The Sea Test


"Are you the Beowulf who took on Breca
in a swimming match on the open sea,
risking the water just to prove that you could win?
It was sheer vanity made you venture out
on the main deep. And no matter who tried,
friend or foe, to deflect the pair of you,
neither would back down:
The sea test obsessed you."
--Unferth, son of Ecglaf (Beowulf)


A decade ago my parents and I took a cross country trip. I remember us stopping to see the Mississippi River in St Louis. They told a younger version of myself that the thick muddy current split the country in two: a physical and spiritual gateway into the wild west. I asked then if I could get in, but they refused, the water looked filthy and I wouldn't want to spend the rest of the day in the car soaked in water. I left without even putting a finger in to test the temperature. And that was the last time I touched the Mississippi until two nights ago.

One year ago I was sitting in my girlfriend's kitchen. I now lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and my apartment was within walking distance of the Mississippi River. And yet I still had not gone to see it save for driving across the bridge. I had just started swimming laps once a week at a nearby pool and was feeling good about getting back into shape. I'm not sure where it came from but I made an idle boast that day: Within a year I would swim across the Mississippi River. It was the kind of thing I knew I'd have to reckon with one day, but I had blurted it out and anyway I wouldn't have to think about it for at least a year.

Seven days ago I picked up a local magazine and was skimming the articles when one statement leapt out at me. The Mississippi River in Baton Rouge would be closed to water traffic for five hours that Saturday. I had never forgotten my promise from a year ago, but I had not been training, I had stopped swimming those laps just a few weeks after the boast. Still, I could never ask for a better opportunity. Getting hit by a barge or a giant tanker was one of the greatest dangers on the river. This was my only chance.

Two nights ago I stood at the banks of the Mississippi much as I did ten years ago. It was the first time I had been that close since my childhood. The river was much as I remembered it, muddy and dark. A sense of foreboding came over me as a tanker slid downriver, causing giant waves to crash on the shore. I was here to get a feel for the water by swimming out about 100 feet while tethered to shore by a rope. Even just for this task I had to work up my courage to get in. My first contact with the water was surprisingly warm and comfortable. I swam out a bit and came back in. I was satisfied, thinking to myself, I can do this.

Last night I lay awake. I had spent part of the day just watching the river through binoculars to get to know it better, and now I was terrified. Was I really going to go through with this? So many people had told me that getting in the water was practically certain death and to swim across was unthinkable. Who the hell was I to try this? I'm a mediocre swimmer at best, the river was a half mile across, moving 3-5 miles per hour. I had read all the news stories about the people who just slipped beneath the water and were never seen again. I had heard all the stories about monster alligators and sharks found hundreds of miles inland.

This morning found me standing on the shore of the river, up to my ankles in mud, the water lapping at my feet with deceptive serenity. The closure appeared to be in effect, not a boat was in sight. It was now or never and yet I hesitated. Almost paralyzed with fear I paced along the bank trying to work myself up to go but unable to summon the conviction I'd had 36 hours earlier. Pushed to make a decision I agreed to 'test the water" again. I strapped on my swim fins and lifejacket, shuffled into the water, my heart pounding, and the river pulled me in.

Gently at first and then faster and faster it swept me downstream. I barely noticed as I kicked hard for the opposite shore. Eventually I was in the middle, this was no "testing the waters" I was crossing, there was no other way now. I looked back and saw that I had travelled a considerable distance down the river. Again I was kicking. The other side never seemed to get closer, the green line of trees stayed in the distance, foggy and indistinct. An alligator swam beside me for a short time, curious perhaps, before splitting away and submerging out of sight. I could not determine its size, the river dwarfed us both and provided no means of comparison. All I could see was water and sky, separated by a thin line of greenery ahead.

Later a motorboat passed by, my best guess about fifty feet away. I could see the captain standing in the pilothouse talking into a radio, but he did not see my head poking out above the waves. When his wake surged over me it felt like I had been thrown by a towering wall of water. I struggled against it, almost to the other side now, the bank on this side was a wall of mud, not like the nice sloping beach I had entered on the eastern side.

I came to the wall of mud finally, the swim across accomplished. Pulling myself up a thick root I made it over the wall of mud, and found myself in one of the densest swamps I have ever encountered. The next two hours I spent wading in hip deep mud and stagnant water among the cypress and hanging mosses until I staggered out to a paved road outside a vast chemical plant. I had made it!

You waded in, embracing water,
taking its measure, mastering currents,
riding on the swell. The ocean swayed,
winter went wild in the waves...

"...Such dangers
and hard ordeals I have never heard of
nor of a man more desolate in surging waves.
But worn out as I was, I survived,
came through with my life. The ocean lifted
and laid me ashore."





See the world, they
told me...

bayou goula towhead

the sea test

the circumnavigator pt5
the circumnavigator pt4
the circumnavigator pt3
the circumnavigator pt2
the circumnavigator pt1
falling dream
the darkness
one hell of a mile 3&4
he will return
the believers
the horror pt2
the horror pt1
death valley

paradise of outlaws
the mountain climbers 1&2
brought to surface
one hell of a mile 3
the lost world
inner gorge
a ghost story
the riddle
slaying the minotaur
heart of darkness
public lands
organ music
two sought adventure
the virgin river
the road north

steal the world
the end of the world
el dorado
the valley of the kings 2
the valley of the kings 1
one hell of a mile 2
one hell of a mile 1
the mountain climbers rr4
heroes rr3
rainy roadtrip 2
rainy roadtrip 1
the transgression
sinister 2
sinister 1
new chapter

like sedona?
torn in two
bridge to nowhere
the door
hitting the wall
elusive 2
elusive 1
pick up lines

revisited 2
revisited 1
which way?
lost mines
in their footsteps
a dance with death

casting the bones
mountain thief
the deer hunter
strange temple
burial pt. 3
burial pt. 2
burial pt. 1
the apparition
return to hell
the lower depths
underground lake
stretch sewer
the hidden lab
shadow movements
meager rations
sw8: the conclusion
sw7: lost gold mines
sw6: the big tubes
sw5: gold!
sw4: el calderon
sw3: redondo
sw2: ghosts
sw1: westward bound
formaldehyde dreams
the underdark
in the beginning