There was a moment recently when I and everything I own was out on the road between my old place and this new one. I sat in the cab of the rather overlarge moving truck, my computer backpack resting safely on my knee, feeling exhilarated and chatting to the classics student who had come to help me move. Brandon told me about his recent trip cross country with the moving company’s owner, how they hiked the Grand Canyon and skied at Tahoe while shepherding some family’s possessions from one life to another. It was a write off, he explained.
Did you know Mark Twain once claimed a gorgeous, unsettled virgin forest on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and then promptly burnt up nearly every tree on it? He and a friend had to launch a boat into the lake to escape the accidental conflagration. You won’t believe the things that happened to Mark Twain, and the things he made happen. The life he lived. I’ve been reading a fine biography of Twain since I wrote about Best for the Best and had to admit ignorance about his life.
So, first a clarification. Regarding the riverboat scenes in Josh Ritter’s song Best for the Best, I wrote, I can see that riverboat, the captain’s propped-up boots, the hat pulled down over his eyes. It turns out this was not the preferred way to pilot a steamboat down the—albeit placid—Mississippi River in the mid-nineteenth century. It turns out it required rather constant attention, and Twain spent much of his time behind the wheel quite frightened that he would crash or run aground. In fact he had recurrent nightmares about it. But the river—his piloting years were interrupted by the Civil War and he never took it up again—was a great source of nostalgia throughout his life, and, as was often his way, once some years had intervened he remembered it slightly differently than he had lived it. When things got sticky he often spoke longingly about returning to the river, as if he’d be immune to troubles there.
In the final verse of the cryptic song Monster Ballads we hear from Twain via Huck Finn:
And I was thinking about my river days
Thinking about me and Jim
Passing Cairo on a getaway
With every steamboat like a hymn
There’s reflection here, and high adventure, fluent friendship, flight from the law, and yet the setting imbued with the solemn and sacred. The river as church. In light of what I’ve read about Twain and those four evocative lines, I’ve been thinking about the notion of river days. Those stolen seasons of our lives when we drop our bags and forget who we are or were supposed to be and run barefoot through the tall grass of life. When the experience becomes all.
Travel is usually required. Youth helps. I chose London: went for six months, came back with hardly more than my original suitcase four years later. I had the time of my life, or so my heart keeps telling me, when Parliament or Piccadilly rises up in my mind’s eye and mocks the routine that has worn down an easy path—or a rut—that I’ve begun to follow without having to watch where I’m going. That first year in London everything seemed injected with the novel. I went about buzzing with the heightened awareness of it all, as though outside myself. Even I was a novelty, and this new me observed the other in the huge glittering city and in interaction with new foreign friends, questioning all sorts of things never questioned—or even acknowledged—before, and tending a bumper crop of new insecurities. They were good, though. They made me grow. And they made me think quite a bit about America and her place in the world.
Wherever I’ve lived I’ve always been drawn to water, and some of my best thinking and feeling during my London days occurred while staring out at the muddy Thames. How to describe what happens when two human eyes linger over a body of water? Words don’t seem enough . . . soothing, I suppose. Monster Ballads just might prove that music can do better. You’ll also get the sound of journey, with the hypnotic, playful bass line and gentle, regular percussion. And so much more, or something else entirely: Monster Ballads is extraordinary in that it’s one of the most vibrant and vivid musical portraits I’ve ever heard, seen, touched, and yet it’s also . . . a pristine ivory canvas . . . being caressed by wind-rippled curtains on the windows . . . of a room of sunshine-scattered gold coins . . . in a mountainside cabin. Grab a brush, it says.
Of course the problem with having had some river days is that one can get a little impatient when the adventure dies down. One can find herself standing in her kitchen belting I don’t give a damn for just the in betweens. She might walk blocks and blocks out of her way to have a secret serenade by a foreign accent. The hard times abroad, marinated by memory, will soften.
And if one is honest she might find herself trying to replicate that frusterated river days sensation in compartments of her stateside life. She might sell all her furniture and move into a condo share across town, just to shake things up, to see if anything can seem new again. And she may, as the moving truck approaches the turning off the main road—the westward journey broken at just four miles—be tempted to turn to the driver and say, “Can we keep going?”