Tag Archives: river

already the river

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John had invited me to join him on an all-day paddle he was scheduled to do Saturday with a father and son, so I was awakened early from the hammock I had set up behind his shop and overlooking the Sunflower River, with John offering me coffee and oatmeal and introducing me to Ellis Johnson, a younger brother of Super Chikan Johnson, one of the outstanding blues players flourishing in Clarksdale. Ellis himself is more dancer than musician, he said, and he is also a fisherman, and he told me about the huge turtle he caught the other day.

Tim, a prep-school fundraiser, and his college-age son, David, showed up and got outfitted, and then we all headed out to Quapaw landing and put in. It’s my first paddling since above Memphis, and it’s hard to articulate how happy I am to be back on the water. It’s a strange reality that as the boundary between water and land gets more porous down here, with all the back channels and bayous and swamps, getting to the river from land actually gets harder and harder, so my bike rides don’t really bring me close enough to the river to fully satisfy my river jones. It makes sense: the bottomlands are a no-man’s-land where it is not practical to imagine permanent roads or houses. The river side of the levees are in a sense already the river.

Paddling with John, who knows this river the way I know the streets of New York City, is really a wonderful experience. We did all sorts of things I would never have been able to do alone. Instead of freaking out about the big stuff floating down the river, for example, we took advantage of its speed and power. We tied off to a huge tree that was plowing downstream and just effortlessly coasted down through the windy stretch. I was finally truly rafting the Mississippi! A giant barge and tow were coming downstream at the same time, and watching it pass us at an excruciatingly slow pace — since we were traveling nearly as fast — reminded me of that endless circus trailer in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.

We stopped at two different blue holes to eat and explore, and then John began to take us into back channels, wending through groves of trees. I could happily paddle back through thickets finding oxbow lakes and odd back bayous for many days to come. I think what I like the very best about this lower river is these liminal spaces, neither land nor river, exactly, but some curious inseparable hybrid of the two.

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John took us through one final back channel right near sunset, and we paddled into the setting sun surrounded by birds and the departing light. I didn’t want the day to end, but paddling up a good ways and then across the main channel in the dark was tiring enough that I was happy when we finally landed and Ellis pulled us out and took us home to Clarksdale.

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gars and gambling

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This morning I finally left dear David and Shawna, who have been so so wonderful to hang out with, and tearfully bid adieu to my fuzzy bedmate Fred, and started heading south out of Memphis on the east side of the river this time. At Tunica I saw signs for a riverpark, so I turned off and drove over to the river, where this multi-million-dollar facility sits right on the river’s edge. Clearly, casino revenues are allowing all sorts of things to flourish in Tunica! But before I could even get to the door of the museum, a gentleman on a golf cart rode up and offered to buy me lunch and show me around. I’m definitely beginning to understand what is meant by Southern hospitality! Craig, who was the Construction Supervisor of the park but is now its unofficial mayor, took me over to the Hollywood Cafe, a great place nearby, (mentioned in the song Walking in Memphis,) where he showed me pictures of his carpentry and woodworking, and told me many excellent stories about Tunica and environs. Then he took me back to the grounds of the park, where they have built miles of wooden bridges for walking through the bottomlands, although the water is high enough now that portions of the bridges are impassable. It’s a wonderful place, one of the few I’ve come across that makes it easy to explore the river side of the levees from the land. Other than boat launches, there isn’t much chance of that.

Here is one of Craig’s stories, just to give you an idea of how I might have spent the whole afternoon with him: he and two employees were building one of the bridges when a machine broke. Craig asked his workers to take a break and go away for a while, because it made him nervous to be watched while he was trying to fix something. They left, but after a moment he wondered if they’d snuck back and were spying on him, because he felt eyes on him. He looked up and there was a black panther, just along the other side of the bridge. I keep picturing Craig looking up in irritation, about to upbraid his employees for coming back too soon, and locking eyes with a black panther instead. I bet he was really grateful when his workers got back and the panther melted off into the woods.

The museum itself is really beautifully done; it turns out that John Barry, the author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, one of the books that inspired this journey of mine, was an adviser for the exhibits. Along with a simulated diving bell, and many cool videos and photographs, and some fine Native American artifacts, there is also an aquarium, with some river creatures even stranger and more mythological-looking than I had known existed. Alligator gar, anyone? If that doesn’t creep you out a little bit, nothing will!

Alligator Gar caught on Moon Lake
Alligator Gar caught on Moon Lake, March 1910

Al Green in Minnesota

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I didn’t want to leave Memphis without doing a pilgrimage to the Stax Museum. Mary had gone last week while I was immersed in my deadline, and had raved about it, so instead of continuing south today, David and I headed over there and spent a really fine few hours reading and listening. The Museum is very well done, both a wonderful overview and lots of tiny, offbeat tidbits. For example, did you know that Al Green was born in Forrest City, AR (yup, one of those places named after Nathan Bedford Forrest) but then moved to Grand Rapids, MN?!?! That’s right, Judy Garland’s birthplace, still on the Mississippi River, just a thousand miles north! His first recording was made in Grand Rapids, and is about trains, which makes total sense when I think of the number of trains that go through Grand Rapids to this day. Here it is, in case you’re curious:

Al Green and geophysics

I had planned to go to Al Green’s church on Sunday in Memphis before the Mormon opportunity came up, so right after the Mormon service I headed over to the other side of town to the Full Gospel Tabernacle, where Al Green has been presiding for thirty-five years. Luckily, the service started at 11:30, a deeply civilized hour for church, and it was everything you might imagine Al Green’s church would be: incredible singing, an outrageously excellent band, dancing in the aisles, powerful preaching, a warm welcome to us visitors sitting in the back pews, and that feeling, that wonderful feeling of God’s love repairing every rift, wiping every tear, that radical righting of every wrong that the black church embodies in every gesture, every utterance. When I was taking care of my mother, I listened to gospel music at full volume every single day. It’s what got me through the hardest time of my life. And while I don’t honestly know whether the Full Gospel Tabernacle would actually welcome someone like me any more than the Mormons would, the fact is that not one word that was said there on Sunday locked me out or pushed me away. I’ve been reading a book called The Theology of American Popular Music which helps me understand why I love the black church so much. I really may end up there for good one of these days, who knows?!

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A couple of months ago, a generous stranger wrote to me and told me about the research the geo-physicist Maria Beatrice Magnani is doing on the faults that lie under the Mississippi River, so I sent her an email and we met up Sunday afternoon for a really amazing and interesting coffee. I hope to have more to tell you about all this down the line, but in the meantime I just want to expostulate about how great it is to meet another river-lover, from Umbria of all excellent places!, who is a really fine scientist with the soul of an artist. How cool is that?!

Mormons in Memphis

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The last week has been a very different experience from the whole river trip so far. Last Sunday afternoon, when I paddled in to the Shelby Forest boat ramp about twenty miles above Memphis, Mary had met a couple, David and Shawna, who live in Memphis and had come up to Shelby Forest on a Sunday afternoon fall outing. It turns out that David is a real, honest-to-goodness riverboat pilot, straight from the pages of Life on the Mississippi. How’s that for a busman’s holiday: heading to the nearest boat ramp on your day off? David has been piloting towboats on the lower Mississippi (and the Orinoco, too) for something like 35 years. And he’s a literary pilot, a poet and a real reader. How cool is that?! And Shawna is a musician, she plays the cello, as well as being a nurse, and her uncle is a mandolin maker in Vermont who Mary knows, so it really felt like we had run into members of our extended family out there on the boat ramp. David had read the article about me in the New York Times, but hadn’t gotten around to emailing me — clearly, that wasn’t necessary: the river gods had already decided we should meet.

So Wednesday, after Mary left, (a million thanks, Mary, for an amazing time!) I headed over to David and Shawna’s house, and I’ve been there for almost a week! It’s the longest I’ve stayed anywhere on the trip so far, and I really needed the break, partially because I had some non-river-project work I needed to catch up on, and also because I wanted some reading time to get oriented to the southern part of the journey, and David’s library is full of exactly the books I want to read. And even though I’m staying in the same place, sleeping happily with Fred the cat every night, I must say I’ve been having some amazing adventures.

It happens that Shawna has decided to join the Mormon Church, and Saturday was her baptism. She generously invited me to come to the ceremony, so Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the appointed time, and was met at the door by a beautiful young man named Elder Bird, who was dressed all in white and barefoot. It became clear that Elder Bird was the one who would be baptizing Shawna. The service was done in a small chapel that has a pool behind sliding doors, which are opened for the actual immersion. There were some hymns, people testified in a deeply heartfelt way (there were lots of statements that began “I know…”), David read a beautiful translation of Rilke he had made, (I’ll try to post it soon), and the whole ceremony was a very compelling combination of simple, specific ritual and informal, sincere preaching.

At the reception afterwards, Elder Bird and his fellow missionary, Elder Meyers, began to explain some things about how the Mormon Church is structured: for example, there are no paid clergy, the Bishops and Presidents and so on are lay leaders, the missionaries have to raise the money to support themselves on their two-year travels. Joseph Smith and his Book of Mormon do not supplant the Old and New Testaments, but are meant to extend the Bible, perhaps not unlike Mohammed’s approach to Christianity in early Islamic faith? (How much trouble am I in now?!?) Congregations are determined by street address: you are put into a particular ward when you register. There are three services at this particular church (at 9 and 11 am and 1 pm each Sunday,) and it’s determined which one you go to based on your address, not on personal choice or any other affinities.

All this, plus the authentically warm welcome I received from every single person there, made me decide I would go back for the Sunday 9 am service with Shawna. (David is not likely to convert to Mormonism any time soon.) It was fascinating. I really think that Mormonism might be the most quintessentially (white) American religion I have come across. The lay leadership, the multiple testimonies, with their curious echoes of Quaker and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are part of it. The fact that happiness is central to the religion is another striking thing. Happiness?! Straight out of the Declaration of Independence, but hardly mentioned in any church I’ve ever gone to. (I just checked. The word “happiness” does not appear in the NRSV of the New Testament at all. The word “happy” appears precisely once in the NT, to describe how the tax-collector Zacchaeus felt when Jesus consented to visit him.) And check this out: I would swear the bread of the eucharist was Pepperidge Farm white bread and the wine is of course water, since Mormons don’t drink alcohol.

The other striking thing is that family is elevated to being right up there with God. There is the Holy Trinity of God, Jesus, Holy Spirit. And then there’s the other Trinity of God, spouse, and children. It’s powerful, people. And all the church groups are gender-based from childhood. Powerful.

I understand in a new way how gayness really messes everything up for these folks. Not so much because of sex, but because it disrupts the clarity of gender roles. Would you put both women of the lesbian couple into the women’s group, or send one to the men’s group? How would any of this get decided without breaking the whole neat and tidy structure? So, yes, you just have to reject gay people because the structure rests on a very clearly delineated set of assumptions which cannot easily be altered.

And I’ll tell you, I sat there in church feeling very strange and terribly lonely. There’s something very excellent about having this whole edifice to reinforce intact families and spousal love, aligning the messy strange difficulties of human love with the eternal love of God. It’s really a great idea to have this whole network of traditions and people to help you make sense of intimacy with your God, and with your beloved, and with your children. And there’s no way on earth I could ever participate in any of this. And my heart goes out to my gay ex-Mormon friends: I begin to get a glimpse of how awful it must be to be forced out of this clean, well-lighted place, away from these otherwise completely generous and lovely people, and into a world where each of us has to figure it out on our own.

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from the trenches

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Mary started paddling today from Fort Defiance so that she could have her own experience of the confluence, and had planned to do thirty miles, but the headwind was very strong, and it took her five hours to make it to Columbus, only fifteen miles downriver. I had gone down on the Missouri side to wait for her, and I was really relieved when she texted me: it’s the first time in all these months of traveling that I was really worried about the whereabouts and safety of my traveling partner. Rather than driving back up to the bridge at Cairo and down the Kentucky side, Google very kindly told me to take the ferry at Hickman, and routed me north to Columbus over really beautiful back roads.

After I gratefully retrieved Mary, we decided to stop into the diner in town for lunch/dinner and were reading the chapter about Columbus in Life on the Mississippi when Jim Kerr came in to check out the folks with Vermont plates and the red kayak on the roof. What a delight this man is: the last of a family who settled here in the 1810s, he is a self-described radical who spearheaded a successful effort to keep a giant garbage dump from being located here, has worked towboats and dredges on the river, hauled racehorses on land, worked in real-estate and insurance, and has a soybean farm in the bottomlands. He drove us over to a beautiful crumbling house with an incredible view of the river that he rightly thinks would make an excellent artist’s colony; and then showed us to the state park, which has an equally gorgeous view. It also has trenches that were built by confederate soldiers during the war; our hammocks are hung from trees that line the trenches. I imagine I will dream tonight of honorable boys dying valiantly for the wrong side.

another confluence

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Because I wanted to go to church this morning, Mary decided to paddle the first part of the day, so I helped put her in at the tiny town of Commerce, well-named, since an unpleasant guy there actually charged us ten bucks to put in at his decrepit ramp, which I had to clear of logs and trash before we could use it. I decided to forego church in Commerce, and drove west to Charleston, MO, and ended up at the First Baptist Church. I was a bit worried what I would hear, after my experience of Baptist church in Fort Madison, but I really liked the service. There was a strong chorus, accompanied by both piano and organ, and the conductor was skilled, and she would have us sing the final verses of the hymns without accompaniment, a fine way to experience the coherence of the gathered congregation.

The sermon was good, nothing about beating children or the fires of hell, but an exhortation to give of the gifts we have been given, not just the offerings required by law, but freewill offerings from the heart. And he spoke vividly of time and talent, as well as treasure: it was not all about money, for sure. The sermon was all the more effective because he got quieter at the climaxes, drawing us in to follow his argument. Not unlike the a cappella final verses of the hymns.

I was repeatedly and warmly invited to stay for dinner (no coffee and donuts here, it’s a whole meal!), but I had to leave right after the service to drive way out on farm roads to the boat launch where I took over paddling from Mary. The last bit of road was too muddy and pitted to drive, so I left the car and hiked about a half mile to the ramp. Beautiful place, really remote: it’s at the beginning of a ten mile meander the river takes, shaped like the Greek letter omega, almost doubling back on itself before continuing down to the confluence with the Ohio. When Huck and Jim traveled this stretch it undoubtedly looked very much as it does now.

It’s becoming a Sunday afternoon tradition to hit a big confluence! I took a back slough at mile 5 (the river mile numbers start again at Cairo), and came out on the right side of the ”long tongue“ below Cairo Mark Twain describes, and there’s actually a point, the tip of the tongue if you will, where the Ohio and the Mississippi come together. It was a bit intense getting across the confluence and down a couple of miles on the left where I had told Mary I wanted to get out. The swells were big enough that the kayak disappeared in the bottoms of the troughs, and down in them I couldn’t see land at all. The ramp was obscured between some dry docks, so I almost missed it, and had to paddle hard to get in. No boils or breakers this time, just fierce big water. I take it very seriously.

We drove back in to Cairo and picked up a bottle of wine to celebrate the official completion of the upper river. 1325 miles. I am very moved to be here in the heart of the heart of the country. But it is heartbreaking to see the state of decay Cairo is in: practically a ghost town except for some pretty awful barracks-like projects on the outskirts. The liquor store was virtually the only functioning place in the whole town. We camped completely alone at Fort Defiance, which felt a bit risky, but somehow necessary, and were rewarded by a clear night with a million stars. I kept Uncle Bob’s very sharp knife in the hammock with me, more as a totem than as an actual weapon, and slept without fear.

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flow in flux

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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.

St. Louis bits and pieces

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Monday morning, after a stop at REI (the Minneapolis REI had been full of depressive unhelpful staff, but the folks at the St. Louis REI were great: they taught us a new knot and some handy tarp tips so that we can avoid hammock baths in the future) we headed back to North Riverfront Park to put in for a quick paddle down to the arch. Two fisherman showed up to marvel (“like Tom Sawyer,” Kermit said) and generously helped us get the kayak through the mud and into the river. I have now gotten in and out of the river more times at North Riverfront Park than any other launch on this river, and I have to say it is by far the worst-maintained I have used on the entire trip. I have never been to this park when there weren’t many people here, fishing, hanging out, whatever, and I find it completely obscene that a major city can’t manage to pave the road to be driveable, keep the boat launch functional (it’s technically closed because no-one but canoes or kayaks could actually manage to put in here), and supply minimal services like portapotties, etc. to the people who use this park. Does the city really feel that poor people don’t need even minimal maintenance on the parks in their neighborhoods — only the rich need fresh air, fishing and boat access, and views of the river?!? It’s really outrageous. Someone could organize a Habitat- or CCC-like park construction project here and do a great service both for and with the people of this neighborhood.

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Paddling down to the arch was fun! Instead of four mph, I’m averaging about six, so everything’s just a bit snappier, and you definitely want to plan in advance for where you’re getting out so you don’t overshoot the ramp. I got out right at the base of the arch, right past the Eads Bridge — two engineering marvels of two different centuries are cheek by jowl — and a little boy was putting two turtles (given by a pet shop that can’t sell them anymore) into the river. We had a fine conversation about boats and turtles and rivers, definitely subjects of shared interest between us.

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On Tuesday morning, Mary and I got up really early in order to be at Cahokia for the dawn. The cloudy day made the dawn pretty diffuse, so I didn’t experience the solar/astrological significance very viscerally, but it was really wonderful to wander around the mounds listening to the ghosts of the city of 20,000 that flourished here around the first millennium. The structure of the main mound was strangely reminiscent of the Asclepeion of Kos I visited with Despina not long ago, a series of squared-off mounds which create a sense of drama as you climb up to each successive terrace.

The interpretive center at Cahokia is very well-done, and full of school kids on field trips (overheard: “Okay, we’re done with the list of questions, now we can really look around”), which was quite a contrast to the park we had had to ourselves for hours, so we headed back to the arch, where I had planned to get on the bike and head downriver. But when we got there, we discovered that you can actually go up in the arch, something Mary and I had somehow never understood, so we rode these odd and fun 60s-era pods to the top of the arch and down, and we watched the giant-screen movie about Louis and Clark, and explored the really beautifully-done museum (whoever curated the quotations and the historical context: bravo! I expect great pictures and visuals, but I could hardly stop myself from reading every printed word in the whole place…)

By then it was clear I wasn’t going to do a bike ride, so we headed back to my cousins in Clayton, stopping at the wacked out Cathedral of St. Louis, which really is as gaudy a church as I’ve ever seen in America, and I was particularly happy to see Ezekiel in the dome overwhelmed by the heavy hand of God, and the fishes and pelicans in the narthex. In front, there’s a sign designating this cathedral as a Minor Basilica: I thought a cathedral was a cathedral, but apparently there’s a hierarchy there, too; and if you come on particular days, you get a plenary indulgence just for walking in the door. I don’t really know what a plenary indulgence is, exactly, but I think I want one!

confluence

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.