Last Boat on the River | Expeditions / Travel and holiday
by Quentin van Marle
IMAGINE THIS IF YOU WILL: you go to bed one night inside the home you know so well - and wake up the next morning to find that your house has, quite literally, been moved to a different street, or even to another town entirely. This cannot be so, you say; it’s impossible; a few too many last night, that must be it. But then you get dressed and walk out the front door - into totally unfamiliar surrounds.
These panic-stricken moments would have anyone seriously questioning their state of mind, or even believing they and their property had been abducted by aliens while sound asleep. Yet such an event has occurred many times, and in the only place it could do.
Beside the Mississippi River.
This, as you will see, is no tall story. Unlike most rivers of the world, the Mississippi does as it damn well pleases, including the overnight shifting of residences from one place to another. It has a mind of its own; an aquatic Action Man, a doer-of-deeds over which humans have no control; a flowing, enigmatic spirit that is the custodian of some amazing tales and dark secrets.
This alone makes it worth exploring more than any other river I can think of. From its tiny source near the Canadian border in northern Minnesota, my aim is to travel all the way to its estuary down in the swamplands of deepest-south Louisiana: some 2,000 miles by road or 2,552 miles by water, along its twisting, snake-like river bends.
It is a deceptively friendly waterway, and in its own way, pretty schizophrenic: a river that is absolutely vital to mankind everywhere, and steeped in history and romance like no other; a river of folklore and culture; danger, violence, and tragedy. It delivers good times and terrible times. When in the mood, the Mississippi won’t simply shift your house, it will transport you to that great place in the sky without warning. A serial killer with the warmest of smiles.
Three recent adventurers, all certifiable, have navigated its length by bizarre means. One guy rolled down it in a barrel; another juggled his legs on a log; and a hardened Slav actually swam the distance. Unlike them - and wimp-like by comparison - I shall do this by bicycle, alongside its banks.
I am a freelance writer, a hack, and this will be the fourth cycling marathon that I’ve undertaken for the BBC Radio 5 Live programme Up All Night, and for which I’ll be making weekly broadcasts as I pedal along - hopefully an eclectic mix of stories covering a whole range of topics; the unusual, the striking, the tear jerking, the outrageous, and anything worthwhile that I happen to come across en-route, on the road and off it: stories which I’d be most unlikely to find had I been travelling by any other method than a simple bicycle. Just for the record, those previous BBC adventures were coast-to-coast America from Los Angeles to Key West; through Australia from far north Queensland down to Melbourne; and a much shorter hop from Durban to Cape Town in South Africa: only 1,000 miles, that one.
Such an obvious Mississippi character as Mark Twain clearly has to figure within these pages, and he will periodically do so. So to explain that bewildering opening paragraph, let’s have this wise old scribe take up the slack. These are his words from 1882, and they remain as true today as they were back then.
‘The Mississippi has a disposition to make prodigious jumps by cutting through narrow necks of land, and thus straightening and shortening itself. More than once it has shortened itself by 30 miles at a single jump. These cut-offs have thrown several river towns out into the rural districts, and built up sandbars and forests in front of them. The town of Delta used to be three miles below Vicksburg. A recent cut-off has radically changed the position, and Delta is now two miles above Vicksburg.
A cut-off plays havoc with boundary lines and jurisdictions: for instance, a man living in the State of Mississippi today for whom a cut-off occurs overnight, will tomorrow find himself and his land on the other side of the river, within the boundaries, and subject to, the laws of the State of Louisiana. Such a thing happening on the upper river in the old times, could have taken a slave from Missouri across to Illinois and made a free man of him’.
So I shall be taking nothing for granted, not even on dry land, as I make my way along the length of what is arguably the world’s most mystical river. Far from it. For one thing, my bike is an untried entity in this instance. It is not the standard touring cycle, in so much as it has ‘electric assist’. That is to say, there is a tiny one-horsepower electric motor tucked into the hub of the front wheel. Now perhaps I’m bowing to advancing years, but I like the idea of this device; something to give the rider a boost when the headwinds get high and the hills get higher still. But this journey is to be the longest ever made on such a machine and the battery capacity has yet to be tested on runs of up to 80 miles at a time.
I have not the slightest idea what lies in store as I make my way up to Lake Itasca, Minnesota - the actual source of the Mississippi. Assuming that I’m not killed in the process, all I hope for at this stage is that over the next eight or nine weeks my two wheels will spin alongside the big river, from the very top to the very bottom. As for what happens in between …