Posts Tagged “camping”

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I started this river trip with Mac Walton more than four months ago: he and I drove from Vermont to Minnesota together, met up with Richard Steadman-Jones, and paddled down the river for several weeks before Mac headed back to Maine from the Quad Cities in September. So I am totally delighted that he’s flown back out to join on for the last few days of the journey: it really feels like the completion of a beautiful circle. Mac has let his beard and hair grow this whole time, and I haven’t had a haircut either, not something we discussed in advance, but I really love this shared physical marker of the trip’s time’s passage. And Richard has lately begun posting some material relating to our Archives of Exile project, which is another excellent circle radiating from this river project.

I had promised myself to go to a megachurch before finishing the journey, but as I mentioned, I just couldn’t bring myself to deal with Jimmy Swaggart. My St. Francisville friend Luke mentioned that there’s a next-generation megachurch in Baton Rouge called The Healing Place, so Mac and I headed there for one of the three Sunday morning services. The parking lot was full of SUVs and luxury cars, the church was packed with probably fifteen hundred people, about forty percent of the service was devoted to asking for money, there was a nine-piece band, three soloists, a full chorus, flashy spiritual infomericals, but as far as I could tell, the entire Healing Place experience was virtually content-free. It’s not that I heard things that offended or disturbed me. I really didn’t feel anything at all, didn’t even feel like I’d been to church, and I left feeling just as ignorant of the allure of this megachurch phenomenon as I had been before. It’s clear that I’m completely missing something, some key that would clarify the appeal of all this to thousands of people. If you get it, please explain it to me!

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We drove up to Livonia, and I biked about thirty miles down to Plaquemine Sunday afternoon along a back bayou. It was a beautiful ride, and I saw my first living armadillo in the wild (there has been lots of armadillo roadkill before now), and then I saw another… and then another. But no alligators, sorry to say. It may be the wrong time of year for alligator sightings.

On Monday we drove back up to Plaquemine and got a tour of the defunct lock from a very kind man named Stan, and visited the really beautiful Catholic church in town, and then wandered down the river road, past the tiny Madonna Chapel, and various plantations, and stopped for lunch and a bizarrely stilted tour of Oak Alley. The trees really are gorgeous, but this whole plantation thing is just not for me. In a hundred years are people going to be taking tours of that Merrill Lynch guy’s bathroom fixtures? I really really hope not.

Mulling all this over while driving past roofless houses, trailers, bungalows, and sheds, we headed back to camp at Bayou Segnette, just outside New Orleans, changed clothes, and went in to town. Yay! We did the absolutely essential tourist thing of wandering around the French Quarter and having a cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe du Monde, and then we found a great little takeout place and went out and sat in the park looking at the river eating our insanely wonderful po’ boys.

We went back to camp, and at about midnight the wind started. And kept going. And then the rain came. And kept going. And then the lightning and thunder. And the combination of all three was enough that I got a bit wet even in my en-tarped cocoon-like hammock, but not badly enough to bail and head for the car. And when I did emerge in the morning, I was really glad I hadn’t tried to get out in the night. A pond about six inches deep had materialized under my hammock. Check it out!

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Mary Rowell flew in to Jackson Wednesday afternoon, and we stocked up on groceries and headed down the Natchez Trace Parkway Thursday morning in glorious weather, set up at Rocky Springs State Park and explored the remaining bits of the town — two safes too heavy to move, a wonderful old church (still in use), and a couple of foundations are all that remain of a once-thriving village that was destroyed by a combination of the Civil War, yellow fever, and poor agricultural practices. We cooked an entire Thanksgiving meal outdoors using two pots, two plates, about six pieces of silverware, and liberal amounts of aluminum foil, since most of the food got cooked in the campfire. It was totally great: one of the most fun Thanksgivings I’ve ever had!

The next day I biked down to Port Gibson while Mary drove back north to explore Vicksburg, and we met up and picnicked on leftovers in downtown Port Gibson and then wandered around checking out the town Grant called “too beautiful to burn.” Then we headed out to Grand Gulf, where there is another military park and a beautiful campground up on a bluff, and we climbed an observation tower to watch the sun set over the river. I am really enjoying biking the Trace: it’s a beautiful road, but I am so very sorry I am not paddling the river. I ache with an almost guilty longing for the dangerous lover I desire but cannot have. (hmmm, does that maybe sound a bit familiar?!)

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Saturday, Mary and I drove instead of biking, so that Mary could have a chance to see more of Mississippi before leaving. We traveled crazy back roads with overhanging trees and Spanish moss to visit the ruins of a castle in the wilderness, and the first African-American college, and the incredible town of Rodney, which is a different species of ghost town than Rocky Springs in that there are still houses standing there, but perhaps not for long. We also stopped off at Emerald Mounds, and the Church on the Hill — the whole area is full of amazing sites, a person could happily wander for weeks.

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We arrived in Natchez in time for a late lunch at a cafe looking out at the river, and then we drove down 61 to Baton Rouge, where Mary had to fly out at the crack of dawn Sunday. I had considered going to Jimmy Swaggart’s church Sunday morning, but I was already a bit cranky from getting up at 4:30 to get Mary to the airport, so I was not up for listening to gay-bashing right-wing Christianity on the first day of Advent. Instead, I drove back up to Natchez and got settled at the State Park and got out my bike and drove down the last fifteen miles of the Parkway and to the Indian Mounds outside of town.

Biking back up the Natchez Trace Parkway in the dusk was one of those perfect moments that happen sometimes: just the right balance of comfortable exertion and natural beauty and excellent light and simple joy. Even though I can feel myself beginning to wind down from the journey — there’s not that much farther to go before New Orleans, and I can feel my heart yearning more and more to give myself over to settling down for a while to write music — I really love being out here. Something serious has shifted inside me: I have emptied myself further than I ever have before. I have never taken this big a risk with my own creativity, and I am sort of amazed that I am not really afraid. I have no idea what is going to emerge from me musically, and I am really excited to find out what it’s gonna turn out to be. I feel like I’m winding down one journey and beginning another, which is going to be at least as much of an adventure as the one I’ve been traveling all these last months.

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Even though it was still rainy, we headed back up to Tiptonville Friday and I did a good long ride, mostly through open farmland, ending up pretty sodden and very grateful for the excellent shower at Fort Pillow State Park, where we stayed for two nights. Mary did the biking Saturday, and I spent the day driving around and checking out various towns (Ripley, Henning, Covington) looking for an open library or internet cafe, pretty much fruitlessly. These are the closest towns to the river around here, but they are all a good ten to twenty miles away from it, I guess because floods and earthquakes make it too unstable to site a town any closer. Towns that are right on the river can only add sprawl on one side, so if you keep your orientation to the river, you can travel for weeks without having to encounter McDonalds and Taco Bell. But these towns, even though they have an old town center that feels specific and real, are surrounded by Walmart and Pizza Hut sprawl in every direction, enough to make you weep.

Sunday morning, we explored Fort Pillow State Park, taking a hike up to the old fort, which has been reconstructed, and spending some time in the interpretive center. The battle here is notable because the Confederates, led by Nathan Bedford Forrest, massacred Union soldiers after they surrendered, because Forrest did not want to treat integrated troops according to the rules of war.

Here is a statement by the Confederate Secretary of War at the time: “I doubt, however, whether the exchange of negroes at all for our soldiers would be tolerated. As to the white officers serving with negro troops, we ought never to be inconvenienced with such prisoners.”

After the war, Forrest reportedly became the first Grand Master of the Ku Klux Klan. And all around these parts you can find memorials to him: Forrest Park in Memphis, Forrest State Park near Camden, Forrest City in Arkansas, Forrest County in Mississippi, and various statues and obelisks and markers sprinkled in government buildings and public places all over the south.

Call me an insensitive northerner if you like, but I really need help understanding how it is okay to have kids going to Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. Do we have Lieutenant Calley High School? How about a Specialist Charles Graner Park?

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Leaving St. Louis was sort of hard: spending time with Amy and Frank and Emma and Spencer is fun under any circumstances, and my excellent uncle Joe arrived Tuesday night, adding to the pleasure, but hanging out here is especially comforting when I feel a bit like I’m about to launch into the unknown. I’ve spent very little time in the south before now, (Los Angeles doesn’t count!) and St. Louis is the last place along the river where I have family or close friends, where I know I can land for a while if need be. And it’s rainy and gray and unseasonably cold out, so it really took some self-discipline to get in the car and drive down to Cliff Cave Park, where Mike told us we could put in to avoid the crazy-busy port of St. Louis.

We got to the park, which is the antithesis of North Riverfront Park — all manicured, with a gorgeous shelter and bathrooms and everything, but of course it’s in a wealthier area — but there’s no official boat launch, so Mary helped me get the kayak down to the water, and I put in and paddled off, uncertain until the very last minute if I had enough juice to do it.

And of course, once I was paddling I was no longer cold or uncertain. For one thing, it’s really fun to be able to do thirty or more miles in the time and effort that twenty took before. The current is really moving, there isn’t much traffic other than towboats pushing barges, and they are the best drivers on the river, and most of the logs and stuff are already downriver ahead of us because we’re behind the hump of the highest water. The trees are turning, so in the midst of all the gray-brown water and gray-white clouds, the reds and yellows and greens of the trees on the bluffs look positively gaudy. And now and again huge flocks of birds will fly over, dancing against the clouds, turning in the wind, and I just stop paddling and watch them go. Yesterday the clouds were really low and the wind was pushing them at about the same speed and direction I was traveling in the water. Only the land was still, everything else visible was moving together in concert down towards the delta.

We have camped out every night, and it’s been pretty cold, but there have been an excellent succession of campsites: Magnolia Hollow was a tiny hunter’s hideout way up a back road, three fire pits and a few picnic tables; at Kaskaskia State Park we hung our hammocks in a stand of pines away from the official campsite; and at Trail of Tears State Park, we had the tent camping area all to ourselves. It’s beautiful country, rolling hills and farms, and fewer towns than anywhere I’ve been on this trip except maybe at the very beginning.

The Trail of Tears is well-documented in the visitor center at the park, and also commemorated in highway signs in this whole area, as are the paths of Lewis and Clark and Marquette and Joliet. When I then add the multiple layers of Mark Twain (Huck Finn and Life on the Mississippi), it feels like I am traveling with hundreds or thousands of people, and the virtually unpeopled landscape that is actually before me is really surprising. There are places on the river where I can see five or six miles up and down and not only not see anyone, but also not see evidence that people currently inhabit this place, even though I know that this part of the river has been settled by Europeans for centuries now, and by Native people for millennia.

But then I remember that this part of the river keeps changing its mind, moving course so as to orphan towns away from the river or flood them into oblivion. Islands appear and disappear, attach to one shore or another. Nothing here is permanent, everything is in constant flux. The maps Nick gave me are out of date here, 1991 is too long ago to accurately document the river of 2009. It’s a strange sensation to look at this imposing, serious river and think that it will be likely flowing some yet new way in another twenty years.

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It’s been really rainy the last couple of days: we spent the first rainy night in the middle of the tiny river town of Hamburg, IL (pop. 150) in a shelter in the town park. The hammocks worked great strung up along the shelter supports and we didn’t feel too much like vagrants, since we were invited guests of a lovely guy named Steve, who I had met while waiting for Mary to arrive, but I did think we resembled bats a little bit: big green bats hanging in our hammocks under the eaves.

Hamburg is on a sort of peninsula bounded by the Illinois River on one side and the Mississippi on the other: there are no bridges across the Mississippi except up north at Louisiana (the cool narrow bridge Susan commented on), and the Illinois is another barrier to easy travel, so the towns on the Illinois side feel quite different from the Missouri side. Hannibal, Louisiana, Clarksville, even though they’re pretty small towns, feel like they’re along the highway of the river, but the Illinois side feels much more rural. I’ve been re-reading Tom Sawyer, and Twain gives you the same feeling about Illinois vs. Missouri: it’s interesting how geography trumps development even when there are almost ten times as many people living in the US than in 1860. My guess is there aren’t a whole lot more people living in far western Illinois than there were when Samuel Clemens was hanging around these parts.

Last night, Mary and I drove down to Pere Marquette State Park, which has a really great lodge and cabins that were built by the CCC during the Depression. The greatroom of the lodge is a total wonder: I’d say it’s about 50 by 80 feet and four stories high, all built of huge wooden beams. Angie in the bar gave us a sampling of the local wines, and we hung out for a bit hoping for the rain to stop, but eventually headed out to the campsite in the rain and rigged up our hammocks in the trees.

It was great at first to be cocooned all cozy and dry in the hammock with the tarp right overhead tapping with raindrops, but as the night wore on my tarp slid down and I woke up around 5:30 in a clammy bath of cold wet sleeping bag and clothes and staggered to the car and changed into dry clothes and slept a bit more in the front seat. Mary hadn’t fared much better in her hammock, so we headed over to Jerseyville to the laundromat to dry everything out and then came back to the lodge because I wanted to spend the day hanging out in that great greatroom! So I’m writing this looking out at the still-rainy day and the Illinois River and hoping that the rain will let up and let us out on the river tomorrow.

We’re heading down to Alton tonight, to Bob and Wita, some friends I haven’t met yet. Bob’s grandfather and father and uncle all worked on building the lodge, how cool is that?!

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I was on driver/campsite duty today, so after taking Mac down to put in for his day of paddling, I came back to St. Croix Bluffs to see off dear Heather, who is heading back to NYC. I showed Mary Kay how to pack the camp into the car, and then drove her down to Hastings and dropped off her and the bike so she could set off on a biking adventure. I felt a bit like a suburban mom taking all the kids to their various soccer matches and dance classes. Once everyone was launched, I headed over to Frontenac State Park on a back road that reminds me a bit of Birch Hill Road, my road in Vermont. It climbs up to a beautiful high bluff that has the most amazing view of the river (well, it’s officially Lake Pepin right now) we’ve had. And the campsite is set up so that there is a whole segregated wing just for tent campers, yay!, which was almost totally empty. The RVs have their own wings, and those were pretty full of hulking behemoths set up cheek by jowl.

In the evening, I brought Mac and Mary Kay up to the overlook, and we came upon a very kind couple there who we chatted with for a while. They are from the Twin Cities, and were finishing up a vacation that took them around the Upper Midwest, and as we were talking I suddenly had this realization that I need to let go of my reflexive prejudice against RVs and the people who drive them. (The only RVers I know are my great-aunt and uncle Rete and Jan, whom I love vastly, but that hasn’t altered my prejudice against RVs.) But suddenly it was completely clear to me that these people we were talking to love love love their experience of wandering this country just as much as I do, and perhaps they wouldn’t do it if they had to sleep in a tent. Perhaps they really can’t sleep in a tent, for whatever reason. I remember Keith Butler, the man we met at Wanagan’s Landing the first night of this journey, looking very specifically at me, the oldest of our group that night, and saying “Keep camping out and sleeping in a tent, or you’ll lose the ability to do it.” He told me that he and his wife, who I imagine must be in their 70s, still tent camp every summer. And I suppose it is a skill, or at least a habit, although I can’t really imagine losing it!

Anyway, I’m pledging here not to be snotty about RVs anymore. It’s my step towards openmindedness about Red State culture: so now can I have affordable health insurance in return? Please?!

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