Captain Harold Schultz spread fingers the size of jumbo shrimp across a book of river maps. “Look-a-heah,” he said, his Louisiana drawl dripping off his words like gumbo. “See this bow?” He pointed at a narrow blue corona hugging a head-shaped hub of land. “That part of the rivah is known as the New Madrid Bend. The Mississippi passes through three states heah. I read about a guy farmed heah in Kentucky, his chil’ren went to school heah in Tennessee, an’ he banked ovah heah in Missouri!”
The captain’s laugh rolled through the Chart Room of the American Queen steamboat. A planet of a man who looks eerily like Elvis, Schultz is a native of bayou country and has been a certified Mississippi River pilot since he was a teenager. Fifty years later the Big Muddy still has his full attention. It had ours, too. My husband, Tom Andersen, and I had flown to Memphis from our home in Oregon to meet Tom’s octogenarian parents, Mary and Hank Andersen, who had joined us from Minnesota for a midsummer cruise down the Mississippi. We had been watching the river’s gentle green back sliding alongside the flank of the big white paddle wheeler all morning.
“Gentle—hunh,” snorted the captain. “Maybe on top.” He smiled. “This rivah, what I like best is below New Orleans. Venice and Southwest Pass. Mah daddy grew up 35 miles below Venice—you can only get there by water.”
Soon water would be everywhere. A few weeks after our cruise, Hurricane Katrina would strike the Gulf.
A Floating Palace
The American Queen, a graceful 3,707-ton, 418-foot-long floating hotel, would be our home for five days as we made our way along 640 miles of the lower Mississippi. It’s a marvelous hybrid of fin-de-siècle detail and modern convenience. Christened in 1995 with a giant bottle of Tabasco sauce, the ship is the product of three years of historical research, as evidenced by its pressed-tin ceilings, crystal chandeliers, Victorian upholstery, and genuine antiques. The J.M. White Dining Room is an exact replica of the dining room on the original J.M. White steamboat, one of the “glory boats” of the late 1800s. And the wooden filigree work on the deck struts underscores Mark Twain’s enthusiastic description of steamboats as “floating palaces.” Our staterooms were just as fancy, with their marble-topped antique dressers, hand-laid honeycomb bathroom tile, and French doors that opened onto private verandas overlooking the river.
We had boarded the American Queen in Memphis in the melting summer heat. To our Yankee constitutions, the air felt like the breath of some weather beast hired by the Dixie Heat Stroke Assurance League: two minutes of beast breath and we had to bolt back indoors. Our best outdoor-river-watching solution was to sit on our verandas in front of our air-conditioned rooms, their doors slightly ajar and sending delicious currents of cold air down our necks.
Evening meals aboard the American Queen are approached with a joie de vivre usually reserved for dinner parties. Passengers arrive at the vanilla-colored dining room well-dressed and smiling, waiting to be ushered to their table. Once seated, they are offered traditional libations—mint juleps, for instance.
“I’ve always heard of them,” Mary told our server for the week, Yvette. “Are they good?”
A saucy New Orleans native, Yvette flashed a smile lit up by a gold front tooth. “The real thing,” she assured us with a wink, and then she delivered a list of entrées that sounded like my Cajun grandma’s entire culinary repertoire: blackened redfish, shrimp gumbo, étouffée, jambalaya, even fried green tomatoes.
“Take all the sweet little time you need,” Yvette offered. “But leave room for your bread pudding with bourbon sauce.”
Hank smiled: “I think we’d better start taking the stairs.”