By Tim Bross Special for the Post-Dispatch
Anyone who has sat for a few minutes on the steps in front of the Gateway Arch can understand the pull of the Mississippi River, especially for lyricists, writers and adventurers.
TS Eliot called him a “strong brown god”. More prosaically, Marquess Childs of the Post-Dispatch, in a 1982 “biography” of the river, described it as a “free highway.”
For writer/historian/adventurer Rinker Buck, the river and its largest tributary, the Ohio River, are those things. But in his new book, “Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure,” one senses a personal mission – simply to get away from it all, to do something exciting. Buck cites with admiration an early 19th century account of how river travelers “knew that expansion of the mind which cannot fail to be produced by traveling long distances across the country and observing different forms of nature and society”.
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Many trips on the Mississippi River have been printed. “Mississippi Solo” (1988) by Eddy Harris, formerly of Kirkwood, sits at the pinnacle of this genre. But Buck’s, a rich blend of history, reporting and personal introspection, is perhaps the first to tell of a flatboat voyage. Flatboats, writes Rinker, dominated river trade from the early 19th century before steam travel took over in the 1830s and 1840s.
Buck’s latest book, “The Oregon Trail” (2015), he and his brother followed the trail of what is popularly considered this country’s preeminent western movement. But Buck says the inland rivers — not the wagon ruts crossing from Missouri to Oregon — were America’s first western frontier.
The citizen-farmers of this country, Buck writes, “built America out of logs.”
“First the logs were flatboats going down the Ohio, then they were converted into rudimentary cabins on the frontier. If there was lumber after that, it was used to build furniture and simple barns.
Buck, now 71, had his flatboat built several years ago on a farm in Tennessee, nicknamed it Patience, and dumped it in the Monongahela River above Pittsburgh. It floated 2,000 miles to New Orleans in four months. Although the original flatboats had oars, Patience was primarily powered by an engine.
Patience had a crew of three or four, or even none, as people left for a while and joined later. A crew member, who Buck said took his re-enactor status too seriously, was kicked out and sent home to St. Louis.
We feel that the Ohio part of the trip was the most enjoyable and interesting. A series of dams slows the river down and there is little riprap on the banks to block the view from the river. Although negotiating locks is difficult, accessibility to small towns and marinas is something missing in Mississippi.
“Ohio,” writes Buck, “was a float through competing American spaces. The deep calm and picturesque contentment of endless conservation forests, with nothing in sight beyond the occasional osprey diving to fish … would be suddenly interrupted by the whine of motorboat engines, the island-drinking frays…. The Ohio River is a vast space of conservation periodically interrupted by party spots.
Joining the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois is like the on-ramp to an interstate highway. Although Buck found that the warnings he had heard about the Mississippi—that it would be run over by barges, sucked into a whirlpool, or run aground permanently—were unfounded, it required constant vigilance. The good neighborliness of the tug captains also helped. (If Buck could have added a chapter, I would have enjoyed his conversation with someone who worked the river daily.)
Buck jumps nearly 500 miles from the Lower Mississippi – from near Caruthersville, Missouri, to Natchez, Mississippi. There he breaks the narrative to examine the role of this city in American history. Boasting one of the finest mansion districts in the country, built by cotton barons, it was also a center for the slave trade, second only to New Orleans. Flatboats were used to transport thousands of slaves from Virginia and Maryland to work on cotton and sugar plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana.
When Buck rode his e-bike to the slave market site, there was nothing there.
He writes, “Only words can describe what the place once meant.”
While Buck borrows his title from Mark Twain’s 1883 classic, there is only a passing mention of him in “Life.” Buck relies more on former yachtsmen like Harlan Hubbard and Timothy Flint to spark his imagination. (Buck’s thank you section is indeed a delight.)
However, I see Buck at the helm of the Patience when I read Twain’s description of a riverboat captain: “A pilot, at that time, was the only unfettered and fully independent human being who lived on earth.”
Tim Bross is a retired Post-Dispatch editor. He lives in Kirkwood.