When I arrived at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in St. Louis on October 3rd 2017, I had no desire to take a right hand turn and head south on the Mississippi towards salt water.
The next bend opened up in two directions. For the last one hundred days, I had been watching the river turn and expose each new alluring bend continuously, endlessly, sometimes even relentlessly. No matter how far I went that day, there was always an undiscovered piece of river waiting just behind that next bend, for tomorrow.
Now, floating in the middle of the Missouri River while looking across the water that opened up on both sides to the east bank of the Mississippi River, my brain broke.
There is a peculiar feeling when you are experiencing something that you know you will never experience again but will remember forever. For me, it is a feeling of displacement from the body while at the same time being intensely aware of each passing moment.
How did you feel, when you said “I do” to your fiancée on your wedding day? How did you feel, when you held your baby for the first time? How did you feel, seeing something you’ve imagined thousands of times before?
How do you feel when the time has come to just experience this moment?
I stopped paddling. I didn’t need to anymore. The river had allowed me passage the entire way, and I let her do the honors and take me unassisted down the last stretch. I put down my paddle, lay my blistered hands in the water and just sat, looking around. The time has come to experience this.
I thought about the water caressing my fingers, twirling slowly by in little swirls, miniature versions of the whirlpool eddies that boil behind each obstruction in the current. I thought about the whole river, backwards. I followed it as it wound back towards Kansas City, a slender and channelized snake. I thought about it running braided and free near Vermillion. I thought about the reservoirs in the Dakotas with the water bunched up behind damns. I thought about the young river in Montana, wild and limber and with a voice like a teenager. And finally, I thought about the clear stream that coursed down from the Centennial mountains to Three Forks, so bright and burbling like a clean, happy baby. Since then, I had been watching her grow the whole time. It was only now that I realized I had changed just as much. In watching her, she had taught me more about myself than I could have alone.
I saw it all there in the water, and I wasn’t afraid.
The Missouri River sighed once, dipped down briefly, and merged with the darker waters of the Mississippi River.
I felt great power underneath me. I felt like I was on the top of stormy clouds and beneath me, gods moved mountains. The rivers churned and boiled, turning my kayak like a top. I picked up my paddle but didn’t move.
During the trip, when I told people I was planning on stopping at St. Louis, they wagged their fingers in my face, telling me that when I got to the Mississippi, I would want to keep going all the way to the Gulf, you know. You won’t want to just stop there, no. You’re going to want to keep going. Look at you. Look at how far you’ve come. You’re not going to want to stop there.
Though, I never listen when people tell me how I’m going to feel and what I’m going to do. You might know how you would feel, but don’t tell me how I will feel and what I will do.
That being said, I wasn’t sure how I would feel when I got there.
I did not feel like going downstream.
The water of the Mississippi felt foreign and unfamiliar against my kayak, and I recoiled from it. This river frightened me, not because she was big, but because I didn’t know her, and she didn’t know me. The choppy water swirled against my boat and splashed as the two rivers met each other for the first time. My Missouri was so quickly mixed up in these alien waters that I couldn’t talk to her anymore. For the first time since I had been on the water, I was alone.
I felt like an uninvited guest. I felt like I was crashing a party. I couldn’t possibly get to know this new water right now, right here. I was whisked south but stayed close the bank. I wanted to touch as little of the Mississippi as possible.
But just the same as I felt the Missouri river current running underneath in her upstream reservoirs, I felt her within in this water, too. I felt her make a giant merging turn and then continue downstream, growing stronger and more mature with her sister, the Mississippi. They laughed and hugged as they rolled together now, telling each other all they things they had seen on the way here.
I felt no desire to go with them. To do so would be like getting to know only half of a person. I couldn’t possibly learn the language of this river from the middle.
No, I would have to go back and start at the beginning…again.