Trouble came fast and without warning, as it often does on the Mississippi.
Our plan was to cross America by Jet Ski, traversing the entire length of the country’s aquatic spine, the Mississippi River, from the frozen north straight on into the Gulf of Mexico. And from the moment we slid our two shiny red-and-white Kawasakis, loaded with tents and camping gear, into the river at a wooded glade on the southern lip of St. Paul, we started cruising at close to top speed, around 60 mph. “Piece of cake!” Yann yelled as we took off, his Ski throwing up a rooster tail of white water. Six foot three, with a slightly graying Afro, he looked like a man trying to tug a rabbit out of its hole, his long legs up around his ears and his arms reaching down between them to the handlebars. I laughed and shouted back to him, then gunned my own engine and shot ahead, doing some quick math in my head and figuring that, at an easy 300 miles a day, we’d be home in a week.
Just about 50 miles into the trip, we streamed past two bluffs that mark the entrance to Lake Pepin, Minnesota, where the secluded river — so far a docile, syrupy green only 50 feet across — suddenly widened to three miles. The windchill sharpened immediately, from TK to –13. The water transformed into a sea of furious five-foot whitecaps. Ice water plunged down my neckline, soaking my skin and thermal layers. Waves hit me square in the chest, knocking the wind out of me and trying to drag me off my Jet Ski. I saw Yann blast by, hit a wave head-on, land with a hull-splitting crack, and then surge on out of control, a leg disappearing into the water as he tried to right himself. I couldn’t feel my hands but focused on keeping a death grip on the bars.
When you’re jet-skiing in the ocean, you accelerate up waves before they crest, essentially using the water like a skateboard ramp and sailing off the far side. It works well because ocean waves come straight at you in a kind of rhythmic succession, allowing you to stay in control. Wind waves, on the other hand, come at you from what seems like every direction, and they’re not wide swells; the wind whips up triangles of water from the surface and shoves them at you. Without time to spot swells and get in position, I often found myself reacting too late and thus speeding down into the wave troughs, ending up completely submerged and accelerating toward the bottom of the river.
It took two marrow-chilling hours of resolve to cross Lake Pepin, but by the end I was starting to get the hang of it, my reflexes sharpened by necessity, my Jet Ski launching from one wave to the next like a skier on moguls.
We pulled up to a rocky beach next to a boat ramp in the town of Washaba, on the southern shore of Pepin, to assess the damage. Yann, his goggles askew on his face and his Afro in a sad droop, looked like he had just faced death. He couldn’t stop cursing — “You bastard! Fuck! Trying to kill me!” — and drove his Jet Ski straight up on onto the shore, sucking stones straight into the motor until there was an awful, high-pitched grinding sound, then silence.
“That’s it for me — no more riding,” he said, wincing as he tried to stalk away on a twisted knee. A $4,000 video camera he had stowed in the storage compartment of his Jet Ski was ruined, rattled to pieces on the lake. Our gear, all of which had been tucked securely, we thought, in dry bags, was soaked. Yann’s motor was completely wrecked, the Jet Ski unusable.
We had 2,000 miles to go.
Seen from the air, the Mississippi River is a billowing brown ribbon that slices America in half. It is four miles wide in places. If measured from the head of its tributary, the Missouri River, it is the longest river in the world. Within its valley lies 41 percent of the continental United States, including all or part of 31 states. Almost 300 million tons of goods are shipped along the river every year, and for centuries it has the been the crucial economic artery of the nation.
Those who live and work on the river say it has a volatile life of its own, that it is a living, breathing entity that will suck human life away on a whim. “The surface will look like glass but underneath all hell is breaking lose,” says Alan Dooley, TK POSITION of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It will swallow you and your body in a matter of hours.”
Beneath the surface, the river moves millions of tons of silt into the Gulf of Mexico. This causes furious rip currents, deadly undertows, and whirlpools capable of sucking down small boats, cars, people, anything. Often, they’re never found again. In 2001, 66-year-old Wilma Bricker, a schoolteacher, accidentally steered her car into the turbid Mississippi waters at the Alton Belle Riverboat Casino. Four years later, despite the attempts of numerous highly skilled divers and search teams, all have failed to find the car or her body.
As we were to discover, weather conditions and currents can change in a second. Overnight sandbars will form, which can cause boats to run aground without warning. Downriver, there are the added dangers of alligators and migratory bullsharks. “To fall off a Jet Ski, or any boat, in the Mississippi River is to fall into something that is highly treacherous and unforgiving,” Dooley told me. “It’s too dangerous.”
Still, every year, TK ROUGH NUMBER OF people try to conquer the river — some channeling Huck Finn on homemade rafts, others by more conventional means (see SIDEBARTK). Nobody had ever tried it in a Jet Ski, though — which is precisely why I decided it had to be done (that, plus the fact that we’re apparently in the midst of a Jet Ski revolution; a new breed of machines, such as the massive Kawasakis STX-15F “personal watercraft” we were riding, are being touted for their long-distance “touring” capability). I figured I’d need a partner, so I called Yann and set a date.
“Great!” he’d said. “I rode a Jet Ski in Cyprus once. I’ll fly over, we’ll run down the river — get some air — and then some beers in the French Quarter.” Yann is an ad exec in London, and his knowledge of mid-American geography is akin to most Americans' off-the-cuff knowledge of Bavaria
I never exactly warned him how dangerous the river could be — instead filling his head with visions of Huck Finn lazing around in the moonlight, stealing ashore to pick fresh fruit and get news from the friendly locals — so I felt a certain degree of guilt for his misery that first night. It wasn’t that I’d purposely tried to mislead him, but more that I believed in the long-documented benefits of the buddy system, especially when it comes to pioneering adventures. Then there was the fact that I had underestimated the power of the river myself. And so, as we made our way to a motel near the water that night I told him, reluctantly, that I’d be fine if he bailed. We had a support truck following us with fuel and back-up supplies, so for the next few days Yann took to the road while John Rall and TKTK, of the support crew, took turns joining me on the river on a backup Ski.
We pushed on south, the endless flats of the upper Midwest stretching out to either side. Just outside Dubuque, Iowa, a shrewish-looking woman in a kayak strapped with camping gear looked at me as we rattled past like I had the blood of her newborn child daubed on the side of my Jet Ski. I didn’t realize it yet, but we were a shocking sight. Dressed all in black, with our waterproof ski pants duct-taped to our boots, four jacket layers bulking up our torsos, black ski masks pulled all the way down over our faces, and dark ski goggles covering our eyes, we might have been villains from a James Bond movie, or worse.
Through Iowa and down into Missouri and Illinois, the river settled into a kind of hard, steady chop, which felt like riding a motorcycle with no suspension down a potholed road at 60. Every crest, every rolling crosscurrent sent shock waves through the fiberglass hull. The small of my back felt like it was being jackhammered, my legs like I was doing lunges all day.
Because the Jet Skis had a range of only about 100 miles, we had to stop a few times a day to refuel — sometimes radioing the truck to meet us, other times just pulling over and using the reserve cans we had bought at Wal-Mart the first night and then strapped to the backs of the Jet Skis. Occasionally we’d stop to eat, too, but that quickly became less of an occasion, because all the food we tried to keep in the front hatch would be smashed to a pulp, reduced to a smelly gumbo roiling around in the bottom of the little boat. We began a steady diet of granola bars and candy.
The biggest interruptions we hit were the 29 locks in the upper river, huge testaments to man’s attempt to bend nature to his will. With their enormous rusted iron doors rising 10 stories above the water, the locks function sort of like elevators in places where the river naturally heads downhill. There’s no way down without passing through the locks, and we weren’t allowed to enter with the giant barges, so often we’d have to wait for hours for our chance, just bobbing there in the water. Eventually a few pleasure boats would show up and together we’d make our way into the hold, wait for the great grinding screech of the gates shutting behind us, and then shoot out the other side after the water level had dropped and another set of gates groaned open.
By the time we got to Lock 15, in Illinois, we were tired of the idling process, so we sped to a deserted-looking nearby jetty and waited there for some barges to pass. We were sitting on the edge of the jetty eating some beef jerky, our Skis tied up next to us, when suddenly, from out of nowhere in the scrubland behind us, came flashing lights, blaring sirens, slamming doors. Before we could register what was going on, two police cars skidded up to us, and two officers leapt out.
“What the hell are you doing here?” the lead cop yelled, the veins in his forehead popping like a bodybuilder’s. He had his feet planted in full ready position, his palm resting on his gun butt.
I dropped my beef jerky in the water, INEXPLICABLY, as if it were a pound of cocaine, and started to get up. “Well, we’re just jet-skiing down the river.”
He frowned, paused. “What?” Paused again. “Stand back from your vehicles and come this way — hands where we can see them!”
I made a move to pick up my bag, but then thought better of it and began to inch toward the two cops, carefully. The lead one’s name tag read R. Gonzalez.
“What the hell are you doing on a Jet Ski? Do you realize where you are?” I shook my head.
“You are on the Rock Island Arsenal. This is a Government restricted area.” He motioned behind him, where, in big red letters, a sign I had simply ignored earlier confirmed that this was restricted property. We had pulled in wearing black ski masks, on Jet Skis in the middle of winter, on the largest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal in the western world, a prime terrorist target. This is where ordnance is made for howitzers and other artillery pieces and shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan.
I proffered a very wet driver’s license. There were a few awkward minutes while the second cop called in the details and Gonzales just glowered at us in silence. Then it was over.
“You guys are crazy, you know that?” Gonzales said. “You’re lucky I’m not arresting you. Get your stuff, get out of here, and don’t come back.”
From Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s hometown, a heavy mist and rain came down, and we could barely make out the thickets of ash, maple, and dogwood trees lining the shores. The air was thick with mud, which left a gray-brown patina on my skin and seeped into my nostrils and eyes. It left a loamy taste to everything I ate.
At the Gateway Arch, symbol of American exploration and expansion, the Big Muddy became a seething cauldron, pumped full of sludge from the hulking industrial plants spewing smoke along the St. Louis banks. Barge traffic increased heavily — from one every hour or so to one every 10 minutes. Each of the barges, which can stretch to a quarter of a mile long and carry as many as 870 truck trailers’ worth of cargo while displacing 20,000 tons of water, was a potentially lethal threat. Barges have blind spots of 1,000 feet. Pilots steer a mile ahead, so stopping for something in the way is impossible. If we streaked past too close, I could feel my Jet Ski being tugged under.
River lore is full of fatalities from boats tangling with barges. Most recently, James and Kimberly Gross, both 34, from St. Charles, Missouri, drifted into the northward passage of a string of 16 barges in 1998 in St. Louis harbor. They were experienced boaters, but a steering cable in their 18-foot fiberglass runabout had snapped. The boat was obliterated, and their bodies were found three days later. Only their 11-year-old daughter survived. We surged on, giving the barges as wide a berth as possible. Logs, trees, shopping carts, and other debris started appearing in the water, sometimes floating alongside us in the current, sometimes just whirling about in an eddy — either way demanding a quick swerve and a recovery, like avoiding a deer that suddenly leaps into the interstate in front of your car. I began to get increasingly paranoid of spectral shapes under the water, and flipped the handlebars at the slightest sign of a log.
On the banks, the landscape descended to dull flatness. Huge, clanking freight trains snaked along beside us, and brown foam-flecked scum floated on the water. When jumping the wakes of barges I had, until now, managed to keep my mouth closed, but on one unexpected swell I opened it as a wave crashed over me. It was like falling into a toilet. The unmistakable taste of shit assaulted my senses, followed by a strong detergent aftertaste. I gagged repeatedly, hunkered over the bars of my Jet Ski, until I could get fresh water from my pack.
We began to feel like outcasts because of our mode of transport. Everywhere we had gone so far, people gave us disapproving looks — not disapproving of the Jet Skis themselves, I sensed, but more disapproving of our apparently suicidal motives. Meanwhile Yann started feeling left out, bored with sitting in the truck. He screwed his courage to the hilt and decided to get back on. “Yup, I’m rested and ready,” he said, as if that had been the problem. The sun, a shaky orange disk in the sky, turned the water an alchemist’s gold, and I smiled as we rode — those visions of Huck and Jim lazily floating down together finally starting to feel relevant.
We pulled into the Kidd River City Fuel Dock at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, at dusk and met a 40-ish guy in overalls named Lester, who had a Ford pickup with a sticker on the back that read, Ain’t skeered. “That just means I’m not scared of anyone,” he explained. He was a mechanic, and he eyed the Jet Skis suspiciously, saying he’d never seen anything like us. Then he began to wax lyrical on the joys of living on the banks of the big river. “I can piss out my back door and shoot a critter at the same time,” he said with a challenging grin. “Betcha can’t do that in New York.”
Later that night, after we restocked and were thinking about setting up camp nearby, the river asserted itself again. A 51-foot luxury river yacht named Seaquinn, belonging to Jim and Nita Quinn, a retired couple from Minneapolis, slipped loose from its mooring at the fuel dock and slammed into the shore. The current had a grip on it and wouldn’t let go, dashing the boat against the rocks repeatedly while Jim and Nita stood by looking on in horror.
I pulled my Jet Ski out into the river, Jim threw me the bowline, Nita took the helm of the boat, and, with the current pulling me downriver, I gunned the engine and began to tug. It took a few minutes, the Kawasaki whining and chugging at full power, but eventually the Seaquinn tore free from the sharp black rocks with a sheering crash. Jim watched helplessly from shore as his boat and wife were sucked downriver, into the enveloping darkness. Then there was an awful boom and a teeth-loosening screech as his wife piloted the boat to shore — and back onto the rocks.
“Oh god, no!” Jim screamed, folding his arms behind his head. “No! No! I’ve told her to learn how to drive but she won’t do it!”
The following day Jim and Nita awoke to four inches of water on the floor. They put on life jackets and had to be rescued by a tugboat. They later discovered that they had broken a propeller shaft and the rudder, and that there were gaping holes in the boat’s hull — about $30,000 in repairs.
A long day in the saddle with almost no progress made. After the last lock at Cairo, Illinois, the river turbulence picked up, and when we reached the confluence with the Ohio river, the red and green navigation buoys became hard to spot in the mist and waves. There were no signs or people to ask. We hesitated and picked the widest stretch, then ended up hours later in Paducah, Kentucky, some 50 miles off course.
A ruddy-faced river pilot with a broken nose stood on the shore, bemused. “This is a commercial waterway,” he told me. “This is no place for you to be fooling around on those things." He turned on his heel and walked away. Later, as we waited to meet up with the support truck and refuel, a convict from a work party sweeping the jetty tried to convince me to help him escape. I declined, and his boss yanked him back in line.
As we made our way back to the Mississippi that afternoon, Yann began to sink into despair again. A crimson/lavender sunset brought with it a cloak of darkness, but we kept on for a few more hours, the river black and fast below us. There were no lights on the shore. “This is reckless, dangerous, and stupid,” Yann said. “We’re not trained for this shit.”
We reached Memphis, and the weather started warming. It was either a sense of delirium or disbelief at our success so far, but we started laughing and shouting again, carving down the big river, racing and weaving around each other like we hadn’t done since the very first hours of the trip, before Lake Pepin.
Near the I-40 bridge, Yann jumped the wake of a boat, caromed up into the air and then landed too far to the side on a second wave. He was flung from his seat into the water but caught his boot between the foot well and the engine compartment. And because he was wearing bulky cold-weather boots, his leg was trapped — and twisted so violently that it snapped. He howled and flapped in the water, the Jet Ski on its side, spinning in circles and floating downriver in the current while the bones in Yann’s leg crossed and rubbed like chopsticks.
He was carted to Memphis Methodist University Hospital in an ambulance. I arrived shortly after, and found him in an ER treatment room bed, propped up in a green hospital gown, the backs of his hands plugged with needles and an IV. His face was a marble gray and as he faded in and out of consciousness, his eyeballs rolling back into his head, he blamed me for everything. “I fucking told you,” he said. “This was a stupid fucking idea. I’m going to be off work for months! Did you really think we could make it down the whole Mississippi River?” I nodded and looked down, shuffled my feet. “Your shit driving,” he was saying. “I had to swerve to avoid you. You were showing off. It’s like you wanted to run me over.” He faded out again.
Nurse Lewis Parnell, a dour man with ash-colored hair, applied a soft cast to Yann’s leg. “I bet you boys thought you were having fun on the river today,” he said. “Well, let me tell you something. I’ve worked as a pilot on that river and it has taken more lives than I can tell you. That river will kill you. Take my advice: Get off that sumbitch and go home.”
Yann flew back to London the next day in a wheelchair. He would need a titanium plate in his leg and two pins — for the rest of his life. We had a difficult goodbye at the Memphis airport as I wheeled him to the departure lounge. I had stayed up most of the night trying to convince myself to quit, and just couldn’t do it. “Are you sure you want to go on?” Yann kept saying. “Why not stop? You’ve done most of it. I’d hate to think I won’t see Jonathan Green again — it’s not worth it.”
The thing was, he really was worried about me. I’ve done a lot of crazy things over the years, from setting a skydiving record to riding a bull, and I’ve learned that adventures are a lot like gambling: If you’re going to go bet all your chips, you’d better be damn confident in your cards. Climbing back on the Jet Ski that afternoon, I felt guilty and scared of the river — but even more determined to go on.
Entering the South was the encouragement I needed. The weather was balmy, and I shed my waterproof shell and thermal layers, going only with a wet suit. John from the support truck joined me again on the river and we made it as far as Helena, Arkansas, just over the river from Clarksdale, Mississippi, where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to play the blues and escape the cotton fields. Helena is a decrepit town, full of antebellum houses rotting in the Mississippi heat. We had a dinner of TKTKFOOD at a TKTKRESTAURANT called TKTKTK, and I asked our waitress, a 50-ish white woman with a heavy spackling of makeup, where we could find the best place to hear some blues. “You don’t want to go any of them places over the street,” she said, nodding out across to a couple ramshackle buildings with beer signs in the windows. The King Biscuit Blues Festival, the largest free blues fest in the nation, is held here every year, and the juke joints around the area are hallowed ground. “They just ain’t your type of people, know what I mean?”
I looked around the restaurant, and there wasn’t a black face to be seen. We left without tipping and went across the street to hear some blues and drink beer, but the bars were all closed. I went to sleep with a deep sense of unease.
The following morning we awoke at first light and stood on the levee amid a thick, impenetrable mist. Above was a cemetery where Civil War casualties are still honored with fresh confederate flags at their graves. “This bitter racial hatred has cursed the land,” said Mary King, a local nurse who was there on the riverbank for a morning stroll with her husband Henry. They offered to show us around town some more, show us the nice parts.
We declined, and lowered our Jet Skis into the water. The visibility was less than 10 feet. We motored slowly behind a boat that was using radar to find the buoys and the channel. The mist burned off at about 11. From Helena down, the Mississippi widens and becomes a furious, meandering torrent with switchbacks and doglegs. For every mile forward, it seemed, we went half a mile back.
Isthmus sandbars would finger out deep into the channels. It was difficult to tell where the shoals were. I would see birds swimming in the water and think I was safe, then get closer and realize they were wading on the sandbars. Near the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a former slave plantation and now the largest maximum security lockup in the country, where 85 percent of inmates die behind bars, I saw alligators basking on the rocks. I focused all my energy on not falling in.
We made Baton Rouge, which smelled like a poultry factory, and the home straight. The water became greener and brackish. My eyelids began to droop as I was lulled by the rhythmic bounce of the Jet Ski on the waves. And then, at mile marker 135, it happened. Just outside New Orleans, the lower Mississippi becomes the busiest port in the world. Six thousand ocean-going vessels pass through every year. Some 14.1 million tons of cargo is handled here. The huge vessels throw up 10-foot wakes, which hit unexpectedly. I lost concentration. When I turned back from looking at the mile marker, I saw that I was heading at full throttle into a seven-foot-tall wall of water. The Jet Ski went airborne, exploding high into the air. It landed with a hollow boom, and I found myself cartwheeling through the air, flipping three times before everything in my vision went brown.
At first light, with my right thigh and toes bruised black from yesterday’s fall, I left from the only public boat ramp we could find in New Orleans, determined to finish the final 100 miles and hit the Gulf of Mexico. The water was bathed in a golden haze, the heat of the bayou beginning to rise. The Jet Skis roared into life, and we swarmed under the Greater New Orleans Bridge, pulling along at an easy 50 to 60 mph.
I had arranged to meet an old friend, Coast Guard Senior Chief Ben Crowell, at the Coast Guard base downriver, where he worked. He was going to refuel us for the final push, and then we’d hook up later to celebrate.
He was there waiting on the bank with red fuel cans when we pulled up. We wasted no time and filled our tanks, and then he went back to the base to get some more fuel for our reserves.
Which was when, just like at the Rock Island Arsenal, we found ourselves suddenly under siege. A launch from Plaquemines Port Authority roared up to the bank and positioned to block us off. A helicopter swooped in low and buzzed in place right above us, only about TKTK feet up.
“You are going to be boarded by the United States Coast Guard,” a voice boomed. A guy on the bow of the boat told us not to move, and a then a Coast Guard boat loaded with TKNUMBER armed officers pulled up alongside him.
My cell phone rang; it was Ben, who still hadn’t returned from getting more fuel. “Be cool, you’ve done nothing wrong,” he said. “You haven’t broken the law.”
But we had caused pandemonium, and after we were thoroughly searched and frisked and questioned (What are you doing here? Why the hell are you doing that? Are you insane?) and proved ourselves not to be terrorists, the whole story came out. “We’re just not used to seeing Jet Skis in the river here,” said Chief Warrant Officer Wayne Setliff. He explained — and Ben later helped piece together — that we had been pursued ever since the New Orleans bridge, TK miles back, by a high speed launch with twin 225cc engines. The Airstar helicopter had scrambled to stop us when it became clear we were outrunning the boat. And then, when the chopper spotted us as handing things to an unidentified person on shore at the base, a full-blown security alert was issued. Officials in Washington were informed and the armed troops were sent out to stop us. The whole time we’d had no idea it was happening.
The Coast Guard had spent some $20,000 to apprehend us, Ben estimated later. We had committed no crime, but just speeding along on Jet Skis in the New Orleans port was so incongruous that we became a national threat. We had sought a dream on the river — freedom, adventure, the wind in our hair — but ended up outlaws. I felt like Huck Finn more than ever.
There were 81 miles to go when the Coast Guard finally released us. The first marker on the Mississippi River stands in the channel at a place called the Head of Passes. Here, three waterways empty into the ocean — the North Pass, the Main Pass, and the South Pass. We touched the marker briefly and sped down the South to the open sea, where a bracing saline tang replaced the industrial funk I’d grown used to. Paint-peeled shrimp boats chugged past on their way in, and nobody looked at us like we were maniacs.
I listened to my Jet Ski’s engine climb to a whine one last time and thought about how admirably the machines had performed. Their only true restricting factors are the humans who ride them, who will feel pain or fear and want to quit. I thought about Yann, who had lost the adventurer’s gamble. From the first day, he was convinced he wasn’t going to make it, and I realized now that he had probably gotten off easy.
Out in the Gulf of Mexico, the water sparkled in the sun. The mud began to loosen from the side of the Jet Ski. I let out a yell, gunned the engine, and, like a salmon leaping upriver, hit my first ocean wave and arced upward in the light. Then my legs didn’t work anymore.