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Life, Writing & Photography
...a Collection of Personal Discoveries
Copyright © by Greg German, 2008


 
Essays 
Far Away Places
~ a personal journey in seven parts ~
 

 

Far Away Places, the complete essay, was originally published in Emporia State University's (Emporia, KS) Flint Hills Review, 2000, N.5 and was winner of its non-fiction writing contest.

Walking Along a Dark Trail in Borneo was additionally published as a stand-alone essay in Potpourri, 1999, V.11, #4   

 

 

                      Far Away Places
                                                  Far away is a matter of position
                                                  and understanding; place is here;

                                                   here is now....
...

 

                 We lived along a creek, not far from its banks, in a large, white, two-story house with a wide, open-porch wrapped around two of its sides. It was shaded by the creek’s crowded growth of elm, oak, and walnut trees.  Out back were a white garage, a faded red barn, and a long chicken coop. I specifically remember leaving the front yard.  I was nearly three, but still I can vividly recall how my senses collected the moment: low light patched in places with bright light, warm colors, alluring shapes, sounds, and movements.  With age, those vague, early perceptions set within a Kansas summer, gained definition.  A dirt driveway intersected with a dirt road that passed by.  It led to a worn bridge made of heavy, 2 x 12 planks and iron rails, and then it stretched on west.  I remember walking out through the yard gate, stopping at the mailbox a few yards away, and then following the road.  I saw the wood planks and felt the grip of my small hands on the air-warmed railings of the bridge.   Beneath the bridge the rushing water caught between the banks pushed its way around the bend in a flood of high panic. The sounds and the sight of the muddy-brown creek infatuated me. I was not aware, then, just how far away from home I had traveled.

            Next, I remember my mother pulling me by one arm back up the road toward the house.  She has since told me that she broke a thin, green limb from a tree and spanked me most of the way home—my punishment for her fear.  I don’t remember the trip back home or the pain.

 

            My desire to wander down the road has never left me.  Needing to, wanting to, going toward, and arriving at some other place have always been a part of my life.  Distance has never been an issue.  Location has never mattered.  Some sites have been as near as the backyard, around a bend, or just down the road. Others have been found hundreds, even thousands of miles away from rural, north-central Kansas—home, the place of beginning and ending. What has been at issue is why I would want to go there. During my life, I have often taken time to ponder or explain to others the whys and wants of the need to get there, to visit those places. It might be labeled wanderlust, curiosity, "a fix," or "an urge".  It is something with which I was born.  It is something that was heredity induced, genetically injected from both parents—maybe a blessing, maybe a curse.

            Commonly, I have arrived at destinations and paused contentedly in that flat-space that exists just after arrival and this side of departure.  I am afforded time of new place.  But, there have also been times when I have gone beyond my intended spot of destination. My perception of arrival at these unforeseen points and what I have garnered while there is most notable.  These locations and experiences have afforded me spirit, broadened my consciousness, and shaped my character.  I have been fortuanant to visit such far away places.

 

Leaving Home At Age 3

            Sometime soon after my excursion to the creek bridge, I distinctly remember another journey.  I know I was three.  This time I went the other direction.  The driveway was long.  It wound its way along the creek to another house.  I had been there with my dad.  It was the farm where he had grown up.  I don’t recall leaving the yard, but I do remember turning around and looking behind me. 

            The barn with its high, black-hole window was staring at me.  The woven-wire fence circling the yard no longer had a duty.  My tire swing, pushed by a warm breeze, twisted aimlessly.  The house did not call me back.  The sky was a thick, rich blue.  Fat, yellow grasshoppers snapped and buzzed to and from the firebush, sunflowers, and other weeds growing along the creek's side of the path.  They were hard to catch, but mine if I wanted them.  On the other side of the lane, a cut wheat field, its stubble looking like melted butter, stretched past a lone windmill to a green hill that edged the horizon.  I considered going there, knowing that I could.

            Finally, I came to a walnut tree growing pointedly on the last bend leading to the old farmstead.  I could see the empty buildings: a gray house, a barn, sheds.  There was also some machinery parked just off the edge of the yard.  Hot and tired, I crawled under the tree’s shade and just sat there; this far from home was a long way. Leery to go farther, I was satisfied that my walk had ended at this place. Lounging in my freedom, I collected the best walnuts scattered around me—stacked them, arranged them, threw them at anything, all the while unconcerned that I was alone. I could see the whole world—across the field to the far hill, the creek behind me, the buildings, the road.

            I am still proud of that solo journey, and still surprised that my exploration did not get me in trouble.  Walking near the site over thirty years later with my father, I told him of the adventure.  A slight smile formed on his farm-weathered face.  He chuckled, and then told me how he had watched me leave the yard that day.  Curious as to just how far I would go, he had followed. It didn’t matter.  If anything, it was better because he had been there, although secretly, to someday prove my memory accurate.

 

Traveling With The River

            Being a member of a family of farmers who were also avid hunters and fisherman was a good thing.  Repeatedly, I watched my Dad and his Dad as they came and went. They were always leaving in a pick-up truck, staying away all day, and coming back in the evenings dirty, tired, happy, and full of stories.  Sometimes I knew that they were leaving only to go work in the fields—a place that was important to them.  Some days mom would load me up in the car, and we would go there to take them lunch.  We would park along side the dirt road and wait for them to bring their tractors from the middle of the field.  Made up of distance, the field was always boundless.

            Other times they would put their shotguns or fishing lines in the truck with them. Depending on the time of year, they would bring back dead pheasants and quail or gunnysacks full of catfish.   I would go out to the far backyard where they would be laughing and talking and pulling feathers and guts from birds, or using pliers to strip skin from nearly dead fish.  Though I could only imagine what it was like where they had been, it was fun to get caught up in their actions and stories.   Often, while this was going on, they always got around to saying: “That boy needs to learn something.”  Then I would get to hold onto heads, legs, wings, or tails, and pull hard while they used their pocketknives or butcher knives to cut off the unwanted parts.  Being splattered with blood and guts was okay.  All the while they kept telling me: “There’s going to be some fine eatin’ later.”  Finally, as they were cleaning up, I would collect the best feathers or poke my finger in the eyes of the biggest fish—and then it was my turn.

            When I was seven, dad gave me my first BB gun.  After that, I sometimes got to go when he went pheasant hunting. The size and shapes of the hunting patches varied from huge fields to small, island like clumps of fall-dried weeds. The big weeds, I called them; many of them towered above me.  Moving like a hunting dog, I squeezed between, under, through, and around the obstacles confronting me.  Sometimes I’d walk behind dad.  Dry seeds and crumbling leaves showered down on my shoulders and hair as he forged paths through the brown jungle.  I always got off a quick round at any winged thing that was within visual range.  Mostly, I would bag birds so far off that it was impossible to find them because of having to walk so far to where I imagined they had fallen.

            During this same period, the backyard and across the street (we were living in town now) became Africa and South America.  Whether I imagined myself as Tarzan, a mountain man, or other adventurer, no living thing went unstalked or unnoticed.  Stray cats and dogs learned to cross our yard with caution.  Sometimes sparrows and blackbirds really did fall dead from trees.

            Other times I left the BB gun in the house. Across the street was a jungle—Limestone Creek—a heavily wooded tangle of brush, decaying limbs, tree trunks, and water shaded by towering cottonwood trees.  The creek emptied, just south of town, into the Solomon River. Though many times I was told, "You’re too small to go to the river to fish with men,"  I did earn mom's trust for fishing in the creek alone.  With a few worms dug from behind the garage, a cane pole dad had fixed up, and mom’s okay, I was off to the Amazon.  The unwritten rules stated that I stay on the bank, out of the water, and away from the stingweed, and that I’d better not drown.  I always came back dry. 

            I remember sitting down there on the bank, saturated in the humid quiet of this place’s summer.  The water moved slowly but just a little faster than the bullheads bit.  I waited. When the bobber did dip, its surprise always ran up the line to my hand and met my hopes.

            Black and white. There is a picture of me standing just off the back steps dressed in jeans, a muscle shirt, and muddy tennis shoes.  From my hand held high, two bullheads, one smaller than the other, hang from a stringer.  I am proud.

             Late one August afternoon, dad informed me that I was going with him and grandpa to the river—the Solomon.   Just south of town, the cottonwood and oak-lined river meandered its way east, down the middle of the Solomon Valley.  It was a mysterious place to me—a place that fueled my nine-year-old imagination whenever we drove across the old iron bridge.  We were going fishing.

            They had already set and baited the bank poles and trot lines and it would soon be time to check them. Dad had me put on old jeans and my most ragged tennis shoes.  I was told we’d be getting in the river, right in the water.  He reassured mom that I would be all right.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I crawled up into the middle of the pick-up seat and tried to act as they did, like I had done this all my life.  We drove deep into the country, past fields I recognized and others I didn’t.  Finally, we turned off the dirt road on to nothing more than a path.   Green weeds, firebush and sunflowers, taller than the truck itself, scraped and brushed at the doors; grasshoppers floundered across the hood and windshield.  Then we stopped beneath a tree in some half-flattened, beaten-down clearing.

            Like a door, a narrow, shoulder-width entrance in the weeds marked the beginning of a trail.  Grandpa lifted a rusty three gallon bucket half-full of crawdads from the back-end of the truck.  Handing me a fishy smelling, burlap gunny-sack, dad said to follow. 

            The trail, after awhile, opened abruptly on the riverbank several feet above the water.  The wet smell of decay, sun-heated mud, fish, and fresh weeds hung heavily in the air. Everything was lazily quiet.  The water seemed to be moving cautiously. Even the flies were content to sit in one place for a few moments before buzzing again around our faces.  I remember looking downstream and upstream.  The river came and went.  Cottonwood and oak trees reached tall and strong along the banks. Low hanging limbs and branches, their green leaves springing in the slow current, brushed the water.  Just a short way downstream, sprawled halfway across the river, a cottonwood tree the size of a dinosaur lay on its side.  It was still alive, but I could tell it was dying.  Then I was sliding down the moist, partly muddy bank. Just below my waist, the brown colored water was cold then cool around my feet and legs.  I just stood there.  I was a million miles from home.  I had traveled back in time.  I was in the river, and then I was walking with it. 

            We brought home gunnysacks full of fish.

 

            Though the area creeks were good, as I grew older, the river became the foremost place to escape. My best friend, Steve, and I would go there frequently in quest of adventure.  It was a place where we could go to shoot our .22 rifles, fish, or explore. The river provided us a fresh world and a few moments to live our lives outside the conflicts of home and the confines of law.

            April was often the month that we often pursued our more determined expeditions.  In a few weeks the water would gain back its regular, murky-brown, summer color.  Now, just cold enough to keep our feet numb, the water was window clear.

            We would become advance scouts.  The army depended on us.  With our rank and imagined missions, we allowed our minds to reach the highest state of alert—something we seldom let happen in the presence of adults.  Abandoned bottles, hubcaps, and other good junk was easily, sometimes luckily, found between animal tracks and leaves decomposing in the mud.  The sunlight threading through the budding trees seemed to be patting the river’s cool bottom.  It was easy to forget and let April’s water splash above our knees as we pursued our goal to look around the next bend.  With youthful endurance, we ignored the dense mud and aggravating sand that sucked at and seeped in to our worn canvas shoes.  

            Often we would stop just to listen.  On the quietest of days, we would hear only ourselves or what we thought was the sound of trees stretching and buds splitting. Some days we would go further than planned, well aware that if our mothers knew they would worry.  Sometimes we would decide that we were men and were never going home, again.

 

            The river is always changing but never changed.  More or less, there is always water.  The mud and sandbars made from the same mud and sand, crawl down or back and forth across the channel in search of a better place to stretch.  With time, limbs and logs from dead trees migrate farther downstream.  On the banks, new trees crowd up between their seasoned parents.  The offspring from generations of blue jays, blackbirds, and sparrows skip between limbs.  Tracks from coons, beavers, muskrats, and opossums silently trade places near the water’s edge when no one is looking.  Catfish, carp, and gar wait, as they always do, somewhere unseen.

            The Solomon is still the same now as it was when I nine.  It has been the one constant in my life.  It is the one place close to home that can take me the furthest away with just one step. Many times I have stood on the bank above the river in today’s world and then stepped off a million years into the past.  With one deliberate move, everything on today’s plateau is left behind.  First, I am on the bank above the river peering into its timelessness.  Then, with one step forward, I move back eons.  There is no hurry here; time is in tempo with the water.

            During summers, I continue to visit this ageless place.  Mostly naked, I swim in the water that still carries the soft bodies of my ancestral past that have no means of walking upright.  The spirits of deceased family that visited here before me wander along the banks and peer over my shoulders.   The only sounds are the intermittent notices of birds, the splash of fish behind me or around the bend, and the ripple of light breezes through leaves.  Heavy handed, the sun pushes down hard where there is no shade.  The water is always cool but never cold.

            Many times I leave my trot lines and bank poles and bait bucket and footprints along this shore and crawl into the water like some creature.  With my head just above the surface, I use my hands to pull my body across the river's slick bottom like some alligator.  Afresh, I slither into hard to reach places. Tight places.  Sordid places.  Places made of fallen, water-soaked, rotting, black tree trunks and limbs or the twisted jungle-gyms of log jams.  These are the homes of the biggest catfish—flatheads, yellowcats—fish best caught by hand.  In these places the water is the richest, the dirtiest.  Refuse, scraps from rotting plants, floating seeds, unimaginable things find their way around these sites.  Insects and other tiny animals of odd form and design, live here in peace with no awareness of man. 

            Everything is close.   Methodically, my hands feel for the belly-smooth skin of heavy catfish.  Damp cobwebs clinging to sticks and broken limbs adhere to my face and hair along with bits and pieces of plants, wood, and other decaying matter.  I am one with the water and mud.  Spiders, resting dryly just out of water, watch me closely.  Occasionally, one sprints across an exposed arm or shoulder for better observation.  I am invading their home, and I let them go as they please.  Here and there red or blue bodied dragonflies hang in the air just out of reach.  The humid smell of rot, mold, mud, and dingy water drools from the air.

            Here, my senses run hot, and there is little of which to think.  I enjoy being alive with my beginnings.  The trip home is long.  When leaving it is best not to look back, but to just come back later.

 

Shrinking Inside The Ocean

             There have been times when I have packed my bags unaware that my final destination would be further than expected.  These are the premium leaps to another level of understanding.  Early in life I gained an appreciation of my physical size in relationship to the universe. While I sat safely on the back steps or camped far in the back yard at night, it was easy to become saturated with the bottomless, star-filled stage above me.  It absorbed me.  It was impossible not to feel a tingling feeling, a touch of insignificance.  Only later, my childhood past, would I learn just how strong the touch could become.  I was 20 when I had my first truly intimate experience in regarding my size and place in the universe. 

            It happened abruptly, at about the speed of light, which might be one of the reasons the full impact of the event did not fully soak into my consciousness until later.  Steve, a companion since childhood, was with me.  We were scuba diving off the Florida Keys, during our college spring break, just off the bow of a sunken tanker we were exploring.  It was our first experience diving in the ocean, our second dive of the first day.  By the steadily increasing effort it was taking each time I inhaled, I knew my tank was running low on air.  As I fumbled with the reserve air switch one thing became vivid.

            I sucked deeply on the mouthpiece of my double hose regulator, and when I needed one the most, did not receive the breath of fresh air I deserved.  I remember it as my breath of nothing.  It was very heavy and round. 

            It was like something that happened weekly on the TV show SEA HUNT, with Lloyd Bridges—the familiar scene where the diver loses his mouth piece, or someone or something cuts his oxygen hose.  A quick close-up frames the victim as he gains acute comprehension to his disaster.  Abruptly, with a jerk, his body stiffens seemingly frozen in position—a “what the hell” look forged on his face.

            My body reacted the same way.  It assumed the position.  At 40 feet below the surface the whole wide space of the ocean shrank.  It tightened around me.  I felt packed into a hole no bigger around than a marble.  I was incredibly small in that massive expanse that is the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

            It occurred as easily as taking each next breath for granted, and as subtly as exhaling. For about three seemingly hour-long seconds, my life’s objective pinned itself to the means of my next attempt to inhale.  Rushing to the surface and gambling with decompression sickness, “the bends,” was not a first choice. Though the urge to swim upward taunted me, I ignored the idea. Steve would share his air with me.  This was my non-debatable decision.  I found him, just an arm’s length behind me, and grabbed his wrist.  By the urgent look in my wide eyes, dropping the breathing regulator from between my teeth, and pointing toward my mouth, I conveyed my need.  Then it was simply resolved. 

            On seeing my reaction, Steve reached to my tank without hesitation and switched on my reserve air valve. The ocean became big and blue again, and I became large. Soon after surfacing, the experience, those few seconds, that small, seemingly far away destination I’d reached alone without warning, was shelved in an easy to reach place in my mind.  For a while it would be a souvenir of my composure, an undeveloped snapshot of me standing alongside a giant of huge proportions.  It was good to be invincible.

 

Hunting Camp

            Five years later I again rode a long way in the pick-up seat alongside Dad.  It was my second elk-hunting trip into the mountains far behind Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It was another of Dad's many trips.  Rod, my long time friend and schoolmate, was traveling with us. We arrived, unloaded our horses from the trailer, packed the gear, and left all thoughts of civilization behind.  Fifteen miles from the nearest road and just below the Continental Divide, we enjoyed being insulated by the mountains.       

             I easily recall a climacteric moment on the third day. I was just standing there, in the knee-deep snow, staring through the trees.  Towering pines and firs, black timber, dimmed the late afternoon’s light filtering to the ground.  My search for elk hiding in the bulk of these mountains had been put on hold indefinitely. The trees surrounded me like a fortress.  I was drenched in silence.  The air was cold, quiet, and seemingly thick as syrup.  Most maddening, the heavy stillness seemed to create a high-pitched ringing noise that streamed deep into my ears.  I was sweating profusely. The snow and the always changing slopes made for a hard walk.  I was undeniably lost. 

            Through the din I had thought back, visualizing the moment over five hours before when I last had had some true idea of my location.  The slope that I had been hunting was familiar, not even an hour’s walk west of camp.  I had come across another hunter’s tracks in the fresh snow. His invasion of my space annoyed me.  But the annoyance turned to embarrassment as I realized the boot tracks matched mine exactly.  The other man was me.  With disgust, I accepted my capacity to blindly walk in a circle.  It was disturbing to discover that my current sense of direction did not share the same logic as my compass.  For several minutes, I had argued the instrument’s reason on the pretense that many nearby boulders had magnetic qualities. I had heard something about that, once.

            With confidence, I acted to straighten my tilt. Rifle slung on shoulder, compass in hand, I studied my topographical map. Comfortable that I was reoriented, I angled up the mountain. For maybe an hour, I continued my hunt.  Once, I even followed a pair of elk tracks—a hunting tactic that seldom produced results and was a waste of time according to Dad, a gamble.   But, the tracks and the droppings scattered about them appeared fresh. Their large hooves left a wandering trail between the trees that angled off from the direction I was moving. The lure inspired my hunter's instincts for several minutes. It was just after noon.  I was steadily making headway to a point that would, I believed, intersect a trail leading to camp.   The elk might be just below the next rise.

            Harassed by the constant ringing inside my head, I leaned my rifle against a nearby log.  The noise seemed to stream from between the trees. Tired and frustrated, I dropped to my knees and set back on my heels. Finally, I just lay back in the snow.  I looked straight up into the cloudy sky; I hadn’t seen the sun since morning. 

            I turned my head to the left, then to the right, and then back toward the sky.  Everything was white.   I seemed to be traveling up and up and up, all the while seeing myself lying there in the snow, a prisoner surrounded by all the trees and all the mountains. I could see everything—the green of the pines, the brownish-white of the aspens, the snow, cliffs, canyons, rivers, streams.  I watched until I became speck—then, nothing but a memory in the scene.

            It would feel good to sleep.  I wondered how I arrived at this place so far away from everything.  I thought about how easy it would have been to stay home.  I thought about my wife and our new baby rocking in the living room. I imagined my good friends Roy, Larry, and me sitting on my front steps drinking beer.  But no.  I was the star in a Twilight Zone episode.  I visualized the program's host standing just out of my vision, behind one of my theorized, magnetic enhanced boulders, introducing the show.

            Then I envisioned my Dad, along with our hunting companion, Rod, back in camp, wherever that might be.  I imagined them surrounded by the black curtain of the mountains’ night.  They were sitting close to the red-orange heat of the campfire—my seat, my stump, vacant. The movie, Jeremiah Johnson, came to mind.  The scene where Robert Redford’s mountain man character finds the frozen, snow-covered, corpse of a trapper mauled by a bear, now had new meaning.

            Then I dropped back into myself, aware that I could feel the chill of the snow in my shoulders and legs.  Privately humbled, I accepted my place and stood up.  I recalled Coach Clover, my old football coach preaching that, "The games not over just because there's two minutes left on the clock."  If I didn’t find camp soon, I would need to make my own while there was still daylight. I would need to gather wood and make a shelter. I allowed myself forty minutes.  If I did find camp no one would ever need to know about this afternoon’s events, nor how far I had traveled.

            I studied my map, chose a direction to my right, and continued my hunt for camp.  Soon, I found myself walking along a ridge bordered by aspens on one side and pines on the other. The mountain angled down steeply to my left.  Once more, I concluded that I was moving in the wrong direction.  Again, I studied the map.  Its topographical lines indicated that a wide, nearly flat drainage basin might be at the bottom of this slope—if I was on the correct mountain.  Within the depicted basin, a thin blue line indicated a tiny, meandering stream. 

            Camp was in a low lying area and just behind it a small draw with running water emptied into a creek.  Perhaps that was the blue line on the map.  I made my decision quickly and began my descent.  Entering the growth of pines was like walking into a dim room.  Within five minutes, I realized that I was committed to something that was not favorable to my situation.  It would take too much strength and too much time to climb back up to the ridge.

 

            The slope was steeper than what it had appeared, the timber thicker.  Fallen, long-dead trees were laced between the living trees like piles of huge toothpicks.  Snow, in places waist deep, had accumulated on and around them all making a myriad of traps.  Every few steps I was forced to traverse a log or piles of logs.  The incline was such that it pulled me down the slope faster than what was reasonable.  Only by sliding into logs and grabbing onto branches, both alive and dead, was I able to control my momentum.  It was so steep, so thick, so deep, everything such a snarl in here I knew that no one would ever find my body—if it came to that juncture.  This was not a good place to spend the night.  Hollering would do no good—the tangle swallowed all sound.  A broken leg would be sure demise.

            I learned quickly, when possible, that sliding down the lengths of the fallen logs was easier than trying to cross over them; many of them were aimed downhill.  Slipper-slides on a playground-gone-bad snowed over.  My pace quickened, I watched for the best ones to appear as I made my way.  My senses heightened, each leg, each arm, each hand worked in some acute unison keeping my body upright and my head from smashing into something hard or pointed. 

            My forty minutes were up by the time my slide down the mountain ended.  As the map had pictured, the terrain at the bottom of the mountain was flat.  The stream should have been near, but after walking several yards I could see it nowhere.  I recall taking a long, deep breath and thinking to myself that I had made a good effort.  The ringing noise so loud in my head earlier was here too, but not as permeating.   It was a softer, less aggressive quiet.  There seemed to be a faint gurgling sound as well, like water trickling into a bucket.  But there was only snow and it was too cold for it to be melting.  I walked a few steps and the trickling sound stopped.  My imagination, I thought.

            I walked a few feet further and heard the gurgling a second time.  A several steps later the sound disappeared.  Then I heard it again.  I was puzzled.  Briefly, I wandered within the area. Where the gurgling seemed most pronounced I stopped and attentively listened.  The sound seemed to come from beneath my feet.  I leaned my rifle against a small tree and got down on my hands and knees.  I dug through the snow, but found only a layer of leaves and sticks.  Keeping my head close to the ground, I followed the sound to a hand-sized hole next to a rotted stump.  Inside the opening, down less than a foot, clear water shimmered and gurgled as it passed by.  I chuckled out-loud.  Camouflaged, this had to be the small stream depicted on the map.

            That evening, around a hot campfire and full of good food, my father, my friend and I all sat close.  The cold walls of night behind us, I told them everything.

 

Kneeling In Front Of A Canoe

            Hanging on my study wall is a picture taken in Canada.  It shows little of such a huge place.  The landscape not visible in the photo contains a tiny, partially wooded island situated in the middle of a lake.  It is encompassed by Canada’s Northwest Territories. Just over an hour’s flight away by seaplane is the small city of Yellowknife. It sits on the north shore of Great Slave Lake, one of North America’s largest bodies of water.  Not much further north, the Arctic Circle’s imaginary line rings the earth.  The character of the land is harsh.  Its personality consists of all sizes and shapes of lakes, rivers, waterfalls, streams, swamps, bogs, dense forests, tundra, rocks, permafrost, black flies, and mosquitoes.

            What is visible in the photo is me, a self-portrait.  I am wearing a brown plaid, flannel shirt, jeans, and rubber boots. On a huge, gray boulder, most of which is below ground, I am kneeling on one knee in front of an overturned canoe.  I look fatigued and dingy.  The canoe is propped up with a stick.  About five feet in front of the canoe are the remains of a campfire.  Scattered about are pieces of charred sticks, wood, and small rocks.  In the background, a few spindly evergreen trees rise above the water of a large lake.  The sky is overcast, gray, the color of the water.  Everything is wet. The fishing trip is over.  I am stranded.

            To my right, propped against the canoe, is a large, red Coleman cooler -- its white lid open.  Alongside it, also leaned against the boat. are six logs about five feet long and eight inches in circumference.  Pushed against them are a red milk crate and a small boat’s red gas tank.  These items make up a windbreak.  An elbow away on my right is an overturned, rusted, five-gallon bucket.  A piece of three-inch diameter pipe rises from the makeshift stove.  Barely visible, lying just under the canoe, are several pieces of small firewood.     

            Before my camera’s automatic timer tripped the shutter, I had recognized the past several hours’ occurrences to be an unexpected dividend to my fishing trip. I was in the middle of a situation I often fantasized about during my childhood sleepless nights, long car trips, church services, and other boring times.  What had been a trip of leisure was now an uncertain trial of endurance, instincts, and knowledge.

            The sunny hours leading to the photo are still clear.  I can easily recall the yellow, single engine Cessna. This plane and this pilot that had arrived to take us, our gear, and two canoes back to civilization were not the same that had brought us here. The much larger and more powerful floatplane, a Sea Otter, that had delivered us here five days earlier, was late returning from another flight.  Since the Cessna was too small to carry all of our belongings, and us, its pilot asked for second flight volunteers; he would return within two or three hours.  Dennis, who was nearing age seventy, and I quickly accepted the extra time on the island.  It was like finding a dollar on the sidewalk.    

            Water lapped rhythmically against its floats as the Cessna drifted away from the shore. Then the pilot cranked the starter.  Without looking back, he guided the plane farther out onto the lake.  The passengers, three men, plus Dennis, whom I had met only six days earlier waved as the plane turned into what little wind existed.  The machine bellowed to life, hesitated, then sprinted eagerly across the surface of the lake.  With water spraying, the plane lifted into the early afternoon's August warmed air, turned, climbed west, and was gone.  It never returned. 

            While we guessed why no one had returned for us, a light breeze grew into a strong wind.  Puffs of clouds built themselves into white thunderheads that grew to the size of city blocks and skyscrapers.  Cooler now, the air was turning cold. Then the sun that set only to a deep, red dusk here during this time of the year disappeared.  For several minutes, we watched as rain raced across the water toward us from the north.

            The rain poured.  From beneath the canoe, we laughed at our predicament and pondered the whereabouts of the yellow Cessna.  The rain eased, then stopped.  We built a good fire from dry wood we had tossed beneath one corner of the canoe.  We waited expectantly for the plane to return.

            Within the hour, it started to rain again. The sky turned nighttime-dark and it was colder than before.  We were wet.  The rain didn’t pour down as it had before—it pounded down. When it wasn’t pounding, it was being driven, spear-like by a hammering north wind.  At times, when the storm slowed, we secured the boat with the remains of our camp.  To break the wind we used a cooler, logs, and a gas tank—anything that would suffice.  We cursed ourselves for sending all of our gear—the raincoats, the sleeping bags, the tent, the food—ahead of us on the plane—the plane that was coming right back.        

For me, sleep was nowhere. For Dennis, it was everywhere.  For one interlude, he did not speak for over five hours. He moved little, often shivering uncontrollably.  Wearing only a fishnet T-shirt, he was cold.  Too cold.  We huddled together.  Any available firewood was now mostly wet. With my hunting knife, I shaved and split small fragments of fuel from pieces of wood I had gathered and partially dried.  Fingers tingling, I carefully placed the wood slivers into the struggling flame that was trying to exist beneath the crude, bucket-stove we had pieced together. There was some heat, but mostly there was smoke, struggling from beneath the bucket.  Smoke, which once it had crawled out from beneath the bucket, aggressively cloaked itself around me, causing me to choke and my eyes to sting. This annoyed me.  It taunted up an emotion of anger aimed toward someone or something for my being in this situation.

 I thought about having to share this camp with a dead man.  I imagined the plane coming back, and the pilot and I having to load him onto it like a sack of wet flour.  If he died, I was going to drag him from beneath the canoe to a comfortable place in the nearby woods.  His getting wetter while out there would make no difference.

            I understood my exact location and the situation.  And, although there was a man beside me, I was here alone.  Far away.  I recognized the place.  In my mind, I was seeing a clear picture of myself from a long way up, this dot of an island getting smaller and smaller. There was mostly blackness and a pinpoint of fire that seemed to be fading.

            Time was everything and nothing. I thought about my parents sleeping in a warm bed, unaware that I was cold, wet, and awake half a continent away.  I thought about my young son and wondered what he might remember about me if I failed to return home.  I thought about my cousin, Mitch, who lived in Yellowknife, a polar bear biologist, an ex-Marine, and trusted he would find a means of getting me out of here.  I thought about my old Boy Scout leader, a Catholic priest, Father Kieffer.  I was glad for all the stuff  he had taught me when I was a kid.  He would be proud that I had paid more attention to him than he had known.   I sat there for a long time in the wet darkness.  I kept wondering how much farther I was going inside this event, how long this could last.

            Many hours later, Dennis, with induced vigor, used what little strength he had left to dip and pull his canoe paddle against the water.  Minutes earlier we had heard the unmistakable drone of a plane flying nearby.  To our astonishment, the aircraft had emerged from the clouds and fog less than a quarter of a mile from us and flown over the island just above the treetops.  The pilot had spotted us and dipped the plane’s wings in recognition.     

            I mindfully glanced at Dennis as we maneuvered the craft to the leeward side of the island.  It was the only place the Sea Otter, the plane that had originally delivered us here, had been able to land and escape the brunt of the wind and waves rolling across the lake.  As the rain pelted my back, I was glad the pilot offered me his hand.  The aluminum step was slick; I took a big step up and climbed aboard the plane. With hands shivering, Dennis handed me a cup of hot coffee he had poured from an old thermos Mitch had sent.  As we floated away from shore, I looked back at where I had been.  I felt no grudges.

 

 

Walking Along A Dark Trail In Borneo

            For the last hour, five of us were walking, at times stumbling, along a trail no more than twelve inches wide.  It was a moonless night, and so dark that if I shut off my penlight I could not see my hands at arm’s length.  We were following a Dayak who had volunteered to be our guide at the last group (not a village) of huts we had passed. He was walking briskly, taking short, sure steps, obviously aware of where he was going—supposedly a village near a river.  The jungle was offering no sounds, and we were not talking.  The only noise came from our footsteps.  In places, narrow, thin planks, placed in low laying areas of the trail, splashed mud and water as our weight forced them into the muck.  Jungle foliage, as I had last seen it at dusk, had been dense, like walking down a narrow corridor with high walls. . .

 

            Kalimantan, Borneo. . .Rain forest. . .Dayak Indians. . . Headhunters. . . Jungle. . . Indonesia.  Earth’s imaginary middle line, the equator, was at my feet. Tarzan had swung along this line in Africa.  Percival Faucett, the early 20th century explorer, had lost his way, disappeared forever, along this line in South America.  Photographers’ photos in National Geographic had tantalized me with this region of the world since I was a child.  There was no place farther from home. 

            Six days earlier, as we stepped off a Garuda Airlines’ jet, the region’s thick, heated air had met us like a heavy coat.  Smoke from farmers’ clear-cut burning, rotting garbage, diesel fumes, and scents from overly warm people drenched our sense of smell.  Sweating within moments, we walked across the hot tarmac and out the terminal’s door.

            Since his moving to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city located on the island of Java, my cousin, Jim, and I had anticipated this trip—our first to Borneo.  A government consultant for hospital and health related affairs to this expanding, third world country, he had orchestrated our venture free of tourist related fixtures and tour guides.  We were freelancing.  Beyond our arrival in Kalimantan’s west coast, port city of Pontianak (located squarely on the equator), and a brief business meeting scheduled at an outlying hospital, we had no verified destination. We had no itinerary, no guide, no large supply of food, nor any predetermined accommodations.  What essentials we felt necessary were carried in our backpacks.  For us, this was the best and only way, the old-time explorers’ way to experience this rugged island’s true personality. We approached the venture faithful to our wits, skills, and instincts.

            Our expectations had been exceeded with every trail we had hiked. Rain forest vegetation sprawled around and above us.  We had watched smoke rise from freshly set fires, and witnessed the charred, barren results of slash and burn farming.  We had walked along hillsides being tended by local farmers and their wives—native Dayak Indians.  Always bent over, they worked the ground with bare hands and simple tools as they planted dry-land rice; often barefoot, they wore only tattered pants or skirts, and wide-brimmed, pointed hats made from strips of bamboo. Woven, handmade baskets hung from their backs, shoulders, or heads. 

            We had visited villages, been invited and slept in Dayak homes—single dwellings made of bamboo and thatch, or weathered wood and rusty tin.  Inside front doors, we stepped onto rough wood or dirt packed floors.  Chairs were a luxury.  Often we sat on mats. Sparsely decorated, old, outdated calendars and tattered, faded pictures adorned walls.  Before we sat down, molting chickens, or mangy looking baby pigs sometimes had to be shooed from the room.  Kitchens consisted of old propane burners, or open, wood burning hearths.

            The people were friendly.  The men of each village had greeted us warmly.  Several children, smudged with dirt, barefoot, and clothed raggedly, had gathered around us.  Some of the braver ones reached toward us with small, brown-shaded fingers, their dark eyes full with our white skin.  Shy, other children ducked away as we smiled at them.   Their faces were bright, molded with inquisitive questions. They whispered and giggled among themselves talking about us.  Mothers and wives had gladly cooked for us.  We had eaten meals of cooked rice that was dry as sand and sticky as glue.  Sometimes, mixed in with the rice, there had been guppy-sized fish, gray, slippery, and raw.  Dried, dark brown, and crispy as burnt toast, head to tail, other fish had also been served.  Getting them out of the way, I ate their heads first.  One host had lifted a trapdoor in the floor of his home and proudly showed us, lying on the dirt below, the carcass of a recently killed forest pig.  We ate small pieces of the animal’s meat for our evening meal.  Red peppers, hot as a blacksmith’s fire, were served on the side.   We drank coconut milk from freshly picked coconuts.

            At yet another home we were favored with meat from the King Cobra. Cutting off the heads of the live, deadly, snakes with a single strike of large knife, the women of the household had drained the blood, holding the lifeless bodies tube like, over small, white cups. Then, with a quick move, like taking socks off a foot, they had peeled the skin from the creatures.  Before the meal, we had accepted the offer as honored guests to drink the snake’s blood, still warm, as our hosts had done, from the cups. The effects of the drink had been curious: lots of sweating and mild euphoria. Listening to Jim converse in Indonesian with our guests (I understood very little of the language), I sat cross-legged on the floor, balanced by the mood and setting, laughing and smiling at everyone’s cues.

 

            . . . To go in any direction other than the trail’s, a machete was needed.  Earlier in the evening, we had stopped for a few minutes to rest our legs. Standing there, surrounded by the dark, I had looked up through a large gap in the trees.  I was startled to find the night sky so deep, the star-scape so crystalline, so close.  I stared deep into the galaxy; it was unfamiliar.  This sky, these stars, most soundly validated my arrival at this far-away place. I had spent a lifetime coming here.  I was eons from Kansas, and this place was a different planet. It was almost too large to understand.  There was no getting away from it, no familiar door to walk in, no sleeping bag deep enough to hide in, no way to avoid it.  I was the alien here.  I had been mildly conscious of the fact since arriving.  Now the sensation was real.  I was in the hand of this place’s, these people’s fancy.  Across space, on my world, the sun was shinning.  My family, my son, my friends were going about their normal, daytime activities.  Life continued there without me.  I wondered if they would take time to think about me during their day.  If something happened to me here, I wondered if they would ever learn what had occurred.

            Ahead of me, the man leading us continued to move with confidence and agility.  Perched on top of his head, and balanced by his right hand, a gas lantern glowed.  What little light escaped from it quickly soaked into the foliage. I was at the rear of the group.  With nothing to look at, except the bouncing dim light several yards ahead of me, I had too much time to think.

            Off the trail to the left, patched into the darkness, rectangles and squares of dim light suddenly appeared.  Then it dawned on me that the shapes were windows and doors lit with candles or lanterns. Dogs were barking furiously.  They were barking at us.  I imagined them running at me with teeth bared.   Or, maybe they were barking at some animal of which we were not even aware.  I thought about snakes, too, crossing the trail.  Cobras.  I had not seen one during our trek except the one skinned and on my plate.  At night they had the advantage.  Silhouettes and shadows of people melted back and forth between the blackness and the light.  A language that I did not understand drifted through the air.

            Borneo’s arm around my shoulder, I continued to walk through its night.

 

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

 

            Sometimes, unannounced, one of these memories spills onto the ground in front of me. And there it is: that late night in Borneo, the ordeal in Canada, that afternoon in the Rockies, those seconds in the Gulf of Mexico, the river. It’s good to take a quick look before the tide pulls itself back into my mind. These eventful moments fortified my perception of home, my desire to look around the next bend, my understanding of distance, my observation of the universe, and my comprehension of death. These are some of the things that help me acknowledge my limitations, define my character, and inspire my personality.

            Home, the place of beginning, departure, and return.   Instinctively, I still find my way back to my first home whenever possible.  Walking on familiar soil, seeing and moving among the props of my past life, and visiting with lifetime acquaintances provide me an emotional platform, a place to refuel.  It is a place of security and recognizable patterns.  Here it is most easy to perhaps understand who I am, where I have been, and where I am going.  Here I think about some of the places I have visited so far away from this destination and wonder of others to come. Though it cannot be anticipated or planned, I know that someday I will arrive at one of those unexpected locations where I am forced to recognize that I am merely dust and truly alone.  Once there, perhaps I will sense home and understand that I am very, very far away.

 

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦
 

Going Down With The Ship

            Five inches of rain and three hours after the first sun in two days it is hot.  It is summer in Kansas. Heated by the July sun, the humidity laden air is wet-blanket heavy.   I am visiting my parent’s home, my old home.  Though age thirty-seven, I am sitting on the front steps as bored as a twelve year old boy might be.  Just across the street, fully out of its banks, Limestone Creek has gorged itself with runoff water to the size of the Amazon.  Water is slicing, roaring through the trees, aggressively forcing its way downstream to the Solomon River. There is nothing to do but wait and wonder when the water will subside.

            Finally, I daydream myself to a great idea.  A few steps away there is plenty of good water available.  Behind the house in the machine shed, my canoe is too long in dry dock.  A block away, one of my best friends is undoubtedly as bored as I am.  Across the street the Amazon beckons.  I am going to the jungle.

            We slide the boat into the water, careful to brace it against a tree so it won’t race off with the current.  Paddle in hand, Larry balances himself along the inside of the craft.  He takes his place on the front seat and grabs a branch with one hand for added stability.  I climb in.  He lets go.  The canoe is pulled away from the bank.   With the excitement of boys we are gone—Lewis and Clark

            Within seconds, we are sucked into the heart of the jungle. Civilization, obscured by the rush of dirty brown water, green walls, and filtered sunlight, vanishes. The creek’s current is fast.  Really fast.  Our paddles are good only for steering.  Pushed, mostly out of control, we maneuver through and around parts, sections, masses of trees that ordinarily would be twenty-five feet above us.  Small limbs and leaf-filled branches slap and sting our faces and grab at our chests as we speed by.  Our arms and hands twist, turn, and pull the wood paddles frantically against the water.  We struggle to guide the boat through slots, gaps, and holes appearing before us in the foliage.  Pure, the ride is wicked.

            We break through the over growth into the main channel.  The hanging tree tops over the submerged creek banks form a green tunnel.  Before us the creek’s path twists around one bend and then another.  Saddled to a quick-paced python, we work to keep the canoe centered in the middle of the serpent’s back. 

            We become perceptive of the creek’s infatuations, quirks, and thoughts. We steer the craft with instinct, rhythm, and pulse.  A private audience, we enjoy the view.  Others do not know this place, this space.  It is ours. This moment belongs to no one else.  Nothing else is important. We slip around the high, dirt bank below Thompson’s place, slide down the straight this side of Porter’s, and swing around the bend at Weidenhaft’s.

            We both see it.  Black and huge...stretched across the flooded creek like some dead dinosaur...ahead of us...one log...big around as a barrel...lying bank to bank...half submerged...a barrier of consequence.  There is no way around.

            A broken limb about the size of a gallon can, and six feet long, protrudes from the log. It sticks out of the water like a cannon barrel mounted on a ship. Not speaking, we plan to guide the canoe between the barrel and the bank.  The ride is terminal.

            The limb punches Larry squarely in the chest.  I hear a solid thump. His weight shifts.  In one, short-lived, breath the canoe twists.  I twist with it.  I am aware of a large sucking sound like that of a bathtub draining.  The canoe, swallowed by the creek, disappears.  I am in the water...the water is gray-brown...my face is wet...my hair is wet...I am under...I am breaking my mother’s long ago rule. . .  The creek’s bottom is not within reach of my toes.  I am small and alone. The only way past the log-beast is beneath it. There is no time to swim.  I recall seeing a jam of brush, limbs, and logs just beyond the downstream side of the barrier. I do not want to be pulled under there.  The current is really fast.

            I shove my hand, my arm, straight up and out of the snake’s cold, wet guts.  My face is out of the water.  The log looms above me.  Like a football tackle, I hit the log solid, grab the trunk, and wrap my arm around it.  I stop.  I hang onto the wet log tightly. The brown colored water pushes against my chest like a strong hand, then rushes around me.  Water drips from my hair past my eyes—drops at a time.  My paddle is still in my right hand.

            I see Larry stuck on the end of the limb.  Both his arms wrap tightly around it.   I ask him if he is hurt and he says, "No."  He is wet only from the waist down.   Clinched onto the limb, he looks just like the cat in that Hang In There, Baby poster.  I look over and beyond the log.  Floating away, right side up, Larry’s cowboy hat bobs down the center of the creek.  My orange life-vest, the one that I had been sitting on, sways in the current as it follows the hat.  Our extra paddle chases after them trying to catch up.  They disappear, unconcerned, around the next bend.

            Hand over hand, Larry lugs himself off the limb onto the trunk; I pull myself out of the water. We sit there. I look to see what time it is. My watch is gone. We stand and walk back and forth on the dinosaur’s back.  We cuss and talk.  About ten inches of the canoe’s stern is sticking out of the water like someone’s rear-end.  It is snagged between two broken limbs.  We try to lift it, pulling against the current and tons of water. 

My canoe stays in its trap; I feel bad about that.  I give up hope of ever rescuing the thing and call it the Titanic.  Cursing, I push it off the hook, hard, with my foot. It sinks completely.  Our penalty is sealed.  Now, we will have to walk back to town, wet rats, for anyone to see.  I am angry at my loss.

            The canoe pops to the surface like a cork after a fish’s hard bite.  It just bounces, almost out of the water, spit out of some unseen place.  Its aluminum buoyancy has struck a deal with fate.   With one hand, I grab the ship before it gains momentum with the current. Larry and I lug the craft onto the log, water draining over its bows.  Bruised in places, it will sail again.

            Walk or sail: those are our choices.  People, our friends, the town can know.  Or we can choose that they know or not.   We can get back in the boat, move on down stream to the truck, and drive back into town like nothing has happened.  Or, our allotted luck spent, we can walk back to town from here.                                                                               The log, hours after the moment...water 10-15 feet lower.  

 
            . . . on the other side of the log, we discreetly re-launch the canoe.  We float toward the next bend, glide under the road east of town, and then slip beneath the railroad bridge.  We bump past a logjam, slip around another curve, and sail onward.

            For me, this place is full of everything.  During summers I played here as a child and as a man.  I seined crawdads from the shallows and fished the holes.   During deer seasons, I stalked and shot at deer dodging between the trees.  Some I killed.  There were winters when I caught beaver, coon, and muskrat in traps I’d set along these banks.  I left boot prints in fresh snow.  Secretly, I came here when life was failing me. This place is familiar. Truth oozes from everywhere.

            We are going to the Solomon.  I know a place there near where the creek meets the river, where the back water is always calm and old memories hang around in trees twice as old as me.   Once there I will climb the bank and for a moment look back toward where I have just traveled; I will look closely. 

             It is a good place to look out over the river.