Three weeks and two days ago, Greg took off on a plane back to North Cackalacky. Since then, I’ve been learning how to be alone. Yes. It’s a learning process – day to day. Here is what I’ve learned so far:
Step One: Stop feeling lonely.
On July 15, I pushed off from Isle of Capri Casino in Bettendorf feeling all sorts of low. This journey is sublime, but facing it alone can make a woman feel so small. I’d never felt this small before. It was numbing, but I tried to glean on a semblance of “alright” by rowing away with a stoic and fierce look on my face, like I was paddling into the unknown with the swagger of Clint Eastwood. As soon as I was out of anyone’s sights, I crumbled. I cried. I sobbed. There was no one there to be brave for. I paddled over to a park and gained my composure. I had an errand to run in Davenport and there was no sense in walking to the post office in tears. It was in this park that I met two women named Nichole and Melinda, my strong-mama-angels who gave me the gift of shade. While I was walking to the post office, they watched my boat and when I got back, they surprised me with an awesome and much needed gift: a baseball cap. As I was on the verge of tears, they brightened my world. I’m not sure if either of them were mothers, but the amount of nurturing that they gave me in a matter of minutes meant the world to me. They gave me the gift of shade and the empowerment to keep on paddling.
I took off strong, but as soon as I was out of the city, the emptiness set in. Who was I going to talk to? Who was going to set up the tent with me? What in the hell am I doing out here? I broke down in tears under the railroad bridge. From the shore came a shout – the usual “How far ya going?” I turned to see a burly man with a flaming-red beard. “The Gulf,” I shouted, trying hard to not sound like I was crying. “Right on,” yelled the burly bearded man. That’s odd, I thought to myself. The usual response is “of Mexico?!” Intrigued, I paddle over. Here I met Jacob. Jacob is in his late twenties or early forties – it’s hard to tell with the beard. He’s backpacked across Europe, rode a Motorcycle across the US, and studied with tribal elders learning traditional ways of living. Jacob is what I would call a “Jack of all that is alternative.” In his presence, I immediately felt centered. Grounded. Kindred. Jacob has spent the last twelve years on his dream: an eco-friendly paddle boat that will someday be his home and art studio. The thing is a real tank – a beautiful, offbeat tank. It’s solar and hydro-powered, paddle-wheel driven, and floating on 50 gallon barrels filled with empty 2-liter bottles. The man is a genius. Spending twenty minutes with Jacob reminded me how important my dreams are and how dedicating 4 months to them was a pittance when compared to his twelve years. I ended up trading two camp stove propane cylinders for his wisdom, and little did I know, this was only the beginning of his kindness.
Jacob’s aunt and uncle are hosts at anof Engineer’s campground eleven miles downstream of where I met him. He told me to stop on by and visit them. Without expectation and out of curiosity, I stopped by when I passed it. Here I met Netta and Earl Scott. Netta and Earl met many years ago when Earl was a truck driver going across America. Netta worked in a little diner rest stop as a waitress. Every time Earl would pass through, he would stop there and watch her as she walked around filling up coffee cups and taking orders. One day, around Christmas, he worked up the gall to walk up to her at the cash register, pointed up at the mistletoe above them, and asked “do you think this stuff works?” Netta leaned right over the register and kissed him. Netta was known for being a brazen woman. Once, one of the drivers was having breakfast and joking around with his buddies. He had a foul mouth and wouldn’t temper it in the crowded diner. Netta walked right up to him and told him to watch his mouth – there were families and children eating breakfast. He kept right on cussing. Netta walked back up to him, looked him in the eye, and dumped a whole pot of hot coffee onto his jeans. The man stood up, dried himself off, and sat back down to finish his breakfast, silent as the grave. Netta is a strong woman.
Jacob had called ahead and told them that I was stopping by. After talking with them for an hour, Netta and Earl offered me a place to camp for free. I spent the evening talking with them and their granddaughter Jenna, and learning all about their lives. Jenna even took me to town in the morning to run errands – letting this dirty river rat into her brand new car. I felt very much at home. Thank you, Jacob, for sharing your family with me. It was here that I stopped feeling lonely.
Step Two: Don’t take yourself too seriously.
On July 16, the first thing I did was forget my sunglasses in Jenna’s car. Sans shades, I felt like Samson after all his thick curls were cut off in his sleep. The sun was just poking out from above the trees and I could tell that the day would be blazing. After about two hours of paddling, the hard sun was beating down on me like a vengeful god. It was time to break out the shade tent. Now before I left, my mother pleaded with me to get a bimini canopy made. Being the headstrong lunatic I am, I figured that I could rig one up out of a tarp or something. I had picked up a half price shade tent from a sporting goods store a week before and had it in my mind that it would fit perfectly. The dimensions were 6×9, which would have been perfect, had I not transposed the numbers. It fit perfectly – the wrong way. I decided to make the best of the situation, pull over, and put the damn thing up anyways. I found a beautiful sandy beach to land on. Without a care, I leapt off the front of the raft and landed up to my thighs in mud. Under that thin layer of sand was an entire beach of thick, nasty, smelly mud – not the fulfilling kind of mud that oozes between your toes as a kid, but the mud that crime investigators find bodies in on television. I tried to pull myself out, but there was no moving. Every step got me deeper and deeper, until I was literally up to my waist in muck. The situation went from comical to dire in a matter of moments. My mind flashed to that scene in the Princess Bride where Buttercup sinks into the quicksand in the Fire Swamp. This was no bueno. I reached out for the frame of the raft. Luckily, my leaping skills are sub-par, leaving me close enough to grab the frame and pull myself out of the muck, Chaco shoes and all.
Caked in mud, I paddled away. I thought that I’d have better luck setting up the tent while floating. I was wrong. As soon as I took it out of the package, the wind caught it, and me, sending us both into the murky water. This was not my first time falling out of the boat. A week earlier, in the cold and rain, I had attempted to squat and pee off one of the pontoons. Between the pouring rain and maneuvering the multiple layers of pants I was wearing, I ended up slipping off in mid-pee with my pants down around my ankles. Had I not been wearing my PFD, I might have nearly drowned before Greg could shake off the laughter and paddle over to me. I may have left my dignity in the river the week before, but I still had my sense. I let go of the fast sinking shade tent and swam back to the raft. I managed to fish it out downstream as it rose and fell from the depths in the current. After drying it out and spending an upwards of an hour jerry-rigging it on with duck-tape, I realized I couldn’t paddle with it over me. I took it down. Having wasted most of my energy, I decided to find a beach where I could take a quick nap. After spotting some sand above the dam, I paddled over, jumped off, and found myself in mud up to my waist again. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Step Three: Meet strangers. Most of them aren’t that strange.
Making the most of the fading daylight, I put in enough miles to make it to the tiny city of Muscatine, Iowa. Muscatine is famous for it’s pearl button factory and will forever be ingrained in my mind as the home of hospitality. Waiting for me on the bank was a woman named Paulette. Seeing me from afar on her bicycle, Paulette came over to invite me to her house – before she had even known my name. I was touched. I spent the evening exploring Muscatine with her: eating pizza with her cyclist club, drinking beer in a building where Mark Twain used to work, and seeing the lights of the Muscatine bridge. We even met a man who gave me the keys to his summer cabin in New Boston so I could have a roof over my head the next night. Muscatine is truly the home of hospitality. Thank you, Paulette and Brett (her husband) for sharing your home, farm, kindness, and homemade ice cream.
On July 17, I paddled hard. For the first time on this journey, I had a place to be, an appointment to keep. New Boston was 17 miles away, not to mention the cabin I was offered was and extra 2 miles up into a bay, and I was starting off around noon. There was very little time for sun shades or lollygagging. By the time the sun was low in the sky, I was just barely seeing the grain elevators of New Boston on the horizon. It was a race against the daylight, and I was obviously losing. Where was I going to camp if I couldn’t make it? What if I made it half way up the bay and couldn’t find a beach? What if I couldn’t tell what cabin it was in the dark? As I approached the town, there was someone waving me in from the public access. Gary, the man who owned the cabin, was waiting for me on the shore. He had been afraid that I’d be stuck out in the dark and decided to ask the city if I could park my boat at the access instead. He offered me a ride to his cabin. I was very hesitant. A woman traveling alone should not get in the car with a stranger, especially a stranger crazy enough to fork over the keys to an empty cabin to a hippie-drifter like myself. I looked to the car and back to my raft, and to the car once again. This was either the beginning of a horror flick or a chance at making a friend. Against my better judgement, I decided to go with Gary, clutching my can of bear-mace like a teddy bear.
It turned out that Gary was not only a nice guy, but had an amazing story as well. After I ate a hearty dinner, watched the sunset from the beach, took a much needed shower, and spent a night in this awesome empty cabin, I met Gary for breakfast the next day and interviewed him. He taught me all about the power of “choice” and how following your dreams is pivotal for a healthy existence. Thank you Gary for showing me the merit in trust and for treating me like a granddaughter.
Step Four: Some strangers will be strange. Just roll with it.
On July 18, I took off from New Boston ready to put in some serious miles. When I hit Keithsburg about 9 miles downstream, I passed under an old railroad drawbridge. The closer I got to it, the odder it looked. When I floated under it, I saw that the mechanism that held it up was a twisted mess of metal reaching to the sky like warped steel snakes. It was magnificent. I had to climb it. Something deep down inside told me I needed to. Paddling back upstream was not an option and walking back up the shore would be more treacherous than it was worth. I pulled into Keithsburg intent on finding someone willing to tow me upriver 200 yards for ten dollars. A man in a jon boat gave me the low down on the mess of metal. Apparently the bridge had been out of commission since July 4th, 1988, when a group of teenagers were partying on the sandbar near the bridge. Some boys climbed up the trestles to the little control room that operated the drawbridge mechanism and shot off fireworks inside. As one could imagine, explosives in such a small space caused large damage. The counterweight crashed down and the metal twisted into a sublimely beautiful mess.
The man with the jon boat, along with his wife and adorable toddler son, the famous Catfish Jackson, towed me up to the bridge without asking for a thing. I tied off and began my trek through the woods to find the railroad tracks that would lead me to the structure. The high water of the summer floods had just receded, leaving the lowland forest bare and muddy. All of the undergrowth had been washed away, leaving only the gigantic trees rising out of the slate-grey muck. It felt entirely deserted. Every now and again, I’d pass a pile of drift trash that had marked the high water line every time the water receded significantly. Cobalt blue 50 gallon barrels. Sheets of plastic for painting houses. Skeletons of deer and fish. Tractor tires. The kinds of things that had been forgotten and swept off. The whole scene had a kind of post-apocalyptic feel, as though I were the last person alive among these relics, these proofs of existence. I didn’t end up climbing anything. The thin forest became too much of a swamp to pass through. The stagnant water that stood between me and my metal mess was well over my head and held the kind of snakes that I didn’t want to meet. With a new case of poison ivy from the post-apocalyptic forest and a heavy heart from not fulfilling my messy metal dreams, I paddled off into the waning light, hoping to find a dredge site to camp on downstream.
On the way, I was intercepted by two old, retired firemen and freelance fishermen. After the normal round of questions and concerns, they asked me if I wanted a catfish to cook for dinner. I was taken aback. I’ve had mother’s in pontoons make me turkey sandwiches and I’ve had over-tanned men in speed boats offer me beer, but never had anyone offered me a fish. Now, I live by the philosophy “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for life.” I’m not a man. And I already know how to fish. I took them up on the offer, but asked if they would teach me to skin it first. I’ve watched my dad scale perch since I was a kid, but catfish are a whole different shape. It couldn’t hurt to learn. One of the men took out a knife, brought me to the back of the boat, and started laying into this catfish. To my horror, the thing was still moving. He was cutting into a live fish. I’m not the faint-of-heart type, but seeing the skin being pulled off a live animal made my stomach drop. I held back tears as this man handed me a skinless, twitching fish, its eyes moving all around. I asked him if it hurt. The old man responded with a “wouldn’t it hurt if this happened to you?” I wanted to ask him the same damn question with ten times the force, but instead I smiled, shook his hand, and said “Thank you sir – I appreciate the fish.” The fish was a gift. The lesson in skinning it was a gift – but still I found myself ill at ease. These were wonderful people doing a wonderful thing for me. The two of them have saved countless lives and they even gave me a Bass Pro hat to keep the sun off my ever-red nose. Maybe I was the strange one. After they drove off, I took out my hatchet and put the poor creature out of its misery on top of my cooler, said a quick and heartfelt sorry to it, and paddled on over to the sandy beach with new conceptions of who I was.
At the dredge site, I ran into a gaggle of teenagers drinking Busch Light, knee-boarding, and listening to bad rock n’ roll in their parents’ speed boats. As usual, a string of questions ensued, but this time it was different. “You’re doing what?” asked a skinny kid with hair like Billy Idol. “Going down the Mississippi,” I say, dead-pan. “Wait. What?” He looks at me like I just told him that I’m Jesus and the moon is made of Wisconsin cheddar. “Floating down the Mississippi,” I say, the same as before. “You’re f@#$-ing weird,” says the skinny kid with Billy Idol hair. That’s when it occurs to me. I am weird. Very weird. How strange is it to run into a twenty-some young woman with a big red raft trying to float to the Gulf of Mexico? One who stops to climb on railroad bridges and thinks that even catfish have souls? A woman who camps out every night and eats cold black beans straight from the can? Not only am I a stranger, but I am also strange. Still, I am inundated in the most pure and unconditional kindness I’ve ever experienced. Thank you, teenagers, for humbling me.
Step Five: Acknowledge the situations that make you uncomfortable.
On July 19 ,the west wind was something to behold. I spent the better part of 5 hours struggling to keep myself off the bank. When I realized that I had to paddle perpendicular to the shore instead of downstream – just to keep myself from bouncing off of the rocks, I knew it was time to surrender to the forces of nature. Still, I’m a stubborn woman. I muscled out into the middle, hoping that the force of the current in the channel would bring me to the next town. The middle was even rougher, rough to the point where I felt unsafe. A couple of people in a pontoon approached me and asked me if I’d like a tow to the harbor. I may be stubborn, but I’m not beyond accepting help in a time of need. I thanked them profusely and tied a tow line.
The tow to the harbor was pleasant. The conversation was as to be expected, given the circumstance. How far are you going? What do your parents think about you doing this? Is it hard? What was different about this situation – the thing that set it apart from other interactions I had, was the man who owned the boat. When I tried to tie off my boat, he took the rope out of my hands and tied it himself. This wouldn’t have been an issue, had he known how to tie it. Whenever I went to fix his knot, he told me to sit down. At one point, he even held up his hand to hush me when I protested. I figured that I was encroaching on a space that made him wary of his performance of masculinity. After all, it was his boat. When we pulled back out into the channel, the group decision was to float on into the harbor. When we’d get too close to shore, the man would drive us back into the middle. Each time he did this, he didn’t account for my boat being close to the propeller. Each time I protested, he wouldn’t give me the time of day. I enjoyed these people’s company and kindness, so why was I feeling so reactive?
When we got to the harbor. I thanked everyone once again and went about tidying up the raft and making a new game plan. I felt a tap on my shoulder and the man was standing behind me. “Get your things. You’re coming over to our house and showering and eating and spending the night.” His voice was gruff. He was not asking. Now I strongly believe in consent and this was the first time that kindness had been forced upon me. I didn’t know what to say. I packed up my bag and told him that I’d take him up on the shower but that I’d feel more comfortable staying with my boat. He told me to get my “shit” for staying the night. Taken aback, but not wanting to offend, I got in the car with him and his wife. Along the way, he made more than one nasty comment to her, not the typical banter I’m used to, but I decided to roll with it. Who am I to question the dynamics of other’s relationships? But I still felt terribly uneasy about the whole situation. After my shower, I thanked the couple sincerely and asked to be brought back to my boat. Was told that I was staying there. I said that I was terribly uncomfortable staying this far away from it. “No one’s going to mess with your boat here. You’re staying here – now eat.” His voice was beyond stern. I became frightened. I asked again and again to please bring me back to my boat. I was met with direct orders to set my shit back down and stop asking. Nothing I said was being taken seriously. It wasn’t even being considered. I felt powerless.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I made a good decision or not. Is kindness still kindness if it is given in a way that makes you uncomfortable? Was I overreacting? Everything just felt wrong. But one thing that rivers have taught me in the years I’ve spent on them is that it’s not about making a right or wrong decision, it’s about making a decision and sticking with it. I looked to this man and said “sir, I am very uncomfortable staying in your house. I feel very unsafe in this environment. Please bring me back to my boat.” He got angry. Very angry. “If it’s about your boat getting stolen, I could buy you ten of them.” I told him that it was about his behavior. “You’re staying here.” I walked out. It was clear to me that his kindness was not about giving, but more so about having power over me. He wouldn’t stop, even as his wife was pulling out of the driveway to take me back to my boat. As his house disappeared out of my rear-view mirror, I felt a wave of relief wash over me.
Back at the harbor, I pitched my tent in the light of the almost full moon. The boathouse had speakers in the windows and the best of the 70′s was still blaring from the sunny day. No one had bothered to turn it off and after midnight, all that was on were over-played power ballads. Even lying down in a sweltering hell of bad rock music like Foreigner and Rush, I felt proud that I was able to recognize a situation that made me feel wrong inside, and do what was best for me to alleviate it. Looking back, I’m still not sure if I made the right decision, but either way “I will choose freewill.”
Step Six: Revel in your accomplishments, no matter how small.
July 20, I woke up early and elated. By 5:15 I had eaten all of my oatmeal. By 5:30, I was well on my way to the next lock. After running into some fishermen who told me I was “the talk of pool 18,” I was whistling with happiness. Not only was I feeling good, but I was feeling inspired. By 7:00, I was waiting for a barge to lock through ahead of me. I pulled onto a little forested island, explored, and even wrote a poem or two. At 9:00, the barge was all through and I was paddling with more gusto than I’ve ever had before, so much gusto that I forgot to put on my PFD (life jacket). Once around the bull nose (the beginning of the lock), I looked up to see the lockmaster waiting for me. I smiled and gave him a hearty “Good morning, sir! How are you doing today?” He furrowed his wrinkly brow. “Now you get into that lock right now, young lady. You’re holding up traffic. Git!” He pointed with conviction as his face turned red. I was in awe. Usually the lockmasters were jolly old men with big bellies and even bigger smiles. This one yelled at me. I paddled on in, without saying a word. Once inside, I grabbed hold of a rope and hoped the lockmaster wouldn’t come out again. To my surprise, he came out of his little office, sat down on the concrete, dangled his legs over the edge, and sighed. “You know, if you were my granddaughter, I would have chewed you out.” His gruff voice took an edge of tenderness. “Sir. You already chewed me out,” I said, with conviction. I wasn’t going to lie to the man. “And I’d chew you out again if you were my granddaughter. You see, there’s a barge sitting right outside of this gate and you’re not gonna have time to be lollygagging once I open this door. Now I want you to paddle into the far corner over there, and as soon as I open this door, you better paddle your butt out into that current. You hear me?” He was not fooling around – there was fear in his eyes.
I started paddling to the far gate, my hands shaking. As I waited for that big old steel door to open, my heart started pounding in my ears and my face went numb. The creak of the doors made my breath catch in my throat. I took some slow inhales and exhales as the doors parted. When they opened enough for me to peak through, to my horror, I was staring down the nose of a fully loaded coal barge. Even at fifty feet away, I could feel its undertow pulling at my raft. The doors still weren’t open enough for me to slip out. Forty-five feet away. I still can’t slip out. Forty feet away. I started paddling hard out of the gates. Thirty-five. I look to my PFD laying there at my feet. I look back at the barge and paddle harder. Thirty feet. I look to my PFD again. I say a quick prayer and paddle harder. Twenty-five feet. I can see the barge workers standing on the bow. I can see the whites of their eyes. They are yelling but I can’t hear them over my heart beating in my ears. Twenty. I look down to my PFD. I can’t make myself stop paddling and put it on. I try, but I can’t. I paddle harder. Fifeteen feet. I can feel the cold spray of the waves coming off of the bow. I put in one more good stoke and the current takes me. It pulls me fast away from the barge and further into the middle. I cry. I’m still not sure if it was out of fear or joy.
The rest of the day was just as blissful as the morning, if not better. After getting my head together outside of the lock, I felt a wave of pride. Yes. I had gotten myself into a whole heap of danger that morning. But I’m still paddling, I thought to myself. After meeting an awesome family in a pontoon boat, being given a meal and a pair of sun glasses, and paddling hard, I spent my month anniversary on the Mississippi sleeping out under the stars and the full moon on a sandbar. Thank you, Gwen, for giving me the gift of sunglasses and for telling me that you’re proud of me – both meant the world to me.
Step Seven: Really. No matter how small.
July 21, I woke up to menacing clouds. Against my better judgement, I paddled off into the grey distance. Within the hour, the sky had let loose a downpour. I put on a sweater with my rain gear and paddled onward. I was miserable – downright miserable. I pulled over on an island and angrily ate an ear of sweet corn. I needed to gnash my teeth and stew in my anger. By the time I was back on the river, the rain was beating down on me even harder. My only solace was that I was paddling faster than the corncob that I threw out into the channel. I raced that corncob for nine miles, all the way to Fort Madison. When it would scoot on by me, I’d paddle harder. If it wasn’t for that corncob, I wouldn’t have made it to the next town and wouldn’t have met Mike and Bryan, my “Knights in a Shining Jon Boat.” I met Mike and Bryan at a little dive bar called The Dock, where a family had offered to buy me a BBQ sandwich. Both are in their early thirties, drink bad beer, and listen to old county music. They told me a bit about the area, bought me a bad beer, and recommended a sandbar that I camp on near the Illinois side of the river. When the sun came back out, I paddled off into the waning light. After about 15 minutes, the light was fading fast, and I had yet to come across the sandbar. 30 minutes later, night was starting to fall. I began to worry. Then to my surprise, who do I see motoring towards me? Mike and Bryan, my “Knights in a Shining Jon Boat.” They had watched me miss the sandbar, put their trailered boat back in the water, and drove out to tow me back upriver. I am in awe of the kindness I have been shown in the past 46 days. The sandbar was a dream. It sat about two inches above the water and when I walked around it, I felt like I was walking across the great river herself.
Step Eight: Recognize when you need help.
July 22 was a foggy morning. If it hadn’t have been for the distant sounds of a barge, I would have thought myself in some sort of other world. After the ethereal cloud dissipated, I paddled off into the day. After exploring a small waterfall on the bank, meeting some fellow thru-kayakers, and a surprise trip to the Mormon temple in Nauvoo with some newlyweds, I found myself paddling against one hell of a headwind. For the first time since beginning this trip, I felt strong enough to battle them, cutting through the wind like it was a stick of butter. I was cocky, paddling into the two foot swells. Soon the two foot became three which became four. I was stuck in the middle with whitecaps bouncing me around like I was nothing. Lake Pepin taught me to respect the power of this river. You would have thought I’d learned my lesson. I paddled with all my might to shore, where I could seek some shelter from the gusts while I continued downstream. Around the corner, to my demise, was a factory with barge sites stretching over the next half a mile. For those who don’t know what a barge site is, imagine 80 semi trucks worth of floating metal as one barge. Now put four of them together and tie them to a giant concrete anchor the size of a woolly mammoth. Now multiply that by four and scatter them along the shore. Imagine three full-size tug boats moving between the factory and the docking sites, slinging these metal behemoths around like a waitress slings a tray. My boat may be larger than a kayak, but it’s still just as insignificant. I needed help. I was caught between five feet swells and a minefield of tug boats.
Well. Here goes nothing. I thought to myself as I paddled out into the tugs. At least my boat is Cadillac Red. About 200 yards in, the swells entwined with the tugboat wake, making the waves incredibly unpredictable. Every stroke felt like a crack-pot carnival ride. I was being tossed all over. I was in trouble. Just when I started really fearing for my life, a jon boat rounded the corner. I’m a stubborn woman, but I’m learning how to ask for help. This was my first step in the right direction. I stood up on my seat and waved both arms frantically, flagging down the jon boat. It cruised on over and to my surprise, it was a fisherman who I had met earlier that day. He was thoughtful enough to come and check on me when the waves started turning to whitecaps. With a smile, Terry Briggs, his wife Amy, their son Brandon, and Brandon’s partner Kelsi towed me back to their home and gave me the ever-needed gift of relaxation. Thank you, Briggs family, for the nurturing, (and sweet tea).
Step Nine: Make friends.
Since Latsch Island, in Wisconsin, I had heard of the legendary Purple Cow. Almost daily, someone would mention vaguely “you have to stop at the Purple Cow.” When I would ask why, I would be met with “Trust me. You just have to.” I knew nothing of this famous place, save for that it was in the small town of Alexandria on the Missouri side after Keokuk dam. The closer I got to the dam, the more curious I became. When it came time for the lock, I was positively giddy. The curiosity had been building up for quite some time. Only the dam stood between me and “The Cow.” Keokuk is the only hydro-electric generating dam on the Mississippi River, and it is by far the largest. Waiting for a forty-foot drop in the lock, the anticipation had me positively shaking in my PFD (which I now wear every day that I’m on the river, as well as on the dock*). When I approached the lock, the gates of Keokuk looked like they could hold back the rapture. As I paddled in, the lock workers looked at me warily, as I whistled to myself and paddled on in. You can bet that there was more than one middle-aged man watching me tie off to the sliding pin, making sure my knots were the kind that would hold. The last thing they wanted was some little girl tying off to the ladder and hanging herself as the water dropped. There have been many times when they had to take a hatchet to a line that some drunkard tied to something stationary, but I had been warned about the pins by Terry. As the water dropped – and dropped – and dropped – I couldn’t help but feel like a hamster in a giant concrete aquarium. The walls literally towered around me. I shuddered at the though of all those thousands of tons of water that those doors were holding back. As I paddled out, I made sure to thank every bolt that held those gates in place.
Right out of the gates, the current was beautifully swift. Four out of the fifty-some spillways were wide open, creating a magnificent cloud of whitewater that made my heart ache for Montana. After losing my dignity by hitting my first buoy while showing off for the Coast Guard men aboard their docked rescue ship, I figured it was about time to satiate my curiosity for this Purple Cow. I paddled hard until mile marker 359.1, the beginning of Alexandria Missouri. I drifted – and drifted – and drifted, waiting to see this bustling little river town. Where was it? All I see is mud and dead trees. Along the banks, there is nothing, not even fishermen. I round the tiniest of bends and there it is: a little tiny purple shack sitting between a handful of trailers and stilted cabins. There is no missing this little purple oasis. In dusty and muck-brown Missouri, a bright purple shack sticks out like… well, a purple cow. I pull up to the dock, put on my cowboy boots and Daisy Dukes, strap on my adventuring pack, and head on up the stairs. With a skip in my step and a smile on my face, I turn the door handle. It’s locked. Damn. Utterly dejected, I lay on the picnic table and stare up at the darkening sky.
“Honey, are you alright?” I look up to see Tina, a strong-looking woman with long brown hair and a handle of vodka. “I think I’ll be alright,” I say, still pretty disheartened. “I’ve just heard about this place for the past 500 miles and I happen to show up when it’s closed.” She smiles. “You know, your kayaking friends are all staying down at Boone’s place waiting for you. And I can let you in to see the Cow if you’d like. I am the owner.” My world brightened and I just about hugged her. It turns out, about 5 years ago, some canoeists stopped by the Purple Cow on their way to the gulf. They pulled in late at night, tired and hungry. They came in at ten and ordered french fries. The lady who was bar tending refused to make them. The grill closed at ten. Even after begging and pleading, the woman wouldn’t serve them. A couple of the locals stood up for the travelers, to no avail. Finally, after a serious brawl, Tina and her husband Travis called up the owner in the middle of the night, asked to buy the Purple Cow, wrote him a check for the place, fired all of the employees, and cooked the damn french fries themselves. To this day, once a year, Travis and Tina have a free-french-fry day, just to rub it in. They have a tradition of unconditional hospitality towards paddlers – and I’m one of them.
Boone is one of the kindest men you’ll meet. He’s the type to give you the shirt off his back and enjoy doing so. When I thanked him for letting me stay at his house, he said “ain’t did nothing.” Boone must have shot at least 100 bucks in his lifetime. “A whole pickup truck load, and then some,” he told me. He even had a chandelier made out of some of them for his new house. The kayakers I met below Fort Madison are there as well. Emily, Alex, and Ryan are paddling to their home in New Orleans. This has been Emily’s dream for years and she “wrangled” her partner Alex into it. According to Ryan, Emily had gotten him drunk and convinced him to go. She and Ryan even shook hand hands on it and took a picture of the handshake – I saw it. Emily, Alex, and Ryan all worked together at a cafe on the French Quarter. It felt indescribably good to be around people my own age and to have someone just to sit and read next to for the morning – to feel someone breathing next to me. We ended up staying four days.
The next day, Boone took us for a tour in his jon boat. We went up the Des Moines River, the border between Missouri and Iowa, and had the opportunity to swim in it. He took us up to the underside of Keokuk Dam and showed us the high water marks back from the 1800′s. The underside of that dam is beautiful. The shear strength of the water churning at the bottom of those open spillways is enough to make a woman feel small. The hydraulic that it creates is the largest I’ve ever seen, a hole so strong that it could suck you into it’s depths for all of time. The standing wave train after it had waves the size of a two story house. That was just four spillways out of fifty-some. This river is a strong and brazen woman. I look up to her and fear her at the same time.
We spent the next two days in the throws of the Purple Cow. Fish-Fry. Tenderloin. Good folks. Good friends. Jukebox. Free pool. Skinny-dippin’. Beer drinkin’. We probably went through 4 cases of PBR. The mayor even gave us powdered eggs for the journey. The Purple Cow is a country song; it lived up to its reputation, and then some. I almost stayed on as a bartender. There’s an oasis in the dusty, muck-brown banks of Missouri. Don’t believe me? Come and see.
We spent our last night at Earl’s Party, a little cabin on Fox Island, just south of Alexandria. A cozy little bunkhouse with a pot-bellied wood stove and a welcoming feel – It is a communal space for the public to buck hunt and share with thru-paddlers on their way to the Gulf. Once you get used to the seven sets of buck skinning hooks that hang from the trees like a horror flick, the place feels like home. Big Earl, the man who used to own the cabin, was quite the character. Once, he and Boone were headed somewhere fishing. On the highway, one of the trailer tires blew out and they were stranded. They tried to wave cars down, but everyone just flew on past. Earl smiled, went over to the edge of the road, laid his 300-some pound self down on the blacktop, and closed his eyes. Within a minute, about six cars pulled over at the sight of him laying there. I can only imagine the belly laugh that gave Boone. The last thing Boone said to me was, “We all eat the same and we all shit the same. And don’t you forget it.”
Step Ten: Keep them.
The next morning, we went our separate ways. I have to admit, I could feel the emptiness set in a bit as I paddled out into the channel by myself. As I approached the next lock and dam, I went up to the wall to pull the cord that alerts the lockmaster, and what do I see? “Hello Hannah! Missi-trippin’ team” written in chalk on the concrete. Thank you, Emily, Alex, and Ryan, for teaching me that you are as alone as you choose to be.