River of Dreams: Miss Rockaway Armada's Floating Spectacle

It’s a balmy, late August afternoon in Louisiana, Missouri, a drowsy Dairy Queen-and-Elks Lodge town on the banks of the Mississippi River, and down at the water people’s minds are getting blown, one after another. The Miss Rockaway Armada, an extravagant floating scrap-city of rafts and reclaimed pontoon boats, has just docked on the waterfront, south of the Lion’s Club gazebo. Rumors from upriver have preceded the Armada’s arrival; river gypsies, many of the town’s more paranoid residents are speculating, are converging on Louisiana to thieve and loot. The boats are a hell of a spectacle, at any rate, and an impromptu parking lot is forming at the river’s edge as locals pull in to have a look at the floating spectacle.


Gypsy rumors be damned, young and old alike brave the perilous driftwood footbridge and climb aboard. Skepticism quickly succumbs to grudging wonderment as they move from boat to boat: Miss Rockaway, the main 64-foot raft, boasts full kitchen, bedroom and restroom facilities, and is art-ed out from end to end. It “looks like a junkyard got into a fight with a haunted house,” quips longtime crew member Elery Neon. The Garden of Bling features a three-story tower of discarded architectural ornaments, spraypainted entirely gold, and an 800-pound electric organ; there is a pedal-powered garden boat, and a pontoon carrying a skate ramp. “It’s quite an operation,” older Louisianans concede, while the teeming kids sum it up more succinctly: “Cool!” Leading the boat tours is Tana, a stout and profoundly suntanned peacock farmer from Illinois City, IL, wearing a skimpy bikini and flip-flops. She joined the Armada on a whim while it was docked near her home and has been traveling with them for several weeks. “The newspaper said I was a ‘stowaway’,” she says proudly. Tana has taken on the job of tour guide, and she displays a natural talent for it. 


By nightfall, community relations have thawed considerably. The Armada’s entire crew, some 20-odd crew members strong, has been invited to play a concert and relax in the air-conditioned back room of Le Salle Rouge, downtown’s only late-night bar. As the festivities devolve into drunken karaoke, and boat people stumble downhill back to the river, the local atmosphere seems promising.


The Armada is docked in Louisiana for the next three days, one stop of many en route to New Orleans. Dreamed up in 2005, sweated over all winter, and made manifest by early summer, the handbuilt raft was in the water by June of last year; the Armada made it as far as Ducky’s, a waterfront biker bar near the Quad Cities, by last fall, and after several months of repairs and enhancements—several of the smaller boats were built at Ducky’s—was floating again by June. They hope to reach New Orleans by late October. Skeleton staffer John Wheatley and I have come out from Chicago to spend a few idyllic days with the boats in Louisiana, and they have already welcomed us not us square underground newspaper reporters but as comrades and fellow faux-gypsies.


What they’ve built, over two years of ardent unpaid labor, is an undeniably impressive floating achievement. It is carrying, in addition to propane stoves and electric organs, a weighty cargo of ideas, impulses and images. Inevitable Huck Finn-isms in the local riverfront newspapers fall short of explaining what the Armada is actually up to. With its silkscreening facilities, recording equipment and bio-diesel-powered Volkswagen motors, the project is much more the result of New York- and New Orleans- based artist-activism than any old-fashioned middle-American vagabondism. The rigorous planning and heavy fundraising which have gone into the Armada indicate a work ethic which is highly un-Huck, and already within hours of their arrival in Louisiana crew members have been planning projects and negotiating with local residents: by night’s end a downtown mural is in the works, and the crew has secured a venue for Friday night’s variety show, in the grassy lot adjacent to Daybreak Donuts. Developments are transpiring at a whirlwind rate, and as I bed down on the edge of the river, amid swarms of stars and late-summer mosquitoes, I am dizzy with anticipation and can scarcely sleep.

           

Word is spreading fast—surely the whole town has heard by now—and at daybreak the parade of gawkers has already begun making its way down to the boats. People step out of their pickup trucks and stand at the water’s edge, smoking and speculating in the soft light of early morning. There clearly is no precedent to which the townspeople can refer. “I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it,” one woman says.


Gabe joined the Armada a week ago, when they passed through his hometown of Hannibal, MO. He describes the bewildering impact of their unexpected arrival in Hannibal: “It’s kind of like opening your back door and your cat brought you home this exotic bird.” The Armada’s six boats, recently lashed together to create a sprawling, contiguous raft, present a spectacle that is beautiful but incomprehensible, and for some dumbstruck locals it simply doesn’t make much sense. “Why don’t you just buy a boat?” a teenage girl wonders. Others are more inclined to take the whole thing in stride. They tour the boats and later return, laden with heavy baskets of vegetables picked fresh from their gardens—carrots, tomatoes, squash. Someone brings us a butter cake, still warm. The parade of visitors is unflagging.


Miss Rockaway is not the only group floating handbuilt rafts down the Mississippi—there are the “boat punks” who make yearly trips from Minneapolis to New Orleans, and the Floating Neutrinos, who have not only traversed the Mississippi but are also the first junk-boaters to cross the North Atlantic—but they are unique in their approach to river travel. Docking in nearly every town along the river, taking ample time to make friends and blow minds, their pace is excruciatingly slow, but it is an integral part of the Armada’s vision. More relevant than making it downriver by a particular date is creating the “big huge stinking spectacle we wish would have stopped in our hometowns,” as the Miss Rockaway website reads.


Their training is emphatically more artistic than nautical, their aims more cultural than practical. Guitars are littered about the boats; there are guitars everywhere, it seems, and the strumming is virtually ceaseless. A shadow-puppet show is planned for Friday night’s program, and scraps of cardboard cover the floor as crew members fashion cut-out puppets. The performances change from town to town, according to the whims and desires of the crew—there have been fire-breathing demonstrations, bicycle-jousting tournaments, parades through city centers. The crew itself changes from town to town, as members come and go; A’yen Tran, one of the Armada’s founders, who with her ponytail, skipper’s cap and indomitable high spirits is a pillar of life on the boats, estimates that 90 crew members have rotated through since the rafts departed Minneapolis in 2006. The high turnover makes for largely improvised shows which are not always entirely successful. One local newspaper described the production as “no-talent”, and even some boat people are becoming frustrated with the hit-or-miss performances. Still, the shows provide a focal point, a climax to the community drama prompted by the Armada’s arrival, and crew members are continually rehearsing for Friday night. Excitement is building.


Later in the afternoon, some surprising visitors appear. The Armada has received word from local police that “some of your people” are breaking into cars outside the Dairy Queen. Confused and slightly alarmed, several crew members rush to the scene. It is not the Armada’s first brush with the law—an incident upriver which involved crew members taking unauthorized showers in a college dormitory, led, somewhat nonsensically, to the gypsy rumors which currently dog them. In this case, the alleged burglars are in fact a group of bewildered Italian tourists who are locked out of their rental car. After placating the overzealous cops, the Italians are invited to come down and check out the boats. They, too, are following the river to New Orleans, searching, by way of a small rental car, for some mythical American experience. They tour the boats, giddy with awe, digital cameras working full-bore—and then, in a bizarre display of cultural cross-pollination, pick up some guitars and put on a concert of American country tunes, obscure anti-fascist songs by Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”. Their accents are thick. It is a jarring moment.


As visitors go, the Italians are perhaps the most overtly exotic, but are by no means the only out-and-out characters to climb aboard. Jeff Hunt is a local hellraiser and aspiring country music star; he, too, sings for us, long hair slicked back, his voice pure Nashville gold. It’s won him several contests, he brags, in Nashville. At times the rafts seem overrun with good ol’ boys—it’s mid-afternoon on a Thursday and they are already drunk. And there are kids, packs of them: willowy blond girls who squeal as they cross the footbridge, boys in cutoffs hungrily eyeing the skate ramp. Amy, 14 years old, chubby and ebullient, installs herself on the boats and is a constant presence. This is clearly the most excitement she’s had in a very long time, and is a much-needed respite from what she describes as a shitty home life. “I want to run away with you guys,” she insists; she immediately sets about developing crushes on male crew members, following them everywhere they go, writing them gushing notes. She dreads our eventual departure, begs us continuously not to leave.


We are invited to play another concert, at the Eagle’s Nest, Louisiana’s self-proclaimed bistro. The performances are lackadaisical, but the bistro’s proprietors are generous with draft beer and potato chips. They are aging hippies, and for them the boats are a nostalgia trip. “I used to play the guitar,” they say. “Joan Baez… Dylan… Michael Row Your Boat Ashore…” It has clearly been some time since anything out of the ordinary has passed through Louisiana. “I heard a man say it’s 1970 since he’s seen something like this,” an elderly resident tells me.


Back at the boats there is a practice run for tomorrow night’s shadow puppet show. It’s a mess; the plot is underdeveloped, the music ill-fitting, the puppets clumsily handled. Everyone agrees that it needs a great deal of work. We drink into the night. Tomorrow will be a busy day.


*


After breakfast at the donut shop—Little House on the Prairie is playing on the TV as drink my coffee; I scan the local paper; it is, for whatever reason, choosing not to cover the Armada, though it’s made front-page news in many other local papers up the river—John and I fan out across downtown. Elery and A’yen have made up posters for tonight’s show, promising live music, a puppet show and a film screening. “We’re not evil gypsies!” the posters note. As we pass the posters out to local businesses it feels a little superfluous; word-of-mouth is extremely efficient in this tight-knit community, and everyone seems to know about the show already.


The boats are, as usual, a flurry of activity. There’s news: evening thunderstorms are possible, and the Armada secures a indoor venue for tonight’s show, at the Blue Heron, a large waterfront bar housed in a converted glove factory across the train tracks, spitting distance from the boats. Crew members are scattered about, practicing furiously. The crowds at the riverfront grow all afternoon. They hang around the boats, playing and gossiping.


The Blue Heron begins to fill up as evening approaches. Older Louisianans have come out in droves, and their children and grandchildren. Amy is here, and Jeff Hunt. The gray-haired woman working the bar is obviously overwhelmed by the frenzy; she works the tap clumsily, mixes up orders, miscounts money. Who knows the last time this many Louisianans have gathered in a single place? It feels like a defining moment. The welcome this town has offered the Armada is singularly touching; your reporter is nearly overwhelmed, and could almost cry as the room fills to capacity, extra seating is found, the kindergarteners form a semi-circle on the floor in front of the stage. Only in fiction and old-fashioned movies does a town come together like this, I’d always resigned myself to believing.


The show goes off more-or-less without a hitch. The Armada has come out in full costume. As river gypsies go, they are extravagantly attired. The rugrats clap and giggle along to the music. The shadow puppet show has improved greatly since last night; what it lacks, like the Armada itself, in polish or coherency, it makes up for in ornateness and mystery. There are shades of green in the donation jar as the show comes to a close. The room is buzzing, and drinks flowing plentifully: everyone in Louisiana, if I’m not mistaken, is having a good time tonight.


It’s late before I bunk up on the boats. Miss Rockaway is rocking forcefully, and in the moonlit water huge pieces of driftwood are racing downstream: several hundred miles to our north there have been mighty thunderstorms, and the river is rising rapidly. Here the rain is moderate, but the tarp above my bed is leaky and I’m becoming drenched as I drift off to sleep. I don’t let it trouble me; getting wet, I understand, is an inevitable fact of life on a river. The raft sways emphatically.


The storm has passed as the sun cautiously rises. The river has swollen considerably, and the makeshift footbridge connecting boats to bank is in shambles. I more or less wade ashore and stumble uphill to Daybreak Donuts. Coffee is on the house, and the owner forces several dozen donuts on me, to bring back to the boats. She apologizes for missing last night’s show. “My husband and I are sober alcoholics,” she explains. “We stay away from bars.”


Back at the river the Armada is already rising; sleeping in is not a particularly viable option in a raft environment. They’re moving on downriver this afternoon, to Clarksville, then to St. Louis. From there their plans are as of yet unclear. South of St. Louis the river becomes thick with barge traffic, and towns begin to thin out; there are, at times, many miles between possible stopovers, distances that would require more fuel than the boats can currently accommodate. Crew members are working out possible alternate routes. They hope to reach New Orleans by late October, but no one is betting on it. From there the future of the boats is also uncertain. The plan is to dock the boats in New Orleans indefinitely—they’re certainly not coming back upriver—and use them as a floating community center for New Orleans residents, a place for workshops and performances and social mixing. A pirate radio station is in the works. The details of docking in New Orelans are not yet sifted through.


In the meantime, they’ll continue crawling downriver, their goals both basic and ambitious. “I want to get down the river with as few people getting seriously injured or dying as possible,” says Elery. “I want to get down the river using less petro-fuel than we are now [they hope to convert Miss Rockaway’s two VW Rabbit motors to run on waste vegetable oil]. And I want to put on a good show.” The Armada is also hoping, post-modern floaters that they are, for some decent media coverage. Articles in riverfront papers tend to be sensationalist and one-dimensional. A German film crew spent some time on the boats filming a documentary, though crew members describe them as somewhat hapless, encumbered by their complex equipment and unaccustomed to the ruggedness of the river. “It seemed like they were missing a lot of the best moments,” says one. More mainstream media outlets have occasionally come knocking; the Armada has been featured, somewhat perfunctorily, in the New York Times, the Village Voice and a handful of other big-name publications, where misguided reporters award them such monikers as ‘the New Merry Pranksters’. There’s also been some television interest, which the crew has routinely declined. Fox News has made several attempts to profile the boats, and the Discovery Channel has alleged interest in doing a special on the Armada. Their suspicion of TV coverage is an entirely rational one: it is not a subtle medium, and they don’t, they say, want to be made to look like fools. “TV is hyper-reductive,” A’yen explained to New Orleans’ Gambit Weekly. “And we’re not interested in being some cable news piece like ‘Look at the floating circus freak show’ and that’s it. We’re more complex than that.”

Locals are still flocking to the boats, even as they make preparations to leave. Amy is here, furiously hugging crew members and passing around her e-mail address. Her notes have become excruciatingly gushing. “You are the nicest people I’ve met,” she says. And while the gypsy rumors may continue inexorably downriver, the town of Louisiana seems completely, outrageously won over. “It was good for the town,” says an older woman as she stands on the riverbank chainsmoking. “We needed this.”
            
(Originally published in the Skeleton News)

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