Russ Ringsak

Westward the Troglodyte

September 18, 2009

In August, after years of 'we oughtas,' we finally took a pontoon ride down the Upper Missouri River. Of course you can't ride just one, you need two, welded to a frame and more inseparable than a pair of geese. Loss of either leads to a quick ditching: deck, motor, rudder, chairs, rope and anchor, all underwater, beer cooler floating away. Dark forces may be at work to rename them Dual Hulled Motorized Captured Atmosphere Flotation Craft, but as of this summer you could still take a pontoon ride. On two pontoons.

The upper in Upper Missouri is always capitalized, not only because it's a national treasure but also out of pure reverence. Taking the fifty mile trip down the stone cliff part of the National Wild and Scenic River will set it firmly in the capitalized region of one's brain.

Days before we left people told me I would need sandals for this. I said I don't do that. I can't recall owning a pair ever in all my decades. I'm not female. I don't drink my margaritas at beach cabanas. The ocean is interesting but not enough to lie beached all day watching it, and I'm not a college professor or a frat boy. I'm not hip and have no interest in becoming hip or even looking like I could ever get hip. Bikers and construction workers and truckers don't wear sandals, at least not for very long. I've never seen Jack Palance in sandals. Or Clint Eastwood.

"But there are no towns along the way and the pontoon makes a whiz stop now and then and you have to wade to shore because there are no docks and your boots will fill up and not dry out the rest of the trip and crud will grow in there and you'll be sorry you didn't listen." I didn't think that Lewis and Clark wore sandals but found it easier to go check it out than to discuss it further. And it might not hurt to bring a pair.

At Joe's Sporting Goods here they have kayaks, tents, parkas, fishing tackle, guns, ammo, outdoorsy clothes, boots and flasks. And sandals. The salesman was a good guy, I told him a joke, he told me one back. He was wearing sandals. I was thinking maybe 30 bucks. I ended up dropping 85. He said these Keen things are so comfortable guys put on heavy socks and wear'em for mountain hiking. Toes tough like industrial work shoes. I got the black ones. With black socks they look sort of like sneakers. How anyone can wear them all day without socks is another mystery, because that sole is like tire tread.

But they're comfortable. Your toes spread out and don't sweat or rub on each other. The downside is that not only do you look like a flatfoot duck you also walk like one. I'm skinning chair legs and hitting corners I normally clear. I seldom wear them off the property. Because even when a guy is too far down the tracks to be thinking about picking up chicks he still thinks about not looking foolish.

In our small country town I never saw my dad or any of his friends wearing sandals, or even shorts. Nor have I been tempted by shorts. Never owned a pair other than gym. No Bermudas, cargo shorts, jarring plaids, below-the-knee gang-bangers, sharp-creased dress shorts, golfing shorts, frayed faded cutoffs; none of that. My knobby knees and discolored shins are best kept from public viewing. Some women look great in shorts but I don't. And I don't think many men do. Maybe just gnarly guys like Tiger's caddy, Steve Williams. And the guys who do wear shorts don't give a natural rip about what I think anyway, so we're even.

Besides being sartorially out of touch I will admit to other troglodytical symptoms, such as not Twittering or Texting; no MySpace nor FaceBook nor BellyBook nor ButtBook. No YourFace or MyFace or Y'allsFace or WhoseFace. No Bebo, Friendster, hi5, Orkut, PerfSpot, Zorpia or Netlog. I might be a real embarrassment to my grandchildren if they weren't always so busy with their thumbs and their teeny screens. People sometimes tell me 'I sent you a text message' and I say 'You should instead print it out and throw it in the wastebasket because that way you'd at least know what happened to it.'

Enough with the confessional. Our trip began with seven motorcycles, a Jeep, an RV powered by a Ford V-10 pulling a trailer, and a Ford pickup with a trailer. We were scattered from the start, some going through Mobridge, South Dakota and Miles City, others through Rapid City and Wyoming, others straight through Bismarck on I-94. We met up in Livingston Montana for a short few days and then split, with parts heading off to Idaho and other parts going south to Yellowstone Park and then all the way up to Glacier Park. Our bunch, four of us on two bikes and the Jeep, went north to Fort Benton, near where the Lewis and Clark expedition once parked.

We met our pontoon commodore in a bar there that night and struck a deal. Next day we rode south and east to the end of the pavement at Winifred and parked the Harleys behind the hotel. It wasn't where we'd get out of the river at Judith Landing but it was close enough. There were two bars there, a cafe and a gas station. All the essentials.

Next morning we four Jeeped north across the Missouri and headed back in the direction of Fort Benton to the Virgelle Ferry. We found the raft already in the water and our guide, pilot, historian, geologist, Lewis and Clark expert, wildlife scout and story teller sitting there with pastries and coffee set out. Parked the vehicle, took our gear and chugged softly out upon the wide moving waters.

The engine was a four-cylinder four-cycle outboard, meaning it didn't snarl or smoke like a chainsaw but rather clicked along like a sewing machine. The lazy Missouri one is used to seeing in the grassy Dakotas is not the same as its younger version back here near the mountains, where it moves along smartly and is twelve feet deep in places. Of course by the time it reaches Bismarck it has been put to work by two dams and is about to slide into another to the south at Mobridge.

"So, what's all this business about snakes I was hearing back there at the bar?" I asked our wildlife consultant, between eagle and osprey sightings.

"They're out there. But they're pretty shy. They don't hang out in big gangs and pounce on people or anything like that .... They say about eighty percent of the time that a woman gets bit it's between the ankle and the knee and on guys eighty percent of the bites happen between the wrist and elbow." I'm thinking the women get it on the ankles because they're wearing sandals.

We make our first shore stop where a Boy Scout pack has parked their canoes. Sandalized, I flop up the trail and see the leaders there by the little shelter. In my best trucker persona I say "Where's all the big ol' rattlers 'round here? I wanna stomp on one." The main guy smiles and nods to the trail just behind me. "You just missed one on the trail right there. Went down that hole." Good thing, too, or I might have jumped higher than any man my age has ever jumped before.

You ride on and the hours slide by like you were a kid on a wooden raft in farm country. Except now you are under that huge sky and the fortress cliffs along both shores become high museums carved with craggy faces and strange animals. Fantastic worlds; time beyond comprehension. This Upper part speaks of the free and mighty river it used to be downstream, a mile and a half wide on its way to its official meeting with the Mississippi, north of St.Louis.

In 1721 the French explorer Father Pierre Francois de Charlevoix described that joinery: "I believe it is the finest confluence in the world. The two rivers are much the same breadth, each about a half a league: but the Missouri is by far the most rapid, and seems to enter the Mississippi like a conqueror, through which it carries its white waters to the opposite shore without mixing them; afterwards, it gives its color to the Mississippi which it never loses again but carries quite down to the sea ..."

The river seems to have thankfully few visitors. The remoteness of the landings and lack of cellphone service may be part of that; and rumors of snakes can't hurt either. Our vehicle is waiting at the Judith Landing, along with our admiral's truck and trailer. We shake hands all around, dragging it out a bit, and finally cross the river and head back to Winifred. We run directly into a heavy downpour, a brown-gravel rain under which we can barely see the hood. And then it lets up and we go to the tavern and meet some local ranchers.

Friday morning we are off to the Billings Blues Fest. It rains just as the music is about to begin at six, but the Dave Walker Band waits it out and then does a great set. A big crowd, all smiling. They are what used to be Savoy Brown and are now based in Montana. Dave's biography is on Wikipedia and the band has a page on YouTube. Check it out.

Headlining the main stage afterward was the band of all bands: Little Feat. Most of the original bunch. More exciting than a guy like me can begin to describe. Whooeee!

The great river one day, Savoy Brown and Little Feat the next, and then a fast two-day motorcycle ride home.

The troglodyte finds nirvana.

© R.Ringsak 2009

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