Day #13: When we woke up on Saturday morning In Keokuk, IA, The Mimi had already left dock. She left silently and without disrupting us - like the lady she is. We were ready to shove off by 7:30AM, but seconds after brewing the coffee, a big ol’ lolly-gagging barge rolled by. Sigh… With the lock only 2 miles down from us, there was no way to get ahead of her. So, we ate breakfast and chatted with Roger who does work around the Keokuk Marina and who was very curious about our journey.
Before we headed out, he gave us a box of fresh vegetables and few of the end rolls – toilet paper and paper towel - from the public restrooms. “We’re just going to toss them out,” he said.
We accepted them gratefully – both vegetables and paper towel are rare on the River – and with that, we were off.
(Pic: Boat houses and garages near Keokuk Marina. Keokuk, IA - Oct. 20th)
The Keokuk Lock #19 was unremarkable except for one thing – they made a barge wait for US! After darting around barges like nervous water-beetles for countless days – we cruised by one which had tied up FOR OUR CONVIENCE! Swoon.
Two hours later, we sailed through the second lock of the day – and right into a new state! Missouri! This is a big mile-marker, if only because Missouri contains another mile-marker - The Saint Louis arch. A river icon. A landmark of great distance lie ahead.
Another mile-marker that was close approaching was the city we found ourselves mooring at that night – Hannibal, MO. The birthplace and boyhood home of Mark Twain.
Along with the classics, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Melby and I both read Life on The Mississippi in the past year. The town and the marina are small, but we could see the evidence of the promised street festival as we pulled in.
(Pic: Hannibal, MO - Oct. 20th)
Larry, the dock operator, and I had spoken earlier in the day to secure a slip for the night, and he was expecting us when we arrived. As we filled up our gas tanks and chatted with him, a remarkable thing happened – another 1970’s, 43’ Nautaline houseboat cruised in. Although Green and White, it looked like an identical make and model to The Road. And as they moved past us, what city should be painted on her stern? St. Paul, MN.
(Pic: Tom, Gary and Martha - the occupants of The Branch Office. Hannibal, MO - Oct. 20th)
Tom and Gary are taking six months to make the same trip we are and, ironically, we had heard of their existence before. Jerry, our generous shepherd in Burlington, IA had asked us if we knew of the boat, The Branch Office. He said he had met the guys and that their boat looked a lot like ours.
Martha and Dorothy didn’t get along.
Once tied up, with water flowing and all our power, we asked Larry, the dock operator, to come over for a beer. When I had been in his office paying for my gas bill, earlier, I saw he had a guitar leaning against the wall next to his chair.
“Do you play that?”
He looked at me, serious, “I am the best damn undiscovered blues guitar player and singer in Missouri.”
“Prove it,” I said.
So, with the sun setting and Sam Clemens looking on, Larry played some mean blues guitar and Melby accompanied on harmonica. Ahhh..
(Pic: Larry, the dock opperator at Hannibal, MO. Oct. 20th)
Due to our own impromptu music festival, we missed the official one happening in town. By the time we hoofed it across the tracks to where it was happening, all that remained were empty street tents and other evidence of community frivolity. We found ourselves eventually at a place called The Brick Oven for dinner – great home-made pizzas. Sitting next to us were two couples from town with whom we struck up conversation. Rick and Eva, it turns out, have a cabin on the river not far down from where we’d be the next day.
“One of the places on stilts,” they told us. “Come over for bloody marys!”
We exchanged information and said we would if we could. More wine than was necessary later, we finally went back to The Road and called it a night.
Day #14: The morning in Hannibal promised to usher in a change in the weather and by 2PM – for the first time on the trip – we were down to t-shirts.
(Pic: Sunrise out of Hannibal, MO - Oct. 21st)
The day, as a whole, was perfect for sailing. Calm seas came along with the sunny skies and we coasted easily through two more locks. Lock #22 in New London, MO stood out because of the lock-master, Brian.
This, generally, is the process for going through a lock: When we know, from the Quimby’s Guide or the charts, that we’re about an hour or so upriver of a lock, we call them. We have a two-way marine radio – but 10 miles is pretty far out of range so we usually make first contact via our cell phones - provided there is service – so this is a squishy timeline.
The lock operator will (almost always) answer. We tell them we are a southbound houseboat, 43’ long at MM: (whatever) and that we expect to be there in about an hour. Then we ask “how’s traffic today” or “any barges between us and yourselves” or “what you got comin up?”
I list these questions because one or all of them may be necessary to ask. On occasion, we have had lock operators say, “great, see you when you get here.”
And we presume, there is nothing coming, we won’t have to wait. And we’ve been wrong about that.
We’ve had lock operators say, “okay, there is nothing else coming down.”
And we presume there is nothing coming and we won’t have to wait. And we’ve been wrong about that too.
So these three questions combined produce the required information… eventually. It has been an increasingly frustrating situation.
(Pic: A lock operator in Missouri.)
But then we got to Missouri where - I’m sorry Minnesota, it’s true - people are the nicest.
Brian, at Lock #22 answers with a quick, happy greeting and his name.
I give him our approximate timeline and location.
He says he’ll have the lock doors open when we arrive and to come on in.
And hot-damn if he wasn’t right on. As we descended into the happiest lock in MO, Brian came out and leaned on the rails and chatted with us while we held the line. He gave us tourist advice about St. Louis and complemented Dorothy. Nice as he was, what really made the lock shine was the floating bollards – the first we’ve seen.
(Pic: Melby tied off to a floating bollard.)
These little beauties float along the side of your boat at the same rate and mean that you can tie securely to it. Other locks have a slimy piece of rope that is precariously tied to the lock wall that you must cling to, like a swinging idiot, for 12-40 minutes.
Shortly after we left that lock, we passed the cabin of our friends from the night before – Rick and Eva. We honked and waved, but couldn’t stop for the promised bloodies. For one thing, we are so crunched for time that we couldn’t spare the good positions with the lock. Also, their cabin was out of the channel and I like to imagine that area has burning hot lava, not to be ventured into for fear of immediate rupture or capsize. Why push it.
The other locks of the day were tricky because we locked through along side other boats for the first time. And while this seemed odd enough – they also requested that we all float thru – meaning we don’t grab line form the lock wall.
So, in essence all three of us were bopping around inside like reverse-pinball, trying to avoid hitting anything.
Finally, around 5:30PM, we saw our intended marina for the night – John’s Boat Harbor in St. Charles, MO.
Maybe because it was void of the usual disasters, we felt particularly smug gassing up and tying up for the night in what proved to be a tight, shallow docking area. War-torn now, we maneuvered easily, much to the approval of onlooking boaters. Feels good.
(Pic: The Road, snug at John's Boat Harbor. St. Charles, MO - Oct. 21st)
DAY #15: Monday October 22nd, was the first morning when we woke up warm. And not just warm, but we pulled out of John’s wearing shorts and sipping coffee. We ate breakfast on the flybridge and watched the sun burn off the morning mist.
And then, there was lightning. Loads of lightning all around us. Rain too, of course, but not much and not much wind, either. But lightning was everywhere.
We turned to each other. How big of a concern is this? We know it’s a concern because, well, it’s lightning and we’re in the water. But is it duck-and-cover-concer, or you’ll-be-fine-concern. We saw gads of barges out and thought, surely if they’re out we’re fine. The locks were operating… we googled it, and we called Captain D and we concluded it was no more risky than the trip in general. Ultimately, we thought, if we’re in the cabin we’re probably fine; and we best gain miles while we can – god knows we got time to make up.
(Pic: The shrine - Our Lady of the River. Portage Des Sioux, MO - Oct. 22nd)
The day increased in it’s ominous tone. Not only did the lightning flash for most of the day, but our first lock operator at #26, unlike Brian, approached us like the crypt keeper. The barge had floating bollards, but they screeched like burning women for the entire 23’ drop. With them as a back drop, he told us about how swirling and menacing the water gets downriver, how likely we were to be crushed by a barge, and how bodies turn up on the bottoms of dams. With that happy send off, we entered what felt like a graveyard.
(Pic: Wrecked barge on the shores of St. Louis, MO - Oct. 22nd)
Sunk and half-sunk barges lie twisted on every shoreline. Some look as if they’ve been there for years, others for hundreds of years. No doubt the drought has exposed more than usual, but it was startling.
A few miles down, we entered the Chain of Rocks canal. Which is, a canal – 8.5 miles long – straight and narrow as an arrow, and lined with (guess what) rocks. A lock awaits you at the end of it and when that lock opens, you’re within spittin’ distance of the St. Louis arch.
(Pic: The St. Louis Arch. Oct. 22nd)
For reasons only destiny knows, the ultra classic rock station that we had managed to eek out between conservative radio and honky tonk, was playing: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s, “Teach Your Children”. That song begins, of course, with the words: ‘You, who are on the road must have a code that you can live by.’
Believe it or not, that was the first time I’ve cried on this trip. And I’m so glad it was for joy.
But not for long. Because actually navigating the River through St. Louis is a shit-show. The spooky lockmaster was right! The wakes from the barges are brutal, easily the hardest we navigated to date. High and heavy rolling waves that seemed to never stop. We were getting slammed around at times so ferociously that I had to sit down on the floor and just hold Dorothy while we both whined.
A little less than 3 hours later, we were through it – and sailing down a stretch of River that has long been legend.
From the first breath of a trip down the Mississippi River, people will tell you about the stretch between “Hoppie’s Marina just down of St. Louis, and Peduchah, Kentucky. There isn’t a gas dock or a marina.” That’s about 210 miles… we travel about 60 a day… That’s a big Nomansland to us.
Hoppie's has, not only much-needed fuel, but it also has Fern. We have heard again and again - from the crew of the Mimi to the woman who answers the phone in St. Charles - Fern knows everything.
(Pic. Hoppies Marine. Your last stop in civilization for hundreds of miles. Oct. 22nd)
I was warned that the Hoppie’s dock itself is underwhelming. Quite literally just a floating stretch of metal a few feet off shore. A long-unused but still standing telephone booth sits in the middle, and next to it, a comfortable seating area under an aluminum roof.
Hoppie and Fern are married and – bless them – they are not in their peak of years. I heard that Hoppie is a WWII veteran, and he didn’t exactly rob the cradle with Fern. Exact years, I don’t know, and am not particularly interested.
Year-worn as they were, however, they had us tied up, gassed-up and settled in record time. As we gravitated to the chairs around the table under the roof, Fern lit a cigarette and sat down.
“Okay,” she said, “I’m ready for the charts.”
I didn’t know what that meant, exactly, but like the other boaters in earshot, we all darted to our boats and came back with an armload of loose pages and a ready pen.
(Pic: Fern, laying the truth on us. Hoppie's Marine - Oct. 22nd. **Note: Even her t-shirt is sage**)
What Fern did next, was the demonstration of what I had heard so much about. She went turn-by-turn of the next 200 miles of River telling us EXACTLY where to tie-up, anchor, or beach. I mean down to the quarter mile-marker and with all the details you wish you knew – “it’s a rocky dyke a hundred yards downriver on the right descending bank. Go past the red buoy then come up tight along the sand. You should have at least 12’ of water there. “
Eating up Fern’s wisdom along side us were the occupants of two boats that were actually familiar to us at this point. The River Rat is a 43' Tawler that had been in the locks with us upriver of St. Charles; and River Derci was in the lock with us upriver of St. Louis in the Chain of Rocks. Believe it or not, both boats are from Minnesota. The River Rat is being taken to the Tennessee River by her captain, Kevin, who lives outside of the Cities; and Chris, the first mate from New Orleans. No shit.
The River Derci is the cabin cruiser of Jim and Pat Rossman. They are doing a route known as The Great Loop. This ambitious path goes around the entire eastern half of the united states. Not just down the Mississippi River, but up along the eastern seaboard to the Great Lakes and back again. Jim and Pat are taking two years to do it… Yes, we’re all very jealous. Two warmer or happier people may not exist anywhere in the world.
When Fern was done, she was done, and without any ceremony, she got in her golf cart and drove up the launch to her house at the top of the hill. I didn’t see her again.
That night, however, we partied.
Like cowboys at a saloon in the last town before the dessert, we drank. Hard. To date, Melby and I had our share of kicks in the teeth, but they were all circumstance-related. Weather, mechanics, luck. But what lie ahead was going to be tough regardless of those other circumstances. The six of us laughed and shared outrageous stories of adventure and disaster. Chris was on a navy ship in New Orleans during Katrina – a ship which saved at least one hospital. Kevin has had boats in our very own Watergate Marina and we know several of the same people. Jim and Pat sold most of their stuff to take this trip and brought out a communal bottle of Hot 100. For those of you who do not drink to get drunk, you probably won’t know what it is. The bottom line is it’s hot, it’s 100 proof, and it’s bright pink.
(Pic: Left - Jim and Pat of 'River Derci'. Right - Chris and Kevin of 'River Rat' - Hoppie's Marine - Oct. 22nd)
By the end of the night, we had pledged unity. We would try to get through this next stretch as together as we could. At least enough to keep in radio and phone contact – if not find common anchorage. I won’t use the word Fellowship. No. No, I won’t.
The next morning, however, we set out against a steady rain and with little idea what we really had in store.
--- The Photo Album: Additional photos from Oct. 13th-15th ---
(Pic: Boat houses and garages in Keokuk, IA - Oct. 20th)
(Pic: Exiting a lock - somewhere in Missouri.)
(Pic: Dorothy, looking lovely.)
(Pic: Fern, working hard. Hoppie's Marine - Oct. 22nd)
(Pic: Dawn and Hoppie. Kimmswick, MO - Oct. 22nd)
(Pic: The arch. St. Louis, MO - Oct. 22nd)
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