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

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Welcome to Iowa

It is hot. It is humid. It will get hotter. It will get more humid. We've fifty more days of this ahead. Morale has hit a new low.

We stop for the day in De Soto, Wisconsin, and watch a ten-year-old girls softball game. We haven't made much progress because the current has slowed, but we are tired and talk little. To beat the heat, we buy Gatorades from the local gas station and sit in the shade. We think about going into a restaurant, but no one wants to buy anything. What a world, we say to each other, where you have to spend money just to go inside.

The day before, we camp on a giant sand dune just north of Brownsville, MN and get drunk. It's only 3.2% Miller Lite from a Bait Shop on the opposite shore, but we drink a lot of them and everyone gets trashed. It takes us a half hour to unload the canoes. Danny says that paddling the river here is so different from what we did before. It is wider and longer; there are more ships. I tell him I like it much less.

Everyone is antsy and you can tell. Sitting on the ridge above our campsite at the end of the night, Danny, Ryan and I talk about catching barges. "We should just start camping at one site for days at a time, and stop canoeing," I say. "When we feel like it, we just go catch a barge." They both seem receptive to the idea. Three days in, and we all seem ready to quit. Why canoe, after all, when you can ride a barge?

After everyone has gone to bed, I go sit alone on the ridge and look at the stars. Down below in the water, a luxury houseboat has tied up for the night, the lights from the cabin emanating out into the darkness. Have we failed? I wonder. Is this trip just the brainchild of romantic stupidity? What is the point of doing this, of wrecking our bodies for eight hours a day to watch barges and daytrippers rupture the current? For what? To drink away our solitude at dusk? To tour Middle America with a camera and a blog?

My head throbs faintly from the beer binging earlier, and I don't have any answers. Earlier, around the campfire, we discussed canoeing as meditation and Danny posited the very act as escapism, as a futile attempt to shed consciousness and return to our animal instincts. Now, I try to take deep breaths, but the thought rings in my head. I don't agree with the argument, but still it gnaws at me and refuses me peace. Why are we paddling these canoes on this river? Are we running from the world or attempting to experience it? It is not the former, but if it is the latter, why are we spending the bulk of our time inching down a shipping lane and wearing out our arms? Why not just get a motorboat? Or a jet ski? We could drive the damn thing in 24 hours if we really wanted to. So why then this? Why two and a half months? Why canoes? I stare at the lights from the houseboat and wonder if I am a fool. I do not think I am, but I do not know I am, and so at day's end I find no peace.

The next day, I mull the thoughts over in my head. I pull my paddle through the water again and again, and the river is like glass. It stretches out, completely flat, not a hint of wind in the sky. The pace of the canoe helps you to see things, I think to myself. It forces you to be patient. There is something meditative about it, not as an escape, but as a means of reflection, as a means of better reinserting ourselves into the world. In that sense, it is a therapeutic thing.

Still, by the afternoon it is just an exhausting thing and it's a hard argument to buy. We are all beat. We eat dinner at a senior-friendly restaurant in De Soto, the four of us squared up around the table, and I read a senior weekly newspaper. I find out that June 8 is Upsy Daisy Day. Kevin orders a La Crosse beer and says it is possibly the worst thing he has ever tasted. And while we wait for our food, Ryan offers a toast. "Guys," he says, "To the trip. Today kicked my ass, but I'm gonna get better." We laugh like we are tired. "Cheers to the Mississippi Project," he says, and Cheers, we say, and nodding, savoring the restaurant air conditioning, lift our glasses together.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Highway 61, Visited

Hello, everyone! We're back out on the river! I hope you enjoyed our pictures post, and Kevin's explanation of the Minnesota Nice, and haven't been getting too antsy for news from the actual Mississipp. We spent a long weekend in the Twin Cities, recharging our (cell phone) batteries and waiting for Ryan to finish taking the LSAT so we could drive down to Winona and meet him. Now, we are camped on a sand bar a dozen miles north of La Crosse, MN. We just finished cooking dinner, and are listening to the Twins game on an AM/FM radio Kevin picked up in the cities. It has been a perfect day, and the Twins are winning, 5-3. It is dusk, and the river lies still.

In the Twin Cities, we stayed with Kevin's parents, who have been wonderful and accomodating during both of our stays. Thank you, Mr. And Mrs. McNellis! We did so many things. We ate breakfast with my old family friends Richie and Mickey Rosenberg in the Fochet Tower, the first skyscraper built west of the Mississippi. We went to a McNellis graduation party (congratulations Daniel!). We went to REI and bought sandals, went to a bookstore and bought books, went to a Chipotle and bought burritos. We crisscrossed over the Mississippi in air-conditioned cars a half-dozen times, maybe more. We went to concerts and bars and a pseudo-rave, and stood around with other people our age, watching musicians our age perform, everyone in their impractical, hipster clothing and smoking their cigarettes, seeking something fresh and invigorating in the hot, city night. Who knows if any of us found it. Two guys at one concert told Danny we had to stop in Quincy, Illinois. "More girls than you!
'll even
believe," they said. We ran around and hung around and made friends, and drove back to Kevin's to sleep.

On Monday night, we rode down Highway 61 to Winona with Kevin's father Terry. We left behind the skyscrapers and billboards, and under the pink sky of dusk, the river came up huge on our left. Speeding along at 65 mph, we could see a mile across, maybe more. Whoever said this river was ugly? That American commerce had ruined it? Here, it rolled on, blue and still. Trees bent down toward its banks. The sun set into it and it stretched out, beautiful. I sat and watched it through the window, and thought quietly that we are doing a good thing.

Down here though, the river is no longer simple. Above the cities, it was narrow and manageable, and clear as to where it wanted to go. Here, it is more complicated. There are multiple channels, and huge manmade islands clogging up its center. The water is deceptive, with eddy lines and backwaters, and a headwind blew all day at us from several miles away. We saw our first barges today, and went through our first lock. Our maps, which were once so simple, are now cluttered with dots, multi-colored markers, and borders. Even the land itself is cut differently, with Wisconsin now taking up the river's eastern shore.

We too have changed. There are four of us now, and two canoes. There are more packs, more gear, more things to check off our list. The initial excitement of embarking has passed, and the reality of the long summer has begun to set in. At least for me, the weekend in the cities has made me lazy. Today when I picked up my paddle, it gave me blisters and felt odd in my hands.

In many ways, we are again at the outset of our journey. Our "trial run," as Kevin called it, is passed. The entire group is assembled, and we have no more direct relatives awaiting us along our path. Now, there is no safety net. There is only going, only days and days on the river, and New Orleans, 2000 miles away.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

You Betcha

Hey everyone, this is Kevin breaking Gabe's monopoly on the blog. As I am the only native Minnesotan on the trip so far, I have been assigned the task of trying to explain what it is like to travel through the state that I, for the time being, still call home. Living in Walla Walla, Washington for the last four years I have heard nearly every single cliche about Minnesota and Minnesotans. Most of which are derived from one of two sources: Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion or the Cohen Brothers' film Fargo. While both capture some elements of the typical Minnesotan mentality--enthusiastic sociability, our peculiar accent, and our constant obsession with the weather--both, in their separate ways, exaggerate and caricature them for comic effect. Obviously, I somewhat resent these essentialist exaggerations because there is more to being Minnesotan than being a country bumpkin that thinks of nothing except ice fishing, hockey, and lutefisk.

Over the last two weeks, however, what has become apparent travelling through the more rural areas of the state is that the "Minnesota Nice" mentality actually has a strong grounding in reality. The three of us and our gear are pretty odd sight to come across in a county park, or portaging around various dams, or walking around small, out-of-the-way towns. Yet that hasn't discouraged many people from inquiring as to who we are, where we are going, what our stories are, sharing some of their own, offering genuine encouragement, and often offering to help out in any way possible. A now typical example: as we pulled up to Little Falls to portage, an elderly couple in a very large pick-up truck that happened to be driving by turned around instantly and offered to shuttle us around the town's dam, saving us a three trips of walking. Taking a detour wasn't enough, as both the husband and wife helped move our water containers, packs, life jackets and paddles the fifty yards from the parking lot to the river's edge. As a Minnesotan that likes to self-identify as a cynical misanthrope, such widespread patterns of behavior are a pleasant, albeit slightly disarming, surprise.

In terms of the trip, the last three days we have been off the river buying extra supplies, reorganizing gear, visiting friends, and letting our bodies recover. Tomorrow we meet up with the fourth member of our group, Ryan Stoa, in Winona, Minnesota. We are hoping to be back on the water Tuesday morning. The river below the Twin Cities will become something else entirely. Between St. Paul and St. Louis, the Army Corps of Engineers have built 27 locks and dams to transform the river into consistently viable shipping lane. We will now have to share the river with recreators, barges, and all the other trappings of interstate commerce. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode.

Saturday, June 9, 2007