I visited again the next afternoon and found Conant “dreaming,” as he soon put it, amid a spread of cheese and condiments. “If you get thirsty, let me know,” he said. Before long, I noticed him pouring capfuls of Tabasco and sipping soy sauce straight from the bottle—“Energizing the flavor buds,” he explained.
He was eager to apologize for something he’d said the day before, and he hoped that I wasn’t offended. I couldn’t fathom what he was referring to. As I was leaving, he reminded me, he had said that he didn’t care whether or not I managed to publish an article about his voyage. It was a harmless remark—sweet, even. As I understood it, he had meant to emphasize that he valued the companionship and my interest in his adventures more than any esteem publicity might bring him. (“I love telling about my trips,” he’d said.) He was trying to absolve me of any obligation to labor further on his behalf.
Apparently, though, he’d been worrying about it ever since. For one thing, he now explained, it wasn’t true. He recognized having one’s work published as a form of professional success, and he wished to contribute to mine. (“This is your life’s work!”) And then there was the matter of his own manuscripts—two of which, he now said, he was carrying with him on flash drives. “I was going to give you one, but I thought, nah, that’s going over the edge,” he said. “But you know what I can do is, if we develop a certain email rapport, so to speak, I’ll send you a snippet, I guess. Maybe 20 to 30 pages? Something particularly neat that you might like.”
My interest this day was more transactional. Though I had enjoyed hearing his stories maybe as much as he had enjoyed sharing them, I now had some basic logistical questions. “When the time comes,” I began, “is there a way that we can get in touch with you?”
“No,” he said, and chuckled, as though the idea were indeed laughable. “I got a cellphone, but I rarely charge it,” he went on. “You know, on my other trips, I didn’t have one at all.” Whatever the case, he wasn’t interested in using his phone for my convenience. I admit that I was more impressed than annoyed and a little envious of his self-possession.
I was left with my digital recorder and the hope that I might get him on the record addressing anything I thought readers might conceivably want to know. Like, for instance: “When you go on a trip like this, you’re gone for a long time. Do you give up your apartment for the time being? Or your house?”
He laughed again, more nervously this time, and paused. “That’s kind of sensitive,” he said. He paused some more, mumbled about how he supposed it would “get out anyhow,” then took a deep breath and said, “Well, one of the reasons I go on these trips is because I don’t have an apartment.” I’d planned to ask next about how he financed his travel, but he kept going and answered without my prompting. “I was discriminated against in both housing and employment,” he continued. “I was having a rough time. And I managed without going to jail or getting thrown into a mental hospital. Now I’m old enough where I can collect Social Security—and going on a trip like this? It’s cheap. Even though I make very little on Social Security, on a trip like this I can actually save big dollars.” He laughed again. “Like I said, this is much too sensitive. But! It’s the truth.”
Both of his parents were dead. He had a large number of siblings with whom he seemed to be in only sporadic touch. (“That way they don’t worry.”) The lone stabilizing force in his life, as he now talked about it, seemed to be the “unusual” woman he’d met in Livingston the year before he settled across the mountain pass in Bozeman. This was near the start of yet another river trip, from the Yellowstone to the Missouri to the Mississippi: Montana to the Gulf. Her name was Tracy—“And I don’t want to give you her last name,” he said. “We’re not legally affianced or nothing.” He described their relationship as “very strange but constant” and acknowledged that it was difficult to explain, in light of his itinerant ways. “I very close to proposed to her within five minutes,” he said. “And then I was on my way down the river.”
At some point, after I’d lost control of the interrogation and submitted once more to the undammed stream of his consciousness, he launched a torrent of a monologue that began with a smoked sausage he’d bought at a grocery store in Minnesota, five years earlier. “I pickled it like I pickle my other stuff, but unfortunately it had a bug,” he explained. “Many microbes will not live in that acetic acid and salt and garlic, but this particular bacteria thrived in the pickle juice. Anyhow, as I was getting down towards, oh, mid- and southern Missouri, I ate some of that, and I got sick as a dog.”
His sickness coincided with his arrival at a teardrop-shaped island in the Mississippi called Jones Towhead, downriver and around the bend from Chester, Illinois, the commemorative home of Popeye the Sailor. He set up camp in a glade on the northern end, under a light canopy of 80-foot trees. “At the same time, within the nearest surrounding—I think it was 17—counties, in Missouri and Illinois, they had this deluge, just a magnificent rainfall, about five inches of rain that lasted over about two days,” he went on. “And I had dysentery. Not only do you have to evacuate all the time, but I lost my energy completely. And as the river was rising, I had to move my tent and my gear.
“So I’d go to sleep and wake up in the morning, and the water would be lapping at my feet, and I’d have to get up and move my tent again. But the dysentery was so bad that I could only move like 20 feet at a time, and I’d collapse. When I say collapse, I mean totally on my face in the mud. Can’t get up. Had to wait another 20 minutes to get enough—I think it’s ATP?—into my muscles to where I could move again.” (ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is a molecule that transports energy within cells.) “It was the most devastating thing. And so that’s what I’d do: I’d get up, move my gear, fall down, wait for it to pass, get up, move my gear. Make about four or five trips, then collapse in my tent again. Drink water, try to stay hydrated, go back to sleep. Wake up, the water would be at my feet again. It was just—the water kept rising.”
He stuck twigs upright in the mud to chart the river’s rate of encroachment. “This went on for about two more days. The river level rose about 20 feet. Finally, I got to the top of the towhead, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, when’s this river gonna stop?’ There was only maybe 18 inches of elevation left.” He looked up, and his heart sank: there was driftwood suspended in branches above his head, evidence that it could get much worse. The river, meanwhile, was delivering not just tree limbs but washing machines and the sides of barns swiftly past him.
“The Mississippi is just—I call it the Behemoth,” he said. “I was lucky that it stopped. Anyhow, I had to stay on that island for about ten days to recuperate. I ran out of water, so I collected rainwater off the roof of my tent, and I boiled some river water.” Boiling the Mississippi was a cumbersome project, involving stages of centrifugal sloshing and straining, to reduce sediment “and heavy metals and other noxious chemicals that cling to the mud.” During his convalescence, he watched the ground beneath the canopy blossom into a fragrant carpet of daisies, and he observed the resumption of barge traffic as the trash flushed out. He felt like Odysseus when he was enticed by the Sirens: “The water is calling me but I should not go.” He forced himself to wait until his appetite had returned, and he tested his strength by hauling ever-larger logs—200 and then 300 pounds apiece—to his bonfire.
“I was scared,” he said. “I had made it through a tremendous challenge, but I just had more respect for the river than I had ever had before. And by the time I got to—oh, what’s the name of that town? General Grant had his headquarters there before he went to Columbus…” He meant Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “I forget the name of it. But I got acquainted with the townspeople, and almost—well, I got acquainted with a young woman, but I didn’t fall in love, let’s just put it that way. I was tempted to. I was so glad to be around a woman. And I think it was the fear of dying that I had gotten on that towhead that made me enjoy this person’s presence. It made me feel alive again.”
It was at this point that what had sounded to me like a survival narrative turned out to be a meditation on the redemptive power of constancy and faith. With his ego and self-confidence restored, he said, he got back on the river—“Told her, ‘I really got to go, I’m not coming back’”—and not long after, during a stopover in the Missouri Bootheel, he received a surprise visit, not for the first time, from Tracy, who was camouflaged in a wig. He had a wistful smile as he recounted the episode and trailed off without mentioning what happened next. “She’s looking to see if I’m healthy and alive,” he added. “I appreciate that. I really do. Nobody else does that.”
A group of teenage boys on dirt bikes had arrived at the beach near Conant’s campsite, and one of them began idly tugging at a set of wheels, for portaging, in the bow of the canoe, while maintaining eye contact with me from a distance of maybe 30 feet, as if to assert his fearlessness. If Conant saw the boy, he didn’t let on. He was lying back again, his tongue energized with the residue of Tabasco and his cheeks flushed with longing. Stung by the poignancy of that nobody-else-does-that remark, I’d hoped to wait until the teens moved on before taking my leave. But daycare pickup loomed. “I wish we could get better acquainted, but time is of the essence,” Conant said, excusing me. “You’re a family man.”
Excerpted from Riverman by Ben McGrath. Copyright © 2022 by Ben McGrath. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.