Your appreciation for your surroundings changes when you feel like you have no choice but to be there. A highway is a marvelous thing, it’s a backdrop for adventure, for swallowing up miles and flying across the countryside. It’s a gateway, a passage, it’s an escape route or a way home.
But, when you’re standing on the side of it watching it take so many other people to where they want to be, it’s stubborn. It’s mean. It’s a clique you’re not a part of. Stone cold faces rush by, one after another, occasionally whipping their necks around to have a look at the strange phantoms on the side of the road.
The vehicles take on personas of their own. Some pass by smugly, acrimoniously. “Look at what you can’t have” they seem to sneer as they pass. Some are oblivious. Some are nosey.
When we arrived at the motel, Captain Alvin wasted no time in telling everyone our story “We just rescued them off island 10! Their canoe floated away! They’d been there for two days without water!” We were the talk of the town.
The motel was cheap and attracted a permanent crowd. Truckers Art and Robert that drive hazardous waste down to Arkansas, Danny the maintenance man, Lester the owner, and Ralph, trying to get away from it all, they all became our new neighbours. An interesting crowd.
The hotel bar, advertised by a red neon sign reading “Beer” at the end of a dark wood paneled hallway, was smoky and dim. Lester, the bartender and owner, appeared to also be the best customer.
The four men that rescued us, with their jeans and camo jackets and war painted faces, weren’t a group of duckhunters or fishermen like we first thought. There were several clues – first, they picked us up, and immediately headed, wordlessly, in the opposite direction (without asking us where we wanted to go). Second, they were wearing life jackets. Noone wears life jackets.
I figured this out as they gunned the engines in the turbulent water, to cross whirlpools in the middle of the river and ride over the wakes of passing barges in the channel. The roar of the engines, the crashing of the waves, and the howling wind made it impossible to ask, but I was pretty sure they were looking for us.
We sat, holding on tight and confused, as we sped downriver.
We lovingly named her Georgette, after Kevin’s dad, who gave her to us. She was steadfast. We often remarked on her reliable nature, how she held her head high as she glided elegantly through the water. Equally dependable was she in cresting waves, in surging swells, and in all weather. She guided us fearlessly through rain, sleet, ice-rain, snow, and even broke through a thick layer of ice one frosty morning in Illinois.
And then, three nights ago, with no fanfare or fuss, no bustle or bedlam, she made her graceful exit. Slowly, silently, on a beach on the Tennessee border, she slipped into the night. In water gently lapping against the eroding sands in rising water, she gradually headed southwards. Pausing on rocks, swaying in the current, she carried on without us.
After saying goodbye to the lovely crowd in Grafton, IL (two nights and many, many great people – more later), we have since paddled on – we’re in Cape Girardeau, MO right now. We paddled 55 miles to get here , by far out furthest day yet. With a head wind and a high of only 38, it wasn’t the best – but it was sunny. We’re exhausted and probably don’t make much sense, but we have a new plan…
Our goal is to make it to New Orleans by New Year’s Eve. To put that in perspective, it has taken us 76 days to paddle 1250 miles. (we just crossed the halfway point of our trip a few days ago). We want to paddle the next 900 in 20 days.
We had no special plans for Kevin’s birthday.
We walked in to the Purple Cow in the middle of the afternoon, discouraged by strong head winds. It’s a purple shack on the side of the river, raised up high on stilts for when the water’s high. We thought we’d stop in for a drink in honour of Kevin’s birthday – then we figured we’d continue on paddling into the night.
As we open the door, we’re greeted by three grey mustaches that turn from their beers at the bar to look at us. We take a seat at the bar, me in my filthy yellow rain pants and Kevin in his plaid shirt. We take in the ambiance – a cooler with beers in it at the end of the counter, signed dollar bills taped all over the walls, and lots of fishing and hunting swag.