Wednesday, January 16, 2008

?Life on the Mississippi?

Ketchum residents float 1,130 miles on Old Man River

Express Staff Writer

Along the Mississippi, Gary and Connie Hoffman set up camp in places that were sometimes picturesque and placid. Photos courtesy Gary and Connie Hoffman

It was a childhood dream fulfilled. For 32 days last fall, Ketchum residents Gary and Connie Hoffman made their own "Life on the Mississippi" as they followed in Mark Twain's Mississippi River wake from the deck of a 17-foot Norseboat sailboat.

"It absolutely lived up to the dream," said Gary Hoffman, a native of Chicago who fantasized about such a voyage as a child. "And it was a dream. People will use the expression, 'trip of a lifetime.' We've traveled a lot, but yet this is the one that will probably stand out the most in my memory."

The Hoffmans were relatively novice boaters last fall when they got the idea to fulfill the long-held dream of going down the Mississippi as Huckleberry Finn had done 150 years before. Not having a boat at the time but interested in a small sailboat that could be easily transported and used on Idaho's mountain lakes, they did their research and landed in the Norseboat.

What's more, the couple said the idea of navigating the 1,130 miles of the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Black Warrior and Mobile rivers in anything much bigger than Huck Finn's raft was "decidedly unadventurous."

"It was a big, wide river, and we got in some nasty weather that could have capsized us if we had been stupid," Connie Hoffman said. "And it's a long way to shore. Sometimes we were out a mile from one shore and mile from another shore."

The couple set out in September 2007 from Minneapolis en route to Mobile, Ala., where they arrived in mid-November.

Gary Hoffman said the trip's underlying goal was to reconnect with Mark Twain. "Life on the Mississippi" is Twain's account of becoming a riverboat pilot in the 1850s and the inherent struggles associated with that quest.

"He was becoming very depressed that he would never be able to do it, that he would never be able to read the very subtle details of a river," Gary Hoffman said.

They're the tricks of river lore—things like being able to use the sunset to predict the next day's weather, reading subtle currents and memorizing the navigable channel.

Twain's book chronicles people, events and interesting occurrences on the river.

"In that sense it's autobiographical and very true-to-life nonfiction, but with the added ability that only Mark Twain could bring to a book like this--the tongue-in-cheek humor, the great American satirist and humorist.

"I always thought that it was the great adventure story of our time. There's something about that, maybe because I was about the same age as Huckleberry, maybe because it was an American adventure. It was doable. It wasn't so far away. I just waited 50 years, and not to get up the courage or the money."

He simply needed somebody to go with him, Connie Hoffman said, and she was the adventurous woman.

The Hoffmans were married in the summer of 2006 at Trail Creek Cabin in Sun Valley, and romance was an unquestionable part of their voyage. Their boat was appropriately named Tide the Knot.

"We brought the undefinable quality that Mark Twain could not bring to 'Huckleberry Finn,' and that is romance," Gary Hoffman said. "Any day when the water was absolutely placid, absolutely glassy and still, you could see the reflections of the trees and the banks as easily as you could see the trees themselves."

They said that before they started, people wondered aloud about the wisdom of traveling in rural parts of the Deep South.

"They said, 'Are you going to be safe there?' Gary Hoffman said. 'Are you going to take a gun with you?' There's a lot of paranoia in this country of being ill-treated at strangers' hands that I think we can thank the movie and television industries for. Our experience was that there are lots of good people out there. We didn't see any bad people."

Among the couple's additional discoveries was the number of towns in that part of the country that are deteriorating.

"It was a multi-faceted trip," Gary Hoffman said. "There was the romance. There was the seeing the towns and people of Middle America. I had never gone through so many towns in my own stamping grounds. All the towns are deteriorating, but Mark Twain's hometown, Hannibal, Mo., is well-preserved."

For two and a half months the couple worked their way south, following autumn colors as they went.

The Hoffmans described the intimidating experience of riding their tiny craft through locks designed for huge boats. They talked about their endless quest to find liquor in dry counties. They described the different river demographics and cultures, like the difference between the "marina people," "Skidoo people," "houseboat people" and "Corps of Engineers culture."

"You never really lose sight of the fact that it's an industrial river," Gary Hoffman said. "There are cement plants, power plants and barges going all over the place."

But more than anything, the trip reiterated something the Hoffmans said has become something of a mantra for them.

"Twenty years from now you'll be more disappointed in what you didn't do than what you did do."

Gary Hoffman's childhood dream is not one of those things. Not anymore.

'On the Trail of Mark Twain: Sailing Down the Mighty Mississippi to the sea'

- Gary and Connie Hoffman will give a presentation on their three-month Mississippi River journey on Thursday, Feb. 7, at 7 p.m., at the Community Library in Ketchum.

- The presentation will include maps, Mark Twain in Mississippi River lore, modern navigation, industry on the river, how the river's locks work and other miscellaneous adventures and stories.

- "The plan for our Mississippi River talk is to focus on the river itself in history, legend and geopolitical development of the country. Mark Twain's account of his riverboat captain days in "Life on the Mississippi" will be featured here."

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