Thursday, February 28, 2013

40 Days

It's the Season of Lent, a period of time that's probably best known by many folks for its "give-ups." As in, "I'm going to give up chocolate and beer. What are you going to give up?" Now, in reality, there's nowhere in scripture or any other real church document where Hershey bars are specifically mentioned. Ditto soda pop, cookies or even those miniature Snickers that often haunt my dreams.  But it isn't going to hurt me--or anyone else, for that matter--to make some simple sacrifices during the 40 days that lead up to Easter, right?
But what about the length of Lent? Why not three weeks? Or six months? What's so special about 40 days?
The word “lent” simply means "spring," and derives from the Germanic root word for “long,” because, in spring, the days begin to get longer.  For some of us, Lent starts when we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday (which are made from palms used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday) to remind us that it is a time for repentance and humility, as in the scriptural phrase: "Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return."  Lent is a time when we should remember and anticipate the sacrifice Jesus made for all of us, while we prepare for the great joy we feel at His resurrection and rebirth at Easter.  The quick answer to my question concerning the whole 40 day thing is that Jesus spent 40 days fasting and battling satan, who tried to tempt him into choosing a life of power and success instead of the self-sacrificing path he ultimately took with us in mind. Go back further into the Old Testament, and the 40s really fly. For instance, Noah and his family floated through a rain storm that lasted 40 days and 40 nights.  Moses spent 40 days up on Mount Sinai receiving the 10 Commandments from a talking bush. And the Israelites wandered around the desert for a whopping 40 years, which would be an exceedingly long time to go without chocolate chip cookies or ice cream sundaes.
What all these 40-something events had in common was that they were the more-than-challenging preludes for something new, some sort of rebirth, that would change the world.
We were visiting my sister and her family during the first few days of Lent, and talked about the interesting coincidence of so many 40-esque happenings leading up to so many wonderful new things. Finally, one of us went online to see if we had missed any.
We had.
In the midst of those great, glorious stories about arks and Israelites and a Son and a Savior, was a reminder of one other tiny tale about new life and great joy.
Because here's the thing: It takes just about 40 weeks for a human baby to grow in his mother's womb. 40 weeks to be born. 40 weeks to begin to change the world.
Gee, it's almost like someone planned it that way.
Go figure.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Going to the dogs

Some people never learn.
Apparently, I'm one of them, as evidenced by a recent round of activities that started with a visit to son Colin and his family near the northwestern edge of Minnesota, just across the icy Red River of the North from frozen Fargo, ND.  In last week's column, I told the story of the blizzard that caught us there, while singing the praises of the stouthearted northerners who worked together to dig out their snowbound city.  You'd think that after that cataclysmic blast of high winds, low temps and oodles and oodles of snow, we'd wise up and head south--way south--before winter grabbed us in its icy grip again.
Yeah, that's what you'd think. But you'd be wrong.
Instead, our next destination had to do with one of the ill-advised "bucket list" items that tumble through my head when I've got nothing better to do or think about.
"Gee, I'd sure like to go see that some day," I mused, while looking at a well-worn sweatshirt I received long ago from my sister. On the front of the garment is a stylized image of a dog running beneath a full moon. Underneath are these words: "Midnight Run Dog Sled Championship."
The Midnight Run is one of three dog sled races held in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan every February. First and foremost is the U.P. 200, an Iditarod qualifying race that's been run since 1990. It's one of  America’s premier 12-dog, mid-distance sled dog races and draws mushers from around the United States and Canada. The race covers approximately 240 miles from Marquette, Michigan to Grand Marais and back on a trail that includes stretches of near-wilderness, creek crossings, hills and valleys, and heavily forested land, along with cheering crowds and warm welcomes at every checkpoint along the way. The Midnight Run is an 80-mile race for top-flight eight-dog teams wanting to compete on a technically challenging trail, while the Jack Pine 30 is, I guess, the 30-mile doggy equivalent of a "fun run" for those hearty mushers and their canine companions.
I was probably somewhere warm, dry and sunny when I declared my desire to check out the races, but nonetheless, the idea stuck in my otherwise-empty head, so we made plans to go that way after our Minnesota visit. For those unfamiliar with northwoods geography, this meant over 600 miles to Minnesota from Galva, then another 500 through the lakes region to Duluth, continuing through upper Wisconsin's South Range, past ski hills, deep woods and mountain ranges, through reservation lands, and via frozen lakefront vistas littered with ice huts and snowmobile trails. After a two-day jaunt, we reached the Iron Range of Marquette, home of both the race and my sister and her family, who have lived their lives along the big lake for decades.  We started our married life in the Upper Peninsula, spending our first winter in a log cabin on the shores of Lake Superior. I've never gotten over my love for that wild, isolated, beautiful part of the world, even in winter, when the landscape is often frozen and stark, though still quite striking. And cold. Very cold, indeed, when the north winds blow.
But the welcome was warm, and soon, the day of the event arrived. Both the "big races"--the UP 200 and the Midnight Run--start in downtown Marquette, with the 200-miler beginning around seven p.m. and the Midnight Run following at nine.  While our main plan was to watch the mushers and their teams as they traveled past the first checkpoint, which is located approximately six miles down the trail at the church my sister and her family attend, we were anxious to see the start of the race, as well. The air temperature was about twelve degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived downtown, with a wind chill that hovered at around five below, leading us to an important discovery: Those boots that serve us well enough in Illinois aren't nearly warm enough for real winter conditions, especially the dressy models she wore, which I laughingly called her "Malibu Barbie Fashion Boots." But despite toes that nearly froze, we saw the exciting start of the first race, which included 30 sled dog teams. In doing so, I also came to realize that my preconceived notion as to the kind of dogs who participate in these grueling wintertime excursions was all wrong.  Admittedly, my prior experience with sled dogs has been limited to movies and repeated TV episodes of "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon," which was a Saturday morning mainstay when I was a kid. Ergo, I expected the dog teams to be made up solely of magnificent Husky and Malamute dogs with names like King, Chief and Rex. And while there were some of those powerful, well-furred beasts present, there were a surprising number of rather ordinary looking, short-haired dogs hitched to sleds as well. Dogs who looked like they probably bore names like Steve, Ralph and Peggy Sue. But that's why you go and see things for yourself. That's how you learn.
After watching the first few teams make their way down the snow-packed city street and onto the trail, we headed for the checkpoint after a quick stop for warmer boots and another layer of clothing. My sister Mary, her husband, Jim, and their three Girl Scout granddaughters were all volunteers, who provided food and warmth to the crowds gathered to watch the teams pass. I thought, perhaps, that some of the teams would stop at that first marker along the route, but it was, of course, much too soon to consider a break from the long, cold trail ahead. A giant bonfire provided warmth for many of the watchers, who gathered along the abandoned railway bed that serves as the trail in that section of the run.  Away from the lights of the city, the only sign of the approaching sled teams were the single headlamps worn by the mushers.
"Clear the track," a race official would call.
Out of the woodsy darkness, each team appeared, running easily after the mad dash at the beginning of the race. Aside from some quiet panting and the jingle of the harness, they made not a sound, in stark contrast to the frenzied barks and excited howls that had preceded the race. Ahead lay darkness and deep woods. Up to ten inches of new snow had fallen up the trail, promising tough sledding and a long night ahead.
Then they were gone.
"Wow," she said. "I'm glad we do these things."
A couple of days later, we finished the last leg of the nearly 1700 mile triangle that had taken us to Minnesota, Upper Michigan and down through Wisconsin and Chicago on the way home. It rained hard for the last hour or so, then quickly turned into a wet, pelting snow that covered the ground almost immediately.  Later that night, the lights flickered several times, then, finally, went out for good.
We crawled into bed, pulling up an extra blanket in case the power stayed out for the entire night. The mad cat Max, who had, once again, sensed our arrival and waited for us, snuggled close between us and purred.  Outside, the wind blew and the snow fell. All was quiet. I thought the same thought to myself.
I'm glad we do these things, too.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Every snowbird has his day

I glanced out our back door the other day and was startled to see a full-fledged flock of robins desultorily pecking away at the half-frozen mix of mud, ice and snow that is our wintertime backyard.
"What the heck do they think they're doing here?" I exclaimed.
"They're kinda like us," she replied sagely. "Misguided snowbirds."
It's true, I'm not sure even I understand why we would choose to drive north during this wintry time of year. But, the fact is, we were more than a little anxious to see son Colin and his family after a holiday season spent away from them. So, after three weeks in Galva, where we hung with our peeps, did a few household chores and generally toughened up to the cold, wet realities of winter, we headed to northwestern Minnesota, despite the fact that blizzard-like conditions were forecast for the weekend we were to arrive.
It figures.
I mean, if you're going to do something crazy, you might as well do it in spectacular fashion. So why not drive directly into the teeth of a 10-inch, 40-mile-per-hour maelstrom?  Truth be told, I think we both were kind of looking forward to a real dose of winter, just as long as we didn't have to drive through too much of it or shovel any of it.  So we weren't sorry to see the first new flakes begin to fly early Sunday morning, nor did we mind it when the storm began to take hold later that day, even joining the kids and dogs for a few slides down a nearby sledding hill as the wind began to blow in earnest.
I had forgotten just how exciting it is when a really, really big snow results in a snow day, a relatively rare occurrence for these intrepid, winter-hardened northlanders. Even our smart-and-pretty college prof daughter-in-law squealed like a nine year old when the wondrous word came down, while our high-school-aged granddaughter immediately set about rearranging her complex social calendar, and the rest of us began planning menus for the steady intake of calories we'd need to survive the snowbound day.
I had also forgotten just how it goes in the real north when a big snow hits. There's a kind of esprit de corps that shows up as a veritable hive of snow-attacking activity. Suddenly, the snowhelmed street outside Colin and Geri's house was remarkably transformed on the morning after the storm, with roaring squadrons of snowblowers and battalions of shovel-wielding neighbors clearing driveways, digging out walks and extricating cars buried deep in the wet, heavy white stuff. One by one, those vehicles were shoved, shoveled and broken loose from the icy grasp of the wind-swept snow, spinning and careening through drifts and ditches towards the relatively easy going of the through street at the end of the block. The first sight of a single dedicated mail carrier marked a cheerful beginning to a new sense of normalcy, while the long-awaited appearance of a city snowplow weaving its way down their narrow residential street was greeted with the same great glee as a low-flying cargo plane dropping care packages to a starving populace.
But, here's the thing.
As I watched them work and worry and sweat and shiver in their common effort, I got the feeling that these folks up here really do have something important figured out when winter hits hard:
They're all in it together.
And that's a good thing.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The full measure of a man

Our most recent visit to our beloved home in Galva has been, as always, both wonderful and typical. We've loved seeing the friends and faces we always miss when we're not here. We've quickly gotten back into the swing of our regular hometown activities, like basketball games, trips to the library, meetings, and lunches and get-togethers with our favorite folks.
That's the good news.
The other news. which any experienced husband or other poor home-owning sap can easily confirm, is that there's always something to do around here, a universal situation that has existed ever since that first stone-age wife turned to her hubby and said, "We really need to do something about this cave."
It all started this time when she set her sights on a couple of rooms that even I, the king of procrastination, will admit have been sorely neglected in the decades we've lived here.  One is an upstairs laundry room that had been the kitchen of one of the garden apartments that were once located in the back of our home. When we bought the place, we converted the downstairs apartment into a family area, and the upstairs set of rooms into a sort of suite that now includes a bedroom, a small bathroom and a cozy sitting room. The tiny galley kitchen was easily converted into a handy laundry room by replacing one kind of appliances with another.  It's always been a dream come true having a washer and dryer conveniently located near the bedrooms where--back in the day--our sons constantly shed and ignored clothing like a pair of fast-growing reptilians slithering out of their skins.  A coat of paint, a touched-up floor and some new shelving pretty much put paid to that project, releasing us to pursue the crowning jewel in this latest round of home improvements, a small pantry located just off our kitchen. I'm not sure if one of the former owners of our home was prone to wild hallucinations, burdened with colorblindness, or just endowed with a total disregard for taste, style and color selection, but the space was remarkable in that it featured pink-painted walls, mottled pink-and-grey flooring, narrow brown-and-white contact-papered shelves and crazy pink-patterned linoleum wainscoting on all four walls.  For years, we pretty much ignored the ghastly little room, using it to store cooking and baking supplies and essentials like cereal, flour, crock pots and canned goods. But with an upcoming kitchen remodeling plan in the works, we felt like something--finally--had to give. After a shared round of pink-hued demolition, she painted, while I measured and planned for the new floor, light fixture and shelves I would install.
That's right. Measured.
You know, I've always kind of admired those guys who have well-ordered workshops. You know, those tidy little spaces where there's a place for everything and everything in its place.
I am, suffice it to say, not one of those guys.
But as I grow a little older and wiser, I have begun to see some point in trying to organize it all into some semblance of order.  So as I worked on my portion of the ugly little room project, I also embarked on the halfhearted sort, pitch, gather and store process I grumpily pursue every time I'm confronted with my work bench and the piles of stuff that surround it. As I did, I discovered that I have quite a marvelous collection of tools and trappings down there, including the following:
Seven hammers, 39 screwdrivers of various styles and sizes, nine pairs of pliers (I'm not counting the wrenches), four staple guns, including an electric stapler/nailer that remains encased in the plastic package it came in many years ago, adequate extension cords to allow me to plug into my rented beach home in North Carolina, which is 1,027 miles away, and enough miscellaneous bolts, screws, staples and nails to sink a ship or build a boat. Easily.
But the biggest bit of overabundance that baffles me the most is due to my apparent life-long love of tape measures.
My recent dig through my tool collection revealed that I've got eight of them. And I can't really be sure there aren't a few more tucked away here and there. I suppose it's just one of those things. I probably bought a couple of them because I really needed them. The rest were possibly gifts or panic buys when I wasn't sure if I could really find one at home. The good news is that its all a part of a wonderful inheritance awaiting our two sons someday. I mean, I can rest easy in the thought that they'll never lack for a hammer, screwdriver or--you guessed it--a tape measure.
But in the meantime, the next time you need to know how long, wide or tall anything is, or anytime you have anything to measure at all, think of me. Give me a call, even.
When it comes to measuring, I'm your man.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The roads not taken

If you are, like me, a map lover, the idea of depending solely on a fancy cell phone or dash-mounted device to get from Point A to Point B is less than inspiring. The difference between me and those gadget-loving geeks was neatly illustrated several months ago when, while we were in residence at our part-time North Carolina digs, I ran into a young couple who had just arrived from the midwest for a visit.
"How'd you get here?" I asked him, thinking we might settle into a long, intensely interesting (to me) conversation about the pros and cons of the various routes and mountain crossings involved in the trip from Illinois to the Old North State.
"Gee, I don't know," he replied. "I just turned when the GPS told me to."
I was almost as horrified as if he had said he had been speeding along those those rolling plains and breathtaking mountain passes with a fast-food carryout bag pulled over his head.
I mean, where's your sense of adventure? Where's your sense of curiosity?
Where's your sense?
As far as I can see, putting oneself entirely at the mercy of a soulless system that's an electro-glitch away from cyber-oblivion is pretty much tantamount to walking the Mohave Desert barefoot or creeping through the Great Dismal Swamp overnight without benefit of headlights.
Risky business, indeed. And not much fun, either.
But, O.K., kids, the rant is over.
Fact is, I, too, kind of take advantage of technology when planning a trip, whether it's a cross-country cruise or a quick daytrip to somewhere nearby. Because like many, I often use Google maps to figure out my potential routes. Now, online mapping and directional help is nothing new, and no big deal, I know. But there's a subtle little feature on the Google version, neatly buried under the "show options" tab that I really like.
It's called "avoid highways."
Click on that little sucker, and a dull, interstate-driven disaster can be magically transformed into a quaint, educational ramble through the cities, towns and villages that used to be mainstays of the major two-lane routes that crisscrossed our region, state and country. Ergo, the "avoid highways" route from Galesburg to, say, Denver returns to those engaging days of yesteryear, whereby the intrepid traveler got to enjoy the sights, sounds and flavors of great places like Bloomfield, Iowa; Maryville, Missouri; Beatrice, Nebraska and Strasburg, Colorado. Now, I realize that a chance for a milkshake in Maryville or a burger in Beatrice is not necessarily everyone's dream come true, but you've got to admit, there's something to be said for an alternative to the lengthy gauntlet of bad food, dull landscapes and dangerous traffic that is Interstate 80. And while the total estimated travel time is a scant three hours more over the entire journey, the actual mileage from Mother Burg to the Mile-High City is less, with the added advantage of an opportunity to actually see something besides billboards, stale donuts and the hard-charging vehicle in your rear view mirror.  Even shorter jaunts, like the trip to Chicago, can be perked up by following one of the several historic routes to the Windy City that still exist from back in the days when Dan Ryan was just the name of a Chicago politician.  Take highway 34, the iconic roadway that is now also known as the Walter Payton Memorial Highway, and was once part of the historic Cannonball Trail and the so-called "hard road" as it passed through my Galva hometown back before the days of the interstate highways. Today, it's mostly an easygoing country drive as it takes you through a neat variety of small towns and cities as it roughly follows the route of the old CB&Q railway that was the real reason that many of those towns came to be in the first place. And while traffic can still get a little crazy once you hit the western suburbs, Ogden Avenue can provide an interesting look at some of Chicago's old neighborhoods and architecture as you pass through on your way to downtown. It's not always the fastest way to get there, I admit, but if you've ever bumped your way through the myriad of always-under-construction chunks of I-80 between here and there, or battled the Chicago freeway system at rush hour, it's not a bad way to go.
And that's the thing about backroads travel. Those original U.S. Highways, state routes and blacktop byways might not always seem to fit our universal need for speed. But they are the one true way to see a little bit of the America we all seem to be missing nowadays. And that's worth the trip.
You just gotta go look.