Whenever Kate wanted to visit her grandmother, I would drive through Salina with only one thought on my mind.
"Thank GOD I'm out of this place."
It was a mean thought. I'll admit it. Especially for a Kansas boy, someone who grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City but understood that it was towns like Salina that pieced most of his beloved state together like a puzzle. Salina, in fact, was a corner piece, the largest city between the state capitol, Topeka, and Denver. You may have stopped for lunch there on a road trip.
But in my mind, mean was justified.
A dozen years ago, I lost my job at the Salina paper. It was a good job, or so I thought at the time, and it broke my heart to be forced from a job I enjoyed, even if it was my fault.
Salina was an adjustment at first, when I started there in 1994, with its small-town feel, population of only 40,000 and three or four females my age. The most popular restaurant in town was an Applebee's. Yet I found my way, making friends all kinds of ages, throwing myself into training for my summer mountain climbing trip and diving into Salina's surprisingly rich art scene, playing in the symphony and acting in Shakespeare plays that packed its downtown park.
Well, I had to leave all that, plus a girl I truly cared for (I managed to find one of the three), and as with any breakup, there were some bad feelings. This time the breakup was with the town. A few years later, I came back to visit Kate's grandmother (in one of the many coincidences that somehow let you know you've found the right person, Kate's mom grew up in Salina), and I blamed Salina for the bad feelings.
I had moved on by then. I somehow landed on my feet and found an even better job, in a place that was made for me, a city, Greeley, that combined Kansas' small-town feel with an hour's drive from the mountains. I took full advantage, eventually climbing all 54 of the state's 14,000-foot peaks, snowshoeing and skiing with abandon. I was in heaven, and I wondered, of course, what the hell I'd ever seen in Salina in the first place. THIS was the place where I wanted to live the rest of my life? Ha. In a snobby, snooty sort of way, I dismissed Salina and quite frankly dreaded going back. One year I simply refused to go, disappointing Kate more than I realized, and on many others I selfishly treated it like a pit stop before I could visit my parents in the suburbs that I truly called my second home.
This time, however, I agreed to a four-day trip for Kate. I've tried not to be so selfish with my own time - it's a constant struggle that I'll always fight - and Kate's pretty patient about my running and climbing adventures, even if they've been reduced. So I agreed to go. Plus Kate's grandmother is 88. She's doing well. Really well, actually. But that age, right or wrong, is always associated with "you never know."
Maybe because of that open(er) mind, or maybe because I was so emotionally and mentally drained from working on that story about Delaney (see last post), I was not dreading the trip. I think, deep down, I knew it would be exactly what I needed.
We arrived at grandma's Friday afternoon, and I jumped out and threw on my running clothes with Kate's blessing. Nothing cures an 8-hour car ride with three little kids more than a run, and six miles was on the marathon plan anyway. I googled a map on where to run in Salina and found some parks. I mapped out my own route that would take me to two parks and was on my way.
One of the things I love most about running is it helps you get to know the places you live. Towns truly do all look alike these days, thanks to corporate chains. There's the McDonald's. There's the Starbucks (and the other and the other). There's the Conoco gas station. There's the Applebee's. It's hard to tell one town from the other, unless you visit the nooks, and many of those nooks are in their parks.
Parks CAN look the same, but those friendliest to running generally don't. Rather than dig up the land, throw some sand down around it and plunk down plastic playground equipment, most cities now leave a couple spots that embrace the cities' natural landscape features and, other than carving out a couple trails, simply let the land BE. There are a couple places like this in Greeley, and they are my favorite places to run.
My route on the first day took me to two of these places, and one of them immediately brought a smile. It was Indian Rock, and its scrubby, rocky trails that jutted up and screamed down gave me the perfect place to train for my summer mountain climbing trips when I lived in Salina. I'd throw on a backpack and speed walk the trails for a good hour almost every day. This time I ran them, twice, and loved every second.
The next day, for my 12 miles (it was, thank God, a down week in the plan), I found a flood control ditch and ran it as far as it would go. By the time it was there and back, I only had 10 miles on my GPS. One of the challenging things about training for a marathon is finding good places to give you all the damn miles you need for a long run. I didn't care. Good enough, I thought.
There are nooks in a town, and then there are the tourist spots. Tourist spots are, of course, almost always cheesy and meant to draw you in so you'll help the local economy, but they're also usually quaint and give the towns a uniqueness that not even another McDonald's can quash.
In this case, we visited a zoo, the Rolling Hills. We saw the mall's tank with monster fish inside (that's always a hit with the kids). We wished for fireflies - Colorado doesn't have them - but knew it was too early.
We also ate. Vacations, for me, are vacations from everything except my training plans, and that includes my somewhat strict diet. We hit up the local BBQ joint, got shakes from the local burger joint and ate at Brookville. Brookville is a museum, only you eat there. It's a place where they serve real, authentic fried chicken dinners, the kind they used to serve after church 80 years ago (the waitresses even wear out-time outfits). That's all they serve. You get mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed corn, biscuits, fried chicken, lemonade, cottage cheese, and….sorry. I'll stop. It's goooooooooood.
There is also the strong Kansas wind, which infected two of my four runs, including today's which was cold enough to sting my chest as I stubbornly ran into it. But no place is perfect.
Last night I visited a good friend for an hour, and after I left, I drove up the road and by my first apartment, the first place I lived by myself, with my first real job. I wasn't sorry to see it in my rear-view mirror, but I waved good-bye with a touch of nostalgia.
I hopped into bed after, and Kate thanked me for coming back to Salina.
"There's a lot of good memories here," she said.
"For me too," I said, and slept well.