In 1985, the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving hadn’t been easy. I’d been rowing my sneakbox LUNA from Pittsburgh down the Ohio River and the days had been either wet, cold, or both. The rowing warmed me up but several nights just before had been especially cold and I slid into my sleeping bag fully dressed with my rowing pogies over my socks to warm my toes. Rowing day after day had inflamed the tendons in my right wrist, so I taped that hand to the oar handle so I could pull without taking the strain on my fingers. And my heart was acting up—every time I looked over my left shoulder it would take a hard, late beat. I stopped in the town of Cloverport, Kentucky, found a grocery store not far from the river, and bought a bottle of Gatorade, hoping the electrolytes would get my heart settled into a less worrying rhythm. Back on the river, I kept myself company by singing “Poor Wandering One” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, though I remembered only a few verses of the song and improvised the rest.
On Thanksgiving Day, I rowed some 15 meandering miles from an unnamed hollow at river mile 705 to the Cannelton Locks. LUNA was the only boat locking through. That was usually the case, as recreational boating had come to an end with the approach of winter. In the chamber I slowly dropped about 40′ and the dark, dripping concrete walls pinched off the sky above me. A middle-aged couple peered over the railing as I descended beneath them and asked where I was going. I told them that I had rowed about 500 miles from Pittsburgh and was bound for Florida. They said they’d like to hear all about it and asked me to join them for a Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant not far away.
I found a safe place for LUNA just below the locks and the couple, Rosemary and Chauncy, drove me a few miles along the river to Tell City where a family restaurant was serving an all-you-can-eat Thanksgiving buffet. I washed my hands and face in the restroom; there wasn’t anything I could do about the rest of me. I’d been wearing my clothes night and day for almost a week, and the thighs of my wool pants were spotted with mustard stains where I’d made cheese-and-tomato sandwiches while descending in the shelter of the many Ohio River locks. It was midafternoon and Rosemary and Chauncey were between lunch and Thanksgiving dinner, so they didn’t order anything. I worked my way through a plateful of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes with gravy, and a square of cornbread and returned to the buffet. In between refills, I answered questions about the boat and my experience on the river, a small price to pay for some company and a hot meal. When I had eaten all I could, I thanked Rosemary and Chauncey for their kindness and they drove me back to LUNA. As I set to rowing again, my stomach ached. I wasn’t at all used to big meals—to fuel my rowing I snacked my way through the days.
About 10 miles downriver from the locks, I passed the town of Troy on the Indiana side of the river and found a creek mouth on the Kentucky side where I could spend the night. The creek, called Muddy Gut, was narrow and meandered between banks too steep for camping ashore, so I tied a line between trees on opposite sides of the creek and secured LUNA beneath it where the water was deepest—the river was expected to drop overnight. With a tarp covering the cockpit I had a quiet place to spend the night and LUNA would keep me warm.
By Christmas Eve, I had left the Ohio River hundreds of miles behind and was well on my way down the Lower Mississippi. Just north of Natchez, Mississippi, I was rowing a 10-mile-long straight stretch of the river when two johnboats raced toward me with wings of feathery white spray spreading from their bows. The first veered around me , but the second slowed down and idled a few boat lengths away. There were two men aboard, both dressed in thick camo clothing. The helmsman said, “You’re the craziest thing I’ve seen so far.” I answered, “I haven’t said two words and you’ve already decided that I’m crazy. It’s hardly fair.” That got him laughing. He promised to meet me at Natchez and buy me a drink and the two buzzed off downriver.
I made a brief stop in Natchez—there was no one waiting to buy me a drink—and then rowed another current-assisted 24 miles to Dead Man’s Bend. I came ashore on a narrow sand beach at the base of a brush-covered lump of land. The sky was only partly cloudy and the air was still and merely cool. I pulled LUNA up the beach, out of the water and set my tent on the high ground.
On Christmas morning, the sun rose in a clear sky. I was in the middle of a wilderness where only tree-lined banks bounded the river as far as I could see. As far as I knew, there wasn’t another human being within miles. Even so, I was as happy as a kid finding a pile of gifts beneath a brilliant tree on Christmas morning. I clothespinned one of my red wool knee socks to a bush next to the tent, tied my oars together at their throats to make a Christmas tree of sorts, and put on everything red that I had—red sprayskirt, sunglasses, pogies, and balaclava—and danced around camp in my black rubber boots. There were no gifts in boxes waiting for me, just the joy of being exactly where I had chosen to be, living out a dream I’d nurtured for years. And everything I’d left behind would be waiting for me when I returned. I don’t recall now if I sang Christmas carols, but I’m quite sure I didn’t sing “Poor Wandering One.”