Out on the Mississippi River, paddling against the water can be a rugged, long test. For these two veterans, it can feel like a war of its own.
So, at the end of eight- or 10-hour days filled with strong winds and bites of trail mix here and there and the sun always burning their face, they could use a break.
And, sometimes, they could use a bit of magic.
As Bart Lindberg and Mark Fox near the end of their 2200-mile expedition, they have dozens of tales of “river magic” to tell – all of which are very much real.
“You’re a little hesitant at first, because you don’t know the people,” Fox said. “And you’re tired and you’re not sure where it’s coming from, but, river magic, it keeps showing up.”
The river magic shows up in the form of warm meals or places to stay, in mail drops or emails about where people can meet them. It has happened for them almost every week.
On Friday, the latest source of river magic came from Joe Ballard, who welcomed them on the river shores near Grand Tower.
Lindberg and Fox, call him a river angel.
Ballard, who is a Vietnam veteran and lives in Benton, heard about the group on Facebook, and wanted to lend a hand.
“I have PTSD, too, so I associated them and I wanted to offer them a warm place to stay and rest from the hardness of the river,” Ballard said.
He put them up in campers and hosted a cookout.
“It’s different, but I think it helps them,” Ballard said. “With this, their only job is to make it down the river and the main ingredient with that is focus. They have to focus or they won't get to the next point and that lets their mind let go of some things I think.”
They began the four-month trek in July, with the allure of “paddling off” the worst of their war experiences, as part of a program sponsored by the Warrior Hike Foundation.
As Lindberg and Fox paddle against the river, alone for eight or 10 hours per day, they have plenty of still, silent moments to face mental battles left over from faraway wars.
Lindberg, 27, served in the U.S. Army from 2011 to 2015 with deployments to Kuwait. He got back to his Minnesota home in January.
“I did this because I was tired of people telling me what to do. This is a big awakening for me,” Lindberg said. “But, sometimes, it’s like what am I doing out here?”
Fox, a Vietnam veteran, served from 1969 to 1971. He’s not sure if the paddling will help him cope with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but he already feels a sense of accomplishment.
“I’m not ready to go home yet, it’s been amazing the people we’ve met and the people that have helped us,” he said.
Their trek started is slated to finish on Nov. 21, in Morgan City, Louisiana, so they still have thousands of miles ahead, on the same curvy river.
Lindberg says the toughest part is keeping up with the endurance. They often spread out, sometimes by stretches of hours. They don’t have cellphone service or people to talk to. They have hours and hours to think.
“When you go into your tent at night, usually you smell and you bring sand in and when you wake up, its cold outside,” he said. “And it’s hard to do that day in and day out.”
The best days? When they know they have a river angel waiting for them, like when Ballard waved them down and started cooking steaks and burgers. On and off the river, there’s time to heal.
“As a Vietnam veteran, I wasn’t welcomed home, and now I’m welcomed everywhere,” Fox said. “I forgot about it and we don’t talk about it anymore, but now I get to talk about and it’s a good feeling.”