You work the mail, they say, don’t let the mail work you. But that’s hard. As I walk along, day after day, 12-18 miles, depending on the mail, my mind drifts. That’s not good for a letter carrier. The job demands constant presence. When I begin to wander, I make mistakes, have to backtrack, and lose time.
But just yesterday, I was on a route that was pleasant enough. It wasn’t long, about twelve and a half miles. Pleasant enough overall, the first part of the route takes almost two and a half hours to complete. I was on this first part when I began to think about the Missouri River. I made the mistakes. I had to backtrack. I lost time.
But I didn’t regret it.
Twenty-five years ago, I took my new boat and put on the Missouri at Wolf Creek, Montana. I was stunned at first. The river was a full, grown-up watercourse, much different than the creek-like river I saw on my 1,450-mile tramp from Kansas City through Three Forks and on to Helena.
But I gathered my wits and my courage. Out on the water, I was nervous. Within a week and two-hundred miles, I was experienced and could handle the boat well. I went forth with confidence and had nothing to look forward to, nothing to go back to. It was just the river.
Here’s what I found:
The Missouri River winds through rocky ravines, broad valleys, and immense grasslands easy on the eyes and good for the soul. Most of the river from Wolf Creek, Montana, to Fort Peck Lake is a peaceful roll around wide bends and tight curves that give out to straightaways where one can see for miles.
Through vast reservoirs, the river flowed through the semi-arid lands of the Great American Desert into the jungle-like Great Plains, where vines lolled lasciviously in the water from the low branches of enormous cottonwoods—forest so thick I felt the universe had shrunk to size of the river and its green walls.
The Missouri always surprised me. Rapids haunted the upper river. These weren’t the whitewater adventures seen on some turbulent western streams, but sudden stretches of standing waves where the river stepped down from its former height into pacific waters where all things turned to inner-thought and imagination.
The river’s personalities shifted with weather and light of day—and I had to take the river on its own terms. Thunderstorms erupted from seemingly nowhere, rousting me from frowsy naps into gasping despair amid waves crashing against the side of the boat and waves rolling upstream and over the bow. In a sudden storm, hail the size of marbles pelted me into quaking submission and filled the canoe with sparkling pearls. Tornadoes lifted water in spouts from the vast reservoirs where I spent the entire day with a headwind to make just 300 yards downstream.
From the foothills and High Plains in Montana to wide avenue of commerce and urban life in Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, the river held for me a gamut of social experience. Whatever landscape, however, a constant feeling of solitude infected me. In places West, the creature in the boat can be the only person for fifty miles. Despite this, a friendly river angel entered the picture and gave me a tour of their town, enjoined me in close and personal conversation, and sometimes bestowed catfish fillets for the evening repast. These angels appeared at the most unexpected moments, sometimes materializing out of the landscape, sometimes approaching curiously at a boat ramp at a riverfront park.
The lower river puts me in the center of metropolises—the Sioux cities, Omaha, Kansas City. Still, being out there on the water made me feel a thousand miles from anywhere. Though the structures of city and commerce were all around, I got the sense that nobody was looking, that nobody knew I was out there, that nobody cared. Peace came with that. Complete anonymity in the midst of human activity. Self was self alone and had to come to peace with that or be driven from the boat and water back to the cacophony of daily life, which had become alien and foreign.
Over the summer, the length of the day shortened and daylight became dear. But from sublime sunrises to orange and purple sunsets, the river took on the character of a shapeshifter, one minute lazy and brown, the next a long mirror of sky running like unwound tape through the landscape.
And there was no life like that on the river. Living like Huck and Jim, I found it difficult to put on shoes to go into a town for supplies. Even then, I retreated from the confines of streets and buildings to the freedom of the stream. No one told me what to do. There was nothing to do unless I wanted. Reading, writing, and gazing at the river. They never got old. There was always a fire, no matter the heat of the day or the steamy atmosphere of the night.
Problems came when I reached my destination at the mouth of the Kaw. After the liberty of the river, climbing back into daily life produced culture shock. It was hard to fit back in, not just because of the independence of life on the river but also due to the changes the river wrought in me. Nothing seemed the same as before. The river changed me. Beauty was etched on the mind. Freedom unlike any I’d ever known made for edginess and querulous fractiousness.
In time, I adjusted. I took others with a gentleness and understanding. They hadn’t lived the experience or seen the sunsets or lived through the storms. They couldn’t engage in conversation on the same level as me. Work became less necessity than something to be tolerated. River travelers have a kinship that exists not as memory but as an experience. Sooner or later, I realized life cannot be so free as the river.
But the river was faithful and loyal. It was—and is—always there. It waits patiently for my return.