September 28, 2010–Vicksburg, MS

Conditions continue to be favorable for river travel.  With the tailwind my speed approaches 7 mph.  As I headed to shore to break for lunch I experienced another mechanical failure of my mirage drive peddle system.  This time, the bike chain which turns the cogs sheared in half, rendering the drive completely useless.  Such a failure could not have occurred at a better time, however, as I was only 18 miles from the nearest town, where I intended to remain for several days.  Thus waiting for the spare part to arrive will not delay me.  I paddled the rest of the day, in the traditional method of kayaking, and found it to be rather toilsome.  I have been much spoiled by my mirage drive technology! It allows for the freedom of my hands to eat, drink, etc…

Vicksburg marks the end of the Delta region, large bluffs offering a commanding view of the bend in the river, which no doubt lent to its defensive authority during the Civil War.  I paddled up the Yazoo River diversion channel to reach the city–no small task now that I was going against the current.  At the municipal boat ramp I unpacked and sorted my gear, then sat on the dock backsplicing my frayed painter and talking with the tour boat operators, who spoke with a charming Louisiana drawl.

Also in the harbor were two 22-foot sailboats from Indiana.  The two sailors had left from the great lakes many months ago and were floating together down to the Gulf, then sailing around Florida, up the coast and up the Hudson and Erie Canal in the “Grand Loop.”  To save fuel they drift most of the day, meaning that I unexpectedly outdistance them by nearly double the miles each day.  Their journey is being prosecuted on the slimmest of funds, and they endeavor to pick up odd jobs in each town that they visit.  They were at the moment helping to move drywall.

I am content to be in a town after four days of uninterrupted travel, the longest such stretch yet.

Day 55:  43 Mi.

 

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September 27, 2010–Past Ajax Bar (Mile 480)

Helpful tailwind again, sunny and warm.  Countryside similar to yesterday.  Very little barge traffic, allowing me to spend my day in peaceful contemplation and reverie.  I have made certain to make camp on a leeward shore tonight! I should have just enough water to reach Vicksburg tomorrow.  Four days without opportunity for re-supply is the longest stretch I’ve seen so far.

Day 54:  62 Mi.

 

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September 26, 2010–Greenville, MS

Was awakened late last night by the yammering of numerous coyotes, sounding very near.  I got out of my tent to howl back at them, which had the effect of silencing them.  I could not see them, but they seemed quite close.

A very pleasant day today, yet again devoid of any riverside settlements, though I did see several houses at times.  Though these empty stretches can be lonely, I am very much enjoying the solitude and quiet.

Was the beneficiary of a nice tailwind today, which is a real treat.  Back in Illinois, during the peak of the summer, I purchased a cheap umbrella to use on exceptionally hot but becalmed days.  Today I tested it out on my tailwind, using it as a sail.  It did indeed seem to increase my speed, though only ½ mph or so.  Its unwieldy deployment did not make such a modest speed increase worthwhile, so it was shortly relegated to standby once more.

Uncertain of the eligibility of the upcoming banks for camping, I elected to camp once more on a wide sandbar.  I am now regretting my unwillingness to continue my search further downstream as the tailwind has now become my enemy.  This dramatically exposed position is raked by the gusts and the sand it kicks up blasts my skin and face disagreeably.  I will try and reserve my contempt in light of the pleasant day this wind has afforded me.  I was obliged to lash the tent to my kayak to prevent it from caving in on itself, though as I write the windward wall bows in on me substantially.  Perhaps as the night falls I will have a measure of respite from this wind, but until that time I must attempt to deafen myself to the constant flapping.  My stove has ceased to function, and I have yet to resolve a solution, thus I take my supper cold for yet another night.

Day 53:  58 Mi.

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September 25, 2010–Smith Point (Mile 600)

Despite last night’s revelry I was able to rise early and be on the river shortly after 7 am.  It is nearly dark by 7 pm now, so I must make the most of my available daylight.

I was informed last night that an alligator was seen in town this week.  As I have an admittedly irrational fear of these creatures, I was greatly interested in this news.  I doubt, however, that they inhabit as swift a river as the Mississippi, at least for now.

Overcast, a bit rainy, very little wind, cooler temps—all in all a perfect day for river travel.  The lack of wind makes for a glass-like surface, and when no barge traffic is near, it is perfectly silent in the channel.

The clouds are spectacular today.  I saw a number of riverside vacation homes today.  They are the first I’ve seen in some time and are much more modest than those of the upper river.  It appeared as if some were vacant.

I am now camped on a large wide sandbar, sufficiently high enough to avoid the imminent rise in the river I should hope.  Upon making camp I was descended upon by a large cloud of mysterious gnats.  They were white and ashy, as though already dead.  Perhaps just hatched? They covered everything, especially the bright colors, but fortunately seemed to do no harm.  As quickly as they arrived, the swarm ended.

Day 52:  61 MI

 

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September 24, 2010–Helena, AR

It was exceptionally hot today, upper 90s, with little breeze.  I made it to Helena before peak heat, but by the time I had lunch and refilled my water and provisions it had become so stifling that I found it difficult to think clearly!  I decided to remain in Helena for the remainder of the day, as it contains its fair share of history.  Most prominently, it is the home of KFFA, which broadcasts the longest running blues show on the radio: The King Biscuit Blues Hour.  I happened by right as the broadcast began, and was able to enjoy watching from in the studio.

Helena has an impressive number of vacant and decrepit buildings, some in various ruins.  The bulk of downtown is in such condition, save main street, which has been given a mild renovation in an appeal for visitors.

I was treated very warmly by the local people and enjoyed a late night of dancing, drinking, and billiards at a small tavern downtown.  Minus a live blues band, it seemed to be a quintessential delta experience and I am grateful to have had it.

Day 51: 21 mi

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September 23, 2010–Walnut Bend (mile 681)

Winds very high today, around 20 mph gusting to 30 mph.  It creates incredible chaos on the surface, as though I were traveling in a basin which had been sloshed a few times, the waves rebounding off the banks and commingling to make a perfect mess of water.  Needless to say it was a bit grueling today and I was relieved to make camp on the Arkansas side.  Yet another perfect sandy beach, with a stand of willows to hang my hammock.

The surface of the river so powerfully disturbed today that I found my pedal gears slipping occasionally from the forces exerted on them.  I made some adjustments to the angle at which they enter the water and it seemed to answer for a solution.  This also necessitates that I recline further back in my seat, which might reduce my wind drag by a fraction.  It was in the upper 90s today, but since I was sopping from waves and blasted with wind I hardly noticed.

I have entered, since leaving Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, and will remain therein until the bluffs of Vicksburg.  Sand bars, revetments, cottonwood, and willows are likely all I will see.  The towns are few and far between.  I saw four white-tailed deer grazing on the sand this afternoon–glad to see wild things.  I am now camped across the river from Mississippi, the ninth state I have seen on this expedition.

Day 50: 52 mi

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September 11 to 15, 2010–Memphis, TN

My impressions of this city are unanimously positive.  I have found the inhabitants to be some of the most friendly, cheerful, and gregarious of anywhere I’ve visited.  The depth of musical history represented by Sun Records and Stax Studios alone places it on hallowed ground.  These two labels produced some of the music dearest to my heart and it was a real treat for me to visit them.  I also attended a very uplifting and joyful Sunday morning service at the First Baptist Church and basked in the gospel choir’s voices.

Friday and Saturday night were both spent enjoying local bands at nearby venues, and I also saw Booker T.  Jones perform in the warm summer evening, at a park where magnolias perfumed the air.  This, and the continual stream of quality blues and soul emanating from open doors on Beale made for a glorious week of enjoying what might be America’s greatest contribution to the world!

Memphis also boasts an extensive and monumental museum and tribute to the Civil Rights Movement, which I found deeply moving.  At once inspiring, and heartbreaking.  All these things, along with the graciousness of my hosts and the general warmth of all residents encountered, created in me a continual feeling of deep gratitude and reverence for this wonderful city.

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September 10, 2010–Memphis, TN

The day was filled with exuberance in anticipation of my arrival in Memphis, and was heightened by the skyline’s appearance on the horizon.  A strong headwind picked up, making the last two hours of approach very laborious and extra interminable in my state of eagerness to reach the great city.

I passed under the I-40 bridge and then headed up into the harbor opposite Mud Island, where I arranged safekeeping for my craft at the local yacht club, whose proprietor was incredibly friendly and helpful.  On the dock I met a local tug pilot, and enjoyed spending a bit of time having a beer and inquiring of his trade.  I pass so many of these characters each day and have a good deal of curiosity as to the details of their business, on which this captain was all too willing to inform me.

I then traveled across the pedestrian bridge into the downtown and made my way to Beale Street, a historic and notoriously raucous stretch of blues clubs and juke joints.  Of course its current iteration is somewhat of a tourist-minded re-creation of the storied past when it was considered the Harlem of the South.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the music pouring forth from every open door and enjoyed the best hot wings I’ve ever had, along with a pint purchased for me by Scottish visitors who held my journey in some esteem.

I have made arrangements to board with some college students living in Mid Town, which would save me a considerable sum in lodging as well a provide an opportunity to experience the city with a local guide.  To reach their dwelling I rode the Madison St.  trolley, which appears to be unchanged in 60 years, save new paint and varnish.  It is a handsome method of travel, clacking pleasantly, the all-wood interior gleaming in the sunset.  It was a charming introduction to the city.   My host is acquainted with a guitar player, and we will now attend a performance at a nearby Irish pub.

DAY 49:  49mi

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September 9, 2010–Osceola, AR

Very freshened by last night’s shower and bed.  The river has now become incredibly serpentine.  I scarcely traveled two miles in the same direction.  It rained for several hours in the morning, but it was a warm rain and with little wind.  I find the wind more than any other element to be my foe.  It was blessedly mild today and I am grateful.

Had lunch on a sandbar opposite some kind of steel plant, where large volumes of rusted metal were unloaded by a large mechanical claw from barge to dump truck.  The noise was thunderous and the sight oddly inhuman.  It caused me to spend some time reflecting on the massive changes I have witnessed in this mighty torrent of water, from humble, pure creek to the seething polluted expanse now before me.  My mind is scarcely able to maintain continuity from there to here, but for having witnessed it.  I now pay little heed to the constant barge traffic, the refuse accumulated on the banks, the towering industrial complexes every few miles.  I expect these features to only become more prominent as I enter Louisiana.

I am camped not far from Osceola, Arkansas.  The first time I have ever set foot in this state.  The wind has picked up fiercely, and I hope the thunderstorms will not begin until dinner is eaten and I am safely ensconced in my hammock.

 

Day 48:  62 Mi.

 

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September 8, 2010–Caruthersville, MO

Today was very peaceful.  Though overcast and occasionally drizzling, there was but little wind.  Thus the river was placid and flat.  It is a clear indication of what chaos the wind causes on the surface.  I had breakfast in New Madrid and filled my water vessels using a helpful local resident’s hose.

On the boat ramp was a tow worker, awaiting the john boat which would bear him off to an approaching tow.  He works 28 days, then has 28 days off.  His wife and two small girls accompanied him to bid farewell.  As it is now post-harvest, he informed me I can expect to see an increasing number of barges on the river, bearing grain to points south.

New Madrid lies at the apex of an impressively long curve in the river.  This 20-mile stretch of hairpin could be bypassed by a mere one-mile portage.  It can only be assumed that with enough time the river will figure this out and cut its way through, stranding New Madrid some eight miles from the water.  Such events occur regularly, as Twain noted in his “Life on the Mississippi.”  The river is shorter every year.   I believe it is now 200 miles less than during his time.  Many years ago, in the wake of a massive earthquake, the river was said to have run backwards at New Madrid.

Saw the largest barge configuration yet, a mighty seven by seven.  Stopped for a break on an enormous sandbar, which felt like a deserted island.  Kentucky has already come and gone in two days, and I was now on Tennessee soil—the seventh state I have visited on this voyage.   Arrived in Caruthersville around 5pm, where I was able to indulge in my belated birthday feast and lodging.

Day 47:  44 Mi.

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