It seemed as if those tiny specks I saw way out in the water must be people. I couldn't be sure, but I just had that feeling.
At about 5:00 p.m. on a day in late August, I walked along the stony beach of Yellowstone Lake. What I saw fascinated me. I would have loved to have taken a swim, but I had been warned, "that water is much too cold at this season for humans to enter (as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit)". As I drew closer, I could see that they were indeed humans, a man and a woman. What's more, they frolicked in the most carefree manner. As I mumbled to myself in amazement, a voice called to me from nearby.
"Do you think we should warn them?"
I turned and saw a woman sitting on a rock at the base of the embankment behind the beach. I went over to her.
"Excuse me?" I said.
"Don't you think we should warn them? I read somewhere that there's only a ten-minute tolerance in that water. Then hypothermia sets in."
She watched me with clear searching eyes, under the large straw hat she wore. I could not determine her age. Her smooth skin and long flowing hair gave her a youthful appearance, but she was no child.
"How long have they been out there?" I asked.
"I'm not sure, but I don't think they should have gone in at all."
"Well, they seem to be fine. They're still laughing and playing."
"I know, but it's the after-effects I'm worried about," she said.
"I doubt that they'd hear me if I called, anyway."
She shook her head and shrugged in resignation, looking down at the large open book she held on the laps of her long denim dress.
She looked up again.
"Are you a tourist?" she asked.
I told her that I came with a tour group and that we were just stopping overnight at the hotel above the beach; that it disappointed me not to have more time at such a beautiful lake.
"It is very beautiful," she agreed. "That's why I came here."
"You work at the hotel?"
"Yes, I work in the kitchen."
"You've been here long?"
"Just a week."
"So how come you came here?"
"I wanted to get away."
“From the rush of the world. To be in nature. To find personal peace."
"Did you have a lot of stress?"
"I suppose so."
"D-do you have any family? Did you leave...?"
"No. Well, I have parents, but no husband or children, if that's what you mean."
"You left a job?"
"Yes, I was a secretary in Salt Lake City."
"And you just left?"
"Yes. Well, I came to Salt Lake City about a year ago. I came from Kansas, and before that, Oklahoma."
"So you've been a sort of wanderer."
"Well, I had someone else--a special person in my life."
"But he's gone?"
"It must be hard."
"Yes, but I'm strong. I can find my own peace. One has to."
"But you just left everything?"
"Doesn't it frighten you to think you have no security?"
"I have to make my own security."
She was watching the swimmers, who seemed less lively now.
"I think somebody should stop them."
"They're adults," I said. "They should know what they're doing."
"How many adults do you know who know what they're doing?"
I had to admit, upon reflection, that she had a point.
"I myself don't," I confessed. "That's why I'm so amazed that you could make such a sweeping decision to suddenly leave everyone and everything."
"I don't really have anyone," she said.
"And your possessions? Don't you own anything?"
"Well, I do have a few things stored in my father's and stepmother's house in Florida."
"You don't visit them?"
"We're not close. I've really been wandering for a long time. Being a secretary, I had no trouble getting jobs in Kansas City and Salt Lake City. And as I said, I had a companion. You know, I'm really worried about those people. They must have been in twenty minutes by now!" She stood up and started walking toward the water. When she got to the point on the shore closest to the swimmers, she started to wave and shout. "Hey, you swimmers! Hey people out there! Listen to me! You should come in now! That water is too cold! It's dangerous!"
The lone figure there on the beach, with her waving arms and shouting voice, seemed like a mighty prophetess, thundering a warning to desist or be forever condemned.
The swimmers either didn't hear or were not about to listen to a stranger's commands. After a while, she gave up and came back to me.
"That's the problem with places like this," she said. "No lifeguard, no boats. Someone needs to go out and drag them in. I wouldn't be able to do that. Would you?"
Not even wanting to consider such a thing, I quickly said, "But they're not drowning or anything."
"But they may be soon," she said ominously.
"I still say that as adults they're responsible for their own welfare."
"We've already been through that," she said with irritation. "Men don't usually take responsibility," she muttered.
I was taken aback.
"Is that what happened with the man you were traveling with?" I said bluntly.
"It doesn't matter," she said, more calmly. "Many men are like that."
What does one do when faced with the unpleasant, unacknowledged truth? He keeps silent.
She picked up her book again and stared at it, but was not reading.
I looked at my watch. 5:20. I had to get back to the hotel soon to shower and dress for 6:30 dinner. I gazed again at the swimmers. I imagined that they were nearer shore than before. Maybe they're coming in now, I hoped.
"I think they're coming in," I said to her.
"They'll never do it," she responded. "You know, there's something...I forget what it's called...it's like when you lie down in the snow and start to freeze. Then you don't want to get up. Something makes you just lie there and freeze to death, even though you could still help yourself. That's why you have to force people to live."
"That could never happen to you," I said.
"I don't know...That's why I keep moving, I guess."
"It could happen to me," I said. "I tend to give up."
"I can see that."
"I live in the same house I was born in." I continued. "And I cling to it."
"Didn't you ever think of striking out on your own--taking the plunge--risking--just to prove that you could do it."
"I guess I know I couldn't."
"That's what I keep telling you."
She thought for a long time.
I realized that the swimmers weren't coming in. In fact, I wasn't sure they weren't going out.
"O.K.," she said," I guess I'm also running."
"From day-to-day drudgery. From unkindness. From dog-eat-dog city life."
"From the man?"
"The ‘special’ person in your life?" I pursued.
"Was he unkind?"
"No...at least not deliberately. But he had his life to lead and I have mine."
"So we parted."
"What is it?" I asked.
"I-I thought I heard one of the swimmers scream."
"I didn't hear anything."
"There! Listen! Yes, that was a scream...and another."
She looked me dead in the eye.
"This is your chance."
"This is your chance."
"What chance? I don't know what you're..."
"Your chance to break the cord. Your chance for adventure. Your chance to prove that you can do it."
I was riddled with fear.
"I'll watch and pray for you," she said. "I'm sure you can do it, if you want to."
I stood looking at her.
Her eyes offered me no choice. Go and do it, or be forever branded a coward.
"But you said the water was too cold..."
She started reading her book.
Something impelled me toward the shore. When I reached it, I looked back for approval, but her eyes did not rise from the book. I couldn't believe I was doing it, but I unlaced and took off my shoes. I looked back again. Still no acknowledgment. I stood up, eyeing the deep blue. Must I really do this?
Shouts came to my ears. Laughter. Splashing.
I looked up. There they were! They were coming! They were on their feet! They were walking! They were very alive! I was saved!
As the man and woman stepped out of the water, other people appeared on the beach from somewhere.
"How's the water?" asked one.
“Isn't it a bit cold?" asked another.
"I'm surprised you're still alive," added another.
"It is a bit nippy," said the man, a robust dark-haired fellow, maybe forty, laughing heartily. He looked slightly blue, but otherwise appeared in excellent condition. The woman, somewhat younger, looked more exhausted and wanted to sit down, wrapped in a robe and towels. She shivered slightly, and also giggled.
My friend watched it all from her rock.
I went back to her.
"So I failed," I said.
"Not really," she said. "You made the move."
"But I was saved at the crucial moment."
"You would have taken the plunge, if you hadn't been."
Again those solid eyes.
"Believe me, I know. And, as I said, I'm also running."
"You keep coming back to that."
"Yes, I think it's vital."
"Alright. I was really counting on him. I gave up my security to go with him."
"So that's it."
"But it's alright. We were each meant to find our own ways in life. I know I can. I'm strong..."
I wanted to say more, but she went back to her book. The swimmers, seemingly fully recovered, had gathered their possessions and now trudged toward the path that led up to the hotel.
"They're fine now," I said. "I guess all that worry was for nothing."
"As I said, it's the after-effects I'm worried about."
"And I don't think anyone screamed, either," I added.
She looked at me mischievously.
"Yes, from the moment I saw you, you were screaming."
"I don't understand...”
"I was once at a place like this--on the shore of a beautiful lake, with a group of people. We were staying at a resort. This boy had a dream. He stood on the shore with us and we watched a small seaplane take off and fly over the lake. The boy said, `I want to fly like that plane.' We, we adults, laughed. He wanted to fly. We all said, `You can't fly. It's not possible. Only in mythology and religious miracles did people ever fly by their own power. And we don't seem to have those things around anymore.' But he said, `I want to fly.' And we thought he would forget about it soon. But he kept on talking about it--the next day and the next. After a while, we all got tired of it.
I was young then and I thought it was just foolishness. Now I know what he wanted. What he wanted was to be sure of himself--to be set free from the domination of his parents, his teachers, and all authority--wanted his own power--new vistas--to be above the world, looking down on it.
One day he was gone. Immediately a search was started. It continued for two days, but he was not to be found anywhere. His parents cried and cried. They were desperate. We all tried to comfort them. The countryside and eventually the whole country was fine-tooth-combed. Nowhere!
Did he really learn to fly? Did he stand on the shore, looking up at the sky and wish and try so hard that he finally lifted himself lightly off the beach and, gathering speed, soared away to his fantasy land?"
She stared evenly at me with her microscope eyes.
"I prefer to believe that he did."