“Setting Off for the Gulf of Mexico on a Bike in the Dead of Winter” by Doug Keil

Setting Off for the Gulf of Mexico on a Bike in the Dead of Winter

By Doug Keil
 

In the winter of 1992, Doug Keil decided to ride a bike to the Gulf of Mexico. He planned to take two months to arrive and one month to get back to Northern Iowa. He slept on the ground seventy-five to eighty nights and slept in motels for another ten to fifteen nights. He burned forty-six and one half candles on the road for heat that winter, January-March. Looking back, he stated that this trek gave him a much deeper knowledge of our culture and the people that inhabit this North American Continent. What follows is an excerpt from the longer story. Copyright 2005.

 

Late in December I left, starting late in the day. I had all in order. Slowly, the bloated overloaded bike coasted down the farm place hill, south. Temps between 20’s and 30’s, calm winds, roads totally ice covered. Could barely ride at all, heavy folds of fabric strapped on my back, cardboard tube across my upper shoulders, coils of knotted nylon rope crisscrossing my chest over the duck feather coat. Heavy insulated boots sluggishly turning silver cranks. Large amber-colored mittens clutched the handlebars that held a rather ominous looking two-foot-long bolted stick wrapped with leather lace so as to secure a razor-edged machete. How slowly those boots, legs, and cranks turned—the pistons and rods of this strange looking beast.

I must have looked a sight, an animal, a soldier off to war. I was leaping into a cold, dark abyss alone. I was hungry for the gem, the shining virgin jewel of the mystical snowy northlands. In preparation I had conditioned myself to accept the cold, wet and dark. At one point I had even stripped down naked at night with temps in the upper forties, poured cold water on my clothes, wrung them out, put them back on, crawled into a blanket and tried to sleep. I figured I had best learn to face this now, cause later I would surely meet such hellish conditions on the road with no warm place to run to. I wanted deeper knowledge of nature, life or something. It was there, I thought, finally within reach.

Dusk a mere two-miles down the road found me by a corn bin and a slough. A mittened hand quickly yanked out the wooden peg of my winter travel kit. Out of the red bag came the blue tarp and blanket spread on cold ice-capped snow cover, with my large tent flung nearby, unassembled on snow. Sitting there cross-legged, the cornstalks mere skeletons poking through the snow, I could sense the frozen dirt underneath it all. Being dark at five o’clock, the thought of sleeping about fifteen long hours scared me. What if the wind came up with the temps falling to zero degrees? Could I really make it? It dawned on me, the life of summer is truly gone. All living things are either dead, gone, or they have crawled inside of themselves, leaving mere phantoms floating around. Inside I panicked. I gave up, just stashed the stuff in an old shed, and quickly pedaled home in utter defeat.

It wasn’t until late morning, New Year’s Day that I tried again. Somehow from the confines of a warm, friendly building, talking to a friend, I finally found the courage to do it! I just blacked out my mind and turned off my feelings. Leaving Thompson, I silently slithered off on this brave or stupid thing. Calm winds, temps between 20-30 degrees, about a foot of snow cover capped with ice. With all my clothes, I felt a bloated soldier. Progress was so very, very slow on these ice-covered roads. Two miles from home I passed the spot where earlier I had failed, only now I was unthinking, unfeeling, a mere mass of flesh.

I had to pay a price for this wild winter trek, alienating family and a community of 600 people. One family member had even threatened to have the law stop me, but, this was my thing. Being in the 30’s, I had the freedom of a single person. That bike, I was married to it. How I loved that tiny machine. We had been from Jersey to California as one, in a perfect union. Now it was simply time for a higher step. Time for something at a deeper level.

Meeting people on the road, it just didn’t register. Surely they were thinking, Why would anyone be riding a bicycle in the dead of winter? But I was thinking, Surely they were trapped in their warm, metal, cocoons. It’s what the prison of winter does to individuals. Cut them off from everything.

Four-thirty afternoon early dusk found me merely fifteen miles from home, south of Garner, Iowa. Got permission from a farmer to camp in his field. He gave me food, one of the few really good meetings in this frozen snowscape. Don’t forget I was this scary-looking animal, probably a convict escaping from something. I quickly assembled my tarp and crammed the blanket and two black bags inside. Got candles burning in the stick-holder as I sat cross-legged under the blanket, turned into an igloo. Those two tiny candles flames at my feet got me warm, warm do you hear? Warm and relaxed without working at it or shivering. I was an eskimo! Such a powerful feeling traveling this simple way in the frozen land.

The second night I camped concealed from the road by piles of crushed rock near naked tree stems. Very pretty that blue tarp, as it glowed from flickering candlelight against a backdrop of white snow, timeless, wild.

Years ago, working at a factory, living in a house, my winter bike ride to work had revealed the snow as pretty beautiful. After a blizzard, it was eye-popping virgin splendor. The colors of a rainbow revealed by prismatic ice crystals, snowflakes whipped up and sculpted by Artic winds into bizarre forms to rival, even outdo, human architecture. It was beautiful here too, but when I woke in the early morning with the ever-present cold dampness underneath me, I wondered what I had gotten myself into, the snow simple becoming a shitty, white, cold, wet crud.

With daylight one more cloudy, dreary day, I sat up cross-legged, pulled the blanket over me, got two flames burning, and just sucked up all the heat I could for half an hour, trying to get the courage to roll up and tie gear on the bike at the worst time of day, exposing myself, losing much body heat. Easily I could see why deer simply wait out storms, holed up to conserve precious calories, which in turn is heat. Leaving the spot, I could see two small melted depressions from body heat in the snow. There were candle wax bits, match sticks and a yellow stain from urine, too. It stirred me deeply—that not many even try to live like this. Not until one hour’s ride had passed did I feel warm or “normal” again.

And so it went on for a full two weeks, just for me to cover the first hundred miles to Ames, Iowa. That heavy duty tent on my back, I decided I didn’t need. I just wanted the extra security. I would start breaking wheel spokes, I realized. I was too overloaded, so I stashed the thing at a friend’s house and rode on.

I never got tired of breathing cold, crisp, clean air, so pure it was stimulating as a drug. Sitting in the blue tarp at night, I was cramped, only had three workable positions to spend fifteen hours in, damp conditions, yet I was warm. I was as a king, do you see it? To the outside world, I was a homeless bum, but I was surviving the awesome dark season with little or nothing. No permanent dwelling with foundation, furnace, no camper or car even. For each cultural thing shed, I was freed at another level. I was as in the tranquil eye of a tornado, watching people around me fight the dark winds of the season. So free, simple and easy this was.

Here in this open prairie, everything was held in the iron jaws of cold, nothing was exempt. All things had crawled inside themselves, even the cries of birds were muffled. The crippling silence made people seem more spirit than flesh. They were as spirits of the mystic north. Things had a hollow ominous sound, the buzz of a chainsaw, the lonely sound of a metal ring banging the top of a flagpole in the frigid air. Even the turning of those cranks, and the tiny “tinkle, tinkle” of little metallic bells on my gray coat, banging on the frame of the bike in time with pumping legs. Winter as a prison, no one exempt. But I was traveling through it all—a timeless human being inching his way through it all. I was a king!

“Cherry Street” by Kevin Moore

Cherry Street

By Kevin Moore
 

I took her home

to the small white house with the blue trim

around the windows,

just off Cherry Street.

Her mother wouldn’t be home

for hours.

There’s a first time for everything

I thought to myself

as I wiped my sweaty palms

across the backside of my faded jeans.

I could blame it on first time jitters

I suppose.

I put on some Marvin Gaye

That’s a little cliché,

she said with a giggle

while taking off her bra.

It was mind-blowing,

that’s how I put it.

She thought interesting was more fitting.

I guess sex can be interesting, does that mean it was bad?

Whatever,

it was still special for both of us

I think.

 

 

I saw her once more after that night

in the third column of the

Kelly Caldwell, age 19

struck by a drunk driver

on her way to

Silver Bay, Minnesota.

She was going to see her Dad.

What a terrible way to die.

I often think about her

and that night.

When I took her home

to that small white house

with the blue trim

around the windows,

just off Cherry Street.

“Fountain of Youth” by Tim Bascom

Fountain of Youth

By Tim Bascom
 

For my father, who remains remarkably young

 

To reach it, they had to hike twenty minutes along a wooded creek near the big river. During summer, their clothes clung with sweat as they sidestepped spider webs and eased through nettles. They arrived hot and dusty, itchy with mosquito bites. Then the two sons dashed ahead, browning trousers as they slid down the muddy bank and jostled for a first turn under the tree-root overhang.

Just to stoop into that damp, mushroomy shade was a relief, but the place felt almost enchanted at times because of a cool breeze exhaled from the ground, emerging along with a burbling spring. The chill air wafted out of a deep hole, feeling like something straight from the fridge. It drifted into the muggy vapor of the ravine, changing the whole mood of the day.

To avoid swallowing mud, their father scooped a bowl and let it clarify. Like a rippling lens, the water magnified everything—so that pebbles bulged twice as large. Even the little trail of sand under the pool seemed to pulse with secret life.

To drink they had to go down onto their hands and knees. They took long turns bowing into the grotto, but their father stayed longest, holding a half push-up with his face nearly submerged. When he backed out, he uttered a big “aaah” as if some much-delayed need had been satisfied.

“Years younger,” he said, incantation-like, suggesting that he was going to transform before their eyes. And perhaps the water did make him younger because he turned playful. When the boys asked him, on a whim, if he would help dig a cave, he surprised them by not hesitating: “Sure, let’s dig a cave.”

Back at the campsite, he helped to pick a rounded knoll and gather the necessary tools: a shovel, a hatchet, plus a few large serving spoons that might double as hand spades. He cut a circle into the slope, forming a barrel-like entrance. He got right down on his knees, taking turns with them as they reached into the hole and scraped.

The deepening entrance was hardly wider than the father’s torso, so that when he dug, he had to shove dirt between his knees. However, he kept at it, face to the hillside, slowly disappearing, until eventually he had emptied a ball-like interior where his sons could join him. Inside, their sweaty shirts went cool on their backs. The dark hollow seemed to exhale the same mysterious mineral breath as the spring—to whisper a hint of some subterranean elixir.

They opened the space a bit further and carved earthen benches. Then they sat and looked at the entrance. In the glimmering light, the father’s face was reduced to essentials: a high smudged forehead, a shock of black hair, a well-defined nose. He smiled softly. For a moment, all three were silent, savoring their shared secret.

In that cool shadowy remove, the two boys became caught up in their own dream-like thoughts, whispering what it might have been like to come from some past era when people lived in the ground—an ancient clan with an ancient way to stay young. Their father seemed a large child himself, stooped into their small world. If they dug deeper, the youngest boy asked, could they reach the source of the spring? Would it be a lake? A cold, black lake rippling endlessly?

Finally, they crawled back out into the brilliant sun patches. They blinked and grinned at each other, hearing the jackhammer noises of a woodpecker, the crinkling of leaves under their knees. Emerging felt like being born into a new world. It felt like starting all over again.

“Mourning Music” by LeAnn Nash

Mourning Music

By LeAnn Nash
 

Rain

sings a surprise symphony,

pounding the street,

 

feeding an unloved swamp,

each root drowning,

 

A circle of death

celebrated by blossoms.

 

Morning wind

burns a wicked tune,

evaporating the nectar

of a wild spring.

 

Love plays a tentative tune

plunging out the door,

running headlong for the place

where eternity will dissolve,

notes floating heavenward

rejoining the eternal chorus.

 

“Six Letters That Shouldn’t Need to be Written” by Kaylin Tlam

Six Letters That Shouldn’t Need to be Written

By Kaylin Tlam

 

Dear Love,

You missed me again. I’m thinking your aim has gone to

shit since we last met. Maybe you should think about

buying bigger arrows. Or at least take some lessons

from Robin Hood. Maybe then you’ll hit something,

and it’ll stay hit. It won’t be gone in two days like

it didn’t happen in the first place.

 

Dear Kid-Sitting Next to Me in Wellness,

I still remember your face when they told us the box

we drew in on the right was our true selves.

The way your eyes widened,

as I drew an alien that was bent to exterminate the human race.

For that one moment, filled with awkward laughter,

You believed it, didn’t you?

 

Dear Prince Charming,

You really like messing with kid’s minds.

Because of you, Mary won’t fight for herself.

She thinks that some ‘boy wonder’ will do it for her.

Little Timmy tries to take on a monster.

He gets himself killed before Mary can run home in tears.

It’s times like these I wonder why people say fairy tales aren’t real

Dear Blackbird,

Why don’t people notice you more? You’re lucky.

The way you can fly anywhere, land anywhere, and people forgive you for it.

Even when you and your friends are digging through my trash,

And root out all my empty bottles and cans of cheap ravioli,

I can still forgive you for the litter you leave behind.

Nothing’s quite so black, or as beautiful as you.

Is it such a crime if I sing along, too?

 

Dear Girl Next Door,

You’re an idiot. Falling in love with a door-slamming psycho like him?

What is wrong with you? You have to realize that he’s not one to hang around.

One day, you’ll say something wrong; you’ll convince him you’re not as

forgiving with his obnoxious self-loathing as he thinks, and he’ll be out the door.

He knows he’s not worth the annoyance.

He’s not worth dealing with his madness, his darkness, or his mood swings.

What this is, what you think this is, isn’t as real as the wrenching of your gut,

Or the walls shuddering when he leaves home for the last time.

What makes you think you can fight off his past?

What makes you think you can save him from himself?

 

Dear Nerdy Fantasies,

Why can’t I live in you, rather than this apocalyptic apartment?

Why haven’t I gotten my letter to Hogwarts? Why hasn’t the Doctor

appeared in his blue box to take me away to the other side of the universe?

Why hasn’t my X-Gene kicked in, and made me as invincible as Wolverine,

so I don’t have to worry about dying, or getting hurt anymore?

Why is it that I can only visit you when I’m supposed to be growing up?

“Santa Ana, CA” by Justin Nguyen

Santa Ana, CA

By Justin Nguyen
 

this is for the child with the back pocket holster

for a father

the one who holds God in his right hand

and cups tears in his left

for the one who finds power

in poisoning the powerless

because the only way he knows how lift his chin up

is propping it on someone else’s shoulder

for the one whose dinner needed to be thawed

and poked to perforate the lack of a mother’s smell

 

his classroom was the canvas

of government owned white walls

where the greatest lessons were scrolled

so passerbys could read his insides

and grade him on his relative genius

 

his origins were indigenous

to the street light lined runways

but every flight out was delayed or canceled

 

his skin

thicker than the cigarette smoked filled air

would make it impossible to fit through the cracks of open doors

 

with no one to hold on to

no escape route to be blazed

his fate conceived within a manila misfortune

 

finger steady on his lifeline

his future destined to fall flat

without a blip on the screen

 

his passing would be considered another

fad of the weak tragedy

with his blood stained t-shirt the new trend

 

his remembrance futile

a shiny stone lays to embody all he was

but there’s not enough room to tell of all the stories

all the times

where he laid with fists clenched and arms crossed

looking up at the fifth wall

wondering if the barrel of the revolver

finally spun on the losing cylinder

ending a life predestined to fall on probability

 

this is the chance that too many beings are borned into

separated by black gloves and white coated horsemen

where self-preservation only knows its existence

through misinformed

through uneducated

through brainwashed genocide

 

“Forgive Me” by Ashley-Nichole Holland

Forgive Me

By Ashley-Nichole Holland

 

Can you feel that? Can you feel the breeze rolling off the blue water? Close your eyes, feel what I am feeling. My heart beats faster with every crashing wave. Sailboats rock back forth in the distance as I anticipate the hurt that is about to take place. Do you hear that? It’s the bell from the orange buoy. Ring. Ring. Ring. Sit here with me, sit still. Breathe in the salty air; let it sink into your lungs. Bury your toes in the sand, its cold, I know. Give me your hand, feel what I am feeling.

It’s pushed too far back onto the shore, this old boat. It probably hasn’t been out on the water for a whole decade. We lean against it; its white and turquoise paint is chipped. “Point No Point” is written in black script, it’s still there. It’s still here. Can you feel what I’m feeling? Can you feel the blood pumping through my veins as seagull float above the glassy ocean? Can you feel the tear in our lives? The wind pulls the clouds away from the shore. The sun glows against your skin. Look at the daisies, they’re my favorite. It’s funny how well they complement each other; the ocean and the daisies. Tell me you can feel what I am feeling.

The red roof of the lighthouse is vibrant with the sun setting behind it. If we wait, we can see the light from the tower chase falling stars in the night sky. But we cannot put this off any longer. Listen to the ocean. Listen to the field of grass behind us. Can you hear the tall blades move against each other in the saline airstream?

I want you to know that my intention is not to hurt you, but this will never be; you and I. As much as our hearts might break, for as long as you have anticipated the rest out our lives together, I can’t. I sit down in the old boat and I ask you to sit next to me. You don’t know why we are here; I’ve never brought you to this spot before. You do not know that this is the place that I used to run to when we would fight.

Some call it cold feet, but I’m positive that this is not that. I can’t marry you; it wouldn’t be fair to either of us if I did. You no longer make sense in the life that I am trying to create for myself. I don’t want to live the life of an Officers wife. Our past complicates my feelings for you; there will always be memories of when you loved me and I loved you in return. You bought me a Tiffany’s necklace for me to wear to the prom, and I held you in my arms when you learned about your grandfather’s stroke. A year later I cried my eyes out when I found you with Haley Carlson at my best friend’s birthday party.

Here we are, three years later. You’ve apologized more times than I can remember, you’ve begged for my forgiveness. For a while, I thought I forgave you; I thought I had moved passed it and saw something more important than what happened in the past. As I sit next to you on the altar of abandonment, I try to gather the words to forever change our futures. I couldn’t give you what you want; there was no way I could live up to your expectations. I can’t be your military wife.

With tears rolling down my face I think about the moment you proposed to me. The way I had always hoped for, and you knew it too. In the middle of the seventh inning stretch, right after “Take Me Out to the Ballgame, you got down on one knee and told me to look up at the score board. “Julianne, will you marry me?” The crown surrounding us cheered as my face turned a darker shade of pink than that of the vendor’s cotton candy.

The sky fades to a deeper blue as the sun lowers over the Hood Canal waters. You ask me what is the matter and I tell you that I don’t know if you will ever forgive me for what I am about to say. You hold my hand, waiting for your heart to break. My eyes lock on the small breaking waves against the smooth sand as I tell you that I could never be all that you need me to be.

At first you don’t understand, you tell me that I am all that you could want for the rest of your life. But I’m not here for you to convince me to marry you; you shouldn’t have to convince me. I tell you that I am not fit to be a wife or mother. I tell you that settling down isn’t a part of my plan anymore. I love you, but I know that I am no longer right for you.

You stand up and brush sand from your clothes. You take a moment staring off at the lighthouse; the light just turned on and was dancing at the top of its tower. You want to leave because we have a two hour drive ahead of us. Without saying a word we walk across the cold sand, no longer resting in the sunlight. I take deep breaths, letting the salty air absorb into my lungs. Crickets off into the distance play music and harmonize with the wind rustling through the tall beach grass.

You unlock and open the car, still in silence. With the keys resting in your hand and your eyes locked on the steering wheel, you tell me that I am being selfish. I wish I could tell you why, but I don’t want to hurt you anymore than I already have. I don’t want to disappoint you in the years ahead of us.

Trees pass by in a blur; the tall evergreens dancing through the frame of the passenger side window. I think about you, the kids that you want to have with me and the home. You want two dogs and a boat to take fishing. I wish I could be the all American wife for your vision of the all American family.

The sun turns the horizon deep sienna and I close my eyes, picturing the ocean and the sailboats. Images of daisies and cotton candy clouds play back in the pictures of my brain. I’m too weak to say anything more and I know you want me to explain. I remember the time when I knew nothing more than the life that I would create with you. My time is running out and I needed you to move on from me.

You don’t know, but my body stopped responding to the medication. My body is breaking down and I don’t have much time. My body won’t be able to bear a child; I won’t have the strength to build a home. I love you with all my heart, but I cannot create this life with you and leave you because I am too weak. Each time I close my eyes, I pray to God to give me the strength to wake up the next morning. Just know that I am not doing this because I do not love you; cancer is a monster that I could not defeat.

Today might have been that last time I felt the wind rush off the sweet salty ocean. I cherish each moment I have, especially the ones with you. I hope that you can feel what I feel for you, and I am sorry that I will be leaving you. But when it’s time, just remember me; forgive me.

 
 

“Dear Dennis” by Molly Maschka

Dear Dennis

By Molly Maschka
 

Dear Dennis,

I remember the first we met, back when the both of us were only six years old. It was the first day of kindergarten; we were seated right next to each other in our little seats. Both of us were shy youngsters, neither saying a word. I was a tiny bit shocked by how you looked differently from me- flat facial profile, upward slanted eyes, small ears, and most of all you were small in height. Only later would I find out you were born with Down syndrome, a chromosome disorder that caused those physical features, along with speech impairment. After a while just sitting in our seats, you was the one who finally broke the silence between us and said hi. Even though your speech was not up to par, I could clearly understand you. I said hi back to you and asked if you wanted to play. You had shaken your head yes, and this was the start of our friendship that will always be cherished.

After that first day in kindergarten, we were basically attached at the hip. We played together, ate lunch together, basically did everything together. One memory of us is play dates, you and I had many adventures, most of them were cowboys or Power Rangers. I remembered you always had to be the red Power Ranger, a character most known for being the warrior, leader. I did not really care what Ranger I was, I went from the blue to green, even to the pink warrior; I mainly followed you with our adventures, because as the leader, you always knew how to save the world from evil.

Dennis, even though we believed we were heroes, you and I were troublemakers, always causing commotion. I remembered one time you and I were playing Power Rangers when we decided to search your older brother Jimmy’s room as one of the bad guys’ “secret lair.” We looked around the room, beholding for any evidence. You had picked up a picture of Jimmy with one of his friends when Jimmy came into the room and started to yell at us. You shoved the picture at me, telling me to run. Jimmy started to come after me first, but you decided to jump on Jimmy, wrestling him. I climbed over the bed and ran out the door into another room. Jimmy shut the door, clearly holding you at ransom. I walked back to Jimmy’s room, pounding on door, yelling at Jimmy to give you back. Jimmy yelled back only if I would return the picture would you be set free. I crumpled the picture with madness. I opened the door, threw the picture at Jimmy and grabbed you out of his hands. We ran and hid underneath Dennis’s bed, hearing Jimmy telling your mom Karen, what we did. You and I hid for the longest time, hoping your mom would never find us, but unfortunately she did. She told us if we ever pulled a stunt like we did again, I would be sent home. We promised her we would never do it again and apologized to Jimmy. After that play date, you and I decided to stay outside with our adventures, keeping us less out of trouble.

As you and I grew older, reality of school kept us . In school, I attended regular classes while you need special education classes for your Down syndrome. On top of school, we both had activities- I was involved in swimming and softball while you participated in wrestling, but we would always try to find a spare moment to see each other. The only time we hung was in the morning before classes started for the day. We would usually just sit at our lockers and talk about anything. You would tell me how wrestling was going or what you had learned in his classes. Sometimes when we saw each other during the day, you would always run up and give me the greatest of hugs. One particular time in school, I was having a bad day. All I wanted to do is go somewhere and cry, until I saw you in the hallway during classes. You usually knew when I was not in a great mood. When you saw me, you ran up to me, gave me the greatest of hugs, and said “Relax Molly, everything will be alright.” Just being around you Dennis, you always made my days brighter, making me realized never to take life for granted.

Then, the summer before our senior year, God decided to take you home. I remembered as if it was yesterday when I heard you had passed away. You were involved in an ATV accident. You had hit a tree and sustained serious injuries. The doctors tried to save you but there was nothing they could do, and went home to heaven. Hearing about your death Dennis devastated me. I did not know how I would handle life without you. You would never be at homecoming, prom, or graduation. I thought my life would never be the same without you until you came to see me, in a form of a blue butterfly. It was a few days after your death, at a softball game. You flew into the dugout and landed right by my feet. I looked down and you opened your wings. I knew it was a sign from God that you were safe in heaven. You stayed through the whole game making sure I would be alright.

I am writing this letter to you to let you know thank you for always my best friend, my buddy. Thank you for teaching me how to be compassionate towards others, to never give up on my goals in life, but most of all, to “relax.” I am writing this letter to you to let you know that I will be alright, that I am not giving up on my dreams. I am at college fulfilling my dreams as a writer and as a softball player. Do not worry about me buddy; I know I will always have you as my guardian angel by my side.

 

Love you always and forever,

Molly