Kathryn Eastburn’s The Middle Distance 8/6/10: “Garden Boat”

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photo by Sean Cayton

In mid-2007, I started dreaming of water — a calm lake ringed by trees. I floated along in an aluminum boat. No motor, just a paddle, and a gentle rocking motion.

Some nights I woke up with aching arms. I fixated on this idea of paddling, of rowing my boat, getting stronger, moving over water. Weekends I scoured rural real estate listings on the internet, looking for a house near a lake, in Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky. I found cheap, broken-down houses in remote areas and imagined leaving everything behind, trading in my Subaru for a used pickup truck and lighting out for the territory. But the real estate game was little more than a dreamy way to pass a Saturday. The truth was, I was broke and selling the house I lived in, planning a move to the Gulf Coast of Texas where I would help my mother take care of my dying sister. I had just met deadlines on two books and I was dead tired.

End of July. The For Sale sign is up and the full moon washes the sky. One terrible night, my 22-year old son’s sudden, violent death, and with it go all peaceful dreams. This shock, this startling grief, this frightening sense of wanting to live but not knowing how felt a little like drowning. I treaded frantically, desperate not to slip under, and somehow made it to September and the grace of leaving. I winnowed down my household belongings to what would fit in a small U-Haul trailer. I said goodbye to my Colorado town and pulled out for the 1,100 mile drive from rock to sand, altitude to sea level.

It was good rattling along at 55 miles per hour on back roads, listening to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard on classic country radio, crying when I felt like it. Looking back now, I realize I was more than a little crazed and probably shouldn’t have made that trip alone, pulling what little was left of home behind me. But being alone beat the heck out of being with people, searching for something to say. There was nothing left to say.

About 60 miles west of Waco on the second day, rain started coming down in sheets. Black clouds overhead drooped downward like weighty breasts. My windshield wipers struggled through rivers of downpour and failed to even part the waters. Finally, edging down the shoulder of a county highway, I spotted a hill and a country church with a circular driveway and gravel parking lot beneath a ring of pecan trees. I pulled off, parked, and watched from my bird’s eye view as the road below filled with water, melding with the surrounding landscape into one big, boiling lake. There was nothing to do but sleep.

I stayed on that hill for five hours: red Subaru, white U-Haul trailer with orange lettering, black sky, brown muddy water. My universe. The rains ceased and the water finally retreated. I drove to Waco past cars washed up like toys on the surrounding fields, past a WalMart parking lot that had become a rescue station. I headed south and didn’t stop until I had reached Galveston and my mother’s house, and the smell of fresh-baked biscuits, my coming home dinner.

In the months to come, I planted a garden in a boat — a simple aluminum hull, just like the one in my dreams, a boat my son and his cousin had fished in when they were younger. I learned to paddle a fishing kayak and wound it through tall grasses in a warm, shallow bayou alongside my brother-in-law. He’d cast his line and wait for a strike while I watched the wavy grasses below the water’s surface dancing a delicate hula.

The next year, after the spring of my sister’s death — natural and sweet, just as her life had been — my boat garden flourished as I wilted in the damp heat of the Gulf coast summer. Some friends invited me to cool off at the local water park, Schlitterbahn, an elaborate man-made river pumped constantly with flowing bay waters on which hordes of humanity floated in innertubes past elaborate slides and flumes, over waterfalls and through blue lagoons. We were three plump, middle-aged women, stuffed into our bathing suits, and we fit in just fine.

It felt fine, better than fine, bobbing along, twirling with the current, floating in a sea of people happy just to be wet and cool. Wiry teenaged boys, chubby babies with sausage curls cradled in the muscled arms of their bearded daddies, shrieking girls tugging at their bikini tops, red-eyed grandmothers in rubber bathing caps. I leaned back and closed my eyes, rocking gently in their wake. There was nothing to do but go wherever the rolling waters pulled us.

* * *

Freelance journalist and author Kathryn Eastburn was co-founder of the Colorado Springs Independent where she served as editor for nearly a decade. Her work at the Independent garnered numerous state, regional, and national journalism awards. Eastburn’s features, reviews, and interviews have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the U.S., including the Denver Post, Saveur, and Texas Highways. The author of two books of nonfiction, Eastburn is a visiting professor of Creative Nonfiction Writing and Journalism at The Colorado College, and teaches community workshops in life story writing to older adults. She lives in Colorado Springs. You can hear this column every Saturday at 1 p.m. on KRCC right after This American Life.

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10 Responses to Kathryn Eastburn’s The Middle Distance, 8/6/10: "Garden Boat"

  1. Eva says:

    Swept me away, literally and metaphorically.

  2. John Hazlehurst says:

    Kathryn, how beautiful, how extraordinary, how powerful, how moving…you write as well as anyone in America.

  3. Laura Spear says:

    We are richer for having you in our lives-these images-yikes-all these emotional currents pulling us along in your mind stream-thanks for brining us along for the ride.

  4. Tim Boddington says:

    Wonderful! When a boat becomes a garden and the riches of it’s harvest await, the best is always yet to come. Your words are magic and your voice is fine wine! Thank you, and at the moment you’re in the lead while in the middle distance!

  5. MB Partlow says:

    Beautiful. Deeply moving. I’m so glad you’re back in Colorado.

  6. Carolyn Caplan says:

    Boats were always my saving grace when I was growing up on a lake in Western North Carolina. Parents fought, voices raised, while I slipped out in our motor boat to cruise to the biggest section of the lake, turn off the motor and enjoy the peace and quiet. Thank you for reminding me of such good memories, and sharing yours.

  7. Nick Adams says:

    Lovely, inspiring, moving. Things like this are one of the reasons I wish you were still in Galveston

  8. Kay says:

    Beautiful piece and I love the boat. I will share this with a friend who just moved from Co Springs.

  9. Diana Dettling Buckley says:

    Water, a necessity of life, flows as a constant throughout your story. Splendid piece.

  10. kay johnson says:

    I am glad you are back with your stories for us. You have a Southern voice that I enjoy and the images that you write about have a lot of music in them to my ear.
    My mother is on the Texas Gulf Coast too and I know those roads through the central part of the state. Another good float trip is in San Marcos on the Guadalupe River.

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