Last night, 11 pm: the tallest building in Chicago comes into sight as a dim green orb across a calm stretch of Lake Michigan. At first we don’t know what it is, the four of us standing on the quarter deck; we spend several minutes staring through the binoculars before identifying it as the Sears Tower.
I am both counting the number of hours until we dock at Navy Pier and dreading it. Something pulls me to shore, some undertow sucks me down and pushes me back out. I count the number of hours until we port—three—because my arrival to Chicago signals the end of this summer, as it’s our final stop, the narrowing and then closing of this fraction of my life: two months spent on Erie, Huron, Superior, and Michigan, living, working and writing on the Denis Sullivan. “Matchless” is the only word that comes to mind. Arriving in Chicago is a type of graduation, then, because that’s what it’s been for me on this ship: a 24-hour-a-day education. Instruction through immersion: some new frontier I’ve come out of more capable than I was before.
But that’s true of everyone on Sullivan: you can’t board this ship for any good amount of time without it transfiguring you at the pit. It’s both the way the ship is run, watches and meals and chores and lines, and the fact that you’re in a place that humans essentially don’t belong: the water. Because it’s not our territory, really. Think: as the most dominant species on the globe, we can’t survive in over 70% of its available living space. What a bizarre relationship we have with it: our continued existence depending on this element we’ve yet to figure out and aren’t physically equipped to inhabit. Chemically, water is simple: two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. But the deepest sections of ocean still contain unknowns. When we catch what swims at those depths, they look like they are from other planets. They make us think of outer space, and yet they are here.
When I tell people what I’ve been doing this summer, they generally have one of two reactions: they stare like I’ve got screws loose or remark on what a charmed life I lead. It’s neither of those. It’s not crazy (as there’s a peculiar, glad rhythm to ship life) but it’s not charming either. It’s hard work. Respect the ship and it respects you back. But the Lake? It owes you nothing.
Still I can’t help but sense that Lake Michigan knows that this is our last sail. Quiet with 1-2 foot waves and the Eastern winds favorable for Sullivan’s transit south from Milwaukee. Dawn’s cracked the sky and through fog I can make out the Northern segment of Chicago’s skyline. We bring down the sails in order: fore, main, mizzen.
What’s waiting for me there? “Windy City”. “Chitown”. “City of the big shoulders”. “Paris on the Prairie”.
Some old writer friends are travelling up to see me tonight, and on Friday, I’ll check into a room downtown that promises “striking views of the Magnificent Mile”, but perhaps more notably, free coffee, a hot shower and an air conditioning unit. But these days, I get uncomfortable in air condition—too cold, unnatural; I’d rather the breeze and heat. I keep going through this list often, keep hoping to remind myself of what’s there, the why of heading home.
Some people are built for life on the water. As Captain Jesse Loge said, “I wasn’t born a sailor, but I was born a traveler”. Nomad. People who aren’t content experiencing life in standstill: same state, same city, same neighborhood, same set of circumstances; the very things that provide most of us with feelings of comfort, home sweet home, make her face long and set off that old itch in the heart. Go.
I’m almost 25. Some part of me thinks that if I was built for life on the water, I would have figured it out by now, beyond doubt: two months at sea leaves a lot of time to think. So maybe I’m not nomad enough.
But another part of me wonders if it’s something you discover only after being gone from water, off the ship. A few weeks back on land and then the itching starts. You look out your window and the sprouting boxed herb garden, rosemary and basil and cilantro, still isn’t enough. Your car seems to go too fast, your days drag out.
How long can I stay away?
How much will I miss the deck, the bunk, the watches, the waves, the people?
Is it over there—that rise of buildings, honking of buses and taxis, painted blues billboards, hot asphalt, railed balconies—is that home? Or is it out here?
Wind. Sun. Warmth. We’ll see.