Today we’re in Fort Madison, Iowa. We wanted to make forty miles, but we were foiled by the weather again. We constantly find ourselves dividing miles by days to make sure we’ll be in St. Louis by the 24th. We came up with 37 today, our new target average. But that changes as the sun moves across the water. The river determines our schedule and our experience of time.
At first my phone was my watch. Now my phone dies every day, is mostly dead, and I let it die. Morgan keeps time. She’s the navigator. She has to pay attention to it, but still it slips from her too. We keep asking one another: what is today — wait, is it Monday? Wait, how long have we been here? Is tomorrow Monday?
According to a Forbes online piece I once found myself brainlessly clicking through, highly productive (subtext: successful) people don’t think in terms of hours. They think in terms of minutes. By those terms, river living is deeply unproductive. Time pools on the Mississippi; it doesn’t run linearly. There is little meaning to a minute. I bask in vast periods of boredom punctuated by very important split second intuitive decisions—when to jump to the dock, when to back off an oncoming vessel, where to turn around a stump.
Industrial buildings and barges become events that divide up the day. We stream through green and are eventually presented with a vague object in the distance, which then looms, then becomes epic, becomes larger as time stretches, and then as we pass it time speeds up again, snaps back and releases us to the natural expanse. Time specialists (yes they exist) actually have a word for this phenomena—it’s called an “oddball event”. Oddball events bunch time up, dam it, release it in a flood.
We know that time is subjective; it bends with sadness. It slows with cold, speeds with heat, stretches with awe, stretches with new events. When something looms on the horizon it slows. It changes as we manipulate objects at difference scales. Times passes quickly for the miniaturist. Hummingbirds experience a minute like a day, whales experience sound “sped up”. I’ve heard people talk about years when each month was like every other month and all the months bled into one another to make the all the years a month.
I spent the summer after graduate school at my parents’ house. Every day I got up, drank coffee, wrote. I went to the Kennebec River. I swam in the river. I watched the river change. I swam for hours. I once swam five miles. Sometimes I got out and ran. I went home. I felt the drop, my body cooling, fatigued. I showered. I helped my dad start a fire outside. We cooked a salmon on the grill. I ate the salmon, sometimes blueberry pie my mom made. I fell asleep, deeply asleep, asleep like the dark of the sky sleeps in the blue of the day. I repeated, day after day, and at the end of three months, which seemed to stretch on as infinitely as the reflections I swam through daily, I could only remember the summer compressed into a twenty-four hour period. My experience of it was expansive, endless; my memory of it was bounded to a single cycle of the sun.
Before I drove to the Midwest, literally less than a week before Zeebee was hitched to a trailer and hit a stretch of asphalt that runs all the way to the opposite coast, I spent a week on an open boat with the crew from the Apprenticeshop. We sailed around the coastal waterways of Maine, tucked up into a river, found ourselves at a standstill as we fought the converging forces of tide and wind, anchored and covered our boats with tarps for sleeping, survived a mosquito swarm, sang songs on the crests of waves under darkening skies; drifted off under so many stars that the Milky Way was obscured; spat into the bioluminescence; visited an island that had been populated by the same family for two hundred years; cooked every night as a group, fell asleep, dropped into wave troughs. The week seemed like a month.
Mississippi time oscillates between these two experiences, the Kennebec and the sea. Events that would flick by in an instant from a car take up giant shining spots in my memory. The sun inches higher, the temperature with it, and the wind picks up. A dead fish drifts by. This is all the same reel on repeat, condensed in a few days, but when I think of the world back home it feels like I’ve been away for a year: Everyone has changed. Everyone is grey, everyone is gone. It feels urgent to call home. It seems far away, impossible to reach. I say to Morgan: how long has it been, a month she says. A month? A month is nothing. Nothing changes in a month in the rest of the world.
What is peculiar about this particular experience of time is its fragmentation—I want to fully give into “river time”, allow the pace to slow and any reminder of clocked time to sink to the bottom with the river silt, but the Mississippi is less contained than a summer in the Kennebec or a week at sea, and its sense of time suffers for that. Every place we dock, in every town, especially on the town slips, we are reminded of other paces of existence. We hear the railroad, the reason that standardized time was invented in the first place, the very antithesis of our experience on the water, trundling along with consistent rhythm to keep success in line with the minute. In Prescott we docked under a rail bridge and a highway bridge; I heard the train with its piercing blast at all hours along with the asphalt sweep of tires and the town clock too, chiming off the hours as Zeebee tapped against the city dock. We exist In the push and pull of these intersecting timelines.
Every time we move off a dock, Morgan and I plunge into an alternative timeline, all day subsumed by an organically moving chronology, aware of how the pace of life is both slow and fast, how time is a mutable substance, how it vanishes and reappears, and then we pull up to a slip, sun-weary and hungry in the way you are after a day at the beach, and a post-industrial pace comes crashing in. Friends traveling alongside us via car cover the distance we traveled–our whole day–in twenty minutes.
Once, as we were pulling up to the the town dock in Oquawka, Iowa, five or six zippy duck boats swarmed us and simultaneously moved around our port and starboard, then speedily pulled into their docking spots where they were loaded onto the back of pickups, which went roaring off before we could lumber over to our slip. We yelled to them across the water as they passed, less than twenty feet away, Morgan trying to reach one of them off the fore deck, me attempting to communicate from the aft, but nobody could hear us. One or two attempted to respond but were swept away by their boats. Most looked at us, smiled, nodded, and disappeared before we even stepped onto land. They couldn’t slow down for us. Our questions about water depth in the harbor were swallowed up in the narrow space between us and them, as if we existed in an alternate dimension.