Twenty-eight-year-old Lawrenceville resident Ben Grubb ordinarily does iron work in Bloomfield. But as you read this, the Wisconsin native -- who was transplanted here from New Orleans via Minneapolis -- is on the road to Tulsa, Okla. There, he will join a flotilla of friends on homemade boats and float 400 miles down the Arkansas River until they hit the "Mighty Mississipp."
How did this floating lifestyle start?
I lived in Minneapolis studying art in college. Hanging out down by the Mississippi, I started thinking about all the places it goes. It just seems natural to see a twig floating down the river and think, "Man, I could be like that! I could keep going and see our country and everything on the way." I thought there might be more value in going down the river than book-learning at school -- learning by doing. It was an impulsive thing. I was ready to leave Minneapolis, so I put my stuff in storage and a friend and I borrowed a canoe and pushed off. We had been traveling on the Mississippi River each summer for a few years, and the Ohio River always looked exciting when we went by it in Cairo, Illinois. After the hurricane, we decided to just move to Pittsburgh, build a boat and hit the Ohio from here.
What kind of boats have you made?
Really simple constructions -- sort of pontoon-style rafts of plywood and fiberglass, flotation devices like barrels, stuff we've either found or bought really cheap. Our only real research has been trial and error on the river.
How long will it take you to go down the Arkansas?
We're not going to try and break any speed records! For me, it's important that we travel slowly. We use small motors, floating as much as we can to save gas. I like not to make more than 10 miles a day, going up every back slew and tributary that we can find, investigating and meeting as many people as we can.
Have you had any harrowing adventures on the river?
The most dramatic thing was when we started running out of gas at the same time a huge storm was coming through the valley. The boat turned sideways and was being tossed around like crazy while we were trying to refuel. There were about five or six bikes on the roof that we use for transportation when we get into towns. They started shaking and my friend Kirsten went on the roof to secure them. She flew off into the water with all the bikes. The bikes were gone, but Kirsten is a salty dog who has done a lot of sailing, so she wasn't fazed!
What do you now think of Huckleberry Finn?
I've re-read it on the river. It's a great American book. The river is metaphorical, an avenue to discuss social issues. In real life today, river towns are perfect metaphors for every small town in America, because everything that used to be centered down by the river -- culture and commerce -- it's all pushed to the edge of town, toward Wal-Mart. The river has become this obsolete highway. Once the main veins and arteries of our country, it's gone the way of the railroad. This is apparent especially from the river, as its towns have become depressed.
What's the name of your boat?
We named it the Philip, after our neighbor two doors down in Lawrenceville. He's 89, worked at Heppenstall, and has lived his entire life in the same house. The whole time we were building the boat, he would hang over the backyard fence saying, "You guys are doing great! Looks real good!" He made us homemade horseradish and took me on walks around the neighborhood, telling me about various buildings. I guess now we're symbolically taking him out to see the world with us.
Seems like you're sort of anachronistic ...
If you distill things down to basic principles, like taking your time, letting things just happen, focusing on a craft, it feels like good things come of that. Everything in our lives today is consistently fast and slapped together. I like to live in society but still foster the good things that come from those simpler principles, like making something really slowly and well -- and taking your time, spending a full day to go 10 miles, or better, five miles!