Since I was very young, I have always been fascinated by rivers. I am no expert; I just think they are amazing on many levels. Where they sometimes appear calm on the surface, there is often a much different story going on underneath. As the water goes by, rivers are in a constant state of motion and change. There is something very musical and human about them.
I grew up near the great Potomac River in Washington, D.C. I never spent much meaningful time on it until recently, when I got to cruise up and down the river for a few hours. To see parts of the city from that vantage point was incredibly moving.
Then I moved here. The L.A. River — that urbanized, serpentine, graffiti-scarred, cement canal network — I found fascinating. Whenever I drive by sections of it, I am always struck by its stark, tough beauty. These massive trenches in the ground, ready for the water that never seems to come, are like an abandoned idea or a promise broken — a metaphor for the outsider’s perception of Los Angeles.
In the late 1970s, when I saw Apocalypse Now, in which a good part of the story takes place on the Nung River as Captain Willard goes in search of Colonel Kurtz to terminate his command, I was instantly and irrevocably struck by what mystery and adventure a river could hold.
When I started touring in America, I had the chance to spend time on the banks of the Mississippi River. Any night off when I was close by, I would try to get to the river’s edge, brave the bugs, stare into it and let my mind wander.
In 1986, I was on tour and riding in the gear truck. We came upon the Snake River. Incredible. We were crazy, and as soon as we found a spot where we could pull the truck over, we all just dove in. The water was freezing and almost certainly dangerous, but it was one of the most liberating experiences I have ever had.
I remember the first time I saw the Nile River. I had landed in Cairo at night. In the taxi on the way to the hotel, we were right next to it. I couldn’t stop staring. It was like meeting someone who’s 10,000 years old. I just couldn’t believe it was happening.
“The first time I saw the Nile River
Days later, I was on a small boat on the Nile. At night, no one seemed interested in the top section and I would sit up there for hours, just to be alone on the river.
More than a decade later, I was crossing into South Sudan out of Uganda. To our right was a river of roaring whitewater. I asked what river it was and was amazed to learn it was the Nile! It was like running into a long-lost friend.
The day I arrived for my first visit to Australia, I staggered down the streets of Sydney, excited to be there and trying to force myself into a new time zone. I used the awning of a store as a landmark. It said “Mekong” in huge letters. I promised myself that day I would get to the Mekong River.
It took a while but I did get to travel on the Mekong in Vietnam and Laos. The guides would ask if I was OK because I would just stare for hours. I have no memory of where my mind went in those instances, which is so cool.
Southeast Asia is one of the best places on the planet. I spent some time on the Irrawaddy River in Burma, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
My first time in India, I was in Kolkata, a name recently changed from its imperial predecessor, Calcutta. I walked up and down the main street, next to the Hooghly River, a branch of the Ganges or Ganga River.
It was here that the meaning of the river as it pertains to life hit me. I think it was what I had been looking for on every other river I had ever been on.
I went to a funeral home and watched a cremation for quite some time. It was barely believable to watch a man’s body burn as the relatives sat by calmly. Later, I saw some of them take his ashes down to the river and put them in. The ashes went down the river several feet; some men were bathing and brushing their teeth in the water that now held the ashes, one story seamlessly going into another. It was like the river held more humanity than the people in it.
Today I am leaving on a journey that I have promised myself for years. I am going to Ecuador to spend a week on the Amazon River. I want to see the dolphins and eat some piranha. It’s a small boat and we will be allowed to get off for some walks.
I am looking forward to the sights but mostly, it’s the sounds I can’t wait to experience. I keep hearing Werner Herzog’s voice from the Burden of Dreams documentary, when he’s standing in the jungles of Peru. “The birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They screech in pain.” I hope to have a different experience.
I’ll be traveling alone but bringing Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. Twain, born in Missouri and no stranger to the power of the river, spent more than a decade of his life outside of America and is the perfect silent companion.
From Ecuador, to Chile, then on to Easter Island. I’ll keep in touch.
Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.
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