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Hands up, smelly pilgrim

August 31, 2004|Jenna Bordelon | Special to The Times

Outside Osceola, Ark. — Thanksgiving Day on the Mississippi River has everything a good holiday should: famine, floods and gunslingers.

Slouched on an indent in the muck called Last Chance Landing, the three Osceola, Ark., pilgrims we meet choose to give thanks by shooting glass bottles into the dirty trough of water we call home.

After 51 days spent rafting the river together, Marcus Eriksen and I are aware that, when we stop to ask for directions, our unwashed hair and multiple layers of clothing may constitute some sort of threat.

Trying to appear "normal," we now simply act like friendly travelers by putting on we-don't-want-to-hurt-you grins.

The gunmen react in the same way anyone would when confronted by two people in a raft made out of plastic bottles. The older man pushes the woman into the truck and swaggers up to Eriksen for an accounting of our business.

Not at all the holiday I'd hoped for when I woke up this morning. I wanted board games, green bean casserole and, above all, my mommy.

Even the overwhelming lushness of the Southern landscape failed to cheer me up.

Eriksen doesn't do Thanksgiving. He believes that a faceless corporate conspiracy, led by a greeting-card concern, has bamboozled Americans into eating until they split their pants.

But my procurement of a jumbo can of yams for tonight's campfire dinner has piqued his interest.

Earlier that afternoon, after meandering up a half-forgotten tributary of the deceptive Mississippi, we were sure we'd found Osceola. At the end of the quiet passage, we came upon a rusted crane and a towboat looming over the water.

I thought I saw someone crouching inside the towboat's pilothouse.

We called out to the shy Arkansan that we meant no harm. Something flashed by the window, but no one answered. The crane creaked in the first gusts of an approaching storm.

Creeped out, we backtracked noisily through the murk. Meeting the gunmen seemed the next logical step. Perhaps the authorities would find our bloated bodies stuck up against some old pilings, fake smiles plastered on our bluish faces.

But the lead gunman merely gives us directions to a landing farther south. I wave brightly as we churn away.

At the Sans Souci Landing, I stand in the deserted overlook park, staring morosely at the river rushing beneath the blackened sky.

Fires are not allowed here. I bid a silent farewell to the can of yams.

A sputtering muffler breaks the silence. It's the people with the guns.

It turns out that they just want another look at "that crazy thing" we float on. They roar off, only to return to present us with paper plates laden with leftover turkey and tasty desserts.

Cozy in my sleeping bag, I inhale the pecan pie just before the tent floods.

To be continued...

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