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Return to the River

Randy Cunningham

This past Christmas I hoped to counteract the gluttony of the holiday by resolving to take long walks each day. My constitutionals were performed along the railroad tracks that run beside the Mississippi below my mother’s house in a small town in Eastern Missouri. This was not the first time in adulthood I had taken this walk. In these other times though, it was more as a tour conductor or guide for my wife or an out-of-town friend who just had to see the mythic river. This was the first time in decades I had taken the walk alone.

To grow up along a river as fabled as the Mississippi is to grow up with a legend, and an official mythology that concentrates on the romance of the riverboat era, and cultural traditions such as the blues.

The experience of actually living by the river is far richer and more intimate than the myths. In my childhood and youth the river represented nature. It was big. It was powerful. It was a magnet for adventure. If you went hiking, you went to the river. You would pack and prepare for it as if you were on your way to Alaska. Hiking along the tracks possessed the required element of danger essential to all adventures. The nightmare of all boys walking the tracks was to be caught on a trestle over a creek by a train you had not noticed. All of us would discuss in morbid detail the choices you would face. A dive into shallow water and possible death was option number one. The next option was to hang from the trestle until the train passed. The most foolhardy decision would be to run for it and hope you could run fast enough.

We would put pennies on the tracks when a train approached. We were hoping that we could find the pennies after it passed, squashed flat. This was mixed with the fear that the penny would cause the train to jump the tracks, and get us grounded for the lifetime of the universe. I did not find any pennies—squashed or otherwise. People still go there to shoot, but instead of finding .22 casings, you find 9 mm and even more powerful cartridges. Progress.

Once at the river you were in a different world. The bluffs facing the river were heavily forested with hickories, oaks, maples, buckeyes, red cedars, dogwoods, persimmons, paw paws, and redbud. From their heights, you could see for miles. Eagles, and ospreys—even in that DDT-saturated era—were common overhead. During the summer both the heat and the vegetation of the lower Mississippi Valley are semitropical. If you left the tracks to go into the woods above, you had to hack your way through a dense mat of grapevines, poison ivy, and stinging nettles. If you left the tracks to go to the riverbank, a real jungle confronted you in the cottonwood, willow, and sycamore forests of the river bottoms.

Then there was the river—a big, brown monster. A monster we would frequently fire our .22s and shotguns into. Or throw rocks at. But in spite of our irreverence, we just sooner or later had to be silent in its presence. We were no match for its narcotic hold. You wondered why the river rats—those grizzled elderly river fans—your grandparents, would come to the river and just sit in a folding chair or on a washed up cottonwood tree and watch the river flow by. Maybe they would fish, but fish in the leisurely manner where the pole would rest on a forked stick in the riverbank—as if they were only mildly concerned with success. Why were they wasting their time like this?

They weren’t wasting their time.

They were getting their daily fix.

The river was also a realm of the forbidden. Along its banks we would find the foundations of a tavern my grandfather patronized as a young man. Called the Bucket of Blood, the name said it all. Or as my grandfather told it, you never had to open the door yourself because as you were entering, someone else was flying out.

In the hierarchy of river-town construction the poorer parts of town were always built where it was prone to flood. “Old town” was where the marginal resided—the colored and the poor whites whose low status was accompanied by a myth of relaxed morality. Here were bars of legendary repute such a G.K.’s House of Joy and the Yellow Dog Tavern—spiritual descendants of the old Bucket of Blood. Here you could find someone to buy you liquor. Here is where the town’s “bad girls” lived.

The very woods and bottomlands of the river cooperated with the pursuit of sin. They were out of sight and provided cover when you were young for drinking and all manner of sexual experimentation. The assorted roads and lanes to the river were where many a teenager lost their virginity and many a present resident was conceived.

My town no longer exists, as I knew it. The glass factory that was its reason for being was closed, and torn down early in the decade. The carcass of what remains is being devoured and digested by the monster of sprawl eating its way south from St. Louis. But here on this track it was still the world I had once known. The plentiful woods and bottomland forests remain as in the past. Off in the distance the drumming and pecking of the large pileated woodpeckers working on the cottonwoods could still be heard. The river was still there. It now had a smug demeanor to it. It was still relishing the thrashing it had delivered to us in the great 1993 flood. Several new breakwaters had been built since then. No lessons had been learned and the business of engineering future catastrophes was proceeding at full pace. The river has a memory. We do not and therein lies our disadvantage.

I found a way through the thickets of the bottomland to the riverbank. The banks sloped in broad terraces of sand and silt towards the water edge. On either side were great piles of uprooted cottonwoods and willows—the toothpicks of the great river. I sat down on one of the trunks and did what you must do at such times. I pulled out a pocketknife and began to whittle on a stick. It was like the start of a chant for meditation or walking the labyrinth. It signaled a time of contemplation. The Mississippi had me in its grip and was rocking me into that trance‑like state known to all of its acolytes. The sound of the wind through the trees and the lapping of the water against the bank overwhelmed the last lines of my resistance.

Sometimes such a period produces inner peace or deliverance from the incessant commercial chatter of our society. It can provide momentary respite from the problems awaiting you back in town. If you are lucky, you come back with something more. I was lucky that day. I realized that the river was not just some geohydrological fact splitting the continent. It lived. It lived in me. I was as much a part of it as the cottonwood I was sitting on. It was as much a part of me as the hand wielding my pocketknife.

We obsess about how we change our landscapes for better or worse. We hardly ever consider how a landscape changes us. I was not returning to the river. I was returning to myself.

 

© Randy Cunningham