Tag Archives: museum

mac is back!


I started this river trip with Mac Walton more than four months ago: he and I drove from Vermont to Minnesota together, met up with Richard Steadman-Jones, and paddled down the river for several weeks before Mac headed back to Maine from the Quad Cities in September. So I am totally delighted that he’s flown back out to join on for the last few days of the journey: it really feels like the completion of a beautiful circle. Mac has let his beard and hair grow this whole time, and I haven’t had a haircut either, not something we discussed in advance, but I really love this shared physical marker of the trip’s time’s passage. And Richard has lately begun posting some material relating to our Archives of Exile project, which is another excellent circle radiating from this river project.

I had promised myself to go to a megachurch before finishing the journey, but as I mentioned, I just couldn’t bring myself to deal with Jimmy Swaggart. My St. Francisville friend Luke mentioned that there’s a next-generation megachurch in Baton Rouge called The Healing Place, so Mac and I headed there for one of the three Sunday morning services. The parking lot was full of SUVs and luxury cars, the church was packed with probably fifteen hundred people, about forty percent of the service was devoted to asking for money, there was a nine-piece band, three soloists, a full chorus, flashy spiritual infomericals, but as far as I could tell, the entire Healing Place experience was virtually content-free. It’s not that I heard things that offended or disturbed me. I really didn’t feel anything at all, didn’t even feel like I’d been to church, and I left feeling just as ignorant of the allure of this megachurch phenomenon as I had been before. It’s clear that I’m completely missing something, some key that would clarify the appeal of all this to thousands of people. If you get it, please explain it to me!


We drove up to Livonia, and I biked about thirty miles down to Plaquemine Sunday afternoon along a back bayou. It was a beautiful ride, and I saw my first living armadillo in the wild (there has been lots of armadillo roadkill before now), and then I saw another… and then another. But no alligators, sorry to say. It may be the wrong time of year for alligator sightings.

On Monday we drove back up to Plaquemine and got a tour of the defunct lock from a very kind man named Stan, and visited the really beautiful Catholic church in town, and then wandered down the river road, past the tiny Madonna Chapel, and various plantations, and stopped for lunch and a bizarrely stilted tour of Oak Alley. The trees really are gorgeous, but this whole plantation thing is just not for me. In a hundred years are people going to be taking tours of that Merrill Lynch guy’s bathroom fixtures? I really really hope not.

Mulling all this over while driving past roofless houses, trailers, bungalows, and sheds, we headed back to camp at Bayou Segnette, just outside New Orleans, changed clothes, and went in to town. Yay! We did the absolutely essential tourist thing of wandering around the French Quarter and having a cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe du Monde, and then we found a great little takeout place and went out and sat in the park looking at the river eating our insanely wonderful po’ boys.

We went back to camp, and at about midnight the wind started. And kept going. And then the rain came. And kept going. And then the lightning and thunder. And the combination of all three was enough that I got a bit wet even in my en-tarped cocoon-like hammock, but not badly enough to bail and head for the car. And when I did emerge in the morning, I was really glad I hadn’t tried to get out in the night. A pond about six inches deep had materialized under my hammock. Check it out!


when the levee breaks


Monday morning, I drove down to Rosedale and headed first to the library, where Martha the librarian gave me an excellent orientation to the town and its history. Turns out this area was a big center for making moonshine during Prohibition — instead of the requisite cannon displayed in front of the State Park visitor center, there’s a whiskey still. The most famous moonshiner was a guy named Perry Martin, who was the son of a successful rice farmer, and had trained for the ministry. He lived on a houseboat on the river side of the levee, and had a bunch of stills set up on Big Island. He eventually built a house on the dry side of the levee, got sick the first night he slept there and never did again. But he would come over the levee every day for lunch with his wife.

I camped out for two nights like Perry Martin, on the river side of the levee, in the state park. The weather is beautiful–clear and warm–and I can sleep in the hammock without the tarp over me, so I get to look at the stars as I fall asleep, and wake up with the dawn. I’ve been doing a good deal of reading: finally got to Lanterns on the Levee, which is a heartbreaking book. The wisdom and the wrongness are so inextricably interwoven, there’s no way to pull them apart. And it’s not just that Will Percy is a white supremicist aristocrat living past his time, it’s also that he is so obviously a closeted self-lacerating gay man who knows he will never live up to his father’s standards. It is a tragic and awful book, but it is beautiful. Read it and weep.

The towns here are hideously far apart: to find an internet cafe, I had to drive 35 miles to Cleveland, where there’s a great coffee place in an old gas station, they roll up the garage doors and you sit in the former repair bay as if it were a terrace.

On Wednesday, I drove down a bit, past the town where Baby Doll was filmed, up to the levee and then biked around the area where the levee broke in the 1927 flood. There were No Trespassing signs everywhere, and I was spooked into imagining someone might shoot me for ignoring them, so I loaded the bike back on the car and drove down into Greenville, which, like all these Delta downtowns except maybe Cleveland, the college town, seems at first glance to be in such a state of decay and poverty that you can hardly imagine how people continue to live here. The buildings in best repair downtown are the churches, including the one built by Will Percy’s Dutch tutor and priest with his own money, (see pp. 86-91 of Lanterns on the Levee), and the synagogue (there has always been a thriving Jewish population in Greenville), and the First AME, which has been visited by Langston Hughes and Leontyne Price (and Herbert Hoover during the flood.)

I had made a plan to meet up with the musician and ethnomusicologist Mark Howell and his wife, Stephanie, at the BB King Museum in Indianola, so I drove out the back way through Leland, site of the old Percy plantation, where there is now quite a nice town with houses along a bayou, and arrived in time to meet up with Mark and Stephanie and hear an interesting panel discussion about this book. Afterwards, Mark and Stephanie and I had dinner and headed over to Lake Village, which is the town across the river from Greenville on the Arkansas side. Mark, with the help of his father and brother, has built a house right on Lake Chicot, based on a design adapted from excavation data for a Mississippian-era house in the Delta. It is a totally great place, surrounded by just enough trees to feel cozy but not obscure the view of the lake. And the light is gorgeous! I went down to the dock and watched the sun set into the lake while having a fine long call with Despina in Athens, and a little gray cat came and sat on my lap and sang a song to me, and I am very happy to be here.

goin back to friar’s point


I didn’t leave the River Museum in Tunica until long after it had officially closed, so I ended up staying in Tunica overnight, since, as in most gambling towns, the motels are super-cheap. The next morning I got in touch with John Ruskey, one of the masters of the Mississippi, a musician and painter and the proprietor of the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale. Most of you probably know Clarksdale as a famous crossroads of the blues, there’s a Delta Blues Museum here, and Morgan Freeman is one of the co-owners of the Ground Zero Blues Club. For river people, John Ruskey is another huge draw for Clarksdale. When I had my adventure in Fort Madison, John — who I had not yet met — wrote to reassure me that the river code precluded theft, and he was of course right about that. I’ve been looking forward to meeting John for weeks, and when I woke up in Tunica and looked at the map, I realized it was finally time!

John was heading out to gather a log (one of his projects is to craft dugout canoes with schoolkids in Helena, how cool is that?!), and I told him I was thinking of biking to Friar’s Point, so he invited me to park my car at his shop and left me a map with directions for a good route. I rode out to Friar’s Point through fields that go on for miles with vistas of sky and clouds that make me think this, too, should be called Big Sky country, along with Montana. Friar’s Point is a tiny little town on a sort of promontory of one of the meanders of the river. David told me that Conway Twitty’s father used to pilot the ferry there, but my main reason for wanting to bike out there was the description of the girl in Robert Johnson’s Traveling Riverside Blues, one of the hotter songs ever recorded.

David had told me there was a museum in town, by appointment only, but when I got there it was open. I walked in and was greeted by a man named Sonny Pharis, who showed me various treasures among an impossibly varied array of stuff. I particularly liked this pitchfork, and these old gas pumps of a sort I had never seen (pre-electric), but there was much much more: old dentist chairs and miscellaneous medical tools, Indian artifacts, booty taken from the Nazis in WWII, a collection of very fancy hats.

Sonny told me he wished he could go with me on my journey, and I would have been happy for him to join me. He was a lovely man, and he made me remember Stephen King’s beautiful short story, Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut. (For the moment, you can read it here.) As I was leaving, Sonny told me he would remember me forever and asked if I would do the same. I will remember you forever, Sonny. For sure.

On the way home, I rode past the Stovall Plantation, where Muddy Waters grew up and where Alan Lomax first recorded him in 1941. I am probably just imagining things, but I begin to feel as if the music is growing right out of the ground. There’s something really powerful going on around here.


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.

St. Louis bits and pieces


Monday morning, after a stop at REI (the Minneapolis REI had been full of depressive unhelpful staff, but the folks at the St. Louis REI were great: they taught us a new knot and some handy tarp tips so that we can avoid hammock baths in the future) we headed back to North Riverfront Park to put in for a quick paddle down to the arch. Two fisherman showed up to marvel (“like Tom Sawyer,” Kermit said) and generously helped us get the kayak through the mud and into the river. I have now gotten in and out of the river more times at North Riverfront Park than any other launch on this river, and I have to say it is by far the worst-maintained I have used on the entire trip. I have never been to this park when there weren’t many people here, fishing, hanging out, whatever, and I find it completely obscene that a major city can’t manage to pave the road to be driveable, keep the boat launch functional (it’s technically closed because no-one but canoes or kayaks could actually manage to put in here), and supply minimal services like portapotties, etc. to the people who use this park. Does the city really feel that poor people don’t need even minimal maintenance on the parks in their neighborhoods — only the rich need fresh air, fishing and boat access, and views of the river?!? It’s really outrageous. Someone could organize a Habitat- or CCC-like park construction project here and do a great service both for and with the people of this neighborhood.


Paddling down to the arch was fun! Instead of four mph, I’m averaging about six, so everything’s just a bit snappier, and you definitely want to plan in advance for where you’re getting out so you don’t overshoot the ramp. I got out right at the base of the arch, right past the Eads Bridge — two engineering marvels of two different centuries are cheek by jowl — and a little boy was putting two turtles (given by a pet shop that can’t sell them anymore) into the river. We had a fine conversation about boats and turtles and rivers, definitely subjects of shared interest between us.


On Tuesday morning, Mary and I got up really early in order to be at Cahokia for the dawn. The cloudy day made the dawn pretty diffuse, so I didn’t experience the solar/astrological significance very viscerally, but it was really wonderful to wander around the mounds listening to the ghosts of the city of 20,000 that flourished here around the first millennium. The structure of the main mound was strangely reminiscent of the Asclepeion of Kos I visited with Despina not long ago, a series of squared-off mounds which create a sense of drama as you climb up to each successive terrace.

The interpretive center at Cahokia is very well-done, and full of school kids on field trips (overheard: “Okay, we’re done with the list of questions, now we can really look around”), which was quite a contrast to the park we had had to ourselves for hours, so we headed back to the arch, where I had planned to get on the bike and head downriver. But when we got there, we discovered that you can actually go up in the arch, something Mary and I had somehow never understood, so we rode these odd and fun 60s-era pods to the top of the arch and down, and we watched the giant-screen movie about Louis and Clark, and explored the really beautifully-done museum (whoever curated the quotations and the historical context: bravo! I expect great pictures and visuals, but I could hardly stop myself from reading every printed word in the whole place…)

By then it was clear I wasn’t going to do a bike ride, so we headed back to my cousins in Clayton, stopping at the wacked out Cathedral of St. Louis, which really is as gaudy a church as I’ve ever seen in America, and I was particularly happy to see Ezekiel in the dome overwhelmed by the heavy hand of God, and the fishes and pelicans in the narthex. In front, there’s a sign designating this cathedral as a Minor Basilica: I thought a cathedral was a cathedral, but apparently there’s a hierarchy there, too; and if you come on particular days, you get a plenary indulgence just for walking in the door. I don’t really know what a plenary indulgence is, exactly, but I think I want one!

Wherever the river goes

I slept til noon on Sunday, and when I woke up, my cousins Emma and Spencer and Amy (Frank had to work) had figured out where they wanted to take me in St. Louis. The place is called the City Museum, and it’s hard to describe how cool this place is. Imagine Tom Sawyer’s island at Disneyland, cross that with the Holy Ghost Grotto in Wisconsin, and then multiply wildly, adding in two ancient airplanes, a schoolbus cantilevered off the roof, several bulldozers used as staircases, lots of masonry from torn down buildings, many mosaics and sculptures, all welded together and connected by heavy metal mesh (outdoors) or concrete (indoors), so that you can crawl or climb or slide through and among all these wonders. A kid can crawl or climb or slide through even more of it: some of the spaces are definitely too small for a full-grown person. It is a totally incredible place, and the guy who made it keeps adding new marvels, and I’m in a bit of delighted shock it can manage to exist in these litigious days. Next time you get to St. Louis, you really must pay a visit, pictures definitely do not do it justice!



Monday morning I picked up Mary Rowell at the St. Louis Airport and we immediately headed back north (Susan, you didn’t really think I’d skip it, did you?!?!) to Hannibal, where we wandered around town and visited Mark Twain’s boyhood home and other haunts, and climbed Cardiff Hill and read aloud the chapters in Life on the Mississippi where he describes revisiting Hannibal. Tourist Hannibal is really very nicely done, the shops and cafes along Main Street are pleasant and inviting, and I was happy to spend an afternoon wandering through it. Even the nostalgia is not laid on too thick: given that Twain himself can fall prey to that illness, I think it’s impressive that the town succeeds at honoring its history without wallowing in it.

Mary and I camped out at a commercial campground Monday night and as we were setting up camp, a gentleman came over to talk with us a bit. Galen is 83 years old and bikes and lifts weights five days a week. I would have placed him at least ten years younger, not just because he’s in great physical shape, but because he was so engaged and warm and curious about our adventure. The next morning as we were packing up to leave, he came back and offered us a blessing, a formal blessing, that I welcomed with my whole heart: thank you Galen, you are indeed a physician of souls right there in the Mark Twain Campground.

So after ten days away, I finally got out on the river again in my very own kayak this morning. We drove over to a boat launch on the Illinois side directly opposite Hannibal and I put in and paddled past downtown Hannibal and down the back sloughs in and among the islands, one of which must be the place where Huck and Jim launched their journey, and I couldn’t help but stop paddling and just float, imagining how it would feel to be rafting down this river, running away from slavery or an abusive drunken father, giving in the power of the river, thinking about the trippy irony that in this great American novel, Huck and Jim float south to freedom. What they do is not Calvinist effortful striving, not sweaty action-movie heroics: they just let the river carry them.

And after a while the clouds and rain cleared and the sun came out and the wind came up in gusts, so sometimes it was fighting me and others it was helping me along, and the whole undertaking felt like a game, a series of jokes between me and the wind and the water. And I can’t tell you how much I love being out here, and how happy I am to be underway again.

I gave the kayak over to Mary about 1 pm, and she should be getting here to Louisiana any minute now (the town, not the state(!) recommended, like Quincy, by a friend I haven’t met yet named Linda Smith) and I’ll see if I can find wi-fi to post this.