All posts by Eve

hotel Bibles and turtle muck

Today I was scheduled for a driving day, so Richard set off from Wanagan’s Landing in the kayak, Mac on the bike to meet him at the next overpass, and I headed out to the local church for morning service. Because I’m looking to meet people in the various communities we’re passing through, I thought going to whatever local church seems promising every Sunday might be a good way to enter in to a local experience. Jonathan Raban stopped at bars in the towns he passed through, and of course ended up with a pretty depressing view of American life. not being much of a bar type myself, I figure churches might serve a similar function in terms of allowing me to interact easily with strangers, but perhaps somewhat less depressing. we’ll see!

so I arrived at the sort of Lutheran church just in time for the service: a congregation of about 25, all the men wearing checked shirts, seems to be a uniform, the women wearing hopeful summer sandals (it’s about 60 and raining.) the pastor is a supply priest (probably there’s a different name for it) from the local non-denominational evangelical college, and there is a guest speaker/guitar-player, Tim, a Gideon volunteer. Tim looks like a middle-aged version of the young Elvis (i.e. not like the actual middle-aged Elvis) and has brought his wife and two tow-headed children. he plays a song about how God made the tree that got turned into the cross, and the hill that was Calvary, and then he does a spiel about the importance of placing Bibles in hotel rooms, and tells a story about the daughter of a Hindu priest secretly converting due to a Gideon Bible, then being swept away in a flood, having left a note in her Bible that causes her parents, including her Hindu priest father to convert to Christianity. trouble is, this same story slightly transposed to Japan, where the young girl dies in a plane wreck, is printed in the pamphlet he hands out to all of us. did this same story coincidentally happen to both the Indian and the Japanese teenage girls? are all foreign heathens the same and the details unimportant? it is not clear to me.

the text was Jonah 2, and that was kind of great: the shroud of seaweed is instantly recognizable to me as the turtle muck that I just paddled through yesterday. and the organist was utterly dear, she must have been eighty, with a fabulously idiosyncratic sense of rhythm that was almost a species of swing, and Thelonious Monk-ish clusters to go along with it, and thrilling control of the volume pedal on her electronic organ.

at coffee hour the people were friendly if a bit wary. I don’t think they get visitors very often, and it took them a bit to warm up, they were far more NewEnglandish than my Vermont church congregation had been the first time I went there.

I headed out to the highway bridge to meet up with Mac and wait for Richard, who we soon realized was quite overdue. eventually a guy drove up to tell us Richard had gotten balled up in the swamp and turned around and was back at the previous bridge. so Mac and I headed there to find a pretty bedraggled Richard, and Mac decided to try the same patch of swamp, and eventually he got through, pretty bedraggled as well, and I felt really bad that both of them had a kind of rough start to their river kayaking. Mac continued on to the next campsite, Coffee Pot Landing it’s called, and I set up the tent in the rain, and we decided to head to Bemidji for dinner instead of cooking in camp, ’cause everyone was tired and wet and cold. Applebee’s never tasted so good!

got back to camp in time for a really gorgeous sunset: a red molten sun collapsing into the clouds. really hoping that red sun at night is indeed the sailor’s delight!

scary, but not dangerous

well, after all these weeks of departures, the trip has actually begun for real! we got up to a very cold morning, got suited up, and Richard left on the bike for the headwaters, while Mac and I drove to the boat ramp we’ve been using for our practice runs and I put in to Lake Itasca and paddled about a mile over to the headwaters. There was a pair of loons this time: couldn’t get a picture because it was too windy and I was too excited and the combination made me sure I would capsize the boat if I tried to turn it broadside to get a shot. Mac and Richard were waiting at the tourist spot: we did the standard photos, and then carried the boat down a few yards and I put in again. it was so shallow and narrow, and there were a few downed trees, so I had to get out a few times to pull the boat. then there’s a culvert that I’m not skilled enough to paddle through, so we portaged around that, and then I was finally on my way.

oh my god. it’s just amazing. starts as this creek almost, not much bigger than sugar hollow brook, the stream that runs through my land in VT, but it’s totally overrun with reeds to the point that you are completely surrounded by reeds with no visibility and just paddling downstream and hoping for the best. it’s a little scary, but it’s not really dangerous: the perfect combination, in other words. the kayak is really too big for a river this size: it sort of like trying to maneuver an american car through the streets of say, siena or something. but it is very maneuverable, and as I begin to understand how to control it with just shift of weight and stuff, I manage better and better with the turns in the river. and there are amazing amounts of wildlife: birds, turtles, levolulia (dragonflies: there are 30 different species of dragonfly here), and even a river otter or a beaver or a muskrat or some such (a swimming furry mammal: I am too ignorant to know which) and it is much more wilderness than I was expecting: no mile markers, no signage, no sign of human habitation AT ALL until you suddenly come to a bridge and the county road and there’s Mac standing there to make sure I’m good, and I take a bit of a water break and then start again and go maybe another three miles to this absolutely beautiful campsite, Wanagan’s Landing, which has water and a shelter with a picnic table, and the guys have set up the tents and are reading away and I festoon the car with all the wet stuff I can find, eat some lunch, and now have set up a beach chair right at the river’s edge where I am writing this.

The idea is to start with half days at first, until we can get acclimated, and I am very glad to have done an easy day like this: not more than six or seven miles. I would be happy to hang out at this campsite for the next month, to tell you the truth, it’s really just a magical place. The access from the road is over about two miles of rutted two-track, so while it is possible to drive the car in and we don’t have to pack in tents and food and stuff, it’s remote enough that I don’t expect we’ll see anyone else at all until we leave here.

I wish we had thought of staying here rather than at Itasca State Park, which is sort of like tenement life transposed to the outdoors, PLUS they charge you for the opportunity to camp cheek by jowl. if you are going to do this trip, forget about the State Park campsites and stay in these great free sites instead!

at the headwaters

yesterday each of us took a turn on Lake Itasca in the new kayak: wow, a totally different experience than the recreational kayaks I’ve used in the past. sort of like how a powerful sportscar is different from my beloved father’s honda accord: it responds to every move you make, so you better decide the moves you want to make! the paddle is really great, too: light and sized for my hands. I’m amazed at how much easier it is to move through the water: ninety minutes of paddling felt nearly effortless and I’m not at all sore today. I paddled up to the actual headwaters and then drifted among the grasses and lilypads to see if I could feel a perceptible pull to transform lake into river. It’s a funny thing: Lake Itasca is just a northern lake like a thousand other northern lakes: for the duck family or the loon I passed as I paddled to the headwaters, this lake probably doesn’t seem charged in any particular way: but we have a whole story, we ALWAYS have stories, and I really enjoy picturing this circle of lake focussing into a line, a directed stream that will grow and amass into this incredible, powerful river. And I think of my friend RIck in Pittsburgh, and how “his” water will join this water here, and I realize it’s just simply impossible for humans NOT to lay our own narratives on nature. it’s just what we DO. to whatever degree I can, I will avoid sentimentalizing this journey, romanticizing it; but there’s absolutely nothing I can do to avoid humanizing it, and I wouldn’t want to if I could.

I have to tell you I was really moved by that loon. my mother joycie’s favorite bird. very very excellent to see her as I start out.

*****

there was an article in the NYTimes the other day about hammocks as an alternative to tents, so at REI the other day, I picked up a “Brazilian” hammock with a mosquito cover, and I have been sleeping in it every night, with a tarp over the bottom half so I can look at the trees and stars when it’s clear but scrunch down a bit and get out of the rain whenever I need to without getting out and adjusting the tarp. It rains on and off all day and night here in Itasca: Mac pointed out that 20% precipitation means just that: not 20% chance of rain, but it’s gonna rain 20% of the time.

I LOVE this hammock and totally recommend it to any of you campers out there: forget the tent and the sleeping pads and all that! A little hammock that fits in a stuff sack the size of a softball along with a sleeping bag and a tarp for rain are all you need!

*****

Watching the woman filling water jugs at the campsite this morning I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of years women have been carrying water. (why women, I wonder? water is seriously heavy!) but anyway, there she was like the model of the type, leaned over the source (a faucet, not a stream, but still), willowy, her hair shadowing her face, and the water so fresh and clean and new. she turned and I could see her, and she was younger than I had placed her, she had seemed so calm and implacable filling her jugs, I had figured her for a woman who had finished raising her children.

*****

Because I have VT plates, people of course assume I am from VT. I have mixed feelings about this.

anything really worth doing is worth doing slowly

I figure it’s useful to follow Mae West’s advice whenever possible, even when it’s applied to shopping, which is one of my least favorite activities and induces a kind of anxious narcolepsy in me, if such a thing is possible. “Outfitting” is just a fancy word for shopping, after all, and getting outfitted for a sport at which I have pretty minimal experience is a competition between salesmen who have comparatively expert knowledge and foolish me whose only advantage is that I simply don’t have the budget to do what they would bid me to do. $3000 kayaks, anyone?!?! I don’t think so! (it IS a very sexy machine, I can tell that even without knowing anything about it!)

The interesting thing about our endless shopping day yesterday is that we revised the plan somewhat, in a way that I think will alter the trip in a very rich and useful way.

The original plan had been that we would get a tandem kayak and on any given day, two people would be kayaking down the river while the third of us would drive down and meet us. That way we would have the support of a car, each person would have a day off the river once every three days and could scope out interesting off-river stuff, find groceries and water and internet, and carry all the camping gear and ancillary stuff so the kayak wouldn’t have to. The idea was to procure a tandem kayak that could be adjusted to serve as a solo kayak for times when there are only two travelers instead of three.

It turns out that an adjustable tandem kayak is not a good choice for a long touring journey. So we agreed that the better choice is to buy a solo kayak, and then on any given day, one person will be paddling, one will be biking, and the third will be driving. I am totally LOVING this revised plan, partially because it means that each of us will in fact be taking parallel SOLO journeys down the river, gathering after each day’s travels to compare notes and hang out together. In general, I think a solo journey is a much more interesting way to travel. In my experience, you’re just much more OUT there, and strangers interact with you much more freely, and in every way it’s really preferable. But doing a parallel solo journey WITH other people prevents the loneliness and extremity that would be sort of unavoidable if I did a four-month solo trip down the river.

So rather than feeling like we’ve compromised the plan by changing to a solo kayak, I’m really feeling excited about the new balance between alone and together we’ve created for the journey.

But we still have to go back and actually BUY everything today, and I wish that part could just magically be finished! Hopefully by the end of the day today!!!!

gleaning the cherries in Beulah

gleaning the cherries in Beulah

we’ve arrived in Beulah, MI, where my aunt and cousins all gather every summer at the Red House. she took us out this morning to see the cherry trees get shaken by this big machine, and we took the opportunity to gather some leftovers. have any of you been to the fabulous Cherry Hut?!?

and of course I am thinking about Agnes Varda and her wonderful movie, The Gleaners and I. Have any of you seen her new one, The Beaches of Agnes?

Later in the day, Emma and Victoria took Mac and I out on Crystal Lake for a bit of kayaking and a swim. I was very aware of us doing this thing recreationally that will soon be our main form of transportation, a very cool shift.

okay, getting kicked out of the library, see you later…

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.

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.

managing water

from The Guardian: “America, now entering its hurricane season, was today urged to abandon the outmoded “patch and pray” system of levees – whose failure magnified the devastation of Hurricane Katrina – and borrow from the Dutch model of dykes and management.”

click the photo for the whole article: