Adding to the lore of the Big River


“The river captured my imagination when I was young and has never let go.”
Eddy L. Harris, Mississippi Solo, 1988

Neal Moore

I wrote in this blog several times — as I was preparing for and doing a transcontinental bicycle ride last fall — of another adventure that was taking place at the same time: a journey by canoe down the length of the Mississippi River.
That trip was undertaken by Neal Moore, a friend of my oldest son, Ben. Neal set out from Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi in northern Minnesota, on July 10 and arrived Dec. 1 in New Orleans — a journey of four months and 22 days.
Neal and I had communicated via blog and e-mail before and during our respective journeys. We had toyed with the unlikely notion that we might meet in St. Francisville, in southeastern Louisiana, where our bicycle caravan crossed the Mississippi River on Nov. 4 on our transcontinental journey. (See Nov. 4 post, The “strong brown god.”) But Neal, a citizen journalist for CNN, was still upriver in Oxford, Miss., doing video stories for CNN and his blog, Flash River Safari.
He’s now back in Oxford working on a book about his adventure. Neal sent me a draft of Chapter 4, tentatively titled “The Wisdom of Wildness.” It’s about the first legs of the journey on the Upper Mississippi in Minnesota, before the river becomes constrained by locks and dams and widens into an industrial thoroughfare.
“It represents most probably my greatest day on the river, hands down,” Neal wrote of Chapter 4 in an e-mail. “I hope that you enjoy it!”
Throughout Neal’s book, Mark Twain chimes in with observations from his work that echo what Neal is writing about. A description of a spectacular thunderstorm on the river, for example, is followed by an account of a storm — indented and italicized — from Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.
“There’s a connection to this river that is impossible to explain unless you’ve lived it, or lived along it, or opened yourself up to it,” Neal writes in the chapter. “There’s a love affair that begins to emerge and at this stage of the journey, the river was starting to talk to me, to whisper sweet nothings, to tell me her stories. I offered an obliging and eager audience.”
As one who was born and grew up in Alton, Ill., on the Mississippi just upstream from St. Louis, I’ve had a love affair with the river since, as a child, I lay in bed and listened to the horns of the towboats in the approaches to Lock and Dam No. 26. That river, I knew, flowed all the way to New Orleans — and from there to the wider world beyond that I one day hoped to see.
Aside from Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, much has been written about the river.
A few of the books in my own library: Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi, by Jonathan Raban; Lower Mississippi, by Hodding Carter; Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry; and Mississippi Solo, by Eddy L. Harris, a chronicle of a journey by canoe that served as inspiration for Neal.
Judging from Chapter 4 of Neal’s book, it promises to the a worthy addition to the romance and lore of the Big River.

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2 Comments

Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Journeys, Literary musings

2 responses to “Adding to the lore of the Big River

  1. John

    Jim–
    There is something very spiritual and alive about the river that I felt when you and I crossed it in November. To me it is like a huge tamed animal, most of the time doing what we want it to do, serving people as a thoroughfare from North to South, and for us almost like a shortcut from one side to the other at St. Francisville. The levees keep it under control, but only so much control. We guide it, and tether it, and limit it, but we can’t really stop it. When the water is high, it can’t be denied–it has to go somewhere. After reading your piece and thinking about it more, I want to compare it to a huge tamed elephant, or maybe a herd of tamed elephants. Like the elephants, it does our bidding most of the time, strong and quiet. We ride it and make it work for us. We live next to it. The power and size are so great and useful, yet so scary. You always know something can go wrong. The closer you get, the more obvious that it is bigger, and rougher, and filled with more peril than we imagine. And it can get out of control and rampage across the levees and through the towns to wipe out our life’s work and drown us without any regret. For people like Neal who ride it alone, there must be a constant fear, because to fall into the middle of it seems unavoidably fatal, like being charged and trampled by tame elephants gone wild in their cage. And when the river goes wild there is nothing we can do about it, but wait for it to calm down and be tame again, and hope we are still alive.
    –John

  2. flashriversafari

    Hi, John —
    I had supper with the mayor of Grand Tower, Illinois along my journey and he told me that he’d “lived along the river for fifty-one years — for [his] entire life.” He told me that the river in fact has moods and that at that time it was calm, but that I’d have to be careful, “for she can turn wicked”. While there were times of near-wickedness, floating out on the rollers, in the dark, with rain and wind and debris all around, and while it is these moments that folks seem the most interested in hearing about, the vast majority of the time the river proved herself gentle, and welcoming, and like you wrote, religious. Out of all of my time on the river I’d say there were about three days where I was scared, where I found myself questioning my own sanity, where I entertained the idea of giving up. But then you’d have a sunset, or a sunrise, very much like unto your journey, of what I would imagine you and Jim were simultaneously taking part in – and it made it all the more worthwhile. When I was wet and there was nowhere to step out, I’d picture you guys, out in the desert, suffering for adventure’s sake, in the reverse. I like the idea of elephants. I like the idea of tapping into something great, like the Big River. And at certain, selected times, to the ideology of letting go completely, of going along for the ride. – Neal

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