Looking for Mr. Sandbar
Exploring another world, just across the Mississippi River.
By Bruce VanWynGarden
OCTOBER 4, 1999: I first noticed it on a walk along the jogging path at Harbor Town. A few days later, I saw it again from the upper floor of a downtown high-rise. The next Monday, on a trip to West Memphis, I got a good, long look at it, an enormous sandbar, jutting a half-mile into the Mississippi, just north of the I-40 bridge. It was huge, a virtual Sahara, a new frontier. It was the bottom of the river, totally exposed.
I'm not sure why I was drawn to it, but every news report I heard about the river being at record low levels stoked my imagination. I guess I entertained the occasional vague notion of finding a Civil War cannonball, or an Indian spearhead, or maybe a prehistoric shark's tooth, but really, I just wanted to walk on it. All I had to do was get there.
Last Saturday I made my move. It took a couple of wrong turns, and some backtracking out of a dead end or two, but eventually I found a road that got me close. I followed a vague path through the brush until the trees stopped and the sky opened up high and blue, and there it was in front of me: The dwindling, but still mighty Mississippi. On the other side, gleaming like Oz in the morning sun, was Memphis.
As I scrambled down the overgrown slope, the bushes erupted with insects. An enormous caddis fly hatch was in progress. Every leaf, every rock, every surface was covered with them. If this had been a trout stream, it would have been a fly-fisherman's paradise.
With hitchhiking flies adorning my hat and clothes, I walked north on the exposed sand along the water, passing under the I-40 bridge, where it was cool and shady. I looked at the enormous concrete stanchion rising a hundred feet into the air. A deep shadow from the roadway above fell across it, dividing it diagonally into darkness and light from top to bottom. The entire shaded part -- hundreds of square feet -- was covered with caddis flies; the sunny part was bare. The number of insects was simply staggering.
I could see the sandbar a few hundred yards north, and resumed my quest. The original shoreline was now several feet above my head. The river had receded in stages, creating a series of sand ledges that dropped, almost stair-like, down to the water line. Thousands of small river mussels, now dead, encrusted the ledges, tiny victims of the drought. The only artifacts I saw were recent and man-made -- a couple of small boat anchors, beer bottles filled with mud, a plastic Zebco reel, rusted barge cables. Just across from The Pyramid I found a large refrigerator stuck among the branches of a massive horizontal tree, an Eggleston photograph waiting to happen. I took it for him with my throwaway Kodak.
The sandbar itself was even more impressive up close. Originally it had formed behind a rock levee, and now extended halfway across the Mississippi and a half-mile or more to the north, an expanse of several acres. It even had its own lake, formed in a low area behind the levee. Surprisingly, at least to me, three fisherman sat patiently there, watching their bobbers in the quiet brown water. Obviously, there was an easier way in than the route I'd taken.
I walked carefully out onto the rocky levee. It was noonday hot and the sun reflected blindingly off the white sand. The sandbar was dry on top, but near the river it was muddy just below the surface, causing me to slip. I thought then about what a co-worker had told me when he learned of my plans. "Be careful. It's dangerous out there," he'd warned. "It can be like quicksand. Ten years ago two people got sucked under while they were walking on a sandbar. They just disappeared and were never seen again." The story sounded a little fishy, but I decided not to push my luck and stayed to the higher ground.
There was plenty to see, wherever I looked. Birds were everywhere -- white egrets and great blue herons along the shore; geese and ducks landing and taking off from the lake; seagulls and killdeer circling overhead, splitting the quiet with their calls. A barge glided by and blew its horn in greeting. To the south, the city's skyline formed a silent, picturesque backdrop, but seemed a world away. It was a bright, cloudless, glorious day, and the sandbar seemed a glorious place to be.
There were other explorers walking around, a foursome from a boat that had pulled up and anchored, and two professorial-looking types in shorts and hiking boots. One of the men had found an old tin cup, but no one else seemed to have had much luck in the artifact department.
"Found any treasures?" I asked.
"Look around," he said, waving his hand to take it all in. "This is a treasure."
Right he was.
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