Tag Archives: map

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.


flow in flux


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.

just say no


I put in this morning at the boat launch in Port Byron and paddled down to Bettendorf, passing under the I-80 bridge, which I have driven on more than a couple of cross-country trips without hardly even registering the Mississippi. It’s interesting how the small river towns make the river the centerpiece of the community, but the larger cities almost ignore the river, turning their backs on it as if almost ashamed of the very reason for their existence. You can see that the Quad Cities are working at rebuilding their waterfronts, but I’m sorry to say that most of it still feels pretty vacant, sort of like the urban renewal projects of the 20th century, rather than authentically organic vitality.

I pulled out just after the I-74 bridge pictured above, and Lori and I headed over to the one non-Starbuck’s cafe we could find (thanks, Jane!!) and then to Arsenal Island, where I bought my very own set of sexy river maps that will cover the rest of the trip. (There is such a thing as map porn, and the Army Corps does a pretty good job of scratching that particular itch.) We drove around looking for the museum to no avail: we were pretty tired, but there’s also a strange secretive lack of information on this Army-run island: maybe better signage to the museum would incite terrorists, I don’t know. But we had no trouble finding the cemeteries: rows upon endless rows of white headstones, a segregated cemetery for the confederate soldiers who died in captivity here (I gather there was a sort of concentration camp, a northern Andersonville, here, during the Civil War) and then the national cemetery, where we were alone except for two young women and a small child who were gathered at the freshest graves. In a moment I looked back, and one of the women had wrapped herself around a headstone, and I couldn’t help but picture that Iowa or Illinois boy, just about Mac’s age, the fresh young love of this young woman’s life, the father of this toddler, blown to pieces by an IED, bleeding to death in the dust of Iraq.

you can’t say you can’t play


After putting Mac in this morning, I went to find a church in Prairie du Chien. The Episcopal service had been at 8:30 am (what are they thinking?!), so I headed over to one of the two Catholic churches in town, where I arrived just in time for the 10 am service, which was full of at least 350 people, maybe more. Given that each of the two Catholic churches has multiple Sunday services, it’s pretty clear this is a thriving community. And afterwards, I could not find open or functioning internet cafes anywhere within thirty miles, so I headed down to Guttenberg, and caught up on This American Life episodes in a park overlooking the river while waiting for Mac to arrive. One really interesting episode was about an experiment they did in a kindergarden at the Chicago Lab School, called “You can’t say you can’t play.” I figure it’s one of the slogans for this trip of mine. It’s definitely a compelling idea, not just for kindergardeners…

I also read this morning in an article by Alex Ross in The New Yorker that Theodor Adorno planned (but never wrote) an opera based on Huckleberry Finn. Can you imagine anything wackier?

In the afternoon, one of my oldest friends, Stephen Dembski, drove over with his student Becky from Madison, where he teaches, and the four of us took a walk at the very cool Effigy Mounds National Monument and then headed back to the same brewpub in McGregor for some more of their excellent Weiss beer. Effigy Mounds is very beautiful: turns out these burial mounds are found all over southern Wisconsin and into Minnesota and Iowa, remnants of an ancient culture of people who clearly spent a lot of time imagining what things look like from the sky. Dembski mentioned that the Native American name for Long Island is the name of a fish, because the island looks like a fish. But how do you develop that kind of geographic perspective by walking and canoeing around an island? I like thinking about the imaginative extrapolation involved with projecting the tiny details of land and sea in an overview that says: fish!

family ties


We had an entirely different sort of paddling day today, totally great: Nick and Margaret brought their daughters Jennifer and Kimberly, Jennifer’s friend Eliza, and two canoes to augment our solo kayak, so all SEVEN of us put in at Lynxville for a really fun day of paddling. Here you see Kimberly, age 11, a totally natural kayaker, learning about map navigation from her folks.

We didn’t all make it down to Prairie du Chien, where we had parked the second car. At a certain point, Nick took over with the kayak while the rest of us gamboled at a boat launch, which included Mac getting coated with tire rubber helping to rescue a truck from backing right down into the water along with the boat it was trying to pull out. (There are aspects of being male in this world that I certainly do not envy in the slightest, among them being forcibly enlisted in idiocies that require brute force.)

The day ended with a really great meal with the whole crew at a brewpub down in McGregor, and then we all headed back upstream and Mac and I crashed one last night at the house in Ferryville. What a wonderful time I’ve had with Nick and Margaret and their crew: it feels like the start of a long friendship — actually, more like the continuation of a friendship that was already there.

Oh, and I forgot to tell you that the marker I posted yesterday is not the official Historical Society marker, but one of several put up in the 1930’s by a local doctor and history buff who constructed them out of concrete on his dining room table in Viroqua. In addition to seven markers commemorating the massacre, he also constructed a monument in his hometown “honoring a July 4, 1856 speech by Lucy Stone, which he called ‘the first Woman’s Rights and Anti Slavery ever given by a woman in the great northwest.’” I got all this from an article in the Kickapoo Free Press that Nick gave me, which also offers the local Sheriff’s Report in verse. A sample:

8/2/09 Insomnia
Logan Sheldon sleeps so seldom
Good thing that the guardrail held ‘im.

leaving Brandon too

View Birch Hill to Bess in a larger map

I woke up this morning spontaneously at around 4 am: the combination of just getting back from Europe and real excitement about this river journey makes it really pretty impossible to sleep. Watching the dawn here on the land is always such a great pleasure: this morning the clouds and fog kept alternately shrouding and caressing and obscuring the mountains. I could happily sit and just watch the shifts not just at dawn, but all day long. But Mac and I got going taking down tents and packing up gear, and now we’re at the Brandon Library for a small internet fix before we head out for Rochester, where we’ll be staying with my friend Bess tonight.

I’m finding it harder to leave Brandon today than New York yesterday. It’s really just so beautiful here: I can’t imagine that any landscapes we’ll be seeing on the River will be any MORE excellent than this spot. (I’m giving a shout out to my friend Heather Hitchens, who found it for me on a gorgeous fall day in 2003; yo, Heather, THANK YOU!)

When I first got the idea of doing this trip, it was a solo journey, some sort of quest. I think it still is some sort of quest, but now it’s turning into a collaborative journey with a shifting cast of fellow travelers, which I’m really really happy about. The first fellow traveler is my man Mac, a trombone player and adventurer I met a couple of years ago doing a workshop for a dance piece with multiple trombones at Mass MOCA. We don’t know each other very well yet, but I bet we will in a few weeks!

And part of the reason I’m keeping this journal as a blog is to invite those of you who aren’t going to physically come to river to join a virtual trip with me. So I’m really eager to hear your comments and questions, and if you find I’m not telling you about stuff you want to know, or telling you too much about stuff you don’t care about, TALK TO ME!!! Let’s do this thing together!!

And although I didn’t plan for it to happen, I’m also really enjoying that we’re embarking on 22 July, which happens to be my birthday. There’s a Book of Days piece for 22 July, you can listen to it here if you like.

getting started

View NYC to VT in a larger map

I’m leaving NYC for real this morning, heading up to my land in Vermont to meet up with Mac, pack up all the gear I can think of needing, and then start the car trip west to the headwaters of the Mississippi. Here we go!!! We’re not really ready: don’t even know what kayaks we’re using, but I’m trusting in the “just in time” approach to doing this journey. I keep reminding myself that we’re headed to a major city in the heartland of America, not some unpeopled outpost, so we can outfit ourselves as we go, which is better than lugging half the planet with us anyway!

My departure playlist for this trip is gonna be a mix my friend Cori the dramaturg put together for me as a parting gift: River music along with the rain coming down right now seems the exact right atmosphere for leaving on this trip. Normally I would be disappointed to do the VT drive in the rain, but for today it seems exactly right. I embrace the water.