In the sodden southern tail of Illinois, the Shawnee National Forest stands in shades of green and brown and gray. It was here that Kristi and I spent one weekend under a thunderous sky. It was very early on in a tumultuous relationship that would last three or more years, a relationship that changed me, and probably the both of us irrevocably.
We met in the hotel where I worked after getting out of graduate school. That summer, after my arrival back in Kansas City from Laramie, Wyoming, I lived on a meager settlement for a car accident I which I was injured. Opportunities for gainful employment eluded me. I remember looking all summer, in those pre-internet days, for something that would implement or need my education and experience.
Looking for a job was taxing and frightful. I may have failed to get a job for many reasons, one of which was not for making a good try. Applications landed on the desks of bankers, librarians, and government officials. Cover letters by the score went out my door. I even went, as a courtesy of my uncle, through a round of tests by an employment headhunter, all to no avail.
I finally landed at the banquet department at a luxury hotel on the Country Club Plaza. But I didn’t get the job merely because I applied. I bugged one of the HR directors weekly until she put me in for an opening in a highly desirable position. And here I was, just happy to have the work. My settlement money had run out. I had a two-year-old to take care of and child support to pay. The job came just in the nick of time.
I labored in the banquet department as much as they would allow me. Poking around one day, the head of the engineering department found out I could refinish and restore antique and reproduction furniture, and I moved to that work while keeping my position in serving banquets, balls, and conventions.
Time passed quickly, and before I knew it, I had been there almost two years. The job had become dreary and tedious. It was then that I told my department head that I needed a leave-of-absence in the coming year for a five-month walking trip to Montana and a canoe ride back on the Missouri River.
While working as much as I could—I even took on substitute teaching on my days off—I sent queries to magazines and newspapers, 104 to be exact. This was something, I thought, to write about. Certainly, someone must be interested in hearing how a person on foot would fare on the Great Plains.
Affording such a trip was beyond me. In addition to querying magazines, I contacted national, regional, and local outing-goods stores, companies, and retailers. If I could just get some sponsorship—a pair of boots here, a backpack there, a tent over there—I could cut down on the trip’s cost, as I also had to pay child support, rent (so I would have a place to stay when I came back), as well as telephone and other costs to keep in contact with my daughter.
In a piecemeal way, I found success for my efforts. Companies gave me gear and supplies. A canoe maker in Maine sent a canoe to Montana for me. A local newspaper took on a column twice a month.
Meanwhile, Kristi was working in HR and we could not have been farther apart in our views toward common labor. HR departments account for their work in an actuarial way. Workers have a more anecdotal view of the world.
Despite our differences, I asked her out on a date. I can’t remember where we went or what we did, but I was happy with the outcome of my endeavor. Maybe I knew from the first that it wasn’t love, but it was sure nice anyway. We seemed to get along well and our discussions and getting-to-know-one-another activities showed great promise.
But then it was time for me to leave on my long journey. I phoned her every other day or so, and she was encouraging in her own way. Our differences on how the journey should work showed me that I was not in this thing by myself, but that other people were invested in my success.
Kristi came to see me once on my Great Plains sojourn. I had landed in Lexington, Nebraska, and she drove up for the weekend. It was dreamy and, for a person on the road, a time of succor and personal reinvention. Appropriate for the occasion, we went to a nearby lake, just to take in the scenery and get away from the highway and the cow pastures. We parked the car and walked down to the shore. When we stopped to see the view, we realized the place was crawling with ladybugs. The literally dripped from the tree branches above us and covered the ground.
I took this as a sign. Something was in the air between Kristi and me. Sunday afternoon, she went her way and I continued up the highway. We kept in contact through the phone and postcard and letters sent to general delivery in little towns along the way to Helena.
When I returned, Kristi planned a weekend camping trip for us in the Shawnee National Forest. I had no idea what to expect and decided that we would have a good time, regardless of the weather. The forest was lush and made even more so by the gloomy sky and threatening rain. We hiked as much as we could and took in the sights.
But most the time we spent out there together, we were in a tent. I didn’t mind reading, talking, making love. It was almost idyllic. I like the rain and love cloudy days. Thunderstorms thrill me, and having lived for months on the plains, I had lived through plenty.
The weather, however, didn’t please Kristi. While she didn’t mind spending the time with me, she was wanted as much of this beautiful corner of a state as she could get. But I convinced her there was nothing to do about the weather and we should just enjoy what we were given.
To me, that weekend is a romantic niche in my memory. Maybe a stormy weekend was a good start for what was a difficult but exceedingly rewarding relationship. If there’s anything I wish, I want to preserve that weekend. There was something to the rain, to the travel, to the woman. I was just finding out about myself and we were discovering each other.
To steal from Brautigan: Nothing is lovelier than “the bow of a ship touching a new world.”