If You Had to Stay with One Family, Who Would It Be?

Wickliffe Cross
The cross overlooking Wickcliffe, KY. Though I don't have a picture of the Woodses, this'll give you an idea about the town.

Phillip and I are in the boat.  We are fighting a lot.

“Paddle toward the shore!”

“I am!”

“No, you’re not, you’re paddling toward the middle of the current, I can feel it.”

“You’ve got such a stick up your ass, what the hell!

“Don’t talk to me like…”

Phillip and I are in the boat, joking a lot.

“Do you believe that guy who claimed old barge captains used to run their barges onto shore to camp for the night…”

“I know!”

“That’s ridiculous.  How the hell would you…”

“How would you get it off! laugh laugh laugh!”

“That must have been when barge piloting was rogue.”

“Yeah, back in the seventies the barge pilots used to ram the shore like nobody’s business.  They would fix gun turrets on the bough and fire rounds into the hulls of passing boats, laugh laugh laugh.

“And then they’d run those big oil tankers toward Cairo.  This dude, laugh, poked a hole in the side and let a stream of oil run out, then he dove in with a lighter and lit the thing on fire as it careened into Cairo setting the whole place on fire, laugh laugh double laugh.

Phillip and I are running into people a lot.

The Woodses

Shawn Woods is fat.  He may be reading this, I know; but, it’s the truth, and he knows it.  “Ima little on the heavy side,” he will soon chuckle. An hour ago Phillip motioned me to come up the only boat ramp in Wickcliffe, Kentucky (that’s right! we’re in Kentucky, yay us!); a couple sat in a pick-up truck handing him a Wal Mart 12-pack of bottled water.  “Howdy,” I said as southern as I could. Why the hell do I do that?

“Howdy, yerself!” Smiling… cool. “Where y’all stayin’ fer tha night?”

“Dunno,” Phil and I said simultaneously.

“Well,” Shawn says, “itsa bit out in tha cuntry, but y’all kin stay with us.  We gotta huntin’ cabin, mah daddy usetuh use it, but isgot runnin’ wawder an’ Direct TV, even now.” Holy Mother of Jesus!  Direct TV??? May you be anointed with oil, my son, and sent to heaven with the angels!

“Sounds good, Shawn, we’re there.”

Shawn wuddn’t (see, I’m talking southern now) lyin’.  His “hunting cabin” had a shower, two toilets, a dryer, big screen TV, and carpeted floors. Holy Jesus, I thought.  There were two beds – one for Phil, one for me.  How happy I am when these things happen.  If I could be grateful for one thing during this trip, it’s that I am much more appreciative of little things – showers, homes, warmth, good cooked food (Sharon, his wife, makes pork steaks and baked potatoes with butter and chives and holy crap it’s good and oh my god MILK! you blessed woman and cornbread!? you gotta be kidding me – may you sit at the foot of God in Heaven! “This is great, Sharon,” I say.  She demurs, but Shawn picks up the slack – “It is good, ain’t it?  My brother, he use a special seasonin’ that makes that pork steak taste good; it don’t taste good if you don’t cook it raght.”

I can’t believe my eyes but Phillip is eating pork.  “Uhhhh, you sure about that buddy?” I ask, and he glares.  “I told you I’ll eat anything once.” You’ll eat anything when you’re starving, I think and laugh to myself. (Yes, though you not believe it, Mr. Hullquist, Phillip ate pork, lol J.)

Sharon shows me a picture of her little boy – he’s in a policeman’s uniform attempting to draw a toy gun out of a holster.  He’s got taxi cab ears and a protruding lip that makes him look just like an 8-year-old Barney Fife.  “Looks like Barney Fife!” I say. Sharon laughs, “That’s what I said!”  Shawn disagrees:  “I just thawt he looked like a crazy, old po-leece-man. Ha ha ha ha.”

Backdraft is on and a little boy that looks a lot like the boy in the picture bolts through the door.  “I luuuhve this movie!” he says and hops over the back of the couch plopping down.  “Don’t ewe jump on the furniture like that!” Sharon says.  “Ooooohh, goooo on, yewww!” the little boy responds.  A girl walks in.  She looks a lot like the girl in another picture Sharon showed me.  The cabin, I find out later, is actually on the Woods’s land; and, young kids anxious not to go to school tomorrow are more anxious to jump on the furniture and find out who these strange guys standing in their granddaddy’s cabin are and tell their mother that paddling the river is crazy and that these guys must be insane and probably should sleep outside.

Sharon asks me if I need anything else.  “Nothing,” I say.  “Don’ lie to me,” she says.  “Whatchu want?” Can’t lie to a mother. “Milk,” I say.  “I drank it all, sorry.”

“Ooooh, shewt, you gonna say sahrry to me?  You just hush.  I’m gonna get you some…”

“Oh, no ma’am, don’t go to the trouble, I can drink…”

“I said hush!  Shawn, I’m goin’ to the store an’ get this boy some milk; what else we need?”

Shawn shows me the snake skins he found in his garage, the heads of animals he shot, his duck call which he plays and my lord in heaven does it sound like a duck!  Little Barney Fife, Mason actually, says, “That ain’t no way to play a duck cawl!” and grabs it from his father.  He bellows out a few good duck tunes.  I think I heard “hey baby, I’m ready for sex,” “oh my god there’s a fox in the nest!” and “did you see Quaggle McQuacksmith’s new hairstyle, she looks like a total tramp,” but I could be wrong.

Barney (Mason! J), Sharon, Shawn and Daughter shuffle off to bed.  “Here are the lights ef yew need’em.”

“Thanks, Shawn; this is great.”

“Yeah, I gotta say I gotta get up at 4 in the mornin’ to go to work, so I’ll take you boys intuh town fer yer boats ‘bout 4:30.”  I about fainted.

“Ok, great!” I lied.  Phillip and I worked on the internet until 2 in the morning.  “Two hours a’ sleep, buddy?”

“Yup,” he said, “two hours.”

We made it to the boats in the morning without falling over and paddled pretty much the whole day without a nap – don’t ask me how.

Four miles downstream, a fisherman stopped us.  “Where y’all headed?”

New Orleans!  Stayed with a guy last night in Wickcliffe; got started a little while ago.”

“Who’dja stay with?”

“Uhhhh, Shawn and Sharon somethin’ or other.”


“Um, maybe.”

“Big ol’ hippopotamus ears?  Big ol’ guy, heavy set?  Bald on top with fair skin?”

“Ha!  Yeah, that’s the one!”

“Yeah, I known him ferever.  Y’all stayed with a good bunch.  Real good people.”

In the next few days, Phillip and I fight some more, we joke some more, and run into more people.  Most will be short interactions: Where y’all goin, oh that’s neat, oh ya’ll have a good day. And some will be special.  Some will last a long time. For some, you will see Granddaddy’s hunting cabin, you will hear Son’s duck call, you see Sharon’s tan skin and wonder how she got so tan.  Daughter will make faces when you tell them you’re paddling the river, and a man you’ve never seen before will say he knows who you stayed with and that you were lucky to stay with people so nice.  And you will say, “Yes I am lucky.  I’m lucky to have stayed with people as good as the Woodses.”  And you will feel very, very content.

A(nother) Night to Remember

My new trend of using modified movie names as blog post titles will continue throughout the final month of our journey. In tonight’s update I’ll tell you about our next three nights on the Mississippi river.

After my long night at World’s Worst Campsite, I was ready for some more comfortable camping. The lower Mississippi has tons of sandbars and river beaches that seemed to be made just for travelers like ourselves. This is a huge contrast to what I was used to in Minnesota which was pretty much all mud and mosquitoes. On Thursday after meeting up with Ryan, we paddled leisurely for awhile and made camp before dark on a huge sandbar on the side of the river. The soft sand felt great underneath my toes as I carried all our gear from the boats up to the campsite. We momentarily debated building a fire, but that seemed unnecessary since the weather was warm and the lights from the factory across the river created enough light to see all the way across the river. I zipped up my tent door and shut everything out from view for the night.

As I unzipped the tent door after a peaceful sleep, I looked out to very different scenery. The bright factory lights were gone, the river was gone, and the boats on shore were gone! All there was in front of me was a seemingly endless expanse of sand. An early morning fog had settled over the water blocking out everything surrounding us from view. It was very surreal to look around and see nothing but sand in nearly every direction. After the fog lifted, we began paddling again silently farther downstream.

In an effort to make better time and get to New Orleans by our new deadline of October 6th, I’m pushing for a much more grueling paddling pace. So ever as nightfall came, a full moon lit the way as we continued into the darkness of the river. Paddling at night is more dangerous, but it seems quieter and safe right now. Ryan tries to rest while I keep lookout for other boat traffic. Then my attention turned to trying to figure out what color the upcoming buoy is? There are red and green channel markers which guide barge traffic and keep them in the deepest part of the river. I leaned over the edge of the kayak to try and see the color as we swept past the buoy. My concentration was then suddenly broken when a barge passed swiftly by not 20 yards away! Ryan jumped up from his rest to help paddle in what looked like a mild state of terror. So much for being the lookout guy!

We pulled off the river after that little scare and camped on another even larger sandbar. But even before I could fall asleep a crack of thunder in the distance alerted me to what was about to happen before dawn. As the rain beat upon and came into my flimsy tent, I realized sleep would be impossible so I let my mind wander: This tent is green and purple. Even though I put it up dozens of times this year already, I never really noticed it’s color. I tried to think back to the last time I used the test before this kayaking trip. The year was 2003 and I was camping on a hillside in Union Spring, New York. My sister and her then boyfriend joined me in this tiny 6×6′ space for one of the nights. But tonight it’s mostly empty and the rainwater is pooling in the corner of the tent. As the larger drops of rain hit the tent wall, they spray into a puff of wet mist. I move into the center to try and avoid getting even more wet. Morning comes slowly and with it a vast expanse of wet sand which coats all our possessions. This is something I’ll have to get used to I suppose.

Saturday night on the river also found us on sandy soil just north of Cape Girardeau, MO. This time Ryan predicted “no rain” and I thought he’d be right. So when the storm awoke me, I spent much of the night soaking up the pools of water on the tent floor with a pink towel and wring it out on the sand. This kept my sleeping bag dry for the night, but I’m seriously considering getting a better tent. Cape Girardeau is a larger town so we’ll be stopping for supplies there in the morning. I guess I’ll have to figure it out then so I close my eyes and let the raindrops put me back to sleep.


I like this photo.  It is very fitting.  We must paddle as one... again.
I like this photo. It is very fitting. We must paddle as one... again.

There he is – beady red eyes, disheveled beard, doesn’t this guy sleep?

“Hey bitch,” I say.

“Hey fag,” he says back.

He sits in front of me and now there is a man, a dude, in front of me where my gear used to be.  I’ve been paddling alone for so long, but now someone cracks and bangs my paddle.  WTF!  This is my stroke!  Now I’ve got to modify my stroke??? Yes, I do.  I must play nice with the neighborhood kid, and his name is Phillip Hullquist.

SMACK!  CRACK!  CLANG! It’s been an hour now and we’re still not syncing our strokes.  We did this at the start of the trip, way up in Minnesota.  Back then we were very vocal about whose fault all this paddle banging nonsense was.

Phillip – mine.

Me – Phillip’s.

Now we say nothing.  We’re mature now.  We know that our strokes will sync up soon; and, in another hour, it is so – the banging stops.

I was hoping my last stretch of solo paddling would be a bittersweet one.  Ahhhhhh, I am here in front of the St. Louis Arch; it is beautiful.  A gentleman named Kyle helps me patch a hole; a gentleman named Bill helps me pack and asks when I’ll get to New Orleans.  An Asian family gawks and takes pictures.  An elderly man tells me how amazing I am and how amazing this is and how amazing it would be for him to do this but he can’t because (insert stock excuse).  I am happy; I want this to last forever, but I can’t because Phillip is thirsty and says he hasn’t drunk water since 3 o’clock yesterday and I’m taking too long and we have to get going because we need to make New Orleans in 30 days.

It was not to be.  The stretch between the Gateway Arch and where Phillip was camping (just below the I-255 bridge) was harrowing, an absolute washing machine.  Barge traffic is thick, and each barge has its own brand of wake that bangs and ricochets off a narrow concrete-lined channel where your oar hits air here then wave there, you cuss and scream because your boat is being tossed about then to then fro then back and then Jesus this is a madhouse and then this is much worse than Lake Winnibigoshish!   I’m digging my oar into this mess of confused sea, cussing verbally, angry.  “Mother F-ing dashedy dashedy dash!”  The help on the parked barges looks at me like I’m out of my mind.  “I AM out of my mind,” I respond to a fat deckhand though he said nothing to me.

The washing machine is over now, and I’m on my way to Phillip where he’ll suck down Gatorade like a fish gasping for water, and he’ll tell me I’m late, and we’ll try not to argue with one another, and we’ll try to play nice like neighborhood kids should do.

We’ve got to average 35 miles a day to make New Orleans, to make it back to Nashville where The Hitchhiking Movie is showing in a film festival on October 9.  Impossible before the locks and dams.  Entirely doable now.  I pull out the GPS before reaching Phillip.  “Holy Mother of God,” I say aloud.  “I’m gasp going 8.3 miles an hour!”  Im-freaking-possible! I check again.  Holding steadily at 7.5. “Ohhh my god!”  If you didn’t know, my average speed (without a headwind) was around 4 mph in the locks-and-dams portion of the Mississippi.  Now, it seemed, Phil and I would be able to hold 7 without much trouble.  I was ecstatic.

After Phil downed his Gatorade (thanks, Kyle!) and seemed rather impressed with my ability to pack a boat (hell, I’ve only been at this for the last 6 weeks), I could see he was happy to be back on the river.  “It’s like she was a little girl in pig-tails,” he said, “and now she’s all grown up.”

The River is Life and It must grow like all else.

The paddles bang and clack, we adjust.

Phil moves his seat straight back, my feet are cramped, we adjust.

The river grows from a little girl to a big raging hag with three kids, we adjust.

Phil is back, I must adjust.

I’m happy until he criticizes the condition of the water-tight camera housing.  “It’s all scratched up,” he forlorns.  That’s life, I think.  “I’m sorry,” I say.  I know life is also keeping relationships solid, on an even keel.  He is my new bedfellow, my new kayakfellow.  He’s here; life has changed as the river has changed; and now two men are flowing down the river instead of one.  Two men are making decisions.  Two men are deciding when to eat, when to stop, when to go, who to talk to and why.

What other changes will come?  Who will decide what?  When?

I don’t know.

We didn’t expect for me to have to do the Middle Mississippi alone; I did.

Part of me wasn’t expecting Phillip to return; he did.

We adjusted; we had to; the river was life, and the only way to end that life was not to adjust.

Phillip says, “You seem much more comfortable with the wear and tear on the gear than I am.”

I want to defend why the gear is worn and torn and say, “I think it is part of life, part of being on the river, but yes I don’t take care of things as well as you probably do.”

He offers a half-smile.  This is sufficient for now – a morsel of honesty, a candy-coated apology.

“Well,” he says, “what do you want for dinner?”

I smile.  “Beans, anyone?”

We laugh and make Miley Cyrus jokes and Wes Herndon (hey, Wes! comin’ your way!) jokes and curse and talk loudly and comment that the barge spotlight looks like the Eye of Mordor, ha ha ha ha ha.

And it is good.  We are safe in our tents – two men, two sets of decisions… one goal.  The River is Life and now we are one in that life, together in one boat, on our way to the point where we won’t have to adjust anymore.

Boats, Trains, and Automobiles

World's Worst Campsite. You can see me if you look closely.
World's Worst Campsite. You can see me if you look closely.

Bridge engineers create flexible gaps in their bridge design so that the roadway can expand and contract slightly depending on the conditions. On the actual road surface, a metal plate is placed over the gap which makes a clanging sound every time a vehicle goes over it. I’ve been listening to these clanging sounds for several hours now and I try and sleep below the bridge. On one side of me is a rock face about 30 feet tall and on the other side are the concrete bridge supports making a sort of drum effect. Because I can’t sleep from the insane amount of noise, I begin trying to count what type of vehicles are driving overhead. Semi trucks make a triple-clang as the first three axles strike the plate above and then two more clangs as the trailer axles strike the same plate. I’ve already determined that many more semi trucks travel on the 255 beltway at night than just regular cars which make the standard “double-clang.”

The only other sound I can hear is the chirping of crickets which is obviously softer, so I try and focus on it instead of the roadway above. This strategy doesn’t work either. I try playing the “What If” game: What if they shut down the highway above and the only sound I could hear was Viva la Vida playing softly in the distance? What if the sounds of the cars began playing in a more predictable manner and the rhythm soothed me to sleep? The game ended quickly as my mind jumped focus to another discomfort–I’m sleeping (well, trying to) on a sloping pile of rocks! How can we make something positive out of this? Hmmm, well, Jesus had only a rock for his pillow so maybe it will work for me too. But 3 hours of non-sleep had already proved otherwise. I got up out of the tent and tried to restructure the platform of rocks underneath me to try and make them more comfortable. No luck! I couldn’t follow Jesus’ example in this case. While outside the tent, I heard a barge going underneath the bridge. I couldn’t see it yet, but it sounded large. The entire character of the river has changed so much since I left it in Minnesota. Way back then it was more like a little girl still in pink-tails. Now it’s all grown up (I’ll resist the urge to do fat jokes here!).

You’re probably wondering what I’m doing in South St. Louis camping underneath a busy bridge. Well, I’ve headed out back to the Mississippi River to rejoin Ryan in our quest to reach New Orleans alive. After several delays and false starts, I finally got a ride with a fellow named Danny. He saw my ad asking for a ride on Craigslist and gave me a call. “So when exactly can you get me to St. Louis?” I asked him. “Well, man, I gotta go see a few friends tomorrow and get something to eat too, but I’ll call you when I’m ready,” he responded. Danny didn’t seem to have a fixed schedule in mind. I liked that about him, but in this case I was trying to get to St. Louis before Ryan got city fever from waiting for me and went berzerk! Danny picked me up in his white VW van on Wednesday. I was rushing around quickly trying to pack everything while his demeanor was much calmer. Danny had a yellow trike strapped to the roof of the Volkswagen which he later told me he was taking out to California for someone else he met on Craigslist. I practically live on Craigslist myself so I figured we’d have a lot to talk about during the long drive to St. Louis.

Danny was quite the adventurer himself. He told me how he’s set up several various businesses to keep him funded while he follows “The Dead” band on tour around the country. I noted he was a musician himself after spying the guitar in the back of the hippy RV. Danny has already been across the entire country once this year already. I silently wished I could travel as much as he has, but suspected he may have also felt the same about me after listening to my stories from the Mississippi River. Sometime after dark Danny dropped me off at the side of the river and I hiked down into the ravine to setup camp by the river. After taking the first load down, I told him I’d be fine and the taillights from his van disappeared into the distance. Actually, I wasn’t quite fine… I had to carry over 100 lbs of gear down a 30 foot steep rock wall which took nearly an hour in the dark. Then I set up camp on this very spot now dubbed “World’s Worst Campsite.”

It was now after 1 am so I left the riverfront and returned to my tent try and get some sleep. Ryan was camping himself several miles up river and he would paddle down and meet me in the morning. I tossed and turned for awhile and feel into a fitful sleep. HOOOOONNNNNNNNNKKK!!! The blaring horn from a train only 20 feet awoke me in a state of terror! Where am I? What’s happening to me? Am I going to die??? When you’re sleeping by yourself in a big unknown city, it’s very disorienting to awake in this manner. I forgot about the train tracks I had carried all my gear across only 5 hours earlier. The train engineer will never know that he had woken a lone camper just trying to get some rest before a long day of paddling. I heard several more trains pass during the early morning hours. At only 6am, I finally took down the tent and awaited Ryan’s call.

Ryan said he would call around 9am so it was a long 3 hour wait before he would even begin to arrive. I looked through my suitcases and located some books I had intended to read when I was last on the river. None of the three had yet been started. I began reading “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Maybe this will help in the weeks ahead so Ryan and I don’t kill each other! I got through several chapters before the phone rang. “Phillip? I just woke up so it will take me about an hour and a half to get down there,” Ryan told me. I figured it would take him longer, but didn’t say anything at the time. Ryan called several more times during the morning and didn’t actually arrive until around noontime. I figured he’d be late. Perhaps I was causing him to be late by assuming such. But I didn’t care today. Today would be my first day back on the river. A day filled with new sights, new pain, new people, new sunburns, and new memories.

Meet Me in St. Louis

After a hiatus from paddling, Phillip is rejoining Ryan on the Mississippi River in St. Louis. He will resume video duties and complete the rest of the trip to the Gulf of Mexico.

My costume is made of synthetic materials and it stinks!
My costume is made of synthetic materials and it stinks!

Remember the critical scene in every superhero movie where the hero decides to come out of retirement? We see him slowly pick up his costume and hold it up as if to check and ensure it will still fit. That’s just how I felt this evening as I began to pack various things in preparation for my return to the river. My blue paddling shirt ain’t no hero costume, but it’ll have to do for the next month or two. The thin shirt still smells like the fresh clear water of the upper Mississippi River, but I envision a very different odor will begin to permeate it’s fabric as I continue down the much larger, muddier, and mightier river.

Ryan tells me the water is fast today as he looks out over the water rushing past the St. Louis Arch. I’ll be standing there too sometime tomorrow (hopefully before dark!), and observing that wonderful current. We need as much help from the river as we can get right now, and there is a very good reason to try and complete the journey by our new deadline of October 6.

New Goals

Making good time for the rest of the journey is going to be a real challenge and I am ready for it. We’re going to have to put out a lot more effort than in the past legs of the trip. Our boats are slow on this river. Very slow. I think Ryan is tired too at this point as his solo speed is barely 60% of what we were achieving earlier. It’s a good thing I’m rested up because I’m going to push for a grueling pace on the final stretch. The word grueling itself brings back images of the old Oregon Trail computer game where you could select the speed you wanted your party to travel. Grueling mode tended to kill off the weaker members of the family pretty quickly (good thing I don’t have cholera!).  For the betting folks out there, here are our past and future paddling averages:

  • Upper Mississippi – Ryan & Phillip: 21.3 miles per day
  • Middle Mississippi – Ryan solo: 13.9 miles per day
  • Lower Mississippi – St Louis to New Orleans: 35.1 miles per day (goal)

A Promise Kept

When I broke from the trip back in Brainerd, it was uncertain exactly when and where I would rejoin the expedition. I told Ryan at the time that St. Louis would be the meeting place, but as he walked back inside the Red Roof Inn I’m sure there was a healthy bit of unspoken doubt. The plan for me to leave the river at that point was made very suddenly as I realized that the logistics to get back to Nashville were unlikely to be more perfect in the following week. It’s pretty tough to line up a bus ride and flight that doesn’t involve dragging my 100+ lbs of gear any distance.

I’m now faced with getting all that stuff back to St. Louis and I can’t say the logistics were easy this time either. This journey (like any worth making) is a series of challenges. Paddling the final 1160 miles will be difficult, but I’m ready for the final challenge.