Mile 343 of Lower Mississippi – December 4, 2012
I piled three plastic jugs on the bathroom counter.
One used to sit on a grocery store shelf in Floodwood, Minnesota, filled with a gallon of lemonade tea before I picked it up and dragged it across the Savanna Portage. I didn’t want to filter swamp water so I needed more than the single liter bottle I’d been carrying on Lake Superior. I didn’t want the tea, but I liked the bottle’s toughness and its strong cap that wouldn’t bust loose in a hull.
The second bottle is a gallon jug that Sally West gave me when I stopped at her house in Prescott, Wisconsin, a few days south of Minneapolis. The label peeled off long ago, but it used to have apple cider in it and I could taste a hint of spice the first few times I filled it.
The last is a 3 liter bottle I bought in Caruthersville, Missouri, a few minutes after the old man there told me about people stealing boats on the river. I put it on the counter with two 1.5 liter tubs of ice cream, paid, and raced back to make sure I wouldn’t have to walk to Key West. Strawberry and Butterfinger ice cream don’t mix, but the water bottle has served well for a few hundred miles.
I turned on the sink and realized not one of the bottles would fit under the faucet. I’d looked outside for a water fountain or hose, but there weren’t any which is why I was in the bathroom standing at a sink. I stared at it for a moment, thought of going back to the boat for my cooking pot, then looked through a trash can until I found an empty Coke bottle.
It looked clean enough and probably spent all of five minutes between a vending machine and the garbage. I washed it, rinsed it out, then filled my three worn bottles with it, 500 ml at a time.
It’s not all barges and waves, not all moonlit nights and shooting stars, sometimes it’s just rummaging through garbage cans in search of water, but I don’t mind too much, as long as no one sees me.
Bit by bit I filled those bottles. It took forever and I hoped no one would walk into the bathroom because I knew they’d think I was homeless and then I’d feel shame, not because of their mistake, but because I’d want to correct it.
“No, no,” I’d say. “I’m just getting water for the next stretch of river.”
But really what I’d be saying is that I’m not that kind of person, that I’m one of you, not one of them. Like us and them mean anything when we’re all just part of humanity and trying to live our lives the best we can. Yes, I’d rather no one see me so I could go on believing I don’t care about their perception.
I threw the Coke bottle back into the garbage can, lugged the filled jugs down the levee to my boat, and slipped out on the water, back to waves and barges, moonlit nights and shooting stars.