Tag Archives: alone

no place dedicated to solitude

from Chief Seattle’s 1855 speech:

1. Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God lest you forget.
2. The red man could never comprehend nor remember it.
3. Our religion is the tradition of our ancestors,
4. the dreams of our old men, given to them in the solemn hours of the night by the great spirit and the visions of our leaders, and it is written in the hearts of our people.
5. Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb; they wander far away beyond the stars and are soon forgotten and never return.
6. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being.
7. They always love its winding rivers, its great mountains, and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely-hearted living and often return to visit, guide, and comfort them.
8. We will ponder your proposition, and when we decide we will tell you.
9. But should we accept it, I here and now make this the first condition that we will not be denied the privilege, without molestation, of visiting at will the graves where we have buried our ancestors, and our friends, and our children.
10. Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe.
11. Even the rocks which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the lives of my people.
12. And when the last red man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among the white man shall have become a myth these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe;
13. and when your children’s children shall think themselves alone in the fields, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.
14. At night when the streets of your cities and villages will be silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land.
15. The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people for the dead are not powerless.
16. Dead — did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.

only a pawn in their game


It’s been a sort of strange and unfocused few days these days: I left the river to go to Jackson to meet up with a new fellow-traveler who got laid low with asthma at the last minute and had to cancel. Somehow the combination of being far from the river, needing to re-calibrate my plans, and being in an actual city again, has put me a bit off balance.

I spent an excellent evening reading stories by Eudora Welty in the Jackson library, which has been named after her. I was given a tour of her house the next day by two lovely ladies, I stayed in a pleasant state park right in town, I hung out at an excellent cafe in a house, so there are many rooms to choose from to sit and drink your coffee and read or write, I bought some books at Lemuria Bookstore (“capitalism at its most transcendent”, David correctly describes it), I stood in Medgar Evers’ driveway where he was shot and killed in 1963.

One of the docents at the Welty House reminded me of a Southern version of my mother: she was wearing a scarf of that exact style my mother excelled at finding: artsy and unique, not something you’d ever see in the pages of Vogue or at Bergdorf’s, but probably just as expensive. And she let me know in a million small ways that she recognized me: she told me of her time in NYC as a young woman in the 60s, generously complimented me on my neat appearance for someone camping every night, commented on my handmade Irish sweater (brought home by my mother from a trip to Ireland in 1967); “each one unique so that they’ll know the drowned man by his sweater if not his face when they fish him out.” She told me about Eudora’s first love: “he lived for fifty years with another man,” she said, looking at me steadily. And when I said I was going to Medgar Evers’ house, she told me there’s a whole tour of civil rights sites around Jackson, “if you’re interested in that kind of thing.” If I were Eudora Welty, I would definitely put her in a short story.


I headed back out to the country on Thursday, to Poverty Point, an ancient Native American site in northeastern Louisiana that flourished for more than a thousand years. I was completely alone there, and wandered by foot and bike all over the place in the late-afternoon light. It is structured as a series of long concentric half-circles that radiate from a center mound which is in the shape of a winged bird. I made a big circle around to the main mound, where I walked up to the head of the bird and down again, and then pedaled around the mound itself and climbed up to the body. Standing there, I had a glimpse of something very powerful, a sense of being sheltered — held — in the body of this giant effigy bird, and close to the ghosts of all the people who had scrabbled in the dirt to pile up and carry soil, basket by basket, to build this sacred place.

We human beings are miraculous and pitiful creatures, all of us. And I think of a line from a novel of Penelope Fitzgerald’s, not about people building mounds, but about young actors putting on a show, but it’s all the same thing, really. It’s all the same thing. “Happy are those who can be sure that what they are doing at the moment is the most important thing on earth.”


reaching out

On Saturday, after helping Mary put in at the Trail of Tears boat launch, I drove down to Cape Girardeau along the back roads, arriving in this cool old town and finding a wifi cafe without even using my iPhone to look for it. As I walked up, I was greeted by Paul, who was sitting out front finishing his morning coffee. He asked a few questions about my trip and then offered to buy me a coffee and talk awhile. Paul, like Galen a few days ago, is an enviably hale octogenarian: he goes to the gym every day, and is clearly doing just fine physically. He grew up in Worcester, MA, lived in California (both Oakland and Riverside), and came here with his wife, who had returned to the area to care for her parents, and has now herself died as well. Paul is lonely enough that our conversation dispensed with small talk almost immediately. He told me that he’s been contemplating suicide, that he has figured out how he wants to do it, but he hasn’t yet gotten up the courage: he had thought 9/9/09 would have been a good day for it, but he somehow couldn’t manage it. He told me he’s done the things he wanted to do in his life, has traveled and seen the world, and he doesn’t know why he should keep living. He described going to the cemetery and seeing a headstone with some name on it, a name that means nothing to him, and wondering what life is for, why it matters at all that any one person lives.

It was hard going, this conversation, and I have been thinking about Paul ever since I met him. There was a terrible disjunction between the grief and depression he was expressing and the jaunty engaged warmth of his manner. The guy is taking computer classes, considering moving to Florida, and buying coffee for strangers, along with planning suicide! I invited him to join me on my journey, utterly seriously: he could drive the car, he wouldn’t have to paddle (although he looked like he could probably manage the kayak also!) And I told him I would take him with me in any case, hold him in my heart as I went, and that matters to me, even if it seems meaningless to him. I am afraid I didn’t do much for Paul, and I very much regret not being able to do more. Could I have described the birds flying yesterday — how beautiful and precious it was to watch them wheel and turn against the silvered clouds — in such a way as to rescue Paul from his darkness?

While this very conversation was taking place, there was a whole table of folks listening to a man hold forth about his own powerboat journey down the river. A grizzled beefy guy in a fisherman’s sweater and overalls, who looked every inch the seafaring captain of legend, there was something about the way he carried himself, the way he talked without listening, that felt like the perfect object lesson in how I do not want to behave — in talking about my own journey or about anything else.

How does one authentically share with others the gifts one has been given without becoming a blustering blowhard like this guy seemed to be? Is it possible to convert others without evangelizing them? Is it aggressive arrogance on my part, an unseemly missionary urge, to believe that Paul’s life would be better if I could authentically communicate my experiences and perspectives to him? My insights might not save him, whatever that means, but at least they might give him succor?

out and back


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.

biking in the mist


This morning while Mac drove Mary Kay down to put in at Lake City, I biked down the hill from Frontenac State Park and over some back roads. The fog was fierce and beautiful, and it was the first time I have biked since Cass Lake, many weeks ago, since there isn’t really space for it when I’m kayaking every other day. But now that we’re three people again for at least a few days, I can get in a bike ride, and it’s such a great complement to paddling: paddling uses your legs sort of similarly to how biking uses your arms, and vice versa, so the combination feels like the ideal whole body exercise, as some trainer guru might say.

I’ve begun to try to invent solutions for how to continue this trip if I end up with gaps where I am alone. Mac has to leave in a couple of weeks, and while various other folks will be joining me, I can’t be sure I will have company every single day for the rest of the journey. My current idea for solo days is to leave the bike at my ending point on the river, drive north, put in the kayak, paddle down to the bike, and then bike back to the car and drive to camp for the night. The nice side effect is that I will both paddle and bike all the sections of the river I do by myself. And it’ll work fine with the one exception that I can’t load the kayak onto the car by myself: the rack is just too high off the ground and the kayak too unwieldy. So I guess I could just leave the kayak at the pullout point each evening and trust that it will be there in the morning. But if any of you have some better solution to this little problem, please let me know.

(The foggy morning cornfield is especially for Susan Sommer.)

charged again


kayaking day today on a real summer day — the river through this area was straightened by the loggers so it’s practically a canal, no trouble to find the channel. and on some turns you can see the Blandin Paper Company smokestacks ahead in Grand Rapids, sort of a weird and unexpected sight in this waterway that’s nearly completely empty of people. two powerboats passed me, heading up to the lakes, but other than that, my company is birds and insects, and no doubt lots of fish as well.

when the wind was with me, I would stop paddling and just feel the current and the wind easing me downstream. when it was against me, if I stopped paddling, I would end up at a complete stop in an excellent equilibrium of upstream wind and downstream current.

I’m getting comfortable enough with this kayaking business that I begin to be able to just ease into thinking in that nice, loose, relaxed way that I so enjoy on a long car trip, with the added pleasure of the mild physical exertion of paddling. I could definitely get used to this life! a good thing, since I’m going to be doing this for a while!

one of the things I was thinking about was the whitman poem, and corey and steve and yvan’s comments on it, which I really love. I’m thinking that perhaps by “charged with”, Whitman didn’t mean that contentment and triumph are demanded of him, but more that the energy of contentment and triumph fill him, like an electrical charge. I like thinking of contentment and triumph as a continuum, and that they are visited upon me, not as an act of will, but by my learning to be conductive..

anything really worth doing is worth doing slowly

I figure it’s useful to follow Mae West’s advice whenever possible, even when it’s applied to shopping, which is one of my least favorite activities and induces a kind of anxious narcolepsy in me, if such a thing is possible. “Outfitting” is just a fancy word for shopping, after all, and getting outfitted for a sport at which I have pretty minimal experience is a competition between salesmen who have comparatively expert knowledge and foolish me whose only advantage is that I simply don’t have the budget to do what they would bid me to do. $3000 kayaks, anyone?!?! I don’t think so! (it IS a very sexy machine, I can tell that even without knowing anything about it!)

The interesting thing about our endless shopping day yesterday is that we revised the plan somewhat, in a way that I think will alter the trip in a very rich and useful way.

The original plan had been that we would get a tandem kayak and on any given day, two people would be kayaking down the river while the third of us would drive down and meet us. That way we would have the support of a car, each person would have a day off the river once every three days and could scope out interesting off-river stuff, find groceries and water and internet, and carry all the camping gear and ancillary stuff so the kayak wouldn’t have to. The idea was to procure a tandem kayak that could be adjusted to serve as a solo kayak for times when there are only two travelers instead of three.

It turns out that an adjustable tandem kayak is not a good choice for a long touring journey. So we agreed that the better choice is to buy a solo kayak, and then on any given day, one person will be paddling, one will be biking, and the third will be driving. I am totally LOVING this revised plan, partially because it means that each of us will in fact be taking parallel SOLO journeys down the river, gathering after each day’s travels to compare notes and hang out together. In general, I think a solo journey is a much more interesting way to travel. In my experience, you’re just much more OUT there, and strangers interact with you much more freely, and in every way it’s really preferable. But doing a parallel solo journey WITH other people prevents the loneliness and extremity that would be sort of unavoidable if I did a four-month solo trip down the river.

So rather than feeling like we’ve compromised the plan by changing to a solo kayak, I’m really feeling excited about the new balance between alone and together we’ve created for the journey.

But we still have to go back and actually BUY everything today, and I wish that part could just magically be finished! Hopefully by the end of the day today!!!!