I get obsessed with beginnings. With how there is never a single place to start from. Either the Miss Rockaway Armada started the day that George Bush announced the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and I stood frozen, listening to the radio, trying to deicide whether to leave this country, or go deeper into it, or, it started when the Floating Neutrinos made dreams and history by crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a raft of their own making (carrying a piano that sunk to the bottom of the sea during a storm). Or it started when Evan made that first log raft in Minneapolis, picked up the bits when it came to pieces underneath him, and started again. Or the day I saw an unearthed Viking ship and realized I had never seen a more beautiful sculpture or object of art in my life. Or the day that Jeff saw Fitzkeraldo and decided that, yes, dragging a ship over a mountain was the way to live. Or the day that Chicken John started a circus that ran on bullshit, A’yen quit her job, Harrison vowed to live without a job or money, and Chloe turned up like an angel playing the violin at that train station in Zagreb. Right? It was all of these days, and a hundred thousand more which coalesced and swarmed like a flock of starlings around the awareness that the time had finally come to build 110 feet of junk raft out of everything we could beg, buy, borrow and steal from the fat of the cities, and take it down the Mississippi River, singing, and dancing, and telling stupid jokes.
And so that’s what we did.
And it was a kind of freedom and joy and wonder that I have never known in any other form. In this alone, it was singular.
Otherwise, we all wanted different things. There were 30 of us. We each had something to give, our tiny piece of the puzzle without which the whole thing could never have happened, and we each had our own reasons why we were doing it. Me I wanted to build a floating microcosm of all that I held dear about the creative culture that I call home. I wanted to navigate that microcosm to places where arriving in such a form would appear as shocking as a miracle. I wanted to live on a honey-comb of junk rafts, grow food, compost our waste, build our own motors that ran on grease, and learn how to live in a different way than the system we now know, which gobbles up species at the rate of 100 per day, and wages wars of aggression over resources. I wanted there to be performances, and workshops and a zine library and sewing circles, and guided tours, and more than anything I wanted to find myself, at 16, waiting, in a small town, for something like us to appear.
Pretty big, untested goal, huh? How did we do with that?
Well…we did a lot better at singing and dancing and telling bad jokes than at forming anything sustainable. Most days, through the tears of stress and bliss, I thought it would be better for the river if we got this hunk of junk a million miles away from it.
Especially the days when the motors broke down incessantly, stranding us terrifyingly in the path of oncoming barges, everyone screaming at everyone else -- everything broken, dirty, trampled underfoot, and fallen overboard, and no one could get along, and nothing that we tried to do seemed to matter, at all, in, any way. Yeah, those days I longed for simplicity, and reprieve, and to have had different dreams than these.
But, there were mornings when Ellery would come back with wild amaranth greens collected from the forests by the side of the river for breakfast, and when 30 people would produce no more than one tiny bag of garbage for the week, and when we seemed to survive on sunshine and the glow of Midwestern hospitality, which is in itself a force of nature. People would flock to the boats in a state of awe, searching for words, and finding only, “What are you?” I could feel on these days that we were changing lives in some modest but stubbornly glimmering way. I know only because I have never seen light in faces like this light when people would say, “I’ve always dreamed of doing something like this, and now here you are.”
The Rockaway traveled down the Mississippi during the summer of 2006, performing in towns along the way, and camping on forested beaches in between. We made it as far as the quad cities, dry docking the boats at Ducky’s lagoon to wait out the winter. The following summer we converged at the farm of Ian Forslund in Iowa, to rebuild the Rockaway living quarters, construct three new boats, and take off again headed south, this time with the addition of one bike powered paddle wheel raft, one skate ramp raft, and a 500 pound organ -- minus one bicycle Ferris wheel, one Barnstormer’s sound system, and the ‘Raft of Solitude’ which some people had wanted to put baby goats on, but when the back three rafts broke off and went adrift during the nasty and dangerous crossing of pool 13, (the widest stretch of the Mississippi River), we were glad we hadn’t. Year two (not pictured here, left instead to the imagination, tall tales and horror stories), was even more the domain of the lost boy, and had something almost tragic about it as it spiraled further into its wildness. On board, lot’s of lives were frayed and damaged in the process, and yet – and yet, nothing could touch the beauty, and the joy, and the freedom and the wonder.
And nothing could touch sharing something real with people, in the place that they least expected it to appear. Day in and day out, it was the beauty of the river, and the appreciation on the faces of the people who would come to see us that kept me going.
We made it as far as St Louis, by the end a galumphing mass of rafts half a city block wide, a private world and a public spectacle at the same time.
The late visionary Bob Cassily hosted us across from his project Cement Land, but the land was publicly accessible, and most of the boats were either cut from shore, or burned down to their bottom timbers. We became the “Miss Walk Away Armada”, and I learned the lesson that it is one thing to birth a dream, and it is quite another to see it all the way through.
And yet --
About two years ago I got an email from a woman in San Francisco who had, as a teenager seen us pull up on the banks of the river and known instantly that another world was possible, and that she had to find it. I lay my head down on my desk and cried when I got that letter, because there she was, the reason underneath all the reasons why I had wanted to embark on this particular endeavor – for the girl that I had been, wide eyed and desperate to know that this prefabricated existence could contain other worlds, places where the feral in us might still survive.Close