Part 4: The Missouri River brings me closer to myself


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.

IMG_0016[2]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.

Part 3: Trouble in Atchison, Kansas


Nick was still asleep in the tent. I had a few minutes to myself. I breathed in the fog heavy air filled with the smells of dried grass and river. I felt light. I was empty of the uncertainties I brought with me on the trip. They were lost out there somewhere on the water.

IMG_0012[1]Mornings have been hard for me for about the last year. I wake slowly, unevenly, and lie in bed, eyes closed. Soon, the stings of conscience begin to get me. I rustle around, waiting to go back to sleep. I know I should be up, getting work done, finding an agent, writing something. But I lie there until the alarms in my head just won’t stop. I heave into the bathroom and look at myself in the mirror. What’s there to get up for?

The feeling that I have committed some unspeakable sin haunts me. For this, I seek redemption. But what is this sin? I have lived two lives, one of absolute dissolution, another of being too earnest for my own good. Finding a center, a balance eludes me. It’s either action or inaction, intense energy or lethargy, being on or turning off. I feel emotionally unstable while people around me tell me I’m just the opposite.

Sitting there in my chair, it didn’t matter. It probably never did. I notice these moments when everything is just all right and as it should be. They come so infrequently.

I had no revelations or epiphanies. My head was empty and I was calm. The sun came up over the hills in the distance. The river access was strangely quiet. I expected anglers to be getting their boats out early, but nothing stirred. Good for us, I thought.

After a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal, Nick and I broke down camp and packed up quickly. We were meeting Steve at the boat ramp and I wanted to be ready to take off. He had camped a few miles upstream on a tiny sandy shelf that was only big enough for him and his boat.

The day was clear and grew hot quickly. No breeze came off the water to relieve the heat. We paddled ten miles into St. Joseph and got out at the French Bottoms river access. The ramp came up into a large parking lot. On one side sat the St. Jo Frontier Casino, and on the other a slick new nature center. We pulled our boats up on the ramp and headed for a picnic pavilion. Someone had defecated by one of the picnic tables there. A man in business casual sat on another of the tables, listening to an inspiring Christian song on his phone. The music was loud and distorted. The man smoked and his motions indicated he was really into his music. We took up on the table opposite the pile on the floor.

We ate lunch and drank up as much of our warm water as we could. After, we went up to the nature center and found that they would let us fill our water containers in the triple sink in their utility room. The woman at the front was friendly and interested in what we were doing. The air conditioning felt sterile and sanitized. Two or three days outside in the summer sun does things to you. The cooled air felt great. After a few minutes, I wanted to get outside into the heat again.

We slalomed through the St. Joseph waterfront between bridges and barges. We weaved and dodged a large dredge set in the center of the channel. Disused industrial infrastructure—dolphins (large vertical metal cylinders filled with concrete set just next to the bank), cranes, lifts—sat deteriorating on the bank under the downtown. A complex of highways hemmed in the city and separated it from the river. As we padded by one of the dolphins, Nick noticed that kids were playing on the steel superstructure of a crane, climbing up twenty feet or so and jumping in the river. They were about Nick’s age.

I told Nick “I’ve never hit you, but if I found out you were doing something like that, I’d paddle your ass.” Nick pulled on his mischievous smile.

“What if you never found out?” he said. He lifted the brim of his hat and looked at me over his glasses.

“Well, I guess I wouldn’t paddle your ass.”

“I suppose I’ll never tell you, then,” he laughed.

We pulled into a long, slow stretch of river that we dawdled on. It was luxurious to lounge in the boat after the barges and bridges, which always make me nervous. About six miles out of town, we spied a sandbar on the right bank. It would make a perfect overnight.

Steve set to painting and Nick to playing with fire. I wrote a long time in my notebook and then read another while longer. The day passed without a whisper. Between feeding logs into the fire, Nick dug holes in the sand with one of our paddles. He lobbed handfuls of sand in the water. He waded, swam, and frolicked. I looked up at one point and realized that, if I wanted, if I could, I could leave all my worries swallowed up out there on the river.

Sun set on the river in purple and pink. The water flowed like glass. There wasn’t a sound. When night had fallen, we each padded off to bed, one after the other. We hardly had a chance to look at the sky.

The next morning, Steve took off before we did. He wanted to paddle the 40 miles into Leavenworth that day. He was interested in getting back into his studio to see what he could do with his paintings. Nick and I were in no hurry, though. We had it before us to paddle 20 miles into or around Atchison. We hoped to find a good sandbar to overnight on.

We were on the water by 9 a.m. It was a perfect day. Wind came up occasionally and blew the boat around some, but it was nothing that slowed us down. We got into still stretches, where the river ran fat and slow. Nick laid back on the dry bags and put his feet up. I leaned back into the area behind my seat and put my hands behind my head. We watched the bank run by and uttered not a word for miles.

As we closed in on Atchison, we started looking for a place to stay. The river offered us nothing but silty seeps that wouldn’t hold a tent. We rounded long bends, hoping that that magic sandbar would appear. When we made it to the Atchison boat ramp, we decided we had gone as far as we wanted to go.

We talked to a guy who had been playing out on the water with a jet ski. Dave was in his early 60s, dressed in long swim trunks and slick PFD. He told us that he took his machine out on the water just to “tool around.”

“I don’t have anyone to take me out,” he said. “So I have to pull up to this dock here, see. Then I go get my truck and let myself out.”

“You do this a lot, then,” I said.

“Only all the time. For winter, I have a wet suit like they use in the ocean.”

Dave introduced us to Larry, the Parks and Rec employee at the riverfront park, who was trimming the place with a weedeater. I asked if we could stay the night in the park. We hadn’t found a good place to camp, I said, and didn’t want to get stuck on the river for a long day. Larry said, “Well, they let people with kayaks and canoes and what not stay the night. Let me call my guy.”

After the call, Larry indicated where we could stay. The place was a nice, shaded area by the kid’s spraypark. The haul in from the boat ramp was plain, hard labor—up the long boat ramp, across the street, and then farther to the picnic table. With a little dogged persistence, we did just fine. When we were done, the canoe sat by a neatly stacked pile of our gear. After all, I thought, we are in a public place. We ought to exercise our sense of propriety.

I wanted to walk up to the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, which was just up the hill a couple of blocks from the park. But Nick had other plans. There were plenty of kids in the spraypark, and he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. He’s 14. He would be too grown up to enjoy playing in a spraypark when next summer came around, I thought.

We washed off at some outdoor showers attached to the public restrooms. Nick pulled on his swim trunks and ran and jumped and played. He and the other kids made up games. They turned the water on and off again, used plastic cups to catch the water. I sat in the shade, reading.

When Nick had enough, we walked up to the museum. I asked Nick what time it was. 4 p.m. The house was a pretty place, Victorian, in a carefully sculpted lawn. We walked up to the front door. The admission hours were printed on a small card in a window there. Closing time, 4 p.m.

Nick came back and played in the park again for another couple of hours. When it came time for dinner, that’s when I discovered the stove shot craps. The feeder valve for the fuel to the burner was completely clogged. It took the wind right out of me. Normally, it’s difficult to get Nick to eat enough. He can go for days without getting hungry. I didn’t need to exacerbate the condition by telling him we had nothing to eat because we couldn’t cook.

My mind started going over what we’d eat on the way home. We had plenty of peanut butter. Our rice dinner and ramen would have to go unused unless we could find a sandbar where we could build a fire. We didn’t need to heat water for the instant oatmeal; it would work with cold water. We had enough calories to get home, I supposed. We would just have to do without hot food.

I asked a man at the park with his grandsons where we could find something to eat. He was an odd sort, naked to the waist with a full beard. He had no teeth. He spoke nicely enough to the parents around him, but constantly yelled at his grandkids. “Don’t run, goddammit!” “I said stay off that thing!” “Play in the water!” “Why the hell do you think I brought you here for?” But the kids had a great affinity for the old man, and I could tell that, as much as he yelled at them, that he loved having them around.

Well, there’s a McDonalds about five blocks that way, he said, pointing. From previous experience, I learned that when people say things are just a short walk away, they have never walked that short way and it’s always a hell of a lot longer than just a couple of blocks.

We changed our clothes and put on our shoes. Just as we were on our way, the man said that he’d take us into the McDonalds if we didn’t mind riding in the back of his truck. Sure, I said, that’d be great. We climbed into the back of his rusty truck. He apologized for the mess of used tires and scrambled up fishing gear. He started the truck with a screwdriver.

That five blocks turned out to be something like two miles.

I ate, consciously, two cheeseburgers. It was the first meat I’d eaten on purpose in 20 years. I had a hunger, and something possessed me. I soon found out that after 20 years, McDonalds cheeseburgers are as tasteless and unfulfilling as they had always been. But I was happy to see Nick eat, even if the processed chicken nuggets had little to do with chickens. The cold pop, however, went down fabulously. I bought hamburgers and pops for the grandsons. They looked at Nick and me like we were the greatest adventure of their lives.

We got back to the park and Nick took to the spraypark for the third time. The old guy and I sat at the picnic table. He was more of a talker than a listener, and he loved to talk. He was good enough, I thought. He spoke simply and honestly. He told me about driving trucks. He had done it for over twenty years. Now, he lived in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, but was up visiting his daughter and doing some freelance truck driving for a construction company in Atchison.

He bought and collected Harley Davidsons. He said he was going to make sure he bought every one of his grandkids a Harley and hold onto them until the kids were old enough to ride them. At present, he owned the one he drove regularly, and four others he kept in pristine condition in his garage. “They’re ready,” he said, “for the time these kids want them. And I know they will.”

His talk once in a while took on a racist undertone. It was distasteful to me but I have endured a whole lifetime of it, and I wasn’t going to change him in one conversation. After a while, I was ready for him to leave, but there was no way to get rid of him. Fortunately, the spraypark shut off on its own at 8 p.m. The old man herded the kids into the truck, wished us well, and disappeared in a puff of smoke.

The park fell silent. The men who had been diddling around the parking lot at the boat ramp pulled their boat out of the water and drove away. It was just Nick and me.

After we put the tent up and crawled inside, Nick nodded off immediately. I was wakeful. The park turned out to be a cruising place for the locals. After we had gone to bed, trucks—and it seemed everyone drove a truck—illuminated the tent in their headlamps. Some drove slowly by. At one point, a truck (I could tell by the sound) slowed down as they pulled up toward where we were parked.

“Hey, is that even legal?” I heard one say. I assumed he meant having campers at the park.

“No,” said the other. “Hell, no.”

“Hey, time to get up,” the first yelled at us. “It’s already 10:30 in the morning. Time to get out of here.”

The truck drove up through the parking lot. When it came back around, the other man shouted, “Wake up! Time to get on out of here, pussies!”

It was a small incident, a couple of kids in their twenties with nothing to do. But all night, every time a truck drove by on the road or pulled into the park, I thought it might be the yahoos come back from the bar to make trouble. What would I do? I thought to myself. What would they do to us? Not much unless they were real maniacs. But what do you do with drunks?

The feeling I’d committed a sin, something that marked me, made me inferior came back to me. Maybe I was enduring punishment I deserved. At some point, a thunderstorm sat down on us and it started to rain. Nothing would happen to us then, I thought. Troublemakers don’t like the rain. Under cover of the storm, finally, I fell asleep. Troubled dreams plagued me.

Part two: The Missouri River forgets


Ennui and lack of enthusiasm conquered the last several months, extending now to years, of my life. I wanted a way out, a way to see that, in fact, I’m a lucky guy with a decent home, family, and work. But it didn’t happen. I constantly got up in the morning looking forward to the afternoon nap. I wanted the spark back. I didn’t want everything to be a chore. Meanwhile, I sat at my computer and bemoan the work I’m not getting done. I do a lot of navel gazing. Every day presented an existential crisis.

IMG_0007[1]That’s why, all summer, I looked forward to and dreaded our trip on the Missouri River. From my perspective as a depressed, lackadaisical subject of life’s stiffer breezes, I knew it meant work. The tedium of packing and unpacking every day seemed labors that would really take it out of me. But I would have to do them, not only to get downstream but to show my son a good time and arrive home safely. I knew that once on the river, my worries and lack of energy would disappear.

Sitting at Rulo the day the wind shut us down, I realized once again the river is large and I am small. The fear of all that water overtook me. I paced nervously and was distracted at reading and writing. Nick entertained himself down at the bank and I thought of disaster.

The morning we took off from Rulo, my mind shifted. The worry left, the listless boredom that plagues me disappeared. I thought of the work ahead to get on the water. The whole of it felt a chore. I remembered that if I do one thing, then another, the day moves from sleep to river without any disturbance.

We woke easy that morning. Nick wanted to sleep longer and I let him. Steve got up just after I did. Our things were strewn around the site as if a bomb had exploded. Everything has a place in those dry bags, and getting one thing out means that it all has to come out.

But one thing at a time. I fired up the stove for coffee. Steve set about the meticulous work of packing his innumerable dry bags and packages to stow in his kayak. Nick emerged from the tent about twenty minutes later. As I heated water for breakfast of instant oatmeal, I asked Nick to roll up our mattresses and stuff the sleeping bags into their sacks.

Steve and I renewed our efforts to get to know one another, as I put out pots for the hot water and oatmeal. When Nick and I had eaten, we started to pack. Sleeping things, towels, and extra shoes went into one dry bag. When Nick had packed up his clothes, we put our rucksacks in the other dry bag with our extra clothes—we had brought sweatshirts and long pants, just in case—books, and notebooks. Both of them sealed, I walked them down the boat ramp. We packed our cooking things after we washed them into the utility box, which contains everything from insect repellent to maps to the granola bars we would eat that day.

Once we had our things down by the river, Nick and I carried our boat down the ramp and set it partially in the water. The river was comfortably cool on my feet. I took a minute and considered the river. Down here, on the water, the river lost its frightening aspect. We would spend the day out there. This would be our home.

Packing the canoe took just a couple of minutes. I had thought about how to balance the canoe as I packed our gear. Nick is a skinny kid. I weigh 216 pounds, about twice what he does. The weight of all our stuff would have to sit forward, behind Nick, if we were to ride level and prevent those headwinds from turning us about like a weather vane. I put in the boxes behind Nick’s seat, and the dry bags behind him. The utility box, a plastic tote, would sit in front of me. The eighty pounds of water we had in two five gallon collapsible containers would ride up front behind Nick.

Nick and I donned our PFDs, took up our paddles, and I pushed the boat in the water. After we climbed in, we pushed the boat out into the current. The world in which we found ourselves, snapped into focus. We were on the river. I was suddenly calm. We would get there.

And where was “there”? The thing I was looking for may be the there. We were on the cusp of forming a milestone in Nick’s life, his first long-term contact with the river, a kid growing into an adult. It was all there. I wished for myself peace. Enlightenment, maybe? A place where I can sit with myself at home and not feel I need distraction?

My life doesn’t have much great in it because I don’t let it. I fill it with television. Naps, which have lately been noisy affairs full with the sting of conscience. What do I need to do? Who do I have to E-mail? What has my life come to? There’s a leak in the basement. The back yard’s a mess? What if it rains too much and causes the retaining wall to fall in on itself again? I have a hundred questions with no answers, a thousand scenarios in which I fail.

A breeze lifted the vegetal and green smells off the river. I took a deep breath and looked back to see how Steve was getting along. I dug the paddle into the water and felt the river in my hands again. I was sure of myself. I knew this part. Whatever may happen, I was certain I would be all right at this.

The eleven miles between Rulo and White Cloud went by swiftly. We met Steve at the boat ramp. A park spread out from the ramp in both directions. At one end stood a roofed kiosk with formal panels that told of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The local bass fishing club built a fish cleaning station, a covered patio with tables and spigots, from which large chutes carried fish guts back out into the river.

The place was open and friendly. Several of the locals stopped in to see what was up. They had called one another to say that travelers were in. Steve hooked his phone into the electrical box provided at the park. He set up an easel and took out his watercolors. After a good break with water and granola bars, Nick and I set back on the river.

We decided to meet Steve at Payne’s Landing, a Missouri Department of Conservation boat access. It was a barren place. No trees, just a boat ramp and gravel lot. We set up our camp chairs on the ramp by the water. I read and Nick threw rocks while we waited for Steve, who came in about an hour after we arrived.

After five or six miles on top of the 22 we paddled to Payne’s Landing, we started to look for camping spots. Day was clear and hot. The river was calm, the winds of the day before just a memory. The river led us along the way. We wound around long bends in the river, following the Coast Guard daybeacons that indicated where the main channel ran.

Nick sat and watched the river while I paddled. Every now and then, he picked up his paddle and worked it a while. For long periods, I set the paddle aside and just floated. In the late afternoon, the cicadas buzzed in the cottonwoods and crickets brought the shores alive with sound. Swallows dodged and dove before us, sometimes skimming the water. There’s something good about sitting in the canoe baking in the sun, the smell of sunscreen lofting up beneath a floppy hat. We watched the banks go by.

Sandbars we hoped to find were nonexistent. Everywhere the river carved out the silty banks behind the control structures—wing dikes and revetment—in large amphitheaters. Formerly, these would have offered us broad sandbars on which to camp. But the 2011 flood scoured out all the sand and the river had yet had time to build new ones.

In the late afternoon, Steve spotted a level area of sand behind the bank revetment on the current side of the stream. He pulled in and hailed us. We paddled up and stopped at the side of the bank. His boat is made of durable plastic. Kevlar and hardened gelcoat make up my boat. The rocks didn’t look inviting to me and I feared punctures in the gelcoat. The place was big enough, really, for only one camper. We told Steve we would head downstream a couple of mile to the MDC boat ramp at Nodaway Island, where Steve said he’d meet us in the morning.

We paddled further, our eyes sharp for a good bit of sand where we could overnight. Nothing, except one beautiful spit where a couple of families played and swam. Cabins and single-wides lined the banks of a small stream that met the river there. We thought it was private land and passed it up. We found out later, to our chagrin, that the spot belonged to the MDC and would have made a perfect overnight.

Our hope for a good place to rest fell flat at Nodaway Island. It was another boat ramp and gravel lot, with the addition of a pit toilet without a roof. Nick and I were through, however, having done 37 miles from Rulo. The day was running long. We decided to stay instead of hoping for a good camp spot farther along. We carried our things to the top of the boat ramp, where we found a small lot of mown grass up against some cottonwoods that were obviously on private land.

We set up our chairs and watched people come and go at the ramp. One couple, a father and daughter, asked after us, where we were going and how long we wanted to take to get there. They put a smart motorboat into the water and said they were just going out to check their lines. And that’s all they seemed to do. They were back off the river twenty minutes after they left.

People at the boat ramp were friendly. People came up and asked us about out trip. Nick went down to the bank to throw rocks. An Amish family showed up in a minivan. Their companion, obviously not Amish, towed their small boat behind. The man, who started a conversation with us said that the family was going out on the water for six days. Two men in plain clothes with suspenders and old-timey hats got in the boat. A couple of women in bonnets and long dresses waited at the top of the ramp. It took a long time to get the men in the water and ready to go out on the river. The women and a few children waited until they were away before they climbed back into their minivan and drove out of the lot in a cloud of dust.

The shade of the cottonwoods enveloped me as I listened to Nick at the riverside. He amazed me. He had entertained himself in Rulo while we waited for the wind to let up and then when we were waiting for Steve. He sat down to read a book on his phone as long as it pleased him (which for him can be a long time). He skipped rocks and tossed them as far as he could. He rolled big rocks down the revetment and into the water. Then, when that tired him, he lobbed big ones in just to see how high he could get a splash.

Crashes and clunks of rocks echoed up off the river. One of the people who struck up a conversation told me that he’d been kicked out of the access for putting up a tent. I’ve found that authorities are forgiving when you come in off the river in a canoe or kayak. I only ever heard of one instance when police forced a paddler out of a park in the middle of the night, and that was in Parkville, a burg well known to be averse to paddlers. In all my years of paddling, I have never been put out of a conservation area access in my canoe.

I was waiting for sunset or the arrival of a game warden or sunset to put up the tent. Authorities like to be asked first, and I didn’t want to run the risk of having to put back on the river late in the day. When the sun set, Nick came up from the bank, where he had been playing for hours. We set up the tent, made dinner, and soon after dark were in bed.

I lie on the mattress and listened to Nick fall asleep. I could hear owls hooting in the night, and somewhere, coyotes started yipping. How far away my existential crises and petty worries seemed. All those fears of the river evaporated as soon as we were on the river and had not bothered me all day. Looking back, they seemed all puff and nonsense.

Nothing seemed out of place here. I found myself profoundly happy. Everything was perfect. Morning arrived just a blink of dreamless sleep later.

Part one: The Missouri abides


The Missouri River exerts powerful influence on me and my personality. As a force, it attracts me to it, and once on its banks, I can’t turn away. Fear fills my life. I’m scared of the future and worry over my career. I doubt my abilities as a father and a husband. I’m sure that I will fail at whatever I undertake. But standing next to the river, these anxieties fade and new ones take their place.

IMG_0003[2]I am afraid of river when I am not on it. It shoots 55,000 cubic feet of water a second at 3.5 to 4 miles per hour past Kansas City. Threat to life and security fill its waters. Eddies and backwaters immeasurably deep take on lives of their own. The control structures that constrict its flow and keep it in its banks threaten to overturn my boat and cast me to watery peril. I can’t see the bottom of it, and like all things I can’t see through, it scares me to my core.

One task at a time. I ready myself, my passenger, and my canoe for the journey that will deliver me home. When the work comes to an end, and it always does like some kind of surprise, the boat is ready. Our gear is packed and secured. All we have to do is climb in and go.

Swallowing my pride, I step into the boat and into the ethereal space between land and water. For a second, we are loosed into a divine world where we float above the worries of man and the dangers of the water. When the current captures the boat and turns the bow downstream, reality comes back into focus. When it does, my fear disappears as if it were never there. I wonder, as I make the first stroke with the paddle what put me on edge. The Missouri becomes my protector and my guide.

Wordlessly, my canoeing companion, if I have one, and I head downstream into the future. In the silence, I realize that domestic worries and the anxieties that arise from too much inaction and overthinking at home have vanished. I perceive my life more objectively. I want to do certain things. I have goals. On the surface of the river, those become meaningless. The river shows me that with patience and persistence, I can overcome any obstacle in my course and that the biggest hindrance to me is myself.

This particular journey comprised more than the 137 miles from Rulo, Nebraska, to Kansas City. My son Nick and I would be alone together outside of home for the first time in over a year—since we last went backpacking in central Missouri last summer. He had talked about our trip all summer. When people asked him what he was doing with his vacation, he always ended a litany of afternoons at the pool and of playing with his mates with, “My dad and I are going on the river in August.”

For my part, I put off thinking about the trip until after July 1. That would give me a month to make sure that we had all our equipment. We needed another dry bag to accommodate our clothes and sleeping gear. Since we were taking cell phones, I had to procure a battery or solar charger that would keep us in electricity. We had to sort through our gear and make sure we were taking only what we needed—a canoe can get crowded quickly, as the impulse is to take whatever we might need.

Between July 1 and our departure date of August 1, I had classes to tend to. I was trying to write a new essay every couple of days. I wanted to fill my days with creative endeavor. Every day, I fought to get out of bed. The inertia of age and existential doubt as to my place in the world, as well as my doubts of myself as a writer, plagued me. When I handed in my grades and tied up loose ends, I was glad to descend to the basement and pack for the trip. For a few minutes, at least, putting together our trip on the basement floor would distract me from myself.

Finally, we strapped the canoe—my trusty boat—to the top of the car and drove off up the Missouri Valley. When we arrived at Rulo, a fierce wind from the south tore up the river. It pushed rolling waves two feet tall against the current. Just as soon as we thought the wind died down, it erupted again in gusts that bent the cottonwoods and flailed the tall grass at the top of the bank. Waves sloshed over the bottom of the boat ramp and splashed against the bank revetment. The sound was incredible.

The skies all around spoke of rain. Gray curtains hung from the dark clouds to the north and south of us. The sky overhead was closed in thick. We were still dry, but the rain could strike at any minute.

My wife waited in the car as Nick and I unloaded our gear from the back seat and the trunk. We took the canoe off the racks on top of the car. We stood around, looking out across the angry river to the other bank. I shook my head.

My son Nick and I had planned to get on the Missouri River at Rulo head to White Cloud, Kansas, about eleven miles downstream. There, we would meet Steve Snell, a fellow Missouri River paddler, who had put in at Nebraska City two days before. Nick and I had a solid week—Monday to Sunday. Steve’s plans were flexible. We wanted to paddle the river a while together and see what came of it.

Virginia, Nick, and I waited to see what would happen with the wind. I called Steve, but cell phone reception was terrible. Texts, however, went through. Steve sent word that he was stuck at Indian Cave State Park, twenty miles upstream of Rulo. He had a kayak, which made paddling the river possible even in this wind. But he hadn’t gotten on the river yet. He spent the morning and most of the early afternoon waiting out severe wind and thunderstorms. It was getting on 1:30. Even if he got on the river immediately, we wouldn’t see him until early evening.

Virginia was hungry. We headed toward the Iowa Nation’s White Cloud Casino. There, we ate insipid but filling food. We loaded up on iced tea and pop. By the time we were back on the road, the sky had begun to open up and heat settled in. We drove down the winding river road back to Rulo. Standing at the top of the boat ramp and looking at the choppy, gray-green water, I decided wouldn’t be able to make any headway in that wind. We were windbound.

Virginia hugged and kissed us and took off back toward Kansas City. Nick and I spent the afternoon reading. He went to the water’s edge to skip rocks. I felt a pang of anxiety. What if this wind was going to be with us the entire week? We would have to fight for every mile? What about rain and thunderstorms?

I needn’t have bothered myself with these thoughts. I had been battling back anxiety all week. The scenarios came up in my mind. An overturned boat. Nick disappearing under the waves. A sudden thunderstorm while we were in the middle of the river. Nights shut in against the rain. Ragged days spent watching the wind beat up the water.

About 4 p.m., the wind settled down some. Steve sent a text to say he was underway and making good time. Nick and I explored the park. It was amazing that such a small town had such great riverfront facilities. The park spread out from a cornfield on one edge. A gravel road looped through the grass. A pit toilet and water spigot stood at the center of the park above the boat ramp. Several large cottonwoods provided shade.

While what Rulo offered doesn’t sound like much, my own town Kansas City presents something less inviting. Our riverfront boat access is little more than a ramp, parking lot, and vault toilet that’s always spattered with excrement. The water rises and inundates the toilet. There is no inviting ground for the paddler. At least at Rulo, they had water and enough space for paddlers to get their boats out of the water and set up tents.

About 6 p.m., Nick asked if the whole trip was going to be like this. By “this” I imagined he meant sitting around watching the water. Well, I said, of course, we will be on the water several hours during the day. We might find a good place to camp on the river, a fine sandbar with wood for a fire. But, yes, much of the day is left open to us to do whatever we want. You can play in the water, build fires, or build sandcastles if you want. I will want to do a lot of reading, but you can too. Why, is there something wrong? Do you think it will be boring?

No, he said. I was just asking.

Steve rounded the bend upstream above the Highway 156 bridge about 7 p.m. He had made amazing time. But now he was back in the full force of the wind. It took him about a half hour to cover that last mile.

We helped him up from the boat ramp. His kayak was a light but sturdy plastic boat. It amazed me how much gear he stashed away in the small holds. After we got him boat up from the ramp and to the area where we were camping, we introduced ourselves. It was the first time we had met. We connected with one another on a Facebook group we both belong to, and it was through that channel that we had planned our meeting.

Steve struck me at once as young and innocent. He had a friendly, boyish face that radiated under a large, floppy straw hat. I told him I was glad that I wasn’t the only one with a big, dumb hat.

We spent the evening getting to know each other. Steve is a new faculty member at the Kansas City Art Institute. After we had all cooked, eaten, and put away our gear, Steve set up an easel and took out his watercolors. We both looked downstream. I mentioned how I thought the scenery was right out of a Thomas Hart Benton landscape. He agreed and set to work.

Meanwhile, Nick and I set up our tent and made ready for the night. After a day of waiting, I was anxious to get out on the water the next day. The sun set in pink and orange hues. A few people came down to watch the river. A man wandered away from his car and told us stories that revealed his connections to the river. He loved spending the evening just standing on the bank, watching. The wind died down and the water smoothed out. Soon the river was flowing silently by.

The big river projects a presence in the night. It’s out there, a black plane under the starry sky. I feel it more than I can see it. My mind works on it. The fears I have of all that water come out in the dark. I see the wind pushing me up against the jagged revetment. I feel the pull of it beneath me as my boat upends and starts to go over. I’m afloat in the impenetrable depths, monsters lurking beneath the surface.

At the same time, it’s sure and steady, reliable. It never stops, no matter how dry the year. When we devoted ourselves to controlling it, we subjected ourselves to its power. Despite our efforts to control it, it constantly fled its banks and undermined our structures of control. We Americans had to tend it constantly. We were its handmaiden.

I liked that. I used to bemoan the changes we had made to the mighty stream. But now I know that it will be in our grasp only until we get distracted from it or we decide it’s too much trouble.

It will be there for me whenever I need it, and I needed it badly.

The debt I owe to Tony Beasley


Tony Beasley, first known to me as Conger, and I met at D’Bronx on 39th and Bell one fall afternoon. I had contacted him because he wrote travel memoir, which was and is my favorite genre. I asked him to come have a talk with me. He didn’t ask what the meeting was all about. It didn’t matter to him. That I was an aspiring writer was good enough.


Photo: St. Joseph News-Press

Over lunch, I asked him about becoming a writer and told him that I wanted more than anything to be one.

He was a handsome man with a huge smile. He looked at me from behind his round glasses, his deep brown eyes gleaming. “Patrick, I have no secrets to tell you. I have never made more than $7,000 in a year from writing.”

I was stunned. I thought that with his notoriety and the quality of his writing that he was a working writer. I had read several of his books and they spoke to me. The poetic, ethereal atmosphere he developed for his scenes and the intricate structures of his stories, I believed, was way beyond me. I knew he had something that I didn’t have. I wanted it.

“I also have to tell you that I find myself in special circumstances,” he continued. “I have money. I’m supported in ways that most writers aren’t. The fact is that I don’t have to make money from writing. I can do it because I have to and don’t have to worry about making my living from my work.”

He said this, I think, because he knew I didn’t have any money. At the time, I was laboring day and night at a Kansas City hotel, barely keeping the bills and child support paid. I had been writing for years. I had a stack of stories but no one to read them. I had submitted things occasionally to my favorite journals. But with each rejection, I withdrew, unable to handle the disappointment. I didn’t yet have a clue that the writer’s lot is rejection, and that for every hundred rejections, maybe one or two pieces would be published.

I had a long way to go. But that day that Tony sat down with me drove me further down the road I had to travel.

We sat at D’Bronx for hours, our lunches long gone and drinks emptied. We talked about writing, the process, and the creativity it took. At one point, he said he wanted to see a sample of my work. I had brought a piece with me that I hoped he would look at. At the time, I craved any kind of affirmation for my writing.

No one had ever encouraged me in my writing. Some teachers saw promise, I think, but discounted me as one unwilling to do the hard work it took to be a writer. My family and friends said to me that I shouldn’t aspire to being a writer. The competition is too rough, they said. I would never make it. One of my college teachers told me I should just give up the idea of writing. I wasn’t a writer, he said. I ought to find something that would make me some money.

When I gave Tony my piece, I expected that our meeting was complete, that we would part ways and that he’d get back with me at some point to tell me, as many had before, that I didn’t have the stuff to be a writer.

“Wait a minute,” he said. He began to read the piece. I watched his eyes move over the page. He carefully considered what he was doing and turned the pages slowly. I sat for about twenty minutes in silence, thinking that I was facing another grave disappointment.

“Patrick,” he said when he finished, “I think this is a good piece. It’s publishable. It needs some more attention. But the ideas are clear and the writing expressive. From reading this, I think you have everything you need to be a writer.”

He leaned forward, his arms on the table, and looked at me very seriously. “You see, you can’t let others dictate to you what you ought to do or what to do with your creativity. Being a writer is hard, heartbreaking work. If you are willing to put in that work . . . you don’t have to become a writer, Patrick. You are already a writer. You may not be able to make a living, few writers do. But that’s not really the point. The point is that you do the writing. Above all, you do the writing. If monetary success follows, well, that’s really icing on the cake.”

Tony was the first person who ever told me I could and should be a writer. I don’t remember what else happened that day. Tony and I only had very sporadic contact after that day at D’Bronx. I remember he sought me out when I was running for county office in 2006. He shook my hand vigorously. “Guess what?” he said. “I’m going to vote for you. You are my favorite candidate, ever. I’m pulling for you.”

Tony moved from Kansas City to his home town of St. Joseph shortly after the election. I never saw him again.

I was sad to see that Tony passed away this week. One of my friends posted the article about his passing in the St. Joseph newspaper. I had just floated through the city on the Missouri River last week, when my son Nick and I took a trip from Rulo, Nebraska, to Kansas City. While we were negotiating the current between tow boats and barges, I scanned the St. Joseph waterfront. I thought of Tony and wondered what happened to him.

I thought to myself, you know, I never thanked the guy for what he did for me. Had it not been for Tony, I never would have published my first book. Years after that meeting at D’Bronx, he read my initial manuscript. He said, as he did before, that it needed work. But in that big pile of words, he said, “There’s a publishable book.”

I hung on that. It would be another several years before I rewrote that big pile of words into two publishable books. I included Tony in the acknowledgements of the first one. The second one is no less influenced by him, though we hadn’t spoken to each other in years.

I’m sure of one thing: His encouragement of me was not an isolated incident. Though I have no evidence, I’m sure that he influenced other young writers. There’s more than two books out there because of Tony.