Another Silent Sports column not on their website. With permission from the publisher. – DB
“I have a little BFF that showed up by my heart. His name is Mr. Hodgkins.”
That’s how Sarah told us she has cancer.
The good news is that she is young, healthy and fully recovered, and her BFF responded very well to the chemotherapy, a process of poisoning a person just enough that their hair falls out and the BFF gets the brunt of it.
Sarah is one of the Bush family nonbiological daughters. A friend of our biological daughter, she is as much a part of the family as anyone, and I was a little shocked and saddened by the BFF. I promptly renamed Mr. Hodgkins TLF, not BFF. TLF stands for The Little Fiend, or some other F-word, depending on my mood.
Chemo affects different people different ways, and Sarah, descended from stoic, German stock and the eternal optimist, smiles through the whole process of chemo juicing. She usually feels fine for a few days after.
I have a theory that paddling has anti-TLF properties. Since living in Madison, her grad school schedule had kept us from dragging her to the Wisconsin River, one of the most healing places on earth. It was there I went after my father passed away to spend some time grieving. I knew it would have a salutorious effect, so we grabbed a canoe suitable for three and planned a post-juice therapy session.
Sunscreen is critical for Sarah, as well as hydration and a few other cautions, but she’s no hot house flower. She was the paddler as well as the duffer, and being an introspective person, quietly absorbed the beauty.
Flowing water is therapeutic. The sound of it running through a pile of logs sings a song of comfort, the soft murmur punctuated by the humorous plops of turtles, too shy to stick around even when we were quiet. The water pushing us up on occluded sandbars with a soft kiss is even therapeutic, as we splash around tugging the canoes off the spots we high-centered.
Before you read any further, I don’t like reading river-as-metaphor-for-life stories and I certainly don’t want to write them. But sometimes even I go there. So here I go.
The river is unpredictable. Sandbars and currents change dramatically with every flood, and the slough that was so inviting last season is now a field of quicksand. The little sand spit where I used to enjoy a summer nap is gone, the tree that created a little shady spot is now a strainer, and an inhospitable one at that.
This constant change used to bug me. I would grumble that a favorite spot was gone, and not realizing that a new favorite spot was forming somewhere else. Unlike some of my more predictable regulars, the Wisconsin is a dynamic river. You can’t step in the same river twice, right? That’s doubly-true here.
My river has taught me many lessons, and one of them is that no matter how vigilant you are, you will run into hidden and unexpected obstacles. It’s part of being on a river; it’s what makes them interesting. Lakes are nice, but give me a river any day.
The day on my river was wonderful. It was a healing day, full of happiness and smiles and silliness, and, as the water was low, we ended up stuck in places where we didn’t want to land. We just scrambled out of the canoe, let it float free, then jumped back in when the obstacle was passed.
That’s right, here it is; the clumsy, ham-fisted, overworked metaphor. Life gives us sandbars. We can break our paddles trying to pry ourselves off a sandbar, or we can step out, get our feet wet, possibly splash and fall and look stupid, but ultimately float free of the obstacle with little effort.
Sarah is the step-out-and-float sort. She doesn’t have the energy to waste being inefficient, so she just works with what she has, which is why she’ll be okay. She is evicting the TLF, not with anger or frustration, but with quiet optimism. Funny thing; the best paddlers I know are the same way. If you get angry, it’s not that many steps from anger to a nice, long swim. You just take what the river sends you and deal with it.
I have now become one of those writers. You know what? It’s not so bad. Maybe resistance to being a cliche has robbed me of a more meaningful experience both on the river and while going through a rough patch in our family.
The day seemed to become more and more beautiful as it passed. Midwesterners know that perfect days are precious: it’s always beautiful here, but some days can take your breath away. 73 degrees, a light breeze, bright fluffy clouds that give you a little patch of shade just when you want it. The river opened up and still, no strong breezes, just a shimmering expanse of diamonds on the water. A dragonfly hatch of Midland Clubtails reduced the mosquito population, and white-throated sparrows provided a lovely soundtrack for the afternoon.
Thank you, Wisconsin River, for your Anti-TLF properties and for slipping past my defenses and teaching me that sometimes rivers are perfectly sound metaphors for life. They’re both beautiful, I know that much.
While my re-enactor friends are at a rendezvous this weekend, dressed in period dress, eating period food and enjoying camaraderie, I am at a different sort of rendezvous. I am at the Outdoor Industry Association Rendezvous. It’s not in Bloody Lake, Wisconsin; it’s in Seattle.
This is a group of about 500 biggy-wiggies of the outdoor industry, and I mean biggy-wiggies in the most respectful way. These are some of the smartest people I know. They have built businesses from a few bucks and an unheated garage to multi-million dollar brands that have changed lives. Many of them changed mine…Kelty, North Face, Wilderness Experience (R.I.P.), Jansport (thank you, Skip), etc. etc. I am surrounded by people I love, truly.
We listen to presentations, yes, but mostly we talk to each other. Furthermore, we shun people who call talking to each other networking. These people also use the words engagement, touchpoints (sic), disruption, pivot, align, connect, and of course, the worst buzzword ever, synergy. Shun these people, they are paid to move their lips. They’re televangelists without the Jesus part, viz., May you all maximize your GMROI via customer engagement touchpoints. In nomine Abercrombie et Fitch, Amen.
This doesn’t mean this is not a worthwhile event, as I said before, we talk to each other. The best conversations happen by accident.
My shop has been selling Farm to Feet socks for a few seasons now. Just read the website. They’re cool. They’re 100% American made. Family-owned company. But I digress. That’s just about stuff.
The cool thing is that I sat at a table during a supply chain modeling exercise1 for three hours with Kelly Nestor, the dude behind Nestor Hosiery. The only reason I know about Nestor being the same thing as Farm to Feet is that I open the bills and write checks to Nestor Hosiery rather than F2F.
Nice guy, for sure. I asked him lots of technical questions about sock-making, yarn-spinning, wool-processing and all the stuff in between. I also learned he’s a classical guitarist and pianist.2 After a nice ten minute chat, I invited myself to see his factory in November when I’ll be traveling in the area, and he gracious accepted.3
Kelly looked at his watch, said he had something important to do and held up his phone. He showed me two pictures of his young children and he needed to go call them before they went to bed. I like this guy. These are the kind of people I like to be around.
Earlier in the day I had a shorter but nonetheless gratifying interaction. It was on the escalator going down to the lobby from experience, which really isn’t that random when you consider the milieu. The sales manager from Vasque footwear has a fabulous haircut (it matches my own shiny pate). I commented on his coiffure, he complimented mine. I noticed he was wearing a pair of the new Vasque Sundowners and admired them as well, and told him that I actually had my Sundowners with me, that I had used them at the service project. I told them they had been resoled twice but still had a lot of life in them.
That seemed to please him. I said I would send him a picture of them, and I did.
“I’d love to see it. And I’ll get you a new pair if you want.”
“No, I like these. They’re all broken in and perfect.”
“No, I mean you can keep those. I’ll just send you a new pair.”
He was serious. Chris could tell I was excited about the fact that they brought back the Sundowner after 1) a bad attempt to improve the original and 2) getting rid of it altogether since no one really wanted all-leather boots anymore. I received this email from him earlier today.
Thanks for the entries on your website, very cool! It is incredible to work for a brand that has such passionate people wearing our product. I love it!
Where shall I send the new boots for you? I hope you like them and definitely do not put them out of rotation. Broken in boots with war stories like I am sure yours have are always the best.
Great to meet you.
So I made a few friends, got a factory tour and a pair of boots to augment my 20 year-old pair.
I like Rendezvous for a lot of reasons. Granted, a nice pair of boots from the sales manager of a brand you’ve been using since you were 14 are nice, but the best part is our own kind of camaraderie; shared experiences and stories, ups and downs, and all the white-hot crazy passion that keeps the industry leaders moving forward and the guys in Dockers and blue blazers wondering what the hell happened.
1. There should have been a warning sign: “Attention, please. If you or someone you love suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, you might consider doing something less painful for the next three hours, like throwing a tire around like a cross-fitting orangutan.
2. This has become a non-surprise in my world, since our industry is so full of weirdos and regimental rejects who couldn’t color inside the lines. I mean, seriously…the talent hidden behind the plaid shirts and Chacos is immense. Singers, musicians, artists, poets, writers…this is a supremely talented population.
3. This is how geeky I am: I can’t wait to see the factory. Sheep goes in one end; socks come out the other. I mean, how cool is that?
I wrote this a few months ago. It was published in Silent Sports Magazine but I’m allowed to put it here too, and I can add more pictures than I can in their publication. DB
I’m sitting in an airport in Shanghai, about to fly home from a week of work. By “work,” I mean attending an international outdoor trade show where I was invited to speak. I added a few days on before the show for my wife and I to become tourists.
We spent most of our time off the beaten path, trying to stay away from areas where people spoke English. Shanghai is an international city, but when you get away from the business district and main drags, we stuck out. In particular, I stood out as a tall, bald thumb.
One of the highlights of my week was paddling a canoe, Canadian style, in a 30×50 foot swimming pool. This was the first time many Chinese people had ever seen a canoe actually in the water. China is kayak-centric, and a canoe is an object from a book, paddled by Indians (wearing Sioux headdresses to the sound of tom-toms).
After the demonstration, wherein my paddling partner Peter dumped me unceremoniously in the water playing what he called a “game,” I paddled over to the side and invited, in my worst Chinese (all of it), some kids to jump in too. PFDs were procured and two tentative volunteers came forward, parents taking gigabytes of pictures and movies.
Just a few laps around the tank, that’s all. Soon there was a line of kids, all wanting to try, and most speaking excellent English. They had their turns, laughing and waving to their parents. One jumped out, paused, turned around and reached down into the canoe to give me a hug.
I noticed a young boy, eight at most, watching from poolside. He was clearly enchanted, and every time I paddled past him he watched with fascination. I walked over to him while Peter took some kids for a spin. I asked him if he wanted to paddle too. I reached my hand out to him, and he took it. I hoisted him up to the walkway around the pool and we walked, hand in hand back to the loading area.
He said nothing as we spun around the pool, sitting as still as a statue. I wondered what he was thinking, this little guy, sitting in the bow of a canoe as I knelt in the center.
I unloaded him and he climbed out, and took off his PFD, and that was the last I saw of him. My wife was watching him, though, and she told me later his skipped and jumped back to his parents as if he just won the lottery, which he had, in a sense. In a nation of over 1.3 billion, he was one of a dozen kids, maybe, who had ever paddled in a canoe.
Autumn is coming soon, and for me that means day trips. Day trips don’t require packing food or cooking, so there’s a certain liberation in terms of gustatory delights available to you based on your destination. For me, it’s always the search of pie.
Most chain restaurants have pie, of course, but its crust has the texture of Play-Doh and the flavor of nothing. The filling is purchased by the 55-gallon drum and is more cornstarch than fruit. If it’s a cream pie, the topic is a barely edible cream-like substance. As a cause of my wife’s baking, I have become a serious pie snob.
When paddling a new river I always look for pie for my late afternoon snack. No chains, of course. I seem to have the most luck in medium-sized towns. The very small hamlets, often unincorporated, don’t have much to choose from, and the bigger towns are usually devoid of interesting Mom and Pop restaurants.
A few years ago, after paddling the Lower Sugar River, I pulled out and headed west into Green County. Dominated by dairy farms and cheese makers, it’s a prosperous little county in a very Midwestern sort of way. Nothing flashy, of course, but you can tell things are good because the barns aren’t ten years past the point where they needed a coat of paint. A well-painted barn is a source of pride for its owner.
I found myself in Monticello, where I had been before but never in search of pie. I saw a place called the M&M Café and pulled over immediately. It was 1:50 p.m.
The M&M is a tiny place that opens early and closes after lunch, in this case at 2:00 p.m. My guess is that a lot of dairy farmers come in after first milking to have coffee and hang out with the other farmers after their first milking. It was late and the place was empty. I asked if they had pie. Yes, they did have pie. I asked if it was made there on site. They replied that they made it fresh daily. “She makes the crust,” one woman said, indicating the other.
I said I would try the banana crème. If the crust pasts muster, the filling has to as well, and I find banana crème an easy one to screw up. Too much custard, not enough bananas; the bananas can be too green, the filling too runny and saturating the crust. The topping has to be whipped cream.
She cut me a slice the size of a brick, if a brick were a triangle. The strata of bananas were visible, with enough custard to hold the bananas in place. Check. The cream was real. Not surprising, since we were in the dairy capitol of Wisconsin. The crust was flaky. It was a masterpiece of pie.
They had coffee cups with M&M Café printed on the side, and I asked to buy one. They were confused. Why would I want a cup? “So I can remember the pie when I am drinking something hot.” They sold me a cup for five bucks, still confused.
I sat at the counter, chatting with these two no-nonsense Midwestern ladies, wearing sensible print dresses, and aprons and looking the part of farmers’ wives. They were chatty, but they were sneaking glances at the clock, and it was twenty after. They would never kick me out, so I decided to do it for them.
As I paid up and got up to leave, I saw the words “Restaurant for Sale. Inquire here” written in chalk on a small chalkboard above the menu. I asked how long it had been for sale. They said it had for a while. They were hopeful someone who wanted to get up at 3:30 every morning to bake pie and prep the food for the day. You have afternoons off to fish (or paddle), but the restaurant business is a lot like work. Hard work.
The next time I headed south I hit the Pecatonica down by Darlington. I was with my son but we didn’t have a shuttle vehicle, trusting fate and my thumb, as hitchhiking while holding a canoe paddle is an instant symbol of riparian brotherhood. I always get a lift.
As I was walking off to the road, I heard a voice from a guy angling for catfish as an excuse to drink a beer.
“Where you goin’?”
“You’re walking to Calamine?”
“Hopefully I’m getting a ride.”
“No you won’t.”
“I usually do.”
“No traffic on that road.”
He was right, the traffic counts were low, hence the popularity of that road with cyclists.
“Do you have any suggestions?”
He scratched his grizzled face, covered with a little drywall mud and three days of beard.
“I’ll take you.”
“For ten bucks.”
“Deal. What’s your name?”
I looked at his lawn chair. Only one beer can next to it. It was early in the day, about ten.
We climbed into his old white work van, which was full of plastering materials and ladders. We cleared a place for me and strapped my son into the front seat.
Maynard chatted about nothing in general, how he was getting close to retirement but still did odd jobs here and there for local contractors. He had a case of Budweiser in the back of the truck, and I think he had intentions to put a serious dent in it. His Golden Retriever tried to crawl into the front seat and was giving my son a serious face wash. It was, fortunately, a short trip. Maynard was not particularly attentive to the rules of the road.
The paddle was nice, and I remember it being enjoyable, but nothing particular sticks out other than the beginning (Maynard) and the ending (Maynard again).
As we paddled up to the take-out we heard an exclamation of joy.
“Darryl!* You made it! Here, let me help you…”
No…nononononono….Maynard grabbed my bow thwart and gave it a good vigorous tug up onto the rocks. I said, “No, no, I got this…” but Maynard was undeterred. The scratches are still there. No harm, no foul. I was fouled.
Near the lawn chair was a fishing pole and half a dozen more beer cans. These Buds were for Maynard, and he had enjoyed all of them to the fullest. He yammered amiably as we carried our boats to the car, and waved and shouted a hearty farewell. But not without taking a picture. Classic t-shirt.
When I think about the experiences in my life that really stand out, the most memorable events were interactions with other people, whether on thewater or off. Paddling has a lot to do with the places I find myself meeting people, whether in a swimming pool in Shanghai New International Exposition Center (SNIEC), in a small café in southwestern Wisconsin, or riding in a rickety old work van with a local connoisseur of malted beverage.
Paddling has made my life unbearably rich. Most of my best friends I made because of paddling, whether it be a customer at my shop, a student in a class I teach, or a local character I run into at the put-in or take-out, or a couple of salt-of-the-earth sensible farm women who sell me a piece of really good pie.
*A common mistake.
So said Samwise at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And my absence from Canoelover’s blog has very good explanations if not excuses.
There are only so many words in a guy’s head, I think, and I have been selling them rather than giving them away. I guess this makes me a verbal capitalist. But the truth is, I don’t mind getting paid for what I would do anyway for nothin’. So Canoe and Kayak Magazine has hired me as a staff writer, or as editor J.M. says, “You’re in the stable.” Like a horse: or a jackass. Either way, they hired me. It’s fun. I’m working on two boat reviews for next Spring and Summer issues.
I also started writing a column for Midwest Silent Sports, as their former paddlesports columnist retired and decided it was too much work to come up with something every month. I’ve written about 15 columns for them since a year ago in the Spring, but only a handful are on their website…not sure why. I like a deadline and the discipline that comes with it. You must produce.
Besides, the filthy lucre that comes in the envelope with the generic corporate check goes to a good cause. It is used to pay down the old credit card. Now that Wife 1.5 ain’t working outside the home, cash is a little more scarce, and we still like to travel, so we have to be frugal about putting aside resources for traveling.
On top of that, I’ve been lacing a lot of snowshoes over the past year or so…I’m up to pair 47, I believe, so that means I laced about 18 pair last fall and winter. Now three sets are in progress; two medium pair, one varnished and one waiting, one small about 3/4 varnished, plus a frame waiting in the wings. Once I sell those I can buy some more materials and get busy with more lacing. Snowshoes, all 18 pair, mostly paid for a trip last Spring to Istanbul. P.S. It’s really cheap to go to Turkey and the people are lovely.
A lot has transpired since I last wrote on here. As alluded to, Wife 1.5 quit her teaching job after 20 years. The kids are lovely, but the administration leaves a lot to be desired. I’m naming names. Jen Cheatham, Superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District, is an embarrassment and a pathological liar. I was planning on running for School Board just for the joy of holding her accountable for her many screw-ups and a profound lack of empathy. But Wife 1.5 is still healing, and she needed to be away from that drama for a while. If Dr. Cheatham (don’t worry, she doesn’t do house calls) is still here next year, and one can only hope not, I’m running, and I’ll win. Because as my little friend Kahlil says, “That’s what I do.”
One of the benefits of Wife 1.5 not working is that I have my wife back. The one I married disappeared into a painful fog last year, and only now do I see just how much the succubus of a superintendent sucked life out of her.* Wife 1.5 is gardening like crazy. As if it’s possible, she over-planted tomatoes. Oh, the joy of home-grown ‘maters. She over-planted summer squash and zucchini, meaning she planted any at all. She planted the zucchini variety that should be called Calabasa Escondida, since we’d check every day for squ ash that are ready to pick and suddenly, after lifting a leaf, we find a zucchino the size of a baseball bat, and just as woody.
I sold a few canoes and bought a few canoes. Replaced a Wenonah Minnesota II (43 pounds) with an Island Falls 18 Wilderness (closer to 75). I traded lightweight for aesthetics. Probably stupid, but I’m not always rational about canoes. Daughter 1.X asked me which canoe I loved the most. I said all of them. She said I couldn’t love all of them. I told her “They’re canoes, not women, so I can love all of them I want to.” I’m a polycanoeist but that’s where the poly- ends.
Anyway, I’m going to try to be more diligent writing here. So long as I don’t run out of
*Okay, I need to curtail the ad feminam attacks. But she is incompetent.
I wrote this ten years ago, the year I injured myself playing Norm Abram and almost cut a few fingers off my right hand. I wanted to revisit this after ten years because my hand has been aching lately, and I think I’m starting to get the carpal tunnel syndrome a physician friend told me was pretty much inevitable. So I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Here ya go.
The icy wind bullied its way through the leafless trees and hit my chest like a clenched fist, sucking heat from my hands, twisting my paddle in my hand and sending a nice, misty spray of cold river water over the bow.
“Better to be on shore wishing you were out there in the storm, than out there in the storm wishing you were on shore.” The words of my friend Max Finkelstein, a veteran of thousands of miles of canoe trips (most of them solo), were echoing in that empty space between my ears. That’s where my brain would have been if I hadn’t left it on the sand bar next to the campfire earlier than morning. Cold does strange things to a man’s senses and makes one forget one’s brain.
I was on the Wisconsin River in late October as part of a pact I had made with myself last year. “One solo canoe trip each quarter. Two days at least, three is better.” I had managed to do three out of four, and batting .750 isn’t too bad, all things considered. Especially with one thing considered.
On March 5, 2004, I was working late into the evening in my garage workshop a week before Canoecopia. I would have a full house in a few days, and one shower and eleven people wouldn’t cut it; I had to finish the shower enclosure in our bathroom. I was tired.
At 9:30, I was ripping a piece of cedar on the table saw, with the guard off. No lectures please, I’ve endured enough of them, believe me. The blade was set high and close to the fence, but the supposed “clear” cedar had a knot in it, and the piece I was cutting was not cooperating, binding between the fence and the blade. I can’t say how it happened, but I was out of position and out of balance, and as I pivoted on my foot to turn off the saw, I found myself staring at my own right hand, a deep cut across all four fingers and my palm. It was surreal, but the pain soon brought me back to the reality of the situation; I let out a wild yell of agony and ran through the kitchen door into the house.
“Honey, please call 911. This is a bad one.” As Stephanie grabbed the phone, I snatched up a clean dishcloth and did the best I could to slow the bleeding while sirens approached the house. Fortunately the arteries were intact, but I would soon find that the veins, nerves, and tendons were cut on all four fingers. The paramedics asked where I wanted to go. “I’d like to see the best hand surgeon in Wisconsin, please.” Seconds later I was on my way to University Hospital.
After two surgeries, 59 appointments at the hand clinic and countless hours of rehab, the miracle is that I am able to type. Once again I can use my own seven-finger method, the same method I used long before my accident. It’s not 100%, and it never will be, but I have four pink, wiggly fingers where I could have had nothing. Many of my fellow clinic visitors have not been as fortunate. While my hand has some wicked scars, (a friend once called it Frankenfist), it mostly works.
The table saw accident changed my life in a profound way, which was reflected in the trips I did (and didn’t make). It has been a long, painful, yet insightful year. So now with that background, I’m here to report on my solo trip resolution.
Date reserved for paddling: March 26-28
River visited: yeah, right
Miles paddled: 0
Eighteen days after surgery, I was in no condition to go anywhere. I was under strict orders to keep my hand immobilized or risk rupturing a tendon, and then I’d really be in for it. One time I tried putting an Ace bandage around my hand, the splint, and the paddle shaft, and I paddled a few hundred feet behind Rutabaga, but it was just too painful. And in retrospect, incredibly stupid. Some would ask why I would try in the first place, and the only answer is, well, it’s a canoeing thing. At any rate, I did it, and it hurt like hell, and I didn’t try it again.
I have no idea how people become addicted to painkillers. I hated how they made me feel – totally disconnected from my body. True, you can’t feel much pain, but you can’t feel much of anything else either. That’s just not my cup of Vicodin.
I admit that I fell into a severe funk as the dates I had set aside approached and passed, and I remember thinking, “This is going to be a hard season.” I had no idea.
What I learned: I lacked patience and the ability to accept limitations, until pain and physical impossibility gave me the smack-down. Wanting what you can’t have just hurts. Letting go of an impossibility is not pleasant, but necessary now and then. The River will still be there, waiting for me, when I am healed.
Dates reserved for paddling: May 20-22
River visited: Lower Wisconsin
Miles paddled: Over 40
The water was up, and we were moving four miles per hour without paddling a stroke. I say “we” because my solo trip turned tandem.
It was a little over two months after surgery and I was still tender, but at least not bandaged or even worse, splinted. I still had Frankenfist, but it moved like a hand in some ways, though I lacked significant grip strength.
I could have taken a solo trip, but I could tell Stephanie was worried, because she said “Darren, I’m worried about you going on a solo trip so soon.” Call it Male Intuition. Now the choices were to go on the trip, while Stephanie worries– not a desirable outcome. Or stay home, and another opportunity slips by; equally undesirable.
It was my friend Kaitlyn who nudged me out of my either/or mindset.
“Hey, dummy, who says you have to go solo?”
“I do. It’s a solo trip. From the Latin solus. It means ‘alone’, get it?”
“Yeah, I know. But you don’t have to go solo.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Okay, fine. Who would want to drag a one-handed guy down the River?”
“Let me think about it….oh, I can think of about a hundred people.”
“But I don’t want to go tandem,” I whined.
She considered this statement for a moment, then responded calmly.
“Fine. Stay home then.”
I love it when she’s right.
I considered my options, and I decided to call my friend Larry. He could use a good paddle, so I called and asked him if he “would be willing to drag my sorry, one-handed carcass down the Wisconsin River for a few days.”
His answer was a gift. “Darren, not only would I be willing, I would be honored.” Honored? Wow.
Once I started thinking tandem trip, the disappointment of losing solitude was quickly replaced by the thought of Larry’s company. Larry has the Alabamian gift of gab, which is to say that almost everything he says is funny due to content, delivery, or both. For instance, Larry’s personal lexicon states that one does not simply die, one “achieves room temperature.”
Because the water was over the banks and moving fast, we ran out of river before we ran out of time. We went home a day early, but not before enjoying some glorious adventures, exploring places normally not accessible at low water. Along the way we ate great food; lox, homemade granola, gingersnaps (of course), good lamb, lots of fruit, excellent hot tea, the works. We found Wilson the football, a raccoon skull, a turtle shell, and exactly one campsite big enough for our tent. I also found a deeper friendship.
What I learned: It’s okay to change your plans, even at the last minute. Good friends will always come through for you. Patience again. Letting people do things for you is hard if you’re independent. I’m too independent.
Dates reserved for paddling: September 17-18
River visited: Pecatonica
Miles paddled: I didn’t measure. About 12, maybe.
It was my first solo trip “for real” since my accident. Now Stephanie wasn’t worried, but I was. I was driving to the Wisconsin River and noticed all the trees were bending steadily away from the direction I wanted to go. I detoured and headed south and west. I had no idea where I would end up.
The Pecatonica is a muddy little stream that runs through a beautiful stretch of Iowa and Grant counties. It is not beautiful with a capital B (we reserve that for places like the Namekagon or the Bois Brule), but it is a most pleasant place to paddle. Moreover, it’s down in a bit of a depression so the wind might blow, but by the time it negotiates the stream bank it’s pretty calm down there. The downside is that the high banks sometimes limit the access to scenery. In this case, it was worth the tradeoff. It was go small or go home.
Since I was alone, I brought my bike, which I would use to shuttle between my car and my canoe. Thankfully, a bike path ran along the river between the put-in and Darlington. The shuttle was as enjoyable as the paddle. The washboard-like Cheese Country bike trail challenged my hand a little, but if I slowed down the bumps and jars were acceptably minimized. The trail ran along the river in spots, giving me a quick taste of what was to come. Rather than barreling down the trail at “get it over with” speed, I had to ride slowly, like a mogul skier, picking my way through the bumps.
I wanted to make this river last a while. I chained my bike up under the bridge, launched down a muddy slide that had previously seen canoe action and deliberately took a pace that would be just a bit slower than usual.
The sunlight filtered through the trees, creating a green cathedral. A few trees were starting to turn, but the majority of the silver maples and cottonwoods were still bright green. I had brought only black-and-white film, so instead of shooting off pictures I would later toss into the trash, I just took the time and observed and absorbed. I could have spent some time shooting but I was enjoying being there instead of recording there. I don’t need a picture of that day, I can feel it, smell it, and see it whenever I want to. I did this for several hours.
As the city came into view I realized I had taken much longer than I had planned to paddle that stretch. I felt lazy, and it felt good to feel lazy. It was as I loaded up my canoe on the car that I realized I was hungry, and hungry in that vicinity meant Cornish food.
Mineral Point is an enclave of Cornwall, no question about that. The Red Rooster serves a great pasty, a sort of meat pie that miners would take down into the mines for their supper. Lard, meat, onions, flour, and rutabagas or turnips are pretty much all you need, but getting it in the right proportions is an exact science. I gained back all the weight I had lost on the paddle and ride. It was a fair exchange.
What I learned: Slow down. Don’t stubbornly stick to a plan when it no longer makes sense. Slow down even more. Observe and absorb more; take fewer pictures. The Red Rooster in Mineral Point is a fine institution.
Dates reserved for paddling: October 23-24
River visited: Lower Wisconsin
Miles paddled: 24
One of the advantages of late fall paddling is that you will almost never see another person out on the water. The wave runners have been rusting quietly for months now, and many casual anglers are put off by cold weather. Solitude!
I had packed my winter bag, good to twenty below, which was a bit much. But better to overkill than to be overkilled. No bugs meant no tent was necessary, just a Whelen lean-to, a modified canvas tarp that is perfect for fall canoe camping.
With just a small (theoretically) smokeless fire in front of it, the Whelen becomes a giant reflector oven, baking the occupant with a luxurious heat, allowing indifference to the frigid gusts that play just inches beyond the edge of the creamy white canvas.
I had paddled most of a glorious fall day. The clouds were out in force but the sun peeked through at times, illuminating the bluffs in all their splendid fall color.
The circulation in my hand is still a bit woofy, and keeping it warm was a major accomplishment, but it was also a blessing. I had to stop fairly often to strip off my gloves and reheat my hand against bare skin, so I had a built-in excuse to poke around.
Poking around sandbars and walking the shoreline produced a personal record of four turtle shells, one of them in perfect condition. I usually have good turtle shell karma, but four in one trip? I was dumbfounded. I also walked a great deal along the edge of the islands where the sand was perfect for capturing tracks of animals, and saw evidence of abundant bird life. Heron tracks are my favorite, big three-toed claws that look like a peace sign without the circle drawn around it. I took a stick and transformed some of the better tracks into heron peace signs and moved on.
Eventually I knew I would have to stop, and the wind was starting to pick up a bit, so I picked a campsite on the downstream side of an island. It wasn’t optimal for weather protection but it had a great view, so I decided I’d make camp, pitching the Whelen first. Once I had it staked down, the wind started blowing in earnest, and it was clear a long, cold blustery night was in store. I buttoned things down, ate a good supper of lamb steak and apples and cheese, polished off the hot chocolate and went to bed at 7:30. It was already black as pitch, and steady drizzle saturated the canvas so it swelled up good and tight. I would sleep dry that night.
The next morning I was up before light to eat and take advantage of the lull in the wind. I dug out the lean-to, the edges partially buried by blowing sand, broke camp in record time, despite the three primes necessary to start my stove. The canvas was crunchy and stiff, and I worried about keeping my hand warm. There was a lot of frost everywhere.
As I paddled down toward Boscobel, the wind intensified, and whitecaps appeared on the surface of the river. I checked my maps and it was still over twenty miles down to the car. Muscoda was about four miles away, but the car was at Boscobel.
The GPS I carry mostly for fun actually came in useful. I learned that I was paddling hard with a full load and making a good 1.3 miles per hour, stopping if I stopped paddling. With delays every half-hour for hand warming, that would make for a very long, cold, potentially dangerous day.
I stopped just upstream of Muscoda in a small, protected cove and lit a small fire while thinking about my options. Watching the whitecaps move upstream, it was an easy decision. I called my wife and told her I was cold and getting colder, and I had taken waves over the bow of the canoe.
Stephanie told me she had just been hoping that I would make wise decisions. She checked the weather report, which showed 35 mile-per-hour winds gusting to 40 from the west, straight up the river. I said I would meet her at Muscoda in about an hour and a half, said our good-byes and put out the fire.
The wind, if anything, had intensified and cautiously I picked my way along the shore, trying to stay in water that was deep enough to float me but still take advantage of the tree cover. It took me an hour to get to the take-out, and I was already bone tired…seventeen more miles would have been too much.
I lit the stove in the shelter of my canoe and waited for water to boil. Looking downstream, I saw whitecaps moving upstream against the current and leaves were being stripped off the oaks in the park next to the take-out. I involuntarily shuddered. “You were right, Max. I’m really glad I’m here.”
What I learned: Sometimes stupidity masquerades as perseverance. If you ask for help, you’ll usually get it, but it might take a while. A wife would rather drive four hours than worry for twelve. Warm wet feet are better than cold wet feet.
And finally, if you almost cut your hand off, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just the beginning of different one.
This story is dedicated to Judi Neumann and all the great staff at the Occupational Therapy Hand Clinic at the University of Wisconsin Hospital, and also to my fellow patients, many with injuries far more serious than mine. Thanks also to Dr. Karol Gutowski, a skilled hand surgeon (twice!) and a gentleman.
Hello, my name is Darren, and I’m a laceaholic. I guess the first step is to admit you have a problem.
The problem I have is that I don’t have enough frames ready for lacing. Lace in the summer when varnish dries without heating up the shop, and steam bend frames when it’s cold. Problem is that I didn’t have my bending jigs done for the winter season so I am using pre-bent frames I get from a guy who makes snowshoes. Goal for October: frame jigs completed, then I can make a dozen frames and be set for the summer.
This pair is a new pattern that took some experimentation to get the lacing to come out symmetrical. There is 60 feet of lacing in the tips and tails, 95 feet in the center footbed. 8 feet wraps the toe cords to add durability. It takes about an hour or so to do a tip or tail, a few hours (or one full-length movie) to do the footbed. So total time invested in a pair is about a day plus varnishing time, maybe an hour or so. Total lacing is about 500 feet per pair. I have 2400 feet left on the spool.
I now have four or five pair of traditional snowshoes I have built, along with a dozen other pairs I have build for other folks. I taught building and that was fun, but now it’s just a hobby. Wife 1.4.3a knits, I lace.
I use Pettit Amber Spar Varnish…that’s the good stuff. It’s $40.00 a quart, but consider the garbage in a can (Minwax polyurethane at Home Despot) costs $15.00 a quart, the extra cost for a pair of shoes might be as high as $3.00. The Minwax brand was good stuff maybe a few decades ago, but they were bought (of course) by a larger company, who started squeezing out the expensive ingredients so they could make an extra 12 cents a quart.
Pettit (and Epiphanes and all the other good brands) glide on the wood and lacing smoothly, and they don’t foam up and leave bubbles that later need to be sanded or steel-wooled off. They are easier to use, cover better, and all in all, I can’t see why anyone would use a cheaper varnish unless they didn’t know about the good stuff.
Now you know about the good stuff. I am exculpated.
I am now prepping another set of frames: sanding, scraping, making a few modifications to the cross members (aesthetic but also functional, adding more toe clearance). I continue to experiment with lacing patterns and materials, and I have scale drawings of the frame jig I’m going to make. I’m making some modifications so the toe will rise a little differently, a lot more traditional-looking and probably a little lighter too. Certainly lighter than these beasts, Alaskan 12x60s, the first pair of snowshoes I ever built, 26 years ago. Little did the folks at Mosquito Hill Nature Center know what they set in motion when I signed up for a class in the winter of 1988.
Now to find some long ash logs from which I can split out staves. Sawn boards don’t work because they are usually kiln-dried and brittle. You can work around that by soaking the boards for a while, but the big problem is grain run-out. If you try to bend a piece of wood where the grain runs out, it’ll split and you’ll have a nice piece of firewood. The same is true for longbows, by the way. So you need to follow the grain, listening to the wood with a certain feng shui and taking it slow with the drawknives.
Anyway, first coat is tacky and by tomorrow will be ready for another coat. They’ll turn more amber-colored as I add coats, probably a total of three. Leather bindings are already ready to go on. Then we test them…
This was a few years and a few pairs ago. I floated. Modern shoes sank.
It has been a helluva day. Nothing horrible happened, but it was one of those days that just ground away at me. It happens. Pecked to death by ducks seems to be an appropriate metaphor. I just felt raw.
When I got home I walked Dog 3.0, which helped. Dogs can certainly change your perspective on life. The most important thing is whatever smell rises from the intersection of grass and tree trunk. Dogs live in the olfactory present. I was less raw but certainly not ready to break out in song.
I sat on the porch in the ancient blue recliner that was old when we got it. It has been the resting place of many a dog butt. It’s comfy. Then the doorbell rang. I was annoyed. I got up and walked to the door, determined to be gruff with the patchouli-drenched Greenpeace canvasser who was undoubtedly lurking on the stoop.
It wasn’t a Greenpeacer. It was a couple of kids. No one was wearing a Girl Scout uniform, just street clothes.
I swallowed my grumpy and opened the door. Two kids from the church behind me introduced themselves and told me that their summer program was starting up next week, and they wanted to teach the kids that it is better to give than receive. They didn’t ask for any money. They didn’t ask for anything.
They just asked if they could perform an act of service for me this summer. They suggested washing my truck (it needs it so they’re perceptive), weeding (ditto), helping with household tasks. “We just want to give service.”
I am reluctant to accept help since there are so many folks who need it more than I do, but I agreed that sometime this summer, I would love for them to wash my truck. They took notes and said they would contact me later this summer. I can drive through the car wash, but this will allow some kids to get soapy and make someone happy.
As they left, the young woman, maybe 14 or 15, turned around and said, “Sir, can I pray for you about anything?”
Irrespective of your faith (or lack of it), it’s a pretty powerful thing to have a stranger want to pray for you for anything. Whether prayer “works” or not (it does for me) you have to accept that it’s a small, thoughtful kindness. Perhaps she recognized my weariness after a long, raw day. Even if she didn’t, it didn’t seem forced or that it was part of a script.
Someone asking if they could pray for me is a question I hadn’t heard in a while. Frankly, it so caught me off guard that I felt genuine human compassion for some suffering unknown to her. I was a little verklempt. Neither of us said anything. I thought about it. I had an idea.
“You can pray that my work might be a little easier.”
She smiled and said “I can do that. I’ll do it tonight and tomorrow, and after that if I remember.”
I think I’m a little less raw now.
I’m sitting in our teardrop camper in the middle of a muddy field that is masquerading as a campground. The downpour of a few hours ago didn’t help, and both the camper and truck are covered in splatters of a certain light tan clay that is so common here in Northeastern Iowa.
I lost the rear mud flaps to the truck on icebergs left by the snowplows past winter, so there’s a little more spray than usual. Actually, a lot more. It looks like someone took a drywall texture gun and packed it with this same tan clay and let his five year-old loose with it.
That said, I’m not complaining. I’ve been parked here in full view of the road, a scant hundred yards away. Two vehicles have passed in the last hour; a car (while sedan similarly decorated as mine) and a tractor pulling a grain drill. The river burbles through the little window, a soothing sound.
Today I paddled the Yellow River. It has been on my list for a while, and I finally scheduled myself off for a few days mid-week so I could have some peace and quiet. I get precious little time alone, and it is so nice to be alone with my thoughts.
You know, Iowa gets a bad rap. Sophisticated people from the coasts look down in wonder as they fly from concrete jungle to another. They wonder “Just who lives down there? Why would they want to live in such a sleepy little town? I mean, how do they survive without Thai food?”
For the record, I grew up around these people, and I am somewhat schizoid about them, simultaneously feeling sorry for them while wondering if their parents had regrets after seeing what they created. They’re sorry little creatures, all form and no substance. In other words, Anti-Iowan.
Iowa is a lovely, lovely place. The people are down-to-earth and kind, the sort of folks who strike up casual conversations over a piece of pie, should you sit at the counter at a diner. The old folks are awesome, strong and wiry, weathered with countless summers of picking corn and milking cows. They’re the salt of the earth, and I like them all. *
Swallows are swirling around the teardrop, buzzing and clicking as they scoop up early, tender insects. It won’t get dark for a few more hours but I feel cozy in here. The teardrop is almost cheating: I paddle all day and here I lay after a nice dinner of curry and local cheese and crackers, on a really comfortable mattress, between 400 count cotton sheets. Mary Chapin Carpenter sings back-up to a couple of wrens in a honeysuckle bush a few feet from my window.
And I haven’t even paddled the Upper Iowa yet. That’s tomorrow. This is bliss.
* Unless you’re from California, New York City or Florida. In that case, Iowa is full of corn and pig farts. The people here are dim-witted, hirsute, clumsy, drooling troglodytes, and that’s just the women. The men are even more coarse and slow, dressing only in dirty overalls, shirt optional. Those who may have heard of phở mispronounce it. They speak an unintelligible variety of English that makes Cajun sound like the King’s Speech. They may or may not eat human flesh. Do not come to Iowa.
As I wrote this a few years ago, I was sitting against a stone wall in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. It seemed a nice thing to post on Easter. -DB
Laudato sie, mi Signore cum tucte le tue creature,
spetialmente messor lo frate Sole, lo qual è iorno, et allumini noi per lui.
Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore:
de Te, Altissimo, porta significatione.
Praised be to You, my Lord, with all your creatures,
Especially our brother, Sir Sun, and You illuminate us through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor:
Of you, Most High, he bears your likeness.
This early 13th century poem by St. Francis of Assisi was written in medieval Italian, the oldest known poem written in the vernacular of the time. It has a sweet ancient sound, a lovely cadence with little latinisms creeping in.
I’m leaning agains a stone wall as I scribble this down on a school notebook, using a Ticonderoga N. 2 pencil. The stone wall is over 100 years old, and the sun has been warming it for tens of thousands of days. Seems like Brother Sun and Cousin Limestone have something going. Brother Sun is illuminating, and it feels great.
Saint Francis of Assisi was quite the guy. Catholic or not, you have to admire the guy for his ability to bring the Divine down here to earth where we mere mortals can taste it. Brother Sun and I have been friends now for over five decades.
I’m on a bit of a quest today. I’m roaming the back roads of southwestern Wisconsin in search of, well, I don’t really know. Photographs? If I find a nice image, that would be okay, but it certainly isn’t necessary. A nice stream to paddle? That would be nice, but it’s pretty cold out. How about some peace and quiet? That sounds great.
Laudato si, mi Signore, per sor’Acqua,
la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water:
She is dear and useful, humble, precious and pure.
I cross numerous rivers and streams, some barely large enough to float a canoe if you didn’t care much about the bottom of it. Little towns, little churches, and little cemeteries. I love little cemeteries.
One of my favorite things about Wisconsin is the relative stability of the population. In other words, the names on the headstones in the cemetery are the same as the ones in the local phone book.
It has long been a habit of mine to walk around old country cemeteries, looking at the stones that were carved before the days of computer graphics and laser etching. The workmanship varies from place to place and stone to stone.
Sometimes it’s evident that a local craftsman was employed, and the work is meticulous but somewhat Spartan. Sometimes you can tell that a local craftsman was a master artist and stonecutter, with beautiful carvings of flowers, lambs, and my favorite, a finger pointing straight up, as if to say “Why seek Ye the living among the dead?”
Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale,
da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare:
guai a quelli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali;
beati quelli ke trouarà ne le Tue sanctissime uoluntati,
ka la morte secunda no ‘l farrà male.
Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister Death,
From whom no living person can escape:
Woe to them who die in mortal sin;
Blessed are they who find themselves doing your holy will,
Because for them the second death will do them no evil.
I like the contemplative feeling of these old, hallowed places. Usually there are no more than a few dozen stones, sometimes fewer, seldom more. The languages of the stones are a testament to the variety of people who settled this area, and often you’ll find a stone in Welsh or German. You can see stories in the stones, like the young mother of 22 or 23 buried next to an infant who died a few hours later.
Where was the father? Did he pull up stakes and leave the place, grief-stricken and unable to bear to live in the place that robbed him of his wife and child? No one can tell, and no one will, but it certainly reminds you of the fragility of life a century ago. The settlers of this place certainly were – the birth and death dates were plainly spelled out, and though the elements had softened the letters, the words were still plainly visible:
born June 4, 1857, died February 18, 1879
Age 21 years, 9 mos., 15 days
Where life is precious, it isn’t measured in years, or decades. It is measured in days, in moments, and each moment that passes is lost, gone forever. Our ancestors knew this, and to that end marked their final resting places with the most permanent material they could find and with words that reaffirmed they knew the value of life.
Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Focu,
per lo quale ennallumini la nocte:
ed ello è bello et iucundo et robustoso et forte.
Be praised my Lord, for Brother Fire,
By which the night is lit,
And he is beautiful and delightful and powerful and strong.
I got cold just sitting on the ground, reading stones in the shade of large cottonwood trees. I found a small area off the side of the road, built a small fire, and warmed myself from the outside in as my water boiled for something else to warm me from the inside out. Brother Fire is a good friend of mine, and has been for years. I return home from a camping trip and the first thing my wife does is to smell my hair (what’s left of it, anyway) for signs of wood smoke. Brother Fire gives me delight indeed. Brother Fire is one of my best friends.
I contemplated the flames and warmed my hands, still thinking I could find my river and get in a few strokes before dark. I stretched out the Gazetteer and looked for streams or rivers that looked like they needed a good paddling. I was only a few miles from the Platte River, where it runs into the Mississippi near Potosi. That would be my next destination.
I finished the hot chocolate, thankful to Brother Chocolate for the much-needed calories. I doused my small fire with a water bottle, cleaned up the mess and got back into the truck, my mission now selected.
Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Uento
et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo,
per lo quale, a le Tue creature dài sustentamento.
Be praised my Lord, for Brother Wind
and for air and clouds and for all weather.
by which you sustain your creatures.
Brother Wind. Now there’s a relative I really wasn’t anxious to see at the reunion. Brother Wind had been AWOL most of the day, and I was making hay out of the cloudless sky and warm sun, which when the wind wasn’t blowing, was almost too hot on my skin. A quick check in the rear-view mirror showed that Brother Sun had given my face something to remember the day, and Brother Wind would surely finish the job if given the opportunity.
I found a put-in across the river from a farm, whose watchdog was not happy about my intrusion. I loaded up the canoe as quickly as I could and launched into the current, paddling upstream first because I am both a realist and a Calvinist. You gotta suffer for your free ride back to the car. Besides, Murphy the Lawgiver told me that if you paddle downstream first, you will find Sister Water running swifter and the Brother Wind in your face if you try to paddle back upstream.
It felt good to be in the water, the boat moving well into a slight breeze. Brother Wind stayed home, but his little sibling Sister Breeze gave the cattails and reeds along the shore just a hint of movement. I paddled for a while until I noticed the sun starting to disappear behind the hills, which happens fairly early this time of year. In the open areas you can see two hours more sun than down in the valleys, and it was time to find a place with more warmth. The paddle back to the car was easy, with the help of the current I was back in no time and the boat loaded up. The mud from the shores of the Platte was dark and murky, and it felt soft like baby powder when it dried on the bottom of the hull.
Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora Luna e le stelle:
in celu l’ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars,
In heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
No stars, but Sister Moon is out early. A nice crescent, thin and bright against the cloudless blue. It is a blessing to see the moon on a day like today. It’s a reminder that night comes early and a lot of the sounds we’re accustomed to hearing in the woods are silent, the frogs deep in the mud, the birds south, except for the red-breasted nuthatches honking at each other. The cold seeps into your bones, reminding you that without Sister Oak and Cousin Hickory, the house is cold and dreary.
Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora nostra matre Terra,
la quale ne sustenta et gouerna,
et produce diuersi fructi con coloriti fior et herba.
Be praised, my Lord, for our sister, Mother Earth,
Who sustains us and rules us,
And produces diverse fruits with colorful flowers and grasses.
Mother Earth was good to me today. The flowers are gone, mostly, but we found some glorious grasses and the last of the red currants and bittersweet along the road, their cheerful red even brighter against the dun-colored grasses, which couldn’t decide between gray and brown. It’s not in the poem, but Mother Earth is also a soft, brown bed, in whom we bury each other and cover each other with a sweet blanket of sod, and hopefully a few colorful flowers too. I like to think of Mother Earth as giving us a nice, cool hug when we finally go the way of all flesh.
Wisconsin breeds the sort of people who like a deep taproot, one that goes deep and reaches the water. Let others move to the big cities, to the fast-paced coasts, where life runs at a speed that reminds us of hamsters on an exercise wheel. Leave me behind, halfway between the coasts, insulated by prairies from the hectic pace of the big and noisy.
My taproot was cut when I was nineteen and I took off from home in California (big and noisy par excellence) and set off for Italy, never to return to California. I was without home, without place for several years, until I met a young Wisconsin woman who had a very deep root system and invited me to grow alongside her.
It wasn’t a hard choice. As I visited with her family and traveled the back roads between Belmont, Rewey, Arthur, Mineral Point, and Platteville, I fell in love with the land around me, which only deepened my love for my wife. After twenty three years, I have put down a very thick, deep taproot that is impervious to any sort of drought. I have found my place. It’s here
Laudate et benedicete mi Signore et rengratiate
e seruiteli cum grande humilitate.
Praise and bless my Lord and thank him
And serve him with great humility.
After 30 years, I find myself continually nourished by this place, and look forward to continuing the exploration, on foot, by canoe, and occasionally, in an old cemetery. I do think I serve, sometimes with and sometimes without humility, when I take friends and other various and sundry people on the rivers and streams of this Driftless Area, the southwestern part of the state of Wisconsin where the glaciers just couldn’t quite reach.
That’s my place. Good luck rooting me out.
I’m sitting in the United Club, ensconced in a comfy chair with two outlets, one for each electronic device that accompanies me on my business trips. I’m off to DC for a board meeting, just an overnighter, so I’m traveling light.
I don’t fly enough to hate it, but I fly enough that I don’t like it. Still, as I walk through the Cathedral of Travel that is Chicago O’Hare, I do my best to wear a Buddhist half-smile and pass it along to anyone not staring at their smartphones or talking to themselves. I walk the length of two terminals, and I get one smile from a Hispanic woman who stops me to ask the time in a thick Spanish accent. I look at my watch and without thinking about it I say ocho y media. “I mean, eight thir…” but she says gracias, with a warm half-smile.
It’s easy to wear a full-smile as I descend the escalator to the United Club, the bastion of business travelers, a quiet little sanctuary. I wear less of a smile when I learn my membership card expired last November. I hope for some leniency from the woman at the counter, but her smile is a little icy as she slides the card back to me. “Or,” she says, “You can renew your membership…” So I renew. The smile thaws just a bit but retains a respectful chill. Take a lesson from my Hispanic friend, I say to myself.
I actually enjoyed the 45 minute flight to ORD. ORD may seem a strange name for the airport for a major American city. Why not CHI? I mean, Los Angeles is LOS. Atlanta ATL. ORD is ORD because before it was one of the busiest airports in the world, it was an orchard.
As I waddle down the aisle of my CRJ700, computer bag in one hand and my socks and underwear in the other, a beautiful African-American woman struggles to put 105% of carry-on into 100% of overhead bin. She’s dressed to the tens, not the nines, and despite her considerable heels she’s just short enough to make stowing luggage a ponderous task. Behind her stands a stereotype in Dockers, a blue blazer and light blue shirt, no tie, loafers. He looks noticeably irritated, shifting his weight back and forth as if that’s going to speed the process. I wonder why he doesn’t offer to help. I mean, this guy’s six-foot plus and a gentle nudge from below would considerably speed up the process. I really want to reach around him to help her, accidentally clocking him in the jaw as I do so, but she receives help from a fellow passenger behind her. I pray that he’s not sitting next to me. My prayer is answered.
On any plane you find a nice cross section of society. Sure, it’s dominated by business folks, but you still see the Grammas on their way to see grandkids, quiet young women on their way back from visiting friends, and jolly golfers in golf sweaters and golf pants talking in golf voices, heading for warmer climes down south. But my favorites are the families on their way someplace for vacation, especially of there are two kids about six and four. Clearly they’re going to Disney World.
Dad is wearing a Badger’s cap and Cabela’s fleece. He looks to be a dairy farmer, but farmer or no he’s a big dude in his thirties with a scruffy goatee, and my guess is he knows how to work with his hands. He sits next to his six year-old, an energetic boy with a bowl haircut who appears to have spent some time in the Bouncy Castle at the State Fair last summer and just kept on going. If he had been on an airplane before, you wouldn’t know it. He is enthused by everything, including Sky Mall with its array of expensive, absolute crap. Solar-powered garden gnomes? Gimme a break. “Daddy, look at this!” Daddy offers a conciliatory hmmph. In his mind he’s thinking I wouldn’t buy that shit with someone else’s money, let alone my own. I’m leaning more and more toward farmer.
His son peppers him with questions about everything. He doesn’t know a lot and says so when he doesn’t. Still, his son is awed at his omniscience. “What’s that one, Daddy?” “Oh, that’s a generator that helps start the engines.” “What’s that one?” “That one there holds fuel.” He says fuel, not gas, so I move my mental needle a notch toward farmer or maybe trucker. A flight departs across the grass strip that separates the taxiway from the runway. “Where’s that plane going?” “I dunno.”
He talks with a Wisconsin accent, identified as much by its volume as its distinctive, drawn-out vowels and the pronunciation of th as somewhere between th and d. You get up to da UP (Upper Peninsula of Michigan) and the th disappears entirely. Oh, yah, dat dere’s a nice walleye, you betcha. I don’t necessarily have a Wisconsin accent after 30 years in the Midwest, but certain speech patterns have inserted themselves into my lexicon. I caught myself a few days ago saying to my wife, “You want some help with that er no?” Er no is pretty damn Wisconsin. I’m totally okay with that, y’know.
His wife appear to be of Norweigan stock, thick blond hair that’s not from a bottle, pulled back in a pony tail as thick as a broomstick. She has a pretty face, wearing just a little mascara so her eyelashes will show. She’s sturdily built, the kind of woman who milks 100 cows before 7:00 and can weed a big garden. She’d be considered overweight by some standards, but I think she’s lovely. If Kate Upton is the Ferrari, this woman is a Ford F-250 with a Cummins diesel and dualies in the back. Not as glamorous, but a hell of a lot more useful in all but a few circumstances.
She’s patient and tender with her four year-old, who’s a little more squirmy and less self-contained than her brother. She says “Say, it’s 80 degrees in Florida and twenty degrees in Canada. Where do you want to go, sweetie?”
I love this little girl.
The guy sitting next to me is on his way to a conference and sales meeting. He works for a large feed and pet food company, one who’s product I have used for twenty years. He smiles and says, “Well, I do cat food. The wet food in the three ounce cans.” The ones that cost a buck an ounce. That’s more than a medium-grade prosciutto. Yikes. I’d never done the math before.
My wife knows that censoring my thoughts as they travel from Broca’s area to my mouth is not my strong suit. I lean over and say “Well, thank god for those women who own six cats.” He smiles wanly and says, “Amen to that.” Even though he agrees, I fear I have promulgated a stereotype and I wish I hadn’t said that, not so much for him as for me. Chalk one up for Team Insensitive Jerk.
In two hours I’ll be on other flight to DCA, Ronald Reagan International Airport, from which I take the shuttle to the metro yellow line to the red line to my hotel, eight blocks from the stop. Tonight I have dinner with some really nice, smart people from the Outdoor Industry Association, of which I am a member of the board of directors. Part of me looks forward to this. Part of me wishes I could share a burger with the family going to Florida just to hear them talk and watch them parent.