Wolf Island Bar, South of Columbus, KY – November 14, 2012
If the river doubled at St. Louis, it doubles again at Cairo. First came the Missouri, the river’s western branch, swirling in above that beautiful arch. Now comes the Ohio, the broad eastern branch, to join the Mississippi’s winding march toward New Orleans.
Sharpened to a muddy point, a narrow slice of land separates the two rivers. A man stood there, wrapped in jackets and a knit cap against the cold, and asked me if I was going to stop.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Is there any water up there?”
A few minutes later, Mike led me up to the parking lot where his old aluminum canoe sat on a homemade trailer. He pulled a two gallon jug out of the dented hull and started pouring it into my bottles.
“I canoed down from Wisconsin a few years back,” he said. “And I stopped here to look for water too.”
A moment later, we were telling stories, the kind that you only understand if you’ve been on the river, the inside jokes and worries, the little things that matter.
Stories about barges and getting yelled at, about how scary St. Louis is in a little boat and how giant the bridges are from the river, about thunderstorms and rising water, about muddy banks and sliding feet, about wind-bound days and moonlit nights, about backwater sloughs and open lakes, about waiting for locks in crashing waves and how small you feel as the water lowers in the chambers, about finding the perfect sandbar and random strangers helping you on the way.
It’s not that you can’t tell these stories to others, I tell them all the time, it’s that they will never quite understand, never quite get it all, because they weren’t there and don’t know the thousand little details that go unsaid, details that would weigh down and sink a story if you had to explain them all.
For the same reason best friends can laugh together at a single word, because they understand each other, Mike and I laughed and told stories.
“And you’re doing it alone too,” Mike said. “That’s rare, most people go with someone else.”
“I don’t mind too much,” I said. “You get used to it after a while.”
“Yea, you do,” he said. “But it is a lot of time to think. Your mind can really wander out there with no one to bring it back and break it up.”
“That’s the hardest part of all this,” I said. “I think I’ve thought about every failure, every regret, every mistake I’ve ever made.”
“It’s funny how fast you can go from happy to sad and back again isn’t it?”
“Yea,” I said, laughing at the frailty of emotions, the way they swing so sharply out here.
“But I’ll tell ya,” Mike said, “some days I’d be in some back channel and I’d just lean back and float, staring up at the sky…”
He held out a finger on each hand.
“…and that person who I always imagined myself to be and the person I was,” he said, “they got closer and closer until they were the same.”
He brought his two fingers together and smiled.
“That was pure joy.”