Bluff Country – Alicia Catt

If I were not so bent on truth, I might tell this story differently. I might unfold it delicately like a rosebud, reverently like a flag. I might describe to you a beachfront panorama, starter-log campfires and craft beer, the whiskeyed breath of summer on my neck. I might tell you that I was twenty-two and untamed—backpacking across America, trust fund in hand, warm and loved and wide-eyed. I might tell you how those months of travel ushered me from child to bonafide woman, how the wilderness cradled me and sung my name at night. By the end, I’d find myself, and it would be majestic, this story. But it would not be true.

In honesty there is less romance. In honesty it’s harder to hide from yourself.

At twenty-two, with my secondhand JanSport and shapely calves, it’s true I could have been mistaken for a backpacker. In a way, I was. But instead of climbing mountains, I wandered busy city avenues. Instead of collecting souvenirs, I collected spare change with a cardboard sign inked in Sharpie. To me, “backpacking” implied the kind of freedom only money could buy. I was only free in the sense that I was alone: I could run and run and nobody would care to chase me. And so, in the name of adventure, I ran.

In the two months since I’d lost my job and been evicted from my apartment, I’d traveled nearly 2000 miles—Minneapolis to Colorado, New Mexico, Texas— partnering with fellow vagrants, then parting ways without fanfare as it suited us. At first, I’d driven a sputtering Plymouth Voyager, panhandling for gas money at truck stops. When the van failed, I abandoned it in a national forest. I used the last of my meager savings to buy a one-way Greyhound ticket back to the place I’d began— hoping, maybe, that Minneapolis would again feel like home. It did not. My apartment belonged to someone else. My life, my friends, lovers, all to someone else. I drifted on foot through my old neighborhood. I napped on a park bench and scoured sidewalks for smokeable cigarette butts. Through all of this, I felt no psychic ache, no sadness. What I felt, instead, was a gnawing in my gut. My stomach, master of sublimation, had absorbed my grief and interpreted it as hunger.

But I’m telling here; I should be showing. So let me show you this: me, unshowered and askew, rifling through the unlocked storeroom of a coffee shop, searching furtively for a sandwich to steal. Me, perched at a library computer terminal, picking sprouts out of my teeth and composing a Craigslist post. Looking for a travel partner, it said, must be willing to head west ASAP. I signed it with my road alias: Chicken Little. Given to me by a passing acquaintance, the name suited me well. I never could see the difference between a falling sky and a wayward nut. It all struck me as disaster.

I ravenously latched onto my ad’s first respondent: a crunchy-hippie, corn-fed, blue-eyed wonderboy, a music school dropout living three hours south in Decorah, Iowa. I’ll have to bring my guitar, he wrote, is that okay? I said yes. I’ve never hitchhiked before, he wrote, is that okay? I said yes. Do you want to go canoeing first? he wrote. I said yes, shouldered my pack, and headed for the nearest on-ramp. A whole blessed world of yes. Yes-and-you-will-love-me. Yes-and-I-won’t-be-alone.

I had never hitchhiked before, either. Was I fearless, then, for hopping over a guard rail and jutting my thumb into southbound traffic, for jumping blindly into the first car that slowed? I can tell you now what I couldn’t have then: all my bravado sprang from a geyser of fear. It would be faster to speak of the things that didn’t frighten me—dogs, pigeons, Kentucky bluegrass, sandwiches—than to list the things that did. When you are afraid of everything, when the world is always ending, sometimes the best option is to puff your lungs with hot air. If you’re lucky, you’ll float away. From the backseat of a stranger’s sedan, I watched the Minneapolis skyline shrink away behind me, all frosted glass and geometry. Nine hours and two rides later, I rumbled into Iowa on the rear of a Harley—no helmet, white-knuckling the waist of a Hell’s Angel. My first time on a motorcycle. It did feel something like floating.

***

The boy had a voice like velveteen, lush and thick with just a little scratch. That night he played a gig at a bar called the Haymarket. I watched his hummingbird fingers suck the nectar from a twelve-string guitar. I ran my thumbs across the pads of my own fingers, recalling the tough skin that had once been there. How I’d bled for those calluses, those telltale badges of musicianship. I’d pawned my own guitar for drugs the year before. My fingertips had long since gone soft. Preferring not to think of it, I pounded a watery beer and studied my pocket atlas. I noted which highways led south out of town, which ones led west. I wanted to be ready when it was time.

In the morning, the boy and I pushed a well-worn canoe into the Upper Iowa River, and for three full days, we paddled. Through the staggering bluffs of Winneshiek County, we paddled. Through a thunderstorm, through the wall of stagnant August air, we paddled. Through bubbling rapids and dark still water, we paddled. Where the river bisected a stretch of farmland, we paddled, narrowly missing a cow that had paused to drink mid-stream. We paddled until our skin turned pink and toasted brown, until our arms hung heavy as barbells. We paddled, and we laughed, and we drank Colt 45s from a cooler packed with ice. Drunk, then, we paddled into a sandbar, lost our shoes to the sucking mud as we shoved our little boat back into the wet. We paddled, led for miles by a great blue heron who would fly downstream, perch, and await our approach as if she were saying, Yes. Let me bring you home. Eventually, we lost her; or she, us. Even now I wonder if that’s how I ended up so turned around.

After sunset, the boy and I would dock the canoe, strip off our clothes, and dunk our sweaty bodies into the river. The water felt different at night. Viscous, more forgiving, like every awful thing I’d ever done could be rinsed away like soap. I opened my eyes under the surface—black. I palmed a jagged rock—quartzite. I tasted the boy’s mouth—moonshine.

***

On the third day I learned the boy’s feet had gone cold at the thought of nomadic life. Seventy-two hours of adventuring and already he was homesick for his mother, his bed. He had a home to be sick for, a college degree to finish, a future imminent and certain. He didn’t itch to run like me. Why should he? His big, bright Iowa sky had never fallen. Maybe it never would. Maybe, if my fear of standing still could masquerade as fearlessness, his reluctance to uproot could look, to me, like a coward’s game. It was a brand of courage I wouldn’t begin to understand for years—how to sit with the darkest parts of myself, not stagnant but steady, and let life ripple across me. To be a body of water, yes, always—but to be, sometimes, like a pond.

But what did I know at twenty-two? I could only roll away like a river. And so, on the fourth day, after the boy and I had reached our destination and heaved ourselves back into town, I let him go.

Please stay, he said.

There’s nothing here for me, I said. And I turned away. Hot air filled my chest until I was a balloon, a bubble of a girl drifting up into the safety of space. I trudged barefoot alongside a two-lane highway, stiff thumb, stiff lip. My ride out of town bought me Subway. I chewed in grateful silence for miles. I had never been so hungry.

Alicia Catt received her MFA from Minnesota State University, and is currently at work on a memoir about the sex industry. Her writing can be found in The Los Angeles Review, Salt Hill, Yemassee, The Pinch, and elsewhere. She lives in Minneapolis with her pitbull, Piggy.

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