Monday, May 23, 2011

The Mighty Mississippi

The Bottle Rockets--"Get Down, River" (mp3)

During a self-designed grant in 2001, I travelled most of the miles of the Mississippi River, usually following it from the shore, crossing a few times, but often staying on one side or the other, depending on the. circumstances. I crossed it at its source, Lake Itasca, in a pair of rubber sandals, with a number of other tourists in a state park who wanted to be able to say they had walked across the Mississippi. I crossed it way down below New Orleans on a free ferry, at Point a La Hache, Lousiana, a boat that served industry rather than tourists, to pick up the road that would take me back to the city. Everywhere else, I crossed by bridge, except in St. Louis, where we rode a sightseeing riverboat. But the bridges, locks, and dams of the Mississippi define the river as much as anything.

I took a piecemeal trip, any Huck Finn instincts overruled by family considerations. With my daughters, aged 8 and 11, I first tackled the stretch from Memphis down to New Orleans. My older daughter served as photographer while I drove and navigated, knowing I wanted to document the trip (you will see some of the photos as part of this post), but not knowing when and where I would want a picture snapped.

My girls also accompanied me from New Orleans down towards the Gulf of Mexico, but they had little interest in this part of the journey and slept while I drove through a strange mix of rural poverty and giant oil refineries. Our next leg, again with the two girls, ran from St. Louis down to Memphis and then back home to Chattanooga. And so, the trip was first a family journey.

The final portion, the upper half of the river, I travelled with my father, who took a train to Fargo, North Dakota, where I picked him up and we drove to the source of the river and then worked our way down to New Orleans. My mother had died just a few months before, and the upper river became, in its own a way, a journey of a father, a son, and a river, just like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

But the other result of this trip, is that I can picture the Mississippi in my mind, all of it, can see it flowing from near the top of America to the bottom, a single river with wildness, but also wildly-different lives lived along its banks. I do say, with some confidence, that my blend of travel, reading, listening, watching has given me some understanding of this massive, currently-flooded waterway that we have tried to tame and control for centuries, always with only temporary or limited success. My guess is that relatively few people have a sense of it, top to bottom, bottom to top.

I'll try to tell you what I think I know.

First, there is no road that you can get on and travel the length of the river, or even significant portions of it. There are indeed many, many places where a major road affords you wonderful views and vistas, but there are also entire cities and many other places where you have to find your own way. And, it is on those roads that sometimes maps don't explain where you likely see the real river--farms, plantations, unremarkable levees, train tracks, towns that fly the Swedish flag instead of the American one, people living along the river like it was 150 years ago. So you must search for the road, and you must know that the river is not that road, not anymore and not for a person without a purpose.

Second, there are no levees in the North. Think about that for a moment. All the talk you've been hearing in the news for weeks about levees and breaches and spillways and flooded farmland to ease pressure on cities and the rest of it, that's all to the South. There aren't really levees above St. Louis, and, actually, none for a ways below it. There are other problems, other solutions, like the wall that can be opened or closed at Cape Girardeau in southern Missouri. But levees are a southern thing.

And here's another difference: in much of the northern part of the river, it is used for recreation. Not so in the south, where barriers are built to protect the shores from the water. Up north, people rent houseboats and take out speedboats and spend summer vacations on the river, living and travelling and waterskiing. Down south, the river is all business, but for the occasional riverboat trying to play on nostalgia. Tourist outposts in the south might include Mark Twain's birthplace of Hannibal, Missouri or Mud Island in Memphis, but these are rare, and not necessarily focused on the river.

As a result, cities in the north take different approaches to protecting themselves from the potential water, if they do at all. One of the Quad Cities, Davenport, Iowa, famously offers itself no barriers to the water, since the waterfront and the views are essential to tourism and to the city's economy. Others, as mentioned above, build seawalls, doors and other elaborate partial or temporary methods.

I suppose, in 2011, living along the Mississippi is an acceptable risk, more acceptable the farther north you are, since each mile downstream likely adds more and more water to the river basin, from other rivers, tributaries, streams, run-offs. It certainly doesn't seem that way right now, with the flooding that has already occurred and our nervous neighbors to the south waiting to see if the harsh steps taken by the Army Corps of Engineers will save cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans from disaster. But our relationship to the river has always been an uneasy one; we have to know that all of our attempts to harness it, to slow it, to contain it are temporary at best. And, yes, it is our relationship, and, yes, it is our river.

If you ever look at a map of the United States with its rivers highlighted, you will see that some 2/3 of our states feed water into this central river. When you travel the river, talk to its people, eat its food, when you listen to the music that has come from its banks, you feel all of those influences. You feel the layers of our nation's history--the immigrant influences still fresh as far north as Minnesota and as far south as the Gulf, the battles fought, the famous Americans birthed, the great chain of cities. That giant river connects much that is great about America.

It is a shame to me that, when New Orleans has a hurricane or other coastal areas face the same plight or rivers overflow or when something happens any place where inhabitants must accept a certain amount of risk and pray for a certain amount of luck (irony mine), so many other Americans living in townhouses elsewhere will say, as they wash their hands of it, why are people living there, or along there, anyway? They knew what they were getting into, so we can't feel sorry for them. Why do they stay?

Because it's their home, their livelihood, their way of life, perhaps all that they know, certainly a way of life that benefits the rest of us whether we know it or not. Must we really be that simplistic?


John said...

Love this post. Larry McMurtry wrote a sadly overlooked book a few years ago called simply, Roads, in which he travels some of the American interstates both large and small. I remember that he observes that the 20th century is to the highway system what the 19th was to the Mississippi. Cool idea for a family road trip you had back then...

troutking said...

Good post, Bob. But, watch your back for angry Fargoans attempting to shove you into their woodchippers: Fargo is in North Dakota.

Billy said...

There is this strange sense that, because our country is so vast, it's our own damn fault when nature attacks. Mudslides in Cali? Shoulda lived in Nevada. Drought in Nevada? Shoulda lived in Michigan. Blizzard in Michigan? Go downstream. Floods on the Misssissipi? Sweet Georgia is best! And so on.

I don't remember a single person responding to the Japan earthquakes with some over-simple "They don't have to live there..." response. But plenty of people responded that way on talk of "The Ninth Ward."

troutking said...

Billy, that's an interesting point that I had not thought of. Do you think our states' rights history and individualist orientation also contribute to it? Possibly the same impulses behind this sentiment explain why we are the only industrialized Western country without nationalized health care.

Anonymous said...

Was the Mississippi Delta truly shining like a natural guitar?

Anonymous said...

Oops the anon comment above is really me , Daisy, but i couldn't sign in properly. Pleas don' hate.

Bob said...

Daisy, yes! And, yes, much of the southern portion of the river is indeed the cradle of the Civil War.