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© Bella Stander


Earl Swift
Author of Journey on the James
(University Press of Virginia)

April/May 2001

by Bella Stander

Earl Swift is as low-key and wryly humorous in person as he is in print. From mid-September to early October 1998, the staff writer for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, accompanied by photographer Ian Martin, traversed the entire length of the James River-at first on foot, then in a canoe and ultimately (and reluctantly) in a kayak in the choppy tidal waters at the river's mouth. Swift expanded the 22 daily dispatches he sent to the Virginian-Pilot into Journey on the James: Three Weeks through the Heart of Virginia, just published by Univ. Press of Virginia.

As becomes obvious from the book, Swift doesn't hold much truck with travelogues that dwell more on the writer than on the journey. "One of the things I thought that the world didn't need another of was the deep and meaningful personal changes that I underwent during my odyssey," he explains. "I find that I have declining patience with any kind of writing that suggests the need for a Muse, or that assumes that the reader gives one-tenth of a care about how the writer might have changed."

In fact, says Swift, "the whole story was Ian Martin's putting up with me for three weeks. He later estimated that 30% of his time was involved in photography and 70% was babysitting me. I think anybody who backpacks for three weeks and paddles 20 to 30 miles every day, and then has to turn around and file a newspaper story about the day's experience has to get a bit cranky," he admits. "A lot of the evenings were spent driving around looking for clean phone lines to transmit my stories and Ian's photos. We had some 20-hour days as a result."

Ironically, some of Swift's colleagues at the paper viewed his 430-mile voyage as a boondoggle and a vacation in disguise. "I guess I could understand that," he says. "It beat wearing a necktie. The worst day we had on the river was still a great day."

The greatest change the journey wrought in Swift, who moved to Norfolk from Anchorage, Alaska, 13 years ago, is that he now feels far better connected with Virginia and Virginians. But his strongest impression was that "a river is an elusive entity. It changes from second to second, from mile to mile, from day to day. It undergoes a constant evolution; it's more of an organism than a feature of topography."

Until he started research in order to flesh out the book, Swift had been unaware of how much forgotten history there is on the James. For example, he says, "I had never head of Cornstalk, the Shawnee warrior, but he was huge! The guy was not somebody you wanted on the other side." Swift notes that "some of the most interesting stories have female heroes," such as Mad Anne Bailey, who dressed as a man and "cut a huge swath" through the Indian population, or Lynchburg's Hannah Dennis, who lived among the Indians as a medicine woman. Swift sketches their stories and others, such as that of John Peter Salling, who in 1742 journeyed from Glasgow, Va., to Mississippi, was captured by Frenchmen and Indians, jailed in New Orleans, then escaped and made his way back home by boat and on foot. "The book really is a story about the past, the history of the riverbanks and what's happened along the James' edge," claims Swift. "It's a history book for people who don't normally read history books."

© 2001 Bella Stander

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