My BFF Jessica and I decided to ditch household chores on Sunday, and take the kiddos out for a swim. Jess had been lured by a spray painted sign on the side of the road advertising someone’s local “swimming hole five dollars a car” and dialed the number sprayed at the bottom. After getting directions, we set of with a cooler of beer, sandwiches, and sunscreen. It would be an adventure, we thought. A trek into the unknown following directions given to us by he proprietor further out into the boonies. After turning into the drive, we were met by a leathery-faced wirey man in his fifties sporting a tattered pair of blue shorts with busted elastic, and an inside out t-shirt. “Is this the nudist swimming hole?” I asked as I rolled down the window. His face changed from confusion to disbelief as his gaze landed first on me, to Jess, and finally to the two eager faces beaming from carseats in the back. “We’re joking” we said, and he quickly recognized Jess as the girl who had called earlier. “You’re in for a treat!” he said, pointing us towards a road leading to God knows where. “Just follow that road until it turns to dirt, then keep driving. You’ll run right into it. And hey! You can even use the captains table!” Jess and I glanced at each other and I could tell we were both dying to see what he was talking about.
We headed towards where he pointed and drove on slowly alongside overgrown hayfields and a line of hackberry trees. Deer bounded through the overgrowth and disappeared behind a patch of pokeweed. As we rounded the next field, we could see a treehouse in the distance, and then the banks of the Stones River. That’s when we saw it. There, anchored in the middle of the river in all of it’s glory, was a pirate ship. The proprietor, whose name we soon discovered was Johny, had installed two masts and draped them in dramatic tattered black sails and a large jolly roger that flapped in the breeze. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me” I said.
We unloaded the car and quickly found “the captains table” underneath a sail of an old sailboat that was rigged between two locust trees. Scattered about here and there were small wooden troll-like dolls hidden along the bases of trees and in the branches. Jess pointed to a small wooden head peeping out of the ground nearby. “Oh Liz” said Jessica, “This place is special” and I wholeheartedly agreed. After looking around we also discovered a grill, a floating dock with a tent firmly tacked down on top so as to not roll off into the river in your sleep, a swing above the water, a hammock, and a floating crocodile whose eyes peered up from the green water. It smelled strongly of eccentricity, and that’s just the kind of stuff that my close friends and myself thrive on. The spice of life. Jess, the kids, and I were pleased.
After a few minutes, Johny joined us down at the waters edge and talked about the various people he had encountered while living there. The various families, boyscout troops, an ex con or two. Johny told us of his ill-fated online dating attempts, and the last one that ended with his date asking for an application once she spotted a stripper pole towards the back of the bar. Afterwards, Jess and I both commented on how lonely he seemed. And I couldn’t help but feel like I knew how he felt.
Years ago, freshly divorced, I lived in a log cabin by the banks of the Nolichucky river in East Tennessee. It was a beautiful, picturesque place located amongst rolling hills, farmland, and deep woods. Not a night went by that I didn’t see a shooting star or hear owls hooting away. It was the first time in my life I had no friends to speak of within a two hour radius. I both looked forward to the weekends and dreaded them at the same time, as after the work week, I knew that for two days I would literally see no one. I filled my time with perfecting my cast on an inherited fishing rod though the brook trout proved to be smarter than I had thought. And when I wasn’t fishing, I’d take a can of plaster down to the river banks and make molds of the animal tracks I found. I became pretty good at identifying animal tracks, and followed the nightly soap opera between a raccoon that left piles of fresh water clam shells on his dinner rock and a river otter that lived in a den around the bend upstream. Somehow it made me feel connected in a place where I felt completely disconnected. It was a time of deep introspection for me, as well as a time of deep loneliness.
They say that every man is an island, and to some extent I believe this to be true. It certainly felt like it during my time spent there at the cabin. But today I feel like I see Johny in a different way. Like most people on deserted islands, I finally escaped to be closer to friends and family. But Johny built a boat. A pirate ship, to bring people to him instead.