BELLEVILLE, Mich. — The common perception of Memphians — inhabitants of the great city of Memphis, Tenn. — is that we’re tough and gritty.
Or that’s what I had to remind myself when I trudged out of bed before 6 o’clock in below-freezing temperatures.
I mean, who wouldn’t, right? After all, this was the last chance of the year to catch the Michigan rowing team at a home meet.
Ok, I’ll admit it. I was really hoping to just call it quits and go back to bed — but not because I didn’t think the meet was important.
It’s just that, well, I was hesitant about everything leading up to the meet. 30-degree weather at the end of April? Driving 40 minutes to a lake I’ve never heard of in a rented car? I could just smell the trouble.
But that first step I took from my bed was all it took to get me up and moving.
The first step’s really all it takes to change a person’s perspective.
If you drive down a rocky and bumpy trail while following flimsily-placed signs throughout the path, you’ve experienced the rowing-meet commute — or rather felt it.
The potholes in the road make the trip quite the rollercoaster.
Arriving after several fruitless attempts to follow the signs, I parked the car in a field that was littered with sloppily-parked cars. Though I can’t say I really helped either.
Two steps. That’s all the amount of walking I got in before a cart — Michigan decorated — drove up to me and offered me a ride.
Sure, why not. It was a confusing path by foot, and I was running on thin ice to be on time. The staffer who drove the cart was intrigued by my Tennessee origins.
“Oh, you’re from Memphis?” said the grounds crew worker. “That’s cool. I actually know a few people from Nashville.”
Ding ding ding. There it is. If I had a dollar for every time I heard that statement, I wouldn’t be a broke college student. So you can imagine I hear it a lot. But he shifted right after to hyping up the rowing meet.
“Just wait until you get to the patio.” the grounds crew worker said after I told him it was my first time at the lake.
I could hardly wait. Literally. The meet was about to start in less than ten minutes, and we stopped once again to pick up more bystanders.
This time it was an elderly couple who were arguing right outside their car. Their daughter was lost, and they were on the phone trying to direct her. But “luckily,” I got lost too, so I knew a good way to break down the directions.
“Just listen to the young man’s advice,” the wife said to her husband. “He obviously knows what he’s talking about.”
I was trying to speed things up, but I ended up delaying myself ten minutes, as the husband was adamant on explaining the directions himself. After the grounds crew driver took pity on my dying soul, he offered to come back to pick up the two, who happily complied.
All I could think of the rest of the ride, despite trying to keep up with the driver’s conversation, was, ‘Boy, this is a steep hill.”
The cart drove down what felt like a 100°-angled hill. But I didn’t mind. If it helps us get to the lake faster, I’ll take it.
Three steps from the cart, which dropped me off conveniently close to the event, I met up with the Managing Photo Editor, Alec Cohen.
“Why am I here?” He asked bluntly.
It’s easy to understand. This was the first time either of us had absolutely no idea where to go. No press box. No courtside. There was just the lake house and the mini-peninsula made out of the mud and dirt. So naturally, we stuck to the mini-peninsula.
The thing is, that’s where the best view came from. It was like a sand-point bar, so naturally, you could see where the boats started, and you get the last glimpse of where they break off into the sunset.
I had covered rowing all year, so I knew what to expect. Or that’s what I thought before the first varsity eight boats pulled from the starting line.
You don’t deal with words and numbers any more. You’re dealing with suspense live stats can’t capture, with performances you can’t capture with recaps and phone-cover details.
Both 1V8s broke out to a similar pace, neither able to top the other.
The first 500-meters was a nail-biter. The lead, which was created just briefly, teetered between the two teams before Michigan created a larger separation.
But the atmosphere from between the lake-house patio — where both fanbases anxiouxly waited — and the boats had a feeling about it that draws you in.
In fact, I felt myself inch closer to the lake, one foot at a time.
Step by step, I found the answer to why I was there. There are just some things you have to learn to love through experience.
You can’t hear about the dominant showing the second varsity eight boats had and visualize it as well. You can’t read a recap of the first varsity four and replicate the erupting cheers from the patio. You can’t watch the first varsity eight boat row live and not feel drawn into the atmosphere.
Even without the cold weather, you can still feel the shivers of excitement.
The first step to it all, rowing aside, is the drive — whether bumpy and unclear roads or the motivation to overcome a 6 A.M. trial. The second step is the experience — the uncomfortable friendliness or time-crunching hospitality. The final step is recognizing none of that really matters at all.
As a Memphian, I’ve heard countless times, “Life’s short, just do that junt.” In other words, there’s stuff that might seem minute, but if you take the time — no matter what point in the day — step by step, you learn to love the unexpected.
Le can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @tientrle