Madison Monday: Shantyboat on the Ohio

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The shantyboat, docked

This week, a friend and I were talking about how to live a simple life amid all the stuff that seems to need to get done. Jobs, spouses, children, meetings, cleaning, laundry, cooking…How do you get rid of all the stuff? How do you reduce the number of hours we spend doing things that afterwards seem like a waste of time? How do you pare it down to the most important things? I don’t know if building a shantyboat and floating down the Ohio River is the solution I’m likely to pursue, but I can certainly see the temptation.

This weekend in Madison, we were visited by a couple of young people who gave up most everything to float down the Ohio River on a shantyboat they built themselves. You can check out their blog, We Will Not Drown, here. They’re not the first people to come floating by on shantyboats and stop here in Madison, and they probably won’t be the last. Some local folks hosted them for dinner, and they had an article written about them in the local paper. And a Madisonian chicken-sat their two chickens while they were here in town.

As they float along, they stop in various places and work in exchange for food or money to fund their trip (you can also fill their gas tank by donating on their blog). In the newspaper article, they said they didn’t want handouts. But they’re not looking to get rich, either.

Walking around town on Saturday morning and hearing folks talking about our visitors, I was reminded of what it must have meant in the past to be a river town. In the past, the river was Madison’s connection to the outside world. It was where people and things arrived. It was where things happened. And who knew what the river would bring in on any given day? Walking around this Saturday, folks would ask, “Have you seen the shantyboat?” What would it have been like to live in a time when almost anything could have appeared around the next bend in the river?

Courtesy Madison Courier, photo by Ken Ritchie

Were things actually simpler back then, or is that just a story we like to tell ourselves, a comforting kind of fairy tale? It certainly often feels in modern life like your things own you more than you own them. Would that be less true if you could pack everything you owned onto a small boat and head down the river? Would the difference between the things that really matter and the things that don’t become more clear with the possibility that some of your things might fall in the river and sink forever out of sight?

Having done just the teeniest, tiniest bit of traveling down the river, it certainly would be a beautiful thing at times. To see the river in all its different moments. To be the people who cruise into town and make everyone’s eyes go glassy at the prospect of giving it all up for the call of perpetual movement. To be able to just untie and move on. The call of the road is buried deep in the foundation of our American psyche.

I had a kind of travel fantasy when I was younger. It involved picking up and leaving everything behind. But it ended at an interstate stop somewhere between Bowling Green, Kentucky and the Tennessee border. I don’t remember the name of the town anymore. There was just one gas station at the interstate stop. In my fantasy, I would drive down the road to the small town beyond the gas station. I would find a place, a job that had nothing to do with sociology or college students. And I would sink into the anonymity of a completely different place. No more moving around. I would just become the stranger in a small town about which I knew nothing. That’s as mobile as my fantasies get, and it still sounds disturbingly like the plot of Wendell Berry novel, Jayber Crow.

But I like to think about what I would put on that raft. What do I absolutely need and what could I live without? What things could I happily watch sink down to the bottom of the river? But I still wouldn’t want to be away from home for too long.

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