Smile Politely

Getting there is half the fun

When he took a seven-and-a-half week canoe tour across New York last summer, musician Christopher Bell had plenty of time for reflection on the sun-dappled waters of the Erie Canal. Like many of us, Bell’s reveries turned to thoughts of fame, but for a different reason than you or I.

You see, Bell’s canoe tour caught the attention of all sorts of national news agencies, from The New York Times, to NPR’s Weekend America, to the CBS Evening News (scroll down for the video of that), and his notoriety was in stark contrast to his daily existence at the time. “I was getting calls from producers for the Rachael Ray Show, and the national German news network and all these people,” Bell recalled. “And they wanted to talk about my life and hear about all of this. And I’m eating cold canned chili and sleeping in a tent and not showering for a week at a time.

“Fame doesn’t mean a lot when you’re out on your own, where there’s no society. I was pretty much homeless, sleeping out in the open, in gazebos.”

Bell is taking the winter off from human-powered touring (more on his plans for the summer of 2009 in a bit), and he’ll take a good old-fashioned car to Champaign-Urbana on Thursday to perform at Mike ‘n Molly’s as part of the latest Shadowboxer Collective bill. The show starts at 10 p.m., and the cover is just five bucks to see Bell, Casados, and Peter Adriel, who SP will be featuring on Thursday.

Gas prices contributed to Bell’s decision to tour by canoe, but they weren’t the whole story. “The year before, I was driving around doing a tour,” he said. “I love summer, and I love being outside, and I was in California, and I was like, ‘It’s beautiful out, but I have to drive eight hours today to get to the next show, and six hours tomorrow.’ All day, every day, I spent driving.”

Not satisfied to keep traveling by auto, he was struck by an idea. Bell noted, “I was trying to do something different, and I thought, ‘Canoeing! I’ve got the Erie Canal!'”

But until a conversation with Nic Dillon, half of the local indie-folk duo Casados, it was only an unlikely idea. “Nic was mentoring me at the time, or that might just be a nice way of saying that I would harass him via questions on a daily basis. One day we were talking about our plans for the next year, and in this list of ten items, I said, ‘I was thinking of canoeing from Cleveland to New York City’ — originally, I didn’t think it was long enough to just go across the state.

“And he said, ‘That’s a great idea, but maybe you should shorten it.’ I said, ‘OK, yeah, because this will happen.’ Eventually, I started to believe that this is possible, and not only is it possible, but it’s amazing, it’s exactly what I need to do.”

So, after some in-depth logistical preparation and a rudimentary amount of training — “I maybe canoed ten miles the whole rest of my life” — Bell set out from Buffalo, and arrived safely in New York City 550 miles later, having played dozens of gigs along the way.

Despite the risks involved with his journey, Bell didn’t doubt that he would prevail. He explained, “I have faith in my youthful exuberance: ‘I’ll make it, yeah, whatever.’ I didn’t fall in once, I didn’t tip the canoe once, which everyone kept telling me I would. They also kept telling me I’d get eaten by a shark in the Hudson, which also never happened. Which is good. Very good.” The only trouble he had was with thunderstorms, which shook him up emotionally more than they caused him any physical harm.

Now that he’s conquered the Erie Canal, Bell has set his sights on the Midwest with a bike tour for the summer of 2009. “It’s going to be 20-some days from my hometown [just outside Jamestown, New York] to Chicago,” he said. “[Last year,] I was driven up to Buffalo, and I was picked up in New York City. My goal this time is to not have any cars involved.” He’ll be coming through C-U again on that adventure, also.


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