Personal Journeys


November 02, 2003|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

Rediscovering America, on a steamboat

By Robert Lidston


During the 1970s, people said I looked like a young Mark Twain. My hair and mustache were reddish-brown and bushy. Since then, my hair has become mostly white. Last year, I booked a steamboat trip from New Orleans to Memphis on the 80-year-old Delta Queen, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. I let my hair and mustache grow for a few months, packed a black bow tie and off-white summer suit, and bought a big, cheap cigar.

Just for laughs, the familiar, white-haired Mark Twain was back on a steamboat.

The hypnotizing red paddle wheel pushed the Delta Queen at a leisurely pace against the near flood current of the twisting Mississippi, which really is big and muddy, as it is often described.

Begun as a lark based on my resemblance to the river's most famous chronicler, the trip soon became a journey of rare experiences. Above Baton Rouge, the river's channel is dredged only to a 12-foot depth. The modern, industrialized river immediately disappears and, because the riverbank levees are set far back behind trees and bushes, the river runs through what seems to be endless forests populated by egrets, pelicans and an occasional bald eagle.

I was quickly aware of the privilege of seeing my own country as a different and almost exotic land.

At Natchez, I saw a lost world of antebellum mansions. At Vicksburg, I walked steep hills and deep ravines that made me think of the Civil War siege of that city. At West Helena, Ark., I heard the otherworldly voices of the Greater First Baptist Church gospel choir giving new emotion to Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Aboard the boat, the discoveries were no less broadening. I dined with a couple who taught for 10 years in an Alaskan village above the Arctic Circle. I also dined with a man named Howard, who, as a young staff sergeant at Nuremberg after World War II, spent his spare time watching Hess, Goering and other Nazi henchmen who were on trial.

Perhaps the discovery that affected me most was the presence of fellow passenger Gerry and his guide dog, Ralph. Gerry, who was blind, quietly taught me not only courage but also ways of "seeing" without eyes. Ralph taught me about competence, hard work and unquestioning devotion.

The chance to be Mark Twain for a week was fun. The chance to see America as an almost foreign land and to meet some of its residents -- with their unique experiences and their courage to live life -- changed me more than any overseas travel ever has.

Robert Lidston lives in Cockeysville.

My Best Shot

Anne Davis, Towson

Britannia rules

On a recent trip to Britain and Ireland, I took a cruise around Plymouth harbor. Our group was to meet the tour bus at the end of the cruise for a visit to Cornwall. As we approached the town of Torpoint, this very colorful, patriotic building came into view.

Readers Recommend

Pompeii, Italy

Paul Soeffing, Annapolis

Pompeii was a Roman city buried in volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. I toured the site last summer. The majority of the city has been meticulously excavated. Pictured is an ancient Roman bakery and mill. An oven and several stone flour grinders are visible.

Deadwood, S.D.

Sheila Rubin, Baltimore

Contrary to its name, there seems to be a lot of action advertised in Deadwood: gambling in every hall, shootouts in the street, good food, restaurants and Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane buried on the hill.

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