by Dante Zappala

I stood at a crossroads in Wisconsin on Christmas Day. I had just climbed out of Illinois on a two lane byway that traverses the backside of a bluff. On the other side – somewhere – was the Mississippi river, a bridge and the road back to Iowa.

My instincts told me to go left and I’d be sure to see a sign for Dubuque. Then again, I already had close to an hour on my feet so if I was going down the wrong road and had to double back further down, I’d be entering some really uncomfortable territory.

I flagged a passing ambulance. The EMT told me I had it right and the road was safe to run on. I would soon find out that the gravel shoulder of a four lane highway qualifies as safe in Wisconsin.

All I really wanted for Christmas was a healthy left leg. I’d spent two days in the box after straining my quad. I got dinged overdoing it with the strength routine I’m on to rehab my knee.

After the kids had opened their presents and the inevitable meltdowns had subsided, I looked under the tree as it were and felt that Santa had granted my wish after all. My leg felt fine. With my carb and fat stores well stocked by the rum and eggnog barrage of the night before, I was ready to head out on an adventure just as everyone else settled in to watch the “Christmas Story” marathon.

Dubuque sits on the Western shore of the Mississippi. Wisconsin is at the end of one bridge and Illinois is at the end of the other. Those two states are connected by some land route that I figured would make more sense once I was on it. The idea of capping off my running year by trekking over two bridges and through three states held immediate appeal.

The run to Illinois was easy enough. The bridge offered a pedestrian walkway and a nice view of Dubuque upstream. I was hitting my stride just as I entered the land of Lincoln. I headed up the hill to Wisconsin.

It’s been a good running year, I thought to myself. I went into it with some modest goals and I managed to exceed most of them. I set a PR in the half and full marathons. I hadn’t run better times in 20 years for other events.

My view of the river disappeared. The sidewalk ended. Still no Wisconsin. My thoughts wandered on. I started writing this column this year. Translating thoughts to words is a primary and necessary endeavor, especially when it feels like organizing madness. The inherent angst of a weekly deadline has reminded me that pressure is a key ingredient of inspiration.

After a few miles of running uphill, I started looking at license plates in driveways. Maybe I missed the sign that I’d crossed the border and the turn towards the river. Maybe I’ll be in Minnesota next. But every parked car told me I was still in Illinois. I kept wandering.

I knew my kids would grow this year, clearly. I didn’t know by how much or in which direction. The little one has gone from pudgy and squeaky to stretched and confident, but his cheeks are still full and begging to be squeezed. My oldest kept his shell intact but thinks out loud enough to reveal his motivations, but only if I’m paying full attention.

I realized more than ever this year that I might be steering the car, but I’m just a passenger. My boys are navigating with their laughs, their insights, their discoveries and their will.

I might have gone on to think about my career if not being spared by finally finding the intersection.

I knew I was heading left, not back. The EMT gave a hint that he wanted to pick me up, some kook out running on the highways on Christmas Day. But instead he affirmed what I already knew and drove on.

As I descended down the highway, cars flying towards me at seventy plus, I felt like I was in the perfect place. Christmas is a day we embrace surprises, after all. A magical man leaves toys for children and underwear for adults under a tree we kill and put in our houses. Any part of that is probably closer to shocking than surprising, actually.

A virgin gives birth to a baby, the Son of God. I’m sure that caught more than a few people off guard. I always think about Joseph in that story. I speculate that he had only two narratives he could believe: the probable and the improbable. He stuck with the latter. Reason has its limits. It’s probably overrated as well. When in doubt, go with God, or the less predictable choice, however you want to frame it.

My surprise grew as I reached the foot of the bridge back to Iowa.

This bridge had no pedestrian walkway. Just a six foot shoulder to keep me away from the cars on one side and a three foot concrete barrier to keep me from falling into the Mississippi on the other. I figured that stretch of bridge was about a mile and that I set my PR for that distance as well right then and there.

I landed in the Flats, a gritty neighborhood on the Northside. The streets were quiet and empty. I welcomed the stillness of the Midwest winter. I’d been in Dubuque for a few days, so I even knew the best way back to our friends’ house. They live on a hilltop and I had a few ways to go up. I passed on ascending 3rd Street, which is more like El Capitan than a road. Rather, I chose the winding route up Loras Boulevard, the one that goes by the colleges and the park.

Sure, it took me a bit longer to get back, but then I had that much more time to think about the states and bridges behind me.