Dubuque, Dubuque

The whole first leg of the trip, which has taken nine days (today is day ten), was about getting to know Michi Zeebee and the Mississippi, their characters, how they interact; it was also about getting used to our respective roles, navigation and driving, figuring out logistics like our burn rate for gas and where to get ice. We’ve now been through eleven locks in various situations—with and without current, with and without barges coming through, with and without other traffic locking through with us. We’ve figured out how to talk on the VHF without sounding like complete novices. We’ve made it through 15 knot winds and choppy waters, anchored repeatedly and at night. We braved mosquitoes and soaked in the landscape.

Yesterday we pushed forward a bit, knowing that thunderstorms were on the horizon and that if we didn’t make it to Dubuque, Iowa, our next scheduled stop, by the afternoon we might be delayed a few days waiting them out. The early part of the day was calm but winds picked up as the heat did, around noon, and soon we were making our way across Pepin-like water in a heat index of almost 100. The wind was coming from the Southwest, straight at us, so I tacked upwind even though we don’t have a sail, to reduce the angle of the waves on our bow and lessen the beating the hull was taking. Waves broke across the fore deck. Morgan changed into her bathing trunks.

By the time we got to Dubuque all manner of stumps and logs had been kicked up by the wind and the churning water, and we had to navigate through them slowly so they wouldn’t chew up the propeller as we crossed under two bridges on the north end of the city. We passed two sail boats, zipping around downwind just before the first bridge. The second bridge, the Dubuque Rail Bridge, has a span that pivots horizontally—instead of opening vertically like a draw bridge—to open for ship traffic and then pivots closed for train traffic above. Bits and pieces of disturbed stump forests bobbed past us as we sped past the opened span. I lowered our speed and Morgan fended off the larger logs to cross a great swath of roots and branches drifting in front of the huge steel gates to the Ice Harbor, where we docked.

Almost two years ago Morgan was leaving Maine to return to her native California. She was driving home and said there was an extra seat available if I wanted split costs, so I hopped in. We crossed the country in ten days, stopping at Niagara Falls, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, the Wind Caves, Devil’s Tower, the Mammoth Dig Site in South Dakota, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and Dubuque, Iowa, where we met up with Chuck Isenhart, a state representative Morgan worked with back when she was involved in environmental policy on the Mississippi River.

In Dubuque, we explored the limestone bluffs; saw the amazing National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium (who we are now partnered with) and the shot tower, one of my favorite buildings ever; took a ride in the Fenelon Place funicular to the top of a hill overlooking the whole city; and the morning before we left we sat in a coffee shop with Chuck talking about the unfortunate separation between disciplines: art, writing, activism, science, craft. We talked about ways they could all come together. We talked about a growing, changing, floating sculpture. We still have a video made during the lunch that extended from our morning coffee. I’m wearing the same ridiculous candy cane striped hat I wear now, and Morgan and I are trying to put words to our ideas about a public art piece that could attract people to the river like showboats did in the old days.

I wasn’t much of a boat builder then. Morgan was just starting to take her interest in art more seriously. Our trajectory was east-west, and we rolled into Dubuqe on asphalt in a blue 90s mustang. Yesterday, heading north-south, we rolled into town on choppy water in a public art piece based on a shanty boat with a 60s design. Our former selves and our current selves converge at this point.

So far we reunited with Chuck , toured the river museum (I’m going to be deep in the archives looking at old showboat plans tomorrow!), and settled into lodging at Convivium, an amazing urban farmsted run by Mike Muench and Leslie Shalabi. They have their grand opening tomorrow and celebrations this weekend, and we are privileged to be one of the first outside projects to come to fruition in their woodshop.

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