The other excursions were equally entertaining and educational, my favorite being the nighttime visit to a Creole plantation. The barge docks in downtown Baton Rouge, making it easy to walk to the old statehouse to ...um... admire the architecture of what Mark Twain called "the ugliest building on the Mississippi." A really active riverboat casino was within walking distance too.
Word came somewhere between Lafitte and Morgan City that George W. Bush had said "Let's Go" to Donald Rumsfeld. The United States was at war with Iraq.
It was comforting to my mother and me, and to the 108 other guests on board, that we were in sight of land at all times: Familiar land. United States land. Accessible land.
The world events that unfolded during our week on the river had been anticipated, which is one of the reasons we chose Riverbarge Excursions for our getaway. It allowed each of us to be able to get home quickly if the need arose, and while I am in no way an alarmist, in this instance there was enough uncertainty that sticking close to home made sense. Having satellite television in our rooms helped us to keep up with what was happening; dinner conversations tended to revolve around the news. In general though, the mood remained upbeat as we slid through locks and wended our way through the Atchafalaya Basin to the Mississippi.
I know, on booking our trip, that my expectations were of an easy, lazy respite. As I flew to New Orleans from North Carolina, I pictured myself sitting in the sun, my book splayed across my chest as I snoozed. I couldn't have been more wrong.
The river. The river. Everything was the river.
Shipyard workers wave at
the River Explorer
I couldn't rest, I couldn't stop watching the unfolding drama along both sides of our vessel, in front of us and behind us. There were pastoral moments in which we silently slid through narrow channels in wildlife preserves and exciting moments when the traffic on each side of us looked like a watergoing rush hour in Los Angeles or Atlanta. The culture of the river fascinated me and opened my eyes to the vast amount of commerce that is dependent on these internal waterways. Barges holding everything from salt --to be processed for wintertime snow melting in the northeast-- to grain shared the lanes with huge ocean-going ships filled with rice or petroleum. In one magnificent stretch of the Atchafalaya, we passed so close to the shipyards repairing and refitting vessels that I could have reached over my balcony rail and handed a cup of coffee to one of the workers.
The barge traditionally docks for the night and moves during the day, but on our Cajuns and Creoles trip there was a short period scheduled for nighttime travel, from Morgan City en route to Baton Rouge. We were supposed to drop anchor "in the middle of nowhere" some time around midnight, but it didn't work out that way.
Because of my excitement at the river activity and scenery, I was disappointed that we would travel in the dark, that I'd miss any of the experience. I thought it would be boring, but I was wrong again. Brightly lit tow boats pushed their barges along as our captains moved spotlights from one shore to another. At one point I woke my mother to drag her out onto the balcony: The moon, looking like a giant squashed orange, was coming up over the sparse foliage on our side of the barge, spilling a golden streak across the calm surface and silhouetting the trees along the shore. The sight took my breath away. For all I know, the landscape in the light of day might be truly ugly, but at night it was magnificent.
Dawn along the Atchafalaya
Fascinated by the nighttime travel, I put on my sweater and climbed to the Sky Deck so I could watch everything, on both sides of the barge, until we dropped anchor for the night. Close to midnight, when I thought we'd be stopping, we came to a wide open stretch of river lined on both sides with barges and tow boats, and barges with no tows in sight. There was a lot of noise and activity, and a pile of lit-up tow boats in the dead center of this expanse. Radios were blasting, shouts from one vessel to the other could be heard. It looked for all the world like a river RV park; there appeared to be a huge party taking place. We stopped for about half an hour, in the middle of the river, while the tows blocking our way moved to either side, and we then entered an extraordinarily long lock. It was nearly one a.m. when we traversed the lock, and we were still moving. Exhausted from the day's activities and all of the fresh air, I finally crumpled into bed. I set the alarm clock for six a.m. so I could be sure to experience our departure from anchorage, where ever that was to be.
We never stopped. The mid-river activity from the night before was due to a broken tow boat that was in the process of being fixed with the assistance of others along the river highway. We were to have stopped in that location, but because there was a backlog of 20 vessels, our captains decided that it would take too long to get through the lock in the morning. We traversed it at night instead, and puttered along at two to three miles per hour until daytime. I have no idea what other middle-of-the-night excitement I missed.
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