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Heeeello? This is Iowa

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Ship’s mate Stacey Marie Garcia

We landed in the tiny town of Fulton, Illinois exactly a week ago. Stacey Marie Garcia was ships mate and Fulton continued our string of launches and landings that didn’t end in disaster. Fulton, Illinois is a little dutch town of a few thousand people and has a dutch windmill perched up along the river levee to prove it. It is an unconsciously cute little serviceable town of dirt alleyways and small shops.

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Delicious alleys crisscross Fulton, Illinois

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The local singles bar in Fulton, Illinois

When we met someone at the tiny Fulton Marina, we asked who would be good to talk to for the Secret History project. They immediately said we should talk to Terry Krause who had a boat in the marina but was out on it for the weekend. Terry’s car was there but he was not, so I left a note on a project postcard.

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Hash browns at the Harbor Cafe in honor of former ships mate Jeremiah Daniels

The next morning, we ate at the Harbor Cafe and then made our way across the river to Clinton, Iowa.  I was particularly excited because earlier when I’d run out of cigars, I had had a bundle of cigars sent c/o Clinton Marina. When we went to the Marina office, Cindy Brackemeyer, the marina manager exclaimed, “Ah! So you’re the cigar guy!” Thanks to Cindy for making our time in Clinton so comfortable. In a tiny shantyboat, bathrooms, ice, and laundry are not taken fro granted.

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Teeny tiny shantyboat in a teeny tiny Clinton Marina. Photo by Stacey Marie Garcia

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A perfect scale model of the Clinton Marina

Cindy quickly loaded us up with information and contacts, and out of nowhere, tickets to the Lumber Kings A League baseball game that afternoon. This last felt particularly remarkable since Stacey and I had just been talking about her love for baseball and my love for peanuts in the shell and how we’d like to go to a baseball game sometime.

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We came late to the game and left early and it took it some time to figure out who was the home team, but we really enjoyed our $5 blended margaritas

We wandered around Clinton and were a bit surprised. It looked like an economic bomb had scored a direct hit on downtown. Empty storefront, empty storefront, bar, empty storefront, pawnshop, empty storefront, adult store, empty storefront, pawnshop. It looked like Clinton, Iowa’s downtown had fallen on hard times.

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Downtown Clinton is nearly abandoned…

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…but Walmart is doing a brisk business way out on the edge of town

We did notice a incongruously hip coffeeshop downtown, but we arrived too late for our afternoon coffee. We needed caffeine because we were going to try to stay up past our usual shantyboat bedtime of 9:30pm, because we were expecting new ships mate Harmony Eichsteadt. We baked an apple pie in the shantyboat’s remarkable collapsible oven given to me by our friend Steffan. And though Harmony didn’t arrive until the next morning, we still saved some apple pie for her.

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Stacey made this pie and I was the prep cook

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Apple pie in the magical collapsing shantyboat oven

The next morning before Harmony arrived we ate apple pie for breakfast, drank coffee, and played dominos. A winning combination.

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If only every morning could start with coffee, fresh apple pie, and dominos

Harmony arrived and we had only a few moments for hugs, hellos, goodbyes, and selfies before Stacey had to dart off to the airport.

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Shantyboat captain Wes Modes, and ships mates Harmony Eichsteadt and Stacey Marie Garcia

That morning we got a call from Terry Krause who’d just come back from a boating weekend. He was into the possibility of an interview. We made arrangements to go visit Terry and his wife Theresa at his boat in the Fulton Marina. Terry is a funny, sentimental, and laid-back guy, impulsively generous. They took us on a cruise downriver with their marina neighbors in their 38-foot yacht. They typically take it out every weekend and several times during the week. They were often the earliest in the water in spring and the latest out of the harbor in fall. Terry pretty much lived on the boat from spring until fall.

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We interviewed Terry the next day at his welding shop started by his father on the north end of town. We talked about his growing up mixed-heritage Korean-American in small river towns, living along the river, his work, and a weeklong adventure he took in 2010 with five friends on a homemade boat down the Upper Mississippi.

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We liked the grittiness of the north end of Clinton, formerly the town of Lyons

Terry gave us an extensive tour around Clinton and loaned us a car to get around. Typically he leaves the car unlocked and the keys in it, his wallet stuck to the ceiling with a magnet. When we asked about this, his wife Theresa said, “Hello? This is Iowa.” This openness was a contrast to a few people who hinted at an increase in crime in Clinton. The car helped us get supplies, see town, and conduct the next few interviews.

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The next day, the Clinton Herald came out and we were front page news. For the rest of the week, people would visit us at the boat nearly constantly and bring us stories and gifts. We had a chance to visit that improbably hip coffee shop that was called Caffe 392 (the temperature at which coffee beans start to roast, of course). We talked to the enthusiastic proprietor Jay who told us that his wife and co-owner Jenna Sanders had grown up at a nearby small town.

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In our interview, Jenna and I talked about growing up with an “all-American childhood,” high-school sports, boating, swimming in the river, what happened to downtown Clinton, Walmart vs. downtown, going to Los Angeles for school and meeting Jay, and coming back to open up the cafe as a taste of cosmopolitan culture in a small town.

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The next afternoon the sky turned from blue and sunny to dark and threatening. A violent wind kicked up and dropped impressive torrents of rain from a dramatic sky. In the middle of this, the front awning came loose and we went out to secure it. I undid one of the mooring lines for a second to free a line under it. The wind blew the shantyboat away from the dock despite my efforts to hold it. The boat and the dock pulled me into the water and the shantyboat went free, held only by one line. It took some time to get me out of the water and the boat back to the dock amid the driving wind and rain.

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Contents of Wes’ wallet spread out to dry… again

I did two more interviews the day before I left Clinton. One was with Raymond Kimmer who lived for the time being under the highway bridge. He talked to me about his childhood in Clinton, running his parent’s jewelry store, getting injured a few times, applying for disability, addiction, police harassment in nearby Des Moines, details of homeless life, and camping out first on the islands then under the bridge where the police pretty much leave them alone. He was quick and funny and told great stories.

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I also interviewed Gary Mensinger who is both a commercial fisherman and a fisheries biologist. We talked a lot about the state of the river environment, threats to the river and river communities, the tension between farming and river health, invasive and native river species, and Gary’s carefully-expressed feelings about the future.

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During the week, I struck up an acquaintance with Olivia, an African-American woman who worked at the marina restaurant who had many interesting things to say about race, economics, and growing up in small town Iowa. I would have liked to interview her, but our schedules never matched up (or she was too shy to talk to me on camera).

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Pulling out of Clinton, Donboat in tow

Harmony and I convinced Terry Krause to join us for part of the trip as we motored out of Clinton. They took Terry’s small dingy to explore nearby Beaver Island.

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Harmony and Terry explore Beaver Island in the dingy. Photo by Harmony Echsteadt

In the next few days, we had more opportunities to hang out with Terry and his extended family of marina neighbors. Later when we got further downriver, Terry and Theresa picked us up to take us to the Fulton marina party where we got to see banjo musician Kendra Swanson again.

2 comments for “Heeeello? This is Iowa

  1. Gary Brecht
    August 26, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    I find your book project interesting. These days I live in LeClaire, IA, but I grew up on the Illinois side of the river. Suffice it to say, living only a mile away my mates and I spent many days exploring its shoreline. I’m 71 years old. A few years ago, while visiting Lock & Dam 14 I had an inspiration to write about my impression of the river as a boy and now as a retired senior citizen. I would give you permission to use all or part of what I wrote in your upcoming book as long as you would give me credit for writing it. Let me know if interested. I have it in a WORD document and could email it to you.

  2. Susan Semrow
    November 16, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    Although I have lived in Oklahoma for many years, I grew up in Savanna, Illinois, on the Mississippi, and I read an article about your excursion in the local Savanna paper (which I receive in Oklahoma). That article moved me to follow you online, and I am truly enjoying the stories and photos. Growing up in Savanna, I didn’t fit into the category of River Rat, but I still spent time on the river, mostly observing birds and other river critters via a canoe. I’m now in my fifties, and when heading north toward home, I never cross the Mississippi River without experiencing shivers and tears. Yes, she is a deep part of me and of home, and it’s an honor to have her flow through my memories, my heart–my being.

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