One of the places we visited this summer was the Mississippi River. It’s hard to call this a ‘place,’ though, since we crossed and recrossed it all summer long, starting with our first trip down to Natchez to the Great Big Yam Potatoes old time music festival in May. There we walked along the bluffs of the river and visited the mounds at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians. On July 3rd we watched fireworks along the river in Dubuque, Iowa, where we had traveled for a reunion. The next day we toured the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, where we saw channel cat, alligator gar, and lots of other fish, plus river otters, exhibits, and even a dredge riverboat. Traveling back to Osage with my mother, we stopped in Guttenburg, where my ancestors first crossed the river into Iowa, then went on to McGregor. The view there from Pike’s Peak (yes, named after the same Zebulon Pike who named the other, taller peak) used to be our favorite view of the river, and a frequent stop when I was a boy, anytime we headed east on Highway 9.
Though we always cross the river on our way to Iowa, spending this much time along it reminded me how important a presence it was for me growing up. We lived along the Cedar River, and often biked a mile or so out a gravel road to fish or swim in it. But the Mississippi was always grander, and always called us back whenever we could go.
Another site along the river that we visited were the Effigy Mounds. These were the first Indian mounds I saw as a kid, and I probably didn’t realize they were so unique. I did become interested in the mound-building cultures, and gradually came to realize that other groups built mounds that were higher and perhaps more impressive all along the Mississippi and its tributaries.
After spending some time with my family in Osage, Kim, Aidan, and I continued on our journey, this time to visit the headwaters of the Mississippi in Lake Itasca State Park. There we heard and saw a loon, biked along the lake, walked across the stones that span the river (placed there by Civilian Conservation Core workers in the Depression when the headwaters were ‘restored’ after a logging dam upstream had been removed), then waded back across to where we’d left our shoes. There in the Northwoods of Minnesota, the Mississippi seems much less powerful, more tame. It is hard to imagine the small stream it is at its head when you drive across it in Memphis or walk the bluffs in Natchez. And it is hard to imagine, when you’re wading across, that this insignificant stream will become the Father of Waters, a central channel for transportation, trade, and culture that has been the backbone of the continent for centuries.
I am reminded that Walter Ingliss Anderson carved a magnificent sculpture, almost a totem, that he titled The River or Father Mississippi. In the center stands a blue man with what appear to be antlers or the tributaries of the river emanating from his head. He is flanked by ducks on each side with a stag deer on the left and a possum, a crane, and other animals on the right. Most of the statue is gone, but a picture can be found in Christopher Mauer’s biography of Anderson, Fortune’s Favorite Child. I have often thought of writing a poem of the river to add to my Barrier Island Suite, which was inspired by Anderson’s logs. Traveling along the river this summer may give me ideas for how to begin.