Unless you are driving across it or flying over it or floating down it, it is hard to see the actual Mississippi. Anyone who had anything to do with the river discovered long ago that it was too powerful to leave alone, this huge continental drainpipe, and so the great engineers engineered the levees and locks and dams that reduced the number of ships that sank and towns that vanished--but also had the effect of hiding the river behind its walls and leaving the rest to the imagination.
As luck would have it, since the great American writer wrote the great American novel about the river and where it goes and what it means, imagination may be the best guide for exploring it. Otherwise you need both a boat and a car, maybe a canoe and a bicycle too for the skinny inlets and alleys along the way, and a lot of time and patience. We could at best splash in it a little, to see what it felt like, and what we might learn--and unlearn--by stopping along the way. It was worth remembering Huck Finn's lesson: the river is the sanctuary; the shore is where you get into trouble.
This may be especially true in an election year, for all of us who have listened already to months of debate over how to help good schools and fix bad ones, and nurse the new economy, and save Social Security, and wondered whether, if we went out and talked to a bunch of voters, they would be concerned about the same things the candidates are talking about. In a country where travelers lament that every town looks the same--Where's Taco Bell? Where's Home Depot?--it's easy to assume that no region is really distinct anymore. We're all online now, and even in Baton Rouge, La., the local doyenne observes, the kids don't say y'all anymore. They say, "you guys," just like on TV.
So we were surprised, everywhere we went. The more you explore the communities along the river, the farther south you travel down into the Mississippi Delta, the more apparent it becomes that this is still a land unto itself, defined by its colorful, bloody past and wrestling with a different experience of this present explosion of progress and prosperity. It is a land apart even from the region that cradles the early stretches of the river itself, the Midwestern states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, which reinvented themselves three times in a half-century, moving from agriculture to industry to high technology. Wisconsin went from making milk to making Harley Davidsons to becoming headquarters for General Electric Medical Systems, the multibillion-dollar diagnostic imaging-equipment company.
But farther south is where the country's two wars were fought: the Civil War and, a century later, the battle for civil rights. "Of course the war is not over," says our 87-year-old guide in Vicksburg, Miss. Now there is a quieter conflict raging, not on the broad political stage but in the particulars of individual lives. Along the river, people hear about the new economy, but they don't have a ticket to get there. Information superhighway? Progress here is a back road, winding, scenic and personal, but slow by the standards of a country in a hurry into the future.