Thursday, May 31, 2007

...ANNNNND We're Back

Happy belated Memorial Day America! We are officially on the Mississippi River! Apologies for not blogging sooner, but our wireless connection has been pretty bad all the way up here in Minnesota. As it stands, I am blogging from a DSL connection in the home of my new friend Keith, who is a resident of Palisades, MN. He has a black lab named Buck, and four kids. Last year, one of them shot a deer up north, showing up his old man! Apparently, Keith does about 3,000 internet posts a year on five different sites, including He's going to link us to his community, and the fisherman hits are going to fly! Thanks so much, Keith!

This is our fourth day on the river. We put in at Bemidji, MN on the 28th, after two long days of driving and outfitting, courtesy of Kevin's gracious mother, Mary. Bemidji is the first city on the Mississippi, and where we dropped off there is a huge plastic statue of Paul Bunyan and his Baby Blue Ox. According to the literature, Bunyan created Minnesota's 10,000 lakes with his footsteps. Danny thinks he also cut out the Grand Canyon, but we haven't yet had that confirmed. Does anyone know whether or not this is true? Either way, it's great to be a part of American history.

The first days on the river have been beautiful. We've seen several bald eagles, and great blue herons. At one bend in the river, a huge school of fish darted by to our right. The Mississippi is dirty by reputation, and it certainly will become much more so as we move further south, but at its headwaters, it is beautiful. There are birch and oak trees, and stands of wild rice. A thousand miles from now there will be factories pumping into a river a mile wide. Here, where the river is so shallow that you can wade across it without sinking below your knees, the water is clear. It looks like the land of plenty, and gives no hint as to what is to come.

At Cass Lake, the next town down, we decided we'd try to hitch a ride down Highway 2 in order to avoid Lake Winnibigoshish, a lake some fifteen miles across and wide. If the wind picked up with us halfway across, with the gear we have loading down the canoe, we'd be pretty much done for. So we stashed the canoe and our packs and walked into town. We pitched the idea to everyone we saw, but no one seemed particularly interested. The gas station attendant down the road didn't have any leads, and even though Kevin stuck out his thumb, we couldn't get anyone to stop. In one barbershop, the barber played with some gadget and avoided making eye contact. He laughed when I offered him some money. "I don't even drive," he said. Finally, in Dairy Queen, while Danny and I ate cheeseburgers and ice cream, Kevin got a tow guy on the phone who said he'd do it after work for $125. We tried to get him down to $100, but he wouldn't budge. We told him to pick us up at 5:00.

Dan the Tow Guy showed up with his wife Donna and a trailer that we hitched the canoe onto. He wore a cut-off black t-shirt, had a huge beard, and periodically spit from his chewing tobacco into a water bottle on the dashboard. He had several tattoos, including a tasmanian devil right out of the tattoo parlor book, and a howling wolf that we later learned his daughter had drawn. He asked how far we were going and we told him New Orleans. He laughed. "That's crazy," he said, "I'd be a dead duck just trying to go up Cass Lake."

He drove us all the way down to Jacobson, and we talked about all sorts of things. He told us about going to the motorcycle convention in Sturgess, South Dakota, and watching the Hell's Angels get into a shootout with the National Guard. He told us about his daughter, who was supposed to go to school for graphic design but won't get out of the house. He told us about the time Donna drove him and his friends to a dart tournament a couple towns over and then had a heart attack in the bar. They remembered it like they were remembering an obscure family Thanksgiving from several years back. "Oh yah," he said to her, "That was the time you had a heart attack." She laughed and nodded. "Yep," she said.

The next day, we paddled nearly 30 miles, aided by the river. We hardly saw anyone, and Kevin remarked that this is probably the last day of the entire trip where we won't pass through a town. Late in the day, Highway 10, the "Great River Road," came close to the river and I hopped out to take a look. Two farmers on 4-Wheelers came up to see if I needed help. One had a heavy, almost unintelligeble slur and told me, "Those mosquitos done eaten up your legs!" I asked if they knew anything about Palisades. "It's small," the other one said. "About 150 people." I asked if there was a liquor store. "Oh yah," they said. "There's two."

Now we're in Keith's house in Palisades and planning on eating at the local bar this evening, where they have a special on two dollar burgers. Keith watches TV and says they're not half bad either. Until then, we're hanging out at the park by the river, drinking beer and reading. Hopefully, we will pass back into service soon, and from there on out, our posts should be pretty regular. Thanks to everyone for all the comments so far - it's great to hear from you all! Hannah Jane, we'd love some contacts if you have them. Every little bit is appreciated. You can email Al about passing them along. Apologies about not having pictures this time, but hopefully you'll understand our situation. Soon, we'll have all sorts of pretty things for you to gawk at. Until then, stick with us! We promise to make it worth your while. Moms and Dads and family and friends, we love you and miss you. We hope you're all well, and we'll talk to you all soon.

Still living,

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Blurry Pictures and Midwestern Charm

Hello World! Danny and I are at the Minnesota Twins game. The tickets come courtesy of the McNellis family, who have also been kind enough host us in their basement, and we're sitting right behind home plate. It's the fifth inning, and the Treo and keyboard are sitting so perfectly on my lap. Oh, technology! The Blue Jays are ahead 3-2. Torii Hunter just made a catch at the warning track, and the crowd went wild..

We've been in the Twin Cities since Wednesday morning, getting our things together. We'd hoped to head north earlier, but instead we've been stuck waiting on a ride from Kevin's mom. It's a middle school twist: We're off to have the adventure of our lives, but first we need to wait for our parents to drive us there. Ah, to almost be twenty-one.

But America is a crazy place. Yesterday, Danny, Kevin and I went to Sam's Club and bought $170 worth of food. We bought bulk raisins, and huge tubs of creamy peanut butter. We bought industrial size artificial maple syrup, and enough pancake mix to last until 2008, and a huge block of artificially preserved american cheese. Everywhere in the store, old women stood behind little counters, serving bite-size samples of food. With their white hair and curved spines, they all looked like they should have been retired. Walking past one woman selling Swiffers, I couldn't help but remember walking the Red Light District in Amsterdam, all the women selling their bodies, their product. The old woman shook her Swiffer at me and gestured for me to come over. I put my eyes down and walked on.

Just look at Kevin in the place:

Where did all this stuff come from? What a testament to our culture of surplus and unlimited supply. And how hypocritical of us, to set out on our off the grid river trip by making pit stops at Sam's Club and Walmart. But in the 21st century, such is the natural order of things. Later in the car, Kevin and I talked it through and shook our heads. For all their cultural deconstruction, homogenization, and environmentally destructive corporate policies, the mass corporation does serve its purpose. Sometimes, something's gotta give. It's best to be in the middle, Kevin said. "Being a martyr isn't much fun. No matter what, transnational capitalism is going to crush you."

Back to the Twins game: they're playing Sweet Caroline! And they're doing the Wave! The guy sitting next to me watches it go by and says, "Every time I'm in the cheap seats, I always get angry at the people in the lower boxes who don't do the Wave. And now I'm sitting in the expensive seats and I'm not doing it." We get to talking and we tell him about the trip. He says that might be the coolest thing he has ever heard. His name is Travis and he studies philosophy at Hamline in the cities. Look!

I tell him I'll give him the blog address. He says he'll have to follow along. Suddenly, he doesn't seem to mind as much that the Twins are losing. "I think America needs a revolution," he says, "I think we need a deep change." He asks me if that is part of the reason why we are paddling down the river. I smile. "That's good," he says. "I'm serious about this revolution. You guys should have a good trip."

In the evening after Sam's Club, Danny and I had nothing to do. So while Kevin went out with friends, we borrowed his car and drove around Minneapolis. We drove to Dinkytown, by the University of Minnesota, and walked around. We walked past young people, and bars, and live bands playing covers of other bands's songs. In a tobacco shop, two girls came in and asked for the energy drink Cocaine. We walked the drag twice and got back in the car.

In downtown Minneapolis, we got out again. Girls in short denim skirts and high heels walked by while young men in button-downs smoked cigarettes and watched them. Danny said this reminded him of Phoenix, when he and Boomer would walk around for hours with nothing to do until Boomer couldn't stand it any longer and skipped town. I listened and nodded and remembered my own periods of angst and loneliness; what it felt like to move away from home. For a moment, they returned and seared across me, and I imagined our entire generation as a lost group of kids, wandering through the neon electronica nightlife like nomads, throwing notes to each other through the internet wires. But I didn't take up the bait. We walked back to the car, and I let the feeling subside.

Back at the Twins game: someone has just proposed marriage to his girlfriend on the big screen. She said yes! They're kissing and she's crying. The crowd is all aflutter. The Twins are trying to mount a comeback, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen. 7-4 going into the ninth. E-40's "Tell Me When To Go" comes on the P.A. System, and Danny and I try to remember if we've ever seen more white people in our lives. We don't think we ever have. Hurray for the newlyweds!

Bottom of the ninth coming up. Last chance for the Twins to pull it out, and then it's on to the north in the morning. Hope everyone is well. We certainly are.

P.S. Twins came back to tie in the 9th, but lost in the 13th, 9-8. Afterwards, we met up with my friends Kevin and Nate and drove down to the Mississippi. At an old railroad bridge, we parked and walked out over the river. The Minneapolis skyline spiked in the distance, and the river stretched out in both directions. It was beautiful:

We sat and told stories about people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Danny looked over the edge and said, "In two weeks, we'll see it from below," and because it was windy, we walked back to the car.

At Nate's house, we dropped the two of them off, and Kevin guessed he'd probably see me soon. May the longtime sun shine on you, he said, or something wonderful and sappy like that, and they walked up the stairs to Nate's porch. We said goodnight and drove off, to sleep until the morning when it all begins.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

We come to you live from the San Francisco International Airport, where Danny and I are waiting to catch the 12:40 AM flight to Minneapolis on famous Sun Country Airlines. We haven't figured out how to use the wireless keyboard yet, so I'm typing this with my thumbs. We are currently at Homeland Security threat level Orange, and people look like they're tired. A man in a beige business suit sits across from us, speaking into his cell phone in an unidentifiable foreign language. In the check in line, a guy with a portable dvd player is bumping Tupac. To the left, a woman sleeps on her husband's shoulder, and across the way a woman sits by herself, staring straight ahead.

Our good friend Boomer Hurwitz drove us to the airport, and Liza and Chandra came along for the ride. In the backseat, my guitar sat in its case across our laps. Crossing the Bay Bridge, we listened to Wu Tang's Bring the Ruckus, and as San Francisco came up large and twinkling to the right, I stared out the window and wondered what the hell we think we are doing.

There is no time to think of that now though. The plane is boarding.

So long, California. We'll see you again soon.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Blogs on the Mississippi?

By now, you may have heard what we are doing.

It sounds absurd, but it is nonetheless true: this summer, four of us college students are going to paddle the length of the Mississippi River in two canoes. North to South, headwaters to delta, we are going to travel the 2,000+ miles from the Minnesota top to the Katrina-ravaged bottom. We might ride barges part of the way; we might hitchhike. At some point we will need to get back to school. But however it works out, that is our plan. We have no particular reasons for doing this.

This is our blog. It is being kept via a wireless Treo 670, courtesy of the Kelly Writers House and the University of Pennsylvania, who are generously sponsoring this project. In addition, we are using a collapsible keyboard that plugs into the Treo, and a solar panel that hooks up to both Treo and iPod and powers them through a built-in USB port on the side. Throughout our two months on the river, we'll be posting here straight from the river with dispatches, photographs, videos, mp3s, and whatever other digital voodoo we can figure. We're looking forward to playing with it. Feel free to check in. Hopefully, it'll be a worthwhile read.

As I said, there are four of us partaking in this endeavor. There's me, Gabe, a Berkeley, California native and English major at the University of Pennsylvania; Kevin McNellis, a Twin Cities native and recent graduate from Whitman College; Ryan Stoa, originally of Winona, MN, and currently studying at the reputable McGill University in Montreal; and Danny Rosenberg, Phoenix native, transitive college student and talented MC of the hip hop group Entropy, whose music will likely make its way here at one point or another. All told, we're a youthful bunch. We are, after all, blogging down the Mississippi River. Or, to look at it another way, canoeing down the Mississippi River in 2007. Either way, we know. I warned you. Absurd.

But so it begins. Tomorrow night, Danny and I fly to Minneapolis on a cheap, red-eye flight, and before a week is out, we'll be on the river. In the meantime, please make yourself comfortable and settle in. This is our adventure. It should be wild. Stay tuned for more!