As in many families, it is a Thanksgiving tradition in ours to hold hands while expressing gratitude for our blessings. Relationships with family and friends are always high on my list. Some of the friends that bless my daily life have been a part of it for 2 or 3 decades now. That longevity brings a level of comfort and richness that I treasure – we know each other well and love and accept each other “warts and all”.
As the road dust begins to settle around me and there is a bit more time for reflection, friendship is something I have thought about. There are many flavors of friendship, all unique and equally delicious. Some have the familiarity that grows over time and in other cases a deep and powerful connection is established in a very short time. My life on the road for 90 days was filled with friendships like the latter. Often there was the sense that while I may not know all the details of a person’s life story nor they mine, we were connected on a level that made that immaterial. It felt as if we had always known each other and the quality of the relationship had nothing to do with the amount of time we had spent together. I fully expect that many of my new “river friends” will be in my life for decades to come, but even if they are not, the quality of the shared relationship is not diminished.
South of Baton Rouge, in the small river town of Paulina, Louisiana, Michael Hopping had invited me to stay in his beautifully restored raised Creole plantation home on the River Road. As soon as I arrived, we climbed into Michael’s 4-wheeler to ride through the woods and visit a few of his favorite spots on the river.
He took me to a broad, clean, sandy beach at a bend in the river, a rarity in many miles of wooded or marshy shoreline. Rivulets of water flowing down the hill had drawn graceful, arching designs in the sand that expanded and came together again like the river itself. I knew I was with a kindred spirit when I asked him excitedly to stop so I could photograph the patterns in the sand, and he immediately joined me in appreciation of their beauty.
In this part of the Mississippi, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, you begin to see huge cargo ships from home ports all over the world, moving up from the Gulf of Mexico. Michael stopped the 4-wheeler at a small dock so I could catch my first glimpse of one of the behemoths.
They are so massive; it boggles my mind that they can navigate so far up the river. I was curious about the tugboats we saw there and wanted to understand how they fit into the picture I was seeing, so we went to the small “Office” trailer, and the guys there were happy to explain.
“Harbor tugs” are made to cut through the water quickly and are surrounded with bumpers of tires, to protect them from banging against the big ships as they shuttle personnel and supplies back and forth. Michael laughed at what he called my “boldness” in asking about the possibility of going out on one, but he laughed again in delight when the answer was, “Come back in the morning and I’ll take you out.”
So, at 8:00 the next morning, Donald “Duck” Mahl and I headed out in a slightly smaller version of the tugs I had seen the day before. It wasn’t clear to me at first whether or not we were on some mission, but it was a fine morning and I was thrilled to be out on the river. We traveled under the bridge and passed close to some of the gigantic ships, letting me really experience their size.
When I saw a shot I liked and tentatively asked if he could possibly angle the boat to one side, and the answer came back, “I can go anywhere you like. Just tell me what you’d like,” I understood he had done this simply as a kindness to me. Amazing!
He drives the boat from a little tower, looking backward over his shoulder, which somehow makes it easier when getting up close to a ship. He left the controls once, scrambled up the steps to a platform above his tower and pantomimed taking a picture from there, then pointed to me. I was considerably more tentative in my scrambling, and kept a pretty good grip on the railing as the boat bobbed around in the waves, but it was a great view!
There were ships from Poland and China and several flags I couldn’t recognize, carrying oil and grain and huge metal parts. As I watched an enormous onboard crane hefting bundles from a barge into the ship’s belly, I thought about how this river has changed since we first met it in Minnesota. On day 2 of this journey, I was on a Mississippi River barely wider than the canoe in which I was gliding and on day 86, this same Mississippi River is vast and deep enough to carry these indescribably huge cargo ships. What an amazing transformation!
I called my friend Michael after the boat ride to tell him about it. He was truly delighted – in the way that good friends appreciate each other’s adventures. “Duck” didn’t know it, but he had a boat loaded with people who appreciate his kindness and his willingness to play with our little raindrop!
Next stop – New Orleans, where I’ll meet with another dear friend I’ve known more than 20 years, but with whom I’ve shared very little “face time”! See you soon! Gayle