I was born only a few short miles from the Father of Waters. The Mississippi River is a constant presence in my psyche and my memories; always changing, always flowing, never exactly the same. It scoured and flooded our history. It was a demarcation line – so wide that there was us and there was them. You could barely make out a figure on the opposite shore. Were they really there? There were so many stories.
It could be beautiful, or it could be fearsome. I remember joyful summer days on the deck of the huge excursion boat watching the shoreline and the city glide past. The big ship’s engines vibrated as it made its way through the strong current. The river’s cliffs were made of red brick. Tow boats pushed barges up the river. There once were old warehouses that held cotton and furs – and a licorice factory. The old bridge made of granite and iron was built to last 1,000 years and it just might.
I lived as a boy near the confluence – where two great rivers flowed together. This is where Lewis and Clark, and a dog named Seaman, began the trip of discovery. This is where we ventured out, across the winter ice, to explore an island in the river. The island was big and wild, positioned where the Missouri River made a long, last bend toward its destiny. I remember the trees…massive trunks soaring skyward with piles of driftwood from ancient floods braced against the trunks. There were Snakes.
Still later I lived in sight of the Missouri River, named after a local tribe… the People of the Big Canoes. This was near the farthest reach of French settlement in the old colonial days. The river stretched clear to the Rocky Mountains. Some of the river’s water comes from John Colter’s Yellowstone and the old pathfinder was buried near here, on the south bank, not far from the edge of civilization in 1813. The sand glitters with promises of Colter’s mountains: grains of Granite, Jasper, and Rosy Quartz.
Now I live on a hill sloping to the Rio Grande del Norte, called so by the early Spanish. The same river is called Rio Bravo in Mexico. My Keresan Pueblo Indian neighbors say “mets’ichi chena”, maybe the oldest name, meaning Big River – Rio Grande in Spanish. The Rio Grande is a trickle by comparison to the rivers of my youth, but it is the lifeblood of the desert. Looking across the valley there is a broad forest of ancient cottonwoods following the river south toward the sea. We would not be here without the river.
The Navajo call the river “Tó Baʼáadi”, meaning Female River; the southward direction is given a female distinction among the Navajos. So, I have lived alongside the Female River as well as the Father of Waters. The current flows in my veins and I am anchored in the river.
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