Ypres Point, Lake Superior – September 6, 2013
I felt uneasy from the moment I looked at the boat ramp. Maybe the gloom of the morning made me nervous. Maybe it was the old factory rising across the bay that looked closed and rusted out. Maybe it was because I knew this was one of the last places I would ever have to trust the boat to fate while I went into town for supplies.
Cars and trucks rotated like sentries down to the ramp and back up the long dirt road. One or two at a time, they seemed to come for no reason at all beyond the exercise of looking out at the water and making me feel uneasy as I paddled closer.
I wanted a nice park and a well-used place to slide the boat ashore. Maybe a house where I could leave it in a yard or a marina I could tie it off in. I dreamed of an old fisherman who’d pat me on the hand and tell me he’d keep an eye on her. Instead there was nothing but the fenced-off factory and an almost-vacant boat ramp a half mile away from town.
I paddled ashore and slid the boat down the beach. I tried to tuck it under some bushes where no one would see it from the parking lot, but seventeen feet of yellow plastic is never going to disappear. If anyone walked down and around the corner, it would glow like the sun. I looked at my two pink flamingos and stuffed alligator.
“Guard her well, Franks,” I said. “You too, Ali.”
I walked the half mile into town. Two cars passed me going down toward the ramp, neither with a boat. I watched them and wondered what they were doing down there, why boat ramps always attract the oddest crowd of people, and wishing one of the cars didn’t have an empty rack on its roof. Then I thought of my wild beard and half-soaked clothes. I wondered what they thought of me marching up a dirt road like I appeared out of nowhere. They’d have to know I had a boat somewhere.
I watched them circle around and come back, passing me a few minutes later as I kept walking. I smiled and waved at them as they rolled past, their wheels grinding on the gravel.
The town felt empty cloaked in a dreary fog. It’s buildings were a strange mix, some depressing, almost abandoned, others new and bright. It made me uneasy. The town felt like a place in transition, a place that didn’t know itself. Made-up stories flooded my head. Maybe the factory shut down and undercut the town’s economic base. Maybe all the jobs are gone. Maybe it’s the kind of place you shouldn’t leave a boat sitting in the bushes by a ramp.
I sat in the library for a few hours to recharge batteries and catch up on the news of the world. I watched rain fall on the windows and my worries eased. Fewer people on the boat ramp. Fewer willing to step out of their cars. Fewer chances that someone would see the boat.
I bought supplies in a grocery store and walked back down toward the water in a grey mist that enveloped everything. Cars roared past me in on the highway. I saw each pickup truck and roof rack. I passed a gang of kids sitting on a picnic table and laughing with each other. I scolded myself for making up stories in my head about strangers I knew nothing about.
“You should be better than that,” I thought. “You know what that feels like.”
I did it anyway, even as I hated myself for doing it, even though I felt like a crotchety old man on a porch, because my stomach was turning inside me. I’d sat in the warm, dry library for a long, long time.
I dropped down toward the water, walking past rusted factory fences and an old railroad track. The town’s last buildings on the outskirts faded away and I felt a sick emptiness. I wondered what I would do if the boat were gone. Or my paddle. Or the Franks. Would I quit? Would the trip end on a deserted boat ramp? That is a bad place to end after fifteen months.
I reached the ramp and walked down to the water. I saw footprints in the sand path. My heart pounded. My own, I thought. No. They were smaller than my own, multiple soles, at least three pairs. I felt suddenly desperate.
I wanted to run to the shore and peer behind the bushes, but I held myself back. I walked slowly, deliberately, reluctant to know an answer, afraid it would be wrong.
Why did I take so long in the library? Why didn’t I check earlier? Why did I not just drag the boat with me?
I got to the beach and looked across an empty curve of sand. My insides shriveled and I felt I would implode. Nothing. Just dirt and bushes and nothing. Gone. Gone. All of it gone.
I stood welded in place, frozen, afraid to move as if the slightest motion might shatter me. Then I found my legs again and rushed into the empty space, rushed to fill it somehow with my will. Two quick steps. My world collapsing, my blood draining away, my breath gone.
Then I saw a flash of yellow around the next bend of brush. I stopped and stared. The boat. The boat right where I’d left it, the Franks and all.
I’d missed my hiding spot by a curve.
I looked at it for a minute then sat down until I could breathe again.