Part 3: Trouble in Atchison, Kansas
Nick was still asleep in the tent. I had a few minutes to myself. I breathed in the fog heavy air filled with the smells of dried grass and river. I felt light. I was empty of the uncertainties I brought with me on the trip. They were lost out there somewhere on the water.
Mornings have been hard for me for about the last year. I wake slowly, unevenly, and lie in bed, eyes closed. Soon, the stings of conscience begin to get me. I rustle around, waiting to go back to sleep. I know I should be up, getting work done, finding an agent, writing something. But I lie there until the alarms in my head just won’t stop. I heave into the bathroom and look at myself in the mirror. What’s there to get up for?
The feeling that I have committed some unspeakable sin haunts me. For this, I seek redemption. But what is this sin? I have lived two lives, one of absolute dissolution, another of being too earnest for my own good. Finding a center, a balance eludes me. It’s either action or inaction, intense energy or lethargy, being on or turning off. I feel emotionally unstable while people around me tell me I’m just the opposite.
Sitting there in my chair, it didn’t matter. It probably never did. I notice these moments when everything is just all right and as it should be. They come so infrequently.
I had no revelations or epiphanies. My head was empty and I was calm. The sun came up over the hills in the distance. The river access was strangely quiet. I expected anglers to be getting their boats out early, but nothing stirred. Good for us, I thought.
After a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal, Nick and I broke down camp and packed up quickly. We were meeting Steve at the boat ramp and I wanted to be ready to take off. He had camped a few miles upstream on a tiny sandy shelf that was only big enough for him and his boat.
The day was clear and grew hot quickly. No breeze came off the water to relieve the heat. We paddled ten miles into St. Joseph and got out at the French Bottoms river access. The ramp came up into a large parking lot. On one side sat the St. Jo Frontier Casino, and on the other a slick new nature center.
We pulled our boats up on the ramp and headed for a picnic pavilion. Someone had defecated by one of the picnic tables there. A man in business casual sat on another of the tables, listening to an inspiring Christian song on his phone. The music was loud and distorted. The man smoked and his motions indicated he was really into his music. We took up on the table opposite the pile on the floor.
We ate lunch and drank up as much of our warm water as we could. After, we went up to the nature center and found that they would let us fill our water containers in the triple sink in their utility room. The woman at the front was friendly and interested in what we were doing. The air conditioning felt sterile and sanitized. Two or three days outside in the summer sun does things to you. The cooled air felt great. After a few minutes, I wanted to get outside into the heat again.
We slalomed through the St. Joseph waterfront between bridges and barges. We weaved and dodged a large dredge set in the center of the channel. Disused industrial infrastructure — dolphins (large vertical metal cylinders filled with concrete set just next to the bank), cranes, lifts — sat deteriorating on the bank under the downtown. A complex of highways hemmed in the city and separated it from the river. As we padded by one of the dolphins, Nick noticed that kids were playing on the steel superstructure of a crane, climbing up twenty feet or so and jumping in the river. They were about Nick’s age.
I told Nick “I’ve never hit you, but if I found out you were doing something like that, I’d paddle your ass.” Nick pulled on his mischievous smile.
“What if you never found out?” he said. He lifted the brim of his hat and looked at me over his glasses.
“Well, I guess I wouldn’t paddle your ass.”
“I suppose I’ll never tell you, then,” he laughed.
We pulled into a long, slow stretch of river that we dawdled on. It was luxurious to lounge in the boat after the barges and bridges, which always make me nervous. About six miles out of town, we spied a sandbar on the right bank. It would make a perfect overnight.
Steve set to painting and Nick to playing with fire. I wrote a long time in my notebook and then read another while longer. The day passed without a whisper. Between feeding logs into the fire, Nick dug holes in the sand with one of our paddles. He lobbed handfuls of sand in the water. He waded, swam, and frolicked. I looked up at one point and realized that, if I wanted, if I could, I could leave all my worries swallowed up out there on the river.
Sun set on the river in purple and pink. The water flowed like glass. There wasn’t a sound. When night had fallen, we each padded off to bed, one after the other. We hardly had a chance to look at the sky.
The next morning, Steve took off before we did. He wanted to paddle the 40 miles into Leavenworth that day. He was interested in getting back into his studio to see what he could do with his paintings. Nick and I were in no hurry, though. We had it before us to paddle 20 miles into or around Atchison. We hoped to find a good sandbar to overnight on.
We were on the water by 9 a.m. It was a perfect day. Wind came up occasionally and blew the boat around some, but it was nothing that slowed us down. We got into still stretches, where the river ran fat and slow. Nick laid back on the dry bags and put his feet up. I leaned back into the area behind my seat and put my hands behind my head. We watched the bank run by and uttered not a word for miles.
As we closed in on Atchison, we started looking for a place to stay. The river offered us nothing but silty seeps that wouldn’t hold a tent. We rounded long bends, hoping that that magic sandbar would appear. When we made it to the Atchison boat ramp, we decided we had gone as far as we wanted to go.
We talked to a guy who had been playing out on the water with a jet ski. Dave was in his early 60s, dressed in long swim trunks and slick PFD. He told us that he took his machine out on the water just to “tool around.”
“I don’t have anyone to take me out,” he said. “So I have to pull up to this dock here, see. Then I go get my truck and let myself out.”
“You do this a lot, then,” I said.
“Only all the time. For winter, I have a wet suit like they use in the ocean.”
Dave introduced us to Larry, the Parks and Rec employee at the riverfront park, who was trimming the place with a weedeater. I asked if we could stay the night in the park. We hadn’t found a good place to camp, I said, and didn’t want to get stuck on the river for a long day. Larry said, “Well, they let people with kayaks and canoes and what not stay the night. Let me call my guy.”
After the call, Larry indicated where we could stay. The place was a nice, shaded area by the kid’s spraypark. The haul in from the boat ramp was plain, hard labor — up the long boat ramp, across the street, and then farther to the picnic table. With a little dogged persistence, we did just fine. When we were done, the canoe sat by a neatly stacked pile of our gear. After all, I thought, we are in a public place. We ought to exercise our sense of propriety.
I wanted to walk up to the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, which was just up the hill a couple of blocks from the park. But Nick had other plans. There were plenty of kids in the spraypark, and he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. He’s 14. He would be too grown up to enjoy playing in a spraypark when next summer came around, I thought.
We washed off at some outdoor showers attached to the public restrooms. Nick pulled on his swim trunks and ran and jumped and played. He and the other kids made up games. They turned the water on and off again, used plastic cups to catch the water. I sat in the shade, reading.
When Nick had enough, we walked up to the museum. I asked Nick what time it was. 4 p.m. The house was a pretty place, Victorian, in a carefully sculpted lawn. We walked up to the front door. The admission hours were printed on a small card in a window there. Closing time, 4 p.m.
Nick came back and played in the park again for another couple of hours. When it came time for dinner, that’s when I discovered the stove shot craps. The feeder valve for the fuel to the burner was completely clogged. It took the wind right out of me. Normally, it’s difficult to get Nick to eat enough. He can go for days without getting hungry. I didn’t need to exacerbate the condition by telling him we had nothing to eat because we couldn’t cook.
My mind started going over what we’d eat on the way home. We had plenty of peanut butter. Our rice dinner and ramen would have to go unused unless we could find a sandbar where we could build a fire. We didn’t need to heat water for the instant oatmeal; it would work with cold water. We had enough calories to get home, I supposed. We would just have to do without hot food.
I asked a man at the park with his grandsons where we could find something to eat. He was an odd sort, naked to the waist with a full beard. He had no teeth. He spoke nicely enough to the parents around him, but constantly yelled at his grandkids. “Don’t run, goddammit!” “I said stay off that thing!” “Play in the water!” “Why the hell do you think I brought you here for?” But the kids had a great affinity for the old man, and I could tell that, as much as he yelled at them, that he loved having them around.
Well, there’s a McDonalds about five blocks that way, he said, pointing. From previous experience, I learned that when people say things are just a short walk away, they have never walked that short way and it’s always a hell of a lot longer than just a couple of blocks.
We changed our clothes and put on our shoes. Just as we were on our way, the man said that he’d take us into the McDonalds if we didn’t mind riding in the back of his truck. Sure, I said, that’d be great. We climbed into the back of his rusty truck. He apologized for the mess of used tires and scrambled up fishing gear. He started the truck with a screwdriver.
That five blocks turned out to be something like two miles.
I ate, consciously, two cheeseburgers. It was the first meat I’d eaten on purpose in 20 years. I had a hunger, and something possessed me. I soon found out McDonalds cheeseburgers are as tasteless and unfulfilling as they had always been. But I was happy to see Nick eat, even if the processed chicken nuggets had little to do with chickens. The cold pop, however, went down fabulously. I bought hamburgers and pops for the grandsons. They looked at Nick and me like we were the greatest adventure of their lives.
We got back to the park and Nick took to the spraypark for the third time. The old guy and I sat at the picnic table. He was more of a talker than a listener, and he loved to talk. He was good enough, I thought. He spoke simply and honestly. He told me about driving trucks. He had done it for over twenty years. Now, he lived in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, but was up visiting his daughter and doing some freelance truck driving for a construction company in Atchison.
He bought and collected Harley Davidsons. He said he was going to make sure he bought every one of his grandkids a Harley and hold onto them until the kids were old enough to ride them. At present, he owned the one he drove regularly, and four others he kept in pristine condition in his garage. “They’re ready,” he said, “for the time these kids want them. And I know they will.”
His talk once in a while took on a racist undertone. It was distasteful to me but I have endured a whole lifetime of it, and I wasn’t going to change him in one conversation. After a while, I was ready for him to leave, but there was no way to get rid of him. Fortunately, the spraypark shut off on its own at 8 p.m. The old man herded the kids into the truck, wished us well, and disappeared in a puff of smoke.
The park fell silent. The men who had been diddling around the parking lot at the boat ramp pulled their boat out of the water and drove away. It was just Nick and me.
After we put the tent up and crawled inside, Nick nodded off immediately. I was wakeful. The park turned out to be a cruising place for the locals. After we had gone to bed, trucks — and it seemed everyone drove a truck — illuminated the tent in their headlamps. Some drove slowly by. At one point, a truck (I could tell by the sound) slowed down as they pulled up toward where we were parked.
“Hey, is that even legal?” I heard one say. I assumed he meant having campers at the park.
“No,” said the other. “Hell, no.”
“Hey, time to get up,” the first yelled at us. “It’s already 10:30 in the morning. Time to get out of here.”
The truck drove up through the parking lot. When it came back around, the other man shouted, “Wake up! Time to get on out of here, pussies!”
It was a small incident, a couple of kids in their twenties with nothing to do. But all night, every time a truck drove by on the road or pulled into the park, I thought it might be the yahoos come back from the bar to make trouble. What would I do? I thought to myself. What would they do to us? Not much unless they were real maniacs. But what do you do with drunks?
The feeling I’d committed a sin, something that marked me, made me inferior came back to me. Maybe I was enduring punishment I deserved. At some point, a thunderstorm blew in and it started to rain. Nothing would happen to us then, I thought. Troublemakers don’t like the rain. Under cover of the storm, finally, I fell asleep. Troubled dreams plagued me.