He drove up just as we were starting lunch at the picnic table under the trees at the boat launch. A black Dodge Ram truck with a squat camper like all the autoworkers used to have in Flint, pulling a flat bed trailer with a blue plastic kayak and a red off road vehicle, we recognized the truck and trailer right away because we’d passed him maybe a half hour before. He sat for a minute after pulling in, his little spotted dog draped across his shoulders: the dog eyeing us keenly and wagging his tail which we couldn’t see but knew to be wagging from how he looked at us.
The man got out of the truck with Spotty on a short leash. This surprised me because the guy looked like a tough customer, not someone who would agree to leash his dog, more like someone who would let his dog tree squirrels and forage other people’s lunches. He was a cute dog, not my type, but cute enough and he leaned into his exploration of this new place like he was pulling a heavy dog sled.
The man didn’t speak. He walked toward the lake and then read the sign about boating rules. He wore shorts and hiking books, a t-shirt stretched to bursting over what some would call a beer belly. Then he headed back our way, still not talking, no greeting. So I said hello and he answered. Then ensued many questions about how and where he could camp and were there places where he could just go in the woods and camp and put a piece of paper on a tree. He said he was from Ohio and owned property in Lower Michigan but he seemed lost.
He watched us eat. We had such a peculiar lunch – my husband with a leftover fried trout sandwich and me with a hard boiled egg and piece of cheese – that it seemed too weird to ask him to join us yet he stood there, kind of expectantly, waiting for something, the answer to his question, I guess, about where he could camp. I finished my egg and ate a piece of cantaloupe. By now, we’d answered the same question a dozen times and I realized the man was lonely more than he was hungry or he was hungry but not for food, for this revolving door of a conversation about where he could camp. Well, good luck, I said, wanting him to go so we could wrap up lunch and launch our canoe on a big, beautiful lake that at that moment was devoid of any other boats and as calm as a lake could ever be. I could see our old green canoe slicing through the water like I imagine myself swimming in a still, deserted, very blue pool.
He said goodbye and thanks and went to sit in his truck for a good long while looking at a map. I don’t know what he saw on the map. He seemed just to be killing time, and then he folded the map and started his truck, Spotty curled up again around his shoulder like the fox stoles women used to wear at the Methodist Church. That was a long time ago, no one will remember, but they wore fox stoles where the little fox head would bite the tail and that would be the fastener. I know about this. I studied this for years in church.
The lake stayed calm while we paddled but it was hot, very hot. Stable flies, the bane of Upper Michigan, would land on our backs or legs if we came too close to shore. I wondered to myself, how far is too far for a stable fly to fly? The life preservers made us sweat as we paddled over water that looked shallow but was actually deep, the tall, thick weeds creating a false bottom. I put my paddle down to test the depth; no, it isn’t shallow, it is just thick and deep with ropy, green and brown weeds.
Midway, my husband said he’d heard a twig break on shore and wondered if maybe there was a bear. I wondered if it was the man from Ohio finding a place to camp where he could just put a piece of paper on a tree.