This article was originally published in our June 2021 issue. 

Here came a barge, headed right for me. It was a mile or so in the distance, so I had plenty of time to maneuver my kayak out of the way, which is not to say it was easy. I pointed myself toward the Missouri side of the Mississippi River and dug my paddle into the water, right, left, right, left … then left, left, left as the current pushed me around to face Illinois. When I finally inched my kayak close to shore, I set the paddle across the bow to rest my arms, back, and shoulders, to say nothing of my racing heart.

I was in the midst of a three-day, two-night trip down the mightiest of American rivers. I had envisioned this expedition as a way to get away from the chaos that swallowed 2020. For months on end, I wrestled with the same covid-19 pandemic issues as everyone else and struggled to make sense of the presidential campaign like everyone else, and on top of that, my family endured a series of health-related crises made worse by social distancing and irregular access to equally irregular medical care.

I wanted my trip down the Mississippi River to provide solace from that, even if I knew the solace would be temporary. Instead, I paddled straight from living inside a metaphor about being adrift in an unpredictable current throwing me around into the real-life version of that. Wind, rain, current, and barges proved almost too much for me to handle.

As I drifted along the banks, I thought, as I often have since the pandemic started, about my maternal grandmother, Grandma Rae. She died twenty years ago, not long after I moved to Missouri. Her parents arrived in America from Italy in the early 1890s. They both were dead by the time she was fifteen. That would ruin some people. Yet she lived well into her nineties and spent decades as the high-spirited and charming matriarch of a family that included a husband, three kids, and eight grandkids.

I always admired her strength and perseverance, especially considering what she endured to build those characteristics: the 1918 Spanish flu. She caught it, and so did her six brothers and sisters. She was at her mother’s bedside when she died of it.

Surely grief and misery devoured her in 1918. But grief and misery are not words that describe Grandma Rae. She was vibrant, funny, full of life. To be around her was to laugh and smile, to have a full belly and a light heart. Especially a full belly. To arrive at her house was to be fed.

The Spanish flu—the most recent worldwide pandemic before this one—hit when she was fifteen. My oldest daughter is fourteen. I worry about her future. When that worry consumes me, I think of my Grandma Rae. Now I see her not just as a pillar of strength but also as a symbol of hope, a reminder that life will, eventually, go on. Her life in 1918 surely felt much like ours did in 2020 and still in 2021. But she survived.

So can I.
So can you.
So can we.

John Urhahn and Matt Crossman (at right) prepare to leave Ste. Genevieve. They saw no other canoes, kayaks, or pleasure boats the first two days.

I moved from Michigan to Missouri in 2000, newly married and about to start a new job at The Sporting News as my wife started law school at Washington University. My first glimpse of my new home state was the Arch. Like freeze-framed fireworks, it was visible for miles. The gateway welcomed me both to the west and to what awaited me in my new life in a new state. As I drove across the Mississippi River, I looked down at it, brown, enormous, imperious, impenetrable, mysterious. It was like seeing the mountains or ocean for the first time.

In the twenty years since then, the Mississippi always seemed like an expensive sports car or a twenty-bedroom mansion or a haunted house on the edge of town; it never occurred to me that I could, or should, experience it firsthand. It was OK to look at it and think about it and read about it. But I could not imagine interacting with this flowing, frothing, fascinating masterpiece of creation.

Even as I became a travel writer and made a living going on outdoor adventures—I’ve camped and hiked and biked all over this state and beyond—I kept my distance from our most dominant geographic feature.

Everyone has floated Missouri’s small rivers. Very few float its biggest. Somehow the Mississippi is huge in our histories, identities, and imaginations, and simultaneously, absent from our lives. “The Mississippi is a totally amazing and majestic river,” says Joan Twillman, president of the Mississippi River Water Trail Association. “It is so overlooked. It’s just something to drive over on a bridge. It’s a totally missed opportunity for recreation.”

In the twelve months preceding my Mississippi River kayak trip, I rode the entire Katy Trail, twice, and spent hours watching the Missouri River alongside the trail roll by. I also spent three days canoeing and rafting on the Missouri River. Those were wonderful adventures. But I started to see them as like going to minor-league games when the Cardinals were playing at Busch Stadium across town.

The Mississippi began to feel like a challenge to be conquered.

I have the great good fortune to have friends who say yes when I say something crazy like, “Do you want to spend three days kayaking the Mississippi River?”

My friend John Urhahn, in particular, reacts to these queries like my kids do when I ask if they want ice cream. He says yes before I’m done asking the question.

John unpacks his kayak at the end of the first day.

With Joan’s help, John and I charted a course starting in Hannibal, because what self-respecting writer paddles the Mississippi and doesn’t go by Mark Twain’s hometown? Alas, rain and cold in the forecast forced us to move the trip at the last minute from Hannibal south to Ste. Genevieve.

Late on an October morning last fall, we drove south from St. Louis and ate lunch at Hotel Audubon’s Grill and Bar in Ste. Genevieve before putting our boats in the water at 2:30 pm. That’s a late start, for sure, but one alluring factor of this trip was we had nowhere to go and no time to be there. The river runs all day, all night. All we had to do was climb aboard.

And paddle.
And paddle.
And paddle.

The pandemic was not the only reason I was thinking of Grandma Rae while drifting down the Mississippi. She also introduced me, albeit indirectly, to Missouri and the Mississippi River.

Under the TV in a cabinet in her house in suburban Detroit sat an old paperback copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. When I first discovered that book, it was beyond my reading level, but I picked it up often when I visited her. Eventually, I read the first few chapters and set it down. I didn’t like the two main characters. Aunt Polly was a busy-body nag, and Tom lied almost every time he opened his mouth. To my young mind, having unlikable characters made the book bad, not good.

I know better now, and eventually I read Tom Sawyer all the way through. I also devoured Adventures of Huckleberry Finn numerous times. The first was in tenth grade in suburban Detroit in a class taught, coincidentally, by a woman from St. Louis. I picked up Tom Sawyer again as I worked on this story. I wondered what fresh insight I might get about the river now that I’ve lived near it for so long. I discovered that it’s not where or when you get on the river that’s important—it’s where it takes you.

And it takes you wherever it wants.

We made good time that first afternoon. Green buoys on the right and red on the left marked the channel. Kayaks in the fast lane, we covered fifteen miles in three hours before stopping south of Claryville.

We carried our boats onto a rocky beach, pulled our tents out of the dry bags they were stored in, and walked into a forest full of willows. Food wrappers, cups, and other debris freckled the ground. I thought it was because we had chosen a frequently used camp site. John suggested, and I think he’s right, that it was river trash left behind by the water’s retreat.

A forest lined the river as far north and south as I could see. It ran maybe one hundred yards deep. We found clearings big enough to set up our tents. John used a stump as a wilderness table on which he stacked his gear.

He started a fire, and we talked as darkness enveloped us. The river gurgled behind me. I had a sudden urge to turn around, as if God tapped me. I looked over my left shoulder. The moon had just risen above the trees. It glowed bright orange. I blurted out a profane command to John to check it out. What I lacked in eloquence, I made up in awe. We left the fire and walked toward the river to give this lunar extravagance our full attention and appreciation.

The moon’s reflection on the water followed us wherever we went. For five, ten, fifteen minutes, and more we watched the moon climb into the night sky. As it rose, the orange rinsed off. It turned yellow first and then bright white, almost silver, as it reached its apex.

The wind shifted as we slept. It was in our face as we hit the water that morning.

We stopped after eleven miles at Liberty Island to eat lunch; those eleven were far more difficult than the fifteen the day before. A light sprinkle fell. We happily let that extend our time sitting by the river, watching it go by. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, I could never have a cup of coffee too big or a break too long when I’m sitting next to the Mississippi River.

It rained hard when we got back on the water. My frustration with the conditions mounted. The effort I put in paddling didn’t equal results in distance gained. Not for the first time, I learned the river was in charge, not me. I was just along for the ride.

By late afternoon, we knew we had no chance to make it to the island upon which we had planned to camp. That would not have been a big deal, except that a railroad hugged the shore, leaving us nowhere to camp. I looked over at the Illinois side. I was not going to stay in the Land of Lincoln while on assignment for Missouri Life unless I absolutely had to.

We had to know where we would camp soon, or we’d risk trying to find a spot in the dark. My physical exhaustion and mental frustration boiled over. Four-letter words poured out of me faster than the river flowed under me. Even more extravagant uses of verboten words bubbled just below the surface. I harbored malice in my heart against kayaks, paddles, rivers, rocks, fish, trees, rain, and most of all the fool who thought kayaking the Mississippi was a good idea.

Then I saw them.

One bald eagle, then another, then two more. Four of them, launching from the same tree, flew around and into each other, as if playing an avian version of duck–duck–goose.

My exhaustion and frustration dried up as those majestic birds played a game that I alone witnessed.

The tree that served as base for their game stood sentry over a thumb of beach that stuck out into the river. That thumb extended maybe one hundred yards into the water, and on shore, the railroad track turned away from the water.

I pulled to shore, still watching the eagles, as John made his way toward me. Earlier we had concluded that 5:15 pm was our deadline for deciding where to camp. As we sat in our boats, nestled against the rocks that lined the shore, all the while watching two eagles in the nest and one on the beach, John looked at his watch. It was 5:15.

That settled it. We would camp there at Eagles Thumb.

Stopping there put us way behind on our itinerary. Any hope I had to make up time the next morning was lost as I again was slave to the river’s whims. We had hoped to make it to Trail of Tears State Park but ultimately pulled out at a small stop several miles short of that. Because the water was so challenging, I’m tempted to write the trip off as a mistake and recommend you paddle elsewhere. But the time on shore was so edifying and watching the river flow by was so peaceful, I would do it again. The only change I would make is to have less ambitious plans.

Back at Eagles Thumb, John hung our bear bag from a tree as I collected firewood. Darkness descended on our beachfront property. Clouds obscured the night sky; we saw only a faint glimmer of the moon that had so enthralled us the night before. John started a fire. We sat by it, each of us facing the river, watching the water run toward New Orleans.

Barges, the crackle of the fire, and our own laughter were the only sounds. Then, from behind us, cows mooed. A few minutes later, coyotes howled to interrupt our conversation. We laughed again. On the banks of the Mississippi, this river of delights, the almost simultaneous mooing and howling seemed a perfect metaphor for the river, tamed and wild at the same time.

I boiled water for a meal of freeze-dried chicken and dumplings. Homemade chicken and dumplings was Grandma Rae’s specialty. This version tasted terrible, but I smiled at the memories all the same.

Photos // John Urhahn, Matt Crossman, Micah Humphreys, Mark Huelsing