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PADDLING BACK

for James “RED” Forrest


I got out of the car and walked up to the counter. Nobody was there. I peeked inside, walked around, and asked the lady washing SUPs if the dock to the side was still open to the public. She said yes, and I asked if I could park in their lot. “How many cars are parked there?” she asked.

“Not many. I won’t take up any spots from paying guests.”

“Okay.”

I asked her name and thanked her. I could tell she was smiling behind her bandana. She had blonde hair tucked under a white cap and went right back to work. I walked down the creaky ramp and remembered the spot in the grass below the deck where a Rowing Dock employee showed my son and I years ago what poison ivy looked like. Along with snakes, he told us to be on the lookout. He bent down, carefully plucked a stem of ivy from the grass, and said, “Mittens...They look like a pair of mittens with one on top.” That little plant biology class saved my hide countless times on many of my Austin hikes.


I went to the car and started the breakdown. Haven’t been out here since 2016, I thought. An abdominal muscle injury put a stop to many things, including paddleboarding. While I packed up the straps and cushions, I remembered the time I was out here on Christmas Eve six years ago, deflating this very board, pushing it down like a grappler pinning down an opponent in Jiu Jitsu. The smell of the lake water was already steaming off the board and I knew it would get rank in the trunk for the trip home. I was all alone, the only one in the parking lot. In fact, I was the lone paddler on Lady Bird Lake that day, for obvious reasons. No one comes out here on Christmas Eve. Well, I thought I was alone. I heard coughing and someone clearing his throat behind the tall weeds near the Porta-a-Potties. A few moments later, a shirtless, transient man comes out and walks behind me and just stands there, staring down, snorting, coughing, and muttering to himself.


I know vibes, and the ones being transmitted around me set me off. It didn’t feel right. But I was in no mood to play. It was a particularly brutal Christmas that year being alone and not having my son for the holidays. I looked down, and slowly opened my yellow pearl knife, just in case this man got too close. I calmly went back to wrestling the air out of my SUP, rolling it tightly so I could fit it in my trunk. He just stood there, five feet behind me like some NETFLIX serial killer, making bodily noises. But like I said, I was in no mood. Without looking at him, I said something unfriendly, like “Do you need something, man?!” and I aggressively punched the pockets of air out of my SUP with my elbows. He got the gist. I could hear him as he grumbled, wiped his face, and went on his way.


*


Now, I’ve never moved bales of hay, but carrying this 14 footer to the launch may be as close as it gets. And portaging while walking over the rocks at the Rowing Dock is like brisk-walking a Strongman obstacle course carrying one of those wrecking balls barefoot over a stretch of hot coals at a Tony Robbins Event. But for every little torture, I respond by imagining that glide. That first glide on the lake when you float by, paddling effortlessly, the water lapping on the sides, the SUP rocking and rolling gently over the waves. That’s what I picture when I’m holding my breath, sweat trickling down my temples, as I shakily walk over the uneven rocks that snap my ankles and knead the flat arches of my feet. But I always get it done.


I crossed the SUP with my paddle and jumped onboard knees first. Success. I stood up like a highwire act with a balance pole looking straight ahead as I was taught years ago on a trip to Clearwater, Florida. Don’t look down. Let the board and your inner ear do their thing. Paddle down. Stroke. There. Two strokes. Glide. Yes. The green water was sprinkled with orange leaves with brown spots that floated by. The branches of Sycamores and Bald Cypress trees hung down like the long hair of girls bending down to comb their hair from the back of their necks.


I sighed. I’m a motorcyclist and this reminds me of the high I get at cruising speed, when the world scrolls by like a spinning globe and the air cools my face clearing my mind. It’s easy to notice the mansions on the hills first, but that’s a distraction. If you look closer, you can see the cliffs and the rockface, with its many caves and secret places. And there are lovely grottoes, too. I spotted some kayakers hidden in one, the water up to their knees. They had taken out a stove, apparently, about to cook something up. Right on. I paddled out to the open and saw the great tree on the other side that usually has a long rope for swinging. A younger kid was sitting below putting on his socks, listening to Drippy-style Hip Hop, the same that my son listens to. He must have been skipping class because he was no older than sixteen. I asked him how the water was.

“Cold!” he said.

“I bet you're refreshed now,” I said, and I paddled by. He smiled wide, hurrying to dress, perhaps trying to make it to his next class.


*


There it was. It’s popular, but the widow’s peak of Red Bud Isle is a beautiful thing. The tip of the island is made of roots of Bald Cypress trees crawling over each other like a swarm of muddy pythons. And always a dog gazing at the water’s edge, scurrying along with its tongue hanging out, sniffing around, as a dog owner stands and watches from afar. I was going to paddle to the north side and take a break. My toes were going numb from clutching the board’s grip tape for life. They had that funny fuzzy feeling and it hurt. No blood flow to the toes. I’ll dip my feet in the water, I thought, and wave my toes around, just like a fish that’s been caught and released back into the water.


I was approaching the dam. The water was being tugged below the surface by the turbines, stifling the current. It was very difficult to paddle through. I was hoping to chill, but I had to work. When I heard the hydro-electric turbine come on, I thought an F-16 was doing a flyby. Sounded like Iron Man launching from a helipad from one of the mansions overhead. And then I thought about those folks that almost went over Longhorn Dam on the East side. The ones that rented the electric retroboat whose engine couldn’t beat the suction of the turbine pulling them to the edge. I can just see that picture of them, half of their boat hanging over the precipice, as they scrunched back in the seat, dialing 911. I stayed close to the bank, but I still wanted to see Turtle Island past the bridge.


I floated by the spot my hippie friend brought my son and I one time. He’s a lawyer in Maui now. I had the best beer of my life here. Can’t explain it. It was a yellow and blue can of Karbach Weisse Versa. I don’t drink that stuff. Over-fermented for my taste. But friends open your world to things the likes of which you normally wouldn’t partake. After the first two tart, sour sips, the Weisse took on a level of refreshment and smooth taste I’ve yet to duplicate. I remember sitting on the bank with a fishing pole, drinking, while he sat in a float under the bridge as my son swung down from the high branch of a tree. Good times.


I hung a left, my SUP taking up alot of space, making a big, wide turn like a Cadillac, and there I was, on Turtle Island. Felt like Darwin watching iguanas slip off the rocks and splash into the ocean. They were all on the dome of a large rock looking like a bundle of soldiers’ helmets stacked together. As I got closer, they dropped into the water, one-by-one, and wham! just like that, my fin caught a rocky sandbar and I lost balance, my cell phone almost falling from my hands. My paddle under my arm, my blue-lens Oakleys slid down my nose. “Oh shit,” I laughed. But under the water, like a gold miner’s sifting pan, was a riverbed full of sapphire and emerald-lined seashells. They looked like a toppled chest of toy jewelry that dazzled in the light of the sun.


I came around the bend. Such a pretty bend of Cypress trees and green, rippling water. But as soon as I crossed under the bridge, I had to laugh because I was here years ago with a friend who had a fly fishing accident as I sat on the big rock on the south end. He got down to his boxers and just stepped in and cast his line out. He got a few bites and I took pictures. When I got home and looked at my camera roll, I realized his little friend was hanging out for every photo. My red-headed Irish friend smiled for the camera, unawares. Delete. Delete. Just like on your SUP, folks, make sure everything is tied down.


I glided down further and smiled again. I was paddling right by the spot where my son took a little spacewalk. He’s 13 now, but when he was 2 and a half, we were on these very steps. I was in jeans and cowboy boots. I took him down to the bottom steps so he could have a closer look at the water and maybe some fish. I loved watching him point at every sign of life with that fat, little finger, so seriously. I turned my head to answer a question from his mother and I heard a PLOP. No splash. Just a soft, instantaneous immersion from the dry world into the Aquaverse. I saw his body slowly tumble around like an astronaut, and I jumped in and grabbed him by the back of the shirt lifting him out. He looked like a turtle I held by the shell moving his legs. He was expressionless and his pamper was expanding like cotton candy as I made sure he was breathing. He and I laugh about it to this day.


I took a break out in the open, stopped, and sat down on my board. I took pictures. Selfies. I could have had a picnic on my paddleboard. “What is that?” I said. I could smell tortillas. What? Grilled tortillas. Is this a joke? Then I could smell frijoles. Smelled good, too. “That’s just wrong,” I said. Either it’s the workers I saw on the cliff earlier on lunch break, or just my imagination. Turns out it was those two kayakers cooking up Tex-Mex in the grotto.


I hugged the cliffside for shade as I got closer to the dock. But looking up, I noticed that the Sycamore branches and leaves hanging over me were full of spider webs. I quickly paddled away, and instantly remembered the other incident on that Christmas Eve. I was bitten by a

Brown Recluse that day. That bite turned into a black pimple, and day by day, the flesh on my arm around it disintegrated, leaving a dimple behind. After all of these years, I can still feel the pain if I press that spot on my arm.


The dock was in sight. To my right, a Wood Duck tucked under the cover of hanging branches. What royal colors. Velvet orange, red, violet, and shiny evergreen. Sunlight brightened the hue of every living thing and left a silver gloss over the green waves. I stood by on my SUP as a kayaker ahead of me docked. Up and down, I rocked, relaxed, with the rise and fall of the lapping waves.


A few days later, my abdominal pain would return, radiating across my chest. I wasn’t sure when I would be back. But I remember rinsing my board off outside of my garage that day. “That was nice,” I thought. “Going back. Paddling back to all of those places on the lake.” Each of them a passage of time, my friend, washing over me again, wave after wave.






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