Thursday, August 13, 2009


Travel can be inspiring...or it can be merely exhausting. The kind we've done lately—commuting back and forth from Nebraska to the East Coast—is mostly the latter, which has had a negative impact on my blogging, but today I found minor inspiration in a highway sign. If the results are less than profound...well, let's just blame it on road-weariness, shall we?

I set out this morning from home: Lincoln, Nebraska. Rain falling in Lincoln ends up—either directly or by way of tributaries such as Oak Creek, Deadman's Run, Beal Slough, Haines Branch or any of several other streams—in Salt Creek (Lewis and Clark knew it as the Great Saline River), flowing northward to join the Platte River near Ashland. The Platte flows into the Missouri, which in turn flows into the Mississippi, which eventually runs past Red Stick and New Orleans before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

This evening I found myself at the headwaters of the Kaskaskia River, along I-74 just west of Champaign, Illinois. Beginning with runoff from the cornfields here, the Kaskaskia winds through the Illinois countryside (and its impoundment in two lakes) to its confluence with the Mississippi River—the French once had a redoubt there, known as Fort Kaskaskia—and so this water also reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

[To paraphrase Magritte: This is not the headwaters of the Kaskaskia River. This is a sign.]

[This unassuming pool of water is the first visible trace of the Kaskaskia. "8048", I believe, is the designation for the culvert under the Interstate from which the pool emerges.]

Tomorrow evening will find me in Oakland, Maryland, still west of the Continental Divide and therefore not part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Rain at my Aunt Shirley's place runs downhill to the Youghiogheny River, the Yock being a tributary of the Monongahela River. Where the British built Fort Prince George, the French replaced it with Fort Duquesne, and finally the British returned with Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), the Monongahela joins forces with the Allegheny River to form the Ohio; the Ohio, of course, flows into the Mississippi near Cairo, Illinois, where Union forces maintained Fort Defiance during the American Civil War. So Oakland rain, too, ends up in the Gulf of Mexico eventually.

We haven't even considered my old Montana stomping grounds—rain on the Eastern Front also goes to the Gulf—but, hydrologically speaking, this is a big neighborhood.

Most of us, most of the time, look at a map and see states, cities, major highways. But once upon a time, rivers were the highways. They had strategic as well as commercial importance. (Notice, for example, all the forts.) Americans up through the 19th century no doubt read maps in the context of river systems, a habit and skill we have mostly lost. We should get back in practice: It's still important to know where our water comes from, and where it goes—as well as what goes with it. A farmer growing corn in Illinois (or Nebraska, or western Maryland) lives both literally and figuratively upstream from the waterman in Texas or Louisiana; the chemical fog streaming from the wings of the bright-yellow crop duster I watched today will not necessarily stay on the field where it was sprayed. We're still connected by rivers, whether we pay attention to that fact or not.

1 comment:

Remchick said...

What a beautiful post! Thanks for sharing- safe travels!