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  • D dubbed our Boundary Waters trip the “tall man trip.” On the tall man trip, our modest armada did what tall men do. Tall men paddle hard and stop paddling when their stern-man says so. Tall men collect and cut firewood before dinner. Tall men take sips of wine instead of gulps. And tall men pretend “cold” starts with a “k” because sure, why not.

    Above all, tall men must be good partners, especially in the Boundary Waters. Its vast systems of interconnected lakes, campsites, and distance from stitches demand a good partner.

    “Should D go on the tall man trip as a woman?” he asked Luke before we left. “Well D, ya know, tall men have hair on their chest. Tall men will always have hair on their chest. And tall men go on tall man trips shirts off. Woman usually don’t go shirts off on tall man trips. It’s up to you, D.” And so I started to learn D’s code: covering your chest = going as a woman.

    At camp, D always went shirts off. He was also big amber sunglasses, swimming trunks, yellow toe nails and crocks, on. He donned the same in the canoe, perched at the bow, Luke at the stern, usually contented. He was a good partner.

    We spent hours together in our canoes. Sayer and I. Luke and D. fishing. drinking. chatting. smoking. silence. casting. Usually we bobbed on top of sunset’s purpling pallet and the loons joined us there from time to time and the bluffs and pines dimmed to silhouettes along our shoreline.

    D was a regular topic of conversation for Sayer and I. Sayer quickly noted that the natural world we escape to does not identify D as autistic. It does not favor or disregard his worldview or place a value on his worth to society. Only the human world D must learn and contend with does this.

    Remote beauty strips away constructed artifice and illusions of pedigree and progress, then reveals a complex network of interconnected natural wonders of which I little know. At once, the remote northern woods revealed to me its inherent beauty, as well as D’s inherent worth and the complexity of his relationships with people like Luke, Sayer, and myself.

    D fixes his future in a schedule and the expectations it affords. His beloved is ice-cream and he could not wait to return to her. “On Sunday, August 26 you will pack up camp and you will have a malt in Ely for lunch and then you will go back to Minneapolis.” Dietrich repeated this mantra to himself every day beginning Thursday, most often in tones of pure glee, but sometimes serious, even dire reassurance.

    On Sunday, we broke our camp down into four packs, two per canoe, and traversed Ensign, Splash, and Newfound Lake to arrive at Moose Lake. From Moose, we had an eight-mile paddle to the public access where our van was parked. The portage to Moose dips into a small bay that opens up onto big waters. That day, the waters were capped in white swells thrown about by a steady westerly wind that was interrupted by violent gusts from the south. We put in and made an attempt but quickly decided to regroup at the nearest empty campsite.

    The canoes wouldn't last the eight miles of chop ahead without capsizing, spilling our gear, and endangering our safety. This meant another night of camping. D was distressed. He paced and ran his hands through his matted hair so that it stood on end and muttered to himself and to us.

    Every so often, he would turn to one of us, tilt his head to the left, his soft blue eyes made direct and piercing contact. “When will D have a malt – will D have a malt today? Will D have lunch and malt in Ely – today? When will the wind die – today? What time?”

    My beloved is tobacco. We ran out of cigs the night before and I longed to return to her. Every time D said "malt," I heard "cigarette" and my bones buzzed. Our journey to Ely that night is another story, but D got his malt and I got my cigarettes.

    Along the way, we were in the same damn boat: “tall men don’t complain about what they can’t have.”
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