"There passed long stretches of beautiful waterfront acreage with hanging Spanish moss, decaying mansions and docks, and no people."
In the early spring of 2032, the two sailors cast lines and tacked into the wind, making for the Alabama coast some 550 miles distant.
The principal passenger, the writer Albert Bates, had been holed up in the Yum Balam Protected Area since March, 2020. There he had escaped the ravages of the pandemic unharmed, despite his age and susceptible health, managing to survive on the traditional indigenous diet of his new home after the collapse of the Mexican political state .
In 2031, at the age of 84, he had been visited by an old friend named Trigo, 30 years his junior, who had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean wishing to see what might remain of the island where he had once lived and owned a hotel. When Trigo discovered Bates alive and well, the two celebrated in the ways of that place and time, with home-brewed coconut rum and marijuana, and after some weeks, decided on their plan to sail to the United States and return Albert to his family at The Farm.
Trigo’s 50-foot sloop was perfect for this journey. While the trip around the coast of Mexico and Texas might have been safer, staying within sight of land, it would have had its own risks — pirates, arrest by warlords, uncharted shoals — so they decided to take the most direct route, straight across the Gulf, and hope for good sailing weather. They expected to cover the distance in about a week, perhaps even just a few days, with favorable breezes and Trigo’s experienced hand on the tiller.
It took a bit longer, exactly 2 weeks, although they encountered no major storms along the way. They spied the outer coastal wetlands, heeled east, keeping Louisiana and Mississippi to port, and made good time into Mobile Bay.
Twelve years earlier the protocol would have been to pull up to a dock at an assigned Port of Entry, show their passports, pass through a customs search, and ask to be admitted. However, as the pandemic had crested its second peak in 2021, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) moved almost exclusively to requiring pleasure craft to use a smartphone system called ROAM to declare their arrival and undergo a video chat interview with an online CBP officer.
Trigo opened the ROAM app and sent his location to the CBP office in Mobile Bay. The app launched a video conference and a woman in uniform appeared on the screen. “What is the name of your vessel?” she asked.
“Doña Teresa,” Trigo responded.
She was typing. After a pause while she studied a separate monitor, she came back.
“Daniel Trigo, T_R_I_G_O, Trigo.”
“Are you the captain of the boat?”
“How many passengers aboard?”
“One Spanish, one American.”
“Do you have photos of the passport picture pages?”
“Send those now using your ROAM app.”
Trigo pressed the “passport” icon on his screen and sent his passport photo page from his phone’s library. He repeated the operation again for his passenger.
“Stand by, please.”
After a few moments she returned. “The US Passport is expired,” she informed him.
“We know,” he said, calmly, expecting that question. “The holder of that passport, Mr. Bates, was unable to return to the United States before now, because of the pandemic.”
This moment would determine whether they would have to undergo a long and tedious ordeal at the border, possibly being refused entry, or could keep going. Trigo expected her to leave to speak with her supervisor but that is not what happened.
“Anything to declare?” she asked. “No.” “You may proceed. Please inform Mr. Bates that he must renew his passport before he will be allowed to leave the country again.” “Thank you,” said Trigo, but the video call had already ended.
They sailed through the very wide and shallow Mobile Bay, once the ninth busiest port in the United States, but by 2032 it just served as a passage to the Tombigbee Waterway. The city nearly vacant, the busy harbor had become eerily quiet, with abandoned barges, tows, large ships, cargo ships, freighters and tankers tied at dockside or rusting at anchor.
After entering the river, for miles the travelers saw only water and trees. There passed long stretches of beautiful waterfront acreage with hanging Spanish moss, decaying mansions and docks, and no people.
Their first lock was at Coffeeville, Alabama and fortunately the Army Corps of Engineers was still operating it. To reach the Tennessee River they would need to pass through ten locks and rise 341 feet over the distance of 450 miles. They would be going against the river current that whole way, so at Coffeeville they put into a fish camp and bought gas. It cost them practically nothing. Gasoline was one of the commodities traveling by river barge from a few still-operating Gulf refineries into the heartland.
They reached the last lock at Florence six days later. The Woodrow Wilson lock and dam was built in 1924 to span the river and generate, eventually, 663 MW of electricity. The lock chamber, made to accommodate barge traffic taking coal and cotton from Kentucky to the Gulf, is 600 feet long and 110 feet wide. To get from one part of the river to the next, the Doña Teresa was raised 96 feet to the 15,000-acre Wilson Lake. From there the travelers sailed her another mile up river to Shoal Creek, where they turned north and found a suitable abandoned boat shed to hide her in.
From that point, the two men, one of them now 85 and still unsteady on land-legs, had a long walk — 52 miles, to be exact. They followed Highway 43 north into Lawrence County, Tennessee, passing through the quiet, empty streets of St. Joseph, Loretto, Leoma, and Lawrenceburg. At Ethridge, they caught a ride with a kind Amish man who took them by horse wagon onto a back road Bates knew from bicycle hikes as a younger man. That road took them past Amish farms, well kept and thriving, where young men and women were busy sowing tomatoes and peppers and harvesting peas and broccoli, and sawmills running on water or wind. The farmer went out of his way to Highway 20 in Summertown and then, three miles more, to the home of Bates’ son and granddaughter. The house was abandoned, its roof caved in by a giant post oak centuries in the making. Thick bamboo canes crowded out daylight and made entry to the building nearly impossible without a machete or chain saw. By the looks of things, no one had been there for a considerable time.
They continued their walk up the road another mile to the steel entrance gate of The Farm. It was closed but they went around and entered through a narrow pedestrian passageway. The brick gatehouse, with steel bars over the windows, was locked, but showed none of the signs of decay or vacancy of their first stop. The Farm was apparently still open for business, just not at that hour.
The grass on both sides of the road leading into the community was tall, sumac and blackberries had moved into the hayfields, and saplings of poplar, oak, and ash were 15 feet high in places. What had once been a disc golf course was now young hardwood forest.
As the travelers rounded the bend and stared down the road towards the old barn and the book company they had expected to see a familiar 50 kW ground-mounted solar array but it was gone. There was nothing there but some steel posts sticking out of the weeds.
They turned onto Schoolhouse Road and passed by The Farm School and the Community Center, both seeming none the worse for wear, although more recessed than before behind copses of bamboo. Another quarter mile down the road was the former Ecovillage Training Center and Side Door Bed & Breakfast where Bates had lived for 25 years before the pandemic stranded him in the remoteness of the Yucatan Peninsula.
By now the sun had dropped behind the trees and a chill air was heralding evening’s approach. The travelers were weary and entered the center’s old main building in search of what had once been the kitchen. They hoped they might also discover serviceable bedrooms. Much to their surprise, the building was clean and well kept. As they stood in the open doorway, a crisp voice issued a warning from behind them. It was Millie, the innkeeper, and she had a shotgun pointed….
to be continued…. not.
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