It’s time to take a step back… step back before we can step forward. Ever see that Seinfeld episode where it was just old clips of what happened in previous shows? The writers, actors and producers got paid for that one. Wellllll, I don’t think that’s fair. I’m going to one-up Seinfeld; I’m going to give you a recap of what has not happened; well, at least the stuff that you didn’t know happened because I haven’t told you yet.
You’re changing apartments. You got your stuff tied up in the back of your friend’s pick-up. You didn’t tie down so well. The wind, an errant bump blows your stuff all over the freeway. “Oooohhhh shiiiiiiittttt!” (This happened to my brother.) You circle back. What can be salvaged? The Blues Brothers poster you bought when you were a freshman… gone. The box of random nuts and bolts… scattered over the highway. The armoir – you can save that. Grandma’s necklace she gave you before she died – there it is. Thank god. What can be saved looking back? Only the important things. I hope we can sift through the past and come up with some chunks of gold, or at least grandma’s old necklace.
A Long Way
Bellevue, IA – my current location. I have paddled 800 miles so far. I am tired. I am bored; I am lonely. “Don’t you crave human contact?” Stacey asked me in Wabasha. Duh! But I have come a long way, 1/3 the way through the trip. Thank you, I think, thank you to all who
- donated money
- donated their home
- kicked me out of their home 🙂
- gave me food
- gave me encouragement
- wrote a story about me
- gave me some cold, hard advice
- gave me some warm advice
- held my hand
- kicked my ass
- made me feel welcome
You are on this journey. Must I tell you again? But let us take a long gaze to the North, before we continue south.
Phillip and I were excited and apprehensive. If you didn’t know, he’s a dirty criminal. A little woman in Michigan was making our lives very difficult before our departure. “Let’s just go,” I told him. And we did… on faith. I’m glad we did. I’m glad we took the leap. Even though we didn’t get Phil’s legal issues exactly sorted out, it was nice to be on the river. I remember at that time I was going through some depression issues while staying at his house in Nashville. “If I could just get on the river, I know I’d feel better!” I’d tell him. “The river” (remember Phil is extreeeeeeemely logically minded) “won’t change anything,” he said. “You’ll feel the same you do here.” I thought about that for a moment. What if he’s right? What if the river changes nothing? I hoped he was wrong.
He Was Wrong
The river changed a lot… maybe everything. Once the adventure began, I was changed. Phil could see it. I could see it. My mom called me and told me she could feel it. I was meeting people and taking names. I was feeling good. My muscles were beat to hell by the end of the day, but I was happy. With my job gone my income was down, but my quality of life was skyward. I was happy, really happy. I cut my depression medication in half and miraculously felt better. I was eating beans and instant rice every day but felt great. I burned 5000 calories a day, exerting more effort in an hour that most people exert all day (if they’re from Iowa, 2 days ;)) and was overjoyed… to be on the river. Phillip, this time, you were wrong.
“What temperature you think it is?” Phillip asked. “Ummm, 70,” I said.
We were mountainmen now, able to withstand freezing 🙂 temperatures. We were perfectly comfortable plugging along in weather most people would call “too cold to be in shorts.” Our long second day of paddling was over and we were ready to camp. The rain had drenched us. “This is our site,” I told Phillip, but there were already people there. “I’m sure they’ll be cool with it,” I told Phil. “Hey!” I said to the older of the three campers who expertly covered his canoe with a tarp justly designed to not only keep the rain out but deftly funnel it away with its roof-like canopy. “Hi,” he said distracted. “This looks like our site for the night,” I said. “You guys don’t mind if we camp here?” I asked because I was being nice. The Minnesota DNR makes all campsites public. I didn’t have to ask. “Uhhhh,” he contemplates aloud, “I dunno.” Phil can see I’m getting angry. He’s seen me get really pissed off before and confront people. Luckily I flip the “CONFRONT!” “CONFRONT!” “CONFRONT!” switch off before he has to intervene. “Ohhhhhh,” I reply as cordially as I can. He rethinks:
“It’s just that you gotta run that by my mates up there before… I mean see what they say.”
I’m really angry now. I don’t have to run shit by shit! I think. Phillip is smiling. He knows how angry I am. “Yeah,” I say robotically to his “mates.” “We’d like to (weeee arrreeeeeeeee going to) camp here for the night if that’s all right.” I don’t give them time to respond. I start setting up. Phil is smiling. He thinks this is rich. They look at each other. “Ryan,” Phil said the next day. (He, as you know, is the more logical, more level-headed of the two. Though don’t get this cat uncomfortable! Holy crap, if this guy’s feet are cut up, he’s sunburned, or in pain of any kind, it’s like dealing with a badger on crack! Love you, Phil. :)) “Ryan,” he said, “don’t worry about those guys. They didn’t know us. They probably had to deal with jerkoffs who ruined their camping experience.” “I was about to ruin their faces if they kept that shit up,” I replied. When the I-don’t-know-if-you-can-stay-here trio saw that we weren’t axe rapists or beer-guzzling dillholes, they turned very nice. They introduced us to a game called “Hot Chalaka.” The object of the game was to, in the words of our hosts, “hurt the other person.” Ummmm.
Rules for Hot Chalaka
- Poke around in a burning fire.
- Find a burning ember.
- Pick it up.
- Shake it around and blow on it to get it really hot and glowing bright.
- Toss it to someone.
- That person, toss it to someone else.
- The first one to say “ow” loses. “Fffffffffffaaaaaaammmmmmarrrrgggggggaaaaaaaagggg!” is acceptable.
This was the most retarded game ever invented. And it was fun as hell! When the game was over, everyone was in good spirits; but, two of the group were retaining touches of cynicism. The older of the three, the one who actually contemplated my “request” to stay at “his” campsite noticed Phil and I were both in shorts. They were in flannel and long pants. “You guys don’t camp much, do ya?” “Not yet,” I said. He shook his head. Phillip was trouncing around the campsite without any shoes. Another shook his head. We told them about our plans to paddle the entire Mississippi River. They were unimpressed and started talking amongst themselves. The third guy was trying to remain amiable telling stories of Scotland and England (two of my favorite places) while explaining why Cass Lake was “the stupidest name for a lake ever.” The other two were cycled between indifference and interest like changing gears on a bicycle. Phil and I just drank hot drinks and decided not to find any good reason to be in anything other than shorts and T-shirts.
Some time later, a gentleman commented on the Paul Walsh article: “I met these jokers. They have no clue. Their blog is NOT family friendly, and I bet there’s NO way they reach New Orleans!” I think the commenter was the older guy of the group we met. I can’t be sure, but I think so. My friend,
- campsites are for everyone; if you make it first… big whoop
- you’re a moron
- I know we’re ill-prepared; I told you so, I asked for advice (You scoffed at me.) and I’m in Bellevue, Iowa… so we’ll see, huh?
4. Phil and I may not be in flannel, have a tarp for our canoe, and may have the wrong boats. But I do know one thing about us now:
We sure can tolerate… a helluva lotta cold.
The Spirit Canoe
Synchronicities. I think they’re real. Too many have happened during this trip and during life to be for me to dismiss them as pure coincidence. Phillip and I pulled into a boat launch. A caravan of cars and trucks pulled in at the exact time. Same time… exactly. A Native American family exited the vehicles. One woman held a miniature wooden canoe snugly in her arms. “Turn the camera on,” I said. I walked up to her and didn’t know what to say. “What’s going on?” “My daughter died,” she said. I hoped secretly I had been sensitive enough. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. She was kind and offered an explanation without me having to prod:
“My daughter died. She was young. Too young. I had a dream. I am a Chippewa, you see. And we Chippewa have certain rites we use for burial, but this was different. This is not really a Chippewa custom. But I think I needed to do this.”
She places the canoe in the water. Phillip is shivering a little bit. It has been about 55 degrees and wet all day just outside of Grand Rapids, MN. The older members of the extended family are smoking cigarettes and laughing as a young woman looks at the camera, smiles, and speaks, “Hey, Gramma, did she like grape soda?” She places a can of grape soda in the canoe. Another: “She liked cigarettes, I know.” Another: “I’m gonna put my watch in.” The canoe was loaded until it contained a half pack of Marlboro Menthols, 2 cans of Great Value Grape Soda, watches, necklaces, trinkets, things those of the extended family who did not know daughter very well hoped she would like on her way to the spirit world.
Chippewa woman turns serious. “You need to help her along if you would.” “Of course we will,” I say.
“Just if you see it stuck on something, give it a little push.” She is not crying but she is sad.
The family disperses. Phil and I build a fire at the boat launch though we’re not supposed to do this. At home we turn up the heat; in the woods we build fire though it is the middle of the day. I take my shirt of and dry it by propping it up on a stick. Phillip makes beans. We are silent and content. The wind, the rain, the overcastedness has built a cocoon of silence around us. Our experience with the Native American woman has built a cocoon of silence. We are silent and content, eating, munching in silence. It is time to go. A pot is being banged in the distance. The family moved over a plot of land or two to make supper. I think it is probably the mother cleaning a pot. I think about going over but I don’t. I don’t want to be too friendly, I think. I want to take my job seriously. She wants me to push her daughter down the river. I will do that. I am not your friend; I am your helper. I am your guide.
Phil and I find the canoe somewhere down the river. It is half full of water. It is slamming against a bank with wind-blown waves. “I think we can get ‘er goin’,” I say. “Yeah,” he says. We try to push it down the river. Just gotta get ‘er straight, I think. Nothing. It keeps returning to the bank. “Maybe she wants to stay here,” Phil says. He’s laughing. I’m frustrated. It was kind of a serious thing for me. “Let’s take it a mile down in our boat,” I say. Phil turns serious.
“Noooo, that wouldn’t be in the spirit of what she had wanted.”
“Well, this thing’s gonna sink here.”
“It’s gonna sink anyway.”
Phil was not being callous. He was stating a fact of life. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. The woman’s daughter was dust. She was gone. The canoe was meant to be symbolic. I had hoped secretly that the boat would have made it all the way to the Gulf, that the daughter’s spirit would have smiled brightly in the Louisana sun setting in the ocean. No. This canoe could be straightened out a bit, but it would stay. It was even more full of water now. “Give me a can of kidney beans,” I said.
“All we got is green beans after that,” Phil says. He knows I hate green beans. When my mom fries them in butter and bacon, oh yeah! NOT out of a can. Kill me!
“I know that’s all we got… that’s all I’ll have. If I give her the greens, it means nothing. If I give her the kidneys, it means everything.” Phil’s holding the camera steadily. I put the can in the canoe. It weights it down a bit and allows it to remain more stable and float-worthy. “Let’s push it down,” I say. We do. It stays straight. “Just paddle a bit, please.” It’s hard work towing two boats by yourself. I know this. Phil knows this. But he does it. I want to remain serious just a little while longer. I want to remain solemn just a little while longer. I want to take my job seriously just a bit longer. “That’s good,” Phil says after I’ve been straddling the boat next to ours for over 3 minutes. “Yeah,” I say, “that’s enough.”
I pushed the boat straight. I know it made a hard right turn toward the shore after I left. What if it didn’t? I think. What if fisherman, pleasure boaters, randoms, kids, animals, spirits, non-entities, trees, birds and foxes push her daughter down? What if she makes it? What if it sinks? I think sadly. She is gone, I know; but, I hope she makes it. I hope even if the boat sank, that her spirit saw what she needed to see, went where she needed to go, and I hope I see a big, fat sunset on the Gulf when I make it those 90 miles past New Orleans. I hope, somehow, even if the boat laden with cigarettes, beans and grape soda did sink, did turn into aluminum siding for a beaver dam… the spirit is there.
Fun in Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids, MINNESOTA! Didn’t know there was one there, did ya? A dude picks us up. This guy is the epitome of “duuuude.” He’s got a fat GI Joe tattoo on his arm. He is fat. His face is fat with a goatee that extends around his neck. Cool, I think. “Holy shit,” he says, “you guys takin’ that down the river!” “Hello to you too, good sir!”
“Hell yeah,” I reciprocate. “Well shit, let’s load ‘er up.”
“I need to have a little fun first,” I say.
“Huh?” he says.
“No, just, um, respond natural.”
“Nothing… just… Phil turn the camera on.”
Dude stood there with his fat arms and fat tattoos. He had been working for the Grand Rapids taxi company for 2 years. “I was in Afghanistan before that,” he tells me later. Grand Rapids doesn’t like people trying to paddle between their two dams (too dangerous) so they pay the local cab company to give free rides between them. Dude has our stuff loaded onto the kayak trailer. “Action!” Phil says.
I saunter up to Dude very slowly. Phil is filming over my shoulder. “Look,” I say to Dude, “can you please not tell people that you’re towing us from town to town? We really want people to believe that we’re legitimate kayakers who are going down the river. If they find out that we just load the boat on a trailer and get in the water to shoot our stuff… what the!” I turn around. “Turn that f—ing camera off! I cover the lens with my hand and Phil shakes it around like I just hit him. (Good improv, Phil!). Dude is laughing. He got the joke right away. “Hop in!” he says.
“I just think we need to finish it,” Dude says when I ask about Afghanistan. He’s sincere. “I went into the National Guard, then when we invaded, I volunteered and went. I came back, an’ I was gonna go again. I told my officer here I’d go again an’ he hasn’t gotten back to me.”
“What was it like over there?”
“Hey look at that deer!” He changes the subject.
“Nice tattoos!” I change the subject.
“Yeah this is Cobra Commander.”
“The bad guys???”
“Ha ha. Yeah. This is Duke.”
“I fuggin’ love Duke!”
“Yeah this is…”
“…logo, right, right, niiice.”
“Yeah so…” He pauses and takes his glasses off. “You, uh, goin’ down this whole river?”
Funny how a guy who has been fired upon with automatic weapons finds what I do exciting. “Yes,” I say. Phil is munching on a pizza he bought happily.
“Damn,” he says. “I’d like to do that.”
“I’d like to see the new GI Joe movie.”
“Ah!” His spirit comes alive. It looks like someone just injected 8 gallons of B vitamin into his system. “Ah, man, it’s gonna…” He can’t find the worlds. “Holy… I mean… Aw!”
“You said it.” We both laugh.
We’ve reached our destination. “If you do go back,” I say unloading, “stay safe.”
“Shit, you too!”
We look at each other for a second. Outwardly we couldn’t be more different. Inwardly for a brief second, we connect. We are indeed… two dudes.
Part II comin’ up! I’ll try and grab a few gems between Wabasha and Prairie du Chien, but I might not. They’re all gems, ladies and gents; this trip is a gem and anything that happens is a good find. Onward, onward, onward to Davenport!