Unfolding the Map
After a brief layoff, we resume our trip at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) crosses it in five steps, and as we cross with him, I'll reflect on the importance of the river and relate a haunting experience I had next to it some years ago nearly two-thousand miles downstream in New Orleans. Get to the source by following the map to Lake Itasca.
"The lake was Itasca and the stream, a twelve-inch-deep rush of cold clarity over humps of boulders, was the Mississippi River. I crossed it in five steps. The Father of Waters, beginning a two-thousand-mile journey to join the source of all waters, was here a newborn - small and pure."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 11
Lake Itasca, Minnesota
On this literary journey, we have already crossed the Mississippi twice. The first crossing was at St. Louis, very early in LHM's trip, where I focused on the city in my third blog post about Blue Highways. I also referenced an earlier post from my On the Road series, on which I wrote about the Gateway Arch.
The second time we crossed the Mississippi on our Blue Highways journey, we did it at Vicksburg as LHM sat on the bluffs and gave some facts about the siege of the city in the Civil War. My post for Vicksburg was focused on the Civil War as our first modern war.
The only post where I've really looked at the Mississippi River was in my On the Road series when Sal Paradise crosses the Mississippi into Davenport, Iowa. The river fascinates me, however. I've seen it in a number of different states, and most recently I stood alongside its bank in New Orleans a few days ago. It travels so many miles that it is difficult to believe that the river I saw in Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri and Louisiana is the same river. It is even more difficult to believe that this vast collection of water draining America's heartland could have a source, and at its head could be something that one could step over in five steps.
I've not visited Lake Itasca, but I'm certain that some of the drops of that lake, escaping down the Mississippi sometime in the past, passed by me as I stood on the bank at the New Orleans riverfront in the midst of costumed Mardi Gras revelers. Whenever I stand on the banks of the Mississippi in New Orleans, I'm reminded of one of the most haunting images I've ever had. It's a Mardi Gras story, and it's on my mind since I was just there for that unique American celebration.
It was probably my second or third attendance at Mardi Gras, 2002 or 2003. My wife and I had developed a tradition by then of spending Fat Tuesday costumed in the French Quarter, wandering around in and out of bars and enjoying the cavalcade of costumed people, walking parades, and coordinated krewes of merry revelers assembled on the flimsiest of themes. That year the fog was thick over the Quarter, making everyone nearby seem very close and yet, 50 feet down the street, fantastic shapes dark in the afternoon gloom flitted on the edge of imagination in the narrow streets. The famous Society of St. Anne walking parade came by, and we jumped into the midst of the costumed parade, lost them in the fog and maze of streets, and then found them again as they made their way to the Mississippi. The krewe has a tradition of carrying the ashes of departed members for their last parade through the French Quarter, and then sprinkling their ashes into the Mississippi. We didn't know of this tradition at the time, but we followed the krewe up to the levee and to the landing where they gathered and then performed a ceremony with streamered hula hoops. They dipped the hula hoops into the river and then waved them over the assembled members, droplets baptising the participants. Then they spread ashes.
On any other day, a beautiful day for example, it would have been special. But the fog over the Mississippi, the darkened bulk of a giant cargo ship passing in the middle of the river, the stark colors of the costumes standing out against the gray river reflecting the gray sky, added up to one of the most haunting scenes I have ever seen. I won't forget it. Given that I probably won't have a jazz funeral in New Orleans, I told my wife that I too would like my ashes paraded through the French Quarter when I die, and some - not all but some - sprinkled into the Mississippi to become part of that great river flowing through that great city.
Without the Mississippi, we would miss so much that defines the United States. Without the Mississippi, one of our greatest pieces of literature, Huckleberry Finn, would not exist and possibly Mark Twain would have just been known as a good writer. Without the Mississippi our economy would not have developed as it did by trade down its length and through its tributaries. My favorite city of New Orleans would not exist without the river, and St. Louis might only be a decaying frontier town. The Mississippi Delta blues would sound a lot different if they existed at all. And certainly, a haunting and wonderful event would have never crossed my experience without the muddy waters rolling past a Carnival celebration.
As I write these words, it is still difficult to believe that somewhere on a small glacial lake in Minnesota, an otherwise unimpressive stream that takes five steps to cross not only gives birth to one of the great rivers of the world, but also a river of history, culture, celebration and everything else pertaining to life along its banks.
I have a double shot for you in this post. The first song that put the Mississippi in my mind was Black Water by The Doobie Brothers. The second, Louisiana 1927 by Randy Newman, shows that the river can give life and take it away as well.
If you want to know more about Lake Itasca
Next up: Walker, Minnesota