Chimney Point: since I know you’ve never been, I’ll sketch it for you. A forefinger of land that pinches into Lake Champlain & narrows it. On the other side, its opposable thumb, is Crown Point, New York, site of an old British fortification whose stone barracks still stand, missing their roofs. Taken together, they feel like the campus of a ruined Medieval monastery, all the monks off on pilgrimage. In the eighteenth century, French, British, & fledgling American forces all wrangled for rights to the strait, which meant control of access to large swaths of territory to the north. The only remnants of a fledgling soldiery evident to me were a pair of ospreys on their platform nest, one sitting on eggs, the other standing sentry nearby, black masks bold against tousled white heads, the uniform of patience & watchfulness. Both ignored me, but went into a fit of high-pitched piping apoplexy at the passage of a huge Caspian tern following his red bill northward, minding his own manners.
The bridge from one side to the other has a lovely, delicate hoop in the middle, which the road cuts through & rides on. The first thing I saw, when I pulled in under the bridge on the Vermont side, was an occupying army of earth-moving equipment—yellow Caterpillar backhoes & bulldozers & front-end loaders. My stomach did a barrel roll: the ground around the bridge piers had been freshly disturbed, now covered in straw. If my clue had been here, it probably wasn’t here now. The construction crew was on lunch break, perched with their coolers atop a couple of picnic tables. Beside the parking lot stood an old tavern, now preserved as—what else?—an archaeological museum. A banner draped across the front read, “Now Displaying 10,000 Years of Finds from the Chimney Point Bridge.” Maybe mine was among them. The door was locked, but an annoyed & harried woman in a gray suit exactly the color of her ponytail came out when I knocked. “I’ve come to dig under your bridge,” I said, & showed her my clue. “Oh, you can’t dig anywhere near the bridge,” she said, & quickly did some higher arithmetic on the fingers of her left hand. “One, it’s a construction zone, as you can see. Two, it’s federal property. & three, do you even have the right bridge? The old bridge south of here was torn down four years ago. Your clue could be five, six, ten years old.” I would have liked to start piping my protestations like an osprey, but I think I looked more like a trout, my mouth slowly opening & shutting around empty air. If I was in search of sympathy, she had none to spare. “If you could please move your car, you’re blocking the construction entrance,” the woman said, turning back inside the museum.
I walked around the makeshift fence of orange netting toward the construction crew eating their lunch. Hard-hats were off. They were laughing, lounging, a couple actually taking naps on the picnic tables. I walked up to one whose eye I caught. I explained. I’d come from New Hampshire. I had this clue. Could I dig beside the pier? “Chuck?” the man said, turning to the foreman. “Sure, dig wherever the hell you want,” said Chuck. “Won’t bother us.” Thanking them, I walked gingerly over the freshly seeded earth to the bridge support & pulled out my compass, a two-part Chinese contraption I’d been given. Instead of a needle, a tiny, free-floating ladle pivots on a metal rose inscribed with the cardinal points in Chinese. Its handle points south. I found the pier’s south-west corner. Down on a knee, I measured six inches from my thumb to pinkie. In retrospect, a trowel would have been useful—what I had to dig with were the needlenose pliers folded into my multi-tool. Stabbing the earth with them, pawing the soil away like a dog, listening for the sirens of federal agents, feeling the eyes of a dozen workers watching this fool dig a hole in soil they’d just excavated, digging under the wrong bridge, at the wrong time, with the wrong implement, having staked all hopes on a wild goose chase that was ending before it had begun, I went down six inches, twelve inches. What would I say when I stood up, sheepish, empty-handed? At eighteen inches, a new layer of soil. Two feet down, my pliers thumped against plastic. My heart popped like an Adam’s apple pulled loose from its socket. I exhumed a peanut container, with a screw-cap lid. The construction crew cheered. Inside it, air cool as a cave. Two more chess pieces. A Mason jar half filled with a brown liquid that proved to be Scotch. Your wildest dream, distilled. & another scrap of graph paper:
The next clue is in Grand Marais, just east of Pictured Rocks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. […]
Chuck wanted a sip of the Scotch. “But it’s got to last me across the country!” I said. He looked unused to being turned down. “Okay, but only a thimbleful.”
Still drunk on it,
Henry Walters is a naturalist, teacher, falconer, and writer-in-residence at the Dublin School, in Dublin, New Hampshire. His first book of poems, Field Guide A Tempo, was a finalist for the 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Award.
image: Lake Champlain Bridge, Chimney Point