We were reminded of the meaning of the term “Continental Divide” a couple of times this summer when we crossed it in places you might not expect. Traveling east towards Duluth from the Mississippi Headwaters, we crossed it when we left the Mississippi River basin and entered the Great Lakes basin. We tend to think of the Continental Divide as one line running down the highest mountains in the continent, but there are actually several lines, on each side of which, the rivers flow in different directions. Minnesota has three. The Mississippi heads north for a while, then turns south, flowing to the Gulf of Mexico, as everyone knows. The Great Lakes feed into the St. Lawrence and flow east to the Atlantic (more on this, in a minute!). The Red River, as I learned during the news coverage of this winter’s flooding, flows north into Hudson Bay. There are contintental divides in the west (Rockies) and east (Appalachians) as well.
But I was most surprised to learn that Ernest Hemmingway was born near the continental divide in Oak Park, Illinois, just west of Chicago. A little sign in Scoville Park alerted me to this fact. From this slight rise eastward, all water flows into Lake Michigan. Or it used to, at any rate, until they re-engineered the Chicago River to flow south out of the lake (instead of into it) by digging the Ship and Sanitary Canal that connected it to the Des Plaines River in 1900. Checking my facts for this post, I learned that two other rivers or creeks were reversed in the area before the Chicago River was.
Writing this on a rainy afternoon, I am reminded of the importance of watersheds, and the sometimes subtle ways that they define our geography and the cultures that live in them. This summer we thoroughly enjoyed traveling along the Mississippi and the shores of two of the Great Lakes. Aidan and I even had a chance to swim in Lake Michigan–a bit of a shock on a rather cool July day! And we enjoyed stopping to read the roadside markers that told about the land and its history.
That reminds me of an exercise I thought about giving to my creative writing students (but didn’t, since the semester was nearing the end, and I didn’t know if they would be driving anywhere). Stop sometime to read a Historical Marker — how many do we speed past on the highway without taking the time to read — and read about the place or event that it describes. You might be inspired to learn more about that place and write about it, or you might use words from the sign in a poem or story that has nothing to do with the immediate subject of the sign. The point is to take a moment to stop and consider the landscape and the words someone has used to record it.