Prior to my most recent trip to Connecticut, as a New Yorker, I can’t recall many excursions to the Constitution State. Heading north from Long Island always had me destined for the surf or the mountains, both of which Connecticut lacks. The only times I can recall a proper visit to Connecticut involves my biyearly Thanksgiving dinners at my cousins’ house. But then there was also the kayaking trip with Eric.
Eric and I had discussed driving to Upstate New York, launching kayaks in the Hudson River, and taking a few days to paddle down stream–from pure waters to the sludge that flows into the city–and camp along the shoreline beneath the fall foliage. Before embarking on this demanding journey–which I’m not entirely sure is possible, as we still have yet to map out the river or check for any restrictions–we figured one practice trip should be scheduled. We loaded the kayaks atop Eric’s Jeep, drove down the road, and dropped the boats in the marina on the Long Island Sound. We entered the kayaks in just our boardshorts and started for the emptiness of the sound.
“There’s an island that we can head to,” Eric said, figuring that our first kayaking experience together would work best if we had a physical destination to explore.
So, on an early summer day, we paddled the Westchester coastline, with Long Island appearing hazy in the distance, and within forty minutes, we arrived on this nearly deserted island in the sound. There were a few picnic tables under a tin roof, farther along sat a small house with an ATV parked out front, and down the trail that passed the herons standing one-legged among the reeds stood an austere lighthouse atop a knoll. No other structures stood on this island. We explored the grassy hilltop, jiggled the handled on the lighthouse door, only to find it locked, and admired the views across the water. The sky grew dark. Someone drove toward us on the quad.
“Welcome to my island,” said the man, who, in my thoughts, I dubbed the lighthouse keeper, though that might have been romanticizing his job title of island maintenance man a bit much. “Those your kayaks back there?”
Eric and I looked at one another. Unless a person had been hiding in the locked lighthouse or the house, though we presumed the man possessed the abilities to know whether he had been entertaining kayak-owning guests, one couldn’t remain incognito on this miniature island.
“Yes,” I told him. “The kayaks are ours.”
“Just wanted to let you boys know that I heard over the radio that three twisters were spotted in the Bronx.”
Locating twisters in the Bronx would be the equivalent of finding fun in Kansas. The lighthouse keeper drove back to the house, leaving us to ponder our next move. Outrace the twisters or out-wait them.
“What do you know about twisters?” Eric asked.
“My knowledge of them is limited to the Helen Hunt movie,” I explained.
It started to drizzle and then it became torrential. A few strikes of lightning painted the sky. While the twisters didn’t dictate our next move, the lightning did. We stayed off the water.
Eric and I decided to take shelter beneath the tin canopy and let the storm pass. Twisters moved fast, we rationalized, and figured it would take all the weather with it; maybe a few bovinely overweight New Yorkers or a panda from the Bronx Zoo, too. Then we would be able to return to the open water, with enough time for Eric to catch his evening flight to Costa Rica. We liked our chances of getting off the island in time for Eric’s flight, but then I pointed out that he had missed every trip in the last four years when the destination began with a C. He had bailed on me the first time he was meant to join me in Costa Rica and did the same on a trip out to snowboard Colorado. After we crossed the border between Peru and Chile, Eric got the swine flu and by the time we reached the capital city, I went snowboarding for the day, only to find an empty hotel room upon my return. He left a note that read, I’ll see you when you get home. I left for the airport. Too sick to travel. (In his defense, he did make it up to the Catskills once.)
I picked up a piece of charcoal and drew a checker board on the wooden picnic table. We gathered shells. Eric played with the little slippers. I used the ones shaped like saucers.
The weather worsened and our checker games grew more intense.
“You boys still here?” asked the shocked lighthouse keeper when he walked from his dry house to the drippy canopy, where we had sat for a few hours.
“It hasn’t really let up,” Eric replied.
“I would just make a break for it,” he advised. “You see that little cove over there. It’ll take you ten minutes tops if you paddle hard. I wouldn’t want to be stuck on this island if it really hits.”
“It looks farther than ten minutes,” I pointed out.
“Trust me. I do it all the time. Ten minutes tops,” said the lighthouse keeper.
The skies were black and it was far from dusk. We decided the lighthouse keeper knew the island and surrounding waters best. We abandoned our checker board and trusty pieces, and pushed off the shore, paddling toward the cove. In ten minutes, we weren’t even half the distance across. Lightning cracked over our head. I cringed, remembering a day long ago when my family had visited Neponset Beach in Queens. I had been off exploring the beach with friends when a lightning storm moved in. As we ran back, a number of people got struck. One person sitting along the fence got killed. The event made me look at lightning quite differently after that.
“He probably just wanted us off his island,” I shouted over the wind, realizing that any man who lived alone on an island was either dying for company or hated it. He was certainly not dying for it, in fact, he preferred that his company die. Another bolt cut the sky and I kept my paddle low, as if that would make me less of a target.
We stroked with urgency. The thunder and wind grew. The lightning neared. The tornados were manifest in our imaginations and most likely just a few miles away in the Bronx.
But after thirty minutes of hard strokes, we made it into the cove. Dozens of yachts rocked in the harbor. The property belonged to a yachting club, where the members sipped bourbon and smoked cigars and watched the storm. We were a pair of shirtless and shoeless idiots walking up from the boat launch with our kayaks abandoned on the ramp.
“I think we need more practice before our trip down the Hudson,” Eric suggested.
“Where are we?” I wondered.
Eric shrugged and asked the men on the porch, “Can we borrow your phone?” His father must have asked where we were, too, because Eric repeated the question to the men on the porch. “Where are we?”
One of the men removed his cigar from his lips and followed the smoke with the word “Greenwich.”
“Where’s Greenwich?” I asked after Eric gave his father our whereabouts.
“Connecticut,” Eric said. He asked for the time. “I hope I make my flight.”
While we waited for his father to pick us and the kayaks up in Connecticut, I said, “Well, you did make it to one destination today that begins with the letter C.”
“That’s true,” Eric said, as if our survival and accidental trip to Connecticut would be enough for him.
Photo by Patrick Feller