The River is Life Tour, a first in independent filmmaking history, will be movie makers Ryan Jeanes’ and Phillip Hullquist’s second trip down the entire length of the Mississippi River. The creative pair is “taking their show on the road” showing their epic documentary The River is Life – a fun-filled feature of their real-life adventure down the Mighty Mississippi – to audiences north and south along America’s Great River.
Jeanes and Hullquist departed in two inflatable Sea Eagle kayaks from Lake Itasca, Minnesota (the source of the Mississippi) in June of 2009 and filmed their exploits – staying in people’s homes, camping along the riverbanks, and contending with wind-swollen lakes, barge traffic, and massive boat wakes – for the entertainment of adventure lovers and seekers everywhere.
Their ninety-minute film is full of surprises. “A lot of people were amazed at how many people we met,” Jeanes says. “We couldn’t go a week without someone calling us over for a beer or for dinner or (with luck) a warm bed.”
“You’ll meet quite a funny cast of characters in this movie,” Hullquist adds, “from an over-size Kentuckian sporting his duck call to a racy Minnesota woman threatening to kill us in our sleep. Boats and barges weren’t the only things we had to defend against,” he laughs.
Jeanes and Hullquist plan to bring the same sense of fun and adventure they relished on the river to their 42-stop movie tour, where they will present their film in many of the same cities and towns they stayed in almost a year ago. “The shows will also be outdoors!” Jeanes explains. “This is a first for independent movies. We want to give people a real-life Mississippi experience, so we’ve arranged to show the movie in parks all along the banks of the Mississippi! It’s going to be a festival-like atmosphere where, if we do our jobs right, the whole family will have the time of their lives!”
The movie will debut in Minnesota where the duo started their journey. Over the course of three months they will make their way to New Orleans entreating audiences to “share in the adventure” and enjoy a heart-warming film not only about the majesty and wonder America’s most recognizable waterway but also the people that make this nation and this river so great. “It’s a family piece,” Hullquist says, “it really is. Without the people we met along the way, who shared their lives with us, this film would never have been possible. It promises to be an immensely enjoyable, immensely inspiring film.”
The River is Life Movie Tour begins August 4th and will end in New Orleans on Halloween night. To find out more information please visit theriverislife.com for a schedule and free venue kit.
Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. This was special. This was a dialogue. This was us entertaining you, and I think that’s special. I think there might not be a more holy union than two people, whether it be Phil writing to you or me writing to you, sharing in a common experience. The experience you just shared in was called The Mississippi River Adventure. The movie will be called The River is Life, and the whole experience was great. On the river, there were gay couples, there were barges and spirit canoes, fights between me and Phil, media coverage, F-words, Z-words (you know, words that start with Z), there were nice people in Natchez, mean people in Greenville – there was this entire river full of people and life. We hope we brought the River to life for you.
Second… The Please
Please, if you enjoyed this blog, if you enjoyed this journey, I’m asking you to give. Reflect on the value you have gotten from this journey: Did you have a good time? Did you see what you wouldn’t have seen, hear what you wouldn’t have heard, go where you couldn’t have gone any other way but though reading this blog? Did we entertain you! Where did we take you? Where were you able to go because two crazy guys grabbed a couple of paddles and went down the greatest river in America bringing it to life in a fun and entertaining way? What feelings did you feel? The spirit canoe – were you touched? The Adventist adventure – did it make you think? The shotgun in my face in Prairie du Chien – were you scared? I was! Did you go on… an adventure? I hope so; in my heart, I know so. Now I’m asking you to make a contribution, whatever your heart dictates, for the value you have received.
Phil and I are going to keep doing this – entertaining you through the power of adventure. As I’ve stated in the two previous posts, we’re not done: The Go to Hell? movie is coming up, the Mexico City Street Children movie is coming up (we’ll be actually living in the Mexico City sewers with the orphaned children). This blog and the movies we produce will continue to provide a plethora of entertainment, education, and chance for reflection. So I’m asking you to give. I’m asking you to give as we have given to you. Whatever this journey has been worth to you, please donate here.
We’re Going to Sweeten the Pot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
We want to give to you some more!!! As a special thank you to those who donate $50 or more, Phil and I will give you a signed copy of The Hitchhiking Movie, our first feature film. If you know nothing about this film, this is what some have said about it:
Route 66 News (5/11/2009) – “the right balance of affability, earnestness and wit”
And we’re going to give it to you FREE! (a $17.95 value) with your donation of $50 or more. But, Ryyyyannnnn, I don’t have fifty bucks!!!! Das okay, baby! I understand. Please give what you can. Ask yourself if you were entertained, and then give what you can. For everyone who donates any amount, I will send a personal thank-you email. In fact, thank you now! Isn’t this is fun!
That’s Not All!
We’re not done! If you contribute $75 or more to help keep the great entertainment on this site going, we want to give you something else! Phil and I will give you an autographed and personally dedicated picture of our finish at the Gulf of Mexico! That’s us right there! Those are the actual Louisiana marshlands behind us! This picture is a symbol of adventure; it encapsulates the excitement of not just a paddle down the Mississippi but the joy of adventuring everywhere. Just send us instructions for your dedication with your Pay Pal order, and own a part of the adventure today!
Donate anything at all – You get a personal thanks from us to you via email.
Donate $50 or more – You get an autographed copy of our DVD The Hitchhiking Movie, which includes bonus scenes, special directors’ commentary, and the beloved DRUNK COMMENTARY! (Parents, make sure the kiddies are out of the room for that one :).
Donate $75 or more – You get the DVD and the photo commemorating the realization of a dream – to paddle down the entire length of the Mississippi River. We hope to give you part of this adventure and make it as much yours as it was ours.
Own the adventure: Please donate today!
Third… The Promise
We promise to continue entertaining you to the best of our ability. We promise to continue capturing the spirit of adventure in everything we do. We promise to brighten your day by sharing ourselves, our heart, our travel with you. Many people wrote me and said, “Thank you for taking me along with you.” That’s our job; that’s what we strive to do – to take people where they’d love to go if they had the time; that’s what 11 Visions is all about. The fun does not stop. I have more to tell you about our adventures at our first film festival in Oak Ridge, TN. You will get sneak peeks of the dailies from the river. You’ll receive new blog posts from our train-hopping adventure coming soon. More, and more, and even more. We want to give you more. That’s our job.
Ryan, How Can You Make Good on That Promise Right Now?
Good question. By entertaining you right now, of course! Ready for the Final Chapter in our Mississippi River Adventure????
Me too. Let’s get to the Gulf.
When we left off, a scabby, nasty old hag pinned her homemade PADDLERS BEWARE! sign to the window. Jeff Johnson told me later that that same lockmaster had given him trouble as well. Jeff works as a fishing guide and had 6 boats worth of clients trying to lock through into the bay. Our lady in question denied them access citing that it was nepotism to let larger party groups through and that they would have to wait 2 hours for a series of single dinghies to go first. Jeff was incensed. He makes his living off showing clients a good time. “Did you confront the old hag?” I asked him. “Naw,” he said, “what’d be the point?” Too true. When someone’s Middle Eastern name is MUSTAVA STIKUPUR AZ, there isn’t much you can do.
Old Crabapples opened the gate and, though she was nasty, she wasn’t lying. The conditions were absolutely awful. Easily 3-foot whitecaps. Phil and I gleefully paddled out into the middle of the channel. It was fun… for a while. Like being on whitewater. After twenty minutes he turned to me: “I’m tired.”
“Um, buddy, we got 39 miles to go.”
“Yeah, we’re not gonna make it like this; these waves and wind are killing me.”
“Shore paddle? That’s such a beginner thing to do.”
“Any other ideas?”
The Mississippi was forcing us to go back to our roots – paddle along the shore just like we did when we were infant paddlers scared of the center channel. The shoreline did offer relief from the waves but not the wind. That was as strong as ever. Sometimes God did bless us with a jutting point that would shield us (partially) from the gales. But for the most part, it was a fight to the finish. Mano y manos – the Miss’sippi versus us.
“I’ve just about had it with this rudder!” I screamed. The night before, we consolidated all we would need into one boat. It was ceremonial. We dusted off the 11Visions Boat (the boat that had our logo on it) and washed it down. Phil took out the inflatable floor and scrubbed it with care as he would an infant. I tried to repair the torn decal that bore our website. We were betting it all on black, taking one boat instead of two (the other would stay at Jeff’s cabin). We were betting that with less weight and less drag we could paddle the 40 miles to the gulf in one day. The River and the Wind laughed at us: “You may make it; but it ain’t gonna be easy.”
“What’s wrong with the rudder?” Phil responded.
“You don’t feel it cuz you’re not steering the boat, but this f—ing thing is pulling hard right CONSTANTLY.”
“I don’t feel it.”
“That’s what I just frikkin’ said!” I was mad. I had forgotten to secure the rudder with an extra pair of washers the night before. Dammit! I thought. Little things can make or break a journey; I know this, I should know this by now; why’d I forget! There was no why; I just had. “Let’s pull into this little cove,” I said to Phil.
The Cove and the Dump
We pulled into a bay-like indentation 4 miles south of the crabby lady’s lock. There a middle-aged man with a sinewy build exited his car. “Oh my god, well,” he said dropping a stack of papers into the wind. “Well,” he said, “I, uh, um, yeah, what’re y’all… what’s this now?” He’d forgotten his papers; they were blowing everywhere. I ignored the papers and said, “Paddling…”
“…the Rivuh, no shit.”
LOL. What the hell?
“Look,” he continued, “um, I um, yeah, I know this guy at the pay-puh [not a Cajun accent per se, but definitely Florida-Parish] I know um an’ y’all need to talk to um. I’m gonna snap some photos foist.” He got out a digital camera and started snapping pictures and asking questions. “Now, uh, now, I also know, well now she’s my girlfriend, this uh psychiatrist, an’ y’all should talk to uh given that y’all’s crazy enough to be out in dis weathuh!” Phil and I laughed at the jibe. “Right now,” I said, “all I need is an outhouse or a protected space without sawgrass or burrs.” “Ooooo raght,” he said, “If you need tuh take a dump, jus’ go raght ovuh they-uh.” Ha ha ha! Who says ‘take a dump’ to a stranger? Ha!
When I finished, ahem, Phil was talking to both Take-a-Dump (that’s a good a name as any) and a new guy. The new guy was older, wiser and more present; not the scatterbrain Take-a was. “Name’s Yonke,” he said to me and offered his hand. “Better not shake,” I said. “Oooooh,” he said and laughed. Yonke (his nickname) regarded our paddling in these types of conditions as more or less normal and wished us well. Take-a was still all over the place: “Um, yeah, um, y’all need tuh be in the pay-puh heah an’ also in the Times-Picayune [the big, scary paper of New Orleans].”
“I tried the Picayune, but they didn’t respond; guess this story’s not to their liking.”
“No, uh, no, y’all needa person on duh inside.”
Who? You? I mean I wish you could have been there, but this guy was absolutely laughable. I really didn’t believe that A. he knew the people he said he knew and B. he would do what he said he would do if he did. I wrote it off and said thank you.
Ryan, You Ain’t Always Right
After Phil and I finished the River, the Times Picayune called! Holy crap! I’m wrong! Thank god I am. Though neither Phil nor I have been able to locate the story online, I was there as Phillip interviewed with the reporter over the phone. NOLA residents, if you saw the story in print, let us know! Take-a, you came through. Thank you.
Phil and I left watching Take-a drop more stuff and Yonke stand stoicly on the bank. “Y’all be careful,” Yonke said grandfatherly but smiling.
“We will!” As I think back on this, I can still see his face. He looks like a chiseled sculpture. The wind blew that old face, but he was happy. I hoped he was happy to see two young men taking on real challenge. I hoped he was happy with me. I don’t know if you’ll see this, Yonke, but your sternness gave me strength. Take-a dropped his I-pod.
During our escapade with the two gentlemen at the bay, I had forgotten all about the rudder!! Dammit! “Phil, I know you hate stopping, but we’ve got to; my right arm is on fire; my left arm nothing.” Phil sighed but acquiesced. We stopped in front of the old Fort. Phil went to take pictures while I did my best to use two pop tops from 1980s Bud Light cans dredged up by the river (Did Katrina do it?) as washers. It was useless. I nearly dropped the bolt needed to fasten the rudder on. I turned to Phil: “I’m taking that as a sign from God.”
“What does the sign say?”
“It says ‘tough shit, you’re gonna have to paddle only on your right side today.'”
“I coulda told you that.”
Phil was right. The rudder repair would be a bust.
Right side! Right side! Paddle, paddle! I’m still angry over the broken rudder, but there’s nothing I can do. I convince myself that the river is paddling on the left side for me: Yeah, that’s it! I’m not having to fight to stay straight; I’m just doing half the work! Though I know it’s bullshit, it does keep me from going insane. I check the Navigation Charts. “We need to make a decision here, Phil. Which pass do we take to the gulf?”
The night before, Phil and I pondered over exactly how we were going to get to the Gulf of Mexico. There are several options. Our hero, Buck Nelson, took the longest pass possible. He should change his name from Buck to Badass. We, however, had a film festival to get to. We were going to take the shortest pass. “Let me see those charts again,” I told Phil.
Our best bet, in order to make things easier on our host Jeff, was going to be taking the Red Pass. “It’s a fisherman’s pass,” Jeff told us. “But y’all’d make things a helluva lot easier on me if yuh went that way.” Phil and I got to Venice and discussed it. “It’s gonna have to be the Red Pass,” I said. “Yeah, I’d like to take Buck’s route past the Head of Passes into the long channel, but that’s not what we came here to do. Most guys stop their Mississippi River journey at New Orleans, if they even make it that far. We’re doing something greater, we’re going into the sea. At this point, we got a guy who’s giving us a ride back. I don’t know how the hell else we’ll coordinate getting someone else to pick us up. So… let’s just do it. Let’s call Jeff and tell him we’re taking Red Pass.”
Phil pondered it. “Yeah,” he said. “Let’s do it. The point all along was the gulf. So it’s eight miles shorter – I don’t care. I think it’s fate we ran into Jeff. I think we’re supposed to meet up with him at sunset.”
“Screw the Head of Passes. Let’s just get to the sea. That was the point…”
“…the whole time.”
Phil and I recognized what we were about to accomplish. With cell reception, albeit extremely crappy, in Venice, we called Jeff to tell him we’d meet him at the end of Red Pass. “Oh, thank y’all,” he said. This was good, this was fate.
It is certainly a maze of passes if you do not know where you’re going. Phil and I made a few wrong turns and actually ended up paddling three more miles out of our way. “Told ya I wasn’t going to make this easy,” the Mississippi said. I know, I replied, but you know you won’t beat us today… you know that now, don’t you?“Yes,” the Mighty Muddy chuckled, “I know now you’re determined. You were determined when your brother suggested you quit at Davenport. You were determined when I threw rain at you, wind at you; I blew that little inflatable around like a leaf. I knew you were crazy, but I also knew I wouldn’t beat you.”
So why’d you make it so damn tough?
“Ha ha ha.” I got nothing from the River after that. No communication, nothing. Only silence. As Phil and I paddled into the last four miles on Red Pass, I couldn’t hear the River’s voice anymore. I would, at times, think I heard Him laughing or smiling or saying any number of things. I heard Him laugh when my boat flipped on Lake Pepin. I heard Him smile when the hot sun drove away the fog in Guttenberg, IA. I heard him howl when Southern Illinois rain pelted us like mad, and screech when a nighttime barge almost hit us. I’ve heard Him alot. But now that the Gulf of Mexico was in sight, I could hear Him no more. I could only see sea. It was as if a new voice was beckoning, and it was large and ominous and… engulfing.
“There it is! Oh my god! That’s the gulf!”
Phil and I paddled as if in a dream. We were happy, but where was Jeff?
One mile more. Happy, but where’s Jeff?
One more, happy, Jeff?
With no more than a mile to go I heard the rumble of a motor, and Jeff was in sight. It was perfect, almost meant to be. Had we taken the shipping lane after the Head of Passes, the footage would have been sotted with ships and industry, channel markers and fights for your life to stay clear. It would not have been the poetry that Phil and I experienced when Jeff held the camera, steered his boat, egged us on to the final, shot the reeds swaying in the wind, shot the sunset, egged us on some more, and finally… shot us paddling, fatigued and elated, into the Gulf of Mexico.
I can’t describe to you (well) what I felt. It was like a wave of joy flowed over my heart. I couldn’t believe it was really over. I implored Phillip to stand up in the boat. “What do you want to do that for?” he laughed. He was overjoyed too. “I want to get a picture of us standing,” I said. Six-foot swells were rolling off the gulf. “We can’t…” he started but acquiesced. I tried to stabilize Phil as we stood but to no avail. As soon as a roller went under us he went in the water. “Ha ha haaaaa!” I howled. Jeff was laughing his ass off. As soon as Phil got back in the boat I said, “This one’s for you!” and jumped into the water, where the dolphins were hunting freshwater fish off the coast. Phillip answered by paddling the boat away. “You bastard!” We were overjoyed!
“Congratulations, guys,” Jeff said. “Now come get your celebratory beer!” Jeff had Miller Light for us (I’m a Bud man but who gives a scheisse). Phil and I toasted and watched the setting sun beat its colors into the clouds. Content – that’s how I felt – so very, very content. It was done. We had done it.
I thought for a long time, long in my mind. I reflected and wondered if “just making it” was enough. I have credit card payments, I thought. I’m not famous. I don’t know if anyone cares. I looked across the sky into industrial Venice as Jeff drove us back in his high-powered cigarette boat. An oil refinery was burning gas in a torch of light. “Hey, Phil, Olympics come to Venice.” “Ha ha,” he responded but was mostly silent. I was mostly silent. There wasn’t much to say. We’d done it. It was done. Back at Jeff’s cabin, we had fried fish and sweet potato casserole. I chatted with some of Jeff’s clients. One told me I needed to read the book Blue Highways, which strangely I was already reading. Another told Phillip that his vegetarianism reminded him of his wife, a Seventh-day Adventist. “I am Adventist,” Phil said. All was quiet then.
The silence. I had said in Part II that I was afraid of it. Or, at least, I was aware that the silence would need to be filled. And what if I didn’t know what to fill it with? But what to fill it with was not here yet. I sat. This is what I was afraid of, I thought. This… is nothing to be afraid of. Cicadas chirped outside, and Jeff’s over-sized fan drowned out the excess noise. I could only hear muffled rumblings of voices, Jeff’s clients, talking about this fish and that fish and this market and that market and when they’d be back in Texas. I was alone. I was silent. I was in it. It was okay.
I would say I drank it in, but there was nothing to to drink. The silence was simply present; there was nothing to do. It was almost like being underwater but even more peaceful. All I could do was sit, sit and watch and wait. When would the silence fade? It didn’t matter. I was done with the Mississippi; and, I know now, the silence was my reward.
Jeff’s wife, Gabriela, offered us more food, but I was in another world. I was one of the few who had completed the Mighty Mississippi. I looked at Phil and only nodded. I think he knew what it meant. It meant that the silence was good. That we were good; and, for a brief moment, we were creators of our own destiny.
How does one end something? For me it was paddling like mad to the finish, no pain, no glory, just paddling. My muscles were like something possessed; I felt like I had to finish. Phil kept it up with quicker and quicker strokes; he could see the end, he could feel it. Go go, and go go go go go go go. It kept building – there’s the gulf there’s the gulf there’s the gulf. And we did; we finished in six foot swells on the setting sun.
It was wondrous: dolphins dancing in the sand, feeding on freshwater fish the Mighty Miss’sippi had brought them. Jeff Johnson, the man who agreed to put us up for a few days, was in his boat deftly handling the camera and steering wheel at the same time. A strange elation, a strange joy – first in my solar plexus, then whole body… wondrous.
How Does One End Something?
First there must be a pre-end. Something came before the end. What came before? I think to myself. How did we go from there to here?
Ah, yes, Baton Rouge… I had forgotten. I had forgotten the news crews competing for our attention – awesome! I had forgotten the Cajuns holding up catfish desperate for life, my inkling suspicion that, as I get older, I will become more vegetarian – poor fish. Forgotten the railings against Phil in the night where the ‘which way?’s got on his nerves and his lack of communication – the silence, the bloody silence, maybe I can’t stand it – got on mine. I had forgotten this:
Ships, giant mother-of-god ships. “Holy shit!” I have gone through this process before. The first time I encountered a barge in my life was on the Cumberland River preparing for this trip. We said to ourselves, “If we can paddle the Cumberland, we can paddle the Miss’sippi.” We were wrong, and right, in part. The Cumberland throws you a barge, a single container. She is big, yes, but only one container long and wide; sometimes two are pushed… but no more. Two containers pushed by a lonely tug. “Oh my god,” I first thought, “there’s not a way in hell we can handle these; they’re massive.” Life disagreed, the River disagreed and threw us more.
My first encounter with barges on the Mississippi: three containers wide, five deep. “Holy shit!” x 15. I was out of my mind with despair in Prescott, WI. “There is no way I can handle these,” I thought, but then I got over it and got past the locks and dams. I’m in St. Louis now. There are no restrictions: “I am a barge captain, I can stack my containers as wide and deep as I like… I have no locks to push them through. If I feel skilled I could pack them with only an inch on either side of the channel to spare; I can also pack them as deep as I want – 7, 8, 9, more. I can do this. I am a captain.”
Forty-two barges on a single load we counted. Many thirty-sixes, several twenties… no fifteens. Fifteens are babies now. “I can handle anything you throw at me, Miss’sippi,” I said aloud. “You will keep getting bigger until I stop getting scared. I am no longer scared. Throw what you will at me.”
Barges can get wider, they can get deeper. They cannot get taller. Ships can. They can get much taller. “Ten stories – that’s one-hundred feet,” Phillip said the first time we saw one of these behemoths. The Cajuns south of Baton Rouge held their catfish sucking air and shouted and whooped and said we’d be swamped (in jest, I think). We pushed on. What else were we to do? Stop? No. The Gulf. Ever the Gulf, taunting.
“Which way do you want to go?” Phil asked in response to the fear of the ship.
“I don’t know, which way do you want to go!”
“I don’t know, I’ve never handled these ships before.”
“Me neither – I don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
We were arguing over who knew what to do least.
Phil and I worked out a system: hide. Go to where that ship cannot. “Do you see that anchor point over there?”
“Go to it, paddle behind it. If he wants to run us down he’ll have to skip over that concrete slab.”
“I don’t think he’ll do that.”
“No, I know!”
Now we argued over who knew the most. I was comfortable with this argument; even if I lost, I won.
Deftly, Ever Deftly
We were able to dodge ships now. (Barges were babies; forty-twos were nothing.) We felt immense. They would come barreling down the channel at 45 mph, and I would feel no sense of worry. Very liberating. Phil would implore me to move closer to shore, and he was probably right most of the time. Though I wouldn’t have died, he did save me from close calls. Thank you, Phil.
Deftly, ever deftly, we were able to shield ourselves from headwinds; navigate between that barge, that USACE unit, that ship and that dock; glide past the big corporate chemical conglomerates’ docks: Monsanto, adios; Chevron, good-bye; and Bunge, see ya later. We were men now. In the thick of industry, we were men in inflatable boats.
Where Were the People?
The people were finding us. Barges waved us over with arms and lights and fog horns. Doctor Peppers were given along with macaroni and cheese and pork and beans and Gatorade. ‘Good job!’s were given along with ‘how long you think till the gulf?’s and ‘man, I been a barge captain for 25 years and gotta give y’all credit’s. We were feeling good and riding high. We knew how to do this: you just… go.
We were hooking up to McDonalds’ outlets with our laptops and GPSs and cell phones. We were writing posts with creative flare. We were buying economic pizzas and cooking beans and instant potatoes. No day was easy, but we knew how to do it now. The Mississippi had reared us from single barge to ocean-going ship. It had reared us from stuff falling off the side of the supply boat to impeccable packing and strapping. “Nothing has fallen off the side of the boat since Lake Pepin,” I told Phil. “Humph,” he responded but knew I was right. Impeccable. The River was trying to rear us, bear us, and we were born. Hard love it was, but rear us it did.
People came in the form of reporters and short interactions with barge captains and snide teenagers on the banks: “Does the coast guard give you a hard time for being out here?”
“This is still a recreational channel,” I told the young’n.
“Yeah, but nobody does it.”
“We do,” I said pointing to my head and Phillip’s.
“Yeah, but…” Teen was angry to be wrong and whooped a weird whoop to end the conversation. He made fun of me under his breath to his tanned girlfriend. I wanted to say, “Say it to my face,” but what would be the point? We were on the river, we were almost done. People expressed their incredulity with mocks, with disbelief, with “ooooohhh buddy, y’all got duh life, don’t ya?” They did it with surprise and with anger (Phillip got a door slammed in his face when he asked for water. Ha!). New Orleans was in view, and we were almost done.
Pre-New Orleans, the gap between Louisiana’s two biggest cities, was just a slide down the kiddie slide. It happened so quick. But there was one bump, a joyous one before the kicker into the sand – Donaldsonville. Phil and I walked in tired and angry and hot and hungry. “You go to the library,” I said. “I gotta fill my medication.” On the way to the pharmacy (the GPS says there’s one so there is), I see the painting of an austere Indian on a pane window. The lettering underneath says THE CHIEF. I have no idea why I do this when my brain chemistry is screaming for Cymbalta, but I walk into the local paper. “Oh my god, hi! I saw you on the news,” the secretary says. “Oh I’d like to do a story on you,” the editor says. “Y’all want some Po’ Boys?” the only reporter says because “you can’t leave Donalsonville without tryin’ a Po’ Boy.” “I’ll drive you to Wal Mart pharmacy,” the editor also says and “I’ll put you in touch with the Advocate [Baton Rouge’s paper].” Good things happen when you’re wandering, I think. Very good things.
Leaving Donaldsonville, a group of kids runs us down, their mother in tow. “Maaaaam, maaaam, dese ah duh guys! I saw ‘em on TV, and heah dey ah!” The mother has no idea who we are, and I always feel wary of parents’ concerns for their children when I, as I will continue to be as long as I do these adventures, am the stranger. “Howdy, ma’am,” I say Texan. “We’re paddling the river, and’ll be on our way now.”
“Maaaameeeeeee!” Little Boy says, “I tol’ you I’d go to the river every day till I saw deum, an’ I dee-uhd!”
Mom is happy but wary. (They’re always wary.) We walk off as if we don’t need them, but I do… need them. Jugs of water are punching through the cheap garbage bag I brought into town to fill up. “Weeeeeeeuhl help you carry the-um!” Kids are scrapping up jugs and trinkets and laptops. “Weeeee’ll carry them, weeee’ll carry them.” They accompany us to our boats (right past the old oil pipeline, it doesn’t work anymore). I keep walking, I cannot ask Mom for anything. I cannot turn around. They need to offer; I won’t ask. I won’t be a vagrant, asking, with my hand out, wanting, needing. You want me? You ask me.
Mom is coming around now. She sees the boats, she believes the children (“By god, they were on the news… maybe.”). We get in to leave and she stops us. She wants me now; now this is different. “Wait!” she says. “Don’t leave! You gotta tell me about this journey.” We give her the short version and get in to leave. “No!” she says and “hold on” and “um, can I give y’all something?” and “I wish… I just wish I could give y’all something for the… for the…”
“No, don’t worry about that, Janet.” I set my oar across the bow.
I like this, I like feeling wanted. To feel needy is hell.
I say thank you and your boys are great and look for us in The Chief. Then, off-hand, because I love them, I comment on her Fleur de Lis necklace. It’s stunning. Real diamonds, I hope. The beautiful, beautiful Fleur de Lis.
“Oh my god!” she says, “I love fleur de leeze! I’m gonna get y’all some! Hold on!” She runs home and comes back with fleur de lis ____________ and fleur de lis ____________, fleur de lis ___________ and ___________ and _____________. It was glorious.
“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you.”
Four days later Janet wrote us to say that she saw the article, that she wishes we would have stayed longer, that her kids miss us, and that she hopes we enjoy our fleurs de lis. I certainly do. I certainly do.
Part II coming in 48 hours! We are in Oak Ridge, TN where we’ve just seen The Hitchhiking Movie on the big screen!!!! We didn’t have huge DVD sales afterwards, but 1 out of 3 people who saw the movie bought the DVD – awesome! In the next post, New Orleans, New Beginnings, Katrina becomes important, destitution becomes important and the wiping out of things – beginnings. More ships will come… of course. Headwinds, difficulty and Jeff Johnson… of course. A rowdy romp at a barge captain bar. The end is near. Hang on till the ride is over. And to answer some of you fans, OF COURSE WE GOT MORE ADVENTURES COMING!
There is a feeling you get after battling 20 mph headwinds all morning, after eating nothing but trail mix all day in order to meet a deadline, after getting the first glimpse of the ocean far in the distance, after paddling together without missing a stroke for nearly 10 minutes during the final stretch, after hitting that first crashing wave rolling into the shore, and after setting your paddle down in victory.
But I will be unable to accurately describe that feeling to you because you will never know it until you paddle the Mississippi River.
Courtney is magnanimous – money flowing, love. He says, “I’m gonna take y’all out t’night an’ I don’ wanna hear no shit about you can’t cuz…” I cut him off: “Not a peep out of us.” Smile.
It’s The Corner Bar again. The same bar we met. The same bar where the newspaperman told us we “needed to show [him] how we do what we do.” Music is playing; it’s beautiful; I don’t drink but Courtney’s buying. “Colorado Bulldog,” I order and the bartendress looks like she’s going to punch me in the face. “Can you make a White Russian?” I say trying to wipe away her scowl.
Now she looks like she’s going to kick me in the face.
“Good. Make that in a tall glass.”
“Now fill it with Coke.”
She looks like there is something on my face.
“I swear to god it’s good,” I promise. “Tastes like a root beer float.”
She serves; it’s good; and from here on out I’m known as root beer float boy.
Ole Miss is playing South Carolina on the TV. Ole Miss fans (the whole bar) are hooting and hollering: “C’mon you gol’ darned mother f—er!” and “aw shit that’s a personal fowl” and “ you gotta be sh— what the god damned…!” Ole Miss loses. Grown men are crying like babies. The bartendress serves root beer alcoholized floats until I am as the Germans say blau.
“Don’t break the seal!” a woman shouted to me one time in a bar. I was on my way to the men’s room; she stopped me. “If you break the seal, you’re drunk,” she implored and tugged on my arm. “Huh?” I said and did my thing. She was right – after your first pee, you’re usually drunk. I stumble out of the bathroom where grown men are cursing Ole Miss to high heaven, throwing tantrums – “goddamned number 4! knocked off by the gol’ damned South Carolina, gol’ damned hump me with a hose!”
“Ryan, you want another?” Courtney says. Magnanimous. And we’re off to what’s next.
Courtney is drunk too, and if you are a member of law enforcement, not driving. “I’m gonna drive you to The Castle,” he looks devilish. Dunlithe Mansion – the most famous of the Natchez antebellum mansions. Columns all around, front, back, sides… all… columns. It is the eye candy in front of The Castle Restaurant, and we pass it on the drive in.
“Dig me,” Courtney explains.
“It’s all about ‘dig me.’ It’s all about who can build the best shit, who can look the best. Take my house. Looks good, don’ it?”
“Shit, that’s like having twenty-inch rims. This house [the Dunlithe]
is like having 24-inch rims. Ain’t no difference between them. Shoot! These old, crotchety white people think they’re different than blacks with their bling bling. No difference! None! It’s all about ‘dig me’ – who can look the best.”
Once again Courtney has taken my breath away with his insight. It won’t be the last time he has laid me silent tonight.
“Hey Ryan, this is Miss Miriam…”
“Oh dear! Courtney don’t be bothering these nice young gentlemen…”
“Ah now, Miriam, listen, Ryan, this…”
“This hot young thing…”
“…I used to work for her. She is the sweetest lady…”
“Courtney! All right, now what are you boys doing?”
“We’re paddling the river.”
“Oh!” She covers her mouth, then her heart. “That’s… my, that’s…”
I’m drunk. I have no filter. For some people that’s a bad thing; but, for me it tends to make me more soulful. “I’m so glad I ran into you boys,” Miriam says.
“Shit,” I say, “we are complete fools next to you, madame! We are nothing! Thank you for allowing us the pleasure of talking to you, mademoiselle!”
She’s laughing now. Flirting in French gets ‘em every time.
Miss Miriam’s husband was a son of a bitch. He cheated on her and made her life a living hell. He’s dead now, and she tells us that it’s hard getting over him; and, though I’ve never met him, I want to strangle him. F—ing good, I think, if I knew where it was I’d pass this drink through my kidneys and empty it out on where Mr. Miriam’s is now. I offer Miriam a drink.
“Oh, Ryan, you dear, no, I’ll get you one though.”
“Colorado Bulldog,” I tell our waitress/bartender.
“Oh my god!” Her face lights up. “It’s been so long since I’ve made one of those!” She looks like she wants to kiss me in the face.
Miss Miriam gives me a hug and tells me she wants to follow our journey but she can’t because she doesn’t use internet but will call, but I can’t remember if I gave her our number – the night is hazy and so is my memory of it.
Dunlithe is large and wavy on the drive out. Dig me, I think to myself. Dig me.
Back at the ranch, Courtney’s wife is angry. He was supposed to spend time with her tonight before she left for Jackson in the morning. He didn’t; he spent time with us. “What’s she gonna do? Divorce me?” Courtney asks. “No,” I say, “probably not.
(Before you judge the cat, I saw him make his wife breakfast no less than thrice, tell her he loved her no more than 800 times and pretty much convinced me he was the coolest, best husband around. That’s why she wasn’t going to divorce him.)
“She’ll get over it,” Courtney assuages us. We’re about to walk up to the carriage house, our guest home, when he stops up. “Boys,” he says, “listen. Y’all are going to make this movie and there’s something important you need to know – make it about the people.”
Way ahead of ya on that one.
“No, listen,” he says reading my mind. “You make it about what matters – love. Look, Jesus Jones — I used to play in a rock band.” He’s told us this before. “I remember we were doin’ this gig down South, and we got a copy of Rolling Stone and on the cover is: Jesus Jones – The Savior of Rock and Roll. The Savior of frikkin’ rock and roll. C’mon. I guess he could have been, but the problem was he believed it. When he was just makin’ music, he was fine. Remember the…”
“Riiiight here, riiight now,” I sing.
“Yeah! That’s it! That was his only hit! After that, he was nothin’. Nothin’,” he marks. Courtney gets deeply, deeply silent: “You boys need to focus on your work – nothing more nothing less. You focus on making movies that matter, just like Jesus should have focused on his music. That’s all he needed to do; instead, he bought into it – savior of rock n’ roll,” he mocks. Same thing happened to me,” he says and looks away.
Courtney’s band was to do a photo shoot with Rolling Stone in the 90s when the lead singer got cold feet. Courtney sighs: “Didn’t want to be portrayed in that light, he told me. What the hell does that mean? Focus on your work… don’t take it seriously… just play, just play.”
Courtney, I promise you… to just play.
Courtney has dropped us off in St. Francisville, and good thing too. The river slows way down between here and New Orleans; and, if we are to make our Oct. 5 deadline, we’ll need all the help we can get. The river between St. Francisville and Baton Rouge passes by like a droning song. Phil and I paddle unceremoniously. It’s work now; it’s good work, but it’s work. Paddle, one two, paddle, two three, paddle. The miles pass on. A certain amount of effort is required to produce a certain amount of result, a success guru once told me; and, I know how many paddle strokes will be needed to make it to the Gulf – more, one more, and one more. Stroke, to Baton Rouge.
Phil and I have not been getting the press coverage I would have liked since St. Louis, and I am not happy. “I don’t know what to tell you,” Phil offers sympathetically. I’m still mad; I want someone to blame – my vibe, myself, something. But nothing. You win some, you lose some. In Baton Rouge, we’re about to win big.
Bam, an email comes back – “We want to cover you.” Bam, a cell call comes in – “Ryan, where are you on the river; we will meet you under the I-10 Bridge in Baton Rouge.” Two big-city reporters want our blood, and I am happy.
Baton Rouge is beautiful. In the words of Allen Tumey, “Our Capitol Building sticks up like a penis.” I laugh because Allen is 60 years old and shouldn’t be saying things like our capitol building looks like a penis. I laugh because he’s our reporter for Channel 9 and shouldn’t be saying these things in front of important interviewees like Phil and myself… snicker, snicker, snicker. I laugh again when Allen is watching Chris Nakamoto, the bigger, scarier and younger and cooler and hipper reporter from Channel 2 (the big boys in Baton Rouge TV news) finish up their interview with Phillip. Allen leans into me. Chris’s hair is perfect and spiky; his shoes are 400 dollars. Phil tells me later his cameraman’s sunglasses were $200. Allen is wearing New Balances and doing his own camerawork. “I have something up my sleeve,” he whispers. He winks at me, and I hope to God he’s straight. Chris comes up and shakes my hand. “Great interview, Ryan,” he says.
“We’ll let you know when it’s up.” He nods at Allen. “Allen.”
Chris and his nicely-frocked cameraman are off in a clean, white news van. Allen pulls his camera out of the back of a Toyota Camry.
“I’m going to film you guys on the water,” he says. “The Port Allen Police Department is going to take me on their boat so I can get some on-the-water shots. Like I said, we’re friendly in the news business, but I don’t have to give my secrets away.” Devilish, not gay.
The Port Allen Police Department zooms their twin-275HP motors by us like we were standing still. Allen gets his shots. The police wish us well, and our day in Baton Rouge is done. Devilish.
Side note: The news pieces ran in Baton Rouge and were excellent. Both Chris and Allen did an excellent job. They even ran the piece several times and several people even 100 miles downriver came up to us and told us they saw us on the news. Terrifique!
South of Baton Rouge, Phil and I fight in the boat. I am being too negative. I am; it is true. But I don’t like him calling me out on it, or I don’t like how he calls me out on it. We fight. It is vitriol – the worst we’ve had. We really want this trip to be done. We are tired of one another, tired of the boat, tired of the water, towns, people, everything. Though we love it, we hate it. A teacher once told me that the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. This trip, this life, this boat has been anything but indifferent. It has been life, good or bad, through and through. Those twenty minutes of fighting were ugly, really ugly. That’s all I want to say about because it hurts too much to talk about. I was possessed, a demon – mad and angry… devilish – the bad kind. When we got to shore to camp for the night, we said nothing and got in our tents. I looked at the roof of my tent. I’ve got to stop this, I thought. I don’t know whose fault this is, but this has got to stop. I just… can’t do it anymore. The next morning, I planned to offer an apology, but the pain-body as Eckhart Tolle likes to call it (sort of like an angry demon that can travel from body to body) has traveled to Phil. He’s angry and spiteful and I am not. Downstream he snaps at me and tells me that we need to be on the other shore. Where yesterday I blew up, today I calm down. I take in deep breaths and am not angry. “That’s cool” I say.
“Yur goddamn right it’s cool!”
“Yes,” I say and am not fake calm; I am real calm.
“You wanna always fight and I’m…” Blah blah blah, vitriol, vitriol, vitriol. I face the pain-body with calmness. I do not get mad at Phil. I can’t do this anymore, I promised myself yesterday and keep the promise today. Phil lets the demon escape his body, and we are levity itself for hours and hours. We paddle on and find a group of Cajun fisherman hooting and hollering and throwing catfish into their nets. They offer us beer and tell us to turn our cameras on them because “they gon’ be mov’ee staws!” One big ol’ Cajun self-labeled “Cracker”
says, “OOOOOEEE you gon’ see me one day on the Cineplex! Shoot! A’least get me on PBS!” Cracker shows us his dog, Chopper, whom he gets to play dead for 7 minutes straight, and frowns when I throw the stick for Chopper who fetches it. A nice but dirty Cajun has gaps between his teeth and points my eyes out into the “wawtuh wheah you gon’ see a sink bawge; duh sink bawge kin just throw them big ol’ smokestack lookin’ things into the wawtuh, an’ he don’ hav’ tuh use no ankuh (anchor). An’ den ooooh lookey here! Das a big ol’ ship a comin’!”
And so it is – a big ol’ HOLY CHRIST! ship.
“I never knew they could be that big on the wawduh, um, water,” I say.
“OOOOOO,” he says, “dey jus’ gon’ get bigguh!”
Phil and I paddle on. The demon is not here, has not been here for some days. (We’re in New Orleans now! Go us!) I think about Courtney, Baton Rouge… people. All ways of thinking and being, they are. One stroke, two three stroke. A certain number of strokes will get us to the Gulf. How many to go? It doesn’t matter. I’m here; this is now; Courtney is Courtney; I’m me, and Phil is Phil. We are… us, moving, flowing, life. What will happen when this is over? How long will the film take to edit? Matters not. I can take life one stroke at a time.
“Can you hear me out there?” the loudspeaker on a nearby barge crackled loudly. I waited for what I thought was coming next: This barge captain is probably upset we’re in his way in this busy traffic corridor. Barges are scrambling around on both sides of the river like giant ants moving their loads. But the next sentence suprised both of us. “Ya’ll want some Gatorade?”
Huh? What? Yeah! We eagerly paddled toward the towering barge. Two deck hands related how they had seen Allen’s story about us on the news the previous night. They tossed down a package of Gatorade and two granola bars. McKee brand– Adventist food, I noted.
There really wasn’t any reason for me to assume the captain would be upset with us. You often cannot see the operator of the barge and therefore assign a personality to the boat based on it’s size and appearance. But in over 2000 miles of traveling the Mississippi, not one barge has communicated any kind of negativity toward under-powered boats such as ours. In fact, we’ve never received any significant communication from them.
The only negative comment received to date was from a Army Corp worker on the shore near Greenville, MS. As we paddled past their work site, a man looking to be in charge got on his loudspeaker and announced: “You boys are gonna drown if you keep paddling like a bunch of dummies out there.” I wanted to respond and say, “I guess it’s a good thing we’re not a bunch of dummies then!” but decided it wouldn’t make any difference anyways.
The only other loudspeaker incident happened north of Lake Providence. We were paddling very close to dark and a barge approached on our left side. Instead of reminding us how dangerous it is to paddle near dusk, the loudspeaker began playing a few bars from a famous Conway Twitty song. “Darling, I’d just love to lay you down.” I wasn’t sure for a moment if he was just being friendly or if we were being hit on!
Same Lesson (Times Two)
Not ten minutes after receiving our first hospitality from a barge crew, a second vessel motioned us over. This boat was parked on the shore and just wanted to chat and help as well. Another friendly crew passed us a couple more cases of Gatorade while the captain gave us some advice about “Suicide Stretch” which would be coming up downriver. The younger of the two deck hands agreed: “It’s going to get much tougher up ahead. Ya’ll be careful.” He handed over their lunch leftovers consisting of mac & cheese, pork & beans, and some fish sticks.
As Ryan and I stopped to eat the barge food further downriver, I realized this was a lesson that was being given to us. We had both been fighting (again–yeah, big suprise) both the evening before and this morning as well. The basis for some of the disagreements were based on false assumptions. Now, twice in a row we had received hospitality in place of what we assumed might be a scolding. Sometimes you assign a value where it does not exist. This boat is bigger than me and therefore he’s probably mad I’m in his way. But that’s not necessary the case. Big or small we’re all on this same river, country, or planet together. Let’s make assumptions that fall on the positive side.
The times, they are a-changin’ (and the boats on the Mississippi too!).
We paddled into Baton Rouge on a bright Saturday afternoon, our first city in the last state on the Mississippi River. Ryan generally tries to give the news media a “heads up” about our journey a day or so prior to arriving in a city. We like to have the press cover the story, but since we are on a fairly tight schedule it doesn’t always work out for them to come out to the river and meet us. Today would be different…
Around noon, Ryan got a call from one of the Baton Rouge television stations saying they would like to meet with us when we arrived in town. He agreed to meet before 2 p.m. at the boat ramp south of the I-10 bridge. As we neared the bridge, another reporter named Allen from a different station called us saying he would also like to cover the story. Ryan told him that the first station would be meeting us at the boat ramp and we would be there if he would like to meet with us. Ryan negotiated between the reporters as skillfully as a man with multiple simultaneous girlfriends. I wonder where he learned how to do that, I thought.
The young men from WBRZ did a great piece which aired on the Monday morning news. Allen arrived just as they were finishing and he had something else entirely up his sleeve.
Allen called up the local Sheriff and had them send a boat out so that he could shoot some footage from the water. At first, I assumed this meant they would be coming down the river, but then the trailered boat came down the ramp with three deputy sheriffs on-board. Although a single great shot does not a news story make, it sure helps to have some great connections when you need them and I can’t wait to see Allen’s take on the story as well.
On advice from the locals, we left the dock and made camp several miles south of Baton Rouge on a sandy beach which already had a temporary structure on the shoreline. There wasn’t any sign of human (or animal!) life so we set up our tents and quietly went to sleep. The morning light bought out a brood of beer drinkers who were breaking up their routine with a little fishin’ as well. Their warning to us was that more ocean-going vessels would begin to crowd the river as we continued our journey. As Ryan packed up the boats, I noticed an example in the distance. “Ryan” I called as I grabbed the camera and began taping, “look behind you.”
Ryan glanced over his right shoulder and gasped just slightly as the huge vessel pushed it’s way rapidly upriver. It would be the first of several ships we would see over the course of the day.
The story is that the former-governor of Louisiana wanted to keep the traffic (and money) from the big ships in his own state. When a new bridge was being built in Baton Rouge, it was intentionally built short as to not allow large ships to go to ports upriver in Mississippi (such as Natchez).
Farther downriver, another boat stopped and told us more about what was to come. After handing us a couple Coca-cola’s each, Terry gave us the straight dope: “Our boat tops out at about 40 mph, but the ships you’ll find past New Orleans will easily pass us.” Terry continued, “Sometimes the waves will reach as much as 12 feet high. They crash over the bow of our boat.” I silently debated if we’ll survive the last few days on the river. Holy ship!
I have no idea what to tell him, no idea how we do what we do. We normally ride up into a town like a couple of scraggly ruffians and people start asking questions: “What’chall doin’?” “Are you guys bikers, paddlers, runners, killers?” “You guys smell horrible, will you please leave my place of business?” But a reporter for the Natchez Democrat in Natchez, MS wants to know how we get people to talk to us, and I feel like a total tool for not knowing exactly.
“Um, we pretty much just let the Universe bring us people,” I say.
He’s not having it. “I’m going to follow y’all ‘round,” Mr. Reporter Man says, “and y’all just do what you normally do.”
Normally we would paddle for days on end until someone pulled up beside us in a boat, asked us what we were doing and offered to put us up for the night. We would then film, eek out the quirkiness of the family or person in question (via my insightful and incisive questioning, ahem) and that would be the footage we will use when it’s time to make a movie about people on the Mississippi River. But this man wants a demonstration of God’s power, and he’s on a deadline, so God better start working fast.
“How ‘bout that guy?” he asks. It’s a young black man cooking sausages on the street. Natchez, a beautiful town, is surrounded by a humidified haze as the sun goes down. “Um,” I say, “I guess I could ask him.” I feel like a total dork. I really can’t come up with a definable method we use to get people to interact with us, nevermind get them to invite us into their homes. People just tend to show up. I know I can go up and say, “Heyyyyyyyyyyyyy, cookin’ sausages? Coooool. So like what do you think of a couple of guys paddlin’ down the river, cooooool, n’c’est pas?” He will either grunt or fart and look at me like I’m nuts, or he will start talking and introduce me to his boss who knows a guy who knows a guy who will put Phillip and me up for the night. It could go either way, and I’ve always felt more comfortable when God was flipping the coin. But Ben (an excellent reporter by the way; thank you, Ben, for an awesome interview and photo session, did you get my good side? J) is asking me to force things; and, though I don’t like it, I’m going to ask the Universe to pick up the pace.
Prayer timmmmeeeeee! I say to myself. So like look, God, we need a goddamn demonstration of your power, send us a dude who is interesting on camera, has a cool house, an interesting life situation, and more importantly can give us showers and breakfast, so we can show this here reporter how exactly 11 Visions whoops some documentary-making ass. Cool?
“Cool!” God said (his voice sounded a lot like the one from the Charlton Heston version of Exodus) “Thou shalt go to a bar and order a beeeeer! And also don’t steal, lie, or mess with other people’s wives.”
“Aren’t there seven more?”
“Will you just get your ass to a bar for the love of Christ!”
Geez, God is testy today. To a bar we go.
“Where’s a bar?” I ask Ben.
“Weeeelll,” he says. “Where y’all were was perfect; there’s a saloon right off the river.”
We ain’t on the river! “Anywhere closer?”
“Weeeeeeellll, there’s the corner bar right over there.” A nice-looking hole in the wall with a green awning. That’ll do.
The Corner Bar
Lights, camera, action. It’s picture perfect. Just what we were looking for. Everyone is middle-aged. Awesome, I think, middle-aged people generally
think we’re crazy
want to do what we’re doing “and if [they were] just a little bit younger and had a few less kids [they]’d do it too in a heartbeat”
have disposable income to buy us beer and food and god knows what else
own their own homes, have already booted their kids out and are itchin’ to fill those extra rooms even if it’s just for one or two nights
Through the door, it’s a long walk to the far end of the bar top. We sweep the length of it like movie stars. Every head turns as Ben snaps pictures – his digital SLR, a telephoto lens. “What in the hell are these guys?” they think, and I respond, We’re movie stars, duh.
We take our seats. Men, black and white, with golf hats, golf shoes and rolls of cash hit on the only female bartender. “It’s kinda like the rabid dog in To Kill a Mockingbird,” Courtney Aldridge, the man, who in two hours will put us up for the night, says. “Y’all are unusual – the only game in town worth watchin’.”
Ben is asking me with his eyes to work some movie magic. Shit, um, I guess I could… “Order a damn beeer!” God says again. To the bartender! “Howdy, ma’am! My friend and I are paddling down the Mississipi River.” More heads turn. Maybe I know how to do this after all. “And we would like to know what beer specials you have.” Big smile on my face – goddamned if I don’t know how to do this! “Well,” she says, “it’s happy hour, so you got domestics for $1.25 and imports $1.50.” “Bud,” I say. “Guinness,” Phil says. Ooooo, got an extra quarter to go fancy I guess – drunken Irish bastard!
Black men in Polo shirts are eyeing us. They could work. Elder women on the far side of the bar. “What’s he doing? What’s he doing?” Snap, snap, goes Ben’s camera. A balding post-baby boomer with a nonchalant gait walks past. Headed to the john are you? “Hey my friend…”
“Hey, yourself,” he cuts me off. “Bikers, are you?”
“Figured as much. You got wading shoes on. Bikers don’t wear wading shoes. I biked all across France; wouldn’t be caught dead wearin’ shoes like that.” Ben is ultra-interested now. He can’t believe that we’ve gotten someone to talk to us and is snapping pictures like a madman. “Tell us about Natchez,” I say, and Courtney, who will make us tomato basil grits with Vine Brothers Sausage in the morning, says, “Well, shoot, I’ll tell ya about Natchez,” and forgets about the bathroom entirely. “Natchez is an artsy town.”
“Figured as much,” I say, “I told Phillip – this is my friend Phillip – paddlin’ up here that this town had a different feel than Vicksburg.”
“Oh it totally does,” Courtney says. Ben eases his shutter speed off to a slow crawl, more interested. “Vicksburg fought the Union soldiers like hell.
We didn’t. Their citizens dug holes in the ground to escape Northern shelling. They put their furniture and pictures down there to decorate the ‘place.’ They ate rats, killed dogs in the street for food as General Grant tried to starve ’em out. Shit, when Grant rolled up on Natchez, we put our hands up and said, ‘We give up.’” Damn, this is interesting. Thank you God; I knew You’d come through for me – Ben is still amazed! “Natchez was settled by Northerners. They wasn’t gonna fight.” Courtney turns the questioning on me: “How far y’all paddlin’ down?”
“Minnesota, din’ ya?”
“Goin’ to New Orleans. Yeah, you’re only about the tenth guy I’ve talked to that’s done that. I put up guys like you in my house all the time.” He pulls out a Marlboro Light, sparks his Zippo and looks like he’s about to fall asleep my story is so boring. “So y’all just order what you want to eat. Y’all want steak? I’ll order it – hey, Mary, get these guys some steaks! Y’all want mashed p’tatas? Mary! Get these guys some mashed tatas. Biscuits? Mary! Salad? Mary Mary Mary! Y’all’ll be set. Who’s this guy?” he asks referring to Ben.
“I’m Ben Hillyer…”
“I know who you are,” Courtney says like he’s looking at a crushed bug on the sidewalk. “I gotta take a piss.” He’s gone.
“Sooo, Ben,” I say, “that’s kinda how it works. Um, I hope…”
“Ohhh, no, guys, that was perfect, can I get a few shots of you guys in the boats?”
“Yeah, you can,” Courtney says returning. “I’ll give you guys a ride down there. You’ll come to my church tonight where there’s a little cookout, shit, my wife’s calling, hey baby! What’s up? There’s these boys that’s gonna stay with us tonight paddlin’ the river? Well, you’ll meet ‘em tonight? You boys killers? Naw, honey, they straight. I love you. Get in the car, boys. Nice to meet you Ben,” and he’s out the door while I stand there with one thought in my head: God, You work in mysterious ways.
Ben Gets His Shots and is Satisfied
Ben takes our pictures at the boat launch while Courtney backs his King Ranch pickup down the ramp. I try to say to Ben something like, “So this is how it all works,” but I know it’s bullshit. I have, Phillip has, we have nothing to do with how this all works out. It just does.
Back at the bar, Courney has too many interesting things to say to include in one blog post, but we learn that…
Rednecks are not just Southern; they’re everywhere. “You take a look at Natchez, you’ll scarcely find a redneck. They just ain’t here. Good education here, and we’re 53% black and poor as shit. Rednecks – shit – L.A.’s full of ‘em. Redneck is just a socioeconomic mindset limited by I.Q. and opportunity.” That, my friends, is about the best and most insightful definition of “redneck” that I have ever heard in my life. Maybe, indeed, I am speaking to God.
“You can be who you want in Natchez. Hell I have several gay, OPENLY,” he marks, “gay friends in Natchez. We don’t care. It’s a liberal town. You should talk to our local golf pro, Tom, sittin’ right over there…” Tom, one of the older black men in golf hats, hears us talk about him but deliberately decides not to turn around. If he is the saint Courtney says he is, he cannot turn around, will not seek the spotlight and indeed stares squarely at the television. “Tom was here during the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement. Hell, he sat in! My family was friends with his. My daddy had KKK burned in his front yard just cuz we was friends with black folks. It was a f—ed up time. But that’s how it was. Natchez – settled by Northeners back in the day. We weren’t like the rest of Mississippi. Poor as shit ‘cept for a few millionaires who made it big in cotton, but we had culture. And that’s the big difference. Rednecks? No culture.” I really want to pick Tom’s brain; I want to know what it was like being black in Mississippi in 1962, want to know how he became the golf pro, but it’s time to go. I go to shake his hand. “Courtney had tons of nice things to say about you,” I tell him. “Who?” he asks, and “About me?” he asks, and “Yes” I say, and I know he’s a saint. But before we go Courtney offers us…
Katrina. We’re getting ever closer to one of the biggest debacles in U.S. disaster-handling history. It’s a sore point for everybody. It’s a political bombshell. And we’re getting closer and closer to the gaping wound – we’re getting closer to New Orleans. Courtney offers no politics – he has a personal story to tell: “I put people up,” he says. “I own five houses in town, and I don’t like renting ‘em out, but when Katrina hit, shoot, I put tons of people up. They had nowhere to go. Clients of mine who I hadn’t talked to in years found me off of an old invoice when their home was destroyed. Natchez had ‘em in the convention center, kids and all, living on pallets – they had their entire possessions in pillow cases – I found ‘em and put ‘em up in one of my houses. Couldn’t stop there; had to do something. Put five more families up. I mean these weren’t poor folks; these were people with jobs and insurance who lost everything. Where do they go? I had to do something.” Courtney, I think, must be a saint as well. Politics now: “Yeah, Bush fucked up. Of course he did. But so did [now ex] Govenor Blanco and Mayor Nagin. They had the busses in place to bus people outta there – I mean, shit, 60% of New Orleans doesn’t have a car! – they NEEDED to be bussed out of there – so Bush thinks Blanco’s handling the busses and vice versa and it’s a big f—in’ mess! Ridiculous. Bullshit. It’s just people, man,” Courtney adds at the end. “I usually vote Republican because I’m fiscally conservative, but you gotta do somethin’ for the people – that’s just a no-brainer.”
Courtney has us back in his King Ranch. Rain falls and the windows are up. “This place is a f—in’ mess; I been livin’ out of this thing for weeks,” he says. “Drove to Fort Worth and back yesterday, meeting with some clients, fourteen hours in the car, yeah,” he says looking at my wide eyes, “I know.” He swings us by his church. Presbyterian.
“Scottish, are you?”
“Psst. No, might as well be, ornery as I am.” He lights another Marlboro. “Cookout is done, know you boys had them steaks at the Corner, just wanted you to meet some church folk. No matter, let’s go to bed.”
The drive to Courtney’s house is long and slow and rainy. I feel good. I’m in the arms of a saint, I think. A saint who drinks and smokes and uses the F word more than I do (can you imagine!) and seems about as interested in us as a dog in its own butt, but through that relaxed exterior offers us room and board and food and pearls of wisdom.
As we pull up on D’Evereux Mansion, I think about Ben. Damned, Ben. I guess there is a method to this madness. But I’ll be damned myself… if I can put it into words.
An old story I read as a child told of a farm-hand who promised the farmer when he was hired, “I can sleep on windy nights.” The farmer didn’t understand what he meant until the night of a terrible storm in which the farmer was certain all his hay would be blown away. His new help slept peacefully through the storm while he rushed outside and was instead surprised to find that everything was already secured. When you’re prepared for the storm, you can sleep through it without worry.
Well, it’s been a-stormin’ here in Mississippi. Not a day (or night) goes by it seems without at least an hour of driving wind and rain. But Ryan and I have been remarkably able to sleep at night without worry. Between the both of us we have established a certain level of comfort with the elements.
Just south of Helena, Arkansas, I managed to leave half of my tent poles high on a ridge above the river. I didn’t notice this loss until we camped in near darkness later that night and I had to improvise by propping up the tent with wire ties and my tripod. The reduced ceiling height of this new arrangement felt like sleeping inside a large plastic bag (i.e. very claustrophobic)! A new 8’x9′ tent purchased in Vicksburg restored my standard of living for the final few weeks of the journey. Ahh, sweet comfort!
Ryan’s not comfortable at night unless the boats are well above the water line and tied down securely. I’m perfectly happy if they are at least 18 inches above the water, but I let him choose how high we will put the boats up each night. In this case, it’s probably good that he is so concerned because that may save our boats one night when the water actually rises above my level of comfort.
Both of us have succumbed to not worry about the rain anymore. The only essential items which cannot get wet are the camera and laptops. Since these items are always kept wrapped in plastic, protected from the rain, storms can come and go without us ever having to think about these possessions getting destroyed.
Other items like the tents, sleeping bags, and pillows are in a constant state of being soaked. “My pillow smells like piss!” is a common complaint ringing out in the night. My sleeping bag is often wet, but fortunately it’s warm regardless of how wet it is. Ryan reminds me nightly to just think of it as a giant warm vagina. Uhh, right…
But tonight we don’t have to worry about rain at all. We’re sleeping at the D’evereux Mansion in Natchez, Mississippi where we are the welcomed guests of the mansion’s owner. There is a large comfortable queen bed in the guest room. I’m on one side of the bed zipped up in my sleeping bag while Ryan propped himself up on tons of pillows on the other side. It’s windy outside, but tonight we’ll sleep just fine.
It’s a strangely familiar setting–standing by the side of the road with some camping gear beside me and a large pack on my back filled with supplies. I’m in Vicksburg, Mississippi and there seems to be no other solution right now other than to start hitchhiking. You’re probably thinking that I’ve had it with Ryan, the paddling, and the rain, and have decided to hitchhike back to Nashville. You’d be wrong…
Two hours earlier, Ryan and I split up in Vicksburg so he could work on the blog while I did some much-needed shopping. Walmart is only a mile from the river, but the guides at the welcome center pointed out a route that didn’t involve walking illegally down the interstate. The new route took two miles so I brought along Ryan’s giant pack so that I would be able to carry everything back should there not be effective public transportation. Once in the store I went crazy and bought nearly tons of food (I was hungry after walking the two miles!) and already knew there was a bus which could take me back to the casino.
Beep. Beep. Beep. The young woman at the checkout stared downward while I made small-talk about the change to white packaging in Walmart’s “Great Value” product line. I then asked about the N-Route (Vickburg’s bus) schedule. She didn’t know the times, but left mid-checkout to ask someone who did. She returned in a moment with the answer:
“The N-Route comes by every hour.”
“What time is the next bus?”
“What time is it right now?”
“Are they usually on time?”
“They always are.”
“What about a taxi?”
“Don’t have any in this town anymore.”
Damn it! I began adding up the weight of the food already bagged and in the cart. There has got to be at least 100 pounds of food in that cart. How the hell will I carry all that back to the boat? I walk out the front door and ask an employee on break if the bus has arrived yet. “Just left 5 minutes ago,” she cheerfully responds. Okay, then. Let’s load up this pack and walk it back. Ryan had showed me some of the features of his Gregory pack just before splitting and I’m glad now that I was listening to him. I extend the buckles outward so that it can hold the maximum amount of gear. All the food goes into the pack save only the bread and powered milk which I worried will get crushed and damaged.
As I walk out to the road, a tan Oldsmobile car which has seen better days slows down as it enters the parking lot. The rear window rolls down as it parks and a young black boy gestures to me with his hand. “Mister, mister!” I turn and look back at him and him and his brother as they exit the rear seat. “Do you want some food?” he asks and hands me a big box of donuts. I already have 100 pounds of food. What I need is a ride! “They’re fresh!” The boy’s shrill voice breaks my line of thought. I mumble a genuine thank you and feel the sugar rush after only one bite. “I really need a ride back to the casino,” I volunteer, but the boy just grabs his father’s hand and skips into the store. I imagine they thought I was a homeless man and they were helping me get something to eat for the day.
I’m already exhausted after barely walking out of the parking lot and decide to try a old trick–hitchhiking. So that’s why I’m out here on the side of the road with my thumb out. 30 minutes pass slowly with no results. Ryan’s gonna be wondering where I am. I was supposed to call him when I left Walmart so we could meet at the boats. That could be hours from now though if I have to walk the entire way. I put the pack back on and walk about a half mile to a better spot on the highway. Another 20 minutes pass with no luck. After walking awhile longer, I can’t take it anymore and stash the goods under a tree on the side of the highway. There has to be another solution. Now free of the pack I walk unencumbered to a Shell station near the casino. Three female clerks tell me they know a guy to call for a ride and one of them makes the call while the others watch in amazement as I guzzle down two large bottles of Gatorade.
An unmarked Town Car pulls up beside the Shell station chauffeured by a driver who bears a resemblance to Morgan Freeman. God himself came to rescue me, I think as I cautiously ask: “Are you the cab driver?” The man responds softly without making eye contact, “You could say that.” I get in the car and describe my situation. He listens quietly and pulls out to the road asking only, “Which way?” We drive in silence and pick up the bags from my not-so-secret hiding spot. I ventured a question which finally got the God look-alike talking:
“How long have you lived in this town?”
“You don’t want to know the answer to that question, but I spent 50 years on the road as a truck driver.”
“And you’re still driving?”
This line of questioning seemed like a dead end, but then “God” continued.
“This town used to be jumpin’–it was like Vegas back in the day.”
“When was it jumpin?” I questioned using his same manner of speaking.
“Oh, that was probly before you was born.”
We were almost back to the casino before he made a new observation:
“Yes sir, down the entire Mississippi River.”
“Well, I guess I better not get in fight with you ’cause you could prob’ly kick my ass.”
I laughed awkwardly and he quickly followed up with, “Don’t get upset, I just jokin’ with ya.”
It’s nearly dark as I unload the gear from the trunk on his car and I already spot Ryan down near the boats. “God” got me back to the river and hopefully God will get us both safely all the way to New Orleans.