The skyline has disappeared.
The fog is thick, of substance, like you could yank it hand over hand in order to tug the boat through the water, if you could find a place to grab hold.
It’s rare for Chicago to have this much persistent fog. The poet Carl Sandburg immortalized Chicago’s feline fog as quick to move on. But these grounded ribbons of atmosphere have played with the skyline for weeks, cutting off its top or disembodying the tallest buildings. They have enveloped the built environment and diffused the light, softening the grid’s edges.
For all its novelty, it’s not romantic to be in the middle of it – like sitting angelic in a cloud or something. With fog, like a lot of things, taking it in from a distant perspective is better. Being in it is uncomfortable. We slowly ease through layers of vapor that we breathe, that drips off our hair. Its parting reveals tonal watercolor outlines of a sailboat here, a large dinner cruise vessel there, then closes in again behind our wake.
Above, on all sides and below, we are surrounded by the most earthly of substances – the very stuff we, ourselves, are made of – but we’re on another planet.
In the moment that someone asks if we know which direction we’re facing, I stand up and spin around. Fog veils our boat on all sides. I had pointed the boat out away from the city so confidently without considering that my navigation point would disappear. Such a beginner’s mistake. Who goes out sailing in the fog without making sure you know how to navigate without landmarks? The skyline is typically my constant – and only – navigation point. Head up – point toward Trump Tower. Maintain this course – point at Soldier Field. Want to head in? Point at the Congress Hotel. That giant red beacon - CONGRESS HOTEL – is somewhere, no where.
In a flash, my insides sink. I am in familiar waters, and I am lost. The realization is humbling. The sudden loss of direction unknots a core confidence. How easily it was undone.
My first instinct is to grab hold of something, the fog, the air, to push it aside to reveal any visual cues. That’s impossible, of course, but my hands reach out in front of my face anyway, as if to push something out of my line of sight.
I look over at the compass, bobbing in its affixed mounting to the boat. I realize I’ve previously only used the compass to keep a steady course, and even then, its been more of a game, a vanity, familiar landmarks assuring me that I can get wherever I want to go.
Maggie speaks first. ”When I was a kid, I saw a Twilight Zone episode just like this.”
We look back at the compass again. It must be correct, right? We’re heading south? Is that right? I pull out my iPhone, that trusted device of sailors yore, and it confirms the south heading. Ok, how long were we headed south? Wait, why were we doubting a compass, anyway? Well, that’s easy: Twilight Zone. Fear.
Slowly, we level ourselves. We’re sailing in Lake Michigan near Chicago. Barring Maggie’s suggestion that we might have sailed into a terrible parallel, if we head west, we’ll run into the city eventually. We just have to make sure we literally don’t run into the city.
We head west. Sarah rings the handheld fog bell every two minutes, as we’re supposed to do. Its clangs warn unseen boats of our presence but the hard certainty of metal striking metal declares a more hopeful affirmation: We’re here! We’re here! Even if we don’t know where here is.
A few minutes of silent, tense reassurances pass. Each minutes reveals an identical scene: fog on all sides, until – There! Yes! Is that it? – the chalky-wet outline of the breakwall comes into distant view. Our spirit is recovered. Oh, we were never so lost, we joke. How funny we were to let fear mess with us. We’re beginners, but we’ve got this. Totally.
A collective confidence rises again as we motor past the breakwall, past familiar boats moored in the harbor and back to the dock. A normal night after all. We figured it out. We did it. We quietly clean up the boat and click the lock on the companionway door closed.
Alone on my walk from the dock to the train, I admit what I know. It’s not the recovered surety that has stayed with me. It’s that quickening of fear at the moment of a revealing: I’m utterly without bearing. It’s the unexpected proximity to the veil that separates the irreparably lost from the not-lost. That’s what fills in around me.
A stoplight turns a gauzy red. I stop at a crosswalk and look ahead as I wait. The air glows a misty yellow. The streetlights illuminate the fog itself. Only the sidewalk immediately before me is clear.