I sit now in a van. It is late at night, and I have lit candles because I like the softer light and the single flames move and flicker enough to give the illusion of life aside from myself inside this little home. A space heater breathes steadily in the corner because it is November in Kansas City, Missouri.
You’ve missed a lot.
And by no fault of your own, of course.
I am alive, and I am sorry for leaving off on such a cliffhanger. I didn’t mean to be quite so dramatic.
Shortly after leaving Mobridge, South Dakota, I began to get writer’s block. It only worsened as I finished Lake Oahe, where I began to meet more and more people and the pace of the trip became much less desolate. The change wasn’t bad, but it was less conducive to writing.
After Lake Oahe, there are three more lakes to paddle. Though smaller, conditions on the water of these reservoirs are similar to that of larger lakes. I was beginning to tire of paddling on the taxing and often scary waters of a lake.
Lake Francis Case kicked my butt and my electronics dry bag got wet, damaging my computer. That development compiled with my case of writer’s block assured that the blog remained silent.
On September 3rd, I paddled on river. The last dam was behind me and from here on out, the Missouri River was just that- a river. I hadn’t gotten to spend time on her waters with a sustained current for a while now, and I fell in love all over again.
The river has a presence. I woke up every morning and I come down from whatever nest I have slept in and I come down to the water, down to where the ground is wet and I say hello. Not out loud with my voice my human voice because that is not the language the river speaks. And then I squat down and I wash my face and hands in the river. My morning baptismal.
You read the writings of adventurers, travelers, voyagers that are living on a river and in every one I guarantee you will read about what it is like to emotionally connect to water. To depend on it every day for your continued survival, transportation, and companionship. You get to know each other. You grow and change together. You explore the land ahead together. You feel each and every bend of it in your body while your mind gets lost in the endless series of swooping turns. The curves of the most beautiful woman in the world are nothing compared to the curves of a river.
On October 3rd, I entered the Mississippi river. I had been paddling for 100 days exactly. I landed on a beachy shore just past the confluence, greeted by family and friends. It was over, and nothing was real.
I set out back in Montana looking for a lot of things. Answers, mostly. I felt when I began that I had a lot of questions and no explanations for anything that had happened and was going to happen. My parents probably wanted me to emerge with the next 50 years of my life planned out. I did certainly have a lot of thinking to do. But the Ellen that landed at St. Louis landed with even more questions and a future path that was so hazy I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. It was the opposite of what I was expecting to end up with. I found nothing I was looking for and everything I didn’t know I needed or even existed. I hadn’t found enlightenment. Instead I had found the tools that I needed to go out in the world and find it. I was equipped now, and I knew what I had to do.
When I’m on a trip, I follow the “Trust the Trip Gods” approach to my travel. This has nothing to do with religion, the gods I’m talking about here aren’t religious gods. The trip gods are the trip itself. They are the fabric of the journey as well as the stitching. They are the moments where you do not feel alone, where you feel drawn, compelled, called to, whispered at. When something’s speaking to you. And if you listen, and follow that feeling, you can find yourself in the most incredible places and meet the most fascinating people. Trust the Trip Gods.
It was time to go home. But the Trip Gods were speaking.
I’m not on a trip anymore, I say. I’m going back to my old life. You are only gods of the trip.
Yet still they called. What if… you don’t stop tripping? What if your life became one big trip, following the voices of the trip gods wherever they may call?
And as soon as I thought it, I knew what I had to do.
Rewind to South Dakota, at a ramp near Vermillion. I’m lounging in a picnic pavilion, charging my phone and trying to make it not appear like I’m waiting for it to get dark so everyone goes away and I can hang my hammock up and spend the night. My faithful white steed, now not so white, waits patiently down at the ramp. It’s late afternoon, and windy as hell.
The only cars and people that show up don’t stay long. I wait quietly and unobtrusively in the shade. I don’t have much to entertain me, but I don’t need much these days. My inner monologue has a calm and even cadence to it that reflects the river’s tranquil, steady pace.
And then my attention is drawn away from the river.
Do you believe in love at first sight? To behold something for the first time ever and feel nothing but the most good and pure warm feelings? And while I’m sitting there staring and making a stupid grin a trip god with a Cheshire cat smile puts away his cupid’s bow and congratulates himself on a good shot.
She’s short, shorter than most. She looks to be a little older than me, maybe in her mid-twenties. Despite being a little ragged on some of the edges, the word ‘perky’ comes into my head, followed closely by the word ‘perfect.’ She comes right up to the picnic pavilion and stops. I pretend I wasn’t just staring. The trip god watches from a tree, an impish Puck.
I don’t know who I expected to be driving her. I was too infatuated with the van itself to give much thought to that. But out comes a stout middle-aged man with a bearded face and a long thin ponytail. He’s got two beers and a pack of smokes. He plops himself down at an empty table, lights a cigarette, pops a beer, and settles in to look at the river.
A lot of people come down to the ramp, but like I said none of them stay very long, and less than half of them even get out of their cars. I was told that the natives come down often to look at the water in late summer and early fall to predict what the coming winter will be like.
But this man wasn’t predicting any seasons, and despite looking a little rugged himself, he seemed harmless. We struck up conversation. After splitting a six pack and a flask of whiskey together, Dave tells me he’s thinking about selling the van. The trip god perks up and peeks down from the tree to see my reaction. After a moment, the imp titters, lightly clapping his hands with delight. His work here is done, and he blinks out of sight.
It was never set in stone. In fact it was never even more than a maybe. So I looked at other vans, but only halfheartedly. My heart belonged to only one. When I got to St. Louis, I went directly up to South Dakota. It had been a month since I had seen Dave and the van. I didn’t have any numbers or affirmations on anything. The only thing I knew was that he still had it. And if he still had it, then there was still hope in me.
I know that in the end, he didn’t really want to sell her. She is just too easy to love. But he saw the match was made, and with the knowing and loving look the older generation gives to these crazy youngsters that they see some of themselves in, he signed her over to me.
If I am lucky enough to make it to where I am that older generation, and I have the opportunity to make some starry-eyed kid’s dreams come true somehow, I know what I will have to do.
I realized I didn’t have a life to return to back in Texas. I wasn’t renting a place, and I had quit my job. But I had a van, so I drove to Texas, loaded up my things, and drove away. So really before I knew it, I was living in a van.
I drove back to the river. I couldn’t just leave it, not after all we had been through together. In the river, I had found a simple life and an internal quietness I had been missing for a while. Maybe I was afraid if I left its muddy shores, I would lose that again.
In Kansas City, the Missouri River is mature and channelized. But I can look into that brown water and see the young and energetic headwaters of Montana, clear and fresh and burbling along, eager to explore this new world. I can look at this river here and feel the vast masses of pulsating reservoir somewhere upstream. On its shores, I can feel the current as it winds through the heart of this country, back and forth like the head of a snake. I can look at this river here and feel every inch of it in my bones, in my muscles, in my breath. This river has graciously and patiently allowed me get to know it in the most intimate of ways. Even if I go on to paddle many more rivers in my life, the Missouri River will always be my first love.
My oldest brother was a paddler. He was the first river rat I knew. He showed me his river. And because of him, now I have a river too.
Thank you everyone