Essay and photos by Gayle Harper, Author of Roadtrip with a Raindrop: 90 Days Along the Mississippi River
No one forgets the experience of being at the perpetual birth of the Mississippi River. Minnesota’s north woods are studded with hundreds of sparkling lakes, sheltered by majestic old pine, maple and birch trees. Lake Itasca, small and tranquil, doesn’t appear to be unique among them, but it is. The shallow creek springing from its side has a destiny of greatness. Half a million folks come every year to clamber across the boulders, earning the right to say, “I crossed the Mississippi on foot.” As the baby river begins its nearly 2,400-mile journey, you are making a memory that will shine for the rest of your days.
Children clamber across the start of the river Mississippi Headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota
The Mississippi is the aorta of our land in every way. It is the third largest watershed in the world, draining 41% of the continental United States. At least 18 million people rely on it for their daily water usage. Sixty percent of all North American birds annually migrate along the “Mississippi Flyway,” relying on its resources for food and rest. From Native people’s canoes to settlers’ flatboats, through the golden age of steamboats, to today’s massive shipping industry, it has always been our transportation superhighway.
American White Pelicans lift off after resting near Ste. Genevieve, Missouri
As impressive as all that is, it doesn’t explain the river’s place in our hearts. Music of every genre, from folk, jazz, blues, gospel and rock to classical, tries to capture its mystery and majesty. In paintings, photography, poetry, literature, musicals and dance, we try to express what it means to us. Whether we live near it or not, it is deeply embedded in our very identity as Americans.
A Bluesman pours out his soul at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, Davenport, Iowa
As the river moves through the heart of our land, touching ten states, the changes in climate, geography, agriculture, lifestyles, accents, foods and cultures are dramatic. Accompanying it from its source to the sea is a life-changing adventure, but choosing any region and spending whatever time you have is a life-enhancing celebration of America’s diversity.
Ojibwe dancers at the Powwow on the Leech Lake Reservation near Inger, Minnesota
Whatever your interest, the Mississippi River corridor meets you with a surprising menu of opportunities. Countless parks and nature preserves entice families, hikers, fishermen, bird-watchers, bikers and boaters into bountiful natural areas. As our great story-keeper, the Mississippi weaves tales throughout time into one rich and multi-textured tapestry. Each thread comes alive as you stand where ancient Native Americans once had a thriving city of 20,000 souls, where Hernando de Soto camped and where Civil War battles raged. River communities large and small invite you to be part of their culture in colorful festivals and engaging museums.
Music and laughter at the Burlington, Iowa, Oktoberfest
Watching a massive barge slide smoothly around a bend or easily into a lock is a quintessential part of any Mississippi River experience. Learning about the nearly 500 million tons of cargo transported on the river each year or touring a lock and dam gives you a new appreciation of how hard the river works for us.
A barge at sunrise on the Mississippi River
And, oh my, the food! Pick any spot on the map and discover the specialties of the region and the heritage that created it. It’s a delicious history lesson!
Bouja, a Slovenian harvest dish, served up at the Church Festival in St. Stephen, Minnesota
From its unpretentious beginning, through its wild and scenic adolescence, to its transformation into a mind-boggling force of nature, every stage of the river’s growth has its own unique beauty. Each time you discover a scenic overlook or a riverside park to simply be with the river, or a ferry or bridge to cross it, another of its countless moods and palettes of colors is revealed.
Houmas House Plantation and Gardens in Burnside, Louisiana was built in 1828
Welcome to your Mississippi River. From Minnesota to Louisiana, fun-loving river folks are waiting to share their heritage, to entertain you, feed you and let you feel at home. Come and listen to the river’s tales and let it carry your worries away. This is America at its most authentic. Wherever you hail from, this is where you belong!