Day #29: Occasionally on this trip, it has occurred to me how much this space and this routine have become my life. As often happens on a vacation, one begins to feel as if they are at home here, where they’re visiting. Their other home, the one back there, suddenly seems the alien thing.
This sensation was made so much more acute for me on this trip because this boat, these very walls, were my home for many years. This man and dog are also my usual home; and we aren’t talking a quick weekend jaunt here. We’ve been living and breathing life on this boat, on a river, for a month. Something had changed, flipped over, and it occurred to me that when this trip is over, it’s going to feel so weird. To not spend all day alternating at the helm or hailing barges. To not be fixated on the weather – knowing every minute the exact wind-speed and direction… Soon, I thought, I won’t care about these things again.
And maybe these realizations were a bit sharper than usual because my first waking thought was – we’ll be leaving the River today. It’s almost over.
And of course, to be specific, we’ve traveled 6 different rivers to get here, but it’s one zig-zagging line on a map at the end of the day. And it’s a really, really long zig-zagging line – 1,612 miles long as we lifted anchor that morning in Alabama, and sailed on.
Pic: The last anchorage. Stockton, AL. Nov. 4th
Melby had successfully taken Dorothy to shore and they both returned, in tact. Coffee was brewing, oil was checked and away we went. While I piloted us through some of our last miles of bayou, Melby made breakfast; then we both found ourselves standing, transfixed and just staring over the bow.
For several miles, little changed visibly. Cyprus trees, buoys and mile-markers, as usual. But what was seizing us was that the mile-markers were counting down to single digits. We entered this waterway at MM: 450 six days ago. 0 is Mobile Bay, the end of rivers and transition to the ocean.
We gaped out the window as MM: 6 rolled by. Still, seeing the same familiar shoreline we have for countless-
And then the scope of what we were entering first slapped us.
Pic: Mobile Bay shipyard. Nov. 5th.
We’d seen big ships during this trip. Tows pushing up to 25 barges, their wake taller than our bow. But sister, we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
Not only are there trans-Atlantic cargo ships, but there are also the fortresses necessary to hoist and repair these ships. We were like an ant in Manhattan – just scuttling along as slow as we could, with big smiles on our faces, trying not to get in anyone’s way.
And in addition to the strangeness of being among all these huge ships, was the presence of a city. Civilization. The last city that we’d been through was St. Louis, and that was a million years ago. From then on, it’s been a lot of birds, hillbillies, and the occasional swimming squirrel.
Pic: Mobile, Alabama. Nov. 5th.
A few turns later, and the wall of hulls around us gave way to a wide crack of bright blue. As we cruised pass the last of their steel girths, the blue grew wider into the expanse of Mobile Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. We’d left our isolated anchorage at dawn, surrounded by ‘gators, and boar – The Road floating atop a muddy river. In less than an hour from entering the bay, a dolphin crested aside our bow and sparkling diamonds shot up from our wake.
Pic: The last ships before the big open blue of Mobile Bay. Nov. 5th.
Pic: A triad of dolphins. They appeared singularly or in groups every few minutes. Amazing. Nov. 5th.
Pic: The big blue. Somewhere on the other side of the horizen is a marina... we think. Nov. 5th.
As I write this, a few days have passed, and I still flail when finding words for the moment. Gratefully, I had about 4 hours to make the journey across the bay and the surface was like glass. It was a luxurious time to bask in the moment - I had my cake and was eating it by the fist-ful.
For awhile, Melby took the helm and I just walked around the outside decks, dragging one hand along the wall of The Road and starring out across the (gasp) ocean. Pelicans dove in our wake for fish, and dolphins crested – sometimes three at a time – with regularity. The air smelled salty and warm, and the seagulls screeched… Good, god – the trip fantasy incarnate. I’ll admit, my stomach never quite untied into satisfaction because this trip has taught me one thing very well: It is in such easy, glorious moments that something inevitably goes wrong.
But it didn’t.
In fact, we were surprised and delighted to discover that the shipping channel in Mobile Bay is marked with red and green buoys, the same that we’ve been navigating since St. Paul. For all it's wonder, it wasn't entirely unfamiliar and we felt like pros.
I can’t say it was all without incident, however. That we had the wits to stay within the bouys was hardly a certificate of competency - we really had no grasp on the perspective we’d cruised into. One gigantic cargo ship, for example, very nearly hit us. And not because we didn’t see it coming. In fact, we had been staring at it, marveling at it, taking pictures of the dolphins in it’s crest for almost an hour. And then – oh god – it was like a mountain was reaching down for us. We realized it just in time and turned hard starboard and managed to not only avoid him – but the worst of his monstrous wake. Bad boaters. Bad, bad, bad.
Pic: The ship 'The Texas' that almost hit us. But seriously, look at those dolphins! Nov. 5th
And as if to put the perfect point on an already poetic moment, as the sun began to set and Fort Morgan came into view, River Derci cruised up behind us and we sailed together into the marina. Fort Morgan is on the very tippy end of Mobile Bay. Another quarter mile and you’re in the Gulf of Mexico.
Pic: A great map of the Bay. We awoke in the Tensaw River and traveled the whole bay to Fort Morgan.
Chris, our friend (and sometimes hero) from River Rat, lives a very short drive from the marina and would be meeting us here in the morning. He had a small list of necessary items to pick up - including more beer and a package of hot-dogs for Dorothy. He will be arriving by 8AM the next morning and together – the three of us will be sailing across the bay and onto the inner-coastal. It is 2 days, 2.5 at most to arrive in New Orleans! HOLY SHIT!!!
That leaves me just enough hours to dance in the street, get a tattoo and board a flight home on Thursday night. A few days earlier, the line had been firmly drawn by my many Minnesota employers as to when I was required home. I had already postponed my intended return by a full week. If I was not back by the morning of Friday the 9th, jobs and reputations start getting hurt.
But, as I’ve learned again and again – just in the knick of time is still ‘in time’.
But for now, the bow of The Road was conveniently facing a bar called Tacky Jack’s. They had hot food, cold drinks and a pool table. We took advantage of all three and fell asleep feeling like gladiators of adventure.
Pic: Tacky Jack's Saloon at Fort Morgan. It was all I could do not to fill out an application and call it home...
Pic: The Road safely in harbor at Fort Morgan. Her first night in salt water. And look at those calm, smooth seas!
Pic: Melby the pool shark. Enjoying a few drinks at Tacky Jacks.
… And then, suddenly at midnight, the winds rose up and we were violently thrown out of bed by a powerful wave.
When we had arrived at the marina, The Road had been tied up securely from all four corners at the suggestion of the fella who caught our line.
“The chop can get pretty wild in here,” he warned.
Although the seas were still as glass at the time, we did as he suggested. We would have, in any case, but his stern look made it seem all the more imperative.
As we slept, the wind had grown tempestuous and one of our lines had come loose. When it did, the boat bucked like a rubber-duckie in a boiling pot. I’ve never experienced anything quite like that motion. It was so wild, one could not keep their feet without both hands on a wall or rail. It was like being on the deck of the Starship Enterprise during battle… or so I imagine.
We made our way to the bow and with the help of some quick knots, a spare buoy, and a lot of patience, we finally got the loose line re-attached to the pole and were a bit more secure. Sleep, however, was impossible.
So we did the only thing we could: we drank the rest of the rum and watched the movie ‘Elf.’.
By 2AM, we were drunk enough to fall asleep.
Pic: The seas starting to chop around sunset... It only got worse. Nov. 5th
Day #30: Around 6AM, as the sun began to rise, I found myself for the second morning in a row, lying in bed and putting things in perspective.
I could feel by the boat’s motion that if the winds had died down at all overnight, it was marginal. In any event, there was absolutely no way that The Road could navigate the bay with winds even half this strong. And if I can’t leave today, then I can’t be in New Orleans by Thursday… and if I can’t be in New Orleans by Thursday, then I can’t be to work on Friday… And if I can’t be to work on Friday I lose the money necessary to do such trips. Damn reality, sneaking in already.
I started to do some very hard math and strategizing.
By the time Melby and I were both awake and taking in the scope of the weather around us, it was made official. The weather service issued a ‘small boat advisory’ meaning that it’s not just that I’m a scardy cat – it’s categorically dangerous out there.
We called Chris, told him to come down, for a visit at the very least, but that we were working out some plan b, c, and d’s – none of which included navigating the bay today.
After much talking, a moment of crying, and a lot of phone calls and googling – this plan came into shape:
We had long-ago concluded that to maximize the number of days we could be underway, I would fly home as soon as we got to NOLA and Melby would drive home with Dorothy. He didn’t have to back until nearly a week after I did, and so had more flexibility. Chris had mentioned some potential leads in terms of buyers and brokers and – in any event – we felt confident that this general area, Mobile Bay, was as good a place to sell The Road as any. Better, maybe.
Which left us with two more nights before I had to fly home. Not enough time to boat to New Orleans, too much time to want to be at Tacky Jacks every night.
Additionally, it was Tuesday, November 6th. Election Day – and we decided that there might not be any better place to see it happen than The French Quarter. Flights were cheap out of New Orleans, the rental truck had unlimited miles, and we found a pet-friendly hotel for $60/night – three blocks from Burbon Street – and there we were.
As Melby got the rental truck and I arranged for the safe-keeping of The Road while we were gone, it happened.
I was suddenly, without much warning, smack-dab in the center of one of the biggest and hardest goodbyes I’ve ever had to make.
It’s not Thursday that will be your last night aboard The Road, Dawn. It was last night. You’ll be leaving her today.
Melby was gone for about two hours and I let myself bask in the loss a little. I knew this moment was going to come eventually, but I wasn’t prepared... Today. I sat on the flybridge for most of the time Melby was gone. My feet on the helm, as they have been slung for nearly seven years. My feet were in this exact place the night I bought her. I held a glass of Jameson in one hand, and Gracie’s sleeping head in the other wondering what this (arguably) foolish purchase might lead to.
Pic: The flyest fly bridge on earth. Nov. 6th
My feet were here when I fell in love and when I was decidedly not in love. My feet were here when I got the job, and when I lost it. My feet were here when I watched the Mississippi River float past me – and again when the Mississippi River took me away with her. I love it here.
But for all the tears and mourning, I was smirking like a convict. Yes it was over, but we made it! It wasn’t to New Orleans, but I increasingly didn’t care about that. I took her to the edge of the ocean, where the world unfolds and DOLPHINS welcomed her! We did not sink! We did not quit! I’m not ashamed to say I danced, nor am I ashamed to say I kissed her.
She was not believed to be a good home, and proved the best shelter I could have had – in the most important way and at the most important time. She was not believed to be a good vessel for this trip, and proved to give us exactly the journey we needed.
When Melby returned with the truck, I stepped off with a few bags and walked away... I snuck a peak in the rear-view mirror, tho… and man, she looked so pretty.
Pic: A goodbye kiss. Nov. 6th.
It was with a heavy, but very full heart that Dorothy, Melby, and I began the drive to New Orleans. We had not, either of us, driven a car in weeks. To then drive that truck onto another boat - the ferry across the bay - put a particularly sharp point on the surreal nature of the whole trip. The waves that tossed us as we crossed the bay to Dauphin Island also highlighted the wisdom of our choice not to take The Road. The chop was fierce enough to buck even this industrial ferry – it would have been no match for my girl.
Pic: The Ferry ride to Dauphin Island. Nov. 6th
A few short hours later – we were both in awe how FAST we were going – we arrived in New Orelans. We were lucky enough to find a nice and very affordable, pet-friendly, hotel within walking distance of the French Quarter. After settling in we walked to Bourbon Street.
Pic: Our hotel - The New Orlean Courtyard - French Quarter. Not bad for a couple of river rats.
For those of you who have been there, the French Quarter needs little description. For those of you who have not, no description will do it justice. We were in a celebratory mood, certainly, toasting and smiling and occasionally just thrusting our hands up in a (drunken) victory salute to ourselves. The wildness of Bourbon Street and our own sense of solidarity and success was made even greater when – on one of the over-the-bar televisions we saw the news: Obama was re-elected!
Pic: Inside of Krazy Korner on Bourbon Street. Notice the news on the right side - the election results - LIVE!
Some of you, of course, may not feel the same way about the outcome as we did, but it only further lifted our delight. At the time, we were in a hair-metal bar and the band immediately burst into the AC/DC tune ‘Back in Black’. Ode to joy, indeed.
To be honest, the rest of the night is a foggy blur of beads, hurricanes, impromptu dancing, and raucous laughter.
The next day we took Dorothy to the Café Du Monde, got our promised tattoos, and reflected. It was our first time recalling the trip with some sort of hind-sight. Safely on land, we were finally comfortable enough to admit the moments we really didn't think we'd make it. It was a shorter list than I thought - we both admitted that Iowa was the worst. Sorry Iowa, but blog #4 and #5 are horrifying to re-read.
Pic: The most cultured and well-traveled dog I've ever met. Dorothy at the Cafe Du Monde, NOLA. Nov. 7th.
Pic: Melby under the knife at Electric Lady Land Tattoo. NOLA - Nov. 7th.
Pic: The French Quarter. NOLA - Nov. 7th.
And then the moment I’d dreaded finally came. Melby took me to the airport. For him, the journey wasn’t over. Because I was required back in Minnesota, he would be going back to Fort Morgan alone to usher The Road to safe harbor, across the bay to Dog River. There, she would be in fresh water and under the watchful eye of a fella who would both keep her safe and help us sell her.
I love Andrew Melby which should be apparent by now. But having spent so many weeks in earshot and going through the most horrifying and uplifting moments of my life with him, to suddenly have his (and Dorothy’s) absence was paralyzing. And to know that he was carrying on without me was almost unbearable.
But there it was. My trip – The Big Trip – one I’d dreamed of and feared and wanted and abandoned and then finally tackled – over. When I landed, I knew life would take hold again and quickly. Already my email and phone we alight with rehearsals and meetings and bills and where-are-you’s. And, of course, now we have to find a buyer and figure out the…
But for now, and maybe forever, there will aways be this solace: We did it. We made it. From the cold, beached, bent prop, out of gas, wind-blown near trip-enders to here.
That was fun.
Pictured below: Some more of our favorite pictures.
Pic: Our next house? Mobile Bay - Nov. 5th.
Pic: A nervous pelican at Fort Morgan. Nov. 5th.
Pic: She even gets beignets? Jeez... Cafe du Monde, NOLA - Nov. 7th.
Pic: Dawn's new tattoo, courtesy of Electric Ladyland Tattoo in The French Quarter. The tethered anchor (the rope is tied to something) a tribute to Melby. The anchor, a tribute to The Road. The paw print, a tribute to Gracie and all she did to bring me here.
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