My favorite travel writer and friend, Eddy Harris, wrote a few books that changed my life. Maybe I read them at the right time or his messages hit me in the heart. Perhaps parts of his stories resembled my own life’s narrative. I think, at bottom, his writing affected me in all these ways and many more. Now, he’s making a documentary about the Mississippi River twenty-five years after he first set his canoe on that water. I know some of the details and watched a few scenes of stunning photography the film contains. These glimpses have only whetted my appetite for more.
In the end, however, Eddy doesn’t need talented people around him. For me, anyway. I believe in him and what he’s doing.
I first ran into Native Stranger: A Black American’s Journey into the Heart of Africa—Harris’ second book—while poking around in the travel narrative section of a book store in Laramie, Wyoming. At the time I attended the University of Wyoming. I took grad school so seriously I nearly put myself into the mental hospital. I was only sober a year after having alcohol in my blood constantly for the previous sixteen years. My girlfriend had a baby, my daughter, just three months before I took off for Laramie. And there I was, baby in Kansas City, son of working-class people who prized a regular job over education, convinced I was a failure before I even started. I was frightened all the time. But I had to prove myself. I sought redemption like starved animals fight for food.
So, I overcompensated. I read hundreds of books for my studies—326, actually. “A” grades weren’t good enough. I needed to shine and I pressed myself. I was not a decent student. Focus escaped me. I gobbled text after text, absorbing vast amounts of information. But I lacked and missed the importance of the contemplative moment, that time when you sit back and think about what you’ve read and organize it with everything else. I was like a library without a filing system.
And I read travel books. I took stacks of them out of the university library. I swallowed them whole, one after the other. I dreamed of far-away places. Bruce Chatwin took me to the Tierra del Fuego and Australia. I learned the beauties of Afghanistan from Robert Byron. Brian Newby ushered me through Waziristan and down the Ganges. I traveled the Blue Highways, traveled with Charley, and floated the Missouri with Apikuni. Paul Theroux, that snotty and dismissive bastard, impressed the hell out of me—and I read all his books.
Then, I went to Africa with Eddy Harris. I was at a pivotal moment in my life. Fear soaked my being. The weight of my past smothered me. Learning what adults are and what they do proved harder work than anything I’d done before. In Native Stranger, Harris took me from the north coast of the continent to the southern tip. Between these points, he encountered all the heartbreak and love of a place that is not one but many—lands, peoples, and, unfortunately, oppressive regimes. More importantly for me, he showed himself becoming a different, more mature, and loving person.
I burrowed into the library shelves and came out with Harris’ first book, Mississippi Solo: A River Quest. The river intrigued Harris, a St. Louis native, not merely because it was the river of his youth but because it was also the river of his history. He began his trip as the Mississippi does, in the small waters in the north. It took him into the heart of the South, where black men don’t travel the river, where white men carry guns and grudges deadly to black men. The river, he writes, carries “sins and salvation, dreams and adventure and destiny.” If Harris’ story isn’t about facing fear, doing penance, and seeking oneself, I don’t know what is. And that’s what I thought when I read the first page of Mississippi Solo. This was a book about me
Yes. I understand Eddy is black and I am white. Our upbringings could not have been more distant from one another. Our family pasts were almost opposites. I grew up in the suburbs. Eddy grew up in the city. I possessed some advantages that Eddy did not. Despite the violence of my childhood and the depth of my despair, I still had the privilege of degrading myself. No one ever saw me at night and crossed the street.
I am just as guilty as any white person about asking the only black guy in the room about his experience being black. To my knowledge, few Black Americans have asked white people for an all encompassing assessment of their racial experience. In our first long conversation, I apologized to Eddy about asking the him black-guy questions. I wanted to know about him and how people treated him as a black man. Through the trials and errors of being a well-meaning and basically decent-hearted soul, I learned long ago, back in my drinking days, that a person—white, Black, Indian, Hispanic, Asian—can only tell me their experience and not that of the race. Even more fortunate, messages of redemption, fear, sadness, melancholy, and joy, while coded differently along American racial fault lines, are universal. Being black plays an important role in his writing. Harris mastered the storyteller’s art. He relates tales of human emotion. That’s why his books say so much to me.
I read as much of Harris’ work as I could get my hands on. His books South of Haunted Dreams: A Ride Through Slavery’s Old Back Yard and Still Life in Harlem, speak to me as Native Stranger and Mississippi Solo do. Here is man afraid but courageous, who knows that salvation comes only to those who seek it. They only discover they found it by hindsight: They were delivered in the moment they stopped seeking and started living.
I’ve been lucky to meet Eddy, and I now associate the writer and his written messages with his personality. He is a good man, a kind soul, and gentle person who knows how to stand up for himself, be assertive, and command attention. He breaks through stereotypes, confounds his critics, and works all the time to remain true to himself. If he is scared, he is also courageous. He’s no one’s patsy. These things, all of them, that attract me to him. I have faith in Eddy Harris and know that his quest is a good one; not just for him, but for me and the rest of us, as well.
Harris went back to the Mississippi this summer, twenty-five years after the journey that he wrote about in Mississippi Solo. He rightly believed that his journey would tell us more about our country, our rivers, and about being Americans. He took a talented people with him on his journey this time, including Emmy-winning cinematographer Neil Rettig, whose work has featured prominently on National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, and BBC. Joining Rettig is Emmy-winning documentary maker Mary Olive Smith and National Geographic WILD editor, John Freeman.