River spray hits my face as the paddlewheel’s 26 tons of white oak churn the water below, propelling the steamboat down the mighty Mississippi. I stand on the deck and lean over the railing, watching the massive steam-driven pistons turning the pitman arms that keep the paddlewheel steadily rolling through the water.
Like a giddy child, I move from one deck to another, seeing the views of the river rolling by. Gigantic cargo ships with foreign names loom beside us. Speedy pusher tugs run up and down the river to fetch their barges. On shore we see huge wharves wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, plantation houses, barracks, old factories, and complex drydocks with their ship-building equipment.
I can hear the foot-stomping sounds of the jazz band that’s playing in the dining room. I can smell the scrumptious Cajun cooking from the ship’s galley. The loudspeaker brings us the steady commentary of the tour guide, explaining the sights and the history behind them.
In case you can’t tell, our steamboat ride was for me the highlight of our recent trip to New Orleans. My first journey to the South, Miriam and I took this little jaunt on the train, The City of New Orleans. (Yes, the namesake of the Steve Goodman song made famous by Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson. Look it up — it really tells a story.)
We stopped in Memphis, Tennessee on the way down, staying in the refurbished downtown where upscale coffee shops sit around the corner from broken-down buildings. We walked across the pedestrian bridge so we could set foot in Arkansas. We spent a couple hours at the National Civil Rights Museum, which is in the very hotel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was heartbroken to learn the details of the prejudice and strife, yet inspired by the courage and peaceful determination of the movement led by Dr. King.
Traveling south from Memphis, the train trundled on down through cotton and peanut fields, even some rice fields.Farmer me was studying the crops and the soil so different from our own. There were signs of an overflooded growing season with some fields unharvested.
The trees were different, some with large waxy leaves. Little churches dotted the landscape. The houses were small and simple. Many had a big patch of greens growing in their gardens.
Further south, fields gave way to woods, rough pastures, red-soiled hills, and then the spreading marshes of Louisiana with occasional hunting shacks and fishing piers. A billboard advertising solutions to termite problems and a sign for Pelican State Bank told me I was in different country.
Conversations with passengers from the locale helped fill me in on some of what I saw.
As we rolled into greater New Orleans, all the little houses on blocks indicated we were in low ground. Palm trees spoke of a warmer climate, though it was cool and damp when we were there.
We found New Orleans a colorful and complex city, facing many challenging issues. As always, the trip gave me lots to think about and expanded my understanding. And best of all, I got to ride the steamboat.
WINIFRED HOFFMAN, of Earlville, is a farmer, breeder of dual-purpose cattle and a student of life. She can be reached by emailing email@example.com.