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ABOARD `FOOTPRINTS’ AT CHRISTMAS

SHARE ABOARD `FOOTPRINTS’ AT CHRISTMAS

Deane Knox once had a company he called "Footprints." He says he named it that because he didn't know where it was coming from, and he certainly didn't know where it was going. I suspect the name was more meaningful, though, or he wouldn't have christened his new boat "Footprints."

So I pressed him further."There is something about footprints," he acknowledged, "like the footprints Robinson Crusoe found on the beach - a profound witness that he was not alone. Think of footprints on the sand, an imprint of our passing. Then the waves move in and wash them away. Makes you think. Ski trails are the same."

I had not expected such an answer. Deane, with his generally assertive exterior, is too easily pigeonholed. Beneath the surface, however, is a much broader interior than I had supposed through all the years he has acted as agent for my work at his galleries in Denver, Vail and Beaver Creek, Colo.

But I have always gone through town like a whirlwind, never taking him up on his invitation to stay over. It was during our last and more extended visit that he told me more about "Footprints," a boat he acquired four years ago on the northern tip of Lake Michigan.

Now that he is considering selling it, it is easy to see that the craft is more than simple real estate. "Footprints" has been a venture that has embodied both his intense passion for adventure and, in a subtle way, his struggles toward intimacy.

In its maiden cruise, he criss-crossed Lake Michigan, exploring pine-shrouded inlets before weaving his way down the Mississippi and along the intricate set of waterways that permeate the Southern states.

He skimmed the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida coast, then crossed to Cuba, where an interest in the Cuban people has prompted him to return several times since, creating exchange opportunities for artists and others, sometimes at great risk to himself. But that is a whole different story.

This is a Christmas story.

We become so steeped in our own personal Christmas traditions that other perspectives are hard to imagine. The year of Deane's maiden voyage on "Footprints" is an example of such contrast.

He had not thought much about where Christmas would put him when he began his trek down the Mississippi that year.

For days he meandered the Tenn-Tom waterway, a 243-mile-long canal connecting the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers in northern Mississippi, winding through deep back country before connecting with the Alabama and Mobile rivers, which then curl south hundreds of more miles to the huge seaport of Mobile.

It is hard to comprehend how remote these stretches are, where misturns can lead for miles into long, narrow backwaters, and where the few inhabitants are extremely distrustful of intruders.

Weeks of winding through such country can be very adventuresome, and wearing.

On Christmas Eve that year, Deane found himself anchored to a small grove of trees on the edge of the Tenn-Tom, on a night that seemed particularly stark and lonely.

Somewhere along the way, a woman at one of the docks had given him a small Christmas candle, which he now lit in his cabin. Its dim light was barely a flicker in the surrounding darkness.

Scanning radio channels, he came across a faint broadcast of Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" and was just getting into it when, suddenly, the air was filled with a low rumbling that got louder and louder.

It was the familiar sound of a passing barge. These gigantic vessels can be very dangerous for small craft, especially at night.

He stepped onto the deck just as the block-long barge began passing, sending waves that rocked the smaller boat against its moorings. Deane watched, both anxious and awed by the huge form that suddenly had turned the world about him into a dizzying nightmare of massive, moving shadows.

Then suddenly, through a loud-speaker, he found himself being hailed by the barge captain:

"Calling the yacht, `Footprints' on my port bow."

Scurrying to the intercom, Deane called back, "This is Footprints, over."

"Footprints - a merry Christmas to you."

"Merry Christmas to you!" Deane called back.

Faceless, the huge barge lumbered on through the night.

As Deane watched the dark giant melt into the blackness, he was left with an indescribable feeling of awe and reverence, in a sense.

Beyond the excitement of strange ports and high seas, the memory of a burning candle given to him by an unknown woman at a nondescript dock would remain with him, and the voice of a faceless barge captain passing in the night.

Both left deep footprints in his life, creating, on a lonely stretch of river, and on the darkest of nights, a most memorable Christmas.