Note: Originally published on Blogger on June 13, 2006.
Unfolding the Map
Today's blog really hits the heartland as Sal crosses the Mississippi, and I reflect on the big muddy. As always, you are free to click on the image, oh Littourati, to see the updated map!
"My first ride was a dynamite truck with a red flag...Along about three in the afternoon, after an apple pie and ice cream in a roadside stand, a woman stopped for me in a little coupe. ...But she was a middle-aged woman...and wanted somebody to help her drive to Iowa...and, though I'm not much of a driver, drove clear through the rest of Illinois to Davenport, Iowa, via Rock Island. And here for the first time, I saw my beloved Mississippi River, dry in the summer haze, low water, with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself because it washes it up. Rock Island - railroad tracks, shacks, small downtown section; and over the bridge to Davenport, same kind of town, all smelling of sawdust in the warm midwest sun."
On the Road: Chapter 3
Davenport and the Mississippi
I'm not going to dwell much on Davenport, because I've really never been there so I won't know what I'm talking about. I have, however, seen the Mississippi. I've been lucky enough to see it in five places, and unlucky enough to not have seen it in a sixth.
The first time I saw the Mississippi, I crossed over it in that bus to Wyoming up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. My recollection is hazy, but I don't remember it as being that big up there, since you are getting close to the headwaters, but as a young child we all knew the name of the Mississippi even if we couldn't spell the damn thing and therefore it was an important moment in my life. My second time seeing the the river was crossing over it by car in La Crosse, Wisconsin as I headed out to a retreat, a gathering, of the volunteer program I was a part of in Milwaukee. I remember a bigger river, with a barge or two tied up along the side, but I also have a vivid recollection of the main sight in La Crosse, the world's largest six pack of beer!
The third time I saw the river was in St. Louis, where the river really gets big and packs a punch because the Missouri River joins it just on the north side of the city. I almost personally experienced its power that time. I was up in the magnificent St. Louis Arch with a friend and had parked my car on a parking lot the literally sloped down into the river. Little did I know it was the beginning of the Mississippi floods. From the top I noticed that a few cars that had been dry before had their tires in the water and people were rushing up to get their cars out. By the time I got out of the arch and down to my car, its tires were in the water and the spaces where those other cars had been were completely submerged!
The fourth time I saw the Mississippi, I was in Quincy, Illinois and I also went across the river to Hannibal, Missouri to see Mark Twain's boyhood hometown. If any writer is synonymous with the Mississippi, it is Mark Twain, who lived on it, worked on it, and set what may be the greatest American novel, Huckleberry Finn, on and around it.
The fifth time I saw the Mississippi was when I lived in New Orleans. There was always something magical about taking the ferry from Algiers back into the downtown. The current was so strong at that huge sweeping curve in the river that the ferry would often labor upstream, allowing us to drift back to the downtown ferry terminal. Occasionally we would have to dodge a big freighter coming through. One night Megan, EB and I watched the biggest ship we had ever seen, towering some 10 stories over us, silently slip by and disappear under and past the Crescent City Connection bridge and on up the river. EB and Megan tried to chase it, but even as silent as it seemed, it was moving faster than they could run.
The sixth time I didn't see the Mississippi was up in the Delta country, where the blues was born. It was always something that we meant to do. We were going to drive up the river to the blues country, to Natchez or some other area. And we never did.
The river is an amazing thing. It has a life of its own, as Mark Twain will tell you, despite the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers and others have tried to tame it. It empties a continent, like a giant artery, pumping life AND waste down it's length and into the Gulf. It has contributed mightily to our culture and music. A legendary story from the Mississippi concerns the great cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, who evidently heard from the shore the amazing trumpet playing of Louis Armstrong on a riverboat in the Mississippi, and decided to take up the trumpet. "The raw body of America itself." Jack Kerouac and Sal describe it well.
For more information on Davenport or the Mississippi
Next up: Iowa City and Des Moines, Iowa