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two-fifths, one-third, whatever


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!


Leaving the Cities, and the kindness of Philip and Preston, is sort of slow going this morning. On one hand, I’m really eager to be back to the river and small-town America and the rhythm of life we have created on this journey; on the other hand, I could easily spend another week here visiting friends and colleagues, mulling over the implications of the trip so far, and maybe even making some music, now that Mary Kay has brought my DP install disk, so that I can get it running on my replacement computer.

One thing Philip said seemingly almost offhandedly the other day is really helping me think through this whole undertaking. He mentioned something about how the point of the journey is for me to have my own take on the river: not so much to gather other people’s takes as an (ethno)musicologist might. I’ve been feeling sort of guilty and inadequate that I have little or no interest in going to hear music at the State Fair, for example; I would much rather look at the hundreds of species of rabbits, listen to the auctioneers sell off cows, and study the crop art (did you catch the crop art iPhone I posted the other day?!) Philip and Preston seemed to immediately understand this, and even though they certainly know about lots of interesting music in Minnesota, including their own, they didn’t push me to explore that now. The fact is, other than at church each Sunday, I have heard no live music at all on this trip. Unless you count birds and wind and train whistles and industrial sounds. Which I definitely do.

I feel like I am emptying myself of other people’s music. And it’s a bit scary, actually, since lots of the music I have written is in one way or another a response to music that already exists. I’m not sure what music I will be moved to write. I’m (mostly) okay with this emptying even though it creates a certain amount of mild anxiety in me. It’s sort of like a large-scale version of the emptying that comes before any new piece. But Philip’s comment somehow gave me permission to be squarely in this state, not to try to escape it, and I am really grateful to him for saying it.

It’s Mac’s paddling day today, and because we have a second kayak, Heather and Mary Kay can each get a half-day of paddling with his company, which seems like an excellent way to get them started on the river. Heather started out with Mac in the morning, so Mary Kay and I wandered around Mendota a bit, which was a curious experience. Mendota barely exists now, but it was a town long before St. Paul or Minneapolis came into being, and there are a few exquisitely maintained stone structures: St. Peter’s Church, Governor Sibley’s house, etc. right near where the Minnesota RIver joins the Mississippi, not far from Fort Snelling. They are made of the limestone that creates the bluffs we have just now started seeing, and there’s something great about how local these structures are. Makes me definitely want to build my Vermont house out of stone and wood gathered from my own land.

The trade-off point for Heather and Mary Kay was a boat launch just down from the US 494 bridge: maybe one of the biggest bridges we’ve seen yet over the Mississippi, and it’s under huge construction to double the lanes. An old man was sitting on a bench there: Ken has been coming out to watch the construction every day for months now. He had worked for years in the stockyards of South St. Paul; born in 1920, he grew up here the youngest of eleven children of parents and grandparents who grew up here, and most of his four children live nearby as well. I got to thinking about how some families have one person who did the big move of emigrating and then everyone settles in the new place for generations to come; while other folks seem to have immigration in their blood and they themselves and many of their offspring end up moving repeatedly all over the country or the world. I feel like I have both sides in me: my father was a wanderer by nature (or was it an adaptation to his circumstances?), and my mother always claimed she would have been happy to live in Farmington or Plymouth (Michigan) her whole life. But of course she didn’t, and I don’t know that she could have, despite all her voiced longing for that alternate settled life she never lived.

blowing in the wind


It was my kayaking day today, and I started out happily from right below Blanchard Dam. Mac and I looked for some cross rocks before I started out. My cousin Meg would have found a bunch — she’s an expert at finding Petosky stones on Lake Michigan — but Mac and I didn’t succeed in finding even one.

The river was rougher than it has been: it’s wide enough here that you get pretty serious swells, which my little red sportscar of a kayak handles just fine. But as the day went on, the wind got stronger and stronger, and it was completely, fiercely, against me (coming from the south), and this stretch of the river doesn’t meander much, so once the wind is against you, it stays against you. And then, because of the upcoming Sartell Dam, the current subsides to basically zero, and here I am on this damn lake of a river, with the wind so strong I am paddling against whitecaps, using all my strength basically to avoid being blown upstream again. And I’m passing houses of a size and grandeur that, I’m sorry, just seem ridiculous to me: what family could possibly need a summer house of 12,000 square feet or something?!? McMansion summer houses with six boats moored out front: jet skis, pontoon boats, etc. etc.

So there I am madly paddling away just to stay still, and this very cool little 70’s era powerboat pulls up, and the guy says, “You’re paddling in the wrong direction today!” I agreed, and he told me his house was about a mile and a half down on the left, and that the place I had planned to meet up with Mac and pull out was still another six miles beyond that, and that I was welcome to stop at his place for at least a bathroom break or something.

After he left, the river did do one meander, which was enough for me to stop and text Mac about why I was so late, but when the river turned again I was back in the brunt of this insane wind, so when I got to Gary and Debbie’s place, pictured above (check the flamingos!), and Gary came out to usher me in, I decided I really had had enough, and pulled in. I called Mac to come get me, and when he arrived, Gary and Debbie invited us to stay for dinner, which we gratefully accepted, and Debbie showed us her orchid collection of something like 200 plants (I see this in your future, Yvan!), and introduced us to their parrot, Etta (for Etta James), and fed us an excellent meal, and were altogether generous and lovely folks. They live up here full time, Gary works at the Sartell Mill, and Debbie is a serious runner, like 70-miles-a-week serious(!) and they have two grown kids who work in the Twin Cities, the girl as a zookeeper, how cool is that?! Gary built their house himself, (nowhere near 12K sqft) so we talked a bit about housebuilding, too. And they told us about the upcoming Minnesota State Fair, which we may have to go to. I’ve never actually been to a state fair, so maybe it’s part of my education.

Anyway, I’m writing this the next day, and I’m STILL pretty fried. It’s a great lesson that even though I’m getting stronger and more experienced at this kayaking biz, it will still kick my ass when it feels like it!

We Expect Visitors


Last night Mac and I decided to take today off from paddling for the first time since our daytrip to Hibbing on 9 August, which Mac wrote about here. We’ve been alternating paddling ever since Richard left for the Twin Cities, and we’re getting too fast for our own good! Not really, but since we’ve kind of fallen in love with Little Falls, despite the gaping lack of a proper internet cafe, it seemed like a cool thing to spend the day here, an actual day off.

Since it’s Sunday, I wanted to find a church for my weekly immersion in community life. After the not-really-Lutheran church the first week, I’ve been to a very friendly Methodist church in Deer River, and a (real) Lutheran church in Palisade, where they had a really touching baptism the Sunday I was there. I considered going for a Catholic mass this week, but the church had giant pro-life billboards out front, which seemed a bit much, and I do feel uncomfortable about the whole communion question in a Catholic church. I thought Lutheran might be interesting given this week’s decision about gay and lesbian clergy. But then we passed an Episcopal church that had a sign saying ”We Expect Visitors,” so we had to go there. I’m really glad for that: the parishioners take rightful pride in their beautiful windows and sanctuary, they had a real pipe organ and good music, and the priest and all the parishioners were very warm and down to earth. The gospel reading had that excellent moment where Jesus tells the apostles they can leave if they want, and Peter says, sort of plaintively to my ear, “Where would we go?” Like if he could think of something better than following this crazy guy around, he would do it in a heartbeat.

One stained-glass window depicted Bishop Whipple, who famously went to Washington to talk Lincoln out of killing 264 of the 303 Native people who were convicted of murder in the 1862 uprising. The window had a crest at the top that had a tomahawk and a peace pipe crossed underneath the Christian cross; our host thought that maybe that’s the crest for the Episcopal mission to the Native peoples.

Afterwards we headed to the grocery store where we found real Greek yogurt, yay! So we bought a bunch of berries to go with the yogurt and ran square into Tony, who had stopped us the first time on the steps of the library Friday afternoon to expostulate about how cool our kayak was and ask about our journey. (Tony is the third schoolteacher I’ve met so far on these travels, and I’ve decided schoolteachers are just the best ever. Perhaps it’s because they have to deal with meeting and engaging with a whole bunch of really idiosyncratic new people every year (I think kids are just more individual than grownups most of the time: they haven’t yet had their edges trimmed to fit…) Anyway, it was excellent to meet up with Tony again in the grocery store, shopping with his wife on a Sunday afternoon. (Can I admit I also like that? just the idea of having the sort of calm and orderly life where the husband and wife go to the grocery store together once a week to stock up. Imagine!)

Anyway, so we headed off to the park with the nun-tended virgin pines that I so enjoyed yesterday, and we arrive and the Baptists are having their annual picnic, but that’s cool, we can share, so we’ve been spending the afternoon hanging out reading and listening to music, and suddenly there’s Karen! This is the woman Mac met Friday morning on the steps of the library, and we met her again yesterday and she told us about these cross rocks at Blanchard Dam, and then here she is at the park! Okay, this is really small-town life, no?! Three times in three days!

Another nice thing about Little Falls is that people really work on their houses: there’s a True Value in basically every mall in town, and I can see how they all stay in business! The picture above is just an example, a house right across the street from the library.

Anyway, in the park I read some more Schoolcraft and here are a couple of favorite additional facts he relates about the Ojibwe language:

Verbs, in the Chippewa, must agree in number and tense with the noun. They must also agree in gender, that is, verbs animate must have nouns animate. They must also have animate pronouns and animate adjectives. Vitality, or the want of vitality, seems to be the distinction which the inventors of the language seized upon to set up the great rules of its syntax. [Ch XVII]

Doesn’t that make WAY more sense as the core category? Life/non-life is kind of a more important distinction than male/female, after all! Similarly, the third person singular, ween, is used for both he and she: maybe we should take it up in English to solve that dumb problem in our language once and for all!

Where Do I Live?

Getting organized to be on the road for a year has been kind of a lot of work, especially because I only got news of the McKnight funding a month ago, and without that funding as a basis, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to take on this River Project in its full incarnation. Getting everything settled in NYC for a year away, catching the Ethan Allan to Rutland Monday, and sleeping in my tiny cabin on my land in Brandon the last two nights has been a really THRILLING first step! I feel such a strong sense of finishing one phase of my life and beginning anew. It’s pretty great to wake up along with the brightening sky and lie here looking out at the clouds and the mountains and the sun gradually adding light and heat to everything.

Last night I started reading a book about Dorothea Lange’s fieldwork in 1939 for the Farm Security Administration. One inspiration for my River Project is the idea that I want to understand this country at this moment in history. For so many years, I didn’t really feel like this was my country, exactly, and the election changed that. And the current financial crisis made me think a one-person WPA project (since even Obama’s administration is unlikely to imitate FDR and hire artists to travel around the country documenting and interviewing!) might be a really worthwhile thing for me to take on. And since I’m a musician, my documentation will start from sound rather than image, and my relation to words is also different from a writer or historian…

So last night, I was reading about how in 1958, Dorothea Lange taught a course at the California School of Fine Arts called “The Camera, an Instrument of Inward Vision: Where Do I Live?”

“To ask ‘Where do I live?’” wrote Lange, ”presupposes that one lives in a house, or a trailer, or a house boat or someplace with a certain amount of things–personal things. ‘Where do I live?’ could also suggest a type of dream-land full of ideas and ideals, or a social structure which seems to have established a guiding class ethic. Yes, this is where I live: in a land of road markers and guide posts; yet every man must still find his own way.“ [p. 45]

When I think about the question ‘Where do I live’, I realize that on one level, I have lived in the same apartment in NYC for twenty years, and I am rooted there about as deeply as a person can be rooted in a place. On another level, I really don’t have a clue where I live. And I hope this journey will help me find out.