A Slow, Glorious Trip Down the Mississippi Tony Horwitz revels in the meandering adventures and wry observations of Old Glory, Jonathan Raban's story of floating "like a piece of human driftwood" through the heart of America.


A Slow, Glorious Trip Down the Mississippi

A Slow, Glorious Trip Down the Mississippi

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Tony Horwitz is the author, most recently, of A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. While researching an earlier book, Confederates in the Attic, he acted in a B-movie about Nat Turner, in which he was hacked to death and covered in Burger King ketchup. The movie was so bad it was never released. Randi Baird hide caption

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Randi Baird

I first read Old Glory, by Jonathan Raban, in the early 1980s, as a restless cub reporter in Indiana. Right away, I knew this was the kind of trip I wanted to take.

Old Glory is a travel classic without Himalayan ascents, exotic foods or dangerous encounters in distant lands. Instead, it's a meander through the middle of America, by a bookish man who loiters at shabby taverns in has-been towns.

The genius of this book, for me, is that it brings alive an unsung world and reminds us that great travel doesn't require a passport, or even a plane ticket. The potential for weird and wonderful encounters is all around us.

Unlike so many modern travelogues, Old Glory is also free of gimmicks. It's an odyssey the author was meant to take, compelled by childhood longing. In the book's beautiful opening passage, Raban evokes the pinched world of postwar England, where he found escape in reading Huckleberry Finn and in tracing the Mississippi in a Victorian atlas as big as he was.

The story fast forwards and finds the author in his late 30s, "stale and dry" in London. On a whim, he lights out for the territory, to travel the river of his boyhood dreams. "I would try," he writes, "to be as much like a piece of human driftwood as I could."

But this is no sentimental journey. Even before Raban launches his small boat on the Mississippi, he almost drowns in a sea of plus-size Minnesotans, force-feeding themselves at a county fair.

What follows is one of the funniest and least flattering depictions of America I've ever read. "Every time I tried to turn my head," Raban writes, "I found someone else's hot dog, bloody with ketchup, sticking into my own mouth."

He imagines the fair-goers' ancestors, "hungry immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, lean and anxious men with the famines of Europe bitten into their faces. Generation by generation, their families had eaten themselves into Americans."

In Hannibal, Mo., Raban finds his beloved Huck has been "sivilized" and the waif's hometown has been tarted up, a sterile tourist trap. The once-bustling and now faded river towns where Raban docks most nights give the impression, he writes, "that the chief part of their day was devoted to lounging, spitting, scuffing their heels and swatting flies."

If Old Glory were just a brilliant, barbed portrait of modern America by an erudite Englishman, that would be enough. But the book is much more than that. As Raban floats south, he finds himself unexpectedly at home with both the river and the people dwelling on its banks.

His 10-state voyage becomes a melancholy parallel to the essential American journey, beginning with the flight from Europe and continuing with the rootless wander, always pulling up stakes and moving on. "I had no gift for permanence," Raban realizes after fleeing St. Louis, where he has briefly moved in with a woman. "Running away ... was what I was good at."

By the time he reaches New Orleans, the Mississippi's no longer the mythic waterway of his boyhood imagination. It has become something much richer, a river into his own soul and that of America.

Raban has since settled in the U.S. and written many excellent and more polished works, such as Bad Land, an award-winning tour of the northern Plains. But Old Glory remains my favorite of his.

I love the book's aimlessness, its lyrical rendering of things most travelers wouldn't bother to mention. Dead raccoons, for Raban, have "the dissolute repose of sleeping tramps," and the franchise sprawl of an approaching town is a colorful "mess of neon doodles." It's the raw, imperfect journey of a man still loyal to his childhood dreams and open to drifting in a way that becomes difficult with age.

Raban's book inspired me to embark on misadventures of my own, both abroad and at home. Now, 25 years after I first read Old Glory, when I feel stale and dry in my own writing, I know I can open it to almost any page and feel carried away again, as Raban once was by a river he calls "as big and depthless as the sky itself."

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Old Glory'

'Old Glory' cover
Vintage Books

Chapter 1: The River

It is as big and depthless as the sky itself. You can see the curve of the earth on its surface as it stretches away for miles to the far shore. Sunset has turned the water to the color of unripe peaches. There's no wind. Sandbars and wooded islands stand on their exact reflections. The only signs of movement on the water are the lightly scratched lines which run in parallel across it like the scores of a diamond on a windowpane. In the middle distance, the river smokes with toppling pillars of mist which soften the light so that one can almost reach out and take in handfuls of that thickened air.

A fish jumps. The river shatters for a moment, then glazes over. The forest which rims it is a long, looping smudge of charcoal. You could make it by running your thumb along the top edge of the water, smearing in the black pines and bog oaks, breaking briefly to leave a pale little town of painted clapboard houses tumbling from the side of a hill. Somewhere in the picture there is the scissored silhouette of a fisherman from the town, afloat between the islands in his wooden pirogue, a perfectly solitary figure casting into what is left of the sun.

It is called the Mississippi, but it is more an imaginary river than a real one. I had first read Huckleberry Finn when I was seven. The picture on its cover, crudely drawn and colored, supplied me with the raw material for an exquisite and recurrent daydream. It showed a boy alone, his face prematurely wizened with experience. (The artist hadn't risked his hand with the difficulties of bringing off a lifelike Nigger Jim.) The sheet of water on which he drifted was immense, an enameled pool of lapis lazuli. Smoke from a half-hidden steamboat hung over an island of Gothic conifers. Cut loose from the world, chewing on his corncob pipe, the boy was blissfully lost in this stillwater paradise.

For days I lay stretched out on the floor of my attic room, trying to bring the river to life from its code of print. It was tough going. Often I found Huck's American dialect as impenetrable as Latin, but even in the most difficult bits I was kept at it by the persistent wink and glimmer of the river. I was living inside the book. Because I was more timid and less sociable than Huck, his and my adventures on the Mississippi tended to diverge. He would sneak off in disguise to forage in a riverside town, or raid a wrecked steamboat; I would stay back on the raft. I laid trotlines for catfish. I floated alone on that unreal blue, watching for "towheads" and "sawyers" as the forest unrolled, a mile or more across the water.

I found the Mississippi in the family atlas. It was a great ink-stained Victorian book, almost as big as I was. "North Africa" and "Italy" had come loose from its binding, from my mother's attempts to keep up with my father's campaigns in the Eighth Army. North America, though, was virgin territory: no one in the family had ever thought the place worth a moment of their curiosity. I looked at the Mississippi, wriggling down the middle of the page, and liked the funny names of the places that it passed through. Just the sounds of Minneapolis ... Dubuque ... Hannibal ... St. Louis ... Cairo ... Memphis ... Natchez ... Baton Rouge ... struck a legendary and heroic note to my ear. Our part of England was culpably short of Roman generals, Indians and Egyptian ruins, and these splendid names added even more luster to the marvelous river in my head.

The only real river I knew was hardly more than a brook. It spilled through a tumbledown mill at the bottom of our road, opened into a little trouty pool, then ran on through water meadows over graveled shallows into Fakenham, where it slowed and deepened, gathering strength for the long drift across muddy flatlands to Norwich and the North Sea. All through my Huckleberry Finn summer, I came down to the mill to fish for roach and dace, and if I concentrated really hard, I could see the Mississippi there. First I had to think it twice as wide, then multiply by two, then two again...The rooftops of Fakenham went under. I sank roads, farms, church spires, the old German prisoner-of-war camp, Mr. Banharn's flour mill. I flooded Norfolk, silvering the landscape like a mirror, leaving just an island here, a dead tree there, to break this lonely, enchanted monotony of water. It was a heady, intensely private vision. I hugged the idea of the huge river to myself. I exulted in the freedom and solitude of being afloat on it in my imagination.

Year by year I added new scraps of detail to the picture. I came across some photographs of the Mississippi in a dog-eared copy of the National Geographic in a doctor's waiting room. Like inefficient pornography, they were unsatisfying because they were too meanly explicit. "Towboat Herman Briggs at Greenville" and "Madrid Bend, Missouri" gave the river a set of measurements that I didn't at all care for. I didn't want to know that it was a mile and a quarter wide, or that its ruffled water wasn't blue at all but dirty tan. The lovely, immeasurable river in my head was traduced by these artless images, and when the doctor called me in to listen to the noises in my asthmatic chest I felt saved by the bell.

Then I saw a painting by George Caleb Bingham. It showed the Missouri, not the Mississippi, but I recognized it immediately as my river. Its water had a crystalline solidity and smoothness, as if it had been carved from rosy quartz. The river and the sky were one, with cliffs and forest hanging in suspension between them. In the foreground, a ruffianly trapper and his son drifted in a dugout canoe, their pet fox chained to its prow. The water captured their reflections as faithfully as a film. Alone, self-contained, they moved with the river, an integral part of the powerful current of things, afloat on it in exactly the way I had been daydreaming for myself. The French fur trader and his half-caste child joined Huck Finn-the three persons of the trinity which presided over my river.

Crouched under the willow below the mill, I lobbed my baited hook into the pool and watched the water spread. The Mississippi was my best invention; a dream that was always there, like a big friendly room with an open door into which I could wander at will. Once inside it, I was at home. I let the river grow around me until the world consisted of nothing except me and that great comforting gulf of water where catfish rootled and wild fruit hung from the trees on the towhead islands. The river was completely still as the distant shore went inching by. I felt my skin burn in the sun. I smelled sawn timber and blackberries and persimmons. I didn't dare move a muscle for fear of waking from the dream.

Now, thirty years later, the river was just a hundred miles ahead.

The road was empty-not a truck or a car in miles. If it hadn't been for the bodies of the dead racoons, I might have taken my rented mustard Ford for the only thing on the move in the whole of Wisconsin. The coons had the dissolute repose of sleeping tramps, their splayed limbs hidden under rumpled coverlets of greasy fur. Poor coons. Supremely talented, in a schoolboy way, at night exercises, at noisy raids on garbage cans, at climbing trees, they had no gift at all for crossing roads. Bright lights mesmerized them, and they died careless hobos' deaths on the wooded edges of tiny unincorporated towns.

Hunting for company, I twiddled my way through the burble on the radio.

"Good afternoon to all you Labor Day weekenders out there in northern Wisconsin..." The announcer sounded like a naval captain in a 1950s movie, a honey-bass throbbing with authority and inner calm. 'This is WWID, Ladysmith. Your Good News station."

The road sliced through a broken, hilly landscape of forest, corn and cattle. It had been like this for hours: the white-painted farms set back behind good fences, each one with its grain silo topped by an aluminum cone like a witch's hat, the long sweep of freshly harvested valleys reduced to hog's bristle, the slaughtered coons. No one about. In Goodrich and Antigo, Ruby, Bloomer and Cornell, there'd been the same Sunday somnolence in the standing heat.

At Goodrich I'd stopped for gas, and had had to wake the station's owner, who was asleep under the funnies section, framed between his ice chest and his Coke machine. "Shit," he'd said; then "Where you going?" --as if my presence on the highway were a violation of some Sunday blue law.

From the hillbilly fiddles, electric harmoniums and tabernacle choirs on the radio, a woman's voice broke through with manic brightness and clarity.

A song of peace, a song of joy,
A song for every little girl and boy,
A song that says, "God loves you!"

Excerpted from Old Glory by Jonathan Raban. Copyright (c) 1998 by Jonathan Raban. Reprinted with permission from Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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