A Land Dressed in White
When I returned to the river, it had transformed into a snow-covered landscape.
I love the snow, and to me the sight was perfection. Soft, white sheets of snow draped over the sandbars and fields. And a sliver of glass-smooth muddy water cut a channel right through the middle of it all. Here was my path, all I had to do was follow it.
The next two days felt near effortless. The river was peaceful, the skies during the day were blue, and the sunsets were an explosion of colors across the sky.
I paddled through Atchison, Kansas, where two nuns greeted me below their monastery with a sandwich and bag of chips in hand. I had known them as a boy, and now they were thrilled to see me on the river. We joked around for a few minutes, and then I set off.
That night I stayed in Kansas City. The organizers of the MR340, the longest non-stop paddling race in the world, met me at the boat ramp, bought me a hotel room, dinner, breakfast, and snacks for the next day.
Those same people activated a vast paddling network that spanned the globe to support the journey. My new iPhone exploded with text messages from unknown phone numbers. Some offered encouragement. Others offered support downriver: resupplies, couches to sleep on, steaks, and beer.
It felt good to have so many supporters.
However, out on the river, I was still alone. It was a profound loneliness. It was a strange feeling—to have so much support on shore, yet to be so isolated, so self-dependent, on the river.
“Could this be what it feels like to have autism?” I wondered.
The good weather didn’t last long. The sky turned dark with another storm two hours after I left Kansas City.
By one in the afternoon, the wind was gusting at over 30 mph. The river looked angry. I remembered my 20 mph rule. It was time to go to shore.
The place where I landed wasn’t ideal. There was little for shelter, and the cold wind cut through me. However, there was a large snowdrift between a steep bank and a sandbar. I hollowed out a small snow cave in the drift and climbed inside.
I pulled up the weather on my phone. What had been a benign five-day forecast was now another storm system with high winds.
I felt frustrated.
The world screamed at me, and I screamed back until my voice cracked. Neither one of us understood the other, so we screamed louder.
“This must be what it feels like to have autism,” I thought.
When I poked my head out of my sad little snow cave, the wind blasted me with sharp sleet that cut into my face. I gritted my teeth.
“Fine,” I screamed. “Have it your way!”
So I stepped off the river for a day and a half. It was enough time for the wind to blow down, but the rain, sleet, and snow continued to fall when I dipped my paddle into the river once again.
For four days I paddled into a steady 15 to 20 mph headwind, my face sandblasted by every form of precipitation. This was when I created the “Endurance Stroke.” I am confident that this paddling stroke saved my life out there when the weather conditions and state of the river conspired to kill me.
The Endurance Stroke was less of a technique and more of a state of mind. It was born as a response to the pervasive darkness hanging over my head and heart—the overcast skies, the unrelenting wind, the loneliness, and the physical pain. By this point, I was paddling up to 50 miles per day. Each day I started in the dark of the early morning and ended at sunset. My hands were raw from the abrasion of wet gloves. My face was red and dry. My legs and butt ached with cramps from sitting for so long. My upper body was always sore, yet bulged with muscles I had never seen before.
The Endurance Stroke was a rhythm and an image. It was a connection to my ancestry. As I paddled, I thought of my ancestors thousands of years before. I thought of the Reidhead’s in the Scottish Highlands during one of their notorious winters. I thought of my mother’s line, Slovenes in Prekmurje who persevered through the centuries as Mongols, Turks, and Austro-Hungarians took turns pillaging their farms.
I imagined one of my Scottish ancestors—who had Norse blood in his veins from hundreds of years of Viking invasions along the Scottish coast—climbing into a boat one winter and setting off to visit distant family. Rowing week after week through wind and snow. Laughing at the storms, perhaps. And confident in his ability to travel through any weather.
Then I thought of my Slovene ancestor rebuilding his farm once again after another army raged across the Pannonian Basin.
I thought of my grandmother, who crossed the Southern Plains from Oklahoma to Arizona in a covered wagon. And I thought of my grandfather, who swam across the Mississippi River, with a broken ankle, for fun.
I had created a paddling stroke that was the definition of persistence in the face of any condition. This is what my family was bred for—our bloodlines converged again and again to create a line of very persistent individuals. This stroke was a state of mind. It was this state of mind more than any technique or piece of gear that would allow me to succeed in this journey.
It is this same trait, persistence, that allows the parents of the autistic to help their children navigate the world. My days on the river were long, and this journey was long, but each day I thought of them because what they face will last much longer. I thought of their struggle, and it became an inspiration for mine.
The days seemed to grind on. Each hour felt like a lifetime—lived alone. After one particularly long day, I dragged the canoe up the snow-covered boat ramp at Miami, Missouri. An hour later, my loneliness was gratefully broken with a visit from three friendly locals.
The visitors were a teacher, Rob, and his sons. They were all Missouri River paddlers. They brought a burger, fries, and plenty of beer.
As we put down the beers, they shared their own experiences with the autism spectrum in their family and work. They talked about high functioning autism, at the time known as Asperger’s Syndrome, and the unusual gift that sometimes accompanies it. This gift is a deep passion for a subject like music, airplanes, trains, mathematics, or animals. After our serious discussion, we switched gears to our collective love: canoeing.
Most long-distance solo paddlers choose a sea-kayak over a canoe. Sea-kayaks are easier to paddle, aren’t as affected by the wind, and can ride through waves with ease.
Since the boat of choice among my beer drinking companions was a canoe, they were excited to pick my brain. Not only was I in a canoe, but I was also starting to reach 50 miles a day in winter conditions. To canoe folk, this was cool.
“Joe, what you are doing is athleticism!” the man said. “We, however, like to enjoy our days on the river!”
This had not occurred to me, but fair enough. To me though, it seemed more like perseverance. The weather was bad, the paddling was tough, and I had a lot of miles to go. The faster I paddled the sooner I got to the end, and the sooner I got to the end the less time I would have to repeat my favorite mantra, “Fall in the river, and I die.”
After a couple of hours of good conversation, they bid me farewell at my frigid camp in the snow.