As I cross Illinois, I think about what it must have been like for my ancestors to travel cross country to where they set up their homesteads. The Norwegian side of my family settled in Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. I’m doing nearly 80 miles an hour in my air-conditioned Grand Cherokee – what was it like for them on a train, stage coach or horse? The Great Plains do not appear amiable – in fact, life here seems harsh – bitter cold and tons of snow in the winter and blazing hot and humid in the summer.
When I cross into Iowa, I almost miss the fact that I am crossing the Mississippi River. It’s larger than any other river I have crossed so far, and I feel an urge to stop and pay her a visit. I find a motel in Le Claire, IA and settle in for the night. I think about all the people in the past who have reached the Mississippi – my relatives as well as the thousands (millions (?)) of people who have made the trek West looking for a better life, land, gold, etc. How does my venture compare to theirs? Am I simply following an age-old American rite of passage?
That evening I visit with the Mississippi. I watch a barge push containers upstream and imagine the millions of stories the river keeps in her flowing waters. I wonder why I am so fascinated by this body of water. It hits me later: the Mississippi has as much symbolic meaning to me and my trip as it perhaps has had to the many others who crossed it over the years. While the meaning I make of crossing the river may be different than theirs (or maybe not), it is nonetheless interesting that the Mississippi has a describable impact on people.
My Mississippi crossing means that I am finally committed the journey I have undertaken. Never mind that I already crossed through six states and racked up just over 1000 miles. Never mind that I spent weeks preparing: subletting my apartment, packing, organizing my life so that I can be on the trip. My commitment to my quest comes when I visit with and put my toes in the river. Until now, I could have turned around and gone back to NYC. Now I know I can’t – I must continue Westward.