Category Archives: The River is Life

Boats, Trains, and Automobiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Me in St. Louis

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

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

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

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

New Goals

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

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

A Promise Kept

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

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

Last Train to Clarksville? First Boat to Saint Louis!

“What are you doing on the floor!”

“I dunno.”

“Get up!  You got an audition in 5 minutes.”

“I know.  I’m not going.”

“What!”  He was aghast.

“I said I’m not doin’ it.  I don’t want to be an actor anymore.”

“Dude!  Listen, no!  You’re good at this.  You can’t give up acting.  This is the Second City Conservatory – do you know how hard it is to get in here?  You’re a shoo-in; Norm (the director of the school) loves you!”

“I don’t give a shit.”  I got up off the floor.  The taste of tile was in my mouth.  A Mexican man with a smile on his face walked in with blue cleaners in plastic bottles.  The janitor, I thought.  I hate him; he looks so happy.

Simon brushed me off as I walked toward the elevator to get the hell out of there, to get away from acting forever.  “No!” he screamed standing between me and the elevator.  Two minutes and I was to go on.  “You can’t!” he screamed.  “You gotta audition!  I mean…  I mean just try it…  Just go before Norm, do your audition and if you don’t want to stay in the school, you don’t have to, but don’t… don’t quit now…”  I don’t know why it was so important for Simon that I audition.  I think he thought I was out of my mind and not thinking straight.  He certainly had that right – it’s not every day you have a nervous breakdown and collapse on the bathroom floor of the most sought-after comedy school in the country.

Simon picked me up then.  He brushed me off.  He looked like a mother hen, if a mother hen could be 6’5″, bearded, Middle-Eastern looking and worried as hell.  He pushed me before Norm Holly.  I gave a half-assed, half-hearted audition.  Norm said I was in, and I’ve never felt like such a fraud in all my life.  On my worst day, I could still act; but, I still didn’t give a shit about acting, and that was a problem.  I emailed Norm the next day and told him my decision:  Dear Norm,  Thank you for admitting me into the Second City Conservatory program.  I’m going to Europe for a year, so I won’t be attending.  I’m very sorry for all this.  Take care, Ryan.

Norm could care less.  He said it was normal.  He told me a year or so later that he had a similar nervous breakdown.  He had been cast in a Shakespeare in the Park production and would stand outside the ticket line in full costume, a Roman soldier, imploring potential patrons to go home. “What’re’you doin’?  Just go home!”  “I didn’t want to do that to my cast members,” I told Norm in response.  “That’s why I went to Europe.”

In Europe I would grab bystanders and ask them to hold the camera as I narrated what I was seeing and what I was doing.  Little did I know these were the makings of what I would be doing today.  Little did I know I would enjoy it so much.  I’m glad to have had a nervous breakdown even if neither I nor Simon understood it at the time.  And I’m glad Simon picked me up, both off the floor and from a tiny Missouri town, to take me to his brand new, St. Louis apartment.  I’m glad to be here, with him now.

Simon’s Place

He’s married, to his college sweetheart.  “I’ve always liked Amy,” I tell him.  “You better, or I’ll kick your ass,” he says.  We’re smiles.  The drive home is rainy and I’m glad to be off the river.  “So holy shit man,” he says, “this is like the craziest thing ever – you paddling down the river.”

I look at him.  “Is it really crazy… for me?”

He looks at me.  “Ha!  No, no, no for you.  Ha ha ha.”

His place is wonderful – spacious and woody.  There’s a cat.  “I’m alergic to cats,” I say remembering that Jody (from this post) said I’m not allergic to cats, I just think I am.  I decided to take a deep breath.  “You got any allergy medicine?”

“Claritin.”

“Perfect.”  I pop one into my mouth and play the What If Game“What if I’m not allergic?  What if it’s all a game?  What if my cells really believe this time that I’m not under attack from cat dander and I just chill and feel good and don’t have to wheeze and cough and rub my eyes?  What if I feel great!” It worked.  I didn’t wheeze or cough or rub my eyes all night.  Claritin or spiritual guidance or both worked.

Where Simon Picked Me Up

It was a small town by the name of Clarksville.  It had the most beautiful of all the riverfronts I’ve seen so far (and I think I’ve seen quite a few small-town riverfronts).  A man sees me tying my boat up and eyeing the rainclouds.  He is shirtless, 50 years old and powerful.  He looks like he could bench press a bull.  Hands on hips, he walks up to me and says nothing.  It looks as though he’s searching for the words to say.  His mustache is white when he looks down, not at my eyes.  “Hi!” I say as enthusiastically as I can.  Still nothing.  Hands on hips.  Looking down.  Finally he says, “I, I saw your boat, that’s…”  Long pause.

“Yeah!” I offer, “I’m paddling down the entire Mississippi River.”

“That’s…”  Hands, hips, pause.  “…wonderful.”

Mike Brewer, his name, takes me to his house.  He has an old canoe he’s built himself.  His wife? I believe at the time is rummaging around her SUV not 30 feet away and says nothing to me as Mike takes me through the birth and life of his canoe which has CLARKSVILLE, MISSOURI hand-painted on the side.  “She’s (there’s that word again ‘she;’ I love it!  I love calling physical objects ‘she!’) old, but she runs.  I took ‘er down the Missouri River in a race.  Lasted about 105 miles before I pulled out, so I know what you’re going through.”  He runs his hands along the side of the wooden canoe as if he’s in love.  It looks more like a kayak and I tell him so.  “No, no,” he says.  “It’s a canoe.  This is an old design, the most popular design of its kind dating back to the turn of the the 20th century.”  He looks closer, still in love.

“This is my significant other,” he says introducing me to Becky.  She is strong and sturdy like Mike with giant biceps.  Have I run into Jack LaLanne and his wife? She’s older (you can tell) but her skin is tan and smooth.  She’s carrying organic chicken and cilantro and cabbage.  Healthy, I think.  Her, I mean, not the cabbage.

I think about hanging around till they ask me to dinner, but I don’t do this.  I think I’ve pushed my luck a little too much with this little gambit.  I don’t want to overdo this social engineering spell I use, so I tell them that I’m walking back to my tent and thank you.  Mike says okay and covers his boat back up.  “I’ll drive you down,” he says.

“You’re in law enforcement,” I say in the car.

“No cops in Clarksville,” he says.

Take the last, um, boat to Clarksvile.
Take the last, um, boat to Clarksvile.

“Really?  I’m usually right about these little intuitions.”  I smile.

“You’re not far off.  I’m city alderman.  When there is a dispute, guess who goes?”

Probably the guy who can bench press 5000 pounds, I think.

Mike drops me off and I go to setting up my tent.  I think that maybe I should have asked to stay for dinner but just thought it wasn’t right.  Before I can get to my tent some young fishermen stop me.  “Goin’ down the river?” they say and “man, that’s crazy” and “wouldju like some Mountain Dew?”  While I’m chatting, a catfish bites one of their lines and is pulled out.  “Holy crap!” I say.  “It’s gotta be 10 pounds!”  It looks big to me, but they laugh.

“Naw, more like one pound.”

I grab him.  He’s slimy and wiggly and I jump when he jumps.  Indeed – only a pound.  The biggest catfish to ever be pulled out of the Mississippi was 124 pounds.  How freaking big do you think it looked!  Mike sneaks in behind me now almost unnoticed.  Where the hell did he come from? “Hi,” he says, hands on hips again.  “I don’t know where my manners were, but I should have invited you over for dinner.  I’m sorry,” he says.  His arms have got to be 20 inches around.  “We’re having chicken.”

“Much better than beans,” I say, and he smiles.

“This home,” he says outside his house, “is 150 years old.”  The door is creaky and there is no air-conditioning.  “We redid it,” Becky says to me smiling and “glad you came.”  It smells good, I think, and Mike tells me about the blue metal cabinets from the fifties that used to be in the home and how there was a relic from each decade in the house:

Cabinets – 1950’s

Archway – 1860’s

Patio – 1910’s

I think the home is beautiful and say “as long as there’s Direct TV it can be a hobbit hole for all I care.”  Laugh, laugh, laugh.

Dinner

I chat and eat and talk about religion and the forbidden politics and how I don’t think it’s going to rain and that I will make it back to my tent before that thunder gets worse.  After all, they’ve offered me dinner, but not their couch – I don’t want to push it.  Soon the heavens open and it’s a downpour.

“Do you have anything that’ll get wet?” Mike asks.

“All of it’s getting wet!”

“Ha, ha ha.  No, I mean that you don’t want to get wet.”

“I don’t want any of it to get wet!”

“Ha!  You…”

“No, Mike, thanks for being concerned.  It’s all fine.  Most of the stuff I need is here.”

“Sleep on the couch if you like,” Becky says and I don’t feel like a fraud or that I’ve socially engineered my way into this situation.

The rain comes down in sheets all night.  I watch Two and a Half Men reruns and feel cozy.  The dog sleeps under me and reminds me of my childhood dog.  When the thunder barks, she nuzzles next to me and I protect her as she protects me.  I flip the remote switch.  Off.  It’s dark and I’m in a stranger’s home.  Becky has copies of Oxygen magazine all over the place and I thumb through one and find out how to get the sexiest abs ever.  The dog howls, I pet her, she stops, I sleep.

Tomorrow, Mike is up.  “Goin’ into the city,” he says and I shoot up in the couch trying to fake like I was already awake.  I laugh on the inside because “going into the city” means a 30 second drive.  “You need anything?” Mike asks not waiting for an answer.  “There’s cantaloupe and cereal… coffee… make yourself at home,” he says with hands on his hips still searching for the words.  I thank him, wait till he leaves and go straight back to bed.  God, my shit’s gonna be wet, is the last thing I think before dozing off and waking at 10 o’clock.

Mike’s at the door an hour later. “Sorry I’m late,” he says, and I can’t remember what time he said he’d be back.  I’ve eaten 3 bowls of Special K and have read 3 of Becky’s Oxygens and know now how to go green while flattening my tummy and having better sex all at the same time.  Mike says, “Let’s, uhh, go down to City Hall and meet the mayor.”

The mayor is tall and older.  She’s happy to have me in her town and is really proud of the city seal that Mike designed.  Mike is embarrassed.  He’s designed 90 percent of the signs in the town and they all look beautiful.  Like I said, prettiest riverfront I’ve seen yet.  She is stately yet kind, and pretty much what you might expect from a small-town diplomat.

Over lunch Mike tells me that he wishes that every citizen in the United States could be a city alderman for just one term to see what it’s like to work in governmet so they wouldn’t be like he was – a complainer who wished for government to magically solve every problem in the book, funds or no.  “We get guys comin’ in here,” he says, “sayin’ ‘fix that pothole!’ and they don’t realize that we have one maintenance man for the whole town and that it’s going to cost money, because the next thing they’ll say is ‘don’t raise my taxes!’  ‘Well,’ I think, ‘where are we going to get the money to pay the maintenance guy who’s going to fix your pothole?’  Like I said – just one term to see what it’s like.  It’d do every citizen good.”  Amen.

Simon calls me.  “I’m about an hour away,” he says, and Mike helps me get my stuff ready.  We walk down to the riverfront.  Yesterday I had pulled my boat 4 feet onto the shore.  Now it is bouncing around 2 feet into the water.  “Uhhhhh,” I say, “good thing I tied ‘er up!”

“Yeah!” Mike laughs.  Mike tells me that the water line used to be halfway up the buildings during the flood.  That FEMA and SEMA and other private/quasi-private organizations helped stack over 1 million sandbags last year to save the town.  “We were the only town in this region to try and save ourselves,” he says.  “The rest of ’em just let the floods come and figured they’d handle the damages later.”  It cost the city forty thousand to do what we did, but I think we made the right decision.”

“You’ve got to make tough decisions every day,” I say.

He smiles.  “Every day… every day.”

Simon is here.

He has a Jetta and I tell him I don’t know where I’m going to put my kayak.  “You said it was an inflatable!” he says.  “Yeah,” I say, “but it doesn’t deflate.”

“What the… what???  I…”

“Ha ha ha ha ha.  Gotcha.”

“F—ing bastard!” he laughs and hugs me.

We pack my gear in and Mike looks a little sad.  “It was so weird,” he said.  “I was reading about river kayakers and thought about taking The Clarksville on the Mississippi, and here you show up!”

“We’ll be in touch,” I say and shake his hand.  “Tell Becky thanks again.”

“Will do, will do.”  Mike looks at the ground.  His hands are on his hips again and I know why he looks down now.  He has the whole city on his shoulders.

“Dude!” Simon says in the car and “where the hell have you been!” and “this is crazy!” and “good to see ya!” and “you bastard, this is farther than it looks.”  Hug, hug, kiss, kiss.

The rain starts pouring again, but Simon is smiles.  I am smiles.

“I’m glad to see you, Simon.”

“Dude, F in A, glad to see you!”

The rain clears up now and I can see the St. Louis arch.  “Wow!” I say.  “It really is amazing.”

“Oh, fuck yeah!  You gotta see some stuff while you’re here.”

Simon, I think in his car, is probably the only person who could have made me audition.  Anyone else and I woulda told ’em to go fuck themselves.  What a good friendHe probably doesn’t even remember it, I think and decide not to bring it up.  I decide not to tell him what a good friend he is directly but try to remain as jovial and thankful and as “goddamn it’s good to be off the river” as possible until he’s not only glad he picked me up off the river but off that bathroom floor in Chicago.

Dear Brother Simon,

Thank you for picking me up.

Ryan

Kids will Inherit the Earth

Current Location:  Louisiana!!!!!  Okay, it’s only the town of Louisiana, about 80 miles north of Saint Louis, in Missouri, but hell! one can dream!

Location for this Story:  La Grange, Missouri

“Hey dude, like, do you got kids in that boat!”

“What?”

“You got kids in that boat?”

A woman speaks:  “Aye thawt ewe haid keeuds in thait boaut!” (A twang?  A country twang in her voice?  What the hell?  Hold on; I gotta check something on Wikipedia – yup, Missouri is indeed south of the Mason-Dixon line and was unfortunately a slave state… I am in the American South.)

“Um,” I say, “no, no kids.”

“Oooohhh, sarrreyyyy!”

There are two tan women and one tan man in a flatboat with a fairly large motor.  Their cooler is full of beer.  Mmmmmmmm, my stomach thinks.

“You wanna beer?”  Oh, you holy, blessed angel!

“Yes!”  It’s Mich Ultra – I love this beer.

“So ur laik goin’ dowun the whole Miss’sippi?”

“Yes.”

“Waaaauuuuwww!” the two women say simultaneously.  The man tending the motor looks serious.  This has happened repeatedly to me now:  the women ooh and aah, and the man looks gruff.  “Iiuts ma barthday tiday!” the hotter of the two says.  “I’m drunk already but I’m gonna get more drunk.  Woooooooo!”  She raises her bottle in the air and almost falls down in the boat.  I know this is coming when she says, “You wanna come out with us tinaaaait!”

“Um, maybe,” I say.  I already had a redneck experience (scratch that – I’ve had several redneck experiences) at the whim and beckon call of drunks on this trip, and my intuition is firing thought bombs at me:  “Sayyyyyyyyy nooooo!  BOOM!  Dooooon’t dooo it!  BANG!”

I’m very tempted.  I know that I will probably get a shower; I know that they will probably take me downriver via truck the next morning; I know the hot girl (who tells me she has three kids) will probably hit on me, will probably make her husband jealous, her husband will offer me beer and shots in an effort to appease me and implore me not to hit back on his wife; I will probably be semi-drunk when I go to bed; I will probably wake up the next day and feel like I gotta get goin’ and try and get drunk/hungover crowd to take me somewhere; I know these things will happen.  So before they can say more, I say…

“Guys, actually, I’m just going to paddle down to La Grange.  I’ll give you my phone number, and you can call me when you’re ready to go out.  Then you can pick me up.”

“Okaaaaaaaayyyy!” they shout.  Gruff man at the till is looking despondent and trying to convince drunk girls that it’s a bad idea and that I don’t want to go out.  I just about accept the offer just to shut him up, but fortunately I don’t.

“Weeee’re the taype of gurls that actually fulfill their promises,” they say.  “Some people say they gonna call.  WE’LL ACTUALLY CALL!”

They don’t call.  I’m glad.

La Grange

I pull my boat into La Grange.  It’s late, but not too late.  I’m looking forward to sleeping somewhere flat and hopefully soft.  Though I gave the gruff dude a hard time, he did let me know there was flat campground in La Grange just before the city limits.  He was probably trying to get me away from “his” women, but whatever – I had what I wanted.

I pull off the plastic storage box my step-dad bought me (BTW, Dad, it works.  I was a skeptic at first but I like it now:)), and three kids show up.  Their ages and respective size move in descending order:  Alden – 17 – 6’1″; Austin – 14 – 5’9″; Chris – 12 – 5’6″.  Alden comes up to me, the leader:  “Whatca doin’!  Holy crap, you’re paddling down the river!  That’s so cool.”  Chris looks as if he’s smoking though he’s not.  He’s laid back:  “Yeah, cool.”  Austin is silent.  He says ‘hello’ and ‘holy crap’ only with his eyes.  He’s reserved and silent and I identify with him immediately.  Alden now:  “Dude, like, give me something; I wanna carry something.  Guys, start carrying things.”  They pick up my things and help me carry it to some flat ground in the middle of some trees.  “Nobody’s gonna bother you here,” Alden says.  “Oh crap,” he says.  “I got black stuff on your pack.”

“Don’t worry,” I say.  Alden, Austin and Chris were playing at the foundry – once the reason for La Grange’s existence, now closed down.  “See that ladder?” Alden says.  It looks more like coal elevator to me, but for Alden’s purposes, it was a ladder.  “I climbed that thing!” he says.  “I got coal all over me; that’s why we were going to the river, to wash off.”  Austin remains silent offering only a phrase or two.  The youngest, Chris, is still laid back smoking without smoking.  “Puff,” he says, “Cool.”

“Do you need anything!” Alden says.

“Um, I need to get the mud out of my tent poles.  You gotta high-powered hose?”

“Oh yeah!”  In a flash he’s on his cell phone.  “Mom!  There’s this guy here and he’s paddling down the Mississippi.  No, I’m not lying…  Well, that was last time; I’m telling the truth this time.  Dude, like, Mom!  Please!  Just come get us…”

“No, Alden, look, I can walk…”

Alden laughs.  “Ha ha, dude, no, I mean, sir, what do I call you…”

“Ryan.”  LOL.

“Ryan, it’s uphill, trust me.”

Alden’s mom pulls up in a semi-new pick-up.  She is blond and looks nothing like her son.  She has on a Harley Davidson top, blue jeans, and is eying me suspiciously but within the bounds of healthy suspicion.  This is her son; I am a stranger; I am riding in her car.  She asks the questions, I hand her the card, all is well.

The hose is working well getting the mud out.  A few errant sprays catch the boys who are hovering around… watching a guy clean his tent poles!!!  I can only conjecture that not much happens in La Grange, and when a random dude pulls in off the river saying he’s going to New Orleans, watching him do ANYTHING is exciting.

“Sorry for sprayin’ ya.”

“No!” Alden says.  “We’re sorry, aren’t we guys!”

“Yeah, yeah, smoke, yeah.”

Alden is going to Northwestern next year and will major in broadcasting.  I tell him my movie idea where I live with the sewer children of Mexico City for 30 days.  “I’ll totally go in the sewer!” he says.  Maybe he will, I think.  I’ve finished cleaning the poles.  Alden hands me two Mug Root Beers, we hop in the car, and I’m back at my tent.  Mom semi-implores the boys to follow her back to the house but knows it’s futile.  This is the coolest thing that has happened in La Grange in over a week.  “Okay, boys,” she says.  “Be safe.”  She looks at me.  I do my best to tell her with my eyes that I’m not a killer, but have run into this distrust (healthy or otherwise) question so much that I just don’t care anymore.  “Thank you, Mrs. Alden’s Mom,” I say, and she laughs.  The boys want to know if they can help.  I say no, but they can watch me set up and I’ll talk about my adventure.  I try to talk about my adventure, but Alden and Chris and at times Austin are the talkative ones:  “Dude!  Like in that house over there, a guy totally killed his family.  There was a swastika, or, not the swastika but the star one…”

“Pentagram?”

“Pentagram!  A pentagram on the wall.  Dude, I’m not lyin’!”  That unfortunately was a true story.

“Dude!” Chris says now after a few fake puffs (Chris, if you’re reading this, don’t take up smoking!  I’m just trying to characterize you.  Smoking is stupid and gay and dumb!  Nein, neit, no, non, nicht!  Stupid, gay, dumb!)  “Dude, I read this book and this alien like comes down to the Earth and he’s actually a reptile and they like live among us and you don’t know but anyone can be a reptile and they control our lives and the internet and are probably controlling us now…”

“That’s stupid,” Austin says.  He’s quietly coming out now, erupting from a thousand year sleep:  “That can’t happen.  You should be reading Kurt Cobain’s diaries; that’s at least real.”

“You like Kurt Cobain?” I ask.

Alden now:  “He’s like his freaking idol.”

“Really,” I say and I know Austin is an artist.

“Yeah,” Austin says.  “They’re fascinating.”  We talk about how Kurt was on the wrong medication for his digestive disorder which caused him considerable pain.  We talk about how many artists face incredible emotional pain as well and that it’s too bad he committed suicide but that one should understand that when one is in pain.  Austin instantly loves me for this.

“Dude!” Alden says looking at his phone again, “We need to get pizza!”

This idea sounds marvelous.  “I’ll throw in five bucks and grab a few slices if that’s all right,” I say.

Alden looks like I’ve punched him in the face.  “No!” he affirms.  “You’re like paddling down the river; you need that money.  We’ll take you out.  Austin, get your mom to take us to Canton.”  Canton is the town I just paddled from, where the drunk people wanted to take me out, and I think about running into them.  “Call me back, eh?” I would say, and they would feel stupid.

The kids help me lock down my stuff and lead me into town.  Austin and Chris’s (they’re brothers) mom’s house is not up the hill like Alden’s.  It’s a short walk.  “See that sign?” they ask.  It is a U-TURN sign.  Someone has spray painted GAY under U-TURN so that it reads ‘U TURN GAY.’  “We did that,” they confess to me later.  We walk past the house where the man killed his family.  We come to a brick home with cats everywhere.  I walk inside and there is more cat dander than Sean Hannity has portraits of himself.  I say hello to the mom.  Her face is totally devoid of mistrust.  It is totally normal for a thirty-one year old paddler to walk into the middle of her living room.  And… it is.  “Let’s get pizza,” she says and we’re off to Canton.

Inside Primo’s Pizza we sit next to a family that Alden knows.  The family wants to know who I am, but is too afraid to ask, so I let them think I’m the mom’s new boyfriend.  Anything for the sake of small-town gossip.  The pizza is wonderful.  Alden flirts with the daughter right in front of her boyfriend.  It’s funny.  The mom is overly cordial and accepts anything I have to say.  “I’m going to make a million dollars with this movie,” I say.  “Great!” she says.  “I’m super famous,” I joke.  “Awesome,” she says as if I were telling the truth.  I love this woman.

On the ride back Austin shows me his Kurt Cobain diaries.  There are stories he had written, there are specifications for amplifiers he wanted and stage designs he wanted – within five minutes I know Kurt was a genius, and I hope Austin turns out to be a genius as well.  Tomorrow Austin will tell me why he’s living in La Grange with his mother.  He was living in Fort Wayne, Indiana and was getting into serious trouble “stealing GPS systems out of cars,” he says, and “stealing guns out of glove boxes” and “you’d be surprised how many guns people have in glove boxes and how much you can get for them” and “I was the richest kid in school for a while and my dad was wondering how I had over 400 dollars a week in cash and how I was buying new parts for my computer all the time.”  I will film Austin while he’s saying this and feel a little bad, but I’ll also feel a little good.  I know he doesn’t do this stuff anymore.  I know he doesn’t do it in La Grange.  “You don’t do that here,” I say and he confirms it.  I go further:  “You probably didn’t feel too good at your dad’s and you probably were bored and probably were going to a big impersonal school and didn’t have too many friends.”  He confirms it.  “So you went robbing and stealing to get attention and have something to do.  Here you’ve got Alden and your brother and a nice social net and a mother who loves you.  In all, you feel pretty good here.  No need to steal when you’re feelin’ good, is there?”  “No,” he says.  “And thanks,” he adds.

And We’re Off

The next day, after my conversation with Austin and after I’ve packed my boat, the boys try a last-ditch effort to make me stay a little bit longer.  “You said you wanted dairy!” Alden says.

“Dairy?”

“Yeah, dairy.  Remember we were talking about what we were addicted to, and mine was Monster drink, and Austin’s was Mountain Dew…”  Austin is pounding a two-liter bottle of the Dew as Alden says this. “…and Chris’s…well, Chris isn’t addicted to anything..”  (You take up smoking and I’ll kill ya! :))  “…and you said yours is dairy, so come get some doughnuts and milk before you go!”  I do.  The doughnuts are good, the milk is good, and it’s time to go.

I turn the camera on.  I want to give these three young’ns something before I go.  So I give them some honesty:  “Don’t listen to anyone,” I say.  “People are going to try to pull you in a thousand directions at this age, and it’s going to take all you’ve got to keep your head.  You’re going to be asking yourself, ‘What should I do?  What should I do?’  But that’s all bullshit.”  They laugh when I say bullshit.  “The deal is that I’m 31.  I’m 31 and I’m just now doing what I really want to do which is paddle the Mississippi River.  For some, that’s stupid, but fuck it.”  They laugh again.  “You need to do what you want to do because you want to do it.  You need no other reason.”  I really have their attention now.  “You may have to work.  You may have to pay rent, but that’s life.  That’s planet Earth.  Tough shit.”  They don’t laugh.  “Nothing and no one can stop you from doing what you want to do.  Don’t wait till you’re 31; do it now.”  And I stop.  They are silent.  Chris starts talking about renting a canoe that day because he hasn’t been in forever and he really likes it and it costs 15 bucks.  I’m happy my words have had some impact and offer him 10 bucks.  Alden says, “No no, you need that money; we’ll put the fifteen bucks together.”

I get in the boat.  The boys are watching me again as if I were something amazing.  I’m more concerned that, ten years from now when I hear from them again, they tell me that they’ve followed their passions and are extremely happy, that Alden went into broadcasting not because mummy or daddy told him so but because he wanted to and that he worked some shit jobs along the way cuz he had to but now he’s in love and it’s all good.  I want to hear that not only did Chris not smoke but he owns his own gym or whatever floats his boat, or canoe :), that Austin emulated Kurt Cobain in every way but the manic-depressive/self-destructive ones and is beyond overjoyed with his life.  And the hopes for myself… I hope that I make it to New Orleans and beyond.  I hope that I heed my advice and don’t… don’t let these kids down.  They were so inspired by my journey (that has now become, in part, their journey) that I have to make it.  Not just to New Orleans, but I have to make it in terms of life.  I have to be (in whatever way I can in this life) an inspiration by doing what my heart really, really wants to do.  For these boys to enjoy life, for them to do what they really REALLY want to do, is the only blessing I would ever confer upon them or another human being.  That is the blessing I confer upon you Austin, on you Alden, and on you Chris.

Live your dreams.  It can be as simple as grabbing an oar and going.

P.S.  Glad y’all didn’t call me back up there in Canton.  Let me tell you… I had the time of my life.  Let the Earth and the River belong forever… to the children.

Cheers and love,

Ryan

Ryan’s First Gay River Experience!

Ha, ha ha, stop getting excited.  It’s not like that.  But I did run into a gay couple in Burlington, IA who was more than awesome.  Okay, all you straight (or gay) immature mother-f-ers, go ahead and make your gay jokes now:  yes yes, good one, oh yes, Ryan, did you go up shit creek with a paddle? yes good one… okay, you done?  No more?  Good.  These guys were super cool.  I met Wes via text message at first.

SMS:  hey ryan love reading your blog keep up the good work when you get to Burlington IA give us a ring Wes

SMS Reply:  sure good deal if I ever make it 🙂

SMS 2 Weeks Later:  hey ryan read your last entry just give us a call when you get to Burlington looks like ur close

Reply:  yes hey hows it goin thanks again will do

SMS:  hey Ryan, etc. etc.

Finally I just called him:  “Hey, this is Ryan. I’ve got a few texts from you.  You in Burlington?”

“Yes, Ryan, hi!  How are you !  When you get to Burlington just call, and we’ll go out to dinner or something.”

He was using first person plural so I just assumed he was married.  He had a very cordial, family-man tone; and, I must say, that at no time did I get a gay vibe.  Oh, what, you’ve got good gay-dar over the phone?  Yeah, bite me!  Stop the gay jokes!

I had talked to Wes probably 2 times before our first meet-up and was thoroughly convinced he was a straight man, mid-forties, with two kids.  He coached little league and decided to sport a beard last year.  He really likes blogs about rivers and wanted to just “help a brotha out” by giving a lowly paddler lodging, food, and a ride to Wal-Mart.  Boy was I wrong!  This guy totally tried to hit on me and was, like, showing me sex videos and talking about – gasp – Liza Minelli!  It was the worst experience of my life!  NOT!

Wes was ultra cool.  It was only my own paranoia I had to deal with when I realized he was gay; at no time did he or his partner do anything to make me feel anything but comfortable.  Though I roasted Paddy (Patty, Pattie?) in the Prairie du Chien post for her unfounded imaginings of all the ways I would probably kill her in her bed, I have to admit that I was not the epitomy of rational thought myself; I indeed had to deal with some creeping homophobia.

Wes Picks Me Up

I had been trying out my new sail that my dad, Uncle Bob and Uncle Steve (thanks, guys!) helped me build.  Waking up on Camp Island, just north of Burlington, my plan was to travel three miles to the lock and dam and meet Wes in his boat; however, lack of sailing skill and an overall retardedness (sorry, Mom, dementedness 🙂 – just doesn’t cut it, does it folks, um, overall… dumbnessness) made me skimmy around the water and I got only about a mile before I called Wes to tell him I wasn’t making the dam any time soon.

“Well, Ryan, I’m here with the boys and,” (ahhhhhh, such a fatherly, fatherly man, I thought, he has kids – that means a disposible income and a free room with soccer ball wallpaper!), “there’s a storm comin’, do you see it?”

I looked south; there was definitely a storm brewing south of me.  “Oh shit,” Wes said, “it’s right on top of us, we’re going to put the top up and wait it out.  It’s rough.  Find some cover.”  I hung up.  I could see the thick fog of heavy rain about a mile away.  I had about 10 minutes.  I paddled 75,000 miles an hour… uh, my top speed is 4.5, to the shore.  There “happened to be” (or was it fate?) a shelter where I could wait out the storm.  I grabbed my essentials:  book (Angela’s Ashes – thanks again, Jane!), electronics, “shit, I forgot my battery to charge my phone…. got it” battery, backpack with anti-heat-rash remedy:  Gold Bond powder + Cortizone + Lotrimin + Lidocaine = Crazy Delicious, and I was set.  The storm blew over, and Wes called me.  “It’s kinda late now; we’re going to head in and come get you with the truck.”

“Okay.”  More time to read Angela’s Ashes -score! Y’all should read this book; it’s freaking awesome.

Wes shows up and has 3 teenage boys in the truck bed and passenger seat.  Huh? I think.  Little old for our fatherly father of young kids. One in particular is eyeing me kind of weirdly (yes, that’s a word).  “Hey, Wes!” I say.

“Hey, you made it!”  Wes and I shake hands.  He has on glasses that change shades with the sun.  He has unbrushed teeth and is squinting.  He is skinny and puts his hands on his hips palms forward.  He moves his hands wispily in cirlces, and I do not control it, but my mind goes, Is he gay?

We load my stuff.  He is an expert loader.  The three teenagers aren’t so they stand around smoking and looking grim.  One has a long goatee and weighs all of about 300 pounds.  Ummmm, I don’t think these are Wes’s kids. Wes is practical, useful and has my boat and belongings loaded before I can say “Stranger in a Strange Land.”

In the car, Wes tells me that we’re going to meet Richard when Richard calls.  The tone is not fatherly; it is relationship-y and I know…  Oh my dear Lord!!!!  I am in a car with a gay man!!!!!!!  Ahhhhhhhhh somebody call Jerry Falwell!  He’s dead?  What!  When?  Fuck, oh don’t give me Pat Robertson – he’s f—ing USELESS! “Um, please Mr. Man, don’t try to rape me!”  Okay, I didn’t say that.  But my mind did kinda go into overdrive.  It was like I couldn’t control it:  Oh my god, he’s gay, oh my god, he might try to rape me, oh my god, don’t look at him, don’t look at his legs, that spooks them, then they eat you, oh my god, okay, so like, just remain calm, he’s like a degenerate or something he prays on small little boys… dude?  Aren’t you 31?  Shut up!  I’m a small, little boy on the inside!  He’s looking at me!  Oh my god, that’s what happens, they look at your blog, and think you’re hot, so they contact you and want to rape you, this is all nicety so that he can get you!!!!  Ahhhhh! “So you’re gay, Wes!  Cool!” I say about as awkwardly as one can.  “Huh?” he says.

“No, I mean, Richard’s your partner.”  I smile approvingly.  I am uncomfortable.  Like I said, neither Wes nor Richard did anything that could have made me uncomfortable; it was me, or rather, my mind that was just going overboard.  My heart started racing and the sides of my head felt hot.  “How long you been together?” I ask Wes.

“Ooohhh, about 3 years.”

“Cool!” I saw as awkwardly as a bull ordering steak.

Burlington is a nice Iowa rivertown.  My favorite Iowa rivertown has been Dubuque, but this is nice.  Old, old homes.  “We live in the ghetto,” Wes smirks and pulls into the driveway.  Richard is tending the deck putting out chairs and rasing a sun umbrella.  He has smart, stylized hair and is the cleaner, more preppy of the two.  “Hi,” Richard says.  He is slightly more reserved than Wes.  Wes has been reading my blog and knows all about it.  He quotes passages I wrote to me and makes me feel very important and celebrity-like.  Richard just knows “of me” and says “welcome” and “oh, if I get a chance, I’d like to see your blog, what do you want to drink?”

“Water,” I say.  The boys take their seats.  Only David, the one I believed was eyeing me weirdly, goes inside the house.  The rest hang outside.  I learn that Wes had been on the water with David and the two other boys.  I get absolutely no gay vibe from the three teens and am trying to figure this scenario out.  Are they his foster kids? “You guys live in the neighborhood?” I say to the young’ns.

“Yeah, we live… here… here… there.”

“Oh,” I say still thinking.  They’re neighborhood kids.

Richard tells me he’s going to see his two kids and that he’ll be back in an hour.  My mind is about to explode.  “Oh,” I say, “from a previous marriage?”  Richard looks a little uncomfortable talking about this, but I think he’s used to it.  “Yes,” he says.  “My ex-wife lives down the road; my kids are going back in school tomorrow so I’m going to the Open House.”

“Oh.”  Okay, gay man thought he was straigh, wasn’t… My mind, like every other mind within the human race, seems only to be able to rest when it can match up its external experience with preconceived data.  Divorced father who is now in an openly gay relationship, is a story I know of, is a story I can accept; so, I hang Richard and Wes’s story on that mental hook and finally relax.  Wes pours more water.  Before I go Richard invites me inside and starts to show me where I’m going to sleep, and then a very very real obstacle shows its furry, little head:  A CAT!!!

“I’m alergic to cats, guys; I’m sorry.”

“Ooooohh, what if we put kitty in it’s cage?”

“No, I’ve tried that; I’ve tried everything; I’ll be wheezing up a storm in thirty minutes.  It’s okay; I can camp outside and use your bathroom.”

“Noooo!” they say simultaneously.  “We’ll get you a hotel room!”

What? I think.  Dammit!  Just when I turned off my homophobia, it starts going into overdrive again:  Why do they want to get a hotel room?  Are they going to gang rape me? (I could take Richard and Wes blindfolded, kinda like how Ron and Patty could have taken me with a shotgun blast to the face, but the mind won’t stop.) Why the hotel?

“You’ve been paddling such a long, long way,” they continue, “and it would be stupid to spend your rest day in a tent.”

“Really guys, it’s okay.”

“No, we insist!”  I told you!  This  is how they get you!

The Hotel

So there I was – pinned against the wall.  They tried to come at me with whips and chains and lube; but, I held them off with my paddle!  …I really need help.  No.  They took me to the hotel.  I knew… I mean, much as I wanted Patty to realize that there was no reason to be scared, I was telling myself that these men have not offered any reason to make me feel at disease.  The monkey mind, however, resists.  Wes checked me in under his name.  Ah ha!  To hide the evidence!  Dude, he used his credit card!  Duh!  What’s he supposed to do – use your name and confuse the clerk?  Yes, well… um… you never know! Richard and Wes accompanied me to the door.  “Okay,” Richard said, “we’re going to go drink at the bar; just call us when you get cleaned up.”  Was that smile a flirty, homo smile? “Okay, Richard, thank you.”

I closed the door behind me.  The chain lock was broken.  Aha!  They’re going to get a new room key – that’s why they used their name – and come in here when I’m in the shower.  The desk clerk knew these guys, knew that they bring helpless… Dude, don’t you weigh 215 pounds?  Shut up!  Listen!  …helpless innocents such as myself.  And then they try to get in the shower with you!

I got cleaned up, watched some TV, and no one tried to bust in with a strap-on.  I met up with the guys at the bar.  “I’ve got to go study,” Richard says.  “I’m a full-time student now.  I used to be a hairdresser, but now I’m studying to be a RN.  The cool thing is that I’ll be able to see my kids every day when they come home from school.”  God, this is a cool guy. “Well, Ryan,” Richard continues.  “You’re going to go out to eat with Wes, and I’m going to study; so see you back at the house.”  “Thank you, Richard,” I say feeling stupid for my homo-erotic-o-phobia.

The Restaurant

Wes and I go out to eat.  It is a dive-y restaruant called Paddy O’Sheas.  It is the most cheesy Irish bar and grill I’ve ever seen.  It’s almost as if the owner knew that “Irish bars do well” and put up anything stock, stereotypical Irish he could.  I ordered Chicken Marsala.

The meal is a little greasy and I let the waitress know.  “Oh my god, sir, I’m so sorry!”

“Um, don’t be sorry…  It’s just…”

“No, no, no…”  She wipes her brow.  “…This shouldn’t happen.  I’m… Oh my god, sorry.”

She whisks the plate away before I can say “WTF.”

The bartender calls over to us.  “Glad you guys are here!” he says.  He has a long beard, with glassy, worried eyes.  “Things have not gone well, you know, the economy and all; we’ll redo it till we get it right.  We’ll do it a thousand times if we have to!”

Um, I just wanted some grease taken off.  No need for the 5-star…

“Here it is, sir!” the waitress says and wipes her brow.  She is fat and blond and excited.

“That’s cool,” I say.

Soon the cook has come out.  The waitress looks aghast.  Her eyes say “WWWWW  TTTTTTTTTTTTTT  FFFFFFFFFFFFF are you doing here?”

“Hey bro,” the cook says.  “That all right?  That Chicken Marsala is supposed to be with a squirt of olive oil.  Sorry about that.”  He has his wrists taped with duct tape.  He smells as if he hasn’t bathed.  I think this whole scene is funny.  The Chicken Marsala is fine; it just needs less oil!  “Dat’s… dat’s just the way it is, you know.  Haw’s it taste now?”  I taste it.

“It tastes fine.”

“Awright, right, I’m goin’ back.  Right.”  He goes back.

Waitress returns.  “I’mmmm sooooo sorryyyyy,” she says.

“Sorry about what?” I say.

“Sorry you had to see that.”

Ummmmmm, I think.

Back in the Car

“What was she sorry about?” I ask Wes.

Wes is laughing.  He’s always laughing.  When I ask him in 45 minutes whether he worried about what I was going to think when I realized he was gay, he will laugh.  He will shake his head, squint, and laugh again as if I was the absurd one… because I am.  “I think,” Wes says, “she was more sorry that we saw the cook than the dinner being messed up.”

“Ha ha ha,” I laugh.  “I knooow!  It was like, ‘Sorry you had to see our crack-addict cook,’ not, ‘Sorry the Chicken Marsala was not to your liking.’  Is it like that in this town?  Are people worried because of the economy, thinking they have to go overboard worrying about you to keep your business?”

Wes just shrugs.  He could care less about the economy, what I think about his sexuality, what Burlington thinks about the economy or his gayness, or anything in general.  He just laughs again and takes a drag off his cigarette.  What a good natured guy, I think. I have defeated wave #2 of homophobia.

Wave #3 of Homophobia Never Comes

I have settled into my relationship with my new friends.  I feel comfortable.  I realized that I’m not always hanging around gay men, and that some latent, growing-up-in-racist-homophobic-Memphis bullshit is bound to surface.  I don’t let it get to me and I don’t take my thinking personally.  The thoughts, after all, aren’t even mine, are they?  We get home and Richard is dilligently studying.  They break out Pepsi and hors d’oeuvres.  I pull out the camera and Richard looks disappointed.  He puts his books away and looks a bit serious.  I want to ask them a little about being gay in a small Iowa town.  Wes laughs and will gladly tell me anything I want.  Richard seems reticent.  I understand.  This is, after all, his life.  I’m just making a movie.  Once again, the balancing act of the documentarian:  How do you get people to talk?  How do you get compelling footage, emotional truths without coming off like a dickwad?  Without intruding too much?  I’m not exactly sure how, so I just go for the gold – I ask the tough questions.  Gettting a gay perspective on the River is too important, so I’m not going to blow my opportunity.

“What’s it like being gay in Burlington?” I ask.

Wes laughs again.  Richard turns serious.  “I don’t really think about it,” Richard says tight-lipped.

“Well, I mean, do you ever have any negative experiences here… being gay?”

“No,” Richard says.  Wes laughs.  Wes tells me that David is the only neighborhood kid that feels safe coming into their home.

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“I dunno; they’re afraid we’re going to do something to them.”  He laughs again.  “This is kinda the neighborhood hang-out; and, they’ll stay on the deck, but (laughs) that’s it.”

David, I find out later, was eyeing me weirdly because he was impressed with me.  He was wanting to do something adventurous like me and had read a little bit of my blog.  Those were oh-wow-a-celebrity eyes, not gay-stalker-homo eyes.  ….Ryan, dude, seriously, you need help.

I finally had to give up on the gay questions after a while.  These men were normal, ordianary Americans just trying to survive, just trying to work, just trying to enjoy themselves on the Mississippi River, just trying to be.

“Thanks guys,” I say after I finish my questions.  There’s nothing really left to say.  It is in fact… normal to be gay.  There is no question to ask.

Richard offers me his hand when I say thanks.  I try to hug him and he hugs back a little reluctantly.  I have intruded into his life.  I still don’t know how he feels, his life being fodder for my film.  Wes, of course, couldn’t give a shit and gives me some more pearls for the camera – some are gay related, most are not.  He just laughs and smokes and takes me back to the hotel.

Richard meets me at the dock in Burlington where the newspaper is interviewing me the next day.  This time he offers me a hug and means it.  For however much I was worried about him, he was worried about me, and now shows genuing affection that says ‘you’re one of us now; you’re cool.’

Wes drives me down a little further south and puts me in where I can paddle over the Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois.  “Hey Wes,” I say getting into my boat.  “Thanks for everything.”  He just laughs and takes a draw off his cigarette.  He has his squinty glasses on now and is planning to take the boys out on the boat today.  David has convinced four or five of them to go along.  Wes and I hug, and we mean it.  It’s great.  I feel like I accomplished something.  I don’t know what… but something.  I don’t know if the gay question will even be used in the movie.  I don’t know if it is even important.  And if you ask Richard and Wes, being gay in a small rivertown in Iowa… isn’t even a question at all.

Current location:  Hannibal, Missouri!!!!!  Birthplace of Mark Twain and it’s my birthday!  Does that mean anything!  I hope so.

Love you guys,

Ryan

2340 Miles on Free Energy

In just over 1000 miles of paddling the Mississippi River, Ryan and Phillip have already used all three elements from the holy trinity of free energy: hydro, solar, and even wind. I’ll share the secrets behind how we are powering this epic American adventure.

Woah there, too fast now!
Woah there, too fast Ryan! (Photo Credit: Mike Longaecker)

When Ryan and I arrived at the Mississippi River headwaters at Lake Itasca, we found a tall, ancient marker warning paddlers that they will face 2552 miles before reaching the gulf. Apparently, the exact length of the river is not completely settled as the USGS estimates the total distance as 2340 miles. Who cares anyways…? It took me a couple weeks to tear myself away from counting every mile…I don’t think Ryan ever was counting.

Now that we’ve settled that, I have a confession to make. We haven’t gone 2552 miles (or even 2340) on free energy yet. Ryan is just over 1000 miles into the trip and the universe has already sternly warned him that deviating from the hydro/solar/wind strategy is not acceptable! So here is what’s happening and how we’re doing it:

First of all, we’re on a river so there is a certain amount of existing water current which varies from snail speed to the speed a newly-born baby can crawl. What I’m trying to say is that the water is really, really slow!!! We’ve been told it moves fast enough to kill us farther downstream and I can only hope that these reports are true. But even though it’s slow going at times, the truth is that we could sit back with a couple beers and eventually make it to our New Orleans destination with minimal paddling. To drive that same distance in my old Ford Explorer would cost about $200 in rotten dinosaur juice. Mississippi River FTW!

Many people (news reporters in particular) want to know why we are paddling down the entire river. Apparently they don’t believe anyone would be foolish enough to paddle just for FUN. But that’s not our only reason either: we’re making a movie of the entire trip. And making a movie takes a lot of electricity. We have a Sony HD camera with two batteries, a laptop, a GPS, two cells phones, and an electric lantern (recently deceased, RIP). All that gears uses a good deal of electric energy and it’s all free courtesy of the sun. Two solar panels combined with a 12V battery and inverter keeps everything juiced up. The only bad thing about electricity is that it doesn’t mix well with water, and I’m still not sure of the extent of damage to our solar charging system in Ryan’s recent capsize.

The sail stands tall. Photo Credit: Tom Keim
The sail stands tall. (Photo Credit: Tom Keim)

The last energy deity is wind, and there is plenty of it along the Mississippi corridor. At first we silently enjoyed the tailwinds while viciously cursing the headwinds. Then everything changed when Ryan ran into the team at Urban Boat Builders who helped him construct a sail for our inflatable kayak. That’s right Sea Eagle…we put a SAIL on one of your Explorer kayaks. According to Ryan it works too, and we’re talking with the good folks at WindPaddle Sails to see if we can improve our wind usage even more.

The recipe for a free trip across American from north to south is a lot of hard work, a little bit of current, a splash of sunlight, and a dash of wind. We don’t have a specific agenda of promoting eco-friendly transportation solutions, but it’s pretty cool that that such a long journey can be completed without the use of our traditional sources of energy in America.

You keep reading and we’ll keep writing…as long as the sun stays shining and this water-soaked battery starts working. I can dream, right?

Steve Woehrle

Steve Woehrle.  He’s got glasses.  His nose is large.  His ears droop down.  He sees me.  “Your dad’s over there,” he says.  No hello, no nice to see ya, no nothing.  I walk over to my dad.  He’s wearing a tie.  He looks older and I look older – I know I’m older.  Twenty-two years ago I was holding Steve’s M16 rifle.  “I brought this back from Vietnam,” he said when he handed it to me.  My dad (step-dad I’m talking about here) had to help me hold it.  Ratatattttatatatataattttttt, it boomed.  It hurt my hand and shoulder; my ears were ringing; I was smiling.  That was my only memory of Steve Woehrle, my dad’s old high-school buddy, when I went to his daughter’s wedding in Davenport, IA.

“Hey, Dad,” I say.  He hugs me and asks if I want beer.

“No.  I want ice water.  I want to hear some more stories about Steve Woehrle.”

College Boy

Davenport is still a blue-collar town.  It’s in its fledgling stages of becoming more cosmopolitan with a cleaned-up river front, an attempted modern art museum, and shiny new homes.  But the hulking remnants of industry hang around:  the Purina plant, coal barges with large ropes wrapped around giant, yellow hitches, and run-down dollar beer bars.  Davenport still has big shoulders.  My dad grew up in this working man’s paradise.  When he went in to talk to his high-school guidance counselor, she told him “you have three choices:  become a carpenter, mechanic, or go to Vietnam.”  Luckily he got a swimming scholarship to the University of Iowa, and his mother was smart enough to send him to the war recruitment office with X-rays of his dislocated shoulders.  No Vietnam; yes entry level sales position at Oscar Meyer.  Steve Woehrle stayed behind.  No scholarship, no prospects… yes to Vietnam.  When my dad went to college, his friends, who floated to various corners of the Quad Cities and did find jobs as plumbers, carpenters and mechanics, awaited his return.

I am in my Aunt Sue’s car now; she is taking me to the food bank in north Davenport.  She is a volunteer there; and since I will be in town for a few days, I will be a volunteer there.  She is jovial and happy to have her adventurous nephew in the car.  “You know your Dad,” she says, “paid me three bucks to clean the puke off his car after he came back from college and went to the bar with Steve Woehrle.  He actually did that three times.”  How the hell do you puke on your car three times? “Maybe Steve puked on the car,” I said.

“Woehrle?  No way!  Steve???  He can hold his liquor; your dad can’t.”  LOL.

One year Steve got tired of waiting for my dad to come home from college and decided to go see him.  He rolled up to the U Iowa dormitory, and my dad went out to meet him.  “I’m having a problem,” he told Steve.

“What’s that?”

“This guy, my Resident Advisor, is giving me a hard time.  He watches my every move, and I don’t think he’s going to let me go out tonight.  He’s going to make a big stink if I come home late.”

“Hold on.”  Steve walked into the dorm with my dad in tow.  “Is this his room?”

“Yes.”

Knock knock knock. “You the residential advisor?”

“Yes.”

POW! He socked him right in the face.  Down he went.  My dad was aghast.  “Holy shit!  Whadju do that for!”

“Let’s go drinkin’.”

“Ha ha ha.  Holy shit!”

To the bar.

I Ain’t in Vietnam Yet, Sarge

When Steve was drafted, he knew he was going to Vietnam.  Blue collar, Iowa, no prospects, no rich father or smart mother.  When you were taken to the draft office, they loaded you on a bus.  They had a list of names of everyone that was supposed to be there.

“Williams?”

“Here.”

“Davidson?”

“Here.”

“Alabaster?”

Invariably many who were to play the the war lottery did not show up.  In the back of the bus Steve decided to say “here” for every no-show the sargeant called out.

“McGillicuddy?”

“Here!” Steve growled.

“Brogan?”

“Here,” he said in a high voice.

“Bolanger.”

“Hurrrrrrrr.”

When the bus stopped the men filed off.  The sargeant checked the number of men present with the number on his list.  “What the!” he screamed.  “Which one of you a-holes did it!”

“I did,” Steve said.

“Aaaaahhhhhh, smart guy, eh?”

“Smart as they come.”

“We’ll see how smart you are, sonny, you’re going to Vietnam.  I’ll see to it!”

“Sarge,” Steve said, “I ain’t in Vienam yet.”

Steve served two tours of duty.  He’s in front of me now, sitting next to me and my dad.  The wedding is getting extremely boring.  The DJ is playing the worst of Frank Sinatra, and the wedding party is nowhere to be found.  “I asked the limo driver,” my dad says, “where they were going.  He said, ‘On a ride.'”  “Maybe they went to smoke out,” I say.  Steve looks at me and smiles.  The thought of their recently-married daughter hot-boxing in a limosine would make most fathers cringe.  Guess not Steve.  He is angry though that they are not here.  He’s angry that he has to be the face of the party and he doesn’t like being that face.  He likes to hang in the background and cause mischief.  He gets up.  “Have you seen my daughter?” he asks an important-looking man.  “No,” he says.  Steve looks worried.  Charlie may have fired many a bullet at his head, but social situations seem to terrify him to death.  He leaves the building.  My dad turns to me.  “You know he had almost no friends when we were in high-school.  I was pretty much it.  When he went to Vietnam, he signed his life insurance policy over to me, not his parents.”  Steve’s parents were overbearing on one side and mentally vacant on the other.  My dad was his lifeline to sanity.  My step-father’s mother was the only real mother he knew.

Steve’s on My Floor

Grandma Keim (could be called my step-grandmother) was a nurse at Mercy Hospital.  Steve loved to race motorcycles.  One day he decided to take a particularly steep hill going about 70 miles an hour.  The bike escaped from under him and he put a kickstand through his calf muscle.  He broke several bones and ended up on my Grandma Keim’s floor.  “Steve’s on my floor,” Grandma said to my dad.  “He’s going to die.”  My dad ran into the hospital looking for Steve.  “Where is he!” he said.  “He’s in there,” she said.  Steve had his leg in a cast and was cursing up a storm.  “I don’t need to be in no fuckin’ hospital; Tom, get me out of here and tell your mom I’m fine, dammit!”  My dad laughed his ass off; he really though Steve was going to die.

My Step-dad’s First Wedding

My step-dad’s first wedding was to a woman from an extremely religious family.  Presbyterian, I think.  Steve showed up at his buddy Tom’s first wedding in jeans and a black leather jacket, riding a motorcycle.  “Where’s the beer?” he said walking into the church.

“Jesus, Steve, there’s no beer in the church!  You gotta wait till the reception!”

“Ah fuck that.”  Steve walked back to his bike and pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniels from the side compartment.

“Oh Jesus, Steve, no.”

While the minister tried to sound ceremonial and sincere at the same time, Steve drank.  The Presbyterians were aghast.  Steve smiled at them and took a long swig from the bottle.  “Here’s to Tom!”

Pitch a Holy Bitch

The expression “pitch a holy bitch” is common in Iowa. I don’t know what you envision, but apparently it means to throw an extremely heated temper tantrum.  Steve’s daughter and the wedding party have arrived.  I’m too far away to smell weed.  Steve stops worrying about his daughter, about being the face, and becomes interested in my story.  The music has changed to something more jumpin’, and people are starting to relax.  “So you’re going down the whole river, huh?” he asks.

“Yeah.”

“You know the Wapsie River?”

“Yeah, it’s just north of Le Claire; I went by there on my way here.”

“I bought a motor boat from this guy over on the Wapsie.  Dumbass if you ask me.  He made me this motor that he swore was 25% faster than my old one.  And I take these boats out there at two in the morning when the catfishin’ is better.  So I’m out there, ’bout ten miles from my house, and this mother f—er dies on me!  I’m tryin’ to start it and tryin’ to start it, nothing!  So I gotta walk all the way back there through the woods in the mud, just mad as hell.  I go into that mother f—er’s shop the next day just pitchin’ a holy bitch! “You sonuffa bitch, etc. etc…”  So he says to me, ‘I’m gonna fix it,’ and he puts on this new starter that’s a pull starter kinda like a lawn mower…”

“A rip cord?”

“Yeah, a rip cord.”

I get this damn thing out there at two in the mornin’ and it’s dead nuts again!  ‘Gaaadammit!’ I said.  So I stand up in the boat.  There’s no way I’m walkin’ back again.  And I’m rippin’ on this thing, and rippin’ on this thing; and finally I’m so pissed off that I give it all I’ve got and the fuckin’ thing starts!  It goes out from under me, an’ I’m in the water.  And this thing is circling, goin’ round and round and it’s about to take my head off.  So the first time I duck out of the way and the goddamn thing near takes my arm off.  The propeller…”  He lifts his sleeve up to show me the scar.  “… chopped into my arm and I’m bleedin’ in the water.  The goddamn thing is comin’ around for another pass, so I kick the mother f—er outta the way, and finally I’m able to swim to shore, my goddamn arm bleedin’ all over the place, and TEN FUCKIN’ MILES back to my house!”

“Did you go in to the boat guy the next day?” I ask.

“Hell no, if I had, I woulda killed the guy!”

Steve is looking at his daughter now.  You can tell he loves her.  He gets up to leave.  He seems so distracted.  “That’s just how Steve is,” my dad says.  He’s just… this isn’t his thing.”

“He likes telling stories.”

“Yeah, he does.  He’s lucky he’s got Meg (his wife).  I don’t know who else woulda put up with him.”

Meg comes over with three different types of cake.  “Ryan, you need to eat; and there are pretty girls here.”

“Yeah,” I say, “but what do I tell them?  ‘Hey baby, wanna see my boat?'”  Laughs.  Steve has come back and is smiling.  He heard the crack.  “Hey,” he says, “I could tell you about how I lost my finger.”  Meg stops him, “Now Steve, stop it.  Ryan is here to have a good time and has no use for your stories.”

Thank you for the offer of the pretty girls, Meg.  I appreciate it.  Thank you for the cake.  But I must say that the stories are just as nourishing.  Steve starts to tell me his finger story, but he’s rushed off.  I’m left with my step-dad.  “You wanna beer?” he says.

“No, Dad, I’m good.”

“You wanna go?”

“Yes,” I say looking at Steve.

I go up to Steve one more time.  “Thank you for letting me shoot your gun all those years ago,” I say.

“Hell.  I didn’t even remember that.”

“I did,” I say and shake his hand.

“Well,” he says looking at his feet.  I’ve made him uncomfortable.  This is not two guys bullshittin’.  This is me showing appreciation.  This has become a social situation.  “Just have a safe trip.”  We shake hands one last time and I’m gone.

In the car my dad tells me that Steve and his son were not talking during the wedding.  Maybe they’re too alike, I think.

“He’s a pretty cool guy,” I say.

“He’s an amazing guy,” Dad says.

Steve survived Vietam; he survived the wedding; he survived my prodding to tell more stories.

“I might put some of these stories on my blog,” I told Steve before leaving.

“Go ahead!” he said smiling.  Though not at home in social situations, Steve is at home… being Steve; and whatever comes down the pipe, he’ll not only survive but have a story to tell.

Gutten Tag!

Current Location:  Burlington, IA (On my way to St. Louis where Phillip will join me!  Wanna send some encouragement or nastiness as the case may be?  (512) 828 – 2471)

“Now listen to me.  Are you listenin’?”

Yeah, spill it on me, buddy.

“You’re getting up way too late.”

Um, okay… Dad.

“So you need to…”  A lady walks in.

“Maury, leave that boy alone!  Oh…”  Nancy, Maury’s wife, looks at me.  “…man.  What are you!”

“Um,” I stammer, “I’m a post-teen.”

“Ha ha ha ha ha,” they all laugh.

“So,” Maury catches his breath, “leaving at 10 in the morning – that’s too late.  Put your boat up on the front of mine.”

“Can we do that?” I ask Maury and Nancy as we stand on a dock just north of Guttenberg, IA.

“Oh, we can do anything!” Nancy says nearly falling over in her and Maury’s flat boat.  “Whoa!” she screams.  “Maury!”

“What? (to me) Are you listening?”

Nancy to Maury:  “Yes, I’m listening?”

“No, I was talking to the boy… man… um?”

Me to him:  “Ryan.”

“Ryan.”

“Oh, well,” Nancy says, “get in here and help me.”

“H0w am I supposed to help you with this boat I’m tryin’ to tie up.”

“I dunno, whoa!  I almost fell again.”

“Nancy, dear, do you…  Do I have to help you do ever…”

“Don’t you talk to me like that!”

I to they:  “Uh, I can tie the boat, really, let’s just tow it.”

“Okay, fine,” Maury says.

Vrooooooom. The motor begins.  It is getting dark.  I am good at towing boats now.  I got my heavy stuff in front.  I got the rope tied around the eyelets, NOT THE ROPE GOING THROUGH MY EYELETS!  I’m hanging onto the rope Maury just tied asking him to watch his speed; I let that rope out a little bit, I let it out a little bit more; Maury speeds up; I let it fully extend….. fully extended.  Maury’s breaking 10 miles an hour.  I’m happy.

Maury looks perturbed.  “Um, look now, you listenin’?  It’s getting darker.”

“How far do we have to go?” I ask

“Oh!” Nancy bellows.  “You turned that boat fast!”

“I did not, dear.  I have to stay in the channel!”

“That’s a red buoy.  You are to the right of the red buoy, you need to be to the left of it.”

“Dear?  Are you listening?  I’m to the left of the red buoy…”

“There’s another one!  Oh!”

“Dear, now, dammit, Ryan, hold this please, you ever steered a boat before, hold this, now dear, listen, I have to be, come here, listen, we are going downstream so we need to be…”

“To the right of the buoy!” Nancy affirms.

“Yes!”

“Um, Maury, am I steering right?”

“Yes!  Give me that!  Ryan, watch your boat.”

“I am.”

“Oh!” Nancy screams.

“What now?”

“We’re to the right of the red, that means we should be to the left of the green.”

“Dear, it’s dark, find the red buoy.”

“I did, it’s back there.”

“Not the one we passed!”

“Oh!  Well it’s up there.  Ryan, do you see it?”

“I’m, uh, trying to watch my boat here…”

“Just, Ryan, help her…”

“Okayy, should I let you watch this?’

“No, you need to watch that; dear, you watch for buoys.  It’s dark, I can’t see.”

“Turn on the light.”

“It’s broken.”

Oh fuck, I think.

“Let’s try it anyway,” Maury says.  It doesn’t work; the light is broken.

“Damn, you know?  Shit,” he says.

“Ok, dear?”

“Yes?”

“Watch for…”

“Buoys.”

“Ryan?”

“Watchin’ my boat, boss.”

Everyone laughs.

It Is Dark

It is dark now, very dark.  We are tracking from buoy to buoy, our light broken but our jobs defined.  “I want to find this beach for you so you can camp,” Maury says.  I want to get out of this boat, I think.  Maury tries bringing my boat to the side of his so he can go faster.  He gets my boat to plane; we’re up to 20 mph trying to make it home before total darkness.  Water is spilling up between the Sea Eagle and his flatboat.  As cordially as I can, I say, “Maury, I’m sorry, my boat’s taking on water this way.  We gotta slow down.”

“Dammit.  No, no, that’s okay.  Don’t worry.  I think…  Yes, I think we’re close.”

We can see Maury and Nancy’s house in the distance.  It is pitch black.  “Those are my lights!” Maury says.  “Okay,” he continues, “I, um, I can’t find that beach.  C’mon, c’mon, you come to my house.”  What we should have been doing in the first place, I think.  Come to think of it, after the Adventures of Frick and Frack, I might take my chances finding the beach myself! “Now listen, Ryan,” Maury says.  “This is my house.  Come up to the garage with me.  I’m going to give you that bolt.”  This is how Towing Adventure III (Remember Towing Adventure I?  My boat capsized.  Remember Towing Adventure II?  I refused to get out of the boat.)  got started.  I dropped the bolt that holds my rudder into the water, and this guy offered to help.

Maury’s House

We find his house in the dark.  “Oh,” Nancy says.  “I can’t believe you broke the light!”

“I didn’t break the light, dear, it was already broken!”

“How?”

Oh, Jesus.

“C’mon, Ryan.”

I follow Maury to his garage.  A man stops us.  His voice is raspy and he looks like an old, old sailor. “Raaaaaaaaaaaassssssssssssssp, hiiiii,” the man says growlingly.

“Browny, you old son of a bitch!” Maury says.

“I gave the wife the…”

“Bottle of Jack Daniels!”

Nancy comes out with a bottle of Jack Daniels (the big kind) with a 50 dollar bill wrapped around the neck.  “Oh, Jesus!” Nancy says.  “He gave us this!”

“Yes, dear, I know.  Browny, I can’t take that.”

Rassssssssp, yes you can.  You helped me build that gutter.”

“I did that, Ryan, you stay here, I did that, Browny, because, dear, put that bottle down, Browny, because we’re friends, and I wanted to help.”

“We’ll just take…” Nancy says.

“I’ll take the whisky, and…”

“I’ll take the 50 bucks!” Nancy says.

“No, you won’t, dear.”

Me to them:  “I’m just gonna…”

“You hold on, Ryan.  We can’t take money.”

“I can,” Nancy says.

“No, Ryan, you wait, Nancy, put that down.”

Browny is smiling with all three of his teeth.  “Haaaaaaaa (coughs) you guys work it out.  I’m going inside.”

“Brownyyy!”

The Garage

“Ryan, this is the bolt you need.”  Cool, I think.  “But now look, are you listening?  I’m going to give you 5 more in case you drop another one.”  Oookayyyyyyanother five?

Maury gives me the five bolts and I carry them to my boat.  I’m thinking about leaving even with thunder in the distance.  Maury stops me.  “You, are you listen…, you can’t go now.  You stay here.  Here.”  He opens the door to his pontoon boat.  It’s covered with a dome-like tarp.  He flips a light switch and the inside is well-lit with a carpet floor.  “You can sleep here.”  Thunder claps.  “This is perfect.”  “Okay, Maury,” I say.  I am too tired to argue or wonder why he won’t let me sleep in his house.  I don’t care.  I start moving my essentials inside the giant tent on top of a boat.  “Let’s,” Maury says, “Ryan, are you, look, we need to put your boat in the garage.”  Oh Jesus, just leave it outside. “Okay!” I say.  I help Maury get the boat to the garage.  A light rain starts.  Browny comes down.  “You can use my outhouse!  There’s running water, rassssssssssssssssp.”  By the time I’ve used Mr. Brown’s (Maury calls him Browny) running water to shave and have out-housed, I am tired and want to sleep.  The water comes down forcefully.  My boat is safe, I am safe under the hard tarp of the pontoon boat, and Maury and Nancy are in their house.  “Oh Jesus,” I say aloud.  “I’m glad they didn’t offer me the house.”

Wake Up

It’s morning now.  I have not called my parents and my cell phone is dead.  Maury? I think.  No fucking way.  Mr. Brown? I think.  Bingo! “Mr. Brown,” I saw walking up his steps.  Is he up? I think.  I knock on the door.  “Mr. Brown!  Can I use your phone?”

“Who’s there?”

“River guy.  Can I use your cell phone – I have no service.”

Rassssssssp. Sure!”

I walk inside.  It is a garage with carpet.  “This place was a garage,” he says.  “I modified it to make it more homey.”

It is homey, I think.  There are pictures of him when he was younger on the wall.  He has a fifties hairdo and is holding a guitar atop a 57 Chevey.  “I was young, rasp,” he says.  “Used to play for a rock band.”  His wife is in the next picture.  She has on bobby socks and an ankle-length dress.  “She dances,” Brown says.  “We used to teach dance class.”  I turn the camera on.  Maury shows up almost on cue.  “Now Browny, he says, hello Ryan, this is the fifty bucks I won’t let Nancy take it, here you go.”

“No no no, why didn’t you let this young man stay in your house?  Keep the fifty bucks or the whisky – one of the two.”

“Well see, hello Ryan, Nancy… see, she doesn’t want the whisky but wants the fifty, Ryan, you should get going…”

“It’s eight o’ clock.”

“I know, I’ll help you, yes, yes, it’s eight, you’re up early, now Browny, take this…”

“OHHHHH!”  Browny’s wife enters.  She is old but looks attractive like a dancer.  “This is the man who was going down the river!  You need eggs!  Maury, you need an egg!”

“Okay, I will pay you fifty bucks for an egg!”

“Yes!” she screams.  “You need bacon….”

“Ryan.”

“You need bacon, Ryan.”

Breakfast is served – bacon, eggs, toast, butter, jam, OJ… heaven.

“Browny, now listen, it’s starting to rain, we need to take Ryan…”

“Let’s take him to the next dam; it’s 5 miles off.”

“Yes, that’s just what I was going to say; May (Browny’s wife), where do I put this?”  It’s the fifty bucks.

“No, we can’t, oh jeez, just leave it if you’re going to bitch…”

“Bitch???”

“Ha ha ha ha (she catches herself) no not bitch, I’m sorry, if you’re going to be a pain about it, ha ha ha ha.”

Maury puts the fifty on the table.  He keeps the whisky.  I don’t know if Nancy was ever happy about that because Maury and Browny are loading my boat into a truck and taking me down to the next dam.

“This,” Maury says, “are you listening?  This is where you’re going to put in.  It’s much faster this way.  Oh dear, I didn’t call Nance.”

“Can I borrow your phone, Maury?”

“Sure.”

“Take this street, Browny.”

“Here it is.” I offload my boat.

“Can you hold this?” I ask Maury.

“Ryan, now see, this is what I’m talking about, you are going to leave me this camera and I don’t know nothing about cameras.  And how am I going to give this back to you?”

“I’m going to paddle back to you.”

“Yes, but why?”

“Because I want a shot of me leaving.”

“Yes, oh yes, that’s clever.  You should paddle back to me though.”  I get the shot, well, Maury gets the shot, and I paddle back.  “That’s good,” he says, “you could have left without the camera and then I’m holding this fucking thing.”

Rassssssssssssssssp, we need to go, good luck?”

“Ryan”

Rasp, Ryan.”

“Thanks, Mr. Brown.”

“Now Browny, don’t drive off without me.”

“You old fart, I’m going to, rasp, wait for you in the car, rasp.”  He smiles and laughs.

“Do you have your camera?”

Yes, Dad. “Yes, Maury.”

“Okay good, so, because…  You have this all under control, don’t you?”

“I think so, Maury, thank you for all your help.”

“Well, yes yes, of course.  I should get back to Nance, and have a safe trip.”

“Thank you.”  I shove off.

“Maury!” I shout.

“Yes?”

“Are you listening… thank you!”

Phil and Ted’s Adventist Adventure

Okay, Phil wasn’t there (neither was Bill), and Ted went on to do The Matrix and make millions of dollars saying the word, “Wooooaaaahh.”  But I, Mr. Ryan Jeanes, was there.  I experienced it.  I lived it.  I met some of the coolest people in the world and saw the positives of a religious community in action.  To be honest, I did not see many, if any, negatives.  This post will be a little bit different; it will be one heathen’s (okay, I’m not a heathen, but I’m not Adventist and I was going into a definite, definite Adventist community armed only with my wits and an open mind) account of what it was like to spend 3 days in the belly of the beast.

Phil knows I’m not religious.  (He’s not religious either if you ask me.  In fact, I believe in more esoteric, other-worldy stuff than he does!  In fact, yeah! yeah! Phil, I’m more religious than you – Put that in your wineskin and drink it! :))  The plan all along was for Phil to accompany me to the Adventist community in Bangor, WI, a town very close to La Crosse, WI, located right on the river.  Phil’s sister is dating a guy whose mother and father were more than happy to recieve us.  Sans Phillip however, it would be me, who did not grow up in the religion like Phil did, walking into a potential firestorm.  My anti-conversion dukes were up.  Ain’t nobody converting me!  I’m gonna believe what I believe to the day I die! I’m pretty content believing what I believe, and also was fearful my hosts would be a little leery of me.  I was positive, to be sure, they would be nice and cordial and beyond kind; but, in the back of my mind I was thinking, Do they think I’m going to hell?  Do they really believe that I’m a bad guy for not being… what they are? I didn’t know.

Jane Hallock answered the phone.  “OOOOHHH, HIIIIIII,” she said.  “I was wondering when you were going to call.”  Good start.  “Yeahh, yeahhhh, I can pick you up at a boat launch just north of La Crosse.  Yeaaahh, yeahhh, this is great.”

I hung up.  This was great.  Maybe I won’t be converted after all.  And then, the sky opened!  And she picked me up!  And there were choirs in the pick-up truck singing “DIEEEE, SINNNEERRRRRRRR!” and I was baptized in the Mississippi Riverrrrrr!  Buuuaahhahahahhaha!  Ahem, sorry.  That didn’t happen of course.  Jane picked me up and offered me a firm handshake.  She was sturdy and tall and knew exactly how to strap the boat into the truck bed.  I felt ashamed to be a man.  🙂  “Lon (her husband) isn’t here just yet,” she said.  “He’ll be here Friday.  Can you stay that long?” she said over the mrrrrrrh of the busted muffler.  Aha!  Here it is!  I knew I was going to be converted.  Here’s how they getcha!  They invite you for one night; and that turns into two, and then they hold you down and make  you drink the Kool-Aid!!!!  I knew it! “Um,” I said, “maybe.”

Jane was extremely nice.  She had her eyes wide open wanting to know all about what I did, what I was going to do, and where I was going to be.  “Wowww, wowww,” she said.  “You must have tons of stories!”  I offered her my spirit canoe story.  She looked distracted when I told her.  I didn’t know if she found it offensive or what.  I told her that Phil has had an influence on me and, for the most part, I’ve been pretty vegetarian on the trip.  She seemed happier.

We pulled through the town of Bangor.  “Oh,” she said.  “I gotta tell you, my house is kinda junky.”  I’ve been sleeping in a tent! I thought.

“Oh, don’t worry about it, Jane.  I mean do you know how I’ve been living!”  She smiled.

“And this is the post offfice.  Yeah.  It’s little.”  She seemed embarrassed.  “This is our little tavern; I don’t go there obviously; this is the little road that goes to our community.”  Embarrassed again.  Maybe she thought I was a big-city rock star.  I wish I was.  I mean I’m only a filmmaker, but for some reason she seemed a little sorry to be showing me all this.  “And my home…” she continued.

We got to the house and I walked in with my big pack.  I guess one could consider the outside a little “junky” as she put it, but the iniside was immaculate, an amazing, old Wisconsin country home.  “It’s not much,” she said.  It’s everything! I thought.

“Here’s the computer room,” she said.  “You have high-speed internet here.”  Score! So, waiddaminute.  You house is junky? not much to look at? and you’re sorry but you have this beautiful room!  The room was mahogany with lots of clean, clear windows to let sunlight through.  The computer was a Dell Dimension 2520.  The internet?  Faster than Robert Gibbs covering for a Biden slip-up.  I was happy.  “This is great, Jane,” I said.  She smiled but didn’t believe me.

The Next Day – Worship over Breakfast

I had never been part of an Adventist or other -ist worship before.  Basically one reads out of the Bible in the morning, reads a commentary by a member of the church, and has a short discussion.  That is, at least, how it worked out for me.  I asked Jane if I could film.  “OOOhhhh,” she said.  “I’m not…  I don’t…”

“No, no, look Jane; this is important to me; this is part of my experience.  If I don’t get this, well, yeah the movie will do fine, but my experiences here are part of the journey.  This is part of the journey.”

“But, I’m not really photogenic!”

Haaaaaaaaaaaa! That’s what she was woried about!  I thought there might be some religious objection.  Nope!  In fact, I filmed in the church, I filmed in the community activities; they were more than happy for me to share the love via the power of the lens.  I turned the camera on.  “You just do your thing, Jane,” I said.  She smiled… still embarrassed.  Ohhhhh, Jaaaaaaaanneeee.

Jane reads out of a book called a devotional.  It is the Good Shepherd story.  The shepherd leaves his ninety and nine sheep in search for the one stray.  “I’ve always liked that story,” Jane says when she finishes.  I don’t think she’s ever been filmed before while reading out of a devotional.  The story sparks conversation.

“So do you usually read from a devotional in the morning?” I ask.

“Usually.  We might have a short discussion…”

“I like the story too.  I think it’s cool how the shepherd will sacrifice what he has for the love of the one.”

Jane offers a more doctrinal point of view of the story; mine is more broad:  “I think love is something we as human beings all share.  It’s kinda like when Abraham Lincoln waded in a bog to save a drowing pig.  And they asked him why he would get all wet and muddy to ease the suffering of a pig that was going to die anyway.  And Lincoln said, ‘I didn’t save the pig to ease the suffering of the pig.  I saved the pig to ease my suffering having to watch the pig suffer.'”

Jane nods but I don’t know if she agrees or finds any use in the story.  I, in general, am pretty inclusive.  I like Muslims, Jews, Christians, Adventists, Nihilists; Communists are even cool as long as they don’t try to hand me pamphlets.  (Freaking get a life, University of Texas Communist Party!  You guys are retarded!  :))  The whole time I spend with Jane, Lon, Doug and the rest of the gang is amazing.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything; but, there was always this tiny spec in the eyeball, an irritation that doesn’t quite leave you alone.  It could have been in my head or it could have been real, but the question that reverberates softly in the background the whole time I’m there is…  Do these people accept me even though I’m not Adventist?  Do they believe I need to be saved or that I’m not going to receive Eternal Life if I don’t throw down and shout the praises of Ellen G. White, the founder of the church? I hope they don’t.  I certainly don’t think they or anyone else for that matter is going to hell.  And if there is such a place as Paradise, I would hope that most people, believers or no, are going there.  That’s how I would run things anyway.  🙂

I’m get little more bold in my questioning now.  “So, Jane, do you have to read from the devotional in the morning?  I hope you don’t mind me asking you this; I know nothing of the Adventist Church…”  She thinks you’re different – you’re not one of them! my mind starts again.  Shut up, mind! “…I mean, is it a hard and fast rule that you read from the Bible every day?”

“No,” she says.  “That’s kind of legalistic…”  Whoa, what’s that word? “…to think that way.  You don’t have to do anything.”  Hmmmmm, starting to like this religion.

“So you don’t have to read from the Bible?”

“Hmmmm,” she pauses.  This is a difficult question.  I know I’m kind of putting her on the spot.  She can’t speak for an entire organization but she does her best.  “I think legalism is a problem in any church.”  There’s that word again. “Legalism is where you follow the letter of the law…  So like with Adventism we are mostly vegetarians, but you don’t have to be vegetarian.”  Hmmmm, I really like this religion. “You’re supposed to be though,” she adds.  Uh oh, do I like this religion? Here, ladies and gents, is where we have the delicate balancing act of any religious organization:  How do you tell people what to do without telling them what to do?  Jane goes on to describe how she used to be very legalistic.  She was more into the codes and conducts offered by Ellen White and other Adventist authority figures than the spirit with which those codes and conducts were conceived.  “I’m not like that anymore,” she says.  “I can wear shirts, and I don’t have to wear long dresses.  As long as I have the spirit of the Lord, that Love, in my heart, then…” she thinks, “that’s what’s important.”  AMEN BROTHA! Finally someone with some sense!

I prod a bit deeper.  “So here’s a question that’s a bit difficult,” I say.  (Like I said, I’m getting bolder.)  “Okay, I’ve always had a problem with this:  A guy on say some island…  He’s a native who’s never heard the name of Jesus.  He doesn’t know who Jesus is, never formally declares him as his saviour; but, he lives a pious life.  He gives to charities.  He helps the needy.  He’s an all-around, stand-up guy and lives the Ten Commandments though he has never heard of them.  Is this guy going to heaven?”  The room was silent.  I did not know if I had gone too far.  This is a difficult question, but I think it’s an important one for all members of all religions (especially the ones who believe that if you don’t subscribe to their particular brand of Christianity, you’re in trouble) should answer.  Jane pauses.  I feel really bad now, but she speaks.  “I don’t know… well… the Bible does say that Jesus is the way… but…”  Jane suddenly takes a stand – it’s that scene in the movie where our fallen hero gets up, brushes himself off and takes a stand for truth though it not be accepted by the group; she perks up, and her eyes narrow:  “But I’m not gonna say that if a man has never heard the name of Jesus, or proclaimed the name of Jesus that he’s somehow not going to receive Eternal Life.  I can’t say that and I won’t.”  Amen!

Jane did offer a few more doctrinal beliefs from the church that I did not subscribe to but at no time did she try to convert me.  I think, secretly, that she and other members of the church I met during my 3 days there hoped I would be open to the idea of batting for their team; but, I know they knew that wasn’t going to happen.  What was important was that I was a man, a traveler, in need of hospitality; and, they were going to give it to me, my immortal soul saved or not.

Phil Forgets His Brain and Ryan Cleanses His Soul

I was staying with the Hallocks for so long because I was waiting on a part I needed to blow up the boat.  “Phil,” I asked on the phone, “did you send the part to the Hallocks like I asked?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, when?  It’s not here.”

“Yesterday.”

“Freakin’… yesssterdaayy!!!”

“Yeah, that’s what you said.”

“I (head explodes) did not; I said to send it 4 FARGING DAYS AAGO!”

“Well, I didn’t, so looks like you’re gonna have to go to church on Saturday.”  (Click.)

That bastard! This is pretty much how the conversations between me and Phil go.  I accuse him of being a moron; he accuses me of being one; we say “F it, there’s nothing we can do anyway” and we move on.  Case closed – I was going to have to go to church.

Adventists go to church on Saturday.  Ellen White, I believe, said that the big, bad and scary Catholic church (Phil’s dad, Phil, Bryce, and anyone else reading this who’s more versed than me, correct me if I’m wrong, please) made the day of worship on Sunday because…  I don’t know why she said they did it, but apparently it’s the wrong day.  So when White started her church, she put it back on the right day – Saturday.  (Seeeee?  The Jews had it all along.  :))

I walk through the door with the camera rolling.  I have no idea if this is okay or if people are going to get mad about this.  Nope.  They all seemed cool with it.  Doug, an amazing man who has done more adventuring on one afternoon than I have done in my entire life, is giving what can only be described as a class.  He’s standing up in front of the room reading out of a book.  “Sit down, Ryan,” he says, “sit down.”  I do.  I wave to people and am smiling.  Some wave back.  Some smile back.  Some, I think, are not too happy to see me there.  “My father,” Doug says, “would be so disappointed if I ever did anything to offend him,” Doug says.  “And that’s how it is with God!  We don’t worship God because oh if we don’t there’s going to be some bad thing that’s going to happen to us.  No, no, no,” he says empathetically.  “We do it because of our Love.”  I really like this church.  “If we’re just coming to church because we think we have to, or because we’re supposed to, then we’ve missed the point.  This is Devotion,” Doug says.  The next morning I will be leaving.  Many members of the church will be gathered around in Jane’s kitchen to see me off.  I will mention Doug’s “sermon” saying how much it meant to me.  I will go out on a limb and say that as far as organized religions go I believe that the “devotion” that “you, the Adventist community here in Bangor, live” is spot on.  That “you are what religion is supposed to be.”  I will pause for a moment and get very very scared.  I will be scared to say what I’m about to say, but I will say it:  “I think many people are turned off by religion.”  Then I will be even more scared to say what I’m going to say next:  “I think condemning others to hell is wrong; I haven’t seen any of that here.”  That will be the truth:  I never saw them do it when I was there; but, I feared that it might go on.  I didn’t stick around long enough to hear one of those sermons – the sermon I hoped I wouldn’t hear, the sermon that says ‘if you’re not Adventist, you’re going to hell.’

Doug finishes, and the children start filing in.  I can always tell the health of a church or community by the look on the children’s faces.  These kids are happy, healthy and wise.  I am, therefore, happy, healthy and wise.  They smile as they take their seats.  A young minister takes the podium.  I think she’s Brazilian because of her accent, but I find out later she’s a Spanish speaker.  I don’t show off my Spanish later when she asks me who I am.  “I’m a filmmaker,” I say.  “Oh, what kind of films?” she asks.  “Adventure documentaries,” I say.  “Oh,” she says.  Am I offending the minister by not making religious films?  I think.  Shut up, mind!  An older gentleman who had introduced the minister comes up to me when we’re all eating in the cafeteria after the service.  “Hi! he says and offers me his hand.  “Hi!” I say back.  He tells me he’s an avid sailor, and gives me some tips on how to sail my boat better.  “Are you sure you’re not the minister?” I say.  “No,” he says, “I’m the carpenter!”  I laugh.  He laughs.

“You’re the carpenter?”

“I mean I’m a carpenter.  I have been an assistant pastor of this church for 20 years.  I love it here.”  He smiles.  I can see that religion is a positive force in his life.  Legalism is nowhere to be found.  He does it because he loves it; he’s not forced; he is… inflamed with the spirit of the Lord.  “Yes!” he bellows.  “And I think what you’re doing is quite amazing!”  At no time does he try to convert me.  I’m happy.

“More people come up to me and ask me what I’m doing.  That afternoon we go to an old train tunnel that the city of Sparta, WI has turned into a bike trail.  It’s cold and wet and beautiful.  The entire church community is there.  It is fun and one man has his foster children there – four African American kids from the inner city.   We drive to a park.  Jane says she wants to find some geocaches with her GPS.  I pull out my GPS and try to help her find the treasure.  Lon, her husband, who had driven in the night before, finds it first.  Everyone – smiles.  Doug is showing Curtis, one of the African American foster children, how to do a flip on the monkey bars.  Other kids are eating cookies.  I see one of the kids wearing a Packers hat and tell him there’s something wrong with it.

“What?” he asks.

“It doesn’t say BEARS.”

More children running now and playing.  Everything is wholesome and wonderful.  Doug pulls in next to me with his arms folded.  “Thanks for visiting my shop yesterday,” he says.  I’ll have to devote an entire post just to Doug, but I can tell you his metal shop had the following projects (you’ll actually beg me to write a post after I tell you this):

  1. a submarine he was building
  2. an electric bicycle car
  3. a cache of boomerangs
  4. rope swings
  5. zip lines
  6. at his home he showed me whispering dishes, parabolas made of metal spaced 100 yards apart where you could whisper into one and someone on the other end could hear you as if you were next to them

The man was a whirlwind of projects and innovations and beauty.  He showed me his home where he had designed secret chambers into the walls for the children, his shower with double shower heads for him and his wife, the apple tree he claimed was the most travled apple tree in the history of the world since he had moved it 7 times.  He was an amazing gentleman.  Soley by looking at his inventions I knew that he was “inflamed with the spirit of the Lord.”

“You’re a pretty amazing guy, Doug,” I say.  “I mean that playground you build for the kids with the rope swings and that crazy seesaw that didn’t just go up and down; it went side to side where we could play catch, was awesome!”

“Yeah, I sure love it here.  I almost wish I could come back to the Earth a second time.  There’s so many projects I want to do.  I’ve go so many in my head, you know!”  Before I leave, Doug will help me build a sea anchor for my boat out of some old string and one of my trash bags.  He’s a regular blue-collar Da Vinci.  ‘

“Well, how do you know you won’t be back?” I say.

“Oh, no, after we die, we have Eternal Life.”

And then I am silent.  I can’t relate 100%.  I can’t say myself whether I will receive eternal life or no.  I can’t say anything they believe is true or not; and for this reason, it becomes clear:  These people are not rejecting me.  I perhaps am rejecting them.  I’m rejecting them for their certainty.

Off

During worship the next morning, a young man who had arrived the day before hands me a book.  It’s called The Ministry of Healing. It actually had some really good ideas in it.  I thank him.  Though scared, I give my speech where I tell them I am happy to have come, that I am not an Adventist, and that many are turned off to religion because of the abuses.  I have no idea why I’m saying all this, but I do.  I tell them that they are what a religion should be:  A community of people living in Joy.  I hoped they like what I said.  I really did.

At the river, the news crew has come to meet me.  My friends are hanging in the background.  I’m more worried that they’re bored than if I’m being interesting on camera.  I secretly hope that they think I’m a good guy.  I hope, and yes I think this while I’m being interviewed, they accept me as part of their community despite thier beliefs about who is going to end up where depending on who believes and does what.  I feel like reaching out to them and saying, “Look guys, I know we don’t come from similar backgrounds, but I love you guys.  I don’t want you guys to send me to hell.  I mean I don’t want you to think that if I eat meat and don’t do devotional every day, and don’t believe the same things as you, that I’m somehow going to some horrible place, or at least wont receive this Eternal Life.  I hope you don’t find me offensive.  I like you; I want you to like me.  I just want us to get along and Love eachother.  I hope we can do that.  I hope beliefs never get in the way of who we are – human beings.” I want to say this but I don’t.  I want to hug them but I don’t.  I finish my interview.  I tell the reporter that her next story should be Doug, but Doug retreats in the background.

It’s time for me to go.

Lon helps me shove off.  Tristen, the kid who had the Packers hat, is smiling.  “I’m still gonna get you a Bears hat,” I say.  He just smiles shaking his head.  The men shake my hand.  The women hug me.  I am off, and I hope, wherever I am going, my new friends will be there.

Love and Devotion and… Peace

Ryan

My Aitkin Back! Ryan’s Rolicking Recap – Part II

This is a continuation of Ryan’s Rollicking Recap – Part I.

We’ve found Grandma’s old necklace (glad; it was valuable).  We’ve found the armoire, the old coins I collected as a kid.  Blues Brothers poster?  Ripped to shreds; no matter.  Let us dig in the past a little more… see what we can find.

My Aitkin Back!

Fitting we were in Aitkin (pronounced ache – in), MN, still over 200 miles from the Twin Cities, and my back and forearms were achin’ like crazy.  Phil and I were looking for our next big adventure with our next batch of cool people.  Almost on cue:  “Heeeyyyy, you guys want a beer!”  Noooooo, we’re Christians! “Yes,” Phillip said.  “Hell yes,” I said.  Shelly and Jack (crap, it’s been so long now I hope I got that right, was it John?  we’ll go with Jack for now, correct me if I’m wrong) had all 473 members of their family on the river bank.  The quiet one, the loud one, the other one – a whole lotta ones.  Jack cracks open a Bud Light, hands it to me.  One of his sons cracks one open for Phillip.  We drink long and slow.

Suddenly:  “What the hell are you guys!”  A drunk woman emerges from the woods.  Her name is Shelly.  “What’s your name?” I say.  “Shelly,” she says but I hear “Sherry.”

“Well, Sherry…”

“Shelly.”

“…we’re paddling down the Mississippi River.”

“Ooooohhhh, neato.  You guys want a beer?”

We already have beers in our hands.  They have a community sized tent set up.  It houses 19,00 people.  Kids start pouring out from every corner like ants.  Some ask questions.  Some don’t.  Some tend to the 11 fishing poles they have set up on sticks along the river bank.  Jack has massive hands and is cleaning a fish.  “Neeeeeat, guyyyys,” he says.  He has a voice that could put you to sleep – in a good way.  A lullaby, a radio man’s voice.  “You ever think about doing voiceover work?” Phillip asks.  “What’s a voiceover?” he says.

Shelly stumbles into the picture but is remarkably poised.  She is one of those who can control her drunk and is controling it well:  “Ooooohhhhh shit,” she says.  “You guys smell awful, ha ha ha ha.”  She laughs.  Jack quietly smiles and continues talking about the river and turtles and fish and whose boys are his, whose boys are Shelly’s, and whose are theirs.  Like I said, all the kids were there.  Shelly is not done.  “Pfffft!” she says.  “He don’t know half the kids I ain’t told him about, ha ha ha ha!”  “You guys need showers,” Jack says.  “There’s a hotel in town where you can pay 5 bucks; you get a hot tub…”  Phil and I look at eachother and nearly die.  “…You get showers, clean towels, there’s a TV…”

“Direct TV?” Phil says nearly falling over.

“Yeah, yeah, I think so.”

Phillp died right there.  That’s what really happened.  He’s not back in Nashville editing video; he died and we buried him in Aitkin.

“I think that sounds wonderful,” I say.  Phillip has had 3 beers by this point; I have had one (I like to nurse).  Shelly pipes up, “Look!  I’m gonna take you to the hotel; you smell like ass, ha ha ha ha, an’ if you’re gonna camp here, you gotta smell nice like us, ha ha ha.”  “Mom!” one of the little one pipes up, “eat a worm for ’em!”  This could make good video, I think.  I’ve heard of people eating worms, but decide to give Shelly a little encouragement via a challenge:  “She doesn’t eat worms,” I tell the little one.  “Ha!” she screams.  “Where ar’ them crawlers!”

“No, nooooo,” I say.  I’m half not wanting her to do it.  I mean, I was just joking.  Too late.  The kids have brought a syrofoam cup full of live bait.  Shelly takes an especially juicy one out.  “Here goes,” she says.

“Aren’t you gonna clean, uh, er, wash it…”  Slurp!  Gone!  Adios.  She chews it a bit and washes it down with a Bud.  (Yes, this is on camera.)  “That was fuckin’ cool,” I say and slap her a high five.  Phil is holding the camera smiling as the kids cheer.  Jack is smiling quietly tying a new hook on a line a turtle chewed through.  “I gotta pee,” I say.  I trudge back into the woods.  Right before I’m about to expose myself, I look down.  Holy crap! I walk back.  “Uhhhhh, Jack, there’s uh…”

“What?”

“There’s, uh, these like, I think they’re turtles with…”

“Their heads chopped off?”

“Yeeeah.”

“Yeah we caught them today.  You can’t really throw those back, so you kill ’em.”  Where are the heads? I think but I don’t ask.

“Can you eat ’em?” I ask.

“No.  Well, yes.  We gotta guy who makes turtle soup, best soup in the world.  He starves them in fresh water for a week to get all the sand out of their system.  Then the meat tastes kind of good.  You have to load it up with other stuff though.  “Oh,” I say still wondering where the heads are.

“You guys ready to gooo!” Shelly yells.  She’s already in the truck waiting to take us to the hotel where there will be hot tubs and babes and showers and chocolate and action films and rocketships.  Phil and I run to get our shampoo and run to the truck.  Shelly is drunk (I think we’ll wait till the statute of limitations has run out before premiering the movie :)) but, I think, is hamming it up for us as she revs the engine.  Despite the levity, Phillip and I still a bit scared.  Then, she gets scared, not of her ability to drive with chemicals in her system but of something else.  She exits quietly.  Two seconds later she and two of her boys get in.  Ahhhhhhh, I think.  I’m a killer again!  I chat with the boys.  Phillip turns to me and says under his breath, “We’re not makin’ it to the hotel.  No hot tub for you.”

“Huh?  What do you mean?” I ask.

“She’s hammered…”

“Hey!” Shelly says.  “What’re’you guys sayin’ back there?”

“We’re talking about how beautiful you are.”

“Oh.”  She smiles and is flattered though she knows I’m joking.

Phil continues,”I’m tellin’ ya.”

“Just, have faith in people.  She knows we’re tired and dirty and want showers.  We’ll…”

“Hey!” Shelly shouts again, her car a little too close to the center line.  “We needa go to the bar first.”

Crap, I think.  “Told ya,” Phillip says.  I deflate like a baloon.  Shelly has decided to show us the town of Aitkin with its one stoplight.  “This is Aitkin’s one stoplight,” she says.  “Um,” I try, “can we see the hotel?”

“Yeaaah!  But what do you want to go there for?”  She rips the steering wheel around and flips a U-ey in the middle of the street.  “This is the library!”  “Um,” I try again.  “And this,” she says is the liquor store.  “Let’s go in!”  I turn to Phillip:  “We ain’t gettin’ showers.”

“Told ya.  ;)”

I resign myself to the fact that we are going to have to be at the whim of a drunk person.  This, as most of you know, is never fun.  They are irrational, irrascible, while being too fun and innocently stupid for you to be able to do anything about it.  After the liquor store, we go to the bar.  The image of Sports Center, doughnuts, coffee, Direct TV, hot tubs, showers, and clean clean soap fades like the aurora borealis.  “Hum,” I say.  “Let’s get drunk.”

I don’t get drunk, but Phillip does.  Shelly’s older son is buying him pitchers of beer and chatting with him about life.  “Duuuudddeee,” he says, “it’s like, it’s like this is life!  You know?  This, me you and everything is life, us running into you is life, and this, all this, is life!”  Phillip and drunk son cheer glasses.  Shelly is talking to an old man who looks like Santa Claus.  Santa Claus, however, is anything but nice; in fact, he’s rather naughty.  “Well, I would do that,” he tells Shelly, “if my tallywacker worked like it used too.”

“You don’t even have a tallywacker,” Shelly says with her arm around him.

“Well you’re aunt sure knows I do.”  Shelly’s uncle-in-law, I think.

“Yeah but she probably bit it off, the old hag.”

I turn the camera on but Santa Claus is too smart.  He turns immediately stoic and well-behaved once he knows he’s being filmed.  I get him to tell me that he drives a truck for a living, that the Santa Claus look was intentional, and that Shelly’s brother is doing the siding on his house.  That’s it.

“Can I get you to say ‘tallywacker’ one more time for the camera?”

“Nope,” he says.  “Tallywacker!” he shouts when the camera’s off.  Bastard.

Back in the car I’m holding out faint hope for actually being dropped off at the hotel where I’m sure Michael Jackson (before he died) and Robert Earl Keen are playing a duet while chicks in bikinis make you root beer floats and banana splits.  “Sherry, um…”

“Shelly!” she shouts.

“Oh crap, I’m sorry, you’re name is Shelly?”

“Yes!” 

Phillip has given up on the shower long ago and is still chatting with “this is life!” son.  Phil even adds, “Like dude, I know, like, this, like this… is life!”

“Shelly,” I try… One last time for the gipper! “Can we…” she’s listening now.  She has beer for Jack, beer for her friends who will be joining the group once they get off work.  If I ask her to turn around now, then we’ll have to coordinate getting a ride back.  She has a look of extreme contentment in her eyes, and I know I can’t ask her to turn back.  “Nothing,” I say.  “Thanks for taking me to the bar.”  “No problem!” she says smiling.

At the campsite three more families have joined us.  “See those two real young kids?” Jack says cracking open a new beer for me.  “Shelly and I pretty much take care of them.  Their mother killed herself right before Christmas and those kids found her body at home.  Their dad is a real deadbeat.”  I look at the kids.  They seem okay.  The boy comes over and hands me a flower.  “Will you take this to New Ord-lins?”  “Yes,” I say and put it in my hair.  “Ha ha ha ha,” he starts laughing.  “Don’ do dat!  Ha ha ha ha!”  “Why not?” I ask laughing.  “Ha ha ha ha ha,” he says and runs off to play.  Had Jack not said anything, I never would have seen him as a traumatized child.  Maybe he’s not.  Maybe giving a stranger a flower is more representative who he really is than witnessing a horrible death.  Maybe that kid is okay.  I drink again.

I’m hungry now.  I have not showered – okay I can take that.  I have not hot-tubbed – okay, that’s fine.  But take my foooood away?????  Back off lest ye die!  “I’m hungry,” I tell Jack.

“Oh, well, we’ve got all the fish we caught in those buckets.  We’ll probably have a fish fry in about an hour or two.”  How ’bout a minute or two? I think.  “You’ve never had anything till you’ve had fresh fish,” Jack says.  “I mean fresh fish, or eggs from a farm, a freshly picked apple; it’s all just so…”  My mouth is watering.  Is this man the devil???  “…It’s the best.  I remeber this one time we fried up walleye.  These aren’t walleye; they’re smallmouth, but they’re gonna be good; just wait…”  Waaaaaaiiiiiitttt??????  AAAAARRRRGGGHH!!! I consider eating his head.  “And,” he continues and then stops.  “You’re hungry now, aren’t you?”  Wow, I think.  This gentleman, this stranger with a melodic Minneota accent, who could have been Andy Griffith if he didn’t elongate his “ooooooo”s and say “aaaaan” instead of “on” perceived my need.  What a great guy.  “I really am, Jack,” I say.

“No problem.  Hey kids!” he whistles.  “We’re gonna fry up the bass now!”  “Yayyyy!” they shout.  “Yaaaayy, rrrrggmmmearardhhskjkssjaaaarrrrrrmm,” my stomach shouts.

Jack deftly cleans and cuts the fish.  I was surprised to see that only 30% or so of the fish is edible.  Two-thirds of that baby is goin’ in the water.  (No wonder so many turtles were haning around.)  “Can I try?” I ask.

“Sure,” he says.  “You ever done this before?”

“When I was really young.  We’ll see how much I can remember.”  Jack chucks the “leftovers” of the last cut fish and hands me a new one.  “Just direct me,” I say.

“Okay, just take the knife… good.  And you’re gonna put it.  Okay that’s too close.  Move back…”  I stick the knife in and am cutting.  Ewwwwww, I think.  “Look, bastard,” my stomach says, “the sooner you cut these guts up, the sooner we can eat!”  My stomach wins out and I rip through the flesh like a surgeon.

“Yeah, you kinda missed a good chunk there,” Jack says.  I turn the fish over and do much better on the right flank.  I’m just about to go back to the left flank when Jack grabs it and chucks the mess into the water.  “Plenty of fish,” he says.  “Let’s eat.”

Jack cuts the steaks up into cutlets.  He then breads them and places them in a deep frier filled with oil.  He puts it on the fire and the sizzle and smell of fish is everywhere – ffffffffrrrgggggzzzzzzshhhhhh! “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!”  I’m so freaking excited.  The kids have gathered around like vultures.  I will personally buzz-saw the first person who tries to take my fish! I think.  “Why don’t one of you kids go first?” I say.  “Nooooo, you’re the guest!” they say.  I look at Phil.  As you may have learned from a previous post, he’s a vegetarian.  “Gonna take a crack at some fish, Phil?” I say.  His eyes tell me the answer; he’s as hungry as I am.  “Ha ha ha ha,” I laugh out loud.

I pop the first chunk of fish meat into my mouth which explodes in drunken celebration of goodness.  It’s the best f—ing thing I’ve ever had in my life.  Phillip is munching on his breaded chunks of flesh like popcorn.  I take a second helping.  Candor and social conditioning are the only thing that save me from taking a third.  “You want some more, don’t ya?” one of the friends says.  “Yes!” I say.  “But I’m good.  I’m glad everyone got some.”  And that, I think, is what makes us human.  We are not dogs fighting over a piece of meat.  Though I joke it was only the memory of my mom slapping my hand every time I tried to take more than my share, that it was only my socialization that kept me from taking more and more; I know that is not the whole story.  I look around.  People are happy.  This was community.  This was people… together, eating, frying, fishing, just being.  I had 3 breaded cutlets left on my paper towel.  The kid who gave me the flower was dancing around.  “You want some?” I said.  “Nope, I want one!”  He grabs one and pops it into his mouth.  “Now you eat two, ha ha ha ha!”  He dances off.  I felt good now.  I was still a bit hungry, so I retained that hunger for myself.  This hunger, I said to myself, is mine.  It means we are homo-sapiens.  It means we are people; we can but we don’t lie, cheat, and steal food from children because… we choose not to. I was glad I was hungry now, still hungry when I went to bed.  Hunger would be my bedfellow.  It would remind me of the goodness of people like Jack and Shelly and everyone who had given us something along the way.  It would remind me that I too have that capacity – the capacity to share.

I walked past the headless snapping turtles to pitch my tent.  Phil pitched his tent 100 feet away.  “Looks like it’s you and me tonight,” I said.  Fuckers didn’t even respond!  Ruuuuu-uuuuude!  As I was dozing off, I was content that I had gotten to eat, gotten to fish, and gotten to spend time with our new friends in Aitkin.  Suddenly, cutting through the shadows, I heard a voice: “Hey, Phil, Ryyyaannn…  Youuuu guyzzz still wanna go to the hotel?”

Present Location:  Clinton, IA

I’m going to have my Davenport relatives pick me up somewhere between here and Davenport tonight.  Yes it’s cheating, but if you don’t like it, grab a paddle and show me how it’s done!  Davenport is a big milestone.  Thanks to my ex-boss in London, Jess Greatwich, for the shout out via voicemail!  I got it!  Anyone else who wants a shizzle izzle:  (512) 828 2471