On Tuesday (or was it Wednesday?) the weather turned cold and clear, and after a breakfast of cheese and Door County cherry jam on English muffins that I found in the refrigerator, I drove down to Weborg Point to see if any interesting birds had blown in. Not much. Highlights were a broad-winged hawk in a tree above the road and a single palm warbler. Back in Minneapolis the trees were already thick with myrtle and palm warblers—chalk it up to the Mississippi River effect. The trees had also leafed out a lot more in Minnesota. I could well understand why the warblers seemed to be in no hurry to arrive on the shores of Lake Michigan.
The morning lake was spectacular nevertheless, the marsh grasses were glistening with dew, and it was a pleasure to see a flock of buffleheads drifting in the mirror-like waters of the bay.
When I got back to the house, I noticed that a bicycle was leaning against a tree in the field across the highway, half-obscured by a clump of bushes. I set myself down in the living room with a cup of coffee and a copy of German Philosophy 1760-1860: the Legacy of Idealism by Terry Pinkard—it was a book that I found it easy to look up from repeatedly as I waited for the owner of the bike to return. Suddenly I heard a tapping at the kitchen door leading out onto the deck. Then louder. I got up to investigate. It was a robin, making the acquaintance of his reflection in the glass.
Returning to my chair, I was pleased to see someone approaching the distant bike on foot across the fields. Then the figure disappeared again, and it occurred to me that he or she might be harvesting the ramps from the woods and had gone back for more. There was nothing intrinsically suspicious about the event. After all, the cyclist could easily have laid the bicycle on the ground, entirely out of sight. But it was odd just the same, and I decided to go over and see what was going on, half-expecting to find a pile of ramps lying on the ground. Nothing. I walked a hundred yards down the path, saw no one, and returned to the house, as perplexed as ever.
I was sitting at the laptop at the kitchen table, typing out a morning report to Hilary, when I heard a knock on the front door, more forceful than a robin's.
"Come in!" I hollered without thinking, then ran hurriedly to the door to open it. An elderly man was standing on the front porch beside his bicycle.
"I don't mean to disturb you," he said, speaking very slowly, "but I often take a morning walk in your fields and woods across the road. I wanted to thank you for maintaining it. When I arrived this morning the parking lot was empty. Later I saw your car and presumed you would be awake."
"That's quite all right. In fact, I saw your bike when I pulled up. Then I saw someone come out of the woods and walk right past it. You must be doing several circuits around the loop."
"Yes, I go around three times. It's quiet. But I'm only here in Door County for four months of the year. I walk every morning."
A pair of metal walking sticks were protruding from his backpack. I could hear one of the Brandenburg Concertos booming from the earbuds that were dangling around his neck. Though the man had a kindly expression, he had an oddly fleshy face, and his eyelids were folded over in such a way as to almost obscure his line of sight.
"Where do you live the rest of the year?" I asked. There was a long pause.
"I hesitate to say," he said finally. "I spend part of the year in New Zealand and another few months in the Bavarian Alps."
"Do you live year round in Door County?" he asked.
"Heavens, no! This place is a writing center. I'm only here for a week." Another long pause.
"I presume, then, that you yourself are a writer," the man said finally. "I suppose that you're also a reader. I have recently been reading a biography of Goethe."
"Funny you should mention that. I was reading about Goethe just last night. The author was saying that Kant benefited from the atmosphere and the liberal university setup at Jena, which was largely due to Goethe's influence."
"According to the author of the biography I'm reading, Goethe considered his life to be his greatest work of art."
"That might well be true," I said. "I've never read anything by Goethe that I really liked."
"I've never read anything by him at all," he replied.
"No. let me take that back. The Sorrows of Young Werther isn't bad. But it's a book for adolescents. Goethe wrote it in a month and became the rage of Europe. Every writer's dream, perhaps. But what precisely is it that's so appealing about that? The wealth, the ease, the approbation? The feeling of being known and understood?"
But I realized I was abandoning the thread of the conversation, and perhaps bewildering the gentleman, so I said, "Can I offer you a recommendation. For an entirely different slant on Goethe, you might like Immortality by the Czech novelist Milan Kundera. The book is basically about Goethe's love life. I think it's a novel, but I don't remember. I read it a long time ago."
As I was jotting down the reference on a scrap of paper I couldn't help remarking, "Considering your life-style, you must have done well in the stock market." It was an idle remark, a query. Something that could easily have been ignored. The man didn't look like a hedge fund manager. He looked like a retired dairy farmer. Another long pause. I was getting used to them. I wasn't in a hurry.
Finally he said, "I'm trying to think of a way to answer that briefly and humorously. My father was Swedish. My mother was German. From her I learned thrift. I grew up in Iowa. There are lots of Swedes there. I never planned anything. I never planned to become the caretaker of a house in Door County. I went to New Zealand on a cycling trip; I never planned to move there. I appreciate every day I'm given. I try to walk every day, and when the good Lord comes to take me, I hope I'll be ready."
And on that note, he got back on his bicycle, put his helmet on, bid me a good day, and rode off.