“The Mississippi River: more than a river or a waterway, but a river system that extends from the Rockies to the Appalachians. The Mississippi gathers up the other rivers like foundlings, and this area of drainage covers nearly half of the United States, approximately 1,250,000 square miles. Great rivers like the Missouri and the Ohio, minor ones like the Illinois and Arkansas, and rivers you never heard of like the Rock and the Black and the Chippewa — they all flow into the Mississippi, the greatest river, either directly or indirectly, and the big river lovingly takes her charges down to the sea. Thirty-one states and two Canadian provinces she drains, discharging into the oceans more water than any other river but two — the Amazon and the Congo. From Wyoming to West Virginia, Montana to North Dakota to North Carolina, the rivers of the midsection of the country flow into the Mississippi and belong to her.”
— Eddy L. Harris, Mississippi Solo, 1988
ST. FRANCISVILLE, La. — The poet T.S. Eliot, who was born in St. Louis on the Mississippi, called the river “a strong brown god — sullen, untamed and untractable.”
Here at St. Francisville, where we crossed the “brown god” Wednesday on our eastbound bicycle journey from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., the Mississippi has gathered the waters from all her foundling rivers and flows full bore to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, completing her 2,340-mile odyssey from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota across the continental United States.
The terrain reminded me of the bottomland between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in St. Charles County, Mo., just across the Mississippi from my hometown, Alton, Ill.
At Simmesport on Tuesday night, we camped at the Yellow Bayou Memorial Park in Avoyelles Parish, where Confederate soldiers built a still-visible earthen fortification to defend against Union forces under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks at the Battle of Yellow Bayou on May 18, 1864.
The park had working toilets, but no showers. So we had to hike a half-mile down busy Louisiana 1 to use the showers at Maddie’s Truck Plaza. In another gesture of Southern hospitality, the owner of the truck plaza and an adjacent casino allowed three cross-country cyclists, with whom we’ve been crossing paths since New Mexico, to sleep inside a disused truckers’ lounge at the back of the property.
Wednesday’s ride was relatively free of aggressive dogs. But on Tuesday, as we rode through bayou country from Washington to Simmesport, they seemed to bound out from every yard, intent on getting a piece of an ankle or bicycle pannier. Two riders have souvenir bite marks in their rear panniers, apparently the work of the same demented dog.
My strategy is to let the dogs approach and then turn on them with a mighty growl. The roaring noise, coming from a human on a bicycle, usually confuses the dogs and slows them down a step or two, allowing me to accelerate out of harm’s way. But if the growl doesn’t work, I have a cannister of pepper spray at hand. And I’m not afraid to use it.