The Wisconsin River cuts a brown snake through dense Midwestern forest, perhaps 300 meters in diameter. We paddle along the south shore, chasing the bubbles that indicate a faster current.
Five days and 125 miles, I’m exhausted. We are all. Fifty miles on foot. Fifty miles by bike. Now 25 miles to go in our green canoe.
A September breeze softens the harsh sun. Paddles dig in the water. I settle in perfect calm – until someone shouts behind me.
There are 10 men in our group, in five canoes spread out over the water. We turn to find the doctor and the pastor stuck on a submerged tree. As we all shout instructions, they try to paddle forward, then back, but their canoe doesn’t move. Another team tries to tow them, to no avail. My mind is racing with nightmare scenarios. What if they capsize? What if they fall underwater and get stuck in the branches?
I had envisioned this trip as a celebration, an ordeal, a respite from anguish. I named it 50-50-50 in honor of my impending 50th birthday. But honestly, the past year had been horrible. I had survived COVID-19, like my children, to watch my mother succumb to cancer. Forced to face mortality, I had barely slept since the funeral. I needed relief and hoped an affair with my friends would bring it. I wanted to do something hard, but that’s not what I had in mind.
The first day, we gather before dawn in the parking lot of my church in the Saint-Louis suburb and convoy six and a half hours north, in two vans and my old sedan. In the afternoon we are on the Ice Age Trail not far from Madison, 10 men in various stages of middle age. We travel a winding dirt road over hills and through thick forest. Yellow rectangles called flames painted on trees mark the path, which crosses some rural roads. I bounce back and forth, eager to lead, just as eager to stand back and speak.
We all belong to an outdoor fitness group, and I often organize physical challenges like 250 mile bike rides, canoe trips on the Missouri River, or 100 burpees a day for a month. Today’s 15-mile hike is the first stop on a concocted route through southern Wisconsin. But it’s easy to get lost in the present moment here. As when the trees separate, revealing a small lake rippling with the wind. The day is three stages away from perfection. Back at the trailhead, the mechanic rolls his ankle and tumbles down the stairs to the parking lot. In no time it swells to the size of his calf.
Back in our Airbnb, I take a private room, hoping it will help me sleep. Instead, I turn around for four hours, worried about his ankle.
It’s worse the next morning, with 20 miles to go. The doctor, a gastroenterologist, wraps the ankle jokingly: “I can finally use my first aid kit. On the track, I study the mechanic’s stride from behind. He limps and his right shoe comes off with every step. He keeps up the pace, but I can’t help but worry. What if his ankle broke six miles from the car?
After a dark and menacing stretch of track thick with bushes and weeds, we descend into another clear stretch of undergrowth. The pines stripped of their low branches look like scattered telephone poles that form an optical illusion, as if I can see endlessly. I see aging metaphors everywhere, even in the leaves’ apparent resistance to changing color.
There is no resistance: death is coming for all of us, and it is coming for me sooner than I would like. It’s easy to look back on my first 50 years and wonder what I’ve done with my life. I try not to, but it’s one of the uncomfortable realities of being in my 50s: Sometimes it’s easier to look back than it is.
The mechanic’s bike comes out of the truck with a broken tire rod, but changing an inner tube is a quick job. Soon we are sailing west on the Glacial Drumlin State Trail, a converted train line that runs 52 miles from Milwaukee to Madison, with no cars or big hills. We pass cornfields and small towns, old railroad depots and waterways. When the group stops at a gas station for snacks, the pastor and I rest in the shade of a small tunnel. The respite is short-lived. “I’m done,” sends the mechanic to the group.
His ankle is holding up, but his derailleur has snapped and his nerves are not to be outdone. We’re working on a solution, removing the offending part and adjusting the chain to fit, converting his 18-speed bike into a single-speed hipster. This makes us move forward, albeit slower, interrupted each time the mechanic howls the chain has slipped again. Each time, we come together, turn our lights on and cheer him on as he puts it back in place by swearing.
The sky lights up in purple and orange as the sun sets behind a swamp. The insects ping against my face. My lighthouse catches a rabbit rushing through the trees. As we climb the last mound, the chain slips again and the mechanic surrenders, descending the descent to the pastor’s pickup.
That night I’m lying in my bed with my eyes wide open. The hours go by. I take cough syrup, the kind that makes you drowsy. But every time I’m about to fall asleep, I wake up with a start. My mind feels like watching fireworks, only instead of the dark sky there is a strobe light and instead of oohs and aahs I want to scream.
I have struggled with insomnia, but never as badly as the months since I eulogized my mother. The cancer in her jaw returned last year, just around the time of the shutdown. She survived nine months, enduring shingles, a gallbladder problem and a few falls. We tried visiting my parents for the holidays, but my daughters and I tested positive for COVID-19, so we had to settle for video chat on Christmas Day. She looked like she was on the verge of death. I knew I would never see her again.
My mother was all smiles and friendly energy. If you took her to the grocery store, it could take two hours, and you would surely get to know the cashier, the manager and even the saleswoman. She didn’t want a funeral. She wanted a party, so we threw one for her when the pandemic allowed, with drinks and a taco bar. I found myself thinking about my own life and what people might say about me when it’s my turn to go. I wanted to give them a lot of material to work on. More than anything, I wanted my eulogy to be like my mother’s.
That’s how I ended up here, waiting for some sleep.
Towards the river, I can barely function. Two hours of sleep last night, 16 over four days. I cannot drive my own car. I’m trying to say something about the floor mats, but the term won’t come. I call them “the thing in the car you step on”. At the point of set-up, a bald eagle sits on an inch of sand and I watch in amazement. My brain is a butterfly without light.
I team up with the pilot because he has arms like a lumberjack and he was flying a fighter plane, so I trust his nerve. He steers the canoe as I paddle weakly ahead, munching on candy and electrolytes until I start to feel myself.
As the afternoon heat wears off, we find an island to spend the night. I set up my tent and inflate my mattress and pillow, ready to pass out. Instead, I mobilize to enjoy tacos and fireside stories with my friends. The soft sand makes my best bed all week, and that’s a good thing.
In the middle of the morning of the fifth day, the canoe is stuck and so are my friends, trapped by their own weight. Someone has to come out. It’s risky. They wear life jackets, but they could still be sucked under the tree or dragged downstream. The doctor goes first, standing on a slippery branch to stabilize himself before sliding. Another team pulls him towards the shore. Now it’s the pastor’s turn. He is my pastor. His wife teaches my daughter the piano. Her children go to the youth group with mine. He gets off the boat and disappears into the water.
Go back up, man.
POP BACK UP.
Finally, her salt and pepper hair resurfaces.
The canoe gave way, and he held it against the tide until we could tow it to shore.
Later, we stop at a roadside restaurant where Amish families parade in horse-drawn carriages. We reek of sweat and mud, and I feel sorry for the waiter. There is no vegan menu, so the doctor has ordered his first burger in years. I soak fried catfish in tartar sauce while the pilot prepares a second meal. We are already reliving our great, exhausting and frightening adventure.
I’m 50, and no, I won’t live forever. In fact, I am closer to the end than the beginning. It is disturbing to say the least.
But I want to stay focused on what still awaits me. I want to make the most of my talents, including the ability to form and strengthen deep and meaningful relationships. It’s a way of remembering my mother and honoring what she taught me.
I know there will be ups and downs, accidents, injuries and mechanical breakdowns. But there will also be some awesome, sweet little moments that I never want to forget, like the taste of tartar sauce on fried catfish at a roadside dinner with my best friends. I want more of this.
This story appears in the November issue of Déseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.