Andy and Lyndsey Mundell are storytellers. And the story of their 36-day canoe trip down the Mississippi River is one they love to tell.
Andy, 27, is a physics and math teacher at Bishop Chatard High School who calls himself a facts man. He is the guru of details, meticulous and organized. Lyndsey, 24, in school for social work, is the free spirit, full of energy, quick to love and trust. They laugh a lot and talk a lot, peppering their sentences with "likes" and "you knows."
I can tell they've become really good at telling this story. They were telling it even as they were living it - when they set up camp along the river, when they came ashore for food or water, when they reached their final destination of New Orleans. Each day was a new chapter, each night the end. As they posted their GPS coordinates to Twitter, they counted their records, their milestones, what they had done. We spent this many nights in a tent, they could say, we paddled this many miles, we saw this many sunrises. They think about how they will tell the story to their friends, their parents, their future children.
Lyndsey, joking one morning, calls behind her to Andy: "This is what memories are made of!" It makes them laugh, because it's so cheesy, but it's true too: they are just beginning a life together that will go on for a long time, and for all of it, they will have this story to tell.
They know the funny parts, the sad parts, the details that warm the listener's heart. They finish each other's sentences and interrupt each other. They're in sync as they tell their tale, in agreement about what happened to them and whether it was good or bad. Even when they tell me about arguments - "Things heat up really quickly and also dissipate really quickly on the river," Lyndsey says - neither of them claims to have won or lost. It's clear their relationship is about storytelling, too, explaining to each other how they feel, each of them settled on a way to be themselves that the other one loves.
It begins in the summer of 2011. Andy sits in the backyard of their home and watches a small creek burble past, wondering where it leads. He discovers that it flows into the White River, and that the White River connects with the Wabash, the Wabash to the Ohio, and the Ohio to the Mississippi. He is enchanted by the idea that his little stream is part of a huge national landmark - and just as quickly as those thoughts come together, another idea floats into his head: Is it navigable?
This is the kind of wild spontaneity normally reserved for Lyndsey - who picks up hitchhikers and joins roller derby teams on a whim - and it is her support that really makes the idea seem feasible.
"I wasn't expecting so much enthusiasm," Andy says of Lyndsey's reaction. "It was my idea, but it was she who made sure it wasn't something we just talked about."
Up, one of their favorite movies, was an inspirational and cautionary tale for them as they began to wrap their minds around the idea. "The whole theme of that movie is adventure and getting out there," Lyndsey explains.
"They're saving up to go to Paradise Falls, but they just get so caught up in life and everything goes by and finally they never get to go," Andy adds. "But we're at the beginning, we just got married, and we had those ambitions, too. This was the time to do something."
They buy a canoe off Craigslist and name it The Spirit of Adventure (inspired by Up), get some dried foods, a portable stove and a huge tank for water.
On May 27, 2012, before either of them can really believe it, they're off.
Slideshow: Spirit of Adventure
The Mundell's took a canoe trip to celebrate their honeymoon in New Orleans on the Fourth of July. Read the full story here.
The rising action
There's something inherently American about this story. The United States is a land massive with resources and thick with beauty, connecting two oceans - and it's all ours. Americans are always setting out for a place a little farther away, looking for a life a little brighter. We are raised on stories of exploration, adventure and discovery; this is the home of the brave, after all. It's an old joke, though, that the Midwest was settled by those who gave up on the idea of gold and settled right where their weary feet paused for a moment. At the same time, it is this region that is most American, easiest to put on a postcard: buffalo and prairie grasses, flat earth and empty horizon, and it is this part of America the Mundells choose, traveling south instead of across, down to a different sea.
"People are always really all about going international," Lyndsey says, "but there are things that are right here in our own country that we haven't seen."
Andy and Lyndsey did have some experience with canoe trips. This, though, is a whole other story, a five-week long odyssey, with the goal being to try to travel 40 miles a day. The farthest they ever get in a day is 62 miles downstream, but one day they only hit 13. They usually camp on the side of the river, sometimes on sandbars that the Mississippi's historically low water levels leave uncovered. They cook all their meals on the portable stove, sometimes going into town to get some water and stopping to eat something other than prepackaged chicken and rice, Ritz crackers with peanut butter. They bring no electronics except Andy's iPhone, which he keeps off during the day and uses to post their GPS coordinates when they set up camp each night. Before they sleep, they read aloud to each other from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which proves to sync with their trip almost perfectly.
Though the days are hot and long and they have to adjust their schedules so that they awake around 4 in the morning, before sunrise, dawn on the Mississippi is so beautiful that this early rising becomes one of their favorite parts of the trip.
Andy sets the scene: "It's dark outside. There's still some stars up in the sky, maybe a barge going by with its lights on. It's quiet and we eat our oatmeal, make a little coffee. We start canoeing just while the horizon is getting just bright enough that you can see it. The sun's not even up yet, and then it's just rising while you're going."
Though sometimes they talk, more often they just look, at the towns they pass and the ships that pass them, watching as one state slowly shifts into another. "The same river did change so much just going down stream," Andy says. "It was so slow you hardly noticed it, but at a certain point you looked around and realized, 'Wow, this is really different than Arkansas or the bayou areas of Louisiana or Indiana, which was so wooded.' ",
The Mundells say Indiana was the loveliest area they traveled through. The landscape was thick with wildlife, trees growing close to the river and dappling their passage with shade and sunlight. On the bigger, wilder Mississippi, years of human engineering have corralled the river's natural power into channels and dikes. The trees are far away, the sun hot, the river murky. Save for the shipping barges that would chug past the Mundells on their mission to keep America running, they didn't see much activity, human or animal.
It was off the river that the most memorable conversations happened, when they pulled their canoe to the side and ventured into small towns for food or water. They visit Cairo, Ill., famed from Huck Finn as the place Jim would finally be free, but it sounds like Jim and Huck didn't miss much. The Mundells expected a hustling, bustling river town, but the reality was different than the fiction. "It was a ghost town," Andy says. "There were these amazing cool buildings and old factories, but they were all empty or boarded up. We didn't see anybody for a couple blocks."
"It was sad to think about the potential of this town," Lyndsey says. "Last year it flooded really badly, so possibly it took out a lot of stuff that they just didn't have enough money to build back up."
The entire city was evacuated in May 2011, after a few weeks of rainfall at least four times heavier than usual, a wet summer entirely different than this year's dry heat. The Army Corps of Engineers destroyed a levee in the surrounding countryside to spare the town from flooding, a move that proved hugely problematic for the area's farmers. After decades of economic decline and racial turbulence, it's possible many who fled this flooding chose not to return.
Cairo wasn't the only ghost town the Mundells saw along the river. With shipping moving largely away from boats and onto planes, trains and trucks, river towns have little and less from which they can make a livelihood. This dependence on the river means the smallest changes in the physical environment of a town can reroute the flow of their entire history, and in a year when the water levels of the Mississippi are so low that the ships bearing the nation's corn and soybeans cannot even travel down it, the economic threat is a severe one.
Among the emptiness of Cairo, though, the Mundells notice another canoe. As they wait for its owner to return, an old man approaches them. Interested in the Mundells, he asks what brings them to Cairo, and when they explain their trip, his face becomes grave.
"I'm going to have to beg you reconsider what you're about to do," the old man says.
The Mundells say nothing as the man warns them against continuing their voyage, citing dangerous currents, dismissing life vests ("they just make it easier to find the body," he explains) and expressing his hope they've made peace with their souls and their parents. The Mundells, already disappointed in Cairo, are shaken by this warning and the early dawn magic of the day fades fast.
"It was a little bit of a bummer," Lyndsey says.
"I want to know what the most exciting thing that older guy's done in his life is," Andy says, reconsidering the conversation. "When I'm his age, I'm not going to be doing crazy things, necessarily, but I'll be content to sit back and relax - maybe with my grandkids - because I got those things done while I could."
When the man finally leaves, the owner of the other canoe appears. His name is Tim and he has canoed from Detroit, alone. He and the Mundells talk for hours and end up camping together that night. "It was a really huge morale boost for both of us," remembers Lyndsey about the encounter, which was especially important after the hit their spirits took while talking with the older man. "It was just one of those moments where you could really connect with someone, and isn't that what life is all about, making connections with other people?"
About halfway through their trip, Lyndsey reaches a breaking point. Fair- skinned and sensitive to sunlight, she's broken out in a rash. Her hands fall asleep at night, ironically keeping her awake. She doesn't share any of this with Andy. "I was all about equality the whole trip," she explains, and insisted on doing all that Andy did.
One night is especially bad. Lyndsey gets no sleep and realizes she needs a break - a hotel and a hot shower - and she also knows that Andy, oblivious to her struggle, is not going to be happy about the idea. He's committed to continue camping outside, looking forward to telling his friends he spent five weeks in a tent. When Lyndsey, deceptively nonchalant, broaches the subject, it takes Andy a few minutes to realize how serious she is. He isn't thrilled, but when he sees that Lyndsey needs this break, he consents.
"It was one of those moments where the marriage part of our relationship had to kick in," Lyndsey says of the conversation they had. "He had to be like, 'OK, this is what she needs, even though it's not exactly what I want or need.' "
They go ashore in Helena, Ark., which looks as deserted as Cairo had. Lyndsey, always the optimist, is confident they'll find something. As they wander the empty streets, seeing no one, they hear - of all things - their names.
"Andy and Lyndsey!" Shocked, they look around and see Tim. He had befriended a man named Alcorn, an older man who had a pick-up truck, to the Mundells' delight. Impressed with the Mundells' spirit, Alcorn takes them to the grocery store, then buys them ice cream.
"Wow, people are really good," Lyndsey remembers thinking. "This day started out so awful for me, and here's this dude, a random stranger, buying me ice cream for no reason."
The day continues to improve when they find an inn, which Lyndsey describes as the most beautiful house she had ever seen.
"I was like, 'I must have done something right,' " she says. "The generosity of these people was so overwhelming, because it was my breaking point, and something came through for me."
The proprietors were impressed with their story, which pleased Andy. "It was reaffirming of the feelings I had when we talked to that older guy who said we shouldn't be doing it, these older couples saying, 'That's awesome, for the rest of your life you're gonna just hold on to that.' "
"The common response to us was, 'If only I were 20 years younger.' If anything, sharing this trip with other people is like giving them a little spark to light their own crazy idea," Lindsey says.
The Mundells don't know what the moral of the story is.
When their trip ends they don't even realize it. It isn't the climactic storybook ending they envisioned, a cinematic finale to share with their friends: their canoe bursting triumphant into the Gulf of Mexico, their hair streaming in the wind and ocean spray. They were planning to stop when they reach salt water, but they are just outside of New Orleans in a town called St. Bernard, when they literally hit a wall. There is a small opening where boats can go through, but one of the supervisors of the construction strongly advises them not to, due to dangerous currents. They aren't exactly prepared for it, but there it is: the end. "I wasn't ready," Andy says. "You know when you're watching a movie and the credits just roll? There was too much that all came together: There's literally a giant wall in front of us. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is telling me we shouldn't go. The water tastes salty. OK."
"We did it," Lyndsey says. "Then we're like, 'yay!' It was shocking."
They store their canoe, check into a Holiday Inn, shower, sleep in a bed, and enjoy the July Fourth weekend in New Orleans.
"You can only imagine when you're planning this how hot the days are going to be, how tired you're going to be and how much you're really going to be able to deal with this other person all the time," Lyndsey says, unintentionally describing marriage as much as their canoe trip. "And we're married and we love each other, but still the reality of it was a little bit unknown. And I was scared about it. But our marriage is definitely stronger for it."
"I think they say a canoe will either make or break a relationship," Andy says with a laugh. "There were a lot of people like, if you guys aren't divorced by the end you're going to be together forever."
The story of their future may be the one story they can't tell. Their biggest adventure is just beginning, a lifetime together founded on an adventure.
They're still unsure what the moral of this story is.
"The reason we did it wasn't really clear when we started," Andy admits. "Is it about nature and how we're all connected via the river? Is it about humans and how people genuinely are good and how great it is when somebody is willing to step up and help you? Is it about getting up and doing something you wanted to do and never thought you would? Is it about marriage and being a new couple and learning so much about each other?"
He pauses. "I don't know."
"It all goes hand in hand to make one big giant experience," Lyndsey says. "It's really kind of indescribable, but as well as we can describe it, that's true."
As I listen, it's almost impossible to not to envision the river as a metaphor for the course a marriage takes. It's a cute lens through which to view a human tale, but I am wary of using nature as a mirror whose main purpose is to show us ourselves. It's another form of environmental exploitation, another method of mining nature for the things we can use, another way to own an ownerless planet.
When we decide nature is like us, and of us, we delude ourselves into thinking we can control it. Though the Mundells had their little spats and various bodily pains to deal with, the more significant crises were coping with historically low water levels, record-breaking heat, and drought. The towns that once bustled along a booming river were empty and deserted. And so, though it would be easy for me to wax poetic about how love is like a river and marriage is like an ocean, and the entire natural world is just one convenient metaphor for the most important of all stories - that of human occupation of it - the Mundells' story is not about how to understand ourselves better, but as how to understand a river, the outside world.
"Granted, we're in a nice position, where I'm a schoolteacher with the summer off and she was in her last year of college," Andy says. "But it shouldn't keep you from doing the stuff you want just because your schedule's tight and whatnot."
It's easy to get wrapped up in schedules, jobs and obligations. It's a different kind of river to float down, ending not in a sea but in - as in "UP!," as with the old man in Cairo - an old age full of regret.
"It's easy to do the same thing every day," Andy says.
But that's a story we all already know.