Tag Archives: town

Wherever the river goes

I slept til noon on Sunday, and when I woke up, my cousins Emma and Spencer and Amy (Frank had to work) had figured out where they wanted to take me in St. Louis. The place is called the City Museum, and it’s hard to describe how cool this place is. Imagine Tom Sawyer’s island at Disneyland, cross that with the Holy Ghost Grotto in Wisconsin, and then multiply wildly, adding in two ancient airplanes, a schoolbus cantilevered off the roof, several bulldozers used as staircases, lots of masonry from torn down buildings, many mosaics and sculptures, all welded together and connected by heavy metal mesh (outdoors) or concrete (indoors), so that you can crawl or climb or slide through and among all these wonders. A kid can crawl or climb or slide through even more of it: some of the spaces are definitely too small for a full-grown person. It is a totally incredible place, and the guy who made it keeps adding new marvels, and I’m in a bit of delighted shock it can manage to exist in these litigious days. Next time you get to St. Louis, you really must pay a visit, pictures definitely do not do it justice!

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Monday morning I picked up Mary Rowell at the St. Louis Airport and we immediately headed back north (Susan, you didn’t really think I’d skip it, did you?!?!) to Hannibal, where we wandered around town and visited Mark Twain’s boyhood home and other haunts, and climbed Cardiff Hill and read aloud the chapters in Life on the Mississippi where he describes revisiting Hannibal. Tourist Hannibal is really very nicely done, the shops and cafes along Main Street are pleasant and inviting, and I was happy to spend an afternoon wandering through it. Even the nostalgia is not laid on too thick: given that Twain himself can fall prey to that illness, I think it’s impressive that the town succeeds at honoring its history without wallowing in it.

Mary and I camped out at a commercial campground Monday night and as we were setting up camp, a gentleman came over to talk with us a bit. Galen is 83 years old and bikes and lifts weights five days a week. I would have placed him at least ten years younger, not just because he’s in great physical shape, but because he was so engaged and warm and curious about our adventure. The next morning as we were packing up to leave, he came back and offered us a blessing, a formal blessing, that I welcomed with my whole heart: thank you Galen, you are indeed a physician of souls right there in the Mark Twain Campground.

So after ten days away, I finally got out on the river again in my very own kayak this morning. We drove over to a boat launch on the Illinois side directly opposite Hannibal and I put in and paddled past downtown Hannibal and down the back sloughs in and among the islands, one of which must be the place where Huck and Jim launched their journey, and I couldn’t help but stop paddling and just float, imagining how it would feel to be rafting down this river, running away from slavery or an abusive drunken father, giving in the power of the river, thinking about the trippy irony that in this great American novel, Huck and Jim float south to freedom. What they do is not Calvinist effortful striving, not sweaty action-movie heroics: they just let the river carry them.

And after a while the clouds and rain cleared and the sun came out and the wind came up in gusts, so sometimes it was fighting me and others it was helping me along, and the whole undertaking felt like a game, a series of jokes between me and the wind and the water. And I can’t tell you how much I love being out here, and how happy I am to be underway again.

I gave the kayak over to Mary about 1 pm, and she should be getting here to Louisiana any minute now (the town, not the state(!) recommended, like Quincy, by a friend I haven’t met yet named Linda Smith) and I’ll see if I can find wi-fi to post this.

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darkness visible

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After all the adventures of the past few days, despite the amazing generosity and warmth of everyone I met in Burlington and Fort Madison and the miraculous recovery of all my stuff, I really hit a wall Thursday night. I keep thinking about Gary, the protagonist of the Stephen King story, The Man in the Black Suit, a story I’ve been working on turning into an opera for several years now. (You can find the story in Everything’s Eventual : 14 Dark Tales.) Gary escapes a visit from the devil completely unscathed — he, too, finds that nothing terrible has in fact happened — but nothing is ever the same for him, and at the end of his life he is still waiting for the devil to return and destroy him. The Man in the Black Suit is a cautionary tale about a loss, not of life, limb, or property, but of faith, which is the most unrecoverable loss of all.

I drove down to Quincy Thursday night, past the reach of the newspaper stories and back into anonymity, but I was spooked enough that couldn’t bring myself to camp out alone, so I checked into the cheapest motel I could find and spent the whole next day exploring Quincy, a wonderful town, full of great old houses (Maine Street is like Park Street in Brandon on steroids, one excellent house after another), visiting the crazy Moorish house right on the river that serves as the Visitor Center, and being given a long private tour of the house that belonged to the founder of the town, John Wood. I bought a book, The Underground Railroad Ran Through My House, by a local woman whose kids found a secret room while playing hide and seek one day, had an excellent lunch of spanakopita and Greek salad at one of the two(!) Greek restaurants in Quincy, hung out at the bookstore run by gentle and friendly folks, and then headed down to Hannibal for another cheap motel night.

When I woke up Saturday I realized it made no sense to continue traveling on in this frame of mind, so I drove back up to Quincy to take a look at the Eells house, home of another leading citizen of Quincy who was active in the Underground Railroad, before driving down to St. Louis, where I joined up with an absolutely great guy named Mike Clark, who among many other things, organizes monthly Full Moon Floats where he takes a group of people out on the river for a night paddle and dinner. On the way to meeting up with Mike, I stopped at a gas station in a sketchy part of town, and during the two minutes I was in the bathroom someone tried to clip my bike off the top of the car, no joke! So I put my big NYC chain and lock around the bike and the roof rack, now both my kayak and my bike are pretty seriously locked down to the top of my car, and I’m hoping we’re done with this theft story for good.

Mike and Betsy and I set off in a canoe around 6:30. It was cool and overcast, seemed like a pretty unprepossessing night for a paddle, but I just needed to get out on the river in the company of people who get it. Wow, it was totally totally the right thing to do! We put in south of the confluence with the Missouri, so this Mississippi is a whole new story: no more is it a series of pools created by the network of locks and dams, it is a free-flowing river with more than twice the volume now that the Missouri has joined it. Just crossing over to the island (i.e. not the whole width of the river) was a real undertaking: you have to find an eddy and paddle upstream a good ways before heading across or you’ll end up downstream of the island you’re heading to. We landed on this island and headed to a spot which is under the river during high water but turns into a huge sandy beach with blue holes, pools up to 25 feet deep of river water that connect to the main channel deep underground. You can see some daylight pictures here.

We gathered some wood and lit a fire and finished cooking up some excellent jambalaya and opened some wine, and suddenly the clouds parted and there was the full moon rushing upwards, creating an open space in the clouds and shining through and illuminating the whole scene, including a coyote off by the tree line who imitates the bark of a domestic dog so well that you can only tell he’s a coyote by the telltale upward yip-howl he can’t entirely suppress. And the talk was wonderful: Mike has paddled the whole Mississippi a few times, and the whole Missouri, too — he is a real river rat on a level I can’t even aspire to attain, and to talk river on both the practical and the mystical level with these wonderful folks in this amazing secret place in the middle of St. Louis was healing and inspiring on so many levels. Wow.

I got to my cousins’ house at 2:30 am, totally fried and totally happy. Thank you, Mike and Betsy, with my whole heart!

missing: one red kayak

When we went out to Green Bay landing this morning, the kayak was gone. Simply gone, no trace. The last time I saw it was Sunday around noon, when I was about to paddle down to Ortho landing where the bike was locked up. The wind was too strong, so I decided not to paddle, and I thought it was a bad idea to try to put the kayak back up on the car, partially because I was alone, partially because I needed to drive up to the Quad Cities to pick up Rafaela at the airport Monday and the wind was strong enough that highway driving with the kayak seemed dangerous. I had already left the kayak there overnight with no trouble, so I thought it would be okay.

I was wrong, obviously. Totally wrong.

We called the Lee County sheriff and he came out and took a report. I talked to Mike, a local farmer, whose friend owns some of the hunting camps just upriver and they both promised to ask around.

But there’s more.

We drive down to the Ortho landing ten miles downriver, where I had parked and locked my bike with a big NYC-type chain. And, I bet you can guess, the bike was gone, too. Simply gone, no trace. Not even the presumably broken lock. There was a woman there who comes out every day on her lunch hour who had seen it yesterday, which means the bike was stolen between 1 pm Monday and noon Tuesday.

We called once again, and the police came out to take a report this time (Ortho launch is within Fort Madison city limits, while Green Bay is north enough of Fort Madison to be under the aegis of the county.)

I am now without any form of human-powered transportation. Except walking, I guess(!) And I am kind of in shock. In nearly two months of traveling down the river, nothing has prepared me for this, not even a hint that something like this could happen.

So. We go to the Fort Madison newspaper where I talk to a sympathetic reporter named Joe Benedict, who promises a story for tomorrow’s Fort Madison Democrat. And then we drive back up to Burlington, where I talk to the very kind and helpful editor, Randy Miller, at The Hawkeye, and he, too, promises a story for tomorrow’s paper.

Randy puts me in touch with a local person who wants to remain anonymous, who has put us up in a hotel for the next two nights, and will take us out on the river to look for the kayak tomorrow downriver and in the back sloughs, just in case someone decided it would be fun to launch the kayak just to see where it ends up.

All these people have been so great, so generous with their time and energy and sympathy, that it seems almost unimaginable that both my kayak and my bike could really be gone forever.

So here’s what I’m praying for. That we will go out tomorrow, and my little red sportscar kayak will be caught in some reeds down the river a bit, victim of a dumb prank by some bored kids, and all will be well and I’ll be able to continue on my way almost as if this whole bad adventure didn’t happen. I don’t have much hope for recovering the bike, because in my experience a stolen bike is gone forever. But I’m focusing on the kayak right now, and if you have a little extra space in your day, if you would just dream about my little red kayak half-hidden in the bullrushes waiting to be rescued, I would be really grateful.

painting and paddling

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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.

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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?

out and back

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After nearly two months of continuous travel in the company of other people, I am seriously ALONE for the first time. Tonight this campsite (Wildcat Den State Park) is completely empty, I am the only person here, the only person within at least a couple of miles, I imagine. It’s a lot different from being alone on my land in Vermont, not just because my neighbor Mike isn’t within hailing distance, but also because this place itself, the land itself, is not familiar territory. I am really beginning to understand the sheer immensity of the country in a way that I never have before, and in my mood today, it’s somehow a bit oppressive. All these towns, all these houses, all these lives being lived out in these places I had never even thought about, let alone visited; all these factories and roads and bridges and railroads. And the river itself going on and on.

I biked to Davenport and back today, forty miles round trip: no bike path past the city limits, so most of the ride was on Route 22 with cars and trucks lumbering by, and south of Davenport the riverside is really industrial, a huge limestone quarry (it had a sign out front saying hopefully: ”Quarry Beautification,“ but I couldn’t see the results,) many factories, knots of railroads. The road past the quarry was muddy with accidental cement made from the combination of limestone dust and the morning’s rain, it coated the underside of my bike, my legs, the tires. And the road has been pockmarked, perhaps to make it less slippery for cars and trucks, but it was a drag to bike on.

I get to thinking how everything has its price. You want cement, you have to tear holes in the bluffs to get limestone. You want steel, you dig a pit nearly the size of the Grand Canyon up in Hibbing to get the iron you need. You want to use the Mississippi to move goods, you have to constantly dredge a nine-foot channel and build dams and locks and all that stuff. Perhaps we could have done things differently, perhaps we still can do them differently, but I do realize that even my relatively green, relatively low-impact life is unthinkable without cement plants and dams and brutal quarries hidden in out-of-the-way places. I read somewhere that there are only 2500 acres of real prairie left. Can that really be possible? Maybe just in the state of Iowa? Still, it seems unimaginably low.

Going in to Davenport, I climbed the hill a bit and rode Sixth Street over to the cafe at River Music Experience, passing through a poor part of town, past a group of people lined up for free lunch, and many abandoned houses, some of which had once been mansions. The inhabited houses in the neighborhood were painted in bright colors and had excellent gardens, as if to counteract the orphaned sadness of the abandoned ones. It made me want to buy and fix up one of the lost houses, just to tip the scales a bit further towards vitality.

The museum at River Music Experience was mostly a series of kiosks with information that could just as well be on a website, but they seem to give lessons there, and the concert hall is probably cool, and the cafe downstairs is great, so it was a fine halfway point to the day. The trip home was a slog, though. I don’t really like doing out and back routes in general: they feel artificial and sort of pointless, because they are. And going past the factories a second time was even more disheartening. But once I was past the big plants, there was a bit of a climb and suddenly the river was spread out below me, and I could coast down for the last couple of miles, down to the riverside, blessedly free of factories, just green and birds and a house now and again, and the road and the river, and I was filled suddenly with the most amazing joy, and gratitude for being given joy after a day not so full of it. (Plato is right, for sure! (see Philebus))

Doing this whole trip alone would be unimaginable for me. While I enjoy my self-sufficiency, I am really glad I am not doing the rest of the trip this way: it brings out my dark side almost immediately. Caroline Walker is driving down from Chicago for a few days and will be arriving tomorrow. I am glad for that, and I’m saving the sights of Muscatine so I can discover them with her.

just say no

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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.

immigrant squirrels

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My friend Cori was supposed to fly in to Moline last night, but her dog got sick and she couldn’t come, so I headed back to Bellevue where Lori (I know, I know, I didn’t do it on purpose!) arrived around dinnertime from Columbus, OH. She had read about the journey in the NYT and decided to come out and join on for a few days, very cool! Turns out we both were friends with Robert Hilferty, whose death in this summer of many sad deaths is one that truly breaks my heart, so perhaps these few days we spend together can honor his memory in some small way.

Lori helped me put in at Bellevue for my first real paddling day in a week, and it was great to get back down in the river the way only a kayak allows. The wildlife on the river remains amazing: I saw an eagle take off from about 15 feet away, the herons and egrets and pelicans and ducks and geese are everywhere, but the winner was this crazy squirrel I came across as he was swimming across the whole river. (click the photo for a slightly clearer view…) At first I thought it must be some other animal, but as I got close I realized it had to be a very nervous squirrel: he was making that scared clucking sound the whole time he was swimming, and I wanted to tell him to focus his energy just on the swimming (it looked to be hard work for him) — but eventually he made it to the other side and scampered away. What do you suppose that was about? He heard the nuts in Iowa are more plentiful?!

I pulled out at Savanna, where Lori was waiting for me with Jeff, who is aiming to walk down to NOLA pulling his stuff behind him in a little red wagon. We talked with him for a bit and he gave me a banana (thanks and good luck, Jeff!) and then we decided to head up to Galena, IL to check out the US Grant Museum. The museum was okay, but the town of Galena was sort of trippy: upscale tourist central in the middle of rural Illinois. I had never even heard of Galena, but clearly it is a destination for well-heeled tourists from all over. It’s hard to define the exact place where charming crosses over into precious, but for me Galena is definitely on the other side of the line. I suppose my complete lack of interest in buying stuff has a lot to do with my antipathy, but I also resent the way functionality is actually displaced by the Disneyfied similacrum of “town” in such places. There are real river towns right nearby, so why does anyone want to hang out in the overpriced fake version?

two-fifths, one-third, whatever

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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!

Black Hawk and the post office

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My paddling day yesterday ended at Battle Island, site of the last Native-White battle fought east of the river, on 1-2 August 1832, killing so many of Black Hawk’s band that the river ran red with their blood. Is it a coincidence that the perpetual prayer of the Franciscan sisters in La Crosse began on 1 August as well, some 46 years later? I would like to think not. I would like to imagine the Franciscan sisters repenting on behalf of the white soldiers, on behalf of all of us, and I would like to think that redemption is somehow possible.

Mac and I drove up to Ferryville, where we stopped at the post office to mail off a ridiculously late nameday present to agapimeni Despina, and were welcomed by Margie, the postmaster, who has decided to retire after 44 years of working, first in the La Crosse PO and then down here in Ferryville, where she grew up. She loves this place immoderately, and wants time to enjoy it fully before (as she put it) she’s “pushing up daisies.”

An older gentlemen came in and burst into tears (pride? grief? both?) when he told Margie that his granddaughter was heading off to the University of Minnesota. After he left, Margie allowed as how she loves men who cry, that she cries very easily herself and that she’s not going to give a retirement party because she would cry all the way through it. She had told a little girl at bible camp that she was just going to fly away on a broomstick (she’s retiring on 31 October), and the little girl had answered, very worried and serious, “You know, there’s no such thing as magic.”

Upon learning where we’re from, Margie told us that she herself hadn’t done a lot of traveling. She said she’d like to visit Vermont someday, that she’d been to Boston once and touched Teddy Kennedy’s sleeve at a meet-and-greet, and we laughed about the trope on “Who touched me?” Talk about redemption, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Margie or Teddy was more in need of it.

She also told us she’d been to Salt Lake City once, where she had come upon a man begging with two beautiful dogs reposing on each side of him, like the lions flanking the entrance to a library, and that he seemed to be an extremely successful beggar, because, as she said, ”People love animals much more than they love one another.“

I love Margie very much, and feel very very lucky to have met her, and I hope her retirement is full of joy and adventures and peace in just the balance she seeks.

highway 61 visited

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Mac and I are now happily ensconced in the public library in Wabasha, which is another winner of a small town. We were marveling earlier at how you can never guess which of these towns is going to be a favorite: Red Wing was good, Lake City was blah, Wabasha is great. Population size, date of founding, none of these things tell you in advance where you are going to find a certain excellent mix of history and vibrancy, civic pride and personal warmth. But it’s totally obvious when you’ve found it, that’s for sure!

Today is Mary Kay’s first time kayaking on her own, and Mac and I sat down with her last night after dinner to pass on all the pointers and tidbits we could think of that she might not have internalized in her days of paddling with one of us. It made me realize that after nearly 600 miles of paddling between us, Mac and I really do know some stuff about this undertaking. Somehow having Heather and Mary Kay here is causing Mac and me to look at our relationship to the river in a new way. Talking about it this morning, Mac said it’s sort of like after you’ve been in a new relationship for a little while and you sit down to talk through what’s going on. Phase One is definitely over. Probably has been since we reached St. Paul.

And along with the limestone bluffs lining the river, a new thread has entered the journey: Highway 61! You know that Highway 61, with the famous crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to play the blues, starts in Duluth, of all places? The birthplace of the unrecognizable Bob Dylan?! Cool, no? (We watched Pennebaker’s brilliant Don’t Look Back in the tent last night in his (or its) honor.) Highway 61 joins the river for real at Hastings, and will be with us to the very end.