The Pool Story

The pool in question - 1950s

The Centennial Park Pool – 1950s

In the middle of the summer of 1961, Kwame “Leo” Lillard and his friend Matthew Walker each took a towel and 25-cents to the public pool at Nashville’s Centennial Park. Their intention was to go swimming , as dozens of their fellow Nashvillians were already doing just beyond the entrance gates. The young men, both college students and veterans of the sit-in movement of the previous year, were asked to leave. That afternoon, July 18, all the public pools in Nashville were drained and closed due to “financial concerns.” All pools remained closed for two years, and many of them were never reopened.

I have heard Mr. Lillard share this story more than once, most recently this past Friday with a group of third, fourth, and fifth-graders from my home church. Mr. Lillard tells it well – he makes his eyes wide and slowly pulls his thumb and pinky to his face as an imaginary phone, mimicking the expression and actions of the panicked cashier facing these black men who wanted to swim in the nicest pool in town. He speeds up the tempo as the cashier calls the supervisor, the supervisor asks Lillard and Walker what they think they’re doing, the supervisor calls the Mayor, and the Mayor gives an order to close all the pools in the city. In fact, when Mr. Lillard tells this story, it always gets a laugh. A laugh!

I laugh, too; I have two theories regarding that reaction. The first paints activists with a broad brush, but I believe it to be true – you can’t fight for a better world unless you love it, and you can’t love the world if you don’t have a sense of humor and irony about this place and us humans. The Gospel does not exactly depict it, but I am confident that my favorite activist – Jesus Christ – was also quick to laughter.

The second reason Lillard’s story about the pool at Centennial Park gets a laugh is because it strikes modern audiences as utterly absurd. Black people want to swim somewhere besides Hadley Park, and the only course of action the city can come up with is to shut it all down? What sort of logic is that? What can we do but look back through the lens of the ensuing decades and laugh at that cashier, that supervisor, that mayor, Ben West, who could never quite get a political handle on segregation? How ridiculous they must have looked! How easy it was for a couple college kids to throw them for a loop!

Mr. Lillard told his story to the children from my church last Friday, June 5. I had been asked to give them a Civil Rights Tour of Nashville, and I knew that the pool story would resonate with these kids, most of whom would themselves be taking a dip in some clear, blue chlorinated water that weekend. We love our swimming pools in Nashville, especially on my side of town, where the only lake is in a protected natural area – no swimming allowed.

After the tour was over, the Children’s Minister and I stood in the hallway at church rehashing the day. We returned to the story of the closed pools. “How does that happen?” we asked each other. How does a hot, humid city like Nashville lose its pools for two full summers and no one (except Lillard) tell the story? And how on earth could anyone have thought closing the pools was okay? Why did it take so long to open them back up? What were the white people of fifty years ago so afraid of?

I suppose it was right about the time of our conversation – 3 p.m. – that school was letting out for the summer in Dallas. Tatiana Rhodes and her mother were getting ready for a cookout and swim party in their subdivision. Exactly what happened between that afternoon and 7:15, when Cpl. Eric Casebolt came on the scene and a 15-year-old named Brandon Brooks whipped out his cell phone is unknown; I refuse to speculate. I only know what I saw, and I saw that white people are still afraid. Every black teenager in that video is a threat, even though the neighborhood is only about 70% white. The pool had been overrun, not by partying teenagers jumping fences (which teenagers are known to do) but by dangerous outsiders.

This country is not the place it was 54 years ago, when the mayor of a major Southern city decided that closing every last pool was preferable to acknowledging the humanity of an entire group of Americans. The story is met with laughter, and anyone who tried something similar today would encounter universal horror and outrage (Fox News anchors notwithstanding). But the truth is this – As I type this at 2 p.m. on a summer afternoon, thousands of kids are swimming. If I took a run past the public pool about a mile from my house, I’d see mostly black children. If I ran up the ridge to the nearest private pool, I’d see mostly white children. By “mostly,” I don’t mean 60%, I mean “almost entirely with perhaps an exception here or there.”

Private pools and backyard pools flourished in the 1960s, when people like Lillard and Walker were working to desegregate the public pools. That initial white flight established the social order we follow today.

When I started this blog last summer, my intention was to make it “non-controversial” – easy fare that would allow you, my readers, to consider the ways we interact with each other. I’m realizing that discussing race and class more directly is non-controversial. It would be impossible to argue that Chattanooga, a city I truly love, is not divided.

Here are some questions I have – How and why do we “race space?” How do we establish that certain areas are off-limits? That certain people are not the ones we will talk to? I am certainly not above it myself. I go to Miller Plaza, not Miller Park. I eat at Champy’s, not Wafflez Factory. I get my hair cut on the Northshore, even though there are 5 or 6 salons closer to my home.

Another question relates to our recent Best Ever…Award. Why is the outdoor culture of Chattanooga so predominantly white or, in the case of the pools, segregated?

I still intend to talk to people, write essays about them, and share how they see their neighborhoods and their lives. I still hope to look at the things we celebrate here – neighbors, friendships, the mountains, etc. I’ll do some of my interviewing through my runs, like I did last year, but the focus will be on how we both connect and separate ourselves in this small city where the mountains literally push all the classes and races on top of each other.

So, Crossing Paths is back for the summer. I hope you like it. Spread the word and check back soon. If you’re reading this at a pool, enjoy yourself, but take a moment to look around and wonder.


King’s Hope, the New Year, and a Mountain

Jan. 1, 2015: The view from the top.

Jan. 1, 2015: The view from the top.

As of today, 2015 is only 19 days old and we are remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose life and teachings are as relevant now as they ever were. (If you don’t believe me, move beyond the quotes popping up in your news feed and read a book. Globally, there have been terrorist attacks in France and Nigeria. Locally, Chattanooga is dealing with a spate of shootings, not to mention the untimely death of an icon of the running community. The past two weeks have, no doubt, crushed the new year’s initial shot of optimism rather thoroughly for many of us. The thing about a blank slate is that it doesn’t stay that way for long, and a new year is not a magical renewal.

 It’s too early to give up on 2015, however, and I’m pretty determined not to allow the violent and hateful actions of a few to speak for the rest of us. That was Rev. King’s overarching message, really. The man was able to look into the face of total systemic despair and not only see hope, but act on it. 

So, here’s another journal entry (cleaned up and augmented a little for clarity’s sake) written after my New Year’s Day run. I meant to publish it much sooner, and then I abandoned it altogether because the year doesn’t seem so new any more. Reading it again, I do want to post it, just to remind myself of why I run and who I think we humans are.

Jan 2, 2015

Yesterday morning, I ran up Signal Mountain on the famous W-Road,  so named because three switchbacks at the top call to mind the shape of the letter. This is apparently a New Year’s Day tradition for the Chattanooga Track Club – something they’ve done for the past 25 years or so.

We convened “where the K-Mart used to be” on Mountain Creek Road, and I was feeling none too confident because the entire Signal Mountain High track team seemed to be there, along with a news crew and a number of well-known and fast local runners. At the same time, the obvious fact that I would not be keeping up with most of the participants increased my resolve to run at my own pace.

Initially, most everyone passed me, but as the climb continued, I began reeling folks back in. Now, the W-Road Run is not a race, and I wasn’t trying to pass people, it’s just that I’d decided my goal was to run the whole thing, and to do that I was going to have to maintain a steady pace, which I seemed, much to my delight and surprise, to actually be doing.

The first mile went quickly, and then the road flattened out in teasing imitation of a summit reached. A break in the trees revealed both how far we’d climbed and how far below the towering bluffs at the brow we really were. I started my usual mind games – estimating how long I’d been running and how much was left, converting it all to how many walks to work or runs on the Guild Trail would be equivalent to the time remaining. I do this kind of mental gymnastics all the time when I’m running.

But then I realized it was silly. If I enjoy running, I should enjoy it, not wish it away. And there I was, on the first day of a new year, running up a freakin’ mountain. Occasionally, there was a break in the trees and I could see everything to the east stretching out alongside me. The new year had dawned especially clear, and I am certain that the highest peaks I could see were all the way in North Carolina, and maybe even the Smokies. The last run I wrote about took me mere feet from people’s living rooms, all decked out for Christmas, and I reflected on the inherent goodness and value of individuals. This run up the W Road took me away from everything. As I ran, I knew I was looking out on a space occupied by hundreds, if not thousands, of people, but I couldn’t see them at all, nor any marker of them besides US 27 and an occasional truck or car winding its way through the valley. I’ve realized since that the two runs represent the Christmas and Epiphany season and what I should try to carry from them. First, the value of each individual in the eyes of God, and, second, the incomprehensible vastness and beauty of the entire operation.

The road became quite steep again, curving its way through the final mile and up to the famous hairpin curves at the top. I didn’t have the energy for thoughts of God at that point, but I tried not to slip into mind games either.

While I was practicing being present, I became aware of strength in ways I’ve heard other runners describe, but never exactly experienced for myself. I don’t feel particularly strong during races – I’m either running conservatively due to injury or I’m pushing myself to the point of collapse. When I cross a finish line, I don’t feel so much the thrill of accomplishment as happy that I can stop. That’s just the way I am. But as I ran up Signal, this strength took shape in the realization that I was absolutely going to continue running. I wasn’t going to stop, wasn’t going to wish the experience away, and wasn’t going to beat myself up to the point where I needed a breather.

So I ran the whole way. The last surge up to the top felt like it was so steep I could touch the road in front of me. I don’t think that was actually possible, but that’s how it seemed. From the crest, we still had about two miles to go, but the view off to the east helped those miles pass by rather quickly.

At the end of the run was an old log cabin with a potluck spread inside. So, yes, I think that running up a mountain to a log cabin, drinking coffee, and eating ham and biscuits while meeting new people is a pretty good way to start 2015.

I’m trying to avoid trite conclusions like “Making change is like running up a mountain!” Martin Luther King’s ideas were far more complex and important. I do love mountains, though, and I think Rev. King must have too. I can see the Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, of his “I Have A Dream” speech from my study. The last speech he ever gave is remembered as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Mountains expand our vision. They bring strength and solace. So many runners praise a community that makes it possible for us to accomplish that which we think we can’t. Rev. King was all about community, as well. I think hope for any sort of change, from the deeply personal to the highly global, always starts with us looking at the communities we belong to. I hope you all had a meaningful Martin Luther King holiday, and I hope we can all continue to focus on hope and change as we move through 2015. Run well. 


Thoughts from a Christmas Run


I never intended for Crossing Paths to be only a summer project, but the demands of the school year and a couple paying writing gigs (yay!) pulled me away from the blog. I’m still running, though. A recent night run through a neighborhood decorated for Christmas inspired these thoughts in my journal: 

I ran along with the headlamp illuminating the gravel path directly ahead of my feet and I got to thinking about form, as I often do. I focused on lifting my legs from the hips and leaning forward at the ankles. I could hear my footfalls on the path and my breath, even and calm. Then, I got to thinking about my heart as an engine moving me along, how it was the work my heart was doing that propelled me first into the light thrown out by a home, then darkness, and then the light of another home where, to anyone looking out the window, I was nothing but the clean, white glow of a headlamp going by in a matter of seconds. I thought then about how all the people I was running past with their Christmas lights thrown up against the darkness have their own hearts and the things that warm them. And then I thought about how, despite all the terrible things we humans do to each other, we all have this engine, this kernel of warmth within us. C.S. Lewis says that this kindness is evidence of God – we cling to moral and ethical standards, and when we are cruel or worse, we feel an impulse to justify ourselves against a moral code but never abandon it. We all try to be good, but we are so fragile in every sense – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Still, we move along through the year, and at Christmas, we buy strings of 10-cent, colored lights. We create special spaces to gather with those we love, and we are kind to strangers. And I really don’t know if that is God, but maybe it is.

Merry Christmas. 

Lookout Mountain Part 3 of 3: On Porches, Backyards, and Chance Encounters

On this last day of summer (at least culturally), I’m thinking of porches and Part Three of my Lookout Mountain essay, which I left unfinished when the school year came crashing in two weeks ago.

Early in the summer, I took my camera and notebook on a run through Highland Park, a neighborhood generally thought of as working class or “in transition.” I had no problem finding people to speak with. It was a hot Sunday afternoon, but as the cool air of evening moved in, more and more neighbors came onto their porches and into the streets. By the time I ran home, I was one person amidst a throng of kids racing on scooters and bikes, and women talking over fences, and men grilling dinner. At most houses, the front porch was a hub of activity.

Later in the summer, I headed up Lookout Mountain with camera and notebook, once again seeking that hour when afternoon turned to evening and everyone headed outside.

As I ran from the Incline, to Point Park, to the Sunset Rock trailhead and back, I passed three couples walking their dogs and spoke with one. If I’d wanted to, I could have interviewed a number of people who’d driven to the trailhead, and I certainly had my pick of tourists at the Incline. What I did not see was what I had seen so much of in Highland Park. No one who was outside just to be outside. No one was taking in the evening air and waiting to wave to passersby. No one had a bottle of beer or a glass of wine in one hand and a magazine in the other while they sat on a porch swing.

In fact, no one was on a front porch at all because the rambling, idyllic homes I ran past did not have front porches. There were a few corner porches, but no porches that stretch all the way across the front of a home, have enough space for some furniture and a grill, and are ubiquitous in Highland Park.

My first thought was that the homes didn’t have front porches because the backyards have the stunning mountain views, thereby making a front porch sort of pointless. However, by this logic, all the homes on the other side of the street should have had front porches, which they didn’t. I couldn’t have random interactions with the residents of the brow on Lookout because their homes and yards were designed in such a way that only family and invited guests would see them.

As I write this, I fear I might be sounding a little judge-y (how dare those rich people retire to the privacy of their backyards in the evening!), but that’s not my intention at all. I’m just thinking about how and why we organize space the way we do, and how that impacts our social lives and interactions.

The popular story here in the South is that air conditioning ruined everything. Before air conditioning, everyone sat on their porches and everyone knew and took care of their neighbors. After air conditioning, we all stayed inside, and now no one knows their neighbors, plus we’re all horribly obese and addicted to the video games and Southern culture has been irreparably destroyed (swoon onto the couch in dismay). It’s not that simple though. The homes on Lookout and the homes in Highland Park were all built before air conditioning was invented.

                  Then perhaps socioeconomic class determines your motivation for porch-sitting, right? Blue collar folks don’t schedule their lives down to every minute, and they aren’t so buttoned up that you can’t just show up at their house for a visit. They’re more inclined to value a good porch. However, this logic doesn’t take neighborhoods like Red Bank and Hixson into account – where there are plenty of brick homes with Trane units bringing climate-controlled comfort and not a front porch to be seen. Frankly, if I spent my workday mowing yards or installing bathroom sinks or working in a factory, I wouldn’t want to do anything but sit in the cold or warmth for the rest of the day. As it is, I work in a sealed box and I can’t wait to get home and drink ice water or coffee in my faux Adirondack chair while feeling the sun or a breeze on my skin.

I’m sure that someone has done a study on the demographics of front-porch sitting, I just haven’t found it (and I’ve been looking, trust me). Porches are what we English majors would call a “liminal space” – a spot that is neither public, engaged world nor the private home. Front porches are usually my favorite place to be, but even I mostly sit in my back yard these days as there’s too much traffic going past my front yard all the time and some construction has blocked my view. I’m just struck by how the construction of the different homes in Highland Park and on Lookout Mountain affected the types of interactions I had.

I could go on about porches, bungalows, ranchers, and mansions, not to mention the Lookout Mountain woman in her front yard who told me she didn’t have any time to talk, but I do believe you all have caught my drift – we don’t all approach our time at home in the same ways. What are your experiences with porches and patios? What do you expect from your home and your neighbors? I’d love to hear. Share away in the comments.

Missionary Ridge Road Race: Another Impressionistic Race Report

View from the last turn toward the finish line.

View from the last turn toward the finish line.

Since I took the time to report on a race which was 2,100 miles from my front door, I figured I should also write about a race that was barely a mile away. My home backs up to Missionary Ridge and even when I was not much of a runner, I always felt I should enter this race. I never did because 1) It’s in August 2) It has some sort of mythical “huge climb” that I kept hearing about. 3) It’s in freakin’ August. August is my January, really – mostly a month of torpor and misery. But this August comes during my summer of running, plus the race is actually in my backyard. I really had no excuses, and that’s how I found myself at the uphill starting line at 7:59 a.m., crouched and waiting for the air horn. When it went off, I ran, and I didn’t stop until precisely 46 minutes and one second later when I crossed the line, felt someone yank the timing chip off my left shoe, and then promptly bent over a planter in the event that I would need to yak. Yes, the course left me feeling particularly vomitous, but fear not, dear reader, no plants were harmed in the making of this race. Once I caught my breath, the nausea went away and I was able to walk over to the bananas and water with my pride intact. (Oops, well, I guess some bananas were indeed harmed in the making of this race, as well as the trees for the registration forms. Point is, I didn’t puke.)

So, without further ado, here is my Impressionistic Race Report for the 41st Annual Missionary Ridge Road Race.

Official Course Description: (per the Chattanooga Track Club website): This 4.7 mile out and back course atop Missionary Ridge starts at Bragg Reservation and goes out South Crest Road, extends around East Crest Road and returning on South Crest Road to the finish line at Bragg Reservation. Shaded by trees this scenic course offers the challenge of two major hills with the remainder gently rolling. 

My Course Description: One long corridor of pain punctuated by pretty houses and extremely nice people bearing cow bells and water. 

No, really: It’s a beautiful course. I know this because I occasionally drive on that road. It really was a nice morning, too – the air was heavy with mist, but not too hot. Also, the curves mercifully kept me from getting a long view of the hills as I climbed them.

Most vexing question: How do I run in races? I’m serious here and I’d love advice. I was a rower for years and I developed a good sense of that spot where I could work and sustain that work even though part of me felt like I was on the verge of collapse. I haven’t figured that out as far as running is concerned. My pace is very uneven. Throw in the hills and it just gets confusing. Rowing does not have hills.

Songs that were stuck in my head: “Eye of the Tiger” until I broke somewhere about mile .6, “Living on a Prayer” somewhere around the halfway point (once again, I only know the chorus, so this was problematic), and, finally, “Your Hand in Mine,” a song with no words and repeated sections of tunes. “Your Hand in Mine” was a great ear worm because it is often used as a soundtrack for “Friday Night Lights,” – a show where people push themselves to the limit on a regular basis.

Favorite Moment (tie): I know I complained about this in my last race report, but being passed by runners who were on their way back while I was still on my way out was actually inspiring this time. These were people who had figured out how to take themselves to the brink and stay right on the edge. They were swallowing the hills. I would like to be them someday.

For most of the race I was trading positions with a woman who looked a lot like Joan Benoit Samuelson. I usually passed her on the hills and she’d catch up shortly after the crest. She told me, “You’re really good at running hills.”

Least Favorite Moment: I have a problem with my right toes hurting/going numb when I’m really pushing myself. I end up having to run on the outside edge of my foot until it resolves itself. This makes me sad. Has anyone else had this issue?

Should You Run This Race?: YES! You should run any race put on by the Chattanooga Track Club. The CTC maintains a low-key, but organized vibe around its races, and that’s really refreshing in this era of races that feel more like highly choreographed musical productions. Plus, the CTC itself is a great mix between people who can clock off 5-minute splits and people who completely new to running. I have my eye on the Raccoon Mountain ‘Round the Rim Race for my next CTC experience. Planters, beware.

For the rest of the weekend, I returned to my usual August spot – the couch. I read for a while, but I was so pumped about finally running Missionary Ridge that I decided to watch running documentaries. First, Run for Your Life – the story of the NYC marathon. Then,  There is No Finish Line in honor of the Joan Benoit lookalike. I wrapped up my weekend movie marathon (my favorite kind of marathon!) with Saint Ralph, which is not a documentary at all. It’s a really cheesy coming-of-age story, but it would make for a good family movie night if you have a middle-schooler in your life.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable weekend. The Missionary Ridge Road Race did what races are supposed to do – it broke me, then left me feeling stronger.  Did you race this weekend? Where? How’d it go?

An Evening on Lookout, Part 2 of 3

Sidewalk near Point Park

Sidewalk near Point Park

When I moved to Chattanooga some years ago, I did what I thought all twentysomethings were supposed to do and found an affordable rental in the vicinity of North Chatt. I love mountains, and I especially love being on top of them, but I was warned off living on the ones around here. You’ll just get home and not want to go out. It’s all families up there. You’ll have no social life, and then you’ll die, utterly friendless and alone! (Okay, no one said that last one, but it did seem that’s what they were getting at.)

I’ve lived in the valley all this time, but the mountains beckon. Both Signal and Lookout have reasonably priced homes amidst the larger estates. It’s quiet up there, also, and I’ve always written better when I have a view. That said, the mountains definitely suffer from an image problem. Urban neighborhoods are what’s hot right now, and if I move onto Lookout and say, “I live on Lookout,” some people are going to hear, “I am rich” or “I prefer a charmed and isolated life amongst the extremely wealthy.”

My Sunday night run was a recon. I sought to learn more about who lives on Lookout and what it’s like to be up there on a regular summer evening. I hustled out of the tourist area without stopping to talk to anyone else and settled into a nice lope along West Brow. The homes on the brow were every bit as grand as I expected them to be – made of stone or wood, featuring arches, covered entry ways, carriage houses, even a bell tower. Side streets, however, revealed more modest bungalows – the very homes which were once summer cottages for wealthy Chattanoogans seeking to escape the heat.

As I expected, it was peaceful, which is nice, except peaceful means that I’m not likely to encounter strangers for a conversation. After about a half-mile, I came across a couple walking their border collie right in the middle of the road. You can do that on Lookout. The dog kept turning around to check me out, which gave me a good entrance as far as conversations are concerned. I introduced myself, gave them my Crossing Paths business card, and immediately learned that I am not the only one who thinks of image when I think about places to live.

“Are you all from here originally?” I ask.

“Yes. Well, Chattanooga originally, not Lookout, ” said the man.

“There’s a big difference,” said the woman.

We continued walking, scooting over to the shoulder when an SUV crested the hill behind us. The woman continued, “When we first moved up here, we were like, ‘Don’t judge us because we live on Lookout!.’ But it’s really a quirky, fun neighborhood.”

I asked them what they enjoy most about life on Lookout and they recited a litany of outdoor pursuits: trail running, access to Lula Lake and Cloudland Canyon, biking, and a huge network of trails. I’d be friends with this couple, I think, if they were my Lookout neighbors.

They also enjoy the Mayberry feel of the place. I feel the same way whenever I drive along the crest. “When school starts, we’ve got all these kids walking by our door, ” said the woman. “They walk to school! Where else does that still happen?”

The word “quirky” came up a few more times, but both husband and wife mostly focused on the outdoor activities and the aesthetic pleasure that comes with living on top of a mountain.

“We don’t have a view from our house…well, unless you stand on the roof….in the winter…but in the morning I can walk out to East Brow and watch the sunrise over the entire city. And, in the evening, I can walk to the West Brow and watch it set, and I think, you know, we just live in such a beautiful place. There is such beauty here.”

With that, the couple turned up a side street to walk back to their home and I continued my run between the mansions. I ran for about an hour, but I didn’t encounter many more people. I’ve been thinking about that for a few days now and have come to some conclusions, which I will share on Monday. Happy weekend, everybody!

West Brow home originally built to be a hunting lodge, circa 1910

West Brow home originally built to be a hunting lodge, circa 1910



An Evening on Lookout – Part 1 of 3

View from the Incline

View from the Incline

For my first series, I ran through Highland Park. Highland Park is a busy, scrappy place – a cross-section of everyone you’ll find in this city. Lookout Mountain is a world apart – an actual vacation destination. The Guild Trail is one of my favorite routes, but I’ve only taken a run on the top of the mountain once. On a recent hot and humid Sunday evening, I drove up Ochs Highway in search of a breeze and a story.

It began on a promising note. I ran by the Incline and stopped to chat with a woman smoking a cigarette on a bench next to the front doors. She wore a black t-shirt that said, “I Love TX,” but she was from Alabama and had come with some friends for a weekend visit. Lookout Mountain was their last stop. They’d spent most of the day at Lake Winnie.

“Did you ride all the water slides?” I asked. I was teasing her a bit because she looked to be in her 60s, and 60-year-olds don’t do water slides, right?

“Nah. I didn’t pack the right shorts and I didn’t have my bikini,” she said.

“How about the roller coasters?” I wasn’t joking any more, because she certainly was not.

“The small ones. I’m afraid of heights.”

“Oh no! And your friends made you take the Incline?”

“Nope. I made one of them drive me, and I didn’t look out the window neither. I don’t take chances.”

I moved on, jogging lightly toward Point Park and then onto West Brow. I love Lookout. I love the view, I love the massive stone houses that look like something out of East Egg, and I love the way that’s all mixed in with Civil War monuments and souvenir shops. As I continued on West Brow, the evening took on that late summer matte. The sun began a slow descent over the Cumberland Plateau, and I ran on through the calm, seeking more conversation partners.

The Missoula Half-Marathon – An impressionistic race report

Here’s the deal: I’m not much into numbers. I took up running for a number of reasons, but once I got into it, I relished the fact that unlike my other endurance sports of choice, rowing and cycling, running was free of monitors and equipment. I don’t run with a GPS, or a HR monitor, or even music. I had a watch for a while, but it wasn’t sweat resistant (the hell??) and broke, and I haven’t bothered to replace it. In general, I figure out distances ahead of time and then run. When I start to hurt, I decide whether I want it to hurt more or less and take it from there. Maybe someday my motivations will change and I’ll invest in some electronics, but I’m enjoying the freedom for now.

What this means for you, dear reader, is that you’re not going to see some of the typical race report conventions here. For example, I don’t have a post-race picture of a watch the size of a dinner plate displaying splits and distances. Instead, I can only offer this post-race picture of a pair of wet shoes (I ran through a lot of sprinklers), a finishing medal the size of a dinner plate, the most refreshing beer I have ever consumed in my life, and the mighty Clark Fork River in the background:


Also, I have this post-beer post-race picture, taken after I’d purchased and annihilated a bag of homemade mini-donuts and moved on to coffee. At this point, I was calf-deep in the Clark Fork, and if there’s a better way to ice down after a race, I don’t know what it is. This is a picture of bliss:



Now that I’ve covered the finish, let’s zoom back to the race itself. The Missoula Marathon was superb in every aspect. From the Friday Night Beer Run (beer was definitely a weekend theme), where runners were encouraged to get to know each other, to the military-like precision of the shuttles to the starting line, to the fans lining the entire course, this race was a dream. It is a fun, fun weekend and I highly recommend it to everyone from barefoot runners to those of y’all who run with more equipment than Apollo 11 took to the moon (Own it. I’m not judging. I promise.)

Since I don’t do numbers, I’ll report this race all MySpace list style. Here goes.

Favorite Moment (tie): Running along the Bitterroot River as the sun rose. Cracking that Scape Goat Ale at about 8:45 a.m.

Least Favorite Moment: Being passed by a Marathoner with about 1.5 miles to go. Even without precise numbers, I know that guy was going more than twice as fast as I was. Now, I look back at that as a humbling, inspiring moment – a moment that pushes me to improve myself. But, in the duress of Mile 11.5, I sacrificed precious oxygen to mumble “Are you #@$$*&% kidding me?”

Moment Which Revealed that I’m Extremely Competitive Even If I Won’t Wear a Watch: As I neared the downhill side of the bridge to the finish line, Marathoner #2 apparently stepped onto the bridge. The finish line announcer said he was coming, the crowd starting cheering wildly, and I suddenly found the energy to pass 4-5 half-marathoners and finish the race in a full sprint. “Yeah, I might be finishing in 3,000th place, but only one person out here is actually twice as fast as me, buddy! Got it?”**

**EDIT – Due to my numbers-deficiency, I just realized that this is not accurate at all. Anyone who ran the half in under 1:12 is also twice as fast as me, but I don’t count them because they might as well have been running on a different planet. By the time I finished, they were home and showered and probably catching up on the Today Show.

Favorite Fans: The spectators were the best part of the race for me. No showcase of Missoula would be complete without the people who make up this college town. There were hippies with bongo drums telling us we were beautiful and strong, there were Star Wars-Running Puns tacked onto telephone poles, there were yards filled with neighbors who were drinking coffee and cheering while their kids played. There was a marching band, and there was even a guy in a tuxedo playing a grand piano in his front lawn. Because it was “hot” out (definitely hot by Montana standards) lots and lots of people put their lawn sprinklers in the road. I ran through every one because, hey, why not?

Song That Was Stuck In My Head: “Ramblin’ Man” by The Allman Brothers, which is unfortunate since I only know the chorus.

Favorite Sign: “You Are NOT Almost There” at Mile 4. The only thing I hate more than numbers are platitudes.

Overall Feel: I felt good. I was relaxed and in a crowd the entire time. This was my second half marathon. During my first half back in November 2013, I was tense and I kept finding myself alone on long stretches of road. For some reason, running in a pack helped me keep my strides fairly even and smooth. Now, I did keep up with the numbers enough to know that my time was 14 minutes slower than my first half, but my goal really was to stay relaxed and smooth, and I did that. My next goal is to stay relaxed and smooth and, you know, also run faster. One step at a time.

Best Thing About This Race: The people! Did you expect me to say anything else, given the overall theme of Crossing Paths? No, seriously, it really was the people. “Montana is for Badasses,” they say. Part of the territory with being a B.A. is just not giving a rip what other people think, and when you don’t care what other people think, guess what? You’re a lot more open to the people around you. Endorphins and beer increase this effect. So, I had great fun socializing after the Beer Run, and laughing while waiting in line for the shuttle at 4:30 a.m., and bantering a little during the race, and singing Montana’s praises with the other smart folks who stood in the Clark Fork to soothe their aches and pains. Montanans live in Montana because they want to, and those badasses have their priorities straight, I tell you what.

Should You Run This Race? – If you enjoy rivers and badasses and grand pianos, then yes, yes,  you should run this race. Registration for 2015 is open on Oct. 1. And though I’m not big on numbers, I do know that the Beer Run will be on my birthday next year. I just might head out there again, because life is short but marathons are even shorter, and these badasses are not afraid to dance:

Dancing Missoulians

Badasses Dancing after the 2014 Beer Run





The Railroad Effect

North Dakota at dawn

North Dakota at dawn

My big vacation ended a week ago, and it’s been over two weeks since I was on a train. According to Amtrak’s timetables, I travelled 2,428 miles along American rails. I’m guessing I was looking out the window about 80% of the time (I didn’t sleep well), which means I saw roughly 1,900 miles of country pass by.

The image of the journey that I continue returning to is actually from the night I returned home. After unloading the car, I made a quick drive over the cut and to the East Ridge Bi-Lo for coffee and half n’ half. It was late at night and already dark. There were only a few other cars in the parking lot and one couple holding hands as they walked together into the store, silhouetted in the harsh light emanating through the double doors.

For thousands of miles, I had been on the outside looking in; suddenly, all that ended and I was back into my life, stepping out of my car and walking across a patch of cooling asphalt. I pictured how I might look to an imaginary passenger in an imaginary train, how that person would see me for a flash and be gone into the night. At that exact second, thousands of Americans were walking into grocery stores to buy coffee for the next morning and I’d never know or see any of them, just as they would never know or see me. I’d have get back into my car and follow the pavement for 36 hours straight to get back to where I’d gone on the train. What’s more, as I was walking into the store, there were two trains heading west on the Empire Builder route. One was crossing Minnesota, and the other was about to climb the Continental Divide.

As I thought about those trains and those people, this country we share seemed simultaneously vast and connected. It sprawled wildly into the darkness around me. I felt like a speck – a tiny inconsequential dot of life on the American landscape. That sensation is usually reserved for the times we’re looking up at the stars and pondering our existence in the context of galaxies and universes. I wasn’t anticipating it as I made my way across a suburban parking lot. I felt extremely small, yet a part of something incomprehensibly huge.

Trains have that effect on their passengers. The wheels under my seat rolled over 2,400 miles, and I saw 2,000 miles of backyards, farmlands, national forests, rivers, and orchards. I caught fleeting glimpses of baseball games and picnics, four-wheelers and oil field workers, trampolines and above-ground pools. People waved at me while they stood knee-deep in the Puget Sound, and I waved back. Those people running to the store for coffee? I saw them (well, some of them), and they were in North Dakota or Eastern Montana, and I wondered about their lives.

After seven days back home, my life feels like it fits its own container again. School starts in two weeks. I have to familiarize myself with Henry V, write a syllabus, and submit some of my own essays to lit journals. I have a conference to attend and a river to run. I’m glad I’m not as unmoored as I felt when I was getting coffee, but I don’t want to completely lose that sensation any more than I want to forget what it feels like to look up at the stars.

Miles of steel

Miles of steel

Vacation 2014: Trains, Planes, and Automobiles. Also, a half-marathon and lots of water.

The Columbia River in Astoria

The Columbia River in Astoria

Hello, gentle readers. Fear not. This blog has not gone away and my endeavor to write essays based on my interactions with Chattanoogans continues. I went Internet Missing for most of July for a worthwhile and pleasant reason – I travelled across the country by train. Well, mostly by train. I started in Jacksonville, Fla., where I left my dog with my parents, flew to Chicago, took the train to Whitefish, Mont., drove to Missoula to run in the Missoula Half-Marathon, drove back to Whitefish, took the train to Seattle, took another train to Astoria, Ore., was driven to Tacoma, took a day trip to the Olympic Peninsula, flew from Seattle to Milwaukee, played on the shores of Lake Michigan, and flew back to Jacksonville. I had my toes in the Pacific, the Atlantic, and a Great Lake. I ate salmon in a seafood restaurant along the Columbia River and saw American wonders like Mount Rainier, Glacier National Park, and the Goonies House.

The best thing about the trip, though, the BEST thing, is that I was visiting folks the entire time. I used to live in Montana, so my trip there involved reconnecting with people I haven’t kept in great touch with. I have some friends who moved out to Washington five years ago and I’ve never visited them. And, I have a couple friends in Milwaukee, so who can turn down the chance for some Schlitz and bocce before wrapping up a great trip?

Crossing Paths was on my mind a lot. Races tend to lend themselves to interactions, as do train rides. So, stay tuned for an essay or two on races and trains and the general openness that travel brings. In the meantime, feel free to share your own summer travel experiences in the comments. Has anyone else travelled to Montana or the Pacific NW? Here are some pictures to admire while you gather your thoughts….


Missoula, Montana

In Missoula, Montana

Rainier from the plane

Rainier from the plane

The Goondocks

The Goondocks