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Big River

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

I don't know whose idea it was to paddle a stretch of the Mississippi. Probably Matt's since the first time I met him, in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, he was wearing scuba fins and goggles. You see, Matt is a geologist and knows things about the land. He knows New Orleans is too close to sea level for his comfort, so according to him, it was only a matter of time before it went underwater, and he wanted to be ready. Matt is a common name, so later, as we hung out more, he became Crazy Matt--a name that seemed to go well with his typical outfit of cowboy boots and shorts. But that's not what this piece is about.

As we began planning the logistics for the inaugural trip, we were surprised how easy it was to secure a canoe from LSU's Outdoor Rec Center. Twenty bucks for the weekend, and we didn't even have to tell them where we were taking it. We were also surprised that my wife agreed to be a part of the trip and drive us north for the drop off so we could paddle down to Baton Rouge, especially since the drop point Matt pegged was a stone's throw from the state pen at Angola. Most surprising, though, was that not only did no one want to join us, everyone treated us like we were crazy, which, of course, Matt was, but the trip was not. Not in our eyes anyway, yet more and more people began to tell us that we were going to die. I think we might have leveraged that general attitude for free beer by suggesting that we should cheers since they might not ever see us again.

The weekend finally came, and I can remember the look on my wife's face as it sunk that, yep, this is who she married and it probably wouldn't be the last time she would be asked to do something like this. Despite her reservations and everyone else's outright condescension, as you might have already guessed, we did not die. In fact, we returned from the trip with our canoe intact, and unlike every college apartment I ever rented, actually got our deposit back. And we returned with great stories. I don't remember any of them, but they must have been good because by the next year, the very people who told us we were going to die wanted to join us.

Luckily, since my memory lately seems to resemble the worn out cast net hanging underneath my house, I can remember stories from that next trip because I wrote about it. My friend Joshua Clark, founder of Light of New Orleans Publishing and author of the beautiful book Heart Like Water, put out a call for submissions, asking folks to capture a minute in the day of life in Louisiana. So I wrote about our river trip, and he accepted it. The piece below was originally published in Louisiana In Words (Pelican Press, 2007).

6:17 P.M. 

"How in the hell is he gonna manage that?" Justus asks, squinting in the dusk. 

	No one responds. Instead they all focus on the massive stack of barges that, until moments ago, had been laid up against the east bank a few hundred yards to the south of their campsite. Now, finally, as though the pilot's worked up enough gumption to try what appears to them an impossible feat, he has pried the whole apparatus away from the bank, which is why they've all six left the fire to stand at the edge of the bluff where they're set up. They want to see first-hand how he's going to move thirty-five barges, not just up the Mississippi, but around the ninety-degree bend to the northeast that they paddled through just hours ago. A nightmarish series of currents and eddies, the bend doubled the speed of their three canoes, forcing one pair of paddlers into the bank. Their boats, of course, only weigh a few hundred pounds each. The pilot, however, is going against those currents, and he's doing it with a few million tons of cargo. 
	Twain mythologized the river pilot, and rightly so. The job may be different today, but a pilot still must be able to navigate whatever cargo he is charged with, up or down this river, no matter the conditions. It's October now, so the sun's nearly down, its amber light filtering through the tops of the trees across the river. The guys wonder how he can see well enough to negotiate the turn. Twain said the pilot can see what he is doing with his eyes closed. They all wait. No one says a word. 
	As soon as the barges are in front of them, they can see just how much water the tug's propellers must churn to make any headway at all, and the pilot's task becomes even more daunting. He edges by them, heading toward the bend. 
	"There he goes," Justus says, sensing it's all about to happen. 
	But he's wrong. The pilot stuns them all, shouting out "Hey guys!" over a bullhorn. He sounds about fifty, with a scratchy voice that says he's given a few orders and had his fair share of whiskey. "Looks like y'all need some girls out there!" he calls out, his voice oddly cheerful in the twilight. He laughs over the tug's loudspeaker, and the campers huddled at the edge of the bluff join him in the revelry. He's the first pilot to ever hail them like this. 
	A moment later a deckhand steps out from the wheelhouse, and they, still laughing over the pilot, stop to watch him. He simply looks at them, turns, and moons them over the deck rail. 
	"What?" Doyle howls, and Guthrie laughs beer through his nose. 
	No one seems too shocked, though. After all, the crew on the tug is just a bunch of guys on a boat working the river; the ones on the bluff are just a bunch of guys who canoe a little piece of the river every year. The men on the river face unseen dangers and fight currents that engineers have been trying to tame for centuries; the ones on the bank merely fight their wives, friends and neighbors, and anyone else who hears about their annual trip: wives worry, friends and neighbors shake their heads, and a few people inevitably tell them, every year, that they will die. 
	The pilot aims the barges straight for the west bank of the river, about two hundred yards above where it bends sharply to the northeast. It's difficult to tell from where they are, but Vida swears the pilot touches the bank with the bow of the barges. Then, surprising them again, the pilot backs almost completely off the throttle. The river swings the tug, as silently and swiftly as a pendulum, toward the bank, and, at what seems like the last possible second, the pilot revs the engines again. Nothing happens at first, but soon he has her moving forward, sliding gracefully along the bank. Twain was dead on. 
	"Wow," Willie says. 
	The pilot disappears beyond the bend, sending a volley of whistles as he goes, and the guys head back to the fire they've made high above the river. Soon Brock will make his traditional pastalaya, they'll have a few beers, and they'll howl at the moon when it rises above the river tonight. Tomorrow they'll return to Baton Rouge, getting the same curious stares they always do as they pull their canoes onto the bank by the casinos. 

The following year, I did a kayak race down the Mississippi (unfortunately for everyone involved, the last mile was up the river . . .), but a year after this piece was published, I moved to Pensacola, and there would be no more river trips like this one.

That was a long time ago, and when I moved, I pretty much gave up writing. Cool thing is, I haven't opened Louisiana In Words in as long as I can remember, and just a few minutes ago, before I started transcribing the piece above, I caught a glimpse of the title page. I had forgotten that Joshua had written an inscription at all.

"Don't ever stop!" is all he wrote, but I believe in Godwinks, so I'm going to treat this as one of them. Plus, last I saw Josh his beard was of such a size, shape, and scope that you kind of feel like he just knows things, like Crazy Matt Justus, and you listen.

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