Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | October 4, 2017

Back in the news biz

Strib ID badge

My last name has been misspelled on pretty much every ID badge I’ve ever had. This is a new one.

After almost exactly six years away, I’m a newspaperman again. Just as it did more than 26 years ago, the Minneapolis Star Tribune has seen fit to pluck me off the street. I’m exceedingly grateful — again —to share a newsroom with a collection of smart, conscientious, driven and interesting colleagues in a place that feels a lot like a second home.

My first day at the Star Tribune was Oct. 1, 1991. That was almost four months exactly since my previous employer, The National Sports Daily, had gone out of business, sending my little family and me into a forced adventure.

Back then, Melody, Jenna and I were living in a sweet Upper West Side high-rise in New York City (complete with doorman, swimming pool and famous neighbors like Paul Schaeffer, Claudia Schiffer and, apparently at some point, the family of Macaulay Caulkin). But when The National folded after a spectacular and star-crossed 16-month adventure, we knew we’d be flat broke in a matter of months, if not weeks, if we didn’t flee. And so, we fled.

If you are old enough to remember the TV show “Green Acres,” that was us. We didn’t move to “Hooterville,” of course, but Brantwood, Wis., wasn’t far off.

A quick aside: My mom grew up in northern Wisconsin (Up North), but she moved to Milwaukee to be near relatives and attend school, and she eventually married my dad, a tough Milwaukee kid who was eventually tamed (though he might still dispute that) by this fierce farm girl. They raised their three boys in the city, but we made frequent visits to my grandmother’s old farmhouse Up North. It was a playground for us. Snakes, rock piles, walks in the woods and, eventually, our family hunting grounds.

We traveled there so often it felt like a home away from home. So with that old house vacant and the middle son and his family soon to be homeless, my mom took mercy on us. We were grateful. The place had charm. Crooked floors, crooked doors, a wood-burning kitchen stove that had to be stoked in the middle of cold nights and open floor grates upstairs so that rising heat could warm those two small bedrooms. But it had a roof. Beds and blankets and sheets (and flies. Lots of flies). We had a telephone (that for a long time was on a party line). Heck, we even had an indoor toilet. But, yeah, no shower. No bathtub. My mom, you see, is Finnish and Up North Finns didn’t worry about such things in the “old days.” It was more important to have a sauna. And that’s how we bathed. Most nights, we’d build a fire. Then we’d warm the sauna and heat up the water. We’d fill steel buckets with water (including a big one that Jenna could use as a bathtub). The we’d get naked. Sweat. Wash. And then, eventually, drink a coffee (or a beer). Or both.

Those few months were heavenly in so many ways. Jenna, then just turning 2, was free in a way she never was in New York. We lost the big playgrounds and the sensory assault of Manhattan, but we gained mud puddles to splatter, butterflies to chase, stars and fluffy clouds to contemplate – and Friday fish fries to devour.

But as summer turned to fall, anxiety turned to fear. I was 30 years old. Unemployed. Living on a farmstead, but I was no farmer — and had no desire to become one. We were kind of broke, but not penniless. So where would my next opportunity come from?

The Star Tribune, it turned out.

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Basically, what Minnesota looks like to Minnesotans. (Our old house.)

We arrived in time for the Great Halloween Snowstorm of 1991 and we weathered (pun intended) another 20 years of cold winters, beautiful autumns and rainy, flood-basement-filled summers. When we left in 2011 for our four-year adventure in Bulgaria, where we taught at the American University in Bulgaria, I never thought we’d be back. Even in 2015, when I was ready to move back to the U.S. to enjoy craft beers, bottomless cups of crappy diner coffee and random conversations in my native language, we chose Chicago (and even bought a condo there) because, well, it was something new and interesting.

Chicago sunrise, jpeg

Sunrise from the balcony of our condo in Chicago.

But Chicago, as much as we enjoyed it, just didn’t feel like home. And even though neither Melody nor I are native Minnesotans, it eventually became clear that Minnesota is home to us. Great friends, a familiar and lively culture, smart people and, yeah, professional connections.

We’re not quite old enough to retire, though we acted like it from time to time. So finding work became more important than ever. Before we moved back to Minnesota, I made contact with the editor of the Star Tribune and floated the idea of a return. He was receptive, though didn’t promise anything. Good enough. We moved back. And to make a long story short, on Tuesday (yesterday), after spending nearly four months working as a part-time copy editor on the night news desk at the Star Tribune (while also doing a bunch of freelance stuff), I was offered (and accepted) a full-time job.

I’ll be back to my newspaper roots in a way, working nights (and lots of weekends, most likely). I’ll edit stories, I’ll work wires, I’ll work the slot (the final read before stories are published), I’ll hopefully pick up some layout shifts and relearn our web publishing protocol. But instead of sports, where I spend the bulk of my 28 years in newspapering, I’ll be in news and working alongside some of the smartest, most professional and most interesting people I know. It’s great. I couldn’t be happier.

Better still, my dad and my daughter, couldn’t be happier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | September 19, 2017

How it all began

Date: Aug. 28, 1985.
Place: Pine Bar, Wausau, Wis.
Time: Early evening.

I was sitting around a large, round table at the Pine Bar with a group of my newspaper colleagues from the Wausau Daily Herald. It was a Wednesday evening, around 6 o’clock. I didn’t want to go to this farewell party for one of our bosses, but on the advice of my buddy and roommate Tom Spousta, I went. I figured I’d drink a couple of beers, say my hellos and goodbyes and leave. It was an ordinary day.

The SHE walked in and I was gone.

I’ve told this story many times (but have never written it down). If you’ve been with us and we’ve been drinking, you might have heard this story. I’ve also told it when we haven’t been drinking. I’ve shared this story with friends and family over the years. Even the students in at least one of my classes at the American University in Bulgaria have heard this story, for heaven’s sake.

And so, on the 31st anniversary of our wedding (which falls on either Sept. 19 or Sept. 20, 1986 — which is another story altogether), I wanted to put it down.

* * *

early days

We’ll call this the early days. I know Melody looks the same (that hair, though!). Believe me, under all my current heft resides this skinny little guy.

When Melody Gilbert glided past my table and was introduced to “the gang,” I was instantly smitten. “Love at first sight?” Yup.

Melody was introduced to the gang and her eyes sparkled. Her smile dazzled. Her hair, well, it was bouncing and behaving. She was beautiful (and still is). But she also made the room come alive. She was a local TV reporter, I’d soon learn, and everyone it seemed wanted to talk to her.

Including me.

I was a 24-year-old kid with a sportswriting job and absolutely no game in this arena. I was clumsy around women, decidedly uncool, and my lack of a solid “pickup game” would soon become evident. But liquid courage and this gorgeous woman helped me conquer my many insecurities.

“I’ll be dating her by the weekend,” I boldly blurted out to the colleague sitting next to me.

“OK,” she said with a smile, as if to say: “Sure you are, Mark. Sure you are.”

I kept my eye on her (today, I guess, you might say it was a kind of stalker-y eye. I guess sometimes you’re a victim of your era, sometimes you’re a product of the era.).

Anyway, I saw that she had settled in at the bar with her colleague from work, Wendy, and they were deep in conversation. So I plotted my next move. What would a dorky, afternoon-drinking Wisconsin boy think of as his next move? You got it. I started ordering beers, reaching between the two TV women deep in conversation in an effort “to be noticed.”

Success! She noticed. But not in a good way.

This is the part of the story where Melody generally interrupts me and points out that she was annoyed with this intrusion. “Ewwww,” she’ll say. “Who is this guy?”

But I persisted, ignoring what were certainly stares of incredulity from the two “Newsline 9” TV stars.

Soon (obviously eager to escape), I saw Melody saying goodbye to her friends and I made my way to the front door. (Like I said, stalker-y.)

When she tried to leave the bar, I made my move.

“Leaving so soon?” I queried. (Like I said, no moves.)

“Yes,” she said brusquely.

“Where are you headed?” (I cringe as I write this.)

“Home.”

“What’s up?” (I know, I know.)

“I’m going to make dinner.”

“What’s for dinner?” (Just stop already.)

“Shark steak.”

“Is there enough for two?” (Ugh.)

“No.”

And that was that. Off she went.

I returned to my table. Finished my beer and the rest of the night became a fog of beer and disappointment. In other words, Wednesday.

The next morning, I was up at 4:30 a.m. and at the newsroom a little after 5 (had to type in last night’s bowling scores — glamorous! — and put out the afternoon newspaper).

Sometime in the late morning, as we’re putting the paper “to bed,” guess who showed up in the newsroom? Melody Gilbert! She was there, allegedly, to visit her friend Suzy. She was out for a run and was “just passing by.” Uh, huh.

Of course, I swooped in at the first opportunity (I’m pretty sure I literally swooped) and offered to show her around. There wasn’t much to see, but I made sure she saw it all. The various desks, computers, offices, the slot in the front door where the bowling scores were dropped off, the “backshop,” where the printers put type on pages before they were sent to the printing plant.

She was dressed in running shorts (I say they were yellow; Melody says pink. Or I say pink and Melody says yellow. Again, if both of us are engaged in telling this story, there are a few fits and starts.) and a T-shirt. I don’t remember much about the shirt. The shorts, though. Think 1980s fitness fashion. Yup. Yum.

Shortly after the tour, Melody and Suzy departed while my heart went pitter-pat for the next several hours. She noticed me? She must have! She liked me? I think she did. Will I see her again? When? Where? But the weekend was fast approaching and if I was to fulfill my pledge to be “dating her by the weekend,” I better hurry up.

That was Thursday.

Friday came and it was the first weekend of high school football games. Busy night. I think we published Saturday and Sunday mornings, so it was all about getting prepped for the big night of sports in Wausau.

I had to cover one of the local high school’s football games. When it ended, I raced back to the office to write the game story. I crashed through the outer doors of the Daily Herald’s office as Melody was coming out through a set of the inner doors (I know!). She was there again. With Suzy again.

Our eyes met. Sparks flew.

Me, out of breath from running toward the newsroom — and from my racing heart: “You’re here. Where are you going?”

She and Suzy were going to a local bar (it’s northern Wisconsin; it’s what we do).

“Wait for me,” I pleaded. “I have to write this story, but I’ll be there soon.”

It was a date.

I ran into the office. Banged out a forgettable story (I’m sure), typed in the boxscore and said “bye” to my pals putting out the paper (sorry, Spou). In 45 minutes, I was back out the door and racing for the bar — Scott Street Station, maybe?

When I arrived, Suzy slipped away, and Melody and I sat for the next three hours, deep in conversation. Music blared. Disco lights flickered. Smokers smoked (it was 1985, after all). And it was just the two of us. Falling in love.

* * *

Postscript: We ended up back at her apartment (of course we did, there was so much more to, um, talk about). Oh, stop that. Nothing happened. Melody wasn’t that kind of girl. I mean, she was the kind of girl to invite a stranger to her apartment at 2 a.m., but that’s all. No funny business.

Anyway, she was the weekend reporter at Newsline 9, which meant she had to wake up in the morning and get ready for work. So as she jumped in the shower, I took a look around her place. (Not in a freaky sort of way. Stop that!)

When I got to her kitchen, I stopped dead in my tracks. The shark steak dinner dishes were still in the sink. From Wednesday. (Remember?) Along with whatever else she ate the rest of the week. (It was Saturday morning, bless her heart.)

I was one of three boys raised by a working mom and dad, so I did what we were trained to do. I filled up the sink with soapy water and went to work. By the time Melody got out of the shower and saw what I was up to, any defenses she had just melted away. I was THE ONE. Still, no hanky panky, though. Like I said, she wasn’t that kind of girl. But we have been together ever since. And I couldn’t be happier.

* * *

Post-postscript: A little over a year later, we were married. It’s been 31 years and we’ll count them down as long as we’re lucky enough to do that. Three years later, Jenna came along and I guess you could say that this is our origin story. It’s kind of sweet and I like to tell it. But it’s always more fun when Melody interrupts with her own interpretation of events from those crazy early days. If you’ve read all the way to here, thanks. I hope you’re lucky enough to have a love like this in your life. We all deserve it.

recent pic

Still happy — and a little crazy — after all these years.

Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | July 17, 2017

OK, OK, OK …

When I was visiting my parents a few weeks ago, I told them excitedly that I had written a new piece at Medium.com. My mom’s response wasn’t curiosity or glee that her son had written something … anything. It was this: “Well, you haven’t written on your blog in six months.”

That’s my folks. Always keeping me grounded.

Properly chastised — and after a couple of more weeks of delay tactics — I figured I’d jump on here and update my loyal readers (which much surely number in the dozens) about what’s been happening since our return to Minnesota in mid-January.

The lime at night

Our building at night, with our very convenient bar/restaurant in the lobby.

After a couple of weeks of couch surfing/house-sitting at the homes of some of our friends, we took the plunge and rented an apartment in what has to be Minneapolis’ second-youngest neighborhood (next to the University of Minnesota campus). Our building is called Lime and the property company’s motto is “Everyday is Saturday,” or some such thing.

We’ve got a party room. We’ve got a pool. We’ve got a hot tub. Our lobby is a restaurant/bar. We’ve got a nice big second bedroom and a full bathroom (come visit, for crying out loud!). And most of the residents are younger than our daughter. Ha. Feels like we’re right back in Bulgaria, surrounded by young people. And it feels right for now.

Here’s a grab bag summary of the past several months:

Mark ID pic V3

I blanked out the Employee ID#, but I couldn’t fix the misspelling of my name. This is kind of fitting because during my previous 20-year stint at the paper, my name was misspelled in an entirely different way. Hail journalism!

• I’m back at the Minneapolis Star Tribune after six years away. I’m working part-time on the night news desk as a copy editor and enjoying the return to a newsroom. The newspaper is doing well, under new local ownership, in a spiffy new downtown location, and the vibe in the newsroom (at least from what I can gather in my 20-25 hours p/week) is super positive.

• I’m locked in on several freelance gigs, and I’ve tried and dropped a couple of others. I’ve got a website. I need to add to the work samples and client roster, but you get the idea. If you know someone looking for writing and editing help, hook me up. Clients don’t need to be in Minnesota. I’ve worked with clients in Miami and Chicago and even Central Wisconsin. I’m writing stories, providing research and reporting services, and doing a little “ghost writing.” I’ve also had a couple of interesting editing gigs; short-term but fun. I like the variety and I’m hoping to build on it so that in “retirement” (whenever that comes), I can work (a little) while we roam the earth.

• I’m back on my bike regularly. Nothing nearly as intense as last summer’s cross-country trek. But I’m enjoying it. Melody and I even took a spin to Sunday brunch with our friends Dan and Mary (and their son Gus), and then to the farmer’s market in Minneapolis. We leisurely pedaled back home with our take of vegetables and flowers on the warm and sunny afternoon. I haven’t done much leisurely riding in the past several years. It was nice.

Mark and Mel from the roof

Melody and Mark from the roof of our building. Sweet sunsets, guaranteed.

• As for Melody, she’s been busy, busy, busy as usual. She’s working on multiple film projects, applying for grants, teaching workshops and in a couple of weeks, she’ll be heading over to Kosovo to do a workshop and work as a film festival judge at Dokufest, a major international documentary festival in Prizren. She’s also heading over to Moldova in late September, where she’ll be running a weeklong storytelling/filmmaking workshop for the second year in a row there. Like me, she continues to look for meaningful work while we figure out what we’ll do when we grow up.

We’ll get out and travel together again soon. But for now, I need to keep working here while Melody’s work takes her overseas and all over the U.S. So if you want to see us in the same place at the same time (and not via Skype), you might want to come and see us in Minnesota. It’s lovely in the spring, summer and fall — and the winter’s not so bad, either. Especially when you have heated, underground parking and a bar in the lobby.

Cheers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | January 25, 2017

An appreciation of a dearly departed friend and of Facebook

The next person who tells me that Facebook is a waste of time is going to learn about Ron Wade, may he rest in peace.

ron-wade

Ron Wade

I’ve been a Facebook user for more than eight years. I have heard, over those years, that Facebook “is the devil,” to paraphrase Bobby Boucher’s Mama in “The Waterboy.” It chews up valuable time. It connects us virtually but not personally. It’s frivolous. It’s a productivity killer at work (this one might be true). It’s a poor substitute for human contact (probably also true).

But let me tell you what Facebook is. It’s a great way to stay in touch until you take the time to make that human-to-human connection.

My wife, Melody Gilbert, and I made just such an effort a couple of weeks ago when we moved from Chicago to Minnesota – in the dead of winter. Instead of making the trek straight to the Twin Cities, we decided to do a loop – a large loop.

We visited Florida first. And tried to touch base with as many friends and longtime “virtual friends” as we could.

We had lunch with a former colleague, who I had last seen maybe 15 years earlier. We spent a night with a long-ago friend and former business partner of my wife’s. We got together last year, thanks in large part to the miracle of social media. We remain good friends.

We visited with a former colleague of Melody’s, met with a longtime friend and bookclub pal, and stayed a second night in the home of another couple we knew briefly more than 25 years ago. All of that happened thanks to Facebook.

On our way back to Minnesota, we traveled through New Orleans and made a stop in Memphis. While there (and after a visit to the stunning National Civil Rights Museum), we had drinks and dinner with a guy I had met once, maybe 15 years earlier. He visited Minneapolis, where we lived and worked at the time, to interview for a job at the my newspaper (the Minneapolis Star Tribune). Though he didn’t get the job, we connected – and through the joys of the internet – remained connected and eventually became “Facebook friends.” In only our second face-to-face meeting, we shared an evening, a few  laughs, and the knowledge that we’d see each other again.

Which brings me to Ron Wade and our stop in Saint Louis. Ron was a former colleague, but I hadn’t seen him since he left Minneapolis (I think sometime in the late 1990s). He went to Philadelphia, and then Saint Louis, where he stuck, a longtime and passionate Cubs fan trapped in enemy territory.

In spite of our brief work history, I knew Ron well enough to connect via social media when that became a thing. He was always a warm and smart and generous soul at work and he remained that on social media. He liked, commented on, or shared pretty much everything we posted. The people who follow Ron on social media probably know us as well as our family members do. I was excited to swing through Saint Louis and catch up with Ron – in person. On Saturday, Jan. 13, we arrived – in spite of a freakish ice storm that seemed to scare most Saint Louis drivers off of the area roadways.

Ron invited us to come to the newspaper for lunch. He was afraid most of the restaurants in town would be shut down by the storm. When we pulled up, Ron situated us in a Post-Dispatch parking lot and ferried us into the newspaper’s empty cafeteria. Before arriving, he had picked up a rack of succulent ribs, a slab of brisket, some cornbread and other goodies from his favorite rib joint. We settled in, gobbled up the food and shared a couple of hours together.

It had been years and years since we had connected, but because of Facebook, we didn’t have to spend much time on small talk. We talked about his passion for music. We shared with him our reaction to the powerful Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. We discussed our move back to the Twin Cities, home for us (and for Ron, too, in many ways). And gave him a big hug before we had to leave so Ron could get back to work.

We headed off for another Facebook-generated visit to my former boss, the man who brought us to Minnesota in 1991. On the way, Melody said to me: “Ron doesn’t look well.”

I said: “I know, he looked a little beaten down. But he said it was just a cold.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think it’s something else.”

The next day, we set off for the Twin Cities but Ron was never far from our thoughts.

This morning we got word that Ron had passed away. He was sick. Very sick. And there was no lingering. He’s gone. In a matter of minutes, an outpouring of love lit up the Facebook realm of anyone who knew and loved Ron (if you knew him, you loved him). He will not be forgotten.

So the next time someone tells me how frivolous Facebook is, I’m going to tell them about the lovely afternoon we spent with Ron Wade.

Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | November 28, 2016

You can’t go home again? We’ll see about that.

True to the name of this blog, we’re on the move again. This time, we’re heading back to Minnesota.

We have told many of our friends, families and acquaintances about this move. This blog post is the official acknowledgement. The move is either three months or two years in the making. Our conversation — and contemplation — for this move started sometime this summer, around the midpoint of my cross-country bike trip.

Here’s a quick historical summary:

  • 1991: After the collapse of The National Sports Daily, we flee New York, jobless and with few prospects and no money. After a short interlude, I land a job at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Melody, our daughter Jenna (then just 2) and I head to Minnesota. We are quickly greeted by the Halloween Blizzard of 1991, giving us the rude welcome we couldn’t have anticipated. But we stick it out and Saint Paul becomes our home, I’m happy in my work and Melody becomes an accomplished filmmaker.

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    Family!

  • 2011: After 20 years at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, our daughter graduates from college and we head to Bulgaria in search of adventure, life-expanding experiences and new opportunities. What started out as a one-year lark turns into a four-year love affair with the American University in Bulgaria, our many colleagues, and our smart, engaging and lovely students. It’s a second home to us now, but after four years, the pull to return to the United States is strong.

    JMC Rocks

    There was always lots of love and laughter at AUBG.

  • 2015: We buy a small condo in Chicago with a fabulous view of Lake Michigan, making up for the loss of our Southwestern Bulgaria mountain views. Why Chicago? Well, our daughter has moved here after college and when we buy the condo we think, maybe, she’ll be around when we get back. Nope. Even before we return, she moves to New York for a new job — and for love — and we are left with Chicago. It’s a great city. Lots to love about it. But ….

    Chicago sunrise, jpeg

    Sunrise from the balcony in Chicago.

  • The present: At the end of December, we’ll leave our condo (in the care of a renter), put our stuff in storage — again — and head back to a city filled with great friends, whom we love, and the kinds of professional contacts we hope will yield more stable employment than what we’ve been able to muster here in Chicago.

So, how did this happen?

Quite simply, we realized Minnesota is home. I’m from Milwaukee. Melody’s from Washington, D.C. And it took us five years, two countries and countless plane trips to figure it out, but there you have it. We’re going home.

Lake selfie

Our good pals Mary and Dan at White Bear Lake.

Beyond the comforts of being around dear, dear friends, the challenge of creating a professional network in a new, major city turned out to be tougher than we expected. I did some freelance work and had one solid stretch with a major agency here. But if we look back on our time in Chicago, the one thing we did that really stands out has nothing to do with the place.

About this time last year, with my professional efforts running into dead ends, I decided to put my efforts into riding my bike. That turned into a winter of training which in turn became the 55 and Alive cross-country bike ride. No regrets.

It was on a break during the ride when we drove up to the Twin Cities to visit friends. It was a quick visit, but we connected to sooooo many friends. On the way back down to Iowa, I turned to Melody (or she turned to me) and we had one of those epiphanies: We should just return to Minnesota, shouldn’t we?

When we left the place in 2011, we figured that was it — new adventures, new challenges, new people and places.

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Whether it’s Georgia (the country) or Minnesota (the state), I’ve been lucky to share it all with Melody. More of the same … for as long as it lasts, please.

Turns out, we missed our people. … Melody and I have been pretty unmoored during much of our 30 years of marriage. We met in Wisconsin. We lived in Florida, California and New York before we landed in Minnesota. But those gol’ darned people and that dad-gum place stuck their hooks in us and we didn’t even notice it. (Must have barbless hooks — fishing humor.).

So now we’re heading back. We don’t have jobs (sound familiar?). We don’t have a place to live. But we’re coming anyway. Make room for us, OK? We’ve got some house-sitting gigs in January and March, potentially. If we land work, we’ll find a place to live. If we don’t get work, we might be crashing in YOUR guest room. If you’ll have us.

So keep an eye open for us — and for anyone who might need a writer/editor or a filmmaker/producer/director. Consider this my “will work for food” sign.

 

Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | August 28, 2016

Epilogue: A look back, some ink, and the road ahead

Day 0 of the new era
Destination: Unknown.
Mileage needed to get there: Whatever it takes.

Us and Tetons

By a long way, the best picture from this trip. Tetons. Sweetie by my side. Camera, as always, hanging off her shoulder.

The great thing about “completing” a personal goal/ambition/challenge? Um, completing it.

The terrible thing about it? Contemplating what comes next.

It’s been only a couple of days since I completed this 3,672-mile cross-country bike ride, but I’m already starting to obsess about all kinds of “what nexts.” Jobs. Money. Places to live. Finding time to add new adventures into the equation. Finding the money to make those new adventures happen. Trying not to worry about all those things. Stressing out because my effort to avoid those anxiety-inducing thoughts is causing its own stress. You know, the usual. Life.

During the two-plus months of this journey, my wife, Melody Gilbert, and I have been able to step outside of our regular lives and seize the day on all kinds of levels. We had plenty to occupy our thoughts. Weather. Road conditions. Bike repair. Flat tires. Trying to live out of a small Nissan Altima for going on three months. Where to set up on a nightly basis. Campground. Warm Showers. Cheap motel. What to eat. Who to talk to. Who NOT to talk to.

messy car

The messy car always kept things interesting.

When you have that much on your plate, the day-to-day worries about money and the big questions of our existence kind of fade away to nothingness. It might be the reason so many people, who get a taste of this kind of escapism, never return to regular life. But that’s a thought to ponder for another day.

I wanted to talk about the tattoo. Those of you who are friends of ours on social media have already seen the tattoo. It started out as an idea that ended up as a calf full of ink when it was all said and done. I never saw myself as a “tattoo guy,” but I have to say: I’m tickled about this thing. I feel good about completing this journey and I feel good about permanently marking it as a thing I can tell stories about to the theoretical grandkids someday.

“Grandpa, what is that thing on the back of your leg?”
“Welllllll, let me tell you a little story.”

Someday, maybe.

The guy who did the work, Curtis Adams at Bewitched Tattoo in Rehoboth Beach, was great. At first, he said he couldn’t fit me into his schedule. I could have waited until we returned to Chicago to get it done, but Melody and I both felt a sense of urgency about getting it done as soon as possible. It felt right to get it done in the place where this trip ended.

After asking Curtis about tattoos, timing, price, etc., we were getting ready to leave the shop when Melody said: “You sure you can’t find a way to squeeze him in?”

Curtis checked his schedule a little more and noted there were a couple of appointments the next day that could be a little shaky; young people who seemed a little jittery about making and keeping appointments. He said he’d check with them and get back to me. When he called later that night to tell me an appointment had cleared, I said “let’s do this.” We had talked a little about what I was thinking. I wanted the outline of the U.S. And a line that approximated the route I had ridden.

I wanted something else to make it feel special but I didn’t know what. In my email to Curtis, I sent him a picture that my daughter, Jenna, had taken of me holding up my bike after I had triumphantly dipped my front tire into the Atlantic. That was it.

Jennas pic of finish

The image that Jenna captured that was then reproduced — forever — on my calf.

When we showed up at the shop the next day, Curtis showed me the idea he had roughed out. He had sketched a silhouette of me raising the bike in the air and he proposed having “me” standing atop of U.S. map with this bike. I liked the idea, but have to admit. I wasn’t sure. Never mind the creeping doubts, though. “Let’s do this.”

I had approached this bike ride the same way, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached everything in my life. Make a decision. Put yourself in a position to succeed by planning, organizing and anticipating all the potential road blocks. Then plow ahead, sorting out the issues when they come up. I laid down on the table, put the fate of my left calf in Curtis’ capable hands, and let him do his thing.

I’m super happy with the result. But the coolest part of my visit happened just before I climbed onto the table. As Curtis was getting set up for my session, he was talking to a couple of Army recruiters who work in the area. One was contemplating a sleeve of tats for his arm. His buddy was providing support. As we were hanging out, I mentioned my upcoming (and first) tattoo and the bike ride I had just completed.

Army recruiters

These two gentlemen were excited about the bike trip — and the tattoo.

The guys were excited about the trip. Staff Sgt. Qujuan Baptiste, (the fellow pictured on the left above), first asked if Melody was my daughter (to her eternal delight). That was certainly a compliment to her, but perhaps a dig at me and my old-man gray hair. But he was psyched that someone, um, a little older could do something like this. It was a reminder to him, he said, that you can always set goals and achieve them throughout your lifetime. He said it inspired him. I was humbled. These guys, Sgt. Baptiste and his pal Staff Sgt. John Montalvo, were salt of the earth. Good men. I could tell from even this short conversation that they’re good representatives of our nation. They inspire me, and their kind words touched me. On that high note, I fairly leaped onto the table and Curtis went to work. And when he was done, this was the result.

The outdoor tat pic

As Melody said afterward: “I didn’t think you’d get a tattoo that big?” … My reply: “Go big, or go home.”

While preparing this entry, I tracked down Sgt. Baptiste to make sure I got his and his buddy’s names spelled properly (journalism). He told me he went home that night and talked to his wife about the ride.

He said they were going out this weekend to buy bikes.

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | August 21, 2016

Day 66: That’s all, folks!

Days 66
Destination: The Atlantic Ocean (Rehoboth Beach, Delaware)
Sunday’s mileage: 50. Total: 3,672 (or so — that’s the total on the T-shirts, so …)

Beach lift

Done.

I’ll write more in the next day or two — once I’ve absorbed this whole thing. I want to dig through the blog, look back on this journey, share some of the highs and lows for those of you who haven’t had the chance to read each and every post. But I want to at least acknowledge one thing: It’s all over! I did this thing.

As I was sitting here, contemplating how to put this into words, this is what I’ve come up with.

I’m an incredibly lucky guy. I had an idea. I talked it over with Melody. We decided to tackle it together. And in the space of just a little over two months, we did it. I didn’t get injured. I didn’t get hit by a truck. My wife still likes me. And I got to arrive at my destination after this most excellent adventure to cheers from strangers at the Delaware shore.

On top of that, our daughter Jenna got up early this morning in New York, traveled by train to Wilmington, rented a car and drove another two hours so she could be here for the finale. That was lovely and it felt so good.

My cousin, Sally, who has been a source of constant encouragement and an incredibly uplifting presence, joined me for the final day of riding. It was nice to have her on the road with me. As we rolled into Rehoboth, she started to sing the theme to “Rocky.” Ba-bah-batabum-bata-bum-bump-bum …

watermelon!

Sally (left) and I were especially excited about the watermelon. Well, Sally appears excited, I appear in deep thought on the healing properties of cold watermelon.

And, as always, Melody was there at the finish, cameras in hand, willing assistants at the ready, volunteer cheering squad hanging out. Everyone at the main beach seemed to know I was coming. It was crazy. If you’re planning a grand entrance, you want Melody doing the advance work. As I posed for pictures on the beach, first one young lady delivered a baggie full of cold and refreshing watermelon pieces — yum! Then a young boy stopped by to deliver some chilled apples. I dipped the front tire in the ocean. I posed on a mini red carpet that Melody had procured (of course!). Then we made our way to the boardwalk and helped ourselves to some Kohr Brothers ice cream. Pie will have to wait.

Sharing this ride on the blog has been a privilege. Thank you for being a part of the journey. I’ll keep writing in this space in the days to come. And in the weeks and months that follow, I’ll try to come up with a new way to remain “on the move.”

the three of us

Not only did Jenna deliver T-shirts, she designed them, too. “Will (Bike) for (Pie).” It was great to have a little family time at the finish line.

Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | August 20, 2016

Days 61-65: Almost done! All the feels.

Days 61-65
Destination: Denton, Md.
Three-day riding mileage: 145. Total: 3,604

Washington monument

On Friday, I rode through D.C. and on to Annapolis and near the Bay Bridge. Lots of images on the GoPro, but this is one that Melody took before I headed out.

Tomorrow is it. I ride from Denton to the Delaware shore — Bethany Beach, to be specific. It’ll be a 60-mile ride, give or take. That’ll leave me just shy of 3,700 miles — and then it’ll be over. Just. Like. That.

 

I’ve tried really hard during these past 65 days to avoid thinking about “the last day.” Even though the destination is what this has been about. When I set out on June 13, after dipping my bike’s rear tire into the chilly Pacific Ocean at Winchester Bay, Oregon, I knew this would be a long ride. If I started thinking about “how I’d feel” on the last day I don’t think I would have made it. The trick was taking this in small chunks. Days at a time. Then states. Then 500 or then 1,000 miles. Each day, building on the previous one. Step by step.

Then Melody asked me this morning, with the camera running, how I’m going to feel when I finally — at long last — reach the shore. And I choked. Well, I choked up. Because I finally allowed myself to think about how goddamned amazing this trip has been. Tears welled up in my eyes as I tried to envision those last pedal strokes before I pick up my bike and charge across the sand to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s going to feel good.

I’m going to be proud of myself. I can allow myself that much. But I’m so happy that I got to share this with Melody, keeper of the 55andalive page and so much more. She’s been an indomitable spirit throughout this whole thing. So many people have told me how lucky I am to be married to such an amazing woman. But I know that. I’ve known it all along. Almost 30 years now and she continues to sizzle with life and energy and passion for whatever comes her way. Without her, there’s no me. Without her, this ride might not happen. Without her, there’s no guarantee I finish, even if I had managed to start. She’s that important to this endeavor. It has been a true team effort.

Melody motor lodge kiss

In case there was any doubt: Melody is, indeed, No. 1.

I won’t list, chapter and verse, all that she’s done. She’s done it all. I just did the biking part. But when we’re old and gray (or older and, at least for my part, grayer), this will join the many highlights of the life I’ve been lucky enough to share with this woman.

 

Anyway, when she asked me how I’ll feel tomorrow afternoon when this is all over, I think I managed to gurgle out something approximating this: I’m going to feel proud. I’m going to feel happy. I’m going to feel relief. I worry there are parts of my body that will never be the same. Two fingers on my right hand have been numb for more than a week. My neck is a little sore and fatigued (I blame the GoPro helmet-mounted camera). And my, um, under-carriage might need days of soaking in salt water to begin to approach healing. Beyond that, though, I feel pretty good. My legs feel great. My feet haven’t gotten sore from the pedal clips. I sleep great every night and wake up eager to chase the day when it dawns. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel at this point, but I have to admit that I feel better than I thought I’d feel.

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I have lost about 18 pounds (confirmed by two different scales). Aw, hell, let’s call it 20. Considering how poorly I’ve eaten (the pie and ice cream, for one, but there has been plenty more — and worse for me than that, I’m sure), I’m a little surprised by this. I’d guess my cholesterol might have spiked a little, but hopefully I can work on that in the weeks to come. I’m going to have to wean myself off the eating habits I’ve picked up these past few months. But that’s OK. It’s on to the next challenge anyway. Maybe I’ll make it a healthy-eating challenge.

I’m a little nervous about what comes next. I need to immediately start looking for work. I’ve made some early inquiries in various quarters about that. I’ll keep plugging away. If you know of anyone who’s hiring, let me know. We’ll be happy to relocate from Chicago if that’s what it takes. I don’t think we can afford to do freelance anymore. I need a job-job for any number of reasons. I’m sure my dad will celebrate reading that last sentence. He’s been urging me to get a “real job” certainly since before this bike ride, but I think I can safely say his protestations have been going on for a few years now. Hi, Dad.

Knowing, however, that I have that amazing Melody at my side, though, fills me with confidence and calm as we head toward a new adventure — whatever that might be.

Oh, and I’m buying a new bike. A Surly Long-Haul Trucker. First, if I’m going to do any more touring, and I plan to, I don’t think I’ll be lucky enough to have Melody around to tote my stuff for me. I’ll be on my own, so I need a workhorse bike, one that can carry a heavy load. So, what you may ask, is on my agenda for the future? Well, I’m glad you asked. I’m thinking about riding around Lake Michigan with a bunch of people next summer. I’ve talked to a few people about this already. It’s only 1,000 miles or so. Who’s up?

***
And, as always, please keep checking in on Melody’s witty posts, beautiful photos and some short videos at 55andalive.com. Once we get off this mad ride, I’d expect Melody will finally find the time to start break down all the hours of video we’ve been accumulating this summer. Another big lift by the master storyteller.

 

Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | August 15, 2016

Days 57-60: Grinding — and more pie-pounding — to the finish

Day 57-60
Destination: Great Allegheny Passage/C&O Canal trail from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.
Four-day mileage: 275. Total: 3,459

Mark facing east

I’ve kept my eyes focused eastward this whole trip.

Guys, I’ve been too tired to write these past few days. … Trail riding is much more difficult than road riding, it turns out.

 

I knew that, of course. But at the end of a long journey, it’s hard to appreciate the beauty and amazing convenience of riding trails all the way from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. I haven’t made it to D.C. just yet. That happens Tuesday (tomorrow). We stopped today 59 miles short of D.C. — in Harper’s Ferry. But I’ve ridden for four days on these trails and have alternately loved it and loathed it.

First the love.

 

Mark and Sally

Cousin Sally: Hero!

Day 57: My cousin Sally Byrne is the hero of these past four days. She not only volunteered to help secure a bike for me to ride on the trails, she delivered it to me in Pittsburgh (she lives outside of Baltimore). She drove for four hours, had breakfast with us, rode with me for 30 miles and then (thanks to Melody), was delivered back to her car where she trekked back to Baltimore. That’s family for you. The best kind of family.

 

The Great Allegheny Passage trail was beautiful and wonderfully maintained. There were plenty of places to stop for food or water. And the crushed limestone path was almost as good as pavement. I managed 60 or so miles the first day and then Melody and I set up in the … wait for it … Melody Motor Lodge in Connellsville, PA. We just had to stay there!

Melody motor lodge kiss

Of course, we had to stay at the Melody Motor Lodge.

Day 58: The next day, I woke up and pushed as hard as I could to get as far down the line as possible. Turns out, the gradual grade leading to my next destination — Frostburg, PA., was hard. It was about 60-65 miles of a slight incline. Maybe 2 percent. Maybe 3. I’m not 100 percent certain. But going slightly uphill for 6 hours or more takes its toll. It was hot, too, but that wasn’t the problem. Maybe the fact that I’ve been riding so long, that’s what got to me. Yeah, let’s go with that.

Anyway, I made it to Frostburg after a joyous 10 miles of downhill grade. We spent the night at a cool little historic hotel — Hotel Gunther — and sauntered across the street to the Princess restaurant, a local landmark. We ate dinner at a booth just a few seats away from where Harry and Bessy Truman sat on a visit to the restaurant many years ago. It’s a great spot — check it out if you’re riding the path. It’s family-owned since 1939.

Pie from Princess restaurant

The Princess Restaurant did pie right. It’s almost as if they knew I was coming!

Day 59: After a 15-mile sprint to Cumberland, Md., it was on to the C&O Canal Towpath — and a whole new level of pain. There is a profound difference, it turns out, between a crushed limestone path (GAP) and one that is alternately gravel, dirt, mud, and rock strewn with tree branches and water-filled potholes (C&O). But pain be damned, I was determined to push through whatever I needed to go the distance. My goal was to travel about 75 miles to Hancock.

I met Melody for lunch about 35 miles into the journey, in Old Town. I was beat up. My wrists were sore. My back was sore. I was hungry and I was thirsty. Old Town had, I think, one small diner but we were directed to the Fire Department, where they were hosting a Sunday “dinner.” The feast was the kind you’d find in many small communities across the country. It was billed as a fund-raiser for the volunteer fire department and there was a relatively small turnout. But the food was great — salmon cakes, macaroni and cheese, green beans, plus a small fruit plate, and dessert. If you read this blog, you know which way I went for dessert: that’s right, pie!

Princess and the pie

The stop at the Old Town firehouse fund-raiser dinner was a success, thanks to pie delivered by Ariana, a superstar in her own right.

Fueled up, I carried on down the trail — mud-splattered, body aching but the memory of a cherry cream pie lodged in the pleasure centers of my brain.

Day 60: On to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. Another 60 miles in the books and so close to D.C. (only 59 miles away) that I can almost taste it. I know that I said at the top that I’ve loathed part of this trail, and that’s true. It’s rough. It’s hard on my body after two months of riding. But it is truly a gift for the area. I mean, I’m riding along the Potomac River and the C&O Canal. It’s deeply shaded, so even on a hot day like today (Monday), with heat advisory warnings being sounded, I was able to plod along until I got to this little historic spot.

And just after I loaded up the bike and we headed to one more hotel stay (yeah, we’ve kind of packed it in on the camping front), the skies opened up, lightning flashed and the rain pored down. But we’re high and dry and ready for tomorrow. D.C., here we come.

After arriving in D.C., we’ll take a couple of days off before making the final push to the Delaware shore (I’ll bike that on Saturday and Sunday). But it’s almost over. I’ll try to spend some times in the coming days thinking about that a bit more, but as I have during this entire trip, I’ll try to take it all in stride. One pedal stroke at a time until I can stride across the sandy beach and dip a tire into the ocean. Can’t wait.

wide shot canal trail

Heading east — always east — on the C&O Canal Towpath. Looks benign here, but looks can be deceiving.

 

 

Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | August 11, 2016

Days 55-56: Food, a fall, and a visit to Pittsburgh

Day 55
Destination: Steubenville, Ohio
Wednesday’s mileage: 67. Total: 3,134

Sometimes the only thing that distinguishes one day from the next at this late stage is the food. Sloppy Joe’s at the Jewett Restaurant hit the spot in a number of ways. First, I was hungry. Second, there was rain all around. Just after I sat down for a quick bite, the skies opened up and I enjoyed the show while safely and comfortably ensconced in this little gem of a place in Jewett.

Jewett restaurant

I went with the $5 Sloppy Joe lunch special and it didn’t disappoint. I also was warned about the dangers of Steubenville before departing. Said my server’s grandfather, the husband of the Jewett Restaurant’s owner: “Why don’t you just stay here?”

Another thing that locks a day into your memory bank? A fall. Yeah, I fell. It wasn’t tragic or fantastic in any way. I was slogging up a steep hill in eastern Ohio (it’s hilly out here). The cords from my headphones (yeah, yeah — I know, I’m supposed to be paying attention. But I like to listen to books on the long rides) got tangled in my aerobar. As I tried to extricate myself, I steered — at low speed — off the narrow road. As I tried to correct, I lost what little speed I was carrying. Because my shoes have clips that are locked into the pedals, I tried to “clip out.” But because I was now basically stopped, I panicked and tipped over. It was more slow-motion fall than crash, but I’m sure the details of it will grow more harrowing the older I get.

Anyway, I skinned my elbow but otherwise came away unscathed. An older couple in a car coming up the hill behind me slowed down, a look of concern on both of their faces. I waved at them, assuring them I was OK. Pride injured. Body OK. And I carried on.

Beyond that, the day was all about grinding my way to the border of Ohio and West Virginia. I did that. Good enough.

Day 56
Destination: Pittsburgh, Pa.
Thursday’s mileage: 50. Total: 3,184

I crossed over two state lines today. The first hurdle was the Market Street Bridge over the Ohio River. That path took me from Ohio to West Virginia.

Market Street Bridge

I might look a little dazed, but I’m not confused. I crossed TWO state lines today, going from Ohio to West Virginia and then on to Pennsylvania.

After scaling the hills on West Virginia side for a while, I glided down into Colliers and then onto the Panhandle bike trail, which runs alongside Harmon Creek and then on into Pittsburgh. It was great to be off the busy and narrow-shouldered roadways of this part of the country, even though a good section of the trail was crushed limestone (not a perfect surface for my skinny-tired road bike).

Once I cleared the trail and headed into Pittsburgh proper, I was back on roads and back climbing hills. It was slow going and the heat and humidity were oppressive. But I rolled into town, located one of the many Pittsburgh bike trails and found my way to our destination — a beautiful old mansion that has been turned into a hotel. It’s called The Mansions on Fifth. We got a good deal, and at the end of the day, Melody definitely deserves a night like this. Me? Yeah, I think I deserve it, too.

Mansions on FIfth

It’s a beautiful old stone mansion turned into a nice little hotel. Very sweet spot.

***
For more on our trip, please check out the 55andalive website that Melody maintains. It includes her musings about the trip, which are often quite different from my own. And also lots of great photos and some videos, too.

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