Aimless Pilgrim Seeks Gods of the Mississippi... Find Me at the Source

Art Remillard

In early 2008, Mike Pasquier e-mailed me his proposal for Gods of the Mississippi, an edited volume examining the religious cultures of the Mississippi River. Mike only wanted my feedback; but what he got was my request to contribute an article. There was only one problemI didn't know the first thing about the Mississippi River. So Mike gave me a reading list. He also suggested that I focus on the Upper Mississippi since he needed some more articles on matters north of St. Louis. So I took his suggestions and, for good measure, I planned a road trip.

That May, I drove to northern Minnesota for a two week trek down the Great River Road. I started at Lake Itasca, home to the Mississippi's headwaters. Arriving in the early morning, I sat down near a rock bridge that demarcates the river’s origin. The scene was relatively quiet, with only a handful of visitors in view.

Then the school buses arrived. And scores of students scurried to the waters, as teachers tactically positioned themselves at the rock bridge. They instructed their pupils to walk carefully from rock to rock across the tumbling waters. I would later learn that the rock-bridge-walk is something of a sacred tradition. "I grew up thinking of it as a rite of passage, somewhere between baptism and confirmation," quipped one Minnesotan. I watched the children carefully process at first; then I witnessed a regression into pure chaos. In the blink of an eye, they departed from the rocks and shores and plunged into the frigid waters, splashing each other the entire time. The war of all against all was on.

Reminded that teachers are not sufficiently compensated for their labors, I left the headwaters and toured Itasca State Park, scanning the exhibits and talking with visitors and employees. All the while, my ears tuned in to the sounds of ritual activity. In addition to crossing the rock bridge, visitors often make a wish at the headwaters. They then wait 90 days for the results, since this is the time it takes for water to travel from Itasca to the Gulf. I also heard stories of baptisms, weddings, and engagements at the headwaters; as well as memorial services and divorce paper signings.

It was the stories of intrepid travelers, though, that most caught my attention—especially the bicyclists, boaters, walkers, and even swimmers who start or finish their journey at Itasca.

When I returned home after two weeks of traveling the Mississippi, my attention circled back to this population. The cost of their activity—physically, psychologically, socially, materially, and spirituality—signaled to me that their movements carried deep meaning.  I wanted to better understand the contours of this meaning. To conceptualize their efforts, I began thinking more about the practice of pilgrimage. In Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner identify the traces of religious activity in secular travel, writing "a tourist is half a pilgrim, if a pilgrim is half a tourist." Commenting on the American bicentennial, the authors discuss how millions of people had traveled to national parks and forests, both for recreation and "to renew love of land and country." 

While Itasca's traveler-pilgrims weren't talking much about national identity, they did use religious language to translate their accomplishments and transformations. One bicyclist, for example, finished at Itasca and remarked, "On the outside I may have looked the same. . . but my muscles and soul had changed me into a pilgrim." Punctuating this sentiment, she "baptized" her bike in the headwaters, "for a spiritual amen." When Eddie Harris began his canoe trip downriver from Itasca, he wrote, "It's not a Gothic cathedral, but a lovely little chapel whose absolute artistry you do not expect, and you’re awestricken." As he formed a bond with this environment, he also began relating to its history. Specifically, he recalled Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the explorer credited with locating the source in 1832 and providing its name (derived from the Latin words veritas and caput, for "true head"). 

But this was not the first time that the source had been "discovered." As I quickly learned, the story of the headwaters is one of discovery, discrediting, and re-discovery. On February 1, 1806, army lieutenant Zebulon Pike trudged through the snow to Leech Lake, and proclaimed that it was the river's source. "I will not attempt to describe my feelings on the accomplishment of my voyage," he wrote in his journal, "for this is the main source of the Mississippi." Then, in 1828, Italian adventurer Giacomo Beltrami published A Pilgrimage in Europe and America, wherein he claimed to have "found" the source at Lake Julia. Beltrami said that the "sublime" site of the lake filled him with "an almost heavenly ecstasy." Finally, Schoolcraft made the enduring claim that Itasca was the source. "What had been long sought," he exclaimed, "at last appeared suddenly . . . the cheering sight of a transparent body of water burst upon our view." 

As I studied the details of their expeditions, I noticed that each explorer relied on emotion to validate his claim. In other words, they used an expression of wonder to legitimate their discovery, rather than citing any empirical evidence. From this position of feeling, they confidently inscribed new meaning on to the landscape, replacing an old map with a new one. Indeed, traders and Indians in the region had long referred to Itasca as Elk Lake. In fact, they would prove insrumental in directing Schoolcraft to the source. But for Schoolcraft (and his ideological kin), Indians and traders were part of the untamed "wilderness," a chaotic landscape that required the "civilizing" force of America.

When first assembling my article, I had intended to make only passing reference to Pike, Beltrami, and Schoolcraft. I wanted to write about the Eddie Harris-types of Itasca. But I soon became trapped in nineteenth century quicksand, and thus produced an article entitled, "Movement, Maps, and Wonder: Civil Religious Competition at the Source of the Mississippi River, 1805-1832." Needless to say, Eddie Harris never receives mention.

But I do talk about the rock bridge in the conclusion. The Civilian Conservation Corps built it in the 1930s after they relocated the channel away from a marshy and inaccessible area. Yes, once again, the source found a new home, leaving the old location as a muddy memory. But in truth, the precise location of any headwaters is more of a guess than a scientific fact. Small springs from below and rainwater from above fill the lake, making it impossible to determine precisely where the first drops of the Mississippi form. 

The ambiguities of the Mississippi's source, though, matter little to those traveling there. In both past and present, people have found themselves drawn to the idea of the source, a place where we see the Mighty Mississippi's humble origins. From here, we can tell a story about ourselves, this river, the nation, and the world. I suppose the boundless potential of the source is what drew me to it. Only, like any good pilgrim, I got lost a few times along the way.