In 24 days, I will depart on a 2,000+ mile journey on my old houseboat The Road. We’re cruising from St. Paul, Minnesota down the Mississippi River to our final destination – New Orleans.
I have been dreaming about taking this trip since I first moved aboard in 2006. I don’t know how you could be a resident of this River – any river, really – without eventually giving in to the tug to follow her. The River has a wild and changing personality, and you certainly don’t need to live on a houseboat to recognize that. How often, for example, do people settle into the image of Mark Twain’s Mississippi River. The rolling ‘Ol’ Muddy’, lollygagging and playful, who hoists childhood fantasies on her shoulders. Contrast that to her character during a flood – when she tears at the foundations of a home while a family clings to their roof, desperate. Anyone who has stood on The Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis also has likely been impressed by her. The River downright screams over the falls there like a banshee.
I count myself among the few privileged enough to see her frozen from bank-to-bank. Like a snapshot of herself, still and almost lifeless.
Varied as the River can be, however – one thing never changes. This always remains the same: She is going somewhere. And what we who are tied to her banks know, down to our very bones, is that she is going that way.
Every stick I’ve thrown has gone that way. Every goose, barge, and droplet has gone that way. When my dog Gracie (rest her soul) went – her ashes too went that way. Over the years, I’ve grown hypnotized by the River’s flow and the time has come to untie and follow.
And as I’ve said before, as important as it is to me to follow the River’s course, it is equally important to do it aboardThe Road. The happy little houseboat that saved my ass when I needed it most. This, the most unlikely of homes, The Road taught me what that word really means. As a result I can neither let her rot in dry-dock, nor sell her to someone who doesn’t recognize her spirit. What I can do - and gladly - is put she, my darling fella, Melby, our mutt, Dorothy, and myself on a precarious journey together. About 2,000 miles, through ten states, to the River’s end. It just feels right.
None of us listed above are particularly qualified to make the trip. The Road is in good working order, although not without her imperfections. She’s seaworthy if not in the prime of her life… But who is? I’m very comfortable driving her, as is Melby – who took her out solo over Labor Day Weekend with (gasp) an entire bachelor party. Neither of us, however, has ever piloted her through a lock – nor been out on her for more than a couple of days at a time.
As one who has been fantasizing and discussing this trip for several years, you would think that I would have a virtual day-by-day, mile-by-mile plan. I do not. Such a thing is senseless, by all accounts. The River has zero interest in my schedule, my ability to navigate, or my illusion of control.
We have a loose plan, of course...
HOW LONG IS THIS TRIP GONNA TAKE?
We are leaving on Sunday, October 7th. And we will be back… well, excluding catastrophe, our qualifier to both employers and friends is “15 to 25 days. We’ll definitely be home by November 1st.” Translated, that means – “We don’t really fucking know. We’ll definitely be home by November 1st.” Melby and I are both full-time, freelance. This might, on the surface, appear to be an easier position from which to take time off. However, being freelance does not mean you have exchanged one boss for no boss. On the contrary – you exchange one boss for a thousand bosses, many of whom you have not yet met but who will, none the less, be calling you into work tomorrow.
So for our sake, the cats who will be left behind, and employers both known and unknown, we chose a day to leave, did some quick math – and then choose the day we’d have to be back. In research, I found that the shortest time it has taken a pleasure craft (the fortunate knick-name of boats like ours on the River) to make the same trip was two weeks. They, like us, only traveled during the day and didn’t spend more than two nights in any given port. They also had a bad-ass Carver and gas was $1.99 a gallon at the time… Taking into account the droughts south of us, and a preference to take it easy on already-aging engines, we might trail them by a week or so.
WHERE EXACTLY WILL YOU BE GOING?
We’ll travel through southern Minnesota, through Alma, then along the border between Iowa and Wisconsin – through towns like Prairie Du Chien, and Davenport – on our way to Missouri. We’ll go through Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, under the St. Louis Arch on our way to Cairo, IL. And then, (sigh) we will leave the Mississippi River, taking an alternate route to The Gulf.
My Huck Finn fantasy, like yours, dear reader, may be shattered by this, and it’s okay. Better a broken fantasy, than a shattered hull and dead crew… The Mississippi River is separated into two halves - the Upper Mississippi River and the Lower. The Upper is the stretch from the headwaters in Itasca, MN to Ciaro, IL – about 1,200 miles total. This part of the River is peppered regularly with cities and locks and marinas and is very navigable. The Lower Mississippi River, on the other hand, is an industrial wasteland. There are no locks and no dams, and almost no marinas or gas docks. As I’ve discussed the trip with other boaters, the first and most consistent piece of advice I’ve gotten is DO NOT TAKE THE LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER!
A good comparison is this: It’s like biking on a highway or running along railroad tracks. At times, in a best-case scenario, it’s liberating to be the small one on a large canvas. But when your bike comes up against a semi-truck, or you against a train, or my ‘pleasure craft’ against a barge. We lose. Every single time. There are not pump out stations or places to eat, or even gas docks for almost a full hundred miles of the River there. Additionally, the drought means that all those barges are now forced to cruise even closer together… I’m not invited to that party and I don’t want to go.
So, when we get to Cairo, IL (10 ish days after we leave St. Paul) we will turn a little left and travel about 50 miles up the Ohio towards the Tennessee River. We will connect with the Tennessee River near Paducah, KY and head south on The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway’ or the Tenn-Tom for short.
The Tenn-Tom is a man-made river which was designed especially for pleasure craft to get from the Upper Mississippi to the Gulf without the inconvenience of death and dismemberment. According to the Quimby’s Guide (a virtual bible for those who travel the nation’s riverways) people who cruise the Tenn-Tom “...look forward to excellent marinas, relaxing anchorages, quaint southern towns with good places to eat, nice warm weather, and best of all, laid-back southern hospitality.”
We’ll travel through about 10 more locks and roll through Alabama and Mississippi – ultimately emerging into the Gulf south of Mobile. We will then connect with the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway, and head West through Gulfport to New Orleans.
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WHAN YOU GET THERE?
We’re going to celebrate, dance in the street and get very, very drunk. We’ll also get tattoos in the French Quarter at a place called Electric Ladyland - all the while repeating the phrase - “I can’t believe we made it.”
And then… well, after that sliver of well-laid celebration plan, we return to the loose unknown.
Ideally, we walk into the first bar and shortly after someone stands up and declares, “I need a houseboat pronto. Preferably something old and kinda’ filthy with excess doghair and a skull and crossbone decal on the helm. I’m willing, of course, to pay top dollar!”
You see, one thing we’ve known from the beginning – this is a one-way trip for The Road. I don’t know what houseboats dream about, but if I had to guess, I would guess a trip like this would be among them. She’s served me well, and I in turn will have served her.
I hesitate to put her up for sale in advance of the trip for several reasons – most notably – I don’t know when (if – knock, knock) we’ll get to New Orleans. Similarly, I don’t know what condition she will be in.
I’ve investigated the possibility of donating her, like people often do with cars, to one of many charities. They can serve the homeless, or be used in training programs for those who are pursuing a trade in boat maintenance. They collect your boat at no cost and give you a deduction for the fair market value. Remember when I said we were both full-time freelance? Yeah, a big ol’ tax deduction like that would be (almost) as good as cash.
SO, HOW ARE YOU GETTING BACK TO MINNESOTA?
Right? At risk of sounding like a broken record… We don’t really know that either.
We’ll have the dog, so we will not be flying. I drove from New Orleans to St. Paul in June with my girlfriends on the last leg of a roadtrip and it was lovely. 20-ish hours and – oops – you go right through the Wisconsin Dells! A rental car seems the most likely way we'll get home; but we maintain that, perhaps in the same forementioned magical bar, we would be able to trade The Road for a kick-ass camper… Round out this little adventure of ours just perfectly. (See Camper Fantasy below).
HOW MUCH IS THIS GOING TO COST YOU GUYS?
And this one might be the biggest mystery of them all… Bottom line – plenty. Fantasy Camper aside, it’ll cost us plenty. Because we haven't taken anything like a trip like this on this boat before, an estimation on the gas mileage is tricky. Mileage is also affected heavily by current and headwind which can vary season to season. What we do know is that gas is between $4.50 and $5.00/gallon at most marinas, and we’ll probably only get - at best - 2 miles per gallon… Oh yeah. It sucks.
Marinas charge about $30-$50 per night to dock, but we can avoid some of that by beaching instead. We will need to go to marinas regularly, however, for pump outs of our sewage, fresh water, gas for the generator etc.
ARE YOU GOING TO FILM IT?
I’m an actress. Melby is a film guy who works regularly in television and film AND owns some truly kick-ass, top of the line gear. I don’t know how we would avoid filming it… And yet, after a lot of thought and conversation, we deliberately chose to draw a careful line between our life and our jobs in this instance. This means, we have not tried to pre-sell the trip to any of our connections and have no particular ‘pitch’ or ‘angle’ in mind.
The reasons for this are two-fold. One – we want a vacation, frankly. Should Melby turn on the camera and one or both of us hop in front of it to talk about what we’re seeing/doing/hearing – awesome. Should that prove marketable – fantastic. But neither of us want to have someone else asking were their footage is.
Which informs the second reason we’re not actively filming the trip: good television requires high-stakes and conflict. It is our premium intent to avoid both. Despite the interesting story and images that result, I don’t want to hit anything that cracks the hull. Dramatic as it may be, I don’t want to call Melby a mother-fucker; and for all the heart-pumping associated with ramming into a lock wall, or stepping on a ‘gator – I’d rather not. Safety first just isn't good entertainment.
We will, however, for friends and family update a regular check-in here. Blog, photos, video etc will be both here and on Facebook.
SO THAT’S IT? ON OCTOBER 7th YOU JUST LEAVE AND HOPE FOR THE BEST?
But first of course, we will have a real swell bon voyage party. Stay tuned...
--- Images below for further reference ---
My barge nightmare. Their wakes can suck you in and it takes over a mile for them to just slow down.
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