“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
Two long weeks in Paducah consisted of not one exhibition, but many. The Paducah Arts Alliance sponsored my residency in Paducah which technically began several weeks before I arrived. The original pitch was that we gather history from the area around Paducah on the Tennessee River culminating in a series of exhibitions to exhibit our research.
Ship mate Age and I had spent several long lovely weeks, drifting, fishing, camping, and of course, interviewing folks as we floated down the Tennessee River. Our new ship mate Penske was to arrive relatively close to the time we were expected in Paducah, but we figured we still had many miles to travel and Penske would get a good bit of river time on the shantyboat.
Penske got a ride from a friend from Nashville. We were moving a little slower than we expected, so they had to drive to meet us down an obscure gravel road we found near the river. Thanks Goggle maps.
We picked Penske up in the johnboat and figured it would be an interesting way to begin their journey, from car to tender to the shantyboat. They were excited to join us and were even more excited to have discovered a rare alligator gar skull on shore.
On the first day aboard, we passed the submerged Old Danville Grain Elevator, a magical find. At the inundated site of the former town of Danville, for reasons unknown, the four story structure of the grain elevator was left as a hazard and curiosity for future generations of passing boaters.
We’d heard interesting things about Fat Daddy’s Resort and Marina. Up and down the river, people told us that the owner was a sexist asshole, but that the place was a good time. We thought maybe we could enjoy the ambiance with a bit of ironic tolerance aided by a few tropical cocktails. Plus we needed a place to tie up for the night.
It was already dark thirty when we arrived and there was no one in sight. Apparently Fat Daddy’s is a daytime sorta party place and shut down at nightfall. It looked like the place had been abandoned. As we carefully picked our way through the darkened marina by spotlight, it had the feel of a science-fiction movie in which our heroes explore an abandoned space station that had met some horrific end.
We tied up near the main bar, borrowed some power, made dinner and slept for the night. In the morning, we were greeted by none other than Fat Daddy himself. “What the hell made you think you could tie up here?” he asked. I informed him that his business included the words Resort and Marina. He told us in no uncertain terms to get the fuck out of his resort. We did.
Despite these auspicious beginnings, we soon ran into trouble. That day, our Mercury outboard Freddie pooped out. It seemed we’d lost our transmission and could no longer shift into either forward or reverse. We were floating helpless in the middle of Kentucky Lake.
We executed a mid-river motor swap, replacing Freddie with tiny Mr. Johnson, our johnboat motor on the shantyboat.
Now, instead of traveling at a whopping 6 mph, we were traveling at half that speed and our expected arrival time in Paducah was looming. We were making half the distance per day. Where previously, piloting the shantyboat involved steering from the front of the cabin, the pilot now had to sit on the back deck and run Mr. Johnson’s tiller, loud engine noise, jarring vibrations and all.
We limped along to Kenlake Marina that night where we had a decent dinner and talked to our server in the empty restaurant for a long while. Later we were treated to drinks at the water’s edge by residents of the marina.
The next day we got as far as Moors Marina where we realized we would have to trailer the shantyboat to Paducah if we were to meet our deadline. Age and I got a ride from our heroic friends Mark and Rachel from Florence back to our truck and trailer.while Penske held down the shantyboat squatting the marina.
Age and I spent the night in Florence and then headed back the next morning with the truck. We met Penske to trailer the boat. Breaking down the johnboat and prepping the shantyboat for a journey by road is a formidable task that we handled like a boss. Within a few hours we were in Paducah.
Thanks to our Santa Cruz friend Jacob, we had at least one social contact in Paducah. Nathan Brown and his charming family met us that night for pizza. It was still swelteringly hot and humid in mid-summer Kentucky and we were not looking forward to sleeping on the shantyboat without the cooling river breezes. Kudos to Nathan for insisting that us three unknown river hobos spend the night at his house.
Nathan was the first of a series of friends we quickly made in Paducah. We kept the boat hitched to the truck as we tootled around town becoming instant celebrities wherever we went. For the first week, I don’t think we paid for a single beer at the excellent local brewpub Dry Grounds.
The next day we set up the Secret History installation at the River Discovery Museum and began a series of open houses with the boat parked at the downtown waterfront.
Over the next week at five open house events, hundreds of visitors came by and asked the usual questions. Each day we retired exhausted. Age sadly had to return to New Zealand and left us a few days into our Paducah stint. Another magical contact Mitch Kimball hooked us up with his aunt Anita Stamper who had a room — actually a whole suite of rooms — in the bed and breakfast that she runs. We were ballin’ in luxury.
In between exhibitions, I interviewed a bunch of folks including river musician Nathan Blake Lynn, long-time Paducah baker Louie Kirchhoff, activist Maryman Kemp, and historian David Nickell who had tons of stories about the disputed Land Between the Rivers. We also visited the historic Hotel Metropolitan, the first hotel owned and operated by and for African Americans in Paducah, constructed by Maggie Steed, a young black woman in 1909.
I gave two artists talks, one at the county library and one at the River Discovery Museum. These were modestly attended affairs and the audience seemed intrigued and engaged by the project.
About this time we hatched a crazy scheme. My ships mate Benzy was returning from her travels and I could meet her in Nevada. But only if we bombed across country in less than two days after my residency in Paducah ended. Penske was game to try it, but we’d have to drive in shifts across six Western states. It was a crazy plan, but we were going to try it.
To cap off our time in Paducah, we participated in the Paducah labor day parade. Nathan Blake Lynn and I played banjo on the front of the shantyboat while Nathan Brown drove the beast. His family rode on the rear porch of the shantyboat.
The trip back was a bit of a blur. Huge props to Penske for being willing to make the long arduous drive. We ended up driving in six hour shifts. Generally, I had the morning, Penske the afternoon, me the evening, and then Penske back behind the wheel for the graveyard shift. Or maybe it was the other way around.
We arrived in time to pick up Benzy and her daughter in Carson City. Then from there over the Sierra Nevada mountains and through the Central Valley. About 48 hours all told.
The shantyboat returned home to its lair in the redwood forest and Benzy helped me park the beast, lifting power lines as necessary.
Now the not-so-sexy part of my Secret History work begins over the winter. Preparing for next year’s journey and presenting the results of summer fieldwork.