America on Loop
by Gwen Walton
I go kayaking with my husband on an early summer day in Lake Ocoee on the western edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest. The Chattahoochee Forest begins in Northern Georgia and as it sprawls northeast it butts against the Nantahala National Forest. Further north it becomes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is our first trip out since acquiring the kayaks and, not the first, but certainly an early step toward the life that we fantasized for ourselves here in southeast Tennessee. We moved here last fall from Denver, imagining a greener, warmer and wetter existence. Also, cheaper. Since everyone suddenly found out about Denver, the magnificent power of the Rockies, and their ability to transfix you on a weekday. Or maybe it was just legal marijuana. Either way, in just a few years, hordes of folks moved to my hometown and drove up living costs.
It was supposed to be a great adventure and a period of rapid growth. Two far-left liberal atheists exploring the south and confronting the county’s polarization crisis head-on. We were so proud of ourselves. But my winter was bleak. Jeremy worked nights, and I was lonely. I had encouraged him to take a bartending job. I would write and paint. I had thought that the isolation, away from old distractions, was a highway to creativity. But most nights I napped and watched T.V. and drank wine or poorly made cocktails. My paints collected dust; my ideas flashed un-plucked. In a few short months I grew angry with Jeremy. I would wake up in a sleepy rage scrolling the list of offenses: not saving money, not cleaning the toilet, being effusive over his friends but aloof with me, saying things to me like “I don’t know what to say.” I couldn’t figure if any of it was fair. I was drifting. Then we would go outside.
And here we are now, circling the dusty parking lot trying to figure if we can fit our 4runner between the rows of pickups attached to boat trailers. We pack the kayaks and head out of the narrow finger toward the lake. There is no consistent shore and the crawling foliage, branches from paw-paws, river birch, sumac and other trees I cannot yet name, reach low over the water. I’m still getting used to all the deciduous trees out here. I never knew that to call something an oak tree is, in fact, wildly general, that there is a litany of oak varietals. But now I can pick out the rounded corners of their leaves--they are like the bubble letters of greenery (unless it’s a red oak!). Maple leaves are easy to spot; I just conjure an image of the Canadian flag. Hickory leaves are harder, but the deep brown nuts are a give-away. Sumacs have the long stems with a ladder of narrow leaves on both sides and seem bushier than they do sturdy or stout. Rhododendrons look downright tropical with their dark glossy leaves and sycamore trunks look sick. My self-education lacks organization. And no matter how many times I look it up and try to commit it to memory, almost all ground verdure looks like poison ivy to me.
And as we paddle out into the open we cross a threshold. I know it. Jeremy knows it. He looks back at me and smiles under his wide brimmed sun hat, and we find ourselves deliciously in sync. The kind of synchronicity that becomes a goal in a marriage, sought out and strategized, discussed. And as with all things so indescribable (happiness, desire, lightness), the harder I sought, the farther away I became. But here, we scull upon it.
Ocoee Lake looks like a tall inkblot on a map, oblong with dozens of craggy fingers. We look out at the light rippling water with green hills on all sides, pick an arbitrary direction and move. These hills look like they have blankets laid over them. I see a body hiding underneath one: the hump of an elbow, the dip behind a neck. I think of my paint palette and all the shades of green I know: sap, cadmium, Prussian, olive, viridian. They’re all here, even patches of chartreuse near the water. Jeremy’s voice carries to me easily as we head to a jetty with a campsite we want to inspect. We reach it eventually but not before stopping to dangle our feet in the water and open a beer. Jeremy slides down in his seat and rests his head, pulling a hat over his eyes. The sky is clear and the sun feels hot. The wake from motor boats pulling screaming children on tubes send me in slow circles, and I maneuver into them, oddly not annoyed. We talk. We decide to find this campsite sometime later and return with friends, then head toward another rock covered jetty. We shore the kayaks and Jeremy immediately runs up the head-high dirt bank into the trees. He throws down his shoes so I can make the trek myself; my flip-flops gave out almost immediately after getting out of the car. We weave around a few trees, looking up and feeling dizzy. There isn’t the usual tangle of low growth; the ground is dusty and sparse. We marvel at the sap on a short-leafed pine tree, considering how the sugary clod is a scab. This tree was wounded. This tree is healing.
On another day, I would feel pressed to cover some distance, to optimize this outing. I might calculate mileage and calories consumed from those beers. Instead we scoot back down and swim with languid strokes and dips in the warm tea water.
As we pull the boats back out, Jeremy starts taking photos of me. I swing the paddle over my shoulders and pose for him. I almost believe those pictures might turn out. My self-loathing has become comical. Sitcom funny, where defining flaws make for zany anecdotes and not accidental deaths or other tragedy. I’m a caricature. It’s the best outcome I can hope for. To me, trying to love yourself is like trying to kiss yourself, or move a pencil with your mind, an impossible mental contortion that people keep glibly instructing me to do. It’s like in yoga class when your instructor says, “Breath into the tips of your toes.” Look lady, I’ll pretend to do that, but you know that’s pure nonsense, right? Instead, I’ve learned to try and take care of myself. That’s real. Here’s to the good fight.
Unlike me, Jeremy doesn’t much fight with himself. I’m watching him, and he is beautiful bent over his kayak. He’s rakish and slays. A camera pointed at him doesn’t frighten him. Nor do the snakes or the snapping turtles on the hunt for wiggly toes. When he does fight, he fights authority and stupidity and bros. We push off the shore.
My thoughts are lexical. Whole sentences are spoken in my head in a perpetual coil, like the dialogue from a lunatic blustering on the back of the city bus. I try not to make eye contact, but this bum is a repository of platitudes, song lyrics, movie quotes, and long successions of expletives. This day is making a case (a complex visceral argument) and thanking me for finally looking, but the best thing smelly old Miss Maniac, usually more loquacious, can come up with is, “Damn, I feel happy.” Of course, self-consciousness is a blight on joy. It chases its object back into the shadows. The lightness I feel begins to thicken. Jeremy is ahead of me, and to spare him, to mitigate my loss, I vow not to announce my assessment. I swallow the urge to exit this experience by narrating it. I’ll probably prattle and post later, but for now, I’ll stay in. Jeremy’s curiosity is steering, and now he is changing course because he’s seen something he wants to investigate.
He pulls up to an abandoned dock that is weathered and making a slow collapse into the lake. He explains to me how in Michigan, where he is from, many of the docks are floating because the lakes freeze over during the winter. He recently quit his job at the bar, found a job building docks, and goes swimming every day. We fantasize about having a lake house. He describes the cumaru steps he would build up the hill. I would hang bird feeders. He tells me about the baby turtle that swam up to him at work and the house of a childhood friend where he would go to catch frogs and pick wild blackberries for his grandmother, which she would use to make him a milkshake. I think about loss and purpose and watch my toes catching a prism of sunbeams under the surface of the water. Nothing matters! I think. I like this thought. It always hugs me when I have it, then slips away. I would have trouble explaining this to Jeremy. He’d get lost in the abstraction and would ask me what “existential” means again. The irony is that he lives it; Jeremy doesn’t need purpose or path, doesn’t encounter the contradictions of picking a particular answer to “Why?” And he’s never had problems tossing things off the boat if necessary. I sometimes think I married a muse.
We pop into another small cove and drift apart as the sun gets low. The big boats are all gone, or heading back in, and the quiet becomes our third. We make one final stop on another small shore to skip rocks. Jeremy hugs me and asks if I’m having a good day. I want to tell him, The best! And you? How do you feel? What are you thinking? But I don’t. I smile at him and hand him a flat stone–which turns out to be caked mud–and he seems satisfied.
When we finally pull back into the launch area the fishing boats are headed out. We drag the kayaks through the riverbed and into the grass while another family is hitching their boat back up to their trailer and struggling to get it aligned. Jeremy jumps in to help, and I watch a school of young Bluegills off the dock with the family’s two young and shirtless sons. Really, I am watching the fish (unable to name them until a fisherman loading a pizza box onto his pontoon tells me), and the boys are chucking rocks into the water screaming “In your face!” So carefree. So murderous! The patriarch of the crew stands back on the pavement, also shirtless and slouching over a huge rolling belly with a bizarrely tranquil baby in arm.
We load the kayaks without urgency and drive away with the windows down. Jeremy hooks up his iPod, and although it is unsaid, plays a track meant to please me. Jeremy has an impressive music collection acquired through pirating and a blanket style approach to selection. We were driving to dinner once back in Denver and a track of Alan Ginsberg reading his poem “America” came on. I made him stop the car. On the way back from the lake, he plays it for me on loop. He doesn’t get it. He’s said to me again and again he can’t read poetry, and whatever he thinks about the poems I’ve written for him, I have no idea. My expressions of love lost in translation. But he enjoys this track too, although he can’t articulate why. Somewhere he feels what I am thinking. The road snakes through homes and farms.
In a last-minute decision, we make a U-turn and pull into a roadside bar name Dumpy’s. The bar is one large pole barn fortified by a mishmash of lumber and corrugated steel and barrels. Out back is a volleyball court and an aging deck and more idle building materials and some chain link fence. Colored spotlights hang from the ceiling. The hill behind shoots up maybe 50 feet at a near 90o angle and tree roots and ivies look sewn into the red mud wall. We have a beer and chat with a local who works as a river rapids guide. Maybe twenty people lounge at the bar or on the downed logs used for seating. A woman in a body length t-shirt plays pool. Maybe she’s wearing shorts; maybe not. The place satisfies some of my expectations of a country dive–it’s called Dumpy’s–but it was far from the drain trap that I hoped and feared it would be. The rapids guide defends Dumpy’s; the place is endeared. Our lingering mood lifts, and we leave as the five-piece rock band starts to drag equipment to the stage and plug it all in. Think beards like ZZ Top.
The dark clouds roll in almost the exact same time the sun touches the tops of the Cumberland Mountains making the shift from day to night dramatic. The storm that had been promised on the weather report (which almost kept us at home) finally comes in and ominous flashes lay ahead. Jeremy puts the track back on, one more time before we turn the radio down low for the remainder of the journey home.
* * *
There they are, driving west on Highway 64 back to Chattanooga with two plastic sails perched on top of their car in an approaching storm.
I’m sick of your insane demands.
There she is, listening to the rain drum, the poem play, a negotiation with country and self, a beautiful circle. It could have been written yesterday, she thinks. As the car whips in a wind gust, she is resisting the urge to calibrate her connection with him and rubs her hand in his thick hair.
... after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
There he is, alert, charged with returning them home safely. A perfect day has a safe home in him. It won’t be manhandled too much. He wonders if he’s satisfied her.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
He lights his last cigarette.
Gwen Walton was born in Denver, Colorado and received her Masters of Arts and Culture in Creative Writing at the University of Denver. She currently works as a Sign Language Interpreter and resides in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This is her first published essay.