I am constantly haunted by water. I try to drink eight full glasses a day, swim as often as possible (the dog paddle is my favorite stroke), do some menial hard labor task so that I coax tiny droplets to ooze out of me, and I adore soaking in a hot spring during those quiet crepuscular hours before dawn in contemplation of all that the day may bring. But my favorite association with water is sitting on top of it in a canoe, rhythmically stroking a good wooden paddle again and again and again, in motion meditation.
This morning, close to dawn, I am out of the water. I can't see it, touch it nor even smell it, but I can think back to the Good Friday when Malcolm White and I were about halfway into our "Paddle Down the Pearl," a 431-mile odyssey that began at the Nanih Waiya Mounds in the land of the Choctaw. We were in the process of paddling the entire Pearl River, raising money for the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children. We'd been talking daily to our fellow Mississippians through television, radio and newspaper about what the hospital was doing and the condition of our state's longest river.
It had been one helluva Good Friday morning, as Good Fridays go, paddling into a headwind, our rose-hued necks arched forward as we strained our arms and shoulders in an effort to make a press conference in Monticello. Bert Case had been calling, inquiring about our location. He wanted to go live at noon on WLBT. "We're just up river from you, Bert. We'll be there, we'll be there." Just as the scorching April sun reached its apex, we rounded a bend and spotted a cheering throng of well-wishers gathered at Monticello's River Park. There was a convergence and oh, how Bert loves a convergence.
We'd made it, a couple of sweaty, smelly sunburned river rats in need of a shower and a cold beer. As the high school band played, TV cameras rolled, men cooked catfish in large vats of boiling oil. Rather large glasses of, and I'm positive about this, absolutely the best iced tea I have ever had quenched our thirst.
Monticello greeted us with open arms. After a grand picnic of cole slaw, French fries, hushpuppies and fried Mississippi catfish, we thanked all and headed toward our canoes. The mayor stopped us, asking if we'd like to stay overnight in their bed and breakfast. After a nano-second of consideration, in unison, we replied, "YES-WE-WOULD!"
A long, hot bath in an old claw-foot tub does wonders for muscles aching from 18 days on the river. There were copious amounts of food, bottles of soothing wine, pleasant conversation—why, we even colored Easter eggs. I slept soundly, dreaming of children riding on the backs of great birds, giggling uncontrollably, their hair flowing in the breeze. I don't know, but it may have had something to do with the luxurious feather bed on which I slept.
After breakfast Saturday morning, we received a call from Captain Coyt of the WLBT Skycopter, who had been on assignment in New Orleans. They wanted to airlift us two muffulettas from the Central Grocery on Decatur Street. Did we want them? In unison: "YES-WE-WOULD!" Down at the river, we heard the chopper approaching. It circled twice, hovered low, and a rather large plastic bag fell, splat, between our canoes. Everyone waved, and the chopper headed north while we headed south—on toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Even though we'd only been off the river for 24 hours, I had missed it terribly. There's a groove you get in after so many days of doing a thing. River travel is no different. It becomes calming; the canoe becomes home. Stroke after stroke after stroke brings you closer to the oneness where you, canoe, paddle and river are all one thing, one creature moving in harmony through currents of space and time. In that oneness, we moved effortlessly even though it was hot, white hot, and our skin reddened more and more. Occasionally, we stopped to slip into the water, somewhat cooler than the air—but not much—yet it took away some of the sun's sting.
There were times we wouldn't see each other for hours, following our own drummer, then joining up again to tell stories about the bird or alligator or that huge sandbar, the one with all the tracks.
We traveled on unspeaking, reflecting in our own motion meditation until late afternoon when we encountered a small johnboat containing a man, a boy and a black dog. They broke the silence with, "There they are! Hey! There they are! We've been watching for you since Wednesday!" Even the dog welcomed us with uncontrollable barking and rapid horizontal movements of her tail. "Welcome to our section of the river!" Bombarded with questions, we talked and floated for probably half an hour, and as we began to break off and head on down to find a suitable campsite for the night, they would not hear of us sleeping outside again—not on Easter weekend—not when their camp was so close down river. So, when asked if we'd stay the night, in unison, we replied, "YES-WE-WOULD!" They would go ahead and make everything ready. We asked, "How will we know how to find you?" They replied, in unison, "Oh, you'll know!" With that, they sped away.
With the setting sun, we picked up our pace, wanting to get off the river before it became too dark to be safe, growing ever more anxious until we rounded a bend and there, river right, was one of the largest bonfires I have ever seen. We nudged up to the bank, threw a few things out that would be needed for the night, hopped on the back of their truck as they slung sand, holding on white-knuckled. Where were they taking us? We climbed up and up off the river to the top of the bluff to another huge bonfire surrounded by small mismatched buildings—a refrigerated truck bed used as a bunk house, a wooden A-frame structure developed into a living room and master bedroom, an outdoor bathing area—but the main living space was in the open, surrounding that huge fire ring. On two sides was an open-air pavilion containing freezers, outdoor cooking units (deep fryer, gas grill, charcoal grill with spit, microwave and oven), and all around the fire ring were evenly spaced upholstered recliners. Our hosts offered us a beer and a chair. In unison, we said, "Thanks, WE'LL-TAKE-IT!"
We talked while they were steadily frying fish they had caught that day—motleys, another name for flathead catfish—listening to tales of how the Army Corps of Engineers, with their practices, had damaged their property, river and consequently, their way of life. These riverfolk were not too enthused about governmental bureaucratic intervention.
Soon, our hosts left us at their camp. A hot shower, clean clothes and a comfortable bed in a refrigerated truck box called me to sleep, and I willingly went.
Anxious to be back on the river, I rose before dawn and awoke Malcolm. We left our new-found friends a thank-you note, and as we hiked the switchback down to the river shrouded in fog, a small red fox scurried across our path, stopped briefly, looked directly as us then, seemingly unconcerned, continued to her den after a long night's journey.
We were living a dream, our dream and the dream of would-be Huck Finns and Thor Heyerdahls, would-be curiosity-infected explorers who, in their dreams, travel rivers and oceans, cross continents and mountain ranges. The dreams of hard-working individuals who long to take the time from responsibilities of home to skip-the-light-fandango.
It wasn't long before we interrupted three fishermen running their trot lines. After pleasantries of "How ya doin'? Catchin' any?" the older man of the trio beckoned us over with a gentle wave of his arm. "I know who you boys are," he said. "You're paddling our river raising money for children. Come over close. I just want you to know that I think it's a wonderful thing you're doin'." Then he slowly pulled from the back pocket of his well-used overalls a thick wallet that looked as if it contained his life history. I can imagine its contents—fishing licenses and tiny scraps of paper with writing only he could decipher, pictures of grandchildren, not all of them, just the youngest four, and a picture of him and his wife taken when they spent the weekend back in 1964 at the Pink Flamingo Motel on Biloxi Beach. He removed the two blue rubber bands that held it together with his rough and scarred, yet nimble, fisherman's fingers and pulled out a slightly damp 20-dollar bill, saying, "I want you to add this to what you've collected … for the children." Before he was finished, the old man had cleaned out his wallet—$53 in all—at the request of his son and grandson. Thanking them for the more than generous donation, we began drifting apart. The old man put his hand to his mouth and with a wink, said, "You know, these are my boys, and you know I'll never get that money back, but it's OK! It's for the children."
I was not prepared for the generosity of the people of the Pearl—the size of the hearts of a linear community of people so diverse in their socio-economic backgrounds, yet so single-minded in their generosity toward those in need.
I don't want to ever forget that Easter. The people of the Pearl changed my life forever. They enriched it. So did the river.