August 3, 2013 8:37:44 PM
Nine months and 1,100 miles ago, 18-year-old Alexandre Ledwith climbed into his $500 sailboat moored on the banks of the Mississippi at Trempealeau, Wis., and headed downstream.
At Cairo, Ill., Ledwith moved onto the Ohio River, where he endured 70-mile-per-hour winds and a powerful current for two days. Fifty miles later, at the mouth of the Tennessee, he turned south and sailed across part of Kentucky and then Tennessee -- again fighting an unfriendly current -- to Pickwick Lake where the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway begins.
While the flow -- what flow there is -- is in his favor on the Tenn-Tom, the regulations are not. Sailing is illegal on the Waterway, and for propulsion the young mariner must rely on a 25-horsepower Evinrude, ca. 1971, that gets about two miles to the gallon.
For that reason, Ledwith, who says he's not had more than $100 at one time since leaving his native Wisconsin, is taking a hiatus in Columbus where he is shoring up his finances with yard work and odd jobs.
Arriving at a strange town with no money and few prospects, Ledwith was undaunted. By now he is on a first name basis with the unknown.
"I had never sailed before I got that sailboat," he said, "though I've been thinking about it for years."
Late one afternoon about a week ago Ledwith and I sat and talked in K.K. Norris' backyard, which affords a view of the river two blocks away. Norris encountered Ledwith and his sailboat (named "Red Skyy" by his mother) during a late afternoon outing on the river in her kayak.
Norris, a part-time gardener with a full-time business, had flower beds and a lawn that needed tending. Ledwith had his first job. As it is wont to do in this town, word got out, and he's been busy since.
For Ledwith, odd jobs are something of a specialty; in fact, work has been an essential part of his education.
Early in life he realized he was not part of the public that would be served by public schools.
"I knew the life I wanted to live, and what they were teaching me was about 5-percent relevant," he said.
By middle school he was able to extricate himself from the public education system. Ledwith says his parents were supportive. His father is a master chef; his mother, her accounting degree notwithstanding, works as a waitress and as a florist. Ledwith said his parents weren't upset by his decision, but by the harassment of school officials.
At 15 he took a part time job with a landscaper in his 70s, who he regards as a mentor and teacher. There his real education began.
"I feel very lucky I have learned something school does not teach," he says. "I have learned how to figure things out when I know nothing from the start."
Through his job Ledwith realized his aptitude for mechanics and with his earnings bought a boat in need of repair. With some work and a $10 part, he was able to sell the boat for twice what he paid for it. This continued -- one boat and then another -- and somewhere the idea of sailing on the ocean began to germinate.
When he gets there, it won't be too soon.
"I'll go as soon as I can afford it," he says of his sojourn in Columbus. "It's not that I'm discontented about where I am, it's where I'm not. ... I'm sick of rivers."
He's not complaining, mind you. Ledwith says he's grown more in the past nine months than all of his life before.
"I've got as many thought hours in me as someone twice my age," he declares.
He says Columbus has been a good stop for him. He's made friends, found work, even eaten a few home-cooked meals. If a mechanics job were to materialize, he might stick around longer ... longer than the two weeks or half-a-moon cycle he predicted when this interview took place.
Yet, when the time to go comes, expect Ledwith, without fanfare, to weigh anchor and continue his journey towards water with broad horizons and a different set of mysteries. When that happens, he will do so at his own pace in his own way.
"Some people cascade through the world like a hurricane," he said. "I'd rather sleuth through the shadows."
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.