A journey by canoe down the Mississippi River
About Captain Richard Suleski
Richard A. Suleski, Jr. is 28 years old. At the age of 17, he joined the Merchant Marines and participated in Operation Desert Shield aboard the USNS Regulus, delivering the 2nd Armored Cavalry Division to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. From the age of 20 to 24 he was a Real Estate Broker, ranking in the top 3% nationally. Tired of working 12-hour days, he decided to quit his job and see America. Over the next year, Rich pedaled an old Schwinn bicycle 10,982 miles through the contiguous 48 states of the Union. He wrote a book about the journey called Ten Thousand Miles of America. Five weeks after finishing that journey, he became the 1st Mate on the paddlewheel steamboat Julia Belle Swain. It is one of the last genuine paddlewheel steamboats left in America. This authentic steamer plies Mark Twain’s favorite part of the Mississippi River, between Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin and Winona, Minnesota. This winter, Rich received the rank of Captain and is currently piloting the P.A. Denny, a sternwheeler based in Charleston, West Virginia. Articles were written about the journey Ten Thousand Miles of America in several small-town newspapers, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and the Arizona Daily Sun. Later this summer, Rich will be featured in an upcoming PBS documentary entitled Main Stream. He is currently writing his second non-fiction title, about his most recent travels, entitled The Soul of America. Rich will be making his third attempt to canoe the Mississippi later this year, or early next year. Ten Thousand Miles of America, The Soul of America, and his other adventures can be found at his Web site. [No longer available.]
Postscript: Rich Suleski passed away doing what he loved to do — riding a bicycle.
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.
It was two years and two months ago that I completed my 10,982-mile bicycle journey through the contiguous 48-states of the Union. I was now a deckhand and night watchman aboard the Steamer Julia Belle Swain. One of the last left in America. A piece of history that wasn’t resigned to a museum or the scrap heap. Instead, it breathed steam. I was working on one of the last paddlewheel steamboats left in America. I lit up a cigarette and watched the smoke climb up over the handrail and down the deck. It was heading towards the paddlewheel. Downriver. Down towards New Orleans. And time passes slowly on the river. The mother of all American rivers. I was sitting on Route 66 of a previous century. Mark Twain tied up at this very same levee. We looked at the same bluffs, and even the same towns like La Crosse, Prairie du Chien, Dubuque, Winona, and Trempealeau. Of course, some of the buildings have withered away, and others have grown. Twain once said his most favorite section of the river was Trempealeau Mountain. I passed it about once a week on the steamer. I was starting to get an idea of what he was talking about. And so here I sit, aboard the deck of a steamer like Twain, wondering about my life. Wondering what things I could find while I journeyed along the Mississippi. What lay in the towns and farm fields that flickered in the Midwestern evening sky? It all started here. And eventually, I was going to flow south too. Just like the Mississippi River. For the past couple years I had dreamed of canoeing as much of the Mississippi River as I could. Last fall, in my first attempt, I started out from East Dubuque, Illinois and planned to go all the way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. On day four, I gave up. I had a hernia that needed mending. I had gotten it earlier in the year working on the Julia Belle, but decided to get it fixed after my canoe journey. My hernia decided that paddling a canoe day in and day out for a couple months was not a very good idea. I went home and got my guts sewn back together. I would plan a second try next fall, the fall of ’99.
And so, in the middle of September, I began a trek to the headwaters of the Mississippi, Lake Itasca. I headed there in spite of a very bad cold. My spleen was removed a few years ago, and therefore my cold lingered for quite a while, my body didn’t have the antibodies it needed to fight off the bug. My doc in Waukesha gave me an antibiotic, and rather than wait for myself to get better, I elected to start the journey anyway. It had been burning in my brain for two years now. Like last year, I didn’t care if something was wrong with me. I had a “gig” with PBS, who happened to be at Lake Itasca the same time as me. I was hoping I could plug my book stuff since my agent in New York was pushing Ten Thousand Miles of America. A very good friend of mine, Donald MacKay, and his father, volunteered to haul my canoe and me from Waukesha, Wisconsin to Lake Itasca. Eleven hours if you drive fast, pulling an ancient single-axle camper. My girlfriend Heather and I drove behind in her Toyota pickup. We made our way to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Heather and I spent the night in Park three to four weeks while I paddled from Itasca to LaCrosse. I was planning to canoe the entire length of the Mississippi. The next morning, Heather and I made our good-byes, very sadly, and I was off to concentrate on my chosen endeavor. My temperature had come back down a little, but it seemed the antibiotic wasn’t doing anything. Donald, his dad Scotty, who speaks with a thick Scottish accent, and myself ate breakfast solemnly as it rained incessantly. This reminded me of Ten Thousand Miles of America, it rained non-stop for the first four days. We made our way to the boat landing, where I would be dropped off, and paddle the mile or so across Lake Itasca, and enter the tiny, five-foot-wide stream that emptied Lake Itasca, the tiny stream was called the Mississippi River. I paddled across, with a cold mist and a cold wind blowing on me. The weight of all my gear in the canoe kept me pointed towards the swampy area with tall reeds, which was where the “big” river began. I arrived there, planning on seeing nine people from PBS filming my arrival. Nobody was there except for Donald and Scotty. We took pictures of each other, the sign that said the Mississippi River started here, and that I had 2,557 miles to go. I had moved some of my gear around the rock ledge that creates a miniature dam where people can walk across to claim they walked across the entire Mississippi River.
I was ready to pay farewell to my outstanding friends who drove me hundreds of miles into the north woods of Minnesota for nothing, when suddenly the whole PBS crew arrived. They apologized that they were late, and asked if I would redo my arrival at the beginning of the Miss’. I wanted to say good-bye, I am not here to be an actor, but elected to accommodate them. The producer suggested where I start paddling from, “Out there, at the end of the weed bed, and slowly come in, land here… And then walk this way…” This included a good amount of pointing and discussion among the producer, cameramen and such for the proper “effect” of my arrival. So, I dragged my canoe back around the rock dam, canoed back out through the reeds, and proceeded to play the actor role. Paddled in, and as I pretended I was alone at the headwaters, the producer was motioning frantically for me to walk this way. Of course, I had to look at him with side vision, because he was next to the camera, and of course, a huge rule was to never look at the camera. And so I ambled a different way from the way I was told to go beforehand. The next step was to figure out how far they were going to go with me downriver. The first suggestion was Bemidji, I explained to them that unless they planned on being with me overnight or two nights, that was totally impossible. Bemidji was 22 miles away. So we agreed that we’d go to the first main highway. Then they said that a cameraman and the host would be traveling with me. I replied, “Well, I had planned on paddling the whole distance alone.” The producer went on to explain why we had to do things certain ways, et cetera. I found him a relatively pompous man, but I assumed most producers were and, besides, everybody was from New York. So, half my gear was removed from my canoe, and then more in order to fit in the host, who sat in the front seat, and a cameraman who sat in the middle. The whole time the feeling is like a circus, with people running around every which way. I also was worried about a DNR Warden who’s there to assist the PBS people. I was worried because I was supposed to have a sticker for my canoe, so it was legally “licensed” to be in Minnesota. In my planning, it had gotten lost somewhere, and I was paddling around without a license sticker on my canoe. I was canoeing illegally. I was worried this DNR man would notice and arrest me, or actually at least put a stop to the whole menagerie and it would be my fault. So, I casually mentioned to the DNR man, when we had a moment to ourselves, that, “I got the state sticker… Somewhere… I think it’s in one of my waterproof bags… I am hauling so much crap… It must be with my friends maybe. Isn’t this crummy weather we’re having….” And I mumbled off into oblivion. The DNR man seemed to care less, which amazed me, and found the whole circus atmosphere rather amusing in itself. And my fear of an arrest warrant following me down the Mississippi came to naught. So I stopped worrying about this. Now, it was time to start going down the Mississippi. The pompous producer, a sound man, and a second cameraman all got into a rented canoe that had been hauled down by grips, and the menagerie started downriver. Everything got screwed up immediately, we were going too fast, the angles were off. Then it was decided that for the opening sequence, the cameraman in my canoe would get out, and we’d pick him up at a footbridge about a quarter mile down river. So, “Stop,” was announced, and I groped at the bank, trying desperately to stop us before we would shoot around the bend with the cameraman. I crawled us upstream, by grabbing the grass on the bank, and we had the cameraman vacate the canoe. So, with the other canoe filming us, the host and I paddled our way down river. We made small talk about my planned journey, and the WHY of my journey. Then, we rocketed towards the footbridge, with these idiots doing sound, filming, and producing all at the same time in a 17-foot canoe. They weren’t really paddling, and the current was fast due to all the rain. It reminded me of the marble in the Mouse Trap game.
Our cameraman got back in the canoe at the footbridge, and we continued. I am worried about this whole cameraman thing now, because it’s being filmed in HDTV (one of the first documentaries on PBS) and his camera is worth close to a hundred grand. The producing/directing/filming/sound canoe is not navigating, and we spend our time bouncing off each bank. Fifteen minutes later, we’re facing a pool with a narrow culvert. Suddenly, everybody looks to me as the “expert” canoeist and wonders what we should do. I think about this like a monkey doing a math problem, and suggest we go straight under the highway through the narrow culvert. My decision, as the designated “expert” is based on the fact that I am lazy and sick and don’t want to empty the canoe and portage. We all slingshot through the culvert, then thru a little whirl of rapids on the other side, and feel like we had just run the Grand Canyon with everyone hooting and hollering. Of course, my expert status was now repossessed by the producer. The host and I talk about everything under the sun while the camera’s roll. We talk about the river, my working on the steamboat for the last few years, my ten-thousand-mile bicycle journey (which the producer said I could NOT plug), and historical facts I knew about the river from steamboating, and research for the canoe journey. They found my useless facts about the river important to the “story.” Then we kind of repeated our entire conversations a couple more times. I am curious how chopped up this thing will be. We continued onward, nearly tipping over a few times. The whole cameraman facing me bugged me. He didn’t know where we were going, and we were often going thru/under trees which whacked him in the back of the head. Then the sound man announced that the audio for the last TWO hours may not exist. So, we all sat there, in the middle of some bog with the sound man going through batteries and sound equipment in the canoe, on his lap, et cetera, until he finally established that he was “pretty sure” the sound was on the HDTV recordings. I found the host a very nice fellow, the author of about a dozen books on an assortment of subjects including one about the Pittsburgh Steelers when they were in their glory back in the ’70s. Whenever we were stopped for “producing” decisions, he and I talked about my planned journey, and I asked him questions because he was kind of what I wanted to be in the future. This was a part-time gig for him, he was semi-retired, and gave me his name and address. A very nice fellow. He didn’t act like he was from New York. Finally, we arrived at the highway. I was more than ready to get rid of this PBS circus. Just before we got there, we were confronted by a beaver dam, and I, as the “expert” again, determined that it would be easier to try and seesaw the canoes over the dam, instead of trying a portage in the middle of a swamp. This worked, but only after I got out of my canoe, and pushed down on the end of each canoe, and rode the other end over the dam. Then, I hurdled the beaver dam, and almost went under when I lost my footing. I grabbed at the end of my canoe, with the cameraman in the middle, and the host facing forward having no clue what was going on as the canoe went LEFT… RIGHT… LEFT… as I furiously floundered in the water trying to steady myself. The pompous producer was nearly grinning watching the pollock and I announce that I can’t wait to get rid of all their sorry asses. They found that exact statement funny as hell, and we went around a couple bends to the bridge. We all took pictures of each other. They promised me a tape of the whole thing, and I told them I better get more than 10 seconds on there documentary, having sacrificed my health, life, and self-respect all for PBS and there damned documentary. Overall, we all got along well, and they took my tongue in cheek complaining with great humor. I told them they were a great bunch of folks in spite of them being from New York. Even the pompous producer. I said good-bye to Donald and Scotty, thanking them repeatedly for driving me way up to Nowhere, MN and then having to spend several hours with the PBS menagerie. (They even hauled the PBS rental canoe back to the State Park!) The PBS crew took off for the next shoot, in Bemidji. Finally, I was alone. Impact. I had to paddle 2,552 miles. After the whole circus with PBS it seemed incredibly quiet. I went around a bend, and just floated. I listened to the silence. I looked up at the sky, with long tendrils of white cotton candy pulling apart into long wisps. I looked across the swamp at the tamarack trees. I was floating on the Mississippi River, about eight feet wide here, of course narrower in some spots and wider in others. I looked down at the water. It was biting cold, and magnificently clear. The pure epitome of the word… “pure.” No city was dumping crap in it, no factory was dumping crud in it, no boat was leaking oil into it, no fool had thrown a car battery into it. This was pure, unadulterated America before the industrial revolution. This was what America looked like a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago, and five thousand years ago. This is what it looked like after the glacier melted away. I peered down into the water, vaguely looking at my reflection then looking deeper, into the alabaster clean water. I could see the weeds, of many different colors, rippling in the current, just as they had done for hundreds and hundreds of years. I had never seen weeds that looked so beautiful. It was like I was looking at an awesome modern painting at the museum. But, one that moved. And so I floated atop the alabaster water. The water drops rolling off my paddle, kaplunking into the water, creating concentric circles everlasting. And the smell of the tamaracks entered my senses. The smell of freedom. And time passed slowly. I got lost in a few swamps, where the “mighty” Mississippi went different directions, literally splitting in two or three. I would paddle for twenty minutes and end up next to a bunch of tamaracks at the end of a bog. I would then, as a proper Polish man, paddle backwards because the mighty river was only three to five feet wide when it broke apart like this. Sometimes, I would stand up in the canoe, balance like a proper Polish man, and walk the tightrope to the other side of the canoe over all my gear, and paddle properly facing the right way. At least until I got out, and selected another incorrect route within the maze. It was rather flabbergasting. Occasionally I would stand up, trying to stand as TALL as I could to see above the weeds. I had no idea where the hell I was. The swamp was perhaps 100 acres big, and the river(s) snaked all over the place. There was no set route. I stared off into oblivion, wanting to just camp and rest. I was still sick. I found a place to camp, somehow connected to the mainland because there was an outhouse for paddlers, a fire ring, and an Adirondack shelter. (Which is a three-sided dirt-floored “cabin.”) This was one of the Government campsites. It was nice. I relaxed. I thought about Heather, PBS, everyone I knew, the future, antibiotics, being sick, Donald and Scotty, my folks, and the silence. It’s a bittersweet feeling, your finally in the environment you dream to be in, but you also think wistfully about the other life, because that’s where you spend most of your days. I thought about the Julia Belle, with all my friends on board, churning away where the river was a mile wide. The steam pushing up like a geyser from the escape stacks, the KaDUsh of the pittman arms moving the paddlewheel around and around. I thought of where I was, where I had been, and where I was going to go. Where it all ended up I did not know. On the morning of day four, I was in a pickle. I debated about what I should do for hours yesterday. I still had this lousy flu/head cold/sinus infection thing. It wasn’t going away and, without a spleen, I had to worry about getting pneumonia much more so than other people. My body didn’t produce the antibodies as much. My antibiotics had run out yesterday and I hadn’t gotten healthier at all, perhaps I had gotten a little worse. So, the next three or four days would be through a series of forest and swamps with little or no contact with humans until I got near Bemidji. I was traveling much more slowly than expected. The first day, I traveled six miles. Six miles! Pathetic. Of course, I was hindered by the PBS menagerie. But on the next day, I had only gone 12 miles. This was in a fast current due to all the rain. Of course, portages slowed me down, and I was just getting broken in, but this was still incredibly lousy.
And, thus, I sat there at Coffee Pot Landing debating my future. I remember my doctor, after getting my spleen taken out, advising me that if I ever ventured way off the beaten path, like canoeing the Yukon, I better have a means of getting airlifted out. “Yeah, sure. I don’t have any money in the first place.” But his words were ringing now. It was in my best interest to get out of here today, and get some antibiotics. I shouldn’t have been here in the first place. I should have started when I was 100% healthy. I was toying with fate, and I had always been careful. I needed to be careful here, and it was rather foolish, perhaps very foolish, to go on if I couldn’t get help; if I got sicker. I had a short window to canoe the Mississippi River. It was mid-September. Only a fence or two separated this area of Minnesota from the North Pole. I wanted to just keep going, but prudence dictated I get healthy. I sat in my tent, staring up at the North Face logo and the aqua nylon. I could see the shadows and outlines of the white oaks and willows above me at Coffee Pot Landing. Complete silence enveloped me, it’s a “lonely love” feeling. That was a term Heather and I had compressed into two words from about ten different emotions. I felt most at home here, in the woods of the silence. But I took it in spoonfuls, a mouthful was too much. The need of civilization nearly as inviting when one is in the woods for weeks at a time. It had been about two years and two months since the end of Ten Thousand Miles of America. My soul had been burning to do this next journey. Here it was! Now what?!? If I elected to “get healthy,” I didn’t know whether I would be back here to keep canoeing. I had been sick for two or three weeks now. With new antibiotics I had no idea when I would be 100% well. Why did I have the bad luck of getting sick only twice in the last decade, and both times when I was getting ready to take a 2,000-plus-mile canoe trip?!? Snow could be falling three or four weeks from now. I decided I was going to go for a walk. I couldn’t sit still. I was sick, but it was all upper respiratory and in my head, and my body was still pretty workable for paddling or walking. I walked for about five miles down a long dirt road on the other side of the highway from Coffee Pot Landing. I thought a long time. “Well, you can stow all your stuff in the thicket of woods here. Even the canoe. Lock it to a tree with the bike lock you brought. Hide it in the brambly thick stuff, people would have to really hunt for it to actually find it. I hope. Should I hitchhike to Bemidji or walk back to Lake Itasca?” I thought about what to do, debated each idea. I was deciding to get out, at least for now, and if I got lucky and got healthy quickly, all my stuff would be here to continue when I returned. When one is several hundred miles away from home, with a canoe and a barge full of gear, it is difficult to simply go home. Someone had to come get me. It’s hard to say, “Hi, quit what you’re doing and come get me. I am in the middle of nowhere with a 17-foot canoe and a barge full of gear. I don’t know how many hundreds of miles I am from home, but I am bored, not going anywhere, and have no television to watch. I am living in a tent and am not mobile.” It’s like sitting Indian-style in the middle of a plowed cornfield for hours and hours, or days and days. It’s different from moving in the environment by canoe, foot, or whatever. I went back towards my campsite. As I crossed the empty highway I wondered about my prospects. “That highway is pretty dead,” I said to myself. I furiously packed up all my gear in the waterproof bags and sealed 5-gallon buckets. This stuff was gonna get rained on, and it was going to sit in the woods here. I piled all my gear in a different location away from my canoe. I would cut my losses if one or the other was discovered. I thought of coons or bears chewing through my waterproof bags ten minutes after I left. I packed all of my expensive stuff in my daypack, and took account of what I could leave here. I may have to walk 12 miles, and this was after I had walked eight or 10 already down the dirt road. I would be leaving some camping gear, a bunch of expensive clothes, a lot of food, and a canoe. People may think I’m nuts, deciding to leave all this stuff behind. But, I had limited options. I was in the middle of nowhere, didn’t have a vehicle, and needed to get antibiotics. Besides, on Ten Thousand Miles of America, I had spent seven months living outdoors and I had become rather adept at determining where to “hide” from people when I camped. And thus my gear was squirreled away in the woods. I grabbed my daypack and put it on my shoulder, then picked up my feather-light, basswood, butternut, and black walnut paddle and began walking towards the highway and away from Coffee Pot Landing. Like an aspiring country singer with knapsack and guitar in hand, heading out on the highway for Nashville, I was seeking a different highway. A highway to home, or somewhere where I could get healthy. I couldn’t afford a motel for more than a couple days at best. I hadn’t completely decided what to do yet, whether to lie low somewhere, or to come back here with antibiotics. But, how would I get out of here let alone back to here at a later date? I was in the middle of nowhere.
Part 5: Conclusion
My feet felt free, arching loosely down the side of the highway. At least I was going somewhere now. I had spent too much time debating what to do. I was walking towards Lake Itasca because I knew there were phones there, and I was hitch-hiking towards Bemidji, Minnesota. So, I was actually heading in two directions at once. I would get to Itasca within about four hours or so, to make a call and tell Heather, or my folks, or my steamboat friends Lee and Kathy to come get me. But if I found a car on this dead highway, and if they were heading specifically to Bemidji, then I would go that direction and perhaps to a motel. I had walked perhaps 200 hundred yards. My backpack felt quite heavy. My paddle would not make a good walking stick. A vehicle appeared on the crest of the hill, about a half-mile down the highway. I moved my paddle to my left hand, prepared my right thumb for its important task, and made the hitch-hiker’s stance. An orange pickup, perhaps a 1970 Chevy, made its bumpy way down the highway with its singular occupant. This quiet road of the northland was leading somewhere, perhaps. My thumb moved out to hover over the white line on the side of the highway, the only sound was of the hum of the pickup, the audible silence of wondering whether a slight tone difference would mean a ride out of this, nowhere to somewhere. VVVRRRrrrroooommmmm… “He’s downshifting! All right!” I peered through the window, the man was actually a kid, perhaps 18 or 19. He had slicked back hair, like from the fifties, and he was driving a vintage Chevy with a homemade wooden box. It was funny and interesting. He didn’t look like a nutcase, and instead looked like he had just driven through a slice of time travel. I felt like a hippie, guitar in hand, “Hey man, I need a ride to Bemidji. Specifically Bemidji. Headin’ that way?” I blinked, wondering whether Slick had just run a hand through his hair like a ’50s movie clip, as he replied, “Hey, yeah. I’m heading there right now. You want a ride?” Hot damn! I had my thumb out for 10 seconds, and I got a ride going all the way to Bemidji! 30 miles in one shot. Trail magic, the mysterious helper of the wandering road, had kicked in again. I was making time! The kid shifted up, looking at me, and looking back towards the box. I kept my paddle in my hands, not wanting its 15 ounces to fly out of the box. My paddle was my holy grail. He gandered at me. “Where ya headed? You canoein’?” I suppose it was kind of odd, how many people have a paddle in their hand hitch-hiking? I thought he was a unique character, and I guess he thought the same of me. So, I gave him the whole story, and he was stoked up. “Oh, yea. That’s really neat. The whole way, huh? Cool man.” Now it was my turn to learn of Slick, the kid. Ray hailed from some little house in the sticks out this way somewhere. His truck was from North Dakota, and that’s why, as a ’70, it had no rust. He was 17 and worked at the grocery store in Bemidji. He seemed like a smart independent kid who knew his way around the block. And, he knew how to fix cars. And he stocked shelves at the grocery store. He seemed like a kid who would disappear from Bemidji during the sunset of his graduation day. Coming back for mom’s cooking perhaps once every couple of years. That’s the way Bob Dylan left Hibbing. As fast as he could. It’s hard, living in the northland, wondering what it’s like elsewhere. Never knowing what “elsewhere” is. Silence is a bit of a tormentor to some. When Dylan participated in a talent show in high school, they booed him off the stage. He thumbed it out of the northland as fast as he could. Some said he would never return. I told Ray that it wasn’t all bad I had to thumb it to Bemidji. “If I paddled through, I would have missed Paul Bunyun and the Blue Ox… what’s the ox called… Babe?” Ray laughed, and looked at me, then the highway, then the mirror, then the highway, ran a hand through his hair and said, “Yep. That’s right.” He chuckled again. “Yeah, they’re there. Thirty feet tall, man. Pretty funny.” He downshifted for a crossroads which intersected the other nowhere. “Yeah, I’ll take ya there.” I looked at him incredulously. I was just happy as hell to get a ride to where I was going. Now, I was getting a tour guide. For free. Twenty minutes later, I was grinning like a good tourist, with two fiberglass monstrosities behind me. Ray told me to smile as he held my camera. Mr. Bunyun stood handsomely, like a good Minnesotan, black mustache properly trimmed, gripping his axe firmly. Babe the Blue Ox reminded me of a fiberglass Holstein milk cow in my hometown. But Babe was about twice as big. It was kind of hokie, but it was genuine Americana and I had to document that I was here. After all, Heather was proud that Kansas had the biggest ball of string, and Minnesota had Paul and Babe, and Wisconsin had cheese, and Milwaukee had a beer. I admit I am hokie proud. I switched with Ray and took a picture of my benefactor standing by the mascot of his town. Then we climbed back into the ’70 orange Chevy with the wood flatbed box and ambled up the street to the Motel 8. Ray pointed to the grocery store where he stocked shelves. It was a nice-looking grocery store. Everything seemed nice. Ray slicked his hair back a final time, a habit I guess, and nodded me good-bye. “Good luck, man. I hope ya git better soon. It’s neat what yer doin’. Sure is.” And I shook Ray’s hand, grabbed my daypack from the flatbed (which had two-by-fours around the perimeter) and watched Ray, my 25-minute friend, pull away. I think he slicked his hair back before he got to the grocery store. I think. And before me lay a bed to sleep on, and soap, and hot water, and fast-food joints all over, and I felt I had been in the woods for weeks. My spoonful was empty, and I could spoon up civilization again. I called Heather, to let her know I still existed, that I was in civilization three or four weeks sooner than expected, and that I looked forward to speaking with her instead of the voicemail. I went over to the greasy spoon, next to the motel, and had a genuine fatboy feast. It was a little too fancy for me, and not really a greasy spoon, but I got the cheeseburger and fries, and thus made it a greasy spoon. The guy who ran the motel was very helpful when I checked in, he even offered to have the motel shuttle drive me all the way back to Coffee Pot Landing to get my gear, or dump me off to restart. I learned he was a lover of the Boundary Waters and canoeing. And trail magic was working magnificently even if my body was not cooperating. I called up my steamboat friends. Kathy was a nurse and Physicians Assistant. She could give me some medical thoughts. The Julia Belle was underway when I called the cellular. I felt my soul travel across the copper wires and radio waves onto the deck of the Julia Belle. My old wandering grounds way down the river. My old life that I hadn’t quite escaped from. A place I would return to occasionally. But felt that I had to separate from in order to paddle my own canoe. “Good God, you’re still sick? You better get some real drugs. I mean, you could be getting pneumonia or could have something else. You better get to the doctor again.” I later learned she was theorizing I might have meningitis. That was it, I was heading south to get well. The next morning, I met Jim the maintenance man. He was also the shuttle driver and, together, we drove out into the wilderness towards Coffee Pot Landing. I gathered up my gear and looked towards the thicket of woods and thorn bushes that cradled my canoe. I would be back to paddle it, or back to pick it up sometime soon. I would hope. I was returning to the concrete jungle.