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Episode Five: Take Me to The River

This project is a collaboration between KBIA, The Columbia Missourian, The Mississippi Basin Ag and Water Desk, The New Territory Magazine, and PRX. Music for River Town comes from Gloria Attoun. And from the Album Audionautix: Acoustic by Jason Shaw, via the Free Music Archive. Creative Commons 3.0 United States License.

River Town Episode Five: Take Me to The River

[river flowing sounds]

[theme music enters]

Tina Casagrand Foss: This is River Town. A celebration of the Missouri River and how it shapes the people and places it flows through. I’m Tina Casagrand Foss and this is episode five: Take Me to The River.

This is the last episode in our series… for now. If you haven’t heard our previous episodes, go back and listen. We talked to artists and paddlers, scientists and historians, and honored the sacredness of the river. In this episode of River Town, we’re doing something a little different. I’m turning things over to River Town Producer Tadeo Ruiz.

Tadeo is pretty new to Missouri… and he’s been surprised to learn about how much people here love the Missouri River. In his hometown of Mexico City, Mexico… he didn’t know anyone who made art inspired by a river, or who paddled one for fun. In fact, he says the closest he came to aquatic nature was the water coming out of his tap. But during his reporting for River Town, he started to feel connected with one Missouri River Town in particular… Rocheport.

[music fades]

[Mexico City traffic background noise]

Tadeo Ruiz: My whole life, I’ve been afraid of rivers. As a young child in Mexico, I heard about legends like “La llorona,” the weeping woman who lures children to the river to drown them. Pair that with consistent television coverage of bodies being recovered from the shallow river depths and you get yourself a terrified kid.

[river sounds]

Flash forward twenty years to me, standing on the bank of the Missouri river on the edge of the town of “Rocheport.” The word is French, for port of rocks and was named that way by a French monk who was among the first to settle here.


Rocheport is built on the side of a hill. All of the houses look out over the flowing water. It was my first time being so close to a river as big as the Missouri. My heart rate let me know I was getting too close.

But I was there on a mission: to get to know this river and this town… even if it scares me.

As I walked through town, I noticed a book of poetry called “Endless River” sitting on the windowsill of a coffee shop. It was written by a man named Brett Dufur, who you’ve met in this podcast before -- he wrote the Katy Trail guidebook.

Here’s the beginning of the poem the book is named for.

Touching this flow 
This is as close as touching birth
This is as close as touching heaven,
As touching yesterday…tomorrow…
This is as close as touching memories,
The palpable essence of loved ones, life itself.

Brett knows the river like other people know their mothers, their brothers, their friends. He knows the river with love. This was a perspective I hadn’t seen before. So, I decided to ask if Brett could show me around town.

On one cool October day, we met up in Rocheport near Brett’s home, and right next to the river.

Brett Dufur: I chose Rocheport absolutely because of the river, the trail. And of course, the little town of Rocheport is absolutely charming and beautiful. And there's so many wonderful people that live here that have a similar passion for historic preservation, history, nature, you name it.

Tadeo Ruiz: Brett grew up in Missouri, but he didn’t imagine he’d stay forever. After college, he traveled through Central and South America. Backpacking across unknown territory and seeing sights beyond his imagination. Eventually, the river called him home.

Brett Dufur: It has ignited a love and a curiosity in me that has never left, thankfully. And it seems like every time I think I've unlocked all of its mysteries, I find some other huge, completely new layer of history or culture, or beauty that I have yet to completely embrace. And so it's been sort of a lifelong love affair. 

Is that my neighbor? Hey Dawn, how are you doing? Yeah, they’re from the School of Journalism doing an interview for a podcast.

Tadeo Ruiz: [Slight chuckle] In a town with a population of two-hundred people, it’s hard not to bump into your neighbors, who in turn, become your friends.

I’m surprised by the interaction. When everything is pre-packaged for you in the big city, it’s easy to forget we came from small origins.

Timothy Carson: There was a time in which we were very tribal and We were very small, and small units, protected one another. And they made their livelihoods together, and families and extended families grew there. And there was a kind of unit size that was manageable, not only for survival, but for prosperity. 

Tadeo Ruiz: Timothy Carson is a Humanities and Religions professor at The University of Missouri. I actually took one of his classes. I was surprised to learn that he, too, lived in Rocheport.

Timothy Carson: So in a sense, I think there's a kind of Back to the Future thing to kind of return to the simplicity of these basic units. That's what it feels like to me. Rocheport Like many other communities along the river are rich with history … so much history gathered around the river for tens of thousands of years. Native Americans lived in our area, and we still find their artifacts. Basically, all of the major epochs of history that we know about transpired around the river, including the Civil War, the American Civil War, because Missouri was a swing state. And so the war was going on, and they were crossing back and forth across the river on ferries, and it's almost fantastical to think about the fact that we were embroiled in a war and where I live it was happening right there.

Tadeo Ruiz: Are those things you think about constantly, when you're out there looking around and you sort of have flashbacks and everything turns into like a colonial setting?

Timothy Carson: I do think about that history. I think about the history of slavery in the United States. You can't avoid the Civil War by looking at and we are in exactly in a place of a pathway of settlement as people moved from St. Louis and came out west. They came right through Rocheport…we were like a transnational highway without the road. 

Tadeo Ruiz: Rocheport as a “transnational highway”? Maybe a little more like Mexico City than I thought.

While Rocheport may feel small to me, it’s a hub of the area. People from nearby counties visit to access the Katy Trail, and Meriwether Cafe where you can rent bikes, hear music, and eat from a food truck along the river. People also seek out Rocheport for its antique shops, a couple of Bed-and-Breakfasts - one converted from the town historic Schoolhouse - and the old General Store which serves up roots music and scoops of local ice cream.

In September, Rocheport hosted a music festival called Biscuits, Beats and Brews. The town welcomed 5,000 people for the weekend -- a big increase from its typical 200 residents. The festival is especially important to its organizer, Colin Lavaute. He moved to town 10 years ago and immediately felt something special here.

Colin Lavaute: When I first moved to Rocheport, I saw so much potential for doing some sort of fest, you know. And in my time here, I grew to love all my neighbors and, you know, like, I had never been boating on the Missouri River. I didn't even know that was a thing. But, I became ingrained in that culture as well, going out on the river. I ended up buying a boat myself and stepping into that side of the culture as well. So it's hard not to love a place like this. As a part of what I try to do with this festival is try to expose what's great about this town to the world.”

Tadeo Ruiz: But organizing a music festival with over a dozen artists, food vendors, and more isn’t easy. In the months leading up to this big weekend, Colin found himself losing sleep, paying for expenses out of pocket and making a twenty page parking manual. But now, on the last day of the festival, it's worth it to him for what he’s able to bring to his community.

Colin Lavaute: Throughout this process, I've learned a lot about myself and the people around me because while I put on a lot of events, I've never had this much of an insurmountable task ahead of me. And it was the most difficult thing I've done professionally in my life.

[Festival music fades in]

Whenever I was looking around last night … I’m getting a little verklempt now…. I was physically mentally exhausted last-, I-  the night before only slept two hours and then yesterday I was running on three hours of sleep, but to see have worked and logistically, or you know, every- to have created a safe environment and for to and I wouldn't have been able to do it without an immense amount of support that I normally didn't need. But in terms of volunteers, staff, you name it, [Begins to shed tears] just to look around and see that it works is probably one of the most professionally rewarding things that I've experienced.

Tadeo Ruiz: Just five more hours, just five more hours until it’s over.

Colin Lavaute: We're gonna finish strong and I actually need to introduce the first act.

Tadeo Ruiz: As Colin ran off to the stage I was struck by how much genuine love he feels for this community. As I looked around, I saw people dancing, drinking and having fun. They seemed carefree. I went up to one Rocheportian, Cheryl, who looked particularly at ease.

Cheryl: The power and the relaxation you get from the river. I love to walk along it. The beauty, the sounds, the lack of sounds are so beautiful. You know, I've tried to stay somewhere within walking distance of the river for 10 years.

Tadeo Ruiz: Why is it so special to you?

Cheryl: Because I can't make it to the ocean. I grew up next to the ocean. And this is the closest second like oh and a quick, you know, this is my fill in for the ocean but the river is so powerful.

Unknown: Tell them what you call the river.

Cheryl: Mother.

Tadeo Ruiz: Why do you call the river mother?

Cheryl: Just because we talk. Is that what you mean? [laughter] when I walk up to her I say, ‘hello mother!’

Tadeo Ruiz: Do you have nice conversations?

Cheryl: Yeah we do. She has lots of nice secrets. Beautiful eagles, white cranes, all kinds of exotic snakes. The sad thing is that it’s getting dirtier and dirtier.

Tadeo Ruiz: As Cheryl talked about Mother River, she seemed to glow from the inside out. I truly believe that she has a bond with the river. And this is something I heard over and over. I wanted to experience that bond -- that glow.

But, when I looked at the river, it was hard to get over the vast darkness threatening to swallow me whole.

[river sounds]

Brett Dufur: I think no one appreciates the river because it kind of has the worst PR agent in the world. 

Tadeo Ruiz: Brett Dufur told me he’s not surprised that I’m afraid of the river.

Brett Dufur: And what I mean by that is, if you really take a step back, when is the river in the news? When it's at flood stage, when someone goes missing, and that's about it. So you learn from a young age if you were raised around the river, to stay away from it to be quite honest.

[river sounds]

And once you start having those experiences, you realize that this is just an absolute beauty, a beautiful stretch in our own backyard that needs to be explored more. And so that's why I'm always trying to encourage people to get out there.

Tadeo Ruiz: So, thanks to Brett, for the first time, my fear was rationalized. And I felt ready to face it.

Tadeo Ruiz: I am here at the edge of the boat ramp trying to keep my equipment safe. But, I needed someone to help guide me.

Tadeo Ruiz: Thank you for granting me safe passage! 

Chris Kennedy: You’re welcome, you’re welcome. Have a seat, grab your life jacket there… 

Tadeo Ruiz: So I called Christopher Kennedy. You may remember Chris from our episode about pollution on the River. Chris got his start at the Missouri Dept of Conservation as a marine biologist .

Chris Kennedy: Fisheries biologist. So Marine has saltwater. I was freshwater and warm water specifically.

Tadeo Ruiz: Apologies, a fisheries biologist. Clearly, there’s a lot I need to learn.

Chris met me at the boat ramp behind a restaurant called The Station House at Catfish Katy’s. It was a cold, cloudy day. He brought his speedboat. And we began to cruise the Missouri River. Right away, I could tell that Chris had a deep relationship with the river. It felt like I was a visitor at his home… showing up uninvited.

Tadeo Ruiz: Why the river? Why specifically did this aspect of nature call to you?

Chris Kennedy: I don’t think I chose it, it more or less chose me. That's because of all the interactions I had with my family. And so before I had a choice, I was always drawn to the river.

Tadeo Ruiz: Chris comes from a long line of boaters. His father and grandfather took him on river speed boat races and taught him how to "read the river,” as he puts it.

Chris Kennedy: My grandfather came back from Tuskegee, right after World War Two, and was looking for a way to have fun. When he came out of college, he and a couple of his friends started boat racing. I think he had a pretty good four year career, and then he wrecked the boat. And my grandma said, that's enough of that. But my dad continued to race. And so by the time he was 16 years old, he broke over three world speed records. He raced from the time he was eight years old, all the way up until about 45, 46. And so he had a really long career. He raced all over the United States, and raced in Europe. And as you can imagine, I was busy following him around and honestly wanting to race at that time, just like he did.” 

Tadeo Ruiz: Chris reaches into his pocket and shows me newspaper clippings and photos from his dad. A clip from Ebony Magazine calls Chris’ dad, Butch, and Grandfather, Art, a “fearless father-son racing team.” The photo shows a young kid in a life vest, ready to hit the water while his dad starts the engine of a slick speed boat called the “southern lady”.

Chris Kennedy: Especially when I'm out here by myself. You think about all those memories, and you think about where they got the passion from to be on the water for themselves. And so not only thinking about my memories, I'm thinking about the memories that my father had and the memories that my grandfather shared with me and yeah, a lot of days. I do feel like they’re right here with me.”

Tadeo Ruiz: I mean, do you think they'd be proud of the you're protecting this place is Sacred Family space, not just for them, but for everyone else to make their own family memories? 

Chris Kennedy: I would hope so. And I especially like taking people out on the river who have never been out before. I know they're proud of me when I do that. 

Tadeo Ruiz: Well you got me! [Laugh]

[boat sounds continue]

Tadeo Ruiz: Eventually, Chris pulls the boat up to the dock at Cooper’s Landing. It’s a popular spot for people to gather and enjoy live music and scenic views of the river. Our ride on the Missouri has come to an end.

[Sounds of the boat slowing]

As I head back to my car, I think back on my conversation with professor Timothy Carson. He told me he used to love the frenetic energy of the city, but as he got older, he craved the peacefulness of the river.

I’d heard this kind of story before. But it never made sense to me. Why would you abandon all a city has to offer? Professor Carson mentioned someone to me who might be able to tell me more about this choice…

Timothy Carson: There is in Rocheport a man and his wife who live in Mexico City and Rocheport equally. They live in both places. They move back and forth. And they have a fascinating perspective on what it means to live in both places.

Tadeo Ruiz: Do they speak Spanish?

Timothy Carson: Oh yes, that’s their first language.

Tadeo Ruiz: I knew I had to talk to this person. It took me a while to find him… but eventually…

[sound of a phone call being made]

Erik Roberto Martínez: Bueno? Buenos días.

Tadeo Ruiz: Erik Roberto Martinez found himself in Rocheport by pure chance. He was hired two years ago by a company in Fayette, a town that’s 20 minutes away.

Erik Roberto Martínez: Yo pensaba, dije bueno lo más grande que existe cerca de Lafayette pues es Columbia.

Tadeo Ruiz: The biggest city Erik could find close to Fayette, he told me, was Columbia. He was hoping to avoid the culture shock of living in a small town.

Erik Roberto Martínez: Afortunadamente, no encontré ningún lugar que me agradara.

Tadeo Ruiz: But he didn’t find a place he liked. The fact he was house hunting during winter didn’t help either, he said. So Erik turned to a dot on the map called Rocheport.

Erik Roberto Martínez: No encontraba nada en Fayette ni en Columbia así que bueno, busque en Rocheport.

Tadeo Ruiz: Apprehensive at first, Erik decided to visit Rocheport. He saw a small home that immediately stood out to him.

Erik Roberto Martínez: One thing led to another...

Tadeo Ruiz: And he bought the house! Still, it isn’t easy acclimating from a city as chaotic as Mexico City to a town without a stoplight.

But slowly, Erik started to meet people… and spend time outdoors.

Erik Roberto Martínez: Tu estás en contacto directo con la naturaleza, esa parte nos fascina.

Tadeo Ruiz: You’re in direct contact with nature,” Erik says. “that part fascinates us.

Tadeo Ruiz: Erik says at first, it was strange hearing nothing but silence for days on end instead of honking cars. But he found Rocheport was still thriving, just in different ways.

Erik Roberto Martínez: Nos vemos a cenar en el General Store y ahí platicamos de las noticias de cosas que han pasado.

Tadeo Ruiz: Erik dines with his neighbors at the General Store. He’s a part of the rotary club, goes to music festivals and takes walks with his wife. He found a community unlike anything he’d ever been a part of in Mexico. And of course, the central character in this community: the river.

Erik Roberto Martínez: Me gusta ver como corre el agua, me llama mucho la atención ver como corre el agua.

Tadeo Ruiz: He often sits on a bench he now claims as his favorite spot. He watches the water flow past. He says he wonders about the other towns and places the river passes through.

Erik Roberto Martínez: Es un contraste diferente a México…

Tadeo Ruiz: It’s a huge contrast to Mexico City and the canals he saw there. He said he doesn’t understand why humanity doesn’t take better care of nature. It’s all we have.

Erik Roberto Martínez: Bueno, pues mucho gusto. Si vienes a Rocheport…

Tadeo Ruiz: Before our call ends Erik tells me he used to be like me. Addicted to the stress of city life. But he encourages me not to underestimate the beauty in small town life.

[Fades to Rocheport sounds, birds, flowing water]

Tadeo Ruiz: The river has terrified me my whole life, but not anymore. Now, I have heard everyone’s voices, everyone’s experiences and memories. It’s like what Christopher Kennedy told me: River Life is more than introspective thoughts while you float on a boat. It’s cultures, and histories, and communities all melting into the water. They flow along with the water. And that’s what makes people want to spend their lives nearby.

[Water/River flowing]

Who knows… maybe one day, I’ll be one of them.

[Water/River flowing for a few seconds of reflection]

[music from Gloria Attoun]

From the roads along the hills, to the endless freight line tracks
The river used to own it all and these days it’s getting it back.

Tina Casagrand Foss: Thank you so much to Tadeo Ruiz for his work reporting this episode. And to you for listening!

This is our last edition of River Town -- for now! If you enjoyed this podcast, please tell a friend about it. Or reach out to us -- we’d love to hear from you. Check out our website at https://www.columbiamissourian.com/rivertown. And see more Missouri River stories from River Town and beyond at newterritorymag.com/rivertown.

[Music by Gloria Attoun]

I’ve watched it break a levee
Work a house until it’s gone

River Town was reported by Tadeo Ruiz, Ailing Li, Ellie Lin, Kaylin Hellyer, Olivia Mizelle, Kiana Ferandes and Abby Lee. Abigail Keel is our producer and editor. Jessica Vaughn Martin is our project manager. Music for River Town comes from Gloria Attoun and from Jason Shaw, via the free music archive Creative Commons license.

Our audience teams and our photo teams are led by Professor Kara Edgerson and Professor Brian Kratzer at the Missouri News Network. Special thanks to the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk.

River Town is a collaborative project from KBIA, the Missouri School of Journalism’s Missouri News Network, and The New Territory magazine

Executive producers of River Town are Janet Saidi, and me, Tina Casagrand Foss, in partnership with PRX.

Kiana Fernandes is a senior at the Missouri School of Journalism.
Tina Casagrand Foss is the founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief of The New Territory. Raised in the Gasconade River Valley of the northern Ozark border, her love for mossy woods knows no bounds. She graduated from the University of Missouri with degrees in magazine journalism and anthropology and worked as a freelance environmental journalist before starting The New Territory. As executive director of The New Territory Magazine’s newly formed nonprofit, she looks forward to a long future of reaching more readers, fostering Midwestern writers and editors, and nurturing connections among New Territory readers both on and off the page. Tina lives in Jefferson City, Missouri, just a mile away from the Missouri River.
Kaylin Hellyer is a senior at the University of Missouri School of Journalism studying cross-platform editing and producing and minoring in history. She has been a reporter and afternoon newscast anchor with KBIA, and is currently an afternoon newscast producer.
Abigail Keel is a senior student at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is originally from St. Louis, Missouri and grew up hating the drone of public radio in her parent's car. In high school, she had a job picking up trash in a park where she listened to podcasts for entertainment and made a permanent switch to public-radio lover. She's volunteered and interned for Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, IL, and worked on the KBIA shows Faith and Values, Intersection and CoMO Explained.
Abby Lee is a student at the University of Missouri studying journalism and women’s and gender studies. She has interned with mxdwn Music and The Missouri Review.
Ellie Lin is a senior Journalism student at the University of Missouri. She’s studying Cross-Platform Editing and Production with an emphasis in Multimedia, UX and UI Design.
Jessica Vaughn Martin is a food journalist and gastronomic enthusiast. Her work centers around the people involved in food and agriculture, and the idea of food as memory, tradition, and cultural roadmap. She is a co-founder of Leftovers Community, an emerging food media platform that celebrates and sees potential in the scraps of life: leftover food, overlooked places and unheard voices. Jessica is an alumna of the Missouri School of Journalism and a former contributing editor for Feast magazine; she has also contributed to Food Network, Farm Journal, and COMO magazine, among other publications. Most recently, she’s taken a dive into audio, managing the Canned Peaches and River Town podcasts for mid-Missouri’s local NPR affiliate, KBIA. She lives in Jefferson City, Missouri, with her young family in an old bungalow, where she’s running out of space for her growing collection of vintage Missouri cookbooks.
Olivia Mizelle is a student reporter at KBIA
Tadeo Ruiz is a Freshman in the Missouri School of Journalism from Mexico City. He's a reporter and producer for KBIA.
Ava Neels studies journalism and Chinese language at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She was born and raised in South City St. Louis.