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’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.
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.
It’s a strangely familiar setting–standing by the side of the road with some camping gear beside me and a large pack on my back filled with supplies. I’m in Vicksburg, Mississippi and there seems to be no other solution right now other than to start hitchhiking. You’re probably thinking that I’ve had it with Ryan, the paddling, and the rain, and have decided to hitchhike back to Nashville. You’d be wrong…
Two hours earlier, Ryan and I split up in Vicksburg so he could work on the blog while I did some much-needed shopping. Walmart is only a mile from the river, but the guides at the welcome center pointed out a route that didn’t involve walking illegally down the interstate. The new route took two miles so I brought along Ryan’s giant pack so that I would be able to carry everything back should there not be effective public transportation. Once in the store I went crazy and bought nearly tons of food (I was hungry after walking the two miles!) and already knew there was a bus which could take me back to the casino.
Beep. Beep. Beep. The young woman at the checkout stared downward while I made small-talk about the change to white packaging in Walmart’s “Great Value” product line. I then asked about the N-Route (Vickburg’s bus) schedule. She didn’t know the times, but left mid-checkout to ask someone who did. She returned in a moment with the answer:
“The N-Route comes by every hour.”
“What time is the next bus?”
“What time is it right now?”
“Are they usually on time?”
“They always are.”
“What about a taxi?”
“Don’t have any in this town anymore.”
Damn it! I began adding up the weight of the food already bagged and in the cart. There has got to be at least 100 pounds of food in that cart. How the hell will I carry all that back to the boat? I walk out the front door and ask an employee on break if the bus has arrived yet. “Just left 5 minutes ago,” she cheerfully responds. Okay, then. Let’s load up this pack and walk it back. Ryan had showed me some of the features of his Gregory pack just before splitting and I’m glad now that I was listening to him. I extend the buckles outward so that it can hold the maximum amount of gear. All the food goes into the pack save only the bread and powered milk which I worried will get crushed and damaged.
As I walk out to the road, a tan Oldsmobile car which has seen better days slows down as it enters the parking lot. The rear window rolls down as it parks and a young black boy gestures to me with his hand. “Mister, mister!” I turn and look back at him and him and his brother as they exit the rear seat. “Do you want some food?” he asks and hands me a big box of donuts. I already have 100 pounds of food. What I need is a ride! “They’re fresh!” The boy’s shrill voice breaks my line of thought. I mumble a genuine thank you and feel the sugar rush after only one bite. “I really need a ride back to the casino,” I volunteer, but the boy just grabs his father’s hand and skips into the store. I imagine they thought I was a homeless man and they were helping me get something to eat for the day.
I’m already exhausted after barely walking out of the parking lot and decide to try a old trick–hitchhiking. So that’s why I’m out here on the side of the road with my thumb out. 30 minutes pass slowly with no results. Ryan’s gonna be wondering where I am. I was supposed to call him when I left Walmart so we could meet at the boats. That could be hours from now though if I have to walk the entire way. I put the pack back on and walk about a half mile to a better spot on the highway. Another 20 minutes pass with no luck. After walking awhile longer, I can’t take it anymore and stash the goods under a tree on the side of the highway. There has to be another solution. Now free of the pack I walk unencumbered to a Shell station near the casino. Three female clerks tell me they know a guy to call for a ride and one of them makes the call while the others watch in amazement as I guzzle down two large bottles of Gatorade.
An unmarked Town Car pulls up beside the Shell station chauffeured by a driver who bears a resemblance to Morgan Freeman. God himself came to rescue me, I think as I cautiously ask: “Are you the cab driver?” The man responds softly without making eye contact, “You could say that.” I get in the car and describe my situation. He listens quietly and pulls out to the road asking only, “Which way?” We drive in silence and pick up the bags from my not-so-secret hiding spot. I ventured a question which finally got the God look-alike talking:
“How long have you lived in this town?”
“You don’t want to know the answer to that question, but I spent 50 years on the road as a truck driver.”
“And you’re still driving?”
This line of questioning seemed like a dead end, but then “God” continued.
“This town used to be jumpin’–it was like Vegas back in the day.”
“When was it jumpin?” I questioned using his same manner of speaking.
“Oh, that was probly before you was born.”
We were almost back to the casino before he made a new observation:
“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.
A sandbar in the middle of the night, we stop. This is where we shall sleep – one inch from the water, middle of the canal.
Two hours earlier Phil said, “If there was going to be a canal, it would be on the other side of the rock dam.” Night falling fast; we see nothing.
“No, if there was going to be a canal to the city it would be in front of the rock dam.” Still can see… nothing.
Darkness. “I think it’s on the other side.”
Black. “Phil,” I plead, “just go with me on this one; I’m pretty sure I’m right.”
We do not fight; the canal is in front; I say nothing; Phil says nothing; we are content; we’re on our way to Lake Providence through the canal in the dark.
…is like a knife in the chest. It carves you out, and neither of us have eaten in a long time.
Five hours earlier Phillip and I dug through the food bag – a can of snow peas, a can of sweet corn, a small tub of chili. (Thank you, Tamia, for the chili. :)) “Okay,” I said to Phil, “you take the veggies, I’ll take the meat.” “Deal,” he said. We stave off hunger for two hours and then the knife. “How many apples we got left?” I ask.
“Two. Both rotten.”
I bite the rotten parts and spit the chunks into the river. The rest of the apples is soft but good. Hunger, the knife, is staved off… for thirty minutes. I try humor. “Hey Phil, how many T-bone steaks you got up there?”
“Only got tenderloin.”
“Well then forget it!” I laugh. Phil laughs. “If all we had was tenderloin would you eat it?” I ask Mr. Vegetarian.
“Of course,” he says, and I know he means it because his voice is devoid of levity. The knife has carved out his chest as well.
It, the hunger, moves to my solar plexus. It is a full two hours before we will reach Lake Providence, Louisiana.
“Lemme see the map,” Phil says. I show him and know he’s looking at the canal. “It’s good you’ve got this map,” he says. “My GPS shoes no canal whatsoever. I would have parked the boat on the river, walked over and gone ‘oh shit!'”
“You woulda got yo’ knickers wet!” I laugh, but I’m laughing to keep myself from thinking about the hunger which carves… deeper. What food is in the food bag? I think, paddling, night, knife. The canned bread dough Tamia gave us. I could eat it raw. No, Phillip wants to save that for when we have an oven. There’s green beans. Green beans without bacon and butter? Might as well eat dirt. What else? What else? Hormel, mechanically separated meat product. Oh jeez, raw??? I’d rather eat processed death. God it’s getting dark. Paddle, paddle, night, death, knife, carving. How the hell are we out of food! All right, when we get to Lake Providence, it’ll all be all right. There’s gotta be something open. There’s gotta be at least a gas station to get peanut butter and jelly. Gotta be. “What did your GPS show in town?” I ask Phil, sunlight gone now, twilight.
“It showed a Sonic. What’s there? I’ve never been to one.”
“Ha ha ha. No vegetables. Trust me.”
Two days earlier –
Greenville, MS. The park ranger who said he’d look the other way if we wanted to camp in his park says, “Ha! Closest supermarket? Oh, das about 6 miles away!” “Screw it,” I said to Phillip, “we got low supplies, but we’ll run into somethin’.” “Yeah,” he agreed, “it’s not far to Lake Providence, and it looks like it’s right on the river.” We were right – Lake Providence is right on the river, but we were wrong about how long our supplies would last. Beans only went so far; potatoes only went so far. Food ran out. Lake Providence had to work.
The knife has moved to my stomach; I am hollow. Geez, I hope that Sonic is open. “Check the GPS,” I tell Phillip. He says he did. “Do it again,” I snap and realize I’m letting my physical malady affect my communication skills. “Sorry,” I say. “Could you please look again? I don’t want to miss this road.” There is a hook-like road a thousand feet from the canal. Phil says it’s called City Dump Road, and I laugh. Walk through the trash to eat our stash. An hour and a half has passed in the canal. There is no current and I know we must be going not much more than three miles an hour. “Phil…” I say ready to pass out when he says we should stop here because the road is close. Perfect! A half-mud/half-sandbar is near where we beach the boats. I grab my headlamp and he grabs what he calls his “jerk off” flashlight, named such because you have to shake it back and forth to charge it. Through the brush. The man who will sell us our peanut butter, jelly and holy bread will tell us that that that little stretch is full of cottonmouth snakes. But it is a good thing that now we are completely oblivious to that fact because we are hungry and there is a Sonic and I am going to kill someone and the sawgrass is cutting up my shins and burrs are sticking onto my ass and the knife… turns and turns and turns. We’re out of the brush. We walk up a levee wall, and it’s like that scene in the movie where the fellows on the road trip drive up on the lights of Las Vegas. Lights, city spreading wide! Food! Where’s the damn Sonic!
We walk down the embankment. A playground on a Saturday night and children are playing. Why are children playing at 9pm?Poor area, I realize. This is all there is to do. We walk a mile, the only white people in the area. The town is dead. Signs in clothing stores selling Fubu and Sean John. They all say TRAVELERS WELCOME and I laugh and say, “At least we’re welcome.”
Four more blocks and there is the Sonic. “Holy Sonic, Batman!” “What do they have here?” Phillip asks again. “Who cares,” I say and tear a hole between me and the speaker on the menu. “Hi! Two large breakfast burritos!” I say and rejoice. Phillip studies the menu carefully and finally settles on tater tots with cheese. We eat in silence. Oil is dripping from my burritos. “Looks like motor oil,” Phil says. “Probably is,” I say and take a bigger chomp. Then I meditate. I sit with my eyes closed feeling very very good. I’m tempted to pig out – slushies and cherry limeades and Blizzards and corndogs and chili dogs and I could really, really stuff myself. But I don’t. I meditate. I close my eyes and bless the food in my stomach. I feel good. I’ve staved the knife off. The knife is no more, and that is good.
“What ch’all doin’!” Latasha, the manager says. You know what I will say: “Paddlin’ the river.”
“Oh, shoot, I wouddn’t even get on a bridge. I’m scared. Y’all scared?”
“Ah, no, I wouddn’t even… Haw’d y’all get here?”
“Cut through the brush. From the channel.”
“There’s a channel that parallels the river.”
“Dere is? Where?”
“Well, right that way.”
“I lived here 25 years; ain’t never known there was a channel. I keep away from that river,” she says.
Another guy comes up to me and shakes his head when I tell him what we’re doing. I ask him to use his cell phone. “Hey mom, I’m in Lake Providence, Louisiana, it’s 9:30 pm, and I love you.” I hand the phone back and he shakes his head. “What ch’all travelin’ in?” he says.
“A whose ak?”
“Kayak, like a canoe.”
“A canoe boat?”
“Yes, a canoe boat.”
He shakes his head harder. “You need to call somebody else? Psychiatrist?”
I laugh. “No.”
Latasha comes out and says her employee can take us to the corner store so we can buy some bread and whatever else we need. The employee comes out and says he can take us but he has to run his momma some food. He leaves and comes back thirty minutes later and says he forgot. We get up and leave without a word. We are not angry. There is no knife in our solar plexus. What is a broken promise when one has food in one’s stomach? I meditate some more. It is a mile walk to the corner store, and I feel good. Grimy, sweaty night and I feel good.
The store owner is not suprised when we tell him we’re kayakers, is more than happy to hook us up with peanut butter, jelly and cookies and macaroons. And we are even happier… until he says where we have to walk back through is full of snakes.
It’s night now. Phil and I have our food to last us till Vicksburg (where we are now!). We paddle in the dark, dark channel until we hit a sandbar. It’s a sign. It’s time to camp and make sandwiches, so we do. Our tents are one inch from the water, but the sandwiches are one inch from our mouths; and, a plastic utensil smeared with Jiff is the only sign left… of a knife.
Phillip has made another snide comment about my shortcomings and I’ve had it. “You have something you want to say to me, you say it to my face,” I say.
“No, no, you’re not getting away that easily; I’m tired of the comments under the breath, the implications, the innuendoes: You wanna say something? You go ahead and say it, cuz, buddy, that’s it!”
“Okay,” he says, “you’re not careful with things.”
“We’re still bringing that shit up?”
“No, no, listen – my camera case is marked up, my Flip (it’s a type of camera) is marked up, and you’re not careful.”
“I had the damn Flip in the dry box the whole time…”
“Well, it’s all marked up…”
“So you’re saying that if you had been here that never would have happened?”
“Well, guess what, buddy? YOU WEREN’T HERE! You gave me the equipment and took off! I did the best I could with what I had, what I knew and what you gave me.”
“So if you had been here…”
“K. Prove it.”
“Well, I can’t prove it; I just know that…”
“Bullshit! You can’t prove it! You can’t because you weren’t here under these circumstances, dealing with what I’ve had to deal with! You can’t prove it because you came up to me 20 minutes before your cab was leaving for Minneapolis airport saying you were bailing on the trip!”
“I didn’t bail on the…”
“You can’t prove it because you like to sit there in your high-and-mighty chair and say ‘Duh, if I had been there, duh boat wouldn’t have flipped.’ ‘Course you’ll never say that to me directly, will you? You’ll just make your damn comments!”
“I didn’t bail on the trip,” Phillip says looking down.
I’ve hurt him. I’m mad about his if-I-had-been-here-this-wouldn’t-have-happened BS, but that was unfair. I change tactics. I try to focus on where we go from here.
“Look,” I say, “we’re going to have a difference of opinion on whether or not X would have happened if you had been here, but you weren’t here, so it’s not fair to recriminate from afar.”
“I’ll agree that I could have been more careful with your camera case and the Flip, but with what I knew, with what you gave me at the time in terms of training and instructions, that’s what I did, so it’s not fair for you to keep on with your ‘should haves,’ ‘should haves’ and more ‘should haves’.”
“If you have something to say,” I continue, trying to lower my heart rate, “say it directly. No more snide comments, side comments, indirectness.”
“Okay. Will you be more careful with things?”
“Yes. Now that I know.”
“Well it’s common sense…”
We have it out for another twenty minutes after he challenges my common sense. Then we say that we are sorry, that we’ll agree that each other’s point of view is not necessarily the correct one and that this is stupid. We have not fought significantly for three days since… going on four.
Phil’s ex-roommate, Wes, drops us off in Tunica, Mississippi. He’s trying to get me to admit that his girlfriend, whom he has brought with him, is hot.
“I don’t know, Wes,” I say packing up our boats.
“But I mean… Jessica, come here. Ryan, tell Jessica, she’s hot in Spanish.”
“Jessica, you’re hot in Spanish,” I say.
“Noooo,” Wes says. “Say it in Spanish. I know you know Spanish, now say it.”
“Jessica,” I say in Spanish, “you are going out with the biggest buffoon in Memphis.” She laughs, we pack the boats, we move on.
“And the rains came.” – Unknown
And they did. I had never had more than two consecutive days of rain on the Mississippi. Past Tunica we have had rain every day – rain in the morning, evening, night. Rain when it’s time to set up camp, rain when it’s time to tear down. Rain when we’re eating, rain when we’re sleeping. Thinking – rain. Breathing – rain. As I type this – rain, rain, rain.
“Thank you, God,” I said yesterday going to sleep, “thank you for the rain. The rain waters the crops which I eat. Thank you. But for the love of God, let up sometimes!” I looked into the Sky and laughed hoping… He got the joke.
Greenville, MS and Podunk, Podunk
Past Memphis, it is Podunk. There is nothing. One town every three days. No cell reception. No internet. No nothin’. We have a 15% signal off our Virgin Mobile Broadband right where I sit. If I move two inches to the left – no signal.
A black man pulls up, a park ranger. “I’m s’posed to charge ya for stayin’ here.”
“Oh, we’re not stayin’ here. Paddlin’ down the Mississippi.”
“Humph!” he says with a wide smile, “third group this year! Last guys gave up right at the spot y’all standin’ in. Said they was hitchhikin’ home; y’all hitchhikin’ home?”
A challenge he has given me. A challenge behind a wide, loving smile.
“No sir,” I say and smile back. He smiles even wider.
“Gooood,” he says. “Y’all didn’t seem like the quittin’ type.” He’s carting around a member of the Mississippi Convict Labor Force in his truck. A white boy – city labor done by the city jail. He turns to him. “Told ya, din’ I? Told you they was paddlin’. Now look,” he says to me. “You ain’t s’posed to camp here lest I charge you 15 bucks. But I can’t be ev’rywhere at once if you know what I mean.” He winks at the convict.
“Thank you sir,” I say, “but I think we’ll be movin’ on.”
“Humph!” he smiles. “You boys just might make it.”
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?
This is redneckville. People are shot here; I know because a man is holding a gun, and it looks like he’s pointing it at me. A sillouette. He’s in the cab of his pickup truck; I am behind him. A long hunting rifle – a scope that can kill animals, that can kill me – the barrel points out the window. He has a hat on – a ballcap. I can’t see his face, but when I run up on him to ask him to help portage our boats, he points the gun out the window. No face, but to me, from this distance, with this vantage point, with this silouette of a man jamming a gun out the window, I am terrified. An angry face I see in my mind. Redneckville + gun + scope + he pointed it out the window right when I ran up on him = Fear = Oh my god, this guy is going to shoot me. = I need to get out of here.
“No need for that,” I say… scared. “I’m just… I just wanted to see if you could help me move my boats.”
He’s looking into the rearview mirror, it seems. He has seen me and deemed me a nuissance or a threat or something “he just don’ wanna deal with ‘roun’ these parts. We don’ take kindly to strangers.” He spits chaw on the ground without spitting. I can see, swear I can see him looking at me through the rearview mirror when I turn around and walk the other way. I’m angry now. Fucking rednecks, I think. I swear to god what is the deal with them. Small town bullshit. I mean, dude, I just wanted help. You pull out a FUCKING GUNNNN!!! For what? For asking questions! For not knowing me? “Duuuuuhhh, oohhhh, I’m just a dumbass redneck and dis here guy run up on me an’ I tink duh best ting id too pull duh gun out, duhhhhhhhhhhh.” I’m so mad, uncontrolably mad. Every beef I’ve ever had with small-town, isolationist mentality surfaces: clinging to guns, clinging to mistrust, clinging to stupidity. Someone, afterall, just pointed a gun at me. I didn’t deserve that; no one does. F-ing rednecks.
I walk to the west side of the portage point. It’s a no go. We can’t do it. Tons of brush, tons of rocks. Phillip would complain so much if we had to carry these boats over this mess, I think. I just got a goddamn gun pointed at me, I think. I don’t think I’ve ever been so mad in all my life.I feel sad at the experience now, sad at the mistrust. I feel angry and disappointed I’ll have to walk all the way back to Phillip and tell him we can’t portage. He will be right, you know. He wanted just to paddle on and not worry about the portage. Now he will say I’ve blown 30 minutes scouting when “You knew!” he will say “there was no way we were going to be able to transfer all this gear over that road!” I will feel stupid and have to admit he was right all because some redneck who had a pickup truck couldn’t be nice enough to move our boats .8 miles across a damn bottleneck and chose instead to point a goddamn gun at me for wanting to walk up to his window and ask a damn question.
I’m almost to Phillip now. Up this ramp, over the bank and “I’m sorry, you’re right, let’s get goin’, it was worth a shot though, wasn’t it?” He will nod yes with his head, but he will think no in his heart. We will load the boats in silence and launch and Phil will be smug and right, and I’ll feel bad for “wasting time.”
A car. A rumbling in the distance. Gravel. Dust. It’s the redneck. This mother f—-er stops and I’m giving him a piece of my mind, I think.
I eyeball him. I am right, I think. Gun or no, I am right and you can go to hell! “Howdy,” I say as smugly and rightly as I can.
“Hi,” he says not looking like he’s going to pull a gun out and try to intimidate me like he did the last time.
What the hell, I am thinking. This guy just threatened my life, now he’s gonna pull up on me as if nothing. Fuck that! He’s not getting away with that. I bring the issue right out into the open: “Sooooo, you gonna point that gun at me again?”
“I ran up on ya back there and you pointed the gun out the window like you were trying to scare me off. You don’t need to do that you know. Some people just want help. Not everyone is a nuisance or someone that’s tryin’ to kill ya.”
“No…” He looks genuinely hurt, and I feel the first rumblings of feeling like a complete and total dumbass. “No,” he continues, “I was cleanin’ that gun. I don’ think I ever sawya. I’m sorry. Did I scare you? No, that’s my new hunting rifle…” He turns to the story behind the gun – it’s the only safe ground for an awkward moment. “I got that rifle for my gran’son and I had it on the dash and was just cleanin’ it; I swear I didn’t see ya.”
I feel incredibly stupid. “I’m sorry myself,” I say. “From where I was standing, it looked like I ran up to your cab from the back and you pointed the gun out the window…”
“Naw, nawww, naw,” genuinely hurt.
We have an uneasy peace now. The misunderstanding has been sorted out, but the stone, that pit in your stomach that is left after all your rage and hurt and pain have subsided, is floating around under my solar plexus. He must feel it too, I think. He must know how pissed off I must have been and what I must have thought about him and his town. He must feel bad about my misjudgment. Now, he must just want to help.
“How can I help you?” he says.
“I’m just tryin’ to portage…”
“Portage your boats!” he affirms. Tony, his name, tells me that I’m only the eightieth kayaker to try and portage that bottleneck, that it’s practically world-famous for that, and that that’s the first thing he should have thought of when he saw me, and that he’s sorry. I say I’m sorry about fifty more times and accept his invitation to get in the cab, where the rifle sits ominously on the dashboard, and drive to Phillip.
Phillip looks semi-surprised to see me there in the passenger side of a pickup. He wished, secretly, for my insistence on finding a way to portage to be in vain. I was here now; I was right, sort of; and, it was time to find a way to drive one mile to save twenty miles.
Tony hops out of the truck and surveys the boats. “Ahhhh,” he says. “Inflatables. Ain’t never seen that.” He has an honest and quiet gait. I notice he has an inhaler instead of a phone in his cell phone holster.
“You got athsma?” I ask, trying to slather on some sense of common ground over this still uneasy peace.
“I do too.”
“It bother ya much?”
“Not much. I was up aroun’ (I’m talking southern again.) the Iowa border, an’ it got real bad there, not so much here.”
“Yeah, I gotta whole host of ailments. Pulmonary Fibrosis id one of ‘em.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Phil and I say simultaneously.
Tony decides he’s going to drive back and get his boat trailer because he “think [he] gotta empty wun, an’ I also gotta few watermelons I wanna giv’ yuh.”
What a cool guy, I think. And what a moron I feel.
Tony makes good on his watermelon promise. “You just cut duh hart out uvit,” he says. “Don’ even worrih ‘bout dem seeds.” The heart of the watermelon is pink and juicy and just about the most delicious damn think I’ve ever had in my life (Yes, I know I’ve said that before J.). Tony says it’s okay to leave the rest for the flies, helps us load our boats on his trailer, and says he’s going to drive us around town because “you cant leave Tiptonville, KY without learning a lil bit ‘bout duh history of dese parts.”
During the ride into town (where he’ll not only help us cut off those pesky 20 miles around what is known as Kentucky Bend but also 8 more by taking us to the Tiptonville boat launch – there indeed was no viable put-in point directly across the bottleneck – Phillip was right about that), Tony continually asks if we “need anything?” “Cigarettes, supplies, anything?”
“No,” I say watching him smoke his Pall Malls one after the other secretly wishing he would stop because though we are new friends, we’re still friends, and I really don’t want to watch Pulmonary Fibrosis consume his lungs.
Tony takes us to Reelfoot Lake, formed by the Great New Madrid Earthquake of 1811. He says there was an old Chickasaw Indian chief with a clubfoot who fell in love with a Choctaw princess down south. When her love was denied to him, he stomped his foot causing the great earthquake. He smiles because the legend is good and can tell I like the story. He points out the Cyprus trees in the lake and I think they’re beautiful. Phil snaps some photos, and we’re off to the boat launch.
The boat launch is at Mile Marker 873. Tony helped us cut 27 miles and stoked my mental fires about the history of the area with his stories of the clubfooted chief, the greatest earthquake in U.S. history, and the Battle of Island Number Ten where 700 Confederate soldiers held off 15,000 Union soldiers. 300, anyone?
An old farmer with no teeth has parked in front of the boat launch. I think he sees that we want to get down there but chooses to walk down to the riverfront to watch the current. Fucking red…, I start thinking and stop myself. I’ve already done this, I think. I’ve already misperceived today; I don’t want to do it again. Maybe he’s just old and doesn’t realize we’re there, I think. Tony isn’t having any of it. He rips the boat trailer around the guy in reverse and deftly steers the trailer over young saplings parking it not 12 inches from the water. Damn, I think.
The old farmer walks up the hill not giving us a second glance. He has been bested, I think. Tony didn’t get mad at him, challenge him, and tell him to move out of the way. He just went around him. Maybe that’s what I need to do – not get mad at people. Go around them. Not take them personally. Because, as with the case of Tony, I am wrong many times. I don’t see things as they really are. I said a small blessing for the skinny, old farmer with no teeth and wished him well. Tony had taught me to do that without saying a word.
Phillip and I are good at offloading things now, and have the boats packed and ready to go at the water’s edge before Tony can finish half of his new cigarette. All we can do now is talk. Tony tells us that he left home when he was 18. He worked in the barge trade on the Ohio River working his way up to Steersman. When we tell him about The Hitchhiking Movie, he says he hitched out to California and got stuck in Arizona. He noticed a man walking through the middle of the desert and decided to follow him. The man was a Native American going to see his tribe. Tony stayed with the tribe drinking his fill of peyote and spending his days in sweat lodges until he wore out his welcome. He hitched on to California where he stayed in Timothy Leary’s compound and had “all the windowpane [he] could handle.”
I ask him what windowpane is and Phillip (Mr. I Grew Up Seventh Day Adventist) knows that it’s LSD. Misperceptions; things are not what they seem: Phil knows LSD, I know portages and saving time, Tony is not a redneck. He is a world traveler who tells us that the Mississippi River is life, “a source of life” he says. “I don’t just fish for fishing,” he says. “I fish for meat; it feeds my family. You’ve got to respect life; you’ve got to know that the Mississippi can take your life. I seen people live on this river for 20 years and die because they get too cocky. You don’ want that; you gotta respect life.”
I feel extremely stupid now. This “redneck” has outschooled me and outclassed me. I thought he was going to kill me and now he teaches me about decency having given me 3 new watermelons out of his garden as well as sacks of apples and pears from his orchards.
Boy do I feel dumb, I think again and then stop myself. Misunderstandings are blessings, I think. We might never have had this special moment had I not got so angry. Without these levels of embarrassment and humiliation, I would never have got the lesson that the world needs so dearly: Things are not what they seem.
Tony ends the conversation and gives me his phone number. “I’m takin’ care of my grandson,” he says, and I wonder where the father is but then thank god that Tony’s raising the boy instead of his deadbeat dad. I wish Tony could be my father, I think.
Tony invites me to go catfishing next year, and I all but take him up on it. There is much more I need to learn about respecting the Mississippi River as a source of life. There is much I have learned today about respecting people. “You’re not always right about everybody,” Tony says without saying it as he gets into the truck. “You have much to learn,” he says after he is gone.
And I do have much to learn, for today I have misperceived. And in the future I hope I can forever be pleasantly wrong.
Thank you, Tony, for teaching me today. I hope one day, I can perceive things as you do where one can find the respect first, and the answers to his questions later.
“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.
Phillip and I are in the boat. We are fighting a lot.
“Paddle toward the shore!”
“No, you’re not, you’re paddling toward the middle of the current, I can feel it.”
“You’ve got such a stick up your ass, what the hell!”
“Don’t talk to me like…”
Phillip and I are in the boat, joking a lot.
“Do you believe that guy who claimed old barge captains used to run their barges onto shore to camp for the night…”
“That’s ridiculous. How the hell would you…”
“How would you get it off! laugh laugh laugh!”
“That must have been when barge piloting was rogue.”
“Yeah, back in the seventies the barge pilots used to ram the shore like nobody’s business. They would fix gun turrets on the bough and fire rounds into the hulls of passing boats, laugh laugh laugh.
“And then they’d run those big oil tankers toward Cairo. This dude, laugh, poked a hole in the side and let a stream of oil run out, then he dove in with a lighter and lit the thing on fire as it careened into Cairo setting the whole place on fire, laugh laugh double laugh.
Phillip and I are running into people a lot.
Shawn Woods is fat. He may be reading this, I know; but, it’s the truth, and he knows it. “Ima little on the heavy side,” he will soon chuckle. An hour ago Phillip motioned me to come up the only boat ramp in Wickcliffe, Kentucky (that’s right! we’re in Kentucky, yay us!); a couple sat in a pick-up truck handing him a Wal Mart 12-pack of bottled water. “Howdy,” I said as southern as I could. Why the hell do I do that?
“Howdy, yerself!” Smiling… cool. “Where y’all stayin’ fer tha night?”
“Dunno,” Phil and I said simultaneously.
“Well,” Shawn says, “itsa bit out in tha cuntry, but y’all kin stay with us. We gotta huntin’ cabin, mah daddy usetuh use it, but isgot runnin’ wawder an’ Direct TV, even now.” Holy Mother of Jesus! Direct TV??? May you be anointed with oil, my son, and sent to heaven with the angels!
“Sounds good, Shawn, we’re there.”
Shawn wuddn’t (see, I’m talking southern now) lyin’. His “hunting cabin” had a shower, two toilets, a dryer, big screen TV, and carpeted floors. Holy Jesus, I thought. There were two beds – one for Phil, one for me. How happy I am when these things happen. If I could be grateful for one thing during this trip, it’s that I am much more appreciative of little things – showers, homes, warmth, good cooked food (Sharon, his wife, makes pork steaks and baked potatoes with butter and chives and holy crap it’s good and oh my god MILK! you blessed woman and cornbread!? you gotta be kidding me – may you sit at the foot of God in Heaven! “This is great, Sharon,” I say. She demurs, but Shawn picks up the slack – “It is good, ain’t it? My brother, he use a special seasonin’ that makes that pork steak taste good; it don’t taste good if you don’t cook it raght.”
I can’t believe my eyes but Phillip is eating pork. “Uhhhh, you sure about that buddy?” I ask, and he glares. “I told you I’ll eat anything once.” You’ll eat anything when you’re starving, I think and laugh to myself. (Yes, though you not believe it, Mr. Hullquist, Phillip ate pork, lol J.)
Sharon shows me a picture of her little boy – he’s in a policeman’s uniform attempting to draw a toy gun out of a holster. He’s got taxi cab ears and a protruding lip that makes him look just like an 8-year-old Barney Fife. “Looks like Barney Fife!” I say. Sharon laughs, “That’s what I said!” Shawn disagrees: “I just thawt he looked like a crazy, old po-leece-man. Ha ha ha ha.”
Backdraft is on and a little boy that looks a lot like the boy in the picture bolts through the door. “I luuuhve this movie!” he says and hops over the back of the couch plopping down. “Don’t ewe jump on the furniture like that!” Sharon says. “Ooooohh, goooo on, yewww!” the little boy responds. A girl walks in. She looks a lot like the girl in another picture Sharon showed me. The cabin, I find out later, is actually on the Woods’s land; and, young kids anxious not to go to school tomorrow are more anxious to jump on the furniture and find out who these strange guys standing in their granddaddy’s cabin are and tell their mother that paddling the river is crazy and that these guys must be insane and probably should sleep outside.
Sharon asks me if I need anything else. “Nothing,” I say. “Don’ lie to me,” she says. “Whatchu want?” Can’t lie to a mother. “Milk,” I say. “I drank it all, sorry.”
“Ooooh, shewt, you gonna say sahrry to me? You just hush. I’m gonna get you some…”
“Oh, no ma’am, don’t go to the trouble, I can drink…”
“I said hush! Shawn, I’m goin’ to the store an’ get this boy some milk; what else we need?”
Shawn shows me the snake skins he found in his garage, the heads of animals he shot, his duck call which he plays and my lord in heaven does it sound like a duck! Little Barney Fife, Mason actually, says, “That ain’t no way to play a duck cawl!” and grabs it from his father. He bellows out a few good duck tunes. I think I heard “hey baby, I’m ready for sex,” “oh my god there’s a fox in the nest!” and “did you see Quaggle McQuacksmith’s new hairstyle, she looks like a total tramp,” but I could be wrong.
Barney (Mason! J), Sharon, Shawn and Daughter shuffle off to bed. “Here are the lights ef yew need’em.”
“Thanks, Shawn; this is great.”
“Yeah, I gotta say I gotta get up at 4 in the mornin’ to go to work, so I’ll take you boys intuh town fer yer boats ‘bout 4:30.” I about fainted.
“Ok, great!” I lied. Phillip and I worked on the internet until 2 in the morning. “Two hours a’ sleep, buddy?”
“Yup,” he said, “two hours.”
We made it to the boats in the morning without falling over and paddled pretty much the whole day without a nap – don’t ask me how.
Four miles downstream, a fisherman stopped us. “Where y’all headed?”
“New Orleans! Stayed with a guy last night in Wickcliffe; got started a little while ago.”
“Who’dja stay with?”
“Uhhhh, Shawn and Sharon somethin’ or other.”
“Big ol’ hippopotamus ears? Big ol’ guy, heavy set? Bald on top with fair skin?”
“Ha! Yeah, that’s the one!”
“Yeah, I known him ferever. Y’all stayed with a good bunch. Real good people.”
In the next few days, Phillip and I fight some more, we joke some more, and run into more people. Most will be short interactions: “Where y’all goin, oh that’s neat, oh ya’ll have a good day.” And some will be special. Some will last a long time. For some, you will see Granddaddy’s hunting cabin, you will hear Son’s duck call, you see Sharon’s tan skin and wonder how she got so tan. Daughter will make faces when you tell them you’re paddling the river, and a man you’ve never seen before will say he knows who you stayed with and that you were lucky to stay with people so nice. And you will say, “Yes I am lucky. I’m lucky to have stayed with people as good as the Woodses.” And you will feel very, very content.
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.
There he is – beady red eyes, disheveled beard, doesn’t this guy sleep?
“Hey bitch,” I say.
“Hey fag,” he says back.
He sits in front of me and now there is a man, a dude, in front of me where my gear used to be. I’ve been paddling alone for so long, but now someone cracks and bangs my paddle. WTF! This is my stroke! Now I’ve got to modify my stroke??? Yes, I do. I must play nice with the neighborhood kid, and his name is Phillip Hullquist.
SMACK! CRACK! CLANG! It’s been an hour now and we’re still not syncing our strokes. We did this at the start of the trip, way up in Minnesota. Back then we were very vocal about whose fault all this paddle banging nonsense was.
Phillip – mine.
Me – Phillip’s.
Now we say nothing. We’re mature now. We know that our strokes will sync up soon; and, in another hour, it is so – the banging stops.
I was hoping my last stretch of solo paddling would be a bittersweet one. Ahhhhhh, I am here in front of the St. Louis Arch; it is beautiful. A gentleman named Kyle helps me patch a hole; a gentleman named Bill helps me pack and asks when I’ll get to New Orleans. An Asian family gawks and takes pictures. An elderly man tells me how amazing I am and how amazing this is and how amazing it would be for him to do this but he can’t because (insert stock excuse). I am happy; I want this to last forever, but I can’t because Phillip is thirsty and says he hasn’t drunk water since 3 o’clock yesterday and I’m taking too long and we have to get going because we need to make New Orleans in 30 days.
It was not to be. The stretch between the Gateway Arch and where Phillip was camping (just below the I-255 bridge) was harrowing, an absolute washing machine. Barge traffic is thick, and each barge has its own brand of wake that bangs and ricochets off a narrow concrete-lined channel where your oar hits air here then wave there, you cuss and scream because your boat is being tossed about then to then fro then back and then Jesus this is a madhouse and then this is much worse than Lake Winnibigoshish! I’m digging my oar into this mess of confused sea, cussing verbally, angry. “Mother F-ing dashedy dashedy dash!” The help on the parked barges looks at me like I’m out of my mind. “I AM out of my mind,” I respond to a fat deckhand though he said nothing to me.
The washing machine is over now, and I’m on my way to Phillip where he’ll suck down Gatorade like a fish gasping for water, and he’ll tell me I’m late, and we’ll try not to argue with one another, and we’ll try to play nice like neighborhood kids should do.
We’ve got to average 35 miles a day to make New Orleans, to make it back to Nashville where The Hitchhiking Movie is showing in a film festival on October 9. Impossible before the locks and dams. Entirely doable now. I pull out the GPS before reaching Phillip. “Holy Mother of God,” I say aloud. “I’m gasp going 8.3 miles an hour!” Im-freaking-possible! I check again. Holding steadily at 7.5. “Ohhh my god!” If you didn’t know, my average speed (without a headwind) was around 4 mph in the locks-and-dams portion of the Mississippi. Now, it seemed, Phil and I would be able to hold 7 without much trouble. I was ecstatic.
After Phil downed his Gatorade (thanks, Kyle!) and seemed rather impressed with my ability to pack a boat (hell, I’ve only been at this for the last 6 weeks), I could see he was happy to be back on the river. “It’s like she was a little girl in pig-tails,” he said, “and now she’s all grown up.”
The River is Life and It must grow like all else.
The paddles bang and clack, we adjust.
Phil moves his seat straight back, my feet are cramped, we adjust.
The river grows from a little girl to a big raging hag with three kids, we adjust.
Phil is back, I must adjust.
I’m happy until he criticizes the condition of the water-tight camera housing. “It’s all scratched up,” he forlorns. That’s life, I think. “I’m sorry,” I say. I know life is also keeping relationships solid, on an even keel. He is my new bedfellow, my new kayakfellow. He’s here; life has changed as the river has changed; and now two men are flowing down the river instead of one. Two men are making decisions. Two men are deciding when to eat, when to stop, when to go, who to talk to and why.
What other changes will come? Who will decide what? When?
I don’t know.
We didn’t expect for me to have to do the Middle Mississippi alone; I did.
Part of me wasn’t expecting Phillip to return; he did.
We adjusted; we had to; the river was life, and the only way to end that life was not to adjust.
Phillip says, “You seem much more comfortable with the wear and tear on the gear than I am.”
I want to defend why the gear is worn and torn and say, “I think it is part of life, part of being on the river, but yes I don’t take care of things as well as you probably do.”
He offers a half-smile. This is sufficient for now – a morsel of honesty, a candy-coated apology.
“Well,” he says, “what do you want for dinner?”
I smile. “Beans, anyone?”
We laugh and make Miley Cyrus jokes and Wes Herndon (hey, Wes! comin’ your way!) jokes and curse and talk loudly and comment that the barge spotlight looks like the Eye of Mordor, ha ha ha ha ha.
And it is good. We are safe in our tents – two men, two sets of decisions… one goal. The River is Life and now we are one in that life, together in one boat, on our way to the point where we won’t have to adjust anymore.