"We laid off and lazied." That's a fine expression I learned from Huck Finn. Which I guess means I learned it from Mark Twain (or Samuel L. Clemens, as the case may be). I am getting ever closer to Hannibal and that part of the Mississippi River that lit Twain's imagination. As good a place as any to work on being lazied.
Back in the ‘80s, when Reagan was scaring the Soviets and Springsteen was a savior of rock and roll for most of a decade, my Dad read William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways. Like many road trip books, Moon’s is one of adventure and discovery, both personal and of the country he travelled through. The idea is simple; get off the big red lines of the map that are our interstate highway system and travel the smaller roads, the blue and black ones, around our country to see what’s to be seen.
My Dad told me that he had read the book, and liked it, but that he didn’t think he should give it to me for fear that I too would like it, perhaps too much, and take off traveling rather than tend to my career and family. That’s kind of a funny sentiment coming from a pilot who spent his entire adult life traveling about the world. But I know what he meant, and even today it seems that travel may be my family legacy. We travel differently from one another, but travel we all do. Years later, that damned Alzheimer’s got him and ended his travels. Something will eventually get me, but in the meantime I have the bug to keep moving.
I am on a solo bicycle trip along the Mississippi River. Asserted to be an Ojibwa word, misi-ziibe means "great river,” and takes its flow from all or part of 31 states. The Missouri and Ohio both contribute to it, but so too do the St. Croix, Kaskaskia, Des Moines, and hundreds or perhaps thousands of creeks along its 2,300 miles, finally discharging into the Gulf of Mexico at Plaquemines Parish, Louisanna.
I have always been fond of the big rivers: the Amazon, the Columbia, the Nile, Yangtze and Yellow River (China’s Sorrow) and, of course, the Jordan River. The Jordan is not big in size, but it is huge in western mythology. One year, I worked with the Jordan Valley Survey, exploring for archaeological sites between the Yarmuk and the Dead Sea. Rivers are rarely barriers and mostly culture’s highways.
The Mississippi starts small, at Lake Itasca, in central Minnesota. Now, as I entered Illinois, the river supports barge traffic. More than a dozen U.S. Army Corps of Engineers locks and dams make it hard to tell the natural size of the river, but at every encounter it is larger. "Too thick to navigate, too thin to plow," John Hartford sang. I'll cross over at least one more time, into Missouri to visit Hannibal and Twain's boyhood home.
I have pedaled far enough now to have come through four or five ecosystems, beginning with the farmland of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. From Lake Itasca through most of Minnesota I saw my share of its 10,000 lakes (Paul Bunyan's footprints, it is said). Eventually, the lakes gave way in Wisconsin to walnut, hickory, and oak forests. Some of those forests continue into Iowa, but there it was the high, amazing vistas that I saw. Iowa may not be heaven, but it offers some of the best bicycling I have yet to experience. And now, in Illinois, the river has broadened and I see deciduous trees along the river. Mine may be a narrow glimpse of things, but I am certain the geography is changing.
Turkey buzzards! At first they appear to be eagles, but with small heads and frilly wing tips. With the most graceful soaring you can imagine, they are a treat to watch. They fly in larger groups than bald eagles, which are also common here, and they fill the sky surveying for whatever it is buzzards crave. They are, after all, buzzards, so I assume they compete for carrion with any resident bald eagles. Bald eagles are said to have awful breath, and I suspect that holds true for buzzards too.
Some days it's the smallest of things that catch my attention or a five-minute conversation that will linger. Pedaling through Pierce County, Wisconsin, a man told me, "We got Polked in '48 and Pierced in '52." Why 150-year-old political slogans are recalled I don't know. In a cafe the cook dismissed Fiorina's lack of military experience with, "She's a married woman. She goes into combat every day she gets out of bed." And somewhere along the way I was told I have to eat Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, outside Little Rock, Arkansas. I have learned never to trust a car driver for directions and distances, and to only trust another bicyclist when it comes to estimating hills. Oh, and these three oddities. I saw a store that sold nurses’ scrubs and sports memorabilia (she's a nurse, he's a sports nut), a car wash with a self-serve dog wash and grooming station in the last stall (makes perfect sense), and a used car lot that also sells wild rice. For $2.99 a pound, why not?
Why do I do this? "Goodness alive," Tom Sawyer said to Aunt Polly, "why, I wanted the adventure of it." Adventure. That's a good enough answer for me, too.
The river flows, it flows to the sea
Wherever that river goes, that’s where I want to be
Flow, river, flow, let your waters wash down
Take me from this road, to some other town.
Mississippi Palisades State Park, Savanna, Illinois
September 28, 2015