The Drive Around Phantom Lake
by Jim Bates
Hot Black Coffee
"Nicki, look," Frank pointed. Dust billowed as he slowed the car to a stop. Out on Phantom Lake about one-hundred yards from shore were a pair of trumpeter swans and their four young. "See how white they are. Big, too. Aren't they beautiful?"
Frank was taking his time driving up the west side of Crex Meadows, a thirty thousand acre wildlife refuge in northwestern Wisconsin. He had driven to the area that morning from their home in Long Lake, Minnesota, a three hour journey, just to see birds in their fall migration. It was mid September and already the oaks and maples were turning rusty red and orange.
Frank pointed again, becoming excited, "Look at all the ducks. I can see blue-wing teal, redheads and shovelers." He peered through his binoculars and added, "There's also some common mergansers farther out and a few golden eye. Bufflehead, too." He smiled, "That's very cool." He silently gazed over the big lake, a half mile across and a mile long, a well-known stopover for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl feeding and resting on their long flight south. He was enthralled.
After a while he put the car and gear and continued at a slow pace, stopping frequently to watch the ducks, dipping and dabbling in the calm water. Overhead bald eagles and red-tail hawks soared in a robin's egg blue sky.
A movement to the left caught his eye, "Look, Nicki, there's a marsh hawk," he pointed, "And a sharp-shined, too." Both raptors were gliding over the marsh grasses the area was named for, Crex being short for carex, the grasses common in the huge wetland and at one time used to make rugs.
He drove on. "You having a good time?" he asked. The loop around the refuge was seventeen miles of gravel road and he was enjoying puttering along, moving slowly, pointing out clusters of sandhill cranes feeding in nearby corn fields, various songbirds, more eagles and hawks and even some osprey. It took two hours to make the drive and he loved every minute of it. He was sure Nicki did, too.
The end of the drive took him past a modern looking visitor center remodeled ten years earlier with donations from the one-hundred thousand visitors to the refuge each year. He and Nicki had generously contributed and had become friends with many of the staff.
He parked and walked through the front door, glancing to the right into a small office. His friend, Bob Jensen, was at his desk working on a computer. He was the game warden for the area including the refuge. "Hi, Bob," he called, waving.
Bob grinned and walked out to greet him. The two men shook hands, "Good to see you, Frank. Beautiful day, isn't it?"
"Can't beat it. But give me a minute, will you?" Frank held up one finger and shuffled his feet. "I need to use the little boys room."
"Go for it," Bob smiled.
On his way back, Frank joined Bob who was talking to a high school girl running the cash register in the gift shop. They chatted for a few minutes about the waterfowl migration before Frank said, "Well, I'd love to talk some more but I've got to hit the road. Long drive ahead."
"I'll walk you out," Bob said.
Outside, the scent of pine was pungently pleasing in the warm, late afternoon sun. They walked quietly until Bob touched Frank's shoulder and said, "Say, before you leave, I just wanted to say how sorry I was to hear about Nicole. I couldn't make it to the funeral last spring, but I was thinking of you both. She was a great person."
Frank laughed, "What'd you mean, Bob? She's doing just fine. She's great."
Bob just stared at the old man, bent with age, withered with not only arthritis but also the years, and decided not to push it. "Okay, whatever you say, my friend. See you next year?"
"You bet. We'll be up for spring migration. Maybe even participate in the April sandhill crane count."
"Sounds good. See you then."
Both men shook hands once more. Bob watched Frank get into his car and pull away, wondering if the old guy would even be alive next spring. He'd aged considerably since his last visit. Oh, well. Bob headed inside to the sound of geese flying overhead and crossed his fingers, saying a silent prayer. We can but hope.
It was dark by the time Frank got home. He fixed a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner and fed Hootie, his seven year old tabby cat. The two kept each other company for the rest of the evening.
He began nodding off while watching the ten o'clock news so he got ready for bed. Breathing a heavy sigh, he slid under the covers, lay on his back and stared into the darkness. It'd been a long day and he was exhausted. He felt Hootie jump onto the bed and make herself comfortable down by his feet. In a moment he heard her purring. He smiled. She was a good companion. Then he turned to his side, put his hand on the empty spot next to him and said, "Good night, Nicki. What a great day we had, didn't we?" The only reply was the soft purring of the cat.
He pulled the covers tight, happy he'd made it through another day without succumbing to the crushing loneliness he'd felt ever since his wife's death. Each day was a challenge. Each day he did the best he could.
He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. Tomorrow he'd get up and face the day. With Nicki's help, of course. With her forever and always by his side, he'd find a way. He was sure of it.