I am looking now at a photograph on the wall just above the scene of a creek in northwest Oregon. It is of another special place, across the country deep in the piney woods of southern Mississippi. My faithful old yellow Sentra that carried me across thousands of miles of high plains, deserts and mountains on trips west, is in the lower right hand of the photo, parked on the shoulder of a narrow country road, the kind with sandy shoulders that come right up to the asphalt. It is a partly clear, but more on the cloudy-side, type of day. It is not light enough to really illumine the scene. In other words, not the best lighting conditions, but the composition and the memories are what I wanted out of the shot, not some crystal clear landscape. Dominating the picture is a massive white oak tree just coming out in spring leaf, that stage where the bare branches are cloaked in puffs of green from a distance and up close there are small, miniature oak leaves forming. It’s a huge tree that’s seen a lot of springs in Mississippi. At its base, slightly in the background, is an old barn with rusted tin roof.
That particular day, and I’m certain it was an early Saturday afternoon in late March or early April, I had just completed a weekend ritual of mine when I lived in Hattiesburg. It’s a college town, but no big burg, so it’s easy to get out in the country real quick, minutes at the latest. To get away from the relative hustle and bustle of the small city, I would get on the Interstate for a few miles, then turn off on backroads heading to Purvis where I’d invariably make my way to Ward’s Hot Dogs and get a chili cheese dog, fries and a frosted mug of root beer. This was invariably my order, most Saturday afternoons when I made this trip. I’d finish with a small, soft vanilla cone in hand as I headed out the door to my car. Then it would be a short drive back out into the country, and I mean real, “blue highways” country, just the kind I love. No cars, narrow, winding roads and plenty of woods and farmland interspersed with those big oak trees along every stretch of road.
I’d soon be bumping down a sand track to the banks of Black Creek, one of the first National Wild and Scenic rivers in the Southeast, and a magnificent creek to float a canoe down, which I did on a number of occasions, oftentimes finishing up right at the landing I’d pull up to on those Saturday drives. I’d get out of the car near the river. It was utterly quiet except for the wind in the trees. I’d walk awhile down the trail that wound along the creek on bluffs 20 or 30 feet above the water. Looking down, I could observe the water level and imagine myself gliding down the stream between the sandbars, making my way over and between barely submerged trees and branches that had fallen in the river. It’s called a creek, but it’s one of those waterways, about 75 miles long, that for a good part of its length is really a small river. I remember trying to trace its course one weekend way upstream to its source. I kept stopping at bridges over a progressively smaller and narrower stream until it was only a few feet wide at one point.
After this short walk, I’d head back to town, generally passing the scene by the side of the road described earlier. I’d have crossed the bridge over Little Black Creek after stopping to watch its tea-colored waters flow fast over the sand in this little stream that is just about as picture-perfect as you can find. It is one of Black Creek’s major tributaries, and I’d always stop my canoe at its mouth where it joined the Black.
This little venture out in the country would take a couple of hours and I’d come back to Hattiesburg refreshed and renewed. The pressures and anxieties of the week just past, and there were always plenty of them at that time, were temporarily gone, and I was in a clearer, better frame of mind.
Here is my journal entry from Sept. 13, 1986, describing one of my visits to Black Creek:
Relaxed this afternoon in the shade of a sandbar beside Black Creek. The stream flowed by as moving leaves on the surface marked its passage. The water level was the lowest I’ve yet seen for the creek, and will get lower as the dry month of October approaches. Occasional breezes stirred the leaves overhead, cicadas droned in the trees, and yellow butterflies skipped and darted above the surface of the water. I could have fallen asleep had I perhaps been lying on a sleeping bag or thick blanket. Passed a very pleasant hour in thought. Didn’t even open the book I had brought along to read.
(Written July 1, 1998)