Charming La Crosse, Wisconsin and a Theory About the Uneven Distribution of Social Capital

Oh did I show you the sweet hand-drawn map our friend Alex made of the environs up and down river of Winona?

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In finding connections to river people, I discovered an interesting thing: People’s connections to others are unevenly distributed, clearly revealing “connectors,” people who are the nodes of social connectedness.

So just for instance, when I originally put the word out that I was looking for river people in the Upper Misssissippi, my friend Robin Chandler at the University of California Santa Cruz Library passed me one contact, her friend Bryan Kennedy at the University of Minnesota Library. He passed me two contacts of Minneapolis artist Shanai Mateson and UMN Faculty Pat Nunnally.

Shanai Mateson of the Minneapolis artist collective Works Progress

Shanai Matteson of the Minneapolis artist collective Works Progress

Now, Shanai was a treasure trove of contacts, opening up whole worlds of information, personal and institutional contacts, including again Pat Nunnally. She introduced me directly to a half dozen people who’d be instrumental in the success of the project, and indirectly dozens of people who’d be interview subjects, pointers, helpers, and angels. Pat Nunnally also provided numerous contacts.

A similar thing happened when I met Alex Stevens, a housemate of a friend who has personally introduced me to entire galaxies of people up and down the river.

This concept of a connector is not new. In the famous Six-Degrees of Separation experiment, the connections between people were not evenly distributed either. In fact, a lot of the letters sent to unknown strangers went through a small handful of very connected people, the Shanais and the Alexes, if you will. Malcolm Gladwell talks about all this in one of my favorite New Yorker articles “The Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.”

Kai jumped ship in Winona to go explore a prairie seed gathering and restoration farm in the valleys, so Jeremiah and I soldiered on downriver.

I banged my knee running around on the boat and so we instituted a slow down policy on board. The old “Haste makes waste.” Which is hard to remember when you are running around looking for a rope to tie some unbattened thing in a storm.

Nevertheless, Jeremiah sprained his ankle in Trempealeau while being a hero getting water for the boat.

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Downriver, we survived the storm near Pigeon Island. Then as we approached La Crosse, Mr. Johnson was acting up and doing the thing where he revs at higher RPMs giving the impression that something somewhere is slipping. Gerty had already tightened our prop in Winona, so this was something else. Hmm, worrisome. For a long while we were motoring at ridiculously slow speeds, just a hair faster than the current.

We found that if we sang Eagles songs to Mr. Johnson, that we could creep the RPMs up without him slipping. So by the time we got to La Crosse we were at full speed and thoroughly tired of Hotel California and Desperado.

We made it without further incident to La Crosse and were reunited with Kai.

That night, we took a battering by wind and waves along the main channel. We loved charming La Crosse, a town the size of our native Santa Cruz.

la cross riverside park


The next morning we moved upstream along the Black River to Copeland Park Marina where there are numerous boathouses.

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However, all of them look too new to be referred to as shantyboats, and none of them are lived in full-time.

Shanai knows “the Cities,” as the Twin Cities are referred to down here. And Alex knows the area around Winona, but we didn’t have a Lois Weisberg in La Crosse, so we are somewhat short on contacts. Feel free to pass on your river people to us.

This morning we got a visit by the Parks & Rec department which booted us from the Veterans Freedom Park boat launch docks. Kai sweet talked them telling them about the project and got a small extension, at least until my replacement phone arrives.

So we may get to explore other parts of La Crosse soon.

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By the way, here’s what I look like when I’m updating the blog.


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