Monday, June 22, 2015

Day 25: Adieu

I, Dockenstein, awoke at six to the coo of my alarm, momentarily distressed at finding myself in a bed. How had I gotten here? Where was our boat? Had it all been a dream?

I snoozed the alarm and studied my surroundings. Beside me, Crimper lay with his head buried in the double bed's pillows. Across the room, River Hair and Grommeter shared a similar bed. The evening began returning to me: driving through Mordor at night, the walk over the levee, showers all around, the other three watching White Men Can't Jump on the hotel TV while I did laundry. Yes, I remembered, I'd left my clothes in the dryer when I'd gone to sleep around two a.m., though I could not remember my head hitting the pillow. 

I left the other Cat Sassers sleeping and headed to the laundry room, planning to fold my and Grommeter's clothes right quick so we could head to New Orleans and I could catch my 10:15 bus to Memphis for my flight back to New Jersey—a vestige of the phase when we'd only hoped to get as far downriver as Memphis and its mighty mirrored ziggurat. I'd be leaving earlier than the others, who'd hang around the Big Easy trying to sell our boat.

To my horror, the mass of clothes in the dryer was as warm and damp as the inside of a boat-pitched two-man tent at dawn. These clothes included every stitch of clothing I had with me (I'd brought everything indoors to pack), and all the clothes the others had worn. I jogged back to the room in boxer shorts, discovered I didn't have enough quarters, jogged to the front desk, swapped a dollar for change, and sprinted back to the laundry room. I set the dryer on another cycle and hoped intensely and specifically, the atheist's semi-prayer I'd exercised so often on this trip, though with much lower stakes. No oncoming barges, no broken motors, just some moist jeans. Come 6:50, I had no choice but to prematurely interrupt the dryer cycle and fold the clothes, most of which—Cat-Sass be praised—were nearly dry. The other lads were happy to receive their shorts again. We packed up and enjoyed a quick complimentary breakfast. Nick remarked that consuming this food was the most he'd ever enjoyed and appreciated a continental breakfast, and the most he'd ever felt like an animal. After looking down and realizing we had each taken several heaping platefuls of prepackaged cereal bowls, bagels, English muffins, and cups of milk and apple juice, we couldn't help but agree.

We hit the river around 7:30. The journey to New Orleans proper was twenty-one miles, so we needed to make at least ten knots in order for me to catch the bus, and on this bright Friday morning the river was good to us. Around nine fifteen we pulled into a dock at the Audubon Park near Tulane University. I said goodbye to the others, and a nice local doing some water tests took a photo of us with the boat. 

Before I knew it, the boat had pulled away and I was sitting in an Uber on the way to the bus terminal, my Mississippi trip nearly over. 

My driver, Jim, said he'd moved recently moved to New Orleans from Atlanta. "My bride and I were called," he said. 

"What do you mean by that?" I asked. 

Jim explained that he and his wife had received a message from God that they needed to drop everything and move to New Orleans to found an apostolic center, where people could organize to spread the word and do good in the community. 

"What was it like getting the message?" I asked. 

"It's funny," Jim said, "my bride and I always said we'd never move to New Orleans, but then Poppa—I call Him Poppa—started sending the message loud and clear. As clear as this conversation we're having here, you and me."

"How did you get the message?"

"Weird little things. People moving to New Orleans, sending us back packages. I said to my bride, 'We both know we need to move somewhere. Let's both say where on the count of three.' And it was New Orleans."

Jim says he loves the city, and that even in a mere seven months the apostolic center has boomed. They started in someone's living room but have since moved to an office. Several other people have specifically received calls to relocate to Mandeville, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Jim mentioned another couple and a former world-touring evangelist "who made, like, six figures a year."

"I've never seen anything like it," Jim said, shaking his head. "The best part is the peace. I know for sure that I'm supposed to be here. There's no striving. Sure, we could find striving, but we don't need to. This job, I only drive this car because I like it. I like driving."

Jim parked outside the station and shook my hand. 

"You're the man," Jim said. 

I boarded the bus, watched the city recede. I rode the bus all day, reversing in hours a journey that had taken weeks, back through Natchez, Vicksburg, and Greenvile, where a storm appeared ahead of us, and I felt anxiety rise in my chest as my mind raced with the precautions we'd need to take, rolling down the tarp sides, sealing our waterproof duffels, finding a place to beach, until I remembered I'd left the boat. We were safe inside this bus, no longer at the mercy of the wind. We hit the storm, and rain drenched the windows, and we all stayed dry, listening to music or chatting quietly on the phone or sleeping or watching the light fall across the scenery—cornfields, mostly, and every now and then, beneath a bridge or through the trees, the river.

Piers arrives home, Skypes during group hug.

• • •

Though we were sad to see fair Dockenstein go, we could not dwell long on the Dockenstein-sized holes he left in our hearts. Grommeter, River Hair and I (Clement AKA Crimper) carried on south towards central New Orleans (or N'awlans as the locals say), concerned about if we'd be able to sell Cat-Sass, and if it would be enough money. Our last stop was to be Lake Pontchartrain, just a canal and lock away from the New Orleans-bordering Mississippi. We arrived at "Industrial Lock" and radioed them for a time estimate. We received no answer. After repeatedly radioing, we finally decided to call the lock, where we were instructed to radio again. We did so, begrudgingly, only to finally receive the response that they could not give us a time estimate. Though we were further enraged, the ensuing 5 hour (!) wait proved to be an adventure in and of itself. In the midst of a distracted game of "Settlers of Catan," Bennett, who had been negotiating the whole game (which made for a sorry performance) with the guy who had checked out Cat-Sass in Baton Rouge, broke the news that we had a confirmed sale and would be dropping the boat off with him that evening. Though the price was not as high as we had hoped, we were all flooded with relief at the knowledge that the old girl was off our hands once and for all. The Settlers of Catan game was never finished.

After losing a 3-way game of Rock Paper Scissors, I, Crimper, was left with the boat while River Hair and Grommeter went to get some food and water. Though the temperature was well into the 90's and I felt a bit like I was going to be reduced to a raisin-man, I had a good time chatting with two barge-workers standing at the bow of a butane barge across the lock-wall from me. From them I learned some interesting barge-facts, such as: barge work is non-union; no qualifications are required; once you get on a barge, you don't get off until the cargo is delivered, and you sleep in shifts because the barge never stops moving; sometimes barge workers treat the barges as a manner of hitch hiking, quitting at their desired destination; if anyone that isn't a barge worker or the coast guard gets on a barge, everyone would probably lose their job; the more seasoned of the two workers had only been boarded by the coast guard twice, once when his captain smashed a tugboat (at the fault of the tugboat) and once when they found a dead body in the water.

Bennett and Nick returned to Cat-Sass, and roughly 30 minutes later we were told we'd be locking through with a tugboat and two police boats. Nick, who was at the wheel, drove us into the lock, but due to varied and conflicting instructions from the lock, the tug and the police, Nick ended up slamming the back of the boat into the lock wall to the total disgust of the policemen. 

We ended up tying off to the tug, and waited for the water to fall. As soon as the gates opened, we were off, delighted to be rid of what was far and away the worst lock we'd ever encountered. Both over-powered police boats followed closely behind us, and soon rocketed past us, keeping us safe by almost capsizing us with their enormous wakes. Shaken by the whole grueling 6 hour ordeal, but excited to sell the boat, we took turns cleaning the deck as we made our way to the designated marina.

Upon arrival we took all our personal effects, including the attractive custom toilet seat lid and the fake duck, and left the rest for the future Cat-Sassians. They soon arrived to load her up, and, fully aware of what an incredible bargain he'd gotten, Mike (buyer), offered to give us a ride to our hostel. We gladly accepted, and loaded our bags into his pick up. We watched forlornly as Cat-Sass was driven onto a trailer, and her Bimini top folded down. In the words of a young Che Guevara, the trip was "a glimpse of [five] lives running parallel for a time, with similar hopes and convergent dreams," and now the five lives diverged, Cat-Sass going one way, and each crew member going his. 

Mike said he'd have to follow the pick up with the trailer back to his house before he could take us, because the trailer didn't have tail lights and he didn't want them to get a ticket. On the way he gave us some incredible insight into his time as a firefighter during Hurricane Katrina. He and his fellow firefighters slept on an abandoned cruise ship docked at the submerged Domino sugar plant, and during the day drove boats around the 8-foot floodwaters that were his childhood streets, picking up refugees on rooftops and bringing them to the local high school from which they were evacuated. He reflected on the neighborhood's recovery, pointing out what used to be stores and houses, where an oil refinery had burst and had been legally obliged to buy up the real estate, and where a sewage plant had acted as a fertilizer for the regrowth of the cypress swamp that had been ruined by the sea wall. 

Finally the trailer reached his house, and began to back down the driveway. Mike pulled a u-turn and started to head the other way.

"Look at this guy," he said, disgusted, and we turned to see his son mooning us as we drove off. Though the adventures of Cat-Sass's crew continued that night in the Big Easy, it was clear that Cat Sass's spirit had already imparted enough (cat) sass into Mike's son to prompt him to reveal his (cat's) ass, and we knew she was no longer our boat, and that it was here that our story had come to an end.

One final thank you is in order: to everyone who followed our journey. We are honored to have shared this time with you.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Day 24: yes, we are on an adventure

The crew woke up around six a.m. to prep the boat for potential buyers of Ole' Cat Sass. She was looking fine by 8:30 after some sweeping and organizing. We had a couple interested parties lined up in Baton Rouge and we had told them to meet us at the Baton Rouge boat ramp. With only a few days left to sell the boat we were not optimistic about getting the price we felt Cat Sass deserved and anxious about what would happen if she did not sell at all. First to arrive was Mike, a retired fire fighter from New Orleans, and his son. Mike had told us he had plans to use Cat Sass for a trip on the upper Mississippi, so we hoped to sell it to him. We took them for a spin and appearing to approve of the boat, Mike said he would do some thinking and get back to us. With high hopes we awaited the second pontoon enthusiast, however the timing did not workout and we had to continue on to New Orleans before we had a chance to show him the boat. Despite the bad news, we continued on our way south in good spirits. An hour or two down the river, as I (River Hair) piloted the boat, my phone began to ring. I slowed the boat so I could hear above the engine and paused the blasting music, expecting it to be someone interested in Cat Sass as I'd been receiving calls about the boat. However, the voice on the other end said something like, "you guys are in the pontoon south of the white steam ship, right?" Confused but intrigued, I replied that we were. It turned out that he worked on the steam ship that gave people rides up and down the Mississippi and was friends with Layne (administrator of Mississippi Paddlers group mentioned in previous blog posts). He had seen Layne's posting about our boat and trip in the group and then looked out from the steam ship and saw Cat Sass. He gave us advice to visit the Nottaway plantation house a few miles down (oldest existing antebellum plantation house in the South) and he spoke to the captain of his ship who gave us a location he believed we could dock for the night at our destination, Luling. This is another example of the incredible kindness from strangers that we have received on our way down the river. We pulled up to the levy at Nottaway and walked around the plantation that was now a resort. Our new friend on the steam boat sent us a picture of Cat Sass in front of the white mansion. 

Our next stop on the river was in the town of Donaldsonville. We stopped to refuel and Crimper, Grommeter, and I went ashore in search of food and drink. After finding nothing but a small fried chicken shack, Grommeter returned to shore. Crimper and I kept searching, but finding nothing we returned to the chicken shack. We ordered one lunch meal and talked with the window attendant at the shack. He offered us snowballs (like snow cones) while we waited outside the window of the hot shack. When the chicken arrived we realized that they didn't accept card (although it said they did on the window) and we had no cash. They offered to drive one of us to the nearest ATM, so Clement hopped in the car and the man backed out of the shack driveway. He immediately drove forward and into the path of a fast moving pickup truck that had to swerve onto the grass to avoid collision. 

"Oh shit," the driver said, nonplussed. 

Without stopping the car or slowing down, he pointed at the pickup driver and nodded. After some angry honking, they were off. Loud Dirty South hip hop blasted on the not inconsiderable subwoofers of the car, until track 8 on the CD, which started to skip. Every time the car went over a bump, the track skipped to a section in the song where someone yelled "Bullshit!" until Clement changed the track. 

I stayed and chatted with the restaurant attendant and ordered more snowballs for dockenstein and gromiter back on the boat. Clement returned after a short while and we headed back over the levy, snowballs in hand. Grommeter and Dockenstein scolded us for taking 45 minutes, which we believe is an exaggeration. A few days earlier, after Layne (mentioned above) posted about our trip in the Paddlers group I'd gotten a facebook message from a man named A.J. who was a member of the group and lived between Baton Rouge and New Orleans on the river. A.J. gave me information on docking in New Orleans. We did not know until he told us that we would need to lock through to a channel that fed into Lake Pontchartrain as there was no mooring on the Mississippi in the city. He also put us in touch with a woman named Trixie. She lived with her husband in Paulina, Louisiana, a small town on the shore of the Mississippi. Trixie offered us, over facebook, any assistance we needed and a place to dock over night. There are no good places to dock on the section of river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, so we were very happy that A.J. had put us in contact with Trixie. We highly recommend, for anyone planning on doing a similar trip, getting in contact with the Mississippi Paddlers group on Facebook. We discovered there is a whole network of kind people willing to help travelers on the river and we wish we had know about it earlier. Earlier that day, the boat had been faced with the decision of stopping due to darkness and waking up four a.m. in order to reach Dockenstein's bus in New Orleans, or going for another few hours in darkness and waking up at a more reasonable hour to complete our journey. We chose the former (no, we didn't make Dockenstein take a bus because that wouldn't be a very nice thing to do), meaning we wouldn't be able to stay at Trixie's as we needed to make it farther south. We did however ask if they could help us get more gas as we wanted to travel fast to minimize time on the river after darkness. When we pulled up to the side of the river at Trixie's dock, Wayne (Trixie's husband) and his brother awaited us on golf carts. After meeting the brothers, Crimper and I hopped on the golf carts, loaded with gas cans, while Dockenstein and Grommeter hung out on Cat Sass.

We rode the carts back to Wayne's house and moved into his pickup truck to drive to the gas station. We chatted with Wayne and his brother during the ten minute ride to the stations. Their strong Louisiana accents (or our inability to understand accents outside our own) made it difficult to have a conversation, but both parties wanted to and tried. They had been born in Paulina and had lived there for 70 years. Surrounding Wayne's house were the houses of numerous family members, which he pointed out as we drove by. Wayne had 12 siblings. His father, who it seemed was the patriarch of Paulina, had over 300 descendants (12 children, 77 grandchildren, over 200 great grandchildren). The city of Paulina used to be mostly sugarcane farmland and Wayne and his brother had watched its transformation into a suburb. 

Meanwhile, back at the boat, Grommeter and Dockenstein met a series of interested passersby, all riding golf carts, including an older gent who described the town as "golf cart heaven" because of all its trails. Shortly thereafter a woman and several children pulled up on another golf cart. Though Grommeter and Dockenstein couldn't hear the details of the conversation between the woman and the older man, the Car Sassers were privy to a simmering tension between the two. The man soon scooted away to watch a baseball game. The woman's husband arrived, and the couple and the assembled children questioned the Cat Sassers about their boat-living situation for a few minutes. 

"Are you on an adventure?" one girl asked as the woman motored away. 

The Cat Sassers confirmed that they were.

Soon the gasmen returned. We loaded the gas cans back on Cat Sass, said goodbye to Wayne and his brother, and we were back on the river. The section of river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is known as Cancer Alley, due to clusters of cancer patients that have been covered by the media in the area (in one case 15 cancer cases within two blocks). The area has sections lined with industrial plants and was formerly called petrochemical corridor. We were the only recreational boat on the water for obvious reasons. As we had continued south on the river we were constantly warned about this area due to the huge barges and numerous cargo ships. We started seeing cargo ships once we had reached Baton Rouge. We ended up navigating the most dense industrial sections well after sunset, meaning that the lights on the factories lit the sides of the river brightly. The lights on the plants look like scary miniature city skyline at night. It kind of looked like Mordor. 

At one point we passed a massive tower with a huge burning gas flame at the top. The air reeked of burning chemicals so we covered our mouths with our shirts in desperation. During this very surreal and stunning section of river, we were also all in edge as we navigated around barges and cargo ships. Crimper was at the wheel, and the rest of us rotated between using the spotlight, navigating and eating dinner (this also was convenient as we only had one clean fork). Barges are especially difficult to see at night as they are low in the water and blend in with the sides of the river. The only way to see if them is by searching for their green and red navigations lights and determining their direction from the orientation of the lights. After a stressful few hours we tied up at the bank of the river near a bridge and crashed at the Ramada Inn for our first night on beds in weeks (thanks to Father Gelly for the bed funding). 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Day 23: "you don't get to meet a state trooper every day"

We awoke in the sunny town of Natchez, Mississippi, halfway between Vicksburg (or Sicksburg (sick in a good way) for those in the know) and Baton Rouge (or "Red Stick" for those in the know). We were tied off to some trees along the bank just too far to get ashore, so we drifted downstream a touch to a boat ramp where Bennett, Piers and I (Clement) jumped ashore with our nine Terry cans. We began the long walk to the gas station, but, as most gas runs tend to go, someone offered to help us. A woman named Gail stopped us while walking her dog and asked if we needed help. We certainly did, and Gail, who turned out to be friends with Lane (of the Vicksburg chapter of the Lower Mississippi Paddlers Club), told us we could use her truck. NB: she did not drive us, she gave us the keys to her truck and told us she hoped the starter would work. 

We were very happy to drive ourselves around, and stopped by the gas station and The Donut Shop (purveyors of some of the finest coconut donuts this writer has ever had). After unloading the Terrys and dropping off Gail's truck, we could no longer resist Ole Man River's siren song, and pushed off into the eternal current of time and the Mississippi. 

The day passed uneventfully, causing this writer to remark that he always gets the boring days and guess that Boethius' Rota Fortunae has a four day period. The most interesting things that happened were: when Nick and I had to hold onto a tree limb so we could refuel and lots of little bugs crawled off the branch and into our hair; and, when we realized that we ought to dance at the front of the boat when we passed barges, regretting that we had not done so earlier.

Since not that much happened, we have decided to take this time to thank the people without whom this trip would not have happened.

Mark Mitchell (from Maine, not the Muscatine Contrary Brewing Company), who sent us the charts for the Upper Mississippi River, Quimby's 2015 Cruising Guide and a marine radio. Without these things we may have died, either from getting caught on a wingdam, getting eaten alive by mosquitos or getting sucked into the turbines of a dam.

Our parents, for supporting us in this endeavor. Nick's mother picked up Nick and our bags from the airport, let us ship hundreds of boxes of supplies to her house, let us use her car to drive around Milwaukee picking up more supplies, helped us rent the pickup we used to ferry all said supplies to Pewaukee and beyond and, in the words of Nick himself, "put up with this crazy idea."

The Gelly parents had us to stay in Peapack, made us a huge breakfast, drove us to the airport and, in the words of me myself, "put up with this perfectly reasonable idea."

The Gelly's Uncle John kindly donated some weatherproof speakers to the cause, which were used frequently and to great effect.

Manon Lefèvre disabused Piers, her boyfriend, of the notion that a hammock would be sufficient sleeping quarters for this journey, and lent him her nice tent, in which Piers and Clement have slept nearly every night. Thanks, Manon!

River Dog (, who has completed several journeys on the river and gave us a huge amount of information and advice without which we would not have known where to begin at all.

Though I was resigned to another slow blog day, the blog day was not over, and some small amount of bureaucratic adventure was still to come. Upon arriving in Baton Rouge, we docked on the side of a casino boat, and Piers walked inside to ask if we could dock there. Fifteen minutes later, Bennett got a text from Piers reading "I'm in the security office and they have my ID." Bennett, Nick and I furiously untied the docking lines and were ready for Piers to sprint out the door and jump onto our escape boat, until we received another text two minutes later which read, "I think it's cool, somebody inside casino broke glass on slot machine so they are on edge." We calmed down and were ready when a few security dudes came out and started chatting with us. Apparently, since the casino is a government organization, they have to report all such incidents to the state police, who have to come get a statement. This is a stupid rule from a stupid government that runs money-sucking hell barges, and alas we were thusly caught in a bureaucratic wormhole for the next hour.

Piers sat across the desk from the head of security while she and the head of surveillance watched footage of the alleged glass-breaking on a loop, trying to determine whether or not they had evidence on their hands. Evidently the suspect had also threatened a casino employee, saying he was going to go to jail for beating up the staff member. 

"It's a dumb reason to go to jail," the head of surveillance said. "You get there and you're like, Why did I do this?" Then he seemed to realize anew that Piers was in the room. "Not that I've ever been to jail," he said. 

Two more officers entered the room. "It's like somebody cracking the whip," one said, and explained that she'd just returned from breaking up an altercation at the hotel. "It was like, 'My ex-boyfriend slept with my next boyfriend,'" she said, shaking her head. "Too many boyfriends."

All three officers gathered around the screen, which Piers could not see, and tried to make sense of the tape. "See," the head said, "there he goes. Whack. Whack. Whack." The head of surveillance said he'd need to see the guy draw back and deal the thing a real blow in order to be convinced.

More bureaucratic cogs were set in motion and eventually, because I am not of age to be on the premises of a casino, I was left outside with a surly security guard who really really wanted his cellphone to contact his "side bitch." I tried to engage with him: 

"Do you see lots of crazy shit working here?"

"Crazy shit? Uhhh yeah all types of crazy shit."

"Oh nice, like what type of stuff?"

"...I dunno, people getting drunk and doing stuff."

"What's, like, one thing that's happened?"

At this point, someone got back to him via radio about his cellphone, and he became otherwise engaged.

Inside, State Trooper Evans gave Piers a few rudimentary sobriety tests, and generally tried to flex his government appointed muscles. Nick commented that when Evans first walked in, Nick thought he was the guy who had broken the slot machine.

He walked us onto our boat, and offered to take a picture. "You don't get to meet a state trooper every day," he said, and we thanked our lucky stars this was true. The picture turned out to be a picture of us, not with us, which is not really an exciting thing for him to offer to do.

We left the casino, found some nearby trees to tie off to, and slept on the deck.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Day 22: it's always sunny in Vicksburg

We awoke at the Vicksburg harbor boat ramps, sweltering and ready to consign the town to the growing stack of river chart pages we've finished. But as if the previous night's trials had allowed us to work off unknown sins, we found Vicksburg heaping its bounties at our feet. While Clement wandered the town on his eternal quest for postage stamps to mail postcards and sampled an "award winning green tea frappé," and while I (Piers) crouched in the shadow of the sea wall in a tank top to make a work phone call, Bennett and Nick met a friendly man who recommended the town's riverboat museum and a restaurant called Klondyke Trading Post, both down the road. 

The Trading Post's facade had us a little worried. It looks like an abandoned gas station. Never ones to judge a book by its cover, we boldly strode through the door, where we found a nice little restaurant/deli with a great lunch/brunch deal. We went to work on heaping plates of chicken, cabbage, black eyed peas, and macaroni and cheese. Stuporous from food, we sat around completing the local newspaper's crossword, sipping fresh-brewed coffee, and discovering a Kid Rock song called "All Summer Long." This song samples the entire piano line of Warren Zevon's immortal "Werewolves of London," and its lyrics principally address how much fun it is to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd's dingus anthem "Sweet Home Alabama" all summer long. Whether Kid Rock's tune is a masterful use of postmodern pastiche or a woefully empty piece of schlock is not for us to say. (Nick thinks it's the former.)

The museum was closed but we did stop into a market full of kooky goods. 

We had our eyes on a volleyball printed with an imitation bloodprint à la "Castaway," but at $20 we could not justify the expense. Bennett picked up a tropical shirt in preparation for tropical storm Bill, whom we might encounter a few days hence. While we checked out, we learned that one of the employees' sons, Lane, was a big guy in the Lower Mississippi paddlers' scene. She said it was too bad we hadn't got in touch with Lane because he has many connections further downriver and would have loved to meet us. She offered to pass our information along, so we left a phone number and a link to this blog.
We returned to our boat to clean it up and ready our gas cans for what promised to be a scorcher of a gas run. We met a nice guy named Greg who hooked us up with some starter fluid. He's thirty but looks like he's our age, and sells grass seed for a living. 

"Finally I can legally sell grass," he said.

We also met two brothers named Kentavius and Cameron (13 and 6 years old, respectively) who were hanging out at a nearby park waiting for their mom to get off work. Having availed themselves of the fountain, they had moved on to the waterfront, where they discovered us. As we went about our business they began asking questions evincing a mixture of fear and awe of the vessel. We told them we had to make a gas run, but suggested that if they wanted a ride when we returned, we could take them on a quick loop. They nervously accepted. 

No sooner had the Cat-Sassers (Terry Cans in hand, Kentavius and Cameron in tow) ascended the ramp onto Levee Street than a man holding a sandwich asked if we needed a ride to a gas station. We gratefully accepted, loaded the cans into the truckbed, and climbed in. Kentavius and Cameron came along for the ride. I rode up front and learned that our benefactor is a physicist who works for the Army Corps of Engineers, the organization that makes the charts we use. I thanked him for this and asked about his work. He said he takes riverbed samples up and down the Lower Mississippi in order to determine whether and how to direct the flow of sediment.

"Oh," I said, "so you're responsible for all the dikes and wing-dams we've been desperately steering around."

"Yep," he said. 

We kept it civil, filled our cans, and returned to our boat to find Lane, who had cancelled a bike excursion to come meet us. He is champ of the day, with that nice physicist earning a cool second. Lane gave us some tips on the rest of the trip, some places to find travel resources, and, most fortuitous of all, an intro to two online communities where we could perhaps find a buyer for our dear Cat-Sass. 

Yes, reader, it's true: we're hoping to sell our beloved boat by the end of this trip. We've been gambling on offsetting the trip's costs thusly. We'd been posting on Craigslist in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, finding a few interested parties and so, so many PayPal scammers, who swarmed us like the Edgewater Marina's mosquitos. 

With Lane's social media bump and his blessing, we took Kentavius and Cameron for a spin on the water. Cameron took some photos using Clement's camera, and Kentavius drove the boat a short ways before bowing out. 

"I drove my dad's car once," he said. "When I tell my mom I drove a boat she's going to be like, What?"

"Should we let your brother drive?" Clement asked. 

"No," Kentavius said. 

On no condition did Cameron wish to drive, anyway. We learned that the boys' mom would be back to retrieve them in fifteen minutes, so we hurried them back to the dock in order to avoid any kidnapping-related comedies of errors. 

We bid Vicksburg adieu and headed to Natchez (pron. NATT-cheese, apparently). The trip was smooth, which prompted a discussion about whether it was better to suffer and have something to write about, or instead to have an uneventful day and a short blog entry. We decided that for all the stress of the moment, we look back with some fondness on all our Cat-Sasstrophes short of mortal peril (arrival in St. Louis, flooding engine in path of barge, etc). 

We arrived in Natchez after dark and tied up to some swamped trees beside a casino boat, feeling lucky. 

A parting note: Gelly bros' beloved cousin Iris has requested photos of daily life aboard the Cat-Sass.

Here's Clement making coffee:

Here are Bennett and Nick keeping it real: 

Here are our gas/mileage notes, and our navigation charts, which I've briefly stopped reading in order to write this post: 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Day 21: Grommeter's inferno

Hello world. Grommeter here.

Our day in Greenville, Mississippi began as all days nowadays seem to begin: with me seal-posing off my Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite sleeping pad and admiring the hickey-like dappling that it'd lovingly imprinted on my skin in the night.

Our rest was certainly thermal, for when we awoke, canopied by our tents, the pressed metal Bimini top and a hazy, imperturbable sky, the thermometer read a scorching ninety degrees and I was left feeling like I'd passed out after a long night of drinking in the center of a Deli Meat Hot Pocket™ warmed in the pouch of an infirm kangaroo. It was certainly camisole weather, for the sun inspired my bones to wheeze and a crusty rheum to coat the undersides of my eyes.

But the Mississippi has no time for camisoles or kangaroos so we set to work washing the previous night's dishes and refilling our water coolers. Unfortunately this day was a Mon-day and it just so happens that the Greenville Yacht Club is closed on Mondays so, much to our chagrin, the gas pump so easily at hand was shut off for the day. 

And so it was decided that we would have to venture into town. But upon leaving the dock we quickly came upon the Cat-Sass crew's sworn mortal enemy: fences. It seemed that we were locked in, however Crimper, after some keen finagling, was able to find a way out, and so with Terrycans in hand we left our dear Cat-Sass to the mosquitos and the humidity. We trekked past the first riverfront casino of the day, one Trop Casino, and made our way into town where we came upon the dingy storefront of Jim's Diner and stopped in for a bite. Inside it was cool and dark. Pictures of old men, boats, and the cast of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" adorned the walls, and we learned that the movie was filmed not too far from there. 

The meal kicked off with a complimentary appetizer of saltines dipped in a saucy combination of ranch and hot sauce. Dockenstein ordered poached eggs and rye toast and I ordered eggs over easy. All of our orders came with grits and we all got coffee which we agreed tasted like burnt corn. 

After our meal the kindness of strangers graced us once again when a man in a beat up white sedan named Frrf stopped outside the diner and gave us a lift to the gas station. We filled up the bellies of our Terrycans and scooted back to the boat. 

As morning went on and the sun rose with the temperature I began to feel like I was smelting, so when, after a refreshing and humid poop in the company's beloved poop bucket, Crimper discovered a swimming pool off the main building of the yacht club, I was heartily relieved. We dunked our heads and lounged in the cool water before taking an impromptu hose shower in an abandoned dockyard, where we all agreed that if we ran out of finances we could always start working as sunburnt car washers specializing in people rather than cars. Instead of "Car Wash" our signs would just read "Wash," we decided. 

The rest of the day was spent in various forms of navelgazery as we motored downriver. Crimper and River Hair cooked up some culinary fireworks consisting of fried potatoes, spam and pears. Eventually we pulled  into Vicksburg, Mississippi beneath an ascendant Venus and docked in a cozy nook about a half mile south of DiamondJack Casino. Michael Allen --resident frog- put in another nocturnal appearance, considerably boosting Cat-Sass morale. 

Once ashore, we had another run-in with our old nemesis, the fence. It seemed we'd docked in an Industrial Marine Yard guarded by barbed wire and surveillance cameras. Doing our best impressions of cool dudes who are totally not trespassing we weaseled underneath the front gate and started the uphill walk into town with the intention of catching a late showing of Jurassic World in three dimensions. Alas, our plans were foiled by the two-mile walk to the cinema and the little time we had to get there, so we settled on getting some grub downtown. 

Downtown Vicksburg has a sleepy southern/southwestern vibe, but as we treaded its meandering path we were distressed to find no restaurants openly. The only kitchen still flingin hash at the hour was one Fastway gas station, and with our stomachs mightily a-grumblin' we decided that we'd sup on some fried chicken therein and call it a night. 

While the rest of the town slept Fastway was busting with a nocturnal razzmatazz: at least twenty people entered in the time it took for us to wait for our Philly cheese steaks and fried chicken, all of whom seemed to know one another. We'd found the rumbling heart of the town and the vibe was fun, fun, fun. 

After picking up our orders we trotted off into the night, intending to sneak into the Marine Yard from the other side of where we'd weaseled out earlier. We took a shortcut down to the river and began to follow one of a series of roads along a railroad meant mainly for industrial purposes. And thus began the beginning of a two hour walk that Dockenstein describes as "miserable", Crimper as "hellish", and River Hair as "I can't think of one word to describe it." Infernal it was, reminiscent of Dante's journey through the dark wood that would begin his descent into the many levels of hell. For in attempting to circumnavigate the Marine Yard we ended up getting lost in a labyrinth of abandoned construction roads and industrial pathways threading through the forested riverbank. We came across a series of obstacles such as enormous gravel piles, the skeletons of beached barges, jacklit petroleum yards and swampy marshland, all the while very aware of how tresspassy our trespassing was. I made a note in my iPhone that read: "Every obstacle is infernal when you're wearing Tevas." We did, however, learn a lot about the gravel industry.

Another thing of note: at one point as we tromped through waist-high grass, all the tens and hundreds of bull frogs all around us stopped croaking all at once, and I wondered how they were able to coordinate such an operation. 

Finally we made it back to the Marine Yard, weaseled underneath our final fence of the night...

...and collapsed on the beautiful, beautiful poop deck of our dearly beloved Cat-Sass.

But the story doesn't end there. Not some twenty minutes after bedding down for the night we were awoken by a mighty jostling. It seemed we'd chosen an inopportune spot to dock as it was right near a tugboat refueling station, creating mighty waves that shook the foundation of our poor Cat-Sass. So, sleepy-eyed and grumbly, we decided we'd have to change locations for the night and began to motor further downriver where another boat landing awaited. As we approached the dock we realized that it was five minute walk away from Fastway. Had we chosen to dock there originally we'd never have had to walk through our own personal inferno. But, looking up at the stars, at the beautiful things that heaven bears, at the Big Dipper a'dippin away, I thought to myself that it wasn't all that bad. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Day 20: onslaught of the elements

Day 20 started like our average day on the lower section of the river, we took down our tents, cleaned up the boat and went searching for gas. We carried a couple cans each and walked to the nearest gas station, about a mile away. Our plan was to travel 140 miles to Greenville, Mississippi, so we needed to be at our full fuel capacity (approximately 144 miles). After refueling we began the return trip, carrying significantly more weight. Thankfully, yet another kind stranger took pity on us. A man pulled up beside us in his pick-up and offered us a lift back to the boat. Nick, Clement, and I (Bennett) jumped in the back with the gas cans while piers hopped in the cab of the truck. The man was one legged and was on a donut run for his church when he saw us on the side of the road (the back seat of his truck was full of donuts). When pulling up to the sea wall separating the launch from the town of Helena, the man said, "I'm gonna show you something weird" and slowed the truck. 

"Which direction is that train going?" (referring to a mural on the sea wall) he said. 

"It's coming towards us", Piers replied. 

"How about now?" the man asked after pulling his truck past the mural. 

"Woah, it's going the other way now, what's going on there?" said Piers in surprise. 

"I don't know, man," said the man. 

The day had started off great, but we would soon face an onslaught of all five elements currently known to man: Fire, Wind, Earth, Chef Boyardee's Beef Ravioli with tomato and meat sauce, and of course, darkness. It all began with a period of above average speed and gas consumption by the notorious hot rod, Gromiter. We realized that we weren't going to make it to Greenville (location of next marina and gas station) on the gas we had left, so we started desperately googling potential gas stations that we could reach. Finding nothing, we turned to our last resort, the old, dirty fuel tank that we had never removed from the boat when we bought a new one. Crimper and I went through the painstaking process of drilling many holes through the thick plastic and cutting between them with a knife, as we don't have a saw. We revealed about 7 gallons of yellow-brown fuel and some sediment sitting in the bottom of the tank. We fashioned a scooper out of our oil measure and a filter out of a dish towel, and began the scooping and pouring process. After about an hour we were covered in sweat and smelled strongly of gasoline, but we had enough fuel to reach our destination. This was the element of fire because we got out our fire extinguisher as we feared we would catch on fire. Soon we were again making our merry way down the river.

An hour or two later I was just about to be in debt a full steak dinner to Clement after a couple of tough losses and 'double or nothings' in chess when the board suddenly flew at Piers's face as he drove (phew). A storm had quickly approached us from the south west and before we knew it we were in the middle of it (element of wind). 

Hearing thunder and seeing lightning through sheets of rain, we steered the boat to a nearby island to wait out the storm. We covered everything we could with tarps and enjoyed a can of Sriracha corn as we watched the storm make its way up river. 

Blue sky was soon visible, and we pushed the boat off the sandy beach, feeling soaked but slightly cleaner and tried to start up the motor. Every time it rains some wiring on the controls get wet and the starter doesn't work, so we weren't optimistic. Sure enough we were forced to jump the solenoid with wire while the boat dried out. About twenty minutes after we got her started, the element of earth also crept up on us, but this time from below. The high water levels on the river have submerged much of the land along the river, making it difficult to gauge depth in areas without channel markers. The boat suddenly slowed and skidded to a stop. Gromiter, who was standing, was thrown off balance but was able to maintain his dignity. We soon realized our error, tilted the engine up, and walked Cat Sass, in knee depth water, away from the submerged island. Luckily the propeller and engine were not damaged after having hit sand pretty hard. As we pushed the boat into deeper waters Crimper noticed some rust on the engine and thought, "Cat Sass is just an old woman and will probably die soon." After losing several hours funneling gas and waiting for the storm to pass, we realized we would be getting into Greenville later than planned. This meant cooking dinner on the boat (the element of Chef Boyardee's Beef Ravioli with tomato and meat sauce) and about two hours of navigation after sunset (the element of darkness). We broke out the rusting cans of warm red slop and navigation lights to confront our new challenges. Much like everything we do the wiring for the navigation lights were installed right at the time when we desperately needed them. Fortunately there is not much to mention regarding these two elements other than some mushiness and a barge passing. Also, a fortuitous appearance was made by Michael Allen (River Frog), who hung out for a while, raising spirits all around. Michael Allen is the frog that has been on Cat Sass since joining us at Hoppie's. We were exhausted by the time we reached the Greenville Marina and quickly pitched our tents and fell asleep.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Day 19: poop deck

Dawn breaks. A gentle drizzle begins over Memphis, Tennessee. Piers stumbles out of his tent to attach the rain fly, and wonders where his tentmate, Clement, has gone. Three out of four Cat-Sassians are aboard her supple deck in the Memphis Yacht Club transient dock.

Rewind thirty minutes.

Clement unzips the tent door and does a slow and graceless somersault over Piers' sleeping body. Nature has called, and Clement can't let it go to voicemail this time. He runs up the hill to find a bathroom, remembering one down a corridor he'd used last night. 30 steps from the door he can only waddle, but makes it to the door successfully. It is locked. Clement swears out loud with no small velocity, waddles around a corner, and has no choice but to relieve himself in a concrete corner of the corridor.

The crew has a relaxed start, slowly dismantling the tents and chatting with the marina staff. They gave us sausage patties and told us about other boats that had stopped there that were traveling the whole river, including a boat that was entirely solar powered, and a boat that was made of the top half of a VW camper van. We all felt a bit inadequate in our dirty and fuel-inefficient pontoon boat, but felt better when they gave us the bargain of our lives on 3 gallons of motor oil and also some complimentary novelty Memphis Yacht Club license plates. I, Clement, stopped by the Mud Island Mississippi museum gift shop to pick up some post cards, and talked to the attendant about Elvis for half an hour. She respected him a lot, "but not his doctor," who had given him no nutritional advice. She had also once owned a wooden box lined with the upholstery of one of his couches, and her cousin was married to his cousin. 

Feeling like we had conquered Memphis, we pushed off and carried on southward. 

Herein I will address several questions people have had about the poop bucket:

The poop process is a simple 10 step procedure:

1. Take the lid off the bucket
2. Line the bucket with a large garbage bag (Piers gave it the mathematic abbreviation "P1," though I suppose for me it would be "C1," for Bennett "B1," and so on)
3. Line P1 with a smaller garbage bag (P2)
4. Attach the attractive custom bucket lid toilet seat
5. Place head+limbs through appropriate holes of the privacy poncho
6. Remove pants/shorts, sit down and do some business
7. Stand up, pull up pants, take off privacy poncho, and remove attractive custom bucket lid toilet seat
8. Tie up P2 very tightly 
9. Tie up P1 very tightly
10. Place bucket lid back on bucket 

Though we've only ever had one P2 per P1 before we had the chance to empty the bucket (emptying the poop bucket is our prime concern), if two people used the bucket in a row, the second would untie P1, re-line the bucket with P1, and line the bucket with P2' (math-speak for P2 prime). 

After many hours of travel, we arrived in Helena, Arkansas, tied off our boat near an abandoned boat ramp, and walked into town. Helena is a former blues capital of the South, and is home to the Delta Cultural Museum. 

Unfortunately this was closed when we arrived, but we walked down the Main Street to find the annual Cherry Festival in full bloom, wherein we saw an amazing and interminable blues band, and a Kool-Aid pickle eating contest. 

Aside from a liquor store and a Mexican restaurant, nothing in the whole town was open. 

We walked back to our faithful steed, whipped up a bit of pasta, had a few rounds of cards all cramped in Piers' tent, and then hit the hay. Everyone reported that we had each frequently woken up to the suspicion that a meandering fishing boat was scoping out our boat for robbery. We woke to no stolen goods.