Tag Archives: kayaking

Fight Club

“Do you have the charger for your phone?” Ryan asks me as we get ready to board a cab at the Cape Giraredeau boat ramp. I respond “Yes of course” as I had brought the charger with me from Nashville several days earlier. He askes again still unsure, “Do you have the cigerette charger for your phone?” I responded louder “Yes!” But that wasn’t the question that Ryan actually wanted answered. What he really wanted to know was if I had the cigerette charger with me. As we get into the cab, he asks for the phone and charger which of course I don’t have. A short yelling match ensues with no real resolution. Ryan thinks I lied–I think he asked the wrong question.

We’re on our way to Walmart to fill a prescription that Ryan needs immediately. During the short ride I silently steam about why this little prescription issue couldn’t have been resolved while Ryan had a five day layover in St. Louis. Such is the personal side of two people paddling the river. My friend Ruthie took me aside before we left on this journey and suggested “You guys need to figure out a strategy for solving disagreements with each other.” I suppose she would know after raising two boys of her own. The truth is that we never really worked out a system for solving problems, but we each certainly have our own style for disagreeing. Ryan generally snaps loudly with a string of expletives and I generally state my position defiantly and make snide follow-up comments. It’s not a perfect system but we’re still paddling from the same boat right now so I suppose it’ll have to do for now. I begin to think: What if we got so mad at each other that we have to split up the boats to finish the trip. Ahh, that wouldn’t work as there is only one boat pump. We eventually make it to Walmart and return four hours later still without the necessary prescription. I really want to yell at someone, anyone after wasting all that time but it wouldn’t do any good now. That’s the thing about wasted time–you can’t get it back.

As Ryan explained a few days ago, paddling is a team effort. When we are alligned toward a common goal such a bouy or a point in the distance it works great, but two people paddling in different directions just leads to frustration and anger. After an early morning launch from Wickliffe on Tuesday morning, Ryan set a goal of reaching a certain boat launch which was over 50 miles downriver. He’s been fantising about this particular bend in the river since we left Minnasota. This boat launch is right on a nearly one mile wide neck which can be portaged to save 20 miles of paddling. Ryan believes we can move our nearly 500 pounds of gear in only two trips and therefore thinks this would be a great spot to unload and camp for the night. I disagree and believe the portage wouldn’t save any time at all because I feel it will take as many hours to move the gear as it would to paddle the 20 miles. It’s nearly dark and we’re still at least 4 miles from the launch. I suggest several possible camping sites, but Ryan lobbies to push on and assures me it will not be completly dark yet when we reach the launch. We reach the site in darkness and discover it’s not a great camping location. There is a long rocky bank and the ground is very hard on the top. We have set a personal paddling record of 50 miles today so I’m glad that Ryan pushed for reaching this spot today. Tomorrow will be a different story as I’ve already made up my mind I don’t want to portage. We’ll just have to fight about that in the morning.

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

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

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

“Paddle toward the shore!”

“I am!”

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

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

“Don’t talk to me like…”

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

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

“I know!”

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

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

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

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

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

Phillip and I are running into people a lot.

The Woodses

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

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

“Dunno,” Phil and I said simultaneously.

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

“Sounds good, Shawn, we’re there.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“Thanks, Shawn; this is great.”

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

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

“Yup,” he said, “two hours.”

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

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

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

“Who’dja stay with?”

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

“Woods?”

“Um, maybe.”

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

“Ha!  Yeah, that’s the one!”

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

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

A(nother) Night to Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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?