Sunlight poured into the room through big, eastern windows and turned everything golden. I blinked and looked out at a farm field and green vines stretching along an old barn. A puffy orange cat grinned at me from a cardboard box and the Looksha lay on the grass outside, the cart next to her, both wet with dew.
“Good morning,” I said to the cat.
It just sat there yawning in the sunlight and I thought of the dam and turning back and that long gravel road toward Muskrat Lake. It seemed to stretch forever, arrow-straight, though field after field, glowing white in the moonlight. I remember watching the stars and the lights of a distant tractor plowing fields.
The road was empty, just me moving slowly forward, shifting the Looksha’s weight between my hands, grinding down the miles. Then a flash of headlights caught the trees and I turned to watch a truck roll toward me over a hill. It slowed to a stop and I recognized John and Jarred, the two guys I’d met back at the boat ramp. I smiled and waved, happy for a distraction.
“How’s it going?” they asked.
“Not too bad,” I said. “At least it’s a pretty night, just me and the farmers.”
“I’ve got some friends down the road,” John said. “I might be able to find you a place to camp if you want.”
I thought about it and checked the time.
“It’s getting pretty late to bother people,” I said. “I think I can manage to make the lake.”
John shook his head.
“Not too late at all,” he said. “You keep going and I’ll check and see what I can find.”
I watched their pickup disappear into the night, lifted up the Looksha’s bow, and started walking, trying not to get my hopes up, trying to pretend I didn’t feel the skin coming apart on my feet and my hands aching from the weight. Their headlights found me half an hour later and John handed me a slip of paper with an address.
“They’ll probably still be up when you get there,” John said, “but if not, they said to just go on in if you need anything.”
“You sure?” I said.
“They’re totally into it,” he said. “They’re some of the coolest people I know.”
I thanked him and he wished me luck. I watched his tail lights disappear and slipped the address into my pocket. It was three miles away and I didn’t get there until almost midnight.
A hundred yards from the driveway another pair of headlights caught me. A car slowed to a stop and a man rolled down his window.
“We’ve been looking for you,” he said.
“Are you Phil and Brenda?” I asked, peering into the darkness of the car.
The man laughed, big and warm.
“We’ll, I’m Phil,” he said, “but this is my daughter Tauney. My wife Brenda’s still at work. She’ll be home anytime now.”
Sometimes you get an instant sense for people and you just know you’re going to fit right in. Maybe it helps that Phil and Brenda have been taking in strays from the river for years, raft guides mostly, before the season starts, and letting them camp in their yard whenever they needed a place. Maybe it’s just that Phil and Brenda are the kind of people who are warm and welcoming, even to stranger at midnight.
I followed Phil and Tauney down their long driveway to an old farmhouse rising from the fields. We stood outside talking until Brenda arrived a few minutes later, just off a long shift at the hospital. She didn’t blink at finding me there, just invited me in for something to eat.
The four of us sat around the kitchen table sharing stories and laughing, extending the night until sleep overcame us. I crashed in a side room, warm and cozy, with big, eastern windows looking out over green fields.
It was hard to say goodbye this morning. Between stories about driving trucks, running a farm, living in China, and a long trip to Mexico, I could have sat there listening for days. As I packed the boat, Brenda handed me a paper bag she’d made up for me.
“Some snacks for lunch,” she said.
I smiled and gave her a big hug. I didn’t know how to tell her how much their kindness meant to me, how yesterday had all but broken my spirit apart at the seams until John handed me their address and I walked up their long driveway.
I don’t hate that dam anymore or the trail I couldn’t find or the road that felt too far. I don’t hate the marshes or the rapids or anything else about yesterday because somehow all those wrong turns led me to a farmhouse miles from the water, led me to John and Jarred and Phil and Brenda and Tauney, and all those wrong turns, they don’t seem so wrong anymore.