I grew up in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Since this is a blog, most of you can just open a new window and google the town, see where it’s at; but when I am standing around talking to someone it’s a challenge, sometimes, trying to describe to people where I grew up. Some of you, my parents, in particular, know exactly where I grew up … right down to the corner they made me stand in when I was in trouble. For others, it’s a lot harder. People from Los Angeles don’t exactly explore the upper midwest, and can’t picture the geography.
Proximities seem to be what people look for. It’s good for people who know Wisconsin enough for me to say, “South of LaCrosse” or “Near the border of Iowa & Minnesota”. That can be pretty confusing for those who don’t know it though. For instance, it’s not out of the question for someone to ask “Is that anywhere near Chicago?” which I usually answer that with, “Yeah, sort of like how LAX is just down the street from Las Vegas.” Then I get asked about the town that has the sports team, and I am not sure if they mean Green Bay or Milwaukee – then I realize they think it’s both (or Chicago again).
More often than not, I try to use the ‘straight-line’ description. I’ll say, “You know how Milwaukee & Madison are in a straight line east to west? Well take that line and go all the way to the river, and that’s where I grew up.”
What is interesting to me is that there are people confused about the phrase “the river”. The problem is that I describe “the river” like there is only one river. Then I have to explain, I am talking about the Mississippi River, the largest river in North America, and one of the largest in the world – regardless of how you would measure such a thing. Granted, I this is partly on me, I have to embrace the fact there are other rivers, but I know there are other rivers, but none are like “the river”.
Most people who haven’t seen the Mississippi up along the Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Upper Illinois boarders probably picture something like out of Mark Twain-ish stories near St Louis. Slow-moving, meandering, muddy river that is fairly wide. Others might think of the Mississippi in New Orleans, narrow, deep, and heading out to sea. While the muddy and slow part is my river, the rest isn’t as much.
Where I grew up, the Mississippi is very wide and doesn’t meander as much as it took different paths to get where it was going. The Northern Midwest was carved by ice ages, so rivers filled those gaps the best they could. This means the Mississippi stays the course between ridgelines rising a few hundred feet over the valley floor. Still, it breaks into channels or sloughs. Small pockets of water or small river pathways are broken by low lying islands and strips of sand, swampy and smelly from constant debris hanging up on the shores. The largest channel is maybe three-quarters of a mile wide, but to get from coast-to-coast is well over two miles.
I grew up on that river, in the many ways I can say that statement. We lived two blocks from the closest waterway, a tiny passage that was a stone’s throw across – and we spent time as kids tossing those stones across it. While I wasn’t much of a fisherman, it’s not like I didn’t try. I remember a phase in high school, were to just get some time to myself I would throw a bucket, a rod, and some worms onto my moped and drop a line in for an hour. Wikipedia shows the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers just down the way from us, and I can remember long nights hanging out under a train trestle just talking. My first job was in a bait shop. My dad’s summer business rented boats. There are people who are rivermen, who are like seamen but on the river – that wasn’t me; I stuck to the shore. Yet I still grew up on the river.
Maybe I say all this hoping for forgiveness from those people who can’t visualize what it’s like to be so near such a great body of water. I remember meeting someone when I was in my twenties who grew up with the Manhattan Skyline out their bedroom window, and I thought that was the coolest … but I told him I grew up on the Mississippi, and he thought that was the coolest too. Maybe that’s what I am expecting, and what I am getting is something else.
I guess that’s alright. I mean, at least they have heard of Chicago.