The idiom is: Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.
The meaning: Before judging someone, you must understand his experiences, challenges, thought processes, etc.
Earlier this year I struggled to accept the loss of Lexie, my love, my Soul Mate for the last 12 years. Sure, she was a dog, but her spirit was anything but. Since the day we met, we communicated on a level I had not experienced with any other pet prior to her. Lexie was the source of my happiness, my energy and my sunny day through the darkest storm. Even after she was diagnosed with a virtually incurable cancer, she battled it with a playfulness and joy like nothing I had ever witnessed before. Through each surgery, after each round of chemotherapy, her Spirit was never shattered. Aside from a constant large bandage on her right front leg, one would never be able to tell just what she was battling inside. The very day I saw that Spirit go, I let her go. It was Christmas Eve and it was time to say goodbye.
By May of 2016, I was struggling to walk my path alone. The sun that had brightened each day was now gone and purpose was absent. I began to look within myself trying to find new meaning, I couldn’t. When we are uncomfortable with the unknown path forward, often we return to a familiar path traveled. , I needed to escape this new path I was walking. I needed to escape the place I called home. I needed to escape the daily reminders of the life I once lived. I needed to escape the emptiness in my soul. I needed to escape and I needed to do it now.
In order to facilitate my escape, I returned to a familiar path; an old dream of mine to live on a sailboat and travel the world. I began my search for the right sailboat, as I had done twice before in my life, but both those times I had Lexie by my side. One day I jokingly said to my friend that if I couldn’t find a sailboat I’d simply jump on my kayak and paddle to Key West. The seed was planted. Unlike the sailing dream, this was not one I had ever had with Lexie. I had considered paddling with her for a week or two down the Erie Canal, but never the six to eight months it would take me to get to Florida.
Was the chance to do something Lexie and I would have never embarked upon the ticket to finding happiness again? I’d have no haunting reflections of us doing this so each day would mean a new experience rather than a painful reminder. Within a week, I dove head first into research on a journey like this. I scoured the internet for every attempt, every person, every team whom had ever talked about it. My research led me down so many paths. I spoke to so many people. I joined dozens of kayaking groups.
My days, once gloomy, were now filled with hope and encouragement. I met others who had completed segments of the trip while still others had completed similar trips. The biggest difference I found was that both kayakers who kayaked the entire length of the Continental US began in Maine while I wanted to begin at the Northern part of the Erie Canal. The reason was basic; I bought my kayak in Rochester, NY after traveling there by train from Albany, NY. The train took us along the path of the Erie Canal and I fantasized about kayaking that back. Curious as to if anyone had, I quickly discovered a few people did. While I did not kayaking the Erie Canal that year, doing so had remained a Bucket List item. As the trip planning progressed and I prepared for my new journey, I remained focused on where I would start. I’d depart from Buffalo New York and then paddle across the Canadian Border and back into the Erie Canal.
Just a two week before my scheduled departure a friend sent me a news story out of Rochester New York; Thirty miles of the Erie Canal to be closed for emergency repairs, the story reported. The closure was happened just days before my departure and indefinite. I had three options; One) Delay departure until repairs were complete, but doing so could mean that I would not make the southern US before the arrival of winter. Two) Re-route around the closure by going north into Lake Ontario and then down through the canals in Rochester New York before reentering the Erie Canal. Three) Find a new starting point.
The same week that this story was sent to me, I had visited a friend on Lake Champlain to kayak this lake in my home state of Vermont before I left for good. Now as I searched for a new route, I remembered Lake Champlain. It reaches into Canada and connects with the Hudson River. In all my research, I never came across anyone starting on Lake Champlain and going to Florida. As a proud Vermonter of four years, I loved this idea. I began searching for possible launch sites as close to the border as possible as I also searched for information on kayaking this lake. Within a day I had discovered that there was a road the literally ran along the US Canadian border and was aptly named Line Road.
On Google Maps, Line Rd ran the border right to the shoreline of the lake were it turned south and passed by a few homes with docks on the lake. The homes were located on the east side of the road as it turned south and the docks on the west. I knew that I could park along the road and slip quietly into the water. I now had a launch site. I contacted Border Patrol and the US Coast Guard to get advice. Unfortunately, the advice I got was that there were no provisions for a kayaker crossing the border. There were plenty of regulations for boaters of every other type, but nothing for a kayaker. When I asked directly, I was told that that were not saying I could, but they were also not saying I couldn’t. They literally had no protocol for me. I decided that I’d take my chances and within two weeks, I was driving down Line Road looking for the docks.
Having been in Real Estate, I had long ago learned about Paper Roads. These are roads that only exist on deeds and maps but nowhere else. As we reached the shoreline on Line Road, we immediately realized that the road I had seen was indeed a Paper Road. It never turned south. It did turn north at one time, but now that was blocked off by a stonewall preventing you from driving into Canada or from Canada into the US. At that juncture, on the Canadian side stood a tall pole with some high tech surveillance cameras. The road to the south was someone’s lakefront property, someone who was not home. I knew that we were being watched and I expected Border Patrol there any minute. We quickly got to work trying to unload and launch before I got stopped. Well I did get stopped, but you can read about that day here: Canada to Key West Day 1
I did launch that day. I did cross into Canada and I did paddle the entire length of Lake Champlain, the Champlain Canal and the Hudson River. I also paddled all the way to Cape May NJ on a route that was my second choice after being told I could not paddle the Raritan River and Canal, which was my first choice. I never made it to Florida though and I now sit here, back in Vermont awaiting November 30th.
On November 30th, I will be departing from Penn Station, NYC by train with my camping gear, some clothes and a bicycle I just bought. I’m once again Florida bound. I’ll be arriving in the Orlando FL area on Dec 1 and visiting with some friends. Then I’ll get on the train again to Miami to visit another friend before bicycling to a location in the Keys where a friend has offered to put me up as I work on my book and try to find peace within myself.
Well, it’s been a long narrative to get you up to today and the reason behind the title of this blog, but it was worth it, I assure you. Today I signed onto the computer and did a google searched for something. I can’t even recall what it was for as I was not searching about kayaking nor Florida or travel in any regards, but there in my search screen was a story about a missing Boater. It was right at the top of my results and I clicked it open.
I was immediately sucked into a story; a story not about a boater, but a canoeist. This man, Dick Conant had launched his canoe in Plattsburgh, NY into Lake Champlain and paddled the exact same route I took right into Manhattan. I don’t want to retell what writer Ben McGrath has already told in The New Yorker magazine. I’ll let you read that for yourself. What I will say is that when I sat here this morning reading his story, I was taken back to my days on the water. We paddled virtually the same path. We experienced the same things. We encountered the same quality of people and I believe a few of the same people as I recall someone mentioning to me seeing a man in a red canoe loaded up like I was in my kayak.
Dick Conant in Trenton in 2014.
COURTESY JONATHAN GORDON
Paragraph by paragraph, I was taken for a journey, a journey I walked or rather paddled. Yes, I got to walk a mile in Dick Conant’s shoes and I witnessed so many similarities, right down to the unconventional means of travel, right down to the train / bicycle trip I am about to depart on. Dick Conant and I are as dissimilar as we are similar. I can honestly say that I know what must have been going through his mind at various stages of his journey, but I also believe I know what he was thinking when it was time to say goodbye. Sadly, Dick Conant did not complete his journey…or did he?
Read about Dick Conant as told through the mind and spirit of Ben McGrath in: The Wayfarer
A solitary canoeist meets his fate.
Dick Conant on the upper Mississippi in 2009.
COURTESY NEAL MOORE