November 26, 1998
The Mississippi River flows past New Orleans like some elemental force, chocolate-brown, full of eddying currents, driftwood, flotsam and jetsam -- all streaming around a pronounced crescent at the old city on its banks, a mile wide and 200 feet deep at the center of the channel. The drainage of a third of the nation comes down this old Father of Waters, this river they call the Big Muddy.
Growing up in New Orleans instills a lifelong fascination with the Mississippi. I lived about 3/4 mile from the levee in lower Algiers. This 30 foot high embankment keeps the river in its channel during high water throughout the spring. I can recall walking to the top of the levee and seeing the river flowing fast and high, well above the ground below. And, from the ground at a slight distance off, one could see the big freighters and cargo ships going by, again well above ground level. I used to love watching those ships, tugs and barges steaming by, to look at the river with a kind of wanderlust for travel that it inspired, and to just be near this great mass of water, so intimately connected with the history of New Orleans at every stage of its development. There was something grand about that river. It made me feel that New Orleans was a very important place and its port an international hub for trade.
To really get the feel of the river, we would ride across it from Algiers Point to the foot of Canal Street on the ferry. These ferries seemed like very large and impressive boats when we were young. As they started out for the opposite banks, the mighty engines shuddered and and the ferry rattled and shook as it struggled against powerful currents in the process of building up the necessary speeed to make the crossing. Once it got up to full power, it seemed to fairly fly across those brown, roiling waters. We'd stand outside by the railing and feel the wind in our faces and imagine we were going on some long voyage. The crossing didn't take too many minutes, however, and we were soon berthing at the landing on whatever side of the river we were traveling toward. It was a great experience and a lot of fun. It really made the mighty Mississippi come alive, to actually be out on it. You realized just how wide and powerful the river is.
Growing up not far from the Mississippi, and acquainted with it most of my life, I've always been interested in traveling up to Minnesota some day to Lake Itasca and seeing its source where it comes out of the lake and is only a stream 6 or 8 feet wide. To stand there someday and realize what that small stream would soon become -- it would just be a very moving experience, I'm sure. Maybe also, I need to go back and read Mark Twain's classic, Life on the Mississippi. Or maybe take a steamboat cruise up the river to Ohio. Or drive up one of the river roads along the length of the Mississippi such as Highway 61 and stop in small towns and learn how their histories and that of the great river are intertwined.
Living here in Charleston now, I miss the river, I miss sitting on the levee and watching it make its way downstream to the delta 85 miles distant. I'll never forget that river.