As we’ve all learned – from our first loves to last goodbyes, from independent films to great literature – endings don’t always turn out the way we want them to. When I first conceived of paddling down the Mississippi – when this trip was just kindling, not yet the wildfire it became – I honestly couldn’t picture its ending. I knew, eventually, that it must end, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, imagine how. Still, I didn’t believe this journey could come to an end by getting wind-bound for three days at the same beach in the Port of New Orleans, watching even the ocean-going vessels struggle against the 40 mph gusts. Never, in my wildest dreams, would I have thought I’d have to call a friend-of-a-friend’s acquaintance with a pickup truck to come haul two dirty hippies and 500 lbs of equipment into a dangerous city after dark. Wicked windstorms blowing me upriver. Pus draining from both ears. Getting sucked half-way under a moving barge. Chewing sugar cane to ward off exhaustion. Accumulating dreadlocks that wouldn’t comb out. Dragging a raft half a mile and up a levee. Ripped tents. Homeless junkies. Stolen gear. River rash. I’ve got to be honest, folks, there was nothing sacred about the way this journey ended for me.
If I had it my way, I would have paddled down past Venice, into the wild emptiness of the Gulf, to the Head of Passes. The shore would look like the set of Beasts of the Southern Wild. The sun would be low on the horizon, making everything glow gold. I’d paddled in slow motion, feeling strong and confident, as though each stroke were an old friend. As I land at Pilot City – it’s not actually a city, you know, it’s a dock – a flock of gulls would scatter and fly, white flecks peppering the sky. I’d tie-off, one last time, and wade through that familiar mud, to solid ground. I’d look over my raft, that muddy but trusted catamaran, that took me all these miles. I’d close my eyes as the hard sun wanes and feel a swell of pride warm me from within: Look how far you have come.
It did end, but not at all like I had dreamed. On November 7th, as the last dregs of sunlight dipped below the industrial smoke stacks, my lover Nickolas and I loaded my gear into the back of a 1998 Toyota Tacoma owned by a Mr. David Young in West Wingo, LA and drove through the shiny streets of New Orleans to a friend’s house in the By-water. Three days, two showers, and a case of PBR later, my folks came with a U-Haul to take their baby back from her wild adventure to the safe and warm clutches of home, where I’ve been hiding out ever since. I slept for about a week straight, cut out my dreads, packed all my gear into the loft of my barn, and started to reflect on the 141 days I spent on the Mississippi River. Now and then, I’ll jump in my station wagon and drive to my father’s house in Michigan or a friend’s farm out East, just to feel what it’s like to be constantly moving again. I still pee outside and drink my water warm. I find it silly to shower every day and hard to wear shoes outside. To be honest, there are nights when I sleep on the floor of my room because my nice mattress makes my hips hurt. There’s nothing like sleeping outside on the ground to bring you closer to yourself. I feel like I’m in this weird traveler’s purgatory, a middle-ground between ending an adventure and beginning a new one.
In this middle ground, I’ve neglected to keep You, my noble follower, up to date on this journey. After 141 days and 1,700 miles worth of breath-taking beauty and intense isolation, I needed to distance myself from the river so that I could both reflect and heal. Like blistered skin, I was rubbed raw by this journey. Today, I am healed. So here is a much-needed and wholehearted apology to all of you who have been reading, listening, following, and helping in this adventure that I’m still living. I am sorry if I’ve let you down. And to all those I’ve met along the way – thank you for your kindness and love. You will all be recognized. I promise.
As I write this book, edit this documentary, and find closure in this journey along the Mississippi over the next few months, I’m going to keep you all in the loop. I’m planning to continue to write out glimpses of this journey on this blog – maybe even some chapters from my book as it all comes together. I’m also going to start posting a “Photograph of the Week,” along with a short story of where the photograph came from along the river and the what events surrounded it.
The Mississippi River is a brazen woman. She both gives life and takes it away. She has changed mine forever. Thank you All for your support, kindness, and encouragement. I am sublimely blessed to have gone on this journey with you.