River Journey

By: Paula Hendricks


From the industrial north to the bayous of Louisiana.

The second leg of my trip seemed to be about more anxiety and more car trouble. Tornadoes were touching down where I had been (they flattened a town in South Dakota), where I was (6 touched down in Pittsburgh the day I was visiting), and where I was going (one hit Natchez just days before I arrived). Makes me wonder what kinds of energies I've been stirring up for myself.

This third leg may be about undercurrents - what can be seen with my eyes and my camera and what can be seen only by just driving through and opening all my other senses as well.

I followed two of the mighty rivers in the heart of the USA - the Ohio and the Mississippi - from the industrial north, down to the bayous and the delta at New Orleans. I wanted to float down the river. I wanted to experience the river from the river itself. I wanted to find a barge that would take me and my car down the river. I didn't find what I wanted, so I drove, making the journey under my own power/ my own steam. Driving however allows me to to soak up the countryside along paths taken by my ancestors on their way to California.

I left "Steel Valley" (Weirton, WV/ Steubenville, OH), went to Madison, IN (on the Ohio), where one of my "great uncles," Billy, started his journey to California. The river opens the landscape - from forested bluffs and hills on both sides - and I saw more sky. Perhaps Uncle Billy just wanted to follow the river west, to seek new possibilities. It doesn't seem so powerful at first - it is flat, brown, apparently slow moving. But sit for a minute and the inherent importance of the river becomes obvious. At no time did I look at the river and not see signs of commerce - steel plants, barges, ferries or railroad sidings.

Onward - to Cairo, IL. A fantasy place for me - I'd imagined the view I could have of the merging of these two great rivers from this little spit of land. I'd seen the red dot for Cairo on maps since I was a kid - I was finally going to see this special place where the Ohio merges with the Mississippi.

It was a disappointment initially. On a visual level I couldn't capture this place with my camera. It's too big, too wide, too flat. I couldn't get perspective from the road, from Cairo. But I know what is happening here, how powerful this place is - and I can hear Mark Twain's words flowing down from Hannibal, and the voices of the South beckoning me onward. Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Anne Rice.

The Mississippi River has always been important - from agriculture to transportation and strategically vital during war. It has been called the lifeblood of these states. My sense of the river is its importance has been dwindling, that somehow this great river really isn't so great anymore. But driving along the river mile after mile dispels this impression. And there's new life on Old Man River today. Driving on two lane roads south of Memphis, where the land looks fertile, casinos sprout like surreal castles. They rise out of the delta and traffic magically increases. The river is alive with riverboat casinos. It is, again, bringing gold to these rural communities.

I keep driving, down to Vicksburg and Natchez, down to the bayous... and New Orleans. This is a world of water. It is subject, in great measure, to nature's whims. It consists of waterways that change over time from the flow of the river and the force of the winds. What I see today may very well not be there in a year. There is more water than land here and many who live on the bayous use boats like I use my car. And for those of us with cars, we have to deal with all this water via bridges, causeways over bays and inlets, ferries, levees, raised highways.

The sense of more, of layers, of needing and trusting all of your instincts is very powerful here. Maybe it's powerful everywhere, but, like these navigable rivers and the bayous - there is much here that is not seen and not easily captured.

Comments welcome.

Paula Hendricks is a freelance writer/photographer living in Corrales, New Mexico. She owns paula hendricks & associates, a web development firm.