"Walt by the River”
5 September 1994
There are 3 parts to "Walt by the River": the actual story of Walt in 2 parts and then what makes Walt so special to me although I only met him twice and then only briefly.
Part 1: Meeting Walt for the First Time
The first time I saw Walt, he was standing on a small sandbar, which jutted out a little ways into the south fork of Virginia's Shenandoah River. I was coming down the river on a 2 day, 60 mile, canoe trip with my youngest, 11 year old, daughter and 2 of her friends and we were at the end of day one and looking for the camp ground at Watermelon Park. I knew approximately where the park was but there had not been a sign advertising anything all day long and thus did not expect to see one for the camping ground.
Seeing a man standing on the sandbar was a welcome sight as he was the first human we had seen all day and so I called out to him, "Can you tell me where Watermelon Park is? I think it should be near here." He called back, "You at it. Better stop soon or you will be out of the park." And drifting past the man, I quickly found a place where the river bank was not too steep and soon we were out of our 2 canoes and on solid ground again. Land.. It had been a long but very enjoyable day on the river.
Quickly we set about pitching our 2 tents within feet of the river, unpacking the food and starting a fire. Once the girls had put down their sleeping blankets, they wanted to head out to the shower house we had spotted and as it was still daylight and the park seemed complete empty of others, I waved them on but told them not to be long as dinner would soon be ready.
As I watched the girls head for the shower house, I noticed for the first time, an odd looking panel truck parked not too far away and then a man sitting on a picnic table, alone, drinking something from a brown paper bag. "This might not be good.", I thought. Little girls, out here in an empty park and some strange man drinking what was obviously alcohol. What to do? It was too late to get back into the canoes and head on down river. We had to stay here and so I tried to put the man, so close, out of my mind and went ahead preparing supper.
The girls soon came back refreshed from having taken a hot shower although they all said the shower house was gross with spiders and dirty and we all proceeded to eat the dinner I had fixed. All ate heartily and after dinner we all washed our dishes in the river and the girls went into their tent to play card games and talk and laugh.
I cleaned up the last of the dishes and then tended the fire for a while before turning my attention to the man on the picnic table. He was still there but now had his own little campfire going. What to do? Maybe I should go talk with him and size him up and if I have to, warn him not to mess with us during the night. And so, I got up and walked slowly towards the man sitting on the picnic table, obviously absorbed by the light of this campfire and that brown bag he still held and drank from as I approached.
"Hello", I called out and when he turned his head, I saw it was the man I had seen on the sandbar who had helped me locate the camping park. "Oh", I said, "It is you. Thanks for the help. I knew the park was around here somewhere but just not sure where." He did not say a word but I approached anyway. As I got closer, he looked me up and down, maybe sizing me up and then holding out the brown paper bag said, "Like a drink?" "No thanks", I said, "But would not mind sitting a spell with you and talking." "Fine with me.", he said. "Gets lonely here sometimes. Name is Walt."
Walt was a short, thin man, maybe mid thirties in age, had a full head of hair buried under a painter's cap and a clean-shaven face except for a dense moustache. As I sat down, I noticed just beyond the picnic table we were both sitting on now, there among the low branches of a large tree, right on the river bank, was this tarp hung overtop a lawn chair, a table made out of river driftwood and pots and pans hung here and there.
"Yours?" I asked pointing to the canopy and odd collection beneath it. "Yeah, I been here a while and that is stuff that I have collected out of the river as it has come drifting by or has washed up on the bank somewhere near here.", he said, taking another drink from the brown paper bag.
He seemed to calm, at peace, I thought. Does not seem afraid of me or actually be projecting any sort of feeling other than being a peace.
"Here awhile" I asked? "You not just camping?" "No", he began, "Sort of a long story. See I was living in Wisconsin with is woman in a nice house and had me a nice job and we were real happy or so I thought so and then one day she comes home and says she wants us to move to California to be near her parents and wants me to drive her there and so I do. But when we got to California, she started drinking and turned mean and one night she attacked me with a bottle and even bit him on the arm. Well, enough of that none-sense and so I headed out and left her there. Drove for a couple days, just driving with no idea where to drive to then I thought maybe it was time to see my 2 boys. I been divorced once." They, my boys, they live in Berryville, which just down the road from here and so I headed here, to Virginia. Made it here cross country, on what money I had but had no real money for a hotel or anything so I found this place and it only costs me $5 dollars a day or when the old man owner or his son comes by to actually collect the money which is not all that often. Nice old man. Son not so nice though. Anyway, I been here for 3 weeks now. Right here by this old river and I like it. Fish for my breakfast, berries nearby are ripe, deer come down to the river right over there every morning to say hello, the sound of the river puts me to sleep every night, river gives me all sorts of stuff like all that stuff under the canopy over there and the canopy too for that matter and nobody bothers me. Not much of a campground and not many folks coming and going. You the first in a week or more. Haven't seen my boys yet. Not sure what I waiting on. Somehow, I just do not know what to do or where to go and so I just stay here. Hurt me real bad when my friend attacked me in California. She a lot older than me but that did not matter to me. I liked her, maybe even loved her." and with that, Walt became quiet and once again drank from the bag and stared at the fire.
I could hear the girls across the way and see their flashlights inside the tent and I knew they were fine. "My turn.", I thought. "On a 2 day canoe trip with my daughter and 2 of her friends. Not bad first day but hot. Saw some snakes and stuff but never had to use my pistol." He never flinched or otherwise seemed to acknowledge my use of the word pistol, which I really did not have with me. I liked Walt but I really had no idea who he was and what he might take to trying in the middle of the night.
"What did you do for a living in Wisconsin, Walt?" I asked. "I paint houses, store signs, stuff like that." he said and turned and pointed out his truck which I had seen earlier but which I had not really looked at closely. Now in the late of Walt's campfire, I could see his panel truck was small, foreign made, getting some age on it and on the side was painted a large Garfield cat, which he called "Fat Cat", the words "House Painting" and a telephone number in Wiscola, Wisconsin.
Walt's campfire popped and hissed and it made me think of the one I had going over by our tents and the girls and looking over, I could see it needing tending. "Walt, it has been nice to meet you but I got go tend the fire. Got an early morning tomorrow with 30 miles more on the canoe trip." And then for some reason, I said "You know, seems to me that you are in the right place. This is the right place to be right now." Walt never said a word and I got up and left Walt still sitting on that picnic table by the river.
That night as I lay in my tent before sleeping I wondering if Walt was telling the truth and whether the girls asleep in the other tent, the tent closest to Walt's camp were safe. It was only a thought and I soon went to sleep.
The next morning I did not see Walt until just before we boarded our canoes for the remainder of the trip. We had some trouble loading one canoe and Walt appeared out of nowhere to help us launch our canoes out into the river.
As we left the river bank that morning, I never gave
Walt another thought for I now had to concentrate on getting on down the river
and I never expected to see Walt again. I was wrong.
I was wrong.
Part 2: Meeting Walt for the Second Time: Things Have Changed.
After the 2 day canoe trip with my youngest daughter, 2 weeks later, I headed down the Shenandoah River again, but this time with my son and one of his friends. As we approached the campground we needed at the end of day one of the trip, I thought of Walt and wondered if he was still there but the thought came and went quickly.
Once again, I put us out of the river where I had camped on my last trip and stepping out and pulling the canoe up out of the river and helping my son and his friend do the same, I looked around for Walt's truck and the canopy of Walt's river collection but neither was there. Instead, high up on the bank was a small one man tent. No one seemed to be around and so we set about setting up camp and preparing dinner.
Once again, after the tents were pitched and the fire started, the boys wanted to take a shower and after pointing them in the right direction, they headed off as I began to prepare dinner.
As I prepared dinner, out of the corner of my eye, I detected some sort of movement over near the small tent and when I looked, there was Walt, walking in off the road which ran along the top of the river bank. Where was his truck I wondered? Why was he walking?
The boys returned from their showers without a mention of how gross the shower house was and after we ate and my son and his friend headed inside their tent for the night, I walked over to where I could see Walt was standing by the fire he had started while we had eaten our dinner.
At first, he did not recognize me but after telling him of our first meeting, we shook hands and we sat down on "his" picnic table once again. It looked to me that Walt had lost some weight and apparently was no longer drinking as the brown paper bag was no where to be seen. "Where is your truck", I asked, "And all your stuff you had in that big tree over there?" "Well, I think it was the day after you were here last, I decided I had to get some money and headed into Berryville and maybe get myself a house painting job and got one to but then someone decided I looked bad or something and turned me into the police. So the police came to where I was painting this house and ask for my contractor permit and when I don't have one, they take me to jail. Got fined $50 for not having a permit and since I don't have the money to pay, they put me in jail for a week, which was not so bad as the jail was clean, the food was good and the cot soft. But when I get out of jail, they said I owed another $100 for them storing my truck and since I can't paint to pay the fee, I have no truck right now. Anyway, while I was in jail, storm came up and river rose and took all my stuff on down river somewhere."
"Talk about a change of events!" I thought. And yet, Walt was still here, by the river and he still seemed to have the same peace of mind about him I had sensed in our first meeting. Such a calm, quiet, like the flow of the river on a quiet sunny summer afternoon.
"What you doing now?" "How you living?", I asked.
Walt turns to me and gets this smile on his face, "Well, I was walking here from Berryville one day last week and this fellow stops and gives me a ride in his pickup truck and turned out he needed someone to run a hay bailer for him and so I work on his farm everyday. Nice fellow to and you know what? I moving into a house he owns, right up there a piece." and he points up river where there several summer cabins along the bank. "Yeah. Says he needs someone to stay there while he is gone for a while and I don't have to pay any rent or anything. And did I tell you about my 2 boys?" "Yes, I remember" I say. "Well they coming to visit me this weekend at the house." and with that he turns his head and with the smile still on his face, looks out at the river.
"Walt, I say, "I am real happy for you. Seems like things are working out." and with that, I got up and left Walt to enjoy this evening and thoughts of his sons coming to visit.
Part 3: Why I Remember Walt So Clearly.
Perhaps you have sensed it. When things when bad for Walt, he just headed to place he knew and camped out along the banks of a river and somehow, he knew it would all work out. I surely would have panicked but not Walt. Everything Walt needed in those first few weeks were provided by that river. His food, his peace, his quiet. Someone to help and talk to now and again. The deer and other animals. Walt when I met him was as quiet a man on the insides, at peace with himself, as any man I have ever met. Walt was just there. There beside that river and no place else and nothing else mattered. He was like some wild animal living there, perfect with his surroundings. And I envied him them and I still envy him.
And after things went bad again for Walt, after the arrest and the lost of all his belongs back to the river, again, he did not seem to be upset or distraught. Again, he was back on the bank of river, listening to its flow and eating its fish and just being in a quiet spiritual way.
And what is most amazing to me is that it seems to have all worked out for Walt. He just went to this river until he knew what to do and even getting placed in jail worked for him as that is when he met the farmer which gave him the job and eventually a house on the river.
Walt. Somehow, I am reminded of Christ alone in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights.