The Chattahoochee River tells a classic American story. In my head, before I paddled its 500+ miles, it was the story of a man. He's born clean and innocent in the mountains. He works through a challenging period and he emerges, embattled, into a sort of manhood where there's a plan, a career that he works methodically. Then his final decades flow unfettered, slow, and almost clear yet again, but heavier.
But that plot came from maps. The river took me through many men's lives and nothing is straightforward. The river's full of bends and their undercut outsides and sandbar'd insides and the dams and the oxbow lakes off to the side like echoes and ghosts. At flood, down low on the Apalachicola River, the muddy water stretches around the cypress and tupelo trunks, and it flows sideways into backwater swamps as if the land itself is sinking under the fluid weight.
An eddy forms behind a tree whose roots have caved, releasing its centuries-old mass to the same pull that has me. The tree has brought with it vines like rope lines and tangled smaller trees and released mocassins and hornets, and it opens the forest like a wound so I can peer into the green and gray darkness as the eddy grabs the boat's bow and holds me in its boiling, uneasy pocket.
This is where I meet the men, in this brief pause between the forest's open gash and the thick, brown, heavy water tugging at the eddy line. Just the men and me in the pause, looking at each other.