Archive for September, 2009

When we went out to Green Bay landing this morning, the kayak was gone. Simply gone, no trace. The last time I saw it was Sunday around noon, when I was about to paddle down to Ortho landing where the bike was locked up. The wind was too strong, so I decided not to paddle, and I thought it was a bad idea to try to put the kayak back up on the car, partially because I was alone, partially because I needed to drive up to the Quad Cities to pick up Rafaela at the airport Monday and the wind was strong enough that highway driving with the kayak seemed dangerous. I had already left the kayak there overnight with no trouble, so I thought it would be okay.

I was wrong, obviously. Totally wrong.

We called the Lee County sheriff and he came out and took a report. I talked to Mike, a local farmer, whose friend owns some of the hunting camps just upriver and they both promised to ask around.

But there’s more.

We drive down to the Ortho landing ten miles downriver, where I had parked and locked my bike with a big NYC-type chain. And, I bet you can guess, the bike was gone, too. Simply gone, no trace. Not even the presumably broken lock. There was a woman there who comes out every day on her lunch hour who had seen it yesterday, which means the bike was stolen between 1 pm Monday and noon Tuesday.

We called once again, and the police came out to take a report this time (Ortho launch is within Fort Madison city limits, while Green Bay is north enough of Fort Madison to be under the aegis of the county.)

I am now without any form of human-powered transportation. Except walking, I guess(!) And I am kind of in shock. In nearly two months of traveling down the river, nothing has prepared me for this, not even a hint that something like this could happen.

So. We go to the Fort Madison newspaper where I talk to a sympathetic reporter named Joe Benedict, who promises a story for tomorrow’s Fort Madison Democrat. And then we drive back up to Burlington, where I talk to the very kind and helpful editor, Randy Miller, at The Hawkeye, and he, too, promises a story for tomorrow’s paper.

Randy puts me in touch with a local person who wants to remain anonymous, who has put us up in a hotel for the next two nights, and will take us out on the river to look for the kayak tomorrow downriver and in the back sloughs, just in case someone decided it would be fun to launch the kayak just to see where it ends up.

All these people have been so great, so generous with their time and energy and sympathy, that it seems almost unimaginable that both my kayak and my bike could really be gone forever.

So here’s what I’m praying for. That we will go out tomorrow, and my little red sportscar kayak will be caught in some reeds down the river a bit, victim of a dumb prank by some bored kids, and all will be well and I’ll be able to continue on my way almost as if this whole bad adventure didn’t happen. I don’t have much hope for recovering the bike, because in my experience a stolen bike is gone forever. But I’m focusing on the kayak right now, and if you have a little extra space in your day, if you would just dream about my little red kayak half-hidden in the bullrushes waiting to be rescued, I would be really grateful.

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This morning I went to the Joy Baptist Church in Fort Madison. I think it’s the first time I’ve been to a Baptist church, and it’s a step towards visiting a form of Christianity that is pretty foreign to me. People were very warm and inviting, there was lots of enthusiastic singing of hymns that are definitely not in the Episcopal hymnal, and the pianist was really good (the song-leader guy said she used to be an opera singer in NYC, check it!) And the sermon was a discursive journey through Philippians by a pastor who evinced utter certainty about the efficacy of beating children (it was Family Day), along with the utter certainty that he is saved. Towards the end of the service, we were asked to raise our hands if we are sure we are saved, sure that we are going to heaven. I couldn’t raise my hand, (as I left, one man patted my shoulder and said “Keep coming back,” sort of like at a 12-step meeting) and it got me to thinking that probably according to these folks I am not really a Christian, not really a believer at all. I left the service thinking hard about what it might do to a person’s life if one were to live it in the utter certainty of salvation and forgiveness, sure of a beautiful upcoming afterlife. One might embrace his sinfulness and brokenness, as this pastor did in his sermon, but insist nonetheless that heaven certainly awaits him. He said at one point, “I am not interested in justice, I am interested in mercy.” Yes, I can follow that, I can, but I don’t like the self-satisfied certainty of this guy’s approach, which colors all his pronouncements, all his opinions. God’s mercy is very strange indeed, (as Graham Greene so beautifully articulates in Brighton Rock,) but I don’t think I would want to live in the certainty of mercy as opposed to justice. I think perhaps faith in justice and hope of mercy might lead to a more generous and honorable life, but what do I know?

A few other little things I am beginning to notice. The regional accent has begun to change. Maybe south of Davenport it began — certainly by Burlington you can begin to hear vowels that sound vaguely Southern to me. Also, the church activities are divided by gender (I began to notice this at the Presbyterian Church in Le Claire last week, actually) — the men are asked to do maintenance work on the church and the women (ladies, actually) to cook and serve lunch, for example. And it gets me thinking about how gender roles are so deeply embedded in our culture, in most cultures of course, and how very lucky I feel to go to churches in both New York and Vermont where you aren’t required to have breasts to serve on the hospitality committee and don’t have to have a penis to preach.

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I had planned to do a second split day of paddling and biking after church (yesterday was my first day of implementing this wacky plan of putting the bike at the pullout point, paddling the kayak down to the bike, and biking back up to the car, and it was very cool to have this doubled experience of the river from both the water and the land), but when I got to the launch where I had left the kayak, I realized the wind was against me at about 13-15 mph, and would definitely make for too long a day on the river. So I decided to check out the restored Fort Madison, a very early 19th century settlement that was once the only stop between St. Louis and Prairie du Chien. The soldiers had burned the fort to the ground when they abandoned it in 1813, and it was reconstructed about twenty years ago by volunteers from the maximum security prison here in Fort Madison, led by a lifer named Walter Smith. I ended up having a long conversation with the historian who runs the place, (I didn’t get his name), who was dressed up in period clothing as the Lieutenant of the fort. The actual Captain had been a brutal man, so awful that the doctor assigned to the fort had complained to the authorities about his behavior. I got a detailed description of the various tortures the Captain regularly visited upon the fifty or so enlisted men under his authority. Do you suppose he also was sure he was saved?

Walter Smith, the prisoner who headed up the rebuilding effort, is in his seventies now, if he is still alive. Perhaps he is at the penitentiary still. I’d be interested to know how he thinks about his several years’ work heading the team that re-built the fort. Do you think he is sure he is saved?

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Today I set off in the kayak from Shady Creek with a very fun send-off crew: a group of folks who winter together in Florida and summer together by the banks of the Mississippi. (Sounds like a pretty good life to me!) Full of energy and laughter, they were just the right people to launch me on this rainy gray day for a sort of curious journey past through Lock and Dam #16, where the tender sent me through almost without a single word, a quick rest stop in Muscatine, where Caroline the Chicago poet was waiting to greet me, then past a bunch of huge factories spewing gunk right next to seemingly pristine natural vistas right next to wacky duck blinds (all the birds in that photo are decoys, in case that’s not clear(!)) Caroline retrieved me from a landing where you drive up and over the levee to get there, quite cool, and after a restorative lunch at the riverfront cafe I’ve been hanging out at every day (it’s called Elly’s and if you get to Muscatine, you too will eat there every single day, I am sure), we headed over to the Art Center, which is one of those 19th century houses with lots of Persian rugs and beautiful furniture and tasteful minor artworks — not so much my kind of thing except for this painting of the Mississippi River.

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It was tucked away near the bathroom or something. The painter is named Bill Bunn, and I just came up with this Life Magazine article from 1940, which describes how he and his 19-year-old wife were about to sail down the Mississippi in their own boat. I wonder if they did it?! He just died this summer at the age of 99, according to this article. I want to see more of Bill Bunn’s work! Somebody should get on this, don’t you think?

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After nearly two months of continuous travel in the company of other people, I am seriously ALONE for the first time. Tonight this campsite (Wildcat Den State Park) is completely empty, I am the only person here, the only person within at least a couple of miles, I imagine. It’s a lot different from being alone on my land in Vermont, not just because my neighbor Mike isn’t within hailing distance, but also because this place itself, the land itself, is not familiar territory. I am really beginning to understand the sheer immensity of the country in a way that I never have before, and in my mood today, it’s somehow a bit oppressive. All these towns, all these houses, all these lives being lived out in these places I had never even thought about, let alone visited; all these factories and roads and bridges and railroads. And the river itself going on and on.

I biked to Davenport and back today, forty miles round trip: no bike path past the city limits, so most of the ride was on Route 22 with cars and trucks lumbering by, and south of Davenport the riverside is really industrial, a huge limestone quarry (it had a sign out front saying hopefully: ”Quarry Beautification,“ but I couldn’t see the results,) many factories, knots of railroads. The road past the quarry was muddy with accidental cement made from the combination of limestone dust and the morning’s rain, it coated the underside of my bike, my legs, the tires. And the road has been pockmarked, perhaps to make it less slippery for cars and trucks, but it was a drag to bike on.

I get to thinking how everything has its price. You want cement, you have to tear holes in the bluffs to get limestone. You want steel, you dig a pit nearly the size of the Grand Canyon up in Hibbing to get the iron you need. You want to use the Mississippi to move goods, you have to constantly dredge a nine-foot channel and build dams and locks and all that stuff. Perhaps we could have done things differently, perhaps we still can do them differently, but I do realize that even my relatively green, relatively low-impact life is unthinkable without cement plants and dams and brutal quarries hidden in out-of-the-way places. I read somewhere that there are only 2500 acres of real prairie left. Can that really be possible? Maybe just in the state of Iowa? Still, it seems unimaginably low.

Going in to Davenport, I climbed the hill a bit and rode Sixth Street over to the cafe at River Music Experience, passing through a poor part of town, past a group of people lined up for free lunch, and many abandoned houses, some of which had once been mansions. The inhabited houses in the neighborhood were painted in bright colors and had excellent gardens, as if to counteract the orphaned sadness of the abandoned ones. It made me want to buy and fix up one of the lost houses, just to tip the scales a bit further towards vitality.

The museum at River Music Experience was mostly a series of kiosks with information that could just as well be on a website, but they seem to give lessons there, and the concert hall is probably cool, and the cafe downstairs is great, so it was a fine halfway point to the day. The trip home was a slog, though. I don’t really like doing out and back routes in general: they feel artificial and sort of pointless, because they are. And going past the factories a second time was even more disheartening. But once I was past the big plants, there was a bit of a climb and suddenly the river was spread out below me, and I could coast down for the last couple of miles, down to the riverside, blessedly free of factories, just green and birds and a house now and again, and the road and the river, and I was filled suddenly with the most amazing joy, and gratitude for being given joy after a day not so full of it. (Plato is right, for sure! (see Philebus))

Doing this whole trip alone would be unimaginable for me. While I enjoy my self-sufficiency, I am really glad I am not doing the rest of the trip this way: it brings out my dark side almost immediately. Caroline Walker is driving down from Chicago for a few days and will be arriving tomorrow. I am glad for that, and I’m saving the sights of Muscatine so I can discover them with her.

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Last night, Lori and I stopped off at the River Music Experience, where Terry Dame happened to be setting up for a show, an unexpected pleasure, and we caught a few songs, but couldn’t stay to say hi, because we had to head back north to Bellevue, where we had left Lori’s car these last days, and we wanted to set up camp before dark. We camped right by the river, haven’t done that in a while: it’s a real pleasure to wake up and watch the dawn come up right over the water. I said goodbye to Lori, who’s been a great fellow-traveler these last days, and then headed down to Le Claire and caught a service at the Presbyterian Church before driving down to meet Susan and Jim in Davenport. I’ve known Susan for a couple of years now on Walker Tracker, a site for counting pedometer steps (totally nerdy, I grant you, but a really fun community.) We’d never actually met in person until today, and I was really happy they drove all the way from Tremont to spend the afternoon with me. Susan is part of my inspiration for doing this trip: I really respect and enjoy her whole approach to life, and love all the very deep commonalities we share despite our ostensible differences. And Jim is great: a tall, handsome, laconic Republican pacifist. (But still not much of a TV watcher(!)) After a leisurely brunch, we went to the Figge Art Museum, which has a pretty great collection, augmented by work that was displaced from the University of Iowa collection by last year’s flood, including a really fine Jackson Pollack that captures something amazing about the river and the farmland, and an Odilon Redon pastel woman on cardboard, which I think Despina would love a lot (and I’m really happy because I just found an online photo of it.)

After Susan and Jim left, I drove down to Muscatine and realized I’m tired enough that a motel and a day off are the answer, so I found a fabulous Econolodge and gratefully settled in. There is absolutely nothing interesting to look at or take in or experience in this motel room, and I have running water and a hot shower and free wifi at my fingertips, and it feels absolutely luxurious to be able to take a day to clean up, take stock, and get ready for the next leg of this journey.

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I put in this morning at the boat launch in Port Byron and paddled down to Bettendorf, passing under the I-80 bridge, which I have driven on more than a couple of cross-country trips without hardly even registering the Mississippi. It’s interesting how the small river towns make the river the centerpiece of the community, but the larger cities almost ignore the river, turning their backs on it as if almost ashamed of the very reason for their existence. You can see that the Quad Cities are working at rebuilding their waterfronts, but I’m sorry to say that most of it still feels pretty vacant, sort of like the urban renewal projects of the 20th century, rather than authentically organic vitality.

I pulled out just after the I-74 bridge pictured above, and Lori and I headed over to the one non-Starbuck’s cafe we could find (thanks, Jane!!) and then to Arsenal Island, where I bought my very own set of sexy river maps that will cover the rest of the trip. (There is such a thing as map porn, and the Army Corps does a pretty good job of scratching that particular itch.) We drove around looking for the museum to no avail: we were pretty tired, but there’s also a strange secretive lack of information on this Army-run island: maybe better signage to the museum would incite terrorists, I don’t know. But we had no trouble finding the cemeteries: rows upon endless rows of white headstones, a segregated cemetery for the confederate soldiers who died in captivity here (I gather there was a sort of concentration camp, a northern Andersonville, here, during the Civil War) and then the national cemetery, where we were alone except for two young women and a small child who were gathered at the freshest graves. In a moment I looked back, and one of the women had wrapped herself around a headstone, and I couldn’t help but picture that Iowa or Illinois boy, just about Mac’s age, the fresh young love of this young woman’s life, the father of this toddler, blown to pieces by an IED, bleeding to death in the dust of Iraq.

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There’s a really great bike path from Savanna all the way down to Rock Island called the Great River Trail, so I decided to do a biking day today to take advantage of it. The last time I biked I was beginning to curse my heavy hybrid and wish I had a road bike, but for today, the hybrid was the perfect choice. A few miles down there’s a gravel trail that loops out into the sloughs and wetlands for a few miles, allowing me to really feel like I was biking right on the river itself. Later the trail goes through a sand prairie for a while, and then up onto a levee for several miles, very cool. Eventually I got to Albany Mounds, which was a center of Hopewellian culture that flourished here from 200 BC to 300 AD, with extensive trade networks that spanned most of North America. I biked around the park on grass trails, completely alone, surrounded by tall grass, mounds, mosquitos, and ghosts. I knew nothing at all about this culture before I began this trip, my friend Lauren Gould emailed me something about it and that was the extent of my awareness, and now I’m finding all these amazing sites tucked away where I would never have found them except by traveling this way.

Anyway, I really got carried away with this bike day, ended up logging something like 60 miles, and towards the end I was passed by two obviously experienced bikers on a tandem. When I arrived at the Port Byron library, Lori had already met Bruce and Becky, and they generously invited us to stay at their house in Port Byron. The two of them have biked all over the lower 48 and Canada and Alaska, how cool is that!?! They are definitely kindred spirits, and it seemed like they totally get this journey of mine. It’s funny, in nearly two months of traveling and meeting people, I have yet to meet anyone who even watches TV, let alone supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or doesn’t want to reform health care in this country. I’m out here in the heartland of America, but I am fully aware that I’m not in fact meeting an authentic cross-section of Americans. Is that because I’m biking and kayaking, so generally meeting people who exercise, which skews against TV watchers? Is it because I’m so obviously a scary artsy-dykey type that only NPR-listening newspaper-reading locavores will even talk to me?! Or is the country so divided that Red Staters and Blue Staters are simply invisible to one another, living parallel but completely separate lives in the same places? I really wonder about this.

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My friend Cori was supposed to fly in to Moline last night, but her dog got sick and she couldn’t come, so I headed back to Bellevue where Lori (I know, I know, I didn’t do it on purpose!) arrived around dinnertime from Columbus, OH. She had read about the journey in the NYT and decided to come out and join on for a few days, very cool! Turns out we both were friends with Robert Hilferty, whose death in this summer of many sad deaths is one that truly breaks my heart, so perhaps these few days we spend together can honor his memory in some small way.

Lori helped me put in at Bellevue for my first real paddling day in a week, and it was great to get back down in the river the way only a kayak allows. The wildlife on the river remains amazing: I saw an eagle take off from about 15 feet away, the herons and egrets and pelicans and ducks and geese are everywhere, but the winner was this crazy squirrel I came across as he was swimming across the whole river. (click the photo for a slightly clearer view…) At first I thought it must be some other animal, but as I got close I realized it had to be a very nervous squirrel: he was making that scared clucking sound the whole time he was swimming, and I wanted to tell him to focus his energy just on the swimming (it looked to be hard work for him) — but eventually he made it to the other side and scampered away. What do you suppose that was about? He heard the nuts in Iowa are more plentiful?!

I pulled out at Savanna, where Lori was waiting for me with Jeff, who is aiming to walk down to NOLA pulling his stuff behind him in a little red wagon. We talked with him for a bit and he gave me a banana (thanks and good luck, Jeff!) and then we decided to head up to Galena, IL to check out the US Grant Museum. The museum was okay, but the town of Galena was sort of trippy: upscale tourist central in the middle of rural Illinois. I had never even heard of Galena, but clearly it is a destination for well-heeled tourists from all over. It’s hard to define the exact place where charming crosses over into precious, but for me Galena is definitely on the other side of the line. I suppose my complete lack of interest in buying stuff has a lot to do with my antipathy, but I also resent the way functionality is actually displaced by the Disneyfied similacrum of “town” in such places. There are real river towns right nearby, so why does anyone want to hang out in the overpriced fake version?

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Yesterday was Mac’s last day and he chose to bike rather than kayak, so I drove him up to Balltown and unloaded him and the bike and then headed down to Dubuque to the public library for a bit, and then to Bellevue, stopping on the way to check out the Trappist Monastery, under re-construction at the moment, and the Fritz Chapel, a tiny chapel in a cornfield, built in gratitude for safe arrival from Luxembourg in 1850.

The woman I spoke with at the monastery suggested we check out the restaurant in the gas station at St. Donatus, which specializes in Luxemburgian food, so Mac and I went there for a last meal together before he heads back east. There was an actual bar there, along with the restaurant, with various sodden folks half-heartedly coming on to each other, and I had a sudden flash on how very different this journey would be if I were hanging out in bars every night instead of at boat ramps and libraries and parks and internet cafes and churches.

And when, after dropping Mac off at the airport this morning, I tried to find a non-chain coffee place in riverfront Moline to no avail, and ended up at the very fancy public library in Bettensdorf, I realize that one great advantage of traveling down the river rather than taking some other journey through America, is that most of the river towns are the oldest towns around, and they retain real character and individuality and flavor, whether rich or poor, gentrified or industrial. I see very few franchises, very little multinational hypercapitalism of any kind on this journey, and I almost begin to forget that mainstream American life is the Starbucks that will let me have free highspeed on my phone but not my laptop, unlike every single independent cafe I have been in on this trip; that the America of the interstates is virtually interchangeable from one end of the country to the other except for shifts of scenery, and even those are softened by the standardization of engineering that makes the highways safe and efficient. And even though I really should spend the day here at this well-equipped modern library catching up with email, doing research, and being responsible, all I want to do is get in the car and head back to rural Iowa, which feels far more like home, despite being about as foreign to my life in NYC as I can get in this country.

Mac’s departure has me sad: I will miss my excellent fellow traveler in a million big and small ways, but I’m also thinking about the fact that one of these days my trip down the river will be over, too. And I’m not at all ready for it to be over. That’s for sure. It’s a very good thing I’m only about one-third of the way down the river!

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After doing the beautiful drive between McGregor and Guttenberg a couple of times these days, I decided it might be time to human-power through the land for a change, so today I started from Guttenberg on the bike instead of in the kayak. The river road definitely goes through hills and dales up and down the bluffs of eastern Iowa, and it is absolutely gorgeous countryside, of a lush expansiveness my iPhone definitely cannot photograph. And my audio recorder can’t capture, either. There is long-distance hearing as well as seeing; something you can only experience when the close-up sounds subside, a rare experience for an urbanite like me, and then you realize you can hear for miles and miles and miles. For real.

When I got to the high point in Balltown, IA, there was a park bench at the overlook with the following message etched in the stone: “I’ve enjoyed this view my whole life. Why not share it with everyone!!” Can you imagine what a great guy Ferdie Klein must have been, not just to help endow the overlook, but to give us the joy and fearlessness embodied in those two exclamation points? He is right here with us!!

I never got back on the bike after Balltown yesterday, because there was a big German restaurant that has been there since 1852 or something, so I texted Mac and he came up from Dubuque (“not as glamorous as you would imagine,” Becky had said, dryly) and we had fried cheese curds(!) and huge hamburgers and more wheat beer (it is everywhere), and then Mac drove us to the Holy Ghost Grotto over in Wisconsin, which Nick had recommended (Nick, you are still with us on this journey, that’s for sure!), and I am so very glad we went there. An artwork on the scale of Watts Towers in Los Angeles or the Beer Can House in Houston, but with the additional overlay of an ardent and exuberant Catholicism, it was built in the 1920′s by the priest of the local church over a period of five years without any preplanning at all. It’s the details that delight me: I imagine him gathering all these materials and then waking up each morning to say “Shall I make a stone rose today; or maybe it’s time for the grapes. No, the tree of life, that’s it!” And did he talk about his work in his weekly sermons? I hope so: it would have been great to hear what he had to say about his project while he was in the midst of making it.

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