Tag Archives: BobDylan

only a pawn in their game


It’s been a sort of strange and unfocused few days these days: I left the river to go to Jackson to meet up with a new fellow-traveler who got laid low with asthma at the last minute and had to cancel. Somehow the combination of being far from the river, needing to re-calibrate my plans, and being in an actual city again, has put me a bit off balance.

I spent an excellent evening reading stories by Eudora Welty in the Jackson library, which has been named after her. I was given a tour of her house the next day by two lovely ladies, I stayed in a pleasant state park right in town, I hung out at an excellent cafe in a house, so there are many rooms to choose from to sit and drink your coffee and read or write, I bought some books at Lemuria Bookstore (“capitalism at its most transcendent”, David correctly describes it), I stood in Medgar Evers’ driveway where he was shot and killed in 1963.

One of the docents at the Welty House reminded me of a Southern version of my mother: she was wearing a scarf of that exact style my mother excelled at finding: artsy and unique, not something you’d ever see in the pages of Vogue or at Bergdorf’s, but probably just as expensive. And she let me know in a million small ways that she recognized me: she told me of her time in NYC as a young woman in the 60s, generously complimented me on my neat appearance for someone camping every night, commented on my handmade Irish sweater (brought home by my mother from a trip to Ireland in 1967); “each one unique so that they’ll know the drowned man by his sweater if not his face when they fish him out.” She told me about Eudora’s first love: “he lived for fifty years with another man,” she said, looking at me steadily. And when I said I was going to Medgar Evers’ house, she told me there’s a whole tour of civil rights sites around Jackson, “if you’re interested in that kind of thing.” If I were Eudora Welty, I would definitely put her in a short story.


I headed back out to the country on Thursday, to Poverty Point, an ancient Native American site in northeastern Louisiana that flourished for more than a thousand years. I was completely alone there, and wandered by foot and bike all over the place in the late-afternoon light. It is structured as a series of long concentric half-circles that radiate from a center mound which is in the shape of a winged bird. I made a big circle around to the main mound, where I walked up to the head of the bird and down again, and then pedaled around the mound itself and climbed up to the body. Standing there, I had a glimpse of something very powerful, a sense of being sheltered — held — in the body of this giant effigy bird, and close to the ghosts of all the people who had scrabbled in the dirt to pile up and carry soil, basket by basket, to build this sacred place.

We human beings are miraculous and pitiful creatures, all of us. And I think of a line from a novel of Penelope Fitzgerald’s, not about people building mounds, but about young actors putting on a show, but it’s all the same thing, really. It’s all the same thing. “Happy are those who can be sure that what they are doing at the moment is the most important thing on earth.”


room 306


We’ve spent most of the last couple days in Memphis: serious rain (plus a blown-out bike tire and a boring computer problem that both needed addressing in town) made it seem like coming down here might be a better way to explore right now than trying to paddle or pedal in the downpour.

We spent a morning at Graceland, which was oddly moving, somehow. I’ve never been a giant Elvis fan, but the guy was incredibly generous with his gifts, and I can’t help but think of him and Michael Jackson as twinned doomed casualties of the culture of celebrity, sacrificed and devoured by the success they yearned for and had earned. So many parallels between the two lives, it’s really kind of spooky. And because I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s autobiography these days, I think with even greater respect and understanding of how Dylan has navigated his own fame and success, and I end up forgiving him his false fronts, his mannered artifice, his refusal to come clean. There is a kind of openhearted generosity that will destroy a person — cagey bullshit crankiness, even as it veers into pretension, begins to make a whole lot of sense.

Not being myself a celebrity, I end up studying Dylan’s model not so much for self-protective purposes, but as inspiration for how delving into one’s own weird, idiosyncratic passions and interests can end up being fruitful and satisfying in ways one could never imagine in advance: and, embarrassing as it is to admit, even after all these years of foregoing the expected paths and rewards, I still need reassurance that I’m not throwing my life away by focusing on things like paddling down the Mississippi instead of commercial success, or orchestra commissions, or tenure. Not that I’d necessarily turn any of those things down(!), but Dylan’s model urges me to get more out there, more idiosyncratic, rather than succumbing to toeing some invisible line of reasonableness.

We stopped in for lunch at a place downtown called Earnestine and Hazel’s. We were the only customers there on this rainy afternoon, so after making us really excellent hamburgers, Butch took us upstairs and showed us around the former brothel, and told us stories about musicians — how, for example, Little Richard worked as a dishwasher here for a time. Butch’s training is as a geologist, and he has worked all over the world, and we had a fine time talking about skateboarding, and earthquakes, and kids, and the river, in addition to music. You want to come here next time you’re in Memphis, for sure for sure.

Nearby is the Lorraine Motel, which has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum. At first I wasn’t so sure how I felt about having the museum right in the motel where MLK was assassinated, but after going through the museum, I think it’s absolutely right, somehow. Having real remnants of the 1960s — the motel sign, the cars parked below the room — brings that terrible time vividly to life. I am not enough of a baby boomer to valorize the 60s as free love and flowers and all of that — I see the 60s through my parents’ eyes, and they were horrified, sickened, by the murders and the assassinations and the bullhorns and water hoses and the bombs and the bomb shelters. And talking about the museum with Mary Rodriguez later, we agreed that the right adjective for the museum is sickening. You get a feeling in your throat and your belly and it is awful. The obviously monstrous Bull Connor and Bobby Frank Cherry are dead and gone, but racism has just gone underground, gotten coded so that hate radio and TV can spew their bile with a certain deniability.

Reverend Abernathy chose to put this on the marker in front of Room 306: “They said to one another, ‘Behold, here comes the dreamer… Let us slay him… and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.'” (Genesis 37: 19-20)

I take this as a heartbroken exhortation to keep dreaming.

highway 61 visited


Mac and I are now happily ensconced in the public library in Wabasha, which is another winner of a small town. We were marveling earlier at how you can never guess which of these towns is going to be a favorite: Red Wing was good, Lake City was blah, Wabasha is great. Population size, date of founding, none of these things tell you in advance where you are going to find a certain excellent mix of history and vibrancy, civic pride and personal warmth. But it’s totally obvious when you’ve found it, that’s for sure!

Today is Mary Kay’s first time kayaking on her own, and Mac and I sat down with her last night after dinner to pass on all the pointers and tidbits we could think of that she might not have internalized in her days of paddling with one of us. It made me realize that after nearly 600 miles of paddling between us, Mac and I really do know some stuff about this undertaking. Somehow having Heather and Mary Kay here is causing Mac and me to look at our relationship to the river in a new way. Talking about it this morning, Mac said it’s sort of like after you’ve been in a new relationship for a little while and you sit down to talk through what’s going on. Phase One is definitely over. Probably has been since we reached St. Paul.

And along with the limestone bluffs lining the river, a new thread has entered the journey: Highway 61! You know that Highway 61, with the famous crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to play the blues, starts in Duluth, of all places? The birthplace of the unrecognizable Bob Dylan?! Cool, no? (We watched Pennebaker’s brilliant Don’t Look Back in the tent last night in his (or its) honor.) Highway 61 joins the river for real at Hastings, and will be with us to the very end.