Three days ago we finally bid Dubuque farewell, fending off stumps and logs that had bobbed to the surface and congregated around the dock in a thick green carpet. We moved Zeebee from slip to slip by slinging docking lines and sending out blasts on the motor until we jumped aboard and moved away, out of the Ice Harbor with its massive floodgates, back into the main channel of the river, looking for red nuns and green cans again.
Our experiences in Dubuque convinced us that the river had more to offer than can be experienced in a summer—really more than can be experienced in two summers, or a full year, or a lifetime, but two summers are better than one, so we’re doing the upper Mississippi this year and the lower river basin next year.
We will still hold a show in New Orleans in September, but it will focus on the stretch of the river from St. Paul to St. Louis. Knowing this allowed us to take more time on the water. Instead of gunning it at three-quarter throttle in an attempt to push our boat at seven knots and make 40-50 miles a day, we puttered around, drifted, really started to become shanty boaters.
Our next stop after Dubuque was the little town of Bellevue just below Lock 12. We stayed an extra day because the wind was gusting thirty, which is way beyond Zeebee’s limits. I’ve heard weather warnings ever since the start of this trip, everything from misgivings about Pepin to a grave caveat in Dubuque, given to us by a tall shabby looking individual with pock-mocked skin and drooping eyelids whose introductory line involved telling Morgan and I that his ex-wife had been murdered and who seemed pulled between opposing poles of deep agitation and awe when we said we were traveling the whole river. He grabbed my arm and said, about two inches from my face with his eyes getting all filmy and brown like they were filled with an upwelling from the bottom of the river, “You’re crazy. I’ve seen twelve foot waves out there! Do you know what twelve feet is? Do you?”
I googled twelve-foot waves on the Mississippi and came up with nothing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t happen—so since then I’ve been asking people what the biggest wave they’ve seen was, and the most I’ve heard about was a six-footer. Six is still about four too many for Zeebee.
We spent two days knocked around on our slip at a marina beneath a little RV park in Bellevue, the winds heavy enough that it felt like someone was stepping on and off our deck all night. We finally got some “downtime” (ie time not related to building, exploring, writing, sketching, navigating, or driving), which mostly involved reading and hiking.
Morgan just finished “On the Water: Discovering America in a Rowboat” an account by Nathaniel Stone, who rowed the Great Loop (Great Lakes to New Orleans, up the east coast and then all the way to Canada) over the course of two years. I’ve been reading “The Invention of Nature,” by Andrea Wulf, a book I bought in St. Paul just before the start of the trip. It chronicles the voyages and scientific discoveries of Alexander Von Humboldt, an early scientist (or “natural philosopher”) who greatly contributed to our contemporary understanding of nature as an interconnected web rather than a clockwork machine. He laid the foundation for climatology, ecology, and environmental science, as well as helped to form the ideas that permeate the work of Darwin, Thoreau, Carson, and many others, and he was also an early explorer of both South America and Russia, but most of all, in my opinion, he was a brilliant writer renowned for his prose combination of poetry and science.
Occasionally I got so into the book that I had to read portions out to Morgan. By the time she finished “On the Water” she wanted to read about Humboldt too, but I’m a pretty slow reader, so we physically divided the book in half by ripping it vertically through its spine. We’re both reading it now.
When not learning about Humboldt, who was a dedicated hiker (to put it lightly—he summited Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador and one of the highest volcanoes in the world), we hiked a not-quite-so-mighty bluff that rose above Bellevue and led to both the first butterfly garden west of the Mississippi River and to an ancient Native American burial ground. While the butterfly garden was clearly marked with an identification guide, there was no sign marking the entrance to the burial ground. In the place where the map claimed the site was, we found an overgrown gradually diminishing path along a never-ending wire fence. We walked along it for a while, discussing the possibility that this wasn’t really the way to the burial grounds and climbing over increasing obstacles and through several spider webs until we started to lose light and heard something deep in the woods that sounded like a wild hog.
We were almost back out of the woods when we came across a woman who seemed to appear out of nowhere. She was contemplating the land beyond the wire fence. She asked us if we heard a coyote. We said we thought it was a hog. She said she hoped it wasn’t a hog and then informed us that the park had stopped taking care of the burial ground because erosion was making it dangerous for visitors to walk through the area. She said it was a pity because she used to visit the grounds often in search of solace. The last thing I remember of her was the tattoo of a sun on her ankle disappearing into her silver ford as she shut the door and drove off shortly after we all reached the main road again. Morgan and I discussed the possibility that she was a hog/coyote spirit.
Aside from butterflies and burials, we found a bunch of river limestone. One block was marked as a “point of interest” by the park; it was oddly rectangular and looked like it had been dropped from above. From its top we could see Zeebee docked way down below, decking up and down to the break of the waves. She was a speck on the bluish grey expanse. I thought: ah, this is why people think we’re crazy. To state the stupidly obvious: The Mississippi is a big river. Zeebee is a small boat.
Even the massive barges, three containers wide and five long, the leviathan themselves, looked miniature between the banks of the Mississippi, and the lock we just went through, which seemed like a monumental barricade as we waited for its doors to open and let us through, looked like it was made of popsicle sticks. Bellevue’s main street that was hot asphalt in the noon sunlight, and all the GMC trucks from the eighties that lined it, were reduced to a straight shot down the side of the river, carved out of the landscape. The trains that I experienced mostly as sounds at night that mixed with sounds of Zeebee pulling on our rickety slip to create a haunting echo that wrapped the boat, were now plainly visible geometries moving from shore to shore. The shifts in colors of waves and the detail on the roots of trees along the river banks, the unceasing rock of the boat and the off-kilter jolting from the wakes of other boats, all became sensations obliterated from view at the top of the bluff.
Everything I’d been experiencing on the inside, though all my senses, was suddenly laid out in front of me and accessible only through sight. In an instant, flickering my eyes up from the limestone ground where I found my footing, turning gaze up and out, my perspective flipped. I saw the map I’d been living in.
A rainbow that arched over Zeebee an hour ago was gone, though I wondered for a moment if it was actually still there but I just couldn’t see it because my angle to it had changed.