2017-10-13 07:02:04
Along the Mississippi

One Friday afternoon, we drove away from Chicago to look for rivers. The first one we came across was slender and manicured, like a path for floating golf carts. It followed the highway for a mile or two before turning away. Then came the real thing, the DuPage River, flowing fast and high with spring rain. We followed that for a while, heading toward our main destination: the Mississippi.

It was a simple idea for a family vacation. With our 6-year old twins and 3-year old in tow, my wife and I would drive to the Mississippi River and head south. After a few days, we would turn back. We’d follow the Great River Road, a patchwork of state highways and county roads that form a national scenic byway along the Mississippi River, 3,000 miles from Minnesota to Louisiana. This would be our first trip on the Mississippi as a family, although my wife and I had taken the road once before.

There’s a story to that. Back in the summer of 2001, Nancy and I got married in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala. We talked about going on an epic honeymoon but we were moving to Haiti and that seemed epic enough. So we decided to embark on a leisurely, romantic drive up the Mississippi River, ending in Chicago, then fly to Haiti.

We had borrowed my dad’s car, and it was filled with suitcases containing our new life together. “Just Married!” signs covered the trunk. From Birmingham, it took a day and a half to get onto the actual Great River Road. I remember pointing to a sign – look – we’re on the road!

And then we crashed.

A semi with blinking lights had unexpectedly turned in front of us. Our car went into a ditch, totaled. We ended up in a roadside motel next to a Walmart in Dyersburg, Tenn. It took two days to gather the suitcases from the junkyard where our car had been towed and to find a way to Chicago. Escape was boarding a northbound Amtrak at 3 a.m. the next town over.

We decided to try the Great River Road again after 16 years of marriage, but agreed it would not be a do-over honeymoon. It would be a simple road trip with our children. Still, the memory of what happened before was hard to shake. The Friday that we left Chicago, I asked Nancy whether we had actually seen the Mississippi River before we crashed all those years ago. She grimaced and shook her head.

That is why it felt especially cathartic to drive along the Mississippi’s wide, lazy expanse the next morning and pass the green pilot wheel sign in the Quad Cities indicating the Great River Road. Had it just been the two of us, Nancy and I might have mused over what it all meant – the arc of our marriage seen through the prism of the river. But our youngest, Sylvie, was annoyed at being in her car seat, so we rushed to our first stop, Arsenal Island, the largest island on the Mississippi.

Our guide during the entire trip was a surprisingly useful – and free – foldout map of the Great River Road, published by the Mississippi River Parkway Commission. It identified interpretive centers connected to the byway in each state along the river. These were a mix of museums, historic sites, nature centers and other attractions. Iowa was an overachiever with 16. We chose to stop at the places that interested us the most, and we were never disappointed.

On this first stop, though, the map probably should have indicated that the blandly named Mississippi River Visitor Center Lock and Dam 15 was within a heavily guarded military base. Arsenal Island is headquarters of the First Army and a weapons manufacturing facility that dates back to the Spanish-American War. To gain access, we had to talk to an armed security guard standing behind bulletproof glass, get our picture taken, and undergo an instant background check.

It was worth it. At the visitor center, we watched the lock at work, lowering boats from one portion of the river to the next. We learned that the first bridge to span the Mississippi was built on the island. Completed in April 1856, it was destroyed soon after, rammed by the steamboat Effie Afton. Abraham Lincoln defended the bridge company in a legal case that followed, a trial that elevated him to national prominence.

From the visitor center, we walked past the sole remaining stone pillar from that first bridge, and then stopped to throw rocks and sticks into the water. Our children sat on the generous, bowing limb of a shoreline oak tree and reveled in their climbing abilities. We were totally alone. It felt like something out of Mark Twain’s childhood.

Arsenal Island, like other subsequent stops along the Great River Road, lacked tourists but held many layers of history. Originally the site of a wooden fort that extended American control into the upper Mississippi, it also contained a Confederate cemetery, a National Cemetery, a U.S. Army museum, and 19th-century stone buildings that give the base the feel of a college campus.

We could have stayed there for a while, but the Quad Cities were only 160 miles west of Chicago, and we had a lot more of the Mississippi River to see. Over the next two days, we wandered down through Iowa and Missouri and the southern tip of Illinois, where the river’s unmolested banks were marked by transport and industry. Sometimes the Great River Road ran within a stone’s throw of the Mississippi. However, when the road swerved away, I could always find the river again by searching for the cooling towers of factories that lined the banks. Some of the factories looked abandoned, others were grimy with work. They processed corn, phosphate, meat, stone and sand, the base materials of our world.

The wild Mississippi was nonetheless easy to find. Hawks flew everywhere, over fields just beginning to blossom, over forests and water. My son asked if they were playing tag. We stopped at little river towns and threw more rocks into the river. As we drove further south, the budding trees looked fuzzy and newly born.

Sometimes traveling is filled with annoyances – missing the turn off a highway or negotiating between three children and only two pretzel sticks. But other moments are so unexpectedly profound that they make the entire trip worthwhile. We had one of those in Southern Illinois.

Our Great River Road map led us to Fort de Chartres, a mostly reconstructed French fort that dates back to the 18th century, when the French claimed sovereignty over large portions of the Mississippi River basin. As we neared the site, I realized that the markings on the road had disappeared. It was nothing more than a ribbon of asphalt. Insects rose thickly from the fields and we opened the windows to let in the afternoon sun. Everything in this little corner of the world seemed happy.

The parking lot at Fort de Chartres was nearly empty. Acres of luminescent grass surrounded us, dotted by tall cottonwood trees. An ancient playground set, rust-streaked but still functional, tantalized our children. I climbed the levee that stands between the fort and the Mississippi’s floodplains. On the other side, an abandoned mailbox and driveway lay under several feet of water.

Walking back, I approached three people dressed in French colonial attire. One of them was a middle-aged woman so perfectly outfitted that I was momentarily surprised that she spoke English. They were members of “Les Amis du Fort de Chartres,” a volunteer organization dedicated to the upkeep of the fort. She showed me around – the small but excellent museum, and an intact powder magazine, the oldest structure in Illinois. Afterward, my 6-year-old daughter spent a half-hour trying to pet suspicious cats. As I watched her, my mind flashed back to a memory so old it seemed more like a dream. I was the child searching for cats, and my father was watching me, grinning happily, just like I was grinning at my daughter.

We left Fort de Chartres and passed an old cemetery with a memorial that read, “Here lie buried the remains of Michigamea Indians, early French adventurers, black slaves, victims of wars, massacres, floods and plagues.” We got lost afterward, and drove along a tiny road built on top of the levees. In the distance, something sat in the middle of the road. I slowed down and stopped nearby.

Nancy ran to check it out, followed by our children. It was a huge snapping turtle, its shell covered with a mix of mud and dried prairie grass. It looked like it had emerged from an ancient era, when the Mississippi River basin held great and wondrous animals – like the mastodons whose skeletons are still found everywhere. Another car hurtled by and almost hit the turtle. Quickly, we lifted it into the grass.

The levee road ended at the Mississippi River, next to a man fishing and a faded sign indicating that the area used to be the landing point of a ferry. Our car and phone GPS gave us conflicting instructions, but it didn’t matter. We were in no rush for the moment to pass. With the windows still open, we drove into the setting sun.

We kept heading south, through the boot of Missouri on the way to Memphis. By design, we stayed on the western side of the river, far away from Dyersburg and the site of our honeymoon crash.

In Memphis, the midway point of our trip, we stayed at the Peabody Hotel, where our children spent nearly two days splashing in the pool and watching the hotel’s famous duck residents. Finally, we set off for the town of Helena, Ark., to visit the Delta Cultural Center. It turned out to be another excellent museum that highlighted the music of the delta as a response to slavery. There were a few exhibits for children, but mainly they loved listening to recordings of gospel and blues musicians.

Leaving town, we visited Helena River Park and walked along a wooden pier that soared through trees and stopped at the river’s edge. The muddy water ran fast. Everything from twigs to branches the size of trees floated by. Dozens of birds sat in the treetops and chattered loudly to each other. It was around here that the Mississippi started to expand into the land around it. The Great River Road tiptoed around countless oxbow lakes, formed when the river meanders elsewhere and leaves behind trapped water.

Driving from Arkansas to Mississippi and then into Louisiana, we crossed the river several more times. Each time we crossed, our children sang the old tune spelling out the name of the river. Amazingly, it never got old.

In the northeast corner of Louisiana, we visited Poverty Point, a massive earthworks site occupied between 1700 and 1100 BC. I had never heard of Poverty Point before noticing it on our map. Neither has anyone else, judging by the empty parking lot when we arrived. The only other car there belonged to the park ranger.

But Poverty Point recently gained international renown. In 2014, it was named a Unesco World Heritage site, because it is “a singular achievement in earthen construction in North America: it was not surpassed for at least 2,000 years.” When King Tutankhamen ruled over ancient Egypt, Poverty Point was the largest city in North America.

We took a tram ride around the complex: five huge mounds, including the Bird Mound, which is shaped like a bird in flight and is over 700 feet long. The mounds were discovered first, followed by six concentric C-shaped rings where up to 5,000 people may have lived. Despite its name, archaeologists believe that Poverty Point had ample natural resources to sustain this large population. The only materials they lacked were stone and metal, and these they procured in trade with people as far away as the Great Lakes.

By late morning, Poverty Point had become hot and humid, an early taste of summer in the delta. We walked along the border between forest and field, and I stared nervously at the ground. The evening before, in Mississippi, a mouse ran into the lobby of our hotel. Minutes later, this unexpected event gained new meaning when a hotel guest discovered a poisonous snake several feet long waiting at a side entrance. For the rest of the trip, I approached every clump of tall grass with suspicion.

When we left Poverty Point, the sky seemed enormous, a kaleidoscope of turbulent storm clouds at high altitude. We put on a CD of blues musicians we had bought at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena. A vulture picking at road kill stared as we drove by, and little red-winged blackbirds flushed from the fields.

There were more trees now, as the land gradually shifted from the agriculture of the delta to the thick bayou forests of southern Mississippi and Louisiana. We drove past the optimistically named river town of Waterproof, and headed back across to Natchez, Miss.

Natchez was our last stop on the trip. We considered going farther south, toward Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but by that point we had been on the road for six days, and our children, amazingly patient throughout, were close to being done. Sylvie paraded around the Natchez hotel room, holding her preschool backpack stuffed with a baby doll, a goat and a giraffe, and declared she wanted to go home. Our 6-year-old twins were willing to grant us a bit more leeway as long as they could spend more time in hotel pools.

The next morning, just before we started back north, I drove a little further down the Great River Road, this time by myself. Before setting off on our trip, I had come across the early 19th-century travel diary of Francois Perrin du Lac, a French colonial administrator. Several miles below Natchez, he described a U.S. fort. “Here the head-quarters of their small army are established,” he wrote. “There are also some armed vessels for the defence of the place. All the vessels that descend this river are obliged to stop here, and declare to what nation they belong, and the nature of their cargoes.”

During the turbulent period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this area of southern Mississippi was an international border between Spain and the newly independent United States. The fort, later named Fort Adams after the second president, was the first port of entry to the United States. However, the fort’s strategic importance quickly diminished when the Mississippi River turned away from it, isolating it in the floodplains just like an oxbow lake. Later when Spain withdrew from the area, Fort Adams became a backwater in every sense of the word.

This is still the case. The fort itself is gone, and present-day references to the area are nearly impossible to find. Its Wikipedia entry ends with this mysterious sentence: “As of 1993, Fort Adams was a small community and the site of businesses that provided supplies to hunting and fishing camps in the region.”

Over the course of our road trip, I became slightly obsessed with finding out what was actually in Fort Adams – and I had only that morning to find out. Driving south from Natchez, I turned onto state road 24 at the town of Woodville. On the map, Fort Adams lay at the terminus of the road, which soon left the town behind and entered thick forest. Once in a while, I saw distant wooden houses on stilts. The road continued on, twisting and turning toward the Mississippi.

A few minutes later, a roadside sign indicated the nearby presence of a Native American mound. I stopped. The mound loomed next to me, well preserved behind a barbed wire fence. The sign said the Lessley Mound was built between 1100 and 1350, but was still used until the mid-17th century. A loud noise broke the silence and I glanced back. A man on an ATV was herding cows across the road. His voice was loud and shrill, almost feral. He and the cows disappeared from view, but seconds later, he raced around the corner and stopped the ATV alongside my minivan.

“You’re not from around here,” he remarked, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a white handlebar mustache. He talked animatedly about the historic presence of Native Americans in the area. Then he motioned to the mound, gave me permission to climb it, and sped away.

I ducked under the barbed wire and began climbing through dense shrubs and trees. On the summit of the mound stood a grove of enormous bald cypress trees. One of them had a burl five feet long protruding from its trunk. Among the trees lay the 19th century graves of the Lessley family. Since bald cypress trees can live over 600 years, these trees may have been around during the time of the Native Americans and the Lessleys. Somewhere below me, as the morning sun filtered through the grove, the rancher yelled at his cows.

I returned to my car to keep looking for Fort Adams. Minutes later, a dirt road appeared and impulsively I turned onto it because it was headed toward the Mississippi. Soon, though, the dirt road turned muddy. Water lay everywhere, gathering in ruts and turning the forest into swamp. It’s as if the Mississippi had come to me.

I got out, well aware that a minivan is a bad vehicle to bring off-roading. Bugs raced sure-footedly across the surface of the water. One of them disappeared with a gulp as a fish broke the surface. It sounded like Times Square for birds. Thousands sang in unison from the trees. The area was nothing special. It wasn’t a national park or wildlife reserve. And yet it felt primeval. I had no trouble imagining the lives of those Poverty Point residents from 3,000 years ago.

Back on the state road, I eventually approached a sign that said Fort Adams. The asphalt ended and a network of dirt trails began. I parked next to Bubba’s One Stop, a low-slung bait shop decorated with bleached antlers. Nearby stood the Fort Adams Baptist Church and several wooden houses perched on brick stilts. I saw no one. The forest receded in this area, replaced by a vast sweep of floodplains decorated with carpets of tiny yellow flowers and solitary oak trees. After taking a few pictures and walking around, I started back.

Along the Great River Road, we found a little bit of everything. Heavy industry, civilizations thousands of years old, the horrors of slavery, wilderness, hawks, and turtles. And our own personal history as glimpsed through two trips 16 years apart.

The Mississippi River is a movable feast, an ancient waterway filled with the ambitions, sorrows and joys of countless lives. I imagine myself decades in the future, an old man, crossing over the river yet again and swimming in the memory of my children yelling out the river’s name. The river is deep enough and long enough to hold it all.