Huckleberry Finn meets Rastafarian Bob

Mississippi Journey: PART ONE

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Chris Huff's small, scruffy houseboat pitched and rolled in the wake of a speedboat ploughing upstream. His plants slid a little on their tables. He frowned, stroked his ginger goatee and said: "We are going to have a lot of this rough stuff on the water today." It was late summer in Minneapolis along the banks of the Mississippi River - a mild top temperature of 80F and a scattering of high cloud. The city yuppies were out in force in their boats, all polished hulls and fluttering stars and stripes. They glared at us from their decks. They would probably rather see a shiny new marina and sports bar here than a "floating shanty town" as Chris and his neighbours describe the place. Officially it is the Island Station Community, populated by a fistful of honest, unloaded dice rolled here by the hand of 1990s America. Not so much drop-outs from society as drop- ins to a wilder, non-suburban way of life. For Dan Guiney, owner of the El Macondo moored alongside Chris's boat, they live a "chop wood, carry water experience - a frontier kind of life, a family on the river".

Next to the El Macondo was a 50ft former Second World War submarine chaser, now home to Richard Lindsey, a 48-year-old carpet salesman and Internet junkie who spends his days glued to a 5ft-by-5ft TV and computer screen. He showed me a graph of that week's earth tremors in New Madrid, Missouri, 400 miles downriver where the last big earthquake caused the river to run backwards for three days, and a chart showing the progress of Mississippi freight boats, or "tows". "Well looky there, the Margaret D's 90 miles south, and the Becky Sue and the Patrick Gannaway, well they're ploughing downriver just a couple miles from here," said Richard, talking more to himself than to me.

He and his friends were the first people I met on the river that was to be my home for the next month and a half. I had come to travel the length of the Mississippi, all 2,552 miles from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The river begins as a 7ft-wide trickle spilling over the lip of Lake Itasca from where I traced it - by dug-out canoe where it was deep and calm enough and by car on the Great River Road where the rapids proved too fierce. I paddled through a wilderness of white-pine forests, high bluffs and windy lakes. Wolves outnumbered humans along the banks, and ospreys and black hawks escorted me, often for several miles.

Autumn was coming on apace. The lumberjack settlement of Bemidji had its first frost the night I rolled into town and the sugar maples were wearing early splashes of red and yellow. Through the trees came the crack of shotguns from hunters shooting clay pigeons in training for the pheasant, goose and duck seasons which start this coming weekend. In a month the deciduous forests will burn with colour, but by December the leaves will be gone and the river and lakes frozen solid in air temperatures of - 30F, heralding the annual gathering of ice-fishermen who brave the hand- cracking Arctic winds to fish for days on end in makeshift cabins.

By the time I reached the Island Community between the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St Paul, the river had widened to 100ft and developed a formidable current but it was still only a diminutive version of what it becomes in Memphis or on the delta, where it spews 600,000 cubic feet of water into the Gulf of Mexico every second.

From here I am catching the Mississippi towboats immortalised by Mark Twain which pull giant cargoes of grain, fertiliser and timber through the heartland of the Midwest and into the Deep South. When Twain was a passenger steamboat pilot more than a century ago, he got to know the towboatmen and recounted their stories. Now it was my turn to be Huckleberry Finn and discover the river and its people and how they have changed.

My first boat, the Jo-Ann Stegbauer, leaves later this week for Dubuque, Iowa. For now I was stranded, kicking my heels in Minneapolis where the talk was of little else but the death of a Princess. There was not anyone left in the state that had not heard. Drag queens Rumba, Kitty and Tahlia were so upset they could barely perform their dance routine at the Gay 90s club downtown. A few streets away in Liquor Lyle's a tall Rastafarian called Bob picked up my accent. He clasped my hand in his and, brow furrowed, told me: "She was one good lady. We real sorry for you English." His dreadlocks flicked from side to side as he shook his head in dismay. Even two men urinating into a sink in the Gents were doing their bit. "Is it Dee-ana or Di-ana?" the fat one slurred. "I dunno. They speak kinda funny," said his thin friend.

Last Saturday morning Susan Esquivel, the front desk manager at the Regency Plaza hotel, was bleary-eyed from an all-night TV vigil watching live coverage of the funeral. It had been on 11 of the 31 channels. She made me some strong coffee and we sat in the lobby picking over the carcass of arguably the biggest televised event ever. Was the death a tragedy? Sure it was. Was it worthy of such a massive, international outpouring of grief? We agreed to differ on that one. Susan told me there were condolence books somewhere in town, should I feel the urge to sign. I decided against it. Out here on the edge of the northern wilderness I felt somewhat detached from events in Kensington. I felt a long way from anything Royal. I felt a long way from home.

Part two of `Mississippi Journey' will appear next Wednesday

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