[...] “Or you could drift down the Mississippi River like Tom Sawyer” said the lady who possibly makes the best sweet tea on earth, reorienting the conversation to avoid giving her tea recipe.
Travels, as i see them, necessarily involve some drifting. I try to seize opportunities, to accept propositions and welcome new experiences...
Now, realistically, the Mm’s intervention wasn't a proposition and i definitely should've understood it as the joke it was meant to be but, it was too late, the idea was sown.
That was in Oswego NY. She was hosting a couch surfer/touring cyclist and invited me over for dinner. Just before i asked for her tea's secret, we were discussing different bike routes to go south from Chicago.
From then on, the seed grew. It grew until there was little room left for other options; i had to paddle down the river. I looked on craigslist for a well-priced canoe, one i could sell for the same amount at the end of the trip. But also, one that was close to the river, as i would probably have to portage it to the shore. I found a bunch of them in Peoria and Pekin IL -Where i finally set in, two months after the tea party.
For the little planning i actually did, i mostly used http://bucktrack.blogspot.com/
(and their other pdf)
I know i'm not suppose to story tell this praxy... i'll do it anyway as i think you'll find some entertainment to it.
Day 1, i set in Oct. 8th… or 9th, in Pekin IL, 153 nmi from the Mississippi river, waving good bye to my sponsor and his two friends who brought me ~20 homemade oatmeal cookies! – Which were all gone by noon; i prefer to travel unburdened.
I owe a lot to those strangers i met and who helped me on the road. It allows me to dream for a better world too.
Day 3, i’m buying 1kg of fig cookies and i have a funny accent. The clerk couldn’t help asking “what kind of trip you’re on?” and warned: “Better watch for the coming storms.”
Note to myself: Ask for the weather forecast whenever possible. (I don’t have any radio or phone)
Day 4, a sailor, anchored in a creek, says the storms might come earlier than expected. A sailor with a white beard, i have to trust him. I’ll stay on the lookout for some shelter; hunter’s cache, abandoned towboat feeder or cargo... Or even better, a house!
(zoom in the satellite view, you'll see it)...a blighted house with no stairs; i have to climb up the wobbly stair ramp. Since i don’t know my landlord’s #, i’ll keep my complaints to myself[…] The first drops are falling as i carry in my bags, just in time to match the Capt.’s predictions.
Day 5, in the house, under the rain. “Striving to stop desiring is vain. Acceptance and desire relate to two different realms: the former to what came to pass, the latter to what is to come. Rather, one has to choose desires that don’t contradict each other.” The rain drops’ music bring me back from my thoughts; i’ll get out and shower while i have clean water available.
Day 7, i wake up on a couch. So much luxury! Indeed, under this sheath
are a couch, a picnic table and empty bottles filling the garbage can. It deserved its own couchsurfing profile
i’m napping, under the midday sun; I hear a power boat coming. Why should i care? I’m not going to stand up and look-out, their waves aren’t that big after all […] Man, this one is loud […] Ah! He finally passed by, i’ll soon be peaceful again […] mmm, small waves rocking me […]
-“!&!ØÅ^#»!§%¤#/&%#” (French swearing)
-“This !#%Ø/#!§ boat!”
I was on the side of the river: waves build up in shallow water, remember? And i was in the bush: the boat probably never saw me hence, didn’t slow down. The first wave half sank my helpless raft; the next ones had free access. I’ll go spend the rest of my day drying beside a bonfire before it gets too cold.
Day 8, this food mart
certainly wins the small boat friendliness award. It’s the only grocery store i could spot from the river… and it had a concrete docking nearby.
Day 9, the sky is storming. Maybe i would’ve taken my vessel out of the water earlier if i knew that was coming. Now, big willow branches are falling around me and the rain is pouring as i hang my tarp to cover.
Note to myself: Do ask for the weather forecasts whenever possible.
Day 1Ø, Meeting of the Great Rivers. I stand on the tip of the last outpost
from where i can look with anticipation at the Mississip’. A strong North-West wind is blowing today, waves and currents are clashing, eddying, adding to each other to form a mile-wide turmoil. I see towboats with their barges, as usual, and some speed boats fooling around too. I’ve heard about the Muddy being dangerous and i wonder: were those people scared for good reasons? I could camp here or cross to Grafton and wait for the flow to settle.
In Grafton, the owner of a hotel let me use his computer. A message to my brother lets him know i’m alive. (he’s the only one who knows, apart from the folks i met on my way… i thought my mom would flip out so i told her i was talking some time off to go camping… which is true…) Sitting in the hotel lobby, i’m missing the strongest tail wind given to me so far. –most of the time, when i was on the Illinois River, the dominant west wind could push me upstream against the painfully weak current.- I am not going to miss that chance.
I hop in my canoe and start paddling strait toward the middle. -I might as well do it head on.- She hears me, takes me in her mighty arms for a dance; my fitful, terrifying partner. White horses and sprays, waves from underneath, invigorating squall, i’m midway in and my back and elbows hurt. I can’t stop paddling, not even 3 seconds to scoop some water out, without having my craft turned 90o and thus letting the crest board me. As i lose control, i feel i’m part of her immensity, it gives me shivers of some masochistic excitement; i’m scared for my life, i want to live.
This is how i want to live.
Day 12, the North wind is still blowing, waves are still big enough to surf on for a few seconds. I’m approaching the locks
. The normal and most effective way to proceed for those is to call the number on the dam... with a phone. I hug the East shore and work my way to where i was hoping to find some boat ramp for me to portage to the other side
. No boat ramp, nobody, no nothing but a little sign that says: “Small crafts must pull the rope at the end of the long wall
.” Sigh. There might has been a smaller sign saying:”ha!ha! Try paddling against the current and wind. Try grabbing the ladder to get to the rope while the waves fill your puny canoe and bang it against the wall. ha!ha!” I did exactly what the sign told me to and was locked through. Man! This thing is humongous and it squeals like a hundred harpies.
Day 14, in Chester, a man gives me an hour long historical lecture about how the village used to be by the river, but moved up the hill after several floods, and about how the building in front of me, owned by his family for generations, is one of the only remnants of the old Chester. The river has its own will; it moves. Some build walls to try to keep it at bay, some have to move.
Day 18, 4AM, i wake up to a moored boat staring his ten-thousands lumens lamps at me and my camp on the beach. Why! Can’t i have some privacy?
Day 19, 1AM !!! winding gust rips my tarp. The sky, no star. The air is damp. Sand in my eyes. Can’t leave them open. That wind! Must pull everything away. The woods… too far. I curl into a ball, flip my canoe and use it as a shelter. I’ll wake up later burrowed in the sand. There’ll be some in my ears too.
Note to myself: Listen to me when i say: ask for the forecasts.
So far, i’ve been navigating with a free Illinois state map (my pdf and electronic navigational charts? Well, i wish i didn’t forget my laptop’s charger in Chicago.) and Cairo is now out of sight. -meaning i’m out of my map.- That leads me to this Ingram dock
to ask for the closest town downstream for supplies. The dock manager frowns and starts: “You can’t be here! Where’s your boat? How did you get here? …What!? … Get in here i’ll give you water, sausage sandwiches and a flashlight with spare batteries.” Thank you for the sandwiches.
Day 21, i bummed 30 nmi yesterday, not a drop of sweat. Most likely, i’ll be drifting a lot more and paddling a lot less.
Day 22, the river takes away a few more grains of sand under the patient house
8PM, Memphis. Mud Island’s marina
is free for motor less boat. You can use their showers, fill your bottles with water and your cooler with ice. You can stay for two weeks if you want to and good Jim’ll be there to take care of you. Thanks Jim.
Day 26, leaving Memphis, i wish i was Black and singing the blues.
Day 28, the sky is unreal; moving mountains on a film roll.
Day 31, true to my resolution to drift more, i now wash my underwear in the canoe. And cook, eat, exercise and pee…
And i start paying more attention to the mile marker on the riverside.
585.2 nmi to the gulf.
Five towboats and about a hundred colored barges: looks like a European floating village from afar.
Day 32, “what the hell you’re doin’, goin’ down tha Mississippi in a damn canoe?”, shouts a friendly worker from his moored barge. I know, right? I might as well go roller skating on the interstate highway.
Two hundreds white pelicans.
Day 34, carrots and white bread diet today. I paddle 12h against the wind so i can reach Vicksburg tomorrow with its nice public docks… And food.
Day 35 or how i survived my own stupidity. For some reason, i thought tonight would be a good night for a ride under the stars. But, damn, it got so cold. I had to laydown in the fetal position for a sec… and close my eyes to rest them… Now, i’m waking up on the other side of the river twenty-feet away from death that just strolled by. My small float rocking in her wake; me hearing the fainting sound of her powerful engine. Thank god! or chaos. or statistics, the odds were in my favor after all…
How many river miles went unnoticed, away in thoughts?
Day 39, i went to sleep yesterday hearing a loud bip! every 10 seconds. I wondered what kind of dream it was going to inspire me. In short: post-apocalyptic Chinese invasion of Vietnam through the eyes of an eight years old child.
Day 42, counting: I estimated thirty to fifty-one paddle strokes/minute, eleven hours/day on the water, six of them paddling and forty days total to lake Pontchartrain. Total number of strokes = anywhere between half and three quarter of a million (i like to hear million and paddle stroke in the same sentence).
“Tomorrow, ain’t doin’ nothing’ but frying fish and watching the game”. –quote from Ron “call me Pops” and Ronald “call me Ron” who gave me a goo fish they caught off of Baton Rouge, some ice to keep it too. Thanks Rons.
Day 45, after three crazy days, three nine-hours-at-fifty-five-strokes-per-minutes days, i arrived too late to check in at the New Orleans’ marina. Those last three days weren’t particularly pleasant. First, the smell is corrosive: a mix of refineries, chicken feed processing and construction dust. Ensuite, the river gets ~tenfold deeper, meaning ~tenfold slower. Finally, there are boats everywhere, at all time, day and night. Some are fast and some make challenging waves for a fifteen footer.
I’m glad i arrived, glad i arrived late too because now, i meet Jack, Bro, Denise, Kevin and their friends who live on their boats in the marina. They’ll have me for dinner, we’ll eat all day tomorrow for Thanksgiving and i can leave my canoe, free of charge, on Pearl’s deck
until i find someone to buy it.
I try to set aside my own volition, to listen and feel. I try to free myself from myself. Keep drifting… if i ever did… Randomness seems out of reach. I can only look at it, cannot take part of it. Rather, it takes a part of me. It is there in the moment i feel most in control, it is there when i don’t know about it. Actually, it is there unless i try to reach for it. It’s an antithesis to choose randomness. It is what deviates my action from my will. Every moment that i soften my determination, every moment that i breathe in and look out, i make some room for a dérive. Just how far do i want to go? The only time i completely let go, i was sleeping, curled in my canoe, i risked dying and i don’t have any souvenir of that part.
I don't know what'll happen next but, i just accepted an invitation to go on a road trip to KeyWest with three Sweds i met at the hostel…
But that’s another story.