Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure
Rinker Buck’s Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure borrows Mark Twain’s title from the 1883 classic, Life on the Mississippi. But while Twain focused on his early steamboat days, Buck sets out to recreate a journey from Pennsylvania to New Orleans on a wooden flatboat.
The flatboat era of American history was incredibly impactful and largely ignored by modern historians. It certainly isn’t taught in school, although much of American history is not. Between 1800 and 1840, millions of river rats floated down rivers in large, glorified rafts. These flatboats varied incredibly in size and accommodations, but they were similar in the fact that they used the natural flow of rivers to move a massive amount of goods. The boats could hold an incredible amount of weight, and those seeking a new life out west could pack their entire livelihood on these boats. This included livestock.
Rinker constructs an eyesore of a boat named the Patience, decked out with all sorts of technological gadgets, a motor, and an oversized American flag. This he takes down the Ohio, to the Mississippi, and eventually lands in New Orleans. But like most events in life, it isn’t the destination so much as the journey.
His journey is met with many obstacles, most having to do with crew and river “experts”. All along his path he is informed he is doomed, to the point where it is a running joke with his crew that around the next bend they “are going to die!”. Over time, Buck gains experience handling this vessel and realizes that the experts were ignorant of the true nature of the rivers. These people had lived their lives by and on the river, but had never ventured past the comforts of the town marinas.
The river does have some danger and most of that is commercial barge traffic. This increases dramatically as they finally make it to the Mississippi. Side note: it takes until page 271 (of 369) for the flatboat to actually be on this magical river.
It seems that every second of every mile down the river involves either navigating around a barge or anticipating how to navigate around the barge up ahead. Buck does an amazing job describing the nautical terms of boat maneuvering, to the point where it gets a bit dull. He becomes quite adept at captaining his flatboat, and most of his crew is an asset.
Speaking of crew, the Patience is loaded with interesting characters that come and go during Buck’s journey. I’m never quite certain how many people can actually live on the boat, and Rinker is the only one that descends the entire river. Most of the exciting “crew” stories are in the first half of the book. This includes his genius friend Danny that can fix anything, a pirate-esque man named Jay, and a Lewis & Clark reenactor named Scott among others.
Scott gets the brunt of Rinker’s displeasure and there are several rather nasty tales about him. This oddball character irritates Buck so much that he eventually sends him packing. There are a few other on shore people that the author reams, but most of the people he meets are interested in his quest and generous in their assistance to his success.
My favorite “characters” were the captains of the barge tugs. Buck was told by the “experts” that he would be largely ignored by the captains but several times he is able to radio them for advice or information. These interactions are short and not many, but they provide such a raw, fascinating look into the ongoing work along the river.
Rinker Buck is a character himself. I fell in love with his writing when I read his The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. In that wild adventure, he recreates a trip along the Oregon Trail, driving a team of mules with a replica wagon. In both of these books, Buck mixes his current adventure with historical details. He cites many interesting books, especially works by Harlan Hubbard, and interjects his own interpretations of the past. Some of his thoughts on history are a bit reductionist, but he does a fair job of not going overboard with political bantering.
He also breaks his ribs (twice!) on the trip but seems oddly euphoric, almost happy about it.
The flatboat era created an economic boon and continues to be vital for commerce. Some $80 billion of cargo is hauled on these rivers annually. The success the flatboats created, of course, meant extreme hardship for many. This included Native Americans forced off their land and African Americans “sold down the river”. It is a terrible part of American history and Buck portrays these atrocities without sugar coating them.
While Rinker’s tale is highly interesting and well written, I found myself with zero desire to have a similar journey. When I read about other adventures, say hiking the Appalachian Trail, horseback riding in the west, or even Buck’s own Oregon Trail expedition I dream about how much fun that would be. Not so with the flatboat float. The rivers have lost much of their beauty and allure as they are managed solely for commerce. The journey seemed tedious and in some ways, boring.
That said, Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure is a fun read for the intermixing of history and adventure and ranks pretty closely to The Oregon Trail.