Sunday, July 29, 2007

Perhaps it is fitting, that for our final post the collapsible keyboard has given way, the Treo inexplicably failing to pick up its signal, and so instead I am typing this with my thumbs. It is 2007, and despite the advances of mankind, we still are far from getting it right. It is, ultimately, an age of transition. One where you can blog from the Mississippi, but still rely on the graceful simplicity of your thumb. This, I think, is perhaps not a bad thing.

We have been in New Orleans for three days now, exploring the city and doing our laundry, indulging in the comforts of the civilized man. Earlier today, we went to the Arena Football League Championship Game, ArenaBowl XXI, in the New Orleans Dome on national TV, sponsored by ADT, Discover Card, and Sirius Satellite Radio, among others. The game was between the San Jose Sabercats and the Columbus Destroyers, and the Sabercats won, 55-33. There was confetti, and a trophy, and cheerleaders, and it was so air-conditioned and mesmerizing you had no idea that anything else existed, no idea of what the weather was like outside. Now, when people ask us why we paddled the Mississippi, we will finally know what to say: it was a pilgrimage. We paddled the river because we had to see ArenaBowl XXI.

New Orleans is a wild destination, a strange and appropriately American endpoint for the journey that we've just finished. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, the city is so far from fixed it's embarrasing, but you would have no idea, drinking beer and wearing tinted glasses, waltzing through the French Quarter with a buzz. At a barbershop Danny and I visited, rap videos split time on the tv with public service announcements from, highlighting the fallout from the storm. In one, a Hurricane Katrina Bus Tour rolls through the 9th Ward, past an impoverished African-American, holding up a sign that reads, "This is what you paid to see, isn't it?" There is the voiceover: "If you like looking at it so much, maybe we shouldn't fix it." And there is a song by KUSH, cut with footage from the scene, poor black people crying for help on rooftops, wading through the streets, looting stores because they have no food, because the government is nowhere to be seen. But it is the!
MC's fin
al words that are the most chilling. "This is the realest line I ever wrote," he says. "We'll never get on top because we don't vote."

Everywhere, there are signs of the storm. A fountain recently restored. Hostels hosting relief programs. The side of a building, crumbling in upon itself. There are stories of fires and bucket brigades, and holes in roofs, and looters stripping houses down, all the way to the doorknobs. And then of course there is Bourbon Street, and beads, and beads. As I said, New Orleans has been a fitting end.

Amidst this all, the river sits there in memory, already receding, already fading away. We were out there a long time. Yet before you know it, it is gone, like a dwindling cigarette, like a dream, until you look back on it and wonder if those trances were real, if those sandbars and rivertowns existed, those bends in the river, until you look back and wonder how it all could have been. Did it all really happen? Did we appreciate it as it passed? Was it worth it? Am I okay? I imagine these are the types of questions we ask ourselves at the end of our lives.

Thank you to everyone who has checked in with this webpage, to everyone who has followed us along. It has truly been a pleasure relaying to you our travels, and I hope you all have been able, in some small manner, to take something away. We are off now, onto the rest of our lives, and I suppose you all are too. We always are, after all. I hope you pursue something that makes you feel alive. Please remember that this moment is what exists, that everything else is relative, and that this moment is here and then gone. Please remember that we live in a possible world. If nothing else, this trip has at least shown that. Best wishes as you carry on.

the mississippi project

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Well, here we are. Our last night out on trail, we are camped on the levee, forty miles outside New Orleans. Below us, the Baton Rouge/New Orleans port bustles into night, the hum of a generator rumbling down the way. For dinner, we ate cold-cut ham and 89 cents apple pies while drinking chocolate milk, having hitched a ride to the nearest store with a guy who had dogshit on the backseat, driving with an open beer through the town of Lucy, Louisiana. The landscape was impoverished, dismal, and the store lights blared out into the parking lot. Six or seven old men milled around, looking for a fix, and the "Coors Light" sign shone in the window. "See that?" said the driver with a sweep of the hand. "That's nothing."

The trip is ending perhaps as it should have: ragged, hot, surreal. We paddled sixty miles today through the port, which I am told is the fifth largest port in the world. All day, we dodged barges and oceanliners while deckhands and pilots honked horns at us, pointed to various moving ships, waved. Two deckhands unhooking a barge container shouted, "Row, boys, row!" A towboat driver came outside and yelled, "Go fucking home! You're gonna fucking die!" And over the loudspeaker, a funny man in a large boat with tires lined along the sides chanted, "Stroke. Stroke. Stroke."

All told, it capped the last few days fittingly. From Natchez to here it has been one last trance of heat and paddling, of daydreaming, and bayous, and industry. We have spoken to a man with a handgun in his lap, and been yelled at by casino security guards. We have spread ourselves out on a beach and basked away a whole afternoon in the sun. In West Feliciana, we hitched out of town with a guy who, when told of our trip, said, "Y'all bring any reefer? You need a lot of reefer to do a thing like that." We hitched into town with a guy who spoke to Ryan through the window while we sat in the truck bed in the back. "What did he say?" we asked him, and Ryan shrugged. "I don't know," he said.

South of Natchez, we came upon a huge, run-down plantation coming up from shore. We walked a quarter mile through grass and shambled buildings, wondering if it were perhaps a historical preservation, before finding the owner's house at the far end of the property. Two dogs came flying out from under the steps, one going blind, barking like they might kill us. The owner came out, an obese, older man with "Police Chief" on the license plate of his truck, and asked us if we were lost. "We're coming off the river," I said. "We were wondering if it might be alright to pitch a couple tents down by the water." The man shook his head. "There's nothing for you here," he said. "This is private property." I tried again, he shook his head again. "This is private property," he said, staring into the air. "There's nothing I can do for you." Walking back to the canoes, he followed us out in his truck, his dogs running alongside. He pulled right up to shore and parked, not saying a word, !
and watch
ed as we loaded our things and paddled away. He must just have wanted to make sure.

By contrast, Jacob Savoie put the four of us and Mippi up in his Baton Rouge apartment, and didn't even know our names. He got a call from his friend Marianne, and saved my number in his phone as "*needs help." We pulled into the city and he picked us up right after work, still in khakis and tie, and said, "Shit, this is weird!" He drove us back to his apartment by way of LSU, stopping to point out the tree he vomited on one night back in the day. He made us drink whiskey, and gave us a shower, and took us out to a bar. "These guys," he said to everyone we met, "Are paddling down the Mississippi River! I don't even know them! How fucked up is that?" He woke us up before work, and drove us back to our canoes, and shook our hands. "Gentlemen," he said, and drove off.

Yesterday you already know, and today as well, and now, we are on the levee, too exhausted to fully acknowledge that the thing is essentially done. New Orleans will hit, and at some point we will figure it out, glean meaning, draw lessons. But for now, it is one last night on the river, in the tents with the mosquitoes buzzing, and forty miles in the morning, to a city that none of us know.

Stay tuned everyone. We'll holler back. The trip is far from done. We hope you're all doing well. Until New Orleans, goodnight.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Hello everyone. Apologies for the delay between posts, and apologies in advance for the post that is about to take place, as it will be brief and sharp. We are camped 90 miles outside New Orleans, having stayed in Baton Rouge last night, and the trip will be over in two days. We are all very tired, and are planning to wake up at dawn tomorrow and paddle roughly sixty miles, a distance we have never done. That said, we are in good spirits. The last few days have been one last foray into the trance, full of people and heat and stories, of which I will tell you all tomorrow. But for now, today was especially surreal, and I thought I'd clue you in, as roughshod as it might be. Thank you for your tolerance, and thank you for reading. We hope you're all leading wonderful, impactful lives.

We woke up at seven A.M. in the living room of Jacob Savoie, a 22 year old LSU student who none of us know. We ended up there through the sister of a friend none of us know, who was notified of our trip by another friend who none of us know. He took us out drinking and we watched Old School on dvd. Obviously, quite accomodating.

But that is a story for tomorrow. What matters now is that we woke up at seven so Jacob could drive us before work back to our canoes, which we had stashed along the Baton Rouge bank, next to the Hollywood Riverboat Casino. Jacob drives an old, white Eclipse, and the five of us squeezed in, Danny's head pressed against the ceiling and Mippi stinking as usual in my lap, and we drove down the river bumping Juvenile, which Jacob swore he'd taken out solely to reminisce on his middle school years. Not sure if I believed him. Got down to the river, said goodbye, and headed for the casino to find food. Nowhere opened before eleven, however, and so we ended up wandering down an industrial, waterfront corridor for twenty minutes before realizing we were unlikely to find a sunshine cafe, or starbucks, or anything really besides gravel heaps and piping, and really, our lives were futile. We walked back to the casino. There, the woman at the front desk told us that the other casino, do!
wn the ri
ver, had a breakfast buffet. We paddled down. Got out of the canoes and left Mippi in her cage, walked up and passed a shady looking character, a vagrant maybe, sitting on a bench on the levee, eyeing our things. I introduced myself in the interest of self-protection. Turned out his name was Dodd, and he was a homeless Jehovah's Witness. I asked if there was any way I could help out, and he said a coffee would be great. "Watch our things," I said, "And I'll be back in forty-five minutes."

Ate breakfast, got Dodd a coffee, walked back. Talked with Dodd about Sodom and Gomorrah, said goodbye, walked down to the canoes. The second we get there, Mippi lets out a screech heretofore unheard, a sound terrible and tortured and angry, a noise you'd never imagine she held. I pull her out of her cage and she is panting with her mouth open, frothing at the mouth. Dehydrated maybe? Heat exhaustion? Food poisoning? I have never seen a more feral, savage looking thing. Her whole cage was covered in piss, shit, vomit. She wouldn't take water. So we dunked her in the water to cool her off. By then, it was later than we would liked, so despite her pained protests, we stuck her in the canoe and pushed off. She went crazy. Started stumbling around like she'd lost it, letting out the worst noise you can imagine, whimpering, hyperventilating, acting like she might die. Fifteen feet from shore, she climbed up onto the gunnels and jumped clear out of the canoe, and started swimming!
for shor
e. I jumped in after her, shoes and paddle going everywhere, and pulled her out.

Back in the canoe, she still wouldn't stop, like something was not just awful but intolerable, and we are feeling awful because we are awful owners, we are bad people, subjecting a poor kitten to such torture. We actually talk about simply pulling over and calling the Animal Humane Society and having her taken away, accepting our failure and her right to a better existence, but eventually decide against it and instead pull over to shore and let her get her bearings. Slowly, sanity returns. She huddles in the shade as if hiding from the trauma, the demons receding, that hideous noise reduced to a whimper, me petting her and trying to get her to drink, until she is somewhat calm and we can go again.

By now, it is quite late, too late to make the miles we had planned, but off we go, paddling down the river, doing that thing that we do. It is hot and we've run out sunscreen, and we paddle into the day, past barges and oil refineries and now huge ocean-going ships now, with chinese lettering on the sides, tranced out on plans for the future, where we will be, what we will do, about New Orleans, what we will do, the people we will see, about the river itself, drawing now to a close. Stop in a town, the name of which is eluding me, and go on a grocery and sunscreen run, and fill up our water, meeting a man in the process named Stan Richardson who shows us a rusty tap and takes our picture and says, very slowly, "Well! Minnesota! Wow! Now ain't that something!" We load up our things and go.

On the water, we hug the shore while the barges haul up and down the main channel. There are wakes all day. They crack against the front of the canoe and toss us up and down, Mippi recovering but obviously displeased with the inconvenience, trying to sleep the whole thing off. She is more displeased though when a sudden, violent and acute rainstorm blows across the river, drenching the whole damn scene. It is the bizarrest thing in the world. All around there is blue sky, on the other bank of the river there is blue sky, and then there is us, in the middle of a ridiculous rainfall. It rains so hard. The bottoms of the canoes fill up with water, and the raindrops hurt. Danny and Ryan charge into it, singing knock-off Irish shanty songs, blinded. We are in the middle of it, the wind blowing, water falling, it's absolutely crazy, etctera etcetera, and then suddenly it is gone, there is no more rain, it is blue sky again. The sun is setting behind a cloud. So picturesque. In fac!
t, I stop
and take a picture. Aw. The Mississippi River. Etcetera etcetera. Like that, our things are drying, the moment is gone. Then suddenly behind us, emerging from the fog, the Chinese ocean-liner. It comes steaming down the river like a ghost ship, emerging from the fog as I said, not a crew member in sight. Ryan and Danny are so close to it that they actually have to pull off to shore. Kevin and I paddle down to a flat spot and stand gawking at it as it silenty rumbles on, in a language we don't understand, going somewhere we couldn't possibly know. I take pictures. It takes no notice, and on it goes.

We decide to camp where Kevin and I stopped. We pull up the canoes, and let Mippi run around, already oblivious to the fact that this morning she thought she was going to die, that she in fact almost did, taking a suicidal leap into the river from the canoe with a terrifying screech, meow she went and in, and now prancing about, scratching her claws on a stick. We make dinner quickly and set up the tents with the sun setting, wondering at the whole damn thing and how this river does that, how it just throws you every time. We finish eating and sit in the dusk, thinking little, except to note that gosh it is all soon to be over, that there are two days, and then New Orleans, and July, hardly come and already gone so soon, and we go straightaway to bed.

And so we continue on.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Mississippi River is the spine of the nation. This is not a unique observation, but a metaphor that is drawn again and again. Taken literally, it describes a country that has no head, one that is sprawling and overweight, that defacates on the lower Americas and shakes its fist at the Old World, all while sporting a curious peg leg in the lower right that keeps influencing the actions of the rest of the body. But of course, only metaphors, only metaphors.

We spent the last two days in Natchez, Mississippi, visiting antebellum homes and drinking too much, resting our weary arms. Paul Hendrickson came to visit and put us up for the night in the Days Inn, alternately interviewing us and drawing meaning from our travels, talking baseball, talking life, and telling us of the fascinating secrets Mississippi has to share. We visited the Rosalie antebellum home, which sports fine china from 1847 and glass chandeliers, and rugs over 150 years old. From the second floor patio, we looked out over a sprawling estate of oak trees and manicured hedges, a world of slaveowners and slaves, its reverberations still being felt all too strongly today. "Sit out here and have a cup of coffee, it's a porch," said the elderly tour guide. "If you have a mint julep, it's a veranda. If you don't have anything, it's a shame."

We took the advice to heart. After PH left, we sat in Fat Mama's Tamales, drinking stiff margaritas at two in the afternoon. Ryan and I played three separate sets of rock paper scissors to five, me ultimately coming back from two down to win in the final set, tearing up the driveway with my arms overhead, the crowd going wild. We progressed from there to the Under The Hill Saloon, whose owner, Andre, was nice enough to store our gear in his alley. We made it up to him by buying copious amounts of beer and feeding the foosball table with quarters. We went from there to drinking at dinner, and from there to drinking at Bowie's Bar and Grill, taking tequila shots and flirting with every girl in the place, me ending up dancing twice to the live band with an older lady in a red shirt who managed to catch her catch later, a spry, older man in a pink polo, who led her out by the hand like he'd done it a million times. But it was all too much. At one table, a woman asked me how old !
I was. "T
wenty-one," I said. She replied that she was thirty, and I asked if that meant she thought she was better than me. "Not better," she said. "Just smarter. Wiser." "Well," I said, leaning in. "In my opinion, a truly wise person doesn't lord their wisdom over those who aren't so wise." That shut her up pretty good.

You could see us falling apart, crashing. Kevin kept staring out from blood-stained eyes and running his hands through his hair. Danny went outside to talk on the phone. Ryan and I engaged a pair of waitresses all the way until closing, when they stood us up while we waited on the corner. The alcohol pounded through my head. We kicked around and made feeble attempts at shooting the shit, failed, and walked back to the tents, the comforts of the Days Inn already past and gone, the air conditioning nowhere to be seen, and the sun, in the morning, pounding unflinchingly through the screen.

We didn't get out of town until three o'clock the next day. We had to eat breakfast, and go to the grocery store, and get a ride there from a couple named Keith and Melissa, learning along the way about the Phat Water Kayak Challenge they organize annually on the river, and how one of these years they're going to get enough participants to shut the barge traffic down for the day . Our groceries purchased, they dropped us off. "Nice to meet you," Keith said. "Have a nice life."

When we finally got on the water, the world had become a sauna. We sweat from every pore, sweat rolling down our bodies and dripping into our eyes, beading in the creases of our postures, until it felt that we might just evaporate altogether and completely disappear. You sweat like that and it is oppresive, it is awful, but more than anything it is cleansing, everything pumped through and out of you, until nothing from before remains and you are left with the pure, real thing. We paddled twenty-five miles hardly saying a word. Natchez receded into the distance, the binge and the night before pushed back with every stroke of the paddle, until it was just the four of us again, paddling along in two canoes, living simply, simply living, a mere week of the whole thing left to go.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Dispatches from Mississippi:

Stop in Vicksburg for the afternoon and wander around. Originally, we had intended to visit the site of the famous Civil War battlefield that, in conjunction with Gettysburg, turned the tide of the war in the Union's favor. The site, now a national military park, features rolling fields of grass where Americans once fired upon and killed each other, as well as tributary monuments from 28 states - all of whom were represented in battle. We soon find out, however, that to tour the grounds you need a car. So instead we flirt with the cashier at the coffeeshop and check our email at the library. Oh to be twenty-one, and traveling by canoe.

Vicksburg is a quaint little town though. Its main street is made of cobblestone and is fully equiped with WiFi. There is a haunted antebellum home which was closed when we tried to visit. An old antiques and novelties store has a sex shop in the back (it buys back magazines), and nestled between folk art galleries, there is a swanky lounge straight out of New York City, bathed in cool blue light and adorned with flat screen tv's.

Along the river, several casinos sit in artificial moats, taking advantage of Mississippi's relatively recent waterfront gambling laws (ridiculous; too complicated to explain; a post in and of itself), and inside with all the blinking lights, you'd never know, or care, that Union ships fired on these shores before starving the city out for nearly 50 days. I knew about it, but I sure didn't care. I sat down in the poker room and lost twenty-five bucks.

Close to these cities, the barge traffic and pollution always picks up, but these influences are becoming increasingly noticeable in the wilder areas of the river. A week outside New Orleans, the Mississippi River is finally dirty. It was never clean, mind you, but now it is distinctly filthy, beer cans floating upside down, eddys of garbage and sticks and froth, smoke from riverside industry pouring ominously into the air. The water is so polluted, in fact, that it has turned the bottoms of my feet to a sort of worn, elastic leather, and between my right toe and index, the skin has split open, leaving a fissure that opens and closes when I stretch. There is nothing to do, however, other than acknowledge that it is there.

In general, we are knicked up, banged up. Danny's feet and ankles have been bleeding on and off for weeks now, the sores a combination of scratched mosquito bites, cuts from his sandals, and a constant resubmergence in the water. Fire ants spent a day or two building ultimately doomed empires in our canoes and food containers, and we all bear little welts from the warfare. And Kevin's shirt, which he has been wearing the entire trip, smells so bad that it rivals the cat, who pees on herself.

To distract ourselves from such trials, Danny and I kill bugs inside our tent. The way it works is this: we both pile our sleeping bags and pads inside the tent, and then throw ourselves inside, violently pulling the screen door closed behind. Then, we sit with our flashlights scanning the tent sides like strobes, anticipating our prey. There's a mosquito! we cry, and spring into action. One of us keeps a distance and holds the light steady. The other creeps up until their hand is only inches from the unsuspecting, inferior species. Then, when the moment is right, we kill, employing the pinch (thumb and index), the swat (with object), the clap (two-handed), the clap (one-handed; more difficult), the push (employing the tent side), the chopstick (index and middle), or the snap (self explanatory; relatively impossible). Once, we captured a mosquito and slowly dismembered it, wing by wing, leg by leg by leg by leg, and then stinger, and then abdomen, allowing it to flop helples!
sly on th
e ground, crying out, "Let this be a lesson to you all!" before finishing it with my thumb. Guts stick to our fingers. Juicy ones smear blood along the walls. The stains stick for weeks. You have no idea how rewarding this is.

The mosquitoes dead, we lie down and try to fall asleep. We do this in Vicksburg and the train rolls by, crying out with the romance of a different time. How thrilling that might be, I think, to climb inside that thing. But of course I am forgetting the year, and that certainly you would die, fighting for a boxcar perhaps, or strangled by a serial killer, or clubbed in the head by a sad, startled man. Maybe next summer. For now, paddle down a river instead.


Monday, July 16, 2007

Some simple observations:

We are in Louisiana now. We crossed over from Arkansas yesterday. We have now been out here for fifty days, and have paddled through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and now Louisiana. We will be in New Orleans in two weeks or less.

One thing you learn after a while is that the river always flows fastest around the outside of a bend. Even though it may seem faster to take a shorcut and paddle straight across, or hug the inside of the turn, it's almost always the other way around. This is something you simply come to accept. Yet even though we know this, we still will manage to mess it up. We stare across and the other shore looks so close, and we think to ourselves that if we just cut across here, we will save ourselves such trouble. And so we cut across, and the current dies, the other canoe flies past, and we relearn the lesson all over again. The interesting thing is that the person most likely to forget all this is the person steering in the back of the second canoe, playing catch-up to the first. They see the bend, and the first canoe so far ahead, and a chance to make up lost ground. And in doing so they fall even further behind. This is what is called a metaphor.

It is still humid, but slightly cooler now, balmy even, and there are pelicans, and you can feel the ocean in the air. You are getting closer! it says, you are so close you are almost there! Meanwhile, water levels have risen dramatically, to the point where most sandbars have disappeared, and bends in the river have turned into bays. The Arkansas River poured in at floodlevels, carrying the load of the thunderstorms down, the water a strict and muddy pink from the caved-in shore. We paddle alongside branches of trees, logs, the trees themselves, still living, bobbing in the froth of the current, and Ryan tries to climb one. He fails, but in his attempt he tilts the canoe enough that Mippi's cage slips off and into the water. The cat floats with a panicked look in her eye, wondering how she ended up with owners so stupid, bewildering really, and perhaps also if this is it, if this is how she is going to die, slowly and helplessly sinking into the Mississippi River, goddamn t!
year old idiots, keep me locked in this cage all day and can't even keep the cage out of the water, and now I am paying for their carelessness, with my life, no less, how horrible, how fitting and horrible, bastards... We fish her out and she settles down. In half an hour, she can't even remember what happened. And the tree keeps floating downstream.

P.S. to the Marrinin's: if you are reading this, please email danny so he can get his sweatshirt back. He appreciates this greatly! His email is

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Hello everyone. Coming to you bright and early on the morning of our 49th day out here, Sunday, July 15th, 2007. We are camped at an RV campsite in Warfield Point Park, just outside Greenville, Mississippi, and it looks like it is going to be a quiet, overcast day. Mippi runs around, chasing after pieces of grass and sniffing in holes, as if to say, Check me out, I am growing bigger, I am becoming more self-sufficient by the day.

Last night, we found a ride into Greenville and went to Doe's Eat Place, a steakhouse famous for making its customers enter through the kitchen and being Bill Clinton's favorite. We met all sorts of good folks and chatted it up: a guy who'd moved here from Boston and liked it even though everyone is racist, an older woman who loved Kevin's blond curls and blue eyes, a pretty young woman who told me she was married. "What are y'all doing here?" one group asked another as we sat down to our table. "Taking my dad out," was the reply. "He just had open-heart surgery. Thought I'd treat him to a 32 oz steak."

At dinner, we meet two National Guard servicemen, Sean and James, who have served in Kuwait and Iraq. I ask them what they think about the situation, and James says he supports it, one hundred percent. "What else are you going to do?" he says, "When the Twin Towers fell, just let yourself get attacked and just clean the thing up? We had to go occupy somewhere." "I'm not going to say I'm a Bush fan," says Sean, "But what I admire about him is he's principled. He's not chasing this poll or that." I suppose that's true, I tell him, when your approval rating is hovering at 25%. "Hey, we'll judge it all in fifty years," James says. "Until then, there's no way to tell." He says he has bought three million Iraqi dollars as an investment for his children. "Well," I tell him, "It can't go anywhere but up."

We originally heard about Doe's two nights ago, when we pulled off the river looking for a cheeseburger and met a man named Frank Smith. "There's nowhere around for fifteen miles," he said, and explained that we were on the grounds of a private (and wealthy) hunting club, Catfish Point, whose members flew in via their own private airfield. "Come on," he says, smiling. "I'm gonna cook for you."

Frank's cabin has a beautiful screened-in porch, raised foundation to guard against floods, and a huge cabinet full of guns. While he barbeques chicken and drinks whiskey, we talk about his life as an investor, his college days playing baseball for Raleigh College in Florida, and how when we get to Greenville, we have to eat at Doe's. "Doe is my brother-in-law," Frank says, and he gets Doe on the phone. "Doe!" he says, "I've got four knuckleheads up here at Catfish Point who want to eat at your place tomorrow night. How long you think it'll take'm to make it in canoes?" "Canoes?" comes the response. "We've got motors around here."

Frank tells us to grab beers and says that in the south, meals are a social activity. We talk about the Mississippi River bottoms, how sometimes it looks like a certifiable jungle, how the cotton plantations of the 19th century have relented to the forces of the river and been replaced by corn and heartwoods: Pecan, oak, cottonwood trees. We talk about flood regulation and Frank tells us about the 1927 flood, when water from the river spread 50 miles east, 100 miles south. "It's bad for human beings, but we're not the main players here. We need to learn to let nature do what it needs to do and get out of the way." He tells us about his daughter, working in the PeaceCorps in China, and about the wild world he saw when he visited her, about pollution so bad in Beijing that you never see the sun. "The world is changing," he says, "And we'll see it in our lifetime - not necessarily bad, but not all of it good, and we'll have to get used to it as Americans."

After dinner, he says we might as well spend the night, seeing as he has four beds to share, and in the morning he is waiting with grits and coffee to send us on our way. "Well if you've got that sort of spirit, you can't keep it bottled up," he says, and wishes us all the best. We shake his hand and climb in the back of his truck, and he drives us back down to the river.

And on the topic of hospitality, did I ever tell you that in New Madrid, Missouri, a man named Joe Porter met us at the boat landing and invited us back to his house for dinner, where he cooked up huge steaks, texas toast, and beans? That is the whole story, there is hardly anything to it. I never reported it in the first place because of that simplicity, worried that for such a basic act you simply had to be there, a gem uncut, that such a thing could never translate through the internet wires. I'm still skeptical, but look! Joe Porter cooked us dinner and let us watch tv! And he didn't even know who we were! Incredible! Thank you Joe! And thank you Frank! Talk about restoring your faith in humanity! I mean seriously: restore your faith in humanity.

As Frank put it, "We've got a lot of bad eggs, but there's a lot of good people in this country."

And so we head south.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Here are some things to think about at home:

1) Hitchhiking in this country is still a viable option. It is easier the further south you go. In Helena, Arkansas, we hitched three rides and didn't even stay the night. One guy even came back to apologize for not picking us up. "You know," he said, "I passed you back there, and I got up here, and suddenly I realized, 'Gosh, those boys wanted a ride.'" Pick-Up trucks are best. And everyone is friendly. If they aren't, don't worry! They won't pick you up.

2) Mark Twain is dead.

3) That said, you can still read Huckleberry Finn. And you can still paddle down the Mississippi River. A majority of people, however, given the choice, would do neither.

4) Meanwhile, paddling is an act so simple sometimes it makes you want to cry. When was the last time you were moved to cry about anything? When was the last time you were truly moved to feel anything at all?

5) On that note, when was the last time you stood entirely naked outside the comfort of your own home?

6) It is so hot out here that it actually ceases to matter. You just sweat and sweat and give up on caring what it looks like. Also, after a while it ceases to smell. Then it is just you and your body, beyond the civilized world of image and social expectation, just doing the things that your body was meant to do.

7) Because of the heat, you appreciate the rain. The weather patterns that flooded eastern Texas and Kansas have now moved onto Arkansas and Mississippi, and huge thunderheads will roll through, lighting up the entire sky, raindrops as big as dimes splattering across the river, endlessly, until even your rainjacket is useless and you just stand there, entirely soaked, water dripping from your hair. People who have alternatives to being outside usually hate the rain. But when you just stand there and let it dump on you, there is nothing to actually hate. It is just water. And after a while, when the rain stops and the sun comes back out, you dry off. Invariably, this is a wonderful process. You were wet, and now you are dry! And the sun is so warm! Because of the rain, you appreciate the heat.

8) Perhaps you are now thinking, 'That seventh thing to think about at home was pretty (fucking) sappy.' But the eighth thing to think about at home is that every sappy river truth you've ever heard is actually true. Some examples: "The river of life has many bends." "You can never step in the same river twice." "No matter what, the river always wins." The United States Army Corps of Engineers has sunk millions, if not billions of dollars into the Mississippi by way of dams, levees, and flood channels, in an attempt to disprove this last fact. To an incredible extent, they have been successful. But then things happen. Take, for example, Hurricane Katrina.

9) Some people do trips like this to see how fast they can go. They climb Mt. Everest, swim the English Channel, they race hot-air balloons around the circumference of the entire planet in eighty days. To the best of my knowledge, people do such things to conquer them; to be able to say that the thing has been done. On an entirely unrelated note, some men spend their entire lives making sport out of sleeping with as many attractive women as they can. Draw your own conclusions.

10) One thing I like to do out here when I am upset is shout "Fuck!" or "Shit!" or "Cock and Balls!" as loud as I can into the air. I do this because it makes me laugh. And then I am not upset anymore.

11) On a related note, one thing you can do out here is whatever you want.

12) But back to you: let's play a stupid game. Ready? Okay: try to think of the last time you realized you were alive. Like you were just sitting there, maybe cutting an onion, or checking your mySpace profile, and suddenly it dawned on you: Gosh, I'm alive! When was the last time you did that? Out here, sometimes it's all there is to do. So regardless of how long it's been, let's do it right now. Think to yourself: Gosh, I am alive. Holy Fucking Shit!!! You're alive!

13) Well look at that.

- g

"I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, or talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly exclaim, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is." So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

- Kurt Vonnegut

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

***note: this was supposed to post two days ago, but apparently did not. Apologies for the long delay, but we'll make it up to you with...back to back posts! That's right! Two posts for the price of one! And now without further ado...

We're back, America, coming to you live from the middle of a lightning storm, on the deck of the Memphis Yacht Club in Memphis, TN! We hope you've somehow managed in our absence, but we're again here to be your emotional crutch in our country's time of need. Let's catch you up! Let's catch you up:

We woke up early the morning of July 4th, intending to paddle quite a ways, 47 miles, in order to make it to Osceola, Arkansas for that evening's festivities. But after pounding out thirty miles, we decided to stop (just for a moment) to enjoy the holiday and drink a beer. Once we finished the first, we thought what the hell, we'll have a second, and after that we may or may not have had a third. This is great, we thought. We're drunk Americans, floating down the Mississippi River. What could possibly be better? While reveling in such basic freedoms, two guys in a pontoon boat pulled up and asked us if we wanted a cold beer. We shook our cans at them and told them we wanted a tow. "Well come on then," they said, and we paddled over.

They introduced themselves as Ray Webb and Bill something (can't remember; sorta drunk), and hauled us a couple miles downriver before pulling up next to several other motorboats, beached along the sand. Ray grabbed us beers while we mingled with the forty-odd people there from Ripley, TN, telling them as always about our journey and receiving more of the same exclamatory responses. "We're trying to make it to Osceola tonight," we told them. "Why the hell you trying to do that?" they said. "There's nothing there." Ray thought it was such a bad idea that he offered to drive us back to his house, 15 miles off the river, and let us sleep in his backyard. "We'll have a barbeque and everything," he said, "And you can meet the whole town." We thanked him for the offer and told him it sounded nice, but we really had to make the miles. "We'd love a tow though," we said.

Fifteen minutes later, we had our canoes tied up behind the pontoon again, this time with Ryan and I sitting in the canoes to steer and Danny and Kevin relaxing in the boat. Ray sat up at the steering wheel with his tobacco pipe and a younger guy named Ben, clamoring about this and that and generally bearing a striking resemblance to Robert Duval in "Apocalypse Now." "You ready?" he shouted, and off we go.

Oh for a second it's just great, riding behind that pontoon! We're going so fast, and sort of surfing on the boat's wake, and I open myself up a beer, not so much because I want it, but because I can. Mippi sits in her cage meowing viciously at me from the speed, but I toast to her and tell her to calm down. What great time we are making(!), and what a beautiful day(!), and God what a great country, America(!), where you can paddle down its biggest river in canoes and get rides from drunk pleasure boaters blowing tobacco smoke out the back. I take a sip of beer and smile foolishly. And the boat takes too sharp a turn and my entire canoe flips over.

"Damn, my beer!" is my first thought. It's floating upside down in the river. But just as fast there are packs everywhere, loose gear floating off, the canoe on its side filling with water, the dry bag with all my valuables caught upstream in the eddy, and Mippi's cage, submerged completely in water. I grab the cage and pull it up to the surface. She is crying out and frantically clawing at the front grate, trying to get out. I hold the cage out but it keeps going under, up and down, as I tread water and try to grab as many things as I can. Ryan throws a lifejacket toward me. It catches in the current and floats away. Danny jumps in the river and starts swimming after things, the pontoon slowly turning around, Kevin jumping into the other canoe with Ryan and shoving off, paddling furiously, reaching me finally and grabbing the cage, water pouring out everywhere and Mippi meowing lividly, completely drenched and shivering, eight more lives to go.

While we right the canoe, Ray and Ben fish our things out of the river. The casualties are Danny's lifejacket, my sandals, our cook kit, half our spice kit, our coffee maker, fry pans, tupperware, and about two-thirds of our food. "Damn eddy," Ray keeps saying, and offers me another beer. They tow us a couple miles further down, and drop us off on the bank. "Don't forget us now," says Ben, "Ray Webb and Ben Wilder. You better write that down."

The day, however, was not over. We finished up the paddle to Osceola, and paddled up a narrow inlet, where we threw our things down quickly on a sandbar across the channel from town. We decided to forget the whole ordeal over a good holiday dinner in town, but to get there, we had to ferry across the channel. We'll all just load into one canoe, we said, which was an extremely stupid idea with all the gear still in it, because we made it fifteen feet out and the canoe tipped over again.

We wade into shore and now everything is really soaked. My cell phone is broken, my wallet dripping, our pants and shoes covered in sopping muck. On top of that, it is getting dark, and the mosquitoes start coming out. "Fuck this, let's get out of here," we cry, and tear off in our canoes (two this time) for the other shore, thinking the absurdity cannot grow any bigger. It does though, because as Ryan and Danny near the opposite shore, huge fish start jumping out of the water in huge arcs, all around. They start jumping clear over the canoe, and smacking into Ryan's paddle. "Shit! Shit! Shit!" Danny is yelling, ducking and dodging with his head, and the two paddle as fast as they can into shore. Flying Asian carp. Who knew.

By now the whole thing is simply too ridiculous to really fathom and we're tired and hungover too and the mosquitoes are out and our things are wet, so Let's cash in our chips and get a motel, I say, and we start walking into town. On the way, we are lucky enough to hitch a ride, squeezing the four of us into the backseat of a car that is already carrying five, Kevin's feet sticking precariously out the back window. The car drops us off at the Judge Motel, where an old, first-generation Indian couple (how does an old, immigrant Indian couple come to own a rundown motel in Osceola, Arkansas?) gives us a $35 room with a leaking roof and blood stains on Ryan's mattress, men with prostitutes in the rooms next door, and July 4th, finally done.

Two days later, we pulled into Memphis and lit up the town. Alli flew in to spend the weekend with me, and the five of us roamed all over the place, reveling in our weekend of R&R. We watched the Memphis Redbirds play the Albuquerque Isotopes (baseball; triple-A). We drank Mint Juleps in the Peabody Hotel. We visited the National Civil Rights Museum and saw the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot (dear god, this spot, right here), and spoke with the black woman outside holding huge signs that read "The National Civil Rights Museum Supports Gentrification and Ethnic Cleansing." We visited Graceland, drove past the Heartbreak Hotel, saw Elvis's planes (from the outside only; far too expensive to go into any of it- $30 - what the hell is wrong with this country), and learned that next year, 50,000 people from China and Japan alone were expected to visit Graceland, in addition to 100,000 Americans, in commemoration of Elvis's 30th anniversary (of his death). We!
ate at D
enny's, we saw "Transformers" (movie; bad), we walked along Beale Street, the night a swimming collage of tourists and blues bands and humidity, and did things better left unsaid (shoutout to Hope and Holly).

Now we are back to the river, canoes already like an exotic species, July 4th and Memphis there and then gone. It is the final stretch now, less than three weeks to go, and we can't thank you all enough for following us this far along. If you've been slacking lately, it's alright - so have we, but now it's time to ride this thing home. We hope you'll follow along, and tell your friends about us, and one day, hopefully, us about your friends. Looking forward to speaking with you all soon. Take care everyone, and goodnight.


Wednesday, July 4, 2007

"...dead in Iraq. Elsewhere on this, our 231st anniversary of independence, people are hunkered down in trenches across America, waiting in line to purchase the new iPhone. And presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to amass millions, to the shock and secret relief of the nation, further solidifying the inevitability of Democratic takeover in 2008.

"And now, for our special interest piece, we go to our correspondant in Tennessee, Crapper Reason. Crapper?"

" [chhhh chhhh chhk] It's actually Osceola, Arkansas, Bob! Or actually ten miles up, floating on the river! Motorboats are flying past, shouting 'crazy motherfuckers!' to us, and the project members are drunkendly belting Shenandoah. And I don't know what to tell you! They're being rather difficult...[chhh chhhhh] Utter mayhem... [chhhhhhhhh] ...taken me hostage... [chhhhhhhhh] It's hard to describe... [chhhh chhhh] They've come down through Kentucky now, camping on sandbars, and now there's... [chhh] [chhh chhh]The whole dynamic's become rather odd, as you can see behind me they're just sitting there shouting obscenities into the air, apparently as a means of entertainment... [chhhhhhh] Earlier they were swordfighting with foam swords and speaking in French accents, and dropping the cat in the water... [chhhhh chhhhhh]"

"You're breaking up, Crapper."

"Bob? [chhh] Bob? [chhh] Can you hear me? [ch] As I said, the project members are refusing to speak... [chhh chhhhhhhh] Holed themselves up last night in the tent and said they'd talk if I brought them women... [chhhhh] It's extremely difficult to tell if they are being serious... [chhhh chhhhh] One keeps talking about tolerance and self-satisfaction, and refering to them all as a Possible Generation... [ch] Nonsense, I suppose... [chhh chhh] They keep saying that there is nothing to say and too much to say, that what they are doing is far too simple and boring and good for the tastes of our time, not enough explosions and special effects, I think they said, especially for the internet, [chhhhhhh] which they seem to be hinting is the fundamental irony, Bob, [ch] their journey being documented on a blog, a medium entirely polar to what they are experiencing, essentially 'using the internet to talk to people about escaping the internet...' That's a direct quote... [ch] 'And th!
at's at d
oing it only every three days, for godssake...' [chhh chhhhh chhhhhhhhhh] The small-town adventures are a nice touch, but just one side of the coin, and at worst a distraction, and still not nearly enough to keep up with YouTube clips of 'Dancing with the Stars.' 'The shimmering water and moving meditations get sappy in print' [ch] ...that's Gabe speaking, and quote, 'we can't continuously serve ourselves up on a platter of excitement and grit...' That's another direct quote... [chhhhhhh] How frightening a prospect, a world where the Mississippi River hardly exists, except online...[ch chh] Oh, wait... [ch] Hold on, wait! We've got some action! [ch] One of them is standing up! It's Kevin! He's leaning forward... [chhhh] He's... [ch] Yes, he's doing it, he's picked up a beer...And yes, he is, as you can see now he is in fact sitting down to open it... [ch] I repeat Kevin has decided to open a beer! [ch ch] [ch]. We'll update this story as it continues to develop... [chhhhhh c!

"They've asked me to pass along a couple notes... [chhhhh] although I can't say I understand them... [ch] They're asking everyone to, quote, stop asking about the damn cat, it's just a cat, and likely to end up eaten by alligators anyway... [chhh] They are, quote, still searching for the Snickers Well, and making progress, end quote. Also, quote, to those fuckers Peter True and Kevin Redmon, they should have pulled their pants up and gotten in the goddamn canoes. They don't know what they're missing, or maybe they do... [chhh chhh] And also, quote, America, fuck yeah...happy 4th of July, celebrating being able to do whatever we goddamn want, from the middle of everything, so far away. End quote. [chhhhhhhhhh] Back to you, Bob!

"Ah, thank you, Crapper. We'll keep you updated as this story goes on. In other news..."

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Thanks for the Ride

Paddling like a trance. Humidity that creeps in until you forget it is even there. Trees with leaves that bend down as if dripping, morning gray and burning afternoon haze, meals in bars in towns that run together, dim red lights and country songs, and baseball games on tv, the days a blur of paddling and thinking, and the river, always, your whole entire world.

The current has increased and the pace has slowed, and still days will flow by without you ever realizing they were there. Sit with your thoughts for hours in the canoe and listen to the way your brain works. Reflect on the past, make lists for the future, remember that you are paddling, again and again and again. Watch your thoughts crest and subside, feel your body speaking to you, become intimate again with your own existence. Meditate. Daydream. Space out. Forget you are even alive. Remember you are, and rejoice. Try to remember such and such song. Watch the water flow. Let go and go with it, and let it carry you downstream.

Pull up to camp in Commerce, MO, population 99, and get approached by a man in an old pick-up truck who drives down from his house up the way. "This is my boat ramp," he says in a low voice, emphasis on the 'my.' "This is private property." He has yellow teeth and weathered skin and a cigarette in his left hand, and I ask if we can camp there anyway. "Yep," he says, and nods. "Don't leave any trash around now."

Later, he comes down and Danny gets to talking, comes back and tells us the guy's a Vietnam vet who hates Bush and disapproves of the war in Iraq. Danny says we're going to have to fight again for our liberties, and the man says, "Oh, it's comin'. Not in my lifetime," he says, "But maybe in yours."

Have a hard day in the canoe and feel the heaviness of my aging body. "Are you out of your mind happy to be alive?" asks Ryan, in camp, reading a book, and "Well, in theory," I say. He shakes his head, puts down his book. "No. Are you out of your mind happy to be alive right now?" he asks. "No," I say, and feel both the weight and release of such a simple response, and stare at the river with my chin in my palm. "You're rounding a turn," he says. "This is just a bend in the river." We sit and read and think, Danny nearby, composing:

Manequins in windows look like people in stores
Heaven is in limbo while the reaper is forged
We sell passion for art just to pay the rent
'Cause we can only see our hearts when we hang our heads

I went down to the river with my mind on the clouds
To ask all the questions that couldn't climb out my mouth
I put my hands in the water and my feet on the banks
And saw drops of humility bead on my face

That's when the water turned to oil and the current reversed
Spreading out to show the soil where a person emerged
I said "Let's know the truth and kill disparity
But I won't hold the noose when you're staring at me."
It said, "It'd burn our bridges, and turn art to life
'cause I am the anonymous archetype."

In Cairo, Illinois, reach the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi and stand at the point, taking pictures: the Ohio, blue-green, slow; the Mississippi, muddy, rushing, Kentucky spread out for the first time across the way. Reflect on how far we have come, on Bemidji, MN, so far away, and walk the mile up into town. Cairo is dead, a heap of abandoned buildings and wide, empty streets. Such a prodigal name, such a prodigal place, at the confluence of two great rivers, and this instead, a ghost town.

Find the first restaurant we see and sit down. It's called Fat Boy Bar and Grill, a dark bar with POW-MIA shirts on the wall, six separate confederate flags hanging all around, an antique cigarette vending machine, and a fake slot machine that takes quarters and says "For Amusement Only." One man at the bar has a confederate flag on his hat. Another has an eyepatch. We sit down and order a cheeseburger, a mushroom and swiss burger, a chicken strip basket dinner, philly cheesesteak, chile cheese dog, grilled cheese sandwich, two orders of cajun fries, onion rings, three beers, and a twelve inch sausage pizza. It is the Mississippi diet, and not something we suggest trying at home. During the day, Danny and I wolf down Snickers bars (him much more than me, plus Reeses', Sour Skittles, M&M's) and discuss where we can find a Snickers well, in which case we would abandon the whole Mississippi shindig and just haul up black nougat gold from the ground, gorging ourselves and making!
We talk about this to great lengths in the canoe and Danny asks me how far we have gone. Ryan sits in the stern with his feet up on the gunnels. "Can you please stop focusing on the mileage?" he says. "We've already established that time and space don't exist."

In Hickman, KY, start finding the southern twang infectious and meet a great young guy named Dusty who looks me in the eye from the first. He agrees to drive us to the nearest bank and sits in his truck with Danny while we pick up some beer and tells Danny he's never left Hickman, never will. He works on the towboat sitting in the harbor and makes $125 dollars a day under the table, supporting a wife of eight years and an eight year-old daughter. "That's Bud's," he says, passing a resaurant. "It'll be jumping around nine o'clock." And right down the road, "There's C&J's. That there's a black place." Get dropped back off at camp and start talking to a biker who says that his son's got a soccer scholarship to some school in St. Louis, and that paddling the Mississippi has always been a dream of his. "Do it," we say, "But trust us. Bring a motor."

Later, have dinner a few drinks in at a gas station and flirt with every girl working in the whole place including the cook before getting a ride back from a guy who wants to show us old town Hickman, and loads us into his van with a bed in the back and kitchen too. I sit on the bed because there aren't any more seats and decide I'll take this one off, lie back and stare at the sky through the back window while the man goes on about house prices in town and hunting Sasquatch in all seriousness (there's already been four sightings around these parts) and river towns taking a dive since the steamboat days. "That there is where I went to school through third grade," he says. "Now it's a funeral home." He takes us back and I climb out from the bed. I shake his hand. "Thanks for the ride."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Infinite Points Between Two Points

Hello everyone from Trail of Tears State Park in Missouri! It's great to check in with you all again! As always, thanks for all the comments, and Tuyo, please call Mrs. Fishman - she needs your address so we can get back our security deposit.

Leaving St. Louis, we passed through the St. Louis Port, and it seemed that all the naysayers who had warned of industry and pollution on the lower river were right. Huge barges stacked six wide and long powered up and down, with wake ten feet high blowing off their back. Towboats motored this way and that, dropping off shipping containers and picking up new ones, rows of unattached containers lying anchored midstream, the water bouncing off them. Empty soda cans and rubber scrap floated alongside the canoes. We ducked and dodged them all, looking over our shoulders anxiously, riding through waves six feet over our heads.

That night, we camped at a boat club in Crystal City, MO. I walked up to talk to some old men working along the shore, and one came over and bellowed, "Where ya comin' from?" "Minnesota," I said. "Not a bad place to be comin' from!" His name was Bob somethingsomething (somewhat incoherent), and when I asked about restaurants he told me to take his truck into town. "The keys are in there," he said. "Don't you need it back by a certain time?" I asked. "What are you, going to go pick up some girls?" he bellowed. "I tell ya, you can borrow the truck, but I don't want any spots on the seats!"

Later that night, he comes down with another guy and pronounces Missouri Missourah and sits and talks with us about the other folks who have passed through making the trip, and how the boat club was once the site of the largest pane glass company in the world, and about where we are planning to stop further down along the river. "Whatever you do, don't go to Cairo," Bob says. "It's about ninety percent colored," says his friend, "And the whole thing has gone kaplatt."

But outside of the St. Louis Port, the naysayers have been wrong. The river here is beautiful, poplar and maple and oak trees bending in from the banks, and huge sandbars jutting out from where it bends. Since the port, we have hardly seen a soul outside of towns, and the solitude is enchanting. Ryan and I paddle and concoct a wild scheme to caravan across America in a schoolbus before the 2008 elections, causing scenes on college campuses and registering people to vote. We talk about the sad state of our generation, and note that it is both the most connected and most apathetic generation in the history of this country. "If only you could mobilize that," I say, "If only people would get excited and do something important with their lives." We talk about how great it is to paddle the Mississippi, to create a goal and live by setting out to accomplish it, and in doing so, create time for yourself. "Really," Ryan says, "How many people do you know who take the time to just sit!
and thin
k? It's a dead pastime." We paddle for a long time in silence, and water pools to the surface as if thoughts forming in the current, spinning, crashing into other thoughts and raging at the edges, downstream and then gone, swallowed again by the river, part again of the whole.

We've taken to paddling through the morning and then floating for long periods of the afternoon in the now substantial current. Doing this yesterday, Danny takes a nap while the rest of us read and space out. When we want to go again, Danny is still sleeping, and I tell Kevin and Ryan to go on ahead and we'll meet them at camp about eight miles down, where there are towns on both sides of the river. "Just pick which side is better," I tell them, and off they go. The way Danny is sleeping, I cannot see him, and soon the other canoe is out of sight. It is so peaceful, alone on the river! I paddle slowly in the back of the canoe, forcing nothing, letting the current carry me down. This is wonderful, I think to myself, and wonder at how in the hell I ever got to be here, where everyone said it would be hot and industrial and awful and instead it is quiet and beautiful, and me just slowly paddling the Mississippi River, reveling in the simplicity and the solitude.

When Danny wakes up, we paddle the rest of the way into camp. We pull up on the Illinois side because it seems more populated, but realize once there that Kevin and Ryan have pulled up on the Missouri side of the river. After an extended yet uneventful interlude where an old couple drives us into town and we buy groceries, learning along the way that Chester, Illinois is the home of Popeye, I call Kevin and tell him to come over to our side of the river. He tells us to come over there. Suddenly, it is a standoff. "We've got beer," I tell him. "We've got beer too," he says. "You were supposed to follow us!" he says. "You were supposed to pick the better side!" I say, "There's a town over here!" We argue and argue, but neither side is willing to pack up their things and paddle over. More than that, neither side is willing to lose. It starts to get dark, and Danny and I try to negotiate. "We're willing to come over," we tell them, "If you cook dinner and do the dishes." They ha!
ve alread
y started drinking, and they shoot us down incredulously. "We're not your bitches!," they cry. "The bars stay open till three (!) in Illinois," I say. Ryan gets on the phone and launches into a long tirade about why we are being ridiculous, how the plan was to follow them. "But you picked the wrong side!" I say, and when I can think of nothing else, I hand the phone to Danny, telling Ryan to "talk to my associate." "We have the stove," Danny says. "How the hell are you going to cook dinner?" "We'll get hot dogs at the convenience store." "Fine, well we're going to camp here and walk around our sweet town." "There's no way in hell we're crossing that river right now." "Well fine, stay on your crap side." "Fine." "Fine." "Fine."

Alone now, Danny and I wander up to town to eat and flirt with a cute bartender because neither one of us has the energy to cook a meal. I go up a second time to use the restroom, strike out with the bartender, and walking back down toward the shore, begin to be followed by a tiny kitten. I just keep walking and it won't go away. When I get back to camp, we try to figure out whether it is a boy or girl and give it some water. "Let's keep it," Danny says, and I say sure, because it is absurd and now we have a trip mascot. "I guess this definitely proves our side is better," I say. We name it Parmenides, after the philosopher who theorized an infinite amount of points between any two other points before going insane and saying nothing for years besides 'It is,' because it jives well with Danny's background in philosophy and my interest in Buddhism. "Parmippides for short," Danny says. In the morning, Kevin and Ryan paddle over, but Parmenides won't stay in the box we give him.!
"He'll j
ump out of the canoe. Or he'll suffocate in the box," Kevin says, and talks to a guy in his car who says he can take him to City Hall. We're all tore up, thinking we're going to have to give away old Parm after just one night, and begin speculating that they won't in fact take him in but instead will kill him, little kitten with no one to take him home, but in the 11th hour we convince the car guy to drive us to Walmart to pick up a cage. Danny comes back triumphant with a collar, leash, cat food, play toys and traveling cage, and we load Parmippides in. "Meow," it says. And we're off.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Off the River, onto the Road

So as I said we got into a U-Haul and drove to Chicago. It was not, as some of you have mused, a desperate attempt to flee from the vagrants of Davenport, Iowa. There was a method to our madness. That madness is this: we cannot canoe the whole river in the time we have alloted, and at some point we were going to have to figure something out. Gauging our options, it made more sense to rent a truck and cut off a chunk of the upper river, where the locks and dams slow the current, rather than down south, where the adventures are just waiting to begin. Even worse would have been to do nothing and just paddle, only to run out of time and never even make it to New Orleans. Setting out, our intent was never to conquer the river, to put it on our mantle as some sort of trophy. To think in such a manner is both too common and absurd. We came instead to experience it, and experiencing it we are, as we hope you are, clicking and scrolling along. The U-Haul was something we needed to do, to do what we needed to do.

We rented the U-Haul on Friday and didn't need to get it to St. Louis until Monday morning, and so we decided to drive to Chicago for kicks. What fun, we thought! We''ll hit the big city and go crazy on the town! We'll roll in dark and mysterious and the world will be our oyster! Of course it didn't quite turn out that way.

We got there Friday afternoon and walked up and down Michigan Avenue, taking in the sights and gawking at the skyline, all of us in our stinking trail gear, our unshaven faces and heavy duty rainjackets, anonymous in the face of the rushing city and mad crush of capitalism, people scurrying here and there, buses flying past, taxis, glass skyscrapers, girls in makeup and kids with piercings, all of it as far from Palisade, Minnesota as you could possibly imagine. How is this even the same country, I wondered, How do we manage at all? We walked past Soldier Field and the Field Museum, past a huge public dance class led by a male instructor with a headset up on a stage, past a symphony concert in the park where the conductor spoke of Gershwin, past art installations and department stores and Asian tourists taking pictures, construction sites and billboard ads, lovers walking hand in hand, boats in marinas, sailboats on Lake Michigan, sightseeing tours up the Chicago River, past private tours in a horse-drawn carriage. Trying to save money, we ate at a dive place called Flamingo's that was worth about what we paid for, which wasn't much. It began to become clear to me that we were sorely out of place, and while the rest of the group trucked on, my enthusiasm for the sidetrip and the night started to wane. We walked out along Navy Pier and rode the Ferris Wheel, and I started to get very depressed and think of the whole Chicago idea as a failure and a waste of time. I felt pretty awful, actually, moping hopelessly about my stolen guitar too, and eventually ended up showing it pathetically and railing against the world and acting like a 'big baby,' in Ryan's words, feeling ashamed the next day and wondering what in the hell happened to me. We all slept in the back of the U-Haul, never ending up going out on the town in large part due to my bad mood, and at 5:30 in the morning Ryan woke up and decided he'd had enough of Chicago and drove us straight out of town.

When I woke up, we were in Springfield, Illinois. Ryan wanted to see the Lincoln Presidential Museum, so while he did that the rest of us checked our email in the Presidential Library (never actually seeing anything in the library besides our Gmail accounts and Facebook profiles; oh, the sad truths of our generation) and got breakfast at a tea place across the street. We wandered around and I started to shake off the awful depression of the night before. It felt good to be away from the big city and to be headed back toward the old river. It started to rain, and it started to pour, and it kept up like that all the way down to St. Louis.

In St. Louis, we stayed with Mary and Bill Christman, the parents of a good friend of ours, Sam Christman, who was nice enough to volunteer his family to house us, without him there. We rode the subway and walked around the Loop, and got free $15 gift certificates to a record store for riding around in a new Scion and filling out a survey. We visited the St. Louis Arch, Gateway to the West, and rode up to the top, and watched an old documentary on how the Arch was built. We debated whether the Arch was a symbol of American nobility or egotistical presumptuousness, and decided it was likely the latter. We took pictures and craned our necks back at the thing. "It sure is pretty though," we said, and took the subway back.

Later, Bill Christman took us on a drive around their neighborhood, saying in an unassuming voice that he'd show us his "studio," as if it weren't anything big. It ended up being one of the most astounding places I've ever seen: a huge BYOB called Joe's Cafe with attached stage for Bluegrass and Jazz bands and a massive yard outside littered with crazy found art and landscaped waterfalls, chairs and tables everywhere, and quiet places to sneak away with someone pretty and make out. "I've been doing this for four years," Bill said, "Every Thursday, about 450 people come through and have a good time." We marveled at it all, empty on a Sunday afternoon, and I thought to myself that the whole world should look like this, a place so dynamic and open, that this is how our lives should be. I looked at Bill, and thought about what it must be like to be him, to know you have created such a place, and to know that it is good, and that whatever else happens, at least you'll always have this. "I think this place of yours is really remarkable," I told him, and he thanked me like he almost forgot it was even the case. The next time we come through St. Louis, it'll have to be on a Thursday, we told him, and when it is, we'll have to swing on through.

Now, we are packing our things and gearing up for another day on the river. With June nearing its end, the first half of our trip is done and the second is about to begin. Thank you to everyone who has followed us this far, and I hope you'll stick with us until the end. More than that, I hope that if you have found in our journey something inspiring or even remotely remarkable, you will, as Susie Orr put it, pay it forward. The world needs excited people. This country needs excited people. Please don't be scared to join in the fun.

Best wishes and enjoy the pictures.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Notes from Iowa

There are a few things that have happened to us since we left Dubuque:

Two days ago, we rode down with Tom and Susie to Clinton, IA, and camped for the night on a sandbar in Illinois next to a huge electrical tower. While we unloaded the canoes, Danny and Ryan went to check it out, and came back saying they were going to climb it. It was the sketchiest thing ever, but I guess that just got them more excited about the prospect. "Don't die," I told them, and recorded their final wishes. "Spread the word of Marx," said Danny, and the two of them started to climb. At first they are just pulling themselves up by nail-like pegs stuck into the side, sticking their bodies out into the thin air. Maybe 50 feet up, they reach a tiny, encased ladder stretching up the rest of the way that is padlocked shut at the bottom. It is the type of ladder that seems like it will never end. They angle out and around the encasement to get by the padlock, and they start pulling themselves up, rung by rung. The ladder creaks and shakes as they go, and they keep calling d!
own that
this is the scariest thing they have ever done. While they climb, I jump in the water and swim out far enough so that the world looks flat all the way around, and by the time I get out there, the two of them have made it to the top. "This shit is crazy!" they scream, and take tons of pictures. Danny climbs up one final ladder that isn't even encased, that goes out over the water to the actual electric wires themselves, and reports back that it is absolutely insane. Up there, 300 maybe 400 feet, they look so small. I yell to them from the water, and we yell back and forth, nothing in particular, mostly just admiring at how great life is, at how high up there they really are.

Afterwards, Kevin finds a radio station playing great song after great song with no comercials, and the two climbers come down and we have a fire in the sand. The music gets us going, and while we talk I get up and start to dance around. That gets Ryan dancing, and that gets Danny to pull out his glowsticks and do a lightshow, right there on the sand, spinning and wheeling his arms so fast they become a blur of yellow and green. Barges pass up and down the river, their spotlights protruding miles out ahead. With the river dark, the lights are like little salutations, tiny affirmations of existence as they slip by us on their way. Danny spins the glowsticks in his hands, and the radio plays, and we talk into the night, making tiny affirmations of our own.

The next night, we get into Davenport and walk around downtown in the middle of a lightning storm. Heading back to camp, Ryan and I decide to run, and since my shirt is soaked from the rain, I take it off. Coming across the parking lot to our camp, I spot a bum rummaging through our things and I start running at him fast, yelling "Hey! You! Get the fuck away from my stuff! Hey!" Ryan is right behind me, and the bum backs off like he thinks he is going to get jumped, swearing when we confront him that he was just putting the packs in a pile, and spreading the flag over it. "If there was something to eat, I might have taken it," he says. "But what am I going to do with dried pasta?" While Ryan watches the bum, I walk over to two old men fishing across the way, and they say about two dozen people have been picking around our stuff. Meanwhile, two separate cars sit right next to our camp with their drivers just sitting there, doing nothing, just watching the whole scene. We stan!
d in a gr
oup, staring warily around, on guard as a young guy on some ill-advised combination of drugs staggers by our camp, his eyes doing crazy things behind his eyelids. We tighten up our gear and put it right between our canoes, as if to make a tiny bunker. Eventually the whole scene dies down, but the mood remains, and Kevin and Ryan go to sleep with the mace and the butterfly knife and one eye open.

Still, it is not very late, and Danny and I don't feel like sleeping, so instead we walk back up a couple blocks and wander around. We are sort of shook up, but mostly just exploring for a minute and walking around. When we decide to head back to the tents, a train comes along the track, heading south. "It's not going very fast," Danny says, and I look at it going by, sizing it up . I get a little jog going, and soon I am running right with the train. I jump and grab onto the car ladder and hoist myself up. I look back and Danny is on the next ladder down. "This is fun!" I yell to him, and he yells Yep back. When we get back to camp, we pass the young intoxicated guy trying to break into some woman's car. He somehow manages to slip his arm through the window and unlock the door, but it sets the car alarm off. Rehh! Rehh! Rehh! it goes, blaring into the night. But the guy is so fucked up he doesn't know what to do. He gets into the car and just sits there in the driver's seat!
, fiddlin
g with the stereo and ignition. The two old fishermen stand right there, just watching. Danny and I keep our distance and take down the license plate number in case we need to call it in, but right as Danny is about to call, the woman whose car it is runs up and yanks open the front door. "What the hell are you doing in my car?" she yells, and her boyfriend runs up behind her. The fucked up guy stumbles out. "Stay right there," the woman says, and the guy is so messed up and harmless he just puts his hands in the air. "I'm noottt, I'm not going anywheehreeioewa," he says. The boyfriend calls the cops, and soon they show up and have the guy with his cheek pressed to the ground. We walk back to camp and pass the fishermen, just fishing, harmless observers, minding their own business, not doing a goddamn thing.

In the morning, we go through the stuff and realize that my guitar is gone. I don't really realize it until I'm fully awake, but once the realization hits, I sit very depressed and stare at nothing for a long, long time. Ryan, Danny and Kevin have gone off, and I imagine them eating a hot breakfast without me, being served by a beautiful young waitress. There is another guy parked right next our camp, just watching me, and I sit in one place and don't move. Finally, Ryan, Danny and Kevin come back with the U-Haul, and they bring me a coffee and donuts for everyone. We load up the truck, and start driving to Chicago.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

My Maserati Does One-Eighty-Five

Hello, America! And a shoutout to our loyal fan base in Mexico City, too! Thank you for reading! We've got a long post this time, and videos and pictures at the bottom. Enjoy, and if you're from Canada, say hi! It's the Mississippi Project: going global, one North-American country at a time.

On our way into Dubuque from Cassville, we paddle halfway and it starts to rain, hard. The river is two miles wide from the dam up ahead, and across the open water, the wind starts sweeping waves across at us that crest and rock the canoes. Danny zips on his rainjacket, but it is still warm and I decide to stay shirtless, thinking the thing will pass. Instead it whips into me and covers the lake, hits my body in tiny drops that feel like hail, and pretty soon I can hardly see. I put on my sunglasses so I can steer, but water still runs down into my eyes and makes the whole world look crazy. To avoid the wind, we hide behind a long stone wall jutting out into the river, and end up right in the middle of a huge stump field, the remains of old, chopped-down trees protruding ominously from the shallow water. Through the orange sunglass lenses, the thing looks like something out of the Apocalypse. Danny yells a warcry up in the bow, and I can hardly hear it. It is raining harder than I've ever seen.

Behind the stone wall is a marina, and when we finally get there we decide to pack in from the inclement weather. We call Tom Orr, who'd agreed to host us for the night, and even though we're an hour and a half early and eight miles away, he says it's no problem and he'll be there in half an hour. We thank him, and sit under a pavilion watching the rain come down, shivering, waiting.

He shows up with his wife Susie, and there's room for four with Susie and just one with Tom due to all the gear clogging up the backseat. I go with Tom, and he takes me through downtown Dubuque and shows me the sights. There are beautiful old churches and breweries, and huge estates set up in the hills. He tells me it's so much better this way than by the arterial road Susie took with Kev, Danny and Stoa. "Up there you'll just see everything you always see," he says. "Home Depot, Walmart... One thing I can't stand about America nowadays is how every town looks the same. You used to be able to tell them apart. Now, you walk around blindfolded, you don't even know where you are."

At the house, he hands me a beer and tells me we'll get the canoe off the car later. The other guys come up, and the whole thing is wonderful. There is homemade salsa, and good beer. There are hot showers and (king-size!) beds and tiny hors d'oeuvres of tomato, basil, cream cheese and cracker. We tell them you don't have to do all this, really, but they wave us off. "Don't worry about it," they say. "We just love having guests. For us, this is fun."

The next day, they go even further and lend us their car. It is a beautiful day and we drive into town with the Eagles' "Life's Been Good" playing on the radio ("My maserati goes one-eighty five..."). With the windows down, we yell as loud as we can. "Waaah! Waaah!" we scream, "Mississippi Project! Waaah! Waaah!" It is something you should all try at home.

In town, we visit the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. Stoa tells the lady at the door that we are paddling the river and she lets us right on through. Inside, we watch a wonderful video about the river and its history, and look at pictures of old generals and steamboat captains. We play with a barge pilothouse simulator but can't keep the thing from running into the shore. We look at river timelines, and learn from a barge video that 55 million tons of grain are exported from the Mississippi River every year. In accelerated time, it only takes seven seconds to go through the locks, and the life of the barge deckhand just seems so damn romantic. We look at how far we have come from Minnesota to here, and at how far we still have to go. We remember the awe of the river all over again. "This isn't just any river. This is the Mississippi River," says one man in the opening video. "It is as great an American icon as the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge." Quotes are everywhere, too good and numerous to digest them all. Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes. There is Norman Maclean, telling you, "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it." There is Theodore Roosevelt and Chief Seattle, and Heraclitus, so wise, saying, "You can not step into the same river twice." And then perhaps the most simplistic but also the most honest of them all, in the gift shop written across the wall, there is Winnie the Pooh: "Sometimes, if you stand on a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly will suddenly know everything there is to be known."

And that is just the museum. The aquarium has huge fish, crazy fish. It has Cowanose Rays, and bottom-feeding Sturgeon, and four-and-a-half foot Blue Catfish with their whiskers waving out ahead. In one huge tank, an alligator lies half submerged in the water, completely still. "Is that thing real?" one woman incredulously asks her husband, and the alligator slowly blinks its eye. We learn about the poisonous snakes and water mocassins and snapping turtles awaiting us in the Louisiana bayous, and I realize we are going to die. All I can see is dismembered limbs and misty cypress trees. "I'm not trying to become an amputee," Danny says, and asks a museum employee what the best weapon would be to battle the alligators. "A shotgun?" Danny asks. "Nope," says the employee. "Wouldn't do it."

We wander over to the gift shop, and it is the busiest place in the whole museum. People mill about, looking at books and stuffed animals and American River sweet cherry wine, and imitation medicine pouches from a culture we destroyed long ago. There are custom Monopoly sets, train whistles, jaw whistles, rubber duckies, scented candles, t-shirts, track jackets, sweatshirts, hats, postcards, "Snake Crossing" signs, ships in bottles. It is the busiest place in the whole museum. "You ready up there?" asks the cashier as people make their way to the checkout. The Winnie the Pooh quote sits scrawled on the wall, looking at where it's made it to, staring silently down and taking in the whole scene.

Afterwards, we walk across the parking lot to Diamond Jo Casino, where there are far more cars parked than at the museum. We drive to the Fenelon Plaza Elevator, which goes up the main bluff of town and is the shortest, steepest railroad in the world. We stand at the top of it and gaze out at the city, and the river with the museum and casino on its banks, slowly slipping away. We're tired from all the sightseeing, and don't say much. We lean against the rail and bask in the sun, and after a while, we walk back down the hill.

Tomorrow, we are driving down to Savannah, Illinois, where we will be picking up our journey again. Enjoy the pictures and videos below, and miss us just a little. We'll miss you a little too, and we'll check in with you soon. Peace, love, goodnight. TMP

Monday, June 18, 2007

Map Feature

Dear Blog Readers,

At your request, we've added a map feature. You'll see a link in the upper-right corner of the blog (above the picture) that shows the guys' current location. If you click on that link, it will open a MapQuest page. We'll do our best to update this whenever there is a new post.

IT Guy, 1st Class

Meet Me at the Rendevous

Hello, world! We're back, still alive and doing well! We know we scared you with all that pessimism and drawn out misery, but don't worry! We're still at it, faring forward! Thank you so much to everyone who posted with their support and suggestions, and we'll take them all into consideration. I can't tell you how much it means to us, knowing you're all out there cheering us on.

We're currently camped in Cassville, WI, a day out of Dubuque, Iowa. It rained last night, and the temperature stayed down all day. On the final stretch into Cassville, Stoa and I were interrupted from deep conversation by four teenage boys in a motorboat. "Will you play us a song on your guitar?" they yelled, and we asked them about places to eat in Cassville. "The girls are all sluts," one of them said. "They've been around." Later, we pass them tied up with two other boats and a dozen more drunk young people. They give us beers, and we tell them about where we were going. "How much energy you guys got?" they yell and laugh, and one guy shakes a blow-up female doll at us. "You want to fuck her?" he asks. "It's gonna be a slow night."

In Prairie Du Chien, WI, a day of the river, we pull up and walk right in on a massive reenactment trade fair up the road from the boat landing. It is called the Rendevous, and it goes all weekend. Around hundreds of hide tents and teepees selling everything from rabbit hides to wooden swords, people mill about in loincloths and boots, and cook over open fires. Danny and I talk to a man who explains that the fair is a reenactment of the 1800s, when the American settlers, the French, and the local American Indians would gather annually at Prairie Du Chien to exchange goods and rest up for the year. "Chien, in French, means dog," he says. "Dog was the name of the Indian chief who ran this area. Plain of Dog." We sneak our tents in with everyone else's at the campgrounds across the street, and decide we'll stick around.

The next day, we get breakfast in town and let our bodies rest from all the physical exertion of the last few days. We walk around and rummage through used clothing and antique stores. We go into Walgreens and spray our bodies with Axe body spray, and I buy a pair of sunglasses. Stoa and I walk around the Rendevous and Stoa buys a cowboy hat. Wearing sunglasses and hats, we look like tourists: incognito, and sticking out like sore thumbs. We sit and watch a three-piece band play a beautiful, two-vocals melody. We watch a short man in khakis and a cowboy hat, auctioning off pies ("I got twenty, twenty, twenty-five, twenty give me five, twenty-five, I got twenty I want twenty-five, twenty-five anyone..."). We walk past lemonade stands, and people selling iron skillets, tents of trinkets and muskets and authentic 1800s garb, hot salesmen in period dress who just want you to buy something, forget talking to them, and girls selling root beer, and men in loincloths carrying six-pa!
cks of Ga
torade back to their tents. Confederate flags are everywhere. We ask one girl if there's anywhere we can get water. "Oh I don't know," she says, pulling back her bonnet. "We just drink the stuff that's bottled."

Danny and I get it into our head to try and find a ride south when the fair wraps up on Sunday, and decide to try our luck asking tent owners at the fair. We walk around asking if anyone's headed toward Dubuque, but we don't have any luck. Instead, we meet a man named Jake who tells us that he once set out to float from St. Louis to New Orleans in a life raft with his best friend. "We only made it three hundred miles though," he says. "Then we got robbed."

Later, Stoa and I run around the bars and make friends with a couple from the area who take us up the road to some other place called the Winnishiek and back down again. The main drag of town is pretty dead, save for one surprisingly good live band, Big Muddy, in a bar called the Main Entrance. We wander back to our REI tents and slip out of the 1840s, and during the night, it rains. In the morning, the Rendevous rages on, and we pack up our tents and paddle to Cassville.

Now, the air is cool and there's a nice breeze going. Tomorrow, we are planning to paddle the 27 miles into Dubuque, where we are staying with Tom and Susie Lammer - the aunt and uncle of one of my oldest and dearest friends Ellie Lammer, who have been incredibly generous in allowing us to stay the night and take a shower. They have also offered to drive us about 50 miles down the road to Savannah, Illinois, and from there further adventure awaits. But more on all that soon! In the meantime, sit tight! Daydream of your own wild hopes and aspirations! Start planning them! Go for a hike! Climb a tree! Tell somebody how much you love them. We hope you're all well and good out there in the digital world, and we'll be talking to you all soon.

Goodnight from the Mississippi,
The MP