St. Louis River above Cloquet, MN – September 5, 2012
Cloquet is a ghost town at 2 am. The streets are empty, no more than a car or two an hour. Most houses are dark, nothing beyond the occasional electric glow of a television through a window. The only other person on the street is a drunk man stumbling home from a bar. I watch him and drag the boat behind me, just like I have for the past ten miles.
Hours earlier, on an old gravel road in the country, a man stopped and offered me a place to camp in his yard. I wanted to, but I knew there was a highway ahead, a big one, one where cars fly by at 60 mph. It was the reason I began walking at night. I wanted empty roads.
When I started, I felt a bit like a train with my headlamp blazing in front and my strobe flashing on the back of the boat.
“I’m the midnight train to Cloquet,” I thought. “All aboard!”
It was easy then, rolling the boat behind me down an abandoned road, but the weight wore on me bit by bit. By the time I reached Cloquet, my hands felt like they would rip off my forearms, blisters covered my fingers from pulling the boat’s grab loop and miles of pavement left my feet battered.
Endless rapids and five dams sound better, almost, but it is always that way with difficult things. You just want an escape.
Walking from one end of town to the other feels endless, like I’m lost in a maze of electric-yellow street lamps, but the end comes, finally, over a small bridge and across a pair of railroad tracks to a boat landing on the St. Louis River.
The water looks still and black. I can see the lights of the fifth dam in the distance downstream, behind me like all the rest. Too tired to do anything more than pull out my sleeping bag, I steal bits of sleep on a park bench while I wait for the sun to rise.
I try to rise with it, to paddle away, but instead I lay in the grass and stare up until it starts raining and I hide under a bridge.
“When it stops, I’ll go,” I tell myself, but it is a lie.
It stops and I lay in the grass again, my eyes closed, the sun soaking into my skin. I don’t paddle until late in the afternoon, but even then I have no strength. It’s gone, lost on the midnight train to Cloquet.