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!”
“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.”
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?”
“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.
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, 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! 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.
“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,