Angle to Key West: To the End (10/26)

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Northwest Angle, Lake of the Woods – October 26, 2013

Up early and into the wind. Islands and a narrowing tongue of water. Thin fingered trees. Tamaracks on fire. Brown blades of grass. Cold. Thirteen miles vanish. A pair of swans soar out of the water, white as cotton, circling the sky, stretching their necks to trumpet the end like heralds. I stare at the clean line of sky cutting down the border, empty space where there should have been trees, empty space I once filled with imagination next to an old metal monument at the northern tip of America.

I imagined the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior, the Mississippi and the Gulf, the Everglades and the Florida Keys. I imagined the people I’d meet, the unknown faces turned friends, and the stories I’d hear. I imagined icy water, the sun beating down overhead, and waves rushing over the bow. I imagined it all, standing in that gap, hand wrapped around the surveyor’s monument, unable to move until rain began falling around me, soaking into my shirt and running down the brim of my hat.

“Go,” the world said. “Quit imagining and find out.”

Every story needs a beginning and that was mine, standing in that gap, pressing my cheek into the monument’s cold metal surface one last time, imagining the world.

Sometimes the best moments are before anything happens and there is nothing but hope.

Every story needs an end too.

I slip out of the boat and sink into hip-deep mud and grass. The ground disappears underneath me. Tangled roots refuse my weight. I think of leaving the boat. I let go of the bow, run my hand over the scratched plastic, and shake my head.

“Never,” I promise.

I lunge forward, feet sticking in the mud, arm stretched behind me, hand wrapped around the boat’s handle. Breath steams out of my lungs. My arm burns. I grab at the sinking mud and pull, clawing forward, moving the hull in inches. We vanish together into a sea of grass.

The ground begins to hold, first knee-high, then higher. I push toward the gap in the trees, toward the border. Solid ground rises underneath me. I stumble forward, pulling the kayak, leaving a frozen trail of matted grass in our wake.

I felt like a charlatan once, long ago, back in Greenbush, Minnesota, sitting across from Mavis in the town diner. She’d caught me on the corner with a paddle in one hand trying to hitchhike up the highway.

“Had to rent a car to get the boat up to the Angle,” I told her. “Had to return it in Minneapolis.”

She took me to lunch and introduced me to half the town.

“He’s going to kayak to Key West,” she told people.

She said it like I’d done something more than just shown up with a good imagination. I shook hands and smiled. The high school custodian’s wife gave me a stuffed alligator for a mascot. I called it “Ali” and said I hoped it knew the way back to Florida. I shook more hands and thought about the Looksha’s clean yellow hull waiting for me at the Angle. There wasn’t a scratch on it. I’d never even sat in a sea kayak before. I was all paper.

I heave the boat forward through the grass. The weight sticks to the mud. Seventy pounds of gear. Sixty-five pounds of plastic hull. I lunge in bursts of choppy steps broken by hands pressed to knees and gasping breath.

Light spills into the cut of trees. The monument’s steel top flashes through the grass. I stare from a hundred feet away, collapsed on the nose of the boat, resting, breath steaming around me, fighting the urge to run forward alone. I stare down. There isn’t an inch of clean plastic underneath me. I run my fingers across the hull, tracing nicks and cuts, the empty space of curled plastic scraped away, remembering the thousand rocks that never cut deep enough. I rise, wrap my fingers around the handle and pull forward again. Mud sucks at my feet. My eyes lock on the monument.

I fled from the end once, the day I broke the trip’s last monster and reached the Savanne River. I remember spilling out of a creek and glancing back at the tangled mouth. I remember wanting to crawl back up it, to disappear behind the monster’s shadow. That night I dreamed like an old man dreams of youth, wanting to go back, to rewind the clock, to have another chance.

But that isn’t how life works. There’s no marching backwards. At the Angle, on a frozen lake, at the snap of a bone, the end comes, monster or no monster, as inevitable as dawn to the starry sky.

I switch hands every few steps. Arms feel like they’ll rip apart at the joints. Feet numb and aching. I stare at the monument. It gleams in the grass, still out of reach. Lungs burn. I smile, laugh at the weight of the boat, at my weakness. I catch my breath and pull. The end is thirty yards away. Twenty. Ten.

I look up at the gap cut into the trees. Memories flood the empty space. The St. Louis Arch gleams in the sun. New York rises above its harbor. Superior stretches to the horizon. I see a windbound dock on Belle Isle, eat fried turkey in Memphis, and hang my toes off the edge of the Outer Banks. Captain Lori gives me one last hug goodbye. I spend the night on the Bluegrass. The Grand Portage cuts up my feet. I chase the American Queen down the Mississippi, taste salt water in Louisiana, and watch the Hudson turn in six-hour shifts. John Buckley tells me I’m a rock solid water man. A manatee hugs the boat. The French spills into Huron. Wolves howl, a whale rises, a gators disappears in the water. I hide underneath Seven Mile Bridge, drop down the first lock, and slip past the Sleeping Giant. A barge slides by like a wall. The Kaministiquia roars over a waterfall.

The monument waits ten feet away. I can’t go back. No one can. I reach down, wrap my hand around the boat’s handle one last time, and pull.

Memories flicker past me. I’m dancing on the boat ramp in New Madrid. Empty fried chicken bones fill a plate in New Orleans. Seven feet. Six. A wolf swims across the Pigeon River. A whale rises off New Jersey. Loons call into the twilight. Five. Four. Ten thousand ducks rise off the Mississippi. George Morton like the salt shows me how to fry green tomatoes. Three. Two. Gulf islands flash crescent smiles. There’s a potluck in Cornucopia. I laugh. I smile. I cry. Pelicans glide across the water.

One.

A wave lifts me toward the sky. Blue swallows the horizon. A coin flips through the air in Key West.

It’s all prologue now.

I take another step.

Every story needs a beginning and this is mine, collapsed against the monument, face pressed to the metal, arms squeezed tight, laughing, crying, full of joy.

Sometimes the best moments are before anything happens and there is nothing but hope.

58 responses to “Angle to Key West: To the End (10/26)

  1. Well done Daniel, you made it! It has been a privilege to follow you on such an amazing journey, even from down under here in New Zealand. I think of all the great number of times where you could have quite legitimately said, enough is enough, but you kept on at it.
    You have done a stirling job raise awareness of the plight of some of those last great open spaces in your country. Even if I don’t get to see them myself, I feel that I have a sense of them through your writing. Everyone around me knows about the crazy guy kayaking the waterways and seas around the US, I can’t help but tell them about it. Most can barely imagine such a journey, let alone that a man can undertake it by himself. I know though, I read it, I followed every post. It has been awesome. All the best for what ever you do next!

  2. Daniel, I hope you are safe and where you wAnt to be. Have you finished your trip yet? Please be safe and get home to your family and friend. What a great trip!!! Carrie s, Shearer.

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Daniel, Thank you for the faithful blog that helped me start my day and will continue to inspire me to step out in hope on the daily adventure.
    Congratulations on completing the loop! You embody the old Greek notion of arete. Thanks for fueling hope in the rest of us!
    Mike in Oregon

  4. Oh, Daniel:
    THANK YOU so much for allowing me to follow along on your incredible journey! I have cried, and laughed, and felt ancestral connections through your early stories. I loved your tales of the Mississippi locks and the tugs who helped you! Then the gulf, dolphins, manatees reminded me of my vacations to visit my Dad in FL. It all became really familiar again when you entered NY Harbor and headed up the Hudson River.

    That you wove your way back all around to the Angle is amazing.

    When you make your book, I hope I can order a signed copy. You have made my past year and a half, delightfully full of adventure!
    XO
    Karie

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