A taste of homelessness

I made reference in my last post about spending the night on the floor of the cafeteria of the local Catholic Church in Bellaire, OH.  I would like to add more now, several weeks later.  It is always my intention to write more about our canoe trips but life gets in the way once I return home and my dreams of writing a great book about this adventure diminish. 

But that last night on the river is worth a new post.  We pushed a little too far the last day.  Having been forced off the river because of lightening and our promise to our husbands that we would not stay on the river in that kind of a storm, we spent about 90 minutes under a highway bridge over a small creek emptying into the Ohio.  Maybe because we lost some time in that endeavor…though we we able to use the little cook stove to heat water and have tea while we waited it out…we stayed out on the river a little later than we usual planned to.  We were also in the Wheeling area and really didn’t expect to find much in terms of camping opportunities.

That turned out to be the case.  We stopped at a city park where some people were fishing.  They said they thought we could just camp there but there were no port-a-potties or secluded woods to use and there were houses nearby and it just didn’t feel right.  So we let the fairly swiftly moving current take us on down the river a bit where we paddled hard to get to a dock to ask about camping.  Karen slogged in this time to a tobacco store and found little helpful information so we set out again.  Soon we were heading to what appeared on our navigation charts to be a boat club.  Having had success the night before at a private club, we were hopeful.  But our hopes were dashed when we could not find anything resembling a dock or a ramp and we were surrounded by coal barges on both sides of the river and nothing but city and industry as far as our eyes could see.

What our eyes could also see was the approaching dusk AND the approaching lightening.  We had navigational lights to put on the canoe should we have had to paddle at night but the approaching storm precluded that possibility.  We spotted a boat ramp on the other side of the river and gauging that we could likely paddle fast enough to make it before the current swept us past it, we heaved to and paddled like the dickens, wary of the occasion flash on lightening and roll of thunder.

We got to the ramp and pulled up the canoe and chatted with a friendly fisherman who warned us against camping there due to the “druggies.”  Ok.  We didn’t need to worry all night that drug deals would be going on around us so we inquired about options.  Joe was his name and he took us by his car to the gas station so we could use the bathrooms.  From there he asked what we wanted to do.  We asked about local churches and he asked if we were Catholic.  When we said no, he said he’d take us to the Salvation Army which amused us.  The idea that we had to be Catholic to go to that church seemed to be his default.  We declined the Salvation Army and he ended up showing us where ethe Catholic Church was, explaining that all the activity was due to the 8th grade graduation.  We puzzled that he knew this and decided is was likely a small enough town that everyone knew everything.

He took us back to our canoe and left us there to ponder our next steps.  We looked for off the beaten path places to camp near the parking lot.  But between the warning and the rain which had started again AND the lightening, we were duly spooked and decided to take some of our belongings and trudge in our wetsuits back up to the church to see if there were still people around.  To our disappointment, the place was now desserted and the rectory dark.  We decided to ring the doorbell and were pleasantly surprised when a light came on and a young priest emerged.  I (Maggie) spoke first:  “Sorry to bother you so late but we need your help.”  Do you know how hard it is to say those words?  I was surprised to hear them come from my mouth.  I explained our situation…and that I was clergy and Karen a Christian camp director.  I found myself caught in defending our position of need.  Embarrassingly, I found myself explaining that we were well to do and could make a donation to the church.  Why did those words come out of my mouth.    Did I think that perhaps he would take us in more readily if were were not destitute?   Did I have to explain myself?  At the same time the words sounded totally stupid and were frighteningly true. In the world of the homeless, Karen and I might as well be millionaires.  Karen made quite a bit of fun of me later and I made her swear she would never tell anyone what I said.  Now, however, I find myself wanting to write about it because it was all so surreal.  I have camped a lot.  I have travelled and not known what motel or B & B we might find along the road.  But never have I wondered the streets of an unknown town in the dark and rain and not known where or if I would sleep that night.  We could not help but to think about those for whom this is a daily reality.  Those who may not have been offered the church floor.

We were truly homeless that night.  It was 9 pm.  We were wet, cold and hungry.  There were no neon lights directing us to a Motel 6.  There seemed to be nothing there but the church and the town water offices, some closed gas station and some homes.  It was spooky just walking to the church, over the railroad tracks, under a highway overpass.  But to have the priest open the door and look puzzled when seeing the waterlogged middle aged women at his doorstep, was a relief.  I asked if there was somewhere we could set our tent and he graciously offered to let us sleep in the cafeteria under the church.  We left our stuff in the basement after her showed us around and then went back to the canoe to get the rest of our gear. 

Rain and lightening continued and we decided to heed the warnings of another fisherman about the water level and pulled the canoe up further and locked it to a guard rail.  We walked the 1/2 mile or so back to the church with the rest of our gear on our backs.  Once back, we stripped off our wetsuits, made our dehydrated mac and cheese in the church kitchen and got in our sleeping bags on the concrete floor.  At 10:30 pm we were not yet asleep when we heard a key in the door and foot steps.  Calling out that we were down there lest we startle someone, we learned it was the milk man delivering for the school the next day.  He made his delivery and left and locked up.  The priest had also warned us that the custodian would be in at around 6:30 am so we were up by 5:30 and packing when we heard the now familiar sound of the key and the footsteps.  We called out again and a man responded.  As he came around the corner, we recognized the fisherman, Joe, who had shown us the church the night before!  He never told us that he was the custodian!  The priest had called him and told him we were there so he was not surprised.  I think the priest may have been surprised to learn that Joe had met us at the river the night before!

We packed up and returned to the canoe to find that the river had risen a good two feet more in just the last six hours or so.  We were glad we had pulled the canoe up farther on the bank.  The fatigue of the three days of paddling and the uneasiness of the night before had taken its toll.  We looked out at the river, flowing fast with logs and debris…nothing different from the last few days but somehow looking scarier now…and we hesitated for a bit about getting back in the river.  It just felt harder.  But we decided to do it anyway and once in the canoe, the river did not feel scary at all.  We travelled the same speed as the logs, more or less, so they didn’t pose much of a threat.  It was interesting to note that the river looks much scarier from the shore than once on it.  I think that is the case with many things.  They look scary until we just do them.  However, there are certainly times that the fear SHOULD keep us from doing some things.  Fortunately, this was not one of those times.

Thankful for the care we had been given the night before and humbled by our brief but intense encounter with homelessness, we headed out for our last day on the river for this trip.


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