It was early spring in Minnesota. And well, Ranger Tom was right about the beginnings of the Mississippi. There is a reason why the official headwaters are some thirty miles from the source. We were miserable. There were long stretches of time where our canoe was not a tool, but a burden. We had to get out and walk it across areas that didn’t even resemble a river. It was more like a swamp, and not a very deep one. We kept bottoming out. But we had been forewarned. Ranger Tom called it “humble origins” but we had another name for it—hell. We knew the general direction the river ran, so we just kept on heading northeast through this…well, swamp. We were wading through knee-deep water and dragging a canoe along. I don’t think I need to tell you that that water was not warm. It was only the end of April and it was Minnesota. We would take a step and sink down a foot in the muck. We had to take off our shoes or risk losing them. There was places where it was waist deep, which is more than enough to operate the canoe, but it seemed as soon as we would get ready to board, it was ankle deep and tree stumps again. Like I said, miserable. As soon as we hit the Mississippi Headwaters State Park though, everything just opened up before us. It became a river—deep and wide.
Caring Sue spoke over her shoulder and said, “Boys, I think we should stop in Bemidji and get a hot shower and a cup of coffee. To be honest, I was even wondering if we should maybe get a hotel room for the evening. Head out first thing tomorrow.”
Prof said, who was right next to her on the canoe said, “Wow.” But he didn’t say it with a lot of enthusiasm.
Caring Sue said, “Well!” And she did say it with some enthusiasm.
Prof said, “Oh no, I mean, you might be right. I don’t think any of us has felt this cold in awhile and we just got through a winter.”
Stephan said, “It is a lot of money.”
Nobody said anything for quite some time. I imagine most of us were mulling it over. I don’t think anyone disagreed with what Stephan said. After awhile Prof spoke over his shoulder saying, “It is, but it might end up costing us more if one of us gets sick.”
Caring Sue added, “I was only thinking about a twenty dollar room. If you figure all seven of us can take as long a shower as we want and we get to sleep in guaranteed warmth for about three bucks a person.”
After awhile Bear said, “I hear ya.” Bear was busy with the map. He had asked me to fetch it for him when the current conversation had begun. After awhile he looked up from the map and said, “We don’t have any ID either.”
Bill said, “I got an ID.”
Bear replied, “Of course you do.”
Aside from this, nobody said anything for awhile. Then Caring Sue spoke over her shoulder saying, “Bill, did you pick somebody’s pocket?”
Bill said, “I couldn’t help it! He looked just like me!”
Bear said, “Sure he did.” Caring Sue just shook her head. She wasn’t amused. But we all knew we had to watch Bill and this was part of the reason why. Suddenly Bear chimed back in. He said, “Bemidji is a ways from the river, but I know that it will at least have one truck stop.”
Caring Sue asked, “How do you know that?”
Bear said with some agitation, “Because I got Piper’s travel atlas out. I have been going over it while you guys have been talking.”
Caring Sue said, “Oh. Sorry. I can’t see what is going on behind me. I didn’t know you had the map out. You were speaking like you knew the place, like you had been there. Didn’t mean to annoy ya.”
Now the weird thing is that Bear didn’t say anything. How on Earth could anyone let Caring Sue think that she annoying without immediately correcting her? I was appalled. Bear spoke as if he were annoyed and when she called herself annoying, he didn’t bother to fix it. He must be annoyed. But at Caring Sue?
Bear continued, but he didn’t directly address Caring Sue. He said, “Bemidji is the biggest city between Duluth and Grand Forks. In fact, it is about the halfway point between these two cities. It is also at an intersection for another highway that comes out of the north and nothing comes out of the north in either direction for quite awhile. It just looks like the best place to put a truck stop to me, but I could be wrong.”
I think Prof felt the tension on the vessel. He tried to simmer it down and smooth things over by saying in a rather positive and upbeat way, “Well there you have it! We can take a shower and get a hot cup of coffee!” I could see that Caring Sue wasn’t buying it.
Bear said, “Make a left at the next statue of Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox. Well, I don’t really know how close it is to the river. Map just makes it look that way.”
Machine said, “I think we have been to Bemidji before, Bear. And the river runs right through the city. There was a Paul Bunyan statue a couple of days ago. It was across the street. We walked right by it without anyone pointing it out or saying anything about it because it wasn’t that impressive.”
Bear asked, “Well, what the fuck do you want from me? It is a small map. I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got. Here. Why don’t you see if you can do better.” Then he tossed the map back a row to where Machine was sitting.
Machine said, “I didn’t mean it like that, Bear. I wasn’t criticizing.”
Again Bear didn’t say anything, He was content to let Machine think that he had somehow trespassed against him. Machine didn’t bother with the map. He just handed it back to me.
Once we got into the lakes that are adjacent to the town of Bemidji, we were indeed in familiar terrain. US-2 runs right through it and of course we were familiar with US-2. The Mississippi River goes right through the town as well. Actually, it empties into a couple of different lakes where it then picks back up on the other side and these lakes. We all remembered it, we just didn’t put a name to it.
We all got off the canoe, chained it up, and took all of our gear with us. We got to the edge of the park and just stood there and looked in either direction. There really weren’t any businesses to speak of, at least not storefront type businesses. It was mostly residential and a few office buildings. Suddenly Caring Sue dropped her pack off her back. She said, “ I spy a map on a wall. Sit tight. I’m going to go check it out.” She ran across the street. She tried a door to an office building, but it was locked. So then she knocked on the window of the office where she spied the map. She pointed to the door and had convinced the guy to let her in. Next, we could see her through the window talking to the man who worked in the office. Gesturing toward the map.
Machine asked, “How the hell did she know that was a map from all the way over here?” Prof, Bear, and Bill all wear glasses, so that left Stephan and I who could see with an unaided eye, and neither of us could spot the map either. We watched Caring Sue through the large windows of the office. She and the guy were pointing to the map and then they were pointing in a direction out somewhere yonder and then they were back to the map and then they were back to pointing out somewhere yonder and then they were back to the map. After all that, Caring Sue moved toward the door. She had her back on the door as if she were going to open it using her buttocks. We could see it open a bit and then come close, but she wasn’t moving. She was talking to the guy who was standing right in front of her inside the office building. Eventually she pushed the door open, turned around, and then ran across the street toward us with a smile on her face.
Bear asked, “Well, did you give him your number?”
Caring Sue said, “He wouldn’t let up! I explained my situation. That I was from out of town and that I was traveling with my family. He didn’t care! He offered to let me shower at his place. He would make me a nice dinner. He could give me a change of clothes while he cleaned what I had on. I told him that I would as long as my family could all shower and have dinner too. He looked out and got one look at you guys and changed his tune right then.”
Prof asked, “What’s wrong with us?” I honestly couldn’t tell if it was mock pain or if his feelings were really hurt.
Caring Sue, who was still smiling, shrugged and said, “Nothing. I love you guys.” After a moment or two she said, “So we have to get back in the canoe and actually retrace our course a little bit.” She pointed to the lake, “We want to go out of this lake, which is called Lake Bemedji, back through the river, back through that other lake, which is called Lake Irving and then back through the river a bit. We are going to dock our canoe under US-2, that is the expressway we saw, our hunch was correct. Then we have a short walk from there. Pete showed me the walk-able route. I can see a picture in my head of what we have to do, so lets just get back in the canoe and get there. I am cold and hungry.”
Bear asked, “Pete?”
Caring Sue smiled, “Yes, Bear. His name is Pete. But it doesn’t matter because we’re leaving.”
Bear said, “Right, but when we pass back by this way later today or tomorrow, are you going to find longing in your heart for him, Caring Sue?”
Caring Sue didn’t say anything as she walked away shaking her head. These poor old men. They had no idea that they were completely barking up the wrong tree.
Prof turned to us, who were still back from shore a ways, “If you recall, we saw some evidence that someone was living under that bridge.”
Bear said with a hint of irritability, “We’ve got to get used to leaving the canoe ashore while we go into a town. These are your words actually. And since that is the only time I am allowed to drink, I for one will be going into town every night.”
Prof shook his head, “Right. I guess I need to learn to take my own advise. We do need to get used to it. Including me.” He took a deep breath and shrugged, “So let’s just lock her up. Maybe we’ll introduce ourselves to the tenant under the bridge and make sure he is cool with it.” Then he rushed up ahead to catch Caring Sue.
As he walked away, Bear said, “Couldn’t hurt! Maybe we could even promise to come back with a little gift for him.”
Machine said with a smile, “You mean like a pint of some rotgut?”
Bear shrugged and said, “Sure, if that is what the guy wants, then yeah. Whatever”
Machine said, “I didn’t mean no offense by that Bear.”
Bear shook his head, “None taken.”
Machine just let it go, but Bear came back and said kind of quietly, “I’m just a little agitated. It is not you. I didn’t mean to bite your head off—just now or earlier. It is just that I just trudged through hell with nothing greasing my wheels. Nothing. I got that little for breakfast, you know the dregs that Carin’ Sue collected a couple of days ago, but that has been it since then. We haven’t passed nothing. This is the first we seen of anything. Now we’re leaving here even before we get to check it out. I’m dyin’ man! I’m in a bad place!”
Machine had a look of concern on his face. He said, “Hold tight here, okay. Don’t go to the canoe just yet. I’m going to tell Caring Sue and Prof that I need a pack of smokes. I can be back before they are ready to even shove off—you know how they are. They take forever to get nestled in.” It really did. It eventually got to the point where they were getting razzed about it on a nearly daily basis. But they did have a good point. They were both older and their bodies were wearing down faster and they needed to take extra care if they were going to be able to make the long hauls. Machine continued, “So just sit tight. I’m just going to get you an airplane bottle or two. Once we get to that truck-stop, we’ll get a big bottle and drink it under the bridge tonight, alright?”
Bear shook his head in agreement. Then Machine ran out ahead of us to where Caring Sue and Prof were already boarding the canoe. We could see him gesturing to the town. They were shaking their heads at first—well Caring Sue was. Then they shrugged. Then they nodded in agreement—well Caring Sue did. Then Machine broke out into a sprint. As he ran by us he said, “I will see you guys in about ten.” He was really running fast—a full on sprint. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was. I’m sure there was a time when Machine would have been dedicated to physical fitness—you know, by default, because he was in the Army. It is just that since then he has smoked an awful lot of cigarettes, drank his fair share of booze, not to mention whatever drugs he and the boys happen to find, on any given day, in whatever town we happened to be passing through.
Bear had stopped walking, but we all kept walking toward the canoe, albeit at a much slower pace. Bear grabbed Stephan by the arm and asked, “Hey, can you guys stick back here with me? You don’t have much to do to get settled in, do ya? Not like them.”
Stephan, “No, it doesn’t take me long at all. We do look kind of suspicious though standing back here hesitating.”
Bear said, “I don’t care!”
Stephan said, “Why don’t you just go up and tell Carin’ Sue what is up then?”
Bear sighed. He really did look like he was in a bad place. He was just completely listless, with his hands in his pockets, and shaking.
Stephan said with a smile, “I got an idea Bear. It will not only erase any suspicion from them, but it will help you out with your condition. It will help us all out, actually. I’m even going to try to get Prof and Carin’ Sue in on it.”
Bear let out a deep exhale and said, “Fine. Lets do it.”
Stephan said, “A little yoga will be good for our souls.”
Bear responded immediately, “Oh for fucks sake!”
Stephan still smiling said, “Just think of it as doing some stretches, Bear. That is all. You got to admit that sitting in that canoe all day, does cause some cramps and soreness.”
Bear said, “Whatever, man. I just need a drink.”
Stephan wasn’t smiling anymore. He said, “I know. We’re working on that, Bear. Machine will be back in a second. Until then just follow my lead. It will make perfect sense to Caring Sue and Prof.”
Bear nodded in agreement. Stephan had us all spread out on the grass before him. He said, “Now if you are like me, then all this canoeing is wreaking havoc on your lower back. We are going to start with a pose known as the cat-cow.” He explained how we were supposed to do it—what we were supposed to do on the inhale, and what we were supposed to do on the exhale.”
Caring Sue saw what we were doing, came over, and said, “I wanna play! What a fabulous idea! I see y’all are focusing on the lower back.” She took a spot in the grass next to me and started doing the cat-cow pose with us. She already knew what to do. I had seen her do some of this new-age sorcery with Stephan before.
Stephan said in response to her, “That is right.” He had told us not to talk during the poses because focused breathing was so important.
Machine did come back in less than ten minutes. He ran up on us and then stopped and put his hands on his knees and just took a breather.
Bear said suddenly, “Well, I feel great! Thanks Stephan!” Then he rose to his feet and started making his way toward Machine.
Caring Sue said, “Are you serious, Bear?”
Bear turned and said, “What?”
She said, “You hardly did anything! We’re not even done with this one and I’m sure Stephan has at least one more pose for us.”
He said, “But I feel great. It really helped out a lot.”
So while we did yoga and Prof continued to do whatever it was he was doing in the canoe, Machine slipped Bear a few airplane bottles of bourbon while they walked to the canoe. I kept my eyes on him. I don’t know why. It was none of my business. Bear looked toward the front of the canoe where Prof was busy. Then he looked back toward us. There was a point where Stephan had us flat on our belly. Then he had us grab our ankles. It was at this time, when Caring Sue’s face was almost buried in the grass, that I watch him open both bottles and ingested them together. He replaced the caps and put the bottles in an inside pocket of his coat. It would be enough to hold him over. At least until we were settled in for the night under the bridge.
I’ll tell you what, that yoga may have been created by one of Satan’s minions before Jesus came and died for our sins, but I think it does do a body good. I know the Hindus are just a bunch of idol worshipers, so I was careful not to get involved in all the philosophy that came along with it. I just thought of it as stretching myself. It felt good to bend the back the opposite way it was supposed to bend for a little bit.
When we got back to the canoe, Bear was a completely different person. Well, he was the Bear that I had known all along. He was jovial and provocative. He, Machine, and Prof were in the midst of a rather lively conversation. Just before we shoved off, Bear turned back and said rather quietly, just above a whisper, “Thanks again, Machine.”
Machine said, “Don’t mention it. That is what brothers are for.”
Caring Sue said, “For what?”
Machine said, “What?”
Caring Sue said, “That is what I am asking! You said that is what brothers are for and I am asking ‘what’? What are brothers for?”
Bear said, “Being a good keeper! Isn’t that what Cain told the Lord he wasn’t? He wasn’t his brother’s keeper?”
Machine interjected, “I just gave Bear a little perspective, that is all.”
Bear interjected back, “Yeah, we even delved into the realm of spirit!” Then he started laughing. He looked back to Machine, but he didn’t seem to think it was funny.
Later on in the evening, under the bridge, after our showers and hot coffee, when Caring Sue had stepped away to relieve herself, Machine confronted Bear. He was visably upset with him. After she was no longer within ear he asked, “You think Caring Sue isn’t clever enough to know that you were playing with words? You basically admitted it.” Pointing to him he said, “You didn’t have to say anything. I had said enough to get them both off the hook.”
Bear came back and said, “I am also an outspoken, unapologetic, unabashed, sometimes confrontational atheist, so anyone having a conversation about spirit with me is just absurd, yet people do it! Do it all the time! That could have been the play on words as well!”
Still pointing, Machine said, “Right! Because you bait them! You can’t leave just well-enough alone! It is like as soon as you see somebody has a button, you are just going to push it no matter what!”
Bear asked, “Well, what are buttons for? People shouldn’t have buttons if they don’t want people to push them! And if you get tired of people pushing your buttons all the time, then you should get rid of your fucking buttons. There is no law on Earth that says you have to have buttons to push.”
Machine had lowered his finger, but he was still upset. He said, “Caring Sue doesn’t have any hang-ups! All she is saying is that there is a time and a place. She is just trying to keep us out of trouble!”
Bear said, “Fuck this canoe trip! Fuck it! If we can’t live our lives the way we want to, then what is even the point?”
Machine heard him, but didn’t say anything. After a while, he shook his head and though he was speaking to Bear, he didn’t look directly at him. And he spoke in a more subdued manner as he said, “I helped you out of a jam. Then you needlessly put me in a bad spot with Caring Sue. She dropped the subject, but she knew there was a bottle of booze on the vessel, or an empty bottle of booze, and it came courtesy of me. We were off the hook, but you just couldn’t keep your fucking mouth shut. And I can’t believe how fucked up you got off two shots of bourbon! What the fuck, man.”
Caring Sue came back shortly thereafter, so the matter was dropped, but I could see a change in Bear that night. It wasn’t like Machine to get upset about something. He was a pretty easy going guy that just let things roll off. Bear and Machine got their bottle that evening and they passed it back and forth and talked like old friends. Bear never did apologize, but like I said, he was affected. They shared some with Bill and Prof. Of course, Caring Sue demanded that the entire contents be consumed that evening. But she also laughed and had a good time with them as well. Bill played his guitar, much to our delight. Caring Sue spent much of the evening dancing to his tunes. As much as she didn’t like Bill as a person, she really did like his music. There was no question about that. So there were no hard feelings anywhere. We all fell asleep pretty early and were all fully rested by sunrise.
We woke up under the US-2 bridge and began what we all felt was the first real day on the Mississippi. We were a few miles away from the Mississippi Headwaters State Park, but some thirty or forty miles from the actual source. We all eventually looked back at those first few days with a degree of repulsiveness. It might have been better in August or September when the waters were warm, but then again mosquitoes would have been bad and winter would have overtaken us before we could get far enough south in time. I think Prof put it best when we looked back at those first few days in retrospect a few months later. He likened it to a birth canal—it was messy, uncomfortable, chaotic, and relatively cold. And though we didn’t like it at any point ever, it was a process necessary for us to go through so we could live and breathe in a completely different world than the one we were accustomed to. We were once just a nomadic pride that stuck to land and only used our feet. Now we were becoming amphibious and were going to travel mostly using our arms. He reminded us that anytime in nature when this sort of leap occurs, there is always pain and discomfort in the transition—tadpoles, caterpillars, maggots.
I have already alluded to this, but now I am going to explain it. We organized ourselves in the canoe, much the same way as we did with “the bus” with a few exceptions. Caring Sue and Prof still took the helm. Each of their frames was small enough that the smaller sized front bench could accommodate each of them comfortably. There was also a lot of area in front of them that could accommodate all of their stuff. Bear had the bench behind them. He had it all to himself since he was a bigger guy. He sat on the right side of the bench and kept his and Machine’s stuff on the left side of the bench. Machine was in the middle bench just behind Bear. He had the bench all to himself for the same reason as Bear. He was bigger than Bear and so he had the bench that was a little bit bigger yet, certainly the longest in the canoe. He sat and rowed from the left side of the canoe. Stephan’s and Bill’s stuff was kept beside him on the right side of the bench. So naturally, Stephan and Bill shared the bench behind Machine and their stuff. They were paired together since neither of them had a large frame. Much like Prof, Stephan was tall, but he was rather gaunt. And much like Caring Sue, Bill was short with an average build. Most of the time Stephan rowed though. Bill hardly ever rowed. I had the rear bench all to myself. There was an area behind me where I kept all of my stuff. There was more room yet and the bench was as big as Prof’s and Caring Sue’s bench, but it was all mine. I mostly rowed from the left side. This way there was some balance with three rowing on each side. But if for some reason Bill was rowing and not Stephan or something else up front offset the balance, then I would row from the right to provide it.
The reason why Bill hardly ever rowed was because we let him play his guitar instead. There were six oars, but there was seven of us, so somebody was going to get let off the hook. We could have rotated it and there was talk of that. Someone gets an hour off, then someone else, so on and so forth in an endless rotation. We all decided to let Bill off the hook completely in exchange for the sounds of his guitar. So it was a paid gig for him. Bill was living like a king. He was being paraded down the Mississippi River day-in and day-out by six of his subjects all while his guitar gently wept. You see, on land this didn’t work. Bill had no bargaining power. Bill was a compulsive guitar player. He couldn’t stop playing even if he wanted to and he wasn’t comfortable unless he had his guitar strapped on hanging across his midsection. So when we were walking, we never had to ask Bill to play. He was just going to play. He was going to play all day and all night. In fact, it was much more likely that we were going to ask Bill to stop playing. If, and when, we got tired of him, then Bill would just play to himself. He could play so soft and so low, a little ditty that he might know, just something to get him through, until sleep takes over.
After we got past Minneapolis the river widened substantially. It became the river we all see in our mind’s eye when someone mentions the Mississippi. The current also seemed to pick up. With no assistance from us except for maybe a guiding stroke here and there, the river was now almost moving as fast as we walked. And with at least four paddlers at any given time, we were moving across this world faster than we usually did on foot. We had devised a plan that in addition to Bill, two other paddlers could take a break a few hours into our day for one hour. Then the next hour two others. Then the last two took a break the following hour. Then it rotated back around. In your hour, you could relax and just enjoy the view. Read. Take a nap. Whatever you wanted. Everyone usually usually ate. You would either eat a meal that was precooked and prepared when we were on shore, or you just put together something from our stock. Like cold cut sandwiches or cheese and crackers and beef jerky. The other issue was that of going to the bathroom. We relearned how to urinate into a bottle—a long lost skill from childhood. Nobody thought it was a good idea to dump our pee in the river. At least dump it on the ground next to the river so it can get filtered some. Plus, we didn’t want any trouble from the authorities, whoever they may be. And if we needed to do a number two, then we just waited for Caring Sue to need a break.
We stopped off here and there often enough. I imagine we probably stopped off a half dozen times on a given day. It wasn’t always just for food and relief. Sometimes a site would entice us and we would have to stop to investigate further. It could be something as simple as a rope swing. Prof told me that it doesn’t matter how old you get, a good rope swing never gets old.
There was this one day when Bill had stopped playing. He just there with his guitar on his lap looking out across the river valley. Then Machine said, “Hey music man, how come I ain’t hearing any music, man?”
Bill said, “I’m just not feeling it.”
Bear said, “Tough shit! Then grab a paddle.”
Bill, not exactly happy, said, “I’ll paddle. I might be feeling that more.