Taking the Tom Sawyer approach

They let go of to-do lists and drifted down river with a guitar and an open schedule.

Jenna Fisher
Writer Jenna Fisher (r.) and friend Alex Cook took to the Tennessee River with Twain’s 'Tom Sawyer' and a pair of inflatables.
Jenna Fisher

Alex strummed his guitar, our straw hats sat on our heads, the river wound under bridges in front of us and snaked around the hills behind us. We were in the wilds of Tennessee; adventure, beauty, inspiration, and, um, Knoxville surrounded us.

This trip had us going against the current of life's rapid pace to do something a bit unorthodox for grown-ups: float down the Tennessee River in a makeshift rubber rowboat for a week with no agenda and no schedule, just a good friend, a guitar, and a harmonica for entertainment, and a copy of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

Though I consider myself a pretty laid-back kind of gal, as we got closer to putting our raft in the river, I had to fight the desire to make a plan, have a backup, and create a schedule. My goal was to let go of the routine, the deadlines, the to-do lists, and the order that consumed my work life, and let whim lead.

As a first step, I let my friend Alex take over the rowing, and I reached for the book. " [P]art of my plan," Mark Twain began, "has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in."

I was ready for some reminding.

I read the voices of Tom and Huck in Southern accents. Alex rowed and listened. We made it to a deserted, jungly island in the river. There we discovered what it sounds like to puncture an inflatable boat on a sharp stick, how to keep spiders away from your ramen noodles, and that talking in Russian accents makes everything better. Da, even the urge at the moment of boat deflation (our only way off the island) to plan, direct, and coordinate boat repair. Would Tom or Huck set to repairing their boat or would they eat dinner and explore spider island?

The next morning, after a bit of fancy paddling and the help of a bike-tire patch and duct tape we managed to get off the island in our leaky vessel and land at a park that happened to be across the river from the island. As we dragged our punctured little boat ashore, I heard resignation in my cocaptain's voice. The patch system clearly wasn't working and we had our whole trip ahead of us.

But Tom Sawyer wouldn't have given up. We introduced ourselves to a young couple who had been tossing a Frisbee. When we told them about our trip and asked them if they knew of any boating stores nearby, Regan and Katie took up our cause as if it were their own. They gave us a lift into town and back as if we were old friends.

Recharged with their kindness, and a working patch, we paddled a bit, and noticed a small cave along the edge of a rock wall. Pulling up alongside the entrance we tumbled out of the boat and scrambled up the rocks to take a peek. When I took out my camera to take a picture, the flash revealed an entire cavern complete with tunnels. Jackpot!

With the panache of Huck and Tom we set to exploring. Giddy with the delight of the discovery, we dodged cave crickets so large they had facial features, risked life and limb as we scooted across rock ledges, and crawled through narrow tunnels from room to room in awe of rock patterns, stalactites, and hundreds of tiny jewels of water on the walls.

We may have entered the cave practical, planning adults, but we left with new eyes. Tom and Huck would have been proud. Now, beauty and potential lurked around the most unlikely corners.

One evening as hunger started to tap a tune in our bellies, and the sun hung low in the sky, we spied the perfect spot to set up camp. The abandoned field stretched up and over a hill. An ancient rusty tractor stood sentinel in the distance. We took turns tossing our hats along a gravel path to see who could launch theirs farther. But our lollygagging was cut short when a man in a pickup informed us we were trespassing and invoked "the law." Rather than merely high-tailing it, Alex made amends with the caretaker, so we could head off on good terms.

Back on the river, the sun had set over our shoulders, creating a kaleidoscope of pinks and purple and peach reflected on the water. In front of us the moon was as bright as a street lamp, casting white lines upon the ripples. And we were caught between them for a moment. We passed under a bridge, now cloaked in darkness, and I broke out my harmonica, the sound echoing into the night.

"Well, we'll end up somewhere," Alex remarked just before some strangers invited us to chat with them and spend the night on their boat.

By and by Tom and Huck found buried treasure. And sure enough, we found ours.

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