My dearest friend since second grade, Golf and I had discussed canoeing the Mississippi practically forever. How we came to this was a bit of a tale in its own right. Coming up, we had a couple of creeks. No matter which you picked; Flint Creek, or Spring Creek, after navigating through golf course, forests and backyards, you would eventually emerge, to the deep channels of the mighty Fox River.
The end of every journey was Johnson’s Dead End, a tavern situated on the edge of the river with many amenities. It was more than just a handy spot for disembarking. Most every stopover included an Old Style Lager and on a good day, a couple of pickled eggs from the big jar behind the bar. While a pinball game or 3 were sometimes in the cards, it was the conversation that followed these passages that was universal.
While we loved our brief local outings, we consistently discussed taking it to another level. We knew how these things worked, providing an understanding of how the streams all cooperated to supply the Fox with the water needed to sustain it, while in turn, it and its contemporaries would fuel the Illinois River and so on, until it all funneled into the great American waterway. We sort of envied the imaginary twig that broke and fell into the creek, eventually making its way downstream until it reached the Gulf of Mexico. So, that was that.
One day, we returned to the Dead End. This time with the supplies needed for a lengthier voyage. We were packed and ready. With an Old Style and an egg in tank, we departed to the cheers of our loved ones. And the mighty Fox was good- supplying us with ample taverns for friendly river gossip and nearby grocery stores for re-provisioning. Somehow, though, it was not good enough. We retained a steady focus on the Fox’s parent, the Illinois River.
We portaged around dozens of pesky dams, some little, some big. And the Fox was not as mighty as we thought, we were constantly dragging the canoe off sand and gravel bars. We could not wait for the deep flowing channels of the Illinois.
In due course we did catch the Illinois River near Starved Rock, and a celebration ensued. It was certainly bigger, with a swifter current to carry us along. And best yet, this was a proper river, with proper dams. No more would we have to portage around them. We locked through with the big dogs. Yep, we had arrived. What was not clearly evident to us was that the riverside attractions were thinning out. We likely did not notice, because we were getting too impatient to catch up with the granddaddy of American rivers: the Mighty Mississippi.
And meet it, we did. This was a whole different angle. Very fast current, very large towboats, and these crazy whirlpools that tried to swallow us. But we had graduated and were proud of it. We did not stick to the slow-moving water near the muddy banks, either. We cruised down the center of the channel as if we owned the place. And it was good.
What slowly crept up on me though, was this. It was big, and pretty mighty also. But due to a long history of flooding, there were no towns along the Mississippi. FEMA had bought them out, and folks moved to higher ground. It was just us and the barges, in the middle of this monster torrent of water, impatient to get to New Orleans, just like we thought we did.
The question is, though, was that the right thing to wish for? It was like comparing a faceless Interstate Highway to the colorful, crazy and unpredictably brash personality of Route 66. I came to miss the Fox and the $5 Tombstone Pizzas.
And this is like life. We are so eager to get on with things, we miss the beauty that surrounds us every day. So, do not do like I did. Get out of the car, take a look around. You may well find a treasure that you have been stepping over in your haste to get to where you think you need to be.