All of the other ferry passengers had the good sense to remain in their heated vehicles, but something drew me out. Informing Marvin, my customer, that I'd be right back, I pulled my woolen hat down over my ears and ventured forth.
The night sky was moonless, and the wind cried Mary as I made my way to the bow, where three suspended horizontal chains marked the tenuous dividing line between dry safety and man overboard. A single spotlight illuminated the vessel's way forward across Lake Champlain, revealing the source of a bone-rattling sound. The din was all encompassing, akin to standing six feet from a passing freight train.
This winter had been marked by long stretches of subzero temperatures, freezing the big lake like we hadn't seen in years. To counter Mother Nature (and stay in business), the Grand Isle-Plattsburgh ferry ran all day and night, breaking up the ice sufficiently to maintain a navigable channel — but only just.
The water's surface was a black, chunky stew of silvery floes and shards of white. The ambient roar was generated by the ferryboat's flat steel bottom smashing through the vast, icy carpet. If this sounds dangerous, I took solace in the fact that Lake Champlain Ferries has been in continuous operation since 1826, with nary a Titanic-like incident.
My mind blown and senses stimulated, I returned to the taxi.
"What's it like out there?" Marvin asked. He had been in a state of wonder over the weather from the moment we stepped out of the airport terminal in Burlington.
"Well, put it this way," I replied, pausing to best land the joke. "It ain't Texas."
"No, I suppose not," Marvin said, chuckling. He was a gentle and round middle-aged man with fine, sandy-colored hair. "This is as far north as I've ever traveled," he volunteered. "I rarely get out of Houston. Now that I think about it, this is the first time I've ever seen real snow."
Our enclosed chamber felt cozy, with the drone of the boat's engine and muffled ice-breaking creating an oddly comforting backdrop. I wondered what had drawn Marvin out of the land of armadillos and into Yankee country. So I asked him just that, substituting — for clarity — "Lone Star State" for "land of armadillos."
"Well, I'm here to visit Travis, a dear old friend of mine who lives in Plattsburgh and is quite ill. He lived in Houston for many years and, for most of that time, we were roommates. For, like, a minute we were a couple, but both quickly realized that didn't make much sense. So we became close friends, which is in some ways just as deep."
"How long are you up here for?" I asked.
"Well, that's open-ended. Hence the cat."
As if on cue, a meow emanated from the canvas carrying case at his feet.
"Now, now, Waylon," he cooed. "Be a good boy. We're almost there."
"Don't tell me," I said. "Named for Waylon Jennings?"
"The one and only," he affirmed with a laugh.
The ferry slowed to a crawl and joggled into its landing dock. Our turn came, and we drove off onto dry New York land. Approaching the traffic light at Route 9, I pointed out Gus' Red Hots, a restaurant and local landmark.
"That's so old-fashioned," he said. "You know, calling hot dogs 'red hots.'"
"Yeah, I think you'll find that's true about a lot of things in New York's North Country. You can see it in the signage and the stores and the architecture. Life seems to be frozen in, like, 1958. It's kind of quaint and depressing at the same time."
We turned onto Interstate 87 south for a short stretch. Travis resided in an apartment house located north of the downtown area and populated by seniors and folks with disabilities. I was employing the GPS to find the place, even though I probably knew the way without satellite assistance. Despite fighting it every step of the way, I have succumbed: I am officially a digital wuss.
Travis' building was huge, perhaps a dozen stories, rising like a monadnock from its flat surroundings. Indeed, it was nearly a twin to Decker Towers Apartments, a senior-living facility in Burlington and the tallest building in Vermont.
Travis was waiting outside for us as we pulled up to the main entrance. He sat in a wheelchair with a breathing tube affixed to his nose. His legs and torso appeared withered; his skin was grayish. But his bright eyes glistened. Waylon the cat — who evidently had a feeling for big moments like this — began meowing again.
Marvin got out and walked over to his friend, crouching to take him in a warm, extended embrace. Decoupling, they faced each other, hands touching hands.
"Marvin, has it been seven years?" Travis asked.
"More like 10, I think, but who's counting?" Marvin said, chuckling. "All I know is, it's good to see you again. Now we're going to get you all better."
Travis smiled wistfully. I could almost hear his unspoken thought: OK, my old friend, that's how we'll play it.
"In God's will, Travis," he said softly. "All better."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.