Current Littourati Map

Neil Gaiman's
American Gods

Click on Image for Current Map

Littourari Cartography
  • On the Road
    On the Road
    by Jack Kerouac
  • Blue Highways: A Journey into America
    Blue Highways: A Journey into America
    by William Least Heat-Moon

Search Littourati
Enjoy Littourati? Recommend it!


Littourati is powered by
Powered by Squarespace


Get a hit of these blue crystal bath salts, created by Albuquerque's Great Face and Body, based on the smash TV series Breaking Bad.  Or learn about other Bathing Bad products.  You'll feel so dirty while you get so clean.  Guaranteed to help you get high...on life.

Go here to get Bathing Bad bath products!

Entries in Minnesota (9)


Blue Highways: Duluth, Minnesota

Unfolding the Map

It's our last stop in Minnesota, and after this we'll head into Wisconsin.  It is also, to my knowledge, the only time that LHM stops by Lake Superior.  I'll give a few recollections and thoughts about this vast Great Lake, to me the most mysterious of them all.  If you want to see where Duluth sits on the edge of Lake Superior, the map is waiting for you.

Book Quote

"Downtown Duluth, if you ask me, hangs a little precariously to a volcanic bluff that drops six hundred feet to Lake Superior.  The city revived in cool air that began to move off the blue lake stretching far eastward, finally so blending with sky that a horizon was almost indiscernible.  It was as if Duluth sat on the edge of infinite blueness.  The largest fresh water lake in the world (its volume is considerably greater than all the other Great Lakes combined), Superior is so big it has a three-inch tide."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 11

Downtown Duluth. Photo by J. Belote and hosted at Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host page.

Duluth, Minnesota

Once, a long time ago it seems, I passed through Duluth.  I don't remember much about it except that we ate there in a restaurant underneath what I would label a hill, but which is probably a mountain in that part of the Midwest.  It was a rustic bar and grill, more bar than grill, but the food was good and I think I might have even ordered deep fried cheese curds, which is a delicacy particular to that part of the country.

What I remember most about Duluth are the stories of the horrible winters.  LHM, in his next paragraph after my quote, states factually that Lake Superior often freezes over up to 21 miles out from shore, and that this might thwart the dreams of Duluth to become another Chicago.  It is, however, the most western Atlantic port as ships that ply the Great Lakes from the Atlantic seaboard make their way to Duluth.  It is also out of the harbor that Duluth shares with Superior, Wisconsin that great ore ship of American legend and song, the Edmund Fitzgerald, sailed on its ill fated voyage that ended with Lake Superior claiming the ship as its own.

The Great Lakes have fascinated me since I lived in the Midwest and resided for some years in Milwaukee, on the shores of Lake Michigan.  My first sighting of a Great Lake was when I flew east from California to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.  I was going to live in inner-city Milwaukee, but before I went to my posting I was to take part in a retreat in Benton Harbor, Michigan.  I flew United to Chicago, my first trip in a jet, then boarded a little propeller puddle jumper operated by Air Wisconsin (I later learned that their nickname was Scare Wisconsin).  We took off from O'Hare, flew out over the city, and then suddenly over water.  The largest lake I had seen up to that time was Clear Lake, in Northern California.  I had an idea that lakes may be big, but not that big.  So I figured that it would take 10 minutes to fly across Lake Michigan.  A half an hour later, we were still over water.  It was only then that I began to realize the vastness of these lakes.

And then there is Superior.  That lake is most fascinating because it is most mysterious.  The other lakes are huge, but they don't exude the menace that Superior does.  Lakes Erie and Ontario are mostly shallow lakes.  I know less about Lake Huron but it doesn't really capture my imagination.  But Superior is a lake like no other.  It is very deep and for all intents and purposes is like a small ocean.  I have driven along its shores in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and I have even stepped foot into its cold waters and tried to swim.  Everything about it seems different.  If you are in the Upper Peninsula in the summer and swim in Lake Michigan, the water is warm, inviting and friendly.  The beaches are sandy, and the small waves break in soft music.  The color of the water is a light blue or, if the silt has been stirred up, a kind of gray.

Then you go a few miles to the shore of Superior, and there are no beaches.  The bank drops down to a shelf of rock.  I didn't remember any waves.  And the blue that LHM writes about is as deep as you can think.  Along this shore there are many shipwrecks, some of which can still be seen.  Superior seems to suffer your presence, not invite it like the other Great Lakes.  The winters along Superior are said to be bitter and difficult.  If you are on the lake, the storms that whip along it can create ocean-like conditions and dangers.  It is thought that the Edmund Fitzgerald, for instance, was the victim of a series of rogue waves, called Three Sisters, that broke one after another over the ship and overloaded it with water.  It is no ordinary lake that offers conditions like that.

The Gordon Lightfoot song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald has a line which also fascinates me.  "Lake Superior, they said, never gives up its dead, when the gales of November come early."  I wondered what that line meant.  I thought it meant that those caught on Superior in November gales would probably die.  But Wikipedia provides a really interesting fact.  Lake Superior's water temperature below the surface is a constant 39 degrees Fahrenheit.  Normally, bacteria growth in the bodies of drowning victims creates gasses which propel a body to the surface of the water eventually.  But the water temperature of Lake Superior is so cold that bacterial growth is inhibited, and therefore bodies tend to stay at the bottom.  Thus, bodies from Lake Superior shipwrecks are not often recovered.

I am not sure if, knowing how cold and bitter it gets, and how cold and menacing Lake Superior seems, if I would want to live there.  For some reason, it seems that my ability to withstand cold weather and harsh conditions has lessened considerably since I left Wisconsin and let the warm air of the Southern United States soften my hardiness.  Yet it is difficult to deny that Lake Superior has beauty, savage though that beauty may be.  To see it is to never forget it.

Musical Interlude

You know the musical interlude, given the post, has to be The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  Here it is, with lyrics.


I also found a song, by a band named Father Hennepin, called I Like It in Duluth.  The video is kind of cheesy, but then again, so is the area!

If you want to know more about Duluth

City of Duluth
Duluth Budgeteer News
Duluth Breaking News
Duluth News Tribune (newspaper)
Duluth Seaway Port Authority
Duluth Shipping News
Perfect Duluth Day (blog)
University of Minnesota Duluth
Visit Duluth
Wikipedia: Duluth

Next up: Superior, Wisconsin


Blue Highways: Jacobson, Minnesota

Unfolding the Map

We stop with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) to skip rocks across the Mississippi.  Rivers are life, rivers are powerful, rivers are death.  Most of all, rivers are real and illusions at the same time.  Read on to find out why.  To find out where we cross the Mississippi this time (our fourth time in this journey), skip on over to the map.

Book Quote

"I came to the Mississippi again at Jacobson and stopped to get off the hot asphalt.  The river was wider here, and it took me three attempts to shy a rock across.  I walked up along the banks.  The Mississippi, not a hundred water miles from its source, already flowed in olive murkiness."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 11

Mississippi River near Jacobson, Minnesota. Photo by David Peterson and hosted at Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host site.

Jacobson, Minnesota

When I was very young, and we used to go to our property on the Noyo River in Northern California, I always wondered why the water looked green.

The river in the summer was small, meandering over rock and sand through redwood forest, with alder and oak trees lining the bank.  In sunlight, the river had an olive green look to it.  The water, depending on the depth, could look a brownish green in the light shade to a deep, dark green in the shade.  The water wasn't murky - in fact it was mostly clear so that rocks and objects on the river bottom could be seen quite easily, of course with a green hue.

It confused me because when I scooped the water out of the river, or got a bucketful, the water was clear like water should be.  But in the river, it clearly didn't look like clear water.  It had color, which gave it an otherness.  I knew it was water, because it splashed and flowed like water should.  But I wasn't quite sure, because it had that color.  It was as if the river were something else entirely.

Of course, my Noyo River introduced me to illusion even though I didn't know it.  Those of you reading will say "duh, Michael, the river bottom had that color and therefore the water looked like the same color.  But at five, or six, or even seven years old I didn't understand that.  All I knew is that water in the river looked different, and that it made a magical transformation into real water once you pulled it out of the river.

In fact, water is a master of illusion.  Put a pencil in a glass of water and watch how the light refracts so that the pencil appears to bend or even be broken.  Watch ocean water go from a bright blue in the midday sun to somber gray in the fog or under clouds, to mirrorlike glassiness on a calm day at sunset.  Which is it?  It's all three.

Water is probably the most powerful and destructive force we have on Earth.  I listen to, and am comforted by, the soft pattern of rain.  Yet that soft patter, if allowed to work for years or decades, will eventually find cracks in my ceiling, and entrances into my walls, and eventually ruin my house.  The mightiest and hardest stone may stand unyielding for eons, but over the millenia it will change and erode because of the constant battering of water.  We happily play in and splash water over each other, and yet water is a party to some of the most destructive occurrences on the planet.  Flooding caused by incessant rain, especially in low lying areas, or storm surges driven ashore by hurricanes, or tsunamis forced up by an ocean floor earthquake.

Look at a river like the Mississippi.  Not here, in Jacobson, Minnesota but farther down in Saint Louis or even New Orleans.  The surface seems to flow along at a slow, steady pace.  We have pictures in our mind, put there through literature, movies and television, of leisurely rafting along its surface.  Yet beneath the surface raging currents boil.  Logs are often sucked down, held under for a long time, and then suddenly come shooting to the surface, propelled by their own bouyancy and the river's forces.  In New Orleans, it is madness to jump into the river.  Many who have done so have disappeared, and only turned up miles downstream when the river decided to release its drowned captive from its cold embrace.

Water, in this way, is like a living thing with a mind of its own.  The Mississippi, until the Army Corps of Engineers dredged, channelled, leveed and locked it, tended to move around like a snake in the grass.  It would cut channels and happily flow by them for years or decades and then, suddenly overnight, break free through some weakness in the banks and cut a new channel.  Sometimes its changes would take whole villages or towns from riverfront to landlocked property overnight.  The mouth of the Mississippi has, throughout its history, moved from the Panhandle of Florida all the way over into Texas.

For example, look at this map picture of the Mississippi at Jacobson.

The map only hints at the wildness of the river.  Sure, the river twists and turns because water finds the most accessible route downhill.  There are some circles and some loops, called oxbow lakes, that don't appear to connect with the river.  But look now at a satellite view.  You can see what the map only hinted at.

This river has moved, a lot, in its past.  Channels have been cut and abandoned, leaving loops unconnected with the river, old channels that are dry, and river passages that end nowhere.  The system looks like a Gordian knot, or intertwining serpents.

The efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers currently keeps the Mississippi in its channel in its navigable length, but this is the elusive power of water and the river.  The maintenance has to be continual.  Water strains against all efforts to contain it.  The bulk of the Mississippi wants to move and twist along its bulk just like its tail twists and turns near its source.  Water may allow itself to be contained for a while, but eventually, water will always win.  All our dams, levees, channels and locks, built to contain and tame the river, will eventually crumble away.  All our efforts to control nature can only be temporary at best.  Water knows us, inside and out.  It is us, and because of this, it will always be more powerful than us.

Musical Interlude

A wonderful song about the Mississippi - or really any large river - written by Roger Miller for the musical Big River, based on the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

If you want to know more about Jacobson

Lakes 'n' Woods: Jacobson
Rootsweb: Jacobson, Aitkin County
Wikipedia: Jacobson

Next up: Duluth, Minnesota


Blue Highways: Whipholt, Minnesota

Unfolding the Map

We whip past Whipholt, on the shore of Leech Lake, but not before we notice the wake robins dotting the aspen woods in this glacial lake country.  What are wake robins?  I have a hint for you, Littourati...they aren't birds.  Also, find out where Whipholt sits by whipping over to the map.

Book Quote

"The highway out of Walker went through Whipholt, past the roads to the Indian towns of Boy River, Federal Dam, and Ball Club.  The land alternated between marsh and aspen woods filled with white blossoms of wake robin."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 11

Plaque marking the spot of the Sugar Point Battle, said to be the last battle in the US and Indian Wars, in Whipholt, Minnesota. Leech Lake, Minnesota's third largest lake, is in the background. Photo located at Click on photo to go to host site.Whipholt, Minnesota

I never paid much attention to flowers, other than to notice that they were pretty and often smelled nice.

I don't know why.  I guess I just was interested in other things as a kid.  Flowers were seen as girl-stuff, and I wanted to be into boy-stuff like sports and hunting and jumping my bike off insane ramps and other things boys did.  Of course, eventually I started paying attention to girl-stuff...when I started noticing girls.  Flowers were something girls liked, it seemed, so when I did pay attention to flowers, it was because I wanted to make a girl happy with a flower, or because I was in high school going on prom dates and I had to think about getting my date something nice in the form of a corsage for her dress.  Once in a while, I would notice the large installations of flowers at the few funerals that I attended.

It is only now, in the latter part of my first half century, that I find myself paying more attention to flowers, and other things that involve beauty and color.  I think maybe it was living in Texas for a few years that really made me notice wildflowers.  Lady Bird Johnson had put a lot of support behind an initiative there to beautify the highways by planting wildflowers in medians and on verges, and one could not help but notice the bluebonnets and indian paintbrush on drives through the Hill Country that exploded in color every spring.  My eyes would feast on this floral delight and I never got tired of it.

I also became very fond of orchids.  One flower that I noticed when I was young were tiger lilies that grew on the banks of rivers near the town in which I was raised, and orchids seemed very like them.  To me, they seemed like a cross between another world and ours, a fantastic life form whose geometry and color almost sucked me in.  A neighbor hybridized and grew orchids for shipment around the world, and he showed me his successful experiment in hybridizing tiger lilies with an orchid.  At least, that's what I remember him showing me.  To this day, I often send an orchid when I want to send flowers to someone who means something special.  That the orchid symbolizes love, luxury, beauty and strength, wisdom, and thoughtfulness lends it even more power.  It's name comes from the Greek word for testicle, giving a reproductive and earthy aspect to its symbolism as well.

Later still, cactus flowers caught my attention.  Living in a desert, I barely notice cacti, until in the spring when they burst forth with intensely colorful flowers.  That something of such beauty can come out of something so stingy in its adaptability to dry climates that it hoards water within itself and grows sharp spines to protect itself seems simply wrong.  But every spring, a riot of color breaks out among these thorny, prickly things and proves that even the most hardened bit of life can also have its moments of beauty and glory.

So, it was with interest that I saw LHM refer to wake robins in his post, which he sees after passing Whipholt, a town that one probably would miss if they blinked while passing by.  I didn't know what wake robins are, but discovered that the name is an alternative for trillium, and refers to the fact that the trillium blossoms in the spring about the time the robins come out.  There are many different varieties of trillium, but it appears that the type that LHM must have seen as he drove in this area of Minnesota might have been the Trillium grandiflorum, or the white wake robin.  They appear to be interesting plants, which depend on ants to disperse their seeds.  The name trillium comes from the three leaves which they sport (the number three being very symbolic and a sacred number to some), and this type of trillium is not only the state wildflower of Ohio but it is also the symbol of the province of Ontario.

There is not much I can find about the symbolism of trilliums other than their association with Ohio and Ontario, but they have been utilized for food and folk medicine.  The young leaves can be added to salads.  The root, when prepared properly, has been used as an antiseptic, a diuretic, to treat spasms, and as an anti-diarrheal.  It is also known by the name birthroot because of Native American uses for childbirth and to promote menstruation, and it was considered a sacred female herb.  It also appears to have many other actual and potential uses.

One of my goals, someday, is to have a garden where I have a mix of domestic and wild flowers.  I recently read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and the idea of a wonderful garden, rich with flowers that draw other types of wildlife, appeals to me.  I hope that I can realize that goal someday, and I think that my budding (no pun intended) interest in flowers will help keep that goal in front of me for some time to come.

Musical Interlude

I wanted to find a song about trilliums, and did find the name of a classical piece called The Trillium composed by George Whitefield Chadwick as part of his A Flower Cycle, but I couldn't find an actual recording of the song on the internet.  However, LHM refers to trilliums as wake robins, and I did find a song called Wake Robin performed by jazz musician Bob Acri with Diane Delin, George Mraz, Lew Soloff, Ed Thigpen and Frank Wess.  I don't know if it is named after the flower, but it's a nice jazz tune.

If you want to know more about Whipholt

Sorry, folks.  There really isn't anything on the internet about Whipholt. However, LHM mentions some other "Indian towns" to the north that he didn't visit in his quote, so here's some information on them.

City of Ball Club
City of Federal Dam
Lakes 'n' Woods: Federal Dam
Wikipedia: Ball Club
Wikipedia: Boy River
Wikipedia: Federal Dam
Wikipedia: Leech Lake

Next up: Jacobson, Minnesota


Blue Highways: Walker, Minnesota

Unfolding the Map

Leeches?  Mosquitoes?  What kind of place is this?  Why, it's Walker, Minnesota!  Here a resident warns William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) that riffraff will be chased away by extreme temperatures and the previously mentioned beasties.  I'll write about my own difficulties with bugs.  Buzz on over and latch yourself to the map to see where Walker is located.

Book Quote

"Late spring had been creeping north, and suddenly that day it pounced.  Nobody was ready for the eighty-two degrees.  At Walker on the south shore of Leech Lake, I stopped at the county museum; it was closed, but the handyman, John Day, let me in to fill my water jugs....

"'This could be July,' he said.  'It can hit a hundred and five in July, and forty-five below in January.  One hundred and fifty degrees of temperature is how we keep the riffraff out.  When that doesn't do it, then it's up to the mosquitoes and leeches.  If it wasn't for them, and another thing or two, this piece of God's country would be overrun with people.'"

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 11

Downtown Walker, Minnesota. Photo at City Data. Click on photo to go to host page.

Walker, Minnesota

Mosquitoes.  If there is anything that would keep me from wanting to spend time in a place, it's mosquitoes.

I've always been the one that mosquitoes like.  Whether it's a flawed perception or not, I don't know, but it just seems that if I am in a place that mosquitoes inhabit, even when I'm with a number of other people, I get bitten the most.  I've read that one can take Vitamin B supplements, keep one's feet clean, and wear lighter clothing to thwart them.  I've tried all of those remedies when I'm in mosquito country, and nothing seems to work.  I still get bitten.

I suppose it wouldn't bother me too much, except that when I get bitten I develop large welts.  I've noticed that when some people get bitten, they experience a little bit of itching, and maybe a raised red spot that goes away relatively quickly.  Not me.  I'm left with big welts that itch for at least a half hour if not more, which then shrink into smaller red welts that continue to itch for 2-3 days.  When a mosquito bites me, it tends to stay with me for a while.

Bug sprays and cremes work, but I don't really want to use them that much because I dislike the idea of spreading chemicals all over my body.  But I'm not willing to suffer endless bites for that cause, so I will dutifully spread the chemicals when I have to.

From my days living in Wisconsin, I remember that wandering in wooded areas in the summer meant that one became a walking Happy Meal for the insects.  In my work, we had the occasion to use a retreat center in rural Wisconsin, and on one of my first times out I decided to take a bucolic stroll in the forest near a small stream.  What I remember is getting about a half a mile before running back to the retreat house.  It wasn't just the mosquitoes, which were like clouds around me.  It was also large black flies.  Now, where I grew up, black flies were harmless.  They often landed on you and just sat there, causing a little tickling sensation with their legs.

Not in the Midwest.  The black flies were large, and they bit - hard.  Not only did they bit, but they took a small chunk of flesh with them.  In my supposedly bucolic walk, I felt something on my neck.  I swatted, and a smear of blood came away from my neck, staining my hand with scarlet.  That was when I ran.  I felt that if I stayed out there that eventually my exsanguinated body would be found and I would be one of those unsolved mysteries that is only explained by supernatural or alien forces.  The first kill by a chupacabra in Wisconsin.

When it comes to bugs, I don't know how humans can claim themselves to be at the top of the food chain.  I don't think that there is a food chain.  It's really a food circle, or a food sphere.  Sure, we eat pretty much anything, and we have the intelligence to use weaponry to kill those things that are dangerous to us.  Put us out in the forest, without weapons, and suddenly we become much more equal, if not inferior, to those animals that are bigger and stronger than we are.

All our weaponry and smarts won't allow us to truly defend ourselves against insects.  They pervade our lives.  At best we share space with them, as the constant presence of roaches in people's kitchens will attest.  At worst we share ourselves bodily with them, as in the case of mosquitoes, ticks, lice, fleas and all the other creepy nasties that infest us or feed off our bodies.  And then, for our sacrifice, they often infect us with diseases, some of which have lifetime consequences or even no cure.  Think of Lyme disease, passed on through the bite of a deer tick seeking blood.  Or worse, think of Dengue fever, a painful infection which plagues developing countries and can sometimes lead to death.  Or even worse than that, think of Chagas disease, which is born by a bloodsucking insect with the quaint name of "the kissing bug."  There is no cure once you get it.  Even insects that aren't interested in us usually can put the hurt on us, as anyone who has stumbled on a beehive or stepped in a fire ant mound can attest.

I know that these insects are all part of the chain, or circle, or sphere.  But when I'm around them, I have to wonder why there have to be so damn many of them and why they all have to come after me?  At least I've never had experience with the other creepy thing in LHM's quote - leeches.  I've seen them in places, most recently being sold as health aides in an Istanbul market.  I hope I never run into them.  A scene from the movie Stand By Me, where Wil Wheaton looks into his underwear and finds a leech attached to something down there, has ended any curiosity I might have had with leeches before it could even start.  Since I live in a desert, I am blissfully free of both mosquitoes and leeches.

I'm good with most insects, as long as they leave me alone.  But mosquitoes and other blood suckers angling for my sweet plasma?  When I'm around, I don't care if the place is carpet bombed.  Just keep them away from me.  John Day, I don't think you'll see this piece of riffraff around Walker during mosquito season!

Musical Interlude

I have a friend named Hannes, who was a big Queens of the Stone Age fan for awhile.  He tried to get me to listen to them, but I didn't really listen much.  But as I was looking for a song to accompany this post, I ran across The Mosquito Song.  The song has a Eastern European sound, the lyrics are mysterious and creepy, and there is an occasional set of strings that comes in resembling the sound of mosquitoes on the wing.  Exactly complements how I feel about them.

If you want to know more about Walker

Annual International Eelpout Festival (okay, this needs explanation...eelpout is a fish and apparently the festival is an icefishing festival.  You gotta love that they have an icefishing bikini team!)
City of Walker
Leech Lake Area Chamber of Commerce
The Pilot Independent (newspaper)
Wikipedia: Walker

Next up: Whipholt, Minnesota


Blue Highways: Lake Itasca, Minnesota

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.

Book Quote

"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

Where Lake Itasca begets the Mississippi River. Photo by Christine Kar and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

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 WarMy 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.

Musical Interlude

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

Crooked Creek Observer: Lake Itasca (blog)
Itasca Area Lakes Tourism Association
Itasca State Park
Lake Itasca Region Pioneer Farmers Lake Itasca
Wikipedia: Lake Itasca

Next up: Walker, Minnesota