The River is Life Tour, a first in independent filmmaking history, will be movie makers Ryan Jeanes’ and Phillip Hullquist’s second trip down the entire length of the Mississippi River. The creative pair is “taking their show on the road” showing their epic documentary The River is Life – a fun-filled feature of their real-life adventure down the Mighty Mississippi – to audiences north and south along America’s Great River.
Jeanes and Hullquist departed in two inflatable Sea Eagle kayaks from Lake Itasca, Minnesota (the source of the Mississippi) in June of 2009 and filmed their exploits – staying in people’s homes, camping along the riverbanks, and contending with wind-swollen lakes, barge traffic, and massive boat wakes – for the entertainment of adventure lovers and seekers everywhere.
Their ninety-minute film is full of surprises. “A lot of people were amazed at how many people we met,” Jeanes says. “We couldn’t go a week without someone calling us over for a beer or for dinner or (with luck) a warm bed.”
“You’ll meet quite a funny cast of characters in this movie,” Hullquist adds, “from an over-size Kentuckian sporting his duck call to a racy Minnesota woman threatening to kill us in our sleep. Boats and barges weren’t the only things we had to defend against,” he laughs.
Jeanes and Hullquist plan to bring the same sense of fun and adventure they relished on the river to their 42-stop movie tour, where they will present their film in many of the same cities and towns they stayed in almost a year ago. “The shows will also be outdoors!” Jeanes explains. “This is a first for independent movies. We want to give people a real-life Mississippi experience, so we’ve arranged to show the movie in parks all along the banks of the Mississippi! It’s going to be a festival-like atmosphere where, if we do our jobs right, the whole family will have the time of their lives!”
The movie will debut in Minnesota where the duo started their journey. Over the course of three months they will make their way to New Orleans entreating audiences to “share in the adventure” and enjoy a heart-warming film not only about the majesty and wonder America’s most recognizable waterway but also the people that make this nation and this river so great. “It’s a family piece,” Hullquist says, “it really is. Without the people we met along the way, who shared their lives with us, this film would never have been possible. It promises to be an immensely enjoyable, immensely inspiring film.”
The River is Life Movie Tour begins August 4th and will end in New Orleans on Halloween night. To find out more information please visit theriverislife.com for a schedule and free venue kit.
Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. This was special. This was a dialogue. This was us entertaining you, and I think that’s special. I think there might not be a more holy union than two people, whether it be Phil writing to you or me writing to you, sharing in a common experience. The experience you just shared in was called The Mississippi River Adventure. The movie will be called The River is Life, and the whole experience was great. On the river, there were gay couples, there were barges and spirit canoes, fights between me and Phil, media coverage, F-words, Z-words (you know, words that start with Z), there were nice people in Natchez, mean people in Greenville – there was this entire river full of people and life. We hope we brought the River to life for you.
Second… The Please
Please, if you enjoyed this blog, if you enjoyed this journey, I’m asking you to give. Reflect on the value you have gotten from this journey: Did you have a good time? Did you see what you wouldn’t have seen, hear what you wouldn’t have heard, go where you couldn’t have gone any other way but though reading this blog? Did we entertain you! Where did we take you? Where were you able to go because two crazy guys grabbed a couple of paddles and went down the greatest river in America bringing it to life in a fun and entertaining way? What feelings did you feel? The spirit canoe – were you touched? The Adventist adventure – did it make you think? The shotgun in my face in Prairie du Chien – were you scared? I was! Did you go on… an adventure? I hope so; in my heart, I know so. Now I’m asking you to make a contribution, whatever your heart dictates, for the value you have received.
Phil and I are going to keep doing this – entertaining you through the power of adventure. As I’ve stated in the two previous posts, we’re not done: The Go to Hell? movie is coming up, the Mexico City Street Children movie is coming up (we’ll be actually living in the Mexico City sewers with the orphaned children). This blog and the movies we produce will continue to provide a plethora of entertainment, education, and chance for reflection. So I’m asking you to give. I’m asking you to give as we have given to you. Whatever this journey has been worth to you, please donate here.
We’re Going to Sweeten the Pot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
We want to give to you some more!!! As a special thank you to those who donate $50 or more, Phil and I will give you a signed copy of The Hitchhiking Movie, our first feature film. If you know nothing about this film, this is what some have said about it:
Route 66 News (5/11/2009) – “the right balance of affability, earnestness and wit”
And we’re going to give it to you FREE! (a $17.95 value) with your donation of $50 or more. But, Ryyyyannnnn, I don’t have fifty bucks!!!! Das okay, baby! I understand. Please give what you can. Ask yourself if you were entertained, and then give what you can. For everyone who donates any amount, I will send a personal thank-you email. In fact, thank you now! Isn’t this is fun!
That’s Not All!
We’re not done! If you contribute $75 or more to help keep the great entertainment on this site going, we want to give you something else! Phil and I will give you an autographed and personally dedicated picture of our finish at the Gulf of Mexico! That’s us right there! Those are the actual Louisiana marshlands behind us! This picture is a symbol of adventure; it encapsulates the excitement of not just a paddle down the Mississippi but the joy of adventuring everywhere. Just send us instructions for your dedication with your Pay Pal order, and own a part of the adventure today!
Donate anything at all – You get a personal thanks from us to you via email.
Donate $50 or more – You get an autographed copy of our DVD The Hitchhiking Movie, which includes bonus scenes, special directors’ commentary, and the beloved DRUNK COMMENTARY! (Parents, make sure the kiddies are out of the room for that one :).
Donate $75 or more – You get the DVD and the photo commemorating the realization of a dream – to paddle down the entire length of the Mississippi River. We hope to give you part of this adventure and make it as much yours as it was ours.
Own the adventure: Please donate today!
Third… The Promise
We promise to continue entertaining you to the best of our ability. We promise to continue capturing the spirit of adventure in everything we do. We promise to brighten your day by sharing ourselves, our heart, our travel with you. Many people wrote me and said, “Thank you for taking me along with you.” That’s our job; that’s what we strive to do – to take people where they’d love to go if they had the time; that’s what 11 Visions is all about. The fun does not stop. I have more to tell you about our adventures at our first film festival in Oak Ridge, TN. You will get sneak peeks of the dailies from the river. You’ll receive new blog posts from our train-hopping adventure coming soon. More, and more, and even more. We want to give you more. That’s our job.
Ryan, How Can You Make Good on That Promise Right Now?
Good question. By entertaining you right now, of course! Ready for the Final Chapter in our Mississippi River Adventure????
Me too. Let’s get to the Gulf.
When we left off, a scabby, nasty old hag pinned her homemade PADDLERS BEWARE! sign to the window. Jeff Johnson told me later that that same lockmaster had given him trouble as well. Jeff works as a fishing guide and had 6 boats worth of clients trying to lock through into the bay. Our lady in question denied them access citing that it was nepotism to let larger party groups through and that they would have to wait 2 hours for a series of single dinghies to go first. Jeff was incensed. He makes his living off showing clients a good time. “Did you confront the old hag?” I asked him. “Naw,” he said, “what’d be the point?” Too true. When someone’s Middle Eastern name is MUSTAVA STIKUPUR AZ, there isn’t much you can do.
Old Crabapples opened the gate and, though she was nasty, she wasn’t lying. The conditions were absolutely awful. Easily 3-foot whitecaps. Phil and I gleefully paddled out into the middle of the channel. It was fun… for a while. Like being on whitewater. After twenty minutes he turned to me: “I’m tired.”
“Um, buddy, we got 39 miles to go.”
“Yeah, we’re not gonna make it like this; these waves and wind are killing me.”
“Shore paddle? That’s such a beginner thing to do.”
“Any other ideas?”
The Mississippi was forcing us to go back to our roots – paddle along the shore just like we did when we were infant paddlers scared of the center channel. The shoreline did offer relief from the waves but not the wind. That was as strong as ever. Sometimes God did bless us with a jutting point that would shield us (partially) from the gales. But for the most part, it was a fight to the finish. Mano y manos – the Miss’sippi versus us.
“I’ve just about had it with this rudder!” I screamed. The night before, we consolidated all we would need into one boat. It was ceremonial. We dusted off the 11Visions Boat (the boat that had our logo on it) and washed it down. Phil took out the inflatable floor and scrubbed it with care as he would an infant. I tried to repair the torn decal that bore our website. We were betting it all on black, taking one boat instead of two (the other would stay at Jeff’s cabin). We were betting that with less weight and less drag we could paddle the 40 miles to the gulf in one day. The River and the Wind laughed at us: “You may make it; but it ain’t gonna be easy.”
“What’s wrong with the rudder?” Phil responded.
“You don’t feel it cuz you’re not steering the boat, but this f—ing thing is pulling hard right CONSTANTLY.”
“I don’t feel it.”
“That’s what I just frikkin’ said!” I was mad. I had forgotten to secure the rudder with an extra pair of washers the night before. Dammit! I thought. Little things can make or break a journey; I know this, I should know this by now; why’d I forget! There was no why; I just had. “Let’s pull into this little cove,” I said to Phil.
The Cove and the Dump
We pulled into a bay-like indentation 4 miles south of the crabby lady’s lock. There a middle-aged man with a sinewy build exited his car. “Oh my god, well,” he said dropping a stack of papers into the wind. “Well,” he said, “I, uh, um, yeah, what’re y’all… what’s this now?” He’d forgotten his papers; they were blowing everywhere. I ignored the papers and said, “Paddling…”
“…the Rivuh, no shit.”
LOL. What the hell?
“Look,” he continued, “um, I um, yeah, I know this guy at the pay-puh [not a Cajun accent per se, but definitely Florida-Parish] I know um an’ y’all need to talk to um. I’m gonna snap some photos foist.” He got out a digital camera and started snapping pictures and asking questions. “Now, uh, now, I also know, well now she’s my girlfriend, this uh psychiatrist, an’ y’all should talk to uh given that y’all’s crazy enough to be out in dis weathuh!” Phil and I laughed at the jibe. “Right now,” I said, “all I need is an outhouse or a protected space without sawgrass or burrs.” “Ooooo raght,” he said, “If you need tuh take a dump, jus’ go raght ovuh they-uh.” Ha ha ha! Who says ‘take a dump’ to a stranger? Ha!
When I finished, ahem, Phil was talking to both Take-a-Dump (that’s a good a name as any) and a new guy. The new guy was older, wiser and more present; not the scatterbrain Take-a was. “Name’s Yonke,” he said to me and offered his hand. “Better not shake,” I said. “Oooooh,” he said and laughed. Yonke (his nickname) regarded our paddling in these types of conditions as more or less normal and wished us well. Take-a was still all over the place: “Um, yeah, um, y’all need tuh be in the pay-puh heah an’ also in the Times-Picayune [the big, scary paper of New Orleans].”
“I tried the Picayune, but they didn’t respond; guess this story’s not to their liking.”
“No, uh, no, y’all needa person on duh inside.”
Who? You? I mean I wish you could have been there, but this guy was absolutely laughable. I really didn’t believe that A. he knew the people he said he knew and B. he would do what he said he would do if he did. I wrote it off and said thank you.
Ryan, You Ain’t Always Right
After Phil and I finished the River, the Times Picayune called! Holy crap! I’m wrong! Thank god I am. Though neither Phil nor I have been able to locate the story online, I was there as Phillip interviewed with the reporter over the phone. NOLA residents, if you saw the story in print, let us know! Take-a, you came through. Thank you.
Phil and I left watching Take-a drop more stuff and Yonke stand stoicly on the bank. “Y’all be careful,” Yonke said grandfatherly but smiling.
“We will!” As I think back on this, I can still see his face. He looks like a chiseled sculpture. The wind blew that old face, but he was happy. I hoped he was happy to see two young men taking on real challenge. I hoped he was happy with me. I don’t know if you’ll see this, Yonke, but your sternness gave me strength. Take-a dropped his I-pod.
During our escapade with the two gentlemen at the bay, I had forgotten all about the rudder!! Dammit! “Phil, I know you hate stopping, but we’ve got to; my right arm is on fire; my left arm nothing.” Phil sighed but acquiesced. We stopped in front of the old Fort. Phil went to take pictures while I did my best to use two pop tops from 1980s Bud Light cans dredged up by the river (Did Katrina do it?) as washers. It was useless. I nearly dropped the bolt needed to fasten the rudder on. I turned to Phil: “I’m taking that as a sign from God.”
“What does the sign say?”
“It says ‘tough shit, you’re gonna have to paddle only on your right side today.'”
“I coulda told you that.”
Phil was right. The rudder repair would be a bust.
Right side! Right side! Paddle, paddle! I’m still angry over the broken rudder, but there’s nothing I can do. I convince myself that the river is paddling on the left side for me: Yeah, that’s it! I’m not having to fight to stay straight; I’m just doing half the work! Though I know it’s bullshit, it does keep me from going insane. I check the Navigation Charts. “We need to make a decision here, Phil. Which pass do we take to the gulf?”
The night before, Phil and I pondered over exactly how we were going to get to the Gulf of Mexico. There are several options. Our hero, Buck Nelson, took the longest pass possible. He should change his name from Buck to Badass. We, however, had a film festival to get to. We were going to take the shortest pass. “Let me see those charts again,” I told Phil.
Our best bet, in order to make things easier on our host Jeff, was going to be taking the Red Pass. “It’s a fisherman’s pass,” Jeff told us. “But y’all’d make things a helluva lot easier on me if yuh went that way.” Phil and I got to Venice and discussed it. “It’s gonna have to be the Red Pass,” I said. “Yeah, I’d like to take Buck’s route past the Head of Passes into the long channel, but that’s not what we came here to do. Most guys stop their Mississippi River journey at New Orleans, if they even make it that far. We’re doing something greater, we’re going into the sea. At this point, we got a guy who’s giving us a ride back. I don’t know how the hell else we’ll coordinate getting someone else to pick us up. So… let’s just do it. Let’s call Jeff and tell him we’re taking Red Pass.”
Phil pondered it. “Yeah,” he said. “Let’s do it. The point all along was the gulf. So it’s eight miles shorter – I don’t care. I think it’s fate we ran into Jeff. I think we’re supposed to meet up with him at sunset.”
“Screw the Head of Passes. Let’s just get to the sea. That was the point…”
“…the whole time.”
Phil and I recognized what we were about to accomplish. With cell reception, albeit extremely crappy, in Venice, we called Jeff to tell him we’d meet him at the end of Red Pass. “Oh, thank y’all,” he said. This was good, this was fate.
It is certainly a maze of passes if you do not know where you’re going. Phil and I made a few wrong turns and actually ended up paddling three more miles out of our way. “Told ya I wasn’t going to make this easy,” the Mississippi said. I know, I replied, but you know you won’t beat us today… you know that now, don’t you?“Yes,” the Mighty Muddy chuckled, “I know now you’re determined. You were determined when your brother suggested you quit at Davenport. You were determined when I threw rain at you, wind at you; I blew that little inflatable around like a leaf. I knew you were crazy, but I also knew I wouldn’t beat you.”
So why’d you make it so damn tough?
“Ha ha ha.” I got nothing from the River after that. No communication, nothing. Only silence. As Phil and I paddled into the last four miles on Red Pass, I couldn’t hear the River’s voice anymore. I would, at times, think I heard Him laughing or smiling or saying any number of things. I heard Him laugh when my boat flipped on Lake Pepin. I heard Him smile when the hot sun drove away the fog in Guttenberg, IA. I heard him howl when Southern Illinois rain pelted us like mad, and screech when a nighttime barge almost hit us. I’ve heard Him alot. But now that the Gulf of Mexico was in sight, I could hear Him no more. I could only see sea. It was as if a new voice was beckoning, and it was large and ominous and… engulfing.
“There it is! Oh my god! That’s the gulf!”
Phil and I paddled as if in a dream. We were happy, but where was Jeff?
One mile more. Happy, but where’s Jeff?
One more, happy, Jeff?
With no more than a mile to go I heard the rumble of a motor, and Jeff was in sight. It was perfect, almost meant to be. Had we taken the shipping lane after the Head of Passes, the footage would have been sotted with ships and industry, channel markers and fights for your life to stay clear. It would not have been the poetry that Phil and I experienced when Jeff held the camera, steered his boat, egged us on to the final, shot the reeds swaying in the wind, shot the sunset, egged us on some more, and finally… shot us paddling, fatigued and elated, into the Gulf of Mexico.
I can’t describe to you (well) what I felt. It was like a wave of joy flowed over my heart. I couldn’t believe it was really over. I implored Phillip to stand up in the boat. “What do you want to do that for?” he laughed. He was overjoyed too. “I want to get a picture of us standing,” I said. Six-foot swells were rolling off the gulf. “We can’t…” he started but acquiesced. I tried to stabilize Phil as we stood but to no avail. As soon as a roller went under us he went in the water. “Ha ha haaaaa!” I howled. Jeff was laughing his ass off. As soon as Phil got back in the boat I said, “This one’s for you!” and jumped into the water, where the dolphins were hunting freshwater fish off the coast. Phillip answered by paddling the boat away. “You bastard!” We were overjoyed!
“Congratulations, guys,” Jeff said. “Now come get your celebratory beer!” Jeff had Miller Light for us (I’m a Bud man but who gives a scheisse). Phil and I toasted and watched the setting sun beat its colors into the clouds. Content – that’s how I felt – so very, very content. It was done. We had done it.
I thought for a long time, long in my mind. I reflected and wondered if “just making it” was enough. I have credit card payments, I thought. I’m not famous. I don’t know if anyone cares. I looked across the sky into industrial Venice as Jeff drove us back in his high-powered cigarette boat. An oil refinery was burning gas in a torch of light. “Hey, Phil, Olympics come to Venice.” “Ha ha,” he responded but was mostly silent. I was mostly silent. There wasn’t much to say. We’d done it. It was done. Back at Jeff’s cabin, we had fried fish and sweet potato casserole. I chatted with some of Jeff’s clients. One told me I needed to read the book Blue Highways, which strangely I was already reading. Another told Phillip that his vegetarianism reminded him of his wife, a Seventh-day Adventist. “I am Adventist,” Phil said. All was quiet then.
The silence. I had said in Part II that I was afraid of it. Or, at least, I was aware that the silence would need to be filled. And what if I didn’t know what to fill it with? But what to fill it with was not here yet. I sat. This is what I was afraid of, I thought. This… is nothing to be afraid of. Cicadas chirped outside, and Jeff’s over-sized fan drowned out the excess noise. I could only hear muffled rumblings of voices, Jeff’s clients, talking about this fish and that fish and this market and that market and when they’d be back in Texas. I was alone. I was silent. I was in it. It was okay.
I would say I drank it in, but there was nothing to to drink. The silence was simply present; there was nothing to do. It was almost like being underwater but even more peaceful. All I could do was sit, sit and watch and wait. When would the silence fade? It didn’t matter. I was done with the Mississippi; and, I know now, the silence was my reward.
Jeff’s wife, Gabriela, offered us more food, but I was in another world. I was one of the few who had completed the Mighty Mississippi. I looked at Phil and only nodded. I think he knew what it meant. It meant that the silence was good. That we were good; and, for a brief moment, we were creators of our own destiny.
Where are we now? Library in the Secret City, Oak Ridge, TN. The film festival is done. We did not get an award, but several people came up to us and told us The Hitchhiking Movie was kick-ass. Phil and I cringed through scenes that we would have changed – the intro was too long, oh my god that joke did not go over well, my god what the hell were we thinking putting that scene there, the music needs some help – but it did not matter. There were loud guffaws during the screening. People were fascinated with the journey. They bought DVDs afterward. In fact, over 1/4 of the people who saw it bought a DVD with comments such as, “I loved this; this was great,” and, “I’m gonna get this for my daughter,” and of course the, “I wish I could have done something like that.”
I Wish I Coulda Done Something Like That
That phrase seems to be our mainstay. I am in the audience, I am watching the man who took top honors for the festival. He made a film called That Evening Sunwith Hal Holbrook. Oh my god, I mean, may I drop dead here Hal Holbrook is the greatest actor who has ever lived. Go to the website and then get your ass to a screening of that movie. It is, holy shit, I mean I am nearly crying thinking about it. If you ever saw Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, with his portrayal of a grumpy old man dealing with approaching death, all I can tell you is imagine that performance amped up four hundred thousand fold, smoothed over with a beautiful sunrise and a down pillow, hardened by the fires of hell and smelted by the cruel cool winds of real life. It blew Clint’s performance into the Adriatic Sea. Then it set its remains on fire, and those remains sank to the bottom where they were fed upon by fish and sharks and horrible squids. Then those fauna shat the remnants of Clint’s digested performance out, and the droppings were obliterated by an underwater fire bomb. I don’t know how the fire bomb got underwater either; just… Holbrook’s performance was that good, it really was. Go see That Evening Sun (it’ll be in select cities in November) whichever way you can. Best performance… ever.
I continue watching the executive producer take top honors with his Audience Favorite Award and his Judges Choice Award and his Best Southern Film Award and Best Feature Film, Best, Best, Best… The Hitchhiking Movie wins nothing; only people coming up to us telling us they enjoyed it and would like to buy it. And then, of course, the phrase: “I wish I coulda done something like that.” And then I relax. We did not win top accolades but we know we are tapping into something. The people who read this blog love life and know that The Hitchhiking Movie and The River is Life blog are… life. People come back to this site because they want a slice of that life amped up and lived out. We know we choose interesting and provocative ideas – paddle down the Mississippi River, hitchhike across the U.S., find out how not to go to hell, have religious experiences on Ayahuasca in South America, go and live with the street children of Mexico City for a month, cross the U.S./Mexico border with a real life illegal immigrant family… These are some of the ideas we are kicking around; this is what we want to bring to you. This is our contribution to you.
More on the film festival later. Y’all ready to end this Mississippi River Trip!!!! Me too. This is the end! Here’s how we got from New Orleans to the Gulf:
The End Game – Part II
“This is the end, my friend.” – Jim Morrison
New Orleans. Phil snaps a photo of me with the city skyline in the background. I look sullen and angry.
I don’t know why I know but I know I have to keep my emotions in check. I know I can’t get too excited this close to the finish line. I know this is where missions are failed – celebrating too early (George Bush, anyone?). I remember the Obama Campaign gave this video
to its campaign workers one week before the election. I did not want to be that guy on the bike, I did not want to get complacent. It was possible – great ventures have caved in in the final minutes. We had to focus.
The West Bank
A reporter calls. She asks if we’re camping on the West Bank, and I laugh. Yes, and there is sporadic gunfire from the Palestinians! Come quick! She wants to interview us but we’ll have to wait for her till tomorrow. Great ventures are lost in the…, goes off in my head. This is a delay, I decide. I tell Phil what the reporter wants to do.
“What do you think?” he asks.
“I think it’s a trap. I think we go. I think we don’t worry.”
The wind is a bitch, flat out. Phil (different Phil) and Rich of Huckleberryfinn09 knock our inflatables (who hasn’t?). “I mean,” he says, “that’s like paddling a feather out there. You’ll be blown around.” We already have been, my friend, we already have been. We don’t have the right boat but we’re pressing on. Reporters will not stop us now, wrong boat will not stop us. We will make the Gulf.
The waves get horrible in the last few days. They are whitecapping. Phil and I fight over middle of channel (more current) or paddle along the bank (less waves). We compromise and follow the bank with short trips into the waves. My forearms are jelly. The Miss’sippi is throwing everything at us these final days. “You want it?” She whispers. “You really want it? You gonna have to get it… the hard way.” The next day the wind picks up more. There are no more barge captains offering us beer and Gatorade, congratulations and macaroni and cheese. Past New Orleans, barge captains have no reason for being. Only ships, giant ships, who have nothing better to do than barrel down the channel at 45 mph. We are a blip on their radar. We are a blip on their bow if we are not careful. We have nothing to do… but make the Gulf. The wind blows harder.
The Threat of Silence
A trip such as this thrives on noise. Cool things happen and I can write about it. Noise. We call the radio, TV and newspaper stations and we are noisy – “We’re doing a trip, we’re doing a trip, we’re doing a trip!” The threat of silence (What will we do when the trip, the noise, is over?) is looming. I remember a high-school friend who dropped out with one month of class to go. Why? The threat of silence. What would he do when high school was over? What, I mean, what! He didn’t know. He’d have to take a trip into the silence. That was scary. For three months I’ve been living in a tent, living in strangers’ homes, paddling, paddling, paddling. The Gulf would mean the end. That was scary. There would be silence. We would have to move into the silence. Will people still read our blog if there are no more waves and fights and barges? What will happen to us? What is in the silence?
I gotta keep goin’, I think to myself. For better or worse, the silence will not beat me. I will join you, Silence; you will not beat me. We will become one at the Gulf. Throw wind and waves and ships all you want; I will join Death (and if I’m lucky, Rebirth) on the other side.
Phil Takes a Chance
“I’m gonna get Pizza,” Phil says in Empire, LA (thirty miles from the Gulf), and I don’t like it. I don’t know why I don’t, but I don’t. The Silence scares me, the fear of getting too complacent scares me. “I don’t…” I start and then stop. Becoming too much of a hardass can be a barrier to your mission too. “That’s cool, Phil,” I say. “Go for it. I’ll set up the tent.” Phil leaves happy; he’s not as concerned as I am of the demons that can kill you at the end. Maybe I should follow his example. I examine the tent poles. I’m not going to put up the tent, I think and have no idea why. Logic has failed me. I think that I must go join Phil in the bar he has gone too. I think I must leave the tents packed. I feel I must go……now… there. And I do. The gear is lonesome in its package. When we come back to camp tonight, we’ll have to unpack in the dark, but I don’t care. Somehow it’s all gonna be okay. I don’t know how, but it will.
Reverie at the bar in Empire, Louisiana.
Phil has struck up a conversation with some boat captains. One drives personnel out to the oil platforms in the Gulf, another pilots a barge, another is an oyster fisherman who slings stories of what he has or hasn’t done between drunken ramblings and puffs on a doobie that the bar staff seems all too willing to permit in the broad moonlight. It is a party. Phil has bought me and himself pizza, and it is good. The captains all want to know what we’re doing, want to buy us beer, want to offer us showers. It is all gonna be okay, I think again. John is well-spoken. Does he belong here? Wes is a conglomeration of gumbo and almost unintelligible Lafayette Cajun screaming and hollering: “Ooooooo boy,” he say, “y’all cain’t leve dis herah plase wifout eatin’ some crayfish – we callum mudbugs – I’m gon’ make y’all some gumbo too ‘for you leave, ooooooooo.” Phil and I are laughing because Wes has the thickest Cajun accent we’ve heard so far. He’s almost like a cartoon character. Buddy Love, the doobie smoker, is telling Phil he loves him pressing his forehead to his, and I nearly fall out of my chair. Saints Fan is old and pruny and smiling like mad when we tell him stories from our adventure. Wes offers even more places to shower (though we don’t need them) and more Cajun cookout possibilities (though one would be enough), and John offers us a ride back to New Orleans after (which we will need, desperately). Phil was right not to worry. Worry is a demon as well; it can kill a venture too. I’m glad I came here.
More, Even More
A man walks in with his Mexican wife. Jeff Johnson, who I wrote briefly about in this post. He tells us, “Damn guys, that’s amazing, I wanna put y’all up in my cabin. And I’ll even help you get your shots of the Gulf and the sunset. Shoot, guys, that’s amazing.” His wife is silent, but I hope she approves.
Good thing I didn’t unpack the tent, I think. Jeff brings his big pickup and helps us pack all of our stuff in it. His wife – silent. He takes us back to his cabin which is amazing, gives us keys to his truck so we can drive ourselves to the marina (which is amazing), tells us we’ll have showers and fried fish when we get back… amazing.
Phil and I take hot showers and air our gear out and rejoice. Damn I’m glad I listened to you, Phil. Only one more demon to slay and his name is Tomorrow.
Tomorrow, Phillip says that we should take one boat. Risk it all. “We might as well make this our last day.” “That means we’ll HAVE to make it to the Gulf today,” I respond.
“Yes, I know.”
“Shit,” I say spitting into the dirt, “let’s do it.” One more demon, just one.
The Last Day
We leave early. Leave nothing to chance. Driving to the nearby marina gains us seven miles but we will still have to paddle 40 miles today to make it to the gulf. Our best in this type of wind, with these types of conditions, has been 28. Shit, I think spitting into the water, bring it on.
There is a small lock we’ll have to go through to get back out onto the Mississippi. I remember the 20 or so locks I’ve gone through on the Upper River. This one is about 1/100 the size. That don’t mean, however, dat duh lady who operates the mom-n’-pop lock don’t have a Upper-Miss’sippi-Lock-sized ego. She does!
Phil and I lock through the first set of doors; their height is about 7 feet. I hear a rapping from somewhere. “Do you hear that?”
“Yeah, look up.”
It’s an old, fat, craggly woman in glasses rapping on the pane glass of the observation deck. “Yes?” I mouth. She starts making wild hand gestures that end in a pronounced clap that I can only take to mean something or someone is getting smushed. I give her the international, palms-in-the-air “I have no idea what the hell that means,” symbol which sets her off into a frenzy. Papers go flying behind her. It’s like watching a Glen Beck meltdown. Yes, you want to do something; yes, you want to help; but, can you? I mouth, “What do you want me to do?”
“Stop!” she barks. I swear I saw drool.
Normally to be able to stop, there are ropes on the sides of the locks. Not so here. I paddle to the side and use my oar to scrape the side and slow us down. That “stops” us more or less. Phil and I hang tight under the watchful eye of Mordor. We thought that was the end of it until… The rapping! Oh shit, it’s back. Crazy lockmaster lady’s bangs are bouncing with even more fervor. She slams a homemade sign on the window which reads…
CONDITIONS ROUGH: LARGE WAVES, WIND, DANGEROUS!
“I know,” I mouth and turn away. “We know,” Phillip says and keeps looking at her. “What’s she doing?” I ask Phil.
“She’s dropped the sign and is pacing back and forth. I can’t say for certain but I’m pretty sure I saw an S, F, and an I-word.”
“Well, we may be, but ain’t no demon (lockmaster wannabe or otherwise) gonna slay me today.” The double doors open and the Mississippi is as promised – windy, terrible, dangerous.
“Forty miles, brother,” I say.
“Yup,” Phillip says curtly.
He’s not worried, and neither should I be.We’re gonna finish this thing. We’re gonna go into the silence.
How does one end something? For me it was paddling like mad to the finish, no pain, no glory, just paddling. My muscles were like something possessed; I felt like I had to finish. Phil kept it up with quicker and quicker strokes; he could see the end, he could feel it. Go go, and go go go go go go go. It kept building – there’s the gulf there’s the gulf there’s the gulf. And we did; we finished in six foot swells on the setting sun.
It was wondrous: dolphins dancing in the sand, feeding on freshwater fish the Mighty Miss’sippi had brought them. Jeff Johnson, the man who agreed to put us up for a few days, was in his boat deftly handling the camera and steering wheel at the same time. A strange elation, a strange joy – first in my solar plexus, then whole body… wondrous.
How Does One End Something?
First there must be a pre-end. Something came before the end. What came before? I think to myself. How did we go from there to here?
Ah, yes, Baton Rouge… I had forgotten. I had forgotten the news crews competing for our attention – awesome! I had forgotten the Cajuns holding up catfish desperate for life, my inkling suspicion that, as I get older, I will become more vegetarian – poor fish. Forgotten the railings against Phil in the night where the ‘which way?’s got on his nerves and his lack of communication – the silence, the bloody silence, maybe I can’t stand it – got on mine. I had forgotten this:
Ships, giant mother-of-god ships. “Holy shit!” I have gone through this process before. The first time I encountered a barge in my life was on the Cumberland River preparing for this trip. We said to ourselves, “If we can paddle the Cumberland, we can paddle the Miss’sippi.” We were wrong, and right, in part. The Cumberland throws you a barge, a single container. She is big, yes, but only one container long and wide; sometimes two are pushed… but no more. Two containers pushed by a lonely tug. “Oh my god,” I first thought, “there’s not a way in hell we can handle these; they’re massive.” Life disagreed, the River disagreed and threw us more.
My first encounter with barges on the Mississippi: three containers wide, five deep. “Holy shit!” x 15. I was out of my mind with despair in Prescott, WI. “There is no way I can handle these,” I thought, but then I got over it and got past the locks and dams. I’m in St. Louis now. There are no restrictions: “I am a barge captain, I can stack my containers as wide and deep as I like… I have no locks to push them through. If I feel skilled I could pack them with only an inch on either side of the channel to spare; I can also pack them as deep as I want – 7, 8, 9, more. I can do this. I am a captain.”
Forty-two barges on a single load we counted. Many thirty-sixes, several twenties… no fifteens. Fifteens are babies now. “I can handle anything you throw at me, Miss’sippi,” I said aloud. “You will keep getting bigger until I stop getting scared. I am no longer scared. Throw what you will at me.”
Barges can get wider, they can get deeper. They cannot get taller. Ships can. They can get much taller. “Ten stories – that’s one-hundred feet,” Phillip said the first time we saw one of these behemoths. The Cajuns south of Baton Rouge held their catfish sucking air and shouted and whooped and said we’d be swamped (in jest, I think). We pushed on. What else were we to do? Stop? No. The Gulf. Ever the Gulf, taunting.
“Which way do you want to go?” Phil asked in response to the fear of the ship.
“I don’t know, which way do you want to go!”
“I don’t know, I’ve never handled these ships before.”
“Me neither – I don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
We were arguing over who knew what to do least.
Phil and I worked out a system: hide. Go to where that ship cannot. “Do you see that anchor point over there?”
“Go to it, paddle behind it. If he wants to run us down he’ll have to skip over that concrete slab.”
“I don’t think he’ll do that.”
“No, I know!”
Now we argued over who knew the most. I was comfortable with this argument; even if I lost, I won.
Deftly, Ever Deftly
We were able to dodge ships now. (Barges were babies; forty-twos were nothing.) We felt immense. They would come barreling down the channel at 45 mph, and I would feel no sense of worry. Very liberating. Phil would implore me to move closer to shore, and he was probably right most of the time. Though I wouldn’t have died, he did save me from close calls. Thank you, Phil.
Deftly, ever deftly, we were able to shield ourselves from headwinds; navigate between that barge, that USACE unit, that ship and that dock; glide past the big corporate chemical conglomerates’ docks: Monsanto, adios; Chevron, good-bye; and Bunge, see ya later. We were men now. In the thick of industry, we were men in inflatable boats.
Where Were the People?
The people were finding us. Barges waved us over with arms and lights and fog horns. Doctor Peppers were given along with macaroni and cheese and pork and beans and Gatorade. ‘Good job!’s were given along with ‘how long you think till the gulf?’s and ‘man, I been a barge captain for 25 years and gotta give y’all credit’s. We were feeling good and riding high. We knew how to do this: you just… go.
We were hooking up to McDonalds’ outlets with our laptops and GPSs and cell phones. We were writing posts with creative flare. We were buying economic pizzas and cooking beans and instant potatoes. No day was easy, but we knew how to do it now. The Mississippi had reared us from single barge to ocean-going ship. It had reared us from stuff falling off the side of the supply boat to impeccable packing and strapping. “Nothing has fallen off the side of the boat since Lake Pepin,” I told Phil. “Humph,” he responded but knew I was right. Impeccable. The River was trying to rear us, bear us, and we were born. Hard love it was, but rear us it did.
People came in the form of reporters and short interactions with barge captains and snide teenagers on the banks: “Does the coast guard give you a hard time for being out here?”
“This is still a recreational channel,” I told the young’n.
“Yeah, but nobody does it.”
“We do,” I said pointing to my head and Phillip’s.
“Yeah, but…” Teen was angry to be wrong and whooped a weird whoop to end the conversation. He made fun of me under his breath to his tanned girlfriend. I wanted to say, “Say it to my face,” but what would be the point? We were on the river, we were almost done. People expressed their incredulity with mocks, with disbelief, with “ooooohhh buddy, y’all got duh life, don’t ya?” They did it with surprise and with anger (Phillip got a door slammed in his face when he asked for water. Ha!). New Orleans was in view, and we were almost done.
Pre-New Orleans, the gap between Louisiana’s two biggest cities, was just a slide down the kiddie slide. It happened so quick. But there was one bump, a joyous one before the kicker into the sand – Donaldsonville. Phil and I walked in tired and angry and hot and hungry. “You go to the library,” I said. “I gotta fill my medication.” On the way to the pharmacy (the GPS says there’s one so there is), I see the painting of an austere Indian on a pane window. The lettering underneath says THE CHIEF. I have no idea why I do this when my brain chemistry is screaming for Cymbalta, but I walk into the local paper. “Oh my god, hi! I saw you on the news,” the secretary says. “Oh I’d like to do a story on you,” the editor says. “Y’all want some Po’ Boys?” the only reporter says because “you can’t leave Donalsonville without tryin’ a Po’ Boy.” “I’ll drive you to Wal Mart pharmacy,” the editor also says and “I’ll put you in touch with the Advocate [Baton Rouge’s paper].” Good things happen when you’re wandering, I think. Very good things.
Leaving Donaldsonville, a group of kids runs us down, their mother in tow. “Maaaaam, maaaam, dese ah duh guys! I saw ‘em on TV, and heah dey ah!” The mother has no idea who we are, and I always feel wary of parents’ concerns for their children when I, as I will continue to be as long as I do these adventures, am the stranger. “Howdy, ma’am,” I say Texan. “We’re paddling the river, and’ll be on our way now.”
“Maaaameeeeeee!” Little Boy says, “I tol’ you I’d go to the river every day till I saw deum, an’ I dee-uhd!”
Mom is happy but wary. (They’re always wary.) We walk off as if we don’t need them, but I do… need them. Jugs of water are punching through the cheap garbage bag I brought into town to fill up. “Weeeeeeeuhl help you carry the-um!” Kids are scrapping up jugs and trinkets and laptops. “Weeeee’ll carry them, weeee’ll carry them.” They accompany us to our boats (right past the old oil pipeline, it doesn’t work anymore). I keep walking, I cannot ask Mom for anything. I cannot turn around. They need to offer; I won’t ask. I won’t be a vagrant, asking, with my hand out, wanting, needing. You want me? You ask me.
Mom is coming around now. She sees the boats, she believes the children (“By god, they were on the news… maybe.”). We get in to leave and she stops us. She wants me now; now this is different. “Wait!” she says. “Don’t leave! You gotta tell me about this journey.” We give her the short version and get in to leave. “No!” she says and “hold on” and “um, can I give y’all something?” and “I wish… I just wish I could give y’all something for the… for the…”
“No, don’t worry about that, Janet.” I set my oar across the bow.
I like this, I like feeling wanted. To feel needy is hell.
I say thank you and your boys are great and look for us in The Chief. Then, off-hand, because I love them, I comment on her Fleur de Lis necklace. It’s stunning. Real diamonds, I hope. The beautiful, beautiful Fleur de Lis.
“Oh my god!” she says, “I love fleur de leeze! I’m gonna get y’all some! Hold on!” She runs home and comes back with fleur de lis ____________ and fleur de lis ____________, fleur de lis ___________ and ___________ and _____________. It was glorious.
“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you.”
Four days later Janet wrote us to say that she saw the article, that she wishes we would have stayed longer, that her kids miss us, and that she hopes we enjoy our fleurs de lis. I certainly do. I certainly do.
Part II coming in 48 hours! We are in Oak Ridge, TN where we’ve just seen The Hitchhiking Movie on the big screen!!!! We didn’t have huge DVD sales afterwards, but 1 out of 3 people who saw the movie bought the DVD – awesome! In the next post, New Orleans, New Beginnings, Katrina becomes important, destitution becomes important and the wiping out of things – beginnings. More ships will come… of course. Headwinds, difficulty and Jeff Johnson… of course. A rowdy romp at a barge captain bar. The end is near. Hang on till the ride is over. And to answer some of you fans, OF COURSE WE GOT MORE ADVENTURES COMING!
There is no more paddling to do and things are quieter. Weird. There are no more beans to make on the riverbank, no more news crews to notify, no more fights to be had over continuing down the curve or cutting to the next bank, no more clacking of paddles, no more singing of dirty songs whether Phillip likes them or not, no more dirty water and “oh my god there’s only three inches of visibility today, theres snakes in the brush, there’s a barge coming; paddle light so you don’t splash my camera, pass me the camera for a sunset shot, I’m tired of you, thank god for you, I don’t want this to be over, I want this to be over.” No more.
Now is a small town called Empire, Louisiana. Now is the fortunate running into a man, an ultra right-wing Republican (I attract them like flies) telling me he doesn’t want to pay for my health care, but I can stay in his house; he doesn’t want Socialism, but is glad to help us because “shoot, guys, you do a trip like that, I gotta give you credit cuz, shoot, I could never do something like that, and y’all can stay in my cabin, Number 33, cuz it’s unoccupied now, and, hell, we’ll even drive you to New Orleans if you want because, shoot, that’s what you deserve… but don’t expect no handouts.”
That’s our reality now that the Mississippi River is done.
Now will be film festivals (we’re on our way to Oak Ridge on Wednesday for the Secret City Film Festival for a big-screen showing of The Hitchhiking Movie), now will be editing, fighting over which scene goes where and why, figuring out where we will live in Nashville, how I will earn money, how I will appease my adventure addiction while living in the “real world,” how we will continue to write interesting blog posts about the Go to Hell movie, our next film, which Phil will be telling you about in the next few days, how we will do… everything… and I stop.
It will be no different than the Mississippi, I think to myself. The title of our film will beThe River is Life, and this is Life. Editing will be life. Going and talking to fire-and-brimstone preachers will be life. I also want to do a train-hopping adventure I want to write about; people will want to know about that; there’s tons of new material to come; tons of things to do with the website; people will want to know what we’re doing (as long as we’re doing something interesting) and I can do that – I can do interesting things… and I can share them with our fans…I can relax. Things will be okay. What’s next won’t be barges, or cookouts, or staying in strangers’ homes (actually, that’s the one thing I hope never goes away) or lifting 300 pounds of gear into trucks, out of trucks, down levees and up embankments – rocky, smooth, muddy, clay-y or otherwise. But in a way, that’s exactly what will continue.
Life will continue; life does not stop at the Gulf of Mexico. It can’t, and Eleven Visions won’t. The River will still be there;making movies, entertaining the hell out of people is our thing, and we have blog posts to share about that. The River… has not finished; it has just become… a much larger body of water.
So What Now?
Good question. I think… this is my calling. I think I am supposed to be an explorer and commenter of life. I think travel writing is my calling; I think people enjoy it – our interactions with people, emotions, things, objects… Life again. I think my partnership with Phil – making movies – is my calling; so, we will blog about that. I think Eleven Visions is a celebration of exploration; and people will want to know how we’re exploring next. None of it… will stop.
Some things to expect are the following:
We’re making a film called Go to Hell that hopes to answer the question “How exactly does one keep from going to hell?” Our biggest adventure yet! Whereas our old adventures were about going to a place, this will be about how NOT to get to a place. How do I, Ryan Jeanes, keep from going to hell? Who’s right? The Adventists? Mormons? Presbyterians, Russians, Socialists? That’s a good question, and EVERYONE has an answer… and damned if they’re the same answer!
More travel writing – I’m going on a train-hopping excursion that I will be more than happy to write about, share videos about, show pictures about.
More tales from the insides of the editing process – You’ll see footage we’ve decided to keep in the River is Life movie, footage we’ve decided to keep out; if you stick with us, you’ll get a sneak peek, you’ll be along for the ride; the tide does not stop where the Gulf of Mexico begins; this, my friends, is only the beginning. Eleven Visions is your home if you choose to stay, and we’d love to have you. Do you take coffee in the morning?
In short, what now is more adventure in this beautiful world, more dialogue about life and what it means, more entertainment from Eleven Visions coming your way in the form of videos, audios, photos and writing. We have more, much more, to share with you. Come with us… deeper.
In a few days, Phil will give you the lowdown on our upcoming projects. I will finish off the travel writing aspects of the Mississippi River journey. Remember, we left off in Baton Rouge. Um, yeah! a whole bunch of stuff happened between here and there. Wanna know about it? K, working on it. It’s comin’ your way.
We want you to stick with us. Eleven Visions does not die with the Mississippi. It flows on into the Gulf of Life. There is more, a whole ocean to explore; and, train-hopping, giving you a sneak peek into our latest footage on both The River is Life and Go to Hell movies, and more philosophical connections with you, dear reader, on the dimensions which make up this life… are just the beginning. A new beginning… for all of us.
We’re glad you’re here. Wait for Phil’s post on the Go to Hell movie. Wait for my “just what the hell am I going to do with the English Channel?” post. Wait for our New Orleans posts, paddle-to-the-Gulf posts, celebration posts. Wait and listen. Eleven Visions has more visions in store.
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.
Courtney is magnanimous – money flowing, love. He says, “I’m gonna take y’all out t’night an’ I don’ wanna hear no shit about you can’t cuz…” I cut him off: “Not a peep out of us.” Smile.
It’s The Corner Bar again. The same bar we met. The same bar where the newspaperman told us we “needed to show [him] how we do what we do.” Music is playing; it’s beautiful; I don’t drink but Courtney’s buying. “Colorado Bulldog,” I order and the bartendress looks like she’s going to punch me in the face. “Can you make a White Russian?” I say trying to wipe away her scowl.
Now she looks like she’s going to kick me in the face.
“Good. Make that in a tall glass.”
“Now fill it with Coke.”
She looks like there is something on my face.
“I swear to god it’s good,” I promise. “Tastes like a root beer float.”
She serves; it’s good; and from here on out I’m known as root beer float boy.
Ole Miss is playing South Carolina on the TV. Ole Miss fans (the whole bar) are hooting and hollering: “C’mon you gol’ darned mother f—er!” and “aw shit that’s a personal fowl” and “ you gotta be sh— what the god damned…!” Ole Miss loses. Grown men are crying like babies. The bartendress serves root beer alcoholized floats until I am as the Germans say blau.
“Don’t break the seal!” a woman shouted to me one time in a bar. I was on my way to the men’s room; she stopped me. “If you break the seal, you’re drunk,” she implored and tugged on my arm. “Huh?” I said and did my thing. She was right – after your first pee, you’re usually drunk. I stumble out of the bathroom where grown men are cursing Ole Miss to high heaven, throwing tantrums – “goddamned number 4! knocked off by the gol’ damned South Carolina, gol’ damned hump me with a hose!”
“Ryan, you want another?” Courtney says. Magnanimous. And we’re off to what’s next.
Courtney is drunk too, and if you are a member of law enforcement, not driving. “I’m gonna drive you to The Castle,” he looks devilish. Dunlithe Mansion – the most famous of the Natchez antebellum mansions. Columns all around, front, back, sides… all… columns. It is the eye candy in front of The Castle Restaurant, and we pass it on the drive in.
“Dig me,” Courtney explains.
“It’s all about ‘dig me.’ It’s all about who can build the best shit, who can look the best. Take my house. Looks good, don’ it?”
“Shit, that’s like having twenty-inch rims. This house [the Dunlithe]
is like having 24-inch rims. Ain’t no difference between them. Shoot! These old, crotchety white people think they’re different than blacks with their bling bling. No difference! None! It’s all about ‘dig me’ – who can look the best.”
Once again Courtney has taken my breath away with his insight. It won’t be the last time he has laid me silent tonight.
“Hey Ryan, this is Miss Miriam…”
“Oh dear! Courtney don’t be bothering these nice young gentlemen…”
“Ah now, Miriam, listen, Ryan, this…”
“This hot young thing…”
“…I used to work for her. She is the sweetest lady…”
“Courtney! All right, now what are you boys doing?”
“We’re paddling the river.”
“Oh!” She covers her mouth, then her heart. “That’s… my, that’s…”
I’m drunk. I have no filter. For some people that’s a bad thing; but, for me it tends to make me more soulful. “I’m so glad I ran into you boys,” Miriam says.
“Shit,” I say, “we are complete fools next to you, madame! We are nothing! Thank you for allowing us the pleasure of talking to you, mademoiselle!”
She’s laughing now. Flirting in French gets ‘em every time.
Miss Miriam’s husband was a son of a bitch. He cheated on her and made her life a living hell. He’s dead now, and she tells us that it’s hard getting over him; and, though I’ve never met him, I want to strangle him. F—ing good, I think, if I knew where it was I’d pass this drink through my kidneys and empty it out on where Mr. Miriam’s is now. I offer Miriam a drink.
“Oh, Ryan, you dear, no, I’ll get you one though.”
“Colorado Bulldog,” I tell our waitress/bartender.
“Oh my god!” Her face lights up. “It’s been so long since I’ve made one of those!” She looks like she wants to kiss me in the face.
Miss Miriam gives me a hug and tells me she wants to follow our journey but she can’t because she doesn’t use internet but will call, but I can’t remember if I gave her our number – the night is hazy and so is my memory of it.
Dunlithe is large and wavy on the drive out. Dig me, I think to myself. Dig me.
Back at the ranch, Courtney’s wife is angry. He was supposed to spend time with her tonight before she left for Jackson in the morning. He didn’t; he spent time with us. “What’s she gonna do? Divorce me?” Courtney asks. “No,” I say, “probably not.
(Before you judge the cat, I saw him make his wife breakfast no less than thrice, tell her he loved her no more than 800 times and pretty much convinced me he was the coolest, best husband around. That’s why she wasn’t going to divorce him.)
“She’ll get over it,” Courtney assuages us. We’re about to walk up to the carriage house, our guest home, when he stops up. “Boys,” he says, “listen. Y’all are going to make this movie and there’s something important you need to know – make it about the people.”
Way ahead of ya on that one.
“No, listen,” he says reading my mind. “You make it about what matters – love. Look, Jesus Jones — I used to play in a rock band.” He’s told us this before. “I remember we were doin’ this gig down South, and we got a copy of Rolling Stone and on the cover is: Jesus Jones – The Savior of Rock and Roll. The Savior of frikkin’ rock and roll. C’mon. I guess he could have been, but the problem was he believed it. When he was just makin’ music, he was fine. Remember the…”
“Riiiight here, riiight now,” I sing.
“Yeah! That’s it! That was his only hit! After that, he was nothin’. Nothin’,” he marks. Courtney gets deeply, deeply silent: “You boys need to focus on your work – nothing more nothing less. You focus on making movies that matter, just like Jesus should have focused on his music. That’s all he needed to do; instead, he bought into it – savior of rock n’ roll,” he mocks. Same thing happened to me,” he says and looks away.
Courtney’s band was to do a photo shoot with Rolling Stone in the 90s when the lead singer got cold feet. Courtney sighs: “Didn’t want to be portrayed in that light, he told me. What the hell does that mean? Focus on your work… don’t take it seriously… just play, just play.”
Courtney, I promise you… to just play.
Courtney has dropped us off in St. Francisville, and good thing too. The river slows way down between here and New Orleans; and, if we are to make our Oct. 5 deadline, we’ll need all the help we can get. The river between St. Francisville and Baton Rouge passes by like a droning song. Phil and I paddle unceremoniously. It’s work now; it’s good work, but it’s work. Paddle, one two, paddle, two three, paddle. The miles pass on. A certain amount of effort is required to produce a certain amount of result, a success guru once told me; and, I know how many paddle strokes will be needed to make it to the Gulf – more, one more, and one more. Stroke, to Baton Rouge.
Phil and I have not been getting the press coverage I would have liked since St. Louis, and I am not happy. “I don’t know what to tell you,” Phil offers sympathetically. I’m still mad; I want someone to blame – my vibe, myself, something. But nothing. You win some, you lose some. In Baton Rouge, we’re about to win big.
Bam, an email comes back – “We want to cover you.” Bam, a cell call comes in – “Ryan, where are you on the river; we will meet you under the I-10 Bridge in Baton Rouge.” Two big-city reporters want our blood, and I am happy.
Baton Rouge is beautiful. In the words of Allen Tumey, “Our Capitol Building sticks up like a penis.” I laugh because Allen is 60 years old and shouldn’t be saying things like our capitol building looks like a penis. I laugh because he’s our reporter for Channel 9 and shouldn’t be saying these things in front of important interviewees like Phil and myself… snicker, snicker, snicker. I laugh again when Allen is watching Chris Nakamoto, the bigger, scarier and younger and cooler and hipper reporter from Channel 2 (the big boys in Baton Rouge TV news) finish up their interview with Phillip. Allen leans into me. Chris’s hair is perfect and spiky; his shoes are 400 dollars. Phil tells me later his cameraman’s sunglasses were $200. Allen is wearing New Balances and doing his own camerawork. “I have something up my sleeve,” he whispers. He winks at me, and I hope to God he’s straight. Chris comes up and shakes my hand. “Great interview, Ryan,” he says.
“We’ll let you know when it’s up.” He nods at Allen. “Allen.”
Chris and his nicely-frocked cameraman are off in a clean, white news van. Allen pulls his camera out of the back of a Toyota Camry.
“I’m going to film you guys on the water,” he says. “The Port Allen Police Department is going to take me on their boat so I can get some on-the-water shots. Like I said, we’re friendly in the news business, but I don’t have to give my secrets away.” Devilish, not gay.
The Port Allen Police Department zooms their twin-275HP motors by us like we were standing still. Allen gets his shots. The police wish us well, and our day in Baton Rouge is done. Devilish.
Side note: The news pieces ran in Baton Rouge and were excellent. Both Chris and Allen did an excellent job. They even ran the piece several times and several people even 100 miles downriver came up to us and told us they saw us on the news. Terrifique!
South of Baton Rouge, Phil and I fight in the boat. I am being too negative. I am; it is true. But I don’t like him calling me out on it, or I don’t like how he calls me out on it. We fight. It is vitriol – the worst we’ve had. We really want this trip to be done. We are tired of one another, tired of the boat, tired of the water, towns, people, everything. Though we love it, we hate it. A teacher once told me that the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. This trip, this life, this boat has been anything but indifferent. It has been life, good or bad, through and through. Those twenty minutes of fighting were ugly, really ugly. That’s all I want to say about because it hurts too much to talk about. I was possessed, a demon – mad and angry… devilish – the bad kind. When we got to shore to camp for the night, we said nothing and got in our tents. I looked at the roof of my tent. I’ve got to stop this, I thought. I don’t know whose fault this is, but this has got to stop. I just… can’t do it anymore. The next morning, I planned to offer an apology, but the pain-body as Eckhart Tolle likes to call it (sort of like an angry demon that can travel from body to body) has traveled to Phil. He’s angry and spiteful and I am not. Downstream he snaps at me and tells me that we need to be on the other shore. Where yesterday I blew up, today I calm down. I take in deep breaths and am not angry. “That’s cool” I say.
“Yur goddamn right it’s cool!”
“Yes,” I say and am not fake calm; I am real calm.
“You wanna always fight and I’m…” Blah blah blah, vitriol, vitriol, vitriol. I face the pain-body with calmness. I do not get mad at Phil. I can’t do this anymore, I promised myself yesterday and keep the promise today. Phil lets the demon escape his body, and we are levity itself for hours and hours. We paddle on and find a group of Cajun fisherman hooting and hollering and throwing catfish into their nets. They offer us beer and tell us to turn our cameras on them because “they gon’ be mov’ee staws!” One big ol’ Cajun self-labeled “Cracker”
says, “OOOOOEEE you gon’ see me one day on the Cineplex! Shoot! A’least get me on PBS!” Cracker shows us his dog, Chopper, whom he gets to play dead for 7 minutes straight, and frowns when I throw the stick for Chopper who fetches it. A nice but dirty Cajun has gaps between his teeth and points my eyes out into the “wawtuh wheah you gon’ see a sink bawge; duh sink bawge kin just throw them big ol’ smokestack lookin’ things into the wawtuh, an’ he don’ hav’ tuh use no ankuh (anchor). An’ den ooooh lookey here! Das a big ol’ ship a comin’!”
And so it is – a big ol’ HOLY CHRIST! ship.
“I never knew they could be that big on the wawduh, um, water,” I say.
“OOOOOO,” he says, “dey jus’ gon’ get bigguh!”
Phil and I paddle on. The demon is not here, has not been here for some days. (We’re in New Orleans now! Go us!) I think about Courtney, Baton Rouge… people. All ways of thinking and being, they are. One stroke, two three stroke. A certain number of strokes will get us to the Gulf. How many to go? It doesn’t matter. I’m here; this is now; Courtney is Courtney; I’m me, and Phil is Phil. We are… us, moving, flowing, life. What will happen when this is over? How long will the film take to edit? Matters not. I can take life one stroke at a time.
“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!
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.
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…
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.
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.”
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 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
think we’re crazy
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”
have disposable income to buy us beer and food and god knows what else
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?”
“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.
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?”
“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.
Back at the bar, Courney has too many interesting things to say to include in one blog post, but we learn that…
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.
“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…
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.