A steamy Saturday morning in Peninsula. A parking lot alive with shimmering Spandex and glimmering alloy, bikers and rollerbladers ready to cruise pointlessly down the smooth cement path that lines the Cuyahoga River.
This is where our quest began.
For all the times these safe recreationists had seen this lot, they must never have seen men so brave as we, because they stared hard as we pulled two large plastic canoes from the tops of our cars.
I had never been canoeing, but I always pictured boats strapped to hardy SUVs filled with tanned and rugged men, their two-day beards framing chiseled jaws and snow-white teeth. We, however, had not a tan or a jawline among us. Our boats were balanced atop a Chevy Impala and something called a Plymouth Breeze, which sounds more like an air freshener.
But our lack of automotive masculinity would not stunt our journey. We had come to tame one of America's most fabled waterways, the Great Cuyahoga River.
It would be an adventure filled with great risk and reward -- I knew this from the movies. Though ships, barges, and tugboats regularly tackled the Big River's majestic and menacing waters, few had attempted to canoe it, powered only by woodsmen's wiles and the sculpted muscle of one's own arms. When the call went out for a few brave men, I eagerly signed up.
You see, I'm not from Cleveland. I moved here from San Jose in December, and I've tried hard to embrace my new life, to transform smoothly into a local. I quickly learned to drink by myself -- at least until the bartender asks me to leave. I learned that just because that dancer at the Gold Horse lets you buy her four Cosmos, it doesn't mean she's your friend. And, with help from the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, I learned the subtle differences between Zoloft, Xanax, and Paxil.
I was really starting to feel like a Clevelander.
Unfortunately, I look like an 11th-grade girl, which makes it hard to blend into Cleveland, where most men look like nose tackles and can actually grow beards. By embarking on this journey, I would be arming myself with retorts for the California slurs I endured. I would accomplish a great deed that would forever link me with my new city and ingratiate me with its cold, hard soul.
I didn't know much about the river. But I knew it was big and important. When I was growing up, my favorite movie was Major League. I watched it over and over again, singing that opening song along with Randy Newman:
'Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin' through my dreams.
Burn on, big river, burn on.
I was never quite certain what Randy meant. But surely it had to be a grand waterway to inspire the great Randy Newman.
Burn on, big river, burn on.
This was exactly what I needed.
The plan was to canoe halfway to Cleveland, about 12 miles, then camp and finish the trip on Sunday. We loaded up the canoes with sleeping bags, tents, extra clothes, and a cooler. I wasn't sure what we needed 60 beers for, but this was my first time confronting the Mighty One. I wasn't going to start asking questions now.
As we pushed our vessels into the river, I couldn't help thinking how good it would feel to paddle triumphantly into Cleveland. We would go right through the Flats! I pictured busty women with deep tans, raising margaritas and inviting us up for a celebratory drink to toast our great achievement as the sun sneaked off for another night.
Then a shipmate's voice snapped me awake.
"Dude," he said, reaching back as our canoe began to twist like a propeller. "Hand me a beer."
To understand the exploration of any grand force of nature, one must know those who embarked on it:
The Mail Sorter. This is Jared. He's a lanky fellow, 24, with curly black hair all over his body, a testament to the surety that man evolved from ape. He sorts mail for a living; he's not very good at his job. He often disappears for hours at a time, while important faxes pile up on the floor and phones go unanswered. But he occasionally scores pot for his superiors. This makes his job secure.
The Big Shot. Mike Polk is 27. He gets a last name because he's sort of a celebrity. He used to have a cable-access show called Last Call Cleveland, and now he stars in a comedy troupe of the same name. The day before our trip, he was interviewed by CoolCleveland.com, a website that interviews people who are apparently cool. The site described Mike as "nice" and "affable," but when we picked him up, he seemed more "hung over" or "still drunk from last night."
The Boy Scout. James used to be a Boy Scout. At 27, he still looks like one -- though we're pretty sure he's not a pedophile. He has the feathery hair and pasty legs of an unpopular fifth grader. He also wears the goofy grin of someone who knows something important, but isn't telling.
In the days before our trip, I asked him how many times he had canoed the Cuyahoga. He said he couldn't remember exactly, but the smile on his face made me think he was just being modest.
After we put in, it quickly became evident that no one really knew how to paddle. The verdant banks of the Big River surrounded us as we careened from side to side, like drunks weaving down a very wide sidewalk.
I was still figuring out which end of the paddle went in the water when the first rapids hit. The waves were huge -- upwards of four inches -- and I envisioned myself starring in an episode of National Geographic Explorer. I would be portrayed as a hearty outdoorsman, willing to confront life's most demanding adventures.
But the cooler wasn't cooperating. Weighted from our extensive provisions of beer, it suddenly slammed to the side of the canoe, tilting the vessel perilously. Our sleeping bags and backpacks soaked up the murky, speckled Cuyahoga. My cell phone, immersed in water, started buzzing and ringing wildly, which was weird, because I had just switched it off.
Impressively, Jared hadn't spilled his beer. This was a feat he would pull off many times throughout the day, despite our canoe's mysterious lack of cupholders.
Soon, we hit a smooth patch, and I started to get the hang of paddling. This was important, because Jared was more interested in lightening the cooler's load. He said it was a "safety precaution."
Since he vaguely remembered canoeing once as a child, he was the more experienced oarsman. We agreed that I would paddle and he would handle safety.
Despite Jared's efforts, we were riding low, weighed down by the cooler and four inches of water. We kept drifting from side to side, unable to keep our craft straight. Eventually, we slammed into a fallen tree. The cooler slid again.
This time, the Big River yanked us overboard.
I darted to the surface and shook the Cuyahoga from my face like a soggy golden retriever. The river wild! I expected to meet Jared's excited gaze, but his back was to me. He was stretching like a first baseman, trying to save an unopened Bud Light that was bobbing happily downstream like a fat kid wearing floaters.
"My beer!" he said as a shoe floated past him unnoticed.
It took all our strength to right the canoe and reload our belongings. I was discouraged, but not ready to give up. Did you expect the Big River to go easy on you? I asked myself as I handed Jared a fresh one.
I hadn't really answered myself when, farther downstream, I noticed a sign that was broken in half. It read:
The other guys didn't seem concerned. They were preoccupied with taking pulls from a plastic jug of Windsor Canadian. I took a couple, too, though it tasted like paint thinner -- not nearly as smooth as the Buttery Nipples we drink back in California.
This must be what canoers do, I figured, as the Windsor burned holes the size of small children in my esophagus. I frantically searched for something less toxic, only to discover that I'd forgotten to pack my organic lemonade.
I was certain that sign used to read "RIVER CLOSED." But I was accompanied by natives of the midwest. They were surely trained woodsmen, veterans of the wilds. If they weren't worried, I wasn't either. I was, after all, at one with the freakin' Cuyahoga.
It wasn't exactly what I'd pictured. I had expected steep cliffs and rushing falls, exotic wildlife peering at me from the thick jungle foliage. I pictured sinewy boys soaring into cool, cobalt waters from ropes swinging high above, maybe a local named Zeke strumming the theme song to Friends. But as we scraped our boat along the Cuyahoga's pebbled bottom, I saw mostly fallen trees, the occasional fisherman, and a guy who looked to be digging a strangely shallow grave.
Still, deep down, I felt like Lewis or Clark, or Jacques Cousteau, or maybe Corey Feldman in Stand by Me. The Cuyahoga! I couldn't help but wonder whether Randy Newman was still alive and how cool it'd be to call and tell him I was burning down the Big River.
I was still thinking of Randy when I looked up to see James standing shoulder deep in the river. He was trying to collect bottles of Dasani, which were picking up speed in the rapids that had flipped his canoe. He looked like a helpless little Boy Scout. I imagined his troop leader ripping the canoe patch off James' sash and burning it while James wept softly into his olive-green uniform.
Between us, we had now capsized our canoes three times. Each time it had grown more difficult to collect ourselves from the river. We salvaged most of our food, but the guys didn't seem so sure about eating it.
Back in California, we never worried about drinking river water. A little Cuyahoga on my turkey sandwich didn't seem like a big thing. But there was something about the water that made them nervous.
For a while, we managed to hold onto our map, though no one could actually read it. At one point, we picked the wrong channel and were forced to walk our canoes upstream. Though I'm no expert, I think this was made more difficult with Jared lying in the boat, working on his safety issues.
Still, our spirits remained high. I was getting the hang of the steering. Now feeling like a veteran seaman, I tried to slip us through a narrow lane formed by two fallen trees. I guess I missed.
Our canoe slammed into a log, and the water rushing beneath us pulled us over again. As Jared floated down river after an errant paddle, I tried to yank the tent out of the water, but it was wrapped tightly around a tree branch.
I pulled and twisted, but I was raised on veggie burritos and Jamba Juice, in a land where boys play organized volleyball and hardly get ridiculed for it. It felt as if the tent had become part of the tree, another evil branch to wreak havoc on future explorers. I guess Mike Polk didn't want to get in the way, because he just watched from some rocks nearby, shaking his head.
Finally, I gave up. I told Jared that his tent would be left behind, confiscated by the Big River, but he wasn't as upset as I expected. He just lay on some rocks, moaning softly.
Not long after that, we saw the dam. At first, I figured it was the reason for the "VER OSED" sign. This excited me. It meant we would have to "portage" -- a term for when you get out of the river to carry your canoe around some sort of danger.
I had learned this a few days before. There was supposed to be an electrical storm that weekend. We don't have such things in California, and I wondered whether there was some sort of underground bunker midwesterners climbed into when the sky lit up and the thunder roared.
I Googled "canoe" and "safety," and learned that experienced outdoorsmen think canoeing in a thunderstorm is a bad idea. But when I raised this issue with James, the Boy Scout in him put me at ease. "Fuck that shit." I believe these were his exact words.
We pulled our boats over and stepped into the river. That's when we noticed it. Earlier, the Cuyahoga had been cool and somewhat clean. (Okay, maybe "yellow" and "odd-smelling" are more accurate descriptions.) But now the river felt warm and whipped, smelling like the puréed feces from a thousand toilets. We pulled our wet shirts over our noses, but we could not escape the notion that we were wading through the contents of a giant baby's diaper.
Ah yes. RIVER CLOSED.
Suddenly, Jared was swimming to shore, frantically paddling like a retarded puppy, leaving me to portage the canoe myself.
"Is this shit?" he asked, craning his neck to keep his face from the water.
"Yes," Mike Polk assured him affably.
I guess it was the deep greens and browns pouring from a nearby sewage pipe that allowed Mike Polk to answer with such confidence. And I guess that's why the guys had been so down on eating those soggy Pringles.
Our original plan was to stop at the halfway point and camp. But our original plan also was to cook hot dogs and drink beers, and by late afternoon, we had lost our buns in the shitwater and cashed most of our beers. (After the Sewage Incident, consumption had radically increased.) So we revised our plan.
Now we were trying to reach Valley View. James seemed to think there was a Quaker Steak and Lube restaurant not far from the river.
At 6 p.m., this seemed like a very decent revised plan. The sun was occasionally dipping behind the tall trees, bringing much desired shade. And the river was growing kinder, wider, and more gentle in its embrace.
This night -- it could be wonderful. Yes! We could bridge two days of adventure with an evening of hot food and tall tales. I could see myself, pink and glistening from a day in the sun, my muscles swollen to the size of bread sticks, sitting at dusk with a burger in one hand, a fresh beer in the other. We would laugh at the comical missteps of our day. We would plot a new day's triumph. And then we would sleep the sleep of small, tired children or homeless men.
But by 7, we were growing weary. We still hadn't reached Valley View, so we asked a fisherman for directions. All he said was "Croatian." I took this to mean he was Croatian and spoke only the language of his people, but Mike Polk started yelling things in Spanish. "¿Donde está wings? El Wings?" This didn't help.
Finally, we could see the net from a driving range, which James knew was close to Quaker Steak. But there was a problem. It was past 8 p.m. We didn't have time to sit down for a meal, nor did we figure the nice people at Quaker Steak would want us to, considering our appearance and odor. We needed to set up camp -- fast.
The river was flanked by the driving range and a playground of rusty nails and hollow sewer pipes. We climbed up the bank to a scrapyard and stood silently as the Boy Scout weighed our options.
"It's probably a $15 cab home," he said.
I was quiet. I was starting to think that Randy Newman was a prick. If he was still alive, I might call and tell him how much his Big River song sucks.
But it's hard to make friends in a new town if people think you're a wuss. Besides, I wanted to know what it felt like to push a canoe through the heart of a living, breathing city, to have Cleveland stop and cheer. Busty women, deep tans, margaritas -- they were telling me to keep quiet, not to endorse the newly revised plan of cabbing it home like a bunch of scared little --
Jared interrupted: "Dude, we got this."
Mike Polk: "A cab sounds like a pain in the ass."
And so we camped.
We decided that, with the likelihood of rabid possums or mildly schizophrenic security guards, sleeping in the scrapyard might not be a good idea. So we found a nice patch of poison ivy in the dense trees beyond it. There was a house not too far up the hill. But it looked as if it belonged to decent enough people, who probably didn't own any rifles with scopes.
We gathered discarded pallets and two-by-fours and dragged them into the woods for a fire. Experienced outdoorsmen that they are, James and Mike Polk volunteered to "set up camp." Experienced buyers of wings and French fries, Jared and I volunteered for Quaker Steak duty. We paddled across the river and scrambled up a steep, slippery bank, hiking toward the Quaker Steak's bright green lights -- the fluorescent gates of Wing Heaven.
I had never been to a Quaker Steak, but the automotive overtures in the name made me envision a greasy, perhaps slightly shady establishment. This, though -- this was clean. And crowded. It was an ocean of happy families, all embarking on one last weekend event before yet another Monday morning. Some video games for the kids. Three glasses of Chardonnay for Mom. Four Coors Lights for Dad. Point the minivan toward home.
We hustled past them all, past the host station and directly to the bathroom. I delicately tried to wash the sewage from my arms and legs. Then I watched the door while Jared soaped up his entire body and scrubbed off in the sink, like a serial killer with a dinner date. By the time he was done, the bathroom floor looked like the bottom of our canoe.
We found an empty section of the bar where we could place our order. As we stuffed napkins and matches into our pockets, the bartender made small talk, which made me a bit nervous. I was starting to think that wading in the Big River wasn't everyone's idea of a great adventure.
"Been working outside?" he asked.
Jared seemed eager to explain how we had canoed several miles and were covered in sewage, but I cut him off.
"Yeah," I said, peeling a wet $20 bill from my pocket. "Just clearing . . . some . . . stuff." Whew! I was proud of my manly ad lib.
The whole restaurant must have been looking at us, and it seemed like a week until our food came. But eventually we squished our way out. Jared told me to grab some newspaper for a fire, so I loaded 12 Scenes -- "Thank God this rag is free" -- under my arm as we left.
In the dark, we sliced stealthily across the river, and I imagined smuggling a nice Mexican family across the Rio Grande, sweetly assuring them that there would be a living wage and decent fajitas in their new home.
When we arrived at camp, a pile of stolen wood was burning bright and hot, warming the bare feet of James and Mike Polk. Nearby was our sleeping arrangement, which consisted of one tarp, one sleeping bag, and three thin blankets -- everything dry in our possession. Volunteering to "set up camp" was seeming less and less like the generous act of a Boy Scout and an affable celebrity.
I didn't bother washing the river from my hands. How bad could it be? Besides, I needed the water to pour onto my toe. I had cut it, and it was starting to look sort of green.
"Do they still amputate things?" I asked. I guess no one heard me, because they just stared into the fire and licked Arizona Ranch/Cuyahoga River sauce from their fingers.
One by one, we stumbled to the tarp. I didn't have a pillow, so I rested my head on a stack of Scenes and my arm in a soft, trampled patch of poison ivy.
We had lost our real bug repellent in the river, so we took turns showering ourselves with Jared's "organic bug repellent." It smelled sweet, like dandelions sprinkled with sugar. The bugs seemed to like it too. We spent the next nine hours with blankets tugged over our faces, trying to keep the mosquitoes out of our ears.
Eventually, the sun came up. Although I'm pretty sure I had nodded off for at least 45 minutes, I was pretty tired. But I was excited by the new day, and a renewed sense of adventure was rising inside me. I figured the guys were feeling it too, because they looked pretty focused as we loaded up our stuff for another day of canoeing. In fact, they were so intense, they didn't speak.
We silently dumped the toilet water from our boat and wrung out our belongings. We threw a sleeping bag and part of the tent on the shore to lighten the load; smelling as they did, no one would use them again anyway.
The water was glassy, like a freshly Zambonied ice rink. It was wide, and Jared and I stayed in the middle. Suddenly, when we needed to most, we had somehow learned to steer the damn boat. He pulled hard -- right, right, right, left, left -- and I reacted to his every move. He was the conductor, and I was his orchestra. Thunderous applause and multiple encores surely awaited us.
We were canoeing! We were like a jet ski, cutting clean lines in the water with no help at all from the Mighty Cuyahoga, which was sleeping in that morning. Burn on, big river!
It wasn't long before I started to feel lightheaded. I figured it was the lack of breakfast, combined with 90 minutes of paddling, since my previous exercise regimen consisted of power-walking home angrily after striking out at McNulty's Pub. But then I noticed the river changing colors again. It was suddenly a strange reddish yellow, the color of gasoline, and it smelled like a urinal that had been cleaned with my mother's nail-polish remover.
The luscious, wooded banks had been replaced by huge piles of coal and mounds of steel, the sharp lines and rusty reds of suburbia giving way to industry. Mutant gulls swooped at our heads. Giant carp flopped around like troubled teenagers on Fruity Pebbles and ecstasy.
My head ached. I said something about pulling over to throw up, but Jared must not have heard me because, for once, he kept paddling.
"If I go under here," he said, pulling hard on his right, "I'm not coming up."
Then James, who was paddling pretty hard himself, said, "I think this is where the river caught fire."
This is when I started to think that I should have stayed in California -- and that maybe I should have listened more carefully to the lyrics of Randy Newman.
After three hours of hard paddling, we began pushing past factories and bridges I recognized. The city's jagged skyline grew larger with every pull of my paddle. Soon we would reach the Flats. I was feeling a bit dirty, a bit too weary to drink cocktails and recount our exploits to the interested and intrigued. Maybe the busty girls at Shooters will take a rain check?
As I considered this, I noticed that the river was coming alive with people. A couple of rowers craned their necks as we passed, and I lifted my can of Slice, salvaged from the almost-empty cooler, to toast our equal devotion to the Cuyahoga.
A teenage girl, standing on the deck of a speedboat, watched us yank our way past, rowing harder with every thought of a shower. She smiled.
And then, right before we docked, I saw a man cleaning his boat. It was the coolest old boat, painted red and at least 50 years old, and its captain was tan and weathered from a lifetime on its deck. He was looking right at me as we pushed past, so I set down my paddle and waved. He was pretty far away, so I couldn't be certain, but I'm almost sure he waved back.
As we pulled our canoe into the Flats, the bars and restaurants were quiet. Our powerful surge had brought us to port early. It was Sunday, before 11 a.m. Cleveland was at mass -- or at home adding up the receipts from its hefty Saturday-night bar tab.
On the dock, Mike Polk was gone before I got out of my canoe. I figured I'd grab a beer with Jared and James, to recount the weekend's triumph and perhaps wait for the girls at Shooters to arrive. But the guys seemed eager to get going. They didn't even have time to drive 15 minutes to get me home.
I walked downtown alone and hailed a cab. Luckily, my driver seemed pretty interested in my great adventure. As I recounted the tale, he kept looking at me in his mirror, shaking his head in a way that I took to be one part awe, one part reverence.
I had become a true son of Cleveland. And I was home.