St. Francisville, LA – December 8, 2012
From Baton Rouge to New Orleans, commercial traffic dominates the river. Freighters come in from the ocean and barges load and unload 24 hours a day to connect the commercial arteries of the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers with the world. Docks crowd each other for space along the shore and smoke stacks line the horizon. There are so many factories spewing chemicals that the stretch earned the nickname “Cancer Alley.” It’s no wonder people told me I should go down the Atchafalaya instead, avoid the traffic, leave the river to commerce.
“They don’t want you there,” they said. “It’s too crowded for a kayak, too many ships, too much traffic.”
For 120 miles, it’s less a river and more a knot of commerce, a gauntlet of engines and steel.
For days I’ve thought of the southern edge of Minneapolis, of Quincy, of St. Louis, of the junction with the Ohio, of how tight those places felt, how crowded and close, how I could barely breathe. They were only a few mile each, not 120, but I want to go to New Orleans. I want to go there in a boat, to get out of the water and walk through the French Quarter with mud on my feet and hear the brass bands playing.
“It’s my river too,” I want to shout.
But my radio broke a few days ago. It just quit and wouldn’t turn on. I’d never used it to talk with a tug, but I listened, I heard the chatter, the back and forth that let them me know where everyone was and who was heading what direction and I always knew I could have talked if I got into real trouble, I could call, I could scream over Channel 16, “here, I’m here, do you see me?” and hope that they did. I don’t know if it would have mattered, but it was some comfort.
“Three to four weeks,” the man at Uniden Customer Service told me when I called.
“No, there is no way to get a replacement faster,” he said.
“Sorry, three to four weeks,” he said again.
I dumped the radio at the post office this morning, next to a woman shipping Louisiana hot sauce and seasoning to her sister who moved out-of-state and missed the taste of home.
“Tony’s and Slap Ya Mama,” the woman told me, listing out names of seasonings like a person lists favorite brothers and sisters.
I returned to the maps and lines and aerial photos of the river filled with traffic. The water looked choked. Barges hung out like islands. Ships clogged the channel. I kept wanting it to change, but it never did. I looked and looked, looked all the way until Will, Allie and their neighbor Josh cooked dinner and we sat to eat. Then Josh disappeared back to his apartment for a moment, returned, and handed me an old radio he had.
“Keep it as long as you want,” he said.
I flicked it on, flipped through the channels, and felt the gauntlet calling.