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Off Course, Thanks to Divine Guidance

He'd set out to kayak the length of the Mississippi River, but it wasn't going well. Then the cell phone he thought was broken rang...

By Paul Stutzman, Berlin, Ohio

As appeared in

The wind gently combing through the rust-colored weeds, calm waves lapping at the hull of my yellow kay­ak. Peaceful, right? Wrong. I didn’t want to spend one more minute on this stinkin’ river out in the middle of nowhere.

I swatted another mos­quito. I was tired of muttering to the empty air, sick of complaining, sick of being alone. Sick of myself.

Ever since my wife, Mary, died, seven years earlier, I’d been search­ing for something I couldn’t quite de­scribe. I’d quit my job as a restaurant manager to hike the Appalachian Trail, more than 2,000 miles. Then I’d biked 5,000 miles from Washington State to Florida. All by myself.

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Alone was not the way we did things where I came from. I grew up in a traditional Mennonite family. My three sisters’ idea of getting away from it all was the cross-country bus trip with 30 of our cousins that they were on right now. I needed to be with family, they said.

No thank you. As much as I adored my family, they were smothering me. Stopping by with enough casseroles to feed an army, calling daily to check up on me. I hadn’t yet found what I was looking for, but I wasn’t going to find it with them, whatever it was. Clo­sure? Peace? Understanding? God?

I’d wanted to paddle down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico ever since reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a kid. I bought all the guidebooks, did the research, mapped out my route. Most kayakers finished in three months. I would do it in two.

Sure, the first leg of the jour­ney, in northern Minnesota, would be tricky. But I could manage it.

Wrong. I’d spent the first day stuck in weeds, forced to carry my kayak over my head in search of deeper wa­ter. Next came muddy swamps, chan­nels clogged with fallen trees, wild-rice fields so tall and packed it was like trying to paddle through a hairbrush.

Then I flipped my kayak, landing head­first in the roaring river and soaking my cell phone. It hadn’t worked since.

Now I was nearing a dot labeled Cohasset on the map, north of Grand Rapids. Not on my original route. In fact, I should’ve been in Iowa by now. But I was too exhausted to correct my course.

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“Lord, I want to go home!” I cried out. Eight days—that’s how long it’d taken the mighty Mississippi to finally break a tough old guy like me.

What had I been trying to prove? I’d come out here to be alone, and I’d gotten my wish. I couldn’t even call anyone.

I spotted Cohasset in the distance. A desolate beach. I wondered what I’d find on shore. Bears? Coyotes? A plague of locusts?

My pocket vibrated. My phone? I grabbed it, hands trembling. The screen glowed. How was it working?

“Paul? Paul?” the voice on the oth­er end crackled. My brother-in-law? Wasn’t he on the big bus trip?

“I had the strangest urge to call you,” he said. “You okay out there?”

“I dunno,” I admitted. “Honestly, it’s been a nightmare. What about you? How’s the West Coast?”

“We took a bit of a detour through Canada,” he said. “We’re headed back. You in Iowa yet?”

“Not yet,” I said, sitting up straight­er in my kayak. “Where are you?”

“Let me check with the driver,” he said. “Looks like we’re about to pass through some tiny town.... Cohas­set, Minnesota. Ever heard of it?”