It is 10:30 on a hot June night and Frank Harris has been following gravel roads for over half an hour. With the humidity, the air is lit to a near fog and filled with flying creatures churning in the sudden promise of his rental’s high beams.
Just a quick side trip before he would check into his motel – that’s what he’d thought anyway. Although he comes from Philadelphia and has spent most of his life on the East Coast, the Missouri River has special significance to him. In fact, it is the only thing he’s looked forward to about this trip to the middle of the country.
Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Harris read stories of Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, and Jesse James traveling through the frontier and moving west along the Missouri. He also read biographies of Mark Twain and his many escapades as a youth on the tributaries to this river. The Missouri is the little sibling of the Mississippi. It is a ribbon of water winding through America’s middle, arriving on the eastern side of its namesake state at Twain’s Big Muddy just outside of St. Louis in St. Charles. Even though Twain would always be associated with the more famous Mississippi, he also wrote of the Missouri. Harris had been intrigued by the descriptions of the landscape surrounding this lesser body of flowing water. Twain had written of the Mississippi as the “gentle sister.” The Missouri, on the other hand, he described as a “savage river…descending from its mad career through a vast unknown of barbarism, pouring its turbid floods in the bosom of its gentle sister.” The chaos and violence appealed to Harris.
Traveling in his rental car across this rich bottomland, tunneling into the black summer darkness and wondering what exactly he thinks he might find in this lack of light, Harris listens to the local rock station. It is the twenty-first century and they are still playing ‘70s tunes here: old Joe Walsh, Eagles, electric Neil Young, and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
After a while, the Allman Brothers’ Hot ‘Lanta comes on, beginning with Gregg's organ intro and the slow build of Berry's bass along the twin percussion machine of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johanson. Then, finally, the storied dueling guitars of Dickey and Duane: the opening reverse almost dissonant, blues run of Dickey’s, and the melodic, background riff-to-chord-to-riff of Duane using his muffled slide. And all the while the rat-a-tat percussion of Butch and Jaimoe keeping time and moving the best blues ever played forward down the countless roads of their listeners. For more than forty years every time Harris hears The Allman Brothers Band it is like he’s never heard them before. Hot ‘Lanta: the arpeggio runs, the notes gaining in tempo all the time, faster, and so too the rental car Frank is driving. He hears the gravel crunching under the music even in the air-conditioning, until, finally, the quick drum solo, the rhythm of his mind driving down a road in the darkness, understanding there is, somewhere, probably a river to the right, watching the parched ivory, stone-festooned road pour into existence and the smoke-hot air, the slowing band playing as one, the pounding timpani, the pause, and the full crescendo ending – kettle drums pounding out some inexplicable message, perhaps a reminder that not everything is as clear as he wants to think it is.
Harris’s memory seeks the next song on the album – Whipping Post – but the female announcer comes on instead saying, “That was the Allman Brothers, recorded live at the Fillmore East in New York in 1971. It's 10:57, hot and sticky – as usual. I'm Sara Hartwood and this is KFRU radio. The news will be coming up right after these announcements. I've got some vintage Woodstock cuts you haven’t heard in years and then we’ll dip into Eric Clapton and Cream. It’s all coming up on the other side of the hour.”
He passes a car parked in the woods, noting three silhouettes and a foggy windshield which makes him think of marijuana smoke and quiet conversation.
He'd stopped smoking pot when he graduated from college. Alcohol was more effective. Done in the proper dose, it actually turned off the mind and gave him snatches of time where his thoughts could almost stop and he simply had to react to the world as it came at him.
“At the top of the hour, officials continue to prepare for what Chief of Administration Robert Wilson of the Columbia Police Department terms – in a serious tone of authority – and I quote, ‘any eventuality.’ With the huge influx of visitors to the region and an invasion of the international media all looking for Elvis, hotels and motels throughout central Missouri have actually turned on the NO on their vacancy signs. Booneville and Rocheport-area motor lodges are full for the first time in history. Columbia is about like it would be if both Nebraska and Kansas came to play football against the Tigers on the same weekend.
“We don't know what to make of it. Wilson and the CPD certainly have their hands full. Personally, I’m getting a little intrigued. This summer marks something like the 38th year since The King died. Maybe the 39th, I don’t know. The latest rumor has it that Elvis was actually at Altamont. And I’ve got the tape to prove it. Maybe I’ll play it for you all after midnight. Right now we gotta take a break and earn our keep. Don’t go away. Classic rock comes back in 90 seconds.”
Harris turns the radio off, glad that his boss, Aaron Treestat, has pulled strings and booked him a room in a motor lodge. The tone in the DJ's voice is interesting, he thinks. No question, there is a strong sense of mockery already at play here. How can anyone in media believe something so cliché and fantastic? And what does it say about the country when Elvis sightings have taken on the same significance as miraculous healing statues of the Virgin Mary or paintings of Jesus that bleed tears? Still, if the announcer is playing to listeners with such a tone, it’s likely that those in other parts of the country – readers of his own publication – will pay attention long enough for him to do his work. Harris’s job as a tabloid journalist is to use unknowns and half-truths as hooks. In one way it is the lowest form of writing imaginable. Readers don’t care how he reports things, they just want to be titillated a bit – a nice vacation from their mundane, waiting-for-something-big lives. But in another way, Harris feels that his writing is almost poetry because he takes the fantastic and bizarre, the virtually impossible, and makes it real, makes it, in fact, simple and obvious: devil worshipping actors; starlets on eating binges because their famous husbands are having affairs with the equally famous neighbor’s seventeen-year-old au pair; a TV comedian’s love child turning up years later as a closing pitcher for the losing team in the World Series; love letters from JFK unearthed after the death of a mob mistress. It is Harris’s job to make the improbable not only believable but downright commonplace.
Several more cars hulk together at the edge of the umbra of his headlights. Half a mile later, he notes that the shadow of trees on the right side of the road has given way to a gaping blackness. He knows without doubt that he is driving close to the water. He stops, turns off the lights, and gets out.
Three things make the darkness seem alive: the electronic pulse of insects everywhere; the deep sound of water rolling by with unlimited power; and, finally, the heavy scent of that water in the stale, windless air – the smell of centuries and decay, the smell of life carried forth forever by gravity and natural purpose, the smell of traveling sediment, catfish, floating human debris, pesticide runoff, and diesel slicks. In the darkness it all comes to him as a faint taste in the back of the throat, the flavor of emptiness and heat and the river – sweet and wholesome, like bread, but tangy and with a slight aftertaste of sulfur and ammonia.
His vision hovers above the moving water, seeking its dull, inevitable flow. He hears the scree and click of cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts. Lighting a cigarette and thinking about the bottle of scotch in his luggage, he feels the first drops of sweat trickle down his back. He wonders if he still has what it takes to concoct a story like this. He is out of his element, wandering in the night gloom of river bottom country, feeling that the Missouri River is a cosmic animal moving into worlds he can only guess at. In the darkness, especially, the river is everything he’s imagined it would be.
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