All posts by Phillip Hullquist

I'm the videographer and editor at 11 Visions.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Film Festivals

The Hitchhiking Movie, the Mississippi Paddle Adventure, and 11 Visions itself are all a joint venture between Ryan Jeanes and Phillip Hullquist.  Therefore, I give to you 11 Visions’ first ever JOINT POST!  No we’re not smoking joints while writing – we’re collaborating on a single post.  This is a tad experimental so if it blows up in your face just send us the cleaning bill.

It was about 3pm when Ryan and I arrived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee for the Secret City Film Festival. So much to do today: find the theater location, get posters made, update the website, meet festival organizers, find a secluded campsite–what? Yes, we’re still camping! In order to save money on unnecessary conveniences motels provide like running water and electricity, we paddled across the river and setup a tent instead. I think it’s actually better as it’s reducing the withdrawal I might otherwise be experiencing from leaving The River. This is my first film festival, my first “big-screen” premiere, and my first chance to get a real life audience reaction to the film. It’s all very exciting, but I also have no idea what to expect. –Phillip

—–

“Arrived” in Oak Ridge, TN, he says.  More like rolled in on one wheel and a prayer.  Phil and I had just orchestrated an 11th hour comeback to get from New Orleans to Nashville in the first place.  Making the film festival AT ALL was a Mail Mary pass.

2 days before film festival – New Orleans, LA:

Phil:  “OK, I’ve got it.  Since AMTRAK doesn’t go to Nashville, we buy tickets to Memphis and hope someone can give us a ride to the Music City.”

Me:  “Ummmmm, so like do you have anyone who’ll come get us?”

Phil:  “No.”

Me:  “Great plan; I love it.”  That’s not sarcasm; this does sound like a Phil/Ryan plan.  “What about Wes?”  Wes, you will recall from this post, is the guy whom it took four hours to coordinate a ride from Gold Dust, TN to his parents’ home in Memphis.  This is an abbreviated version, but that phone conversation on the riverbank between Phillip and his former roommate (who splits his time between the Music City and the Blues City) went something like this:

5:12pm – Gold Dust, TN – It’s dark; to my understanding Wes said he would have a truck waiting for us at the boat launch.  Unless I’m blind, there is no truck.

Phil:  “Wes, hey, we’re here, um, didn’t you say you could arrange a ride for us?”

Wes:  “Oh, dude, like I totally forgot.  Um, like, let me call my mom and see if I can get y’all a ride.”  Hangs up.

Phil:  “Guess what?”

Me:  “Wes forgot.”

P:  “Yup.”

5:38 – Riiiiiiiiiing.  P:  “Hello?”

W:  Hey dude like I just talked to my mom.

P:  Yeah?

W:  So like yeah she says that she’s making tuna casserole for dinner tonight.

P:  What the hell does that have to do with us being picked up?

W:  Nothing, oh yeah, so like I forgot to ask about the ride.

P:  Wes?

W:  No dude.  (Hangs up.)  I’ll get on it.

6:15 – Riiiiiiiiiing.

W:  Dude, I just watched this youtube video…  Oh yeah, I forgot.

7:13 – Ring.

W:  My brother says he might be able to do it.  Do y’all need a truck or will my compact work?

7:51 –

W:  Where are y’all again?

8:45 -I consider eating my brain.

Wes:  “Yeah so like my brother might be able to do it…”

Phil:  That’s what you said an hour ago!

W:  Dude, don’t get testy, um, yeah, let me, dude you got to see the new clue book from Warhammer!

Phil:  Wes.

12:45am (this is not an exaggeration) – Wes’s brother arrives with a truck (thank god) and a frustrated tale of how it took his brother 4 hours just to communicate to him that he needed to come pick us up.

“Why didn’t Wes just give us your number?” I asked Reilly, his brother.

“That’s a really good question; this woulda gone a lot faster.”

Noooooooooooo scheisse!

Phil and I Reach Memphis (By Train This Time, Not Boat and Not Wes)

Amtrak is speedy and effective.  A nice lady saw me downing Mini Moos and eating sugar packets, and bought me lunch.  People on the train were friendly and cordial and nice and, um, friendly.  I tried to cross cars without shoes and not only the conductor but the passengers implored me to “go put some shoes on, you’s gonna get yo’ feet stuck ‘tween them caws!”  Nice people concerned for my safety.  An old black man was jovial sipping his Budweiser tallboy.  “I likes to talk to sum youn’ people,” he says.  “Main, my daddy always tol’ me, you gotta talk to youn’ people, hang out withem.  Dat way you stay young!”  He smiled ear to ear and had four teeth.  It was one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve ever had.  My lunch was bought by a coupla old-timers seeing America via train, playing Gim Rummy and eating peanuts.  The energy on the train was through the roof.  Glorious, wondrous, I loved it.

Greyhound is NOT Amtrak

Nashville, TN is one of the few major American cities without passenger rail service.  Why?  Global warming; I don’t exactly know why.  I know the Carter Administration forced some Amtrak cuts in the late 70s (f—ing Carter), but presumably for lack of potential ridership (yeah, I know, no one would be interested in commuting quickly and easily between the Capitol and the state’s largest city) the track between Memphis and Nashville was never to be.  This means that if you don’t have a car, and you’ve got a crapload of stuff, and you don’t want to fly, and you don’t want to call Wes Herndon to pick you up because you might as well jump of a bridge and hope the wind currents blow you and your seven 50-lb luggage items to Nashville, because you have a better shot at that than Phillip’s well-meaning (but mentally vacant) roommate finding the power of focus necessary to come to his hometown (Memphis) and take us back to his worktown (Nashville) in exchange for money or stories or sex (your job, Phillip) or effusive thank-yous.  Wes, I love you to death… Wes!  Pay attention!  Right here!  Yeah, right here (makes eye-to-eye hand gesture with fingers).  Wes, I love you to death but making a PB and J sandwich for you is an all-night operation.  (For those of you thinking I’m being too hard on Wes, just know that I love him and want to have his babies :).  Eat your heart out, Jessica.)

Greyhound is not Amtrak, but that is what Phil and I have settled on.  The festival is in in less than 24 hours and none of Phil’s leads are coming through.  Phil turns to me exhausted:  “It’s gonna cost an arm n’ a leg, man.”  Greyhound wants 35 bucks per extra bag.  F that! Some of you who’ve been reading this blog know I’m into some New Age stuff, the Secret and all that.  In my experience it works great sometimes and it works for shite other times.  One thing I have noticed:  When I need it to work and I’m really intentional about it working, it does.  First I form in my imagination the outcome I want.  OK, brain, here we go.  I’m imagining the manager talking to me and I’m saying to him that I want him to charge me no more than 10 bucks an extra bag, and we get our tickets and everything for less than a hundred bucks. Mind you, I’m doing this right after Phil came to me and said he was just shot down by the clerk for asking the same thing to which she replied, “Um, no, sirrrr, duh policy is very clear.  Whatchu wan’ me to do?  Change duh policy?  It don’t work like that.  Y’all gonna hav’ tuh pay $185.  Look at all dem extruh ba-ugs!  I shude be chargin’ y’all mo’!”  Calm, brain, calm.  We can do this. I go up directly to the evil clerk (buahahahahahahaha!).  “Howdy, ma’am!” I say Texan.  (I always do this when I want to be more jovial and cordial, because Texans – especially Charles Whitman 🙁 and the guys who ran Enron – are cordial and nice.  “Would you be able to check all these bags on this cart and give us our tickets for a hundred bucks?”  I’m smiling at her.  I’m staying present.  I’m asking as if I expect a direct and honest and positive yes.  I know she can say know; perhaps I know she will say no, but that’s okay.  I ask. I expect my response.  I’m using the Secret; I hope to God this works.  “Um,” she ponders (better than the response Phil got), “I just, uh, you need to talk to duh managah about dat!”  I go up to the manager.  Stay present, stay real, this can happen, this will happen, by god I hope this happens.  Shhh. “Hi [insert manager’s name on name tag], I would like to travel to Nashville with all those bags for 100 dollars.”  He looked almost flabbergasted.  I don’t know if anyone had so boldly asked him that before.  He starts rummaging through my bags and talking speedily.  I almost don’t know what’s happening.  Phillip is asking me what’s happening, and I say, “I dunno, but let’s not spoil it; I think this guy’s going to do something; I just don’t know what.  Let’s just go with it.”  He gets half our bags on via the baggage handlers and then says the other half I’ll have to put on myself.  I don’t know why we’re going through this weird process, but…. F it!  It’s working!  I go back to nasty clerk:  “Soooo, how much I owe ya?”

“$1o2.97.”

Thank you, Secret.    -Ryan

—–

Oak Ridge, TN

Photo Credit: Betsy Pickle
The premiere gave us reason to smile. (Photo Credit: Betsy Pickle)

They call it the Secret City. Ryan asks me why it is named such seeing reference to this nickname nearly everywhere. He thinks I know more about the city than I actually do because I told him that Knoxville people make nuclear jokes about the town. Only a day later we would learn much of the city’s unique history while watching Keith McDaniel’s (the Secret City Film Festival creator) excellent documentary about his hometown.

For the showing of The Hitchhiking Movie on Friday afternoon, I sat near the front inside the expansive Playhouse Theater. Ryan chose a seat near the back…apparently to spend time observing the audience response instead of being immersed within it. Everything is larger on the big screen; the opening titles almost look over-sized to me, each shake and small movement of the camera translates into a larger movement when projected 16 feet tall. But it’s great–glorious even. Our audience is laughing throughout, feeling the pain of the journey, and applauding the successes along with us. A film critic from Knoxville described the movie as a “crowd-pleaser.” Many people have traveled from all over to visit this festival, but we PADDLED every day for a month to make it there in the nick of time. The reactions were perfect.

Then this story: on Saturday morning a woman named Meghan working at the festival found the need to describe a dream she experienced as a result of seeing The Hitchhiking Movie. As I recall from her account, she also got picked up by “Sammy” and later on met her husband-to-be. So now we’re not just inspiring people, we’re giving people nightmares! If anyone else can confirm that our movie induces strange dreams, please report in the comments below. If you haven’t seen The Hitchhiking Movie yet, you can order a copy at IndieFlix.     –Phillip

——

Yes, Meghan, um, that was a little weird; and, as you know, we’re a coupla straight-laced guys so quit freaking us out like that. 🙂  Thank you, Meghan, also for buying a copy of the movie; hope you enjoyed it.

Keith McDaniel has really jazzed up the festival this year (so I’m told):  He’s got corporate sponsors, he’s got big-name talent (Elaine Hendrix – Knoxville native and star of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion – “I invented Post-its!” – is there as well as Mitch Rouse – director of Employee of the Month, probably one of the most kick-ass movies I’ve seen in a while).

My Date with Elaine

This is a rather bizarre experience.  Betsy Pickle, the Knoxville movie critic Phillip mentions above and author of ze photo abuv yor head, calls me over to speak with someone after the screening of Mitch’s Employee of the Month.  Holy crap, I think, that’s a goddamn movie star standing there! I wouldn’t say I became tongue-tied but I did become awful shy when Betsy introduced me to Elaine Hendrix.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi.”  Awwwwkweerrrrrrd.

“Um, so like I dug Romy and Michelle.”

“Oh, good.”  She’s probably done like a thousand things since then, but that’s the only thing I can think of right now.  So, Elaine, if I came off like a douche, sorry, but I really did like your role in that movie.  Oh, an’ kudos on your short mocumentary The Cloggers (don’t really know how y’all can see this one yet – wait till it’s out of the festivals – but just imagine Spinal Tap pared down to 7 minutes and about cloggers instead of rockers.  Good job, Elaine; very funny.

I really didn’t know what to say to this girl.  She certainly isn’t model hot, but she is hot with steely black eyebrows under beautiful, bleached blonde bangs, a beautiful smile… I was smitten.  Betsy, bless her heart, saves me and starts pitching The Hitchhiking Movie to her.  “Oh really?” she replies.  A goddamn movie star is interested in me!  Don’t F this up, you slimy bastard.

“Uh, yeah,” I say and totally drop the ball.  She looks at her watch, and I want to jump out a window.  “Pull up, goddammit, puuulll up!!!!”  All right, brain, we’re gonna pull this one out of the gutter and land it safely on the runway. I push my shoulders back and puff out my chest.  Ahem, I can do this, movie star or no!:  “Hey, Elaine,” I say suddenly confident-ized, “you’re mockumentary was very good, I gave it a 5/5; I know you said during the Q and A you liked documentaries, so I have one for you.  I know people have been pushing their stuff on you all night so I wont push anything on you.  This [Phillip shows up with a DVD] is for you to enjoy.”  She says thank you, and it is genuine.  Betsy tries to explain to her that she wants her in a short she’s going to direct in Knoxville to which Elaine demurs.  She’s been ghermed all night (ha!  thanks, Jim, for the term; told ya I’d use it all the time!) and wants to go home.  By fate or god or failing to pay the electricity bill the lights go dim, and Elaine makes a break for the door.  Good cue. “Phil,” I said later, “do you think she’ll watch it?”

“I dunno, probably.”

“Probably will.”  And if not, F it.  Just as the Doors said, “We did the Ed Sullivan Show, man!” I can say, “I talked to the co-star of The Parent Trap, man, I frikkin’ talked to the co-star of The Parent Trap!”

I met Mitch Rouse outside the theater and asked him to tell me a little bit about being on the Second City Stage in Chicago with Stephen Colbert and Nia Vardalos, which he did.  Very unasuming, kick-ass fellow.  Thank you, Mitch.  Like I said, Employee of the Month was a good movie.  OOOOOOO I want to spoil the ending for you so bad… so I won’t.

Conclusion (That’s Spanish for Conclusion)

We had a great time.  People were coming up to us, as Phil stated, asking us if we “really” were sleeping in a tent.  Hotels cost 50 bucks!  What would be the point.  You ain’t talkin’ to a rich man!  Many people loved the Hitchhiking Movie.  Though we cringed through the intro which took too long and the music issues and the sound issues and the issues issues, it was great.  The premise itself was compelling enough.  My on-camera-ness seemed to be compelling enough.  We did a good enough job of editing for it to be enough.

The people told us so.

And I believe them.

Thank you to Keith, Dana, and Natalie of the SC Film Festival.

It was great.

Thank you to all who’ve chosen to follow us after the Mississippi Journey.  Told ya there’d be more cool stuff happenin’!

And thank you to Elaine and Mitch.  I think you taught me that I stand on two feet just like you do, and if I work (even though I’m 6’4″) I might one day get to be as tall as you.

THANK YOU FANS!  LOVE YOU!

Ryan

It Is Finished!

October 4, 2009--6:29:11
October 4, 2009--6:29:11

There is a feeling you get after battling 20 mph headwinds all morning, after eating nothing but trail mix all day in order to meet a deadline, after getting the first glimpse of the ocean far in the distance, after paddling together without missing a stroke for nearly 10 minutes during the final stretch, after hitting that first crashing wave rolling into the shore, and after setting your paddle down in victory.

But I will be unable to accurately describe that feeling to you because you will never know it until you paddle the Mississippi River.

A Lesson in False Assumptions

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This boat is now short four bottles of Gatorade.

“Can you hear me out there?” the loudspeaker on a nearby barge crackled loudly. I waited for what I thought was coming next: This barge captain is probably upset we’re in his way in this busy traffic corridor. Barges are scrambling around on both sides of the river like giant ants moving their loads. But the next sentence suprised both of us. “Ya’ll want some Gatorade?”

Huh? What? Yeah! We eagerly paddled toward the towering barge. Two deck hands related how they had seen Allen’s story about us on the news the previous night. They tossed down a package of Gatorade and two granola bars. McKee brand– Adventist food, I noted.

There really wasn’t any reason for me to assume the captain would be upset with us. You often cannot see the operator of the barge and therefore assign a personality to the boat based on it’s size and appearance. But in over 2000 miles of traveling the Mississippi, not one barge has communicated any kind of negativity toward under-powered boats such as ours. In fact, we’ve never received any significant communication from them.

The only negative comment received to date was from a Army Corp worker on the shore near Greenville, MS. As we paddled past their work site, a man looking to be in charge got on his loudspeaker and announced: “You boys are gonna drown if you keep paddling like a bunch of dummies out there.” I wanted to respond and say, “I guess it’s a good thing we’re not a bunch of dummies then!” but decided it wouldn’t make any difference anyways.

The only other loudspeaker incident happened north of Lake Providence. We were paddling very close to dark and a barge approached on our left side. Instead of reminding us how dangerous it is to paddle near dusk, the loudspeaker began playing a few bars from a famous Conway Twitty song. “Darling, I’d just love to lay you down.” I wasn’t sure for a moment if he was just being friendly or if we were being hit on!

Gatorade and Mac & Cheese are the official barge crew foods.
Gatorade and Mac & Cheese are the official barge crew foods.

Same Lesson (Times Two)

Not ten minutes after receiving our first hospitality from a barge crew, a second vessel motioned us over. This boat was parked on the shore and just wanted to chat and help as well. Another friendly crew passed us a couple more cases of Gatorade while the captain gave us some advice about “Suicide Stretch” which would be coming up downriver. The younger of the two deck hands agreed: “It’s going to get much tougher up ahead. Ya’ll be careful.” He handed over their lunch leftovers consisting of mac & cheese, pork & beans, and some fish sticks.

As Ryan and I stopped to eat the barge food further downriver, I realized this was a lesson that was being given to us. We had both been fighting (again–yeah, big suprise) both the evening before and this morning as well. The basis for some of the disagreements were based on false assumptions. Now, twice in a row we had received hospitality in place of what we assumed might be a scolding. Sometimes you assign a value where it does not exist. This boat is bigger than me and therefore he’s probably mad I’m in his way. But that’s not necessary the case. Big or small we’re all on this same river, country, or planet together. Let’s make assumptions that fall on the positive side.

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.

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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!

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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!

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.

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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.

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?”

“5:30”

“What time is it right now?”

“5:30”

“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?”

“Yes.”

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.

Where’s the Party?

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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?

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.

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.

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.