Thursday, September 02, 2010

Epic Adventures Part I: Travels with Charlie

"A journey is a person itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."

-John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

September, 2010

“On my trip with Charlie …”

It’s a phrase that has begun a thousand or more sentences—a reference point for so many endeavors that followed.

In August of 1995, three months after my college graduation, I set off on a road trip around the country with my friend Charlie. Living out of our trusty van, we spent five months travelling, running, writing, hiking, camping, racing, visiting friends, meeting new people and seeing corners of the continent previously unknown to me.

The experiences from that trip were, in some ways, more education that I’d had in my four years of college. I learned how incredibly diverse this country is – both culturally, with its people, food and architecture, as well as in the landscape. I learned that when your mind is open to new adventures, they seem to present themselves to you, and that more often than not, strangers are incredibly kind. If you want to restore your faith in humanity, take a road trip when you’re young and broke.

A few years later, when I first met my husband, the phrase “On my trip with Charlie …” was still part of my standard daily lexicon. It seemed 80% of my life’s experiences had taken place during that five months, and I always had some story to share from it. Andrew’s internal lament during those first weeks of our relationship, that “Gretchen will never get over Charlie,” was the source of much amusement when he finally figured out that A)Charlie was a woman, and therefore B) not an ex-boyfriend.

Of the many experiences Charlie and I had, writing about them turned out to be one of the most important. It seems funny to me now to realize that running and writing had already developed such an integral partnership in my life so many years ago. We set out with the intention of writing a memoir of those experiences, and although we never quite finished that project, reading the many pages we did write brings the journey back to me with startling clarity. It is yet another affirmation of how we learn so much through writing about our experiences.

Reading what we wrote, I can’t help but laugh at how young I truly was. So young. And yet, there I am, staring out clearly from the pages of my own past—daring my current self to either deny who I am, or to go ahead and live the life I had set out for myself even then.

The unedited excerpts from our writings that I’ve included in this post don’t talk about the many places we visited. I didn’t provide a recap of backpacking in Idaho and Montana, running the Naval Academy students off their own track in Annapolis, jumping in a boat with two nearly-toothless strangers off the Miami coast in an attempt to outrace the setting sun, finding the locals’ hangout in Key West, meeting the bull mastiff that slept on the bathroom floor at 3 A.M. in New Orleans, or our day (and night) running and drinking with the Memphis Hash House Harriers. I didn’t include painstakingly detailed race reports from Hood to Coast, our first 30K in McCall, Idaho, our first marathon in the Twin Cities, or the culmination of our trip—a little marathon we ran back in Boston in April of 1996.

The pieces I chose to include discuss the intentions and hopes we had at the beginning of our trip, and our perceptions of each other. As so many people have said, in as many ways as there are words, life isn’t so much about what you have or where you are, it’s about the people with whom you share the experience. Put more simply: Life is about friendship.

And although through its course I amassed a slew of life-experiences upon which I still draw to this day, this trip was ultimately about friendship.

August 23, 1995


“Are you crazy?”

The shout came from the open car window of a much agitated and no doubt confused motorist. Nothing could be more fitting. Yes, we’re crazy. We are wild nomadic women on the eve of our greatest adventure. It seems perfectly normal to us that we are running through the streets at 1:30 in the morning clad in sports bras. We are not afraid. We are crazy. Running through the night, intoxicated with self-admiration, sweating streams of anticipation as though nothing in the world can stop us.

Nothing can stop us.


Oddly enough, to this point, nothing had tried to stop us. No one had looked at us with disapproving eyes and said, “Shouldn’t you be getting a job?” Most people had in fact encouraged us, and even seemed excited for us. I wasn’t sure Charlie’s parents were too excited about the prospect of her quitting her job and running around the country with a girl who had never held down the same job for more than three months in her entire life, while they slept in the back of a VW bus parked in random corners of the continent, running through streets they’d never seen before just to see what was around the next corner and over the next hill. Maybe something new and exciting. Maybe anything.

But like good parents, they knew she was going to do what she wanted, and they finally resigned themselves to biting their tongues and sending her off well-stocked with chocolate chip cookies. Aside from that, we seemed to be thought of with envy among most of the company we kept.

And why not? Weren’t we about to have the adventure of a lifetime? In all honesty, it seemed perfectly normal. We wanted to travel. We wanted to run races we’d read about in the glossy pages of Runner’s World. We wanted to see places and do things we’d never seen or done. When my mom offered us use of her old Volkswagen Van (“No one else is going to be driving it,” she’d shrugged), there was nothing standing in our way of doing exactly what we’d been talking about.

“It’s a great idea. This is the only time in your life when you can do something like this.” I heard the statement in a thousand different voices, coming from countless mouths. I smiled and nodded, but I silently wondered why that was. We can do whatever we want, whenever we want, can’t we? But I wasn’t brash enough to say that – a girl who had just graduated from college, had never supported herself, and never had to be responsible for anyone else – to people with jobs and spouses and kids and mortgage payments.

I felt I could almost see the burden of responsibility in their eyes when they looked at me. “I wish I had done something like that.” Their voices sound regretful.

I want to scream, “It’s not too late!” But who am I to tell them this? Maybe it is too late. Is it possible that there comes a time in life when fulfilling others’ needs becomes part of fulfilling one’s own, and those things don’t include jumping into a car and driving down the highway not knowing exactly where you’re going to stop?

All I knew was, if there was such a point, Charlie and I wouldn’t be arriving there any time in the next five months. We were finally absolved of the responsibility of school. We didn’t have jobs. We didn’t have husbands, no kids, no pets, no rent, not even any boyfriends. In short, we had no strings—nothing to think about but ourselves and each other.

If people were right, and this was an opportunity, a golden moment in our lives, then I intended to enjoy it. I’ve never seen myself as the housewife type, baking cookies and sending the kids off to school with their Power Ranger lunch boxes and their Hello Kitty backpacks. And I know I’ll never be Ms. Executive, staying late at the office and wearing panty hose and make-up to work every day. But regardless of the future, Charlie and I have a lot to accomplish right now. Anything can keep people from pursuing their dreams, and it usually does.

Sometimes it felt like just another race: “Get as much out of life as you can before you’re tied down with responsibility!” But I didn’t want to see this as the only perfect time in my life, and neither did Charlie. This was the beginning. It was merely a first step. We weren’t going to sprint a hundred meters, barely breaking a sweat, and call that the finish line. We were in the early miles of a marathon, and we did not intend to make the mistake of going out too fast. We were not going to sit in the office when we turned forty and talk wistfully about the things we wished we’d done. Nor would we remember these as the best days of our lives just because we had done something different. Taking this trip was simply something we’d decided to do. It isn’t a detour for us, a deviation in our otherwise “on-track” lives. Instead, it is an intricate, though small, piece of our future. What would happen on this trip was anyone’s guess, but the decisions were ours alone.


It is only fitting that our final action on this, the eve of departure for Charlie and Gretchen’s Amazing Adventure of a Lifetime was to run wildly through the streets of Claremont, down to the track and sprint a victory lap on that red clay that first brought us together – “the best damn dirt track in Southern California.” This was the meeting place for two women with the desire to run, the drive to win, and the passion to go beyond only that. It was from here that our adventure was born and here that our adventure would begin.

“Ladies, take your marks …”

September 7th, 1995


If I’d stopped to think about it, it might have seemed strange that here I was, off to conquer the world with Charlie Stoddard. My first impression of Charlie had been, of course, that she was cool. Everyone thought she was cool. And me? Well, I had never hung out with what one would call the popular crowd in high school, and being a freshman on the team, and not exactly one of the fastest runners at the time, I was definitely not cool enough to be friends with Charlie Stoddard.

It’s not that she was aloof or reserved. She just had something that people admired. I’d be hard pressed to say exactly what it was she possessed, maybe her quick wit or her unending supply of amusing sarcastic remarks, but I think it could best be described as spirit.

Charlie was the local girl. She had grown up in the town of Claremont and attended Claremont McKenna College. She seemed to know everything and everyone that had anything to do with Claremont or the colleges or the team. We could hardly go on a run or a van ride when she wasn’t doing silly things like pointing out buildings where she had gone to school and claiming them as famous historical landmarks based on her attendance, or telling us who lived in the particular house we were running by and what local story they were involved in.

During that first season I tried desperately to stick with Charlie on runs, certain that she was my only hope of not getting lost (some things never change), but she was the fastest runner on the team, and I was certain I would never be able to keep up with her.

If anyone ever had a name that suited her well, it was Charlie. Of course, that was only her middle name, her real name was Mary, but I couldn’t imagine anyone calling her that. To me, the name Mary evoked images of little girls in flouncy skirts with pink bows in their hair, or old women in white habits with long rosaries, or various other things I would never associate with Charlie. The fact that it was a man’s name is not why it suited her. It was a name which contained a certain amount of what my mother would call sass. This isn’t to say she was bratty, for she was nothing of the sort. She was an independent and assertive woman, which I think made her seem opinionated to some. But even when she had no real feeling about the issue at hand, she would argue with anyone until they gave up simply because she was not going to let someone push her around and, God forbid, tell her she was wrong. This commanded a great deal of respect in my eyes.

It wasn’t until my sophomore track season (her junior year) that Charlie and I became something more than just teammates. Sarah joined us as a freshman on the team in racing the 1500. The three of us had a good season of racing, and it was then that the “1500 Posse” was born. I liked racing with them, but what I really loved was having a group so close to my own abilities to train with. Our goal pace workouts, 10 repeats of 300 meters, seemed much more bearable running with the two of them. Sarah always came through first, and then a second later Charlie and I would finish together. Something about it felt natural and almost easy. We never had to think about our pace or how many repeats we had left. We just kept cranking them out as hard as we could, running smoothly side by side, rounding the turns, down the straightaways, over and over until we thought we couldn’t possibly go another step, and then collapsing onto the infield in sweet exhaustion.

I always told Charlie that she was one of the most competitive people I knew, while she always made the same assertion about me. I think it was this similarity of attitude and intensity of desire that made us such great training partners. We respected each other in a lot of ways, and especially as athletes. That season she, Sarah and I raced every event from the 400 to the 3,000 because our team was so small, but we were definitely 1500 runners.

Charlie and I obsessed our way through several seasons of cross country and track together during our time in college. My freshman year, our cross country team finished nearly last in our conference. By the time Charlie was a senior, and team captain, we finished second in the Western Region and qualified for Nationals. It may seem like together we transformed the team, but in actuality, it was the team that had transformed us.

So now here we were, on some highway driving through the middle of Idaho and planning to spend the next five months living in a Volkswagen van. Actually, now that I did stop to think about it, there really wasn’t anything strange about the idea at all. Somehow, I knew we would make perfect traveling partners. I came up with all the brilliant ideas (“Maybe we could go up to Alaska after Hood to Coast!”) while Charlie remembered all the details (“Gretchen, Alaska is cold. We don’t have a heater in the car.”) She had a knack for forgetting to turn the headlights off on occasion, but somehow she always managed to keep me from driving down the wrong highways and getting off at the wrong exits. We could fill endless hours of driving with complete silence, each of us off in our own reverie, or we could talk forever about running or relationships or our futures, or how to mix powdered milk and water without getting the cereal too soggy.

No, it definitely didn’t seem like a strange idea, (although Coach couldn’t stop telling us how we’d never survive together), and we knew we could do it. After three years of getting up at 5 A.M. with the same person running mile repeats, hill repeats, hundred-minute runs, tempo runs, fartleks, runs carrying weights, and whatever else Coach chose to throw our way, we were pretty sure we could survive anything together.

September 8th, 1995


Heading north, Montana-bound, we made a quick stop at the border to take pictures with “Welcome to …” signs in both directions since we didn’t get one when we’d entered Idaho the week before, (Brad being opposed to stopping in the median of the freeway). Deep into Montana we drove, past the Bitterroot River, past the Bitterroot Gift Store, the Bitterroot Laundromat, hair salon and drug store.

“Bet you can’t guess what the state flower of Montana is,” Gretchen challenged, chuckling at what she obviously considered brilliantly witty humor.

“I haven’t a clue. Now would you quit aiming for every available bump on the highway? I’m trying to write a postcard to my grandmother!” I shot back, holding up a stunning three-by-five still life of what looked like a Pepto-dipped daisy, “Bitterroot – State Flower of Montana” in fluorescent yellow cursive across the front.

Gretchen drove the next mile with one tire on the reflective dots separating the two lanes of highway.

“Hey, a little respect for your elders!” I yelled.

She swerved in and out of the drainage ditch. I guess that was my answer.

We pulled into the Walmart parking lot in Missoula, the sight of the way-too-expensive but highly-necessary one-hour photo. After dropping off our film, we made a quick change into running clothes behind the relative privacy of our home-made madras curtains and headed off for an easy 4-miler—a far better alternative than hanging out in Walmart for the better part of an hour.

“Farting!” warned Gretchen before letting one rip.

“Incoming!” I returned the courtesy. Though this warning system had become standard routine for us these days, it still never failed to make me hysterical with laughter.

“Farting again!” Gretchen announced. By now we were so completely immersed in a most chic-like giggle fit, we had to walk a few strides to keep from wetting our pants. I couldn’t, at that moment, think of anyone I’d rather be travelling with.

I couldn’t have guessed, during Gretchen’s first year at school, that she and I would someday become such good friends, let alone move into a Volkswagen together. With the exception of my friend Sarah from high school, I had never been extremely close friends with any of my teammates. In general, the distance runner circle didn’t often associate with the people I usually found myself friends with. My other friends considered the runners geeks. The runners generally didn’t bother to consider my other friends, except to point out what jerks they were and ask me why I associated with them, neither group bothering to get to know the other, content to accept the stereotypes as fact.

As for me, well nobody really knew quite what to make of me. My outside friends were constantly frustrated by my fluctuating team dedication, rolling their eyes when I refused to go out on Friday nights with them, or when I went to bed early during the week in order to get up at 5:00 A.M. for cross country practice. The people on the team, I guess, simply expected me to be a bitch. After all, how could I hang out with that crowd and not be? Every yearbook entry from high school teammates said essentially the same thing: “Once I got to know you, I was really surprised. You’re much nicer than I expected.” Something like that. Hey, thanks for the confidence. I received similar statements from people on my college team as well. I’m not quite sure what they expected. I certainly wasn’t hauling my ass out of bed at that ungodly hour of the morning and running until I nearly puked simply so that I would look good in a bathing suit.

I would imagine that Gretchen met with similar experiences, at least during her first year of college which she spent much like I had, trying to fit in as many parties and social events as possible, while still attempting to maintain some weak semblance of dedication to running. She found, as I did, that you can’t do it all. No, we didn’t get to know each other that first year. She was busy being a freshman, and I, I was still busy trying to manage my own schizophrenic social life.

As the years passed, Gretchen and I became better friends. We travelled in similar circles, though she had a much higher annoyance threshold with the team than I did and could tolerate their antics outside of practice-related activities, while I tended to leave those relationships on the track. At the beginning of my junior track season, I was faced with a decision. Was I going to suck it up and run, spending the first month of the season sweating off ten pounds of English ale, or simply scrap the whole competitive running thing? It wasn’t a difficult decision, just a hard one to follow through on.

I don’t know what Gretchen’s thought process was going into that season, but essentially we had ended up on the same page. We decided to be runners. Not runners because that was what we had always done. Not runners because we had nothing better to do, or because someone else expected it of us. We were runners because that was who we were, because that was who we wanted to be. We trained together that season – really trained, something I hadn’t yet totally committed myself to in college. We raced together – really raced, using each other, pushing each other, beating each other, getting beaten by each other, but never losing to one another. We ran better that year, better than I had since high school, better than she ever had. But we were never satisfied.

Such a drastic change in a person in only one year. From a giggling freshman girl suddenly emerged an independent, opinionated, self-motivated woman; Coach’s ideal athlete, and also his worst nightmare. Stories of her ‘sit-in’ in Coach’s living room the infamous season that he ‘quit’ the women’s team reached me all the way on my semester study-abroad in England. Was this the same girl who missed the end of her freshman season because she broke her elbow falling off a chair, no doubt, we assumed, at a party? This, the same girl who was, incidentally, last year’s recipient of the esteemed purple lampshade award, given to the freshman who had made the biggest ass of him/herself during the course of the season, had planted herself down on Coach’s couch and refused to leave until he promised to take the women’s team back. The rest of the team had long since written him off with a ‘good-riddance’ to his horrible attitude that season. But there Gretchen sat, wanting, of all things, to talk about the situation rather than run away from it. Something had definitely come over her. I only wished that I could claim it was in some small way due to my influence. But being eight thousand miles away, I could only sit by and read about it, two weeks after the fact, in various letters from other awed members of the team. Coach still found some way to implicate me in her corruption, but she and I both know, it was all her own.

Now I can hardly remember that first Gretchen. I only see her as I do now – hair up in two looped braids, backwards sweater and hiking boots, peeing in highway turnouts, munching on Cheetos, and running my ass into the ground day after day after day. I can only describe her personality as one of existential everything. Subscribing to no one theory or way of doing things, she combines bits and pieces of every philosophy, lifestyle, recipe or clothing rack to form something entirely her own. One minute she is touting the merits of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail by herself for five months with nothing to aid her but an ice axe and a box of raisins. The next moment she is bouncing off to the campground bathroom at midnight, blow-dryer in hand, to dry her bangs straight simply because she likes them better that way. Hypocritical she isn’t, nor is she fickle about her convictions. She’d carry a switchblade in the sleeve of her evening gown and not give it a second thought, but don’t dare scoff at it because she’d do battle – no holds barred – drawing from Shakespeare, Mother Goose, and Truckdriver’s Quarterly to prove you wrong. And she would prove you wrong – well, that is, if she didn’t slip off into a day dream about climbing Mt. Everest or painting her future kitchen in the middle of the argument.

“Farting again.” The call interrupted my reflecting. “Wow. Must be all those Cheetos,” she diagnosed to no one in particular.

Already trying desperately to control my bladder, we rounded the corner to face the steepest, longest, most intimidating hill I have ever laid eyes on. Four tiers, straight up the side of a mountain, not unlike the hills of downtown San Francisco, but longer, and with no direction to turn for escape. We were stunned with its colossal proportions, and the only thing left to do was simultaneously, and quite harmoniously, exclaim, “Oh shit!”

This, of course, inspired further peals of laughter only to be contained by stopping and bending over to stabilize our contorting stomach muscles. Eventually we started running again though, and kicked that hill’s ass. Because hills have asses.

September, 2010

Charlie is still the best running partner I’ve ever had. That may not sound like much, but to a girl who has defined herself as a runner for 25 of her 36 years on this planet, it says everything. It’s not just because we trained and raced well together. It’s mostly because we understood each other as people, respecting our similarities as well as our differences. There’s something quite permanent about a friend who’s learned so many of the secrets of my heart during shared miles out on the road and trail.

Charlie and I don’t get a lot of running in together these days, although I still manage to drag her out for the occasional painful marathon in a hurricane (read: CIM in 2001) or to pace me through my first 50-mile race. But she and I could go years without a visit, and I rest easy in the knowledge that when we do finally see each other, it will be as if we were running down the trail together just yesterday.

In some ways, Andrew was right. I’ve never gotten over Charlie. But that’s okay, because I don’t have to.

Twin Cities Marathon starting line, October, 1995


  1. If those passages were written right out of college, you both were quite talented writers...and quite mature ladies. I don't recall myself being so psychologically self-analyzing at same age, even though by the age 21 (which, I am assuming, was your age at the time) I had been married, had a baby and was in my last year of internship of medical school with 6 years of nurse experience and a couple of summers building roads in Siberia. I guess this is why you are who you are today:) And I won't even start making remarks on the idea of the trip itself, because I am afraid my jealousy will come out, but as you said, life comes on the way, and there is nobody to blame by ourselves. I hope this assay goes into that book you're writing. And I hope I am getting a copy of it:) Say hi to Charlie. Ask her if she is interested in an extra friend:)

  2. Aww, Olga, that's so nice! I wasn't even sure if this was the kind of thing anyone else would find worth reading, so thanks for plowing through it all. :) I was 21, but seriously, not that mature. I had to work hard to keep from editing and rewriting those old passages!

    I can't believe you had done all that stuff already by that age. That is some serious adventure and life experience if you ask me!

  3. What fun it was to read that entry. I settled in for the "long read" with some frozen cookie dough and thoroughly enjoyed the stories. What amazing insight you two had at 21 years old. It brought back wonderful memories of my solo trip through the western states and Alaska. What a great time to be young and single. Looking forward to the next story.

  4. You are an inspiration. I absolutely loved reading this passage :)

  5. Catherine and Paige - I'm so glad you guys took the time to read it, and enjoyed it. Totally fun for me to write, but you know, definitely a little funny putting so much about my youth out there into the blogosphere. Thanks for the comments!

  6. I finally had time to sit down to read this post in its entirety, though I didn't have any cookie dough to sustain me, like your commenter Catherine did. ;)

    Lovely blast into Gretchen's past. Here's something interesting, the traits that Charlie ascribes to you then seem not too different from now.

    Reading these made me reflective of the road trip I took right after college as well. Not too different, but we did end up going to Alaska, and the car did have a heater.

    Thanks for sharing these pieces of yourself, and I look forward to the rest of this life adventure series!


  7. Thanks Meghan! Andrew laughed pretty hard reading some of this. I think he agrees with you that I am much the same as I was then. I like to think I've matured, but ... :)

  8. Loved this post! I had a similar post-college adventure. Except instead of a VW Van, we had a Chevy Nova. And instead of a Charlie, I had my newly eloped with husband. Thanks for sharing your story!