The Voyage of Hurlothrumbo

By Mykle Hansen
Illustrations by Ken Sellen

Sunday, August 11, 2013: Day One

Nobody knows when we’re leaving, or how far we’re going, or what we’re doing when we get there, or what anybody means by “art” anymore. While the smug Portlanders of Team North pack their perfectly good boats with camp supplies, bacon, coffee and sea shanties, the intrepid Californians of Team South send text message after text message describing a surreal shit-show of oil leaks, exploding truck transmissions, missing tires, delay after delay after delay as they struggle to haul two heaping truckloads of artwork and floatation all the way up from San Francisco and Oakland. Our joint expedition has budgeted one whole week to traverse the minuscule fraction of the Willamette River between Oregon City and Portland, a mere 15 miles, but we’re starting to wonder if we’ll even get that far.

But optimism still reigns. We all believe in the evocative, transformative nature of our ill-defined mission: a boat trip, code-named Hurlothrumbo, conceived in the tradition of the Miss Rockaway Armada, Poppa Neutrino and Tom Sawyer. Using all the cast-off materials at our disposal and as little money as possible, we will construct barges full of feelings, crazy floating surprise packages of vaudeville and good intentions, with which we will entertain ourselves, the land-lubbers and the fish during our micro-journey downstream. We have a floating stage, a sound system, a horn section. We have dancers, acrobats, poets, a drum kit, a two-burner stove. We have a dream, and some boats, and the beautiful Willamette. Things will probably be okay.

Consensus forms that we should have been on the water two days ago, so Team North has taken the lead and conquered Goat Island, a scrabbly rockpile just across the river from Clackamette Park in Oregon City populated by ripe blackberries and standoffish geese. Our one proper sailboat, the S.S. Spondy, transports the landing party, sleeping bags, provisions and this typewriter. It’s lovely camping, but probably not art, yet.

Monday, August 12: Day Two

Hoist that lumber. Pull that strap. The long-delayed voyagers of Team South finally got their trucks in a row and arrived last night in Oregon City. This morning, Team North feasted on bacon, eggs and coffee, broke down camp, hid our boats, nearly lost a pickup truck in the river, and arrived at the rendezvous point just in time to work our butts off all day.

Everything that came up from the Bay Area is huge and covered in festive paint and splinters — including Paul Cesewski, also known as Paul Da Plumber, inventor of the human-powered amphibious Ferris wheel that looms multicolored and ponderous on the back of a double-axle trailer. Paul (not to be confused with Tall Paul Hayes, also up from the Bay) has been all business all day long, getting his little red tugboat launched and every other floating contraption as floating as it’s yet ready to be.

But our pontoons need more barrels. Twenty is not enough!  Phone calls are made, Craigslist is scoured, scarce dollars are counted. The hard-working ladies of Team South — Shannon Palermo, Eliza Strack, Gigi Griesau and Charlotte Jennings — busy themselves with screw guns and saws all day, assembling their floating gazebo. The mysterious Team Southeast — Brian Sysfail, Dan Deckswab, Matheas Michaels, Jessica Long and Kris Blank — continue to keep us guessing as to their plans, but their regular pleas for assistance on Facebook assure us that they’re up to their necks in something ridiculous, which is exactly where we all want to be.

Tod Seelie, who came all the way from Brooklyn, is a bike punk from way back and makes a passable pirate with his bald pate and Motörhead moustache. He’s a professional photographer, an expert bowline-knotter and the de facto historian of these trips. As we seal both bungs of each fifty-five-gallon plastic barrel with a thick bead of caulk — “More caulk for our bungholes!” we cry — I ply him for stories.

Tod and Paul are both veterans of the journey that inspired this one: the Miss Rockaway Armada, which in 2006 set float from Minneapolis with a ragtag crew of twenty-something twenty-somethings, members of various artist collectives in New York and San Francisco. Their mission was to reach New Orleans by water, to build some sort of carnival camaraderie along the way, to perform brave acts of floating theater and music for whomever came to stare at their magnificent styrofoam and plywood vessel as it drifted. In short, they were messengers of inspiration, of unexpected possibility. Why not float down the Mississippi all summer, strumming a banjo?  Dumpster-diving meals or catching dubious urban fish, writing or photographing, or just singing old tunes of the river? To young punks with time on their hands, you couldn’t pitch a more idyllic adventure.

The Mississippi itself was not so easily charmed. The Rockaway never reached New Orleans — at least, not with passengers. The first year they floated 400 miles to Andalusia, Illinois, until wet winter rains shut them down. They began again the following summer and managed another 250 miles, all the way to St. Louis, where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi and turns it wicked. There, fished out of unnavigable waters by the Coast Guard, they camped for two months on opposite riverbanks until local saboteurs cut the moorings of one craft and set the other ablaze. Apparently not everyone was inspired.

But the dream could not be sunk so easily. The next year, New York City street artist Swoon, a prime mover behind the original anarchic project, organized a more top-down approach to floating culture. With a hand-picked crew she assembled the Swimming Cities, a flotilla of sculptural theater boats hosting a professionally staged play, which entertained the citizens of New York City in 2008 and notoriously crashed the Venice Biennale in 2009. And while Swoon herself is now more focused on disaster relief efforts in Haiti, the artists of the Miss Rockaway Armada have been invited to invade, perform and float through museums in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and the Netherlands. A splinter group even crowd-funded a vacation on India’s Ganges River in 2011 with a five-piece interlocking stage. Last year, Paul Da Plumber’s pedal-powered Ferris wheel almost traveled down the Ohio River, but organizers could not quite galvanize the needed funds and crew to undertake the journey as planned.

Instead, the dregs of that expedition are now in Oregon City, readying their craft for what we all agree really ought to be a very easy, simple project. What could go wrong between Willamette Falls and downtown Portland?

Day Three: Tuesday, August 13

It’s funny how long it can take to execute a dumb idea. We are still in Oregon City, slowly assembling our Hurlothrumbo flotilla, inching toe-by-toe into the warm, inviting water.

Today we launch the Ferris wheel itself — first hoisting the two-ton red-and-yellow iron monster on a wobbly pair of jacks and steel saw horses until it’s high enough to attach pontoons, then lash barrels to the pontoons with ratchet straps, then roll the whole unsteerable affair down the Clackamette Park boat ramp in front of a fascinated gaggle of boat families and BMX/skater kids from the skate park next door. Everybody wants to know what this thing is, how it works, and when they’ll be able to ride it … all reasonable questions.  But with this much crazy ironwork teetering on stilts and not a hard hat amongst us, we beseech them all to please be patient and please stand back.

Rolling the beast into the water brings general applause. For a moment we wonder if we’ll actually set sail tonight, or at least camp together on Goat Island. It would be the first night with all the participants in one place. But no, there’s still one more barge to float and the sun is going down. We’ll do it in the morning. We’re tired — we’ve been working long days on tedious construction chores that are not what anybody would call “the fun part.” We’re rallying to keep our spirits up with clown gymnastics, cheerleading  — “ARRRR! MORE CAULK FOR ME BUNGHOLES!” — and thematic doses of rum. But everybody’s wondering the same thing about this journey that one week ago seemed ridiculously short: Will we make it to Portland on time?

Compared to the other trips that inspired us, ours is a brief, underfunded sprint. The Miss Rockaway took a month of construction before it set sail for two years, so three days is really not so slow for us. But schedules tighten with age. Paul has a daughter in San Francisco waiting for him to come home safely; Gabe, Dan and Brian are all commuting from the campsite to their office jobs; Tod has to shoot a music festival next week and cannot, cannot, cannot be late. We’d all dearly love for someone to ride this stupidity all the way to Astoria and/or Australia— but we are not young punks anymore, drifting scene to scene. We have jobs, families, gardens, projects, calendars. This is how the land captures people. These boats are the tributes we erect to our bygone floating youth.

The mission of this trip, the what-do-you-hope-to-achieve?, the why of it: We were all inspired once by the nomadic weirdos who visited our tiny towns and big cities and reminded us there are other ways to live, other approaches to normal. Imagine: you, too, can build your own boat and sail it, teach yourself, learn by trying, harness natural power and roam the earth! We are trying to pay forward a deep debt of gratitude to the first people who turned us on to DIY action and homemade culture, who blew our young minds… just like we are blowing the minds of the wide-eyed youths of Clackamette Park every time we drop another weirdly-shaped pontoon or barrel-encrusted question mark in the water. We tell them all: “Hurlothrumbo! Friday, Portland, East Bank Esplanade dock, 3:00 p.m. onward. All the Ferris wheel you can pedal, plus music, acrobatics, and a picnic.” The kids will be there waiting for us. It will break my heart if we stand them up.

So we carry on as night falls, hip deep in cool water at the bottom of the ramp: loading cargo, battening it down and double-checking all the lines before finally towing the giant metal clown machine with its enormous pontoon shoes out across the darkened river, around to the far side of Goat Island, to where Team Southeast and their freshly-floated raft, the Nutria Palace, will keep an eye on it tonight. Tomorrow morning we’re putting in the final pieces, and we’d better get to the next island if we want to stay on schedule.

Day Four: Wednesday, August 14

We spend this morning and afternoon towing, lifting, flipping, steering and screwing things to an object far larger than all of us combined— Four Queens, the gazebo-barge built by the ladies of Team South— barely managing to not drop it on ourselves. The construction process has been full of near-hurt moments, but at last we have our barrels in a row— three floating platforms: small, medium, and large.

Cleared for take-off, we nearly get stranded on Goat Island for another day. The tides are surprisingly wide and fast on the Willamette, and when we return to collect the Ferris wheel our path is blocked by a high spot in the river bottom, a rocky trough too shallow for our tugboat. Fortunately, these barrel barges float so high in the water that Gigi and Eliza are able to swim to the wheel and tow it over the obstruction by hand, right before the falling tide drains the crossing. A last-minute flurry of knot-tying and ratchet-strapping, and we finally— finally!— tow ourselves out onto the river proper at 6:00 p.m.

We are nervous. The notorious Willamette Jetboat lies in wait for us, spinning in circles, throwing high wakes, teetering the creaky structures on our untested rafts, while a dozen jet skis swarm in the center of the channel, hopping over one another’s propwash like hyperactive orcas. But we ride out their wakes and soon are adopted by a school of friendly kayakers in multicolored plastic shells, smiling and waving, photographing, asking questions. What are we? Did we make this? What makes us go? We try to explain… a Ferris wheel, a boat, something about Art, something about adventure, something about Friday on the Esplanade… Hurlothrumbo!

In the sunny early evening, we slide down the river between West Linn and Jennings Lodge, past the wide waterfront estates and the docks of exquisite pleasure craft. Curious river dwellers flock to see us. A mansion owner asks to see our tits. Even the jet skis wipe out in our honor. Our whole crew glows with the ecstasy of exhaustion and amazement as we putter downriver at a turtle’s pace, watching the sunset. Even at that speed, in just ninety minutes of steady towing, we cover a quarter of the distance to Portland. We will not be late.

At sunset we camp on Hog Island, a lovely elevated spot with a California microclimate, covered in dry grass, scrub oak and poison ivy. The natives are friendly, the tacos delicious. Tonight we dream the dreams of sailors and shipwrights. Everything is downstream from here.

Day Five: Thursday, August 15

It keeps you busy, this kind of relaxing: setting up camp, breaking down camp, hoisting anchors, tending and adjusting our million ratchet straps and ropes. Various structures fall over or break and need mending, and all our crap needs to be organized and lashed firmly to the decks. Most of all, it is vitally important to decorate all surfaces with painted cartoon faces, bright day-glo banners, fabric jellyfish and Shannon’s quilt commemorating a dear departed friend of the crew who passed last spring. We dance while we work; over the mild diesel rumble of the tugboat motor, our solar-powered sound system is pumping out classic rock— but our poor disco ball is getting pounded to death, flinging tiny fragments of mirrored glass whenever a wave hits us.  The sea is a harsh mistress.

Still, we’re floating. Sinking is all that can hurt us. Bumping into sand bars or getting tangled in buoys are merely swimming opportunities, pleasant in the heat of high summer. The little red tugboat hauls the Ferris wheel on two long lines, which pull the Four Queens and its eponymous raft, which then pulls the SS Nutria Palace, nicknamed the Disco Barge, home of the sound system, the musicians and their floating rock show. A few canoes and kayaks drag behind like tin cans on a newlywed’s limo. The entire procession possesses an undeniable weird majesty, like three royal elephants marching trunk to tail behind a clown car. We are a screw-gun-wielding, bikini-clad day-glo mass of frantic drunken effort, and we couldn’t be happier.

Ruins of former industry are sleeping in this river. Rotted pier posts, massive iron moorings and concrete bunkers where hydroelectric power might once have been drawn are all overlaid with a more recent layer of private riverfront real estate development: aluminum and plastic docks, stately gazebos, sprawling lawns, car-sized gas grills. We still haven’t seen any industrial craft, only pleasure boats, jet skis and fishing vessels. (We debate the edibility of a Willamette River fish; I imagine starvation to be worse.) There is a glaring contrast in wealth between Lake Oswego on the left and Oak Grove on the right. Today we passed hospital-sized mansions, private seaplane landings, green eco-docks, two-story speedboats and plenty of security cameras. Under the cover of darkness, a crafty pirate could plunder much booty here. But the river is a calm, civilized space, and I’m more inclined than some of the crew to leave the class war on land and concern ourselves with riding out impolite wakes and exposing our buttocks to the creepy, lurking photographers who have started to stalk us.

We are noticed— oh, yes. We interrupt a wedding rehearsal, are trailed by outboard motorboats, are shouted at by land sharks… not an overwhelming number, but more of them all the time. They’re asking the same questions so often that lately we’ve started pre-asking them before they can get their mouths open: What are you? Where are you going? Do you have a website? Tits? These are the Public, our Audience, and this could be our chance to present them with an Art Experience, but it’s hard to get artsy over the grinding buzz of a speedboat. If we shout in chorus, we can just barely project single words over the din: “Friday!  Portland!  Esplanade!  Hurlothrumbo!”

Tonight we drift around Elk Rock and choose a nice, sandy mooring opposite some middle-class floating homes on a beach about halfway between a deserted island and suburban cul-de-sac. Plenty of space for a cocktail party, a nice celebration of our first significant day of progress. We are back on schedule, running smoothly, sunscreen applied, barrels mostly still barrel-shaped. The water remains warm after dark, magnificent for swimming.

Elk Rock is reachable by land this time of year, across a rocky lunar channel full of washed-up debris from the previous winter’s high water. A few intrepid land-lubbers approach us, bearing gifts of groceries and beer. Also, because it’s Portland, we are invaded by a small band of musical pirates. They have boots, beards, cutlasses, accordions, trumpets, funny hats, all that. We hang them from the Ferris wheel and force them to spin and play until we’re finished dancing.

Hurlothrumbo Flotilla. Pen and ink, watercolor. Illustration by Ken Sellen

Hurlothrumbo Flotilla. Pen and ink, watercolor. Illustration by Ken Sellen

Day Six: Friday, August 15

This morning we are visited by both police and park rangers, all friendly and happy to meet us, all visibly relieved that we have no plans to stay a second night.  Apparently camping on Elk Rock is illegal or something? These crazy land people and their rules. Whatever. Have some scrambled eggs with chorizo, officer, and taste the bounty of the sea.

At one in the afternoon we set sail for Portland, the little red tugboat now pushing instead of pulling, so that Captain Paul can visit the crew. Skye, my galley co-captain, has found herself a second job as the red tug’s first mate. Paul built this boat, a one-eighth-scale replica of a proper river tug, entirely from salvaged metal, donated parts and several gallons of Fire Engine Red. Now he has trained Skye to operate the Japanese refrigerated truck compressor engine that drives the screw, and she has mastered the craft in short order, guiding us down the river slantywise, perched atop the rudder platform in her bikini like some diesel Amazon coming to rape your sons and pillage your fresh produce.

This frees up Paul to man the Ferris wheel itself. The wheel has three seats to balance three passengers of approximately equal weight.  Each seat is an under-slung offset pendulum which spins via bicycle pedals and chain. Each passenger’s forward-pedaling causes their own chair to spin backward, and the three chairs’ combined rotation causes the entire structure to rotate on its free center bearings via forces that are difficult to explain and which seem truly magical. For a short while, I am hanging in the sky, pedaling a human-powered Ferris wheel on a gently-bobbing barge beneath the Sellwood Bridge. Until this moment I have felt the need to justify this expedition and my participation in it: What is our meaning, our focus?  Are we Art yet?  But now I am wheeling around and around, to and fro, fifteen feet over the water, cackling with glee. I can’t think of a better mission than getting people to ride this thing.

We putt along, slowly but steadily, and by 4:00 p.m. it seems quite reasonable to expect that we’ll reach our destination only fashionably late. We’re all deeply enmeshed in the digital atmosphere; friends are texting from the dock for updates, Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with tantalizing snapshots and confident promises of mayhem.

Then, around 4:30, the tugboat engine conks out. Paul thinks it’s overheating. We stop in the eastern Ross Island channel just south of the lagoon, in still water topped with slimy green algae — a real Sargasso. We wait. We shave, change shirts, drink and smoke.  A curious bullfrog boards our ship, hanging out on a warm piece of pontoon on the sunny side… little suspecting that he has been spotted by Charlotte, our resident herpetologist who’s spent the last year in Papua New Guinea studying wily reptiles. Before he knows what’s grabbed him, bullfroggy is our mascot. He’s a beautiful creature, fat and green, who seems very healthy and unbothered. It’s good to see the right number of legs on a frog these days.

About an hour later, Paul discovers that the engine is not so much overheating as suffering from a lack of the diesel stuff in the tank thingie. We refuel and get back under power.  Lo and behold, just around the corner are the Ross Island, Marquam and Hawthorne bridges!

Six pm. We ease into Portland during rush hour. Gawkers halt traffic on the Ross Island Bridge. As we pass beneath the bridge’s mighty arch, we are so enraptured by the architectural grandeur of steel and cement strength on display that we briefly fail to notice the three-story Portland Spirit cruise ship bearing directly down on us from the north. Spying that massive boat, we bear starboard, as we were taught in Boat Safety class — but then the Spirit bears to her port, mirroring our turn. Why the hell would she do that? Ah, I see: because some other gigantic drunkenly-skippered yacht is approaching at nine-o’clock off our bow, speeding directly into the gap between us! Viva la shitshow. The three crafts seem certain to converge in one big shipwreck, but deft rudderwork from Paul Da Plumber, plus some combination of screaming, eye-shutting and pressing all the buttons on the engine at once seem to solve the problem. It probably helps that we travel about as fast as a tired duck.

Lesson learned, all hands take watchful positions on decks as the city creeps on over us. We see motor boats galore. Bridges and more bridges. People waving. Bike commuters on the Hawthorne Bridge, and of course we know some of them because it’s Portland, finally. We shout at them: “Esplanade! Floating dock! Bring beer, ice, water, food, drugs, rope, string, whatever. Hurlothrumbo! Tell everybody!” The entire Willamette River is watching us. Tod and I orbit the flotilla in the canoe, me paddling while he takes pictures, and at one point I do my level best to steer backwards and capsize us, but some kind of luck is with the reckless today.

When we reach our dock there’s a welcoming committee to greet us, which expands to a crowd, then to a party. Bands play on the disco barge. The musical pirates return in force— now there are a dozen of them. Paul unleashes the Ferris wheel, and the public queues up for fun.  The sheriff’s boat arrives, but the officers are far more interested in the young methy-looking couple at the end of the pier than in us. Three deputies wander through our festivity without a word, just peering around stone-faced. Apparently, it’s legal to drink on a boat. At least that’s the rumor.

But the truth is, these days on the water have been so peacefully removed from reality, bustle and the urban mindset that I now find this party scene rather difficult to take. So many people!  They’re tripping on the lines, they’re swamping the tugboat, they’re tramping our decks and stealing our beer. Everyone loves our boats, our wheel, our story. Our flotilla is being swallowed by a human storm, a party tornado, leaving us just as homeless as all the other downtown river bums on this dock.

This party is not ending anytime soon; reinforcements seem to arrive at the top of every hour. It’s strange to consider that a bus line three blocks from here leads to my front door. While the rest of my crew scouts for sleeping mat positions on the lumpy decks of our barges, I steal away to a strangely dry evening in my own warm bed. In the morning I return clean, well-rested and slightly ashamed.

Day Seven: Saturday, August 16

We swim upstream, back to Oregon City— the locks, the waterfall, Goat Island, the Clackamette Park boat launch and our trucks that miss us terribly. I cook bacon and eggs on the bow of the Ferris wheel, feeding the crumbs to ducks as we revisit the majestic bridges, the floating homes, the mansions mega.

It’s Saturday in summertime, and the river is crazy for wake-boarding. Shovel-nosed speedboats are zipping all around us, towing giddy, dripping teenagers behind them, throwing out monstrous surfable waves that pound my poor second-hand canoe against the barge and spill stuff everywhere. Paul Da Plumber is unfazed. He’s perched on the bench of the Four Queens under a floppy sun hat, drinking coffee and steering the adjacent tugboat via a long boat hook duct-taped to its tiller.  I don’t think he’d shout if we started to sink, only shrug and zip up his life vest. Certain catastrophes are unmanageable; they happen or they don’t.  No point in worrying prematurely.

Today we’re all working our poor sun-drenched minds around the prospect of unfloating tomorrow, disassembling all that we have assembled. There will be teetering enormous ironwork on wobbly jacks, there will be lifting waterlogged lumber with no gloves on. We’ve put the whole shebang on Craigslist and are hoping for a miracle, but the odds are for a long day tomorrow, and perhaps the next day, too.

Provisions are low. We ate all the eggs, all the meat, all the cheese, drank all the coffee. The coolers are starting to resemble post-earthquake Haiti. In Milwaukie, the flotilla bids adieu to the Spondy and the Nutria Palace. Now we are lighter than ever, making excellent time.  But the platform on the Four Queens is bowing down the center and up the sides, approaching a potato chip configuration not known for its stability. The wakes of the wake boats are beating the shit out of us. This journey is best ended sooner than later.

But next year. We all keep saying this like it’s a foregone conclusion. Down to the mighty Columbia, all the way to Astoria. Some visiting motor-rafters have told us horror stories of massive aluminum party boats crushed like empty beer cans on that river, but I’ve rowed my canoe out there with no problems at all.  I think you just need to go slow, plan ahead, maybe throw a few more sticks of wood under the deck and pack more coffee.

 We reach our Oregon City starting point by late afternoon and attempt to visit Multnomah Falls, just a little farther upstream, but as we approach the current gets stronger and stronger until finally we’re treading water at full throttle. So we fall back to our old Goat Island moorage and set up camp, sending out a tugboat expedition to check the status of our trucks and bring back hot dogs and ice cream.

At sunset, Paul and I are crossing back over the river in the tug, sans flotilla. For the first time in a week we are anonymous, just two guys in a red boat. Wake-boarders and fishermen ignore us as they reel in their lines and conclude their day on the river. The sky is majestic, and the sunset reflected on the dappled water is more stunning than any artwork I could have remembered to bring.

The locals I’ve met all agree: In the last two decades, conservation efforts all along the Willamette and up its tributaries have transformed this river from a smelly drain into a gorgeous, thriving waterway. The water is clean, gentle, glassy, teeming with life. Portland folks fret about the agricultural runoff, but in Oregon City they eat the fish and swim in the water — or else they are towed over it on giant, inflatable sofas by fossil-burning cockboats at neck-snapping speeds. The river seems unbothered by any of that. It is beginning a new era, a second youth.  Who else gets one of those?

Day Eight: Sunday, August 17

I have beheld the font of miracles, and it is Craigslist! Thanks to Shannon’s vigilant posting in the “free” category — backed up by Tod’s flattering photography — all of our unwanted, giant garbage is vanishing under its own power! A Boy Scout troop has obtained a wide load permit and has driven 150 miles just to collect our free diving platform, a.k.a. the plywood potato chip, a.k.a. the Four Queens — barrels, gazebo and all. The extra barrels from the Ferris wheel are gathered up in a ZipVan for someone’s gray water treatment project. Two waterlogged wood and styrofoam pontoons, probably weighing a half-ton each, are adopted by a pair of river bums who promise to convert them to ideal floating homes. They also adopt all our scrap lumber, even our used screws. Please, take it all!

Our exodus goes more smoothly and quickly than we dared imagine. Our trucks are waiting right where we left them, unticketed and unmolested, happy to drag our metal monsters back up the boat ramp. A detachment of pirates arrive, still in full regalia, ready to lend a hand with the breakdown. Paul invents a slightly less worrisome system for raising and lowering his Ferris wheel, and no one is killed. It’s still plenty of work, cranking and ratcheting, snipping and unscrewing, hoisting cargo and coiling rope in a hot parking lot under a brutal sun, but by 5:00 that afternoon everything that’s come ashore is strapped down tightly onto three trucks and two trailers, and we’re a caravan once again — rolling out onto that big concrete river, OR-99E, headed up to Skye’s backyard in Portland for one last picnic before Team South hits the interstate for the long push back to California.

Sixteen of us scraped together time and money and spent weeks of effort planning and accomplishing this journey. If any of us felt so motivated, we might be able to invent some bullshit Artist’s Statement explaining why we chose to traverse this river in this arduous, silly way. At first I thought that was important. I don’t anymore. Really, it’s pointless asking people why they do what they do. Art is just the unexplainable urge to do a purposeless thing. Hurlothrumbo was a vessel into which we poured a longing to be swept away, free and mindless, mingled with a desire to learn, achieve and discover.  But now, knowing the loveliness of the Willamette, knowing that it collects the Clackamas, feeds the Columbia, reaches the Pacific and touches every part of Earth… it feels urgent to return, to build another boat, to put on a better show. Now when I read maps I only see rivers, intertwined into one wet network. The land looks boring, crowded with roads and borders, really only good for coastline.

I’m not the only one who feels this way; I’m just the latest victim of the river bug. “This is why you do everything else,” says Tod, “so you can go do this thing.  And you take all these photos, so your friends can all see what you did, and maybe this will help them get more opportunities in the future… or people will just see it and be inspired to do their own trip. Every time we do a river trip, I’m really sad when it ends, and I’m waiting and wondering and hoping it’ll happen again.”

This is how the river captures people. 


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