........... and then another
"Be careful!" American friends in Britain warned us when they heard of our plans to canoe down the Mississippi. "Ours is a violent country. Don't trust anyone." Most of these friends were from big cities. They probably knew as little about the heartlands of America as we did.
A few years earlier, on the strength of some hours 'training' on the Oxford Canal, I had allowed myself to be persuaded to canoe the full length of the Danube. Now, respectively in our mid sixties and fifties, we sought an even longer and bigger river. At least George did, for all his life he has thrived on challengers. I can, on the whole, do without them! Yet I suspect that for me, too, there was a need to believe that middle age still leaves you with choices.
As we read more about the river, it began to take on a massive personality of its own. As a main artery through the geography and history of a whole continent it obviously had a tremendous story to tell. But constantly repeated themes in every account written by our predecessors on the river, of whatever era, were of the unpredictability of its currents, and the loneliness of much of its shores.
How about going with someone else, I suggested to George on a number of occasions? But he would have none of it. So that was that.
I had good reason to feel nervous. In their responses to us, the tourist organisations of each of the States we would be touching had been full of warnings of the unpredictability of the weather, the river traffic, the currents - and we discovered they were not exaggerating. In fact, the larger river traffic was the least of our problems, once we became accustomed to approaching the narrower stretches of the river with care. We had already learned on the Danube to steer clear of pleasure traffic whenever possible as motor boat owners seemed oblivious of the mayhem they could cause with their wash. As a result of this, George had persuaded a friend to construct for us an aluminium box, which sat amidships in the canoe and contained all our most precious belongings. It proved to be completely waterproof and saved us a great deal of mopping up.
On the other hand, the storms were mind-swamping. On one occasion, the fork lightning was a dazzling backdrop as George hauled the canoe higher out of the river. On another, the tent began floating under us until we decamped and ended the night in the Women's loo. On a third we were warned of an imminent tornado. But we survived to tell the tale and enjoy the amazing hospitality of the mid-Westerners.
Our first beaver dam - the first of many on the headwaters of the Mississippi
Other alarming moments included near-encounters with large vessels as we came out of locks, and weird swirls of current whose dangers were happily more apparent than real. But what we both remembered most, apart from the impressive size and character of the river itself, was the generosity of the Mid Westerners.
It was on our return home that my thoughts turned to my preferred form of writing: fiction.
Say, what kinda flag is that? one or two fishermen wanted to know!
But first I wrote of our Mississippi adventures in a little book called The Big Muddy. It was after our two main river journeys that Claire married Mike and soon after that they emigrated to Australia where her brother Nick had settled some years earlier. It was clear to me that their parents would follow suit. And so they did, coinciding with our move from Steeple a few miles north to Deddington. It also coincided with my entry into self-publishing.
One of our many idyllic camp sites on the banks of the Mississippi