To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember many specifics about the three days I just spent at a lake in northern Wisconsin. In my memory, each day merges into the others, mornings into afternoons, nights into the dawn.
This was something I considered as I sat on the lawn looking at the lake. I tried not to let it scare me that the happiness and the peacefulness I was feeling would soon be only a memory, if I was lucky. I’ve spent much of my life trying to “write it all down,” afraid that when I’m old I’ll look back and see very little of my life. It’s walking a tightrope trying to live in the moment while finding meaning and purpose in life. I think that there are few questions that a guy my age can answer, but I’ve been lucky to have some time to ask them.
Anyway, here’s a few of the best, fleeting memories. I can’t promise it’s all true, but I know it’s all truth.
The short pre-solstice night surprises me with dawn on Friday after spending the dark hours playing cards. We go outside. With light in the sky, Fisherman starts casting off the dock. A few of us play sunrise bocce, working our way around the cabin. Shortly after we finish the game and walk down to the dock, Fisherman gets one on his line. It’s a walleye! Eating size. You don’t expect to catch walleye off a dock. There is a scramble to rig up another couple rods. Fisherman gets another identical walleye.
Three of us are now crowded onto the dock. Canoeman brings the 16 foot Old Town down from the garage and puts it in the water. He is getting it ready to go out for a paddle when there is a big splash. We look and start laughing and laughing. He is standing in the water next to the canoe. What makes it funny is that he was telling me earlier how he’d already fallen out of canoes three times that week. Canoeman puts his clothes on his car to dry and leaps back into the canoe and paddles out thirty feet from shore in the cold dawn. He then initiates a battle with the boat, paddling it extremely fast until dumping it, over and over. Righting, paddling, dumping. He tries to climb on top of it while it is upside down, he tries riding on the stern and paddling. He tries things I can’t describe. It’s a big splashing mess of canoe, water, human. We fish. At 7 a.m., the world now fully light, I sleep.
Saturday afternoon, after some human drama but also lots of onboard relaxation, we stop back at the cabin once more to reload on beer and prepare for a final attempt at the walleyes. The man of the hour asks to join us just to drive the boat. This weekend focused on burning him down so he can rise from the ashes as a married man. I make a last dash up to the cabin as they untie from the dock and I grab a loaf of French bread, a block of white cheddar, and a Two-Hearted Ale.
We motor across the channel to a spot where we’ve watched a number of fishing boats spending time over the past couple days and start working our way up and down the point. I have on a deep-diving chartruesse and pink Rapala that I cast into shore, boating nothing but weeds. The sun is at a low angle, but there are still hours of light left on this last night of the weekend. Boats buzz on far corners of the lake, and occasionally one passes through the channel, but all is relatively quiet. We use the stealthy trolling motor and most of the conversation at first is triggered by seeing fish on the fishfinder, then about how good life can be.
I reel in and start cutting chunks of the crumbly cheese off the block, then ripping pieces of the bread off the loaf, sandwiching the cheese in the hunks of bread and passing them to the fishermen, all of them good, good friends. We fish some more but come to terms with the fact that we probably can’t catch those fish and even Fisherman is okay with heading back to the dock after a couple of glorious, fishless, hours.
The nearly Zen rhythms of a whole afternoon playing bocce ball. Toss the little ball, toss the big balls: intensity, cheering, whooping, jokes, surprises. Walk the 10 paces or so, stare intently at the ground, declare a winner. Toss the little ball. The meals that are the efforts of Fisherman and three or four assistants of varying skill and sobriety. They come together with coals lit, pans sizzling, meat marinated, vegetables chopped. Eat scattered indoors and out, coming together afterward for a smoke and a setting sun. The big jump built at the end of the dock, young men reliving old recklessness to ride a bike off it.
“I got out my sleeping bag and spread it out and took off my shoes and… I was sighing happily and slipping my stockinged feet into my sleeping bag and looking around gladly at the beautiful tall trees thinking ‘Ah what a night of true sweet sleep this will be, what meditations I can get into in this intense silence of Nowhere!’” – Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
Two nights sleeping outside. Friday night, not wanting to leave the fire by the lake and the faces around it, but not able to keep my eyes open any longer, I go up to the house and grab my sleeping pad, bag and pillow and set it down behind the ring of people in chairs and drift off.
The last night of the trip, not so tired but ready to sleep at 2 a.m., I find an out-of-the-way corner of the yard where I won’t be bothered when a couple of the guys come home from the strip club in a few hours. I’m feeling melancholy, peaceful but distantly sensing going back to work, to the commute, to obligations and the such. Lay flat on my back, sleeping bag zipped up against the night air, glasses and notebook in my hat, wrapped in my flannel shirt, on the ground next to my head.
The full moon has just recently set in the northwestern sky and the stars are pretty good. Not like the crystal of a Boundary Waters sky at night, and not like the dull orange sky of the city. I stare at the faint stripe of the Milky Way. After a while I notice a satellite streaking through the stars. I watch it move quickly across half the sky and then it is gone. As it disappears, I see a shooting star in the lower part of the sky. I only see it in my peripheral vision, but it’s a beautiful flash of infinity. As I’m starting to fall asleep, I see my lucky third night light: a firefly. A week or three early, especially after the cool spring, there he is blinking between the yard and the woods. It’s a lonely world for this firefly tonight, and he soon goes dark. And so does my world.