooters.  And even though the Bulls’ most recent hero, Derrick Rose, was injured, and I find Joakim Noah’s fuzzy ballerina bun disturbing, I remembered some of that same rapture from our basement stadium 18 years ago. Dan got to see that delirious happiness, and I think he got just a little excited too (even though he despises NBA basketball).

What Dan loves–and what I have grown to love–is a legend vastly different from the glitz and glamour of the Jordan years in Chicago.  Dan loves a baseball team with a scrappy if historic reputation. His team was the first baseball team in Major League Baseball.  It was named after dock workers’ sun-burned legs as they toiled on the banks of the Ohio.  This team is the home of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Barry Larkin.  Dan loves the Cincinnati Reds.

In fact, the only time Dan geeks out on par with my literature obsession or my estimation of Dennis Rodman’s rebounding skills is when he tells Reds’ stories.  Just as Dan is still getting used to listening to my random Arthurian references, I have had to get used to baseball trivia questions, complex explanations of scoring and statistics, and endless hours watching this team.  Learning to love each other’s sports has been a process, and it took me a long time to love the Reds enough to allow my living room to be decorated with their memorabilia.

At first, in those early, idealistic days of a young relationship, I was thrilled to do whatever Dan wanted, and I would never turn down an opportunity to see something new, regardless of how sunburned I could get sitting along the first base line. Later on, but still in the early days, I became irritated by the way that our dates could revolve around Reds’ managing foibles. I blame Adam Dunn’s sheer laziness in the outfield for a variety of sub-par date nights.  Then the Reds got better, and I succumbed to Joey Votto’s classic movie-star charisma.  I started to watch games with Dan willingly, not because my nagging conscience demanded that I take an interest in his activities, but because I was excited to see what Joey would do next.  I loved to watch him win awards: Best hitter in baseball.  Golden Glove.  National League MVP.  Winning is fun to watch.

Now, I am a happy Reds’ baseball fan, watching as they sweep series after series on their way to the playoffs, and hopefully a World Series. I don’t even mind spending most weeknights watching MLB.TV instead of my beloved ‘Real Housewives.’ I am drinking the Kool-Aid to the point that when I watch this season’s MLB commercial, I tear up a bit when I see the curly ponytail on that little girl in her Johnny Bench jersey.  Don’t get me wrong; I am not a die-hard fan, and I am the first to become apathetic when the Reds don’t make it to October.  But I am starting to buy into the story and I love watching, in the most American of traditions, the artistry of bodies in motion.

Why, exactly, have I allowed the Reds to be so close to the center of my relationship?

Why, when I got off the Red Line at the Addison Stop two weekends ago, did I feel the swelling of adrenaline that I felt in the United Center when I was living out my own childhood dream? Have I adopted Dan’s dream?  Am turning into a Redleg? (My legs are susceptible to sunburn). I classify myself as a fairweather fan, but when “Let’s Go Redlegs” rang out over Wrigley Field two weekends ago, I felt decidedly proud, despite my lack of loyalty. Why has a team and their story become so central to our relationship, and the life we live together?

Wrigley Field

I am tempted to explain the phenomenon by using the old “sports-as-religion” metaphor, especially since I come from Kentucky and basketball is a family religion there, as explained adeptly by Professor David Hall of Centre College in his class of the same name (ie. Basketball As Religion). The class makes sense in a state that bleeds Wildcat Blue, and it has received a lot of attention from major media outlets and the Paul Harvey show. Paul describes basketball as a deeply individualized ritual, one that changes among groups of friends and families.  I couldn’t help thinking about this religion metaphor as the 8th inning wore on and Reds fans all over the stadium chanted the hymns of Reds’ Nation, much to the chagrin of the down-and-out Cubs.

I am struck by the irrationality of this adopted obsession, and my visceral response to the excitement of watching the Reds at Wrigley Field was both frightening and fascinating. Fandom, like faith, requires irrationality, a willingness to suffer, and over all, a common narrative.

The tie that binds us is the thrill of narrative.  Narratives catch our attention, hold it, and embrace us in the myths, legends and heroes of our favorite teams. We become attached to stories on the same kind of chemical level that makes us fall in love. Stories make us human, give us hope, encourage our faith. They give us something to believe in.

Maybe if you are in love with someone, then you are in love with their stories too.

Chicago–Myths and Legends: Crossfit Helga

In my last post, I wrote about how Chicago became part of my imagination; it was one of the most memorable places of my childhood, where I experienced the sheer bigness of the world and yearned to explore it.  It was also a symbol of my father, the Piper whose name I carried for 26 years, until I got married last May.

There is something called post-wedding blues, a state of depression that brides often face after the hub-bub and extra attention of engagement and nuptial events, and I had it bad.  I wasn’t convinced, even after all of the words of love and support, that I was really “part of the family.” I wasn’t convinced that I felt comfortable being a Greulich, and I was hesitant to take the trip to the social security office to change my name.  I didn’t feel bonafide.

As weird as this sounds, I needed to prove to myself that I was someone worthy of a last name that is Bavarian for “gruesome.” Clearly, Dan’s ancestors were some strong individuals.  I imagine the wives of the first Greulichs chopping wood in the Black Forest while pregnant.  In my reverie, they have at least 10 chubby-cheeked children running around, and they make pastries while defending the cottage with a battle-ax.  They are strong women, either ridiculously blonde and gorgeous, or ridiculously blonde and burly.  They have names like “Katja” and “Helga.”  They run 10 miles daily and throw heavy objects.  They drink beer.

Will I ever be this cool?
Photo: AP Photo/Diether Endlicher

I don’t know why I fell victim to this ridiculous myth, but for some reason, I felt the need to prove that I was one of these merciless German ladies, in a small, non-committal way.  I don’t know if this identity crisis is something that a lot of brides go through; maybe I am just a weirdo.  But I came to conquer Chicago, Greulich-style, by making myself as miserable possible, and bragging about it later.  I came to earn my battle-ax in the Chicago Rock n’ Roll Half-Marathon.

The half-marathon was at the top of my trusty, masochistic to-do list, which I pull out when I am feeling in need of reinvention.  It is written in my best, no-nonsense-Helga imperative syntax:

1. Run a half-marathon (now marathon).

2. Give up sugar. It’s the devil.

3. Go to Bikram yoga–get used to it.

4. Re-read Foucault, and take notes this time.

5. Give up gluten, dairy and wine.

6. Get up early to write and exercise.

7. Stop watching “The Real Housewives of New Jersey;” you are wasting your life.

8. Do another degree.  Pick one: PhD in Literature, PhD in Rhetoric, and/or Law school.

9. Have twins: one boy, one girl.

…and it continues on in this vein.  Basically, it is a list about how not to have any fun, ever.

I decided that a half-marathon was the only goal on this list really worth the heartache, so despite the tight training turn-around, I managed to increase my mileage and buy some new shoes in time for the race in August.  I read Matt Frazier’s Half-Marathon Guide from his excellent blog, No-Meat Athlete, and I even considered being a vegetarian for about 45 minutes (I think I decided that no self-respecting Bavarian did without meat).  I told a new group of Ann Arbor friends that I would run this race with them, so I had to suck up some of that ancient Greulich gumption and just ignore the fact that I felt unprepared.  I highly doubt that it was acceptable for a medieval-era Greulich to show weakness in front of others.  So I showed up in Chicago, “ready” to run, with some nagging reservations and no experience.

And then I ran a half-marathon.

The race was equal parts empowering joy and demoralizing, embarassing pain. Lest you think I had no fun at all, know that this race is beautifully organized, like all Rock n’ Roll races, with good bands, lots of spectators, and plenty of water and Gatorade.  Through the first eight miles of the race, I felt like I was flying on the sidewalks, passing runners who were a little too ambitious in their corral placement.  My friends are experienced distance runners, and I followed their pace for most of the route–a good plan, since I had no concept of how running 13.1 miles would feel.  I watched for Dan’s cute face in the crowd of spectators; he is easy to spot in Chicago, a land full of short Irish people.  I remember yelling to him in passing, “It’s been seven miles!  I can’t believe the race is almost over!”  I ate some GU packets (more on this later), and chugged along, thrilled that at long last, I was doing it. I was living up to my potential, living the myth of the strong German wife.  I was being a take-no-prisoners, gruesome-to-the-core Greulich.  It felt awesome.

I maintained that feeling through most of the course, which takes you through some of the most memorable places in the Inner Loop.  Runners start in Millennium Park and cross the Chicago River three times before running an out-and-back loop on South Michigan Ave and Lakeshore Drive, back to Millennium Park and the finish.  The views of Lake Michigan are lovely, and if you are paying attention, you may spot the Bean and the Sears tower, in addition to some of the restaurants that were featured on Top Chef Chicago.  As the race wore on, I started a mental list of dishes I would like to eat later, my stomach growling pleasantly, until I hit mile 9.75.  Then things took a turn for the worse.

The course.

It started when I hit a pack of cheerleaders from Crossfit Chicago’s staff.  I have a few friends who do Crossfit, friends who I know are exceedingly perky, and whose muscles are exceedingly big.  One bold cheerleader in that crowd had been doing a lot of squats.  She was Helga in the flesh, and she looked like she was about to smack me for enjoying myself too much.  As soon as she told me that, I did, indeed, “have this” in the characteristic Crossfit Marine-officer bark, I hit a wall.  The GU I ate two miles before started to expand in my stomach in uncomfortable and surprising ways.  My muscles were crying out for Gatorade,  but I was too afraid to drink anything with the disgusting strawberry-banana GU doing its thing in my stomach.  I was, after all, following the “Don’t eat or drink anything you haven’t trained with” rule, with the exception of the GU.  I still don’t know why I made that exception; I’m sure it was peer-pressure.  Regardless, the irony of my last visit to Chicago reared its ugly head.  I knew what was going to happen next.

Determined to ignore the increasingly unpleasant rumbling until I couldn’t anymore, I powered through Mile 10, hoping to stay with my friends who were pacing along peacefully, one of whom was even singing.  I ran along the lakeshore, blindly following my singing friend and failing to look out over Lake Michigan and the dazzling architecture of the Chicago Aquarium.  Then I got left behind with other runners who, like me, didn’t follow their training or race plans, antagonized by GI trouble and Charley-horses.  Bounding strides became shuffles, and with Mile 12.5 in my sights, I had to stop.  Bloated, filled with water and whatever petroleum-based substance they put in GU, I walked.  I hated every moment of it.  I was afraid that I wouldn’t end up running this race at all, but walking it in.  Some part of me, a rational part, didn’t care.

And then Crossfit Helga appeared out of nowhere.  I looked at her thighs and then at her face and became more terrified of staying where I was.  So I picked up the pace, prayed against exploding, and finished that race, light-headed, violently ill, and disoriented.  I vowed to myself that I would never run another half-marathon, and I told Dan that too, when he found me post-race, wandering dazedly through the chute and passing up popsicles and anything that reminded me of strawberry-banana.  I had never felt like less of a Greulich.

Five hours later, after Gatorade, a shower, deep-dish pizza and a bloody Mary from the Emerald Loop, I changed my mind.  I ran the Detroit Half-Marathon just eight weeks later, and redeemed myself by not puking and by finishing 15 minutes faster, breaking 2 hours.

My Chicago story continues to be interwoven with the disjointed themes of wanderlust and vomit–through every fault of my own–so I have come to see the city as a place where reality gives idealism a pretty hard sucker-punch.  This time, I learned that my self-punishing goal-setting didn’t make me a Greulich: my husband did.  I have never been so grateful to see his smiling face, with a bottle of my favorite all-natural Gatorade in hand.  I have never been more grateful for a slice of Giordano’s deep-dish pizza (full of gluten and dairy), and Dan’s skills at ordering the best combination of fillings.  I am always grateful when he brings up Crossfit Helga, and we can yuck it up, even in the worst situations.  Most importantly, I am grateful that he told me that he was proud of me.  I was proud of me too.  Mission accomplished.

Being part of the Greulich family does not require one to feel more like a Germanic warrior-princess.  It is about hard work and reaching ambitions, but it is also about love and adventure. Having a name that strikes fear into the hearts of your enemies is simply a bonus.

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