Drifting down the Mississippi on a self-built raft, crashing into a dam, and barely surviving.
– The personal aspect and the essence of adventure –
* * *
I hesitated for a brief moment when I pushed the raft off the bank. I know, I always had the habit to kind of celebrate the beginning of an adventure, wake up all the senses, and switch to special-attention mode. Not that I question the whole act of committing myself to the current, but I always found it important, even when I was very young, to celebrate significant moments. I liked to call it “celebration” when I made some small effort, maybe even a formal, ceremonial one, to remind myself to be conscious of what I was about to do. (Today such mindfulness practice has evolved into a major part of my life.)
Close to the bank the current was still very slow, but I immediately noticed the first ridiculous mistake I had made: I forgot to bring a paddle. I simply paddled with my hands and soon maneuvered the craft out of an eddy into the current and there I was, catching the ride.
The raft gently turned around its center several times. As it was just as wide as it was long there was no way of telling which was bow or stern. It was the late afternoon of a beautiful summer day; I was a bit exhausted from all the work, lay down on my new vehicle, and let it all unfold.
Who hasn’t read the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? Those stories of a wonderful childhood and of adventures on the great Mississippi River. When I came to America for the first time, I came with the pretty clear idea to go and check out this river and see where Mark Twain had lived and thought up these stories. When I was very young the stories had started a fever in me, a strong urge to go and see this river and wait for all the adventures that would surely happen once I floated on its muddy waters and let it carry me like it had carried Tom Sawyer. There was no particular plan what to do. I knew I only had to be there, it all would happen by itself.
I had traveled all over the USA for several months already. Hitchhiking, sometimes riding the Greyhound Bus. I was well seasoned and already kind of experienced, living the unbelievably frugal and strangely specialized life of a bum, moving all the time, fascinated by geography, obsessed with mysterious place names, with white empty spots on a map. Still young (about 19), I traveled mostly by myself. Green and dangerously naïve, I kept stumbling into hair-raising encounters with very weird people. I was mostly struggling to figure out how to behave in a new country, emotionally bouncing between two extremes: On one side, I was overwhelmed by a so far unimagined size of this new world America, by the sheer magnitude of new landscapes and visual phenomena, by the unfamiliar feeling of open space. I was overcome by a feeling of unlimited freedom. There was a pristine, pure joy of just being alive. On the other side, I had dark and depressing times; I felt hopelessly ignorant, not understanding very common obviously basic things everybody else seemed to be so familiar and fluent with, not only language but how to distinguish good and bad people, how to make friends etc, how to be relaxed while not understanding at all – something I think I never entirely learned; and I suffered terribly from loneliness.
I had already crossed the Mississippi several times on my restless journey. It was an early realization in my learning times that traveling rarely takes you where you planned to go. But one day, I found myself walking across the ‘Mighty Mississippi‘ on a bridge; and it felt as if I had arrived. There was the little town of Hannibal (Missouri) on one side. I knew this place of course from reading Mark Twain. On the other side was a jungle, a green wall of vegetation, a sandbank stretching out invitingly, gleaming in the sun. And there was the river itself, muddy, lazy, soundless, and yet mysteriously alive.
I stood on the bridge and looked down as if I had already been there before, as if I somehow knew this would happen and as if I
already knew how it would continue. I noticed something like a half-sunk floating fishing platform on the bank and a large pile of scrap wood close by. I saw it as if I had expected it. I didn’t dwell much on making a plan – almost as if this was all arranged already – and I immediately went to work building a raft.
The pile of wood was probably the remains of something like an abandoned hamburger stand. There was lots of other stuff; there were even some tools and nails. Within a few hours the platform was repaired and floating again, I built a little roof over it, and soon “my raft” was ready. I stowed my backpack, rolled out my sleeping bag, packed an insulated refrigerator door to build a fire on, a grill, and some plastic jars with water. And that was all, I pushed off. Mississippi here I am. I was ready.
From a distance the jungle on the bank appeared impenetrable. The bank itself was hardly visible; the foliage, hanging down, hiding it, was sweeping the water. Closer to shore one could see mysterious coves, swamps, and overgrown little ponds; quite often the river split into arms and branches and the bank was in fact an island or a peninsula, occasionally lined with sandbanks and smooth beaches. And there was a unique smell of mud over the river that was so new and full of exciting incomprehensible messages.
It didn’t take long until the night settled in. It was going to be a very dark moonless, starless night, so dark that it didn’t make any difference whether I had my eyes open or shut. My hearing was all that was left to investigate the new surrounding.
Soon another mistake dawned on me: There were ships on this river; big ships, tugs that actually push large packages of barges before them. I saw their lights occasionally and heard their powerful diesels. Being myself totally passive in the current, these ships were dangerous. “But the river is half a mile wide”, I thought, I couldn’t see any of it, though. I soon felt that I was probably not drifting in the main stream, that I might actually be on a channel behind some big islands; I only sat there and listened.
For hours I traveled through a space of sound. Faint sounds, sounds, under normal circumstances not even registered, minute nuances of sound, gradual changes of sound. I sat there, completely blind, in a totally foreign, never seen environment, feeling hardly any motion but “seeing” a landscape of sound moving by. The water, sweeping the current, playing with branches, made tiny gurgles and smacking noises. Mostly this seemed to be far away but sometimes suddenly close, loud and threatening. Sometimes there were surprising faint echoes, hardly discernible, from unexpected directions, in fact, sometimes from above. Maybe I was floating underneath a foliage roof. Suddenly deep silence; only very far away faint sounds from one single direction. Then drops, falling on the water surface, close by, crystal clear with a distinct echo. The rustling of dry leaves, very close by – something moving on land, very slowly, not far. Then this whole three-dimensional sound picture gradually shifting its direction – the raft probably turning around itself. Suddenly scratching noises over the roof, almost at the same time something touching my arm, I was brushing some branches, but the raft drifted on.
I tried again and again to look up and see the sky or some stars, but there was a thick overcast, the darkness was total. I noticed that I held my head up all the time and moved my face around as if I could see but did this only to aim my hearing. It was as if I reached out with my concentrated attention and almost felt the physical world around me. At times I wasn’t even aware anymore that I was merely listening. Occasionally, when I moved my body or swallowed (for example, because my mouth went dry from concentrated listening), I was shocked by the sudden monstrous loud noises inside my own body.
Over time I could distinguish sounds that came only from river itself, from the current, sounds impossible to describe but somehow very clearly painting a picture of flow. Noises so tiny, under normal conditions they would have never reached my consciousness. Sometimes I heard singular miniature waves suddenly slapping against the raft.
Suddenly a light in the far distance – the whole sound experience immediately changing, shifting the focus back to visual input. It was almost dizzying. The light blinking on and off, obviously intermittently blocked by vegetation moving by not far away. Then gone; black stillness again, dimensionless black space all around.
When there was hardly any sound at all for a while I lost all sense of place and orientation and had to touch my body or feel the wood under me.
Faint sound reflection from above again. Suddenly, without any warning, branches touching the raft, sweeping over the side, brushing me, giving me unexpectedly a sense of some speed we actually had. Then a thump and a very clear sensation of hitting an obstacle, a few breaking branches over the roof, and a slight gurgling under the raft: we were stuck. I struck a match and saw nothing but leaves and branches around me. (To forget to bring fresh batteries for my flashlight was another foolish mistake). The raft moved some more a couple of times and settled for good.
I lay down and kept listening. A few mosquitoes came visiting but didn’t bother me much. Remaining motionless at one place now, without really being aware of it, I began to construct an image of the space around me. There were certain clues, details, conceptual fragments that started to manifest themselves, but when suddenly new sounds “happened” everything changed again, all “looked” different again. However, over time, a distinct image seemed to materialize in the space around me; I couldn’t see it, but in my mind I began to see it.
There was a puzzling noise – not far – a sliding, slithering sound, small pebbles or something like that, falling into the water. Then again long phases of total silence. All of a sudden shocking noise, very close by: squeaking, scratching, leaves being trampled on. A desperate fight for life and death in the dark? No way to tell what it was. It stopped as suddenly as it began, and there was impenetrable black stillness again.
I heard my breath and digestion noises and eventually my blood, flowing, rushing, pulsing. For long periods of time I completely forgot where I really was. Again and again I felt for the wooden boards under me and wetted my hands in the water – reference for the clueless tortured mind.
Something dropped on the roof, a soft, yielding sound. Then nothing again. Silence; forever, no clue. No sound, no imagination. No idea where I was. Emotions welled up almost uncontrollably and disappeared again? There was nothing I could do, and, when I calmly checked behind all the turmoil of sensations and ideas, there was also nothing that needed to be done. I wasn’t sure if I should be alarmed because I didn’t know enough or calm because there seemed to be no need for action.
Of course, eventually I fell asleep. When I woke up I was in my sleeping bag and a pale light was greeting me. The amazing soundscape was still in my head, like a dream, but when I started looking around there was nothing resembling this imaginary mental image. There were a few clues that actually fit: the land was, in fact, pretty much where I expected it to be, and the still pond-like water surface in front of me was indeed like I had envisaged it. But somehow all these details were embarrassingly irrelevant. What I could see now had only little to do with what I had “thought up”.
The raft was stuck under hanging branches. After a while I began to pull and push at the branches and was soon able to free the raft and started drifting again. Now I saw that I was indeed on a side arm with only very little current. A magnificent canopy of foliage covered it all. I broke off some dry branches and built a fire on my refrigerator door. I made some tea and warmed up some beans while I kept slowly floating on through this green tunnel. Ducks and birds began to appear. Butterflies and large insects came in the dawn. The smoke from my fire lingered in the trees. For some time I sat still when the raft got snagged again on a root.
Then there was an opening ahead, and I could see the river. I had broken off a long pole and began to maneuver the raft back into the current. The river was wide, and there was a wonderful light breeze out in the open. The sun came out, and I drifted along with considerable speed. There was farmland on the banks now, grassy rolling hills, and houses. I gently fell into the rhythm of the river.
I had been on rivers all my life; I knew this feeling of being carried. From outside it looks as if you are following the path of the river through the land, but when you are on the river (in the river) your own motion is more perceived as settling, like moving in your bed and finding the most comfortable position. When you travel on a river for a long time you lose the sense of covering distance, of progressing at all, you rather feel like sitting on a living animal that moves itself and plays with you and integrates you into its own life, and it is the land that is moving and passing by.
I dozed off a few times, heard another big ship going upstream on the other side, and slowly began to think and wonder how this whole adventure could work out. I had found the lid of a bucket that served as a paddle and I could control my course to some extent. I saw people waving on the shore and shaking their heads and I laughed. I lit the fire again and had lunch – boy I could go all the way to New Orleans this way.
Then – I really don’t remember how long the whole actually journey lasted – I noticed the current slowing down. And around the next bend I saw something ahead. Somehow I immediately knew what it was and which instantly revealed another major mistake in my plan: A dam! How could I have failed to think of that? There are dams on this river, now, unlike in Tom Sawyer’s times. I sat there, mostly just embarrassed now with my own naiveté but then with growing concern. Soon I could see the gates, and I knew there was trouble. Something had to be done, soon.
The river had widened to almost a mile or so, I was somewhere on the left side. Far to the right were the locks, in the middle the gates, and the left part of the dam looked somewhat lower, like a dike. Maybe there would be a possibility to actually portage the raft over to the other side. (Strangely, using the locks didn’t occur to me!) I ripped off a board from my raft and started paddling hard. Most of all I had to get out of the current and closer to shore. The huge steel gates were plainly visible now, and the dancing foam in front of them was the grim evidence that the river was disappearing there, under them, and taking everything with it.
My progress was nearly imperceptible, but soon I saw a barge right in my anticipated path. Coming closer, I discovered that it was a dredge, anchored there to dig out the riverbed; and there was a pipeline on floats leading to shore from it. I paddled like crazy and just made it to touch this barge, hang on to it, and tie up to it with a piece of wire I found in the very same moment, right there.
I sat there for the longest time and reflected my situation. I could abandon the raft and simply walk to shore on the pipeline. But should I give up so quickly? Maybe I could still make it over to the lower section of the dam and somehow save the raft and make it over that stupid obstacle.
I did the first and only smart thing in this whole ordeal: I packed up all my stuff and deposited it on the barge in order to pick it up later after I had hopefully landed the raft safely. (There was nobody working on the dredge.)
And then I let go and paddled like a madman toward shore; two strokes on one side, two strokes on the other side, otherwise the bloody raft would only spin around. My progress was ridiculously slow. With quite a shock I soon found that I was still right in the center of the current, and I knew where this current was heading for. I could very clearly see the wild turmoil now where the whole river disappeared downward underneath those gigantic steel gates.
I didn’t let up for a second and gave it all I had. I quickly noticed that my chances to make it to the earth-dike were dwindling. I was still hoping to reach the massive concrete structure around the gates, but some 50 yards before the dam I could see they would not provide any hold if I hit there. Soon it was plain to see that I was in deep trouble.
I paddled up to the last moment. Very close I could feel the acceleration of the current. The raft hit the concrete wall not more than an inch before the edge toward the gate and the whirlpool. It broke apart instantly. Only seconds before the impact I had noticed a row of steel rungs on the concrete wall right next to the edge, and I dove for these rungs in the same moment when everything disintegrated under me.
Under water I got hold of one rung. The current was so strong that it actually ripped my shorts from my body and, of course, took my glasses, but I hung on and climbed up and reached the top of the structure. I couldn’t see much without my glasses, but when I glanced down the gate I could figure out that the whole raft was already gone, sucked under in this whirlpool under the barrier.
There I was, completely naked and half blind, scared to death, in a place I only could imagine where it was. Somehow I had forgotten about Tom Sawyer by then.
Well, the rest of this story is, as always, already the beginning of a next one. People found me – very special people who treated me with unforgettable kindness and who, only in the end, poured out their hearts that they had just lost their own son in Vietnam. Somebody gave me a boat ride to my backpack on the dredge. I managed to go to a city in the following days and get some new glasses, and then life became kind of normal again.
In retrospect the whole thing could seem quite embarrassing with my stupidity and undeserved luck. In hindsight it all just looks like a pretty bad idea; but this is only a story about a story. And – also in retrospect – to catch yourself in an act of being dumb, to eventually see your own stupidity as just the basic human condition of ignorance we all share is deeply instructive! The moment you see that you are stupid you are not that stupid anymore.
Even though I went on traveling again right away in search for more adventure, maybe a first seed was sown in these days, a seed of doubt about what adventure really is. Was it really an adventure to survive my own stupid mistakes? It doesn’t seem smart to seek out danger in order to overcome it and gain a sensation of victory. Perhaps adventure is not so much the dramatic action to solve a problem but rather a condition of merely seeing and facing a problem. Perhaps adventure is not a situation that demands reaction but a way of perception. For me adventure is most basically the awareness of the unknown, intrinsically unpredictable, strangely frightening and luring at the same time – the unknown that must be really recognized as unknown in order to be understood, appreciated, and experienced. Then adventure is not action, not reaction but the awareness of the amazing potential of a situation, the awareness of The Mystery. And in a wonderful way it doesn’t really matter at all whether it is threatening or not. Maybe the essence of adventure lies in each and every moment, and it happens any time whenever we wake up and pay attention.
Klaus written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010