Sunday, August 21, 2011

Road Trip

Four Corners
Eighteen years ago, in April, I, my three month old daughter Melissa and her father traveled by car from Illinois to Arizona to make a new home. Her father left Arizona two years ago, and she stayed with me. Recently, I drove with Melissa to Kansas City, Missouri, so that she could drive to Virginia with her father to attend college in Washington, D.C. He flew in to met her and I flew back to Phoenix by myself. It was like we had come full circle, but in a different way that I had anticipated.

I initially dreaded this trip. It was 1,400 miles. The S.U.V. had 100,000 miles on it and had been in two accidents. My daughter had wanted to do it in two days, but I refused. It made me tired just to think about it. I didn’t know how well she would drive or if I would end up driving mostly myself. I was in my heaviest volume of ironman training and I had to fit in a six hour bike ride the day before and a three hour run the day after. It was also hot everywhere, since the rest of the United States decided to imitate Phoenix and be ungodly unbearable in the summer.

The first day, I had planned to drive to Cortez, Colorado in the southwest part of the state. It was a good thing that we took a S.U.V., because Melissa decided to bring her clothes, anime costumes, wigs on wig heads, most of her books, DVD’s, a ratty comforter, a sewing machine and a sewing dress form. I could barely fit my one suitcase in. At least we could see out the back, at my insistence. We both had MP3 players that we could use in the car instead of the radio, so that we could drive each other crazy with the other’s music.

I had the first leg, driving up to Flagstaff. I was kind of cranky and found driving up and down mountains on I-17 really annoying. I wanted it to be flat and clear of traffic and it wasn’t. I had just done this drive last weekend and I was tired of it. Where the hell did all these slow trucks and campers come from anyway? Why were they in my way? We stopped in Flagstaff for some lunch. I futilely tried to find somewhere decent to eat near the highway, but gave up and ate fast food instead. The joys of road traveling.

We went north through Indian country. Melissa admired the beauty of the mesas and rock formations. The afternoon light cast shadows in various faint rainbow hues on the distant ancient land. We had driven through this area in the winter for ski trips, but she was usually sullen and not engaged in the trip. She liked looking at the cows. She liked looking at the ruined buildings that inexplicably had large Indian heads painted on them. She had seen all this before why was she just noticing it now? It was like she was seeing with new eyes. I pointed out a verdant canyon with sheep grazing in it. She was delighted. She marveled that people living out here would go many miles just to get basic supplies when she was too lazy to sometimes drive three blocks to go to the bank. When you live in a large urban area, you forget that driving away places you in large empty areas that people actually live in.

I had a different take on the scenery. Despite the beauty, the landscape was empty in an oppressive way. It stretched for miles with little human habitations to interrupt the horizon. If we broke down, help was long way off, if we even had cell reception. I felt a little anxious.

We stopped in Kayenta for gas. Kayenta seemed like it had seen better days, if it ever had better days. It is the place where there is a Code Talkers exhibit at a Burger King. Tourist stop there on their way to Monument Valley. It had a dusty, desolate air, but it had a McDonald’s where my daughter could get a CafĂ© Mocha.

My daughter took a turn driving and I got to listen to her strange music. Korean pop, which I hated, Finnish rock, which I didn’t understand and oddly music from the Broadway play The Book of Mormon. Shocking to me, she actually had a few songs that I had.

She wanted to stop at the Four Corners monument, so I let her. I think this tourist trap is lame. It where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah meet, but it actually slightly off. It’s three dollars a pop, but at least it benefits the Indians. We took a few pictures, then continued on to Cortez. It was late afternoon and the light was orange on the mountains. The rocks reminded of ancient temples. It seemed unusual to see the Durango ski resort without snow.

We found our hotel and had food at a bad Mexican restaurant because we could walk to it. The first day of driving was done and we had survived. I had forgotten the rewards of road trips, which was seeing new places and getting away from my ordinary life. It seemed like a long time since a road trip wasn’t totally tedious. Traveling with my daughter was actually fun.

The next day’s trip was to Denver to stop at my niece’s house. Melissa wanted to stay south and head east, then head north. I assumed that the roads in southern Colorado were mostly flat. I was wrong. The road started weaving past rushing rivers and heading over mountains. River running must be a big industry here with all the river rapids. A section of the road went through Pagosa Springs. It looked like a touristy town with all the cutesy shops and people clogging the streets. I think there’s a brewery here. Too bad we didn’t have time to stop and explore the place. It looked interesting. Maybe road trips should be more leisurely once in a while.

With all the small towns, there was a surprising lack of gas stations and places to eat. The scenery was pretty with the forests and the mountains, but a pain to drive. Many campers got in my way. I was getting cranky wondering if there was any place to stop. The overloaded S.U.V. was sucking gas and moving like an overweight cow over the hills. Finally, we found a sandwich place and some overpriced gas.

Melissa took over driving. It was back to Korean pop. The drive was uneventful except for being forced off the freeway due to an accident. Luckily Denver is built on a grid and we could get back to where we wanted to go. We found my niece’s place after getting lost in a similarly named cul de sac. The streets circle around and you never seem to get where you want to go.

My niece is married and has a one year-old boy, a hyper dog and a neurotic cat. The boy likes to stack cans, then put them back again. He is mellow but changes mood instantly. I remember when Melissa was like that-changing moods, not stacking cans. We can’t understand his babble yet. He’s fun to watch, but I am glad I don’t have a small child anymore. They take all of your attention. I don’t have the energy anymore to deal with that.

The next day was six hundred miles, mostly in Kansas. We headed out of Denver, and it immediately looked like Kansas, even if it wasn’t. Maybe the Colorado border should have been at Denver so that Colorado could avoid all the monotony. The scenery was mostly empty rural land, with a slightly rolling fields. Few towns or even animals were to be seen on the highway. The first lunch stop was Limon at a McDonalds. Every little town seemed to have a McDonald’s. It’s was Sunday, so the little old ladies were dressed up like they just came from church. I tried to imagine life in a small rural town where your big social event was going to church, then McDonald’s. I can’t and I didn’t want to.

When we were leaving, my daughter told me that the church lady’s daughter made the most racist remark ever. A black man came into the place and church lady remarked that he had the blackest ever skin she had seen. Her daughter said “dark like a black monkey”. Melissa said she couldn’t believe that the lady would let her daughter talk like that. I wasn’t surprised, but the concept was new to her. I told her that my Kansas resident grandfather said when Martin Luther King was assassinated that “ the niggers were all going to rise up now”. That was over forty years ago, but prejudice still lingers in Limon, Colorado.
Why Black People May Seem Exotic in Limon

We hit Kansas. My cell phone magically lost another hour in the middle of no where. I have a bad attitude about Kansas. I don’t like flat and I don’t like wheat fields. My mother grew up in Kansas and she hated it, so I adopted some of that contempt. I think she found small town life boring and parochial. Usually I am traveling through Kansas to get to somewhere else. Maybe someday I will appreciate Kansas, but I doubt it.

Kansas was easy to drive in. One road , I-70, for 500 miles, with no turns. Clouds dogged us, but we didn’t get storms. Large expanses of green wheat fields were punctuated by the occasional group of trees and a house or two. Kansas seemed to think that Jesus needed to save us by the numerous signs stating so. I thought it was particularly funny that one was supplemented by “Pornography is evil” right next to what was probably the only adult store in Kansas. Also many signs proclaimed “Adoption, not Abortion”. Kansas seemed hard core conservative to me. Somehow my mother resisted this upbringing and became a fanatical Democrat to spite Kansas.

Kansas became more like Missouri after Topeka with rolling hills. Maybe this part of Kansas should be Missouri. I was hoping to see sunflowers fields, but I only saw the wild ones. I was getting really tired of feeding the S.U.V. gas, especially since it wasn’t my car. Melissa made the turn off for Kansas City and wondered if we were anywhere because it was just woods. We found the hotel, which was near the airport. The area had that airport air of desolation, where people spend the least amount of time to get somewhere else. The driving journey for me was done and I was happy. The cow had lumbered into town.

Unfortunately, I had to get up at 4:30, which was like 2:30 my time, to catch a flight back to Phoenix. Her father was going to meet her a little later. Getting up at an early time meant I couldn’t say goodbye to Melissa. I debated disturbing her, but figured I had better not since she likes sleeping and hates being woken up early. I felt a little guilty and sad. I wasn’t sure when I would see her again.

So while I was in the air going back to Phoenix, she was continuing the journey with her father to Virginia and her new life on the east coast. I don’t know if and when she will miss me. She starts college at the end of August. It’s inevitable that children will leave and forget about you. It just seems like a hole in my life with her gone.

Mountain Man Olympic Race Report

This was my third time for this race. It was a tune up for Ironman Canada. Since racing in Phoenix in the summer is impossible and possibly suicidal when it is ninety degrees before dawn, I am forced to go elsewhere in the summer to race. Flagstaff, which is a two hour drive from home is cool in the summer, if a person doesn't mind not having enough air to breath due to the seven thousand plus altitude. Lack of oxygen means I go slower at the same amount of effort at normal elevation. Higher elevation also means pine trees instead of cactus, which is a nice change.

It also makes the swim tricky.  I had a panic attack last year, so I had to hang onto a kayak gasping for air. The key is to keep the tight band around my chest from feeling like it's suffocating me. This means I have to start slow and maybe go faster if I don’t get into oxygen debt.

I stepped into the water to get warmed up. It felt a little chilly to me and dread crept into me. The water was a murky brown. The wind seemed to be picking up as I felt it on my face. The sunlight was soft and didn’t provide much warmth as yet.

My wave started last and everyone took off. Being relaxed staved off the panic. Most of the people got ahead of me, but I actually passed people who couldn’t handle the thin air. Getting to the first buoy is always the most difficult because it takes that long to get into a rhythm and feel at ease. The next buoy, which is far away, is the same green color as the swim caps ahead of me. Who was the genius who thought of that? The only way to distinguish it was by its lack of motion.

I felt chilled and the water was choppy, but the tight band constricting my chest was manageable. After swimming for two hours straight in training, swimming 15 kilometers was not a big deal. It wasn’t all that much fun, but it was bearable. I got out in about forty five minutes, which was slower than ninety percent of the swimmers, but I was not last. It’s actually better than the fifty three minutes I spent in the water last year, thrashing around and hanging onto kayaks.

I walked, not ran into transition to get my bike gear. Sometimes I can actually speed through transition, but today, I just didn’t feel like it. Walking up the ramp barefoot hurt my feet. The bike racks are of course empty, because everyone else finished swimming before me. I struggle out of my wetsuit, and put my shoes and helmet on and take off feeling a intense need to pee. The toilets are inconveniently located outside of transition, so I press on.

The blue sky had puffy clouds. The bike route followed the lakes, so I glimpsed the sparkling expanse of water as I passed by. Masses of yellow wildflowers line the road. The road went downhill, then started to climb. With all of the hill training I have been doing, the terrain seemed easier than it had in the past. Lack of oxygen is less problematic on the bike. After nine miles, a giant hill looms to crush anyone attempting to ride it. It’s fun to descend at thirty five miles per hour or more, but I had to pay for it.

I get near the turn off for the half iron people. I feel sorry for anyone fool hardy enough to attempt that distance at this altitude. There isn’t much in the way of aid stations for them on the bike. A person is basically on their own to stew in their own suffering.

I found my pre-mixed nutrition drink too diluted and not helping my energy. I had nothing else to eat and I started getting really tired. After the fun of screaming down the hill, the way back seem longer and longer. On the way back, I was delighted to see a turkey near the road. I contemplated how I am going to handle the pit stop and decided to crawl under the fence when I got into transition. I don’t want to wait until I was a mile on the run because it sucks to run with a full bladder. I finished in about an hour and a half, which was decent for me.

I rolled into transition, changed shoes and dove under the fence and ran into a porta potty. What a relief. I dove back under the fence and started on the run. I found a gel in my fanny pack and sucked the vile tasting thing down, that has the consistency of mucus. I felt pretty bad. After a mile the run goes up an eight percent grade. I started a run/ until I felt terrible, then walk until I could run again. Then I found a chocolate gel in my pack. It was nirvana. My energy came back again. I reached the top of the hill and finally it was time to run down the hill. It turned out it took me as much time to run/walk up the hill as it did to run it in a previous race. Plus I had energy to pick up speed at the end. With one mile to go, I got my feet to move just a little faster. That mile seemed really long. The finish line was a relief. I felt like I had been hit by a bus when I stopped running.

I can’t say that this is the worse or the best that I have done in this race. Two weeks out from an ironman, I wasn’t going to go all out, but I didn’t slack off either. It’s a tough, unpredictable event. I put aside my expectations on results and just did it. I didn’t place in my age group and I was back of the pack. It was fun, scenic and it hurt. Me versus the terrain and altitude. That’s all that mattered.