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The Plaquemine Ferry

by Christopher Dow

You’d never guess by looking, but this greasy, gravelly road of packed brown mud leading down the Mississippi River’s eastern bank is a state highway. In the water, cabled to anchor posts embedded high up on the shore, sits a small, creaking, rusty barge, the only hopeful sign that something continues beyond the water’s edge. But it is a state highway—Louisiana 75—and the metal ramp hinged up on the barge’s foredeck proclaims that further travel on this route will have to wait for the Plaquemine Ferry.

It is just before 8 am on a drab, overcast weekday morning in early spring, and I’m first in line. Or last, since I drive up just as the ferry’s loading gate closes on the vehicle in front of me, and I watch a little wistfully as the boat churns across the Mississippi toward its landing half a mile or so upstream on the western bank. But being here by myself doesn’t bother me a bit. It’s why I’m here—to be alone. Ostensibly, I’m attending a conference in Baton Rouge, and one of the days, at least, my presence is required since I’m giving a presentation. But I’m not particularly equipped for social interaction on a large scale. It’s not that I can’t take crowds, but more that constant superficial social intercourse with strangers wears me out and down. I simply cannot seem to connect easily with others in such situations, and the social lubricants that make the wheels of superficial interpersonal interactions roll smoothly—alcohol, sports talk, partying, and so forth—are not strongly present in my makeup.

So here I am, out alone. Perhaps I’m fleeing, perhaps merely seeking my own element, which certainly isn’t back at the conference in Baton Rouge. If I can “network” at all, it is in some far more tenuous way and probably not directly related to professional concerns.

Besides, I’ve been to conferences, but I haven’t experienced the Mississippi this close. Sure, I’ve crossed it many times and seen its waters, but always from some high bridge—through girders and in sporadic glimpses to keep from crashing into other speeding cars. I want a more intimate relationship with this greatest waterway of the continent—perhaps an intimacy that, however brief, will resonate more deeply than any I could ever find in a conference crowd.

I’m alone at the ferry landing for nearly thirty minutes, and in that time, I go down to the water’s edge. There I squat and scoop a handful of the river then watch it trickle and spill back into itself. I stand and look out across its broad sweep. Here, just south of Baton Rouge, the river is nearly a mile wide, and at this early hour in early spring, a mist blankets its surface and clings to the trees that, on the far bank, are undifferentiated, dull-green masses. Up and down stream, the water and haze merge into blank distance lit with watery gray light. The air is very quiet, and the only sound is the lap of tiny waves breaking on the greasy gravel.

The mist only enhances the timelessness of this river they call the Big Muddy. The murky brown water definitely lives up to the name, being the color of America’s topsoil as it washes south to make Louisiana grander if no less waterlogged. And so does the river’s size. For a time, as I drove to the ferry landing through flat, rich delta farmland, soil the same color as the Mississippi, soil the river has been depositing for millennia from the continent’s heartland, I paralleled the levee that has been built to contain floods. The levee is reassuring and scary at the same time: reassuring because it helps keep the river in check, and scary because, even at twenty feet high, it is unable to fully contain a river that occasionally and implacably remembers when there were no levees and it had free rein over this land. I guess if the water washes over the levee, those flat fields where I drove could be twenty feet under.

That’s the way it seems to be with humankind. All that we do to control nature is both reassuring and scary. It is reassuring because it is we who do it, and we take comfort in that fact and in our efficacy when our efforts are successful. And it is scary because anything humans do seems inadequate in the face of nature, and also because our best intentions as a race frequently are lost amidst our ignorance and worst inclinations and all too often go awry despite our loftiest ambitions.

Rivers, especially big rivers like this, are an impediment to travel. They have a need to go in their own direction in their own time, and both often are at odds with the ways people want to go. The only passages across are bridges or ferries, and you might have to travel miles upstream or down to find one. Upstream from the Plaquemine Ferry, back in Baton Rouge, there is the I-10 bridge and maybe a smaller bridge. Downstream, about twenty miles, there’s a bridge, and between there and here is another ferry, smaller and, so I hear from a local, more sporadically run than this one. Ferries are chancier and definitely take longer than bridges. You pay for your close-up view of the water in coin of time. I guess that’s part of the price of slowing down. Everybody wants to speed up. I just want to slow down. And that, as much as getting close to the Mississippi, is why I’m here at this tiny ferry landing, watching the river and waiting for the boat to return.

Driftwood logs bump and jostle along the shoreline just downstream from the landing. They are trees, uprooted and denuded of leaves and all but the heaviest of their branches and roots. A heavy metal creaking comes from the barge as it rocks in the current. What do they do with the ferry and the barge when the river floods? The barge is a tethered floater. With enough line they could just pay it out on the river’s swollen bosom. But what if the power of the current grows too strong or if the water rises high enough to pour over the levee? The barge could find itself in a farm field. But no, not here. Here the levee is topped with a line of trees that would let the water spill through but not allow it to carry the barge over the top. Barge jail to keep it from escaping over the farmland like a runaway from a work gang.

Three small brown ducks emerge from the bank just downstream from the barge and swim out about forty feet to take off in low flight that skims the water. They don’t care about flood. They’d just fly above it or rest in treetops until the water settled. Watching the birds fly out and disappear into the mists over the water gives another lie to the notion that nature is mankind’s preserve. The ducks survive in spite of us, not because we’ve done anything to help them out.

Downstream, a long cargo barge pushes out of the void as if manifested—coalesced—from the water and mist and gray light. It churns upstream, the thud of its engines dulled by distance and humid air, barely seeming to make headway against the mighty current. Walking up the Mississippi. Samuel Clemens has been dead for a century, but this is still his river in some ways. He had Huck talk about driftwood logs along the shores and about barges, but I don’t think he could have envisioned diesel tugs pushing hundred-yard barge loads upstream where his character bumped down on a ten-foot log raft, marveling at paddle-wheel steamers.

Three sparrows flutter in from over the water and land on the barge’s mooring cables. Three sparrows to replace the three ducks. The spirits of the three ducks returned? What lies over there on the far shore across the misty river? I am reminded of that elder statesman of ferrymen—Charon—and understand that I am heading to the bank of the setting sun. But I’m no longer alone on my journey, for by now, several cars and trucks are parked behind me, their number growing slowly but steadily. Most of us are out, standing around or leaning on our vehicles, waiting for the ferry. It is staying an awfully long time over there on the western bank. Waiting for a more complete load. Waiting to return souls to the morning shore in this ceaseless round we call life. It won’t have to wait so long on this side, the way the cars and pickups are lining up. It seems we can’t wait to get to the west.

Ten or twelve cars back, an older man and a boy of about fourteen emerge from an old white pickup whose bed is built in with a large plywood box painted white, turning it into a homemade delivery truck. He and the boy climb the bank above the ferry landing, and I see, even from two hundred feet, that he notices me—singles me out of all this gathering at the shore. He knows that I don’t belong here and wonders who I am. I’m not sure, myself. I just know I’m not a choice but a state of being. And I understand suddenly and indisputably that he will come to me—must come to me. And as I watch the misty river and wait for the ferry, he does, purposefully but circumspectly, angling down the slope then with careful slowness along the line of cars, approaching like you might a skittish dog so it won’t run away before you can pet it.

Then he is here beside me, boy at his heels, to find out about this stranger. But his questions are as discreet as his approach, and I won’t give him the easy answers that mean nothing and can’t give him the hard answers I don’t really have. All I might truthfully say is that I am out of sync, but I don’t. Instead, I tell him I’m attending a convention in Baton Rouge, but today I am out to see southern Louisiana. My reticence doesn’t seem to bother him—maybe it’s because he knows that answers are for the young and too often empty, or maybe it’s because he realizes that the quiet acknowledgement we feel between us is all the answer there ever can be.

I ask him about the river, and he tells me the water is low. Eight feet. Been a dry season. He’s patriarch of a crawfishing clan in Bayou Pigeon, and he’s coming home in his truck after delivering a shipment to Baton Rouge. He sells crawfish all over Louisiana and as far west as Houston, and the presence of his grandson attests that the business might go on after he’s made his final delivery. If the swamps survive. He’s not sure they will. Water levels have been inconsistent the last couple of years, and pollutants and pesticides coming down the river with the topsoil are not amenable to aquatic life. And there are more people.

He asks where I’m going, and I show him on the map. He says I am welcome to visit him in Bayou Pigeon. He’s serious about the invitation in a way that most people aren’t these days—he remembers a day when it was only right to take in strangers and make them welcome. I say I might, and I don’t say that I don’t have time now or that I might never pass this way again. But he’s old enough to know that if the southern Louisiana swamp proves ephemeral, how could human comings and goings be different?

The ferry arrives at last and debarks its load. The man from Bayou Pigeon and his grandson return to their truck. The ferry is certainly no big boat but designed for local traffic and will hold maybe twenty-five vehicles. The toll is a dollar for cars, two-bits for foot traffic—there are half a dozen people afoot. Will the ferryman be an old bearded Greek in white robes? Should I put the Sacagawea dollar I’m carrying on my eyelid when I meet him?

But this is the New World. The ferryman isn’t Greek or a man. She’s a stocky, middle-aged black woman dressed in overalls. Her demeanor is gruff. She’s seen too many passengers on this recapitulatory though not redundant boat, and her impatient and scornful look says she can tell I’m an ignorant stranger. I think I’d better not mess with her, so I cross her palm with George Washington instead of Sacagawea and take my place on the ferry.

After I park, I get out and go to the side facing the east, back the way I’ve come, as if to get some sort of perspective. I’ll be driving west soon enough. I stare up stream and down. The mists are dissipating under the brightening sun, and the water is beginning to look like a river instead of an endless current shrouded in timelessness.

The man from Bayou Pigeon and his grandson join me, and we lean on the rail and watch reflectively as the Mississippi’s brown roil slides past. The ferry, to buck the current, describes a wide, upstream arc as it chugs toward the opposite shore. We don’t talk much during the short ride, but that is no matter. In our short time together, we have become, if not friends, then less than uncomfortable with one another. Perhaps he can tell that, while I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there, either, and that lends me a certain alliance with those who are here. Between us has grown a small but definite sympathy of questions unanswered and, thus, mysteries that remain to give life meaning. If we meet again, we will have old times to talk about and unknown understandings to reach.

In interesting contrast to the stop-gap arrangement of the landing barge on the eastern shore, the landing on the west is a permanent, paved, and bulwarked installation. Though it may well become inundated at high water, some vagary of the bank—of angle and curve—protects it from the ravages of the current in flood. The man from Bayou Pigeon and I say goodbye. Even the kid, until now silent though attentive, acknowledges our parting.

Leaving the ferry behind, I drive two-lane blacktops that meander across the delta and between swamps. On this cool early morning after the sunny warmth the day before, plumes of steam hover over all the lakes, ponds, swamps, and waterways. Some of them, if they are large bodies of water like lakes, have very large clouds that attenuate in the sluggish breeze.

Everywhere, ancient farm machinery lies rusting beneath vines, nearly as ubiquitous as the motorboats parked in yards. The old equipment would probably bring a few dollars from some antique hunter who could then sell it for thousands to upscale country gentry as just the thing to lend an air of authenticity to their rural fictions.

I’m not here to learn anything—I’m just looking at terrain I’ve never seen. But I live on a bayou myself, and the lure of johnboats sliding through green channels overarched with branches heavy with Spanish moss is unmistakable. Theoretically, I could board a boat in my backyard and eventually pilot it right up to the dock of the man from Bayou Pigeon. How nice to get lost somewhere, and this maze of waterway and hummock is as good a place for that as any desert, mountaintop, snowfield, or tiny foreign country.

So, no, I admit to myself. I’m not here to learn anything or, really, to look at the terrain. I’m here to get lost for a precious day in the only way our society now allows—to become an anonymous shadow in an anonymous car driving narrow back roads through towns easily forgotten. It’s something I’ve done frequently, and there’s always a peace on the empty back roads. And oddly, no matter where I’ve been—swamp, desert, forest, mountain—the terrain that I’m not really here to see forms an appropriate backdrop to my mood.

I suppose the questions are these: What gives one validity? Does it come from within or without? Is it real or manufactured? Most people seem to get it—or try to—from outside themselves. We rely on the approbation of others—hence our desire for the accolades of others. Hence our slavishness to the almighty dollar. Money lends cachet, power, and celebrity—or at least their semblance—and everyone jumps for a buck. Everyone wants to be the one pulling the strings and pointing directions. Everyone wants to be the elite for whom money equates not only as worth but as worthiness. But few seem to be pointing inside at the empty yearning for fulfillment that begs to be filled. What can fill this emptiness? How many dollars does it take? How much stuff? We should ask: How can it possibly be filled from without?

As I reflect on these questions, I meander over to Bayou Lafourche, and as I drive south along Louisiana 1, which parallels the bayou’s length, I watch the channel widen and deepen from a sluggish, algae-scummed canal to a major waterway lined with huge fishing boats. The bayou is one long fishing community, with an identity and culture all its own. Although its hundred-and-fifty-mile length is broken into protracted neighborhoods masquerading as towns, that doesn’t detract from its homogeneity. The towns—Thibodaux, Lafourche, Lockport, Golden Meadow, and others—are like pearls on a string. Each is separate, distinct, and precious, but all come from similar beds and are linked in a whole that compounds their special individual qualities. The huge fishing boats often bear family names on their bows—entire dynasties have made their living taking these craft down the bayou and out into the Gulf of Mexico to supply our tables with the harvest of the sea.

At last, I arrive at Grand Isle—the end of the bayou, the end of the road, and the end of the land. Before me lies the Gulf of Mexico, and the only place left to go is out into the water. But my vehicle is not made to float, so I simply stand there for a time at the edge of land, sea, and sky, feeling the blaze of the sun and thinking of the way I came to this place. What is the geography of alienation that precipitates the mud of the delta upon which ancient farm implements rust in humid sunlight? Who charts the Mississippi as it empties the soil of America’s soul?

And then, as always happens when there is no place left to go, it is time to return. So back I go, to the convention in Baton Rouge. But now it is late, and to be there by dinner, I must travel the most direct and rapid route, which means the I-10 bridge. So I do not retrace my steps and do not again cross the Plaquemine Ferry. Perhaps it truly was for me like Charon’s boat—an ephemeral vehicle to be ridden but once in a lifetime.

Yet I remain curious about the man from Bayou Pigeon—he who shared quiet understanding with a stranger and offered welcome. And as I ponder the circumstances of our meeting at an obscure passage over the main stream of America, I can’t help but compare him with the faceless crowds at the convention that have blurred in my memory to masses as featureless as the misty trees I saw across the Mississippi on that early morning.

The encounter with him remains vivid in my mind, and I have to wonder at the odd dichotomies of life, where I leave people so I can be alone yet cannot help but meet people who then become the most important parts of the journey.