And the River Flows On
The morning of my last day started like any other day on the river. I woke up at 5 a.m. and ate a breakfast of bagels and rehydrated eggs. I broke camp by the light of my headlamp. At dawn I was on the water, paddling through flooded willows and cottonwoods. I enjoyed paddling through the gentle currents found in these flooded forests. After a few minutes, I left their embrace and turned bow first into the current of the main channel, ready for another day on the Mississippi River.
After lunch, I paddled into a long slough that cut through a bend in the river. A light rain fell on the calm water and the surrounding forest. The pitter-patter of rain falling on water filled the still air. In the slough, there were no wing dikes, riprap, barges, or boat ramps. It was pure, uninhibited wilderness—the river as it was meant to be. Everything had a creamy, gumbo thick texture, like the mud along the river’s edge. Even the experience seemed tangible. It was gritty, yet nurturing—raw, yet refined. It was beautiful.
I wanted to stay in that slough forever. I wanted to dissolve into the river and its silty bottom. I wanted to be soaked up into the trees as nutrients—food for their existence. I stopped paddling. There was hardly any current, so I drifted as a leaf would on a pond.
“I want to stay here,” I said to the river. “I don’t want to leave.”
“Not yet,” the river told me.
I knew I had not finished my work. I had to complete the mission. At Memphis, a group awaited my arrival. There was a boy with autism who had followed the journey and wanted to meet me. There was the inspired mother of a child with autism who drove down from St. Louis. And some of the paddlers there would later decide to paddle for a cause too.
However, I felt that I was a part of the river. I felt that I belonged to it. I did not want to leave it—not after what I had been through. But I knew that I had to, or at least for this part of the journey. So I picked up the paddle and continued south.
A few hours later, Memphis appeared out of the fog. Barges and other boat traffic clogged the river north of the city.
To paddle in the main channel with all the traffic would have been suicide. Instead, I paddled over submerged wing dikes which were far away from the commercial boat traffic.
As I neared another submerged wing dike, I saw that the current ran diagonally over the dike rather than perpendicular to it. This raised a red flag of caution in my mind, but I continued toward the dike and the churning water below it. At the same time, a series of large crisscrossing barge wakes turned the area into an angry sea.
“Damn,” I said aloud.
I was committed to the line, but I did not like what I saw. It seemed wrong.
I looked toward the end of the wing dike and the edge of the main channel.
“Can I make it?” I asked myself. I dug the blade of my paddle deep into the water and pushed hard toward the edge of the dike and calmer water. But the current was too swift, the wakes too difficult to control.
I abandoned this effort and turned the canoe back toward the dike. Then I noticed the rocks.
The dike was not fully submerged. Some of its rocks stuck out of the water like dangerous ocean reefs waiting for wayward boats to sink.
The current was faster than I realized. The wakes hitting the dike made the boat hard to handle. Soon the canoe was broadside to the dike and heading straight for the rocks. The force of hitting the rocks would throw me into the boils and whirlpools on the downriver side of the dike.
As a child, I had often heard of the dangers of the river—its hidden currents that could suck a man down and pin him to the dark, muddy bottom never to be seen again. He would become food for the Jurassic catfish that lurk in those depths.
With seconds to spare, my last thought was, “This is bad.”
Amidst the adrenaline, the fear, and the certainty of disaster, I saw the solution. There was a narrow gap, about two feet wide, between the rocks. There could be no doubt; no hesitation in my actions. I kneeled toward the front of the canoe. With ferocity, I dug the paddle into the water opposite the current. I reached the paddle forward, giving it as much leverage as possible. I did this again and again. My eyes focused on the gap and nothing else. I had to overcome the momentum of the current and the power of the two foot tall wakes crashing into the sides of the canoe.
With the rocks a split second away, I gritted my teeth, held my breath, and tensed my entire body. I was ready for impact.
The impact never came. The canoe gracefully slipped through the gap and missed the rocks by inches.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Here was yet another lesson from the river. It was one last moment of horror to remind me of where I was and the beauty of it all.
After a few miles, I turned the bow of my canoe from the flow of the Mississippi and into the still water of the Mud Island Harbor in downtown Memphis. The thing that I had yearned for—for so long—had arrived. And now that it had, I did not want it.
I saw the Yacht Club Marina a hundred yards ahead. A small crowd waited on the dock.
I carefully placed the blade of my paddle in the water. I made the same stroke that I had perfected over the course of a thousand miles. I watched the blade cut through the muddy water, heavy with the silt of a nation. I studied the droplets falling from my paddle. In quick succession, several dozen drops fell from the paddle as I swung it forward. They landed in the river. The impact created delicate ripples that echoed across the water.
I thought the end would feel different. I thought I would feel great happiness. I was happy, yes … happy to see so many friendly, caring faces, happy to be alive, and happy to have finished what I set out to do. Still, I felt unfulfilled. I did not feel finished. There was no culminating moment when I stood on a summit, unable to climb any higher.
Then I thought, “What if I keep paddling? To the Gulf.” But that would yield the same result. The river feeds into the Gulf. The Gulf leads to the Atlantic. And from there every river becomes one. It is a single body of water, spanning the globe. I will never reach the end because there is no end.
I looked into the river. Just below the surface, I saw millions of tiny grains of silt. They floated there under no power or direction of their own. My paddle would push them one way and the slight current the other. This same silt could fill a channel in the river or grow into a sandbar. In that, I found the answer I sought.
“I must let go,” I thought. “The river will carry me where it will. The river will deposit me where it wants … and that is where I am meant to be.”
What if, when we meet someone with autism, or any condition considered “abnormal,” we accept them for who they are? We don’t try to change them or fix them. We accept them.
At first, I struggled against the river. But somewhere between Omaha and Memphis, that struggle became love.