Me and The Mighty Mississippi.

During the summer of ’75 my AFS host family showed me around Minnesota. One memorable trip was to Itasca State Park and the source of the Mississippi River.  Mississippi was famous to me as the word guaranteed to trip you up in any spelling test until you remembered the rule; and as the river where Huck Finn had his adventures.

I knew it was one of the biggest in the world (4th largest). I knew it was famous for paddle steamers. By the time the river reaches the Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St Paul, in Minnesota, it is already large. In the relatively short distance from Itasca to the Twin Cities the river falls half its total elevation.

Itasca is a woodland park. There are open spaces between the trees, the undergrowth is low growing. The rich layering of a podocarp forest I was familiar with at home (giant canopy trees of totara and kahikitea, the sub canopy of tree ferns, rangiora, and lance woods) was missing.  After tramping experiences bashing my way through the bush in the Ruahine Range here in Hawkes Bay, NZ, the Minnesotan woodland looked easy territory. I thought there must be something wrong with the soil. I had a lot to learn! I was yet to experience the brutality of a mid-western winter. (I’ve got a  post about the Minnesotan winter planned.) On my way to the park, that late summer’s day, I don’t really remember what I was expecting. But I didn’t expect an apparently inconsequential brook in the middle of nowhere.

(It’s great to have these photos but they’re evidence of yet another fashion tragedy! I wouldn’t be seen dead in those bell bottoms, now. Including these photos in this post is a sign of how far I’ll go for the sake of a good story.) The day we visited it was hot. Scorching hot, continentally hot. No sea breeze for relief. I thought I might vaporise while I posed for the photos. If you think those stones are a little too uniformly placed to be natural you’d be right. In the 1930s the channel was excavated and the stones placed across it to make it more appealing for tourists. I think that’s a shame – but then I like the wilderness. Finding the source of the Mississippi was a significant preoccupation of 19th century European explorers. They argued, some lied, and others perpetrated frauds to claim the prize of discovery. The explorer Henry Schoolcraft  was shown the source by Obijawa tribesmen. Despite attempts by others to say differently it continues to be accepted as the place where the Mississippi rises. Schoolcraft named the lake, Itasca  –  a word derived from latin veritas (truth) and caput (head). I’d imagined it was a word from the Sioux language. A little over thirty years later I returned.

It was late afternoon in October, and bitterly cold.  The air was sharp, each inhale burned the back of my throat. I could smell the coming snow. From the turn off on the main road until we reached the car park we saw only one other car.  Standing at the lake’s edge, shivering, the ghost of my girlhood was all around me. My thoughts turned to my host father. Sadly, he passed away several years earlier. I remembered his pride in showing me this place. And I thought about how no matter the ups and downs of my day to day life this river continues to rise.  Maya Angelou says it best: “Just like life, I rise.” It’s a comfort. You can read earlier posts in the series here: Leaving home: adventures of a kiwi exchange student; How flat can a valley be?; True Love in America; Breckenridge Minnesota – my hometown for a year; In which a yellow pant suit symbolises irrevocable change. What about you? What stories do you have about the mighty Mississippi?

13 replies »

  1. I’ve been to this very spot Jill, and it’s pretty neat. The Mississippi is such a huge river that most Americans never even think of its source. BTW, those are nice bell bottoms. I had a few pairs to go with my tie-dyed T shirts. ~James


  2. I have no Mississippi stories myself, but I really enjoyed yours. I will have to have a look at your related posts. I really like how you describe what we all take for granted in our part of the world.


      • well when you write your Minnesotan winter post I will have to have my husband read it – he lived there for a couple of years and he knows the brrrrrr there.

        also, I have a shot of me with some bell bottoms – but it is buried in albums that need to be digitized (sp?)

        oh – and when I was growing up – there was a phrase on the east coast of there US were folks said something like “this side of the Mississippi” – like that is “the best maple syrup this side of the Mississippi”- or “you won’t find this good of a dresser this side of the Mississippi” – did you ever hear that in all your Mississippi stuff? just curious


  3. I am really enjoying this series. I’m learning things about my own country that I haven’t discovered in (just under) 60 years. I love the pictures. I understand the bell bottoms (don’t be too hard on yourself, it was the style) and your descriptions are a great mix of personal and history which I like very much.


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