Traveling in Watercolor

Travel Stories: Mr. Spencer built a boat in his backyard and then disappeared. Decades later, Michael Yessis tracks down his former neighbor and discovers an unexpected path to adventure.

03.13.02 | 12:41 AM ET

sunsetPhoto illustration by Michael Yessis.

I can’t remember a time before Mr. Spencer started building the sailboat in his backyard. He worked out of sight most of the time, hidden behind the garage and the side-yard fence, but I knew what was going on back there. All the kids in my suburban Los Angeles neighborhood knew. When I rolled past the Spencers’ house on my skateboard, the thwack of hammer pounding nail and the drone of power tools echoed into the street. When their neighbors, the Maples, invited me and the other local kids to swim in their pool, we peeked at the skeleton of the boat through holes in the fence. I looked for new fixtures and added planks, studied it from bow to stern. I kept tabs as she overwhelmed the yard and grew past the edge of the garage. She became visible from the street if you knew to look, and I always looked. In a neighborhood of thick, trimmed lawns and earth-toned stucco exteriors she was a monument, filling the narrow streets with the promise of adventure.

When Mr. Spencer finished the boat, I gathered with the other neighborhood kids to watch him free it from the backyard. My memories are among the most vivid of my childhood:

I am sitting on the sidewalk in front of Mr. Spencer’s house, head cocked, squinting at the boat through the sun-stroked bangs of my bowl cut. She’s tall, as high as the roofs of the houses on each side. She’s too wide, though, so Mr. Spencer and his friends cut away parts of the overhanging roofs. The buildings make cracking sounds. Dust floats and twinkles in the sunlight. The boat has room to move, and they inch it toward the front yard.

The two houses are giving birth.

The boat slips into the front yard and stretches out toward the sidewalk. The houses seem shrunken. The cars are Tonkas and Hot Wheels. Then my memory skips. The boat is gone. Mr. and Mrs. Spencer and their two daughters, Karla and Danette, have disappeared. And I am again skateboarding down 18th Street, kicking past the Spencers’ driveway, hearing only the click, click, clicking of my wheels over cracks in the pavement.

I didn’t know where the Spencers had gone. I don’t remember ever talking to Mr. or Mrs. Spencer about it. Not Karla or Danette, either. They were several years ahead of me in school, in junior high, and I was afraid to talk to junior high girls. Word on the neighborhood grapevine was that they had gone to sail around the world, and their non-destination destination filled me with glee and wonder. It was better than knowing they were snorkeling off Maui or had simply moved to another far-away town. Some of my classmates’ families had already done that. The Spencers, though, had seemingly abandoned the traditional concept of home. They weren’t in one place. They were every place. And they’d damaged their house to get there. What could be so important, so magnetic, that someone would want to do that?

The days and weeks after their departure passed and the events began shrinking into memory. I had other things to worry about, like Little League and putting stickers on things. But three months became six months then a year, and then two years. The Spencers still hadn’t returned. Each time I passed by their house, I’d notice the empty spaces where the boat used to be.

I sometimes daydreamed in class, projecting fantasy adventures on the family. If we were studying the Panama Canal, I envisioned the Spencers passing through the locks, Karla and Danette leaning over a rail, laughing, looking off at a falling, purple sun. Other times I conjured high seas, which, wearing bright yellow rain slickers, the entire family fought courageously but not without lots of screaming.

Eventually I envisioned tracking them down, fighting pirates and stormy seas myself. It was the first time I’d been confronted with travel as more than a means of getting from destination to destination. The mystery of the unknown pulled at my gut, and I loved the feeling. Relatively predictable excursions like family vacations, soccer tournaments and holiday visits to the relatives only heightened my desire to solve the riddle of the Spencers. I studied flight schedules and the spider-webby route maps in the back of in-flight magazines. I took barf bags and little bars of soap off airplanes, just in case I found myself dirty in a strange land. I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted adventure. I wanted to explore.

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Michael Yessis is the cofounder and coeditor of World Hum. This story received the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Bronze Award in 2002 for personal comment.

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