Midwestern Mindset Over Matter

Midwestern Mindset Over Matter
By Adam Beals

We awoke to suffocating calm. A heavy stillness that makes you incredulous the same state could ever produce tornadoes. The gentle drifting of our canoe that lulled us to sleep an hour earlier had ceased, and after laboring to sit up we found ourselves marooned in the middle of the river with a quarter mile of water extending from either side of our boat to the heavy-lidded cottonwoods lining the banks. I twisted around to glance back at Justin, still prone in the back of the boat and naked save for the tank top arrayed daintily atop his crotch.

“I think we have to push,” I said.

Justin peeled open his eyes and cocked an eyebrow in disbelief. “You mean… get… in the water?!”

We had launched from below the bridge connecting downtown to North Lawrence, a neighborhood that had, in the stinking July heat, become redolent of the same farm runoff that sluiced into the river and was currently corroding the Kevlar off our canoe. Growing up in Lawrence, the health department sign warning that “Certain fish from the river are not fit to eat” was scripture. To venture into the murky waters of the Kaw was to invite mutations, and though I had spent my childhood biking and and running beside the river, I had never so much as dipped a toe.

Because we’d started out at the ungodly hour of 10am, our plan was to catch up on sleep for the first part of the float as the current carried us past familiar terrain and into the unknown. As soon as we were out of eyesight of the Riverfront Mall, we stripped down and spread out in the bottom of the boat, letting the sun tighten our skin. A little too tight. The trauma of past sunburns reminded us to protect our sensitive areas, so we arranged our shirts like loincloths and nodded off. Now, prickling sensations raced up and down our arms, our heads pounded and our throats screamed. We stared at each other for a long moment, half deranged. Sixty minutes on the Kaw had reduced us to a primal state.

“At least we have ten gallons of scalding Gatorade to drink,” Justin croaked.  

I met Justin in preschool and did my best to never leave his side for the next 20 years. We co-captained our high school and college cross-country teams, studied abroad together in Central America, and returned home in the summers to forge our fitness in the Kansas crucible. Like most progeny of the Montessori system, we fancied ourselves visionaries, unbound by precedent and determined to transcend the humdrum life that had snuck up and ensnared so many of our friends in ‘adulthood.’ Truthfully, I had pretty much stuck to coloring within the lines, though Justin was already dabbling in wholesale subversion. Working assiduously to avoid working, Justin eschewed the 9 to 5 by moonlighting as a wedding photographer, laboring in the lawn and gardens of Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, and temping as an undercover agent for the state liquor board. This last role required Justin to sidle up to the bar at watering holes around Lawrence and ask for a drink. When the bartender responded, “Sure, what’re you having?”, Justin asked, “Don’t you want to card me first?”

Thinking it a joke, the barkeep laughed, “Ha, no that’s ok. What’ll it be?”

This required Justin to double-down. “Are you… really sure you don’t want to card me?”

“Well, OK. Let’s see your ID.”

At this point Justin handed over his driver’s license along with a 3 x 5 card that was completely green and bore the insignia of the State Liquor Board. He kept the damning red card in his back pocket.

“Oh man! Thank you!” The bartender exclaimed, his astonishment turning to relief as he realized how narrowly he had avoided a five-thousand dollar fine. “Thank you! Let me get you a drink!”

Invariably, Justin wound up with free drinks for the night and, having done his duty to defend Lawrence against the evils of underage drinking, was free to carouse into the wee hours.

We cautiously lowered our legs into the river and gripped the gunwales. Unweighted, the canoe now skidded along the sandbar as we pushed it downstream, feeling relief with each step as we lifted our feet from the sludge and saw that our flesh still clung to bone, that our toes had not yet turned to tentacles. Eventually, the bottom dropped out and we reboarded our craft. The river serpentined past farmland and floodplains with nothing breaking the border between sweltering green vegetation and cobalt blue sky until we came around a curve and a strange building reared up on our right. Crowned with a cupola and looking like a cross between a pump station and a farmhouse, the dilapidated structure rose fifty feet from river’s edge and was completely surrounded by high fencing. The barbwire atop the fence insisted that we explore.

A few lacerations later, we picked our way around the dusty machinery on the first floor of the house, stopping occasionally to maniacally yank on levers while shouting, “I can’t hold ‘er, Cap! She’s gonna blow!” A cement doorway led to staircase that spiraled down and down seemingly forever into darkness. At the bottom, we stood in silence, mouth agape, soaking in the coolness, oblivious to the acrid stench of bird poop.

“Hey look!” I said pointing to a dead bat illuminated by the single shaft of light slanting from the doorway overhead.

“Cool!” Justin said with a quick glance as he sprinted back up the stairs.

I emerged into the light just in time to see Justin’s feet disappear at the top of the ladder leading to the cupola. When I ascended into the crow’s nest, I found Justin gazing serenely at the fields stretching out before us. A slight breeze stirred our hair and a ribbon of gravel stretched to the horizon.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Justin asked.

Having reached the hottest part of the day and jeopardized our pulmonary health by spelunking into a guano-spackled cavern, we decided it was time to go for a long run. Justin floated along the road, and I labored to keep up, hoping that each rise in the terrain would bring into view a feature of some kind that I could designate as our turnaround point. Wishing that I had opted for the No Trespassing sign we blew by a mile back. Inevitably the bliss of familiar footfalls with an old friend supplanted the soreness in my legs. I zoned out into an easy euphoria until a low rumble stirred me from my reverie. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a pickup truck bearing down on us, a plume of dust rising ominously in its wake.

“Uh oh,” I said as Justin also caught sight of our pursuer. The gun rack he saw in the truck’s rear window may be an embellishment of memory or too many retellings, but we weren’t taking any chances. We took off perpendicular to the road at a dead sprint. The truck veered into the field as well, spraying dirt as it traced the hypotenuse of our triangle. As the truck pulled alongside us, the driver, a stout and weathered sixty-year old wearing overalls and plaid longleaves despite the heat, shouted “HEY!”

When we didn’t so much as break stride, let alone turn our heads to meet the man’s withering glare, he whipped a quarter turn and brought the truck skidding to a stop in front of us.

“HEY!” He shouted again. “You two can’t be here!”

“Oh!” said Justin, feigning genuine surprise. “We didn’t know.”

“DIDN’T KNOW?!” The old man yelled, his voice rising an octave. “There’s no trespassing signs EVERYWHERE!”

The old man pulled a notebook and pen from the glove compartment and took down our names. I offered up the name of my good friend John Ernie, because who better to throw under the bus than John Ernie? Justin gave an outlandish alias, and the old man scowled but recorded the name nonetheless.

As we bounced along in the back of the pickup truck, Justin and I shot each other sly grins. Back at the river we beatifically endured a final tongue lashing and loaded our boat, feeling not so much chastened as emboldened. That night we slept al fresco on a sandbar, gazing up at the Milky Way, and awoke the next morning to a stiff headwind.  We hollered and sang as we paddled hard into the chop, secure in the knowledge that ten miles downriver my dad would be waiting in an idling Aerostar, ready to stoke us for our next adventure.

As I write this, nearly a decade later, it has been over a year since Justin and I last ventured into nature together. Our divergent lives have brought each of us to a different precipice. In three weeks, my wife will give birth to our first child. Meanwhile, the rave production company that funded Justin’s free-wheeling lifestyle has imploded, leaving him face-to-face with the damnable need to work for money. These uncertain futures will require each of us to radically reinvent ourselves. Fortunately, we feel up to the task, having grown up in Kansas.

There’s nothing about Kansas that compels you to get on a mountain bike. There are, as you may have heard, no mountains. And yet my cycling pals who have never been to the Sunflower State often fantasize about saddling up for the Dirty Kanza as we’re cruising coastal rollers on Vashon Island. I get it.  There’s something glorious about gazing out at a vast Midwestern landscape, devoid of glaciated peaks or craggy sea stacks, and deciding, “Screw it. Let’s be adventurers.”

jenna goodman