Meeting a Lady
I first met the Mississippi at spelling bees in grade school. To belt out the rolling, hissing tune of “Em – EYE – essess – EYE – essess – EYE – peepee – EYE was always an adventure. Then came Cole Porter songs and plays and a western movie or two, although my father spoiled them by telling me that the Missouri usually stood in for the Mississippi since she had too many modern boats in the way. I can’t say I had a driving need to see her (she’s always a she, isn’t she?) but something in the back of my developing mind knew we were destined to say hello.
On my first cross-country flight, I told everyone, yes, I was excited to be going Out West. But I knew it was my chance, at last, to see a great river from what had to be the best angle ever – straight down. I hadn’t realized just how high those jumbo jets had to go. Until we reached the dry air of the Rockies, I saw nothing but the top sides of winter clouds. I shouldered my disappointment – after all, I was still young, single and adventurous. There was time.
Many years later, I clutched the wheel of my pickup, staring with anticipation, aiming to hit the river at St. Louis, just below the Arch. I was trapped in a long line of traffic bunching to get on the bridge while big-bodied semis snuffled along ahead of me, creating walls I couldn’t see around. I saw my chance on a long rise. The semi of the moment spent a few bouncing seconds shifting into climbing gear and I shot around him, whipped back over and prepared to see a great river. Instead I saw a line of stopped-dead traffic below me, bottlenecking into one lane. The semi had picked up speed coming over the rise, but he managed to stop an inch from my backside. I kept my eyes on the car in front, not even wanting to know what that boy was saying in my rearview mirror. With shaking hands, I steered onto a bridge lane and sped along with everyone else, shying from the massive I-beams whipping past my window and trying to make sure I didn’t take the wrong road on the other side and wind up in some dicey dock area too close to nightfall – well, you get the idea. I still hadn’t really seen anything. A glimpse of water, some signs carrying the legendary name, and a lot of wishful thinking. I was no longer young, but I was single again, so I tucked it into what we now call a bucket list. I was going to see the lady of legend one day, come hell or – well, high water.
It finally happened on our trip for the documentary. It finally happened, appropriately, during Freedom Beat Across America. My companions were, by that time, thinking only of going home, but when I saw the welcoming place by the river, I ignored their puzzled looks and pulled in. I left them to suit themselves and walked straight through the visitor center to the balcony on the other side. And beheld my lady, flowing serene and wide between low emerald banks, under not one but two magnificent bridges, carrying commerce on her breast. I stood for a long time just saying hello. Nice to meet you. Finally.