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Take Five: Earl Swift is Huck Finn all grown up

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 29, 2012 - When Earl Swift was a kid, building a raft to venture along a big river was just the stuff of his Huck Finn dreams; decades later when he was a journalist for the Virginian-Pilot, however, he acquired intimate knowledge of a mighty waterway.

"It can go from a trusted friend to impersonal savage monster without warning," Swift said of the James River in Virginia, 435 miles of which he traversed in 1998.

Earl Swift will receive the Captain Donald T. Wright Award for "Journey on the James: Three Weeks Through the Heart of Virginia."

Gregory Thorp will receive the James V. Swift Medal for his photography work along American waterways.

The award will be bestowed by the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library.

(Earl Swift is not related to James V. Swift.)

Swift, a Fulbright fellow and PEN finalist, will be honored by his alma mater, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, at a dinner this weekend. We talked with him about his writing and his book on the James.

As a writer drawn to long-form journalism, it is his job to get close — but not only to people. Paddling in a plastic canoe and accompanied by a photographer, Swift began the 22-day journey at a point where the river is about a quarter inch wide, and ended where it is five miles wide. What was an intense, physical affair also became a chronicle of the history dredged up on the shores of the longest river within the boundaries of a single state.

"It’s a piece of topography that’s witnessed more of American history than any other, probably. The entire Civil War was basically fought on its banks. It was where the Revolution unfolded. Eight presidents grew up in its watershed. It's where Jamestown happened, the first fights with the Indians, the first libraries, hospitals, schools, you name it — it started along the James."

Much of Swift's work as a reporter and author involves a meditation on places, including the physical features that both splinter and bind those places. He has unpacked myths about the genesis and development of the American highway system and accompanied a military search team looking for the body of a Vietnam War pilot in East Asia.

But his career started in St. Louis, working for the now-extinct Globe-Democrat. One of his first beats involved Wellston, where he recalled sitting in on community meetings — meetings during which the municipality's former mayor, who had been busted for carrying a concealed weapon with no permit, stood in the back of the room, clad in a black leather jacket and beret, and hurled insults at the current mayor.

Swift spoke to The Beacon about those early days in his career and his love affair with water.  (The interview was edited for length and clarity.)

What was it like starting out at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat?

Swift: It was my education — it was wonderful. This was a newsroom of army surplus desks, low acoustic ceiling, lot of smoking. There was a stratum of cigarette smoke that hung about two feet shy of the ceiling. Cigarette butts were ground out on the floor all over the place and a lot of yelling. It was a very noisy newsroom, an old school kind of front page place to work. I walked in there and was infected almost immediately. It was the most exciting environment I had ever been in and I just couldn’t imagine any other job, any other setting, any more exciting than a newsroom. ... I was heartbroken when we were sold.

When did you first become interested in rivers?

Swift: I guess this began in high school when I read Huck Finn, when I desperately wanted to build a raft and float down to New Orleans. I drew up plans for the raft, several different sets of plans, some which were pretty detailed and sophisticated, and just thought it would be a great way to spend a month — just go downstream with the flow of the river. Never had the money to pull it off. It made my parents pretty damn nervous, I'm sure. They never offered to bankroll the project. It’s probably just as well. But I had a bona fida case of river fever at that point.

Living in Kirkwood, that was near the Meramec River, I did a lot of exploring. You kind of understand why people rebuild right on the riverbanks after the Meramec flooded every couple years. Those river rats always go right back — the same places where they got wiped out. Some people wonder, "Well, God, what kind of nut would do that?" Well, the view is pretty damn amazing. The constant motion of the river, being part of a system that’s always on the move like that. That’s very attractive.

What sparked the idea for your river odyssey?


Swift: Over the years, I would get restless in my job no matter what my job was. I was lucky enough throughout my newspaper career to have editors who indulged that restlessness and gave me time off every few years to go do something fun — to do something that really had nothing to do with newspapers. In 1990, my editors let me hike the Appalachian Trail. Close to the two-thirds point of that six-month hike, I came down off a mountain and found myself on a bridge over the James River. It looked very different from the James River where I live, in Norfolk at the mouth of the James, where the river is a tidal estuary, close to five miles wide. It appears to be as wide as it is long when you’re crossing a river on a bridge — you really don’t have the sense that it comes from somewhere.

So here I was on this bridge, way upriver, 250 miles upriver where the James punches through the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's outrageously noisy with specatacular white water, and it just looked like this wild beast compared to that river I was used to downstream, and I made a mental note to myself in the fall of 1990 that I needed to explore this thing a little further.

Years later, in the spring of 1998, I was at that point where I could feel the walls closing in. An editor at the paper, unaware that I had a desire to explore the James more thoroughly, suggested that it would be a great series to travel the entire length of the James River. I said, "OK, I'll do that." So, the paper bought me a canoe and outfitted me for the trip.

What was it like making the trip as a reporter?

Swift: It was one of the first journalistic enterprises anywhere in the country that was chronicled with a digital camera. The photographer who went with me carried a first generation Nikon digital camera that cost $15,000. It took up an entire suitcase. It was an absurd, incredibly low res outfit. If the damn thing got wet or ruined in any other way, the trip would’ve ended immediately. Also this was a trip made without cell phones. So it’s pre-digital in that regard.

It was the kind of adventure that would be almost impossible to have today. It had more in common with a trip of 100 years before than it did with a trip of anytime after 1998. Cell phones have changed everything.

It was a live series, which means it appeared in the paper as we did it. At the end of every day of paddling, we’d have to find a place with phone lines where I could write my story on the most rudimentary laptop you could imagine. And then use acoustic cupplers to plug in phone cord to transmit the stories back to the computers at the newspaper. So it was all live. There was no safety net. No margin for error. We had one day of flex time built into the schedule. It evaporated during the trip.

What was your biggest discovery when you were on the James?

Swift: What surprised me the most was that the river, while it appears like a skinny blue line on a map, is constantly changing, in a constant state of motion — naturally, the water is, but the river itself is an organism, and it changes depending on the weather, depending on the time of day, a host of factors. It can go from a trusted friend to impersonal savage monster without warning. It can seem intimate and knowable and it can seem absolutely aloof and impersonal. So I guess I came away recognizing that it's an organism as much as the things that live in it.

Jason Schwartzman is a Beacon intern.

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