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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | UNITED STATES

Ol' Man River, Head to Toe

Driving the Mississippi, From Its Headwaters to the Gulf, Is Uniquely American, Thanks to Small Towns, Junk Food, God and the Recent Unpleasantness Between the States

April 25, 1999|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Christopher Reynolds is a Times travel writer. His last article for the magazine was about heli-hiking in Canada

One late afternoon last June, as the undistinguished hamlet of Motley, Minn., lay beneath a sky of steel-wool clouds, a hungry, befuddled pair of strangers rolled up in a turquoise Oldsmobile and parked by the Y-Knot package liquor store. That was my wife and myself, on the threshold of something big.

We wanted to find the headwaters of the Mississippi. Then we wanted to follow the river top to bottom. If we covered the whole 2,300 or so miles in two weeks, we'd touch 10 states. Somehow, tidy, white Minnesota would evolve beneath our wheels into murky, bluesy Louisiana. But since this was a road trip without reservations, there was no way to know what we'd see or where we'd sleep along the way.

We didn't imagine there'd be quite so much God, so much junk food or so many unsettled Civil War scores along the way. We didn't guess that when the next two weeks were over, we'd sound like those dreamy wanderers who come back from India talking about how the weather was rotten, the poverty was staggering, the social divisions were bitter and yet somehow they can't wait to go back.

It was our first day on the road. We'd flown into Minneapolis and picked up the car, and now, with light fading, it was clear we weren't going to make it to Bemidji, the day's goal, or even to Brainerd, where we might have been consoled by the oversized statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Instead, we had Motley.

Ah, but once we'd parked and followed a few locals toward the mysterious lights beyond the liquor store, we had the Morrison County Fair, and we needed nothing more.

A volunteer bluegrass band picked and grinned. The worthies of the Motley Lions Club dished out dinners. A carny barked under a neon-lit Ferris wheel. Cautiously, silently, Mary Frances and I circulated in this note-perfect mid-America, marveling.

Hens, hogs and lambs huddled in the livestock pens. Ponies carried children in slow circles near the ostrich burger stand. The top dressmaking prize, a blue ribbon announced, had gone to Katie Jacobs for a sleeveless green linen number, total cost $10.59. And on the midway, a trio of teenage girls whispered and giggled while a tall, handsome boy, about 17, raised a sledgehammer heroically overhead and slammed it down.

Bling! went the bell atop the pole, and we all felt better.

Nobody was being ironic, nobody was being deliberately kitschy, and nobody but us was expecting Garrison Keillor to step from behind a curtain at any moment. After the fair, we found the Sunset Motel a few miles up the road in Staples, claimed a room for $34 and pulled the door closed behind us just as those low, steel-wool clouds let loose.

For most of the night, the thunder boomed and lightning glare flashed through our room. We were still about 50 miles short of the Mississippi's headwaters, but we had arrived.

*

I.

The Mississippi starts about 125 miles south of the Canadian border, where a narrow trickle leaks north, not south, from Lake Itasca, Minn. There, all summer long, Midwestern families pull up in Winnebagos to lead their children across the steppingstones from shore to shore.

With long legs and sure feet, you can cross that trickling water in nine strides. The water is a foot deep. It's hard to believe these are the headwaters, and, in fact, there is a bit of fraud involved.

Originally, the first few feet of the Mississippi ebbed through swampy undergrowth. But in the 1930s, a state park superintendent concluded that this presented "a sight that is not becoming to such a great river," and had the Civilian Conservation Corps move dirt around until the headwaters had been nudged aside by a few dozen yards to a more scenic spot.

The superintendent chose well. Shallow, calm water. Green reeds everywhere. Walking and biking paths wind around the water, a few state-owned cabins are available seasonally, and canoes and rowboats rent for $3 an hour.

"We make a pilgrimage here every year," said Tom Engelhardt, who had come from St. Charles, Ill., to laze at the water's edge with his 7-year-old daughter, Annie. "I've got pictures of myself doing the same dumb things on the same dumb rocks 40 years ago."

Then Engelhardt went back to threatening to toss Annie's Barbie doll into the current, so that some little girl in New Orleans could have her. We dipped our toes, then rolled out. And the long parade of tiny towns, lazy scenery and river industry began.

In Red Wing, Minn., home to one of America's best-known footwear makers, I bought shoes, which turned out to be made in China. And in Wisconsin, shortly after we'd crossed our first state line, Mary Frances suddenly yelped as if struck by sniper fire.

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