New Orleans, Louisiana – December 16, 2012
I walked to the top of the levee in the French Quarter and stared at the Mississippi. I needed to see the river one more time. I needed to say goodbye.
“Huckleberry Finn is dead,” a woman told me once. “People read that book and they think the river’s going to be just like it, but it’s not, everything’s different. I don’t know why you’d want to paddle it.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
There was no Jim, no escape to freedom. I didn’t fake my death, explore a floating house, or get run over by a steamship. I wasn’t shot at in a family feud and no dual I saw almost led to a lynching. I didn’t miss the Ohio in a fog, get bit by a rattlesnake, or meet any European royalty. No one was tarred and feathered and Tom Sawyer never showed up.
But that woman was wrong.
I sat around a campfire with strangers turned friends and walked out of a restaurant freezer with a week’s worth of food. I saw power plants that changed the water’s temperature and towns that crowded behind levees. I dodged barges and pulled the boat around damns. Accents changed from “don’tcha know?” to nothing to “ya’ll” as food went from wild game to smoked BBQ to fried everything. I slept in a dozen beds in a dozen houses owned by a dozen people I’d never met before. I ran after the American Queen and hid next to saltwater freighters. I watched a small river turn into the Mighty Mississippi and I cried as I crossed under that last bridge and slid toward the French Quarter.
Huck Finn is not dead.
The river is what it has always been, a slice of American Pie cooked to the temperament of the age.
I stared at her one last time and listened to an old Cajun man talking nearby, not to me, but to anyone who would listen.
“Where ya at?” he said. “Ya in New Orleans, Louisiana, where people pay $1,000 to sit where you are.”
My eyes filled with the happy sadness of saying goodbye to something you love.
“Smile,” the Cajun said. “The most amazing thing in the world is a smile. When you smile, you’re happy.”
I stared at the water, smiled, and said goodbye.