Day One

In 1937 a little old lady put a wooden cross atop the Wickliffe Mounds on the banks of the Ohio. Across the ensuing 75 years that simple cross would move to the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi and grow to 90 feet. Just because.

The earth has been “making” the Mississippi River for several billion years.  Something called the North American Craton has been sliding and crashing about since New Jersey and Marrakesh were connected and, among other things, it eventually caused the Appalachian and later the Rocky Mountains to be separated only by a vast inland sea.  Through the various ice ages when sheets of ice a mile thick spread as far south as today’s Chicago, the water had no where to go as the earth between the ranges lifted, except down the Mississippi.  When the waters of the Arctic and the vast lakes of Canada finally broke through the ice, they cut a gorge through the upper Mississippi that would define countless civilizations, start and end wars, and ultimately become the busiest waterway on the planet.  Portions of the Mississippi River are older than the Atlantic Ocean.  Any water south of the Great Lakes, west of the Appalachians and east of the Rockies, finds its way to the Mississippi and from thence to the Gulf of Mexico.  41 percent of the continental US drains via the Mississippi.  There are bones and teeth of Mastadons, Mammoths, Giant Sloths, sharks, rays and all manner of prehistoric flora and fauna buried in its mud.  I can’t possibly detail all that is the Mississippi, but fortunately, someone has.  And he’s done it in prose as lyrical as the sounds of the river itself.  Regardless of whatever else you may chose to do, I suggest you get a copy of “Old Man River” by Paul Schneider and read it.  I’ve stolen liberally from it and will read it over again once this trip is through.  It is a masterwork of history, archeology, culture and language.  It is the story of the Big Muddy, The Old Man, The Mississippi.

Today was really the first day of the adventure.  I followed the Mississippi from Dyersburg, TN to Keokuk, IA via the Old River Road.  I got lost.  I found a new way.  I strained to see the river through the trees and I walked the banks at the confluence of it and the Ohio — which deposits more water into the Mississippi than any other two tributaries combined.  I saw industry and agriculture, failure and plenty, and I saw some of the cultural history of some the oldest civilizations our continent knows.

I will know more of the mound builders tomorrow when I get to Northeast Iowa, but as a preview, prehistoric yard art was a big deal.  For no reason other than art — that anyone can figure out.  My son will be glad to hear that.  But that’s tomorrow.  Today was a day of wandering, not unlike the river itself, through hardwood bottoms and bluffs, a day to see the power of rich alluvial soils.  To realize that the same river that can and has killed tens of thousands with its floods, can feed hundreds of millions with its plenty.  My history is so short — the river is in songs from musicals and novels by Twain — but to see it on the ground is to recognize its permanence far beyond any refrain.  It is literally absorbing the effluent from millions of years of geologic change and rinsing it all to the sea.  As an analog for work, or sins, or impermanence it works well, but as a geologic constant it excels.

Tomorrow I hope to see the effigy mounds of the early Mississippian cultures and get better acquainted with the Upper Mississippi from Northern Iowa into Minnesota.  Eventually, I will reach the northern edge where I left off, but for now, I have my hands full of the Big Muddy.  Sometimes, when you are headed to the edge, you cross a few lines.  I’m going to keep going and I will get there when I get there.

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