Some readers of this blog may have noticed an absence of posts from Feb. 10 to March 17. The reason: I was editing a book.
The book isn’t by me or about bicycling. But it has a direct bearing on this blog. It chronicles an adventure that I wrote about in Jim’s Bike Blog several times because it overlapped to some extent with my bicycle ride across the United States in the autumn of 2009, and because it was undertaken by a friend.
The book, by Neal Moore and Cindy Lovell, is about Neal’s solo canoe trip down the Mississippi River, from the headwaters of the river at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to New Orleans.
In the spring of 2009, as I was preparing for my bike trip from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., my oldest son, Ben, who teaches English in Taiwan, told me of Neal, a fellow teacher who also was planning an extended journey through America.
Two splendid adventures, two unlikely dreams, I thought, coming to fruition at about the same time!
A line from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden has stuck with me since high school: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Thoreau may have overstated the condition of his fellow New Englanders in his musings about a sojourn in a one-room cabin at Walden Pond in Massachusetts from 1845 to 1847.
But it is probably true that relatively few people get to live their dreams, especially if the dream is, in the view of some, a bit eccentric, bizarre or just plain crazy.
In a succession of emails, Neal told me of his plans to canoe the Mississippi – a journey that he estimated would take about 150 days, from early July to late November or early December of 2009.
I was born and grew up on the Mississippi River, in Alton, Ill., just upstream from St. Louis. My own childhood fantasies about making my way down the river by raft or towboat never materialized. And as I grew older, I came to understand how dangerous the river can be, especially for a traveler in a small craft.
Jonathan Raban, an Englishman who journeyed down the Mississippi in 1980, described some of the dangers in a wonderful book called Old Glory: An American Voyage. I suggested to Neal that he read that book before he set out, thinking — maybe hoping — that he might reconsider.
Even in an aluminum 16-foot motorized johnboat, Raban faced such dangers as severe turbulence caused by the collision of a downstream current with an upstream wind; partially submerged jetties called wing dams that jut out from the banks to guide water into the main channel; waterlogged tree trunks barely floating just below the surface; huge boils, or domes of water, that swell up from the depths of the river; vicious whirlpools that form in eddies at bends in the river; and, of course, the wakes of monster towboats pushing acres of barges loaded with such cargoes as grain, iron ore, coal or gravel.
By comparison, a bicycle ride across the United States seemed like a safe and simple undertaking.
As plans for our adventures progressed, we realized that our journeys would overlap for a time in the fall of 2009. What a bit of serendipity if we should meet!
We began to entertain the fanciful notion that, with the concurrence of the river and road gods, we might cross paths at St. Francisville in southeastern Louisiana.
St. Francisville, a jewel of a town in West Feliciana Parish, was the place where my fellow cyclists and I would cross the Mississippi River on our transcontinental journey along the southern tier of the United States. Neal, of course, would have to paddle past St. Francisville on his way to the Big Easy.
But our rendezvous on the river didn’t take place at the time and place we had hoped for.
When my bicycling companions and I reached the Mississippi on Nov. 4, 2009, Neal was still further up the river in Mississippi doing video stories as an iReporter for CNN and for his blog, Flash River Safari.
We took a ferry across the Mississippi, a major milestone in our cross-country trek. I thought of Neal that day as we waited on the western bank for the ferry to take us across to St. Francisville.
The Mississippi, probably a mile wide at that point, is in the final stages of its 2,300-mile odyssey across the midsection of the United States. It has gathered water from 31 states and two Canadian provinces from the Rockies to the Appalachians, all funneling into feeder rivers along the way – the Wisconsin, the Illinois, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Arkansas and myriad others – and is rushing full bore to the sea.
For good reason, the Mississippi is called the Father of Waters.
After heavy rains upstream, the Mississippi was running high and fast that day, and two men in a canoe were riding the swift current downriver. Their craft seemed so frail on that mighty, mercurial river. I marveled at their skill and courage and was struck anew by the audacity of Neal’s solo journey.
Although our rendezvous didn’t occur when and where Neal and I had hoped for, when it did happen it was in a town very fitting for two people who have a deep association with and affection for the Mississippi: Hannibal, Mo., Mark Twain’s boyhood home.
The graduation of a family friend from the University of Missouri at Columbia in May 2010 prompted a trip to Missouri. After the graduation, I drove to Hannibal.
Neal had been working on this book in Oxford, Miss., but he had decamped to Hannibal to tap the expertise of Cindy Lovell, executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. Cindy’s main role in the book project was to cull the works of Twain for passages relevant to Neal’s journey and to place them strategically throughout the narrative.
“Dr. Moore, I presume,” I said when I found Neal in the Java Jive coffee shop on Hannibal’s Main Street. He had been hunched over his laptop working on his book amid the couches and easy chairs at the back of the shop.
Through Neal’s good offices and Cindy’s hospitality, I lodged in the Becky Thatcher Room at Cindy’s rambling 1890s home filled with Twain memorabilia.
Cindy, a self-described “Twainiac” with encyclopedic knowledge of Twain and his times, has hung her favorite Twain quote above the door leading from the living room into the kitchen: “Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”
During my brief visit to Hannibal, Neal and I walked along the waterfront as the rising Mississippi, swollen by seasonal flooding, crept up the brick-paved landing where steamboats once put in. We toured Twain’s boyhood home and the nearby home of Tom Blankenship, son of the town drunk and an outcast from polite society who was the model for Huckleberry Finn.
We signed the whitewashed fence immortalized in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and talked Twain with museum curator Henry Sweets.
We tramped through the cave where young Sam Clemens played and where Tom and Becky got lost.
That evening, we sat on Cindy’s front porch swapping mostly true tales about our respective adventures, drank some robust but flat stout that I had schlepped in a growler from a brew pub in Columbia and watched as a large, well-fed raccoon repeatedly raided the bowls of food that Cindy had set out for the neighborhood cats.
As the book project progressed, Neal and Cindy asked if I would write the introduction – part of which is recycled for this blog post – and then asked if I would edit the manuscript. I also got to help with the cover design and to edit Neal’s photos for the book.
The book is now in the final stages of publication. It will be the first book published by the Mark Twain Museum Press and is to be launched in Hannibal on July 28.
Neal will soon leave Taiwan for an extended visit to the United States before taking up residence in Cape Town, South Africa. On July 24, he plans to fly from Houston to Dallas, where I will pick up him at Dallas Love Field. After a night in Fort Worth, we plan to drive up to Hannibal for the launch event.
I was proud to be a part of the project and hope the book does well. As I followed Neal’s adventure from inception to completion, I never imagined that I’d have the opportunity to help shape it into a book. Thanks, Neal and Cindy. It’s been a pleasure.