Part 4: The Missouri River brings me closer to myself
The book I took on the river journey was The Education of Henry Adams. It was perfect. The sixty-some author and historian looked back on his life and realized the classical education he received as a child and young man didn’t equip him for changes the American Industrial Revolution wrought. Where he learned of a society that had unity, the world had atomized. He felt the growing irrelevance of his life and achievements.
At first glance, it’s an odd book for a river journey. Adams didn’t go outside much, that I know of. I don’t think he ever slept on the ground or sat on a stream in a canoe. He was an indoor guy worried about domestic pursuits. He ran with statesmen and diplomats. His major concern centered on international relations.
I have never rubbed shoulders with well-bred society types like Adams. In many ways, our lives took place in worlds apart. Still, as I read, I began to see parallels between us. He contemplated insignificance. The older I get, the more inconsequential I feel. Adams reflected on his life and found it had little significance in the vast stretches of history. I felt the same way about myself.
It was good, sitting riverside, to consider my immaterial essence. Next to the river, almost everything else — world affairs, domestic worries, politics, massacres in war-torn regions — doesn’t matter. What’s important was this book, my thoughts, and the river.
It rained the night of our stay in Atchison — not a deluge, but a comforting, solid rain that tapered off as the day bloomed. Around 8 a.m., the bells at Benedictine College struck and echoed down through the park and onto the river. I got out and took a look at things. It was cloudy but had stopped raining. The trimmed park was deep green. The last drops plopped out of the trees and onto the tent.
We broke camp and made ourselves cold breakfasts. The trip from the campsite to the river seemed shorter than it did in the heat of the afternoon the day before. We were on the water by 9:15 and paddling our way toward Leavenworth.
One of the worries that stitched my sleep the first couple of nights on the river was the possibility of canoeing in the rain, specifically during a thunderstorm. I have been stuck in the middle of the river during thunderstorms. They scared me white. Frightening as the thought seemed, I realized about the third morning of the trip that I ought not worry about it. It was a fact of life. It may never happen on this trip. Besides, I had experience. I knew what to do if a storm blew in.
Shortly after we started out from Atchison, the rain began. It was steady. We had very little wind. We broke out a poncho for Nick and what I thought was a waterproof windbreaker for me. It’s waterproof qualities faded years ago, however. Oh, well. I thought about our clogged stove and a broken tent zipper. That’s what I get for having twenty-year-old stuff. Maybe, over the next few months, I had better reconsider my gear and lay in some new.
It stayed rainy and misty for miles. It was lovely. Clouds crept up the hardwoods on the hillsides. Above, gray and white jagged clouds tattered the sky. The fears I had a day or two before of hypothermia for Nick and discomfort for me seemed laugable. Every now and then, the rain stopped and the woods stood out in detail in the crystal clear air.
Memories came to me. The Rhein Valley, where I once lived in Germany, was this green, so green it hurt. The hills rose up from the river bank two and three hundred feet into the sky. I once stood at the tree line above the Firehole River in Yellowstone. It had been raining all day. When it broke, the clouds fluttered along the valley floor and up over the pine hills. The air was crisp, the place silent but for the plash of the river. I walked toward the river in the buffalo grass, my feet sinking into humps where new thermal seeps were trying to emerge above ground.
The Firehole is a young and errant child compared to the Missouri, which flowed here fat and sweet. But they share a river-ness, a quality of solidity and reliability. While the Firehole Valley is small, tiny, compared to the Missouri, like the Missouri the Firehole expressed the life entire of its valley. I like that and it put a smile on my face as I paddled further, deeper into the rain.
About two and half hours in, we stopped on a silty bar behind a wing dike. Rain pattered down on the mud. I took a first step and the mud was solid enough to stand on.
“This is what you’re talking about, dad,” Nick said, walking away from the canoe, “when you talk about the different colors of sand and silt bars.”
“Yep,” I said. “You kind of get a feel for it after a while.”
“I’ve been watching the different kind of bars as we go along,” he said. “This one definitely has a different color from the sand we slept on the other night.”
“We’re lucky this one’s sort of solid. Most of the time they are muck.”
We took a while into the amphitheater-like horse shoe of mud bank that rose straight up from the water and mud of the bar. Blue heron tracks zig-zagged across the bar. Deep prints pocked the mud. Raccoon and skunk had been here. It looked as if the piping plovers had been playing down at the water’s edge.
We headed back out into the rain. The wind bothered us not at all. The rain gave the river a matte surface. When it fell hard, the peculiar sound of a million splashes on the river inundated us. Nick though nothing of it, or if he did, he didn’t say. He paddled occasionally but spent most of his time looking out at the river unfolded before us.
We passed Leavenworth. I was glad we didn’t have to stop there overnight. The city keeps a nice park there, with a boat ramp and campground. But for a couple of paddlers, the campground is impossibly far from the boat ramp. The thought of carrying our stuff all that way put a frown on my face.
We passed a concrete and fenced enclosure. Rows of orange nun and green can buoys stood in rows on what used to be a Coast Guard station’s boat mooring. The steel wall rose straight up from the water about fifteen feet. My dad spent 35 years in the Coast Guard reserve and did all of his weekend-a-month duty at Leavenworth. As we floated past, I remembered the weekends that he took us with him on duty, usually times when mom was sick or had family responsibilities. At that time, the station consisted of a fenced parking lot and a single wide.
Once, we went aboard the cutter Scioto, the sixty-five-foot buoy tender stationed at Leavenworth. It was the highlight of my life to that time. The warren of cabins, crew areas, and engine compartments fascinated me. It all seemed so tight, so small on the inside. Everything was so tiny. The little galley was the same size as my kitchen at home but built to serve the twelve to fourteen mariners aboard. Of course, I wanted to take a ride but a working government boat had no place for children. I was disappointed to know that my dad rarely, if ever, went out on the boat while it was on duty. He worked on the engines and mechanical systems of the station. He was not a mariner.
I tried to tell Nick about it. I have learned, however, that you can’t give kids your memories. They have to do it themselves. The trip was giving him experiences that he would remember in the future. My work was making sure he had the experience. I could not tailor it to him.
Steve had messaged us about a fine sandbar at mile 403.7 on Weston Bend. We saw plenty of great places to camp after Leavenworth. It’s almost as if the river had saved them up and put them in places we didn’t need them. After a few miles, those bars disappeared. We pulled into Weston Bend. The hill on which the state park sits rose up from the floodplain back away from the river about a quarter of a mile. Underneath lie a perfect bar for the night.
We came ashore and the rain stopped almost immediately. Shreds of blue peeked through the gray and white above. Steve left behind stripes in the sand where he had pulled his boat from the water. The remnants of a small fire sat next to the water. A good sandy beach rose up to a spit of flat sand big enough for our tent and gear. We unloaded the boat and set it upside down on the incline. The water would have to rise a couple of feet before we had anything to worry about.
Restless sleep the night before left me exhausted. After we set camp, I left Nick to gather the little bit of wood on the bar and got in the tent. The day was still cloudy and cool. I fell asleep almost immediately and dreamed of being on the river in the rain. I felt no fear. The river had swallowed up my worries for me. In the dream, we lived on the river. It was the only world we knew. Our lives, my son and I, consisted of endless cycles of paddling and camping, fires and starry nights. A text on the phone snatched me from my sleepy realm.
About the same time, the sun came out full and burned me out of the tent. I was refreshed and felt great. I read on and off, spending a lot of time looking out over the river and up to the hill behind us. Although train tracks ran up under the hill, we might have been a thousand miles from anywhere. No one knew we were here. No one cared. It was just us, the river, the sandy beach, and a pleasant breeze.
Nick entertained himself in the water. He dug holes and canals in the sand with the blade of one of our paddles. He wanted to play cards, a complicated game that could go on for hours. I didn’t have patience for it and gave it up after about an hour. I went back to reading. Nick started a new project, a giant hole in the sand. He shoveled with the paddled and shoved sand around with his hands. Soon, he had dug down to the water level. He climbed in and continued to haul sand out with his hands. He yelled at me. Hey, look! He was in the hole up to his hips. He was quite proud of himself.
I fetched some drift from the high bank behind the bar while Nick started a fire. Unlike a lot of sandbars, this one had almost no wood. Besides the sticks I gathered, we had two long logs we would have to feed in the fire.
I boiled water for our dinners on the fire and then some for a cup of tea. We ate without talking, listening to the strong river flow by in silence. The wind had died down to nothing. We were both happy. I asked Nick how he was doing. He said, “Never better.” I told him it felt good to be out here and away from myself.
“Maybe,” he said, “You are closer to yourself now than when you’re at home.”
I thought about that after we had gone to bed. We would be home the next day. What will I take from the river this time, I thought. It had helped me to get my life on track before. This time would be no different.
I had faith in that.