Where I come from, the Mississippi River runs west. I know where it starts and have, in fact, walked right over that stream that trickles out of Lake Itasca in Minnesota, only to widen and grow in size and depth and sheer immensity.
Of course you know the Mississippi is the largest river in the United States. Just look it up – the U.S. Geological Service says so, and I believe anything they say, because my son has a degree in geology. It’s just that if you, unlike me, grew up in Dubuque, you probably think it’s a north to south river. And it is; I believe you. I know how to read a map. But if you go to my hometown, Davenport, and stand on the levee facing the Mississippi, your arms straight out, your left arm is going to be pointing east, while your right arm faces west.
So you’ll have to forgive me for growing up just a little bit geographically confused. This is something you would think our science teachers might have told us, as a point of amusement as well as fact. They could have asked, “Hey, kids, which way does the river go?” and those of us who understood the four points of the compass (all six of us) would have called out “East!” or “West!” or maybe “East and west!” Then the teacher could have burst our bubble by pulling down the map and asking, as she drew her pointer mostly from top to bottom, “Well then, how do you account for this?”
But that never happened. Not only that, but no math teacher ever thought to mention that, if we had all our shots, chances were pretty darn good we would live to see the year 2000. But nooo. That sort of snuck up on us (or, okay, on me) as people started panicking about Y2K, something we should all remain totally embarrassed about.
Anyway, my husband, Bob, and I took a trip to my hometown not long ago. It was Labor Day weekend, and we needed a little getaway. We tucked some subs from Pickle Barrel into the cooler and headed south.
It had been a while since we’d been there. When my sister was still living there, I drove down fairly often to see her, and attend care conferences about her, and to check on the junk in her storage unit. I’m her guardian, after all. But after she moved to a psychiatric nursing home in Keokuk, Davenport became a town we mostly bypassed. Now a trip to see her takes three hours each way, and we’re much more likely to take old 218 home so we can stop in Iowa City for a meal and a visit to Prairie Lights.
When we started dating, I forced Bob to take the Pam Kress Memorial Tour more than once, pointing out the houses my parents and grandparents lived in, the three schools I attended, and, cruelly, the parks where I made out with my alarmingly long list of boyfriends. I had no pity on the poor guy.
So this time, I tried really hard to come up with some new places to visit. Two of them were parks, and while I know Dubuque is quite the town of parks, Davenport isn’t too shabby itself. Or rather, it kind of used to be. The same parks were there, but when I went to visit them after being away in Colorado for nearly a decade, they looked decidedly neglected. The picnic tables needed painting; the plants looked overgrown. The downtown looked nothing like Dubuque’s spiffy new upgrade, despite the presence of a big casino that sits, I must point out, right on the river.
So I was a little bit worried when I started giving him directions to Credit Island, my park of choice for eating our lunch. We’d driven by it on our way to Keokuk, before we found the bypass, and just seeing the entrance really took me back. Not to the days of boyfriends, but much earlier, when my family would go with aunts and uncles to eat and walk and talk. I was heartened when I saw the sign announcing it’s now a National Historic Preserve.
I gasped as we drove in, because one of the things it seemed to be preserving is Great Egrets. I looked them up later to be sure they weren’t Wood Storks or Snowy Egrets (but isn’t that a wonderful name?).
I love birds, the more outlandish the better, and I’m always on the lookout for one of Dubuque’s Great Blue Herons scissoring through the sky. But I’d only seen glimpses of egrets on drives through Wisconsin. There at Credit Island, in the pond just by the entrance, there must have been two dozen. And only a little further on, we could watch the Mississippi sparkle in the sun as we ate. Perfect.
The next day, we went to Vanderveer Park, a pretty rectangle surrounded by stately old houses, where ducks and geese hang out in the pond that used to host ice skaters. It’s been spiffed up, too, and the fountain with the colored lights sprays water up high in the warm months.
It’s the Great Egrets I’ll remember best. Who knew they were hanging out in my hometown? Mom and Dad would have loved the way they stood on their long legs, watching to spear their next meal, looking like tai chi practitioners stopped in mid-pose. So I found something new in the town I’ve known for a really long time. See? You can go home again. Sometimes it welcomes you back with a surprise.