I thought I had a strong sense of myself when I picked up my life in L.A. and moved to Oklahoma City. It was just for a year, for my boyfriend David’s job. That’s easy. “How bad could it be?” I thought. “It might even be fun.” Sure, I had no friends or family nearby and no idea what I’d do for work, but that was all part of the adventure. I’d hang out in coffee shops, find new brunch spots and hikes, and explore cool corners of the city.
“The place I live doesn’t define my happiness,” I thought, “I do.” Cue ominous music.
The isolation hit me first. It settled in a couple of weeks after we arrived in the form of a stark realization: I was hundreds of miles away from anyone I knew. I soon developed a loathing for the directionless, endless time on my hands. In LA, knowing I had the whole day in front of me with no obligations was a thrill. Now it felt like a burden, a weight I couldn’t shake off. I was lonely and detached, feeling as if my body had moved, but part of me was still floating around a large airy flat in Hollywood. The most fun, lighthearted parts.
Maybe that sounds overly dramatic. Maybe I could have been better at meeting people. Maybe I should have joined a roller derby team or taken up baking. But that’s how it felt, adrift and tangled in fog. And what’s the point in paddling when you’re just as likely to be moving further from shore?
“We should go somewhere,” David says a couple of months into our Oklahoma City sojourn, “for the weekend.”
He’s talking about leaving the next day, which wouldn’t have worked in LA. I always had plans a week out. Here, it’s no problem.
“Sure,” I say, “why not?”
We pick a cabin in the forest on the border of Arkansas and Oklahoma and begin the four-hour drive out of Oklahoma’s flat center to the Ouachita National Forest. As we roll down the highway and I stare out the window, I’m struck by the impish way the light dances off the plains, the soft, rolling hills, and how the sky seems somehow bluer than it does in other places.
The hours roll past. As more and more highway disappears beneath our tires, the tightness in my chest loosens. Like a breath finally getting released. We put on music, and I swing my feet up onto the dashboard. Just outside of the Ouachita National Forest, I open my window. The smell of damp earth and trees fills the car. At first, the only sound I can hear is our tires, crunching over gravel, but as I listen more closely I can hear the rustling of the leaves and the gurgling of moving water in the distance.
The trees are thin and tall, not overgrown and thick the way I normally think of a forest, but there’s an elegant grace to them. Light pours in through the gaps between the branches. I close my eyes, and a breeze sweeps gently across my eyelids. Like the forest is scanning me, checking out the energy I’m bringing into its ancient midsts.
We pull up to a little one bedroom cabin. It’s classic — thick logs, a large wooden porch, high ceilings with a tall window overlooking the forest, and a stone fireplace. David begins putting away groceries while I step onto the porch, gazing at the trees. That soft, intimate breeze hits me again, shifting across my shoulders. I call inside.
“I’m going to go take a walk and look at the river!”
Down a short path, there’s a fairly narrow river. It’s calm, for the most part. Every here and there you see water bubbling and gurgling as it rushes over the rocks. There’s a dark green canoe tied up to a stake driven into the riverbank. It looks like it’s waiting for me.
I should pause to say, I’m not a person who would normally get into a canoe by herself. Especially not to paddle a river she’s never been on. I would normally wait for David or check a map or read Tripadvisor reviews to see what other people said the difficulty level was and then get distracted by the internet until sunset or someone offered me a cocktail. This time, I don’t do any of those things. Instead, I untie the canoe and drag it into the water. I have my bathing suit on under my tank top and skirt, so I shed them both and walk the canoe into the shallow river — clear water pushing around my ankles, round stones beneath my feet.
Being in a canoe by yourself isn’t easy. My weight is toward the back at first, which makes the balance off. It only takes one paddle stroke to send me off center, careening toward the shore. I stand up inside the canoe, teeter a little, and move to the center seat. I decide to drift for just a moment. The sun is shining, and the water isn’t fast here. It’s pleasant. I’m having fun.
I close my eyes to reflect on it all and…. thwack. Branches slap against the sides of the canoe. I’ve drifted too close to shore. I begin to paddle, trying to get the canoe back into the current, but with the way the canoe is lodged, it’s not working. I dig deeper with each stroke but I’m not strong enough.
“Ughhhhhh,” I grunt in pure frustration, tossing my paddle in the center of the canoe. My eyes start to tear up.
Okay, I could get very allegorical here — the young woman feeling stuck, stranded, and unable to change her circumstances. The helplessness sapping her strength and leaving her listless. It makes for a hell of a metaphor, but I don’t dwell on that.
Instead, I realize that the water is calm and shallow and I’m a five-minute walk from our cabin. It’s as if in Castaway they’d panned out from a bearded Tom Hanks holding a volleyball on the beach and there’s a Sandal’s resort employee right there, asking if he’d like another Pina Colada. If I really needed to I could get out and walk to the shore and leave the canoe. Just like I could leave Oklahoma City. The stakes aren’t that high.
I calm down. When I look at things more rationally, I can see that the canoe is just stuck in the mud, having run aground. I angle a paddle down into the riverbed and push off. Almost immediately, I’m free from the bottom of the river. Two back paddles out of the branch tangle and in the middle of the stream again.
I turn myself 180 degrees and start paddling back the way I came. It takes some effort, zig-zagging upstream awkwardly, and as I paddle my thoughts turn to another entanglement — our move. I ask myself, “Why am I so unhappy in Oklahoma City?”
The truth is, it’s not the city that makes me feel so directionless. I’m 28, a time when tons of people start feeling less sure of themselves. I’m young but I can no longer say I just graduated college. I’ve committed to a year of my artistic dreams being derailed, meanwhile, LA friends are selling scripts and landing gigs. Back home in Wisconsin, my old high school classmates are just starting to get married.
I continue paddling and feel a little better with each stroke. Maybe, I’ll take a writing class at the college David works at. I could write a book. Or I’ll get a job. A restaurant would be better than sitting at home, a place to make friends, and a really good way to get 1/2 priced pesto chicken sandwiches and red velvet cake.
I drag the canoe up the shore and walk back up into the cozy cabin. A fire is crackling in the hearth, David is making dinner. I kiss him and he hands me a drink. For the first time in a while, I realize I’m looking forward to the weekend as it stretches ahead of us — cooking, reading books on the couch, soaking in the tub, long walks in the forest, maybe another canoe trip. This time, together.
I turn on Hymn 101 — a song David and I first heard on an indie radio station on a different adventure, our first date, driving to a hot spring in Montana. Joe Pug’s deep, soothing voice begins to sing:
And I’ve come to roam the forest past the village,
with a dozen lazy horses in my cart.
I’ve come here to get high,
to do more than just get by,
I’ve come to test the timber of my heart. Oh, I’ve come to test the timber of my heart.
His voice fills the cabin and I begin to hum along. Then I start to sway a little. In this moment, I recognize myself again for the first time in weeks. The metaphor feels too obvious to mention but I remind myself of it nonetheless: “Next time you’re stuck, relax. You’ll figure out an action plan soon enough. After you get your bearings, all you have to do is just keep paddling.”
Just keep paddling. As I’d just discovered, you can make it all the way home that way.
Want to go there?
From Oklahoma City: Take I40 E out of the city to OK-1 E/US-270 E, continue on US-270 to OK-63 E (a little over 4 hours).
From Dallas: Take I-30 E to State Hwy 24/TX-24 N. From 24, follow FM195 eventually getting to OK-37 and then US 259 (also a little over 4 hours).
There are a lot of rentals along the Mountain Fork River, this rental in Arkansas is great.
A bathing suit, food (to snuggle in and cook), drinks, smores’ ingredients to eat around a fire, walking shoes, and a book.