I recently treated myself to a CD of Big River. It’s a musical based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by the ever amusing Mark Twain. All the songs are great but my favorite is Muddy Water, a hymn to the mighty, muddy Mississippi. It’s not a surprise to me that a song about a river is my top pick. I love rivers. They are givers of life (think of the Nile flooding in ancient times) and takers of life (think of the Johnstown Flood) and they represent raw, unimaginable power that can’t be completely controlled. It can’t be an accident that in Chinese folklore rivers are represented by dragons, creatures of potent and auspicious power. Rivers are boundaries and goals. They tell me not just where I am but more importantly who I am, keeping me rooted to the land. They are the life blood of the lands through which they flow and their names speak to me of travel, adventure and mystery. There’s the Cuyahoga, which was so badly treated that it burned in 1969. The Allegheny and Monongahela, which supported steel and glass manufacturing combine, as any good Steelers fan will tell you, to create the green Ohio, which runs so much faster than Big Muddy that when they merge the river flows two colors just south of Cairo, Illinois. This marvelous sight is near the top of my Road Trip List. Crossing the Mississippi? Well, that’s a different experience depending on which location you choose—the effort to cross in Minnesota is substantially less than what it will take to cross in New Orleans but believe me, both experiences are worth it. The Platte, Niagara, Kiskimentis, Las Vacas, Cathead, Tennessee, Cumberland, Scioto, Liffey, Danube, Lehigh, Hudson, Boyne, Patuxent, Missouri and Little Pigeon rivers each have a special place in my life—I’ve fished and traveled on them, waded in them, skipped stones over them and fallen asleep to the sound of their voices. I’m looking forward to getting to know the Snake, Fraser, Colorado, Po, Rattle, Thames and Shimanto. I hope it will be a pleasure.
This love for, and fascination with, a body of flowing water may seem odd, but I’m in pretty good company. Langston Hughes understood perfectly what I feel when he wrote The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
Here’s a few titles in case you’ve got the river bug too.
- Nine Ways to Cross a River: Midstream Reflections on Swimming and Getting There from Here by Akiko Busch
- Rivers of America by Tim Palmer
- Call of the River: Writings and Photographs by Page Stegnar