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.
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.