The Rhythm of the River
April 28, 2012
By Christopher Kyte, President
It’s so serene and quiet on the Mississippi today, it seems like the excitement and pace of yesterday’s christening took place months, if not years ago. Of course, that dichotomy is one of the unique blessings of American river cruising. The river runs mighty and swift and it can smooth over the past in one sweeping flow. But as I sit here today and watch the unique wake of the paddlewheel, it’s easy to see what makes river cruising such a rewarding vacation.
It’s important to know that the wake of an authentic paddlewheel steamer like the American Queen is not like that of an ocean going ship. Rather than a wave that spreads out from the stern, it is a series of small hillocks, each one representing a turn of the paddlewheel, that stretch in a line behind the boat as if gazing across a flat meadow broken only by a handful of gently rolling hills.
I’m an historian at heart, fueled by a furnace of nostalgia, and yesterday’s christening brought all those elements together for me and for all of us involved in the reintroduction of the American Queen. The amazing rendition of “Old Man River” by Judy Whitney Davis from Houmas House, Louisiana, speaks of the long, winding history of the river with each note, each cadence of its haunting melody. The speeches by our Chairman John Waggoner and CEO Jeff Krida harked back to the history of the river and river travel. And the remarks by Mayor A.C. Wharton of Memphis brought it all full circle. For it is the type of enthusiasm and passion for the river and its communities expressed by the mayor that have kept the Mississippi and its tributaries such a dynamic focus of the American experience.
But even as we sail today along the same waters as Mark Twain, we see how quickly the fickle Mississippi erases our unique paddlewheel footprints on the surface. Soon, it is the same broad, mighty river behind us as it is in front of us. Our wake is simply a ripple in time but, for the brief moment we are here, in this place, we are part of something so much larger than ourselves.
And as I sit and talk with our crew and our guests, I realize this unending rhythm of the river is what brings them to the American Queen. There is a couple onboard who have come all the way from Australia just to experience something that they realize is available nowhere else in the world. River cruising has become one of the most popular forms of holiday lately. There are voyages on the Yangtze, the Danube, the Rhine and even the Nile and the Volga. Make no mistake, each has its charms and its thousands of years of history. But each is a water highway to a region, to various towns, to various places. The Mississippi is a highway to another time.
It is so very broad but it is not terribly deep. The ripples of or our paddlewheel eventually dissipate and the surface appears smooth and unscarred once again. But just below that surface is so much history. The Mississippi remembers everything and those ripples churn the waters, bringing the past to the surface. The stories come alive. The river comes alive. The rhythm of the past melds seamlessly with the rhythm of today in places like the rocking chairs on the Front Porch of America and the mahogany comfort of the Mark Twain Gallery. It echoes in the calliope music that drifts across the water and in the quiet smiles of relaxation of our guests.
There is a couple on board celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. They had talked of making a journey on the river and exploring American back on their 40th anniversary but hadn’t gotten around to it. Fortunately, the American Queen returned just in time to make that dream a reality on their 50th. There are people on board celebrating their retirement, celebrating birthdays and celebrating nothing other than the beauty and diversity of America as seen from a steamboat.
It is a wondrous thing to see so many people brought together by the American Queen. That is part of the appeal of steamboating in America’s Heartland. If you choose to cruise with us, you find yourself among like-minded peers. We’re only in our first full day of the cruise, and I see how easily friendships are forming. At lunch today, two couples bonded over their grandchildren who, it turns out, attended the same college in California. Overhearing the conversation as he was serving Cajun Catfish to the table, the waiter revealed that he was from the same town in which the college was located. There were smiles, laughter and shared stories. The guests left the table not with a polite thank you to their waiter, but with a hug that expressed everything our company, our steamboat and our country is about.
I like to think that the river knows all this. That she stores her secrets, her memories and her stories just below the water and that each turn of the paddlewheel churns them to the surface for a new generation of guests, crew and steamboats.
The river has its own rhythm, if only you take the time to listen.