This week was my mom’s 65th birthday and retirement party, on the same day. Mom has been an educator for 34 years and Friday was finally her last day of school. I drove the 9 hours home to Niobrara, NE to celebrate with her and my Dad, and the entire way I fought a vicious northerly headwind that left my ears ringing and my brain exhausted from focusing to keep The Roost on the road. But, once you get a 100 miles or so away from the Front Range and out onto the Great Plains, the wind is nothing really worth commenting on. It is simply endemic to the environment. Wind notwithstanding, late May is actually a really ideal time to visit my home—the hills are resplendent with a lush emerald; the whippoorwills have already made their way back, offering a reliable and lovely serenade each evening; the weather is pleasantly warm but not necessarily yet hot and sticky; and the bugs (chiggers in the grass during the day, mosquitos in the evening) haven’t quite yet decided that it’s time to torment.
In addition to verdant hills replacing semi-arid, snow-capped summits, lots of other things are different in Nebraska. The pick-up trucks are generally a whole lot bigger and more ubiquitous, neither television nor the Internet is available in my house, and instead of worrying about open space access or, say, the portion of the utilities that come from renewable energy resources, local politics tend to center around other issues. Things like whether or not the gravel road is getting graded sufficiently, or if it’s fair that the farmers—landowners who pay property taxes—should be paying the bond issued to fund the construction of the new high school, even if hardly any farmers have any kids in school anymore…etc, etc, etc.
Life moves at a different pace, too. When I dropped off The Roost at the local mechanic—the same trustworthy individual that has worked on my family’s cars my entire life—I was in a bit of a hurry to start running, hoping to beat the rain, but he was eager to chat. How were things? How’s life in Colorado?
When I lived in Nebraska in high school, like many people of that age-group, I felt like a misfit who had no one with which to identify. I was eager to go to college, to Colorado, where there were mountains and probably other people who understood what was so important about running. Though I have, of course, made my way back to Niobrara at least once each of the past 12 years since I graduated high school, this trip was the first time I went into the “multi-purpose room”—the central cafeteria where the school’s breakfast and lunch are served, one-act plays and school concerts are performed, and school-wide events (like my mom’s retirement party) are staged—and I chatted with many teachers who I hadn’t seen in the past decade either.
My emotions there were mixed. These people and the dozen-plus years I spent in Niobrara involuntarily placed their respective stamps on me as an individual. In the very small pool that is the Niobrara School District, I was a stand-out in the classroom, but even then I found my real purpose in exploring the surrounding rolling hills and valleys via running.
I logged literally thousands of miles, building an aerobic base and a personal identity separate from what at the time I viewed as the predominant but flawed value system of Huskers football, newly-leased pick-up trucks, and alcohol consumption. At the retirement party, however—surely benefiting from the perspective offered by a decade’s removal—I had nothing but positive vibes. My mom was roundly and sincerely applauded by colleagues former and present and students former and present for all of the energy and time she invested in them for the past quarter-century. I was hit by a meaningful sense of community—warts and all—and how important that is, especially when one has the humility to serve that value in spite of politics, judgements, or differences of opinion. I was really proud of my mom.
The morning of my mom’s party, I had deliberately revisited my most hallowed of stomping grounds, a relentlessly hilly 22 mile loop on soft, gravel roads that I’d completed dozens of times before, a personal ritual with a now 17 year history. It winds past numerous old farmsteads of my ancestors from the past 150 years, roots that over the years I assiduously—if unconsciously—deepened with many an impassioned lap, always trying for a faster time. Of course, this outing was no different and I rolled through at a 6:25 pace, a couple minutes off my PR, but nonetheless exhilarated to have celebrated the brilliant spring morning with an up-tempo effort on legs that these days are more accustomed to a hard uphill hike over talus at high altitude than dropping 6’s along a never-ending avenue of barbed-wire fences.
As I ambled back onto my family’s front yard, headed to cold-soak my legs with a garden hose in the horse tank, I commented to my Dad, “Feels just like old times, running hard on the Liska Loop” (historically, the Liska surname is one inextricably interwoven with the Krupicka’s in the family trees of the Czech communities of Niobrara and Verdigre in Nebraska). Although I was definitely feeling nostalgia, this was seasoned with an unmistakable sense of familiarity through repetition. Even a decade later, I could still remember where I used to cache bottles of water to make it through a hot summer run, which homesteads had aggressive dogs, and how hard I should push certain uphills and downhills in order to optimize my effort.
My family’s farm and the surrounding area is a place that I know intimately. Such a deep connection, through bloodlines and familiarity wrought from physical effort, is probably the most defining thing that makes that slice of the world truly “home” for me. While the bugs and wind and humidity can be unpleasant, ultimately they undeniably tug at something deep inside me whenever experienced.
Twenty-four hours after Mom’s retirement, I was back in Colorado and headed straight for the high country. Over the weekend I made a pair of ascents of Colorado’s highest talus heap, 14,433′ Mt. Elbert just outside of Leadville. These were my 27th and 28th times standing on that particular summit, and just like the Liska Loop, there was a palpable euphoria that went deeper than the brilliant sunshine and expansive views.
As I hunched over and rhythmically kicked up a steep snowfield on the mountain’s western flank I had an unmistakable satisfaction and sense of peace born of comfort and familiarity. Grunting high above treeline on this non-standard route I may not have been “comfortable” in the most textbook definition of the word—looking back, I was hypoxic; my knuckles were numb and raw from repeatedly digging into the crusty snow; a gusty breeze would occasionally chill me—but like Nebraska’s bugs and humidity and conservative politics, these things served to reinforce my integration with the place rather than detract from the overall experience and divorce me from it.
It’s a difficult thing to articulate, but when this crucial sense of place is lacking, I instead feel mostly a rift or a gap, as if the land or the region and myself are talking past each other, unable to communicate effectively. The sharp juxtaposition of Nebraska and the Colorado mountains this past weekend made me realize that the actual location ultimately doesn’t really matter. What does matter is a connection to a place—the landscape and the communities that inhabit it. Developing this connection takes time and requires ongoing investigation and effort, but such a connection is really what defines home for me and is something I feel fortunate to have found both in the green hills of Nebraska and the craggy summits of Colorado.