As life-giving and brilliant as paddling the Mississippi for 970 miles of my 1400 mile kayak trip was, it was equally frustrating, slow, and stressful. I want to focus on the difficulties.
Imagine sitting in a kayak for 11 hours a day. You’re paddling in what seems like a stagnant current; the 97-degree Southern heat stimulates over-active sweat pores; your neck, deltoids, traps, triceps, biceps, lower back, and ass are sore after 18 days of the repetitive push and pull of a paddle in a seemingly non-cooperative river; your legs are restless; your mind has carefully considered and analyzed every relationship you’ve had, have, and will have and has nothing else to think about.
Your grip feels broken and your hands seem to be permanently suctioned your paddle. It takes you five to seven strokes to get up to speed. A bead of sweat runs down your eyebrow. You try to ignore it and focus on getting farther down stream. The sweat drop annoyingly tickles the corner of your eye socket. You bargain with yourself: “I’ll release the paddle to wipe it away in ten strokes.” You think out loud, “1… 2… 3… 4… this fucking drop of sweat sucks… 7… 8… 9… one more… 10.” You peel your hands off your paddle and bring relief to that drop of sweat and proactively wipe away any other forming beads.
Seven strokes later and you are back up to the pace you just broke. Sophomore year biology facts that you knew you’d never remember bud from your subconscious, “Damn hydrogen bonding.” Like raindrops that rush down your windshield taking the same path as their ancestor-drops, another bead of sweat starts down the same path the last one just carved out. You make the same deal with yourself. Ten strokes, wipe away bead, seven strokes back up to pace.
A new annoyance subtly buzzes around your face, a gnat – the only gnat in all of Mississippi that cares to buzz over half a mile from the shoreline to bother you, the only living thing on the river. You make the same deal with yourself. Ten strokes, swat or smack the gnat, seven strokes back up to pace.
Your shirt smells like it is burning. You close your eyes, drop your chin to your chest, and give up. You hope that when you wake up in five minutes you’ll be a little further downstream. You’re not. So you grip your paddle again because that’s the only thing you can do.
In despair and defeat you resolve to stop into the next town.
This was the scenario I found myself in only a few times, but those days were painful.
Natchez, Mississippi, was the next stop on my Army Corps of Engineers map of the Mississippi River. I docked and walked up their boat ramp and into the first bar I saw, Under the Hill Saloon. I sat disgusted and disgusting, lonely, broken, defeated by the heat. I asked the bartender to fill up 256 ounces of water. I drank 64 ounces in 30 seconds. I spread out my map across the table and stared.
The quiet saloon – built in the late-1700’s – served as a museum while my gaze blankly wandered across the historic walls full of browned pictures, smelled the cigars and hand-rolled cigarettes of plantation owners playing cards in the corner, while I listened to the piano man. I felt the reverberations of the work boots slowly pound the wooden, creaky floors after throwing the wobbly-hinged, swinging doors wide. The imaginary horses tethered outside neighed, depressed by the gritty heat. The harlots in the back room danced with too little clothes.
My imagination snapped out of its dreary default-daydream mode and my senses stood sternly at attention when I heard a man ask the bartender for a Budweiser and a double shot of José Cuervo straight up. I invited myself to the barstool next to him and ordered the same, but only a single shot. The man’s steady hand raised his glass of Cuervo to touch mine, “To happiness,” he muttered. A flashback of my miserable day came back to mind, but, “To happiness,” I answered. We drank down our tequila.
After introductory small talk, he expressed an unimpressed attitude toward my trip. I said, “It is fuckin’ tough in this heat. I get so angry.”
“Anger. Anger? Anger. What’s that?
I said, “You know, the feeling that claws its way from your chest into you brain, turns your face red, and cripples you.”
“Anger is a stress.”
Confused, “What do you do when you start to feel that feeling?”
“I don’t feel angry. I gave up on that feeling a long time ago.”
I couldn’t respond. I knew what his guarded eyes were saying in that quiet, dusty, old saloon.
He quietly broke the silence; “A man could come in here and punch me in the nose. I wouldn’t feel angry. That’s his set of problems. Why make them mine? Deal with it. Move on.” He lit a cigarette. “Life is too hard already. Why make it harder with feelings that don’t matter?”
I didn’t know how to respond. I ordered another round of tequila. I toasted, “To happiness.”
My Eden was rediscovered.