The Mississippi Project
Blogging the great American river.

By Gabe Crane | The Mississippi River is the spine of the nation. This is not a unique observation, but a metaphor that is drawn again and again. Taken literally, it describes a country that has no head, one that is sprawling and overweight, that defecates on the lower Americas and shakes its fist at the Old World, all while sporting a curious peg leg in the lower right corner that keeps influencing the actions of the rest of the body. It is only a metaphor, but it is one among many attempting to uncover the essence of this unique river. From Lewis and Clark to Mark Twain to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Mississippi remains this country’s greatest artery and imaginative device, a river once referred to by Hemingway as the birthplace of all great American literature.

Yet every year, some people decide that the concept itself isn’t enough. Come April and May, there will be one or two groups of arguably imbecilic people who decide to take the two-odd months necessary to float or paddle down the length of the entire waterway. Such a journey passes through 10 states, encompasses nearly 2,500 miles, and, at least in summer, is almost unbearably hot and offers few amenities. It is, to put it bluntly, absurd. And this summer, we decided to go.

There were four of us, and we took two canoes. With the help of generous grants from the Kelly Writers House and the Center for Undergraduate Research, we began in Minnesota in late May. We pulled our gear together in the Twin Cities, drove up to the town of Bemidji, took a picture next to the oversized statue of Paul Bunyan and his Baby Blue Ox, put our canoe in the water, and started paddling downstream.

That bit about the American consciousness and the birthplace of literature sounds nice in theory, but there is a point where the metaphor stops and the river begins. With your feet in the water, the Mississippi today is dirty. It is lined with industry, and heavy with the traffic of barges. It is, in short, no place for a canoe. The two months we took to paddle from Minnesota to New Orleans, camping on sandbars and beside railroad tracks along the way, were about as bizarre as they come. In Brainerd, Minnesota, we camped in a minor league baseball stadium. In Davenport, Iowa, a homeless person stole my guitar. We hitched rides through small towns, passed pleasure boaters and fishermen; we nestled in among the pilgrims taking photographs of Graceland.

In New Madrid, Missouri, we ate in the home of a man who saw us by the water and decided he’d do something nice. Two weeks later, in Catfish Point, Mississippi, another man did the same thing, and then let us stay the night. His name was Frank Smith, he was an investor from Jackson, and as we ate he noted, “We’ve got a lot of bad eggs, but there’s a lot of good people in this country.” Take, for example, Jacob Savoie, a recent LSU graduate who didn’t know us, yet put us up in his Baton Rouge apartment just because he was asked by a friend. Jacob picked us up at the Casino Rouge riverboat casino in a pressed shirt and tie, took one look at us, and said, “Shit, this is weird.” We stayed the night, and passed right on through.

There are countless anecdotes to tell, characters to describe, but what sticks out more than any of these, looking back, is how exhausting it is to paddle a canoe. You feel it in your shoulders and arms and back. Your hands blister. Most of all, you feel it in your head. For miles at a time, a single thought will haunt every stroke. A single lyric from a song you can’t stand will crawl inside you and refuse to leave. You will stare at the shore as it shuttles slowly past, wondering how far you have gone.

But as the days go by, the journey simply becomes the thing you decided to do. Some days when the river is moody, water pools to the surface like thoughts forming in the current, spinning, crashing into other thoughts and raging at the edges, downstream and then gone, swallowed again by the river, part again of the whole. You watch this over and over, and time and distance become relative terms. You daydream. You space out. On the crest of your half-formed thoughts, you forget you are even paddling. Eventually, it becomes as simple as breathing, as if you have been pulling blade through water your whole life.

Canoeing, in this sense then, is a moving meditation. It forces you to watch your brain at work, to notice its waves and swells. You breathe in and out. You make peace with yourself. You sink down to the realization that you exist, that you are alive, and you push yourself downstream.

We kept a blog during our journey (http://mississippi-project.blogspot.com), and told people our crazy stories (adopting a kitten, fending off flying Asian carp, etc.). But what I think people found most intriguing, over and over, was our daily routine. Clicking along with us on the Internet, perhaps it seemed almost unfathomable that a group of 21st-century kids could bisect this country at what essentially amounted to the pace of walking. This is the technological age, after all. As a general principle, we don’t go farther than the corner store without taking out the car.

Paradoxically, for all the rhetoric of a “flat” world, a world of possibility, it took us falling off the grid to fully prove the point. Canoeing the Mississippi is not particularly extraordinary, or laudable, or heroic, but it is different. It sticks out like a blade of grass from your laptop screen. It snaps the air conditioning into perspective. The Internet may have opened a world of innumerable wonders, but it has also, if only indirectly, shut certain aspects of our imagination down. We do live in a world of possibility, but that matters only to the extent that we use it.

So you take that realization and you paddle a canoe down the Mississippi. Or maybe canoeing isn’t your thing. Maybe you sit down to write a poem. Maybe you go for a drive. Maybe you call that estranged friend from high school and apologize for all the mediocre things you have done. Or maybe you just close your eyes and breathe, calm and still, letting the realization course through you, feeling it awaken something you forgot was there, that you once had and now finally have back again, this feeling, your life—your life!—again, in your very own hands.


Gabe Crane is a College senior from Berkeley, California.


FIRST PERSON: Essays

Notes from the Undergrad Blogging the Big Muddy
Alumni Voices Remembering a mentor
Elsewhere An “air hug” in Alaska
Expert Opinion Kindest cut?

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