And just when you think you know the Destination; it shapeshifts on you.
I had pried (using a large mysterious hammer engraved with Elder Futhark, the Plus Five Sword of Doom, and all my Jedi skills) two, count'em TWO Saturdays off in May. One was for a sail on the excellent and doughty Schooner Sultana (1768), the other was for a sail on a local lake on a much smaller craft without cannons.
Saturday Off: Part One:
A friend and I travelled to Chestertown MD (on the mighty Chester River) for the Sultana sail, then to Eastern Neck Island to poke around this tiny National Wildlife Refuge (at the mouth of the Chester, one side of it faces the open expanses of the Chesapeake Bay). We found osprey and eagle, ladybugs and aphids, little mooncurves of beach scattered with oyster shell and pebbles smoothed by wave and sand. I've seen the fins of cownosed rays slicing the water, heard the dinosaur cries of great blue herons, circumnavigated the island in my kayak to watch eagle chasing osprey, migrating waterfowl, and dance in the waves. I'd just done a bunch of field trips on a local farm where my job was to help kids find cool macroinvertebrates in the pond. I'd brought a few nets and a camera to record our Eastern Neck finds. Mostly I found sand.
But the water was the clearest I'd ever seen it. I could stand in waist deep water and still see my feet. For those of you who have vacationed in the Caribbean, where fifty feet of visibility is a very BAD day, I remind you, this is the Chesapeake Bay. It still largely gets a C- on its health score. We have a lot of issues to clean up: the vanishing SAV (eelgrass and other submerged aquatic vegetation), oysters and small forage fish depleted, runoff from development, agriculture, mines and industry.
I could see my feet. I could see bits of SAV, of the marsh edges, of tiny fish zooming in the shallows.
And I'd left the snorkelling gear and the underwater housing for the camera at home. "Oh, yeah, it's the Chester and the Chesapeake... why would I need the underwater housing..."
Saturday Off: Part Two.
When the friends with the sailboat bailed, I decided to use that Saturday to go back to Balticon. For the science fiction-impaired, this is one of the finest science fiction/fantasy/comics/etc. conventions on the east coast. I had exhibited in the 80s as an artist, and went back last year with less than resounding success (though the programs are useful and interesting). I had also spent way too much money there. So this year, thinks I, I shall return without investing heavily in art no one is buying, and I shall go for one day and I shall not spend money and I shall go to the lectures and panels discussions and Learn Something.
There I stood, staring at perfectly clear water with no underwater housing, no dive mask. I would see this again when someone decided to turn the Silmarillion into a film...
I rounded up a few friends, the dive mask, the fins, the underwater housing. I vowed to return to Eastern Neck.
Thor was hurling Mjolnir at Frost Giants all week (zzzzotz! rrrrrrrrrummmmmmmmmmmbbbbble), it rained randomly to accompany the thunder and lightning. I envisioned lots of silt flowing down the Susquehanna into the Bay. There goes the visibility, and any hope of underwater doings.
By Friday, the friends of the expedition had bailed, and I had begun to question whether I should just pack it up and go to Balticon for the day. Perhaps I am getting to old for solo expeditions into the wild.
I still had doubts when I filled the car with expedition gear and set out somewhat late Saturday morning. I strolled down 74, across the Conowingo Dam, down the Delmarva Penninsula, mostly ignoring the muted GPS (which has some random brainfarts about what direction I SHOULD be going). I passed dozens of yard sales; Memorial Weekend, to memorialize Those Who Have Given Their All for Our Country... and to redistribute our mathoms. (For those of you who are Hobbit-impaired: a Mathom is anything you no longer need, but can pass on to someone else, as in, stuff you find at yard sales. Hobbits gave away mathoms on their birthdays.) The car was already stuffed, I was already sort of late, I just wanted to get out of the summer heat and into the water.
Then the Death Star-like tractor beam of one yard sale sucked me in.
Somewhere in northern Maryland, I pulled over, scanned the tables of clothes and mathoms and a box of kittens. I found a Han Solo action figure, still in the box: "How much?"
A keyboard. "How much?"
A pillow with swordwhales on it.
"For you, a buck."
The entire set of Star Wars films on DVD (a bit more than a buck).
I wandered over to a stout middle aged woman in a lawn chair in the shade, guarding a crate of piebald kittens. I admired the little fuzzies with their pink toes, we talked about neutering and spaying, about dogs. She told me about her Rottweiler, how she'd wanted one when another dog passed, but couldn't afford to buy a puppy... then a friend brought her this puppy. He was her Guardian, her Protector, a velcro dog whose mission was to be the Loyal Companion.
"What was his name again?"
Thor. All her animals had weather theme names. The Rottie was Thunder and Lightning incarnate. I'd grown up reading Norse myth. My ancestors were Germanic, it was part of their culture. I spent a few decades sailing two different Viking Longships in southern Maryland. I'd gone to the Sail Virginia Governor's Ball with our Viking crew... in full regalia (yeah, they let us in with swords and hatchets). When I saw the Marvel film, Thor, it was like revisiting an old friend. I'd watched it, and the Avengers, twice. I was wearing the Thor's hammer someone in the Longship Company had given me long ago.
"And then he got cancer." The problem with big dogs is their lives are small, short, abrupt. Not immortal. She kept him alive for a year after the vet said he couldn't. She fed him liver. Dug the grave months in advance; "Look, hole. You don't want to go there." He didn't. He had a mission.
Crossing the Rainbow Bridge has become the animal lovers' imagery for a passed pet. Bifrost, straight out of Norse myth. When Thor passed over it he left a gaping Rottweiler-sized hole in his human's life. One day a friend took her along to a pet psychic. She didn't really believe in it, but hey, the money went to a good cause, and, hey, it could be fun.
The psychic nailed everything about her and Thor. "He was a mission dog." she said. A dog with a mission. To change your life. To support you through tough times. To be your hero. Mission accomplished, he returns Home.
I stopped at a yard sale, I found some clothes, a keyboard, and stories. The Lucas stories I love so much. And a personal one involving dogs and a mythic figure I'm fond of. I might have stopped at any yard sale, or none. I might never have talked to the Lady With Thor. But I did, I found a story.
The universe is not only wierder than you imagine, it's weirder than you can imagine.
I went on. Somewhere in one f the little hiccup towns on Delmarva, I passed through the square and (windows down, no air conditioning in the car) smelled barbeque. I am not normally that much of a carnivore, but this screamed "STOP!" The local fire company had a small barbeque pit, a barrel of cold water, and half chickens on the grill. I ate one. An entire half chicken. And began a conversation with a small, wiry 70-something woman with a spotted dog on a pink lead. The dog was unlike anything I'd seen. It was houndy, shaped sort of like a German shorthair, only Beagle sized. It was sort of blue merle, only without any white; just the bluey grey with a smattering of black.
"What is that?" says I.
"They were bred for royalty, as food testers." She smiled. "No, really, her mom was a championship Cocker Spaniel, her dad a championship Daschund."
Gretchen looks like neither, but is pretty cute, eyes up my chicken, and is invited to consume some of the tasty bits. She was a rescue. She was abused. It took several years to get her socialized. "A shopping cart and Lowes did it." Wheeling her through Lowes in a cart, instant socialization. She's quite friendly. I hand her another piece of decadent chicken skin. We have a long conversation about the Bay, about beach erosion, about people who come to the Bay and want to treat it like Suburbia. Who want green lawns and pristine beaches, then are appalled when their "cleanup job" erodes their pristine beach away. We swap addresses. I am invited to come visit.
"Are you a teacher?" she asks.
Well, no... I mean, I've done some informal stuff for wildlife rehabbers, for art classes, for the park, for the farm. I like it. I hate the public school system. I read. I educate myself. I explore.
I have found another piece of the Story.
I go on, south. It's afternoon now, the sun sliding down the southwestern sky. I'm losing light in the water, if I want to get some underwater footage. I yawn, wishing I'd had nore sleep. I hate long drives. I need coffee; the only time I drink it is on long drives. It's hot, sunny. I want to just jump in the water.
I wind down through Rock hall down the long only road that leads down Eastern Neck (the local name for penninsulas), across the bridge (no rainbows, just fishermen) to the bit of neck that has broken off; Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Gulls wheel and wail over the shallow bay, the sun is still sliding down the sky over the vast expanse of the Bay to the left. Marsh, then woods. then a long black squiggle in the other lane. I stop. A black rat snake is stretched, like a bent slinky, across the whole far lane. Uh oh, someone ran over this excellent member of the Rodentia Patrol. I back up, stare at it. It's head is up, staring back. It's wrinkled; every two inches it's bent the other way. It's squiggled and S-curved for its whole length like a child's drawing of a snake. It stares as if to say, "what's up, dude."
"You shouldn't be on the road. Some tourist will run over you."
"It's warm here."
"It's warm everywhere. It's, like, 89 in the shade. I'm jumping in the water. You should be hiding in the bush."
I consider how I'm going to remove the Snake from the road. Shooing could get me a nice bite in the leg, and while it's non-venomous, that can still be a nasty bacteria-laden mess. I reach for one of the butterfly nets I brought to search for macroinvertebrates. I gently slide it against Snake's head. Snake looks vaguely surprised. I shove against Snake, pushing him back toward the weeds along the road. He looks like he'd rather just stay where he is, sunning on the warm macadam. I shove a bit more, he turns and slides into the weeds like a bolt of black lightning.
And the ^%&^%!!! camera is still in the car.
I only thought of "get the snake off the road before some idiot smashes it"... not, oh, cool, get some video.
I drive on, winding through the wildlife refuge. I stop to take pictures of the ospreys and their nest by the road. I drive with the camera on video mode, pointing out the window. (there's no traffic, and what is, is very slow). I change into a swimsuit. I stop at Bogle's Wharf, the one place where people with boats on trailers can launch. I've launched kayaks there; it has a boat ramp, a nice sandy mooncurve of beach about the length of my van, docks to fish from, the beach to launch Chesapeake Bay Retrievers from. And last week, great visibility.
This week, there is chop coming off the Chester River on the SSE wind, black detritus washed up in a wrack line, and zero visiblity.
I head over to the other side of the island. Ingleside is a horrendous place to launch a kayak; all rocks (imported to slow beach erosion; the Bay is mostly sand) and slopes and weeds. Last week it was full of lovely clear water, some SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation) and a view of the open expanse of the Bay.
On a twisty bit of road leading across the island I see movement in the weeds by the edge. I stop. A small red fox appears. Disappears. Reappears like an illusionist's trick. Finally comes into full view. I verrrrrry sssssllllooooooooooooooowly find the camera, put it on video mode, focus through the windshield. The fox looks up nervously. Looks down, grabs a piece of something half hidden in the grass by the road and begins pulling bits off like he is starving. His dinner is shiny, metallic, like a fish. Perhaps an eagle chasing an osprey, someone drops the fish, can't find it. The fox wins a free lunch. He pulls quickly at the meal, looking up. Yank yank, gulp gulp. Looks furtively into the bush, as if he hears something coming. Looks up at me. Can't see anything beyond the large object sitting there, quietly. Returns to eating. Looks up, looks left, looks right. Vanishes into the bush. reappears. Gulps down more food. Looks around. Vanishes like a wisp of red smoke. Reappears.
The dance goes on for some time; the Fox furtively gulping, looking around for larger scarier predators. Vanishing. Reappearing. Gulping. He is small, about the size of a cat, perhaps either a little female or a yearling. He has a fine world to live in, a National Wildlife Refuge, but he is still a Fox, a very small predator in a world full of larger ones, and he must use his skills to avoid them. He twitches his black velvet ears like radar dishes, scans the world around him with his golden cat eyes. I wonder why we never domesticated foxes. They would have done the job of cats; ridding early human settlements of rodents. Perhaps they have always been too shy, too wild, too clever to live with us.
A car comes down the road and he vanishes into the bush. I wait. The bush remains silent. I drive on.
Ingleside has clear water. I can see beds of SAV from the parking lot. I load up the camera into the underwater housing (it's dinosaur, given by a friend, a huge plexiglass tank that my little digital camera looks ridiculous inside of... but it works.). I'm in diveskin (SPF 100 sunscreen), dive boots and a PFD.
The water is about a foot deep.
The tide is low, I scramble down over rocks, then wet rocks, then rocks covered with green slime. I have bad knees, a heavy camera casse, and have spent an inordinate amount of time this week shovelling mulch. This is not fun.
I reach the real Bay, the water without rocks. I slide the camera around through the SAV beds, fly it over the sandy desrt bottom, sail around a tiny island you could fit in the bed of a pickup truck. I use the island to readjust the camera (after I let go of the housing and it all goes upside down), and restart a second video clip (I can't do anything to the camera after it is locked in the housing). I lurk in a foot and a half of water, watching tiny fish orbit me and the camera. They come up, check out their reflections in the plexiglass. I hope the camera can focus that close. I walk the camera back, and realize I am too old to be doing this bend over and touch your knees (while maneuvering a plexiglass tank) thing for more than about thirty seconds. I heave the camera and its housing back up on land, clunking it down on rocks, using the other three hands and feet to clamber over the slimy rocks, the wet rocks, and the big annoying rocks.
I want to have a word with whoever decided to put rocks here. I have a Nerf Mjolnir with your name on it...
I put the camera away, get the snorkelling gear. It's not the Caribbean. It's only a couple of feet of slightly murky water in the Bay. But it's water, and I can see past the edge of my mask. I sprawl in less than two feet of cool bay water, floated right on the surface by my PFD, and slowly finstroke out into the Bay.
OK, mostly I pull myself along on my fingertips because it's too shallow to really kick the fins. I get out a bit deeper, find bits of SAV beds, flip my fins slowly along. Sand, sand, sand. Useful SAV. Sand sand sand. A dead crab. Sand sand sand. A rock. Sand sand sand sand. A bit of oyster shell. Sand... a clam shell, both of them, still joined. The feeling of cool water sliding past. Of weightlessnes. Of your world, above the water, stretching from here to the horizon, beyond it, along the curve of water that is the Bay to the sea and to the whole round world. Of the world below the water stretching as far as you can reach in the murk. Of "what's out there?" What's going to appear in the next fin stroke? I've seen the fins of cownosed rays surfacing by my kayak. Big rays, six feet wide. There have been reports of all kinds of seathings coming this far north in the Bay: sharks and dolphins and whales and turtles... even a wandering manatee.
I find a tiny crab, hiding under a rock (washed down from the riprap on the beach). I watch him creep out cautiously, then pick off bits of plant patter from the chunk of marsh sod over his house.
I swim on. Sand... sand... SAV like an enchanted underwater forest, tiny bubbles caught in its branches. In Chincoteague's back bay, the eelgrass beds have all kinds of sponges and fish and macroinvertebrates. Here, at Eastern Neck, it is salty enough for clams and crabs and oysters and rays...
...and something else inn the grass. A squiggle of camo color, a short stroke of rattlesnake browns and sands and beiges. I pause, stare unbelieving at a tiny snakeshape the size of half a pencil. Its nose is pointy, like a sharpened pencil, it's about as thick. It lies on the sand among a tuft of grass. It is a pipefish, a relative of the seahorse. I watch him poke at the plants around him, nibbling off bites too small to see. I don't know if pipefish are common here, or if he is a wayward wanderer.
And, of course, I have put the camera away.
There is no glorious golden sunset tonight. the sun has slid down in silver and blue clouds. The Bay goes all steel and pewter and iron. It's gone from steaming tropics to chill, or at least, I am. I stow my gear, go back to Bogle's Wharf to launch my boat.
This boat is about a foot long, an elegantly simple toy I found at Chestertown's Downrigging Weekend. It has two masts, sails made from plastic bags, a moveable keel, and sheets to set the sails. I experiment and find she is a fun little sailer. I watch the marsh go to blue iron, feel the wind off the Chester driving the biting bugs inland. Sit on a piece of marsh with legs dangling in the water. Talk to a guy about Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.
The Journey is the Destination.
I had a picture of what I wanted to do this day. It changed, it shapeshifted. I did find clear water. I did my underwater footage. I also found stories: a dog named Thor, and one named Gretchen. A Grandmother who has seen too much of the wrong kind of change on the great Bay. A man who only needs dogs and ducks and a boat to be happy. A mask, a snorkel and a bit of clear water. A dead fish and a live fox. A wrinkled snake, alive after all. A tiny pipefish, invisible to all other visitors that day. Ospreys wheeling, the dinosaur croak of herons sailing overhead in the iron-blue evening sky. The wink of fireflies in the marsh grass and the bite of hungry mosquitoes.
I fled to the car, in dry clothes. Stopped for roast beef and much coffee, and drove back up Delmarva to the woods of PA. Stowed in the camera's memory chip is the Journey, or parts of it. Bouncing by the radio is a small irridescent mussel shell.