And then there were three

If you’re going to have a friend join you on a bike trip, it is mighty handy if he just happens to be a bike tour operator. Especially if you are in his home territory. And an all around good guy, like Jim.

We had already spent one day making our way north along the western shore of Michigan. It was enough to impress us with the Lake Michigan views and fine sand beaches. And I was enamoured with the brilliant blue-green color of the water, reminiscent of the Caribbean. We discovered that many towns were built on lakes, small bays or rivers adjoining the big lake. They frequently afforded appealing views with boats bobbing in marinas. And in between were orchards laden with ripe red apples, farm stands, peaches for sale, scenic farms and woods lining the road.

A Michigan beach
Rest stop in Onekama

Our rendezvous point with Jim was Arcadia. A tiny village, it boasted both a nature preserve and a beautiful town beach. With free time available, an afternoon for doing your own thing seemed in order. Rich eagerly headed out in search of birds in the marsh. I spent my time walking the beach with the roar of the waves in my ears and the wind on my face. We finished just in time to meet Jim for dinner, and capped off the day with a splendid sunset over the lake.

Arcadia Beach

Our morning departure as a threesome was quite a wake-up call. We had reached the coastal sand dunes, and as they rose steeply above the water, so did the road. Our initial few miles were straight up, ending at an overlook with long views up and down the coast. No one but me was willing to climb the steps to the top. But it was worth it. The low sun was just beginning to illuminate the trees below, and the clear blue skies and enhanced the deep color of the water.

Overlook at Arcadia

It was a grand day for cycling and necessitated taking time to enjoy the sights along the way. Having three people meant more interests. More ideas. More reasons to stop. A photo opp for Rich. A rest stop for Jim. A lighthouse or two for me. One looked like a toy, but Point Betsie Lighthouse was quite nice.

Point Betsie Lighthouse
We were in unanimous agreement on one thing. Ice cream. A requirement at the end of a long, hot day of cycling. Such was our mission upon reaching Glen Arbor after our 50-mile ride. Fortunately, Jim’s expertise led us to just the place – a shop where all the ice cream featured Michigan cherries!
Jim, Molly and Rich at ice cream place

We were grateful to learn that Jim was a very agreeable traveling companion. Despite the dire weather forecasts for morning, we threw caution to the wind and stuck with our plans to camp that night. For our reward, we scored the only campsite in the DH Day National Forest Campgound with a water view! The fact that they had only primitive campsites (outhouses and water faucets, period) was no problem. Our beautifully secluded spot also had beach access. With Jim leading the charge, we were soon swimming off our day’s sweat and rinsing our cycling gear all at once in Lake Michigan! I certainly never expected to swim in the lake on this trip. And had we been on our own, I’m not certain we would have taken the plunge. It’s a good thing that by then there were three.

Swimming in Lake Michigan

 

A Metro Century Ride

We live in the beautiful wilderness of the cool Northland.  So why would we want to cycle 100 miles through the urban metropolis in the southern climes of Minnesota?  The answer is unclear, but Myra has her heart set on traversing the cycling trails across the Twin Cities.  I managed to fend off her desires last year, but ultimately succumb to her pleas.  We schedule our 5th annual Century Ride.

I should have saved myself the anxiety.  For every one of my arguments against the locale, we are delivered perfection.  Following a string of hot humid weather, storms blow through and the day dawns crisp and clear at 56 degrees, never climbing above a sunny 74.  We manage an early start and cross the city in the quiet of a Sunday morning, unencumbered by traffic.  When my rear tire suddenly blows only 16 miles into the Freewheel Bike Shopride, an angel appears in the form of a passing cyclist who generously helps me (read “does it for me”) change the tube.  Feeling nervous about the accompanying gash remaining in my tire, we discover the bike shop we passed just 2 miles back is opening in 5 minutes.  And to think we almost took a different route through town.

The best part of the trip is exploring the plethora of bike trails throughout the Twin Cities.  Mississippi River Locks from Ford BridgeStarting in Plymouth, we make our way into Minneapolis via the Luce Line Trail then onto the Midtown Greenway.  Reaching the Mississippi River, we travel many miles along its banks on the West River Parkway and Sam Morgan Regional Trail.  The splendid river views and gawking at the palatial homes keep us well entertained.

Downtown St. Paul presents the only area where we have to navigate city streets.  We had done our research and identified a viable route, only to discover that the main bike-friendly street is under construction.  But with a bit of dithering and the aid of Google Maps we identify a reasonable alternative, and survive the experience.

StillwaterOur eastern destination and the mid-point of our ride is Stillwater, and those 20 miles are sweet.  Three more trails take us there, the Bruce Vento Trail, Gateway State Trail and Brown’s Creek State Trail.  Each is more rural than the next, with Brown’s being the newest trail with a delightfully smooth surface.  Coasting downhill the final two miles into Stillwater is easy going, and the return climb back up is barely perceptible.  While not crowded, we share the trail with groups ranging from hard core cyclists to families out enjoying the beautiful Sunday afternoon.

Photo Aug 21, 2 11 58 PMWe reverse our route for the return trip, although there are several opportunities to vary the journey.  And everything looks different when viewed from the opposite direction.  Naturally, we take time out for a DQ break.  With nearly 1.5 hours lost to my flat tire and the putsy time it took to cross St. Paul, we don’t finish our trek until just after 7pm.  But on such a beautiful day we aren’t complaining.

Our final distance is 106.7 miles.  With bits and pieces of other trails in between the main ones, we covered 12 different bicycle trails.  And only 4 miles were on the city streets of St. Paul.  Even I have to admit, it was a darned good metro century ride.

Century Ride across the Twin Cities and back

Artful Cycling

Two Harbors Art Bike Ride MapThe weather is definitely not what I envisioned.  Instead of clear blue skies and sunshine, the world is shrouded in fog with dense clouds.  But the radar map shows no storms, so I stay the course despite the conditions.  If I waited for good weather, I’d miss out on a lot of adventures.

My plan is to combine a favorite 50-mile cycle route with friendship, coffee and art.  The first leg of my journey is my inland route to Two Harbors.  With each turn of my pedals, the air gets wetter and my visibility shrinks.  My glasses further obscure my view by collecting mist and drips from my helmet.  I eventually abandon them, figuring a bit of blur is preferable to near blindness.  But it’s calm, not raining and the temperature is very comfortable for cycling.  And I love the quiet of an early morning ride.

My first destination is a new combination cyclery/coffee shop, SpokeNGear.  Joan is already there waiting for me and within moments, I am convinced that the advance publicity doesn’t do it justice.  The modern décor of the coffee shop is uncluttered and inviting, flanked by soaring windows overlooking the woodlands.  Anyplace with good scones is a winner in my book, and I can truly taste the lavender in my raspberry and lavender scone that accompanies my latte.  An hour passes quickly as we visit in the welcoming space.  Before leaving, a staff member from the bike shop graciously tightens some bolts on my bike that the Northland’s bumpy roads had worked loose.

Two Harbors Art FairCoffee and friendship established, it’s time to move on to art.  The Art Fair in Two Harbors is sandwiched between local businesses on the main street.  Numerous booths offer a wide variety of crafts and art, and it is always more fun to browse with a friend.   We complete our circuit with our wallets in tact, but enriched by the visual displays of talent and each other’s company.

Miraculously, by then the gloomy morning has been transformed into the sunny day I visualized. With the sun warming the slight wind off the lake, I fly down the Scenic Highway.  The scenery is classic North Shore with the deep blue lake contrasting against the greenery of the trees and the rugged rocky shoreline.  I can’t help but feel the good fortune of living where we are surrounded by such beauty.

Brighton Beach Art FestivalJust a mile from home and with my odometer already registering 51 miles, I reach Brighton Beach and the Art Festival.  There I find booths spread out along the shoreline, featuring 40 selected artists.  Having the Big Lake as the backdrop enhances the appeal of the art.  It invites lingering, considering, and in my case, yes, buying.

It’s a good thing I didn’t cave in to the whims of the weather gods.  It’s the sunny part of the day that will stick in my mind.  Along with the coffee, the friendship and the beauty of the shore.  Art is in the eye of the beholder, and in this case it was picture perfect cycling.

Good Morning, Lakewalk

It’s early but all the regulars are out there.  My morning running ritual takes me down the Lakewalk day after day.   There I enter my world of the familiar.  I know I should vary my routine, and I do work in some hills or head up the shore periodically.  But my feet just naturally lead me to the Lakewalk.

The route is always the same, but the experience never is.  On the grim, cloudy and windy days, I nod to my fellow runners as we pass.  We exchange knowing glances, acknowledging the brutal headwind, the chill of the air.  We share the same rugged determination.  We are out there, no matter what.

Lakewalk Lief Erikson ParkWhen the sun shines and the lake sparkles, our faces reflect the joy of our surroundings.  Our “good morning” exchanges ring out merrily.  Those are the days when the Aerial Bridge beckons irresistibly, drawing me further down the Lakewalk to its terminus in Canal Park.  Ten miles turn into 13.  But it’s worth it.

My trusty companions on the Lakewalk punctuate the miles yet loosen my brain from focusing on the rigors of my run.  Cyclists pass on their way to work, warning me with the sound of their tires or a cheery ring of a bell.  Dog walkers are always good for a “hello” and seem to have only beautiful and well mannered pooches on the end of their leashes.  Fellow runners whiz by in both directions, but usually with a wave of encouragement.

And then there’s Arley.  A fixture on the Lakewalk, his presence brightens anyone’s journey.  I first see him walking, coffee cup in hand striding purposefully at an early hour.  Next, he passes me on his bike, destined for the end of Park Point and back.  White hair flying out from under his cap, always with a chipper greeting for me.  At times he accompanies me on his bike, spinning away the miles with conversation as I run.  When the snow flies, I can count on his having cleared the portion of the Lakewalk adjacent to his house.

Molly and ArleneIt was the Lakewalk that introduced me to a kindred spirit and running friend, Arlene.  Perched on opposite sides of an ice encrusted street, we traded encouragement as we approached.  Our steps slowed to a walk, one greeting led to another and soon we were trading phone numbers to meet up for our next run.  Where else might I meet another passionate running enthusiast and heart-felt friend?  Barely a day goes by that does not find one or the other or both of us treading the Lakewalk.

Admittedly not all Lakewalk encounters are friendly.  Passing through the wooded area just past East High recently, a dark form materialized just ahead.  A tall figure wedged between the fence and a tree turned out to be an upright bear, attempting to scale the fence with his hind claws.  I’m guessing it was the inhabitant of the 36th Avenue culvert, having wandered away from his den.  Passing in a hurry, a quick glace back led me to believe he was perched atop the fence.  I wished I had a camera with me, but perhaps it was better that I didn’t linger.

It was very thoughtful of the City to extend the Lakewalk to our neighborhood just as we moved in.  And the subsequent addition of the tunnel under the highway was equally welcome.  Every morning is a good morning on the Lakewalk.

Skiing – and so much more

For twenty four years in a row we have maintained our tradition.  Without fail.  There have been years of sickness, but we overcame it.  We had small children at home – five between us – but still we escaped.  Snow failed to materialize, but we went anyway.  Jobs were stressful and demanding, but we left them behind.  A lot has changed over the years, but Susan and I still get away for our annual cross-country ski weekend every year.

This year’s venue was Golden Eagle Lodge, on the north side of Bearskin Lake on the wonderful Central Gunflint Trail Ski System.  We stayed in a lovely cabin aptly named “Trailside” and took full advantage of our proximity to the 70k of XC ski trails at our door.

It wasn’t long before the weekend’s unique qualities began to reveal themselves.  And as each new challenge presented itself, we coined a new term.  It seemed better than complaining, and far more fun.

IMG_2363Adaptability  It’s the characteristic needed when things don’t turn out as expected. Like the gas fireplace that ceases blazing after the office closes at night.  And your figure out it’s the only source of heat in the cabin.  Or when the enormous clumps of snow that once graced the tops of the pine trees melt enough to fall, creating tree avalanches that obliterate the ski trail with icy mounds.  Or topple weakened trees across the trail.  It’s the turn-on-a-dime trait that comes in handy for revising ski plans to take advantage of trails that have been groomed in favor of those still coated in refrozen snow.  It’s figuring out how to use a percolator when you’ve only ever made drip coffee.

IMG_2365Lurch  This is what happens when the snow gets warm and wet, and ices up the bottom of your skis.  It creates a huge snowball underneath your foot, which effectively stops all forward progress.  Your body lurches forward with the momentum of your former glide, while your ski remains firmly planted in the ski track.  And an inane sound escapes your lips as you try to regain some sense of balance (and lose all hope of retaining any dignity).

IMG_2360Perseverance  It keeps you going when you realize you have chosen an overly ambitious distance to ski given the sticky snow conditions.  It makes you move when you fear you will be finishing your ski in the dark, and your headlamp is still back at the cabin.  It becomes your strength when you are dead tired after dragging your snow-bound skis across the snow (and lurching).  Its mantra sounds something like “think of crisp, chilled Chardonnay waiting for you.”

IMG_2375

Yet for each challenge the rewards were many.  Skiing at sunrise, watching it paint the sky with orange stripes.  Baking in the heat of the sauna, letting our aches drip away.  Sunny days, warm temperatures.  Talking, sharing, laughing caring.  Sipping that Chardonnay.

 

It’s a rare friendship that endures this long.  Perhaps it’s even more rare to keep up a tradition this long.  But we’re unlikely to miss next year’s milestone – 25 years of skiing together.  And so much more.IMG_2381

A Saxy Reunion

They call themselves the Silver Sax. Starting out as a quartet ten years ago, they have blossomed into a robust band of eleven, over half of which are saxophones which range from soprano to baritone. Jo's husband Peter is one of the original members. It was he who explained to me the significance of the name, which refers to the members' hair color. By happenstance, they were to play a charity event while I was there. It was the perfect event for our mini-reunion.

Molly, Mary and Jo after 40 years

Molly, Mary and Jo 40 years later

Mary and Shaun arrived toting a bottle of bubbly to celebrate the occasion. Mary, Jo and I were reunited one more time, now 40 years since we all first met at Durham University. We covered as much ground as we could over drinks and dinner, dragging up old memories and recounting recent updates. But the main event was still to come.

Although we knew Peter played in a band, apart from Jo the rest of us had never heard him play. In his quiet way, Peter made light of his musical endeavors, but we all suspected he underplayed his and the group's prowess. We were eager to hear it for ourselves.

It was an eclectic old building that housed the bar where the event was hosted in the large back room. Arriving early in time for band set-up we carefully selected a table mid-way back, knowing the band would produce a full sound. Procuring our beverages from the bar at the back, we settled in to watch the room fill. All manner of dress and age were represented, although most like us sported the same hair color as the band.

Silver Sax band

With the first note we knew we were in for a good night. The first half was comprised of big band music, and their renditions of Count Basie and Glenn Miller were a solid credit to the original jazz and swing music. What they lacked in trumpets and trombones, they made up for in saxophones, and very effectively so. It was good foot tapping music, and each piece was better than the last. The music was interspersed with tidbits about the music and the band by their leader, who proved to be enlightening and articulate as well as a talented musician.

Peter playing with Silver Sax

After intermission, the second set changed gears entirely. Tackling the likes of the Beatles, Abba and the Beach Boys, the band rocked the house with their lively tunes. Foot tapping gave way to bodies jiving to the music. It couldn't be helped, it was that irresistible. Chicago followed and kept us so entertained that we begged for an encore when the time came. And the Silver Sax graciously (and readily) accommodated with a medley from Earth, Wind and Fire.

We all agreed that Peter had kept his musical skills and fellow musicians a good secret for far too long. But now that we knew better, we'd be back for more performances. To me sounds like a good excuse to return to England. I'm sure I could be talked into seeing my Durham friends again for another saxy reunion.

Jo, Peter, Molly, Mary and Shaun

 

Lifelong Friendship

There I was, all on my own at Durham University in northern England. The year was 1975 and I was studying abroad on a program through the Institute of European Studies. It was a thrill to call that beautiful old cathedral city home, walking among age-old buildings, the castle and along the banks of the River Wear as a matter of course.

I loved the opportunity to lose my American self among the British and to immerse myself in their culture. As one of only 40 Americans in a sea of 4,000 students it was easy to do. I joined student clubs that offered experiences that were uniquely British. Soon I found myself in a church belfry doing “change ringing” on huge bells high over my head. I scaled rock faces with the mountaineering club, and went “walking” in the Lake District. I even rowed in a four-with-cox shell.

But the greatest gift of that year was the people I met. Little did I know they would become lasting friendships.

Jo rescued me. I was in the dorm laundry room, totally befuddled by the English version of washers and spin dryers. She immediately sensed my predicament and in her lively manner set about instructing me on the operating procedures. Hailing from the far north, Jo had a Geordie accent which added a language barrier to the session as I could barely understand her. But we muddled through and I found that she was equally curious about me and my “terrible American accent.” In short, we hit it off.

Mary was a good Catholic girl. I met her at a Catholic Society event. She was quiet but friendly and but we were drawn to each other. Discovering that we were both the studious type and lived in the same dorm, we established a fast bond. It was Mary who became my confidant. We could talk for hours, time slipping by unnoticed and never running out of conversation.

That was all forty years ago, almost to the day. And despite the passage of time our friendships have endured. In spite of the long distances between us, we have continued to see each other periodically through the years. We have even traveled to share our children's weddings. And regardless of communication barriers, we have stayed in touch. Mary and I are still avid talkers, thanks to Skype and other advances in technology.

Molly, Mary and Jo in 2011

So it seems fitting that I am traveling on my own to England once again. This time for the sole purpose of visiting my friends. I know they have both been planning excursions, cooking up a storm, and scheming for the duration of my visit. And I can't wait to be back in Jolly Olde England, a place that won my heart that year I lived there (and the subsequent graduate year I finagled just to be able to return). But it's really all about the people. I can absorb my fill of ordered green countryside with its rambling stone walls and hedgerows, drink an abundance of properly brewed tea with milk and take in the ancient buildings while in their company.

I have no fear of running out of things to say. We have forty years of memories to draw upon, share and compare. Gaps to fill. Family and career moves to relate. I know it will be like we saw each other just yesterday. These are lifelong friends.