Just a mile or two down from the Chestertown dock, there is a bend in the river known as Devil’s Reach. The name, I’m told, is derived from the days when tall ships made the long trek across the ocean and up the Chesapeake Bay to offload the king’s cargo at what was once our modestly thriving little port. At that particular bend, the banks of the river are quite steep and the prevailing winds—almost always directly abeam—make the upwind reach devilishly difficult, especially if the tide is running out. Just imagine: the end of a long voyage is finally in sight yet endless tacking to gain just a few feet makes it still hours away. Time was money then, just as it is today, and the devil was taking it.
Now I’m not a day boater in a stinkpot or a waterman on a dead rise, but I recognize the devil when I see him. He’s got a mop of thinning blond hair, a sprayed-on tan, and a noisomely loud voice. Sadly, he also seems to have long arms that reach out to lots and lots of very angry people. If he ends up as the captain of our ship of state, it won’t by any means be a prosperous voyage on calm seas.
When this devil first appeared, we didn’t take him seriously enough. That was a mistake. With bombast and bullying, he culled the herd of his party’s candidates until he was the last man standing. Now he is on the doorstep and November is only a few months away. As the walrus said to the oysters, “the time has come to talk of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing wax—of cabbages and kings.”
Well, forget shoes, ships, and sealing wax. Never mind the cabbages. But we do need to talk about kings. Good kings rule with wisdom and love; bad kings rule by threats and fear. No matter the question or the understandable discontent of the day, hate is never the answer. Nor are four words on a baseball hat. And yet somehow, it seems to me, this devil keeps making headway despite the prevailing winds of conventional wisdom. Now we ignore him at our peril.
Just what is this devil’s reach? It seems to me he has found a way to tap in to the meaner spirits of those among us who feel threatened, disenfranchised, and bewildered by the flood tide of change. I get all that. It’s just too bad that what fills this devil’s sails are the ill winds of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. Wouldn’t understanding, compromise, and tolerance get us safely upriver faster?
Back in the days of the tall ships, bends in the river were navigated with courage and expert seamanship. All the hot air in the world wouldn’t fill a vessel’s sails if the captain and his crew didn’t know how to set them properly. Eventually, hard progress could be measured and made and the ship brought safely to port. That’s still true today. It’s up to us to make sure this devil’s reach does not become his grasp.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”