A canoe trip on the Mississippi
Author A.D. Miller goes on a journey through the history of a ‘misunderstood’ state
The Financial Times | July 29th 2016
The children saw it first. After we heaved our canoe on to the island, they raced across the sand and shouted back to us. The boat was lying in a rivulet among the dunes, capsized and abandoned, like the beginning of a story. An upturned boat on an island in the Mississippi river: this was a primordial American scene.
Early that morning we met Alan and Woody, our guides for the day, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, home of the crossroads where the musician Robert Johnson is said to have bartered his soul to the devil; en route to the river we pulled in at the site of the slave cabin in which Muddy Waters once lived with his sharecropping grandmother. We launched the canoe at Friar’s Point, where, on the corner outside Hirsberg’s drugstore — now facing an ornately rusted petrol station — Waters heard Johnson playing the blues. Alan sat at the front of the canoe, Woody at the back, my wife and I and our two children perched with our paddles between them.
It was overcast but hot — the heavy, almost hallucinogenic southern heat that has moulded the region’s personality. We began in a back channel between the mainland and a long, narrow island, passing toppled trees, some with precarious warrens of exposed roots, a few stubbornly upright in the water. This, said Alan, was the sort of crossing that runaway slaves might have risked, the dogs and rifles at their heels, finding out if they could swim only after they plunged in. They would have lain submerged among the reeds and overhanging branches, he said, only their noses exposed, breathing, waiting. Rounding the tip of the island, we emerged from the channel into the main river.
“The great Mississippi,” Mark Twain called it. “The majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along.” This was the spectacle that, setting out from our home in Atlanta for a family road-trip across this misunderstood state, we had been keenest to see.
It is indeed majestic and magnificent, but not exactly beautiful. The Mississippi drains the US from the Rockies to the Alleghenies, dividing the continent from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It has delineated the boundaries between known and unknown and between rival empires; it has scythed off the corners of states. Sometimes it forces its tributaries to flow backwards. But it is too big to be pretty. Out in the middle, the trees on the distant banks look scrubby and unremarkable. Alan told us that when, on the pillaging expedition of 1541, Hernando de Soto first saw Native Americans assembling beyond what he called El Rio de la Florida, he thought they must be dwarfs. (The following year, when de Soto died, to maintain the fable of his divinity his body was sunk in the river.)
So, more awesome than lovely, and certainly not blue. In these lower stretches the water is an oozy brown, opaque and uninviting, as thick with silt and driftwood as it is with legend. “A man that drunk Mississippi water,” says one of Twain’s characters approvingly, “could grow corn in his stomach if he wanted to.” That didn’t deter the children and, out beyond the counter-currents that course back upstream, they jumped in and hung on to the canoe in their life jackets as we dragged them through the murk.
The island was on the Arkansas side. We stopped there to eat lunch and play games and talk. The sand was unexpectedly pristine. Scampering back across it, after inspecting the lost boat, I had the odd sensation of being at once solitary and surrounded: by spectral steamboats and civil-war sloops, the shades of Huckleberry Finn and Jim and of all those tribes, conquistadors and frontiersmen.
Living people, on the other hand, were scarce. The island was all ours, and back on the water we encountered only a few boozy fishermen. Twice we hurried out of the way of tugs pushing coal, cotton or grain, the perennial Mississippi cargos, up to Tunica or Memphis. The barges are so low-slung, and this part of river so winding, that you spot them only late. The banks were wild and deserted.
That, Alan explained, is because, when the rains fall and the snow melts upriver, the water can rise by as much as 50ft. The nutrients those floods deposit have reputedly given the Mississippi Delta, the alluvial plain between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, the most fertile soil west of the Nile. But mechanisation has done for the cotton jobs — like the tractor-driving that was Muddy Waters’ lot until, after his boss refused him a raise, he took his chances in Chicago — and, these days, the Delta is a shimmering mythoscape of decomposing machinery and derelict cotton gins, eerie cypress swamps and ghostly towns crumbling into the rich earth.
Few humans, then, but other kinds of life abound, in the fecund southern way that makes sense of the enthusiasm for hunting. There are beavers and turkey along the banks, and lots of snakes — water moccasins and copperheads. The species you need to worry about, Alan warned, somehow symbolically, are the types with human-shaped eyes. We spotted turtles sunning themselves on fallen trees and vivid red-winged blackbirds, and startled a group of white-tailed deer on a secluded beach. Woody said he once saw a wild hog swimming for its life; he identified an alligator gar for us, a prehistoric-looking fish that leapt from the shallows. The children thought they saw an actual alligator, but it turned out to be a log. On the river, Alan assured us, there are no alligators north of Vicksburg.
We crossed back over to the Mississippi side, pausing to swim off a sandbank in the muggy afternoon, 620 miles from the Gulf, according to a marker. We paddled through a grove of sunken willows, just wide enough for the canoe to navigate, and out again to the middle. The sun broke through to pick out the eddies on the surface, plus the “dead spots” where the raised riverbed calms the surface above it. The sky was vast, as it seems to be across the spookily flat Delta. The children stopped splashing each other and, away from the bird-calls on the banks, there was silence.
Around 15 miles downstream from Friar’s Point we turned into an inlet, heading for the Quapaw landing, where we were to meet our driver. First, though, Alan had promised the kids that they could scavenge for berries in the bushes along the shore. We pulled in and scrambled up the bank in a pollen storm, Woody keeping up with us in the canoe. No berries were to be found: “Snake done ate ’em,” he said in his melodious Mississippi accent, every vowel a sonata. But Alan found a set of deer tracks, and with them the prints of a coyote in pursuit, which we followed until they vanished into the foliage for some unseen consummation. Alan ingeniously roped us to a tree to abseil down the mush to the canoe.
Paddling across the inlet, we felt a long way from the Mississippi of caricature, as we did throughout our road trip. To many Americans, the state connotes obdurate prejudice, warped nostalgia, hypocritical religion, and maybe — by way of consolation — the music the anguish has yielded. Driving in from the east, the welcome centre on the highway had seemed to validate the stereotypes: it featured a large crucifix, a reverential portrait of Robert E Lee (the Confederacy’s top general) and an outsized cut-out of Elvis Presley (born in Tupelo before his family headed for Memphis). But, to us, Mississippi was so much more than its reputation. We camped besides the Natchez Trace, a path originally tramped by buffalo, Native Americans, traders and brigands, now a gorgeous parkway that cuts through the state and up into Tennessee. Dolphins trailed the ferry we took to West Ship Island, a pristine stretch of sand out in the Gulf.
Rather than wallowing in the past, much of Mississippi seemed titanically to be wrestling with it. We visited battlefields of the civil war and of the civil-rights struggle, the criminal mansions of slaveholders and those of the postwar cotton aristocracy, many now peeling or converted into bed-and-breakfasts. In Oxford we made out the bullet marks left on the University of Mississippi’s Lyceum by the anti-integration riot of 1962; in William Faulkner’s study we read the storyline he traced on the wall in red-grease pencil. At the wonderful BB King museum in Indianola I learnt that King named his guitar, Lucille, after a woman in a juke joint in Twist, Arkansas, which burnt down when two men fought over her while he was playing. His was another hard, triumphant, overflowing bluesman’s life.
Still, during our eight days in Mississippi we loved our time with Alan and Woody best. Nowhere else did history feel as close as on the lonely river, as if the actors in America’s primal dramas were near enough to wave to, hazily visible across the water like de Soto’s natives.
Our daughter sat astride the prow as we crossed over to Quapaw landing. We dragged out the canoe amid a swarm of butterflies and drove back up to Clarksdale.