“The river itself has no beginning or end. In its beginning, it is not yet the river; in the end it is no longer the river… At what point in its course does the Mississippi become what the Mississippi means?” (T. S. Eliot)
What does the Mississippi River mean to me from a road trip perspective? First of all, it marks a clear natural boundary where we leave more familiar grounds of populated eastern region settlement for the more wilder regions of the American West. Accordingly, I seem to transition in spirit after crossing the great river from a leisure centered tourist with pre-programmed sightseeing ways into a free roaming vagabond from pioneer days past. This Mississippi River border perspective also provides some tantalizing river cities of interest to stay for awhile before we proceed onward into more rugged terrain. In this regard, I immediately think of three favorite towns we’ve visited before. There’s Vicksburg, Mississippi often depicted as the turning point battle site of the Civil War, Hannibal, Missouri so nostalgically filled with Mark Twain’s literary world, and New Orleans where the Ol’Man River inspired musical jazz and blues artistry of a uniquely American style. I might add to this list the old cliffside town of Dubuque, Iowa, where we’ve wandered into on our present adventure in search of more pleasant moments of riverside discovery.
Yet I now realize that my road trip focus about the Mississippi River has changed. For during our recent visit to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, I now question how my past fixation on what’s beyond the Mississippi River has ignored the presence of the river itself. Know then that the innovative exhibit design of this massive two building complex and aquarium provided ample opportunity for me to experience the sensory sights, sounds, and touch of realistic river life scenes stretching from early explorer days, through the flourishing steamboat era into busy cargo and tourist traffic times today. I thus found particular enjoyment in observing relics of old steamboat and fishing vessels, feeling the smooth surface of a stingray in a “touch tank” and composing a river inspired song using an interactive sound screen.
One might surmise from my previous descriptions that the “mighty Mississippi” survives as an indestructible natural phenomenon in today’s world. But how wise a decision had been made to construct so many historic dams and locks along its course that interrupted the natural course of flow of it’s muddy waters? For the Mississippi River suffers today from excessive riverbank erosion and flooding, serious buildups of toxic chemicals,, as well as excessive silt and sand buildup on its river bottoms. So I might reason as the fragile Mississippi flows on its downstream course with resilience from its riverless source to its end at the sea, I must accordingly learn to weather the “ups and downs” of my mere mortal existence with tenacious spirit in the present moment while I can.