Patrick Dobson is a writer, historian, and ironworker with a PhD in history. He is the author of Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains (Nebraska, 2009) and newly released, Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer. Next week, you can catch him in Kansas City at the Big Muddy Speaker Series.
In May 1995, I stepped off my porch and took off across the Great Plains. 1,450 miles later, I arrived at the bank of the Missouri River, my route home.
The prairie did something special to me. Big sky and flat horizons captured me and made me think that land and a ribbon of asphalt were all that existed. The space made me feel how small I was, and I wondered what made me think I was significant in the first place. That realization terrified me until I could no longer bear it and I let go of the responsibility of significance. At that moment, I became part of a larger whole and was magnificent.
Among the crickets, the grass, and the wheat, I didn’t think too much about the Missouri River, the one that I determined I would return home on. Under those skies and among the wondrous people who live beneath them, the road had become my river, and it was firm beneath my feet. It swept me away, one step and one more in an endless stream that led me to a riverbank far from home.
Across the prairies, I constantly thought of the Missouri River. I could not escape it. At night, it haunted me and filled my dreams. I felt it at the edges of the prairie, a black line just out of sight beyond the corn and wheat. I didn’t know what it meant to be set free on a river or it on me. I was afraid.
And there I stood, the Missouri River spread out spread out before me. It muscled under the Wolf Creek Bridge with a silence enormous things should not have. Sinewy currents wrapped around the bridge pillars and spun them through the grass and willows where the river had fled its banks. It sparkled emerald in the sun. In midstream, trout leapt into mists of insects floating above the river. After the fish splashed down, the quiet closed in again.
At the river’s edge, I felt the thrill of standing on a bridge over a ravine on the lip of a canyon. If the river at Wolf Creek, Montana, had rushed through cataracts and over stones, its hazards would be overt, visible. I’d have an excuse to admit the job ahead was too big for me and walk away. But the Missouri at Wolf Creek hid peril in its translucent depths. Its stillness revealed power the way eyes disclose a man or woman’s inner strength but little about their thoughts or experience. That difficulties lay ahead was certain. What they were or how I would be able to adapt and live with them were not.
Canoeing the Great Plains is about those obstacles, not all of them physical. Through the magnificent country of the Upper Missouri and Missouri Breaks through to the more sublime and nuanced lower river, I encounter savage storms, rough water, and weeks of being alone.
The inner turmoil, however, was sometimes more difficult. I had undertaken the journey to make my life different. I was a single dad stuck in a dead-end job. My life ahead looked like an endless cycle of work and sleep. I had no confidence to speak of and had begun to think that I didn’t deserve more from life than what I had and what I was destined to be.
The Missouri River transformed me. While it didn’t magically change life for the better, it gave me a better sense of who I was, who I am, and the ability to weather the storms of life with the perseverance and tenacity that it revealed within me.
Throughout Canoeing the Great Plains, I examine the beauty and natural history of the Missouri River. I explore its transformative power on landscape and people. As I make the trip, I make an equally important and universal inner journey that made me who I am today.
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