Holy Ship!

The times, they are a-changin’ (and the boats on the Mississippi too!).

We paddled into Baton Rouge on a bright Saturday afternoon, our first city in the last state on the Mississippi River. Ryan generally tries to give the news media a “heads up” about our journey a day or so prior to arriving in a city. We like to have the press cover the story, but since we are on a fairly tight schedule it doesn’t always work out for them to come out to the river and meet us. Today would be different…

We only paddle this hard for the news cameras.
We only paddle this hard for the news cameras.

Around noon, Ryan got a call from one of the Baton Rouge television stations saying they would like to meet with us when we arrived in town. He agreed to meet before 2 p.m. at the boat ramp south of the I-10 bridge. As we neared the bridge, another reporter named Allen from a different station called us saying he would also like to cover the story. Ryan told him that the first station would be meeting us at the boat ramp and we would be there if he would like to meet with us. Ryan negotiated between the reporters as skillfully as a man with multiple simultaneous girlfriends. I wonder where he learned how to do that, I thought.

The young men from WBRZ did a great piece which aired on the Monday morning news. Allen arrived just as they were finishing and he had something else entirely up his sleeve.

Those dual-225's outrun our dual-paddles!

Allen called up the local Sheriff and had them send a boat out so that he could shoot some footage from the water. At first, I assumed this meant they would be coming down the river, but then the trailered boat came down the ramp with three deputy sheriffs on-board. Although a single great shot does not a news story make, it sure helps to have some great connections when you need them and I can’t wait to see Allen’s take on the story as well.

On advice from the locals, we left the dock and made camp several miles south of Baton Rouge on a sandy beach which already had a temporary structure on the shoreline. There wasn’t any sign of human (or animal!) life so we set up our tents and quietly went to sleep. The morning light bought out a brood of beer drinkers who were breaking up their routine with a little fishin’ as well. Their warning to us was that more ocean-going vessels would begin to crowd the river as we continued our journey. As Ryan packed up the boats, I noticed an example in the distance. “Ryan” I called as I grabbed the camera and began taping, “look behind you.”

Holy Ship!

You can't imagine how large this ship is!

Ryan glanced over his right shoulder and gasped just slightly as the huge vessel pushed it’s way rapidly upriver. It would be the first of several ships we would see over the course of the day.

The story is that the former-governor of Louisiana wanted to keep the traffic (and money) from the big ships in his own state. When a new bridge was being built in Baton Rouge, it was intentionally built short as to not allow large ships to go to ports upriver in Mississippi (such as Natchez).

Farther downriver, another boat stopped and told us more about what was to come. After handing us a couple Coca-cola’s each, Terry gave us the straight dope: “Our boat tops out at about 40 mph, but the ships you’ll find past New Orleans will easily pass us.” Terry continued, “Sometimes the waves will reach as much as 12 feet high. They crash over the bow of our boat.” I silently debated if we’ll survive the last few days on the river. Holy ship!

Rednecks are not Southern – Part I

“Show me how y’all do what you do!”

Imagine this man without a goatee, with glasses, with a skeptical squint and with a constant askance of just how the hell you get complete strangers to talk to you on camera; and, you'll know what we went thorugh our first 2 hours in Natchez.  Ben, you've got to be the most interesting reporter we've talked to on this trip, and that's saying a lot.  Thank you for a wonderful AND INTERESTING time.  Natchez Democrat, hope we can use this photo!!!
Imagine this man without a goatee, with glasses, sporting a skeptical squint and constantly asking just how the hell you get complete strangers to talk to you on camera; and, you'll know what we went thorugh our first 2 hours in Natchez, MS. Ben, you've got to be the most interesting reporter we've talked to on this trip, and that's saying a lot! Thank you for a wonderful AND INTERESTING time. Natchez Democrat, hope we can use this photo!!!

I have no idea what to tell him, no idea how we do what we do.  We normally ride up into a town like a couple of scraggly ruffians and people start asking questions:  “What’chall doin’?”  “Are you guys bikers, paddlers, runners, killers?” “You guys smell horrible, will you please leave my place of business?” But a reporter for the Natchez Democrat in Natchez, MS wants to know how we get people to talk to us, and I feel like a total tool for not knowing exactly.

“Um, we pretty much just let the Universe bring us people,” I say.

He’s not having it.  “I’m going to follow y’all ‘round,” Mr. Reporter Man says, “and y’all just do what you normally do.”

Normally we would paddle for days on end until someone pulled up beside us in a boat, asked us what we were doing and offered to put us up for the night.  We would then film, eek out the quirkiness of the family or person in question (via my insightful and incisive questioning, ahem) and that would be the footage we will use when it’s time to make a movie about people on the Mississippi River.  But this man wants a demonstration of God’s power, and he’s on a deadline, so God better start working fast.

“How ‘bout that guy?” he asks.  It’s a young black man cooking sausages on the street.  Natchez, a beautiful town, is surrounded by a humidified haze as the sun goes down.  “Um,” I say, “I guess I could ask him.”  I feel like a total dork.  I really can’t come up with a definable method we use to get people to interact with us, nevermind get them to invite us into their homes.  People just tend to show up.  I know I can go up and say, “Heyyyyyyyyyyyyy, cookin’ sausages?  Coooool.  So like what do you think of a couple of guys paddlin’ down the river, cooooool, n’c’est pas?”  He will either grunt or fart and look at me like I’m nuts, or he will start talking and introduce me to his boss who knows a guy who knows a guy who will put Phillip and me up for the night.  It could go either way, and I’ve always felt more comfortable when God was flipping the coin.  But Ben (an excellent reporter by the way; thank you, Ben, for an awesome interview and photo session, did you get my good side? J) is asking me to force things; and, though I don’t like it, I’m going to ask the Universe to pick up the pace.

Prayer timmmmeeeeee! I say to myself.  So like look, God, we need a goddamn demonstration of your power, send us a dude who is interesting on camera, has a cool house, an interesting life situation, and more importantly can give us showers and breakfast, so we can show this here reporter how exactly 11 Visions whoops some documentary-making ass.  Cool?

“Cool!” God said (his voice sounded a lot like the one from the Charlton Heston version of Exodus) “Thou shalt go to a bar and order a beeeeer!  And also don’t steal, lie, or mess with other people’s wives.”

“Aren’t there seven more?”

“Will you just get your ass to a bar for the love of Christ!”

Geez, God is testy today.  To a bar we go.

“Where’s a bar?” I ask Ben.

“Weeeelll,” he says.  “Where y’all were was perfect; there’s a saloon right off the river.”

We ain’t on the river! “Anywhere closer?”

“Weeeeeeellll, there’s the corner bar right over there.”  A nice-looking hole in the wall with a green awning.  That’ll do.

The Corner Bar

Lights, camera, action.  It’s picture perfect.  Just what we were looking for.  Everyone is middle-aged.  Awesome, I think, middle-aged people generally

  1. think we’re crazy
  2. want to do what we’re doing “and if [they  were] just a little bit younger and had a few less kids [they]’d do it too in a heartbeat”
  3. have disposable income to buy us beer and food and god knows what else
  4. own their own homes, have already booted their kids out and are itchin’ to fill those extra rooms even if it’s just for one or two nights

Through the door, it’s a long walk to the far end of the bar top.  We sweep the length of it like movie stars.  Every head turns as Ben snaps pictures – his digital SLR, a telephoto lens.  “What in the hell are these guys?” they think, and I respond, We’re movie stars, duh.

We take our seats.  Men, black and white, with golf hats, golf shoes and rolls of cash hit on the only female bartender.  “It’s kinda like the rabid dog in To Kill a Mockingbird,” Courtney Aldridge, the man, who in two hours will put us up for the night, says.  “Y’all are unusual – the only game in town worth watchin’.”

Ben is asking me with his eyes to work some movie magic.  Shit, um, I guess I could…  “Order a damn beeer!” God says again.  To the bartender!  “Howdy, ma’am!  My friend and I are paddling down the Mississipi River.”  More heads turn.  Maybe I know how to do this after all.  “And we would like to know what beer specials you have.”  Big smile on my face – goddamned if I don’t know how to do this!  “Well,” she says, “it’s happy hour, so you got domestics for $1.25 and imports $1.50.”  “Bud,” I say.  “Guinness,” Phil says.  Ooooo, got an extra quarter to go fancy I guess – drunken Irish bastard!

Black men in Polo shirts are eyeing us.  They could work. Elder women on the far side of the bar.  “What’s he doing?  What’s he doing?” Snap, snap, goes Ben’s camera.  A balding post-baby boomer with a nonchalant gait walks past.  Headed to the john are you? “Hey my friend…”

“Hey, yourself,” he cuts me off.  “Bikers, are you?”

“Nossir, paddlers.”

Courtney - on right.  His friend and colleague - William - on left.  I know Presbyterians are pretty open, buddy, but I talk to God personally, and HE REALLY DISAPPROVES OF YOUR SMOKING!  LOL.
Courtney - on right. His friend and colleague - William - on left. I know Presbyterians are pretty open, buddy, but I talk to God personally, and HE REALLY DISAPPROVES OF YOUR SMOKING! LOL.

“Figured as much.  You got wading shoes on.  Bikers don’t wear wading shoes.  I biked all across France; wouldn’t be caught dead wearin’ shoes like that.”  Ben is ultra-interested now.  He can’t believe that we’ve gotten someone to talk to us and is snapping pictures like a madman.   “Tell us about Natchez,” I say, and Courtney, who will make us tomato basil grits with Vine Brothers Sausage in the morning, says, “Well, shoot, I’ll tell ya about Natchez,” and forgets about the bathroom entirely.  “Natchez is an artsy town.”

“Figured as much,” I say, “I told Phillip – this is my friend Phillip – paddlin’ up here that this town had a different feel than Vicksburg.”

“Oh it totally does,” Courtney says.  Ben eases his shutter speed off to a slow crawl, more interested.  “Vicksburg fought the Union soldiers like hell.

Vicksburg:  Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.  Natchez:  My give up, my give up.
Vicksburg: "Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin." Natchez: "My give up, my give up."

We didn’t.  Their citizens dug holes in the ground to escape Northern shelling.  They put their furniture and pictures down there to decorate the ‘place.’  They ate rats, killed dogs in the street for food as General Grant tried to starve ’em out.  Shit, when Grant rolled up on Natchez, we put our hands up and said, ‘We give up.’”  Damn, this is interesting.  Thank you God; I knew You’d come through for me – Ben is still amazed! “Natchez was settled by Northerners.  They wasn’t gonna fight.”  Courtney turns the questioning on me:  “How far y’all paddlin’ down?”

“Started in…”

“Minnesota, din’ ya?”


“Goin’ to New Orleans.  Yeah, you’re only about the tenth guy I’ve talked to that’s done that.  I put up guys like you in my house all the time.”  He pulls out a Marlboro Light, sparks his Zippo and looks like he’s about to fall asleep my story is so boring.  “So y’all just order what you want to eat.  Y’all want steak?  I’ll order it – hey, Mary, get these guys some steaks!  Y’all want mashed p’tatas?  Mary!  Get these guys some mashed tatas.  Biscuits?  Mary!  Salad?  Mary Mary Mary!  Y’all’ll be set.  Who’s this guy?” he asks referring to Ben.


“I’m Ben Hillyer…”

“I know who you are,” Courtney says like he’s looking at a crushed bug on the sidewalk.  “I gotta take a piss.”  He’s gone.

“Sooo, Ben,” I say, “that’s kinda how it works.  Um, I hope…”

“Ohhh, no, guys, that was perfect, can I get a few shots of you guys in the boats?”

“Yeah, you can,” Courtney says returning.  “I’ll give you guys a ride down there.  You’ll come to my church tonight where there’s a little cookout, shit, my wife’s calling, hey baby!  What’s up?  There’s these boys that’s gonna stay with us tonight paddlin’ the river?  Well, you’ll meet ‘em tonight?  You boys killers?  Naw, honey, they straight.  I love you.  Get in the car, boys.  Nice to meet you Ben,” and he’s out the door while I stand there with one thought in my head:  God, You work in mysterious ways.

Ben Gets His Shots and is Satisfied

Ben takes our pictures at the boat launch while Courtney backs his King Ranch pickup down the ramp.  I try to say to Ben something like, “So this is how it all works,” but I know it’s bullshit.  I have, Phillip has, we have nothing to do with how this all works out.  It just does.

D’Evereux Mansion

Pretty badass, ain't it?
Pretty badass, ain't it?

Back at the bar, Courney has too many interesting things to say to include in one blog post, but we learn that…

  1. Rednecks are not just Southern; they’re everywhere.  “You take a look at Natchez, you’ll scarcely find a redneck.  They just ain’t here.  Good education here, and we’re 53% black and poor as shit.  Rednecks – shit – L.A.’s full of ‘em.  Redneck is just a socioeconomic mindset limited by I.Q. and opportunity.”  That, my friends, is about the best and most insightful definition of “redneck” that I have ever heard in my life.  Maybe, indeed, I am speaking to God.
  2. “You can be who you want in Natchez.  Hell I have several gay, OPENLY,” he marks, “gay friends in Natchez.  We don’t care.  It’s a liberal town.  You should talk to our local golf pro, Tom, sittin’ right over there…”  Tom, one of the older black men in golf hats, hears us talk about him but deliberately decides not to turn around.  If he is the saint Courtney says he is, he cannot turn around, will not seek the spotlight and indeed stares squarely at the television.  “Tom was here during the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement.  Hell, he sat in!  My family was friends with his.  My daddy had KKK burned in his front yard just cuz we was friends with black folks.  It was a f—ed up time.  But that’s how it was.  Natchez – settled by Northeners back in the day.  We weren’t like the rest of Mississippi.  Poor as shit ‘cept for a few millionaires who made it big in cotton, but we had culture.  And that’s the big difference.  Rednecks?  No culture.”  I really want to pick Tom’s brain; I want to know what it was like being black in Mississippi in 1962, want to know how he became the golf pro, but it’s time to go.  I go to shake his hand.  “Courtney had tons of nice things to say about you,” I tell him.  “Who?” he asks, and “About me?” he asks, and “Yes” I say, and I know he’s a saint.  But before we go Courtney offers us…
  3. Katrina.  We’re getting ever closer to one of the biggest debacles in U.S. disaster-handling history.  It’s a sore point for everybody.  It’s a political bombshell.  And we’re getting closer and closer to the gaping wound – we’re getting closer to New Orleans.  Courtney offers no politics – he has a personal story to tell:  “I put people up,” he says.  “I own five houses in town, and I don’t like renting ‘em out, but when Katrina hit, shoot, I put tons of people up.  They had nowhere to go.  Clients of mine who I hadn’t talked to in years found me off of an old invoice when their home was destroyed.  Natchez had ‘em in the convention center, kids and all, living on pallets – they had their entire possessions in pillow cases – I found ‘em and put ‘em up in one of my houses.  Couldn’t stop there; had to do something.  Put five more families up.  I mean these weren’t poor folks; these were people with jobs and insurance who lost everything.  Where do they go?  I had to do something.”  Courtney, I think, must be a saint as well. Politics now:  “Yeah, Bush fucked up.  Of course he did.  But so did [now ex] Govenor Blanco and Mayor Nagin.  They had the busses in place to bus people outta there – I mean, shit, 60% of New Orleans doesn’t have a car! – they NEEDED to be bussed out of there – so Bush thinks Blanco’s handling the busses and vice versa and it’s a big f—in’ mess!  Ridiculous.  Bullshit.  It’s just people, man,” Courtney adds at the end.  “I usually vote Republican because I’m fiscally conservative, but you gotta do somethin’ for the people – that’s just a no-brainer.”

Courtney has us back in his King Ranch.  Rain falls and the windows are up.  “This place is a f—in’ mess; I been livin’ out of this thing for weeks,” he says.  “Drove to Fort Worth and back yesterday, meeting with some clients, fourteen hours in the car, yeah,” he says looking at my wide eyes, “I know.”  He swings us by his church.  Presbyterian.

“Scottish, are you?”

“Psst.  No, might as well be, ornery as I am.”  He lights another Marlboro.  “Cookout is done, know you boys had them steaks at the Corner, just wanted you to meet some church folk.  No matter, let’s go to bed.”

The drive to Courtney’s house is long and slow and rainy.  I feel good.  I’m in the arms of a saint, I think.  A saint who drinks and smokes and uses the F word more than I do (can you imagine!) and seems about as interested in us as a dog in its own butt, but through that relaxed exterior offers us room and board and food and pearls of wisdom.

As we pull up on D’Evereux Mansion, I think about Ben.  Damned, Ben.  I guess there is a method to this madness.  But I’ll be damned myself… if I can put it into words.

Stay tuned for Part II,


I Can Sleep on Windy Nights

An old story I read as a child told of a farm-hand who promised the farmer when he was hired, “I can sleep on windy nights.” The farmer didn’t understand what he meant until the night of a terrible storm in which the farmer was certain all his hay would be blown away. His new help slept peacefully through the storm while he rushed outside and was instead surprised to find that everything was already secured. When you’re prepared for the storm, you can sleep through it without worry.

Well, it’s been a-stormin’ here in Mississippi. Not a day (or night) goes by it seems without at least an hour of driving wind and rain. But Ryan and I have been remarkably able to sleep at night without worry. Between the both of us we have established a certain level of comfort with the elements.

Just south of Helena, Arkansas, I managed to leave half of my tent poles high on a ridge above the river. I didn’t notice this loss until we camped in near darkness later that night and I had to improvise by propping up the tent with wire ties and my tripod. The reduced ceiling height of this new arrangement felt like sleeping inside a large plastic bag (i.e. very claustrophobic)! A new 8’x9′ tent purchased in Vicksburg restored my standard of living for the final few weeks of the  journey. Ahh, sweet comfort!

Ryan would be very happy if our boats were tied up this high every night.
Ryan would be very happy if our boats were tied up this high every night.

Ryan’s not comfortable at night unless the boats are well above the water line and tied down securely. I’m perfectly happy if they are at least 18 inches above the water, but I let him choose how high we will put the boats up each night. In this case, it’s probably good that he is so concerned because that may save our boats one night when the water actually rises above my level of comfort.

Both of us have succumbed to not worry about the rain anymore. The only essential items which cannot get wet are the camera and laptops. Since these items are always kept wrapped in plastic, protected from the rain, storms can come and go without us ever having to think about these possessions getting destroyed.

D'evereux Mansion, Natchez, Mississippi

Other items like the tents, sleeping bags, and pillows are in a constant state of being soaked. “My pillow smells like piss!” is a common complaint ringing out in the night. My sleeping bag is often wet, but fortunately it’s warm regardless of how wet it is. Ryan reminds me nightly to just think of it as a giant warm vagina. Uhh, right…

But tonight we don’t have to worry about rain at all. We’re sleeping at the D’evereux Mansion in Natchez, Mississippi where we are the welcomed guests of the mansion’s owner. There is a large comfortable queen bed in the guest room. I’m on one side of the bed zipped up in my sleeping bag while Ryan propped himself up on tons of pillows on the other side. It’s windy outside, but tonight we’ll sleep just fine.

The Hitchhiking Movie to Premiere at Secret City Film Festival

The Hitchhiking Movie
The Hitchhiking Movie

Nashville, TN — September 24, 2009 — Nashville based filmmakers Ryan Jeanes and Phillip Hullquist are premiering their first feature film The Hitchhiking Movie on October 9th at the Secret City Film Festival in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The movie follows the pair’s attempt to cross the entire continental United States in less than a week, using nothing more than their thumbs.

“After over a year of work on this project, we can finally see The Hitchhiking Movie play on the big screen,” said Hullquist, who also served as editor for the film, which is already receiving positive reviews and press. First time filmmakers often times get bogged down in the overwhelming amount of work involved in actually completing a movie, but as Jeanes explains, “The real work is done in the editing room.  Successfully filming our hitchhiking adventure was an accomplishment, but I was more excited when we had the finished product.  The positive reviews have just made the experience sweeter.”

“Before we left for the trip, people told us we’d be stabbed or murdered,” Jeanes says. “Very heartening.”  The 101-minute feature film chronicles the filmmaking duo’s experiences as 23 complete strangers stop on the side of the road and take them from New York City towards Los Angeles. (You will have to watch the film to see if they actually make it.)  “I had already bought two return tickets from L.A.” Jeanes continues. “We had to make it or we’d miss the flight back.”

The pair created the website 11visions.com which not only sells their DVD but also highlights their current adventures which include a kayaking trip down the entire length of the Mississippi River. Adventure travel seems to be their mainstay, but as Jeanes explains, “I think many people have the desire to leave their current existence and do something crazy. Where most people stop at that impulse, we actually go do it and get it on film.”

The Hitchhiking Movie is funny, insightful and full of unexpected surprises.  Hullquist explains, “I was a one-man crew with no script, so it was challenging to set up the shots we needed to make the film. We wanted to capture the realism of being like any other hitchhiker on the road, so our camera gear was kept to a minimum.”

What about the danger? “That’s what we wanted to dispel,” Hullquist says. “This is a realistic portrayal of hitchhiking unlike what you see in your average horror movie.”  ”There’s no blood and guts,” Jeanes adds. “The only real fear was whether we could make it before the deadline.”

Entertaining scenarios abound in this documentary:  A hysterical yet attractive young woman offers to drive them all the way from New Jersey to Los Angeles, a Seminole Indian entreats them to smoke his prayer pipe, a rowdy, one-eyed construction worker instructs on the basics of train hopping, and the pair finds themselves desperate in Denver with over 1000 miles to travel and less than 48 hours in which to do it.  If a real life adventure is your thing, this film is for you.

“A lot of people probably aren’t going to finish watching the movie and then go stick their thumbs out on the side of the road,” Jeanes points out. “The beauty is that The Hitchhiking Movie is for both the armchair and active adventurer. You can share in the fun without ever leaving your house.”

But Jeanes and Hullquist aren’t stopping there. Just two months after the DVD release of The Hitchhiking Movie, photography for their next film began in Minnesota. Their new film is titled The River is Life, and it tells the story of people they meet while paddling down the entire Mississippi River. A third documentary, a lighthearted exploration of heaven, hell and the idiosyncrasies of religion, is also in the works.

Tickets for The Hitchhiking Movie as well as more information about the festival are available at www.secretcityfilms.com. To purchase a DVD for home viewing go to www.hitchhikingmovie.com, or visit the parent website www.11visions.com. The film is available in streaming video and DVD which includes bonus scenes, an audio commentary from the crew as well as a special “drunk commentary.

Screw it! I’m Hitchhiking Outta Here

Vicksburg, Mississippi Casino
Vicksburg, Mississippi Casino

It’s a strangely familiar setting–standing by the side of the road with some camping gear beside me and a large pack on my back filled with supplies. I’m in Vicksburg, Mississippi and there seems to be no other solution right now other than to start hitchhiking. You’re probably thinking that I’ve had it with Ryan, the paddling, and the rain, and have decided to hitchhike back to Nashville. You’d be wrong…

Two hours earlier, Ryan and I split up in Vicksburg so he could work on the blog while I did some much-needed shopping. Walmart is only a mile from the river, but the guides at the welcome center pointed out a route that didn’t involve walking illegally down the interstate. The new route took two miles so I brought along Ryan’s giant pack so that I would be able to carry everything back should there not be effective public transportation. Once in the store I went crazy and bought nearly tons of food (I was hungry after walking the two miles!) and already knew there was a bus which could take me back to the casino.

Beep. Beep. Beep. The young woman at the checkout stared downward while I made small-talk about the change to white packaging in Walmart’s “Great Value” product line. I then asked about the N-Route (Vickburg’s bus) schedule. She didn’t know the times, but left mid-checkout to ask someone who did. She returned in a moment with the answer:

“The N-Route comes by every hour.”

“What time is the next bus?”


“What time is it right now?”


“Are they usually on time?”

“They always are.”

“What about a taxi?”

“Don’t have any in this town anymore.”

Damn it! I began adding up the weight of the food already bagged and in the cart. There has got to be at least 100 pounds of food in that cart. How the hell will I carry all that back to the boat? I walk out the front door and ask an employee on break if the bus has arrived yet. “Just left 5 minutes ago,” she cheerfully responds. Okay, then. Let’s load up this pack and walk it back. Ryan had showed me some of the features of his Gregory pack just before splitting and I’m glad now that I was listening to him. I extend the buckles outward so that it can hold the maximum amount of gear. All the food goes into the pack save only the bread and powered milk which I worried will get crushed and damaged.

As I walk out to the road, a tan Oldsmobile car which has seen better days slows down as it enters the parking lot. The rear window rolls down as it parks and a young black boy gestures to me with his hand. “Mister, mister!” I turn and look back at him and him and his brother as they exit the rear seat. “Do you want some food?” he asks and hands me a big box of donuts. I already have 100 pounds of food. What I need is a ride! “They’re fresh!” The boy’s shrill voice breaks my line of thought. I mumble a genuine thank you and feel the sugar rush after only one bite. “I really need a ride back to the casino,” I volunteer, but the boy just grabs his father’s hand and skips into the store. I imagine they thought I was a homeless man and they were helping me get something to eat for the day.

I’m already exhausted after barely walking out of the parking lot and decide to try a old trick–hitchhiking. So that’s why I’m out here on the side of the road with my thumb out. 30 minutes pass slowly with no results. Ryan’s gonna be wondering where I am. I was supposed to call him when I left Walmart so we could meet at the boats. That could be hours from now though if I have to walk the entire way. I put the pack back on and walk about a half mile to a better spot on the highway. Another 20 minutes pass with no luck. After walking awhile longer, I can’t take it anymore and stash the goods under a tree on the side of the highway. There has to be another solution. Now free of the pack I walk unencumbered to a Shell station near the casino. Three female clerks tell me they know a guy to call for a ride and one of them makes the call while the others watch in amazement as I guzzle down two large bottles of Gatorade.

An unmarked Town Car pulls up beside the Shell station chauffeured by a driver who bears a resemblance to Morgan Freeman. God himself came to rescue me, I think as I cautiously ask: “Are you the cab driver?” The man responds softly without making eye contact, “You could say that.” I get in the car and describe my situation. He listens quietly and pulls out to the road asking only, “Which way?” We drive in silence and pick up the bags from my not-so-secret hiding spot. I ventured a question which finally got the God look-alike talking:

“How long have you lived in this town?”

“You don’t want to know the answer to that question, but I spent 50 years on the road as a truck driver.”

“And you’re still driving?”


This line of questioning seemed like a dead end, but then “God” continued.

“This town used to be jumpin’–it was like Vegas back in the day.”

“When was it jumpin?” I questioned using his same manner of speaking.

“Oh, that was probly before you was born.”

We were almost back to the casino before he made a new observation:

“You’re paddling?”

“Yes sir, down the entire Mississippi River.”

“Well, I guess I better not get in fight with you ’cause you could prob’ly kick my ass.”

I laughed awkwardly and he quickly followed up with, “Don’t get upset, I just jokin’ with ya.”

It’s nearly dark as I unload the gear from the trunk on his car and I already spot Ryan down near the boats. “God” got me back to the river and hopefully God will get us both safely all the way to New Orleans.

Sandbar, Sandwich, A Knife Carves Your Heart Out

A sandbar in the middle of the night, we stop.  This is where we shall sleep – one inch from the water, middle of the canal.

Two hours earlier Phil said, “If there was going to be a canal, it would be on the other side of the rock dam.”  Night falling fast; we see nothing.

“No, if there was going to be a canal to the city it would be in front of the rock dam.”  Still can see… nothing.

Darkness.  “I think it’s on the other side.”

Black.  “Phil,” I plead, “just go with me on this one; I’m pretty sure I’m right.”

We do not fight; the canal is in front; I say nothing; Phil says nothing; we are content; we’re on our way to Lake Providence through the canal in the dark.

All I can see.  Blackness.  And the faintness of Phillip's red hair.
All I can see. Blackness. And the faintness of Phillip's red hair.


…is like a knife in the chest.  It carves you out, and neither of us have eaten in a long time.

Five hours earlier Phillip and I dug through the food bag – a can of snow peas, a can of sweet corn, a small tub of chili.  (Thank you, Tamia, for the chili.  :))  “Okay,” I said to Phil, “you take the veggies, I’ll take the meat.”  “Deal,” he said.  We stave off hunger for two hours and then the knife.  “How many apples we got left?” I ask.

“Two.  Both rotten.”

I bite the rotten parts and spit the chunks into the river.  The rest of the apples is soft but good.  Hunger, the knife, is staved off… for thirty minutes.  I try humor.  “Hey Phil, how many T-bone steaks you got up there?”

“Only got tenderloin.”

“Well then forget it!” I laugh.  Phil laughs.  “If all we had was tenderloin would you eat it?” I ask Mr. Vegetarian.

“Of course,” he says, and I know he means it because his voice is devoid of levity.  The knife has carved out his chest as well.

It, the hunger, moves to my solar plexus.  It is a full two hours before we will reach Lake Providence, Louisiana.

“Lemme see the map,” Phil says.  I show him and know he’s looking at the canal.  “It’s good you’ve got this map,” he says.  “My GPS shoes no canal whatsoever.  I would have parked the boat on the river, walked over and gone ‘oh shit!'”

“You woulda got yo’ knickers wet!” I laugh, but I’m laughing to keep myself from thinking about the hunger which carves… deeper.  What food is in the food bag? I think, paddling, night, knife.  The canned bread dough Tamia gave us.  I could eat it raw.  No, Phillip wants to save that for when we have an oven.  There’s green beans.  Green beans without bacon and butter?  Might as well eat dirt.  What else?  What else?  Hormel, mechanically separated meat product.  Oh jeez, raw???  I’d rather eat processed death.  God it’s getting dark. Paddle, paddle, night, death, knife, carving.  How the hell are we out of food!  All right, when we get to Lake Providence, it’ll all be all right.  There’s gotta be something open.  There’s gotta be at least a gas station to get peanut butter and jelly.  Gotta be. “What did your GPS show in town?” I ask Phil, sunlight gone now, twilight.

“It showed a Sonic.  What’s there?  I’ve never been to one.”

“Ha ha ha.  No vegetables.  Trust me.”

Two days earlier –

Greenville, MS.  The park ranger who said he’d look the other way if we wanted to camp in his park says, “Ha!  Closest supermarket?  Oh, das about 6 miles away!”  “Screw it,” I said to Phillip, “we got low supplies, but we’ll run into somethin’.”  “Yeah,” he agreed, “it’s not far to Lake Providence, and it looks like it’s right on the river.”  We were right – Lake Providence is right on the river, but we were wrong about how long our supplies would last.  Beans only went so far; potatoes only went so far.  Food ran out.  Lake Providence had to work.

The knife has moved to my stomach; I am hollow.  Geez, I hope that Sonic is open. “Check the GPS,” I tell Phillip.  He says he did.  “Do it again,” I snap and realize I’m letting my physical malady affect my communication skills.  “Sorry,” I say.  “Could you please look again?  I don’t want to miss this road.”  There is a hook-like road a thousand feet from the canal.  Phil says it’s called City Dump Road, and I laugh.  Walk through the trash to eat our stash. An hour and a half has passed in the canal.  There is no current and I know we must be going not much more than three miles an hour.  “Phil…” I say ready to pass out when he says we should stop here because the road is close.  Perfect!  A half-mud/half-sandbar is near where we beach the boats.  I grab my headlamp and he grabs what he calls his “jerk off” flashlight, named such because you have to shake it back and forth to charge it.  Through the brush.  The man who will sell us our peanut butter, jelly and holy bread will tell us that that that little stretch is full of cottonmouth snakes.  But it is a good thing that now we are completely oblivious to that fact because we are hungry and there is a Sonic and I am going to kill someone and the sawgrass is cutting up my shins and burrs are sticking onto my ass and the knife… turns and turns and turns.  We’re out of the brush.  We walk up a levee wall, and it’s like that scene in the movie where the fellows on the road trip drive up on the lights of Las Vegas.  Lights, city spreading wide!  Food!  Where’s the damn Sonic!

We walk down the embankment.  A playground on a Saturday night and children are playing.  Why are children playing at 9pm? Poor area, I realize.  This is all there is to do. We walk a mile, the only white people in the area.  The town is dead.  Signs in clothing stores selling Fubu and Sean John.  They all say TRAVELERS WELCOME and I laugh and say, “At least we’re welcome.”

Desolate.  No one.  Late.  Hungry.
Desolate. No one. Late. Hungry.

Four more blocks and there is the Sonic.  “Holy Sonic, Batman!”  “What do they have here?” Phillip asks again.  “Who cares,” I say and tear a hole between me and the speaker on the menu.  “Hi!  Two large breakfast burritos!” I say and rejoice.  Phillip studies the menu carefully and finally settles on tater tots with cheese.  We eat in silence.  Oil is dripping from my burritos.  “Looks like motor oil,” Phil says.  “Probably is,” I say and take a bigger chomp.  Then I meditate.  I sit with my eyes closed feeling very very good.  I’m tempted to pig out – slushies and cherry limeades and Blizzards and corndogs and chili dogs and I could really, really stuff myself.  But I don’t.  I meditate.  I close my eyes and bless the food in my stomach.  I feel good.  I’ve staved the knife off.  The knife is no more, and that is good.

“What ch’all doin’!” Latasha, the manager says.  You know what I will say:  “Paddlin’ the river.”

“Oh, shoot, I wouddn’t even get on a bridge.  I’m scared.  Y’all scared?”


“Ah, no, I wouddn’t even…  Haw’d y’all get here?”

“Cut through the brush.  From the channel.”

“What channel?”

“There’s a channel that parallels the river.”

“Dere is?  Where?”

“Well, right that way.”

“I lived here 25 years; ain’t never known there was a channel.  I keep away from that river,” she says.

Another guy comes up to me and shakes his head when I tell him what we’re doing.  I ask him to use his cell phone.  “Hey mom, I’m in Lake Providence, Louisiana, it’s 9:30 pm, and I love you.”  I hand the phone back and he shakes his head.  “What ch’all travelin’ in?” he says.

“A kayak.”

“A whose ak?”

“Kayak, like a canoe.”

“A canoe boat?”

“Yes, a canoe boat.”

He shakes his head harder.  “You need to call somebody else?  Psychiatrist?”

I laugh.  “No.”

Gimme some tots!
Gimme some tots!

Latasha comes out and says her employee can take us to the corner store so we can buy some bread and whatever else we need.  The employee comes out and says he can take us but he has to run his momma some food.  He leaves and comes back thirty minutes later and says he forgot.  We get up and leave without a word.  We are not angry.  There is no knife in our solar plexus.  What is a broken promise when one has food in one’s stomach?  I meditate some more.  It is a mile walk to the corner store, and I feel good.  Grimy, sweaty night and I feel good.

The store owner is not suprised when we tell him we’re kayakers, is more than happy to hook us up with peanut butter, jelly and cookies and macaroons.  And we are even happier… until he says where we have to walk back through is full of snakes.

It’s night now.  Phil and I have our food to last us till Vicksburg (where we are now!).  We paddle in the dark, dark channel until we hit a sandbar.  It’s a sign.  It’s time to camp and make sandwiches, so we do.  Our tents are one inch from the water, but the sandwiches are one inch from our mouths; and, a plastic utensil smeared with Jiff is the only sign left… of a knife.

Phil and I Have it Out, For Real

Phillip has made another snide comment about my shortcomings and I’ve had it.  “You have something you want to say to me, you say it to my face,” I say.

He demurs.

“No, no, you’re not getting away that easily; I’m tired of the comments under the breath, the implications, the innuendoes:  You wanna say something?  You go ahead and say it, cuz, buddy, that’s it!”

“Okay,” he says, “you’re not careful with things.”

“We’re still bringing that shit up?”

“No, no, listen – my camera case is marked up, my Flip (it’s a type of camera) is marked up, and you’re not careful.”

“I had the damn Flip in the dry box the whole time…”

“Well, it’s all marked up…”

“So you’re saying that if you had been here that never would have happened?”


“Well, guess what, buddy?  YOU WEREN’T HERE!  You gave me the equipment and took off!  I did the best I could with what I had, what I knew and what you gave me.”

“Well, if…”

“So if you had been here…”


“K.  Prove it.”

“Well, I can’t prove it; I just know that…”

“Bullshit!  You can’t prove it!  You can’t because you weren’t here under these circumstances, dealing with what I’ve had to deal with!  You can’t prove it because you came up to me 20 minutes before your cab was leaving for Minneapolis airport saying you were bailing on the trip!”

“I didn’t bail on the…”

“You can’t prove it because you like to sit there in your high-and-mighty chair and say ‘Duh, if I had been there, duh boat wouldn’t have flipped.’  ‘Course you’ll never say that to me directly, will you?  You’ll just make your damn comments!”

“I didn’t bail on the trip,” Phillip says looking down.

I’ve hurt him.  I’m mad about his if-I-had-been-here-this-wouldn’t-have-happened BS, but that was unfair.  I change tactics.  I try to focus on where we go from here.

“Look,” I say, “we’re going to have a difference of opinion on whether or not X would have happened if you had been here, but you weren’t here, so it’s not fair to recriminate from afar.”

He agrees.

“I’ll agree that I could have been more careful with your camera case and the Flip, but with what I knew, with what you gave me at the time in terms of training and instructions, that’s what I did, so it’s not fair for you to keep on with your ‘should haves,’ ‘should haves’ and more ‘should haves’.”


“If you have something to say,” I continue, trying to lower my heart rate, “say it directly.  No more snide comments, side comments, indirectness.”

“Okay.  Will you be more careful with things?”

“Yes.  Now that I know.”

“Well it’s common sense…”

We have it out for another twenty minutes after he challenges my common sense.  Then we say that we are sorry, that we’ll agree that each other’s point of view is not necessarily the correct one and that this is stupid. We have not fought significantly for three days since… going on four.


Phil’s ex-roommate, Wes, drops us off in Tunica, Mississippi.  He’s trying to get me to admit that his girlfriend, whom he has brought with him, is hot.

“I don’t know, Wes,” I say packing up our boats.

“But I mean…  Jessica, come here.  Ryan, tell Jessica, she’s hot in Spanish.”

“Jessica, you’re hot in Spanish,” I say.

“Noooo,” Wes says.  “Say it in Spanish.  I know you know Spanish, now say it.”

“Jessica,” I say in Spanish, “you are going out with the biggest buffoon in Memphis.”  She laughs, we pack the boats, we move on.

The Rain

“And the rains came.” – Unknown

And they did.  I had never had more than two consecutive days of rain on the Mississippi.  Past Tunica we have had rain every day – rain in the morning, evening, night.  Rain when it’s time to set up camp, rain when it’s time to tear down.  Rain when we’re eating, rain when we’re sleeping.  Thinking – rain.  Breathing – rain.  As I type this – rain, rain, rain.

“Thank you, God,” I said yesterday going to sleep, “thank you for the rain.  The rain waters the crops which I eat.  Thank you.  But for the love of God, let up sometimes!” I looked into the Sky and laughed hoping… He got the joke.

Greenville, MS and Podunk, Podunk

Past Memphis, it is Podunk.  There is nothing.  One town every three days.  No cell reception.  No internet.  No nothin’.  We have a 15% signal off our Virgin Mobile Broadband right where I sit.  If I move two inches to the left – no signal.

A black man pulls up, a park ranger.  “I’m s’posed to charge ya for stayin’ here.”

“Oh, we’re not stayin’ here.  Paddlin’ down the Mississippi.”

“Humph!” he says with a wide smile, “third group this year!  Last guys gave up right at the spot y’all standin’ in.  Said they was hitchhikin’ home; y’all hitchhikin’ home?”

A challenge he has given me.  A challenge behind a wide, loving smile.

“No sir,” I say and smile back.  He smiles even wider.

“Gooood,” he says.  “Y’all didn’t seem like the quittin’ type.”  He’s carting around a member of the Mississippi Convict Labor Force in his truck.  A white boy – city labor done by the city jail.  He turns to him.  “Told ya, din’ I?  Told you they was paddlin’.  Now look,” he says to me.  “You ain’t s’posed to camp here lest I charge you 15 bucks.  But I can’t be ev’rywhere at once if you know what I mean.”  He winks at the convict.

“Thank you sir,” I say, “but I think we’ll be movin’ on.”

“Humph!” he smiles.  “You boys just might make it.”

“Yessir,” I say.  “I think we will.”

Where’s the Party?

The ramp is getting dark and we still have no beer.

We’re finally at Memphis, Tennessee! The next big city on the map. I can’t see it from here, but I know it’s just a few miles farther down the river–37 miles farther to be exact. Ryan and I are waiting on a boat ramp for my friend Wes to come pick us up where his family will host us for the night. This particular ramp seems to be a popular party spot in the rural town of Ripley, Tennessee. About every 10-15 minutes a vehicle will drive down the dirt road to the top of the ramp and begin driving slowly down until they see us sitting there. Then the vehicle stops and backs up to the road and leaves. There seems to be a lot of confusion as to the new party spot as dozens of vehicles continue to check the ramp as the moon rises. I used to live in Prim, Arkansas and a similar ritual occurred each weekend as the local party-goers would settle on a location to drink that night. I’m not sure why, but the Prim folks were somehow more effective in their selection process. Everyone somehow ends up at the same spot without a whole lot of confusion.

Another Ripley partier who still hadn’t received word that two strange paddlers were sitting down at the dock drove up to the boat ramp with Kid Rock music blaring. Instead of turning around and driving away, the young man walked…I mean staggered down toward us on the ramp. “How are ya’ll?” he asked loudly. Without waiting for an answer he introduced himself and shook my hand pausing longer than necessary to grasp it as though he wasn’t sure what to say next. “Cracker” as the drunk girl in the truck addressed him gave us his phone number and said to call if we needed anything. Ryan asked for a beer and “Cracker” reiterated that we could call him if we needed anything. Apparently a beer didn’t count. “Cracker” told us he had vodka in the truck, but that seemed like a bad idea considering what it had apparently done to him. Their headlights turned back down the road and we were again left in darkness.

The fire I had built before sunset kept dying down due to a lack of substantial wood. There is plenty of driftwood pieces lying on the shore which burn well for about 5 minutes and then disappear into ash. I used the light from an oncoming barge to pick up more wood to build up the fire again. We’ve been on shore for about 5 hours now waiting on Wes. The lastest news is that his brother Riley will be driving out to get us. Apparently the 37 miles cannot be driven quickly due to there being no direct roads so it will take then an hour and a half to arrive assuming no wrong turns are made. I call Riley a few minutes after midnight to see if he is close yet, and yup, they had gotten lost on the rural, nearly unmarked back roads. I waited beside the road for them and Ryan and his girlfriend Lindsey arrived about 12:40 am. On to Memphis! Maybe there will be a party there?

A Deceptive Gun Points at You

This is redneckville.  People are shot here; I know because a man is holding a gun, and it looks like he’s pointing it at me.  A sillouette.  He’s in the cab of his pickup truck; I am behind him. A long hunting rifle – a scope that can kill animals, that can kill me – the barrel points out the window.  He has a hat on – a ballcap.  I can’t see his face, but when I run up on him to ask him to help portage our boats, he points the gun out the window.  No face, but to me, from this distance, with this vantage point, with this silouette of a man jamming a gun out the window, I am terrified.  An angry face I see in my mind.  Redneckville + gun + scope + he pointed it out the window right when I ran up on him = Fear = Oh my god, this guy is going to shoot me. = I need to get out of here.

The perfect bottleneck - ripe for a portage.

“No need for that,” I say… scared.  “I’m just… I just wanted to see if you could help me move my boats.”

He’s looking into the rearview mirror, it seems.  He has seen me and deemed me a nuissance or a threat or something “he just don’ wanna deal with ‘roun’ these parts.  We don’ take kindly to strangers.” He spits chaw on the ground without spitting.  I can see, swear I can see him looking at me through the rearview mirror when I turn around and walk the other way.  I’m angry now.  Fucking rednecks, I think.  I swear to god what is the deal with them.  Small town bullshit.  I mean, dude, I just wanted help.  You pull out a FUCKING GUNNNN!!!  For what?  For asking questions!  For not knowing me?  “Duuuuuhhh, oohhhh, I’m just a dumbass redneck and dis here guy run up on me an’ I tink duh best ting id too pull duh gun out, duhhhhhhhhhhh.” I’m so mad, uncontrolably mad.  Every beef I’ve ever had with small-town, isolationist mentality surfaces:  clinging to guns, clinging to mistrust, clinging to stupidity.  Someone, afterall, just pointed a gun at me.  I didn’t deserve that; no one does.  F-ing rednecks.

I walk to the west side of the portage point.  It’s a no go.  We can’t do it.  Tons of brush, tons of rocks.  Phillip would complain so much if we had to carry these boats over this mess, I think.  I just got a goddamn gun pointed at me, I think.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so mad in all my life. I feel sad at the experience now, sad at the mistrust.  I feel angry and disappointed I’ll have to walk all the way back to Phillip and tell him we can’t portage.  He will be right, you know.  He wanted just to paddle on and not worry about the portage.  Now he will say I’ve blown 30 minutes scouting when “You knew!” he will say “there was no way we were going to be able to transfer all this gear over that road!”  I will feel stupid and have to admit he was right all because some redneck who had a pickup truck couldn’t be nice enough to move our boats .8 miles across a damn bottleneck and chose instead to point a goddamn gun at me for wanting to walk up to his window and ask a damn question.

I’m almost to Phillip now.  Up this ramp, over the bank and “I’m sorry, you’re right, let’s get goin’, it was worth a shot though, wasn’t it?” He will nod yes with his head, but he will think no in his heart.  We will load the boats in silence and launch and Phil will be smug and right, and I’ll feel bad for “wasting time.”

A car.  A rumbling in the distance.  Gravel.  Dust.  It’s the redneck.  This mother f—-er stops and I’m giving him a piece of my mind, I think.

He stops.

I eyeball him.  I am right, I think.  Gun or no, I am right and you can go to hell! “Howdy,” I say as smugly and rightly as I can.

“Hi,” he says not looking like he’s going to pull a gun out and try to intimidate me like he did the last time.

What the hell, I am thinking.  This guy just threatened my life, now he’s gonna pull up on me as if nothing.  Fuck that!  He’s not getting away with that. I bring the issue right out into the open:  “Sooooo, you gonna point that gun at me again?”


“I ran up on ya back there and you pointed the gun out the window like you were trying to scare me off.  You don’t need to do that you know.  Some people just want help.  Not everyone is a nuisance or someone that’s tryin’ to kill ya.”

“No…”  He looks genuinely hurt, and I feel the first rumblings of feeling like a complete and total dumbass.  “No,” he continues, “I was cleanin’ that gun.  I don’ think I ever sawya.  I’m sorry.  Did I scare you?  No, that’s my new hunting rifle…”  He turns to the story behind the gun – it’s the only safe ground for an awkward moment.  “I got that rifle for my gran’son and I had it on the dash and was just cleanin’ it; I swear I didn’t see ya.”

I feel incredibly stupid.  “I’m sorry myself,” I say.  “From where I was standing, it looked like I ran up to your cab from the back and you pointed the gun out the window…”

“Naw, nawww, naw,” genuinely hurt.

We have an uneasy peace now.  The misunderstanding has been sorted out, but the stone, that pit in your stomach that is left after all your rage and hurt and pain have subsided, is floating around under my solar plexus.  He must feel it too, I think.  He must know how pissed off I must have been and what I must have thought about him and his town.  He must feel bad about my misjudgment.  Now, he must just want to help.

“How can I help you?” he says.

“I’m just tryin’ to portage…”

“Portage your boats!” he affirms.  Tony, his name, tells me that I’m only the eightieth kayaker to try and portage that bottleneck, that it’s practically world-famous for that, and that that’s the first thing he should have thought of when he saw me, and that he’s sorry.  I say I’m sorry about fifty more times and accept his invitation to get in the cab, where the rifle sits ominously on the dashboard, and drive to Phillip.

The Gun - Ominous
The Gun - Ominous

Phillip looks semi-surprised to see me there in the passenger side of a pickup.  He wished, secretly, for my insistence on finding a way to portage to be in vain.  I was here now; I was right, sort of; and, it was time to find a way to drive one mile to save twenty miles.

Tony hops out of the truck and surveys the boats.  “Ahhhh,” he says.  “Inflatables.  Ain’t never seen that.”  He has an honest and quiet gait.  I notice he has an inhaler instead of a phone in his cell phone holster.

“You got athsma?” I ask, trying to slather on some sense of common ground over this still uneasy peace.


“I do too.”

“It bother ya much?”

“Not much.  I was up aroun’ (I’m talking southern again.) the Iowa border, an’ it got real bad there, not so much here.”

“Yeah, I gotta whole host of ailments.  Pulmonary Fibrosis id one of ‘em.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Phil and I say simultaneously.

Tony decides he’s going to drive back and get his boat trailer because he “think [he] gotta empty wun, an’ I also gotta few watermelons I wanna giv’ yuh.”

What a cool guy, I think.  And what a moron I feel.

Tony makes good on his watermelon promise.  “You just cut duh hart out uvit,” he says.  “Don’ even worrih ‘bout dem seeds.”  The heart of the watermelon is pink and juicy and just about the most delicious damn think I’ve ever had in my life (Yes, I know I’ve said that before J.).  Tony says it’s okay to leave the rest for the flies, helps us load our boats on his trailer, and says he’s going to drive us around town because “you cant leave Tiptonville, KY without learning a lil bit ‘bout duh history of dese parts.”

During the ride into town (where he’ll not only help us cut off those pesky 20 miles around what is known as Kentucky Bend but also 8 more by taking us to the Tiptonville boat launch – there indeed was no viable put-in point directly across the bottleneck – Phillip was right about that), Tony continually asks if we “need anything?”  “Cigarettes, supplies, anything?”

“No,” I say watching him smoke his Pall Malls one after the other secretly wishing he would stop because though we are new friends, we’re still friends, and I really don’t want to watch Pulmonary Fibrosis consume his lungs.

Tony and I - An Uneasy Peace
Tony and I - An Uneasy Peace

Tony takes us to Reelfoot Lake, formed by the Great New Madrid Earthquake of 1811.  He says there was an old Chickasaw Indian chief with a clubfoot who fell in love with a Choctaw princess down south.  When her love was denied to him, he stomped his foot causing the great earthquake.  He smiles because the legend is good and can tell I like the story.  He points out the Cyprus trees in the lake and I think they’re beautiful.  Phil snaps some photos, and we’re off to the boat launch.

The boat launch is at Mile Marker 873.  Tony helped us cut 27 miles and stoked my mental fires about the history of the area with his stories of the clubfooted chief, the greatest earthquake in U.S. history, and the Battle of Island Number Ten where 700 Confederate soldiers held off 15,000 Union soldiers.  300, anyone?

An old farmer with no teeth has parked in front of the boat launch.  I think he sees that we want to get down there but chooses to walk down to the riverfront to watch the current.  Fucking red…, I start thinking and stop myself.  I’ve already done this, I think.  I’ve already misperceived today; I don’t want to do it again.  Maybe he’s just old and doesn’t realize we’re there, I think.  Tony isn’t having any of it.  He rips the boat trailer around the guy in reverse and deftly steers the trailer over young saplings parking it not 12 inches from the water.  Damn, I think.

The old farmer walks up the hill not giving us a second glance.  He has been bested, I think.  Tony didn’t get mad at him, challenge him, and tell him to move out of the way.  He just went around him.  Maybe that’s what I need to do – not get mad at people.  Go around them.  Not take them personally.  Because, as with the case of Tony, I am wrong many times.  I don’t see things as they really are. I said a small blessing for the skinny, old farmer with no teeth and wished him well.  Tony had taught me to do that without saying a word.

Phillip and I are good at offloading things now, and have the boats packed and ready to go at the water’s edge before Tony can finish half of his new cigarette.  All we can do now is talk.  Tony tells us that he left home when he was 18.  He worked in the barge trade on the Ohio River working his way up to Steersman.  When we tell him about The Hitchhiking Movie, he says he hitched out to California and got stuck in Arizona.  He noticed a man walking through the middle of the desert and decided to follow him.  The man was a Native American going to see his tribe.  Tony stayed with the tribe drinking his fill of peyote and spending his days in sweat lodges until he wore out his welcome.  He hitched on to California where he stayed in Timothy Leary’s compound and had “all the windowpane [he] could handle.”

I ask him what windowpane is and Phillip (Mr. I Grew Up Seventh Day Adventist) knows that it’s LSD.  Misperceptions; things are not what they seem:  Phil knows LSD, I know portages and saving time, Tony is not a redneck.  He is a world traveler who tells us that the Mississippi River is life, “a source of life” he says.  “I don’t just fish for fishing,” he says.  “I fish for meat; it feeds my family.  You’ve got to respect life; you’ve got to know that the Mississippi can take your life.  I seen people live on this river for 20 years and die because they get too cocky.  You don’ want that; you gotta respect life.”

I feel extremely stupid now.  This “redneck” has outschooled me and outclassed me.  I thought he was going to kill me and now he teaches me about decency having given me 3 new watermelons out of his garden as well as sacks of apples and pears from his orchards.

Maters and Peppers - Mmmmmmmmm.
Maters and Peppers - Mmmmmmmmm.

Boy do I feel dumb, I think again and then stop myself.  Misunderstandings are blessings, I think.  We might never have had this special moment had I not got so angry.  Without these levels of embarrassment and humiliation, I would never have got the lesson that the world needs so dearly: Things are not what they seem.

Apples and Pears
The Orchard... is Life.

Tony ends the conversation and gives me his phone number.  “I’m takin’ care of my grandson,” he says, and I wonder where the father is but then thank god that Tony’s raising the boy instead of his deadbeat dad.  I wish Tony could be my father, I think.

Tony invites me to go catfishing next year, and I all but take him up on it.  There is much more I need to learn about respecting the Mississippi River as a source of life.  There is much I have learned today about respecting people.  “You’re not always right about everybody,” Tony says without saying it as he gets into the truck.  “You have much to learn,” he says after he is gone.

And I do have much to learn, for today I have misperceived.  And in the future I hope I can forever be pleasantly wrong.

Thank you, Tony, for teaching me today.  I hope one day, I can perceive things as you do where one can find the respect first, and the answers to his questions later.

Fight Club

“Do you have the charger for your phone?” Ryan asks me as we get ready to board a cab at the Cape Giraredeau boat ramp. I respond “Yes of course” as I had brought the charger with me from Nashville several days earlier. He askes again still unsure, “Do you have the cigerette charger for your phone?” I responded louder “Yes!” But that wasn’t the question that Ryan actually wanted answered. What he really wanted to know was if I had the cigerette charger with me. As we get into the cab, he asks for the phone and charger which of course I don’t have. A short yelling match ensues with no real resolution. Ryan thinks I lied–I think he asked the wrong question.

We’re on our way to Walmart to fill a prescription that Ryan needs immediately. During the short ride I silently steam about why this little prescription issue couldn’t have been resolved while Ryan had a five day layover in St. Louis. Such is the personal side of two people paddling the river. My friend Ruthie took me aside before we left on this journey and suggested “You guys need to figure out a strategy for solving disagreements with each other.” I suppose she would know after raising two boys of her own. The truth is that we never really worked out a system for solving problems, but we each certainly have our own style for disagreeing. Ryan generally snaps loudly with a string of expletives and I generally state my position defiantly and make snide follow-up comments. It’s not a perfect system but we’re still paddling from the same boat right now so I suppose it’ll have to do for now. I begin to think: What if we got so mad at each other that we have to split up the boats to finish the trip. Ahh, that wouldn’t work as there is only one boat pump. We eventually make it to Walmart and return four hours later still without the necessary prescription. I really want to yell at someone, anyone after wasting all that time but it wouldn’t do any good now. That’s the thing about wasted time–you can’t get it back.

As Ryan explained a few days ago, paddling is a team effort. When we are alligned toward a common goal such a bouy or a point in the distance it works great, but two people paddling in different directions just leads to frustration and anger. After an early morning launch from Wickliffe on Tuesday morning, Ryan set a goal of reaching a certain boat launch which was over 50 miles downriver. He’s been fantising about this particular bend in the river since we left Minnasota. This boat launch is right on a nearly one mile wide neck which can be portaged to save 20 miles of paddling. Ryan believes we can move our nearly 500 pounds of gear in only two trips and therefore thinks this would be a great spot to unload and camp for the night. I disagree and believe the portage wouldn’t save any time at all because I feel it will take as many hours to move the gear as it would to paddle the 20 miles. It’s nearly dark and we’re still at least 4 miles from the launch. I suggest several possible camping sites, but Ryan lobbies to push on and assures me it will not be completly dark yet when we reach the launch. We reach the site in darkness and discover it’s not a great camping location. There is a long rocky bank and the ground is very hard on the top. We have set a personal paddling record of 50 miles today so I’m glad that Ryan pushed for reaching this spot today. Tomorrow will be a different story as I’ve already made up my mind I don’t want to portage. We’ll just have to fight about that in the morning.