Past Lock 17 – October 24, 2012
The loneliest moments are goodbyes. The last hug, the last wave, the last glimpse of a friend’s truck disappearing down the street. Even standing in a city, in a parking lot filled with cars, I felt alone.
I packed my gear, sliding pieces into place one at a time. Every bit of it has a purpose–shelter, navigation, warmth, food–and every bit reminded me of how alone I am out here, how the moment I said goodbye to Gesh I was on my own.
An older man came by as I packed. He stood above the boat ramp watching for a bit, then said hello.
“Are you going out for a while?” he asked.
I shoved my tent into the rear hatch and nodded.
“All the way to Key West if I can make it fit,” I joked. “It’s kinda like a bad magic trick.”
He smiled and watched me work, just hanging around, talking a bit about Muscatine, a bit about the trip, but never coming too close, like he was afraid to interfere. My sleeping bag, tent poles, pad, stove, and food disappeared into the hatches until all I had left was an empty water bottle that I needed to fill.
“Hey,” I asked the man. “Would you watch the boat for a few minutes while I run and get some water?”
His face lit up.
“Sure,” he said.
I ran over to a bathroom a couple hundred yards away and filled the bottle in a sink. When I got back, Mr. Dickerson was sitting with his back to me. I looked at him for a moment and his head never turned. He watched over the boat like it would disappear if he glanced away, like it was made of gold, like it held all his dreams instead of mine.
“Thanks,” I said.
He nodded and I sat down next to him. Then he told me about driving big rigs across the country, about smelling burnt brakes down mountain passes, about how routes east of the Mississippi felt crowded and the open desert of the Southwest never grew old. We talked about Iowa farmland, about the golden corn and black soil, about Muscatine’s button factories. We talked about the Mississippi, going through locks, and dodging barges.
“Thanks again for watching the boat,” I told him.
He smiled and wished me luck as I waved goodbye.
The truth is, the boat would have been fine without him, but that moment when I came back and saw him watching her like she was his own, that’s what I wanted to thank him for. That moment when I knew that I’m not alone, that I’m never alone, that a friend is just a hello away.