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ON THE LAM

Bum ankle sidelines her to river's edge

June 08, 2004|Jenna Bordelon | Special to The Times

One month into our waterlogged tour down America's River, and one day after I tear up my leg underneath our makeshift vessel's right pontoon, I lose my rafting partner.

With my swollen ankle, I no longer can pump the bicycle pedals that turn our mountain-bike-size paddlewheel. Marc Eriksen must row it alone, and he looks so small against the immensity of the water when he shoves off. After a final wave, I start hobbling down a five-mile stretch of twisty highway.

I won't see him again until almost midnight.

We planned to meet up twice, first in Alton, Ill., and then 18 miles farther south, at the last lock we'll face. Those monstrous black gates are the last obvious obstacle to the river's end and, in a sense, to our freedom.

I make it to Alton unscathed, although I won't forget each painful step or the sight of the skinned dog, glistening on the sidewalk. Eriksen and I meet up at a buffet in town, where we also meet a guy who offers to give me a ride to Lock 27 later in the day. On the way, he complains about his ex-wife and how he didn't plan to drive me so far out.

Then my Good Samaritan, worried that he will not find his way home, deposits me in the dark on the side of the road, far from the lock. When I trudge up to the lock call box and ask if a homemade boat is waiting inside, the man on the other end of the line replies: "Nope, and I'm not letting you in."

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, government facilities have cracked down on would-be terrorists. Apparently, that includes frumpy 5-foot-2 women with glasses who, although not allowed to stand inside the lock compound, are welcome to float through the lock on squirrelly-looking rafts.

Somewhere behind me, Eriksen is hugging the shore as he rows down the canal past the violent confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Paralyzed by anxiety, I suspect that I will have to curl up in the bushes and wait for light if I can't find our boat in the pitch-black canal.

Shuffling along the levee back toward Alton, I repeatedly drop to all fours to avoid headlights from below. I have that unnerving something-bad-might-happen feeling.

Eventually my ankle grows too painful to walk on, so I sit and talk into my small tape recorder, a la "The Blair Witch Project." Just a lot of heavy breathing and whispers of "I'm scared."

At least Eriksen, who is rowing past me, has the good sense to call out my name.

Too emotionally drained to console each other, our reunion is depressing. We set up our tent above the rocks on the side of the canal and eat cold bean burritos.

Shivering in the 20-degree night, I climb into the tent and onto a frozen nylon floor. I place my sleeping mat over the layer of ice crystals and groggily plan my revenge on Lock 27.

To be continued ....

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