As I write this, it is 39 degrees – 28 with the wind chill… and wind chill there is. It’s gusting today, last report I saw from the airport said 33 mph.
Wind is not all-together bad on a boat – a securely moored boat, that is. Attempting any kind of navigation in these gusts, on the other hand, is the stuff bon-fire legends are made of. But as I float, tied in for the season and engines winterized, the wind becomes enchanting again. The line, tied at all four corners of The Road creeks and whines endlessly; the motion, usually a gentle side-to-side sensation, becomes unpredictable and hard enough to throw you off balance. But hell, even Captain Kirk lost his footing sometimes. I’m perhaps more cautious than usual about this wind – although it is dwarfed by the 42 mph gusts from last August – because of the tenuously hung insulation currently covering the The Road’s exterior. I’ve been preparing for Winter for weeks. Today I can hear the season coming and it reminds me, with increasing volume, that it is powerful enough to tear away the ridiculous attempts I have made to endure her. Again.
This is my second winter on the River. It is The Road’s second winter on the River. On the one hand I am comforted by whatever slim experience I gained over the past year and a half; and the luck that consistently shuffles in. I cannot forget, however, that I am woefully short on understanding of how life works out here... and luck runs out eventually. I’ve done my best to combat this reality with a mix of reason and faith - a mix. It is notably not a balance.
It is reason that does things like inspect the bilge on a regular basis, replace my fresh water pump, plastic the windows, insulate the walls, drop the bubblers, get a furnace, run duct work, and occasionally lay prone on the floor just listening to her. You can almost always hear a problem on a boat before you see or feel it… supposing you know what you were listening for… which I really don’t. I’m usually listening for dripping, or wheezing, or scurrying (I had 11 mice aboard last Fall. All the bodies were sent home to their families with warnings attached. None have ventured forth since.) What I’m really always listening for, however, is the sound that happens right before the hull cracks open and myself, my dog, and everything I own sinks to the bottom of the Mississippi River. I don’t know what that sound is, but I’m always listening for it. And, of course, it could always be silence that precedes that sort of disaster.
Sounds change significantly season to season. This time of year, the days are underlined with a constant hum as the marina crew works dutifully to pull out and winterize all the “other boats”. Five of us are staying through the winter. Last year there were nine. The Road sits directly in front of the marina launch and at the peak of haul-out, the process can resemble a death march. The River, grey and swelled, carries all the of decay from up-river in an endless steam as boat after boat, stripped and empty, gets hauled atop a grunting steel machine. It’s hull drips with a filth that makes me cringe at the idea of it pouring in from the renegade crack that will inevitably take me down.
That’s where the faith comes in. The Road will not sink. It is a powerful faith that occasionally comes eye-to-eye with reason and although there have been some notable standoffs, faith has always won out.
One night last February, my alarm went off at 4am, reminding me that it was time, yet again that evening, to get up and crack the ice that had formed around my hull. It was 22 below zero, 38 below with wind chill; and although it proved to be the coldest night of the year, it came on the heels of over 10 consecutive days where the daytime high did not reach 5 below. As I dressed, the thermometer said the interior temperature was 49 degrees, grossly inadequate to thaw out my pipes, now frozen for over two weeks. Although the process of hauling water, then boiling it to do dishes had acquired some charm, I was growing increasingly worried that if I could not thaw out the pipes soon, they would burst. This all in addition to the steady discomfort and accompanying anger that results from living in such temperatures.
Dressed for battle, I opened the door, squeezed between the wall of the boat and the thick, white shrink wrap that surrounds her, and unzipped the plastic door to the outside. There is something that happens to people in the Midwest, and it usually happens in the middle of February when the weather is at it’s most unreasonable. When you have been shivering for two months, when you have been wearing your weight in clothing on your back, when you have been sitting behind the wheel of your car and seen your breath crystallize and crack on the windshield… Then suddenly you stop curling up and complaining about it, and you look the cold in the eye like it’s an unyielding bully. And it is right then, when your spine refuses to shake anymore and you un-flex your fingers, you put your shoulders back, and you see – for the first time again - how stunningly beautiful Winter is.
The River had been brought to a halt, the surface frozen solid from bank to bank. The air was so cold that halos appeared around every source of light, including the brutal moon. And despite my worthy bubblers, chugging away and shooting a steady current of water at two points along the hull – a shelf of ice had already formed since it’s smashing only four hours earlier. A shelf of ice that left untended could create enough pressure to crack my fiberglass existence. Half an hour later, ice broken and pushed back, I went back inside to a home unable to take the chill out of my bones.
Desperate to return to my dog and electric blanket haven, I instead put a pot of water on the stove to boil and opened the electric oven to see what small comfort it may offer. Five candles, and thirty minutes later it was at 55. No more electricity could be spared without losing the bubblers and in two hours I’d have to go back out there again…
I laid down on my couch, pulled a blanket over my head, cringed at the thought that I had also yet to buy a Carbon Monoxide detector, and rocked myself to a fitful sleep. It is unreasonable.
Which begs the third of the top three questions I am asked when people hear that I live on a houseboat: “Why?”
I wish I had a better answer - a really concise answer that would leave them satisfied; something from my childhood, an ecological ideal, a Walden-esque philosophy. To my knowledge it is none of those things that brought me here. In 2002, it was revealed to me that living on a boat in this state, year-round, was not only possible, but available in several marinas. I was compelled and amazed, and I decided to do it. I came aboard The Road in April of 2006, I bought her and moved aboard in May. And even on that night in February when I was brought to my knees by her, I have not regretted it for an instant.
In part, that is because the rewards are rich. In addition to this – blogging rights – there is the serenity that only comes when you are living the way you have chosen to live.
When the season began to shift from Winter to Spring, I sliced through the plastic that had protected the boat with a ferocious enthusiasm. The sense of victory could not be rivaled by graduation, nor marathon, nor standing ovation. The reaction from others was not one of amused congratulatory, but genuine impress – even disgust - all of which I smugly accepted.
It wasn’t until this July, as I lounged drowsily in the large cotton hammock that hangs off the stern of the boat, that I decided I would live aboard again this Winter. Nothing could have made that sunny afternoon sweeter. Even now as the Winter begins to rip past my windows, I know that good or bad I have chosen to be here. No one has forced me. I could live in any of a million other ways, but this is the one I choose. That freedom is a precious and all too rare existence in this world. And, it turns out, it can get uncomfortable at times.
As it stands, the interior temperature is at a cozy 70, and although the forecast for tonight is only 26, I am hopeful that my space heaters will continue to keep up until my furnace is up and running, next week.