Village Vitals


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Rivergator #001

3/24/17 - Day 4 - Eagle Island

27 miles paddled yesterday, all but seven were south of St. Louis. It was those subsequent paddle strokes following ST. Louis’ Great Arch wherein my shoulders start singing their aches to me.

Nevertheless, we made it to the mouth of the Meremac River, one of the largest tributaries on the west side of the River, which dumps into the St. Francis.

(Pause here to collect audio in the tent.)

No batteries.

Today (last night) I decided to keep separate my Pelican case full of electronics from my Shelter.

I should log footage this morning, especially because it is a bear to transfer wirelesslesly via SD card to WD Passport to iPhone.

Thunder and lightning have begun.

It was 6:30am when I awoke from a dream in a familiar setting from slumbers before. Felt like a corner restaurant in a small town, or a hamlet like Beverly Hills - not the ritzy kind. I chose to help out and cover a shift for a friend in the morning time, only to realize I am also on the schedule that day: late for my own time-clock.

So I come out of sleep, a slight neck pain yells at me for sleeping on a slightly sloping beachside, and sojourn 20 yards to the campfire.

Johnnie is painting under a sprawling overhand he has erected for the rain. Today, its the lights of the power plant in the background, the River in the middle, wedged between canoes Grasshopper and Junebug.

I reckon he’s still painting. Maybe the storm will provide some new water source, or illuminate the sky in his industry-cum-winderness backdrop.

The only one at the fire, he tells me to put my wetsuit and boots, he can see a storm rolling in. I know this to be true because there is a severe calm, everywhere besides the sky. You can palpably feel it in the air.

Now, being a group of humans with proclivity for using technology to answer our questions, we could either corroborate this, or challenge Weather’s severity by turning on the app on a cell phone - buy why?

The thunder cracks, high and mighty, bellowing not long after multiple flashes of light. It sounds just over the treelike on the Missouri side of things, and that is where Johnnie pointed when he said it was comin’.

He gives a five minute warning - I reach for a coffee cup, fill up a mug. He repeats to me it is coming , and that I should return to my tent, or put on my wetsuit. Thus, I heed his former advice and head back into the comfort of my Shelter, coffee, soaking neoprene, and computer case in hand.

Certainly now, if not in the three days before this, doesn’t feel like I’m back on the Wild River. Maybe it took a storm in the morning, or maybe a dip in the River - but whichever it is, now I feel it. Feels to be a sign that Now, You Are Here; for 40 more days - paddled just past the layers of industry, city lights, and routine. Left behind are the worries of unfinished work, how to operate this device or that, and those nagging feelings of “am I sure I should even be here?

As my pen* hits this page**, the words cannot come fast enough. As I feel the shudder and flapping of my rain fly outside my tent, I am reminded of its missing zipper. Quickly, too, are the rain drops and wind gusts poking into my tent; because the broken and missing zipper pull is an indiscriminate feature of my Shelter - filled mostly with electronics, sleeping bag, and clothes.

Yes, as the sounds rise now overhead, I am back in the place where I once was, merely some several hundred miles to the North. A train passes to my left - East-Northeast - up the side channel. It plays a chord that is very major in tonality:

A chorus fills the morning air: how dynamic! Outdoors acapella.

The bass of a thunderous note;

The percussive pitter-patter atop the rainfly on the tent;

The tenor, alto, and sopranos all combine to form the backbone of it all;

and All that’s needed is the melody - which I suppose is mine to eschew from a brilliant arrangement.

The Mississippi Wilds Within, and yet now, I remain unsurprised, not unmoved.

Yesterday, I spoke with Wolfie on the phone as I stood from a sandy riverbank overlooking a carefully placed Great St. Louis Arch. He tells me he can’t believe I’m here, and I echo him. Me, neither.

If not for Wolfie, I wouldn’t be here now, because I would not have been here in 2013 with him. In this moment on the phone, I now am in a role, if not insignificant, where student goes on to follow a time with his teacher, moves along and follows the same path that the teacher once lived. I am that student, Wolfie my teacher.

Months of preparation led me here.

New Year’s Day began anew with vision to come aboard the sweet 30’ Grasshopper. Thus began a long, arduous, and multi-faceted journey to find every way to get here.

And so, after two months of full-time fundraising, marketing, publicizing, writing, sharing, buying gear, and working extra to cover costs for the expedition, we are in it now.

For four or five hours daily in the weekend days leading up to my travel, I spent my time packing, planning, going through scenarios my head, and re-organizing countless times.

I couldn’t have done any of this in the timeframe and way I did, without the help of Miss Amanda and her entire family who we hosted in our home at that time.

Our 5:00am alarms sound on Sunday morning, yet neither Amanda nor I needed it. We both hardly slept, in anticipation (dare I say a little bit of anxiousness) of my departure. It is because this 45 day trip is usually harder on loved ones and family than it is on the traveler. I know this because that’s what Big Muddy Mike proclaimed in a water prayer the first whole day of paddling. And she knows this because she feels it so; but we are supportive of one another, and I cherish her grace through it all.

A goodbye before my 6:00am bus from the Portland Transportation Depot is not without tears and happy “see you in a few weeks” kind of talk. I have 120 pounds of gear spread throughout two backpacks, a laptop carrier, and a handheld hardshell luggage case. It is not easy, but it is the crest of manageable for me.

It is 8:30 am and I am at Boston Logan airport, check in and luggage (2 pieces) ushered safely away. Now I wait.

One week before this, I was out to lunch with Amanda. After a day of coffee service, learning how to clean our new coffee roaster at Dirigo Coffee HQ (located in Portland’s West Bayside Fork Food Lab), we went for tacos.

Somewhere between conversations about the trip upcoming and my fish taco, my head begins to float away, a sensation wells up in my chest, and all of this happens too quickly for comfort; too much in conjunction with one another, it is anxiety and stress and I haven’t quite felt this way before.

This moment and feeling left me out of sorts for days. Around 10:15am, just minutes before boarding, I begin to feel similar “almost-feelings” of this sensations.

Through whichever mental avenue that I can’t retrace, I remember being something called Headspace, an app for 10 minute daily meditation. Fumbling for my phone, I downloaded it quickly as Sky Priority boards. I begin the introductory meditation as Zone boards; I pause. I resume on the plane as the pilot instructs for physical safety, attempting mental and emotional stability.

Feelings mostly quelled, I sit back through New England takeoff.

Mostly, I was hoping not to have some sort of panic attack, breakdown, or the like, which I know too often many folks encounter unexpectedly on planes. Or in general. I empathize with those friends and strangers and felt connected to them now, more than ever.

Connection was made in Cincinnati, OH, and we boarded yet again. We are en route to Memphis, TN.

Temperature was the first stark change in Memphis. Then came the sinking feeling of 40 pounds of thousands of dollars worth of electronics careening slowly on the steely carousel. The luggage was slightly ajar - still padlocked - but two halves separated 1/4” or 1/2” nonetheless.

[Don’t buy knock-off Pelican cases I remind my future self.]

Uber to my hotel with David, a Memphis resident. Born and raised here, he tells me of the great developments going on throughout downtown, and yet he speaks of the blighted and crime-filled areas (like any city) that fill out the greater metropolitan outskirts. I listen intently from the pillow backseat of his Lincoln Town Car. Upon my exit, I tell him about the Rivergator trip because he alludes to the biggest potential solution going forward in Memphis regarding crime, will be education while kids are young. The Rivergator’s mission is education, access, and democratization of the River, and the project is supported by the nonprofit Lower Mississippi River Foundation (LMRF). The LMRF oversees youth programming and education to build skills and leadership from the River. I think he should follow along. We bid farewell.

In an unfortunate series of events, I must head back out of town, to East Memphis, in yet another car, to procure extra batteries for my camera. I need ample supply on the River when we can’t make good off the solar panel and battery charger also in-tow.

Best Buy is 14 miles from the hotel on the River, and John drives me. His quirks are many, but I laughed silently to myself when he asked the closing time of the store. Our near 30 minute drive would put him right around the perfect time to stop before his eyes are too poor to drive in the dark. He is an older white man who has a funny speech pattern - slightly nervous, slightly with stutter, clearly Southern in dialect - and goes to the trouble to point out his alma mater Memphis State University, along with other notes along Poplar Ave.

At Best Buy, I find the last four batteries in stock, and procure a few other last minute essentials.

Jody, at customer service, is rather talkative. We speak of businesses mostly closed on Sundays, she notes I am not from Memphis, and briefly discusses the Bible Belt and how even an atheist such as herself, remains ever-mindful (read: fearful) not to clash ideologies with religious groups in the Belt. They must remain silent, or there will be Hell to pay, and for this extreme religious belief system, I do not see any “merits” therein.

Bill, the final Uber driver of the night, picks me up with a bang!

Opening the right rear door, he kindly asks I sit up front because the handle doesn’t work properly from the inside. (A minor detail in the nouveau-livery scene these days.)

Jokingly, he says “that’s my kidnapping door!” and all I saw was a mentally-unguarded white male with his camouflage trucker hat, cutoff t-shirt, who very well could have been carrying a weapon to his left in the crevice between door and carseat.

No matter, I will have faith in humanity and indulge the likely chemical imbalance guiding both his sense of humor and his fast-talking, sometimes crude conversation. I applaud him for his candor, honesty.

Bill talks of coming from his mother’s house, because obviously there is free wifi and food. He posts up there while he looks for work “because you can’t make a living in this town only with Uber,” he proclaims. All he needs though, at the end of a driving shift, is enough Uber income to get a six pack of Bud and a couple packs of cigarettes.

I ask him to take me to Central BBQ. Alive and safe, humanity is all the better (revisit this later), and I queue in line fifteen people long, who deemed this meal a hotspot.

In line, a man wearing a white sweatshirt also looks to be dining alone. Ah, the lifestyle of the solo traveler, I think.

After placing my brisket order - side of beans and slaw, banana pudding for dessert - I sit down at the bar.

The man from the line comes over and pleasantly engages the overtly common fact with “you traveling alone, too?” and we begin.

He tells me all about the work he is doing: the speaking engagement at a conference in Memphis, the Council on Philanthropy, and his life in Indiana. I am more than enjoying this talk because of his abilities in the nonprofit space, entrepreneurial guidance, and curious disposition.

I speak of my background, my reasons for Memphis, and being on the River. Of course, we share a similar worldview on community development in cities across America.

We finish our meal, I mention I plan to walk home 25 minutes to downtown, and he suggests he will do the same. First, though, he takes me across the street to The Lorraine Inn, an historic site where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the second floor balcony. Home to the National Civil Rights Museum, this Inn was unknown to me, even within 100 yards of the restaurant I dined.

[Author’s note to self: Do some research - at least one point for every site - before traveling in the future.]

Alas, he tells me that it might not be the best idea to walk home, given the gear in-hand, the crime in-town. He calls an Uber drops me off near my hotel, and we exchange information because it truly was good fortune to connect. Nice to meet you, Brad.

I spend the rest of the evening setting up new equipment for the trip, charging the last of the batteries, and I am in bed close to 2:30am.

When I wake, I prepare for departure. Departure is, of course, on River Time now, and the Suburban with the 30’ wooden boat hitched behind it pulls into the port-a-cacherel. Crew from the Quapaw Canoe Company, led by John Driftwood Ruskey, exit the vehicle, all in great sprits, adventure in-tow.

And as it happens, the rain has now stopped. I emerge from my shelter, and the adventure, The Rivergator, can begin.

You can follow along without words, simply with the map below:

or at



Paddling the Missouri River in tandem. 

Paddling the Missouri River in tandem. 

Driftwood and Lena spread ashes of friends passed at the Confluence. 

Driftwood and Lena spread ashes of friends passed at the Confluence. 

Campsite perched above the sands across a small stretch overlooking St. Louis. 

Campsite perched above the sands across a small stretch overlooking St. Louis. 

Paddling behind Janet Moreland, first female thru-paddler from source-to-sea Missouri/Mississippi to the Gulf.

Paddling behind Janet Moreland, first female thru-paddler from source-to-sea Missouri/Mississippi to the Gulf.

Pulling into the Arch to commemorate World Water Day with the mayor, supporters, strangers, and friends.

Pulling into the Arch to commemorate World Water Day with the mayor, supporters, strangers, and friends.


Big Muddy Mike reads an excerpt from The Bible a.k.a Huck Finn, regarding passage in the same region we camped that night, mere miles south of St. Louis.