Friday, 29 April 2016

Geek Rant versus the Riverboat Pilot


As anyone who read my last post, of whom I humbly hope their number is not few, will remember, I wrote about mine and my wives travels in the backwoods, the highways and byways and small towns of America's Mid-west. Predominantly I talked about our visit to Galena, Illinois, but that was not the only town that we spent significant time in that weekend.

Ever since I started “courting” my lovely wife and first visited this country I now call home, we have engaged in a tradition of sending a fridge magnet of every state we visit back to my mother as a gift. My father instead receives chocolate mints (which he loves), hats (a Minnesota Twins baseball cap which has a subdued enough logo as to not look out of place while he walks the dog) and Wisconsin Badgers socks (which my mother makes sure he wears). It started with an Illinois magnet bought for some over-inflated price in O'Hare International Airport, Chicago. It now includes magnets from three states, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin, from a city, Madison, magnets extolling the virtues of the Packers fans and the Wisconsin Badgers and at least one cow based magnet from Madison's World Dairy Expo.

So with primary aim of finding another fridge magnet for my darling mama, we decided to head west from Illinois, cross the mighty Mississippi and enter the great state of Iowa.

As I have just said, Iowa lies due west from southern Wisconsin and a good portion of northern and central Illinois. It is named (according to Wikipedia) after the Ioway people, a native American tribe. Not that such a naming is unusual for the Mid-West. Its not really something people from outside the U.S. consider that much  but did you really think Chicago was a European word? 

If you took a quick drive around the Mid-West or simply opened an atlas of the area (or Google Maps if you're in a rush), you will find a curious mix of Anglo Saxon/English place names like, Rockford, Springfield, Spring Green, Dodgeville, Green Bay, multiple towns with the prefix “Fort”, Madison, Mineral Point, St Paul and Native American names like Menominee Falls, Waunakee, Manitowoc, Waukesha, Monona, Winona, Wabasha, Ho-Chunk, Winnebago (and you thought that was just a big camper van) Chippewa Falls even the state names, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, are renderings of Native American names. The pronunciation of these names coming exceptionally easy to a very British guy from North Lincolnshire. (Mrs Geekrant coaches me through the difficult ones)

And on top of that, there is one other culture influencing place names around the Midwest, The French.

The Mississippi: Voyageurs, Steamboats and Legends

It is fair to say that most people in the western world are aware that the French were a major colonial power and that they had a great influence on the modern day nation of Canada, but what I was surprised to discover was how much they affected the growth and development of this part of the U.S.

The French were the first Europeans to explore this region, as “voyageurs”, part explorer, part hunter, part trader, part salesman, they came down from Canada looking for furs and then later the Jesuits followed, looking for souls to save. They discovered the Mississippi and used it as a kind of aquatic autobahn to open up the interior of the North American continent, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Their influence can be seen far beyond their original sphere of influence down the whole length of the river. Names like Lacrosse, Prairie Du Chien, St Louis, Baton Rouge and, of course, New Orleans. These cities became the centres for trade and, eventually, settlement in the area. A whole region defined by the Mississippi.

In this part of the United States, the mighty Mississippi is still essential to trade, industry and commerce. It forms borders between states including the eastern border of Iowa. So when we went looking for a fridge magnet for my mother, we didn't actually go that far into Iowa and by not that far I mean barely a mile. We bravely crossed the Mississippi on one bridge from Illinois and then equally bravely retreated across it once again via another bridge two hundred yards upstream away into Wisconsin. And for the five hours where we weren't nobly traversing waterways we stayed in Dubuque, Iowa.

Dubuque was, by far, the most populated town we visited or travelled through that weekend. 58,000 or so people call this riverside settlement home. However, when we arrived, it was quiet, the traffic sparse this early on a Sunday. I was struck, not for the first time since moving here, by the amount of space that Midwestern towns seem to possess. No dense urban sprawl here, the buildings clinging together as if desperately fighting each other for a place in the sun. Instead, a wide and expansive sight greets the eyes, land is not exactly in short supply out here and everything feels somehow larger than back home, more open and airy. Here it seems, the dream that is the American heartland feels only limited by its own horizon.

We ate breakfast in a bustling cafe/restaurant/diner favoured, it seemed, by the locals. This, it appeared, was where the entire population of Dubuque had disappeared to. A local school sports coach, while in the action of leaving the building, paused for a moment to greet a potential new recruit, families came in and took up tables, 8 or 9 people at a time. Going out for breakfast is far more common here than back home. It has a ritual to it, the orders given and taken in a practiced shorthand as unique to the Americans as drunken demands for a spicy vindaloo in a curry house at 10 at night on a night out in Bradford, West Yorkshire, are to the British. It feels like family. If Ma and Pa Walton and their large brood where around today, this sort of place is where they would breakfast, all of them, including Jim Bob.

After eating, we drove into the Port of Dubuque. This was, and is, a river port. A way-marker on the meandering Mississippi. It reminded me of Grimsby, back home, or Hull, possibly. Only its at least 1,000 miles to the sea and there's no decent fish and chips for 4,000 miles. In the middle of the redeveloped area of the Port is the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

This, funnily enough, for a history geek like me, was the first large scale, purpose built, Museum I had been to in the U.S. It is split into two parts, an Aquarium with multiple marine habitats displayed, representing much of the Mississippi's eco-system. Otters, sturgeons, snakes, turtles, all swam through recreated roots of submerged trees or basked on rocks in sunlight filtered through large windows. In a water lab area, both the sturgeons and also crayfish, could be touched and an alligator stared languidly out from its enclosure. Mrs Geekrant, gesticulating wildly at a catfish that appeared to be the size of a small automobile, intimated to me that this creature and others of its ilk were one of the main reasons she is never going in the Mississippi again despite being born only five minutes away from its shores. I would have told her to get over it but for two very important reasons.

  1. I want to carry on breathing
  2. My sister has a Fiat 500 that I'm certain was smaller than that beast.

The other main building houses a museum dedicated to telling the story of this big, old, river. Prehistory, Native Americans, Voyageurs, Steamboats. River conservation, the affects of dams on water levels. Outside an old, steam powered, river dredger sleeps at anchor. Its day long gone.

Across from this riverboat sits a riverboat pilot, or at the very least, the sculpture of one. Silently he sits on a bench, gazing out to the river that defined his life and his words (actually he's reading a book but give me some poetic license). His name is Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or Mark Twain, as he is better known.

I remember, as a child, reading how Clemens took his pen-name from a phrase used by riverboat pilots on the Mississippi when measuring depth, Mark Twain denoting a depth of two fathoms. The Mississippi seemed so far away from me then, unreal and dreamlike, a legend on the edge of stories.

So I sat on the bench next to Mark Twain and imagined the great river winding its way down from its beginning somewhere in Minnesota, past the village my in-laws live in, over dams and through locks, touching a multitude of lives until it reaches the sea. And in my mind's eye, I picture all the generations before me who have used it. Proud Native warriors crossing the river to get home, Voyageurs, trading their way into the annals of history and the fabric of the land, Mark Twain, piloting his riverboat into literary fame.

And faced with all of this, who am I? It has been a long journey to get here, a long years wait to be with my beloved, waiting for bureaucracy to work itself out. Many months trying to understand the new world I find myself in, the people, the weather, the endless commercials for medical treatments on network television, the House on the Hill.
Who am I? Is part of my identity now bound up with all the other immigrants and settlers who have found their way here. Is my previous self upstream, never to be returned to and my future self downstream at the sea. I can not say.  So, until I can answer that question, its just Mark Twain, my wife and I and that is all I need for now.

(The list of place names in this blog-post is, by necessity, incomplete and overly weighed in the favour of Wisconsin and Minnesota. This is because I have only really seen this small part of the Mid-West so far. But I'm always willing to learn new place names and have my pronunciation of said place names laughed at.)

(Photo credit for this blog has to go to my mother and her skill with a smart phone camera.)

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