Yesterday morning around 10am Kyle and I rowed from the Mississippi, took a sharp right turn and approached large metal doors. “Old River Lock and Dam,” Kyle hailed on the radio. “Old River back,” we heard a friendly voice say. After being instructed to wait on the bank for the lock to be ready we took some photos and said our final farewells to the Mississippi for once we entered the lock and the doors closed the Mississippi would be behind us. A couple minutes later the doors began opening and the lock master instructed us to put on our life jackets and let him know when we were tied off. Rowing into the lock I was surprised by its size and shape. It was much narrower than the locks on the Upper River and seemed to be much taller. Once we had our line secured around the floating cleat the doors began to shut. Within minutes we were surrounded by an orchestra of creeks, squeaks, groans, and moans as the rather old lock began to drop us 15ft. Kyle and I sat quietly in Solvi, no one around, and giggled about the strange noises around us on such a calm and quiet morning. Eventually we stopped dropping and the doors on the other end began to open. Waiting for our horn signal giving us the OK to leave, we readied our oars and pushed off the cool slimy wall. Leaving the lock doors we greeted the Atchafalaya and headed south down the man made canal that would take us 6 miles to the actual river. Despite some flying carp almost landing in our boat, the row was rather peaceful and we thoroughly enjoyed the smaller size and change of environment. As soon as we reached the intersection of the actual Atchaf’ the current picked up 2 knots and we had a following wind. Quickly raising the sail we ate lunch while sailing down the middle of the river. Not one tow boat in sight. Surging at 8 knots in the gusts we reached our destination of Simmesport Louisiana within the hour. Kyle and I both felt so pleased and excited about this new river and our first couple hours were such a pleasant treat. Little did I know the following few hours would test my limits more than ever before and quite honestly almost caused me to quit.
A few different locals had told us that in order to access the stores and main road in Simmesport we need to pull off directly after the bridge. Following this advice we dropped the sail and rowed Solvi to the only small sandy spot as close to the bridge as possible. I hopped off the boat and was happy to find firm ground below me. “This spot seems good,” I called to Kyle as he pulled Solvi’s bow up with the oars. As I stepped forward to grab her foreword post the “stable” ground below me quickly changed its mind and was no longer stable. At first I sunk in just to my ankles- no big deal. But as I tried to move the mud grabbed me up to my knees. Ugh. Kyle laughed while I posed for a photo. Slightly annoyed and just wanting to find a spot to stand, I tried moving down the beach. My foot tested the ground, only sunk a little, so I proceeded. Next thing I know my left leg was encapsulated all the way to my thigh- in thick goopy mud. I began to get frustrated and in trying to get out my right leg sunk just as deep. So there I stood, up to my waist in mud, both my legs completely immobile. I tried to put my hand down to pull myself up, but that sunk too. Kyle tried to come help up it was clear we would both get as stuck as me if he proceeded. Intelligently Kyle blew up our roller and threw it to me. I was then able to pull myself out of the mud using the roller as support. Once free I trudged to some rocks to attempt to get the mud off. It was a long process as the goop was thick, sticky, and everywhere. I got myself clean to my ankles and realized we still had to get Solvi up and out of the water. Time and time again we’d pull her up half-way and then the roller would get stuck in the mud and become useless. After the umpteenth time I was ready to give up. “How much water do we have? Can we just skip this town?” The answer was no- we needed water and a larger variety of food would be nice. Getting the anchor out and using a block as a pulley we finally succeeded in getting Solvi up on the shore. Next came the process of cleaning ourselves of mud, digging out the backpacks, wallet, iPad, and other “town items.” Both of us, backpacks on and secured, gazed down at the bridge a quarter mile away and then at the extremely steep and rugged shoreline between us and it. Loose rocks, vines, cement slabs, and driftwood lined angled shore line. “Let’s go up” I suggested as we found a small opening leading to some sort of trail. As we climbed the few steps up to the trail I became rather distracted by all the garbage: fuel tanks, dishwasher, kid pools, a fridge, mattresses, clothes, unidentifiable items, partially burned times. Due to my fascination and hesitancy caused by the trash, I had forgotten to look for poison ivy. Well, that was a mistake because after further examination we found that it was everywhere. “I’m so done,” I sighed heavily, not even sure what I meant. Kyle grabbed my hand as we proceeded ever so cautiously through the maze of Ivy. Once we arrived at the bridge we climbed back down to the river to rinse our feet and legs with copious amounts of water. Following the bridge we climbed up a beer can littered hill which brought us to the outskirts of town. Had I been in my car, this is the moment I would have locked my doors. I checked the cell phone- no service. Guess we are wandering to find food, water, and wifi. As we took a side street attempting to navigate towards town I grabbed Kyle tightly as I observed houses, trailers, stray dogs, and garbage everywhere. We strolled past a tiny cemetery and looked at the cans scattered about. Three times a car drove by and Kyle took off his hat and sunglasses with a big smile and a wave indicating we had a question. Nothing. At this point I felt scared, displaced, exhausted, and so over having to work so hard for food and water. Kyle, so patiently, looked me in the eyes and calmed me down. Smash! Crash! Crunch! I heard as I looked to my left and saw a woman smashing cans and throwing them at the side of her house while they tumbled down into a mound the size of a small car. Two small children stood near by playing with a toy. Finally we came to a gas station- “Do you know where we can find a grocery store or wifi?” No. Alrighty then and we kept walking. A couple blocks down, just past a house with at least 6 large dogs tied up, we found 2 restaurants that looked out of place because they looked so nice and inviting- clean, no garbage, cute decorations, nice places to sit, etc. Both of us craving a salad and a place to sit down, we chose Rabalais’ Seafood Restaurant and what a wonderful choice it was. Instantly we were greeted by a friendly face who, because of our backpacks, was curious about what we were doing and where we were coming from. Ray was his name, and little did we know that him and his wife Debbie, as well as the other two people in the restaurant would soon be our River Angels.
We sat down after chatting with the folks in the restaurant who informed us we had a new president, and ordered a big cup of water and two salads. While we plugged our various devices into the wall and pulled up wifi, Donny and his son Jacob came to sit by us to chat. We ended up having great conversation and before we knew it they had bought our lunch and offered to drive us to the grocery store and then back to the river. Speechless because of their kindness we filled our water jugs at the restaurant and piled in their truck on our way to Piggly Wiggly. Food, water, weather checked, and a ride- I was feeling much better about the day. We left the grocery store and headed back to the river. Kyle and I were expecting to get dropped off on the road before the levee leading to the river’s edge, but as they put the truck in 4 wheel drive and drove over the levee and got us as close as possible without endangering anyone, we giggled and said we were very surprised by the first class service! After taking some photos, saying our goodbyes, and making sure we had all our food and water, Kyle and I headed to the steep rock covered shoreline to avoid the poison ivy covered trail. We both fell at least once and it was quite the obstacle course but once we arrived at Solvi and saw the beautiful sunset reflecting on the river, we set down our loaded packs feeling satisfied. Then it hit me… “Kyle please tell me you have the phone and wallet…” As I watched him touch his hands to his empty pockets, my heart sank. The phone and wallet, together, were left in the truck. I was so concerned with making sure we had all our groceries and water jugs that instead of double checking the back seat, I double checked the truck bed before saying goodbye. We spent an hour searching frantically through our stuff, walking the obstacle course back to where they dropped us off. No luck. With no phone and no wallet and the sun setting there was nothing we could do until the morning. We talked about how to possibly get a hold of the nice folks who dropped us off. We knew their first names, their job titles, and the town, Lettsworth, they were from, but that was it.
For me, it was the tip of the iceberg. How could we have done that? How did I forget it? I’m not forgetful, why did it happen? As I contemplated the day and the feeling of isolation caused by having no way to communicate or connect with the outside world, I was attempting to put our backpacks away so we could set up camp. They wouldn’t fit, things kept getting stuck, I smashed my hand, and I felt like everything was fighting back. I put my head in my hands and began to cry. “I’m done Kyle. I want to go home. I don’t want to do this trip anymore.” He stopped what he was doing and came over to me. Forcing me to look directly in his eyes he said to me, “Danielle if that is how you feel, then that is what we’ll do. We’ve accomplished so much and stopping now doesn’t make us any less. It’ll be okay. I promise we will work it out, together.” Those words, the support to quit, was all I needed to hear to calm down enough to get some sleep. I awoke the next morning feeling a bit better but still sick to my stomach about leaving the phone and wallet. In reality it makes sense we left it, we go 10 days at a time without even seeing the wallet; its not our habit anymore to check for it. Also Donny and Jacob were so incredibly kind. The second they found our belongings they would have contacted us using the blog info I gave them and mailed it to us. Both of our families would have gone above and beyond to help us. Phones, wallets, I.D.’s, debit cards, they are all replaceable. But none of those facts gave me comfort. I was too overwhelmed to think logically. So on we trekked to the only place we could think of going- back to Rabalais’ Seafood- even though it was a Sunday morning at 7am. We sat outside the restaurant and used my iPad to Google any possible thing we could think of that might bring us the contact info of Jacob or Donny. During our searching, the owner Ray and his wife, Debbie, showed up. They aren’t even open on Sunday’s but invited us in, turned on some cartoons, made sure we were comfortable, and together the 4 of us began a journey of tracking down Jacob and Donny. The moment I sat down at a table in their cozy and well decorated restaurant I instantly felt better. I felt that these people were dear friends and that we were just hanging out on a cold Sunday morning. We read the newspaper, got to know each other, told stories, and laughed together. In the end, after some serious whitepages.com and LinkedIn searching I came across Donny and Jacob’s last name. Using this information Debbie found Jacob on Facebook and sent him a message. Ray was out driving to his friend’s house who he thought knew Jacob (how incredibly kind, right?!). He arrived just after Jacob had called because of the Facebook message. He had found the phone and wallet and would bring them to the restaurant in 20 minutes. We all cheered and giggled in excitement at our success. Thanks to 4 extremely kind and thoughtful folks from small towns in Louisiana Kyle and I had funds and communication to continue onward (got to give Google some credit too :))
But at the end of the day, the phone and wallet are not the important parts of the situation. As usual on this journey, it was the people. From the moment we entered the restaurant we were blessed with interactions with kind and genuine souls. The lunch that was bought, the conversations shared, the ride to store, and then the teamwork of getting our belongings back all took place because people are good. The fact that Kyle and I knew we could go back to the restaurant and ask for help and then received it, is amazing. The bond, friendship, problem solving, and laughter that getting our wallet and phone back brought almost makes me glad we left it! I had so much fun hanging out with Donny, Jacob, Ray, and Debbie that I am so thankful we stayed in Simmesport, Louisiana. In the end, regardless of our first impressions, the people are good and I will never forget that small town. After Kyle and I said our goodbyes and thank you’s once again, we walked back towards Solvi and put a whole plan in place to keep track of our belongings better as we shuffle in and out of towns and random cars and restaurants. We launched Solvi and proceeded to have the most spectacular day of sailing the Atchafalaya. Not one tow or barge. Not one big turn. Mirror water, a following wind, and a new and marvelous river. That night we found an awesome place to camp and enjoyed a vivid sunset and glowing fire. As for quitting, no way. This journey is full of way too much learning, joy, and amazing human beings to quit. But being allowed to give up for the day made all the difference. I feel renewed, grateful, and so incredibly excited about the Atchaf’. The day of hardships, difficulties, and situations out of my control brought so much growth. Patience, humility, community, the ability to surrender to something higher, and learning to rely on others are just a few of the lessons I learned. To Jacob, Donny, Ray, and Debbie- your generosity, and pure genuine kindness will never be forgotten. Thank you with all our hearts for the River Magic you provided- it really was something special.
As I type this we are a couple day into the Atchafalaya and I am so thankful I pushed through the difficulties because this river is a whole new endeavor and we are absolutely loving it and it’s ruggedness. But more on that Atchaf’ later.