Friday October 24, 2003 10:31 PM
Don't Pay the Ferryman

Here in the middle-west United States, we have what is called seasons as some of my readers may recall dimly, if at all. The season we are currently experiencing is known as autumn, or more commonly, fall. It's the time of year when the world makes ready to take command from the bronze-skinned smiling captain of summer and render it unto the dour and white visaged patriarch of winter.

Autumn is a thoughtful, reflective time possessing both the traits of its carefree and happy antecedent and the conservative solemnity of it's coming replacement in a manner that I find quite agreeable to my own personality. Autumn is also the time when the trees in this region are transformed from an etude in verdancy to an orchestral symphony of the entire extent of the rainbow. That is to say, the leaves change color.

Hereabouts this change is a rather celebrated thing. We live on the very banks of the mighty Mississippi river and for miles to the northwest are forested bluffs which at this time of year take on a special brilliance even greater than normal. There is also running hard between these bluffs and in places the Mississippi, and other places the Illinois river (for we're right at the confluence of these two waterways) a national treasure known as The Great River Road.

This section of the River Road on weekends in the fall is passable only at a somewhat leisurely pace due to all the people who have found themselves sharing the idea to take the opportunity to view the yearly special brilliance of the flora that hugs the side of the bluff with such a great number of other motorists that the thoroughfare becomes saturated and the normally somewhat sparse traffic upon it is crowded to a degree that suggests I endeavor to peruse its offerings at other times.

Yesterday, I thought, might be one of those times. I had, yesterday, to attend to one of those type of infrequent yet unavoidable appointments which required my personal presence during normal business hours and of necessity I took a half day's leave from my employment. I had conceived the notion, that upon the resolution of the matter, it would be a fine time to take my family for a ride up the River Road to have a look at the changing trees along the aforementioned bluffs. Ruth and I have been noting and remarking to each other for some weeks the delightful and various colors of trees around town and I wanted to take the time this year to make at least one trip to view the bluffs.

There was, though, one other thing I wanted to do before that which was to visit my great-aunt Mary who had fallen the Tuesday morning coming out of the church-building after Jolly 60s, where the sixty and over crowd meet each week for study, fellowship, and lunch. Due to a previous engagement, we were unable to see her Tuesday evening and I didn't want to let the day pass without Ruth and I spending at least a few minutes at her hospital bedside.

Our visit, however, would require Isaiah to be attended by someone else since he's far too young to go up to the ward aunt Mary is in. Our first choice of sitters, Ruth's mother's sister Ruth, was available and glad to help. I calculated that if we spent a brief but not uncaring amount of time at the hospital and didn't dawdle in transport between our own house, that of Rupie (as aunt Ruth has been known since Isaiah was too young to correctly say 'Aunt Ruthie'), and the hospital, we would still have time to take a drive up the River Road, be home in time to quickly bathe the very dirty ("I'm 'filfy', Daddo) Isaiah, and be able to leave at six-thirty to pick up the older fellow we drive to church and arrive at church by seven.

This plan worked perfectly up to the point where we returned to Rupie's to pick up Isaiah. Not only was Isaiah less inclined to go look at trees than play under the ones in Rupie's yard, but Rupie seemed to desire us to stay a few minutes and enjoy the sunset in her back yard as we together watched Isaiah grow even 'filfier'. I relented of my plan for our tour and decided that to stay and visit a while would be the best thing to do after all. Especially since if I could get in to work early enough the next day and, as logically follows, get back home early enough, we could make the tour then, that is, today.

So today, while at work and in communication with Ruth via Internet based instant messaging, I requested that she and Isaiah be ready to go for our previously discussed ride when I got home. She agreed and thus we did.

Of course, no pregnant woman and four year old boy (especially with both together) can ever be truly ready to go exactly at the prescribed time no matter how much time has been available for preparation. We left, though, with a minimum of delay and made our way almost all the way across the town of Alton in less than ten minutes thanks to a route cunningly devised and well-used by us which few others seem to have discovered. I had arrived home at a quarter past five and we were at the foot of the bluffs and laying our eyes upon the glory of the treasure we sought before five thirty-five.

The sun's blast, though welcome and delightful, was at some points along our path, which curved back and forth to varying degrees along its length, an impediment to driving as I at times flipped down the visor to block its rays, or at others moved my head up or down or right or left to find a way to block out the glare with the front pillar of the van while still being able to see the spectral tapestry of foliage to my right.

As we traveled on and as the hands of my watch slowly made their inexorable round, the sun approached the horizon and, as I noted with amazement and delight, began to reflect off the surface of the river to our left at such an angle that its beams lit the trees blanketing the beetling precipices not only from above as all are quite used to seeing, but also from below so that the environment was infused with a singular beauty of an unusually crisp and dreamlike quality. This instant alone, even if I had seen nothing else, would have been well worth all the time spent on our forty-four mile round trip.

The endpoint of our outbound trip, I hadn't planned ahead of time. I'd figured we'd drive until twilight began to descend and then return, or until one of my passengers requested I do so. It turned out that Ruth made the request, but not that I simply reverse our direction, but that we take advantage of one of the unique delights found along the Great River Road- the Brussels Ferry.

For some, I imagine, it's not so much an attraction as part of their ride home, but for us this river-going vessel is a treat. The ferry consists of a small tug-boat connected to a platform barge of a size that holds say eighteen to twenty four cars. At the direction of the deck attendant, one simply drives their car onto the barge, shuts off the engine and enjoys a brief but scenic trip across the Illinois.

Our dog Kroger was with us and she had something to say about the extreme proximity of the occupants of the other cars on the ferry, but some reassurance and a pat on the head relieved some of her anxiety and allowed us to behold in relative quiet a view of the river we rarely see- one from within its banks rather than outside them. As we looked downstream and back towards Alton, I decried my decision not to bring my camera. Thinking I'd have no better view than through the dirty windshield or no better chance at a good shot than one quickly snapped at speed as I simultaneously drove, I had considered bringing it and left it at home. Had I known we'd end up on the ferry, I would now be complimenting myself on my foresight and photographic composition skills and there would be a link here to the picture I took.

As it is, I have nothing but the memory of the serenity and beauty of the river, and of telling Isaiah to observe how the water rippled, and of pointing to the duck who was probably hunting for his dinner as a he calmly sat on the gently undulating surface of the river.

When we reached the other side we drove off hte barge and down the narrow road and turned around at the first convenient opportunity to go back across the river. The ferry is free after all, and the return route on the other side of the river is not only much longer, but is almost strictly inland. More importantly, I have very little idea just exactly what the route is.

So we decided that it would optimize our enjoyment of the evening to partake once more of the delight of the mode of river travel of which we'd partaken mere minutes before. This time our view was less expansive since our position on the barge was different, but it was still fun.

For those who've never traveled by such a conveyance, let me say that it is a little disconcerting to watch the water and scenery float by as you sit in your stopped vehicle. It's somewhat akin to the alarming sensation felt when you're stopped at a traffic signal and observe a vehicle just next to you begin to move ever-so-slightly though the light is still red- that disconnected, floating feeling that has you pressing harder on the already fully engaged brake pedal, or the similar sensation sometimes felt while watching a train cross the road in front of your stopped car.

I mentioned this to Ruth and she agreed. We chuckled as a I put my foot on the brake when the boat began to move on our first trip. We laughed again when on our return I took hold of the steering wheel in an attempt to adjust the boat's course to what I, in my ignorance of rivercraft, thought would more properly align us with the dock. The pilot, needless to say, did a perfect job as I'm sure he does countless times each day and I'm glad my furtive twisting of the steering wheel had no effect.

As we made our mostly eastward trip back towards Alton, the twilight began to descend with a dramatic and mysteriously romantic gloom. Though not as brightly lit, the trees seemed more colorful and the lowering darkness held a strange character unique to this time of year which adds a spooky tinge to the air that I found delightful. It was this spookiness, coupled with our stint on the water which brought to mind the title of this account of our evening's sojourn.

Once back at home, Ruth deliciously pan fried some chicken breasts and I got a selection of boxes down from the attic to be used in the fabrication of Isaiah's robot Halloween costume. He's approved my design for it, but work hasn't yet begun.

We also talked about perhaps taking a ride on the ferry again next week. If we do, I won't forget my camera.