Edge of the Storm, Edge of the Sun

Note: our trip is officially over for the summer, but we will continue next summer and we will  update our blog regularly in the interim–there’s lots to say about our journey that hasn’t been said!

Earlier this week I read a headline in the local newspaper for the area around Hannibal, MO: Solar Eclipse Disappoints Locals. A few pages away there was a piece on our journey with pictures of Morgan, our roadcrew Aaron and I beaming from the interior of Michi Zeebee. The same reporter wrote both articles—we met him in a Starbuck’s in Quincy, IL when we edged in on his table in search of an outlet to charge our VHF radio. He struck up a conversation by asking if we had a radio show, and eventually revealed to us that he was supposed to cover the eclipse at a hen house—his editor wanted to know if the birds would roost in the artificial night. He would spend the epic national moment with a bunch of birds. We thought we might tag along, but fate and the weather took us other places.

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About Time

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?

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Locks and the Unlikely Vessels that Travel Through Them


The very first Lock and Dam we entered was Lock and Dam #2 at Hastings, MN, roughly 25 miles from where we started in St. Paul. Lock and Dam #1 just above St. Paul was closed a couple of years ago over concerns about invasive species making their way down river.

There are 29 locks on the Upper Mississippi alone and so far we have been through 18 of them. Locks on the Mississippi were constructed during the Great Depression with the last lock being completed in 1940, making the river navigable for commercial traffic.

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Pearl City

Terry Eagle calls river clams Gold. Two days ago I held one in my hand. It had a dark, rough, bark-like exterior, not at all like gold, and a slick coating of mother-of-pearl on the interior, which looked more like Damascus steel than gold, shining in milky silver rings of subtly colored white.

Mr. Eagle is the Assistant Director at the Pearl Button Museum at the Muscatine History and Industry Center in Muscatine, Iowa, a town self-dubbed “Pearl City”. When he says “gold” he’s referring to the economic and social implications of gold rather than its material characteristics—the river clam caused a kind of a gold rush in the Midwest in the latter half of the nineteenth and early half of the twentieth centuries. At the peak of the rush, Muscatine was using the shell in the production of over 1.5 billion “pearl buttons” annually, more than a third of the world’s total production. They poured out of the river-ways and streets of the town, gathered from two hundred species of clam as visually wide ranging as the Heel Splitter, named for its tendency to maul pollywoggers—who clammed using their feet—and the “Pinky”, which were used to make tinted buttons before effective methods for dying shell were invented. Many river clams lived for over a century and grew to be larger than six inches wide with thick shells that make their saltwater counterparts seem as delicate as porcelain.

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Cowboys Don’t Wear Neckties

“Real cowboys don’t wear ties,” said the waitress in a matter of fact tone, as I gazed up at the ceiling of Sneaky Pete’s Restaurant in LeClaire, Iowa. Rafter after rafter featured rows of clipped ties. There were hundreds of ties, maybe even thousands. Every pattern and color imaginable was present in this collection of ties from Mickey Mouse to Paisley to dancing cows to the standard blue striped tie.

“When a man comes in wearing a tie we cut the end right off and nail it to the ceiling,” exclaimed the waitress. I imagined all the businessmen who passed through Sneaky Pete’s walking around with remnants of their ties pondering their cowboynesss. Were they on the way to becoming more of a cowboy? Or did they just fill up on beer and wings and proceeded to buy another paisley tie and head back to their cubicle?

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Fore Deck to Aft Deck: Communications on a Small but Noisy Vessel

It’s loud at the back of the boat. Our motor is only 25 hp, but 25 over 8 hours adds up. I’ve taken to wearing my shop ear protection while driving to fend off the headaches that come from exposure to long-term white noise. The ear protection, along with my explorer hat and ninja face mask, plus my wrap-around shades and a red umbrella locked to the top of the cabin, protects me from the sun but not from the stares of sun-drenched boaters who pass us. I cover almost as much of my body as they leave bare in their Bermuda shorts and bikinis.

Between the ear protection, the humming motor, and the added obstacle of a twelve-foot-long cabin topped with a hydroponics garden, I can barely ever hear anything Morgan says on the fore deck from my position on the aft deck. Not only are we on different ends of the boat, but we’re also at different elevations; Morgan is stationed on the deck and I’m perched above cabin height to steer from the cabin roof. Standing with feet on the deck, neither of us is tall enough to look straight over the cabin, so Morgan has taken to climbing up on the forward combing to pop her head up and yell back at me over the cabin top. Sometimes she comes all the way back through the boat, suddenly appearing at knee-height to tell me something. I’ll be lost in thought, or scanning the horizon, or partially transfixed by the humming of the motor, or happily singing to myself, and I’ll discover with a start that Morgan is standing beside me, at the base of my ladder on the deck.

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Bellevue, Iowa

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.

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Convivium Urban Farmstead and Hydroponic Gardens

I recently discovered two incredible things – Convivium Urban Farmstead and working with pallet wood, which I did at Convivium. Emily and I were lucky enough to get connected with Mike and Leslie, the kindest, coolest people, and founders of Convivium. They not only put us up at their place, but gave us full use of their wood shop where we had planned to build a couple of things, but ended up building other things based on our experiences there. We arrived just in time for the grand opening of their space, two 1920s-era greenhouses, with a commercial kitchen, a coffee house, and wood shop/learning center, dedicated to creating community around food.

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Three days ago we were presented with an official city of Dubuque flag from Mayor Roy Buol with Representative Chuck Isenhart and Arts and Cultural Affairs Coordinator Debra Alleyne standing by on the Ice Harbor dock, among other supporters and city officials. Debra called us brave and original and other embarrassing things, and we accepted the honor with the sun hitting my retinas so hard it made me cry. Morgan and Roy were clearly the professionals (close your eyes and count to three and then open them at the last minute, Chuck said from the sidelines, though apparently I’m not much for following directions). They all came out beachy and golden in their photos, while I look like someone is quietly pulling off my toe nails below the crop of the camera frame.

After I recovered from the assault of the evening light and turned to take pictures from an angle that was more backlit, I looked down at the flag we all had stretched out in front of us: it was a simple design, a gold rectangle floating in an expanse of blue and green, which I took to be representative of the Mississippi, though the Mississippi that day was a brownish morass of stumps and logs floating in algae swirls around the docks from the recent storms. The flag was almost as big as Michi Zeebee’s forward wall. It was also upside down. Another round of photos, this way right-side up, and we were formally tied to the city where this idea was first hatched. Officially bonafide.

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Michi Zeebee’s Test


Thunderstorms are rolling through Dubuque one after another. As rain pelts the windows and power goes out in the neighborhood we wonder how Zeebee is doing.

Zeebee lost one of her canvas doors in the last storm. There are reports of 70 mph gusts for tonight. This will be a true test. We might have to do some repairs in the morning, but alas she is a sturdy craft so all might be well. Stay tuned.

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