I once heard someone say that if you want to find out what you aren't going to be doing for the next 10 years, make a list of your goals. Then at least you'll know a few things that won't be happening. The point being that life is really about the detours, not the destinations. But I'm a planner. I make itineraries, lists. And, as I prepared to write my latest book, I knew exactly what I was doing. I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to go down the Mississippi River in a houseboat that I would pilot myself. Why this lunacy came to me is a much longer story indeed it is what The River Queen is about but I wanted to do this. In the 1920s my father lived along the banks of the Mississippi and I was raised on his river tales. I was going to visit the places my father knew. I would do the whole river over a period of about two months. After all, I'd written a proposal, a very exacting 57-page document, a testament to what I was going to do, and a very fine publisher had agreed to publish it.
Never mind that I knew little about boats, let alone locks and dams. I bought books. I learned nautical terms as if I were studying French. I studied the basics of hydraulic engineering until I knew more than anyone I know who isn't a hydraulic engineer. I understood, for example, exactly why the levee-only policy had been bad for New Orleans. But then in May, three months before I was to leave, my father died. He was almost 103 years old, so his death shouldn't have surprised anyone, but his mind was intact and I thought he'd just keep going.
I had a long grocery list of things I intended to ask him. What was the name of that island where you spent your summer? Tell me more about Klein's, the clothing store where you worked as a young man. Talk to me about the river when you were a boy. His death threw me into a depression I couldn't seem to snap out of. I had no desire to move, to travel, to go anywhere, let alone plan a huge trip. But I was committed and so I went up to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where my nephew lived and where I found two river pilots, charmingly named Tom and Jerry, who convinced me with great laughter and guffaws that it was impossible to go down the river in a houseboat alone. But Jerry had a boat he wanted to move south. They agreed to take me halfway and arranged for a friend to take me the rest.
Two weeks before I was to leave, Katrina happened. As I watched the horror unfold, which I don't think I need to describe here, my trip took a turn, a bend, I hadn't imagined. How could I sail in my boat all the way south? As I sailed with Tom and Jerry, it seemed I literally had to go with the flow. I had no idea how far this journey would take me. There was a tremendous sense of the unknown. My father's death meant he would not be telling me which island he'd visited or more about his time in Hannibal. But it also meant, in retrospect, that I was free to write about him in a way that I never could while he was alive. I did not anticipate this feeling, for I missed him terribly, but there were things left unsaid.
As the aftermath of Katrina unfolded and the price of gas soared, the whole venture to New Orleans was looking more and more moot. But I had things in my favor. Tom and Jerry were good guys, great guys actually, and, by a bit of luck, excellent river pilots, and they also immediately became great characters. I knew I wanted to stay with them and our wreck of a boat as we journeyed south. It wasn't long before I found myself standing on the bow of our boat, phoning my editor to tell him that I was throwing the well-wrought plan for my book out the window. Nothing that I'd exactly foreseen about this book was coming to be. And my editor replied that he didn't give a flying fattuty (or words to that effect) about the history of the locks and dams. Just tell me about your father, is what he said.
It was as if I had been banging my head against a wall and someone opened a door. I walked through a portal I hadn't seen and wrote the book I never anticipated writing. I began with the stories my father had told me, memories of his humor and his anger, moments I had never tapped into before. As I say in The River Queen, what began for me as an adventure and a lark turned into a journey into memory, childhood and the past. And it was definitely not what I had planned.
Acclaimed writer Mary Morris blends memoir and midlife journey in her latest book, The River Queen. The author of three travel books, six novels and three collections of short stories, Morris teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College.