Mile 320 on the Upper Mississippi – October 29, 2012
The sun turned the thin clouds pink, then purples as it sunk away. Across the water, the moon rose in a perfect, white disk and Quincy, Illinois, began to glow with electricity.
Bathed in yellow light, the city rose on a hill with two elegant bridges reaching across the river. Cars flowed in and out above me as I slipped underneath it all in the quiet water feeling invisible in the shadows.
Past the last bridge, dozens of moored barges waited along the shore. They hung out from the bank in groups of three or four. Some were empty and tall, others sank low with loads of freight.
I glided past the faint lights that marked their corners and watched three tugs working across the river in the main channel. One of them had just brought a float of barges through Lock 21 and the two smaller tugs pulled it apart. Their spotlights fanned over the far banks and barges, bright and white, bringing daylight to pieces of night.
The tugs, the battered barges looming around me, it reminded me of that first night past the locks, of how scared I was.
Barges were raging giants then, eager to eat me, to crush me without a thought, but now I’ve watched them long enough to know they are just sheep, giant, metal sheep, that do nothing without their shepherds.
I’ve seen them close and far. I’ve seen them moored along banks. I’ve watched them move through locks. I’ve listened to them pass in the night. I know how a tug’s engine rumbles, how it’s low and quiet, but you feel it deep in your stomach. Familiarity has a way of breaking apart fear.
I listened and felt my way around the giants, aware and alert, but not frightened.
Beyond the last barge, Lock 21 gleamed in the night, but I turned away and pulled the Looksha across the low concrete wall on the far side of the river. The shepherds and their flocks could have the lock.
A moment later, I slipped into the water again and Quincy’s electric glow disappeared into the night across the silver-black water of the Mississippi.