The Mississippi River has evoked magic in the minds of millions (or more). Mark Twain took care of that for all of us.
My parents got a small boat in the early fifties, soon after they got married and had the time of their lives playing on the river with friends whiling away long summer days. Intrepid adventurers, they even went all the way to the headwaters of that mighty river while my mom was pregnant with me. And then ever since I can remember, the river or some body of water has been part of my life.
The Mississippi, the Meramec, lakes at summer camp, Lake Michigan, Kentucky Lake, swimming lessons, the Mediterranean, the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Golf of Mexico, rippling waters, cascading falls and crashing waves have nurtured my soul over my life.
I wasn’t born in the sign of water, but maybe having all that exposure cemented the love. Coppertone, the warmth of the sun, a soggy diaper, a muddy face, bleached white hair and getting rocked to sleep by the sound of the water on the hull of the boat shaped my DNA.
Days and months and years of trips to the river yield a treasure trove of memories.
We’d pack up the old “green truck” or the suburban, pack up the boat.
Towels, extra clothes, food, sometimes camping equipment. If we were going to stay late or overnight, we’d have the Coleman Stove and THEN we’d be bringing canned Chef Boyardee Ravioli. Lol if we ever had the ravioli any other time of year at home, it never tasted the same, in fact we didn’t like it. But boy oh boy we loved it on the river! I think there were Vienna sausages too.
We’d head from Chesterfield across the Missouri River bridge out to St. Charles. We’d turn right onto Highway K and then get ready. Dad always made the drive extra fun cause there were some crazy hills on that road and even with a boat behind us, he’d head over the hills just fast enough to make your tummy jump. Just before we got on Highway 70, we’d always get gas. I could feel the excitement build at each step.
A short drive on 70 east to the exit which is Mid-Rivers Mall now and left over the highway led to the flat road which took us over one set of railroad tracks…those were the ones that set me up for the real excitement as after a few more miles we went over the next set and at the top, I could see the river!! My excitement was almost uncontainable!!
We’d lug all the stuff out of the truck and put it in the boat and dad would back the truck up into the river, mom would be behind the wheel of the boat, he’d park and off we’d go!
There was a ritual about the river. First we had to go upstream to the Winfield Lock and Dam. Sometimes if upriver was our destination, we’d lock through. We’d pull our tiny boat into the cavernous lock and the enormous doors would slowly inch closed. Then the water would start to swirl and roil as the water level came up to meet the water on the other side of the dam. It took about 10 or 15 minutes I guess and then the doors would slowly open revealing the expanse of river above the dam.
But most of the time, when we got to the dam we’d wait around for a few minutes to see if there was a barge coming through from upriver or if there was one about to go through on our side. There were ominous warning signs all along the dam requiring distance from the turbulent water rushing under the great beast holding back water of one of the mightiest rivers on the planet. (Gate locks) Might need a bit of an explanation here….
Leaving the dam, we’d head down river, south of where the Mississippi meets the Illinois river. It’s there that The Great River Road was built between the undulating limestone cliffs carved out by the river millions of years ago and the river itself. It’s my favorite drive in the world and you can read more about it in my post on the River Road.
There were estates built up there that we loved seeing and also Principia College enjoying their majestic views of the rivers and Missouri flood plain farms as far as the eye could see.
Grafton, Illinois was right there too, a darling river town. Not many places of interest along the river as it’s essentially undeveloped so the ones that were there were more significant due to their scarcity.
Sometimes we’d just shut off the boat in the middle of the river down there where the expanse of water was extra wide. We’d pull out lunch and graze throwing our fried chicken bones in the water to “feed the fish.”
Or we’d just jump in and swim.
I’ve heard of people disgusted by the muddiness of the river and terrified of the currents. We had no fear or disgust, it was all my brother, sister and I had ever known. We loved floating with the current or feeling super, extra strong swimming against it. Sometimes when we were on a sandbar and the current was extra strong, my sister and I would walk against it from one end to the other and then float down, and then go back and do it all over again.
For us the river was freedom. And we felt supported by the buoyancy of the water.
One of the boats we had had an 8 track player in it. Oh the joy! There was one song that my sister, Jenny and I loved to listen to. Lighthouse by James Taylor. We’d listen to it over and over, as well as we could with the system that didn’t allow for repeating a song.
I’m so sentimental and precious memories cement themselves into my brain to be taken out and cherished when an association provokes them.
There’s a sentiment that says, “You can’t go back.” And we can’t. No clock has been invented to turn back those proverbial hands of time. So memories remain memories, frozen in the past.
And then a miracle happens.
When I was at Purina we had a silent auction every year to support charities. One year, someone put a trip on the Mississippi as a prize.
And I won!
Imagine my delight when the directions to the boat dock took me to the same location where we’d put our boat in decades before.
My friends and I piled aboard and the boat hostess, Teri, brought out snacks and drinks. The drink of the day was blueberry vodka with lemonade and fresh blueberries.
It was her hairdresser’s recipe she explained.
We headed out and to my surprise and delight the boat captain, Jim, headed north to the Winfield Dam 🙂
We had lunch on the Illinois side at a restaurant which wasn’t there when I was a kid but had a great view of the dam.
And then we headed south. Throughout the voyage, I spoke of how my parents had had a boat from before I was born, a tiny boat to start out with but that never stopped them from their adventures!
Throughout the voyage south, the enjoyment of the blueberry lemonade drink never diminished and neither did the supply! We kept laughing at how, even though there were 8 of us, it didn’t run out! We told Teri to thank her friend, the hairdresser for the superb recipe.
Jim took us right to the area of the river where my family always headed and we floated along the River Road, gazing at the new mansions up on the bluffs and marveling at how much Grafton had grown.
The day grew long and the time had come to head back. On our way up the river, I noticed a small boat close by and drew Jim and Teri’s attention to it as it resembled the boat my parents had owned so very long ago.
Teri cried out, it was her hairdresser friend! The very one with the drink recipe! Out of the entire river over a whole day, the timing worked so perfectly as to have our paths cross right there. A power of intention moment if there ever was one. We drew our boats together for a bit to chat and marvel over the synchronicity and then we were on our way back to the harbor.
The very best time of day on the river is at dusk. The wind dies down and the river gets flat and calm. The breeze is gentle and there’s just nothing like it.
I took that moment to pull out my phone and play my old river song, Lighthouse. Just quietly in my ear so that only I could hear. My private moment of marvel.
You see, I got the chance of a lifetime. I got to “go back.” I got to relive one of the most special experiences of my memories plus got to have a miracle thrown in for good measure.
It wasn’t a Mark Twain moment, but it sure as shit was a Kasey one!