Your favorite paddlers are closing in on New Orleans, and the excitement level is pushing through the roof. Even while we were resting up in our Air BNB in our new favorite city of Memphis, I was daydreaming about the moment when that Big Easy skyline pops into view around what previously seemed to be just another bend in the river. We’ll float by tug boats and barges one final time and cruise into a boat ramp that is hopefully on the south side of town so we can take in the views from the water. We’ll first carry our stuff up to a park bench, and then we’ll lift Jean fully out of the water for the last time. Austin and I will surely embrace with a high five, a hug, and hell, I might even kiss him (On second thought, Austin would slap me if I kissed him). We’ll fist pump like Tiger Woods on Sunday, scream “Let’s Go!” like Tom Brady after rushing for a first down, and tear up like LeBron James after winning a title in Cleveland.
I must say I really had no idea what to expect when we embarked on this trip. I always believed we would make it the bayou, but the belief wasn’t based in a trust of our paddling skills or our knowledge of the Big Muddy. It was grounded simply in the confidence of, ‘We’ll figure it out’. But to actually finish, to paddle from Lake Itasca, Minnesota to New Orleans, Louisiana. To successfully, ‘Figure it out’ when I was never really sure what, ‘Figuring it out’ would consist of. It’s going to be euphoria. Hell ya. We’re almost to New Orleans.
Damn am I going to miss this though. This is the definition of a once and a lifetime trip. I can assure you that there will be more adventures in my lifetime, but I can’t envision NotQuiteLC takes on the Mississippi River Episode II. Even if for some crazy reason I found myself back at Lake Itasca with a canoe and a dream of reaching New Orleans again, I can’t repeat the magic of the original NQLC journey. I can’t visit these parts of the country for the first time again. Austin and I can’t buy our first canoe, load it up for the first time, practice (unsuccessfully) re-flipping an overturned canoe in deep water when we were so confident we’d have no trouble. The Mississippi can’t be that mysterious monster that turns into my familiar home. It’ll be a sad day when we arrive in New Orleans, and get off this mystical river for the final time.
When we take the boat ooff the water that last time, we may get some help from a few familiar faces. Our folks and younger brother are planning on flying down to see us finish, and join us for the grand celebrations on Bourbon Street. It will have been about three months since we’ve seen them. That’s just about as long as I’ve gone in my entire life without a hug from Ma and Pa. When I was away at Stonehill College, the parents would travel to schools across the country to cheer my Skyhawks on. And when Clint wasn’t home in New Hampshire, he was living in Boston, less than a 45 minute drive from home without any traffic. Even when I hiked the Appalachian Trail, each member of the family made sure to come out and join me for a day during the middle of the trek. So ya, three months is a long time for me. It’s about time for a Fontanella reunion.
Our boat will look just like that cruishe ship. Just a little smaller.
Despite not seeing much of the family this summer, the brotherly bonding I’ve had is surely an experience not many siblings will ever have. Austin and I have always been close. This summer inevitably brought us closer. Being bunkmate as youngsters can’t compare to sharing a 16’ canoe all day, exploring new parts of the country, and putting our minds and bodies to the test. We needed each other to move forward, and relied on each other when we were tired, hungry, and sore. We camped in separate tents, but they were always set up right next to each other (except for that regretful week when I lost my tent poles and we cuddled up in Austin’s tent). We shared hotel rooms, cooked meals together, and broke bread with new friends. As close as we could have been before this, this has taken the relationship to the next level. And I know how lucky I am to have this experience. We tried once before to plan an epic adventure, but as you can imagine, it was difficult for the two of us to both be at a crossroads in life where we could walk away from everything for several months. We got incredibly lucky that this worked out, and the uniqueness of this trip and the bond formed is surely not lost on me.
No amount of brotherly love can take my mind away from getting off this backpacker diet we’ve been forced to adhere to. People have been giving us recommendations for New Orleans cuisine throughout our trip. I salivate like one of Pavlov’s when I think about the Cajun jambalaya, roast beef and shrimp po-boys, beignets, and boozy hurricanes (If anyone has any more recommendations about what to eat/drink/sleep/do/etc. in New Orleans, please leave a comment!). And then when I’m back home, no more meals consisting of only non-perishables! I’ll have a freaking refrigerator at my disposal! I’m swapping canned chicken for grilled chicken. Hello cold milk and cereal for breakfast. ‘Yes please’ to fresh vegetables and cold fruit. And when I have a craving I don’t have to paddle to town to access it, only to no longer crave the food when I can eventually get to a restaurant that’s relatively close to the water. My food daydreams can all finally be fulfilled!
Me thinking about New Orleans jambalaya
I somehow never did get sick of Knorr pasta sides, peanut butter, and summer sausages. When you are paddling all day, the taste of just about any food makes my taste buds, ‘just tickled’ as the Tennessee locals would say. And that’s just the camp dinners. This trip is half a float trip down the Mississippi River, and half a culinary tour of the Mississippi River Valley. We’ve made a point of stopping at all the recommended diners, pubs, and restaurants. When you’ve only had camp food for a couple days, and have worked up quite the appetite with thousands and thousands of paddles, a sit-down meal is the ultimate pleasure. Enjoying food takes on a whole new meaning when you are on a trip like this.
New Orleans is the mark of the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. I’m looking forward to living it up in the bayou and then starting the next adventure – getting a job. As lame as that sounds in my head, I really am looking forward to starting the next chapter of my professional career. Job searching can be stressful, but at the same time it is a chance to choose an outlet for my interests and skills. When my mind is not occupied by the beauty of the nature around me or the barge headed right for me – or lately New Orleans – I think about finding that perfect job. I truly feel like the world is my oyster…. Ok, enough of the BS. It’s no fun only seeing your bank account go in one direction. New Orleans will be that ultimate purge before I’ll have the ability to hunt for that next paycheck.
City officials expect thousands to celebrate the arrival of NotquiteLc
I don’t think any job will be able to replicate the simplicity of finding purpose out here though. Each day we move down the river, we are closer to accomplishing our goal. Every paddle we take is one step closer to reaching our objective. Every day we end up south of where we started and that both is fulfilling and meaningful. Even if we didn’t go as far as we would have liked on a given day, we still can go to bed feeling accomplished. And I trust that the accomplishment we are working towards is incredibly meaningful, even if I’m not always sure what that meaning is. I recently finished reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed. There’s a quote about her reflecting on her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail that eloquently sums up what this summer’s journey has means to me. “It was all unknown to me then… Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust what I’d done was true. To understand it’s meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was.” I may not know what the greater meaning of this trip is, but I certainly know there is one. I can only hope that the next chapter of my life will contain as strong a meaning as this one has.
We’ll be in New Orleans any day now. We’ve budgeted enough money to truly enjoy ourselves there. We’ve budgeted enough time to take it all in and reflect on the expedition before we head back home to the great Granite State. It will be such a glorious day... I just don’t want it to come yet. I wish I could push it off. Maybe if I keep thinking about it, it will feel further away.