The ghost town and the train house

The first thing I noticed was the vast emptiness. I looked around and realized just how alone I was. Rolling hills of grass reached out as far as the eye could see to touch the sky. And it was so quiet. There was no sound except for the wind; hot and dry and incessant. It all gave me an odd feeling of claustrophobia to be in a space with so much nothingness. Grass and sky and nothing more, save for the deserted house next to me. How had someone ever lived here?

We had headed south out of South Dakota, driving in a land so foreign looking to us easterners. A dry landscape of brown and muted greens had replaced the bright greens and humidity of the east coast.

Soon we passed through Ardmore, a modern day ghost town on the South Dakota-Nebraska border. Abandoned homes and cars still stand; its residents finally abandoning the town in the 1980’s due to lack of fresh drinking water. Ardmore was a town founded by the railroads and became a thriving community as its people managed to make a living on the desolate plains. But when the trains that had once brought clean drinking water to the town no longer stopped, the town could not survive. It literally dried up and it’s residents abandoned the town leaving what remained to slowly be reclaimed by the grasslands.

Once in Nebraska we turned off of the tarmac and onto a crushed gravel road. We drove past a couple farms and soon were alone, nothing but miles of grasslands around us as we drove deeper into the landscape, our car kicking up a plume of dry dust so that we could no longer see where we had come from. Our road followed a railroad track which was still in use. We passed no other cars and saw no one as we drove on. After miles of driving through the rolling plains we saw something ahead on our right. An abandoned farmstead. We decided to get out and explore.

The house was set just a little ways off of the gravel road, surrounded by the grassland on all sides. This grass that had looked so soft blowing in the wind from the car window was anything but. The grass was dry and sharp and crushed beneath my feet as I walked along toward the house under the hot sun. I also realized that there were cactus’ mixed in as my heel brushed against one giving me a good scrape. Such a harsh landscape to build a house.

The house was a bit rambling with three separate buildings butting up to each other at 90 degree angles. We speculated that maybe the owners added on to the house as needed. A few outbuildings and farm equipment lay scattered about the property as well. The hot dry wind blew as we explored, rattling a piece of lose roofing.

We walked inside one of the sections of the house and the first thing I noticed was a lack of the mildew smell that’s so prevalent in the abandoned buildings at home where anything left on its own long enough will rot and decay back into the land. Here buildings seemed to reach a sort of dusty mummification, standing proudly as if to prove that someone had once survived in this harsh climate. The second thing I noticed was that this had not started out as a house.

The long, narrow room had walls that rounded up into the ceiling, a seemingly odd choice for such a rustic structure. We looked up and saw an area where the ceiling had come down. Instead of finding roof rafters above the ceiling dry wall, there was the ceiling of a beautiful old train car. It hit us then, the house was made out of old train cars!

There were three train cars to be exact. The owner had moved train cars from the nearby tracks and created a house, drywalling over the inside cars and covering the outside with wood siding and a traditional roof. The cars were placed together to create a home. All throughout the house in places where the dry wall had fallen down you could see the train cars still in really good condition. Such ingenuity!

We wandered around to some of the outbuildings and saw that these too were old train cars. It was easy to spot once we realized what they were. As we explored, we speculated on why the home was built this way. Was it because this was the best option financially for the owner? Or were the railroad cars a temporary solution to a house that just became permanent? Maybe it was just a fulfillment of the dream every child who has read The Boxcar Children has had; to live in a train car? We could only guess. Whatever the reason, it had been someone’s home. A life or lives were lived here, hard work was done, dreams were fulfilled or crushed. And then, in the not so distant past, the home was abandoned and left to the elements.

As we began to leave, I stood alone taking one more look around. The loneliness of this home and this place filled me. Such quiet and isolation. It must have been so difficult to scratch out a life here. Nature appeared to have won, yet I was glad the house remained, standing proud amongst the grasses and the never ending wind. A train whistle blew in the distance and I turned toward our car, ready to be back with my family and keep moving forward down the road.

Getting away from it all during Quarantine

The late afternoon sunlight danced around us; an ever-changing movement of light and dark, warm and cold, as it filtered through the tunnel of trees we walked through at the edge of the lake. The water sparkled as a duck quietly drifted by. I took a deep breath and briefly thought how nice it was to be out hiking away from it all. Then I stopped and laughed because I was hardly “away from it all”.

Our world’s have all become very small this past month. Most of us are in our home now almost 24/7. The place you know better than any place in the world just feels different when you can’t leave it. For some it might be filled with loneliness as you spend each day alone in your home’s rooms and for others your residence might be becoming exceedingly crowded, filled to the brim with family members who are always around, day after day. I, every once in awhile, will feel claustrophobic, missing driving hundreds of miles each day for work.

What helps is getting outside. It’s spring which means the weather here is all over the place. Some days and warm and sunny, others cold and damp. The wind always blows, carrying with it pollen and, some days, the threat of tornadoes. Yet, we get outside daily. With most parks and trails closed and travel discouraged, outside is now what is directly around us. We walk, circling our neighborhood and those nearby. Houses with manicured yards, rows of townhomes with the end units still being framed, apartments with kids on scooters circling the parking lot; we walk past it all. Over and over…and over and over again.

Then one day my son and I decided to venue out of our daily circling on pavement to an area across from one of the developments we frequented. We stepped off of the sidewalk and onto a faint trail and followed it into the “wild” and into our own small adventure.

The trail started around a lake. We passed a number of people who were fishing. I asked a man who was watching his young son cast a line into the lake if they’d caught anything. “Oh yes, we’ve caught a lot,” he told me as he held his hands up to show the size of what they were catching. We continued on and soon reached an ancient man-made dam. Water flowed out of the lake here and disappeared underground as it descended to a river far below. We too turned and scrambled down to the river.

At the river we stood and watched the water that had disappeared underground at the lake’s edge, reappear creating a couple small waterfalls as it flowed into the river. It had rained a lot earlier in the week so the river was high and flowed past us splashing noisily over rocks and creating some nice rapids.

We hiked back up towards the lake, crossing over the dam, and continued on into a large field. As we walked we heard some chattering and saw a bird running along the ground beside us. She ran up to us and then flew in a large circle around us only to land and run beside us again, chattering the entire time. We quickly realized why as we passed a nest with four speckled eggs in it just a foot off the path we were walking along. “Don’t worry, your babies are safe,” we told her as we quickly moved along.

A little further along we came to a basketball hoop in the middle of the field. An old soccer ball lay next to it so we shot a few baskets. It’s all that remains of what was once someone’s home and was a good reminder that we were not on a trail in the wilderness somewhere, but rather we were walking along a bit of land at the edge of civilization. A bit of wild surrounded on every side by suburbia.

In fact, a major highway ran north to south next to us; its noise a constant reminder that we were not in the middle of nowhere.

I love that there are scraps of wild left in the middle of civilization. Places where the road ends and cities have not yet encroached upon. These little pockets of wilderness that are easy to get to and explore. They’re often places where people once were and have left, allowing nature to once again take over. And nature does take over; the trees and grasses and birds and deer not caring that they are near civilization as they create their own pocket of wild.

As we continued on we came upon more old homesites. Nothing was left but the flat area where a home once stood and a few trees that would have shaded the house from summer’s heat. Here, the homes would have overlooked the lake. We stood in the empty space and, with the birds chirping around us and a warm breeze lifting our hair, for a moment we could imagine how peaceful it would have been to have a home here. The only sound’s then being the wind in the trees and water lapping along the shore. The spell was broken as a semi drove by on the highway behind us and we moved on, exploring our bit of wilderness.

How to add more adventure to life

It had been a lonely month. A month of solitude and forced rest. And now, driving through the barren winter fields, vast and silent and so still, I felt it all catching up with me. The boredom, the slight depression, the sudden slamming to a halt of any and all movement; I was so over it.

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I ran the Marathon du Médoc- the world’s craziest (and most fun) marathon

I heard the singing behind me getting louder and louder. Suddenly a man, singing loudly in French, squeezed between my friend and me. We laughed when we realized he was wearing nothing but a wig and thong along with his running shoes. I moved over to give him more room, but quickly jumped back over as I realized that I was about to get run over by a large number of people dressed as chickens pushing a giant chicken float. And this was just the first kilometer! Welcome to the Marathon du Medoc, I thought as I smiled and picked up my pace.

My friend Amy and I for years would joke that the Marathon du Médoc was the only marathon we’d ever run. It’s 26.2 miles through the vineyards of Bordeaux, France featuring 23 stops for wine tasting and food like oysters, steak, and ice cream. Oh, and all this has to be done in a costume based on the year’s theme. I mean, if you’re going to run a marathon this should be the one, right?!! Then last year the joking became serious; let’s do it! we said to each other.

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Ironman 70.3 Traverse City race review and why you too should do a relay

Guys! Traverse City is going to host a half Ironman next year! Who’s going to sign up?

That’s the text message that started it all over a year ago. Nicole, my trainer, had just found out that Traverse City, Michigan would be hosting an Ironman 70.3 in 2019 and wanted a bunch of us who train with her to sign up. But most of us, having never completed a half Ironman before, weren’t too quick to jump on that and, as it was Traverse City’s inaugural Ironman, the race sold out very fast. Nicole was in, we were out.

Fast forward to June 2019 and we received another text from Nicole:

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Hiking the magical Lauterbrunnen Valley Waterfalls in Switzerland

The day had begun misty with low hanging clouds, concealing the mountains all around us. But by late afternoon the clouds had lifted, once again revealing the majestic Swiss Alps. It was time to hike!

Lauterbrunnen Valley is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. It was also my favorite hike that we did in Switzerland. It’s a hike we’ll all remember the rest of our lives.

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Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga- and I Didn’t Drown!!

This is a much longer post than normal, but I wanted to record my thoughts. I also spent a lot of time reading blogs about other people’s experiences leading up to this race, so I hope this might motivate someone or help them feel less nervous about their first race.

After months of training the day was finally here; I was about to do my first half triathlon.

My nerves were high as I walked the few blocks from my hotel room to the transition area of the race. When I arrived the whole scene had an otherworldly feel to it. At 5am, it was still very dark, so temporary lights had been set up to illuminate the entire transition area which held 2700+ bikes. A man with a megaphone announced over and over “you must be marked before you can enter transition”, while a seemingly never-ending line of people quietly boarded buses that would fill and pull away. It all had the feel of something much more sinister than a race!

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My First Ironman and my Biggest Surprise

“Is this your first time? Oh, you’ll always remember your first one!”

I have received questions and comments like this quite often over the past few weeks. People are very excited when they realize I am about to do my first half Ironman. This first Ironman, the Chattanooga 70.3, is coming up – this Sunday in fact. I’m excited and nervous and scared and really, just ready to get it over with!

Last August I was running with my trainer Nicole and she encouraged me to sign up for a half Ironman. “I know you can do it”, she said. The swimming portion scared me to death, but I was in. My heart pounded and I felt sick to my stomach as I registered for the Ironman 70.3 in Chattanooga, but I was excited to have a real challenge. With the right training I was pretty sure I would survive it…hopefully.

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There’s always time for a cave adventure

The cave we were exploring made a sharp turn to the left and narrowed so that we had to crawl through this new passage. We continued down it, my son going first. Soon we came to a room large enough to stand up in. My son went in and, just as I was about to enter, he turned around and began crawling out crying, ” Quick! Turn around!”

Earlier that day my oldest son and I met in the kitchen, each looking for something eat. We realized that we were both home for the rest of the day; me with a day off from work and he had finished a final at school and was home early. The December day, which had started off with bright blue skies, was now gray but fairly warm. We decided then and there that it was time for a mini adventure, so we did a quick wardrobe change and 10 minutes later we were off in search of a couple caves we had heard about.

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The loneliest spot on earth

“Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert, eight thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is guarded by mountains two thousand feet higher, whose summits are always clothed in clouds. This solemn, silent, sail-less sea–this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth –is little graced with the picturesque. “

– Mark Twain

My first glimpse of Mono Lake was late at night. We had just driven up and over Sonora Pass, which had opened for the season a few days earlier. The road had been descending out of the snow covered mountains for quiet awhile when I caught a glimmer out of the corner of my eye. I glanced out of the window and saw nothing but thick darkness. A few minutes later we rounded a bend and there far below us was a glistening moonlit lake. The road continued down and ran alongside the lake. From this viewpoint the lake seemed to go on forever and it was impossible to tell where it began or ended. Then we rounded another curve and it was gone and we were left to stare into the inky blackness of night.

A few days later we made it back to Mono Lake, this time in daylight. Even in the light, we still felt a moment of surprise to round a corner and come upon the lake. A shimmering mirage in the middle of a dry, dusty landscape.

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