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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.