Tag Archives: journey

it’s all about the river

We’re hard at work getting ready for three concerts of River Project music at Abrons Arts Center in late January: wrangling rehearsal schedules for more than 25 people, making special arrangements and generating parts for River Project music for three different rosters of players, organizing tech riders, instrument movers, press releases, all that endless stuff that goes into doing shows, even before a single sound gets made. In a way I feel very far away from the river, and from the urges and pleasures that got me out there two years ago. but then I realize it’s all about the river, and the anxiety recedes and I can just keep paddling.


a day to Pittsburgh

Saturday, we headed out in the rain and cold towards Pittsburgh, stopping at Shanksville at the newly unveiled Flight 93 memorial, which is quite well-done: tasteful and thoughtful in that National Park-ish way. It might be strange to say this, but I found the absence of any information or images of the four hijackers to be a lost opportunity, somehow. I guess I really believe that seeing the bad guys, engaging with their craziness, is a way to guard against craziness in oneself or one’s culture. I mean, isn’t that at least part of why we read and watch movies about Hitler or mass murderers or whatever? I’m not sure how that could or should be done at this memorial, but in my opinion, erasing them completely from the picture is a sanitizing that minimizes the actual authentic heroism of the forty folks who brought down the plane in this lonely field.

We arrived at my friends’ Rick and Kate’s place in time for dinner, and I could help marveling at how different our pace was from that 20 to 40 miles per day I did going down the Mississippi in 2009. No wonder I got so interested in 19th century (and earlier) history, I was traveling at a pre-20th century pace! That’s super-obvious the moment I think of it, but I only realized it fully doing that quick drive on Saturday: nothing to it to drive from New York City to Pittsburgh, it’s only a few hundred miles!

It was great to catch up with Rick and Kate. Rick is a wonderful poet, you can check out his work here and here, and Kate is a passionate birder, and I was really gratified that she liked the movie of In and Out of the Game, that really means a lot to me.

Welty Country

Eudora Welty documented Rodney in her 1930s photographs for the WPA, in several of her early stories, and in her 1944 photo-essay, Some Notes on River Country. Here are a few excerpts from her writing that apply directly to Rodney, and also to the Archives of Exile project I’m working on with Richard Steadman-Jones.

from Some Notes on River Country:

A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out. It flares up, it smolders for a time, it is fanned or smothered by circumstance, but its being is intact, forever fluttering within it, the result of some original ignition. Sometimes it gives out glory, sometimes its little light must be sought out to be seen, small and tender as a candle flame, but as certain.

I have never seen, in this small section of old Mississippi River country and its little chain of lost towns between Vicksburg and Natchez, anything so mundane as ghosts, but I have felt many times there a sense of place as powerful as if it were visible and walking and could touch me.


Perhaps it is the sense of place that gives us the belief that passionate things, in some essence, endure. Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic in its story live as long as the place does, though they are unseen, and the new life will be built upon these things — regardless of commerce and the way of rivers and roads, and other vagrancies.

from the story At the Landing:

Whenever she thought that Floyd was in the world, that his life lived and had this night and day, it was like discovery once more and again fresh to her, and if it was night and she lay stretched on her bed looking out at the dark, a great radiant energy spread intent upon her whole body and fastened her heart beneath its breath, and she would wonder almost aloud, “Ought I to sleep?” For it was love that might always be coming, and she must watch for it this time and clasp it back while it clasped, and while it held her never let it go.

Then the radiance touched at her heart and her brain, moving within her. Maybe some day she could become bright and shining all at once, as though at the very touch of another with herself. But now she was like a house with all its rooms dark from the beginning, and someone would have to go slowly from room to room, slowly and darkly, leaving each one lighted behind, before going to the next. It was not caution or distrust that was in herself, it was only a sense of journey, of something that might happen. She herself did not know what might lie ahead, she had never seen herself. She looked outward with the sense of rightful space and time within her, which must be traversed before she could be known at all. And what she would reveal in the end was not herself, but the way of the traveler.

catching up


The transition from being on the river to being here at Montalvo, and the various adventures that happened in between the two places, has definitely broken my posting rhythm, and I MISS being here with you! Funny how this blog feels like an actual place to me, different from email or phone or Facebook or whatever other forms of communication we might use together. I want to see if we can continue the conversation here, although my guess is that it will be different now that I’m in one place for a while and writing music again.

Before I do anything else, I want to just give you a short picture of where I’ve been for the last several weeks.

Mac and I had a few more days in New Orleans after my previous post, and we heard lots of wonderful music on Frenchman Street and at the weekend Gumbo Festival in a converted funeral parlor, we went to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church (with Linda Norton) and heard the Treme Brass Band again at the parish Christmas party, visited the African-American Museum and the Port of New Orleans and Brad Pitt’s new houses in the Ninth Ward, hung out with Scotty Heron, who generously sheltered us from the rain for a few nights, cheered for the Saints in R Bar, ate incredible meals and more beignets and coffee than should be legal, and altogether had an excellent time. Here are a very few photos.

On the 14th, I dropped Mac off at the airport and headed back north to Vicksburg, where I stayed with excellent Chris Porter for a couple of days while waiting for the M/V Charles F. Detmar, Jr. to arrive. My friend David Greer had arranged for me to ride this towboat with Captain Richard “Bear” Gettelfinger. It was totally amazing, a completely different way to experience the river than a kayak, that’s for sure! I want to write more about this experience later, but for now, here are a few pictures, along with a million thanks to Bear and his crew, and to David for setting the trip up for me.

I got off the towboat Saturday night back in Vicksburg (we had gone down to just above Baton Rouge and back in four days), watched the Saints lose, went to Episcopal Church in Vicksburg Sunday morning and met the fabulous and inimitable Ms. Ike, and then a whole crew of us went sailing Sunday afternoon on a lake just north of Vicksburg, stopping at the Reverend Dennis’ wonderful artwork/church on the way. (More info about Reverend Dennis here.) We ended up with five women on the boat, a slightly different crew than the eleven men of the Charlie Detmar(!)

My friend Cori Ellison arrived from NYC on Monday night, and we headed west on Tuesday, stopping for two nights (so we could go dancing) in glorious Lafayette, LA with Chris’ excellent friend Marie, about which I want to write more, and then through Texas, where I got a chance to paddle on the Rio Grande at Big Bend National Park, totally great, and then west through Arizona, staying a night in Sonoita with Cori’s friend Saba, and finally arriving at Montalvo on 30 December.

I’ve been here ever since. It is exceedingly strange to sleep indoors in the same bed every night, to unpack my books from the trunk of the car and put them on an actual bookshelf, to shower every day, to have constant access to electricity and running water and refrigeration and high speed internet.

It’s wonderful here, a great place to make this transition, and I am getting started on sorting through all the materials and ideas I want to explore for the next many months (years?), but my first priority is to get my voice and fingers working because I have a solo show at Stanford on 4 February, and I have not even been thinking about singing or playing or talking or manipulating electronics for many months now.

I am absolutely loving getting up and practicing every day, perhaps for the first time in my life. I used to find practicing boring, but I think these many months of paddling or biking for six hours at a stretch taught me something I never really understood before about how the physical and the spiritual (and the emotional and the intellectual for that matter) can be intertwined. Long distance paddling or biking just naturally becomes a meditation: I’m out in nature, I know going to be at it all day so I’m not overexerting myself to exhaustion, and something happens to my mind: I’m focussing, but also relaxed; I’m concentrating on the task at hand, but my mind is simultaneously free to notice stuff.

When she was visiting me in Iowa in late October during the lost gear adventure, my friend Rafaela mentioned something in her wonderfully low key and wise way about Jung’s four functions: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition, and how doing this journey might be allowing me to shift my own internal balance of the four. I heard what she said at the time, but it is only now when I sit down to play and sing each morning that I realize the river has taught me a marvelous lesson without my even being aware it was happening. I am delighted and grateful.


Journeys in New Worlds

from Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Women’s Narratives (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography)

“an account of my peregrination” is what Elizabeth House Trist called her travel diary, written for her friend Thomas Jefferson as she journeyed from Philadelphia to Natchez in 1783-84

[Latin peregr?n?r?, peregr?n?t-, from peregr?nus, foreigner; see peregrine.]

[I tried to keep all the spelling the way it is in the original]


29 December 1783

[The old people] have but one Son who is married and has a house full of children. They have given all up to this son and have a room in the House; he maintains them. It gave me pleasure to see so much harmony subsist among them. The son’s wife told me they had lived together fourteen years, and she never saw the old people out of temper. They are very religious presbeterians; prayers before every meal and after; but their conversation chearfull and happy. I believe if there are good people in the world, they are to be found at this place. My heart overflow’d with benevolence, for it could not be envy to see an old couple that had lived Sixty years together endeavoring to please each other and to make every one as happy as themselves. A true picture of rural felicity: God continue to grant you his blessing, my worthy old man and Woman. p. 204

[Pittsburgh] Grants Hill is a delightfull situation. I think I would give the preference for to live on [the hill] as you are more in the World. The river is more confined, but the Objects are not so deminitive below you. p. 213

I dont like this river. The passage is attended with much more danger than I had any Idea of.  p. 226

[15 June 1784] Every one thinks their troubles the greatest, but I have seen so many poor creatures since I left home who’s situation has been so wretched, that I shall begin to consider my self as a favord child of fortune. p. 226

[18 June 1784, at the Chicasaw Bluffs] I some times conceit — I am got to the fag end of the world; or rather that it is the last of Gods creation and the Seventh day came before it was quite finnish’d. At other times, I fancy there has been some great revolution in nature, and this great body of water has forced a passage were it was not intended and tore up all before it. The banks are now about 50 feet high, very ragged, and every here and there great pieces of the earth tumbling in to the water. Often great trees go with it, which fill the river with logs. Some places along shore there will be great rafts of fallen timber. The water is as muddy as a pond that has been frequently visited by hogs. Alltogether its appearance is awfull and Melancholy and some times terrific.

[19 June 1784] This is a Passionate sort of a climate, quickly raised but soon blows over.

[30 June 1784 Great Gulph, 75 miles from the Yasou] A Mullato Woman nam’d Nelly was exceeding kind to us, gave us water mellons, green corn, apples — in short, everything that she had was at our service. Her conversation favord rather more the Masculine than was agreeable. Yet I cou’d not help likeing the creature, she was so hospitable. She gave us the history of her life. She may be entitled to merit from some of her actions. But chastity is not among the number of her virtues.


Pervading the earliest expressions of the autobiographical impulse in America, we find, according to Patricia Caldwell, “the important alliance between migration and conversion,” a consequence of the passage across the ocean that made the first white settlers in New England a unique people. The narratives testify to the continuing validity of this association between spatial movement and psychological transformation to later generations of American life-writers.

William L. Andrews’ Introduction, p. 9

when the saints


Mac and I decided it was somehow necessary to go all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, but rather than following the official channel of the Mississippi River, the road for which reportedly peters out in a sort of industrial place, we chose to drive down to Grand Isle. Famous as the location of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, it is also known as one of the great fishing spots in the world, and has a great beachfront state park, which we had nearly to ourselves.

It truly feels like the edge of the world. All the structures are built on stilts, on shifting sands that will never be stable. You drive for a couple of hours south through land that becomes more and more intermingled with water, until you are on a little spit of land surrounded by water on all sides. The map of this whole area looks like beautiful lacework. It’s the opposite of the Greek islands, which feel massive and immovable, where the warm and clear waters of the Mediterranean feel like your friend and the earth is dry and stony and unforgiving. Here the water is poised to wash away the tentative stretches of sand and swamp at any moment, and you feel oddly protective of every spit of land that can support life, fragile and wet and temporary as it all is.

Mac and I took a walk on the parts of the path that didn’t require waders, and I found a bird skeleton and took the beautiful curve of the main wing bone as a memento of the final official day of this trip.

On the way home from dinner I hit a pothole badly enough to blow out a front tire, so the next day I cleaned and reorganized the entire car while waiting for AAA to come and change it. Spreading everything out to dry in the December summer sun and warmth, tidying the papers and maps and books that had been floating around the car for months felt really great: the first step of Phase 2, somehow!

We got back to New Orleans in the late afternoon, set up camp at St. Bernard State Park just east of town (the area that was purposely flooded by dynamiting the levee in the 1927 flood), and drove into the city and sampled some live music in the bars along Frenchman Street and then headed over to the Candlelight Lounge, home of the Treme Brass Band. A really great night of music and dancing, totally local in the best sense, listening to the music alone couldn’t possibly give you the full sense of the whole scene, the whole feel, which is urban, cosmopolitan in all the ways that make cities so great. Everyone is radically individual, the small-town pressure to conform is non-existent, instead, it is as if every person is carving out a unique space for their own fierce selfhood, so that the coming-together, the community that is woven together by these hundred souls in a little club on a dark street in the old neighborhood, the birthplace of jazz, is made of a hundred different histories and styles and stories and reasons for being there, united in that precise unrepeatable moment in time and space, dancing together to the music that connects us, the music that will never end.


mac is back!


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!


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!



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.

painting and paddling


Today I set off in the kayak from Shady Creek with a very fun send-off crew: a group of folks who winter together in Florida and summer together by the banks of the Mississippi. (Sounds like a pretty good life to me!) Full of energy and laughter, they were just the right people to launch me on this rainy gray day for a sort of curious journey past through Lock and Dam #16, where the tender sent me through almost without a single word, a quick rest stop in Muscatine, where Caroline the Chicago poet was waiting to greet me, then past a bunch of huge factories spewing gunk right next to seemingly pristine natural vistas right next to wacky duck blinds (all the birds in that photo are decoys, in case that’s not clear(!)) Caroline retrieved me from a landing where you drive up and over the levee to get there, quite cool, and after a restorative lunch at the riverfront cafe I’ve been hanging out at every day (it’s called Elly’s and if you get to Muscatine, you too will eat there every single day, I am sure), we headed over to the Art Center, which is one of those 19th century houses with lots of Persian rugs and beautiful furniture and tasteful minor artworks — not so much my kind of thing except for this painting of the Mississippi River.


It was tucked away near the bathroom or something. The painter is named Bill Bunn, and I just came up with this Life Magazine article from 1940, which describes how he and his 19-year-old wife were about to sail down the Mississippi in their own boat. I wonder if they did it?! He just died this summer at the age of 99, according to this article. I want to see more of Bill Bunn’s work! Somebody should get on this, don’t you think?

“I have charged myself with contentment and triumph.”

a difficult charge to live up to, from my man Walt Whitman, but if he managed to avoid despair and desolation in the face of the Civil War, I can certainly at least aspire to his mystical engagement with the wonders of this world, exactly as it is, rather than as I might wish it could be.

today is the second anniversary of my mother’s death, so along with the Whitman my brother so eloquently posted in the comments yesterday, I am posting a recording Joycie introduced me to in 1985 or 86, which I regret not playing at her funeral. full volume. I play it every year in her honor.

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Walter Hawkins: I’m Goin’ Away on Love Alive II

I visited this high volume ritual on patient and hopefully not too long-suffering Richard and Mac in the midst of driving around Bemidji today doing various errands, which take on thrilling overtones when you’re camping out. Laundry! Groceries! Oil Change! we also had a few hours in a pleasant cafe in downtown Bemidji where I tried to get the bills organized, if not actually paid. we set up camp at Bemidji State Park, which is blessedly nearly empty midweek, and laid out all the clean laundry and organized it into little subsections, each going into its own plastic bag. and each category of food into its own bags as well. totally OCD. I feel like I’m re-inventing skills the army has been inculcating in recruits since forever: a place for everything, everything in its place. but with a small car and three people suiting up for three different kinds of activities, it can get crazy pretty quickly if we aren’t anal about it!

Richard made a fine dinner for us with the new groceries, and read to us as he has each night from Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out
by Annette Atkins, a really wonderful book about Minnesota history for the general reader. Totally recommended!