Sutton, to me, is like Mr. Bixby to Twain. Mr. Bixby was the pilot of the Paul Jones, an ancient tub that ferried passengers and cargo? from Cincinnati to New Orleans. Twain was a steamboat pilot’s apprentice, and Mr. Bixby was the pre-eminent captain on those waters — a pilot’s pilot. Even when a knot of steamboatmen would congregate in the Pilot’s House, and then when a danger would befall the boat, all eyes turned to Mr. Bixby to save them. He was a great man ?indeed, and he taught young Samuel ?Clemens many a lesson about riverboating. But in doing so, he beat the romanticism out of the lad. Clemens, er, Twain, no longer could view the river with the same astonishment and idealism as he had as a boy in Hannibal, Mo. When the river became a profession, the Guf emptied. “A day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face,” he wrote in Life on the Mississippi. “Another day came when I ceased altogether to note them.”
Hence my hesitation to consort with Sutton. I spent many a minute upon a tilted? chair on five deck, silently ?taking in the densely wooded shore on starboard; high above the forest wall, a clean-stemmed tree waved — as in Twain’s day — a single leafy bough that glowed in the unobstructed? splendor of the sun. Were I to befriend Sutton, he most certainly would make the river into a schematic. Should we become mates, a high sun would now mean to me that there’d be wind tomorrow. That floating log, recently? dislodged from a dying tree, would mean that the river was rising. The silver streak in the shadow of the forest would mean a break from a new snag. No, I want to keep the river pristine. And I do.
With Sutton safely in the Pilot’s House, I sit on my chair outside my stateroom and stare pensively at the meandering shoreline. Dusk comes like a woolly orange blanket creeping from toe to top, and I look west over the Mississippi River as the colors slowly melt into the gentle ripples. This scene is why humanity begot poetry. And I can say with 100 percent certainty that at this particular moment and place in time, there is nowhere else on the planet I’d rather be.
I prepare my family to return to the hereafter, and have to bribe my daughters to get them to stop crying. The river days are lazy and long, the way you want them to be when the weather’s wonderful and the company’s sociable. Each point of disembarkation along the river — Oak Alley; St. Francisville; Natchez, Miss.; Vicksburg; Houmas House Plantation in Darrow, La. — presents a new way of looking at an old slice of America. Friendships are made and relationships are rekindled while the American Queen steams up and down the Mississippi.
But this is just the word of one person; this is just the word of a boy who, like Tom Sawyer, was a dreamer by the river’s side; this is just what happens when the world turns around and the boy grows tall and he hears the song of the river call. As a wee lad, Tom Sawyer heard the song sing, “travel on,” and so did Old Tom from Connecticut. And so did the boy telling this story. As Mark Twain would put it, when it comes to communicating the grandeur and majesty of the river — in either spoken or written word — one gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
Then you blink away a tear, and the boy is gone.