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.

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

  1. Congratulations… The Loop is a remarkable feat in any craft. But yours via kayak is what books (Kon Tiki comes to mind) are made of. I hope you shot a lot of video.

  2. I’m so very proud of you, Daniel! At some moments, I never once thought you’d never make it! You’re a true inspiration and I’m lucky I’ve met you. On to the next dream! I’ll be waiting! Call Feldman and let him know you’ve made it, I’ll listen in! Top Notch!

  3. Youdaman!, Youdaman!, Youdaman!!! (props to Charlie Pierce from his anthology ‘Sports Guy’.)
    Bravo from one who has been learning from you from afar (St. Paul, MN). I am also experiencing some of the same situations in much smaller doses as I continue to knock off parts of the Mississippi. I have gotten hooked on your serial postings.
    Thanks!

  4. Congratulations on completing the cycle. What an incredible story of an incredible journey. Now just don’t go and flip a coin again.

  5. Congratulations! You’ve taken us along on a wonderful journey. It’s been incredible following you path everyday.

  6. An excellent poignant conclusion to this remarkable adventure. You exhibit an awesome zest for life! Congratulations!

  7. Huge congratulations! I suppose you were back here in Tallahassee long before “the end” came online. Hope your wounds heal quickly. Interested in doing a show and tell program for the Apalachee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association next year? If so, email me.

  8. I can’t believe your trip is over. My living vicariously, hanging on every image, feeling happy and exalted, sad-tears in my eyes. I will miss you. I felt I was still hanging out with you–til now. xxooxx

  9. What an incredible journey you have completed and what a gift you have given us, sharing your experiences, day by day, month by month, from the very beginning to the climatic finish! You have touched our hearts and our souls, and it will be lonely without your daily post.

    Rest up and dream of your next adventure. We will all be anxiously waiting to hear about your future plans.

    Namaste…..Rob

  10. Most Excellent!!! I enjoyed every day, every post, every word and clever phrase and I look forward to the next one!!! Congratulations!!!

  11. I followed every post, each day looking for the email – you provided a view of a man following his heart in a way many of us haven’t yet. I’m sure that you don’t realize how many you have inspired with your journey. Thank you and congratulations

  12. “D”–you did it!! I/we have enjoyed the full length of your journey.
    YOU ARE AMAZING!! Hope to see you when you finally get back “home” and get well earned rest! Lots of love and admiration–Edie and the Williams Guys

  13. Congratulations, Daniel. I’m so very happy for you. What an accomplishment! I’m so going to miss you. You have been a daily presence in my life for the pass eighteen months. Thank for sharing your dream with me(us).

  14. Well done Daniel. Don’t know what I’ll do without my daily fix. We’ll be looking forward to hearing about more of your journey at the pig roast on New Year’s Day, if not before.

  15. Congratulations and Thank-you, our lives are richer. We always have a hot chocolate waiting! Our paths may cross down south as we start our RV adventure on Tuesday. We look forward to your first book.

  16. Not sure how I will be able to face the day not having your posts for a starter. It has been great! Waiting for the book and the next adventure.

  17. Success, Daniel!! Thanks for sharing your adventure through such lyrical postings. Can’t wait to hear what’s ahead for you. Please let us all know via Predictably Lost.

  18. Congratulations!!! 🙂 Thanks you for these great posts. I am glad you will be warm and safe now. I’ll miss you. Please stay in touch with us. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo!

  19. To All: I am Daniel’s dad. Thank you, thank you and thank you for following and helping Daniel and your great posts. Like you, I have no idea whether Daniel will blog again (or like John points out “flipping a coin”) but I think he will. Just in case, I wanted to invite everyone to the New Year’s Day Cuban Pig Roast in Tallahassee because I know Daniel will be there. Contact Daniel (via the contact link on this blog) for more details. Briefly, we roast a whole pig Cuban style and prepare other Cuban foods, our friends in the community bring other great dishes, we play games and dance, have a bonfire at the end and there are always a few surprises. You can camp on our land or if that is not your style we can probably find places for you in Tallahassee if demand is not too overwhelming. We just want to say thanks to this wonderful community that has touched all of us. I know the parents out there will truly understand when I say, “Thank you for being there for my son.”

  20. Congratulations Daniel. Thanks for sharing your adventure with us and allowing Pam and myself to be a small part of it as you passed through Chesapeake, VA.
    Bob

  21. What a wonderful journey! Your writing is magical. I will miss your daily presence, your challenges, your overcoming, your victories. Morning coffee will be lonely now. Onward and God speed…

  22. Bravo, Daniel ! I stil cant wrap my mind around the feat of your kayak journey….and the fact that we actually connected here on the Isle of Hope near Savannah, Ga. Lucky for me! Im sending a couple of good pictures of you so be on the lookout.
    Again, just a totally mindblowing feat you have accomplished! Congratulations

  23. Congratulations Daniel ! I have so enjoyed reading of your journey, it is never the destination, but the journey itself! I am so thankful our paths crossed, and I “knew” the moment I looked into your eyes when I shook your hand in greeting the night ” There were no wrong turns” that you had the strength of character to succeed ..and that you were the son that any parents would be proud of. Thank you for sharing this journey. I am looking forward to hearing about the next one, lol! Brenda

  24. Though I had wished I could have been there to welcome you as you finished, now I am glad that I was not. I understand that you needed to be there by your self to laugh, cry, remember. What a journey, inner and outer, and I am privileged, as are all these other fine people, to have gone along for the ride from the sideline. Thank you so much for sharing yourself so poignantly with us, Daniel! Welcome back!

  25. Daniel, it is November 8, 2013 (October 27 on the Out of Order calendar) and I am already experiencing symptoms of withdrawal brought on by the absence of your daily blog, which long ago became an addiction for me. What you accomplished was incredible and beyond imagination in the minds of feeble earthlings like me. I join all of the postings on this page and offer my heartfelt thanks for what you did and for sharing every moment with your privileged followers…and I am equally grateful for a safe journey’s end.
    You blessed us with something extremely rare in the world of today…thank you! Steve

    PS…and thanks to Outside and Necky!

  26. As a latecomer to your adventures Daniel , it was exciting to read your poetic words about portaging and kayaking, especially in the part of the world I know, love and paddle. I am inspired by your journey and thinking of ways to get even more remote with my kayak.

  27. A great big CONGRATULATIONS for your incredible adventure. Genice and I were very happy to meet you in St Louis on the first leg of your journey. We followed your posts enthusiastically as well as keeping up with your progress on Google Earth. If you decide to come back down the MIssissippi don’t hesitate to call – we’ll be here. You are an inspiring human being. Genice and Larry Self

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