The grey sky above, at long last, quit raining as you paddle into downtown on a muddy North Oconee River. You flex your frozen hands holding a cheap plastic paddle. The early spring waters have numbed your knees. Sloshing water froze your feet long ago in the old canoe.
Gently you glide across the red water’s surface. The current has dropped and calmed, like floating on a pond. Wood smoke drifts into your nostrils from further downstream. You silently give a stroke and gently cut your paddle blade. Your eyes dart to each riverbank. Looking into the shadow. After hours of ducks, heron, and turtles you are no longer a lone human in this world. The pillars of civilization are at hand once again.
The shadows retreat over the southwestern ridge where a Confederate gun battery once overlooked the river. You inhale and watch to your left the cars along MLK Parkway. You know that you could get to a payphone and call Jason from Five Star Taxi to end this goddamned madness but you will not. You are now fully engaged. The past seven hours of log jams, swamps, Chinese privet, and lastly, one low hanging sewer pipe, have not only left your spirit in tatters but also with nothing left to loose. After a hellish hard paddle you find yourself in the heart of Athens, GA. The year is 1999 and your world is ending. You are now on your Death Paddle. Decisions will be made, event horizons broken on an Athens trip downriver...
Floating past the College Avenue Bridge you encounter the first homeless camp on river right. A red headed woman jerks and jives at a bonfire while Friday night traffic backs up at the red light overhead. She gives you an unfocused look and utters an incoherent phrase or two about the weather changing, a cold night, sitting it out with them or some shit. You nod to her tired leathern face, skeptical of her intentions. The men around her glare with insistence moving you along. The shadows are now behind the southwest ridge to your right.
Behind you upstream, echoes the last of the thump of bridge expansion joints, sirens and bass, and the eternal swallowing of cars along the Athens Perimeter. It encircles as a concrete ouroboros around Athena’s Classic City. Your place on this planet. Or at least you thought it was. In this town, justice and moderation did not exist, knowledge had a price, and wisdom was not bought but earned. From time to time it devoured a human life or two... One time it was a friend. She was a special kind of person. A white-hot flame difficult to observe while standing too close. Overtime she became prone to self-destruction when thoroughly excited. You are extremely excited now, heart racing. Physically numb but wild in your mind. Unfortunately, much like the person you feel yourself becoming tonight.
Twilight on the North Oconee River and you are low on beer and out of weed. You pull the old tan canoe up to the bank under the towering train trestle and stand up stiff and frozen. Warily, you walk to the gas station on North Avenue grabbing cheese crackers, beef jerky, and Coors Banquet Beer as quickly as you can. When you get back under the trestle there are two Black guys fishing on either side of your boat.
“What’s up ya’ll.” You say.
“'Sup man.” They both reply in subdued mumbles.
What’s this hustle? You begin to ask yourself. Money, beer? What’s the fucking game here? Is it me? Dangerous thoughts quickly cloud your mind.
Looking them over you know they could take you and there would not be a damned thing you could do about it. Unarmed except for a dull machete, tied into the boat, eight feet away. Under this bridge no one would even look over as it all went down. You suddenly realize you are scared. For your life? A future? But why? You don’t care to live, remember?... You put on your Death mask and relax.
With a look to the water you ask, “Whadda ya’ll going for?”
“Shit, anything. You know, a cat, or lawgemouf, mostly up here norf of the oh’ dam.” Said the one with a tight fitting skullcap, black shirt and jeans. He is wearing immaculate white shoes. You contemplate how in the hell he kept his shoes so clean fishing along the North Oconee. A true river mystery you are witnessing.
“What dam are you talkin’ about?” You question.
With a raised brow the man in the skullcap informs you, “Cedah Shows.”
You stare stupidly...
“Ol’ Easley Mill...” He pauses in anticipation...
You stare stupidly...
“The dam?” He states plainly. “The waterfall at O’Malley’s!” He extends out his hands holding his fishing rod in one. “You gonna hafta drag ‘round da rapids. Go to da left bank. Jus’ watch out fo’ Raccoon City up heer on ya left. It’s a bad camp of homeless foke. Dey liable to knife ya if ya give ‘em a wink.”
You contemplate the vibe. “What’s your name man?” You ask.
“Brothas call me JJ.” He smiles and sticks out his hand. You shake it heartedly.
“Hey big man.” A call comes from the shadow. You know that you are not a big man turning to the other fellow who had been silent until now.
He sticks out a small clear plastic bag. “Ya wanta get some? Come get some. Come on, bro.”
You stare at the plastic bag containing greenery. “ Whatcha got man?”
“Lil’ weed. I take $60 fo’ it. Friday night-weekend special.”
You study the bag and try to analyze it. Truth is it could be fucking oregano for all you know. It smells like brown frown swag but you end having to give $30 for it. If it works it should be enough to get you to the end of this river trip. A final destination...
You crack open and share the cold beer from the store up the hill and you all take long swigs.
“Damn, man I thought you a river bum, or sumpthin’ when you come walkin’ up.” JJ says with a wry smile.
“Are yah shittin’ me?” You chuckle, “I didn’t know what was happenin’ here when I came back to the boat.”
“You paddle dat thang?” He laughs hard nodding to your boat. On the faded bow of your canoe the name Swamphawk peels off next to an emblem of a rabbit smoking a peace pipe. “Damn bro, that’s sum shit dare.” Stroking his black goatee with a grin.
“Hey, it will get me where I’m headin’. That’s a fact.” You reply.
“And where’s dat bro?” JJ’s Friend asks.
You pause, “To the end, I suppose.”
“You mean end of the river?” JJ asks.
You say nothing.
He knows. JJ and his buddy both scan your eyes and see the sockets... They have seen it all before... right here under this bridge.
“Yeah, well maybe it don’t eva end. Ya know?” JJ says.
“It’s all gotta eventually.” You feel yourself coolly reply. Though trembling wanting to hit the water again...
“Shit, we jus’ passin’ time. My boy here, and me... we go on late tonight. We show stoppers fo’ sho’.” JJ’s friend informs you. You find out JJ works for Athens-Clarke Public Sanitation and his buddy, well, he does his thing here on the river. Together they are a local hip-hop duo at some underground bar up the hill.
Before returning to your boat you all smoke up one more time. In a brown haze you shove off, but now the evening is gone, dusk has settled, a cold night is upon you and according to JJ and his dynamic duo, the homeless camp of Raccoon City lies up ahead...
About Oconee Joe...
Eternal Student of the Oconee Land and Waters.
He has lived along the Oconee River for over 10,000 years. The River is his Mother, the Land his Father. You can continue to read about Oconee Joe, his guided trips, and explorations along our local river, here on Classic City News...