When I left you last week, I was heading west on the New York State Thruway, Arcturus strapped securely atop my car. I remember the outline of that day more than its detail. It was late-July hot; the weather was unsettled, there were radio reports of microbursts along the way. It was early in the afternoon and I figured that if all went well—and why wouldn’t it?—I would be home by ten or eleven that night.
When Icarus flew too near the sun, the gods conspired to treat his hubris with the contempt it deserved. The heat of the sun melted the wax that held his feathered wings together and down he fell—down, down, down into the sea.
There was no gasping moment of fall, no crack of sound, no jolt. There was simply a sensation that made me glance in my rearview mirror. And what I saw there defied any kind of rational response: a red canoe tumbling, tumbling over and over behind me down the middle of three lanes on the busy New York State Thruway. A second or two passed, a lightless gap between what I saw and what I understood. It was my canoe—Arcturus—that was flying backwards into streams of summer traffic. And then the panic set in.
I swerved into the right lane, then onto the shoulder. I backed up as fast as I could, a hundred, two hundred, three hundred yards, cars and behemoth semis whizzing by me. My heart was pounding, I felt sick to my stomach. I waited for the inevitable crash that would come when one of those giant tractor-trailers would reduce Arcturus to a million splinters before careening into other vehicles in neighboring lanes. It would be a horrific disaster.
Now I was alongside where Arcturus lay, somehow miraculously parallel within the middle lane. It was a straight stretch of road and the oncoming vehicles were moving left and right, weaving around Arcturus, somehow managing to miss it by inches. Suddenly, there was a tiny seam in the flow and I ran into the middle lane and with adrenaline surging through my body, lifted Arcturus which was somehow still attached to the carry rack that was, until a few moments ago, affixed to the top of my car, and scampered back across one lane, now miraculously empty of traffic, to the relative safety of the highway shoulder. I was in shock.
Which was when the state trooper pulled up behind me. I could barely speak, let alone begin to tell him what had just happened. That a microburst had lifted Arcturus—rack and all—off the top of my car and sent it spinning down the highway. That somehow the rack had taken the brunt of the hit and that the damage seemed minimal—I could see a hairline crack along a few ribs and a small abrasion of the canvas covering—but otherwise the canoe looked remarkably intact. The trooper said what I knew to be true: that it was a miracle the canoe was not smashed and that no one had been injured or killed.
I started to breathe again but I was still paralyzed with fear. Now what was I going to do? I was an hour down the Thruway in the middle of nowhere with an injured canoe and a roof rack that had been ripped off my car and was now likely unserviceable. Slowly, slowly, my brain began to function again and it seemed that my only hope was to somehow get Arcturus reattached to my car and carry on toward home.
To this day, I cannot explain how the rack separated from the top of my car; or how Arcturus managed to tumble along one thin lane of highway before coming to rest exactly within it; or how some unseen hand parted the waters, allowing me to run out into the middle of the New York State Thruway and haul one hundred pounds of Arcturus and rack to safety; or how the frame of that rack was not impossibly bent and fitted back on top of my car. The state trooper stayed with me, watching, probably wondering why this was not a disaster of horrific proportion and why wasn’t the canoe secured atop my car in the first place. I wondered the same thing.
Once the canoe was reattached to the top of my car, I cautiously made my way down the highway, hazard lights flashing until I could pull into a rest stop. That’s when another thought hit me. How could I tell Jack that his beautiful baby—his handcrafted beauty—had sustained injury and would require surgical repair. I couldn’t take the boat back to Canada; Arcturus would be in limbo until I could head back north the following summer.
So now I’ll make this long story shorter. I drove home slowly, very slowly, arriving well after midnight, but nevertheless arriving, boat still atop car. The following day, I had time to carefully inspect the damage and somehow it was as minimal as it appeared. Twelve months later, I headed back to Canada and Jack repaired the cracked ribs. The abrasion on the canvas only need a little sanding and a fresh coat of paint. Rather than berate me, Jack laughed and marveled at how sturdy his little baby was. With a twinkle in his eye, he stills tells the story of the time his Bobs Special went surfing down the New York State Thruway.
And I still wonder about all of it: the moment of unfastening, the sheer luck of Arcturus coming to rest in the center lane, the miraculous absence of disaster, the long, slow, nerve-wracking drive home, wondering if the rack would hold, the exhausted relief at the end of the journey.
Icarus was the son of Daedalus, who, like my friend Jack, was a master craftsman. “Be careful,” Daedalus told his son, “don’t be complacent and fly too low, but neither be overly proud and fly too high.” It seems to me that maybe life is somewhere in between, maybe in the center lane.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with a home in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com