Pastor Walter Mitty knew he had to get out of the city. Nothing terrible had happened, really. It was more like the cumulative effect of living in a large urban area—noise, traffic jams, pollution, asphalt and cement covering everything except small patches of grass.
Every once in awhile the city would get to him. When he’d fall into one of these periodic anti-urban funks, it would be like the glass would be half empty, and he’d focus on the problems of urban living rather than the opportunities.
During these times he’d always feel small and powerless. Everything would be a hassle, like going to a Cubs game. Like he and Bernie decided to go to a game a few weeks ago, the one in which Edwin Jackson was cruising along against the Sox, and a downpour caused the umpires to declare a rain out. He and Bernie had parked the car near the blue line. In the Loop they climbed the stairs to the brown line and then transferred to the red line at Belmont. When they finally got to Wrigley Field the security people made Bernie give them the bottle of iced tea he had brought along. And then, when the game was called because of the rain, they had to battle the crowds in the rain to get to the El platform and repeat the two transfer trip in reverse. It was David vs. the urban Goliath and the giant was winning. He didn’t like feeling small and powerless like that.
So on Sunday he asked Eric if he could borrow his canoe, and the next day he hoisted it up onto the roof of his Corolla and drove on I 290 to Busse Woods. He lifted the canoe off of his car slowly, careful not to scratch Eric’s canoe. His Toyota still ran well, but the exterior was in less than mint condition, so one more scratch would only add to its “character.”
As he paddled away from the landing on Busse Lake, Pastor Walt could feel the muscles in his face and neck relaxing. The sky was overcast on Monday. With no sun beating down on him, the heat and humidity did not bother him as much as he had expected.
Eric’s canoe was an Old Town. Compared to the Grumman aluminum canoe his family had when growing up, paddling the Old Town was like stepping out of his Corolla and into a Mercedes.
Mitty steered the canoe into a little inlet where the bicycle trail was out of sight and he could convince his imagination that he was alone, three portages away from the end of the Gunflint Trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
He remembered the time he and Herman and raced a thunder storm to a campsite and given each other high fives in the downpour, because they had not only beaten the storm to the little island designated on their map with a red dot but had also been able to stow all the packs under the overturned canoe just before the deluge hit. He pictured in his mind the calm after the storm, the pair of loons calling to each other in the twilight and the golden sunset he still had a picture of on his bookshelf.
Mitty thought about the fact that when he was in a wilderness area like the Boundary Waters or Rocky Mountain National Park or the high plateau desert of Chaco Canyon, he always felt small and powerless, but in nature that felt good. Somehow, feeling small was OK, because it made him feel reverent, full of awe and wonder. There was a sense of enchantment in wilderness places that was absent in the city.
Sure, he would take Herman, Susan and the boys down to Navy Pier when they would come to visit him, and they would ooh and ah at the magnificent sky line, but everything in the city was manmade and smacked of a kind of promethean arrogance. Scientists and engineers had pretty much eliminated enchantment from cities. He never had respected or envied the 1% who were responsible for the view west of Navy Pier. When Pastor Walt would go there, he’d always find himself walking all the way to the end of the pier and looking at the lake.
As he sat in Eric’s Old Town along the shore of Busse Lake, he watched a kingfisher plunge into the water and a turtle crawl up on a log to sun. He tried to block out the hum of traffic on I 290 less than a mile away and the roar of jet airplanes taking off from O’Hare.
And he wondered if Dominique, who had grown up in the Robert Taylor Homes along the Dan Ryan Expressway and was now making a lot of money in his corner office in the Loop, had any clue as to why his pastor would choose to spend his day off loafing in a canoe and fantasizing about feeling small three portages away from the end of the Gunflint Trail.