Category Archives: Journal

hidden cultures

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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.

immigrant squirrels

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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?

two-fifths, one-third, whatever

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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!

Why not share it with everyone!!

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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.

you can’t say you can’t play

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After putting Mac in this morning, I went to find a church in Prairie du Chien. The Episcopal service had been at 8:30 am (what are they thinking?!), so I headed over to one of the two Catholic churches in town, where I arrived just in time for the 10 am service, which was full of at least 350 people, maybe more. Given that each of the two Catholic churches has multiple Sunday services, it’s pretty clear this is a thriving community. And afterwards, I could not find open or functioning internet cafes anywhere within thirty miles, so I headed down to Guttenberg, and caught up on This American Life episodes in a park overlooking the river while waiting for Mac to arrive. One really interesting episode was about an experiment they did in a kindergarden at the Chicago Lab School, called “You can’t say you can’t play.” I figure it’s one of the slogans for this trip of mine. It’s definitely a compelling idea, not just for kindergardeners…

I also read this morning in an article by Alex Ross in The New Yorker that Theodor Adorno planned (but never wrote) an opera based on Huckleberry Finn. Can you imagine anything wackier?

In the afternoon, one of my oldest friends, Stephen Dembski, drove over with his student Becky from Madison, where he teaches, and the four of us took a walk at the very cool Effigy Mounds National Monument and then headed back to the same brewpub in McGregor for some more of their excellent Weiss beer. Effigy Mounds is very beautiful: turns out these burial mounds are found all over southern Wisconsin and into Minnesota and Iowa, remnants of an ancient culture of people who clearly spent a lot of time imagining what things look like from the sky. Dembski mentioned that the Native American name for Long Island is the name of a fish, because the island looks like a fish. But how do you develop that kind of geographic perspective by walking and canoeing around an island? I like thinking about the imaginative extrapolation involved with projecting the tiny details of land and sea in an overview that says: fish!

family ties

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We had an entirely different sort of paddling day today, totally great: Nick and Margaret brought their daughters Jennifer and Kimberly, Jennifer’s friend Eliza, and two canoes to augment our solo kayak, so all SEVEN of us put in at Lynxville for a really fun day of paddling. Here you see Kimberly, age 11, a totally natural kayaker, learning about map navigation from her folks.

We didn’t all make it down to Prairie du Chien, where we had parked the second car. At a certain point, Nick took over with the kayak while the rest of us gamboled at a boat launch, which included Mac getting coated with tire rubber helping to rescue a truck from backing right down into the water along with the boat it was trying to pull out. (There are aspects of being male in this world that I certainly do not envy in the slightest, among them being forcibly enlisted in idiocies that require brute force.)

The day ended with a really great meal with the whole crew at a brewpub down in McGregor, and then we all headed back upstream and Mac and I crashed one last night at the house in Ferryville. What a wonderful time I’ve had with Nick and Margaret and their crew: it feels like the start of a long friendship — actually, more like the continuation of a friendship that was already there.

Oh, and I forgot to tell you that the marker I posted yesterday is not the official Historical Society marker, but one of several put up in the 1930’s by a local doctor and history buff who constructed them out of concrete on his dining room table in Viroqua. In addition to seven markers commemorating the massacre, he also constructed a monument in his hometown “honoring a July 4, 1856 speech by Lucy Stone, which he called ‘the first Woman’s Rights and Anti Slavery ever given by a woman in the great northwest.’” I got all this from an article in the Kickapoo Free Press that Nick gave me, which also offers the local Sheriff’s Report in verse. A sample:

8/2/09 Insomnia
Logan Sheldon sleeps so seldom
Good thing that the guardrail held ‘im.

Black Hawk and the post office

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My paddling day yesterday ended at Battle Island, site of the last Native-White battle fought east of the river, on 1-2 August 1832, killing so many of Black Hawk’s band that the river ran red with their blood. Is it a coincidence that the perpetual prayer of the Franciscan sisters in La Crosse began on 1 August as well, some 46 years later? I would like to think not. I would like to imagine the Franciscan sisters repenting on behalf of the white soldiers, on behalf of all of us, and I would like to think that redemption is somehow possible.

Mac and I drove up to Ferryville, where we stopped at the post office to mail off a ridiculously late nameday present to agapimeni Despina, and were welcomed by Margie, the postmaster, who has decided to retire after 44 years of working, first in the La Crosse PO and then down here in Ferryville, where she grew up. She loves this place immoderately, and wants time to enjoy it fully before (as she put it) she’s “pushing up daisies.”

An older gentlemen came in and burst into tears (pride? grief? both?) when he told Margie that his granddaughter was heading off to the University of Minnesota. After he left, Margie allowed as how she loves men who cry, that she cries very easily herself and that she’s not going to give a retirement party because she would cry all the way through it. She had told a little girl at bible camp that she was just going to fly away on a broomstick (she’s retiring on 31 October), and the little girl had answered, very worried and serious, “You know, there’s no such thing as magic.”

Upon learning where we’re from, Margie told us that she herself hadn’t done a lot of traveling. She said she’d like to visit Vermont someday, that she’d been to Boston once and touched Teddy Kennedy’s sleeve at a meet-and-greet, and we laughed about the trope on “Who touched me?” Talk about redemption, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Margie or Teddy was more in need of it.

She also told us she’d been to Salt Lake City once, where she had come upon a man begging with two beautiful dogs reposing on each side of him, like the lions flanking the entrance to a library, and that he seemed to be an extremely successful beggar, because, as she said, ”People love animals much more than they love one another.“

I love Margie very much, and feel very very lucky to have met her, and I hope her retirement is full of joy and adventures and peace in just the balance she seeks.

outing myself

This morning the phone rang while I was in Walgreen’s in La Crosse and it was Nick Lichter, who wrote The Road of Souls, an account of his 1991 solo journey down the Mississippi that we’ve been reading and re-reading as a sort of treasure hunt. Nick seems to have a knack of finding cool out-of-the-way things that we’ve not always successfully tried to find ourselves. We drove around Itasca State Park one afternoon looking for the marker commemorating the first sermon preached at the headwaters (by Archdeacon Gilfillan) to no avail — we even asked at park HQ and nobody knew; and we found the Chief Hole-in-the-Day Business Park (not kidding) and a set of beehives northeast of Little Falls, but not the burial mound of the Chief we were actually looking for.

But Nick found us, no problem, and invited us to stay with him and Margaret, whom he met on his trip (talk about life-changing!) and their three children in their house just up a coulee in La Crosse. And he suggested I go take a look at the Franciscan convent a couple blocks away since I had a bit of time before picking up Mac.

So when the laundry was done, I headed over to the Franciscan Sisters’ Motherhouse, and Sister Dorothy gave me a tour of this really beautiful chapel, which among many treasures has faux Norwegian pine columns that I can only call glorious, and she was so kind and so free and so playful in that way nuns and monks can sometimes be, and when they are it is just the best ever. And she left me at another chapel where there has been a perpetual prayer for peace going since 1 August 1878. When the bell rang the hour, everyone got up and recited some prayers including that line about doing the work God has chosen for us to do. And I know it sounds completely dumb to say this, but I really feel like this journey is the work I have been chosen to do right now. I don’t really have a clue why, exactly, I mean, prior to a year ago I really had no particular connection to or interest in the Mississippi River, it’s not like I’ve been fantasizing about doing this journey since childhood or anything like that. It just came over me and now here I am. And I feel pretty foolish posting this for all of you to read, and you are totally welcome to scoff if you like. I mean, really!?!? God told her to paddle down the river. Whatever. But there it is.

Anyway, as I was leaving, Sister Dorothy hugged me and blessed me, too, so now I think I can go to Catholic Church one of these Sundays after all. I’ll carry Sister Dorothy with me and everything will be fine.

After retrieving Mac, we headed over to Nick and Margaret’s and had a really wonderful evening with them and their children. Paddling the river builds a very deep connection, that’s for sure! And Nick’s way of immersing himself the history and stories of the river along with the physical, tactile experience of being out there is something I appreciate very much. They offered us their vacation house just down the river in Ferryville, so we’ll be spending some more time with Nick (and maybe his family, too), and I’m really looking forward to that.

a dog in the night-time

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Monday we finally left Wabasha for real: I started out from Minnieska in some pretty gorgeous fog and before I could even get out of the main channel, the phone rang, and it was David Echelard, countertenor and hurdy-gurdy player, a good friend of my old friend Jeff, who invited us to stay at his house in town, OR out in a slough where he has a boathouse, OR to show us some cool hidden campsites. I put Mac and him in touch to figure it out and by the time I got going in earnest, I could actually see a little bit, definitely a good thing, ’cause this being Labor Day, there were really A LOT of powerboats and jet skis and all that, not to speak of the towboats and barges, who don’t seem to get a day off from their laboring.

I had a long wait at Lock 5A (it got put in after the Army Corps had designed and numbered all the other locks; they suddenly realized that without it, Winona would get flooded out. Oops! Glad you caught that little design error, guys…), so I didn’t arrive until about four, and we went out to David’s very excellent boathouse, which Mac had wisely chosen for us from all the riches David had laid before us. This boathouse deal is something new for me: a series of sheds, really, like garages out on the water, that people fix up and appoint to various levels of fabulousness and use sort of as retreats, hanging out there even when they aren’t boating at all. David told us he did most of the memorization work for Anthony Gatto’s opera out there, something I really like picturing. Gertrude Stein would definitely be pleased.

David paid us a visit as we were finishing up dinner, and we had a great time together. He and I had been on a concert together in Minneapolis in maybe 1991 or something, but haven’t seen each other since, so there was a lot to talk about! We had such a fine time that it was well after dark when he went back to town and Mac led us out to the slough where he and Mary Kay had set up camp in the afternoon. It was very cool to bed down in my hammock in the dark having no clue what my surroundings actually were.

Here’s the view of the slough that greeted me from my hammock in the morning:

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Pretty great, no?
And last night, after Mary Kay’s long day of paddling, we all gathered at David and Suzanne’s for a great meal, and David played us some of his multitracked countertenoring (really beautiful) and I had the first shower since I can’t even remember when, and we got to meet their very fine son, Hudson, who turns 14 in a couple of days, and then we headed back out to the slough, where this gorgeous hunk of a dog came out of the dark and greeted us as we parked the car, and accompanied us out to the camp, and ended up staying the night. He decided to sleep directly under my hammock, which I really loved, except that every hour or so he would rouse himself and go dive off into the slough (hunting? a moonlight dip?) with a serious splash, so my sleep last night was just a series of dognaps, and I’m definitely ready for another one right about now…

sing it

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As we were parking the car in town this morning, we ran into Nancy again, walking her Black-Lab-ish dog, Greta, (not kidding!) and we got to talking about parking and she told us that some residents of Wabasha complain about the parking, which had us sort of incredulous. And she told us that the way they solved it at the town meeting was that someone came up with an overlay of a standard Target store and its parking lot on the town map, which shows how the whole downtown of Wabasha is not as big as the parking lot of a Target store, and so therefore if you park anywhere in town you are within equivalent walking distance of any store in town as you are from the Target store in its parking lot. This clever argument seems to have worked; they didn’t build a parking structure downtown.

Mary Kay and I headed off to church to see the window, and wow, it really may be the best Tiffany window I’ve ever seen. The photograph doesn’t show how there’s cloudier and crisper glass that gives a really marvelous sense of distance and dimensionality to the image. And we nearly fell over when the lay reader read a sermon by none other than our beloved Father Barrie, how cool is that?! I guess Mary Kay and I made a bit of a scene when we heard his name, because after the service everyone came over to ask if we knew the author of the sermon, so we got to bask in a bit of reflected glory for a bit…thanks, Barrie!

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Little House in the Big Woods is set in the woods near Pepin, which is just across the river from Wabasha. I had re-read the book yesterday for the first time since I was nine or whatever, curious as to what I’d find, especially after reading the New Yorker article about Rose and Laura Ingalls Wilder. We drove over to a wayside rest area that has a log cabin that purports to be a reconstruction. There was no cellar, the attic was a loft, and the spot is now surrounded by cornfields instead of big woods, so all in all I was not blown away by its historical veracity.

So we headed to early Sunday dinner at a waterfront restaurant in Pepin — actually, the most expensive meal we’ve had on the trip; not bad, but not exactly anything I needed — and I was really beginning to get a bit cranky. It began to feel like one of those endless Sundays Laura Ingalls Wilder describes in the book. I have always had a certain curious dread of 4 pm on a beautiful Sunday afternoon: like I might get stuck there in this enforced state of suspended merely attractive idleness and never get free. It’s occurred to me that perhaps I’m going to die on some future beautiful Sunday at 4 pm, and my aversion is a kind of odd prognostication. I would much prefer to die on a rainy Sunday. Or any other day of the week. I think Linda Norton knows exactly what I mean: see Landscaping for Privacy for evidence.

Anyway, we headed back over the river to our riverfront cafe headquarters with free internet and five bars of cell signal and three kinds of root beer to choose from, and I felt way better almost immediately, and then it was time to go to the gospel choir rehearsal Nancy had invited us to, so we drove back to Pepin to the high school, and walked in and there are what one woman described (not completely accurately, but pretty close) as “seventy-five white Norwegian Lutherans” singing serious old-school Black gospel, and I tell you, they are REALLY good. Not good-for-a-volunteer-choir good, really amazingly good. Tight, crisp, bright, beautiful, fierce singing. Absolutely committed. And hearing them sing “Let My People Go” brought tears to my eyes.

Music changes the world. For real.