Thursday, September 6, 2012

Long Post for a Long Trip

I've talked a bit on this blog about my dad's big trip-of-a-lifetime that he was undertaking this summer.  Dad's trip entailed traveling in a 20’ open welded-aluminum fishing boat from eastern Montana approximately 1,846 miles down the Missouri River, then to the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, Tombigbee, Warrior, and Mobile Rivers, and through Mobile Bay to the Gulf Coast and on to the Florida Keys.  From Key West he planned to loop around the southern half of Florida, through Lake Okeechobee and the intracoastal canal back to the west coast and to take-out at Tampa.  A total of more than 4,000 miles.

In this boat.


So, he left Colorado at the beginning of June, a little more than a week after his last day of work ever.  He's been planning this trip for what seems like forever.  Planning it in his mind for a long time before he told any of us about it, surely.  And then working out logistics for a very long time after that.  The detailed planning that was required over the past couple years to make a trip like this feasible is quite amazing.

Dad decided pretty early on in the planning process that he would have a co-captain (or "XO", as executive officers are referred to in the Navy) for each leg of the 10-week trip.  My brother and I both signed up right away.  Glad we did, since in subsequent conversations, and while on the river, we both were impressed with how important it was to Dad to have us join him on this trip.  We wouldn't have missed it for anything.

Dad has riverboats in his blood; he talks about it in his first blog post.  We know it's important to him that we have a sense of this part of his history...and it's important to us too.  So, after much discussion and scheduling, it was decided that I would join Dad for the section of the trip from Paducah, Kentucky on the Tennessee River, through Kentucky Lake to Pickwick Lake, onto the Tenn-Tom Waterway, and end in Fulton, Mississippi.  I signed up, I bought my plane tickets (and the insurance on those plane tickets, for the first time ever), and waited for my turn at the wheel. 

I waited anxiously for news of his progress during those first precarious weeks on the upper Missouri River.  Cell phone coverage was not good, his email wasn't cooperating, and the river terrain was harrowing.

I breathed a big sigh of relief when he called me from the Hilton in Sioux City, Iowa to report that he was clear of the shallows, and would now be traveling in deep channelized rivers, maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Phew!

In mid-July I packed everything I needed in a bag that I could carry on my back, loaded my iPhone up with new music and Kindle with lots of books, and tearfully walked away from my family into Denver International Airport.  I've never been away from Sadie for more than 2 nights, so needless to say, I was wary of leaving her for so long.  But of course I knew she was in the best hands.  And although I knew I would miss my family terribly, I was also craving some alone time.  When was the last time I got on an airplane by myself and read a book for hours on end?  Well, about 4 years ago before I became a mama!  At this point in my life, traveling across the country with everything I need on my back, to a place I'd never been before felt like pure luxury.  I couldn't wait!

I finally made it to the tiny Paducah, Kentucky airport after a very long day of travel (including sitting on the tarmac for nearly 2 hours in Chicago).  During my many delays I just kept telling myself how lovely it was to be able to sit and knit/read/listen to music/stare out the window without being interrupted by the demands of a three-year-old.  And then my impatience magically disappeared.

It was wonderful and emotional to see Dad after not seeing him for 6 weeks.  He looked like a different person!  And I was LOVING the beard.  Dad had a big beard when I was a kid and hasn't had it in about 20 years.  I love the way he looks with a beard.

Dad was sick as a dog when I arrived in Paducah, and I could tell.  He seemed tired and cranky and just worn down.  I was worried that he hadn't been having the time of his life (as he was supposed to be...).  He spent dinner that first night expressing some frustrations and disappointments about the trip thus far.  I was coming into my week on the water with such optimism and excitement and it was worrisome to see that my dad was not in the same place.  What was I getting myself into?

After a nice dinner, we wandered along the Paducah River Walk, a path along the river with murals depicting the town's history.  It was hot and humid.  I was bracing myself for that to get a lot worse as the sun came up the next day, and as we worked our way south.

It was dark by the time we drove the 30 minutes to the Green Turtle Bay Marina and arrived at the boat.  The picture above was my first view of the boat that would be my home for the next 9 days.  Arriving late at night, in the dark, only solidified my feeling of trepidation about being so far from home and from my family.  But, I found a place for my bag, helped Dad get set up for the night, and crawled under my sheet.  After such a long day, I had no trouble falling asleep on the floor of the boat.

The next morning I bounced right out of bed at 7 a.m. (it was already hot), and went for a really nice, long run.  Going into the trip I wasn't sure what my options were going to be for exercising.  I envisioned being in places where it wouldn't necessarily be safe to go running by myself.  But I could tell that we were in a nice, quiet town where I'd be perfectly fine setting off by myself.

The rest of the day was spent grocery shopping and planning for the rest of the week.  My job was to use the various resources at my disposal (in Dad's "library"), including river charts and Quimby's 2012 Cruising Guide to figure out where we would stop each night, and calling ahead to reserve slips for the marinas we chose to aim for each day.

I found myself a gazebo with a ceiling fan, and spent the afternoon reading and knitting while Dad napped on the  boat.  He had started a course of antibiotics, at the suggestion of his doctor back in Colorado, and I was hopeful that he'd be feeling better soon.

Here's a picture of the set-up of the boat.  Dad was very organized, and as I expected, had things down to a science by the time I joined him.  Everything had its place and the systems he had worked out were functional and made it possible and enjoyable for two people (at least us two) to live in such close quarters.  

After a nice dinner in the Green Turtle Bay Yacht Club restaurant, and another good night's sleep, we got up early Sunday morning in preparation for our first day on the water together.  I was excited to get started and happy that Dad seemed to already be feeling better.  He was starting to seem like himself!

It felt great to be out on the water, and Dad let me drive the boat for much of the day.  Our first day out, on Kentucky Lake, the water was fairly choppy, so we took our time working our way south.

After crossing into Tennessee and arriving at the Breakers Marina, we met up with our new friends from Duroboat.  Larry McPhail, the owner, had found Dad's blog online and contacted him about visiting when he arrived in Tennessee.  He brought his daughter Elizabeth and her boyfriend Sammy with him, and met us for some Sunday afternoon fun.  They proceeded to give us a tour of all the local boater watering holes scattered around that part of Kentucky Lake.  We had a great afternoon visiting, listening to live music, boating, and drinking.  It was hot and the sun was intense.  Needless to say, we were exhausted by the time we finally got back to the boat that night.

Elizabeth maintains a very cool website about people doing boating trips like my dad's.  She wrote up a nice piece about my dad's trip here.  

Elizabeth is interested in such trips, because she and her sister did their own trip-of-a-lifetime after she graduated from college in 2009.  In three months, they traveled 6,000 miles of waterway along the Great Loop. They did it mostly on their own, in this little tiny boat.

Some of the time they set up a two-person tent on the bow of their boat (check it out).  It was so much fun getting to know Elizabeth and hearing about her trip. 

Now the three of them are having another adventure as they've moved their company headquarters to Tennessee and are all living in the boat warehouse as they try to make their company successful.  It was a total pleasure to meet Larry, Sammy, and Elizabeth and I'm so thankful for their hospitality and company!

Couple words on the logistics of being a transient, traveling boater in this part of the country.  At least along my stretch of the trip, there were marinas available for us to stay at each night.  We always called ahead and talked to them before our arrival to make sure there would be space for us, and for about $1/foot we would have a covered slip to tie up in upon our arrival.  The marinas are well suited to people living on their boats.  They often have small grocery/supply stores.  They always have ice, gas, and showers/laundry available.  And nearly all of them have courtesy cars available to boaters.  They operate on the honor system and will gladly hand over a set of keys, provided that you replace whatever amount of gas you think you used.  A quick trip to town for dinner or supplies, or a longer jaunt to surrounding tourist attractions are all options.

Many of the traveling boaters we came across were in huge, very expensive houseboats and yachts and didn't need to use the showers or laundry.  But Dad and I were sweaty, hot, and disgusting by the end of each day and welcomed the chance to clean up.

Monday morning we took our time lounging in the shade and reading, and shoved off around noon to continue south to Clifton, Tennessee.  Most of the day had us traveling through the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge.  The scenery didn't change much, but it was beautiful and peaceful.  

We happily arrived in Clifton mid-afternoon and got settled in.  We were planning on spending two nights in the Clifton Marina. We found that everyone in this small town was welcoming, friendly, and overly hospitable.  We loved it immediately.

The next day, Tuesday, was quite possibly the most relaxing day of my life.  Seriously.  After an early morning run (consequently, my last of the was actually getting WAY too hot for running, even at 6 a.m.), I literally read and knit ALL DAY long.  I finished one book, read an entire second novel, and started a third.  I'd occasionally leave the covered porch and venture inside for a soda or beer, and then resume reading.  Dad diligently worked on his blog, made phone calls, and returned emails. 

Around dinner time we headed inside the marina to visit with Sonja, the manager.  She was cooking for the rest of the folks who seemed to spend most days drinking coffee in the shop, and offered to make us whatever we wanted. We thought that a hamburger steak (what the rest of the boys were having) sounded just lovely.  We settled in with cold beers while Sonja cooked for us as she sipped white wine out of a plastic glass. 

Our delicious dinner was made even better by homegrown tomatoes from Gene (the owner's) garden and homemade peach pie from Sonja's kitchen.  Dad visited with all the guys until way past closing time about boating.

The next morning we were on our way relatively early in anticipation of having to get through our first lock of the trip, and knowing that sometimes you can lose hours waiting for your turn to get through a lock.

Again, the scenery was static, but beautiful.  We occasionally passed barges and towboats and I got a kick out of seeing and hearing Dad communicate with the towboat captains over the radio....

"This is pleasure craft Little Sadie calling northbound tow at Mile 493.  Two whistles, Cap'n?"

What on earth?  Where did he learn to do that, and what does it mean?

We arrived at Pickwick Lock, made sandwiches and settled in for what could be a long wait to get through the lock, since there was a barge in front of us.  Pleasure boats are at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to going through locks, and my dad had already had delays of up to five hours (!) at locks earlier in trip.

After about 1 1/2 hours, we got word over the radio from the lock master that it was our turn.  We put or life jackets on and slowly motored into the lock.  I was nervous and excited. 

After tying off the bow of the boat to a floating bollard along the lock's concrete walls, the gates closed behind us and water started turbulently filling the lock while we did our best to keep the boat from getting completely beat up against the walls.

In general I found traveling through locks to be totally entertaining, fascinating and strange.  The first lock had us traveling upstream on the Tennessee River, so the lock filled and we rose with it, resulting in quite a bit of turbulence, and excitement. 

The rest of the locks on my leg of the trip lowered us along the Tenn-Tom Waterway, so we would drop within each lock.  The most exciting of all was an 84' drop...the biggest of all the locks on the waterway.  It sure felt strange to be a small boat in that big concrete bathtub, looking up at 84' of concrete between us and the river we just came from.  Crazy.

Wednesday afternoon we arrived at the Aqua Yacht Marina on Pickwick Lake just in time to make it under our covered slip for a big time rainstorm.  We put the jazz station on Pandora and spent a quiet afternoon on the boat watching the storm.

That night we borrowed the courtesy van to hit up the local BBQ joint.  My first BBQ of trip didn't disappoint.  And we ran into friends of my dad's who he had met earlier in the trip, the Supertug crew.  I got a kick out of touring their towboat built in 1952.  What a funny bunch of people.  They were also slowly working their way to Key West and we enjoyed visiting with them.

The next morning we took the courtesy van and did some sightseeing at Shiloh National Military Park and the Tennessee River Museum.  We returned to the boat, had a quick lunch, and shoved off just after noon...hoping to make it to our next destination before the afternoon thunderstorm rolled in. 

I have no pictures of the next 24 hours of our trip.  It was strange. We arrived at the Bay Springs Marina after a quick trip down from Aqua Yacht.  We immediately got the sense that this would NOT be the most luxurious, accommodating, comfortable marina of the trip.  The supply store wasn't even open, and we only found someone to pay for our slip after checking several buildings on the grounds.  After getting acquainted, I politely and delicately asked the woman helping us if there might be someone around that could take care of the decomposing fish carcass on the dock that we'd had to step over on our way to shore from the boat.  Apparently this was quite a ridiculous request.  After explaining that no, thanks, we really didn't want to just "kick it in the water"...since we were pretty much sleeping with our shoes next to our faces at night in our small quarters, she finally gave us a scrap piece of wood to use to get it off our path to shore.  Nice.

They did have a courtesy car, and we used that to head out for dinner.  We didn't realize that we were really out in the middle of nowhere and would have to drive about 45 minutes, into Alabama in fact, to find something to eat.  But we did, and had a lovely dinner in the small town of Red Bay before heading back to the boat for the night.

The next morning we pushed off as early as possible, because we were anticipating some weather that day.  We also knew that we had three locks to get through, and again, wanted to leave ourselves enough time for delays.

As we were getting our life jackets on and preparing to go through our first of the three locks, lightening and thunder started getting rather close to the boat.  I asked Dad what to do...and he remarked, somewhat casually, to put your feet up!  (so that they weren't touching the metal base of the boat?)  Anyway, I did just that, as we waited to hear from the lock master.  The storm didn't amount to much, thankfully, and we were on our way through the lock in no time.  We made it through all three locks that day without delay, and arrived in Fulton, Mississippi at the Midway Marina by lunchtime.

After Dad relied on the kindness of a stranger to get him to Tupelo, Mississippi to pick up his reserved rental car, we celebrated the end of the trip with drinks on the boat.  We had dinner at the very strange restaurant on the marina grounds..and for not the first time of the trip, I noted that everyone in the room was looking at us as we made our way to our table.  It was easy to forget how scraggly we were looking by that point...especially Dad with his scruffy beard!

We had a lot of fun drinking and visiting with the local marina folks that night on the dock.  Dad played guitar and sang, and we enjoyed the company of a pretty rag-tag group of people who for whatever reason had found themselves living temporarily (or not-so-temporarily) on their boats at the Midway Marina.

The next morning we packed up our gear, I said a sad and heartfelt goodbye to the boat, Little Sadie, and we jumped in the car and headed toward Memphis.

I was a little sad for my boat portion of the trip to be over, but was really looking forward to spending the night in Memphis with my Dad, brother Adam, and cousin Michael (who had recently moved to Chattanooga, TN and was anxious to see some familiar faces).  I had heard from several trusted friends that Memphis is a VERY DANGEROUS city, and being the sheltered, naive person I am, I was trying to not let that overshadow my excitement about spending a Saturday night in a new place.

Dad, Michael and I had a great day sightseeing in Memphis.  We ate gumbo on Beale Street, visited the Gibson Guitar factory, and toured the Civil Rights Museum.

Overall it was a very emotionally intense day..we had gotten news of the passing of my brother's cousin-in-law, a dear family friend, that morning and were anticipating that he would be reeling from that when he arrived in town.  We had gotten off the boat that morning to the news of a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, where we live.  All that on top of the culture shock after being on the boat for 8 days, and the heavy nature of the Civil Rights Museum...needless to say...we were ready for a drink!

After checking into our hotel and taking quick showers, we raced to the Peabody Hotel, the home of the famed Peabody Ducks.  We weren't disappointed by the spectacle of the hotel's ducks being escorted out of their daytime fountain digs, down the red carpet, and into the elevator to retire for the night.  The Peabody is a grand, historic hotel, so we enjoyed a vodka tonic in the beautiful lobby after the duck crowd had cleared out.

Then we were off to the airport to pick up my brother, who was flying into Memphis in order to join my Dad on the next leg of the trip, from Fulton, Mississippi to Mobile Bay, Alabama.

We got Adam settled in the hotel, and proceeded to head out into the balmy Memphis Saturday night.  We drank on the street while we waited for our table at the famed Rendezvous BBQ joint.  And oh my, that BBQ didn't disappoint.  We were nearly speechless, save for a few groans and moans, as we plowed our way through a table full of delicious southern BBQ.  I'd been dreaming of this meal for months...

After dinner, and a quick pat-down and trip through the metal detector (!) we were let loose on Beale Street.  We headed into B.B. King's Blues Bar, amazingly got a table on the balcony, and settled in for cold beers and great blues music.

We spent the rest of the night barhopping along Beale Street.  Had more beers, saw some more great music, and my favorite, did a lot of people watching.  What a fun night.  We were all exhausted, and by the time we landed at our last bar of the night, I could tell that all four of us were struggling to stay excited and enthusiastic.  We finally gave in, wandered around the corner to our hotel, and I was asleep within minutes.

After big, teary hugs for Dad and Adam, Michael dropped me off at the Memphis airport, and I finally let myself start to get REALLY EXCITED to see my family.  Wow had I missed Brian and Sadie.  I've never been away from either of them for this long.  I physically ached to see my little girl by the time I got on that airplane.

It was the best thing in the whole world to see her when she and my mom picked me up at the airport.  She wouldn't stop hugging me...and I felt the same way.  I even slept in her bed that night because I just couldn't get enough of my little one.

What a trip it was.  It was everything I hoped it would be.  I loved spending one-on-one time with my dad..something I've been lucky to have a lot of in my life, but something that doesn't happen so much anymore now that I'm married, working, and mothering.  I loved seeing him in action on the boat.  I loved seeing a new part of the country and experiencing true southern hospitality. 

Other funny/noteworthy things about the trip:
  • those folks use A LOT of styrofoam.  The "green" living revolution definitely hasn't hit the rural south.  I cringed every time I was served an entire meal off all styrofoam products in a restaurant (that could have very easily used washable plates and utensils).  
  • Every time I was off the boat on solid land, the ground was rocking and rolling (as if I were on a boat) and nearly made me sick.  Weird.  By the time I landed in Colorado it had dissipated, but it took that long.  Strangest sensation ever.  
  • The heat and humidity were hardcore.  Not nearly as bad as I was expecting though.  I really think a person can acclimate to the severe humidity...and interestingly, we found ourselves avoiding air conditioning.  A taste of what we couldn't really have (other than for a brief moment) was too much.  It was easier to just find a shady spot outside.  
  • The bugs were not really so much of an issue..I came home with bites all over my lower legs and feet, but their presence didn't negatively affect my experience (like I worried they would)
  • I LOVED sleeping on the boat...for some strange reason.  I really got used to my little spot on the ground.  I got used to the fumes and weird boat smells.  I got used to being stiff and sore and sticky in the morning.  I got used to barely being able to sleep under the lightest sheet due to the heat.  I got used to stumbling off the boat and hanging my butt over the side of a dock to pee several times throughout the night...(and somehow never falling into the water in my half-alseep stupor).  
  • It was quite possibly the most relaxing 10 days of my adult life (save for my honeymoon).  The fact that this working mama of a three-year old read FIVE (!) novels, knit whenever I felt like it and more than I have in months, AND got at least 8+ hours of sleep a night is a miracle!  I came home SO well rested.  I swear I was running on the stockpiled energy from that trip for weeks afterward.  Lovely. 
I am so grateful to my dad for inviting me to join him on a portion of his trip.  I will treasure the time we spent together forever.  Dad's adventurous spirit has always been an inspiration to me, and never more than it has been while he's been on this trip.

Dad got home a couple weeks ago, just in time to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary with my mom.  He's settling in nicely to retirement and is happy to be off the boat and puttering around his home in the mountains.   We're so happy to have him back in Colorado and that the trip was such a success (without any major disasters).

Cheers to you Dad! I love you!


Julie Mesdag said...

Fabulous post Rachel, thanks :)
Julie Mesdag

Julie Mesdag said...

Thank you for a great read Rachel!