by Maria Lee
What would you do with a houseboat the size of an office cubicle? Well, if you’re itinerant artist and general river enthusiast, Wes Modes, you embark on a multi-month journey down the Mississippi River. I had the pleasure of meeting Wes at the first River City Revue of the summer. Wes and his trusty companion, Hazel the Dog, welcomed us aboard the boat.
Hanging out with Wes and his boat was exactly how I imagined encountering Huckleberry Finn and his raft would have been if I lived in a Mark Twain novel. The boat can more or less comfortably seat four by squeezing in a worn leather love seat and two chairs at an abbreviated dining table. Storybooks and jars of spices lined the shelves on the walls. A few people were lounging in the small space, sipping drinks out of jars and taking in the smell of whatever tasty-smelling concoction was sizzling on the two-burner stove.
The term, ‘Non-conventional’ only starts to cover the Wes experience. Shoeless and shaggy-haired, Wes radiates a boyish honesty that invites both trouble and trust. His journey down the River will undoubtedly be filled with both. But this is more than just a man fulfilling Twain-inspired boyhood dreams of floating down the River; it’s a story collecting effort which propels his boat downriver.
A Secret History of American River People, the title of Wes’ project, attempts to explore the stories of people who live and work on the river. He hopes his project will, “encourage an awareness of issues facing current River communities, the long history of people who have lived on and adjacent to the River, and an understanding of river ecology.” Wes paradoxically uses the archetype river journey as the method to explore unheard stories of the Mississippi River. In Minnesota, he’s already delved into the River stories of communities of color and non-dominant culture. Wes shared with us that he finds stories important because they allow us to begin to know and understand experiences outside of our own.
I, personally, love the idea of ‘Secret Histories’ as there are many communities whose experiences and stories with the River are still secondary narratives and not emblematic of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River feeds lifestyles that vary as much as the landscapes it passes through; the few stories championed as the narrative of the Mississippi River do not do this diversity justice. A teacher once told me—it is imperative that we tell our own stories. Otherwise, someone else will tell them for you, or worse, won’t tell them at all. Wes’ River journey is a decisive move to ensure that all communities have a place for their stories. What’s your River story? Tell us about it or tell a friend this week! Also, don’t forget to follow Wes and his journey on his blog!