Yes! I live on a houseboat, year-round, in St. Paul on the Mighty Mississippi River. This is my 7th year being what many of us refer to as ‘a live-aboard.’
Since the day I moved onto a boat, I have found people’s reactions to where I live to be generally pretty uniform – especially among those who, like me, are Midwest born and bred: A look of confused interest crosses their face, they sometimes cock their head to one side, and then ask – so how did that happen?
It’s a fair question, no doubt it would be one I myself would ask. This is Minnesota, after all, not San Francisco – and… well, water freezes here.
The thoroughness of my answer to that question of ‘how I got here’ varies depending on who has asked. No, I don’t come from a boating family. No, I didn’t know anyone else who lived on a boat… Sometimes I’ll answer with a simple, ‘I don’t know. I looked around and it just happened.’
However, as I write this – while I float on the River from whom I have no secrets - I’ll disclose the full truth. I came to live on a boat because I was lost and broken hearted. I had just been dumped and – more than that - my life was underwhelming me. As one of the youngest in a big extended family, I had heard countless times a chorus of ‘if I was your age…” “when I was younger, I should have…” “you know you look at your life when you’re (blank) years-old and you think, if only I had…” I was treading water, for lack of a better term, and one thing became perfectly clear: If I did not take action, then I was relegating myself to a life which would be the result of what happens to me, and not the result of what I do.
And the ‘do’ that had been staring me down the longest, was my dream to live aboard a houseboat on the Mississippi River. I first began longing for it when I was about 4 years old and heard the Joni Mitchell song that says ‘I wish I had a River I could skate away on…’ The image of such a thing flashed vividly in my mind - Rivers are like magic roads, not yellow-brick, but whirling blue – and they all go somewhere.
A couple of years later, to my soul-quaking delight, my family began to plan a weekend camping excursion aboard a houseboat! Almost nothing from my life at that age is still tangible, but the anticipation I felt about that trip, is in Technicolor. I could hardly breathe when I saw the pictures in the brochure, and my dreams at night were peppered with little else than the over-the-rainbow adventure on which my family and I were about to embark.
And then, with little explanation, they changed their mind. No houseboat, it’s too expensive, we’re going to the dells again instead. Dawn, quit crying.
Devastated as I was, the fantasy had taken seed and eventually root. Even 20 years later, college-graduated and quite mature, I still maintained that to live on a houseboat on a River was the ideal life. It was at once a home, and a vessel – your transport, and your anchor.
Vocal as I was about my dream-home, and aware as I was of a few people and places in the Cities where such things happened, I was also ready-armed with a litany of excuses NOT to do it: It’s dangerous, expensive, totally impractical, and just not something people do.
But it was a ‘do’ that I felt I needed to do. So, I did some very important not-thinking, packed up my broken heart and found myself in the parking lot of a marina a friend had mentioned to me over a year earlier.
‘It's The Watergate Marina... ya' know, like Nixon... It's under Fort Snelling,’ he had told me. ‘sort of hidden away, off the beaten track, not a marina you’ve probably heard of.’
Feeling very nieve and incredibly stupid, I walked into the office and asked to see some boats. ‘Something steel-hulled,’ I said, ‘I guess I don’t really know what I’m looking for.’
A few hours later, the marina’s boat-broker, Jason, and I had climbed aboard half a dozen boats. It was early Spring, so they were all on stilts in dry-dock – some still wrapped in plastic from the Winter. I felt oddly better having just looked at them, but still had my excuses in tact when I thanked Jason for his time, and began to walk back to my car.
‘There’s one more boat,’ Jason said, ‘it’s on the way back. Let’s look at it – just for fun.’
I had a hunch this was some kind of sales ploy and truly didn’t care. My dad used to sell used cars and so I could appreciate good salesmanship without necessarily being swayed by it.
The boat he showed me had no name and was wrong in every way. She was made of fiberglass, far too old, and cost more than I had to spend. These facts, however were dwarfed by this one: She was there for me.
I am not, generally, what one would call a ‘romantic’. I’ve never touted concepts like destiny, or fate and would classify myself as a cynic when it comes to most things spiritual. But something happened when I went aboard the boat that I would later name The Road. It was the most potent and undeniable sensation of coming home I have ever experienced.
So I did the most sensible thing I could do - I walked away. And as I did, I reminded myself with scorn that I was a heart-broken, twenty-something girl, who was prone to the dramatic and unqualified to make this decision in every way… But then I came back to the marina the next day, and I looked at her through clearer eyes.
To do this, was unwise - I had never so much as driven a fishing boat in my life. To do this was impractical – I could hardly afford my attic apartment. To do this was unlikely – barely a handful of people live fulltime on boats in the entire state and they are (forgive me River Rats) all a little nuts.
To do this would mean that this boat would become my only basket and I’d be putting all my eggs in it. I certainly couldn’t afford the safety nets that might otherwise buffer such a rash decision. There would be no small studio apartment I could keep just in case; no storage unit for my stuff that couldn’t fit aboard. Mom and Dad are proud high-school graduates with, bless ‘em, no rescue-the-children fund. I’d be on my own out here, and if something went wrong, I’d lose everything.
After doing battle with my own doubts and fears, and finding resolve to proceed- I moved on to the doubts and fears of the bank. I remember sitting across from my assigned banker, Shane, under florescent light somewhere in Woodbury. He had called me in because… well, they were confused about the nature of the loan.
“So, you’re an actor slash historian?”
“And this is a mortgage loan for a…”
“A boat, yes.” I anticipated.
“And you’re going to live on it here? Year-round?”
I grinned like an idiot in love.
Shane put down the paperwork and looked at me, confused, from behind the many framed pictures of his wife, children, and white-picket fence. He then asked me the second most-common question that is posed when people hear I live on a boat.
The answer I gave him (at least in 2006) calculated in my favor, even for a numbers guy. He smiled warmly and then fired a few more successive questions:
“Could I provide three years tax-returns?”
“Could I get them in his hands by 3PM that day?”
“Then, maybe,” he said, “maybe there was a chance I could be approved.”
A week later, I found myself standing in the galley of my new home – a glass of Jameson in one hand and my loyal dog, Gracie, asleep in the stern. The Road was floating happily in her slip and I was truly home at last.
“Because it’s what I’ve always dreamed of.” I had told Shane that day. And it was.
Now, although it is true that moving aboard a boat saved me in many ways - my story would be woefully incomplete if I did not give due credit to the ways in which this River is also a mighty, unforgiving bitch.
As Winter approaches, mid-November at the latest, the live-aboards will have completed their preparation for the season. At the most, I have shared the dock in the Winter with five or six other boats – last year, there were only three of us. All of the boats are first framed and then shrink-wrapped in tight, white or clear plastic. Between the plastic and the exterior wall of the boat, one tapes various combinations of water-proof insulation. Bringing you from the penthouse to the basement in a blink of an eye.
Also for Winter, the engines are drained and winterized, bubblers - underwater propellers that churn the water around your hull – are dropped, and the heat source is set up. Some use propane furnaces, some use wood pellet stoves, others use electric heaters – many a combination of all three.
At the onset of my first Winter, I believed that a few strategically-placed space heaters would be sufficient. I was wrong. One night I woke up to discover my blankets had frozen to the wall around me, pinning me there like a bug. Also, my water pipes froze solid inside my thin walls and I was forced to haul it in with jugs - down an inverted, snow-caked dock. Want warm water? Put it on the stove, Sacagawea.
And when it got really cold, 10 or 20-below, my bubblers couldn’t keep up with the shelf of ice that formed between the dock and my hull. Should the pressure of the ice against my hull get high enough – it could crush it and… yes, I sink. So, whenever temperatures dropped to such levels, as they often do, then approximately every 4 hours, I would bundle up, go outside, pick up a huge pole, and smash the ice that had formed.
Lubbers often ask, does the River freeze?
“Of course it does!” I want to shout! “Do you ever step outside of your heated garages or skyway tunnels you soft-bellied babies?!?”
And aside from the unique challenges of our three coldest months, come the other hurdles – floods, crazy neighbors, giant spiders, sensitive toilets, and unlockable doors. Mouse infestations, blown fuses, and a putrid bilge.
And, of course, the River takes things sometimes. In a flash, she will reach up and snatch your most precious things. A partial list of items - both mine and visiting guests’ - includes: designer sunglasses, cameras, car keys, an ipod, and two full bottles of whiskey. The number of lighters and screw-drivers she has taken is truly countess.
This River is infested, to say the least, with snapping turtles the size of hub-caps, bull snakes, and river otters that tear the guts out of the carp like Gollum and leave piles of gore on the ice.
Indeed, on a very frigid night during my first winter aboard, I suddenly reached what was unquestionably my worst moment. It was 3AM on a bitterly cold February night. I had just smashed the ice around the hull again that night and with aching hands, was setting my alarm to do it all again in four short hours. My hair was dirty, I was alone, and really, really scared.
But even then – with my choice laid bare and showing me all of the unexpected aspects of what I had done – I had no regret. I could have unwrapped from that Winter, sold the boat and gone back to the comfort of one of many apartments for rent on the River’s edge. But I didn’t. I lived aboard The Road for five more winters and they were each only marginally easier and more comfortable than that first.
In 2010, however, as often happens to those to live on the River, life changed course. I fell in love and invited a man (and his two cats) to join me and my dog aboard our noble vessel. They did. After nearly two years of cramped closets and aging on-board systems, we packed up and left The Road… but not the River.
We acquired a two-story, steel-hulled beauty and spent a year remodeling her from top to bottom. Affectionately called ‘Toad Hollow’, she has already bore us up through one winter like a noble horse. ‘Toad Hollow’ is a comparative floating palace with heated everything, twice the space, and a hull that is tougher than any ice on the coldest night.
In the meantime, The Road, was set aside. Put in dry-dock and seemingly abandoned while we began our new chapter.
But not for long.
There was an unspoken pledge made between The Road and I on the first day I went aboard. She would not let me sink, if I would not let her rot. I hold dear the words of Navy Rear Admiral, Grace Murray Hopper - “A ship is safe in harbor, but is that what ships are for?”
So, in October of this year – two short months from now – I am going to do right by her. The Road is currently undergoing some minor repairs and will then be launched for her final great journey.
A fitting tribute to a fine Riverboat, who will escort her captain, her captain’s love, and their multitude of critters, all the way down the map to where the River meets the sea. Once there, she’ll begin a new chapter, and maybe just save someone else who someday finds themselves on the River’s edge with a broken heart.
*A version of this essay was and read on August 1st, 2012 aboard the Padelford Riverboats as part of the River City Revue's event "Wicked River”
Next Post>>: Jan. 2013 "Home Sweet Toad"
**Read about the The Big Trip to the Gulf aboard The Road: Oct. 2012-Nov. 2012**