The time I crossed paths with a modern day Huck Finn – 71Bait

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I visited him again the next afternoon and found Conant “dreaming,” as he soon put it, amidst an assortment of cheeses and spices. “If you get thirsty, let me know,” he said. Before long, I noticed that he was pouring Tabasco capsules and sipping soy sauce straight from the bottle—”Trigger the taste buds,” he explained.

He was dying to apologize for something he’d said the day before and he hoped I wasn’t offended. I couldn’t understand what he was referring to. As I was leaving, he reminded me that he didn’t care if I managed to publish an article about his journey. It was an innocuous remark—cute, even. As I understood it, he meant to emphasize that he valued the camaraderie and my interest in his adventures more than any publicity could bring him. (“I love to tell of my travels,’ he had said.) He tried to absolve me of any obligation to continue working for him.

Apparently he had been worrying about it ever since. For one thing, he now explained, it wasn’t true. He recognized publishing his work as a form of professional success and wanted to contribute to mine. (“This is your life’s work!”) And then there was the matter of his own manuscripts – two of which he now said he carried with him on USB sticks. “I was going to give you one, but I thought no, that’s taking it too far,” he said. “But you know, what I can do is if we sort of get into some sort of email relationship, I’ll send you a snippet, I guess. Maybe 20 to 30 pages? Something extra neat you might like.”

My interest that day was more transactional. While I’d enjoyed hearing his stories, perhaps as much as he’d enjoyed sharing them, I now had some basic logistical questions. “When the time comes,” I began, “is there any way we can contact you?”

“No,” he said, giggling like the idea was really ridiculous. “I have a cell phone, but I rarely charge it,” he continued. “You know, on my other trips I haven’t had any at all.” Whatever the case, he wasn’t interested in using his phone for my convenience. I’ll admit I was more impressed than annoyed and a little jealous of his self-control.

I had my digital recorder and the hope that I could put it on the record to address everything I thought readers might want to know. For example: “If you take a trip like this, you’ll be gone for a long time. Are you giving up your apartment for the time being? Or your house?”

He laughed again, more nervously this time, and paused. “It’s kind of sensitive,” he said. He paused for a while longer, muttering how he assumed it would “come out anyway,” then took a deep breath and said, “Well, one of the reasons I’m doing these trips is because I don’t have a place to live.” I had planned to ask next how he finances his trip, but he went ahead and answered without my prompting. “I faced discrimination both at home and at work,” he continued. “I had a difficult time. And I made it through without going to jail or being thrown into a psychiatric hospital. Now I’m old enough to collect Social Security – and take a trip like that? It s cheap. Although I make very little Social Security, I can actually save a lot of money on a trip like this.” He laughed again. “Like I said, that’s way too sensitive. But! It’s the truth.”

Both of his parents were dead. He had a large number of siblings with whom he seemed to have only sporadic contact. (“That way they don’t worry.”) The only stabilizing force in his life, as he spoke about it now, seemed to be the “unusual” woman he had met in Livingston a year before he embarked on the settled down in Bozeman on the other side of the mountain pass. This was just before another river journey began, from Yellowstone to the Missouri to the Mississippi: Montana to the Gulf. Her name was Tracy – “And I don’t want to give you her last name,” he said. “We’re not legally engaged or anything.” He described their relationship as “very strange but constant,” acknowledging that given his itinerant nature, it’s hard to explain. “I almost proposed to her in five minutes,” he said. “And then I was on my way down the river.”

Sometime after I lost control of the interrogation and resubmitted to the unclouded stream of his consciousness, he launched into a stream of monologues that began with a smoked sausage he’d bought at a Minnesota grocery store five years earlier. “I put it in like I put my other stuff in, but unfortunately it had a bug,” he explained. “A lot of microbes don’t live in acetic acid, salt and garlic, but in these special bacteria prospered in cucumber juice. Anyway, when I was on my way to central and southern Missouri I ate some and got sick as a dog.”

His illness coincided with his arrival on a teardrop-shaped island in the Mississippi called Jones Towhead, downriver and around the bend from Chester, Illinois, the memorial site of Popeye the Sailor. He made camp in a clearing at the north end, under a light canopy of 80-foot trees. “At the same time, in the next surrounding — I think there were 17 — counties in Missouri and Illinois, there was this deluge, just a glorious rain, about five inches of rain that lasted about two days,” he continued. “And I had dysentery. Not only do they have to evacuate all the time, I’ve completely lost my energy. And as the river rose, I had to move my tent and gear.

Conant on an island in upstate New York in 2014 (Photo: Brad Rappleyea)

“So I went to sleep and woke up in the morning and the water was sloshing around my feet and I had to get up and move my tent again. But the dysentery was so bad that I could only move about 20 feet at a time and collapsed. When I say collapse I mean totally on my face in the mud. can’t get up I had to wait another 20 minutes for enough – I think it’s ATP? — getting into my muscles where I could move again.” (ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is a molecule that carries energy within cells.) “That was the most devastating. And that’s what I would do: I would get up, move my gear, fall down, wait for it to be over, get up, move my gear. Do about four or five rides and then collapse back into my tent. Drink water, try to stay hydrated, go back to sleep. Wake up, the water would be at my feet again. It was just – the water kept rising.”

He stuck twigs upright in the mud to record the rate of the river’s advance. “It went on for about two days. The river level rose about 20 feet. Eventually I reached the top of the towhead and thought, ‘Oh my god, when will this flow stop?’ There was only about 18 inches of height left.” He looked up and his heart sank: Driftwood was hanging in twigs overhead, evidence that things could get much worse. The river, meanwhile, not only delivered branches, but also washing machines and barn walls quickly past him.

“The Mississippi is just — I call it the Behemoth,” he said. “I was lucky that it stopped. Anyway, I had to stay on this island for about ten days to recover. I was running out of water, so I collected rainwater from the roof of my tent and boiled some river water.” Boiling the Mississippi River was an arduous project that included stages of centrifugal sloshing and sieving to remove sediment “and heavy metals and other harmful chemicals that am cling to mud”. During his recovery, he watched the ground beneath the canopy blossom into a fragrant carpet of daisies, and he watched boat traffic resume as the rubbish was flushed out. He felt like Odysseus when he was lured by the sirens: “The waters are calling me, but I shouldn’t go.” Forcing himself to wait for his appetite to return, he tested his strength by burning larger and larger logs – 200 and then 300 pounds each – to his campfire.

“I was scared,” he said. “I had overcome a tremendous challenge, but I just had more respect for the flow than ever. And when I arrived – oh, what’s the name of this town? General Grant had his headquarters there before he went to Columbus…” He meant Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “I forgot the name. But I got to know the townspeople, and almost – well, I met a young woman, but I didn’t fall in love, let’s put it that way. I was tempted I was so glad to be with a woman. And I think it was the fear of dying that I got on that Towhead that made me enjoy that person’s presence. I felt alive again.”

At this point, what had sounded like a survival tale to me turned out to be a meditation on the redeeming power of persistence and faith. With his ego and confidence restored, he said he got back on the river — “told her, ‘I really have to go, I’m not coming back'” — and not long after, during a stopover in the Missouri Bootheel, he received a surprise Visit, not for the first time, from Tracy, disguised in a wig. He had a wistful smile as he narrated the episode and fell silent without mentioning what happened next. “She’s checking to make sure I’m healthy and alive,” he added. “I appreciate that. I really do. Nobody else does.”

A group of teenagers on dirt bikes had arrived at the beach near Conant’s campsite, and one of them began idly pulling a set of wheels in the bow of the canoe to transport it, while maybe keeping eye contact with me from a distance 30 feet as if to show off his fearlessness. If Conant saw the boy, he gave no sign. He lay back again, his tongue energized by the remains of Tabasco and his cheeks flushed with longing. Stung by the sharpness of that comment about nobody else making that comment, I had hoped to wait until the teenagers had moved on before saying goodbye. But there was a threat of being picked up from the day care center. “I wish we could get to know each other better, but time is of the essence,” Conant apologized. “You’re a family man.”

excerpt from riverman by Ben McGrath. Copyright © 2022 by Ben McGrath. Excerpt courtesy of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.

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