One foot in the mighty romantic Mississippi and the other in the good ole reliable Ohio.
I’ve crossed the Mississippi River four times now since embarking upon my RV journey. Each time, something tickles a tiny, unused corner in my heart and I feel like if I just close my eyes I’ll be transported back in time and onto a raft with Huck and Jim. Or a powerful riverboat with Samuel Clemens himself at the wheel. Or . . . Yikes! I struggle not to tear my eyes from the center road lines as I try not to look over the edge of the bridge. But the river draws me . . . dooowwwwwwnnnn . . . I look . . . And it is stupendous! Roiling, mad, muddy . . . Eeeeeeek! Back to the hummingbird, quick!
So at this crossing, after studying the map as I love to do, I decided to investigate the spot where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers mingle. Mingle, ha! The Ohio is toyed with ’til forgotten, while the Mississippi wends onward, solo, to the ultimate party in New Orleans.
Every time I look at this magnificent river, I cannot fathom how early explorers crossed it. But cross it they did. And with crosses. DeSoto wins the prize. He is history’s designee as the first European explorer to cross the Mississippi and, when he died in 1542, his faithful men committed his body to the river so that the local indians would not discover that the man was not divine.
Indeed, priests performed a vital role as part of these early exploration parties. “They were always prepared . . . to explain hell to the savages,” notes Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi. Here is one of my favorite passages from Twain as he accounts how, after navigating the Mississippi to its rest in the Gulf in 1682, La Salle claimed the territory ranging from Montreal in French Canada to the French colonies in Louisiana for King Louis XIV:
“La Salle set up a cross with the arms of France on it, and took possession of the whole country for the King–the cool fashion of the time–while the priest piously consecrated the robbery with a hymn.”
Quoting Francis Parkman, a contemporary chronicler who was an ardent fan of La Salle, Twain added his own twist to the scene (noted below in bold print), brilliantly pirating Parkman’s historical viewpoint into quite a different tack:
La Salle “stood in the shadow of his confiscating cross . . . (and) on that day, the realm of France received . . . a region of savannas and forests, sun-cracked deserts and grassy prairies, watered by a thousand rivers, ranged by a thousand warlike tribes . . . passed beneath the scepter of the Sultan of Versailles, and all by virtue of a feeble human voice, inaudible at half a mile.”
When Samuel Clemens was still a boy, the mighty Mississippi and the land around it was well on its way to becoming tamed. The Trail of Tears (1830-1840) had largely emptied the lands east of the Mississippi of indian tribes. The final stages took place as thousands from holdout Cherokee tribes crossed the mighty river a bit south of where Clemens was spending his boyhood, dreaming of riverboats, adventure, and romance.
By the time Clemens . . . by the way, he created his pen name, Mark Twain, from the call that riverboat men would yell out to let the pilot know the depth of the waters–Mark! Twain!–with twain being equal to two fathoms, or twelve feet. Anyways, by the time he fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a riverboat pilot, the vast lands to the west of the Mississippi had also been cracked wide open. The Lewis and Clark expedition in the early years of the 19th century had raised those floodgates. Speaking of which, in 1803 Lewis and Clark stood at the convergence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers before forging further westward . . . where Dawny and I stood just a few days ago. Just saying.
Dreams. Adventure. Romance. Tears.
Truths and half-truths. Sanctity and betrayal.
In the roiling mad, mighty muddy waters.
Roll on history. Roil on.