First thing’s first: we are not the first. We are following a long historical line of adventurers, workers, escapees, romantics, knuckleheads, and fortune-seekers, everyone from farmers in the early days of Westward expansion, to heroes of alternative living, the Hubbards, a couple who lived on the river in a shanty boat for more than a decade. The artist SWOON and her flotilla of river rats put in (we found out to our glee) at the very same yacht club where we put in, the St. Paul Yacht Club in Minnesota. So did a Russian man who made his vessel out of a bunch of soda bottles and chain link fence. According to one of the people who run the yacht club this soda bottle pioneer was stopped by the coast guard, and despite the fact that his craft was registered, he was indefinitely dry-docked because his boat was bleeding soda bottles up and down the river. He apparently tried to argue that it was okay because he had a ready supply of extra bottles to replace each one that drifted away in his wake.
Anyway. We hope we’re a little more equipped than that. A close look at our vessel, for those who have done the trip or built similar shanty-style vessels usually yields supportive responses, encouragement, even admiration. We’ve even heard from one or two people that we’ve inspired them to take a trip of their own.
Even so, people regularly—daily, actually—come up to us as if we were the first ones with this crazy idea (we’re not), or even the first ones to go down the river on a shanty boat (we’re not), or even the first ones to go down the river on this particular design of shanty boat (we’re not even that). So we are used to the ensuing advice, which usually starts in the form one of a dozen or so questions that we now have stock responses for, questions that include, almost always: where will you poop (in a toilet), do you have a radio (yes, VHF, yes, handheld), are you going to kill one another (no, we agreed to donate limbs to a collective meat stew if we run out of food on that lower Mississippi stretch), do you have a generator (yes, 1,000 watt something-something we bought on Amazon), what kind of motor is this (Tohatsu 25 horsepower), you steer from up there (yes! and the steering wheel is a solid bronze stick that Morgan pounded flat), do you have mosquito netting (yes, and soon we’ll get mosquito net masks, and we have UPF rated hats, and Esmeralda-meets-ninja-style face masks), do you know that there are bad people in the world (…), do you have flares (yes, and they can double as weapons—refer back to question regarding bad people), have you heard of wing dams (we have! they are often submerged, man-made structures that control the flow of the river, and you can get stuck on them, which is bad), do you read charts (we have a physical copy of the Army Corps maps, plus Navionics, plus a Quimby’s guide and a barge-tracking app), have you thought about barges, did you know that barges can kill you, did you know that barges suck forty-foot logs under them as if they’re no bigger than toothpicks, did you know you that barges flipped a buddy of mine right over when he was anchored at night, did you know that barges are the kraken of the river, the devils of middle America, the scourge of the United States’ central waterway, the great, mile-long, boat-swallowing, monsters of the locks—and, again, where will you poop?
We know that the advice-in-the-form-of-a-question almost always comes from a place of concern, and that there are a lot of things both positive and negative that play into that—we seem young, we seem naive—maybe we are a little of both—we’re not particularly tough-looking; I wear a big candy-striped red and white hat; we look more like we belong with the Saturday afternoon yoga paddle board crowd than the country-traversing explorer crowd. And there’s our boat. One guy said he’d seen a lot of “P.O.S-es” (Piece Of Shit-ers, for those out of the P. C. acronym loop) but ours was his favorite. A manager for the St. Paul Yacht Club, who had to endure our anti-yacht in the club lot for over a week, said it was the “Kon Tiki,” a description that I took as a compliment, but then followed it with “that motor is the smartest thing on this boat.” He has since shared our project with his friends and his community with supportive commentaries, and the yacht club as a whole embraced the project.
Anyway, the nice thing about all this advice-giving is that it usually generates conversation. We once found ourselves in a parking lot surrounded by ten cars that spontaneously pulled up in a circle around us as we were working on the deck. People were shouting out windows to strike up conversations. We’ve seen people from all over the country gather at rest stops on the freeway as we trailered the boat west. All types and backgrounds give advice and question, everyone from fiddlers to state senators, kids to octogenarians. Advice-questioning is an entrance, a starting point. We got advice from day one, advice on building, advice on packing, advice on leaving, and occasionally it felt territorial, sometimes patronizing, once-in-a-while brilliant, often heartfelt, even touching, and when it felt useful, we used it. We raised our combing. We put in drop-down windows. We added snap buttons to our canvas. We got extra gasoline tubs. We got a generator. And maybe the best result of a piece of advice: we monitor channel 13 to talk to the river kraken.
At this point I am a little weary of advice. I’m ready to move beyond it. I hope that conversations open up beyond advice. I wrote the original part of this entry sitting in a dock not more than ten feet from where Michi Zeebee’s bottom paint first touched the Mississippi’s muddy waters; Morgan was sitting on the fore deck; the canvas walls were rolled up up, the daylight was splitting the dusking evening with artificial light from the Twin Cities. We were waiting for a storm to pass so we could begin the journey south.
The storm passed, we headed out at 7.30 am the next morning, and now we’re tied up to a public dock outside of Hastings, day one on the river successfully completed. We passed three river monsters. They were all exceedingly nice and stayed as far away from us as possible. Polite monsters. We passed through a lock, talking to the lock masters as we held onto ropes and were lowered down the water elevator, craning our necks more and more upward as the boat moved downward and we attempted to keep talking about wooden boats and mini houses. The conversation physically stretched. Later we met a group of people on the water where the LaCroix empties into the Mississippi. They told us to follow them so they could help tie us up. As we stepped off our decks we were initially asked us the same set of questions that we’re overly prepared to answer, but then the conversation stretched as well, it moved into other territories. To make a sweeping statement based on just the first day of travel and the interactions that come with that, it seems that just being on the water–not preparing to get on the water–has caused our conversations about the project and the boat to move beyond beginning questions and advice. It moves, stretches as we physically move forward.