Evan, my dear friend from childhood, with whom I climbed to my first rooftops to read beat poetry aloud when we were twelve and thirteen years old in Ann Arbor, Michigan, came to the Parsons Center to do a mini-residency last week. We’ve barely spoken since a humid day in New Orleans seven years ago when he was still living on his boat in a back channel somewhere on the edges of the city. I climbed over an old dam wall, and he picked me up in his dinghy. Me: “I feel like you don’t respect me. Like you doubt my decision making.” Evan: “I do doubt you.” Words like a stone. Words that I’ve worn, for too long, around my neck.
In 2004, I went down the Mississippi River in a 32 foot long, fifty year old houseboat. I was joining Evan and his buddy Dave, who had become sort of sub-cultural icons. A few years prior, they had built a raft and taken it down the Missouri river. It sank, and they nearly did as well, but that water got into their veins. They wanted to live on the river. Their next craft was an actual houseboat named the Tsunozzy, and that boat, along with Evan, Dave, their dogs, and crew of constantly shifting travelers (and their dogs), came and went. Their lifestyle was written about in zines around the country, and the ancient idea of living free on the river resurfaced in the hearts of a new generation.
At the end of the Tsunozzy’s first adventure, I went to join Evan and Dave and company and lived on the boat, and attached raft, as they followed the Tombigbee River into the Intracoastal Waterway in the Gulf of Mexico. I got the bug too. A year later, they would embark on another river odyssey. This time it would be a whole group of them, with multiple homemade boats, and they would travel the length of the great Mississippi. I’d follow, and make a film.
Just before I was to start my misadventure, I was living in Portland, Maine, walking down Congress street on a blustery March day with a good friend. I stopped to marvel at a dusty storefront with a stenciled unicorn head painted on the window. There was no name on the window, just a small OPEN sign hanging on the door. We went in. From behind beaded curtains came a large, Samoan-looking man wearing an Asian robe. “Can I help you?”, he asked in a bellowing voice. We declined and started to leave, but he stopped me. “You.” He was talking to me. “You’re going on a trip. You’re going to be okay. But if you want them to take you seriously, you have to take yourself more seriously.” And, later, once he had my full attention: “You are going to have a daughter someday. But, promise me this: don’t let your lack of confidence hang around your daughter’s neck like a stone.”
Here is a trailer I made in 2005 from my shoot on the Intracoastal (with producer Anelisa Garfunkel and cinematographer Michael Miller) and a few clips at the end from the Mississippi trip (with co-director David Eberhardt and cinematographer Markus Rutledge) the music is courtesy of Charlie Musselwhite.
I traded my Subaru for a houseboat in Winona, Minnesota, and waited for the armada of punk boaters from Minneapolis to float by on the river. I joined them at Latch Island, and entered the stream of the most difficult, and harrowingly beautiful year of my life. By December 24th of that year, 6 months later, I was alone, in a sinking houseboat dusted with snow, tied up to a public dock in the old pirate town of Morgan City, Louisiana. The boat had almost been swallowed by the river, with me on it, a number of times. At the beginning of the trip, I had invited a more experienced filmmaker, 15 years my senior, who had made a stunning film about train-riding hoboes to co-direct the movie with me. I thought he could be my mentor. He moved onto the boat with me, and within days I was wishing he would hit his head hard and fall right off of it. I made a mistake that I continue to learn from: I doubted my ability to do it myself. The tension between the Satsuma and the rest of the fleet, was clear from the beginning; we were not one of them. My heavy, lumbering houseboat, with it’s bickering inhabitants and a constantly failing engine, spun out of control in the main channel of the river, while the small, homemade punk boats floated gently down the stream. Evan was a kind of big brother, whom I was running to catch up with, but for whom my lack of self-sufficiency, and bumbling ways, were ultimately an embarrassment. My boat had become the stone around their necks.
Sitting on that sinking boat in Morgan City, at the end of my river, huddled under the blankets with my dog and a stray kitten I had picked up along the way, I just wanted a hot shower and a dry bed. The river had been a thousand rivers. I had barely made it.
There were sweet times: Sleeping on the sandy islands of the upper Mississippi, keeping our dogs close at hand while a pack of coyotes, just feet from the boat, howled at the piercingly bright stars. Finding gem-like clam shells with perfectly punched holes piled up along the banks- the waste from old shell button factories. Catching catfish from the roof of the boat, and frying them up for dinner. Finding tucked-away spots to anchor for the night. Walking through tangled brush on forgotten parts of the river bank into veritable ghost towns. Being the stranger in those places, unwashed and wild. Small town libraries, with our bikes and gas cans piled up outside. Dumpster diving at dollar stores. Making hearty meals from our spoils. Drunks, and fishermen, and off duty cops, who came to marvel at us. Whose dreams we were living. On land we got dirty looks; we were trouble. On the water we were something to be envied. The river offers a powerful shift in perspective. The heart of the country, turned inside out, and inside, and out again.
Here is an unedited piece that I filmed with my old Bolex Super 8 camera of Evan cleaning a catfish (turning it inside and out) on the upper Mississippi. Real Super 8, shot off the wall.
In Iowa, Evan had to talk a disgruntled postal worker out of joining us. He had three months to go at his job before a generous pension kicked in, but wanted to give it up to buy a rowboat and follow us down the river. Evan was gentle but firm: the river will be here after you get your pension. That same guy had a brother-in-law who ran a small zoo. The kind where the animals have glazed-over eyes and live in cages that are too small. The guy gave us a ride to town to get gas and on the way stopped at a donut shop to get a bag of day-olds. We stopped at his brother’s zoo on the way back, and he walked into the bear cage. He fed the bear donuts and showed us how the bear liked to wrestle when he’s all hopped up on sugar.
There was more. Memories that bob and surface like that behemoth refrigerator that I saw being sucked under and popped out in the main channel of the lower Mississippi, just outside of Memphis. The power of those currents shook me. How could this boat-sized piece of detritus disappear and reappear so forcefully: first up river, then down, then up again. Didn’t the river flow one way? There was a whirlpool it seemed, moving at torpedo speed, just below the surface.
The river didn’t swallow us. Or if it did, it was only me it swallowed, metaphorically, and spit back up, like that giant old fridge. And now, nearly eight years later, here I am, in the frozen woods of Northern Michigan, with a dry bed and a hot shower.
Evan and his girlfriend Courtney drove up from Pittsburgh, narrowly missing a colossal snow storm. It was immediately great to see Evan, and I fell in love with Courtney right away.
I had feared that the weight I had learned to carry on the river, a kind of self-hatred for not being wilder, stronger, and more self-sufficient, would find its way back around my neck. But years have passed. And, in ways I couldn’t have imagined at twenty-six years old, I’m wilder, stronger, and more self-sufficient. I like getting older. My experience in my thirties has been that the stakes become higher; everything is more infused with purpose, and the bullshit falls away. Friendships, especially the ones that have held on over decades, are rich markers of time. I’m tempted to make some frozen lake analogy here – something about the freezing layers and the rich marine life under the ice, but it wouldn’t do. The kind of friendship I am talking about is the kind that goes through hundreds of seasons, and needs an analogy that spans a larger swath of space and time. I think of the spiral drawn in red pen on a note that Evan passed to me in 7th grade. He explained that our lives were more like spirals than straight lines. He circled a place about a fourth of the way through the spiral “We’re about here.” I don’t remember whether he said we move inwards or outwards, but I do remember that there wasn’t a discernable end.
We revisited that New Orleans boat moment on the ice at Bellows Lake. Evan had given me his auger so that I could drill my own hole. The auger had a dull blade, and months of video editing hasn’t put me in the best shape for powering through a foot of ice with a manual drill. Evan was fishing through his ice hole fifteen feet away, aware that I was struggling. I was determined to do it myself, and didn’t want to ask for help. Fifteen minutes passed, then a half an hour, turning the huge blue spiral of the auger this way and that. In the 10 degree cold I was sweating, taking off my coat and hat. I yelled at the auger a few times, and finally asked Evan to check the depth.“You’re almost there.” he assured me.
Sometime between 30 and 45 minutes into my drilling, my arms numb, I broke the proverbial ice. “I want to talk about stuff, but I also am enjoying your company without talking about stuff.” (We had both mentioned in passing that there was “stuff” to talk about, the misadventure that was the river, and the long silence after.) Evan said he didn’t know if there was anything really to say. I agreed but then added that I had felt so judged by him, and so alone during some hard times on the river. “Yes,” he said, “I bet it was hard.” He thought about it for a while, ”I have impossible standards.”
Right about then Courtney and my boyfriend Erik arrived, and just as they did, my drill finally broke through the last layer of ice.
Evan caught a muskie, and Erik caught a small perch, both of which we threw back. The next fish Evan was determined to keep, even though it was a small one. I got a few good nibbles, lost a wax worm and then, when I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes anymore, called it quits. That night, like every night Evan and Courtney were here, we ate and drank very well.
In the morning, Evan and Courtney were packing up and Evan had a confession to make. He had kept that small fish, determined to cook it and eat it, but they had run out of time. He’d left it in the bait bucket with the minnows. He felt awful. He felt wasteful. He had killed the fish for no reason. What should he do with it? Should he throw it in the woods? Put it back in the lake? I told him that, as penance, he should wear it around his neck all day. We laughed. He decided he would find a spot on the lake and throw it back in. He picked up the bait bucket and something thrashed inside. The fish, it turned out, was still very much alive. We all cheered. Courtney and Evan walked it down to the river, and let it go. It didn’t even hesitate. It swam off fast and strong.
Other highlights of the week: grinding rye grains, hearing Courtney make soap in the room next door while I edited video, Evan and Erik trading tools and stories about woodworking, boat building and basket making.
Watching “Dead River Rough Cut“, one of my favorite documentaries, and seeing Evan and Courtney love it too, drinking homemade ciders from gathered city apples, all different recipes, and keeping a tasting chart to give to the brewer.
And the food, oh my god the food. Courtney’s pancakes made from fresh ground wheat and buttermilk, Evan’s potatoes and eggs, some ridiculously good mustard glazed chicken, quinoa and kale that even Erik liked. And, on my birthday, a lemon cream cheese cake with toasted almonds on top.
Thanks, Evan and Courtney, for the cake, for your company, for making the trip in the first place, and being here so fully. It was wonderful to spend time with you both. My arms are still sore from that damn auger, but it’s a good kind of sore. Tomorrow I’m going back out on the ice, with hopes to catch something big to eat. If I catch your little fish, I’ll be sure to let it go. (Damn, I wish there was still some of that lemon cake around. Oh, and Courtney, you know what I was thinking? LEMON CAKE ALMOND SOAP. Amiright? Almonds add a little exfoliant.)
As for the words of my psychic friend, in Portland, Maine, seven years ago: I don’t have a daughter. Not yet. But, when she comes, putting that stone around her neck will be hard to do. Because half of it will be lying at the bottom of the Mississippi River, covered in ten feet of silt and the other half, will be in the belly of a little fish, swimming under the ice in Bellows Lake.