Hospitality broadens man's view of kayak trip

Sunday, September 11, 2005

After 40 days and 40 nights, Dave Hardesty couldn't sleep.

It wasn't the mosquitoes this time. Or the howling of coyotes or the blinding barge lights.

This time it was the familiar sight of the Grand Tower area outside his tent and the knowledge that home was really just around the bend that kept the Cape Girardeau man awake.

The last five weeks of Hardesty's life had been spent in his 17-foot blue kayak, eating cold oatmeal from paper packets and making lonely cell phone calls home to his wife, Marla.

Nearly 1,300 miles ago, he'd started off pushing his kayak through the low headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itaska, Minn.

At the start, he'd been sure this trip was about him and Old Man River. Just the two of them, living out a 20-year-old dream. But it turned out to be more than that. People -- everyday, run-of-the-mill people -- changed the trip.

Before beginning the trip, people were what Hardesty most worried about. What he found instead at the many small towns he stopped in along his journey were people who offered him food, shelter, a shower and good conversation to help ease the loneliness of traveling solo.

"The river is neither good nor bad. It's just the river," Hardesty wrote in his journal on day 34 of his trip. "People are different. We have the choice to be good to others or not. People have been so good to me, my unkempt appearance notwithstanding. I'll always remember them for it."

He left Cape Girardeau July 28 and hit the water July 30. He kept a daily journal of his experiences and mailed them to the Southeast Missourian for publication each week.

Along the way, Hardesty lost 13 pounds on what he dubbed the "rice and paddle diet." His goal was paddling 30 miles per day. He camped in a small tent each night. He weathered thunderstorms and insect swarms.

He listened to music and news of Hurricane Katrina on a thrift-store radio he purchased for the trip. And he thought about home a lot.

"With no current in the water and only going about 4 feet with each stroke, I started to feel like I'd be there until I was 90 years old," said Hardesty. "It was pretty depressing."

On the 40th night of his trip, he camped just two miles south of Grand Tower, Ill. He was up before his alarm went off. He broke camp for the last time and headed out.

"On that last turn in the river bend I saw the Channel 12 tower and the bluffs of Trail or Tears and I couldn't stop grinning," he said. "I told myself to move over the Missouri side of the river in case the kayak sinks I can run home from here."

When Hardesty finally reached the landing in Cape Girardeau about 1:30 p.m. Thursday, he saw family friends and his father waiting for him.

There was just a few more feet to go and then … he was stuck on a sand bar, unable to paddle forward. It wasn't a graceful landing, but he was home.

After loading up his gear, he headed home a long shower and to wait for Marla to arrive from work.

"It's still so surreal," he said. "So hard to fathom going from that to being back among comforts, friends and loved ones."

335-6611, extension 128

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