Today was one of the best days of my life.
I got up and went to First Presbyterian Church in Alton with Wita, which maybe was backsliding in a way, since I’ve been aiming to go to churches that are theologically and liturgically less familiar and comfortable to me as the journey continues, but I was really glad I went: the people there were so very welcoming and kind, and the sermon (on that tricky passage about the rich camel going through the eye of the needle and all that) was really excellent. A guy who quotes Hank Williams as a spiritual advisor is a guy I am happy to listen to.
After church, we headed out to brunch with Dale and Linda Chapman, the President and Dean for Academic Affairs, respectively, of Lewis & Clark Community College, an institution that gives me a whole new understanding of the phrase “community college.” What a team those two are! They are building a River Research Center just down from the Alton Dam that is going to be an incredible place for research on all aspects of the river, and after brunch they took us for a tour of the nearly finished structure, which is completely self-powered (hydro and wind), built of limestone layers (really beautiful) with a green roof, and full of labs that will allow scientists to study the river on a scale and intimacy that has never been attempted before. And this is just the start: they are planning the second building as this first one nears completion, and we can all hope that this will be the Woods Hole for river research, an international center for understanding rivers. How cool is that?
But this was just the beginning of the day.
We said goodbye to Dale and Linda, and to dear Uncle Bob and Wita, and drove over the bridge to the boat launch just south of Alton Dam, where beloved Mike Clark, who I paddled with last week under the full moon, had within a matter of a couple of hours managed to get a canoe up to Alton and to wrangle Steve to be a shuttle driver so that Mike and Mary and I could go out on the river together.
Mike and Mary got into the canoe, and I got in the kayak, and we paddled south through a back slough, where Mary saw her first eagle in the wild, a very excellent thing, and then we headed down the main channel to, yes, you’ve got it, the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. Oh my, oh my! I imagine it’s a miraculous thing every single day, but I felt really lucky to experience it after these few days of rain have swelled the river. The Missouri appeared actually to be uphill from the Mississippi, I’m guessing because all those locks and dams hold back the flow of the Mississippi, and the afternoon light shone on this fierce flow of water coming from far far in the West, and at that moment there was no question in my mind that the Mississippi is the tributary here, the Missouri is the MotherFather river for sure for sure for sure. And just after I paddled into the actual confluence, a wave materialized before me, deep down in the water, a real breaker like you see on the ocean shore, and that breaker somehow transformed into a spiral, and it circled first down and then rose up and pulled me into it and I lifted my paddle above my head to let it take me around, amazed, and after it had let me feel it, let me know its power, it released me downstream and I soared into the meeting of these two great streams, exultant beyond anything I have ever experienced before.
I think this must all sound pretty over the top, I wish I could fully articulate the ferocious beauty of this water, this complex and ravenous flow. I had always thought real power resided in the circular, but this river, with its braids, both horizontal (in its sloughs and meanders and coursings) and the invisible multiply braided currents and knots that flow vertically, beneath the surface, creates an unbelievably complex directed line, made up of all these uncountable curves and circles that knit together to make this inexorable directed flow. It is counterpoint on a vast, overpowering scale — counterpoint that you can’t subdue or resist, can’t even comprehend or encompass.
We paddled on for a bit and then stopped at 4 pm for Mike’s river version of high tea on an island, and then Mike took us through the vaunted Chain of Rocks, which were safe riffles as opposed to the murderous rock course it would have been a week ago, and we paddled down to Mosenthein Island, where our campfire of a week ago is under 14 feet of water today, and we stopped to visit the cottonwood tree the beaver is almost done with, and I found an intact and beautiful turtle shell, and then we paddled hard across the channel to land at North Riverfront Park, where not only Steve but also Scott were waiting to take us back north to the car.
Mike has been telling me bits and pieces about Scott Mandrell and his re-enactment of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a project he has been doing in segments for years now. Scott is an incredibly charismatic man: I could immediately regard him as the Captain after being in his presence for about thirty seconds.
It turns out Scott and Steve had returned this very day from the last phase of their re-enactment. They had been riding horses through the wilds of Tennessee yesterday, living out the 200th anniversary of the last day in the life of Meriwether Lewis. Scott is absolutely certain that Lewis did not commit suicide, and he has a totally thrilling theory about what actually happened in those woods 200 years ago, but I will not tell that here, leaving it for Scott to explain in his own time.
The idea that Scott and Steve would come and drive a van around in order to allow Mike and Mary and me to go out on the river together — on the very evening of a day that started for them in the deep woods of Tennessee following Lewis’ journey to the end — completely blows my mind. These people are teaching me something incredibly powerful about the merging of the practical and the conceptual, the physical and the spiritual. I begin to understand what confluence really means.