Tennessee/Mississippi Border, Mile 715 on Lower Mississippi – November 25, 2012
The three kids ran down the rock slope until they reached the blanket of concrete slabs laid out at the bottom of the levee.
I’d just said goodbye to everyone at the boat ramp, but they’d driven down a bit of the way to watch me paddle and no jumble of rocks is going to stop a kid from running down to say goodbye one last time.
“Were you getting food?” one of them asked me.
I laughed and shook my head. I’d been fiddling with my deck bag, moving things around, adjusting equipment. I lose a bit of rhythm when I stop. I lose my grace, my smoothness for a day or so. I forget where to stash my gloves, what pocket I put my hat in, the hundred little facets of a routine.
But I would trade all my rhythm for those dozen hugs on the boat ramp, those last pictures of everyone together, for trying not to cry as I said goodbye.
I’d trade it all for Joseph handing me one of his earphones without me saying a word so we could both watch The Walking Dead on his computer even though we each had to lean in and could only hear out of one ear, for driving around Memphis with Frank to find a propane tank for the turkey fryer and seeing his face light up when he cut a slice of leftover pecan pie for breakfast, for the big hug Marjorie gave me when I arrived and the way her shining eyes remind you that life is wonderful.
I’d trade it all for the laughter of a loud and full Thanksgiving dinner with fried turkey, onion pie, and chocolate covered bacon, for pulling boxes of Christmas decorations out of the attic and watching a house transform for the holidays, for a slab of Memphis’ best ribs at Central BBQ.
The kids stood on the bank looking at me and I stared back at them, not sure what to do. It’s hard to say goodbye.
“You guys gonna go with me?” I asked.
They nodded and I floated, barely paddling, drifting in the current as the two 11-year-old boys and a 9-year-old girl ran after me, scrambling over broken slabs of concrete to keep up, picking out the best way around logs and over rocks, asking a hundred questions about the boat, about the trip, about anything they could think of.
I’ve paddled so many miles. Under cliffs a hundred feet high, across lakes as still as glass, through sandstone caves beautiful enough to make a person believe in magic, past waterfalls that roar, by a silver arch shining in the sun, across a lake that wants to be an ocean, through ancient trade routes, over swirling whirlpools in the mighty Mississippi, under soaring Pelicans a thousand strong, but the few hundred feet with those kids running beside me, adventure filling their hearts, their eyes bright with excitement from a yellow boat floating away under a clear blue sky, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
It’s hard to say goodbye.