Mile 499 on Lower Mississippi, just over the Louisiana Border – November 29, 2012
I drag the boat up a sandbar and stand looking at the water in the dark. The air feels sharp and cold. The moon still waits below the horizon. I need to decide to stay or go.
I open the front hatch and eat crackers while a barge passes into the distance. Paddle for 24 hours, paddle 100 miles. I remember thinking about it long ago and how everything seemed simpler in my mind when I wasn’t cold and dreaming of a warm sleeping bag. The moon brightens the eastern sky and I wonder if I have it in me.
“Go,” I tell myself. “It’s the last chance.”
The stars fade against the full moon. The world turns silver and the color drains out of it leaving only light and shadows.
I skirt along the shore as a barge comes up river. It is only blinking lights and the cyclops-eye of a spotlight and I never figure out how close it is until it passes like a giant wall of shadow.
I watch a campfire flicker on a distant beach for miles until I draw close enough to see two faces in the ring of light. I wonder if they see me or if I am a ghost slipping past.
“Huck Finn would have played a joke,” I think to myself. “Well, maybe not Huck, but Tom Sawyer for sure.”
I pass a set of loading docks along a bend of river. The workers are gone, leaving only empty buildings and electric lights that burn in the night. I watch a lamp-post pop and fizzle out as I pass.
Hisses and snorts call out to me from the water. I shine my headlamp and the reflective eyes of five otters look back at me. They glow white-green in the darkness, disappearing and reappearing as they bob up and down, staring at me like demons in the night.
Cities glow orange along the horizon. I pick them out on my map. There’s McGehee, Dermott, Indianola, Leland, and Greenville, I think. I wonder if they see any stars or if the glow swallows up the sky.
All my senses feel alive. Everything is hyper-real in the darkness. Every sound, every flicker of light, every smell means something. Bits of information flood into my brain to process into barges, snags, waves, rocks, sandbars, current, processed into the world around me.
A short conversation with Wally past midnight.
“What the hell are we doing on the river at 1 am?”
Trying to paddle 100 miles.
“This isn’t in our contract.”
Who’s bored enough to read contracts? I’ll buy you all the ice cream in New Orleans.
“Yes you will and a beignet or two or two dozen.”
You don’t even what a beignet is.
“Yes, but I want them. All of them.”
“Fine. But why are we doing this again?”
To impress the grand kids one day when we’re old and sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch.
“I’d settle for it impressing their grandmother when were young and sitting on a bar stool on a first date.”
Thin clouds hover around the moon, catching a giant halo of light. I try to take a picture, but it is hopeless. There is no way to share the moment. It is mine and will only last as long as my memory.
I feel my grip on reality slipping with each hour. The gears of my mind stick and want grease. The sane part of me sounds muffled and has to yell to be heard.
“That is a barge,” it screams. “Not a tractor on a sandbar at 2 am.”
I’m not convinced. I blink and stare and wonder what a tractor is doing on a sandbar at 2 am until it transforms into a barge.
“I wonder what they did with the tractor,” I say to myself.
Whirlpools and eddies swirl like a witch’s cauldron around each wingdam. Ripples of water shimmer in the moonlight, tracing the spinning current.
The Looksha glides over it all, nudging back and forth, playful and alive. I remind myself that I’ve done all this before, that it’s no different in the night even if a whirlpool looks like the maw of some giant beast.
“It is only the darkness playing tricks,” I say.
A barge’s spotlight blinds me around a bend while I wait for it to pass. I don’t know why it is shining on me but I know what a fox feels like when it it’s caught in headlights. The spotlight flicks away to find the next buoy and I wait in my quiet, dark corner.
Underneath a giant bridge I watch semi-trucks rumble over the Mississippi. I wonder where they are going at this late hour. I wonder if they even notice the big river below or if it is just part of the road for them like their bridge is just part of my night sky.
A beaver crouches on a pile of rocks, then slips into the water, hunched like an old sea hag. I know it will slap it’s tail and disappear, but I jump at the sound anyway.
The American Queen glides northward in all her glory. Decks stack on top of one another, lit golden with electricity. Her paddlewheel spins, all red paint, water, and a bright white light. She is as beautiful as the first time I saw her.
No barges pass for an hour. I soar in the middle of the river, staring up at the moon and stars. The banks are nothing but distant shadows and the only artificial light comes from slow blinking shore beacons marking the channel’s curves.
I can’t see the levees, I can’t see the riprap or concrete blankets along the banks. The windgams are nothing but shadows.
“Was it kinda like this, Huck?” I ask the night.
Dawn comes rosy and blue, building on the horizon as stars slip away. There is always something unreal about dawn’s arrival before you’ve slept. It’s glorious, like you’ve willed it into existence, like your weary muscles pushed the night away, like you can feel the Earth spinning in the universe.
I want to stop. Every bit of soft sand looks like a dream. I almost slip to sleep as I paddle. It would feel so good to stop, it would be ecstasy but I’m so close, I’ve come so far. Just keep going, I tell myself, just keep putting the paddle into the water. I go and I go until I cannot go anymore.
I slip to a beach, dragging the boat behind me, then collapse on the shore. It feels like all the other sandbars, but this is different, this is Louisiana, this is the last state on the Mississippi, this is a hundred miles from where I started. For some reason that matters. My eyes close and the world disappears.