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Mostly Mississippi: A Very Damp Adventure

Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 380
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  • Book Info
    Mostly Mississippi
    Book Description:

    A classic American travel narrative that captures the soul of the river, Mostly Mississippi features lyrical descriptions of encounters with archetypal characters, landscapes, and experiences. The Speakmans meet lumberjacks in northern Minnesota and Mormons at Nauvoo, Illinois, as well as roustabouts, hoboes, farmers, drifters, Southern grandees, Native Americans, collegians thirsting for the real world, and convicts.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9650-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[xiv])
    (pp. 1-13)

    We drove the canoe forward.

    With a noise like the hiss of a breaking comber, the dark line on the water before us tore raggedly upward into flight. A hundred yards ahead, its component parts settled down again—mallard, teal, pintail—thousand after thousand in another broad, sinuous line, as speckled and dusky as though some one had scattered gunpowder far out on the glittering blue surface of the lake. Again and again, with that strange hiss of wings, it broke into flight, cutting the August sunlight into a weird geometry of patterns and shrill cries.

    The wilderness was about...

    (pp. 14-28)

    It pursued its narrow way sinuously along between marshy banks, now winding among grass-crested knolls, now gliding over a few feet of sandy beach. There were some scrub oaks and discouraged-looking willows here and there, but the forest itself kept well aloof.

    Whether because of her recent escape from the talons of the law, or because the morning sun was pleasantly warm, or because we had no more lakes to cross, the bow paddle was very gay.

    “See that snipe running along there, Boppo! And that gigantic fish—supper size! Look at the minnows scoot! There’s a bluejay flying down...

    (pp. 29-40)

    To the stove at night came five rugged, powerful old men—for the most part pipe-smoking and silent; men who, in the days of their young manhood had hewed northern Minnesota out of the forest. Men who had tracked and hunted through the wilderness at fifty degrees below zero, who had built the roads and the railroads with hand mattocks and spades, and who had felled the giants of the forest with the ruthlessness of youth in a young country. Now they sat smoking beside the stove, occasionally vouchsafing gentle opinions of times and men.

    Why, I asked them, was...

    (pp. 41-50)

    BY morning, the rain and wind had gone. The logs, now released from their place below the dam, were quickly filling the inlet. We loaded our gear into the canoe; then with the good canoeist in the stern, and myself lying out over the prow, we slowly separated the logs ahead, coming at last into open water.

    Sunlight on the river. A faint dimpling of the surface by the current. Looking down, we could see the thick foliage reflected as through a slightly uneven mirror. There came a desire to paddle slowly—not through laziness of the paddlers, but through...

    (pp. 51-61)

    Observe the town of Palisade, Minnesota, with all twelve buildings on the main street wearing high, wooden, false-fronts, as so many Muenchner burghers their dickeys, and great excitement on the street below. Here was a man with a huge red mustache coming up to me and saying:

    “Well, stranger, ye’re jest in time ta-buy a ticket fer our fair. There’s goin’ ta-bee great doin’s at the grounds jest across the river. There’s goin’ ta-bee a hundred and fifty Indians, and a sham battle, and two hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of far-works. If ya stay ta see it, I’ll tell...

    (pp. 62-81)

    Rain and cold, cold and rain—the river lying with all the gayety of a corpse in a French morgue, under a steady, congealing drizzle. Above the layers of clouds that furnished the rain, spread other layers of cloud. It was very well thought out. The upper strata prevented the sun from drying out the reeking ones below.

    We shivered, we froze. We went to bed in everything but our shoes. In a fury of frigidity, I donned two suits of wearwithalls, three pairs of socks, two vests, a brace of sweaters, and a suit of pajamas! What weather for...

    (pp. 82-96)

    So, despite the heavily-wooded valley of the Mississippi, with its trees and undergrowth as thick as ever, we had left the actual forest country behind. And now all the clouds that had gone north in wet, impenetrable blankets, came south again in flint-like shards driven by an even colder wind. We pitched our tent in hollow banks, in gravel pits, in dense brush, even in ruined cabins—anywhere for protection.

    Just in the nick of time came the well-lighted town of Little Falls perched at the edge of its high powerdam. We stayed at a hotel there two days, and...

    (pp. 97-105)

    As we came riding down the current to the commanding bluffs where St. Paul stands, I kept my weather eye out for theIsador P.What a change in the water front! When I had left the city five weeks earlier, there had been a wide strip of something that might by courtesy be called beach below the Robert Street bridge, with several houseboats high and dry on it, and several others swinging lazily in the slow eddy at its edge, their gang planks firmly ashore.

    Now, where the beach had been, there was water, with strange houseboats and familiar...

    (pp. 106-118)

    Of two cities lying near each other, I have often thought that the smaller city gains infinitely more than it knows by its proximity to the larger one. I am sure that the jovial city of Milwaukee understands its place in the cosmic universe much better than it would without Chicago. Rock Island and Moline see the light with considerably clearer eyes, thanks to Davenport across the Mississippi. Berkeley is not less the priestess of learning on her hillside because of the earthy presence of San Francisco beyond the bay. St. Paul too, holds an eminently human attitude of civic...

    (pp. 119-127)

    TheIsadorhad traveled only a mile beyond Red Wing when the wind came up and the night came down, both with great suddenness, and we took shelter, in a deep, narrow, outflowing channel to the left of the river between two islands with heavily wooded banks.

    While dinner was preparing, there came a sound of a heavy body passing stealthily through the underbrush across the creek. “Probably a cow,” said the mate, pulling down the shade. That seemed plausible, but at the same time, I remembered that we were some distance beyond the place where the editor had cleaned...

    (pp. 128-137)

    No longer having the shantyboat to bullyrag, the wind died down. As twilight came on we considered Pete’s further advice about navigating the lake at night. Certainly the wind was now only a breeze, and Pepin itself had lost the power behind its rollers. We lit the ship’s lantern; then, guided by government lights on the Wisconsin side and the pier light of a little town across the way, we started down the lake.

    To the right Point-no-Point lay like the profile of a huge stranded whale, cut out of blackness against the moon. We trotted on for an hour,...

    (pp. 138-148)

    On the right bank, the long-enduring State of Minnesota had given way to Iowa. On the left was Wisconsin. The mighty corroded banks of that infinitely vaster river which had preceded the Mississippi now drew four or five miles apart, rising grandly aloof from the flat farmland and orchards of the bottoms between. The colors of autumn flamed across the valley, sweeping away into mauves and russet echoes on the palisades beyond. The river curled away like a twisted silver ribbon through the plain. On the ribbon, like a conscientious and highly determined bug, theIsadorinched its solitary way....

    (pp. 149-161)

    Meanwhile the hell-diver was becoming restless. He deserted the box by the stove, wobbled to the end of the boat and stood there ready to leap into the abyss between the floor and the planks below. The mate returned him to his box and held a saucer of water up before him. He drank, but more frequently he put his bill down beside him on the sack. No doubt, having spent most of his life afloat, it was his habit merely to lean down and take a drink! He moved around uneasily, but as soon as we started the motor...

    (pp. 162-172)

    When we pulled in toward the levee at the city of Ft. Madison, we did not expect to see a woman waiting for us on the grassy bank; even less did we imagine that she would wave a welcoming hand; and least of all did we expect the figure to take on the lineaments of tried and trusted friend.

    We approached, one of us mingling exclamations joy with thanks to heaven that the dishes were washed, the other, divided in his mind between pleasure and wondering if any other man had ever come so strangely upon his mother-in-law!

    She would...

    (pp. 173-190)

    The water front of Hannibal, Missouri, was desolate with the desolation of rain and a falling river which left a thirty-foot smear of maltese mud along the cobble-stoned jetty. We coasted along its edge seeking a harbor, but there was none. Was that a creek ahead?Good!We turned into it through the fog and rain, only to find—shade of Marat—that the creek was not a creek after all.

    Up stream again and into a cup-like depression in the mud bank under the straddling legs of a red freight house that overhung the water. Poor shelter this for...

    (pp. 191-207)

    For twelve days of savage wind from the south, we went on in a running fight down the river, now creeping along close to the shore, now dashing across an open stretch of water, now getting caught unawares in a tossing channel where the wind and the opposing currents made battle. Often, as we turned a point or came around an island, the motor, hardly recovered from its last illness, or suffering a relapse in the presence of the wind, would cough and spin and go dead. Then the waves would heave theIsadorinto their trough and try to...

    (pp. 208-221)

    When we rose, there was plenty of water in the skiff, also plenty of mud, and a two-inch layer of ice. It leaked, of course; but we could not sell it back to the Jewish farmer for double the price as he had suggested, because we were twenty miles away. Poor man! How bad he would have felt if he had known!

    The day before, when we had stopped for the skiff, the old man had not been at home, but his wife was there; so while I put on the oarlocks she invited the mate into the kitchen to...

    (pp. 222-240)

    By this time we had learned the very important lesson that when there was a moon, night traveling, on the whole, was better than day traveling, for the river was usually calm at night. So, at two-thirty A. M. under a moon washed clean of rain, we left the doubtful protection of the eddy and went on to the mouth of the Ohio. Two miles up that river glowed the white street lights of Cairo. These, casting their reflections in the seemingly motionless water, blazed like a double row of brilliants along the shore. In their center flashed the magnificent,...

    (pp. 241-254)

    Now the land is constantly guarded by levees. Some of them rise directly at the water’s edge, others cut inland out of sight beyond the forest to head off the river in case of flood. The small river towns have taken shelter behind their formidable sod-covered fortifications. Only a few wisps of smoke and the tops of their chimneys are visible from the river.

    Below Memphis, it rolls magnificently along past distant yellow sandbars. Low willow thickets lie like a red miasmic haze against the mauve background of ragged forest. In spite of the prevailing presence of high, massive timber,...

    (pp. 255-272)

    William Alexander Percy sat in his private room of a law office in the rather musty old building that is occupied by the town’s attorneys, judges, and insurance men. He was young, small, slightly built, with steady blue eyes, sun-tanned face and hair that was nearly white. I was unknown to him, but he greeted me with a friendliness and a courtesy so instinctive that I doubt whether he himself was aware of the rareness of its quality. My first impression told me of fineness and breeding; my second assured me that the first impression was right. Indeed, at the...

    (pp. 273-282)

    Vicksburg has what is probably the largest houseboat colony on the river. The boats lie for a mile or more along the narrow Yazoo, tied against the abrupt side of the levee. As the water rises, the houseboat people drive their stakes higher and higher up the bank, until in flood water they find themselves looking over the railroad track onto the lower ends of the streets which run abruptly up a steep hill beyond.

    Shantyboats of all kinds and sizes line the levee, these ranging from tiny craft like theIsadorto sixty foot houses with many rooms. We...

    (pp. 283-296)

    Sixty miles below Vicksburg is Natchez—but there are a number of things between, including Race Track Bar, Diamond Bend, Jennie Campbell Light, Cannon Point, Ship Bayou, and Hard Times Bend. Hard Times Bend was the despair of the old barge men, who in pre-steamship days strained and sweated at their long oars or sweeps, working their cargo-laden barges up and down stream against wind or current—perhaps only to be raided by river pirates at the mouth of the Arkansas or Red River. Enough curses have been dropped overboard in the long arduous curve of Hard Times Bend to...

    (pp. 297-307)

    A “HOBO JUNGLE” is a camping ground usually on the outskirts of some good-natured railroad city where hoboes from all over the country meet, exchange their views and information, share their food, wash their clothes, and find the impetus to go on. I knew that there was one to be found in Baton Rouge, and that it was called “The Willows.” I put on old clothes, an easy job, and set out to find it.

    True to its name, the “jungle” lay under a group of dusty, scrambled willows, where the south edge of the broad city dump bordered the...

    (pp. 308-322)

    Baton Rouge is an active and wide-awake city. For one thing, it is the state capital. For another, the state university, newly installed in its beautiful, Spanishesque buildings, brings to the city a large number of young people from Louisiana and its neighboring states. The sprightly effect of their presence is apparent. Street cars advertise, “The safest place on the street isinside.”The Baton Rouge Welding Company declare, “We weld everything but broken hearts.” Newspaper stalls with papers from a score of cities and in a dozen languages are to be seen. There one can find theNew York...

    (pp. 323-331)

    We rose early, and continued down Bayou Plaquemine. We were in a new world and it was just at our elbow. Roads lined with bungalows, each having a wooden cistern under the eaves, carried on down the bayou. Small lumber mills were having their morning ration of cypress logs from rafts chained end-on-end along the canal. Green fan palms grew in clusters along the banks. Under the water oaks and cypresses hung that beautiful bearded eeriness called Spanish moss. In the water, green bulbs were floating in irregular masses. These were water hyacinths. In two or three months they would...

    (pp. 332-344)

    On three sides of the flat south-pointing nose of land which bore the town of Morgan City, several broad, subdividing channels swept southward to the Gulf. We gathered together some lunch, fastened the motor to the skiff and, leaving the houseboat at its moorings, started down one of the bayous toward the south. The mate was on the middle seat, I at the back beside the motor. There was good color in her cheeks after these months, and gayety in her eyes; and, as her hair blew back in the freshening wind, she looked at me and laughed with exhilaration...

    (pp. 345-360)

    In its time, Bayou LaFourche has been a picturesque and writer-haunted stream. Many of the early French expatriates from Canada settled along its marshy sides. In Donaldsonville, at its head, where water from the Mississippi formerly flowed into the bayou, there is a tree called the Evangeline Oak, in memory of her who sought for so many long years for her beloved Acadian.

    Now LaFourche has been blocked off from the great river. Like Bayou Plaquemine, except in exorbitant flood, it is no longer subject to the rise and fall of the Mississippi. The high green levees running for miles...

  30. Back Matter
    (pp. 361-361)