Friday, July 29, 2016

Summer, Trader's Falls (III)


"You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific Ocean? They say it has no memory." It was Andy Dufresne who said that, Jack mused nostalgically. Sitting on a washed up log on the rocky shores of Lake Superior, journal in hand, "boiled creek water Gatorade" (as he called it) at his side, watching the sun set over Gitchee Gummee, that adage held true for him on Superior's waters. He listened to the waves for a long time. Zihuatenejo. 

Even Superior's waves seemed rather gentle today. The tide receded swiftly, now, revealing massive black boulders that jut out of the coast, boulders and rock slabs that look like they haven't moved in centuries. He watched the sunset turn the sky different colors -- orange, then pink, then lavender -- describing all of the brilliant colors around him in his journal: on his left, to the South, the forested shoreline curved outwards in brilliant greens -- almost a fresh lettuce green on the shore nearest him, then grass greens and maple greens for the next couple miles of coast, then mountainous blue-greens where the coast rose in elevation towards Duluth; the sun was sinking rapidly into Lake Superior straight ahead in the West, casting the waters in varying shades of blue that darkened with the incoming waves, until they broke with white foam against the rocks, which had taken on a Merlot hue in the fading daylight; and on his right, to the North, Lake Superior opened on the other side of the mouth of Big Carp River, vast waters beneath an equally vast blue sky, as far as the eye can see, framed only by the pines on the Northern shore. 

The sunset had drawn his neighbors from another cabin to the beach as well. Not far from where he sat writing, the female half of a thirty-something hippie couple walked barefoot along the sandy portions of the beach, throwing stones into the lake and taking artsy photographs with a camera, while her bearded male counterpart sat farther down the beach, stoically carving something with a pocket knife. Jack wondered what the woman on the beach was thinking in that moment as she walked nearer. She was pretty in the way that women are when they are troubled in thought. He had seen this couple on one or two occasions at the Big Carp River bridge, and since he had first seen them on day one he had half been expecting that prophetical 'backpacking hippies pass along sage wisdom to the writer camping solo' a la Jan and Rainy to Alexander Supertramp, but so far they had not shown any signs of interest. He wondered if there was trouble in paradise when he watched them disappear into the woods shortly thereafter, neither of them speaking a word to one another. 

It had been a "good" day for Jack -- no episodes or breakdowns. The mountains had succeeded in that. He had woken up at one o'clock in the afternoon, the latest he had slept in years, with the easiness of a man who had recently quit his office job to chase his dreams on the road, in the wilderness, an easiness which was broken by the sharp realization that he desperately needed to figure out a way to boil some drinking water, ASAP. 

He tuned his radio to the weather dial before changing into his jeans and a clean shirt, anxious now that he realized he had wasted half the day, the weatherman's announcement that it was the longest day of the calendar year in terms of daylight only a small consolation. 

"But stay hydrated if your outdoors, folks, it's also going to be one of the hottest," the weatherman said. Jack finished tying his tennis shoes, grabbed the bucket from the corner of the cabin, unlocked the cabin door, and headed out on the trail towards the Big Carp River bridge. 

"Weatherman wasn't wrong," he reflected upon arriving at the bridge. It had been one thing under the shade back at his cabin, but here on the river the sun beat down on the wooden bridge uninhibited. He climbed down from the bridge onto the rocks on the banks of the river until he reached water's edge. He leaned over, running his hands through the water and scooping it onto his face. It felt cold and rejuvenating in his pores. He filled his bucket with river water and carried it up the bank and back to camp, surprised at how sore he was and how difficult it made such a simple task. He set the bucket down on the front porch and rubbed his shoulders, achingly, then set out for his first long walk down the beach, hoping to find drift wood for the fire. 

To Jack's great relief, starting a fire proved much easier this time around; the wood seemed drier today. "Must have rained up here yesterday morning before I got here," Jack hypothesized, "that would explain the swampy hike in." It was boiling the water that proved the tricky part.

Initially, he attempted to boil the water by placing the tea kettle from the cabin cupboards on a flat stone in the fire pit. This took over an hour. And even then, Jack skeptically eyed his first mugful of murky tea. His second attempt went much better, as this time around he boiled the water in a pot on top of the biggest log he had. As these methods proved more efficient, he made notes to himself in his journal under a heading titled "Camping Notes". 

"Invest in water filtration device," he wrote, "too many wasted hours on such a basic necessity."

Then again, he thought, that's the beauty of camping -- you were always moving, always working on something for camp; no time in which to dwell on yesterdays. 

He ate a very late lunch of saltine crackers and summer sausage, which he cut into slices with his pocket knife. He enjoyed lunch with his first batch of "boiled creekwater Gatorade" (boiled river water plus a couple squirts of Mio water enhancer), as he called it in his journal. After lunch, he changed into his bathing suit, which instigated one of the few setbacks of the day.

"You know, you probably shouldn't have packed the bathing suit that she bought you for the vacation with her family this Winter, dumbass," a voice told him reprovingly. 

"It's just a stupid fucking bathing suit," he responded, though he knew damn well in his heart it was more than that.

He mixed a second water bottle-full of boiled creekwater Gatorade, grabbed his book from the nightstand, and set out for the beach at the mouth of the Big Carp River on Lake Superior, trying not to think about his bathing suit. That cause was accomplished when he encountered two different snakes in separate locations along the trail there -- two to three foot Northern Ribbon Snakes, grayish black snakes with two vertical yellow stripes down their backs -- which put the fear of nature back at the forefront of his imagination. He loathed snakes; had spent considerable time fretting about snake encounters for days prior to his journey. Still, his fears coming in to the mountains had proved to be much worse than the reality of each encounter, and Jack guessed that was the way it was with most things in life. 

He waded in barefoot across the mouth of the Big Carp River, where the river bottom was sandy and clear. Superior's waters felt like stepping into a bucket of ice water, but it was soothing on his sore, bitten feet. He washed his arms in the water and bent over to dunk his head in, which gave him a momentary brain freeze that reminded him of slurpees when he was a boy. After cooling off in the water, he attempted to do some reading on the beach, but he never did make much progress on Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, perhaps because while Hogwarts had been his only means of escape the past month -- he had already devoured The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix since his psychiatric episode -- here on Lake Superior's shores, his escape was all around him. 

Jack had spent several hours tanning at the beach, and now he had changed into long sleeves and was watching the sun go down. Zooming in from the natural valley above the Big Carp River, a family of ducks landed in vee formation on Superior to his right -- landing not far from where the hippie couple had recently disappeared into the woods. One of the ducks barked out orders to the others. Jack guessed he was the Father duck. Floating now, the family of ducks commenced fishing, dipping their heads underwater as they drifted past him in the current. "There they go, behind the rocks, before I even finish this sentence," he lamented in his journal. 

"Probably time to head back to the cabin soon," he reflected. Even on a hot day, it got chilly quickly when the sun went down over Lake Superior, and the sand flies were coming out in droves, congregating in insect clouds over the water. There were big fish jumping on the lake. 


"Yikes," Jack though on the walk back to the cabin. It was cold and spooky in the darkening woods. The fire had burned completely out by the time he got back to camp, and though it was probably just the wind he confronted a vision in which someone had been to camp and put it out. Terrified, he jumped onto the cabin porch and flung open the screen door, secluding himself inside the cabin away from the horrors of the night. He lit both candles and hung his lantern from the rafters frantically, then locked the cabin door behind him. 

Even in the cabin, he ruminated, he felt more alone than he had last night, for whatever reason; it just seemed to him darker outside the cabin tonight, colder even, and he got the feeling that darkness had fallen more rapidly tonight, like someone was shutting off the lights on him. 

"It's okay," Jack consoled himself as he adjusted the radio dial, taking deep breaths, "I've got Cobain on the radio, Harry Potter at my bedside, and pen and paper on the table". There were all kinds of adventures to be had in a cabin. It wasn't going to be so bad. 

The radio played "Free Bird" and for the second consecutive day he took great joy in knowing that he could connect with a favorite song in a way that would have never been possible before the trip. The first instance had occurred yesterday on the drive up, listening to "Something More than Free" on the cd player, windows rolled down, Isbell waling through the speakers as they sped down the two lane country roads through waving fields of tall grass:

Are you living the life you chose?
Or are you living the life that chose you?
Are you taking a grown up dose?
Do you live with a man who knows you like I
thought I did back then?
But I guess I never did,
did I, kid?

Fleetwood Mac, "Dreams," followed Lynyrd Skynyrd, then REO Speedwagon, "Ridin' the Storm Out," which whisped Jack away to a blissful high, upon which he disappeared into his writing. There was something intoxicating about being alone in a cabin in the woods with nothing but candlelight, radio, pen and paper. 

"I sure could go for a cold bottled water," he wrote in his journal a couple hours later, "getting pretty goddamn sick of boiled creekwater Gatorade." Still, he reminded himself, he had to continue to monitor his water intake. He was showing symptoms of dehydration and was now second-guessing himself on that first batch of water from the tea kettle -- had he boiled it long enough? did he drink contaminated water? -- paranoia that probably was not helped by the fact that he was properly stoned. 

"These are things you should not mess around with in the wilderness," a voice reprimanded him, "especially this far away from cell phone reception." If dehydration symptoms continue tomorrow, he cautioned, he would have to consider hiking back to the car early, maybe finding a motel somewhere to recover. At the very least, he would have to wake up early tomorrow and boil more water, first thing, as he was already running low again. First significant challenge of trip, he wrote in the journal that night. It made everything feel very real for the first time since he had left home. 

Because he had opted for the sunset at the beach over starting another fire to cook dinner, he was forced to settle for a late supper of cold beans and summer sausage, plus a protein bar and a Motrin for dessert. He found the cabin journal and read through it once more, returning to one of the smallest entries that had been stuck in his head since last night:

I came on this trip to find something my wife and I have lost after 25 years of marriage. Hope you find what you're seeking as well.

Jack wondered for a long time about the man who had written that entry some years ago. He wondered whether or not he and his wife were still together. Ultimately he concluded pessimistically, imagining that the man and wife had probably waged a long and painful custody battle against one another in court, but he truly hoped that was not the case. He hoped that his personal conclusions were merely the projections of a heart that had turned cynical and black over the years. 

He wondered about that second sentence, too: "Hope you find what you're seeking as well." It proved the cause of much mental anguish for Jack, that night, as he had nothing but time and space to ponder its implications. Was he seeking out something on this trip? Or was he simply running away from everything?

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