PRAISE FOR Elisa Korenne’s debut book Hundred Miles to Nowhere: An Unlikely Love Story.
“Big city girl marries a small town guy—that story. But never more engagingly told than in Hundred Miles to Nowhere. It’s full of humor, heart, and in the end proves that love always wins. Women will love this book, and I did, too.” ~Will Weaver, author of Sweet Land and The Last Hunter: An American Family Album
“An absolutely stunning debut. Brilliant, breathtaking and hopeful. Korenne is the ideal storyteller: part enchantress, part dogged reporter, wise, studious, generous. Her book is a superbly crafted journey into the unexpected riches of the rural American wilderness, and of the heart.” ~Josh Axelrad, author of the memoir Repeat Until Rich: A Professional Card Counter’s Chronicle of the Blackjack Wars
EXCERPT: Chapter Two – Bothered in Brooklyn
If one day we’re supposed to meet
Then you’re someplace now doing something I can’t see
Sometimes I try to imagine you
And what you’re doing while I wait here for you
—“I Don’t Yet Know You”
January – April 2006, New York City
There was no time to linger in admiration of my acceptance letter. The residency was in May, and now I had to earn money to support my music habit. Today’s consulting work included a client meeting with the director of a nonprofit. She expected me to deliver a report on how recently-released convicts could achieve self-actualization. My personal life didn’t make me an expert, so I had some research to do.
After putting the final touches on my report, I dressed in business casual and took the subway into Manhattan to the nonprofit’s Wall Street office. The meeting went long, and by the time I exited the building, the sidewalks were crowded with people in suits.
With a freelancer’s luxury of scheduling, it was rare for me to be on the subway at rush hour; I usually tried to avoid the crush. Every molded plastic seat was filled. I wedged myself between standing passengers. I balanced, clutching the steel grip-pole, tugging and pulling against the train’s motion as it rocked and stuttered a halting path to Brooklyn. Somewhere under the East River, a seat opened. I whisked into it before another person could take it.
Sitting, I could comfortably watch the other commuters, ranks of motley New Yorkers, bodies touching, eyes averted. Some read, others listened to earphones. While my neighbor napped, head bobbing sideways till it touched my shoulder and snapped up, I stared out the subway window at the flat black non-view of tunnel walls. I imagined green pastures and wide spaces, and wondered, yet again, whether life would be better in the countryside.
I pulled my New Yorker magazine out of my purse. As I tucked magazine between elbow and thigh, I spotted a familiar face in the front of the car. It was Jodi, whom I had known since our mothers met while walking us in strollers on the streets of Queens. Once upon a time, Jodi and I had written scraggly mirror-print letters on teddy-bear stationery between my home in New Zealand and hers in Staten Island. Today we lived four blocks apart in Brooklyn. Me, an aspiring songwriter. She, a big shot journalist. Me, alone. She, with her new husband, Ron.
Jodi sat; Ron stood over her, sheltering as an oak tree. Both were reading: Ron the Times, Jodi a book. They bobbed and swayed in unison, an unseen bond yoking their forms together. Their quiet communion was acid on a raw wound. Jodi and Ron read separately, but they were together, even in repose. Surrounded by the crowd, the two made one.
In the gap between their mutual belonging and my solitude, desire cut through me like a blade: I wanted what they had. Maybe this was the belonging I had been looking for in New York City, in my career. Maybe home was not a place, or a destination, but a connection to another person.
They hadn’t seen me. I dropped my gaze to my magazine and exhaled with relief.
I should have said hello. I should have waved. I was too far away for conversation, but I could have given up my seat and gone to them, walking my hands across the subway poles like monkey bars. It had been weeks, maybe months since I’d seen Jodi. There was always something to catch up on.
But I couldn’t move. I couldn’t wave. I could barely look at them.
I had dated. I had dated a lot. I met guys at parties. I met them online. Nothing had yet worked out. Finding love was not something I could control. It was safer to place my bets on another type of fulfillment, and I was putting all my chips on my music career.
I trudged from the subway. Too tired to cook dinner, I picked up take-out at the Chinese counter with the bullet proof glass. Curled up on my couch, I picked at fried dumplings. I took a bath in my grime-ringed bathtub and soothed myself with a half slice of heavily frosted chocolate cake from the bakery down the street. The purple flowers on my Calvin Klein sheets looked muted and sad in the tube of light from my reading lamp. Sleep was interrupted by intermittent road noise till the diesel roar of rush hour jumpstarted my morning.
On a music-focused day a few weeks later, after a morning of songwriting and returning emails to potential venues, I allowed myself to indulge in planning my Minnesota adventures. All the guidebooks said canoe-camping in Minnesota was not to be missed. I started by calling a list of outfitters near the Boundary Waters. I asked each one whether they might have a group trip available for me to join in May. By the time the third outfitter said no, I asked why. “May is too early in the season for most people up here. It’s too cold.”
From deep in my memory, I recalled freshman year in college, when one of my friends in Theater 101 used to tell hair-raising stories of delivering newspapers by bicycle during a Minnesota winter. He claimed his eyelashes iced together, and sometimes his eyes would even freeze open. I was convinced he was exaggerating for dramatic effect. Now I began to wonder if maybe he hadn’t been.
The outfitter continued, “If you could get a group together yourself, we’d be happy to offer you a private guide.”
I signed off, and decided to advertise for canoe tripmates on Minneapolis Craigslist, the Internet bulletin board.
Sitting at my wheeled desk in my brick-walled living room, I read three email responses to my Craigslist post. One was from a manic-depressive woman hoping the outdoors would cure her mania. Two were from young-sounding men who thought a canoe trip would make a great date.
I gave up on Craigslist and dialed the number for Lynn Kasma, Executive Director of the New York Mills Cultural Center. Her voice trilled with enthusiasm to hear from an upcoming visiting artist. After introductions, I leaned the phone against my shoulder and tugged at a pulled thread in my pants. “Is there any chance you might know someone who could help me organize a canoe camping trip to the Boundary Waters? It’s too early in the season for the canoe outfitters.”
Lynn laughed from deep in her belly. “I know the perfect guy for you.” A siren began to wail outside my window. “Chris Klein is one of our Board members. He’s an experienced outdoorsman, a triathlete, works in his family’s insurance business, and is an all-around good guy. He’ll be happy to take you canoeing. I think you’ll like him; he’s got a sparkle to him.”
She gave me his contact information, and I set down the phone. The siren’s pitch dropped as it moved away from my building.
My hand was still on the phone receiver when the fantasies began. Chris was a tall, muscular man with a sharp jawline and a week’s worth of backwoods stubble. He was the silent type, a mountain man, only inclined to speak when he had something to say. He was a man strong enough to carry two backpacks and row across oceans. Maybe Chris would be my chance at what I saw between Jodi and Ron on the subway.
I broke off my daydream. You haven’t even spoken to the man yet. He could be married. He could be an axe murderer.
Then I remembered I wasn’t looking for love in the Midwest, I was trying to go on a canoe-camping trip. I emailed him.
A couple of weeks went by, and I didn’t hear from Chris. My series of daydreams spawned spin-offs, Chris’s face always a blur. In the first fantasy, Chris hammered a tent stake into the ground then stepped back to admire his work. The camera of my mind panned wide to show him silhouetted on a steep mountain slope in boreal wilderness. In another daydream, a solitary Chris stood on a rocky shore with a spear made out of a tree branch, surveying the glassy surface of a lake.
Two weeks later, I still hadn’t heard from Chris. During one otherwise unproductive day when I was supposed to be creating a program plan for a technology nonprofit but was instead noodling on my guitar, I called Chris at his office.
“Klein Insurance.” The woman’s Minnesota accent scraped my ears.
“Hello. Is Chris Klein available?”
Typing sounds and distant conversation filled in the woman’s long pause. “I don’t think so. Who’s calling?” The ‘oo’ sound of ‘who’ came out of the woman’s nose.
My normal speech felt rushed compared to hers. “This-is-Elisa-Korenne-I’m-the-upcoming-visiting-artist-trying-to-get-in-touch-with-Chris-about-a-canoe-trip.”
The pause felt longer than a red light. “Who did you say?”
“Elisa Korenne.” I slowed down to match the woman’s pace. “Please tell him this is regarding the visiting artist.”
“Okay, dear. I’ll tell him.”
I dug my fingers into my temples and scrunched up my eyes until the sounds of the traffic outside my windows came into focus and then receded into background noise.
I needed to know more about this man.
I typed “Christopher Klein” into Google. A long list of entries about Christopher Kleins filled my screen, not one from New York Mills. I narrowed my search to Minnesota. I changed the spelling of Chris’s name. No luck. I searched the social networking website Friendster. Nothing. MySpace. Nothing again. Linked in? He wasn’t anywhere.
The next day, I returned from a gig to discover a message on my answering machine. “Hallooooo…(pause) this is Christopher Klein calling you back.” A cheerful masculine baritone surfed the diatonic scale, relishing every wave and curl of each long flat nasal vowel. I stopped breathing for a second. “It’s a bee-you-tiful day here in west-central Minnesota,” he said in the practiced swagger of a radio DJ. “I’m looking forward to talking to you.” I squinted in disbelief and pressed repeat. “Hallooooo…” His accent was the one from the movie Fargo I had thought was an exaggerated punchline.
I dumped my messenger bag on the desk and plopped down on the couch, jostling my two curled-up cats. They stretched, disgruntled. I patted each of their heads and called my friend Maggie. She answered with her usual gleeful, “Hiiiii-eee!”
“Maggie—you are not going to believe this guy I’m supposed to go on a camping trip with!” I put my feet on the armrest and scooped the nearest cat into my lap.
“Did you Google him?”
“Yes. I couldn’t find him.”
“What about Friendster?”
“Mags, this guy is not on Friendster.”
“Everyone’s on Friendster! Maybe you spelled his name wrong.”
“No Mags, really. Listen to his message.” I held the phone to the answering machine. “Hallooooo…” The message was even more alien on the third listen. I put the phone to my ear. “Well?”
Maggie’s laughter bubbled into my earpiece. “This guy is definitely NOT on Friendster! Wow, I’ve never heard an accent like that. I thought that accent was made up for the movie Fargo.”
“I know!” I yelled into the phone.
After agreeing that the only way I was going to learn more about Chris was by talking to him, we ended our call. A bit breathless, I dialed the home number Chris had left on my machine.
“Halloo,” the baritone voice came at me live and in real time. I sat up straighter on the couch.
“Hi, this is Elisa Korenne, the upcoming artist-in-residence.”
“Well, hullo there. How are you this fine evening?”
“Um, fine… thanks. Did Lynn Kasma tell you I was looking for someone to go camping with?”
A beat. I picked at a cuticle. It was still his turn to speak. He didn’t. “Oh, good,” I said. I waited a few more milliseconds, the couch edge digging into my legs. “Would that be something you might be able to help me with?”
“Sure,” he paused. “Except the Boundary Waters…well, that’s a bit far away from here.”
“About six hours’ drive.”
I hadn’t realized Minnesota was that big. Chris continued. “It’s been a busy time for me at work, so I was thinking it might be easier if we stuck a bit closer to New York Mills. There’s a river about an hour away that’s a beautiful paddle ride. It’s called…” I wasn’t sure, but it sounded like he said ‘Curling River.’ “It’ll take about three days, and there are some great camping spots along the way. I’ll find some people to go with us.”
It wasn’t the Boundary Waters, but it was canoe-camping in Minnesota. We set the date for the first weekend in May.
When we got off the phone, I logged into MapQuest to learn more about the river that would be the site of my mighty canoe-camping adventure. According to the Internet there was no Curling River in the entire state of Minnesota.