Canoeing the Mississippi-Missouri
XI A TALE OF TWO RIVERS
You an' me, we sweat and strain
Body all achin' an' racked wid pain
Tote dat barge
Lift dat bale
Git a little drunk
An' you lands in jail.
Ah gits weary
An' sick of tryin'
Ah'm tired of livin'
An' skeered of dyin'
But Ol' Man River
He jes' keeps rollin' along.
("Ol' Man River")
First on the agenda was a press-conference. We realised I wouldn't be able to do the 20 miles from Bellefontaine into St Louis in time, so Diane drove us down to the waterside about a mile from the centre.
I felt like a heartless bigamist as I surveyed the inexorable flow of the Mississippi. At 1/2 mile, the combined river was only slightly wider than my companion of the last three months. But she was much busier, with dozens of convoys moving steadily up and down, leaving bad-tempered swells behind them.
All of a sudden the view began to look distinctly deja vu-like. I'd stood on this spot in a previous existence... it was before I started... when we strolled down from the hotel... when I'd had all those bad dreams. Seeing it now in the daylight was like seeing a long-forgotten friend in an old negative. That time, I'd been very much overawed: now I was just awed, but ready to take on this new monster and give her everything I had.
I got into Lochinvar and nosed gently out from the shore. The current seemed marginally slower than before, and yet I was aware of a terrible strength under those sullen waters. After a few minutes, I saw an enormous arch, the famous Gateway to the West. Its 600 feet stood out dramatically against the blazing azure of the sky: two slender aluminium fingers, incandescent as they reached up to form a single arc of reflected light. Soon I went under the contrasting arches of the 1 1/2-mile-long Eads Bridge: the first bridge to cross the Mississippi-Missouri (1874), and the most Victorian. Next, there was a huge sternwheeler, emblazoned S.S. Admiral and resplendent in the sunshine. And lastly, a throng of pressmen and a big crowd of bystanders. A sharp surge of guilt came to me: I was going to have to pretend that I'd already beaten the Missouri. Knowing her character, she might want to take revenge - and she still had 8.21 miles to play with.
Lochinvar had meanwhile ground to a halt, the cameras were whirring like mad, and an elegant figure in a crisp Savile Row suit was striding up. He wrung me warmly by the hand. "Mr Nicholas Francis, I presume! Gordon Brown, British Consul-General - welcome to St Louis!"
With these words, the show really got off the ground. Liam and Tim, looking very professional in their British Airways gear, carried the boat out of the water and slid her on the truck - and then did it again facing the cameras. I answered lots of alert questions from the three main American television networks and hopped in and out of my canoe for ages, while Bill acted as a one-man information bureau, talking nineteen to the dozen and handing out copy after copy of the press-release mark-two.
Finally, the famous four were left alone again. Bill announced the next item: a laid-on lunch on a captive sternwheeler: it was with a wily journalist who wanted the full story. We groaned and asked where he was from. "The St Louis Post-Dispatch", came the proud reply. As we walked over, I remarked that, once before, the Dispatch had covered nautical affairs: their correspondent had been the first to tell the world about the Titanic - from the sinking ship itself. Tim said what a good job that this wasn't the season for icebergs!
We ate like wild horses, while answering question after question. Then, still swallowing our just deserts, we all rushed off and thanked Mr Gordon Brown for all his help. In fact, it was only just beginning, for he had an important piece of news. The Prince of Wales was visiting the United States; and he was due in town in three days' time. Gordon Brown said he thought he might like a change from all those civic receptions. Would we like to meet him? YES, WE WOULD!
Leaving Bill to cope with the incoming calls, I went off to the Missouri branch of the American Cancer Society. I had a quick meeting with their president, and then telephoned their National Headquarters in New York. I told them that, as far as I knew, the Missouri had been kayaked for the first time in recorded history; that we had had several dangerous incidents; that President Ford's and Prince Charles's names were linked with the expedition; and that we'd been plugging cancer research across the whole North America Continent. In the pause that followed, I added that it was now a deal for National Smoke-Out Day - by hook or by crook, I'd be in New Orleans for Nov. 17. I stopped; and there was a long, contemplative, silence. Finally a slow voice came: Well, that is interesting. (Another extended pause). Why don't you phone if you make it to New Orleans. (Click.)"
I was left speechless. The ACS paid millions of dollars a year for its PR men, their expense-accounts, their secretaries, and their expense accounts. And here were the four of us, risking our lives "for free", and they just didn't want to know. As I looked round at the wood-lined office, I conceded that maybe they had been right not to trust a young man fresh from London, England, and travelling very blind. But now that I had done over 2300 miles, I really couldn't believe that a megamillion corporation could be so shortsighted.
Time after time, newsmen and members of the public had asked how contributions could be given; and time after time, we had shamefacedly not been able to answer. But now I decided to test New York's claim that each state branch was autonomous. I went back into the main office, and spoke to the fundraising representative for Missouri, suggesting that we organise a joint appeal. She agreed to take on the organisation, and said she would try and think of some suitable stunt. Next I phoned Bill, and drove with him to K.A.D.I. Radio Station. There I gave an interview and recorded an appeal for the American Cancer Society.
Then we all went to City Hall, where the Mayor, Mr Conway, gave us a warm welcome. He also gave us the Freedom of St Louis, as symbolised by blue silk ties covered with tiny silver arches.
For two days, we were in a wonderland of excellent company, dry sheets, hot meals, and morning-to-night work in an office with a telephone. Why didn't we do this all the time?, I asked Liam.
Thursday was yet another full day. Most important for me, Cathy flew down. After a loving reunion at the airport, we went directly to the Hilton. In return for six-course lunches for the crew, I was due to address the assembled businessmen of the Rotary Club.
Silence fell over the conference room as 1000 eyes converged on me. I looked along the rows of captains of industry, thinking of the tons of peanut-butter we had consumed - and felt very much out of place. Then I spotted the sole lady present. Gaining confidence from her smile, I began to speak (the following is reconstructed from the two lines of notes I scribbled between the soup and the main course).
"'Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along. Let it roll! Let it roll on in full flood!' Winston Churchill spoke these ringing words during the darkest days of the Second World War. He chose the image of the Great American River to describe the bonds of friendship linking the two great English-speaking democracies.
"St Louis would seem an especially appropriate place to celebrate the friendship between the New and the Old Worlds, because of Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo from one to the other. Born and brought up within sight, and smell, of the mighty Mississippi, Charles Lindbergh's first adventures came when swimming in the deceptive swirls of the Father of Waters. Later, it was your farsighted and generous predecessors who gave the greatest support to his epoch-making venture. In recognition of their sense of enterprise, he called his plane the Spirit of St Louis.
"But, as you know, St Louis was at the forefront of the transport business from the days when a traveller called it just 'a smear of dwellings along the greasy banks of the Mississippi'. St Louis was where Lewis and Clark rowed west from - and, fortunately, sailed back to. St Louis was where those famous routes to the Pacific, the Oregon and California Trails, ferried precariously across the river.
"Of course, things were a bit slow in those days. When the Spanish acquired le beau Saint Louis from the French, it was a couple of years before the town itself knew about it. Forty years later, the French flag went up once more. The day after, it was hauled down again: the St Louisians were no longer Louisianans but had finally become Americans.
"From last outpost of civilisation, then navigational centre of North America, St Louis became its railway nub. Later, the first directed balloon flight in history occurred at the centenary celebrations of the Louisiana Purchase, otherwise known as the 1904 World Fair. Then, in the 1920s, water-skiing was invented on the Mississippi. The speedboat used didn't prove quite speedy enough, so with typical American enterprise, you borrowed a sea-plane - and hauled the first water-skier along at a hair-raising 80 mph!
"Ever since, you have continued your contribution to man's desire to go farther and faster. After water, land, and air, the stage was space. I have no need to tell you that your city is a major aerospatial centre, amongst whose achievements is the building of the first American manned spaceship.
"From raunchy river-vessel to sleek space-vessel in a century and a half. It's not bad going at all. But, while acting as a launchpad for the whole Solar System, your virtue lies in never having lost touch with the past. It is appropriate that the space-rocket boosters left town on that primordial symbol of the American dream, the Mississippi-Missouri. In your beginning was your end.
"You have much to be proud of. And so, by ricochet, I am proud to have been able to speak to you today. In the name of Anglo-American friendship, and in the name of the epic journey that is mankind's, may I ask you, gentlemen, to keep it up: Long Live the Spirit of St Louis!"
Straight after lunch, I got a phone-call from the local ACS. The managers of Phenix Kayaks of Tyner, St Louis, and The Outdoor Store of Belleville, Illinois, were offering us the choice of any kayak in stock. All we had to do was publicise the gift in subsequent news-conferences. We were overjoyed, and drove straight to the showroom. We found a fine range of slalom-boats, but no sea-going kayaks at all. The ocean, admittedly, was over 1200 river-miles away; but clearly people didn't do much canoeing on the Mississippi-Missouri either! It might have looked churlish, however, to refuse the offer, so Tim and I found one that was a bit longer and slimmer than the others. We posed for the publicity photographs, and profusely thanked the management. As we drove back through a most unGallic-looking "French Quarter", I said that I just wished there were some rapids nearby to try the boat out on. "We could always go back to Three Forks!" came the terrible reply!
Back at the Consulate, I sent a telegram to my brother, asking if he could lend me £100. Next I called into Mr Brown's office. He too had been pretty busy. We were going to meet the Prince of Wales at nine o'clock the next morning. I would have to have a bath (my thoughts - not his words), and excavate the pick-up for a shirt. There was not a moment to lose.
Cathy found a tonne of industrial soap, and the preparations got under way. At 8.50 on Friday Oct. 20, the gorgeous gang assembled in prime place under the Gateway to the West and a perfect blue sky. Tim's kilt was in fine fettle, despite the unfair treatment it had been subjected to. Several times, I noticed it drawing the suspicious perusal of a severe posse of Secret Police, and several times, the admiring attention of a whole horde of winsome women. Then disaster struck. My St Louis tie had somehow acquired a big coffee-stain.
I asked Liam if I could borrow one of his, and Cathy helped me put it on. I realised that it was a Royal Navy Reserve one, and started pulling it off. But Liam gave me a nudge to say that the motorcade was already there; so I quickly tightened it up again. The car-doors opened, a huge cheer went up, and the Prince of Wales stepped spritely into the sunshine.
Very soon, Gordon Brown presented each of us to His Royal Highness. He immediately put me at my ease by asking if I sang "Ol' Man River" when alone in the canoe. Zooming in on my ill-tied tie, he enquired with keen interest which Royal Navy ships I'd served on. How embarrassing! I started telling him about my merchant-seaman days, but then came clean and told him about the coffee-stain. He grinned understandingly, congratulated us on our remarkable progress, and wished me the very best of British luck with the rest of the venture.
After an insiders' chat with Liam about the Navy Reserve, and with Tim about navigational problems, the Prince of Wales moved on. Seeing us all spick and span in the blazing sunshine, I'm not sure whether anyone could have guessed just how many hardships we'd been through. But Bill told the Prince all about our disastrous episode on far-away Fort Peck, complete with sinking sand and rescue plane. As a result, I think you can read a mixture of amusement and amazement on the royal face (photograph, p. xxx).
And then the Prince had left, leaving us all with the impression of a most charming and intelligent young man, one who might easily have become a friend - if only he hadn't had so many prior engagements.
Bill passed the phone. It was the ACS, with news of the fundraising event they had arranged - in twenty minutes' time! When we got to City Hall, however, the whole road was jammed by a massive fleet of police-cars and press-vans.
We resolved to ask the Mayor what the problem was. When we got to his office, however, we found it occupied by a stern-looking Chief of Police in the gold-braided dress-uniform of a full colonel. His name was Moran. As we gaped in amazement, he majestically intoned: "Mayor Conway, Nicholas Francis: You're under arrest. The charge is mopery on the high seas and flying without an airplane". We had no time to resist, for with a deft click representing decades of experience, he handcuffed us together, and led us down to the street. As we walked past the cameras, the Mayor nonchalantly waved his wrist, virtually pulling me off the ground in the process. A taxi screeched to a halt, and a head asked "Hey-y! Is that the May-yer???" "Yeah! He's under arrest!" "Give him life!" - and the car was rubbering away.
We drove under full flashing and wailing escort to police-HQ. When we got there, a nervous young lieutenant started taking our fingerprints, but somebody whispered in his ear. More photographs were taken, and then a cell-door was closing behind us with a loud clang. That same evening, in the middle of a dinner-party, a disc-jockey phoned from a truckers' radio station. Having informed me that we were on the air from coast to coast, he asked me what my prison-cell was like. I said it was quite comfortable really, but the porridge was sometimes a bit lumpy, and the rats occasionally bothersome. Also, the Mayor snored. The only worry was that I had a rendezvous with the Mississippi in thirty-six hours. Listeners could help me make by sending bail-money to the American Cancer Society, at the following address.... The disc-jockey lent his enthusiastic support, the jingles came on, and I went back to the smoked salmon.
On Saturday, knowing that the river was going to come between us, Cathy and I were inseparable. In the afternoon, we set off to visit the remains of a major Indian town, just 6 miles from St Louis. The taxi swept us over a big brown river, but we hardly noticed, so much did we have to say to each other. At the site, we were guided through broad avenues, but we had eyes only for one other, and hardly took in the twelfth-century artefacts found there: bracelets from the Great Lakes, lead and iron implements from the Upper Mississippi, carved sea-shells from the Gulf of Mexico. Only several days later did I glance at the guide-book Cathy had bought me, and realise that we must have walked past a huge terraced pyramid with the remains of a sun-temple on the top. Somewhere as well, we probably saw a 400-foot-wide circle used for calculating the winter and summer solstices. But I have no memory of it at all, just a vision of Cathy's sparkling blue eyes....
At dawn the following day, I drove with Cathy to the airport. I thought back to our first meeting in the discotheque, and then how devotedly she had come down to visit me. But now the Mississippi-Missouri was tearing us apart, pushing us towards the opposite ends of the country. We talked for a moment about our times together. And then we kissed a long farewell.
In a daze, I watched as the aircraft hurled itself along the tarmac and climbed towards the sky, heading towards a town which had become but a shadow in my mind. Then Cathy was gone, leaving me walking unhappily through the departure lounge.
We drove back through depressed suburbs to the bridge at Bellefontaine. The Missouri was still where we had left her. She seemed strangely docile now, as if in atonement for all she had thrown at me.
An hour and a half later, the banks began to move further apart. Ahead of me lay a vast expanse of water, bisected by the magical line where the Missouri and the Mississippi finally met. To my relief, there was little sign of coloured monsters, river-demons, or floating reefs - just a nasty-looking gash of angry water and an air of savage significance that hung over the water like a flock of pregnant vultures.
Wishing to savour the moment, I pulled my paddles inboard, and let the current take me where she would. I was still on the Missouri; and yet already under the influence of the Mississippi. My mind began to range back through the sensations that Smoky Water would always conjure up for me. The Gates of the Mountains, the Missouri Breaks, Cassidy's Hole-in-the-Wall; Sakakawea, Oahe, an aluminium War Chief. Joy and despair, loneliness and laughter, and now, perhaps strangest of all, nostalgia - nostalgia for my age-long voyage across the northern and western tracts of this great land. With a shock, I realised that a whole part of my life was about to disappear for ever.
A new, firmer current began to tug at the bow, and I drifted over the line, into another state, and onto a new river. After all those years of waiting, I had finally fulfilled my dream of "sliding down" the Mississippi. And it felt mighty good.
Still in a sort of trance, I narrowly missed being mowed down by a huge tow. As it skewed past me, I read its name: "Nouvelle France - Québec". A bit puzzled, I got my maps out. I eventually deduced that it must have come down through the St-Lawrence Seaway, then Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, and Michigan, a connecting canal, the Illinois River, and finally the Mississippi. Its journey perfectly mirrored the Missouri's, in both direction and distance. And like the Wild Mizoo, it was a trip down a French memory lane: Prairie du Chien, Dubuque, La Crosse; Le Claire, Saint Paul, Saint Cloud; the Illinois (Eel-ee-nwa), Détroit (Day-trwa), Montréal (Mong-ray-al), Trois RiviPres. For a long moment, I was in a North American continent that had remained true to its French history.
Then I looked ahead again. The line between the brown Missouri and the yellow Mississippi was still clearly visible. I was glad that my former companion had grabbed about two thirds of the common bed - I only hoped I wouldn't end up on the floor. I continued to think about the twin rivers and their longstanding rivalry.
I finally began to realise just what a bad deal the Missouri has had and just how overrated the Mississippi's reputation has been. The Mississippi flows awkwardly north-south, and so got in the way of the early explorers; whereas the Missouri flows generally to the southeast and was thus useful to them. At the confluence, the Mississippi can compete for size with the Missouri - but that's only because it hasn't come across the thirsty plains. The Mississippi's catchment area is 160,000 square miles - hardly the size of France - whereas the Missouri's is a round half-million. The biggest lake on the Mississippi is 3/4 mile wide and 22 miles long, while the Missouri River is as wide and Lake Oahe is eleven times as long. The Mississippi breaks no records on its own, for, at 1100 miles, it is about the thirtieth river in the world - and less than half as long as the Missouri.
Looking at it objectively, I thought, as I picked up my paddles and moved back onto the brown part, two rivers come together just above St Louis. And it's the shorter of the two, the paler, the less turbulent, the less historic, which transfers its name to all the water. Why, it's as if children had to take their mother's maiden name! The reason for the lacklustre Mississippi's success, I slowly deduced, must be that it lies further east, and was thus able to grab the world's attention first. But what indignity for the longest river of the continent to be abolished at two thirds of its struggle to the sea. It's as if the Seine stopped at Paris or the Nile at Khartoum! All those people tripping to the piddling foothills of Minnesota would be much better off climbing to a distant source high in the Rockies. There and then, I challenged the world to find one really interesting fact about the Upper Mississippi.
I could see, though, my sceptical back-up team asking what I would call the two branches. It was all a bit tricky. Were I world dictator, I mused, I would decree that the main river, from Three Forks down to the Gulf, be called the Missouri, and that Mississippi be restricted to the tributary. But I reluctantly recognised that it was perhaps a bit late for such drastic measures. I decided, nevertheless, that I would continue to speak of the Mississippi-Missouri whenever possible. The Mississippi was just about OK for the lower river, I conceded, so long as you were aware of the inverted commas hovering over the name like a poorly-maintained guillotine. It was certainly not OK to follow the Collins Dictionary, which listed the Missouri as "the longest river in North America; chief tributary of the Mississippi". A mapless Martian would be driven hairless trying to sort that lot out!
At this point, I had to stop my bemused musing, as the towboats were all slyly sloping off towards the left bank. A US Army sign read "CHAIN OF ROCKS DAM. ALL VESSELS MUST ENTER THE CANAL". I hesitated for a moment. Using an artificial cut-off seemed just like cheating. But I was also only too aware of the pleasure that beating one last dam would give me.
I felt good as I hauled the kayak laboriously round (no back-up team to do all the hard work this time). Then I saw the reason for the canal: the Chain of Rocks. A vicious line of half-submerged teeth reaching across most of the river.
As the water rushed me past the Chain, I remained a little apprehensive; but I got through with only a couple of bursts of manic side-paddling. Then I got back to the serious business. For a long time, something had been nagging insidiously at the back of my mind. In fact, it had been dully there since those weeks at the library. The lists of books on the rivers of the world had overawed me - there had been more than a hundred on the Missouri or the Mississippi alone. But even without reading them I had had a feeling that they all missed something essential. I could now feel the two hemispheres of my tired brain throbbing together round the core of the problem, like clotted cream around a walnut.
And then suddenly, the two halves stuck together; and a tremendous discovery shot out. All those dusty catalogues had listed more books than you could use on the Missouri or the Mississippi, but not a single one on both! Not even a single slim fascicule in any language. The river I was on just didn't have a recognised name. From the official point of view, it didn't exist.
So that was why the idea had so much trouble getting off the ground at the beginning.... By saying that I planned to canoe the Mississippi-Missouri, I had seemed boastful ("Who is this guy!? Isn't one river enough for him??"). And I had put people on the spot, since they weren't sure which river was which, whether I wanted to canoe the whole of both, and why I wasn't talking about the Missouri-Mississippi.
This last question was a pretty good one. But I had no time to answer it, for I was already in the centre of St Louis. I pulled into the same causeway, felt déjB déjB vu, and ate a bar of chocolate to calm me down. Ten minutes later, a shiny new Phenix powered into the farewell press-conference. I said all the right things, and thanked Gordon Brown again for his tremendous assistance. As a last gesture, he fixed a Union Jack on the bow. Then I rowed off again, with the little flag waving in the wind.
I went over the last week. It made quite a list. In seven short days, I had: conquered my fear of the Mississippi, beaten the Missouri, received the Freedom of the City, fallen back in love, dined at the Hilton, been given a free kayak, met the Prince of Wales, been arrested and imprisoned, beaten the last dam, and discovered a river that nobody else knew about.
"Not bad going" I thought to myself.
XII A NAME I WILL REMEMBER
The object of the game was not to win, but not to lose. The only rule was to stay in the game.
(From the film Scorpio)
Over the next week, the slogging reality of long-distance canoeing came back to me. The air was very hot and humid, and despite a faster current, the effort of every stroke hit me like a wet face-flannel. In my mind, St Louis had represented the real goal, and I had borne all the Missouri's thwarting and battering by thinking of better days to come. I had now done over two-thirds of the distance, but that still only meant the Steppes - India, alias New Orleans, was nowhere in sight.
The Illinois countryside was also very monotonous: a few farms, all identical, some low hills in the distance, and that was it. Most of the time, I couldn't even see that, hemmed as I was between rocky bluffs and reinforced levees. As I fought my way on, I had only too much time to think about various other problems which had been eclipsed onlytemporarily by the delights of St Louis.
First came the river's treacherous tendencies, which were legion. The whirlpools were usually easy to avoid, especially as they tended to occur on the lee of the wingdams. But the seemingly most placid stretches of water sometimes revealed themselves to be "boils" - violent mushrooms of upsurging water making an eery hissing noise and thrusting the kayak bossily aside. I saw a thirty-barge tow go over one and quiver as if in delirium tremens. Thereafter I had no qualms at all in giving them a very wide berth - when I could spot them in advance. Another problem was the foreign bodies in the water. Most were pretty harmless; but once in a while there appeared a 100-foot tree-trunk with branches bigger than my canoe flailing like drowning men. It was spectacular, but, once again, could normally be avoided. Only when a tree-trunk was stuck on the bottom - technical name, a "sawyer" - did I have the occasional bad fright. You would be canoeing over a boringly average piece of water when a branch would suddenly stick sharply out of the water. Then it would disappear again, like Excalibur in the lake, leaving your nerves a jangling mess. I simply had to hope that one wouldn't pop up directly below me.... Yet another hazard was the pile-dykes: the relatively benign wooden wing-dams had now given way to these vicious-looking lines of sharp rocks. Also, Lochinvar herself was getting pretty worn out - the forward hatch hardly worked, odd leaks kept developing, and she didn't manoeuvre half as smoothly as before.
It wasn't as if off-water was much better. I was used to the pathetic penury by now, and the problems produced by the petty penny-pinching. But I had another worry, Bill! Like the others, he had come out "for the summer". Once already, he'd got permission from the authorities at the Universities of London and Paris to stay on for a full seven weeks longer. But now they were adamant. Even a transatlantic phone-call and personal plea by the Consul-General hadn't moved them. Bill just had to be in Paris for Nov. 15.
But most worrying of all was the apparent lack of impact back home: we hadn't had a single press-cutting from Britain since leaving. As a result, the fundraising drive was doing very badly. Colin MacKenzie's letters had apparently received very few positive responses; and, without publicity, it didn't seem at all likely that the situation could get any better.
Another day passed under heavy rain. At one stage in the late afternoon I saw a solitary barge washed up on the bank. It was trailing the broken shreds of massive steel cables: obviously one that had got away, I reflected, and vowed to give the boils an even wider berth.
That evening I was expecting to go past Brackenridge's Sainte GeneviPve. But when I got there, there were just walls of rich, black soil. I looked at the maps more carefully, and got a shock. The Mississippi had moved Sainte GeneviPve 2 miles bodily inland, and there was now nothing but a pathetic "Front Street" to remind it of its watery past. Sic transit, I murmured melancholically to myself, wondering whether New Orleans would still be on the Gulf when I got there.
At Chester, I pulled the canoe right up onto the 25-foot levee, as I'd been told the river could rise several feet in a few hours. After much searching, I eventually found Liam in a bar several hundred yards away, chatting to the editor of the local newspaper. The hamburger arrived, but the questions never seemed to stop, and by the time I got to it, it was stone-cold. But then the editor offered to book us into a motel. The eternity of hungry interrogation seemed worthwhile after all.
The whole of the next two days it rained hard. Then it stopped - and I realised what kayaking at 27%N was like. The sun just hung in the sky, motionless and sweltering. Sweat stung my eyes, and the dazzle from the shimmering surface snuck, sorry sneaked in under my hat (ed. - could you sort it out, please?). I could feel my whole face contorted trying to keep it out. As the afternoon wore on, I knew the sun had to turn. It did, but so did the Mississippi.
Those long, hot miles did give me plenty of opportunity to think about Cairo, Ill., just above the confluence with the Ohio. This was the point where the Lower Mississippi and the Southern United States are generally considered to start. It was also where the infamous Mason-Dixon Line, the frontier between the free and the slave states, left the river and cut away towards the Atlantic.
In the South, I had always imagined balmy afternoons with water like glass; perhaps because of the conjunction of the names Memphis and Cairo (even when pronounced Cay-row). True, the Corps of Engineers had warned me that there had been one steamboat wreck every mile on this stretch, that the "gradient" would only be about 1 in 8000, and that there would be swampy bayous and alligators and snakes. The alligators liked stagnant waters, and I didn't, so I was sure we could come to some arrangement. But the copperheads and water-mocassins were apparently something else. Both are much more poisonous than the mere rattlesnake - their bites are normally fatal within one or two hours. And, above all, they both spend most of their time in the water.
But my imagination didn't have time to get really worked up, for two successive bends arrived, and I saw Cairo Railroad Bridge in the hazy distance. A slight breeze began to blow up; but it still took me ninety minutes of agony to get there. I had canoed a record of 66 miles.
Bill had hitched down from St Louis, and was waiting with a letter. My brother had sent a cheque for £200, twice what I had asked for, and told me to regard it as a gift. I was very touched. Then a very pretty reporter arrived. I opened my heart and told her all about our problems on the expedition. When she had gone, the boys led me up a small hill. To my amazement, I saw a river that looked exactly like the Mississippi, only bigger: the Ohio.
Over a crackling fire, we admired the awe-inspiring sight in front of us: two rivers grappling and groping, deadly rivals but undergoing a forced union. On our right, the Mississippi- Missouri, already the disdainful receiver of a thousand lesser rivers, flowing with confidence and majesty towards that last rendezvous. On our left the mighty Ohio, no longer the Belle RiviPre of the explorers, but powering her effluence here from most of the Eastern United States: from Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania; New York, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina; Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi; and even from Georgia and Alabama.
Liam reminded us that the Ohio featured in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852): the black heroines found freedom by fleeing north across its ice. He also claimed that this river was pushing a quarter of a million cubic feet of water past us each and every second - three times as much as the Nile at its mouth. I seized this golden opportunity to jump the subject round. Feeling I was stating the terribly obvious, I began to tell my friends about the Mississippi-Missouri.
But Bill's eyes soon lit up: "I've never looked at it that way. It's absolutely amazing. The longest river in known history, and everybody's been blinded by mere names." A long silence, and then suddenly he asked me question after question about the US Corps of Engineers, Twain, Lewis and Clark, Coronado, and lots of people I'd never even heard of. I couldn't understand what he was getting at, until he burst abruptly out: "Don't you see? Nobody has ever canoed the Mississippi-Missouri before, that's fairly obvious. But nobody seems to have even navigated it, powered or unpowered. Not since time began. The upper bits were too small for big boats and the lower too big for small ones. But above all, nobody had the idea of the Mississippi-Missouri. (The hyphen was clearly audible.) It stands out like a male member of a croquet club for nubile nudists, but nobody ever noticed. The double-barrelled name fooled everybody. To think that a 1 1/2-foot wide vessel with a laden weight of eleven stone and peak-power of 1/5 h.p. ("Thanks a lot!") will be the first one ever to navigate the river!
There were still two rivers laying noisily in the dim darkness, but for me everything had changed. The M-M was no longer a gruelling accumulation of day-long slogs, but an authentic whole. Townsend, Fort Benton, Mobridge, Omaha, St Louis - Cairo, Memphis, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge, New Orleans - they were all just stations on the way. The soaring Rockies and the gleaming Gulf were now intimately connected; the two limits of Louis XIV's empire had found a perfect harmony. After four months of trying, the river had finally become The River.
I slept fitfully that night, impatient to be back on the water. But a furious, blustering wind was blowing - blowing, as I quickly confirmed, directly upriver. Goodbye, balmy afternoons!
I cautiously moved out into the tortured waters. It was then that the full force of the wind hit me, blowing me backwards despite the current. Mercifully, we had arranged a midday rendezvous at Columbus, only 17 miles away.
After only a few strokes, I reached the confluence with the Ohio. There was a man chopping wood on the far bank: the sound arrived a full four seconds after the fall of the axe; and it was then that I finally understood just how big the Mississippi-Missouri really was.
Paddling hard to stay level with a submerged log, I calculated the speed of the current - just over 2 mph. I was very disappointed, as modern writers have talked about much greater speeds. Jonathan Raban, for example, reports seeing tows go down some sections of this stretch backwards so that their engines can slow them down, in a manoeuvre whose description is curiously identical to one of Twain's. He also recounts how he tried to go up one of them in his 15 mph powerboat, and couldn't! If only some of those unbelievable 15 mph sections would come my way, I muttered sourly to myself.
When midday came, it found me a ridiculous 7 miles on. It was then that I remembered Twain's "you feel mighty free and easy and comfortable" on the river. I personally felt mighty uncomfortable and difficult and cramped. Envying the V's of wild geese winging south, I wondered if the continental winter mightn't catch me still struggling pitifully.
Minutes before dark, I inched round a heaving headland. I had just made it to my lunchtime rendezvous!
In the morning the Mississippi was lying femininely there, as if yesterday had never existed. Over Liam's fine six-egg breakfast, I mused out loud about the strange name Columbus, stranded 1040 river-miles from the Gulf. Bill pointed out that, according to the Encyclopedia Americana, Columbus may have sighted the mouth of the Mississippi-Missouri, for something very like it is indicated on his map of 1507. We were all a bit dubious. But the image was certainly a powerful one: halberds, muskets, and pipes of peace, travel-stained Spanish sailing-ships surrounded by gaudy Indian canoes....
After another 40 miles, I looked at the maps one last time, looking for terrestrial short-cuts across all those 180% meanders. But my friends, perhaps wisely, had fixed the rendezvous at the end of the biggest loop. Something caught my eye. The land on the right was called Island No. 10 - but it wasn't an island. Curious. I did another double-take. Island No. 10 was in Tennessee. I'd left Kentucky behind before even realising it was there. Such a nice place too. A real United State (1792), as distinct from those upstart colonies further north.
Nevertheless, I thought as I paddled on, its horse-racing, fried-chicken, and Blue-Mountain easy-goingness hid dark doings, for it was the first slave state east of the Mississippi. This simple geographical fact caused Twain all sorts of problems in Huck Finn. Certainly the river down to Cairo was a superb escape-route for a slave - a raft "doan' make no track". But then there were slave states on both sides. The author does his level best to keep Jim and Huck on his beloved river as long as possible. They miss the biggest tributary in the Northern Hemisphere under cover of a thick fog. They feel too embarrassed to ask where they are (Kansas City again, I suppose). The journey is then bravely spun out as far as "Pikesville" (Tennessee?). But Twain has to eventually let his characters ashore - at which point the novel falls apart. But then maybe I'm a little bit biased?
I had meanwhile got round to the other side of the "Island"; and was able to enjoy the same scenery inside out. I now remembered that this same piece of land - in its island days - was a major battle in the Civil War.
The Unionists' response to the secession was to blockade the whole coast, from the St Lawrence down to the Rio Grande, forcing the Confederates to bring their imports in via Mexico, Texas, and the Mississippi. Most of their strongholds were in fact on the river: Island No. 10, Memphis, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, New Orleans, and Fort Jackson. The Unionists' objective was thus clear. They assembled a fleet, sailed it round Florida, and then up the Mississippi. They fought their way as far as Tennessee. When Island No. 10 fell after a long siege, it was the turning point of the whole war.
At nightfall, I was only about 5 miles from New Madrid. All around, I could see the red forward lights of the tows. A long way away, pretending to be nothing to do with their
boats had completely blended together by now, I could still only see number two ploughing upstream. He was big now, and growing bigger all the time. His red light was twinkling, only 100 yards to my right and way above me - twinkling and moving almost imperceptibly along the looming silhouette. "The bastard's turning!" I yelled with triumph, but my cry was drowned by the spuming wash. Although he was still bearing down on me, I craned my neck round, and saw with horror that the downstream tow had blotted out the shore behind me. He was only 1 1/2 kayak lengths away. I'd judged it dangerously fine - but then again I'd had to. The wash from number one arrived, swept the back of the kayak into the air, and surfed us forwards at a frightening speed. I leaned back as much as I could, and backpaddled with all my strength. Number two had also crept up and I was moving into him much too fast. In front was his wash. With a mixture of terrible fear and relief, I remember thinking better perhaps two monsters than one - there's always a chance that the two will devour each other.
We arrived with great majesty. For a moment there came white water fore and aft with me somewhere below. Then buoyancy reasserted itself and the waves moved on. Not a moment too soon, for my vision was now totally blocked out by high metal walls. Fighting the claustrophobia of this terrible vibrating corridor with its ominously flat, upsurging floor, I had to force myself to just sit there and think of England. Seconds later, I twisted my head round again, waiting for the secondary wash to arrive from the stern of the "downstream" barge - by now all sense of direction had vanished. For some reason it was the other barge's wash that hit me first. But I had seen it coming, and deftly resisted its assault, glad at the sweat shaken off my face. Next the other, as if in a well-rehearsed one-two; and then the river had come back and I was breathing fresh air again. To my amazement the other two barges had hardly moved.
I headed sharply across the water, and a quarter of an hour later, Bill and Liam were helping me out. I swore then that I would never again paddle at night.
On the Saturday, I awoke to a sizzling sound, a sausagey smell, and a strange sensation. Behind the hissing, there was a deathly calm. I peered out and discovered that the Mississippi had completely disappeared behind a swirling swathe of fog. Then I heard the resonant boom of foghorns. The tows were clearly too busy to stop.
After breakfast, the fog hadn't moved, so I decided to wait for a bit. Tim told us about one of the early legends. In bygone days, he recounted, the slaves believed that the river took the form of a huge alligator called Old Devil River or Old Al, who used to create the currents with his tail, and move the sandbanks around at will. Al used to smoke an immense pipe, and it was the smoke from this that produced the fogs - and thus stopped all work. So, to give Al the wherewithal to do his stuff, the slaves used to throw quantities of tobacco onto the water.
We debated the validity of non-rational conceptions of the universe for a while, and then I lifted the tent flap again. The blanket had begun to move, and visibility was now about 50 yards. It wasn't really enough for total safety, but then again, I thought, conditions on Old Devil River very seldom were.
We arranged to meet at the first of a series of terminals on the right-hand bank. Having checked my canoe for poisonous guests, and as the smoky ghosts on the bank floated out of sight, I remembered Twain's remark: "nothing don't look natural nor sound natural in the fog". He was dead right. The water was glass-smooth (at last!), and as I paddled, spectral little wreaths of mist would shift, revealing tempting tunnels of water.
After a few minutes, however, a light headwind blew up, and the cover began to lift. I swung over towards the left and into the current. Then I saw a sign saying "Kentucky Point Bar". This couldn't be right. At breakfast, I'd been in Tennessee. True, I'd had a desire to go back and see what Kentucky was really like; and true, I could have got confused in the fog. I was so worried that I balanced the paddles on my lap and got the charts out.
At first it only made things worse (see map 12), but after a few more minutes, I began to understand. The bits to the "west" of the river constituted inalienable Missouri territory; the bits below 36% 30' and not already grabbed by Missouri were Tennessee; and Kentucky got the rest. Presumably some bureaucrat in Paris, Madrid, or Washington had insisted that his weird instructions be carried out to the letter. Unless... unless the river had been playing its cut-off tricks again? In the days when No. 10 was an insular island, might the two bits of Kentucky have been connected? Yes,
Map 12 Kentucky Point
that was it. I was glad to have solved the mystery - and to be in easy-going Kentucky once more.
Two hours later I came to a barge-terminal. There was no sign of a Dodge with red and orange kayaks, so I continued on towards a second terminal, about a mile downstream. Meanwhile, the sun threw aside the last corner of the smoke and started impersonating a fiery furnace. But at the second terminal, nobody was there either. For the second time in twenty-four hours, I found myself hesitating. Afraid of retreating again, I carried on to a third terminal. Another blank. Why did you have to be so keen?, I growled to myself.
I tied the kayak up, patted its rump, and started walking. There was a high fence and a high padlocked gate.... I cut obliquely back to the river and found a lone tow about to cast off. Remembering our encyclopaedic friend, I asked if I could have a lift. A deep Deep-Southern "OK", so I climbed down forty corroded rungs and jumped aboard.
Feeling very dynamic, I thanked the skipper and alighted at the first terminal. Still no sign of Liam and Tim. Arriving at a workman's shack, I peered in and asked for news. No news. At the gate, the security men wanted to know how I'd got in - Algoa all over again.
I finally located the boys beside the second terminal. They'd arrived there five minutes after I'd paddled forlornly past. Five minutes that had cost us 2 1/2 hours.
The following day, my destination was Tomato (To-may-to, of course). In the afternoon, I entered Arkansas; and soon went past Island No. 21, mentioned by Twain as, like its younger sister, having "retired from business as an Island". A few miles on, I saw evidence of the Corps of Engineers' attempts to tame the river. Massive slabs of reinforced concrete were being laid along the bank and tied together with steel cables as thick as telegraph poles. That'll hold him down, I thought with grim satisfaction.
I rounded the next bend, and saw the same set-up after Old Al had passed by. The cables were in shreds, and the slabs were like a half-completed jigsaw for seven-year-olds. I decided it was posssibly best not to count on the Engineeers any more.
The river kept on going into massive meanders, and I felt that I was being led a merry paddle. I had in fact been trying for several weeks to find a sound scientific basis for my choice of route. I had eventually decided that there were four basic possibilities: the middle of the river, the channel, the current, and the shortest route. But I had also concluded that the four routes crossed each other whenever possible, like Mexican desperadoes going through a bad patch or a knock-kneed haggis's sword-dance. But in any case, the real question was which cocktail of permutations and combinations of routes was the best.
One thing seemed certain: the current and the channel deliberately took the long way round every time a short-cut presented itself. I then belatedly realised that there was one additional factor: the tows! I had to keep out of their actual path, but also any path they might choose to take - and usually did. This meant that, when more than one tow was in view, at most 2% of the river remained mine to have and to hold. Much of the time, in short, I was keeping near the outside - where it was also less stagnant and snaky. I reckoned I was doing at least 15% more than the official distance.
At one stage that afternoon I had somehow spun off into a mini-Sargasso Sea. On one of the side-channels I spotted a broken tree supporting a whole squadron of snapper-turtles. Since the first one on Katonah Lake I had become used to these primitive reptiles, with their sheepish group dynamics; and had got into the bad habit of testing the speed of their reactions. Not able to resist doing so once more, I smacked satisfyingly down on the yellow scum. With great obedience, alacrity, and regularity, the snappers started to dive into the water, like paratroopers from an aeroplane. Eventually there was just one brown reptile gamely holding his position. I paddled closer and smacked the water with all my strength.
This time there was a reaction. It was awful. First the head and then the body began to slowly uncoil and straighten out. It became a copperhead. It was about four feet away from me, but all I could see were the unwinking eyes and the flattened diamond-shaped head. I watched, frozen with morbid fascination, as it slithered shiftily along towards the end of the trunk and dropped, gracefully and horribly, into the slime below. Then it glided off, leaving a perfect ripple-wake. Back-paddling like I had 100 h.p. under the cockpit, I spun the kayak round in a single telemark. I would never play games with the snappers again. I didn't like the company they kept.
Soon afterwards, I came to the site of Fort Prudhomme, generally reckoned to be about where Jolliet and Marquette had ended up in 1673. They had performed the amazing feat of canoeing here from Quebec across Lake Michigan and down the Wisconsin and the "Conception River" (the Mississippi). Having reached the Ohio, they spent two more weeks paddling "through a solitude unrelieved by the faintest trace of man". For whatever reasons, they turned round somewhere near here, and headed slowly back to Quebec.
When I got there, Tomato proved to be little more than a shack selling everything from peanuts to shotgun shells, but sadly no tomatoes. The owner's son said he knew where Liam was, and offered me a ride to the campsite. Only too late did I realise that his "vehicle" was a chopper motorbike, and his style, Steve McQueen combined with Deathrace 2000. I died at least two thousand deaths before we bounded over an exposed root and found Liam, calmly reading amongst the cottonwood trees!
I was exhausted, and after dinner went straight to bed.
The next day was one of the worst I was ever to experience on the Mississippi-Missouri. It started badly, for I awoke with a problem that had been growing during the gruelling descent. The interminable weeks of living together under a few square feet of tent were exacting an ever-heavier toll on all of us. Tempers (and the canvas) were fraying and impatience mounting. After the "high" in St Louis, had come a prolonged sense of frustrated anti-climax inducing lethargy and exacerbating the major character differences between Liam and Tim's easygoingness on the one hand and Bill's energy on the other.
Liam pointed out that the river was quite fast here, and announced that he would meet me at Memphis itself. "I can't possibly paddle that distance by nightfall." He stared at the charts and said it would have to be Benjestown then, 60 miles away. This was the site of one of the worst steamboat disasters on the river, so I tried: "With a mid-afternoon rendezvous in case of problems?" Liam said he had a lot of things to arrange in Memphis, and he thought we were losing too much time. "Twelve hours alone on the river can do strange things to your mind. A meeting would be much safer." "Bill's putting us up at Memphis University. Imagine. Sheets and a bath. That should keep you going!"
The temptation proved too strong - crafty Liam! In my heart, I knew that had I been in his position, saddled with the unglamorous and monotonous task of organising camp routine, I too would have demanded an all-out push for Memphis. I gave up, heading back out into the sultry, shifting world of the Mississippi. The consequences of my capitulation nearly proved fatal.
After a while, I went past Fort Pillow, another famous Civil War site - Twain says that it was doubtless the only massacre in Anglo-Saxon history since Richard Coeur-de-Lion (but what about Glencoe and Wounded Knee??). I was hit in the face by the southerly wind, and my speed went right down. An hour passed as the wind increased. Crouching low, I was making about 3 knots - in a 3-knot current. It began to rain.
As three and then four o'clock passed, I realised that I would be paddling through the darkness again. Deep inside, I knew that anybody who kayaked on the Mississippi at night was an idiot. New Orleans was now almost in sight. The circle begun in a darkened library a decade before was nearly complete; but I was feeling less and less brave. I didn't want to fight the river-lord any more. I just wanted to sleep.
The wind fell but so did the darkness. I began weaving carefully across the Mississippi, hoping to avoid an action replay of the tow-boat roulette. Stopping for a rest, I stayed drifting in the kayak to gain distance. On the near bank appeared the lights of Poker Point. I felt very tempted to head over, but knew I'd have to come back across the river to get to Benjestown.
I decided to play cautious for the last stretch and to keep well to the left of the main channel. After a couple more miles, a headland loomed out. I cleared it and saw the long-awaited fire winking in the distance. My heart gave a leap as I pushed Lochinvar's bow through the gloom towards warmth, companionship, and shelter.
Then, almost imperceptibly, something changed in the rhythm of the river's moving silence. The relentless calm gave way to a whisper and the murmur to a roar. Seeing 2 or 300 feet of rocks piled across the water ahead, I dug down into a right-hand telemark. The river began to snarl. The current was dragging at the bow now - pulling us towards the teeth of the rocks. I tried to ignore the din, and stabbed for the smooth curve at the end of the dyke. The current was still dragging us broadside to catastrophe, as I stabbed even harder. In another life, we might have made it - but not in this one. I spun the bow back parallel, resolving to go into whatever was waiting for me head-on.
Lochinvar shot forward like a greyhound unleashed. There was a small gap, and the current unerringly sucked me towards it. Then we were there with a crunch, plunging sickeningly through half a metre of oblivion towards surging white waters. We came out of the nosedive, but before I could start to swing the bow towards the main channel, another dam was upon me. With a couple of sharp turns and side-strokes, I managed to avoid some preliminary rocks. And then the current was aiming me straight at the jagged line. Once again I had to hope there would be a hole. There was, and we rushed through with room to spare.
Yet another dam had sprung out of the water ahead of me. "What the hell is this, a canoe-race with hurdles?" I screamed, knowing that I was entirely at the mercy of the fates. I cursed the rendezvous that hadn't been and prayed that, somehow, we would make it. This one had no hole and we didn't. An upthrusting cradle of rocks seized the keel like an electric tin-opener. We hung suspended on empty air for half a second as momentum and friction fought for control. Then the stern kicked crazily at my back, gravity and water slewed treacherously sideways, and we were humped ignominiously into the churned-up water below.
I felt the grind of fibre-glass being violated by invisible rocks, sharp and thrusting. For a moment everything went black and surprisingly cold. Water was flooding painfully into my nostrils, telling me to do something. I did. Nearly kicking a hole in my boat, I jerked down and out. Then, gasping for air to dilute my red-hot lungs, I broke surface.
My poor boat seemed hardly to be moving, her back floating in the water like a fluorescent whale. I tried to swim over to her, but the paddles kept wanting to twist my arm. At last I seized the forward toggle. Wedging the paddles firmly in the inverted cockpit, I turned on my back. With the sharp-tasting toggle in my mouth, I started swimming back to the dam, the only fixed point in a black, swirling universe. After every three or four strokes I was forced to slow down to catch my breath; and each time, the eager surging bow travelled on and hit me in the face. I gritted my teeth, and swam and swam but the dam didn't come an inch closer. This was certainly poker, I thought, but the cards were way too high and wild.
When I had used up all my strength and still not got there, I became very frightened. Clutching the side of the kayak as if about to meet St Peter, I began to shout for Liam with all the strength I could muster. I started trembling with cold, and my hands began to slip. Turning over, I struck out for the dam again. Still it wasn't getting any closer.
At last I understood: I had completely forgotten about the current! It couldn't have been more than half a knot in the lee of the dam, but it was enough to destroy my exhausted attempts. Since I couldn't go back, I now told myself, I would just have to go on.
I tried to right the boat. On the third attempt, she came half-way, and water began to fill the cockpit. Another hard heave, with my legs desperately kicking on nothing, and I got her completely over - whereupon the paddles popped out. Jamming them back in, I heaved myself onto the bucking rear-end and tried to slither towards the centre of gravity. As I edged tremblingly forward, I caught sight of the flames again, mocking me from the safety of the distant bank. They even flared up as I landed noisily back in the water.
I tried again, got the same result - and wondered if I would ever see Memphis. I rolled onto my back and masticated the sharp toggle once more. I began to swim pitifully slowly in the direction of the bank, unable to see where I was going - if anywhere at all - and all the time, Lochinvar continued to beat her music on my face. I swam for twenty minutes, not really knowing if I was staying with Lochinvar to save her or to save me. Then I put my legs down. Nothing. After ten more minutes, I tried again - and felt soft, squelching mud.
Together we stumbled and crawled out. I looked across the dark waters, beginning to shake uncontrollably. My legs folded like pieces of perished rubber and I dropped onto the soft ground, thinking about those dry sheets. I must have lost consciousness.
After a while, I reluctantly opened my eyes. Careful not to break her back, I turned the kayak over - and watched grimly as three or four gallons flooded out. With horror, I discovered two savage cuts in the rear. Then I surveyed the surrounding "countryside". It consisted of nothing but swampy floodland - just the sort of area the cottonmouths liked. That way out was simply too dangerous to try. I gradually persuaded myself that I could bring my craft the 1/2 mile to camp.
Listening for tell-tale noises in the water, I eased my aching frame into the damp cockpit. Aiming the bow on a diagonal course, I was soon well away from the shore - and hidden from the fire.
I had only paddled about 400 yards when I heard another roar in front of me. I craned my head forward, scanning the moving darkness for rocks, for snarled timber, for any sort of clue. There was nothing - just the din of tortured water. Then the surface began dipping ahead - dipping and spinning. "A f___ing whirlpool" I thought grimly. If it's spinning clockwise, you swing the bow to the left, following it round. Spinning otherwise, you do otherwise. Mentally spinning a coin, I telemarked into the right-hand darkness, praying to God that I'd got it right - that it would be OK. I hadn't and it wasn't. The bow veered towards the left-hand paddle like a divining rod, and a giant hand gave me a shove in the back. Then we were well and truly in it, racing across yards of curving water. Switching my weight, I tried to paddle out from the sloping centre. The rear end was awash and she didn't seem to respond at all. Not knowing what else to do, I struck out us hard as I could - and capsized.
I search my mind to remember what happened next. It's all a bit of a blur. I think the kayak swung me further into the whirlpool. I must have kicked out of her and grabbed at the toggle, trying to save her. All I remember is a mighty wrench on my arm, forcing me to let go. With all my strength, I swam away. The current was pulling at my legs. It got my right shoe but that was all. Suddenly the roar began dying behind me and I was drifting in slack water.
As I twisted onto my back, I saw Lochinvar's bow swaying at a crazy angle, like an unsteady headstone. She wobbled again, as if still fighting, and slowly sank into the vortex. Then she was gone, as completely as if she had never been. I was left alone, staring insanely at the scene of her last desperate battle.
I reached the shore, God knows how, and found a high eroded bluff. Clutching a muddy root, I didn't even feel relieved at my escape, only emptiness. After half an hour of numbed inaction, I wearily struggled up between gnarled trees and Spanish moss and met a mesh of tangled brushwood.
Then it hit me: "It's finished... it's all over". I'd lost my only sea-boat, my paddles, and, maybe worst of all, any wish to see New Orleans. All I wanted was a nice long sleep, so I curled up in the undergrowth. But the mosquitoes soon objected; and several massed attacks later, I got shakily to my feet and ploughed on.
Eventually I came to a steep bayou. Knowing that the swamp was probably crawling with cottonmouths, I started shouting like a madman and ran through the sodden vegetation with all the finesse of a wounded elephant. Something moved as I hit it with my shoe, but it might have been just a stick. I plunged on anyway. The water went waist-deep, then relented. I was through.
At the top of the hill, I saw a track and some houses. Soon I was in dry clothing, and the wave of despair which had submerged me began to die. As my benefactors drove me into town, I thought about the events I had been through - and began to grow up. On too many occasions, I had told too many people that I was going to conquer the river. But now Benjestown had taught me that you can't beat the North Wall of the Eiger, nor the Pacific in a sail-boat, nor the Mississippi-Missouri in a kayak. One avalanche, one storm at sea, or one misjudged whirlpool, and there's nothing more to be said. Some words flashed through my mind: "The object is not to win, but not to lose. The only rule is to stay in the game." I hadn't conquered the river and I never would. But so far I had managed to stay in the game - and that was enough to be going on with.
Five minutes later, I was thanking my hosts. I went inside, and soon lost myself amongst well-dressed students: pretty girls, bustling young men. I had only one shoe but didn't give a damn. They were from a different culture, but that didn't matter either. And then I caught sight of Liam, Tim, and Bill. They looked at me, and knew that I had been through a hard time. I looked at them, and knew that I was home.
XIII MEMPHIS BLUES
As I was going down an impassive river
I realised the men on shore weren't
(pulling any more
Loud Redskins had taken careful aim
And naked fixed them to the sacred totem-poles
(Arthur Rimbaud, Le Bateau ivre)
Early next morning - 2 Nov. - Liam and I had it out. He told me he had waited hours at Benjestown - until well after dark. He had then reasoned, erroneously but understandably, that I must have pulled in further upstream: he had piled wood on the fire, and driven off to meet Bill and Tim in Memphis. At this point, I became livid; my anger perhaps fuelled by the secret knowledge that I had been beaten by the water - that I had screamed for Liam but he hadn't heard. "Your duty," I shouted, "is to wait until I come in, whatever time of night or day it is. Otherwise, why the hell have a back-up team?" "Nick!" he bellowed back, "You promised you'd get to New Orleans in eight weeks! Your team's stuck by you for eighteen weeks. And it's still not finished." "Liam, last night, I very nearly blew it, and you weren't there", I said tiredly. And so it went on; the two old friends slugging it out until they were almost eating each other and all the time the MMCRSKE gradually disintegrating. The thousands of miles had taken their toll on Tim. He had but one idea - New Orleans or bust! Bust it might very well be, I thought resignedly. I walked to the bank of the Mississippi and looked out over the shimmering, mocking expanse. My mind was a wall. I felt nothing, just emptiness, disillusionment, and apathy. And then slowly, in the mirror of the water, I saw recognition. After long minutes, I began to understand the cruel game she was playing. Divide and rule! She was wearing us down, turning us against each other, breeding fatigue and distrust amongst us all. "New Orleans is only a few hundred miles away. Just a couple of weeks. I'll keep that rendezvous whatever the cost... if need be alone." I thought back to Liam's words of comfort during the inland seas. Our team had dwindled since then. As I looked back for Liam, I found him beside me staring out across the great river. The rendezvous at New Orleans... But at what price, the price of losing one of my oldest friends and companions-in-arms. We walked back from the river's edge in silence, each I think numbed by the price the M-M was exacting, one that might indeed break us.
Only Bill seemed as eager as ever, but then he had been spared the wearing weeks before the expedition. Ironically, he who would have provided back-up until the very end, but just had to be in Paris for the 15th. For the last few days, the six would be three. I spoke with Bill. He offered to stay until the 14th; and to prepare the reception in New Orleans in the style to which we were accustomed. But perhaps there was a silver lining? Where our liaison was shakiest was in New York and London - and Bill could be in those two cities at the right time. We finally agreed that he'd have to leave about the 9th.
Meanwhile, more immediate problems were pressing. I now had no craft fit for the Mississippi - or, indeed for an untimely press-conference. In the end, we took the Phenix off the truck almost within sight of the journalists. As I paddled unsteadily towards the cameras, I decided to broadcast a suitably hangdog appeal to the people of Memphis requesting aquatic help in a last shot at locating Lochinvar. With the appeal out of the way and hangdog back in his kennel, I was asked by one of the journalists for the ninety-ninth time what had made me want to canoe the Mississippi-Missouri. For the ninety-ninth time, I replied that I didn't want to wake up at the age of forty, and realise that I had wasted my youth: "As Bertrand Russell said 'Youth is a wonderful thing. It's a tragedy it's squandered on the young!'" The journalist's next words cut right through my shield: "Wasn't it George Bernard Shaw?!"
Afterwards, we read our mail. The first item was an article from the pretty reporter I had met at Cairo. She compared the MMCRSKE to another British canoe expedition in the Americas, who were currently going down part of the Orinoco River. Fascinated by the news, I made a mental promise that, one day, I would meet its leader, a man called Mike Jones, and compare notes. Sadly I was never to keep it, for he was to die in the Himalayas a few months later, while canoeing to the rescue of one of his team.
The last letter was from the C.R.C., with a cheque for £500 - and the news of a complete publicity blank in Britain. We were very glad for the money but very disappointed at the news. Nevertheless, Bill had been up to something for ages. It was a nightmare trying to communicate across 4000 miles when you yourself had no fixed abode and couldn't afford telephone calls, telegrams, or express letters. But that very afternoon he'd scheduled a "phone-in" for the British media. We drove to the local ACS, and I made a quick call to the ACS in New York, telling them that New Orleans for Nov. 17 was now a dead cert.; but they didn't seem very interested. Then Bill and I sat beside the two phones, and waited. And waited.... Then suddenly the Atlantic was buzzing with radios, newspapers, and televisions. Bill fielded as many as he could, while I was batting for all I was worth with journalist after journalist. It went on for about twenty-five minutes. Then, just as suddenly, it all stopped, and we could breathe again. Never had I spoken so many words in so few minutes, and never did I want to do so again!
The rest of the day was time off. We drove to the mansion called Graceland where Elvis Presley had lived - and died, only weeks before. Scores of beautiful girls were keeping vigil in front of the high gates. Through the shrubbery we caught a glimpse of a colonial-style house with white pillars - but that was enough for me. Any more would have killed a whole part of my youth. Songs like Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes, or Jailhouse Rock had been part of my under-the-bedclothes universe for so long that exposure to reality might have done them irreparable harm.
In the evening as well, we were made conscious of the musical heritage of Memphis. Bill had met a lovely girl called Debbie Matkin. She kindly invited us to a blues concert in Beale Street.
As we were waiting, she told us about Memphis, Tennessee, the intersection of so many myths and dreams. In 1795, it was the site of a battle between the Spanish owners and the United States, over navigation rights on the Mississippi - the Americans triumphed again, and gained access down to the Gulf. In the early nineteenth century, it was the point where the notorious El Paso trail crossed the river. In Twain's day, it became a major railway centre, with a rosary of six trunk lines leading to all parts of the country. At the beginning of the century, it was the home of W.S. Handy, the "Father of the Blues" - the first man to write down the five-note blues scale using the seven-note "Western" system, and the author of such classics as St Louis Blues, Memphis Blues, and Beale Street Blues. And in 1968, it was the place where Dr Martin Luther King, Nobel prizewinner, was callously shot down.
Bill asked about the Mississippi, and Debbie ran off a whole string of titles, including "Deep River", "Rollin' down the River", "Roll on, Mississippi", "Moonlight on the River", and "Darkness on the Delta". She pointed out that even that wrong-side-of-the-blanket third cousin of the blues, Bing Crosby, sang his "Mississippi Mud".
I asked what the Deep South was really like, knowing that if Cairo is the geographical gateway to the South, Memphis is usually considered the historical frontier town. Debbie told us that from here on, we would be in Ku Klux Klan country. Until very recently, school manuals talked of the "superiority of the White race". "I remember when the first non-White student went to the University of Oxford [Mississippi...]. It was under Kennedy, and they had to send the storm-troopers in! In the South, 'The War' is not the '42-'45 one, nor the '17-'18 one, but the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln is still disliked; and because he was a Republican, many Whites still vote Democrat...." The music had begun, and we really began to soak up the atmosphere, trying to spin out the beers that Debbie had bought us. Only too soon, it was all over. We thanked Debbie, and she and Bill went off hand in hand, leaving Liam, Tim, and me feeling very much like gooseberries.
Feeling very lonely, I phoned Cathy in Nebraska. The connection was bad and it was as if we were talking across a million miles. I didn't mention Benjestown or the difficult time I was going through. But I felt glad just to talk to her.
The following morning, I started to pluck up courage to use the Phenix again. I couldn't help thinking that, instead of raising the expedition from the fire, it might just plunge it down into the water. In any case, my speed would be seriously reduced.... The phone rang, and I gratefully put off the moment of truth. A kind gentleman called George was offering to help look for Lochinvar.
We passed a huge road-sign with the incredible message: SHOOTING IS ILLEGAL ON THE HIGHWAY. After launching on a little river called the Loosahatchie, we zoomed up and down rather at random, scouring every backwater, channel, and mudbank. Eventually we headed back up to the three wing-dams - in the sparkling sun they looked quite ordinary - and then downstream again. We found two islands I hadn't even seen in the dark, went past the rendezvous point, and carried on a long way down; and then started up again. The straw of hope now seemed too light for even a drowning camel to grasp; and even the sunshine seemed grey.
But suddenly lynx-eyed Liam gave a cry, and pointed towards the far-away shore. Some sort of browny-orange object was barely visible in the reeds. I thought at first that it was just a fibre-glass shard; but at 300 yards, I knew that it was Lochinvar, lying darkly under the water.
My eyes went out of focus, and I felt a lump rising in my throat. We had found my old companion, perhaps terribly wounded, but still in the land of the living. Tim and I dropped into the water, and carefully freed her from the evil-smelling growth. We emptied several gallons out, and laid her across the back of the powerboat. The rear hatch had been pulled off, but was still hanging by its cord - the launching spot had proved incredibly prophetic! The two four-inch gashes at the back were still there; but that seemed to be the only significant damage.
We spent another hour combing the marshes for the paddles; but they seemed to be lost for ever. Fortunately we had a spare pair - they were quite a bit heavier, but I too had become quite a bit stronger. We took one last look at the desolate reeds, and turned in a large circle. I asked Liam and Tim to repair the kayak straight away, so that it could dry during the night. Then relief and exhaustion caught up with me, and, after an obligatory half-hour of recording, I fell gratefully asleep.
There was an unmistakable knock at the door. Soon we were heading back to Benjestown. As the canoe was unloaded, I glanced at the repair work. It gave me a nasty shock. The coats of fibre-glass had lifted from one of the gashes, leaving just a razor-thin covering that let the light through. The boat was completely unseaworthy.
On the spot, I applied another coat myself; and then we settled down for it to dry. At 3 p.m. we were still waiting. We drove back to Memphis in the terminal stages of frustration and a 90% atmosphere you could cut with a paper-knife. Bill went off to see Debbie. The rest of us passed the time trying not to think about them.
Early the following morning, I headed for Benjestown for the fourth time, but now with a canoe that would float. Very cautiously, I paddled down an estuary and into the long-exposure world of the Mississippi. But I needn't have worried. Lochinvar had completely forgotten the nightmarish events - or if she hadn't, she was too proud to say so. As I paddled into Memphis itself, I was touched to see Bill and Debbie waving from the Hernando de Soto Bridge.
Then Interstate 40 and Tennessee were behind and I was in Mississippi State. I looked at the map, encouraging myself that it went all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico - though it has to leave the river to do so. In fact, I realised, the Mississippi never really goes into Mississippi, but just creeps along the edge.
As I paddled on, I saw increasing signs of segregation - and poverty. There were dozens of "shanty-boats" under the cottonwood trees: miserable shacks on platforms, with a door, two windows, a tin smokestack, and barefoot children playing everywhere. The only difference from Uncle Tom's Cabin was the leaky skiffs for Saturday-night sorties.
About a dozen miles later, I came to the site of one of the worst steamboat disasters: 1050 people had died here - 37 more than on the Titanic. This whole stretch of river was in fact notorious for its disasters, with 5000 people killed on it in the fifty years following 1811 (when the first steamboat went down from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, via an earthquake which opened up the banks). After each catastrophe the replacement boat inherited the name of its defunct companion: and so on with each new boat, down to Zebulon Pike 7 - not the best of advertisements, you would have thought. Charles Dickens insisted on having a cabin at the very front, as far away from the boilers as possible. But such caution was the exception. Passengers continued to flow recklessly onto the "palaces on paddle-wheels", the "floating wedding-cakes", the "swimming volcanoes", as if positively stimulated by the danger.
One of the reasons why the boats didn't last long was that men were frequently paid to sit on the safety valves. But the main reason was that they were racing against each other. Boats that won races attracted passengers; ones that didn't, didn't.
The most famous race was between the Lee and Natchez from New Orleans to St Louis. The Lee's captain spent weeks beforehand, stripping down doors and rigging, and lining up refuelling points so he could touch and go. He won in the incredibly short time of 3 days 18 hours and 14 minutes.
Also on this stretch was a field where a local farmer was meant to have hit a rich furrow. One day, in 1891, his plough hit a piece of wood. He dug deeper, and found it was the top of a mast. According to the story, digging nights, he then secretly discovered a whole ship, the Drennan White, plus its safe, which had contained $100,000 in the 1850s. He apparently went away to get help opening it - and came back to floodwater. Everything had gone. The mischievous Mississippi had struck again.
Some time later, I got to the bank where the Mississippi- Missouri was first seen by a White man, Hernando de Soto - and my mind went reeling back.
It was 1541, only fifty years after Columbus had sailed off into the blue unknown. Amazing rumours were coming out of the new land. They included a persistent one about a place in the north where even the plates were made of gold. De Soto was quite inclined to believe them, for a very good reason: he'd already found one El Dorado. That time, he'd been under Pisarro's infamous orders. Now he wanted to find one for himself.
He also had another aim: to find a short-cut from Europe to Cathay (China). This was probably not quite as stupid an idea as it seems, since the information at his disposal was in fact pretty mixed. From Magellan's story of a strait in South America, the academic geographers had deduced that there just had to be a strait in North America as well. Other sources of "knowledge" included maps showing camels, ostriches, and a giraffe; plus the accounts of an Alfonso Alvarez de Pineda and a Cabeza de Vaca. Alfonso claimed to have discovered a major river on the Gulf of Mexico, which he called the Rio del Espiritu Santo (River of the Holy Ghost). He'd sailed up it for about 20 miles, observing a rich, beautiful, and healthy countryside, dotted with forty fine towns. Cabeza, for his part, had been sailing on the Gulf, and had somehow discovered that the water was good to drink. Amazed, he traced the water back to its origin at the mouth of a huge river. History doesn't record what De Soto made of Alf and Cab's accounts, with their pleasant countryside and drinkable water. But from my own experience, I thought that they were both terrible fibbers!
De Soto landed in Florida in 1539 with 515 men and 237 horses. After several days of hacking and pushing into the virgin forests, they found a group of semi-naked savages, who all fled, except one. This man threw himself on the ground, shouting unintelligible words - and crossing himself! At first the patrol thought there'd been a Second Coming in the New World. Only slowly did they realise that the man was actually a fellow Spaniard, who had got lost from a previous expedition. Perhaps Alf had been telling the truth after all?
After recounting all the latest news, the army set to again. They struggled through swamps, over deserts, across rivers, over mountains, through forests. After a year of trying, all they had found was a river much bigger than any yet seen by a White man. Some two miles wide, its dirty chocolate waters formed a chaos of whirlpools, floating tree-trunks, and crumbling banks. Only one name was possible for such a disaster: the Rio Grande!
Six weeks later, they had built barges, and were able to ferry across. They struggled on again, through forests, over mountains, across rivers, and so on.... By this time they had crossed Arkansas and most of Kansas. De Soto crossed Coronado's path somewhere in the wilds - and thus narrowly missed depriving Stanley and Livingstone of one of their best lines!
Still there was no gold, and no China either. In the end, they decided they might as well just go home. But De Soto caught "fever" (malaria?) and, after muttering "Cathay! Cathay!" ("Cathy! Cathy!"?), he expired on the very banks of the Rio Grande. His companions laid him to rest in the water itself. The discoverer and the river were united for ever.
Moscoso, the new leader, decided to put the brown monstrosity to good use. The only problem was that they didn't know whether it went down to the Atlantic or through the back of beyond to the Sea of Cathay (where, fickly, they no longer wanted to go). They decided to risk it anyway; and spent the winter building more boats. In March (1543), the Rio Grande became grander still, flooding the whole countryside. Then they were attacked by Indians. They finally got away on July 2, in a motley collection of coracles, rafts, and dugouts. Although they were afraid of cataracts [on a river that muddy? - ed.], they could do nothing except keep their fingers crossed and their ears open.
In fact it was again the Indians who caused problems. They resented this foreign intrusion, and sent 200 nifty war-canoes at them, each one with a row of archers, a row of rowers, and a man who alternately shouted "Heave-ho!" and "On the count of three...". Moscoso sent out his quickest dugouts. The Indians were amazed by the coats-of-armour, but soon riposted: they simply capsized the dugouts, reuniting the unfortunate Spaniards with their leader on the bottom. After that, Moscoso left as quickly as he could.
They carried on down, despite various other problems: they lacked fresh food as the banks were often impenetrable for days on end; their hands had blisters on the blisters; their mosquito bites were so bad that they didn't recognise each other in full daylight; men deserted and were never heard of again; they had nothing to wear; and they were tortured by thirst. This last fact may seem surprising on the biggest river in the known world. But the problem was, they had to wait hours for the silt to settle - "even then, the lukewarm liquid was gritty and foul to the taste."
In the end, after four years and 1800 miles, less than half the expedition got back alive. As I surveyed the turgid flood all around me, I sympathised with their problems. I wouldn't even have tried to wash myself in it.
I got to camp at nightfall, which was just as well, since a heavy fog was coming down. Liam and Tim had in the meantime nearly been shot in a valiant rearguard action against an irate landowner. He had been swearing and brandishing his loaded shotgun for ages, but Liam had been bravely gaining time by explaining, in deliberately lengthy Irish fashion, that they had spent a long time looking for the mansion-house, but since it was such a large plantation.... For the first time, we were in the presence of an authentic Southern accent; but somehow it didn't seem as melodious or as slow as the guidebooks said. With no other choice, we backtracked out of the forbidden land and went to pick up Bill, who had hitched down from Memphis. Then back to the pea-soup world, where the boys had to put up the tent once more. But they were rewarded by Bill's news. The man he'd got a lift from shared a monthly feast with his business colleagues; it was tonight; and we were invited!
A rough shave, a rougher track, and soon we were standing in front of a typical Southern house, all wrought-iron balconies and authentically knotty vegetation. A huge door, and an immaculate table. Sixty eyes fixed on us. Bill scanned the faces anxiously. No sign of his friend. A hurried explanation of what we were doing halfway over the threshold. "Hey! That's Jack for you. Always late. Make yourselves at home boys. It's a maaghty pleasure to meet y'awl!". It was great to be in the slow and melodious land of Southern hospitality. We told them about Guy Fawkes, and had a riotous evening.
The morrow brought a splitting hangover and a troubled conscience. I was 5 miles downstream from my landing point, but since there was a shotgun between me and my manifest destiny, I simply launched from the campsite.
What bothered me more was another piece of Bill's news. ACS Memphis had insisted on being paid for the call I had made - to ACS New York! The sum was pretty insignificant, $2 or 3, but that made the principle even more ridiculous. Since Kansas City, our publicity for cancer research had spread from coast to coast - all of it high-impact and at peak viewing-time. It would have cost them a fortune to attempt to do it themselves. I only hoped that the actual treatment financed by the ACS wasn't run in such a constipated fashion - otherwise I really pitied the people who got cancer in America. Poking frustratedly at the water, I paddled glumly on.
Soon it was time for lunch, and I climbed up the levee, looking for the boys. I found myself on the edge of my first cotton-field: rows of little round bushes covered with little round balls, just like in my faded school-books. I began humming the Beachboys and Creedence Clearwater Revival song: "(...) in them old cotton-fields back home./ It was down in Louisiana,/ Just about a mile from Texarkana (...)". I looked at my map, and discovered that the songwriter's geographical sense was even worse than mine: Texarkana manges to be in both Texas and Arkansas, but nowhere near Louisiana. Still, I asked myself, what else does rhyme?
As I paddled meditatively on, the water was chewed up ahead of me, and two rifle-shots rang out. Maybe shooting wasn't illegal on the waterway? I whipped my head around - and saw with great relief that it was Tim. He said he'd been shouting at me for ages and had "hit on this as the only way of catching my eye"...!
That evening, I had another bad fright. A towboat came forging into sight, only about 100 yards from "my" bank. By this time, I could judge speeds pretty well, so I nipped across his bows and hugged the dark shore while waiting for him to pass. But the mass of juddering iron just ploughed nearer, with his revolving, luminous eyes shining high above me. He was almost on top of me now and, incredibly, closing the distance all the time. "They always keep near the edge" I muttered nervously into the life-jacket. "But he'll turn pretty soon."
The massive craft thundered alongside me, shutting out half the world. He was so close that I couldn't even see the superstructure ("like most Marxists", I said, unable to resist the clever pun). To punish me, the water began to churn and rise below my keel as the juggernaut lurched bodily sideways, squeezing the water from the river. In a second I had rammed the kayak onto the rocks. While still dragging it out, I was hit by a wave of water and then the ghastly, grinding noise of metal on stone. The massive engines shuddered to a lugubrious halt, and a deafening stillness hit the Mississippi.
A few shaky minutes later, I clambered along to survey the damage. The towboat was stuck on the rocks - and stuck pretty fast. I heard low voices and saw two red glows way above me. Shouting up, I asked as casually as I could if there was any particular reason for their presence. The left-hand glow was joined by a flashlight who eventually picked me out. Soon all was made dazzlingly clear. The skipper had come in to allow room for another tow. "But why did he hit the shore?" "Oh, that's normal", explained the other glow, who was expanding and contracting like a sea-anemone on heat. "That way, the rocks hold the tow in place, and we save power. Them barges sure can take it. They's as tough as hell!" The cigarettes had other things to do. Thanking the darkness above me, I headed back to the long-suffering Lochinvar.
I rowed out the following morning sadly pondering over Bill's impending departure - in only two days. The river seemed to continually show off - first a left turn, then a right, then a left, all in perfect rhythm. Twain had called it "the crookedest river in the world", "a long, pliant apple paring". For my part, the river made me think of a ski-instructor demonstrating Stenmarks. I was very glad to see that, like all show-offs, she was occasionally hoisted on her own petard: several times she had tried to turn too sharply, and ended up in a demeaning ox-bow lake. Twain also discusses the cut-offs on the Lower Mississippi, pointing out that, between 1722 and 1883, they had shortened her by 207 miles. If this carries on, he pursues, any fool "can see that 742 years from now, the Lower Mississippi wiil be only 1 3/4 miles long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor"!
At eleven o'clock, I came to two more landmarks. First there was "Island" No. 74, another of Twain's border anomalies. As he told it, Arkansas claimed "to the centre of the river", Mississippi, "to the channel". 74 was in between, and paid no taxes at all. I suppose it was lucky it didn't declare independence, and war on Mexico at the same time! The "Island" was now situated on Napoleon Bend - all that was left of the proud town of Napoleon, swept away one night by the river. La Grande RiviPre taking her revenge for the giving away of Louisiana, I mused....
But I was immediately interrupted by the mouth of the Arkansas River. Getting out the map, I marvelled at the wide connections it had. It had come down from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas. It had competed for the melting snow of the Central Rockies with the Colorado and the Rio Grande (the little one). It brought water down from the "Canadian River" and from Las Vegas, New Mexico. Its closest neighbours had names like Santa Fe and Los Alamos. I realised that I had invented a new method of studying American geography - by placing every town and state in relation to my friend and foe.
I would never be able to watch a Western again without a map beside me.
That evening I was exhausted once more. I started telling Tim about my ski-instructor idea, but he explained: "the alluvial plain here is 50 miles wide. So the river has more room to mess around in than is good for it." The boys had met two members of the Corps of Engineers, who'd told them some pretty horrifying stories about floods on the Mississippi. I surreptitiously switched on the tape-recorder, as my three friends outdid each other offering up their own floods of statistics, literary references, human anecdotes, and corrosive comments.
The Mississippi River was low at the moment - a mere half-million cubic feet a second. But in the past, it hadn't always been so amenable. Especially disastrous years were 1858, 1862, 1867, 1882, 1884, 1890, 1897, 1903, 1912, 1913, 1922, 1927, 1937, 1951, and 1972. After each new catastrophe, the Engineers had built the levees still higher, promising that, this time, there was absolutely no danger. But the inhabitants of New Orleans continued to build their cemeteries on the highest ground. And in fact, each time, Twain's prognosis had proved correct: "Ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream." The levees had merely spaced out the fiascos - but then, when it did flood, you really knew about it!
The 1927 flood was a particularly bad one. After heavy rain - 240 cubic miles, or 40 million million cubic feet - the Mississippi rose 30 feet. It flowed up most of its tributaries, including the Ohio. But life carried on pretty much as usual, with the huge steamboats suspended 20 feet above the ground, like teatrays in the sky.
Then the Mississippi rose another 20 feet.
"Crevasses" began to spout in the levees, despite desperate sandbagging by tens of thousands of men. Some of them happened naturally, but some were made by farmers on the opposite side from their own land. Like Rastas, the crevasses were impossible to stop once started; and like Maisie, they just grew and grew. Many of them made deep growls like packs of wild animals. Such was their awesome power that they gouged out huge "blue holes" (or "blew holes"?) - lunar craters where soil, trees, concrete, tempered steel - everything - was swept away like straws in the wind.
When the Mississippi-Missouri had spent its anger, it had become a sluggishly moving sea, 90 miles wide and 1000 miles long - a swathe that would have stretched from London to Africa. To get a real impression of the awful size, it is perhaps best to read Twain's description of his travel over an earlier flood: "League after league, and still league after league, it pours its chocolate tide along (...); and so the day goes, the night comes, and again the day (...) - majestic, unchanging sameness of serenity, repose, tranquillity, lethargy, vacancy - symbol of eternity".
Two hundred and forty-six people had lost their lives, 700,000 their homes - New Orleans itself was saved only by dynamiting the levees further up. President Hoover called the flood "the greatest economic catastrophe in the history of the United States".
The flood found echoes in Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues" and "Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan)". Even T.S. Eliot speaks of "a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable", "almost forgotten by the dwellers in the cities - ever, however, implacable, keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder of what men choose to forget". He was also a local and seems to have known what he was talking about....
The following day the river was still going into its impossible meanders, making the choice of route a constant problem. Sometimes I followed the outside round with the tows bigger than supertankers, feeling stupid, and sometimes I cut through the sullen bayous, feeling scared.
I was extremely glad to get to camp by dusk. This was Bill's last night and he served a superb dinner. Then, well into the night, he and I discussed coordination plans. First, we talked finances - but here it was very brief, as there just weren't any. Bill would have to pay the publicity and living expenses out of his own pocket - together with the fare from Paris to London and back again. Also, Tuttle hadn't come up with the wages he owed Bill - I cursed the man then for his cynical dishonesty.
We also talked about the end. It may seem a bit surprising, but I still hadn't decided where I was going - where the expedition would finish! Since St Louis, New Orleans had been my only goal, the mental machinery that I used to get me through to the next stroke. Only slowly had the realisation come that the river continued after that - for another inexorable 110 miles. We discussed the Delta. It was one of the most dangerous regions of North America, with swamps, snakes, alligators, and fast-moving ocean liners. Bill said it would be tricky taking a canoe through America's busiest shipping-lanes.
There was possibly one let-out, he continued, or rather outlet: some of the water went directly from New Orleans into the ocean, avoiding the Delta altogether. I looked at the maps, and saw that it was a man-made canal. I told Bill that cutting corners in this way might cause me sleepless nights in twelve years' time, with haunting visions of a canoe-less Delta.
But Bill had another card up his sleeve: the strange case of the Atchafalaya. Just before Baton Rouge, some of the Mississippi left the mainstream, and cut its own impatient way down to the Gulf, saving 40 miles in the process. If it could, why couldn't I? The outlet was entirely natural this time. In 100 years, all the water would be going that way.
Map 14 The Strange Case of the Atchafalaya
I told my friend I couldn't put my objection in words, except as: it couldn't be put into words. "Nick Francis, on behalf of NBC, were you the first man to canoe the Mississippi?" "Well, er, no, actually. I did the Missouri-Mississippi- Atchafalaya." "Bless you!" No self-respecting canoeist could possibly let such tongue-twisters loose on the poor public.
In the end, we decided that, for the media - and the ACS - the official end would be in New Orleans. But for my own satisfaction, to have come down from the Rockies and never see the Gulf of Mexico.... I swore I would try everything this side of suicide to see the Mississippi-Missouri through to its end.
We took a last stroll down beside the river, and turned in. A few hours later, Bill said how much he would have liked to stay, and wished me the very best of luck for the last few days. As we said goodbye, I knew it was going to be very different without him. He had become almost indispensable as researcher and P.R.O. But he was also my companion and confidant.
And then I was alone on the Mississippi, feeling emptiness welling up inside me. Three images flashed across my mind. The meal when we had demolished the two girls' left-overs. The aeroplane zooming in over the hills with a familiar smile in the window. And the rapids where, the day after his arrival, my friend had unhesitatingly dived into the maelstrom. Bill and I had shared a great deal.
I would miss him in the French Quarter at New Orleans.
XIV JOURNEY TO NEW ORLEANS
Never, perhaps, in the records of nations, was
there such unvarying and unmitigated
crime as the history of the turbulent and
(Capt. Frederick Marryat, R.N.)
That morning, Nov. 9, I was only 450 miles from New Orleans. Just before lunchtime, a good wind pushed me towards a very large island, and I took my usual sneaky route along the inside. The water died, the maps came out, and I realised that lunch was on the other side. There was nothing that could be done, so I just headed for the "fail-safe" rendezvous (a recent innovation). By the time I got there, I was eating my kayak.
That evening, Tim stayed very quiet, running over the pages of his diary again and again. Suddenly he looked up and announced: "We've eaten mince and tatties twenty-eight times since Three Forks." There and then, we resolved never to again. Liam pointed out that our diet of eggs, peanut-butter, and bread was enough to put white hairs on a teenage health-freak's head. But, surprisingly, there was not a day's illness between the lot of us. Not even the toothache that is meant to plague every expedition. We all looked tanned, lean, and hungry.
In my case, however, not everything was what it seemed. From my waist up, it did appear that I'd followed a whole string of Charles Atlas courses. But from my belt down, an undernourished grasshopper would have looked better. Also, the two end fingers of my left hand were increasingly painful: that whole side of my hand was white through lack of use, and threatening to go the way of the orang-outang's tail.
I was back in the water again before dawn. As the light came up, it revealed a surreal world. Away from the brushwood of the bank, the Mississippi lay in a silent blanket of mist. Everything was blurred like candy floss in an old film. There was no metallic hum, and no mechanical vibration, just the soft water-sound of the kayak. I inhaled the peace that nature was offering, until it lay deep inside me. For that long moment, I belonged to the Mississippi, and she belonged to me.
I paddled reluctantly on, but soon a headwind began to wake the river up. As the last wreath danced away, I went past "Island" No. 89 (Ark.-La.-Miss.) and then No. 93 (Miss.). The errors in the numbering system were on my side now, I decided with glee - not like those horrid highways. Nevertheless, I felt a bit disappointed not to have seen No. 92, as it had been a special favourite in my Twain-reading days. 92 was situated in Arkansas, where no liquor taxes were paid, but where trade was very slow. A farsighted man opened a whisky-shop on it, it jumped over the river to nestle snugly beside Mississippi, and he became a very rich man.
Suddenly I jumped as well. "Island No. 89 (Ark.-La.-Miss.)"! I'd been in Louisiana and never noticed. I'd had a glimpse of paradise and then the river had whipped it away from under my nose. I seriously considered turning round. But before I could make up my mind, my beloved, my exquisite, my infinitely sought-after Louisiana came flooding back. The countryside, to be honest, didn't look much different - but the name alone was powerful enough to set off in my mind a seething collection of memories and hopes, dreams and desires. For a long while, I was a loyal subject of Louis XIV.
After eleven hours, I started looking for Atherton. I reached the next bend, but the boys weren't there - nor at the next. My paddling slowed right down, as doubt entered my mind. I decided that Atherton must have been that rather grotty-looking village on the right bank. I turned dejectedly round and started rowing doggedly against the current. (At least the wind was on my side now.)
After a desultory and darkening half-hour, I heard the sound of a big powerboat. I twisted round and started waving my paddles like a wild man. The occupant roared over, and asked if I was in trouble, or just plumb crazy. I enquired in turn if he had seen my friends. "No. I'll give you a lift up to Providence though. It's only fifteen minutes away." "Are you sure?" "Yeah, it's not more than 5 miles - look for yourself." I was horrified. I'd turned round 13 miles short. What a mistake to make!
Lake Providence proved to be a long lean bayou, cunningly hidden from any canoeists in the mainstream. As I looked at the cold dank backwater with its motley collection of soggy boats, I remembered Twain's words: "Lake Providence is the first distinctly Southern-looking town you come to [with its] shade-trees hung with venerable grey-beards of Spanish moss". Who was he trying to kid?
I thanked my friend, ran over to a man trying to escape in a pick-up and asked if he was heading downriver. He was only too happy if I joined him. For over an hour, we criss-crossed a maze of interlocking levees. At last a Dodge appeared silhouetted against the starlit backcloth of the Mississippi. After a progressively more Schlitz-y hour he left us to mincemeat and potatoes - our resolution hadn't lasted long! Then it started to pour. We played catch-the-drip and imagine-we-were-in-Gerard's- mobile-home.
I remarked that we were camped exactly halfway between "Alsatia" and "Transylvania". Liam, not to be outdone, replied that "Arcadia", directly opposite, was where two callous mass-murderers were blown to bits in 1943 - "their names? Bonnie and Clyde!" As a result, I spent a distinctly un-Arcadian night. I dreamed of wet German shepherds rising from the sodden grave only to be attacked by their sheepdog-vampires, fangs dripping.
In the morning, I was driven straight back up-river. When I got into camp again, delicious sausages and eggs were waiting for me. What made me feel even better was the realisation that we were only 30 miles from Vicksburg and 368 miles from New Orleans. We were going to win!
An hour or two later, I came ashore for a quick rest on the sand. I hadn't been there long when I noticed a pair of tracks leading to the water's edge. I went over and examined them more closely. They were about as wide as a motorbike tyre, but smooth and shallow, and gently undulating. I sprinted along to my boat, and took off at a rate of knots. The tracks were those of water snakes, either copperheads or cottonmouths - the exact species seemed unimportant.
Much later I went past a hamlet called "Delta". Twain claims that it used to be 3 miles below Vicksburg, but was now 2 miles above. Then high Vicksburg itself arrived, and was gone in a mere flash. I felt very sad, as the name had meant so much to me for so long. The siege of Vicksburg itself had come to bore me a little - in the last week alone, two different windbags had refought it for my benefit. What interested me more were Grant's previous attempts to get his fleet past the city.
At first, he had tried digging a by-pass canal, but floods had washed away his weeks of effort. He had then loaded his gunboats to the gunwales, and tried to work his way round - via the bayous! Swamps, tree-trunks, and rampant vegetation slowed him down to less than 1 mph. After a few days, he found it all just too sticky, and decided to turn round. The problem was, he couldn't. In the end, the proud ocean-going fleet had to reverse awkwardly out, sweating and swearing; and Grant was almost relieved of his command.
As dusk came down, I gave thanks that I at least had a reliable reverse gear.
That evening, the rain poured and poured - even inside the tent. We left it to its Chinese-torture rhythms, and drove back into Vicksburg. I wanted to visit the huge model of the M-M built by the Corps of Engineers for testing changes. It was closed. To console ourselves, we booked into a cheap hotel. Then we went out for a cheap meal, with a cheap wine. It nearly broke us, but it was probably worth it in gained milage the following morning.
Much of this was spent on the inside of an island which then decided it might prefer to be a promontory. I'd forgotten my maps and, after two further miles of rainy and current-less paddling, wasn't sure whether I'd ever see the Mississippi again. Climbing onto the bank confused me more, so I climbed back down. Then I spotted two long black snakes gliding in hideous harmony through the stagnant water beside me. Water-mocassins. I paddled cautiously on.
Soon, however, I detected a very slight current. The bayou's banks came to a disagreement, turned their backs on each other, and went their indifferent ways. Minutes later, I was back on the bosom of the Mississippi - pockmarked and wrinkled, but I was glad to be there all the same.
I had come out opposite another big island; meaning that it was too late to go outside it. In any case, the inside had quite a fast current. I soon found out why: there was a pile-dyke all the way across. Undeterred, I pulled up and did a quick recce. The rocks were completely covered. Fixing a spot where the drop was less than a foot, I headed for it. A big splash and I had shot the dyke. If only it was always this easy.
Deciding to take no more short cuts, I soon began to gobble up the miles. I was about halfway through Piaf, when I passed two logs drifting lazily down the current. Then I heard a most extraordinary noise. Unbelievably, incredibly, my music was being answered by the increasingly tinkly notes of a honky-tonk piano. Then, trundling rapidly into view, came the Delta Queen, perhaps the most famous paddleboat ever to plough the M-M. I watched in fascination as the ancient sternwheeler came towards me, her yards and yards of copper shining in the sunlight. A couple of hundred people were lining the side and waving.
The black and yellow funnel let off a couple of friendly blasts and then she was on her way up to St Louis and St Paul. I swivelled round. Above the paddlewheel was the pianist, resplendent in a red jacket; but now I could hear nothing but the steady thresh-thresh.
The boat was now about opposite the logs. Suddenly with a violent splash they up-ended and then were gone. I was in state of shock. That was as close to a pair of alligators as I was ever likely to get!
I rowed on, humming the Creedence Clearwater Revival song: "Cleaned a lot of plates in Memphis/ Humped a lot of dames down in New Orleans/ But I never saw the good side of the city/ Till I hitched a ride on the Riverboat Queen".
Two hours later, night fell over the Mississippi like a big blue blanket. My rendezvous was meant to be at Natchez, only 8 miles away; but I was feeling more and more worn out. With New Orleans only 270 miles away, I didn't want to blow it.
I drifted in. On the other side of the levee was a floodlit cotton-field, with scores of men working beside a huge machine that seemed half vacuum cleaner, half combine harvester. Keeping well away from the operating end, which was sucking in everything in sight, I asked the driver when they planned to finish. He was Black, like everybody else in the field. "Heh man! We're a-finishin in two minutes' tahm!" he said, giving the proboscis a tremendous yank. "It'd be a maaghty big pleasure t' take you into Natchez!" My grin became nearly as wide as his.
Soon we were squashed into a twenty-year-old Chevvie pick-up. To the accompaniment of mad whoops and "C-r-razy, man"'s we bumped our springy way across an unlit maze. "Heh Nick," said Earl, "why don't Aa take you back fer lil Southern Comfort?" Soon we pulled up beside an enormous caravan, where he proudly showed me snapshots of his wife and daughters. The Southern Comfort turned into a large steak washed down by bourbon. Earl then insisted on driving me back into Natchez, even though he'd put in a twelve-hour day ("Aa said Aa would, 'n' Aa will").
We drove past pompous mansion after pompous mansion, all gleaming columns and neoclassical friezes. Helped by the alcohol, I could imagine the interiors: fragile porcelain and stern top-hatted gentlemen devouring fragile beauties playing uptight pianos. But Earl was saying "There y'are Nick. Good ol' Natchez Bridge", and my vision was gone with the wind. I gave him all my thanks for his company and generosity, and then he had driven off into the river of headlights. I was left with the realisation that, at the age of twenty-five, I had never been in the home of a Black person before.
There was no sign of Liam or Tim, so I went into the Ramada Inn, and phoned the Police Department. They promised to look out for my friends. Next I phoned Bill in New York. He told me that after hitching there, he had spent his time traipsing round the newspaper offices, with lots of press-releases, a few photographs, and Mississippi mud still on his jeans. He said there was something big in the offing (more he wouldn't say). Just as I thanked him, the receptionist announced a call on the other line. Feeling important, I took it: it was the Police Department - ever efficient, they'd found my friends.
While waiting, I suddenly thought of my old friend Ewen Macleod. Since Argyll, he'd fallen in love with an American girl called Debbie, had married her, and settled in Williamsburg, Virginia. I told the receptionist everything I knew, and five minutes later he was on the line! It was just like old times. On the spot, he decided to drive halfway down the country and meet me in New Orleans. A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since that long hot summer.
Liam and Tim had still not arrived, and my mind began to wander off. I had read about Natchez being a major staging-post for the hardbitten keelboatmen sailing and floating their boats downriver. Once here, they had to laboriously haul them back up again, or else sell them for scrap and take the Natchez Trail back up via Nashville, Tennessee. So hardbitten were they in fact, that Twain, not normally a puritan, condemned the "moral sties like the Natchez-under-the-Hill of that day". Taking a quick walk, I was disappointed to find that downtown didn't contain many moral sties any more.
Long before the keelboatmen, however, Natchez was a major Indian settlement, the centre of a highly organised civilisation called "Mississippian Culture". It stretched up to Memphis and St Louis, and - as shown by the pyramid-shaped burial mounds - was almost certainly influenced by the Aztecs. Down here there was no birch-bark to make canoes with. Most commonly, round wicker-boats covered with buffalo skins were used instead, or else giant dugouts holding up to fifty warriors. But before the French arrived, something had broken and the civilisation was already in terminal decline. All they had time to do was record - and accelerate - the decline and dispersal of the Natchez Nation. By 1730, Mississippian Culture had disappeared from the face of the earth.
Just as I was going to phone the police again, four familiar feet staggered in. I was weak with hunger and exhaustion and so were they. We revived a little over the camp-fire, as they told me that after an anxious hour peering into the gloom in search of a batttered piece of fibre-glass flotsam, they had decided to drive up the bank, flashing their headlamps to guide me in. The road ran out, and my friends trudged further along the bank. After a couple of hours of head-high "Indian corn" and mosquitoes, they headed back for civilisation and flagged down a police-car which was already looking for a green ----- ----(-)--. I tried to tell them about the Natchez Indians, but realised it wasn't really the moment. Very soon, we pushed the embers into the river and watched the sparks mistily floating away.
We awoke early: it was the 13th, and Liam was going to hitch into New Orleans. As well as arranging accommodation and
Map 16 Natchez to New Orleans
contacting the media, I wanted him to organise some eleventh-hour fundraising with the Louisiana ACS.
As I set off, the Mississippi was bathed in sunlight, with the arches of Natchez Bridge gleaming 8 miles ahead of me. The town itself was set high on a green hill far away, its windows twinkling like bright topazes on an emerald base - and all the time the copper ball of fire hanging in the sky.
I was just passing the Glasscock Cutoff, and thinking what an extraordinary name it was, when a familiar feeling came to me. I was sandwiched between an upstream tow and a downstream one. The river had got much narrower since Cairo, and was now only 1000 yards wide. Over the past few weeks, however, I'd been practising my towboat negotiation; and so managed to avoid both of them in a rather elegant fashion. My complacency was soon shattered nevertheless by a metallic voice echoing three-dimensionally off the banks: "H-o-o-o! Who's that crazy bastard in the middle of the Mississippi in a tinpot kay-yak? H-o-o-o-o! Any crazy bastard like that must be half-cayned!!" Dramatically spinning the aforesaid kayak on a dime, I glared up at the bridge. But the word-perfect syllogiser was invisible behind smoked glass, and so I had nothing to swear back at but the churning waves.
After dinner, Tim said that it looked as if some sort of party was afoot at a house about a mile away. We found a huge Gothic mansion straight out of Gormenghast. So, to judge from the jeeps, had half the US Army transport corps. We knocked apprehensively at the front door. It opened, we said we'd come down from the Rockies, and could we please use the telephone? We could have, they told us, but there wasn't one! Bourbon had been thrust into our hands. Our hosts explained what they were doing out here, but I only caught about one word in four - hunting season, Orleans, bayous. "We're Cajuns!" came the proud explanation. "Come again?" "Nous sommes Acadiens [I couldn't believe my ears]. Nous parlons le vieux français. Nous venons du Canada - Québec, Nouveau Brunswick, et Nouvelle Ecosse. Expulsés par les Anglais au début du dix-huitiPme siPcle." All this mixed with modern American and gallons of "Twenty-per-Cent" wine - stronger than most sherries! "My mother's French", I tentatively confessed. "Heh! That makes you an honorary Coonass!" came back the crazy chorus. We were treated like Bourbon Kings. Our friends served us a huge meal of jambalaya - ham, prawns, wine, rice, and spices - and regaled us with stories of their adventures in the forests of Louisiana.
I asked about New Orleans, and they told us about the Civil War! As a last-ditch attempt to save the city from the Unionist fleet, the Confederates set the river on fire - literally - by sending 35,000 burning cotton-bales towards the ships. It didn't work, and a terrible repression followed, under the notorious Butler.
There was a skidding noise outside, and another four Acadians rushed in. They'd brought several pails of goodies all the way from the Delta. Minutes later, we were tucking into a shoal of floured oysters, dunked in boiling oil.
Tim asked about the showboats. "Hey Charlie, viens nous parler de ton vieux Armstrong!" No second prompting was needed. The roots of jazz, he told us, went very deep: African music, the blues, ragtime, working songs, French Creole music, sexual undertones.
Fate Marable had developed his showboats from about 1916. He himself played the calliope (steam-organ), and used to take jazz bands up-river from "Orleans". As well as Armstrong himself, such famous names as Joe (King) Oliver and the Dodds Brothers made their debuts on board "the Conservatory". "And why did it all start in Orleans, and why did it become so commercial when it left? Because," he proudly said, "this was the only place where Black and White, French and Spanish, wetbacks and Yankees could mix. Those was some days!"
I enquired again about the place I had dreamed of for so long that it didn't seem right to be getting near. To find its soul, our friends replied, you had to ignore Bourbon Street, with its nightclubs and antiseptic jazz, its striptease and massage-parlours. You had to shun the American interlopers and make contact with the Villarés, the Grimats, and the Delarauds - the old French-Creole "aristocracy". You had to like red wine, rich cooking, and dancing in the streets ("You'll do OK, I reckon").
But if you wanted to speak French, you might as well give up. Mr Average New Orleans didn't understand two words. In some towns and villages around, there were people who still spoke Cajun, valiantly resisting the melting-pot. But for how long? Almost nobody could write French any more. It was a miracle, said Charles, that it had lasted this long. We had another drink, "B la belle langue de la Louisiane". Then the musicians came on. For two hours, we were in the slow, rhythmic, absorbing world of Cajun music. Only at 2 a.m., with our eyes irresistibly closing, did we bid our "Coonass amis" farewell, and stagger back to the faithful Dodge.
Soon after a drawn dawn start, I arrived at a huge and messy complex. This was where the Red River, "down" from Texas, joined the Mississippi; and where the Atchafalaya, off to the Gulf, left it - sometimes in that order, sometimes not.
I remembered my discussion with Bill, feeling a virtuous glow at my decision to stay with the M-M. But meanwhile, water-courses continued to come and go, making me understand why the mapmakers had been so mean with the arrows. It was up to the man-on-the-spot to decide which way things were going. I resolved to immediately lay down the guidelines of a learned monograph on the subject.
Decisive point number one: the arrows couldn't all go the same way round, unless someone had invented perpetual motion and not told me. Et voilB. One for Nicky. Decisive point number two: to understand what was going on, you had to adopt the points of view of the actors themselves. The Red River was really making coy advances towards the Mississippi. She had never completely made the plunge, however, and man had had to come to the rescue of the reluctant couple. That neatly explained the sign warning that commerce between the two rivers was regulated by a system of locks and sluice-gates. In fact the Mississippi herself was pretty standoffish - she only deputed tiny offshoots of herself for the meeting, like an executive sending his secretary's secretaries. The two had shared banks and current accounts for a while, and at one stage, with arms and mouths everywhere, it wasn't even clear where the bed was. But then they had run into liquidity problems, and had had to separate. The Red, a scarlet woman, had been obliged to conceal her blushing identity under an unpronounceable name.
"Perhaps monographs aren't really my genre?" I wondered, as I paddled over the distinctly pinkish water. A huge sign suddenly said "Tows, powerboats, dinghies, etc. should navigate as close to the left descending bank as safety will permit". Honoured that somebody had taken my existence into account, even as a small-bit extra, I scuttled to the far side like a lame Manx cat. No sign of a descending bank, however.
As usual, everything had come and gone quicker than I could register. First, somewhere in all the flesh-coloured confusion, I had gone down the Fort Adams Reach. Twain claimed that the Mississippi was so fast here that three steamboat watches went by before they got up and out of it. According to my own evidence, and with the greatest reluctance, I am obliged to say he may have been fibbing a little. Secondly, I had crossed the line of 31%N - about the same as the temperature in degrees centigrade. And finally, Mississippi State had run off along that same line towards the Gulf: both banks were now Louisiana territory. All those white cotton-fields had given way to exotic-looking bayous, with oblique tree-trunks and coloured flowers everywhere.
By the time I had caught up, I was well past the hothouse vegetation of "Angola" and coming to a pleasantly-wooded island. As I cut across its lower tip, something green, red, and orange caught the corner of my eye - 400 yards upstream!
After twenty minutes' hard paddling, I made it back to the island. I grabbed hold of the sinewy bushes and worked my way up, hand over hand, until I was opposite. My loudest shouts and signals went unnoticed. If only I dared use Tim's favourite way of getting attention.... Then fifty northbound barges swam valiantly past. I cut obliquely across the choppy water, pulled in, fought my way through the dense undergrowth - and found an empty mug. But Tim soon reappeared and all was well.
We decided to meet again at St Francisville. (My surname had certainly been promoted since South Dakota: from a windswept lake to a French county-town and from a Case to a Sainthood. The only problem was that most saints were dead.) That afternoon, I felt very tired. The river seemed to be getting stickier and stickier, and I was convinced that it was slowing me down. Also, the decisions about the course to take were a constant drag on my mental resources. I cursed the Mississippi, then, her promiscuity with every water-course for hundreds of miles around.
Even the landscape was getting industrialised. It must have changed a lot, I thought, since the nineteenth-century artist Henry Lewis resolved to immortalise it. He considered that previous painters hadn't taken sufficient account of the size of the Mississippi. His painting was 12 feet high and 2 miles long! Somewhere along the line, a careless posterity has mislaid the artistic achievement itself. But Lewis's name survives for all time, in the Guinness Book of Records. You don't always get what you want, but you find sometimes....
Over dinner, I told Tim about the terrible stickiness. He consoled me by describing an attempt to swim the Mississippi. Apparently, the brave man did about 200 miles, before complaining that his skin felt a bit funny. When they pulled him out, his whole body was covered with boils and sores. (Just like the Mississippi itself.) And that, said a triumphant Tim, was on the Upper River!
I was only 35 miles from Baton Rouge. By now I knew that you were about as likely to find a red totem-pole there as a circumflex accent on Baton. But it did lie within spitting distance of the finish, and that made up for a lot.
All that morning, I felt that my quest was at last coming to an end. First I went past Port Hudson, the last Confederate fort on the Mississippi to fall; next a U-bend - complete with the unmentionable detritus of a whole state; then a nostalgic "Scotlandville"; and finally civilisation, in the shape of the fourth biggest port in the United States.
Mile after mile of docks and cranes stretched to a wavering infinity. Anchored at the wharves or queuing in midriver were a huge variety of vessels - tiny coasters and tugs, Gulf oil- supply ships, and 20,000-ton ore carriers. The river had chosen this precise point to become narrower than anywhere this side of St Louis: a mere 800 yards. I knew that it had also got a lot deeper, but this hardly consoled me.
I weaved cautiously through the rows and rows of shipping - none of which, on closer inspection, seemed that small, and all of which, without exception, ignored me completely. Very slowly, a massive highway bridge came into view: Interstate 10 (at last). Florida to Mobile to El Paso, all three Spanish, but all three completely American. In the shadow of the frenetic dinky-cars was some waste-ground, and on it I spotted Tim with two journalists. I was relieved there were so few, but even so, I didn't want to stop.
I could smell the sea.
The meet-the-press was soon over. "Why don't you stay at our place and head out tomorrow?" our new friends asked.
We spent the afternoon at C.B.S., watching as the evening news was put together. Suddenly our friend rushed in: "Hey, c'm'ahn you guys. Fire in the tire dee-pot. 'S go check it out!" His car was already moving, and we were flying down Main Street, overheating the siren and burning every light. I had got through a whole string of Hail Mary's and half a very Imperfect Act of Contrition, when we smelled burning rubber. Our tyres or theirs, I wondered philosophically. When we arrived, we saw dense smoke, but no flames whatsoever. But the drive had made it all worthwhile.
I was up very early on the 15th. A mile or two on, the Mississippi gradually filled up with sea-going ships. It was like the English Channel, and as I continued my death-race through the shipping-lanes, I felt on very familiar territory.
Even at 9 a.m. the heat of the sun was unbearable - thank God I hadn't been here in September.... After only 20 miles, I came ashore feeling like an old man. I lay down on the sand, and waves of weariness flooded over me. I realised that, after all the thousands of miles of slogging, the expedition's time was running out - that this way of life was soon going to come to an end. At once a feeling of disorientation and unfathomable sadness descended on me. I just couldn't imagine a life without the M-M.
At midday, I arrived at a town called White Castle. Tim and I had a quick hamburger, in a bar full of young Black boys who were clearly dying to have a go at us. Then I was off again, still feeling very weak and dispirited. My old friend, the headwind, had come back; and though it kept the heat just tolerable, it made me feel as though I was hardly moving. I was so nearly there that all my willpower had flowed out of me like a tide on the ebb.
The shipping was also still causing me problems. The closer I got to New Orleans, the bigger the remaining tows became. The largest I saw was pushing forty-eight barges, wired together eight by six. This crossword was 1000 feet long: bigger than an aircraft-carrier. The liners were going twice as fast as the tows - up to 25 knots - and with my pathetic maximum of 6 knots, I felt very unsafe. My Cajun friends had told me that New Orleans was where one Scotsman with a French connection had already take a nasty fall, and I hoped it wasn't a portent.
John Law was his name, and he had first worked his way up to become Comptroller-General (Minister of Finances) of the Kingdom of France (1717). He had then set up the farsighted "Mississippi Scheme", whereby money was put up for the development of New Orleans and French North America. But in the end, he proved just a bit too farsighted. Wild speculation began to spread like fever, and in the end the whole idea just collapsed. So that was what Jim had meant by the "Mississippi Bubble".... I thought back to my own "scheme", with all its financial juggling. There and then, I gave solemn thanks to God - and the back-up team - that the holes had held together despite everything....
About 10 miles short of my rendezvous, it began to get dark very quickly. After a few more shore-hugging miles, I made out the stationary outline of five parallel barges. There was 10 feet separating them from the shore, easily enough for the sleak Lochinvar and the bag of bones within - provided a certain previous incident didn't repeat itself.
Having sneaked along the length of three barges, I was just congratulating myself, when a searchlight clicked exasperatingly on, and slowly began to revolve. The water began to eddy and froth under my keel as far-away engines throbbed into reluctant life. With a mounting feeling of déjB vu, I pulled Lochinvar onto the bank, turned her round, and dropped her back in. With my heart in my mouth, I raced back to the front of the beast. Deciding that I'd wait until he moved, I became even more annoyed when he didn't.
I was now back to square one. I had a choice of being crushed against the shore or else mowed down by a ship passing in the night. After five minutes of dithering, I paddled 300 yards upstream, swivelled round, and paddled directly towards the centre of the Mississippi. The current pushed me towards the barge, but the phantom captain was a gentleman, patiently sitting there in the darkness. I cleared the sharp overhanging corner of the outermost barge with 7 feet and 1/4 of an ounce of nerve to spare. There wasn't another vessel in sight. But I didn't really mind.
After a quick meal, Tim and I drove into a tiny village. We soon found the only bar, where Tim sipped an insipid beer, while I telephoned the rest of the world and Liam in particular. I told him we were only 30 miles from New Orleans, and that we'd be there tomorrow. He said that was great, but he sounded pretty fed up. He had had a dreadful time battling against the local ACS - they seemed to know very little about what we were doing, and care even less. But he did have one good piece of news. Bill had phoned from Kennedy: his coup had come off, and the Sunday Times wanted to know about our trip. One of their roving reporters was flying over from the Bahamas, and wanted to see me tomorrow. (Good job I'd phoned!)
Then I phoned ACS New York, and reminded them of their own suggestion about National Smoke-Out Day. But I couldn't get anything out of them at all. I felt very bitter then, remembering the 3000 miles I had done since Williston, N. Dak., to meet their rendezvous.
Up at six the next morning, I couldn't find my wallet. Asking Tim to retrace the spoor of our (non-existent) revelry, I headed out again into the horizontal-hold world of the Mississippi.
I was very aware suddenly that Louisiana had been on my mind for so many months and years, and that I was at last here, at the climax of my adventure.
I paddled on for several hours, conscious of growing excitement. Every detail of that last journey towards the capital of French America became as sublimely nostalgic as it would have seemed banal to an idle bystander. It all seemed diffused with a heavenly light, and it set off reaction after reaction within me.
I rejoiced at the few tows that remained, for their very scarcity meant that the river was coming to an end. I rejoiced at the rusty ships and off-white seagulls, because they were a sign that I was getting near the ocean. I rejoiced at the factories and chemical installations, since these made up the arteries of the city that had meant so much to me for so long. I rejoiced at the sweltering heat of the sub-tropical sun, for I knew that on this Nov. 16, it would normally be snowing at Three Forks, Montana - and at a certain boarding-school in Scotland. And I rejoiced at my own numbed and sweaty weariness, because it represented the result of all those miles of effort - something nobody could ever take away from me now.
Towards the middle of that euphoric morning, I arrived at Luling. Only a few years before, I had seen the television film of a dreadful fogbound night here. A ferry, crammed with passengers, had collided in midstream with a massive tow that had burst upon it from the wall of fog.
I hated the treacherous Mississippi then. This river, which seemed so calm, could turn like a viper to engulf scores of people in an unmarked and watery grave. Twain had called her the crookedest river in the world; and Lord Roberts had said "She demands respect, and she better damned well get it, or she can be awful uppity." The two men had been writing a hundred years ago; but their descriptions still held true. The Mississippi would never change.
I paddled swiftly away from the site of the horror. At exactly 12.30, I pulled up at the rendezvous point. Tim and Liam were nowhere to be seen. After twenty miserable minutes, I stuck a wavering thumb towards the glowering sky.
The first vehicle to pass was an old pick-up. The second was a black and gold Ford Capri with a journalist from a small island 3000 miles to the east.
I spent most of the afternoon under the harsh glare of the camera. At last our friend was satisfied. We were free.
The first thing I did was phone Britain. After an interminable wait, I was overjoyed to hear my parents' voices, faint across the thousands of miles. I told them my news. For them too, the months of worrying and waiting were at last over. Reluctantly replacing the receiver, I finally realised the full weight of the burden they had had to carry.
We carefully carried Lochinvar to the pick-up, and slid her onto her familiar slot at the top. We stowed the paddles amongst the mouldering rubbish on the bottom. And then we drove fast and noisily into the centre of New Orleans. A decade ago it had all been a dream. Now it was hard reality.
That night, we went to a little jambalaya resaurant in the French Quarter. I was in a complete daze. I was sitting opposite a pretty girl from the American Cancer Society, but I hardly saw her. Ewen and Debbie had come down from Virginia, but they scarcely registered on my fuddled brain. Bill phoned his congratulations "on your first river!", but I gave him largely incoherent thanks.
All that time, I was thousands of miles away. There was a tiny hamlet surrounded by snow-capped mountains. In the cold light, I could see two very clean-looking men carrying a shiny boat down to a jetty, and a third, climbing awkwardly in. The M-M was nothing like he thought it would be. The Gates of the Mountains, the Missouri Breaks, and the Badlands - Fort Peck, Sakakawea, and Oahe. The end of a river - a river born anew. Arrowheads in the dust and bobbing sawyers. Wing-dams and a whirlpool, orange groves on a green hillside. Black copperheads, white cotton-fields. Indians and Acadians. Fear and joy, betrayal and love, tears, sweat, and blood. A journey against a scourge, a journey for self-discovery. The Mississippi-Missouri was everything I had dreamed it would be.
The following morning, Liam and Tim carried the kayak down to the water one last time. Rounding the final bend, I saw a huge bridge stretching across the river. There was a sign hanging from one of its arches: "The Crescent City Welcomes British Kayaker". Two fire-fending boats were anchored near the shore, shooting an arch of coloured drops a hundred feet into the shining sky. There came the uncanny skirl of "Scotland the Brave". A burning wind blew in my face, bringing a musky tropical smell. My Journey to New Orleans was over.
Slowly turning Lochinvar under the cool arch, I paddled towards the people waiting on that beckoning shore.
XV AND QUIET FLOWS THE MISSISSIPPI
Dere's an ol' man called de Mississippi
Dats de ol' man I like to be
What does he care if de world's got troubles
What does he care if de land aint free?
Ol' Man River
Dat Ol' Man River
He mus' know sumpin'
But don't say nothin'
He jes' keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along.
He don't plant taters,
He don't plant cotton,
An' dem dat plants 'em
Is soon forgotten,
But Ol' Man River
He jes' keeps rollin' along.
Map 14 New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico
As far as the rest of the world was concerned, then, I had canoed the Mississippi-Missouri and achieved my life's ambition. For two or three days I concurred, and led the good life in the least puritanical city in America.
But deep within me there was still an absence - one which began to make itself felt over the long, sunny afternoons. At the beginning, it was just a set of disconnected reminiscences; but then they started to line themselves up.
I remembered the sighting of the Mississippi-Missouri by Columbus - probably a mere myth, but an incomparable image of the meeting of two worlds. I remembered the once-overwhelming French influence in Louisiana, and wondered whether more authentic traces remained than fries, knickers, and discotheques. I remembered the anti-slave forces of the North, and their long voyage past Florida and Alabama before fighting their way up the river. I remembered my last evening with Bill, and our amusement at the vagaries of Old Al and the Atchafalaya. And I remembered the circle, opened so many light-years ago, but in which I thought I could still detect the faintest of cracks.
My mind was made up. I was not going to abandon my faithful friend. I longed to share her relief when she finally gave herself up to the infinite ocean. I felt in some way like the childhood companion who is sincerely glad to give the bride away because he has participated in all her disappointments, and knows that this is what she wants more than anything else in the world.
The Mississippi was calling with all her might; but I was the only one who could hear. Liam and Tim elected to stay in New Orleans and sell off the equipment. Part of the reason, I knew, was the aftermath of the ticker-tape welcome. ACS Louisiana had shared the glory of our Honorary Citizenship and our final press-conference, and then abandoned us outside their head-office - funds $15, and nowhere to go. They could do no more "because of the Tutankhamen Exhibition and the football game". Some National Smoke-Out Day! I lit a cigarette and decided, reluctantly and fearfully, to go into the Delta alone.
The Coastguard had told me that, for the first 80 miles, the main danger was man-made: impatient captains and overcrowded shipping lanes. But for the last 30, the land gave up altogether, replaced by treacherous, water-logged vegetation. There were carnivorous orchids, mosquitoes, and copperheads in profusion, but precious little else. The region was also notorious for its tropical hurricanes - similar to the tornadoes further north, but with the bonus of lashing rain. In all that open space, there was only one haven - a small island with a shop and a bar for mariners dying for contact with a world outside the menacing, drowned Delta.
For all these reasons, the Coastguard had forbidden me to attempt it alone, saying "we can't answer for the consequences" - which did wonders for my self-confidence! But I told them I was absolutely desperate to finish the Mississippi-Missouri, and would go into the Delta with or without them. Finally they had agreed to escort me out of New Orleans. But from then on, they warned me, I would be on my own.
And thus it was that on the 24th, a slightly embarrassed young man could be seen carrying a long orange object through the early-morning shoppers. Whoops, Ma'am; I'm really most awfully sorry. If only you hadn't stopped so suddenly. We'll soon get this sorted out....
Then Canal Street, and a solitary, furtive launch, under the efficient eyes of my gleaming white escort. Feeling very strange, I moved slowly out into the mainstream.
After a few hundred yards, a sign said "INTRA-COASTAL WATERWAY. CAPE COD 2000 MILES", but I wasn't to be tempted. Another sign read "MISSISSIPPI RIVER OUTLET: GULF OF MEXICO 70 MILES" - but I didn't waver for a second. Then the city limit hoved into view, and the cruiser surged frothily off. As warned, I was now alone - bar a couple of dozen ocean-going ships.
It took me about 2000 paddle-strokes to calm down and take an interest in the scenery. But I soon realised that, if there was any, I couldn't see it. My whole world consisted of the river and its twin levees, richer and blacker than ever.
The time for my mid-morning break arrived, and I pulled gratefully in. On top of the levee were neat rows of round trees with yellow and orange blobs on them. I helped myself to a couple of the latter: and for a very short while I was in an American version of the Garden of Eden.
But then as I carried on through that roofless black tunnel, I found the water more and more awkward. Perhaps there had been a storm in the Gulf, or the tide had changed? Perhaps it was the effect of long-gone liners? Or perhaps I was just off-form? What made things worse was knowing that if I did overturn I probably wouldn't be able to get back in. I would just have to drift forlornly along the greasy wall for miles and miles. The proud Maserati was now down to the bare and bumpy rim, and carefully observing every exit before venturing fearfully on.
In the late afternoon, I limped past "Fanny". My lewd and poetic imagination immediately started looking for wisps of brushwood or other tell-tale signs; but honesty compels me to admit that I couldn't see any. At precisely the same point, I crossed the line 90%W, the exact middle of the Western Hemisphere - and the same latitude as the Sahara.
Just before dark I pulled in. Again feeling a bit strange, I proceeded to set up a solitary "camp": a sleeping-bag, a tarpaulin, and a fire. Dinner was sausages, toasted with a burning fork. I'd salted them that morning but they still tasted funny; so I smothered them in blackened bread, and took the taste away with a bar of runny chocolate. Then, with the Mississippi-Missouri breathing heavily in the background, I was quickly asleep.
I was very glad to have got through my first day alone.
Just before sunrise, I set off on the last stretch of my journey. I wanted to get the 52 miles over as soon as possible. A couple of hurried miles later, the left-hand levee stopped. In all directions lay low-lying clumps of dirty green vegetation, separated by winding channels of clearish water. Occasionally, gnarled, bent-over trees were visible, huddling blackly on brown islands. In the distance were dozens of gaily-coloured pipelines, carrying gas and petroleum from the Gulf.
This part of the Delta was, I knew, where the French buccaneers, Jean and Pierre Lafitte, had hung out at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They and their followers lived completely outside the laws of the land, emerging on only one occasion: to help defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans (1815). Stories still existed about their treasure, buried in longlost bayous; and as I contemplated that terrible desolation, I could quite believe them.
Huddling now against the shelter of the one remaining levee, I pushed exhaustedly on. I went past Fort Jackson, the site of the first Unionist engagement on the river. The Confederates had constructed a mile-long dam here, using scuttled ships, tree-trunks, bicycles, condoms, and anything else that came to hand. With their scores of cannon raking the dam from both sides, they considered it totally impregnable. But one dark night, the Mississippi felt slightly restless, and upped and brushed away the entire construction. The Unionists camouflaged their ships with layers of gumbo, gave the pathetic remains a wide berth, and got by with minimal losses. Then they headed on for New Orleans and victory.
At 3 p.m., I got to a most unItalianate "Venice". The remaining levee gave up, and soon the grey, lonely sky was there all around me. I tried to comfort myself with the charm of the French names - Bay Denesse, Bay Pomme d'Or, Bay Jacques, Bayou Grand Liart, Bayou Baptiste Collette. But my mind kept coming back to the end of the levee: it was called "The Jump", and I wanted to know why. Also, the maps kept saying, again and again: "Line of demarcation between salt and fresh marsh not determined". This lack of tidemarks seemed disturbing - was it high tide now?
A 30,000-ton liner doing 20 knots directly at my kayak made me zoom off towards the edge. It took the bend very fine, forcing me into the swampy mess. By the time the wash had subsided, a slow brown drift had pushed me past where I came in. I could have gone back, but I wanted to explore the bayous, which were like nothing I had ever seen before.
Pointing Lochinvar at an angle, I started threading my way obliquely back towards the river, through a whole wonderland of branching channels. Very soon I was back in my early childhood, marvelling at the self-confident courses the water took on the pavement - sometimes happily following the cracks, sometimes rushing off at an enthusiastic tangent, sometimes stopping dead in its tracks. I weaved and wandered with the best of it.
I was abruptly brought back to Louisiana by the sight of the most gigantic frog I had ever seen. It was sitting on the soft mud, puffing its throat in and out in a desperate attempt to look prince-like; and it was about as big as a football. I kept looking at it, then away again, but I couldn't make it appear an inch smaller.
Next, I saw a tropical-looking mauve flower which had crawled everywhere it possibly could. It even had tendrils trailing erotically in the current, like Thai dancers' delicate but firm hands. Then the tendrils began to cross my channel. I cunningly did two successive 135% turns, but they had guessed my game, and were waiting for me again. I powered over one or two, finding them surprisingly strong. But when I tried the trick again, two clumps conspired together to suspend me half-out of the water. Oscillating on my two-rope bridge, I pushed off firmly with the paddles. It collapsed sideways, giving me a shove as it did so; and I was suddenly upside down in the water.
I pushed out of the canoe without problem, and soon I was holding onto it, kicking with all my might to scare away any snakes that might be in the vicinity. There was no dry land anywhere and I seriously wondered whether I'd ever be able to get back in again. I was very frightened that, this time, that might really be it: caught out in a miserable backwater, 100 yards from the Mississippi and 10 miles from the Gulf.
In a panic, I heaved Lochinvar over and onto a huge bed of pink vegetation. Then, very tentatively, I pushed up with my arms until I was lying beside her, my feet still in the water. I slid one arm over her shoulder, then shifted my weight until I was lying spreadeagled on top of her. Forcing my knees into the vegetation and forward at the same time, I walked my hands towards myself. Soon I was gamely astride, but with both of us sagging dangerously.
Pushing my arms far behind me, I tried to bring both feet towards the cockpit. But throbbing cramps seized the tops of my thighs and I was forced to straighten my legs out again. After a pause, I brought my legs onto the bow and waiting till the kayak stopped wobbling. Then, leaning back as far as possible, I bent my knees again in slow and perfect symmetry, like a budding Bolshoi ballerina. This time, there was no pain. My toes fitted in, and I scraped my shins progressively along the inside of the curve. I stopped every couple of inches to shift my arms awkwardly forward and to walk my buttocks painfully towards the cockpit. Shins, arms, and behind each moved four times. Then I was in. I took a rest.
Now I just had one problem - to get off the scented flowers again. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I pushed off with both palms; and felt very relieved to slide back into the water, grabbing the paddles as I went. A few more broken tendrils, and I was on the muddy freeway once more.
All this agitation must have shaken something loose in my head, for as I carried on towards the mouth, my mind started to glow hot and cold. Then it began racing back over the whole trip. For some reason, it highlighted all the things the M-M had ever been called, in love or in anger: turbulent, majestic, magnificent, fickle; Father of Waters, Big Muddy, Wild Mizoo, Old Misery; Graveyard for Steamboats, Queen of Rivers, River Road, Great Common Sewer of the West. But the names it really focused on were the Indian ones Leah had told us about: Boundary between Two Pieces of Land, Smoky Water, Navigable Stream Full of Dirt, Stirred Up and Grandmother River.
While my mind continued to turn over, it seemed to slip gear. It started sifting and shuffling the disparate elements, until they all fell into place with a loud click. At the junction with the Ohio, I had sensed that the river possessed some sort of overriding unity; now I knew that it really was one, in some transcendentally deeper way.
Then, with the shore still drifting dreamily past, a real brainstorm invaded my exhausted skull. It touched down initially on Mark Twain's words: a steamboat pilot had been the only totally independent human being on earth. But Twain had let the machinery isolate him from the water, he had let the technical aspects of his craft destroy the magic of the Mississippi. My original, ambitious, aim had been to put the magic back in. I had wanted to travel back beyond Twain's era: to a time when a man, a boat, and a river formed a perfect universe.
Since then, I had learned a great deal. I had found that the Mississippi really did wander all over the land, and that keeping your boat on the water was not as easy as all that. I had been lucky enough however to avoid Twain's trap. My aching arms and sticky skin told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was neither too much cut off from the water nor too technically competent. I had fulfilled my dream of not just "floating" the river but being immersed in its very substance - much more satisfyingly than I had any right to expect.
I had also discovered the bitter dregs of the American dream. More perhaps than anything else, I had always known, the Mississippi-Missouri embodied that dream at its clearest and purest. The river had always been the trampling-ground of desperado individualists, of loners in search of themselves, of seekers after total union. But somewhere between the top of Montana and the bottom of Louisiana, my desire for the primitive, backwoods experience had been more than exorcised - the hard way.
I now understood that it was attempting an impossible purity to try to face the wilderness alone and as if the twentieth century had never existed. Without a back-up team, and without fibre-glass, matches, and maps, I didn't know what would have happened to me. Or rather, I did, when I looked at the fate of De Soto, Marquette, and La Salle. All three had lost their lives because of the river, their river. I now knew that the M-M would never be my river in that all-englobing sense. I had become too attached to life to want to become totally one with it.
Not all the magic, though, had run out. I had found that plenty of poetry was still there, if you were prepared to get close enough. But I had also discovered that the pearl I had been looking for was flawed in its very core - that the beauty of the river was inseparable from its terrible violence. T.S. Eliot had said "On a halcyon day it is merely a monument; in navigable weather it is always a seamark to lay a course by; but in the sombre season of the sudden fury, it is what it always was." The strong brown god's primeval, savage force was still there, to be experienced by a man desperate enough. You just had to know when to stop.
And stop, for the moment, I had to, as I had just arrived at Pilottown. I hadn't been expecting much, but even so I felt disappointed to see nothing but two white buildings and a cluster of stilt-houses. Pretty much the same as in Twain's day. I went into the bar, ostensibly in search of information about the tide and the last few miles. But the only client was dead-drunk and the barman wouldn't give me a glass of water. "Forget it", I said, and strode bitterly out. The final cut from a changeable river.
I got into Lochinvar for the last time in my life, and headed slowly downstream again. I knew little about the two or three miles ahead of me. The maps did show that, at the "Head of Passes", the milage was "0.0", and that three branches formed a brackish no-man's-land suspended uneasily between the Mississippi and the Atlantic. I also knew that the river dumped about 400 million tons of mud into the Gulf each year, together with as much water as the twenty biggest European rivers put together. But lastly, in my haphazard reading of the nineteenth-century travellers, I had retained two particular descriptions.
One was a Mrs Trollope's: "I never beheld a scene so utterly desolate as this entrance of the Mississippi" - she claimed that it needed a second Dante to paint "its horrors". The other was Parkman's, and not much more encouraging: "The low and marshy shores drew apart, the brackish water changed to brine, and the breeze grew fresh with the salt breath of the sea. Then we came to the broad bosom of the great Gulf (...) tossing its restless billows, limitless, voiceless, lonely as when born of chaos".
Mulling it all over, I continued towards the sea, helped on by the harbingers of some grey clouds moving glumly south. And I began to consider my situation very seriously indeed. Behind me, as well as half a million cubic feet each second, were: possibly a rushing, oceanic tide; probably a 30 mph wind; and without doubt a pitch-black night. One monster I could handle, two I might risk, but three or four seemed to me too much. Very reluctantly, I decided that to venture out into the Gulf in such desperate conditions would be unmitigated madness. What was good enough for the milage-markers was good enough for me. Mile 0.0 would be my Interstate 00, my ultima Thule, my restless journeying's final end. If I didn't find at least a bit of peace there, I knew I probably never would.
Knowing that I was at last getting there, I slowed my paddles, and then pulled them completely inboard. Drifting steadily with the chocolate-brown waste, I contemplated the circular green horizon, wondering how it possibly held in all those miles of convex water. The sky, meanwhile, was cavorting giddily around, playing some sort of sublime symphony, but not bothering to tell the rest of the world about it. As Parkman had warned, it was all a bit lonely and voiceless. For the moment, however, I couldn't see any of Mrs Trollope's horrors.
I thought back again to La Salle, the first White man to navigate the Mississippi and the first to see the scene before my eyes. He had stopped here, it came to me. He had even erected a column in the marsh. On it was inscribed the name of his king, Louis XIV of France, and his claim to half a continent: the land between here, the highest Rockies, and Western Greenland. Since then, there had been one or two changes. The Empire had passed; and I couldn't see any sign of a column either. But perhaps I wasn't looking in the right place....
As I continued to scan the shore, my flow of French nostalgia was suddenly interrupted by a cross-current of electric intensity. It refused to state its exact business straight away, but proceeded to make repeated declarations of self-importance. It was something to do with the Rocky Mountains and the three passes now clearly in view.... To do with the Chain of Rocks and the spit of land below Cairo.... Rivers that come together, rivers that fork.... Then it came to me, in a sudden, searing flash: THREE FORKS! The Mississippi-Missouri sprang from three forks, and it returned to three forks. Tridents at both ends and the Chain of Rocks as a pivot. The missing rhyme for Louisiana was Montana. In its beginning was its end. Now the river really was one.
I could feel the hairs prickling all over my body. Wait till I told Bill about this one! I detected some more warning signs. Another brainstorm began to invade my poor skull, and then another amazing discovery tumbled out: none of the myriad books we had read had noticed this blatant fact, because no-one had thought of it as a single river before. No-one had noticed it, above all, because no-one had ever gone from one end of it to the other. And apparently nobody had even just visited both ends.
And then the inexorable drift had brought me to the very end of my dream. The point where the river unloaded all her sticky frustrations and passionately embraced the sub-tropical sea. I scooped up a handful of the blue-brown water, careful not to let it all trickle out; and I tasted it. It was both silty and salty, a bit like buffalo soup might be.
Without warning, the sky went translucent and let forth a flurry of heavy drops. I stretched out a hand and, to my surprise, felt that they were warm. Then I knew. The circle was complete. I was there.
With gallons of joy pumping into my heart, I turned Lochinvar round. Then, together, we headed back for New Orleans.
XVI MOTHERS, TELL YOUR CHILDREN?
That night on them banks I'd lie awake
And pull her close just to feel every breath
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse,
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the River
But I know the River is dry.
That sends me down to the River tonight
Down to the River
My baby and I
Oh down to the River
(Bruce Springsteen, "The River")
It was raining, then, when it ended. I was caught between America and the deep blue sea.
Safely back in New Orleans thanks to a kindly towboat captain, I learned that Tim and Liam had sent $400 to Rogers, Ark. - the former Dodge-owner must have got the shock of his life! They were going to set off for South America and a round-the-world tour. I thanked them for all their support, wished them the very best of luck, and headed back to my only haven.
Cathy was very, very glad to see me. For five days, I slept or just sat in her kind company. Like a golden-wedding couple, she took me for slow walks in the parks, holding me whenever my spindly legs would go no further. We went to the cinema, and we went for long, sunny drives.
Our idyll was interrupted by a middle-of-the-night phone-call from the Old World. Mr MacKenzie wanted to see me. I groaned, and went back to sleep. This hero was tired, he simply couldn't be bothered any more. The Mississippi-Missouri had broken something deep inside him, and he didn't know if it would ever mend. He wasn't sure if he even wanted it to.
Several hours later, Cathy brought in some hot, milky coffee and reality had to be faced up to again.
I left Omaha with my heart breaking. As if reliving earlier reincarnations, I flew to New York and to London, where I was kindly met by Randal Sadleir and my parents.
In his office in Edinburgh, Colin MacKenzie asked me for the accounts. I said there weren't any; and no funds either. It was just the way things had worked out, and it could have been much worse. But on his side, things were much worse. What he said gave me a very nasty shock. The total amount of money his office had raised was £1500. Or rather not even that. My fundraising dream was irrevocably shattered. We'd have been better busking.
A civic reception given by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh did bring me a moment of cheer, for Bill flew in from Paris and I was able to publicly express my debt to my parents. In the middle, a young man with faded jeans and a camera drove up. After another ten minutes, the pressmen were allowed in. There they met Graham Butcher, the photographer!
When the last champagne toast had been made, I was a free man. Without a penny to my name, the only proof I hadn't dreamed it all was a pile of muddy maps, ten C90s, and a metronome in my head. That, and a bruised and beaten orange friend.
Lochinvar found a permanent home in the Royal Scottish Museum, and her faithful companion a home-from-home at Mrs Kay Butcher's. And then I started writing up our American adventure - or rather writing it, as I soon found out. The main problem, I quickly realised, was not lack of material, but that of making what I had into an interesting and coherent narrative. The reader who has got this far may be a little surprised - I only wish there was some way to show him all the drafts I struggled with.
I began to read the books of various other expeditions on the globe. Most of them gave admirable general accounts, but very few, I discovered, gave the why as well as the how. I realised I was back at the beginning: wondering how I could begin to distinguish myself from the 4,000,000,000 other human beings on earth.
One of the things I had been trying to avoid, I found out, was the complacency of so many people. Unwilling - or unable - to fight them on their own self-satisfied terms, I had been attempting a radical cock-a-snook. I had wanted to say: "You sat in an office, and played with figures. I canoed a river for cancer." But now it was over, I no longer wished to say such things to Messrs Smug and Commercial. All they would say was: "Gee! How wonderful! All those alligators and things! Weren't you ever frightened?", with Mrs Smug and Commercial smirching in time, and looking too hard at my rapidly-vanishing biceps. But for those who did understand, I wanted to recount what I had learned from the river and from Twain: the real that sets off the dream.
As I continued my search through my masses of manuscripts, I thought back again to the role of the official organisations, especially the American Cancer Society. What better place to collect money, we had naively thought, than North America, where the cancer rates are amongst the highest in the world? In our naive way, we had skimped far beyond what was reasonable on food and safety equipment. Costs to cancer research amounted to the ridiculously small sum of £4500. This covered equipment, food, accommodation, and travel over seven months and 20,000 miles for 4 1/2 men. For the same amount of work, each man on the expedition could have earned twice this total - and avoided many pre-dawn attempts to start damp and windy fires. £4500 was about a tenth the cost of most expeditions, about a hundredth the cost of some. For that price, the cancer organisations got four world records. They also got hundreds of newspaper articles and radio programmes, and scores of hours of prime TV viewing time.
As I considered the ACS's behaviour, I grew more and more amazed. Our contribution was publicly praised by President Ford and the Prince of Wales, but wilfully ignored by those who received excellent salaries to promote the same cause. To the end of my life, I knew, I would be disappointed that the fundraising potential of the Mississippi-Missouri Expedition was never realised. The American Cancer Society's attitude can only be described as cynically shortsighted and wasteful of the public's money. The Cancer Research Campaign had better intentions, but their efforts came too little and too late. If a fundraising dinner can raise $500,000 in two hours, what could have been made of the first journey down America's primordial artery? If a two-week bicycle ride from Eastbourne to Istanbul can raise hundreds of thousands of pounds, what could have been made of four months of mud and misery?
All these ideas - and many more, about myself, the river, and the book - had been largely intuitive before. Now they had to be put down on the white sheets of paper, in all their naked vulnerability. If my Journey to New Orleans was a hard fact, my journey of self-discovery still had a long, long way to go. But at least there was now a starting-point.
In the event, I again took a roundabout route to my destination. I got a managerial job at a four-star Hydro in Perthshire, thus ensuring a secure future for myself. There was room for two cars beside my double living-room.
But ultimately this life was not designed for restless souls like myself. It was at the same time too impersonal and too stifling. After weeks of hesitation, I handed in my notice, put my maps and papers into ten string-bound plastic bags, and landed on the long-suffering Jeannie's doorstep. We were going to Paris for a long weekend together. But also, I was planning to look for my roots - I was perhaps going to stay in France for a very long while.
Bill was waiting at the Gare du Nord, with his attractive girlfriend, Nicole. That night, the four of us went out for a meal in a small restaurant in the Latin Quarter, and talked until very late. The day after, Bill found me a small but independent room on the Left Bank, only 200 yards from the Seine.
Now another of my dreams had been exorcised. I fell in love with Paris, and knew that it would take a long time to move me from here.
And so it was that the garret method worked. Several thousand sheets of paper later, a Mississippi Madness began to take shape....
The last question that the writing of the book raised was the classic one: would I do it again? Would I let my children do it? Older now, but not feeling any wiser, two replies are possible. If I could have known that Fort Peck, the tornado, the towboats, and Benjestown were waiting, the answer has to be a definite "no" - only a fool would knowingly risk his life to such an extent. But what if I possessed some sort of magic amulet guaranteeing safe passage? The answer must now be a resounding "yes" - the Mississippi-Missouri was precious little pleasure at the time, but must count as the greatest experience of all our lives.
We have our shared memories, then, and a legitimate pride. But we also have our regrets: regrets that financial straits hampered all our operations, regrets about the photographer, regrets about the fundraising, and regrets about the wasted dinner-date....
Yes, if we were to do it all again, everything would be very different.... Or will it? .......
APPENDIX 1 RECORDS
From all the information we have been able to find, it seems that five records were broken with the expedition.
Navigation of the Mississippi-Missouri: exhaustive search of the literature reveals no mention of any attempt before 1977 to navigate the M-M, powered or unpowered. (In Montana, we did speak to several people who had met canoeists attempting to cover the whole river before 1977, and even found a carved inscription in a riverside hut; but nothing further concerning these attempts has apparently been recorded.)
Canoeing of the Mississippi-Missouri: see above. Since 1977, the M-M has been canoed by at least two other teams.
Longest solo trip by canoe on a river: this record apparently still stands at the moment of writing.
Longest river trip by canoe: at 3810 miles (figure given by the Guinness Book of Records), the M-M trip was at the time the longest recorded river trip by canoe. (Jean Laporte's expedition (1953-4) missed out at least 800 miles of the Nile, meaning that the distance covered was well below 3400 miles. Similarly, the American Amazon descent of 1970 involved at most 3400 miles.) In 1983, a descent of the Amazon was claimed by Alan Holman - but the distance claimed was, for some reason, only 3800 miles. (Sole source of information for this last item is Paddler's World, Feb. 1983, p.12.) Again, the Guinness Book of Records (1984) reports Steve Bezuk's 3800 miles on the Amazon.
Longest solo trip by canoe on a single stretch of water: by Nov. 1977 no longer solo trip on a single stretch of water had apparently been recorded.
Percy Blandford, in his book An Illustrated History of Small Boats (1974), argues that the "belief that an Eskimo from Greenland arrived in his kayak on the West Coast of Scotland" has "no proof". (In any case, the distance would have been at most 2000 miles.) He also quotes the claim for Frank Romer's trip in 1938, from Lisbon, via Las Palmas (Canary Islands) and St Thomas (Virgin Islands), and towards Santo Domingo, a claim made posthumously by the Klepper canoe company as being 6199 km (3852 miles). But a) the claim is not fully substantiated, b) the straight-line distance is at most 3000 miles, and above all c) sails were used. Again, Dr Hannes Lindemann twice crossed from Las Palmas to the West Indies (1955, 1956), but again sails were used each time, and the straight-line distance was at most 2500 miles. The Guinness Book of Records (1983) in fact gives the longest "open sea" voyage by canoe to be one from Venezuela to Miami (2710 miles).
NB An appeal for information in Paddlers World produced no substantive information about longer trips in any of these categories. But the authors would be pleased to receive all information about these records.
APPENDIX 2 TABLE OF LOCALITIES AND DATES
The States listed are those adjoining the river at each point (and not necessarily the states to which the localities listed belong).
Three Forks (mile 0) Montana 12-13 July 1977
Canyon Ferry Dam17
Hauser Dam 17
Gates of the Mountains18
Holter Dam 18
Craig (mile 120)18-20
Craig 20 July
22 Fort Benton
23 Missouri Breaks
24-26 Fred Robinson Bridge (mile 395)
28 July-1 August
Fred Robinson Bridge 1 Aug.
Soda Creek Bay 2-3-4
Mussellshell Cr. 3
Devils Creek 3
Hell Creek 6-7
Fort Peck Dam 7
Milk River 9
Wolf Point 10
Poplar (R.) 11-12-13
Brockton (mile 466) 12
Brockton 13 Aug.
Fort Union 14
Yellowstone North Dakota 16
Little Missouri 21
Garrison Dam (end of Lake Sakakawea) 22
Fort Mandan 23
Interstate 94 24
Mobridge (mile 1022)
South Dakota 27-29
Mobridge 29 Aug.
Moreau Inlet 29-30
Cheyenne 1 September
Oahe Dam 2-3
Bad River 3
Medicine Creek 3-5
Middle of Lake Francis Case (mile 1400) 9-10
Middle of Lake Francis Case 10 Sept.
Dam at end of F. Case 12
Gavin's Point Dam S.Dak./Nebraska 14-15
James River S. Dak./Iowa/Nebr. 15
Vermillion Iowa/Nebr. 16
Sioux City 17-18
Lighthouse Marina 18-19
Interstate 80 19
Omaha 20 Sept.-2 October
Platte River 2
Rocky Bluff 2-3
Kansas Border (mile 1828) Missouri/Nebr./Kansas 5 Oct.
Kansas Border Missouri/Nebr./Kans. 5 Oct.
St Joseph Missouri/Kansas 8-9
Fort Leavenworth 10
Kansas City 11
Lexington Missouri 12
Interstate 70 13
Boone County 13
Jefferson City 13-14
Ewing Landing 14-15
Cote Sans Dessein 15
Saint Charles 17
St Louis (mile 2316) Missouri/Illinois 17-23
Chapter XI St Louis Missouri/Illinois 17-23 Oct.
St Louis Missouri/Illinois 23 Oct.
Sainte Geneviéve 25
Chester 25-26 Cairo (mile 2850)
27-28 Cairo 28 Oct.
Mason-Dixon Line Missouri/Ill./Kentucky 28
Columbus Missouri/Kent. 28
Island No. 10 Missouri/Kent./Tennessee 28
New Madrid Missouri/Kent. 28-29
Barge Terminals Missouri/Tennessee 30
Island No.21 Tenn./Arkansas 31
Tomato 31 Oct.-1 Nov.
Fort Pillow 1
Poker Point 1
Benjestown 1-2-3-4 Memphis (mile 3075) 1-4 Nov.
Memphis 4 Nov.
Arkansas River Ark./Mississippi 7
Big Island 7
Island No. 74 7
Greenville (mile 3250) 9
Island No. 89 Ark./La./Miss. 10
Island No. 93
Lake Providence 10-11
Natchez (mile 3452) 12-13
Natchez 13 Nov.
Glasscock Cutoff 13
Red River and Atchafalaya R. 13
Fort Adams Reach Louisiana 13
St Francisville 13-14
Port Hudson 14
Baton Rouge 14-15
Interstate 10 15
White Castle 15
New Orleans (mile 3700) 17-24
New Orleans 24
Nov. Intra-coastal Waterway 24
Fort Jackson 25
The Jump 25
HEAD OF PASSES (mile 3810) 25 Nov.