Thursday, July 16, 2020

A Love Affair with the Mississippi River: THE RIVER #2

Looking upriver from the walking path in front of our condo

Welcome to the 2nd installment of my series A Love Affair With the Mississippi River. Today I focus on the river itself. 

The Mississippi River. The Ol’ Man. The Big Muddy. The Big River. The Great River. The Mighty Mississippi. The Father of Waters. More regional and written nicknames than we can imagine. 

Friend. Peaceful. Steadfast. Soothing. Epic. Romantic. Steady. Alluring. Mesmerizing. Obliging. Transporting, in so many ways, from literal to the most fanciful. 


Dangerous. Frantic. Fickle. Destructive. Hellish.  '

Necessary. And to me personally, as described in a previous Traveling Laugh, a Necessary Goodness. I even purchased a silver ring inset with a small Mississippi River Pearl so I can stare at a token reminder of the beauty and majesty I leave behind when I'm away from a view of the river.

Although there are many massive rivers in the United States, I would venture to say throughout the history of literature none can boast more widely written and read tales than the Mississippi.  

Dear Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, I LOVE you for gifting me my first exposure to all that’s possible, magical and moving about the river. I also thumbs-up your fire and damnation essays in A PEN WARMED-UP IN HELL: MARK TWAIN IN PROTEST since the way politics and the pandemic are rolling, I’m scorchingly close to these smoking fingers flaming my keyboard. 
The Ol’ Muddy is touted as the largest and most important river in North America, and one of the world’s major river systems in size. With astonishment we learn the entire Mississippi River originates as a small brook flowing out of Lake Itasca in Minnesota. (Reread that last statement. Reread it again. A small brook evolves into the Mighty Mississip’ which means perhaps my one letter to a senator can start a revolution! **blows on fingers**) After traveling somewhere around 2,340 miles (different mileage is reported in different places), the Ol’ Man empties his accumulative sustenance into the Gulf of Mexico.  

My grandgirlies love to spew known stats and retell their rock-hopping adventures of crossing the mouth of Her Majesty. (Note to readers: I often refer to God as female too.) Brian, their dad and our youngest, and his wife have taught them well. They’ve traveled to the headwaters several times, camped in the park. I discovered a live webcam. Have a look for yourself.

Mississippi Headwaters, Lake Itasca MN
photo link credit here
As odd as it seems, making the trip to Lake Itasca Park is a pleasure I have not yet experienced. At the tapping of every keystroke in that last sentence I asked myself Why?! I promise you that when this pandemic lightens enough for us to feel free to travel again, that adventure will take place. I shall submerge my toes into the river’s birthplace where he's only between 20 and 30 feet wide. I’ll stand and watch the waters swirling over my wiggling happy toes (surface water speed only 1.2 mph right there) and imagine those same waters traveling all those miles, picking up speed to a raging 3 mph [stat] in the Big Easy and into the gulf, an overall rolling-along journey that takes about three months. THREE MONTHS. 

On a personal note, and again a repeat of my first installment in this series, the reason we live in a condo rather than a house, which we’d been seeking for our move from IL to MN 4.1 years ago, is because we can view the river from the kitchen, living room, dining room (all open concept, how trendy) and the master bedroom. The stoic view-hogging condo building stands in the river city of Winona MN, dubbed by the staff at our energetic and creative visitors’ bureau The Miami of Minnesota. A future installment of this series will reveal more about Winona. 
Our condo building, walking path top atop rocks

We first officially "came to” the river in 1990 when Brian, our "baby", visited Winona State University as a possibility for his college education. Oh sure, throughout our pasts we’d seen the river. Side-eyed her here and there. But as we explored Winona to see what we could see as far as what Brian's entire experience might be, we SAW the river for the first time. She no doubt added allure to our son’s ultimate choice in university since he is a true outdoorsman. 

Among top facts about the river, in 2015 we read this. DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — A report released at a gathering of mayors in Dubuque finds that commerce along the Mississippi River generates more than $400 billion and supports 1.3 million jobs. You can read the economic history here. To say the Ol’ Man supports a lot of children is an understatement. Mother Hubbard’s got nothin’ on this dude. 

This past spring the river here in Winona--many places actually—was frozen late into the season, then so high for so long tow boats couldn’t make it under many of the bridges, including the one shot from so many of my condo deck photos. Other transport methods needed to be utilized as they could, all costing more than barge transfer. (Another edition of this series will feature the tow boat industry and the barges they move.) 

Imagine what portion of income and jobs were held at bay until Mother Nature decided to give the Ol’ Man a break. The marriage of Mother Nature and the Ol’ Man seems as volatile in temperament as my own marriage, especially the longer our pandemic lockdown continues. At least no swings other than verbal are thrown here in our condo though, so that’s awesome. 😊 But Mother Nature and the Ol' Man? Well they have historically had at it, no holds barred.

The report referred to earlier found that “the upper Mississippi River area, comprised of parts of Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri, generates $253 billion annually and supports 755,000 jobs. The total figure was devised by combining the upper river report with a report on the lower river released last year.” The lower Mississippi consists of Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In case you weren’t counting, the Mississippi runs through ten states. The top three industries along the entire Mississippi are manufacturing, tourism and agriculture. Apparently old retired folks living in condos is not considered industry, although we certainly contribute to the overall financial situation.

The levees and 29 lock and dam systems along the entire river are worth encyclopedia volumes each. Absolutely fascinating and amazing stuff, all designed to try to control the dynamic couple from swallowing us alive in their waters, which happened often before all of the engineering, planning and back breaking work—and occasionally still does in spite of humans’ best attempts. In order to not wax all stats-and-facty herewith, I’ll keep these notations brief and specific to where we live via a few links. 

Evening Levee Drive
-- Watch local filming of our Levee Road when the waters were up. This little strip of road right along the levee is very popular in Winona. One of the things I love about living in this city is how much the locals continue to daily appreciate the beauty and lure of the bluffs and river. One is hard pressed to find a slot in the day when there is not a car or two or more passing along the levee road, necks craining just to see the river up close, witness that beautiful shot under the bridge and check out the beach across the river. 

--Hop aboard our local tour boat that departs from levee road, let Captain Aaron take you for an educational ride. He is a great story teller with a wealth of information. You can even bring your own beverage of choice and/or buy some cookies and stuff aboard. 

--US Lock and Dam 5a, the closest to Winona. 

--Winona is at Mississippi River Pool 5a. Learn more about the location of river pools

Thursday, July 02, 2020

A love affair with the Mississippi River, the series setup

Aw. Welcome to our new home circa 1969!

George and I have been married for 50 years. Mostly blissful, as it said on our 50th wedding anniversary party cake.  

For 46 of those years we lived in the Chicago suburban home we purchased when we wed. Then we decided to move to Winona MN to be near our youngest son, his wife and our grandgirlies. This after receiving several versions of The Talk in which we learned from our children that we were now The Aging Parents and should probably might wanna ought to (various verbiage delivered by serious faces of Good Grown Men who dearly love their parents) live nearer one of them than continue the possibility someone would have to make a frantic Minnesota-to-Illinois or New Mexico-to-Illinois trip. You know, in case of an elderly emergency. 

After much gnashing of teeth and a surprise decision--especially to us--we purchased a condo right along the Mississippi River here in Winona. 

The surprise part was choosing a condo. 

We’d spent months looking for a small single-floor home with a little yard and at least 1.5 bathrooms on the main floor—not in the basement where that half-bath often seemed to have been added as an afterthought, which kept us from buying several places we otherwise liked. After all, we’re old and getting older (yes, we know) and no longer want stairs, especially to get to a toilet in a hurry. When arriving home (in our elderly waning state of life, and WE KNOW!) inevitably both of us have to pee. Before the move, I was in need of a knee replacement and George already sported two new ones. Visions of the need for a Life Alert danced in our heads. So yup, two bathrooms on the same floor. Period.

At the end of yet another exhausting and fruitless house hunting marathon, as a lark we stopped to look at said condo only because we saw an advertisement that at an open house they were serving free champagne and refreshments. Why wouldn’t we?! After one glass of champagne plus a river view, we were all in. That free champagne turned out to cost us plenty, but in the best of ways. To loon country we moved—and I mean that as pertains to the state bird, not as it applies to our most colorful friends or precious family here in MN. Mostly. XO
Patio from bedroom taken at original showing

From kitchen and living room first winter

Back of condo looking out at the river.

How we HAPPILY got from there to here
 Thus began my true love affair with the river. Before the move, for more than 25 years we’d been visiting Winona regularly, and sure, we enjoyed the river. But after the alluring gent greets you every waking morning with the assurance that no matter what is happening in your life or the world, at least one thing remains the same: the river keeps rolling along, I was owned. I began to digest that visual assurance as Goodness. Now I relate to it as a Necessary Goodness. I need the river. Should we leave town for a few days, I miss that steadfastness and beauty. I long to gaze upon the Big Muddy. Feel the ahhhhhh vibrate through my veins after we return home and I first view him flowing ‘round the bend.  

Much of our lives changed with that move. We (as in George) no longer possessed a yard to maintain. That transition from yard to no yard was difficult for him. He still enjoyed digging in the dirt. Planting a garden. Weeding and mowing. He even professed to the thrill of the sound of our snow blower. And I know he enjoyed helping a neighbor occasionally shovel out. No matter the season, he’d stop to crack a beer or two with the back-yard “fence” folks. Thus, that little home we were seeking where he would/could at least still do his usual, even at 76 years of age, was priority.  

As for me, for decades I'd been ready for a change. Born and raised in Illinois, the actual state never thrilled me. The idea of moving to the beauties of MN and being near family beckoned: watching soccer games, swimming meets, dance recitals, musical performances... A chance to reseason those bleacher buns. I couldn't wait to get a loon on my license plate and become a Vikings fan. (I hear you, Bears folks. It's not like I disowned Da Bears, but they were no longer my people. Plus I look good in purple.) Who wouldn't want to live in a town with the slogan "Surprisingly weird, incredibly entertaining."

How quickly the river reorganizes your thoughts and desires. At the condo, no matter the weather (snow, grass-producing rain and sun, ice …) nothing much matters since those tasks were no longer on our plates and for the most part the urge to do them slipped away with the freedom we gained.

We lived just outside of the city limits in Illinois, so almost every chore and errand involved an automobile. In Winona (population about the same as our suburban town in Illinois), the CEC Theatre, a drug store, a lovely co-op filled with super groceries and yum foods, and several restaurants and bars—did I mention several bars?—and a plethora of quaint shops were not only within walking distance, but a couple blocks.  We even selected a dentist just down the street. All this is the good news in case a day arrives when we can no longer drive.

When I was still book touring and speaking, yes, it was pretty nice to be near O’Hare Airport. We’re now at least 2.5 hours away from MSP but that’s okay since … well … work travel has all blissfully come to a halt. Plus we’re only about twenty minutes from LaCrosse Regional Airport in WI which connects to several hubs with security and parking, traffic and sanity much easier to navigate. 

From our patio
And of course there is the river.  

We live at the foot of the bridge and can hop on State Route 43, travel a minute and be in Wisconsin. We have a walking path along the shore, visible from every room. The beach right across from our condo patio--the beach where they set off the spectacular annual fireworks display that arcs out over the water, sparkles in the river’s eyes. And Levee Park where all types of festivities take place (pre COVID-19), including a farmer’s market (still on), craft shows (still on) , Big Muddy Brew 'n Cue …  Even the annual Steamboat Days beer tent is only a block off the river and thus from us. The Budweiser horses have slept practically next to the Ol’ Man and therefore we old folk. 

Although I had written a Traveling Laugh that summed up what we love about living where we now do,  as my heart began to unravel and sort  the many wonders and comforts our condo provides here along the river, especially during the sequestering pandemic, it dawned on me I’d rather take my time , unfold, expound, delve into the corners, educate... Write a series about life where so much interest and eye candy collides. I want to introduce you to personal nuances and tidbits. Present a separate column each on the train spur outside our deck; the bridge reconstruction; the mesmerization of tow boats; what it feels like to live where the river runs West to East through town; the beauty and entertainment of bunnies and hummingbirds, ground hogs and chipmunks, swans, pelicans and soaring eagles. And endless fascinating people passing by. All visible from our condo.

Am I traveling all over the place at this point in my life? No. But when I do go away, the river is where I return and it sure puts on the miles. Drops of Mississippi headwaters travel 2,348 of them through ten states from mouth to the Gulf of Mexico.  

So there you go. Mini Mississippi Traveling Laugh Series, here you come. Next week we shall convene.