By: Korrin L. Bishop
It started the way many grand adventure stories have—over bourbon.
My boyfriend, Kris, had just successfully completed a roundtable first meeting of five of my gal pals at a favorite Washington, D.C. bar. As we all parted ways for the evening, one pal, Jamie, made the sound decision, along with Kris and me, to pop back into another bar for a closing bourbon and continued conversation. The dialogue was tender and honest, as these spontaneous turns in evenings often are.
We got to talking about the redemptive qualities of the wilderness. We discussed the power of working through the discomforts of adventure. Much of this happened in light of the fact that Kris would be doing a lot of this within a matter of weeks—3,800 miles of it, to be more precise. He was set to head out in a canoe for a source-to-sea descent of the Missouri River system, starting in Montana and ending in the Gulf of Mexico. The trip was inspired by his mother’s diagnosis of stage IV bladder cancer, and had grown to include an opportunity to connect others with the healing nature of the outdoors. He’d be paddling much of it solo, but had chosen a canoe so that others could pop in on his journey for a stretch—including his mother for an impressive 500 miles.
I was already planning to join him at least once when, in the late night hours of our city life, I looked across the table at Jamie, a treasured friend whose thoughts and words can always make me feel further connected to this life. Then I glanced at Kris who seemed to know full well where my mind was heading. Then, my eyes shot back to Jamie with a big grin on my face.
“You should come,” I announced.
In October, Jamie and I met Kris in Natchez, Mississippi to paddle with him for about 100 miles to St. Francisville, Louisiana. For our third seat, we brought along an Oru Coast Kayak, which we excitedly set up on the Natchez boat ramp, much to the amusement and curiosity of passersby. Once complete, Jamie paddled it out into the mighty Mississippi River, and I hopped into the canoe with Kris. We’d gotten a later start, so within an hour or two, we were peacefully floating along with the sunset to our sandbar home for the night.
The four days that followed were an unwinding from urban life and a slow progression to that point where three people, through the reliable routine and diminished privacy of a multi-day river trip, can reach a shared level of inhibition that frees the soul to finally, simply be. It takes time to get the rhythm right, to open up enough to feel what is being offered by the experience.
Together, we baked for hours in the hot sun each day. We persevered through the witching hour of mosquitoes at our campsites. We felt respect for the river as we navigated its vast expanse in our little boats. Kris and Jamie met my grumpy morning self with compassionate presence. We found ways to laugh and paddle on when the days got long. And, all the while, each paddle day, I tried my best to bridge the divide between the paddling community and commercial barges.
As we’d pass a barge, I’d put my paddle aside and use my right arm to make the sign for “honk your horn” to the barge captain.
I’d try again.
I’d look back at Kris in the canoe and we’d both shrug our shoulders in increasingly expected disappointment. Then, I’d look over at Jamie, who, also entertaining my fairly absurd quest to get a barge to toot its horn, would kindly say, “Nothing again, huh?”
Then, finally, on the day we were paddling to our last campsite of the trip, at the point where I’d pretty much given up on getting a barge to play along, I got my toot. Surprised and excited, I applauded. We all laughed and cheered.
Kris got on his marine radio to connect with the barge captain, “She has been trying that for the past hundred miles. Thank you.”
The captain came over the radio laughing, too, “I’m glad I could accommodate you, man.”
Maybe it was just that stretch of river and the proximity in which it put us to the barge. Maybe it was simply the right barge captain, also looking to build bridges between boats, big and small. But, I like to think that it was something beyond mere circumstance. I like to think that it was the Universe’s nod to us that we’d at last crossed the threshold from adventure to connection. We’d released enough of our daily disguises along those river miles to open up and present ourselves as we were.
It finished the way many grand adventures stories have—over bourbon.
That night, in the light of our last campfire, we split a bottle of Woodford Reserve amongst us, and continued the conversation, tender and honest, philosophizing on life along the shores of the Mississippi.