Where Three Become One
Seeing Phillip Seymour Hoffman flying through the air over the Missouri River in the midst of a major storm helped me to realize the dangerous state of my exhaustion. I desperately needed to rest for a few days in order to heal the peeled layers of my mind. As it stood, I was treading too close to the edge.
I retreated to a warm bed in a cozy house, and I laid out my soaked gear on a sunny slab of concrete. I took naps beside my gear in the sun and ate sandwiches stacked with freshly carved turkey. Water from the storm saturated the heavy, clayish Missouri soil. The sun beat down on the dirt, and I could feel the moisture rising out of the ground.
Two days later, with the help of a neighbor, I slid the canoe back into the river. My spirits were revived and ready for the new and old challenges ahead.
The water level was higher than anything I had seen. The United States Geological Survey monitors the water level and volume, and then posts the results on the Internet. Within a few days, the level went from Drought stage to Severe Flooding stage. In real-world terms, the river went up almost 15 feet in places.
The swift current of the full river was not without new dangers.
There were the pop-up buoys that I had already experienced. Concrete and cable moor them to the river bottom. Often, the current would plunge a buoy under water for a few seconds to a few minutes. Then, like a Jack-in-the-Box, hundreds of pounds of missile-shaped steel exploded to the surface. It would have been the end had one of these hit my fiberglass canoe.
The buoys mark the edge of the navigable river channel. In theory, as long as I stayed in the channel or outside the channel, I would be safe. In reality, floods move the buoys. I tried to avoid them the best I could. I looked for telltale signs of underwater disturbances. Sometimes I could spot them and steer clear, but other times I was taken by complete surprise when a buoy erupted near the canoe.
The knowledge of the buoys created a low-level stress for me. It was manageable, but always there. The experience was like skiing through avalanche terrain: yes, the slope might slide with me on it, but right now it is not sliding, so I am safe at the moment.
There was the driftwood—from twigs to entire old-growth cottonwood trees. Many of these I could see. But there were also waterlogged pieces that floated below the surface like mines. The current pinned a few logs under water until they got free and breached the surface, similar to the buoys.
There were the boils: areas where the current is redirected straight up after hitting an obstruction. The result is a feature similar to boiling water, which can present a dangerous hazard. Below flooded wing dikes, there are many small to medium sized boils. These boils were predictable. But there were rogue boils in the main channel. These boils were the size of half a basketball court. A few raised almost two feet out of the water.
I was not aware that the rogue boils existed until I saw one. The hour before I learned of them, I occasionally heard a loud splash that was unlike a popup buoy or a submerged wing dike. I would hear the sound, look across the river, but see nothing. Then one emerged beside me. It was as though a giant plate, the size of half a basketball court, rose a foot above the surface of the river. Then, without warning, this plate of water would collapse back into the river.
There were the whirlpools. They were always present at the end of the wing dikes. The biggest whirlpools, however, formed during the collapse of the large, rogue boils. One of these whirlpools, about three feet deep and fifteen feet wide, threatened to end the journey.
I was skirting the edge of a rising rogue boil. As the boil collapsed two feet away, a whirlpool emerged on the upriver side and at the stern of the canoe. The current and the momentum of the whirlpool moved it quickly toward the canoe. The stern dipped into the edge of this hole in the river. Sensing the immense danger, I pushed my paddle hard into the water to escape. I knew that if the canoe went entirely into the whirlpool, I would lose stability. The centrifugal force of this Odyssean feature would flip the boat in an instant. The canoe’s sleek design responded well to my powerful paddle strokes, and I was soon out of reach of yet another hazard.
There were the flooded wing dikes. In normal conditions, the top of a wing dike was several feet above the water line. During flood conditions, the top was somewhere beneath the murky surface of the river, but I never knew how deep. I often asked, “Will the canoe clear the rocks of the wing dike, bump the rocks, or get hung up and throw me into the boils below the wing dike where I will probably get sucked under the water?” Sometimes, the flooded wing dikes presented true whitewater conditions.
I paddled over dozens and dozens of these dikes on that day. The first few were terrifying. Sometimes there was a big drop as I went over the dike. And there were always strong boils on the downriver side of the dike. The boils pushed the canoe in every direction. I knew that hundreds more awaited in the coming days, so I experimented with how to paddle through them. I hit some fast; I hit others slow. The best speed was somewhere in the middle. I picked up speed as I approached a dike, stopped paddling just upriver of the feature, and had my paddle ready to flick to either side of the boat to counter the push and pull of the boils.
Finally, there was the toxic waste. When the river floods, it picks up all kinds of extra waste—overrun sewers, treatment plants strained beyond capacity, old toxic waste washing down from side creeks, and various chemicals coming out of factories near water sources. Other paddlers warned me not to get the water on my skin or risk acquiring a mysterious rash. This was a disconcerting thought, and especially when considering that this is the water source for the towns and cities along the river’s bank.
I was happy to be moving fast, but I also gripped my paddle with white knuckles.
30 miles downstream was Cooper’s Landing—a bar-marina combo—where the owner, via text message, had offered me a couch and a beer. I covered those 30 miles in a mere 4 hours—7.5 miles per hour!
I did some simple multiplication in my head—though my still exhausted mind took several minutes to complete this simple task.
“Whoa!” I exclaimed to the human-less expanse around me. It was a eureka moment. The current was so swift that I could cover 70 miles in a day.
“Damn,” I said aloud. “The weather is getting better. The river is raging. I should go back to Omaha and do the entire thing in two weeks!”
Then I spent a few more minutes thinking about this idea.
“No,” I finally said, “that is a bad idea.”
Doing anything alone is both challenging and liberating. Alone, I am the sole decision maker, and I must face all the consequences. As a solo paddler, I am concerned with only my survival. In a group, there is the confidence of having others nearby to help, but also the weight of keeping everyone safe. As a climber, I can climb harder when I have a partner on the other end of a rope. But I will not experience the freedom that comes from climbing alone without a rope—which requires complete confidence.
I was alone on the river. I had no partner, and there was no “rope” to catch me. Here was freedom. But would there ever be safety?
Though the river was wilder than ever, I felt an inner calmness that I had not experienced yet. I felt the current below the canoe, and in spite of the dangers it created, it also released some of my anxiety about the journey. Perhaps, after the blizzards and storms, I was beginning to feel comfortable with the river and my ability to navigate whatever it threw at me. The current was no longer an unknown foe to be feared. It felt familiar and, almost, friendly. From that comfort, which came through knowledge and hard-earned experienced, I began to find a sense of safety which at last allowed me to breathe. At last, I felt confident on the river.
I pulled into Cooper’s Landing early in the afternoon. Cooper’s Landing is ground zero for river rats in Central Missouri. It is a must-stop location for any long distance paddler on the Missouri River.
Cooper, the owner, booted the resident river rat off the couch and told me that I could sleep there. Later that evening a woman, her daughter, and a few other local paddlers took me out for Mexican food. The woman was Janet Sullens Moreland. She would become the first woman to paddle the Missouri River from its source in Montana to the Gulf of Mexico. Janet worked as a teacher, and we discussed autism and approaches to educating those on the spectrum.
One of the other paddlers at dinner shared stories of his adult nephew, who was on the spectrum. He had an unstoppable love for the river. His uncle taught him how to swim so that he would be safe, because he knew that his nephew would always find his way to the water. He had become such a good swimmer that in the summers he passed the days swimming laps across the river and even playing in the whirlpools. This person, who I had never met, became a hero to me.
I had set out to inspire communities to do more for autism. Instead, the stories of those on the spectrum, their families, and their teachers were inspiring me in this journey.
That night I drank beer with the now homeless river rat and a professional safe cracker.
The next day I achieved the theoretical and paddled 70 miles.
Over the following days, I passed through my home stretch of river. I passed the boat ramp near my home in Augusta, Missouri; the city of St. Charles (the last stop for Lewis and Clark before they set out on their expedition to explore The Louisiana Purchase); the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers; and St. Louis, my mother’s hometown. Local paddlers and friends joined me for a few miles here and there. I was paddling through my backyard, and it felt good!
I paddled the section of river that my brother and I had floated on a log. I passed under the bridge to Washington, Missouri—a bridge I had crossed hundreds of times as a child and an adult. And I paddled past the river bottoms where I had hunted and fished as a young man.
It was a bittersweet moment. Before, each paddle stroke took me closer to home. Now, each paddle stroke would take me further away and deeper into the heart of the Mississippi River, where there can be miles of water between opposing banks and where the gargantuan barges can stretch for half a mile.
The Missouri River joins the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis. Here, I took a 90-degree turn south. I was now on the Mississippi River! Only 400 miles to Memphis! Images of a celebratory barbecue feast danced in my mind, but it was too soon to declare the journey a success.
In downtown St. Louis, below the Arch, that gleaming gateway to the West, a local TV station interviewed me on the cobblestoned bank of the Mississippi.
The interview seemed to last forever. I was nervous. My anxiety echoed how I often felt on the river. A month had passed since Omaha. It had been a stressful month on and off of the river—a struggle to survive and keep moving forward. In front of the camera, however, I wished to be back on the river. I preferred its challenges to the challenge of public speaking. But, I kept it together for the interview and gave an eloquent speech on autism.
Of course, being the news, they only aired one snippet. It went like this:
“So what’s it like out there?”
“Oh, it’s pretty tough,” I laughed.
Then the news anchor said, “Boy, hardy guy … in the winter …”
And the sports guy said something like, “Brrr!”
Then they all laughed and proceeded to talk about high school sports.
But in my imagination, there was another interview. It went like this:
“Joe, you’re out there for so long, and alone, what do you think about?”
“Well, I think a lot about death. Every moment, actually. I think about death by barge, death by buoy, death by hypothermia, and death by drowning. I think about letting myself slip into the water and finally being free from all of it.”
“Why do you think about these things?”
“Because it’s pure suffering out here in the winter! It’s bleak, and I’m lonely. Do you realize that the river never ends?! It flows into the ocean and from there where does it go? Everywhere! There is no end. There never will be. How am I supposed to finish something that can’t be finished?! What is the point?!”
One overcast day later and sixty miles downriver, I found a washed-up television propped up amidst the boulders of the river bank. I sat in front of it for a while and stared into the blank, yet miraculously unscratched screen.
“How did you get here?” I asked the television.
I turned the old dial knob to the station that had interviewed me the day before. The screen remained blank.
As I waited on the bank, a barge passed going upstream. Another barge was parked below me, waiting for the traffic pattern to change so that it could plod south. The barges were a regular sight on the Mississippi River. I passed fifteen to thirty of them on an average day.
At first, their large wakes, sometimes a few feet high, scared me.
On one stretch, I was forced to paddle two hundred feet behind a barge as it made a wide and powerful turn through a tight bend in the river. I heard the engines rev as the pilot pushed the throttle higher. As this happened, the wakes grew taller and advanced towards me. Soon five to six-foot tall rolling wakes surrounded the canoe. I disappeared into the trough of several crisscrossing wakes. I saw nothing but water and a small chunk of the sky above me. It took about ten nerve-wracking minutes for me to paddle out of this maze of water. After a few days of similar experiences, I grew accustomed to them. I learned how to read the wakes and the surrounding features that would alter or amplify their course.
I turned off the TV and prepared to leave my makeshift living room. Instinctively, I checked the SPOT device dangling from my life vest. The battery was dead.
A SPOT device is a one-way personal locator beacon. It can broadcast a location via GPS satellites. It can also send a pre-programmed message, like “Hey, I’m done for the day.” Or it can send an SOS message.
I had programmed my SPOT to send out my location every few minutes. Then anyone on shore could follow my live progress on Google Maps.
When I started the journey, the SPOT device seemed like an excellent idea. People could follow me in real time! If I was paddling nearby, they could come to the river to wave or bring food! However, I overlooked one big drawback to the SPOT device. People become worried when the little pins stop showing up on their computers or phones. They begin to think things like: “He fell into the water” or “A barge hit him.” They do not think: “Oh, the battery probably died.” And then they called the Coast Guard.
Fortunately, the Coast Guard said to wait a few hours, and a few hours later I noticed the dead battery and replaced it.
I turned away from the TV, hopped back into my canoe, and continued, unaware of the worries festering ashore.
A few hours later I fought my way across the Mississippi between barges and in 20 mph winds. The reward for this struggle was landing at night in Chester, Illinois.
In Chester, there are two prisons, a statue of Popeye, and a large grain silo. I believe that’s it. The boat ramp is ill-lit, far away from anything, and frequented by bored people or people trying to hide something. It is not a good place to camp, or do anything for that matter.
I stayed at that boat ramp for about two hours, waiting for a ride to a safe bed.
The first Chester residents to spot me on the ramp never left the confines of their rusty 1970s Cadillac DeVille. A lone light bulb illuminated the boat ramp. The Cadillac sat at the edge of the yellow bubble of light. The driver motioned me over to the car with a lit cigarette in his hand.
“Hey, boy. Come ova’ ‘er.”
“No,” I said.
“You campin’ ‘er?”
“Whatcha doing out ‘er anyway?”
“Paddling my canoe.”
“Oh, ‘iz gotta canoe ova’ ‘er,” he said to his companion. Then they drove away.
For the next two hours, the Cadillac would circle every fifteen minutes. Watching and waiting.
The next Chester residents drove by twice in their monster truck without stopping. On the third lap, they backed onto the gravel parking lot on the bank above me, revved their engine, spun their tires, and peppered me with golf ball sized chunks of limestone gravel.
I shielded my head and gritted my teeth. Rocks struck me in the legs and arms. I heard the hollow thuds of several rocks hitting the canoe. As they drove away laughing, I yelled into the darkness.
By the time the third batch of Chester residents came to visit me, I was ready for a dirty fight. “They might win,” I thought, “but we’re both going to the hospital.”
Their sedan came to a stop within the bubble of light. Two high school boys stepped out. They walked towards me. I kept the canoe between us. I gripped the black carbon fiber paddle in my hands, thinking that I could aim for the carotid arteries in their necks and maybe do some damage. My phone was in my pocket. I thought that I might be able to get it out fast enough to call the police.
The riverbanks of the Missouri and Mississippi at night can attract a rough crowd. You name it; the river sees it. Drugs, murder, suicide, and crime are but a few of the river’s after-dark visitors. I saw these two teenagers as two, bored kids from rural America who had just found an outlet for their anger with a world passing them by.
They were much smaller than me and had no defining muscles. The baby fat of youth still clung to their bodies, making them appear soft. Their hands were stuffed in the front pockets of their jeans. Their gazes darted between the canoe, the river, passing cars, and me.
Then it came: a barrage of animated questions from the shorter of these two blond headed boys.
“Hi there! What are you doing out here? Is that your canoe? Are you camping here? Are you paddling on the river?!”
“Yes.” I was tense, still waiting for an attack.
They attempted to make a conversation, but my monosyllabic responses were not very interesting.
Then the truck that had sprayed me with rocks crept by.
My attention moved back and forth between the kids in front of me and the truck.
“Friends of yours?” I asked.
“We go to school with them, but no,” one of them said.
“Good, I don’t like them,” I said. I then explained what had happened.
“Oh, man. That’s so typical here. There’s nothing to do in this town, so when someone like you shows up, well …”
Relief washed over me. These kids weren’t here to pick a fight.
“Yeah, everyone knows you’re here,” the other one said. “You’re the most interesting thing that’s happened in a while. That’s why we’re here talking to you.”
“The prison. That’s all we got here. This town sucks,” the taller boy said, kicking the gravel.
I smiled at them. They were bored, and then I showed up, a messenger from the outside world.
“I’m going to move to St. Louis when I finish high school,” the short one said.
Our conversation continued for half an hour. As it turned out, these two kids were quite nice. We talked about life, the river, and getting out of Chester. I told them about jobs and universities in St. Louis. When my sister and neighbor arrived, the kids helped me load the canoe onto her car.
As we drove away, I reflected on Chester. Had I judged it too quickly? Too harshly? Had I let first appearances shape my attitude toward the place? How often do people assume that a child throwing a fit is spoiled? And how often is that child on the spectrum and in the midst of a real breakdown? What can we learn from a second look?
A few days later I paddled into the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Anticipation welled inside of me as I approached this merger of two of the world’s great waterways.
“What will it be like?” I thought. “Will the current be so strong that it takes control of the canoe? What about the barges?”
I passed by a fisherman in a johnboat. He stopped tying a dropline and waved to me as I pushed into the confluence.
Nearby was the town of Cairo, Illinois. Pronounced “Care-O” by the locals, the town was a major trade hub during the steamboat era. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Cairo was Huck and Jim’s destination as they floated to Illinois to gain Jim’s freedom from slavery. As a young man, I went skydiving at Cairo’s airport. Today, the prosperity of the steamboat era is gone. The modern economy abandoned Cairo, just as it abandoned much of rural America. All that remains is a withering skeleton of what once was.
It was a calm day on the river. The only waves were those created by the barges. The sun shone and glistened on the crests of the waves. Barges lined the shore for as far as I could see. Tugboats shuffled up and down the banks and from side to side. The opposing banks seemed to be miles apart. The river felt like an ocean—a very long, narrow ocean. And the canoe did as it always did; it cut a smooth, straight line through the water.
Out in this immensity, something felt right. Joy washed over me. I stopped paddling and savored the feeling.
The tension that I had so often felt while getting to this point dissolved in the face of reality—for the reality was beautiful. I felt at ease. My thoughts were silent. I had gone from feeling merely comfortable with the river to feeling at one with it—graciously lost in its enormity.