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Cycling to the Source of the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River flows through this book, interlacing with the bicycle adventures of Barb and Ted. The insistent energy, majesty and abundance of the river became a metaphor for the explorers who see what they missed before--their roots from New Orleans to Minnesota. The willful river's meanders encourage them to sample pecan pies, spend time with a mortician in Missouri, cheer barges through the river's many locks, and overcome seven broken spokes.

A Hard Shell Word Factory Release

Barbara Mary Johnson

Barbara Mary Johnson grew up next to the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri and never forgot the mystique of floods, excursion boats, fishing banks and islands for swimming. After thirty years in California, she and her husband Ted, a Minnesotan, bicycled along this Father of Waters from New Orleans to its source, Lake Itasca, Minnesota.

A non-fiction writer and journalism professor in Los Angeles, Johnson wove into her book, Cycling to the Source of the Mississippi River, folklore and folks, adventures and mishaps, and the couple's rediscovery of their roots in the Mississippi Valley.

Her other published books include Pilgrim on A Bicycle, an account of the couple's bicycle trip across America, which sold 30,000 copies. They live with their Lab puppy in California's Central Coast where Barbara is working on a collection of poems about--the bicycle.


"In a pleasant e-book--part travelogue, part memoir--about social mores, physical endurance, willpower and companionship, Johnson provides inspiration to readers both young and old."

Publishers Weekly

"...the story enfolds like a novel. It evokes images of life on the Mississippi: jazz, seafood gumbo, gentle Southern laughter on balmy nights ... heart warming and inspiring stories from America's heartland that keep the travelers pedaling."

Sue McGinty -- PLUS Magazine

Chapter 1: Our Tent Is Too Small

"Look, we can sleep right next to the Mississippi River." On this trip the river ruled. This Mother of Life and Father of Waters meandered and shifted, threatened and calmed, deepened and sprawled, deliberated and bubbled to shape our journey in many the same ways.

I peeled my sticky body off my bicycle seat, pedals and handlebars after our 80.3-mile day. The Big River Campground at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, promised us rest. Ted watched the jet skis zoom past traditional water skiers, houseboats, runabouts and fishing skiffs that crowded the river. "Looks great."

A boy about ten years old came by. "No pup tents," he said.

"What?" I wondered why he cared what kind of tent we carried with us.

"Pup tent?" Ted answered. "We have a $300 pop-up." Besides, in Ted's bike bags were the fresh bagels, cheese and beer to be addressed. We didn't need to discuss the size of our tent.

"Too small," the boy continued. "You can't stay here. Your tent's got to be six feet high."

I was sure he was wrong. That was ridiculous. Where was the manager? Ted and I were hot, thirsty, tired and aching for a shower. My sticky legs might stick together forever if I couldn't bathe.

"I'm the manager." A pleasant looking woman in a print dress arrived from the laundry center. "My insurance requires tents to be six feet so cars won't run over them at night."

The day's mugginess, exhaustion, and this woman's explanation, brought out Ted's sarcastic streak. "You must have a wild crowd if they drive though the campground at night."

Eyes wide, she looked hurt at his accusation. "Oh, no, we don't."

"We could put our tent next to a picnic table, or a tree," I suggested, "so no one could run over it." I offered other suggestions -- add a six foot flagpole to our tent, turn it on its end so we slept standing up, pitch it on top of a picnic table, shine lights on it all night, or set up our bikes as a barrier. I wanted to speak to her boss or the insurance person, the Chamber of Commerce or the press. Or sign a paper to relieve her of responsibility. I wanted to stay.

"There's another campground," the manager said, "that doesn't have this rule. It's six miles out of town."

I didn't want to bicycle somewhere else.

"Let's go." Ted was angry. "I can't deal with this legalistic crap."

I needed to tell this woman that tomorrow was my birthday, and how tired and old I was. Couldn't she make an exception?

"Come on." Ted was on his bike. He pedaled down the road without another word. After all these years together, I recognized the signs with Ted. The game was over and we were off to the showers, six miles away. I plodded along behind him. The late afternoon heat, glare, noise and confusion of the Memorial Weekend finale closed in on us. After l400 miles and three weeks of bicycling, I needed to remind myself that this trip had been my inspiration.

* * *

TED HAD said from the start that he didn't want to go. "Your idea sounds like this travel story." He had waved the morning newspaper in my face. "Dangerous, life threatening, uncomfortable, rife with insects and bad food."

My adventuresome backbone had sagged. I admitted all that could be true but there was much more to my proposed bicycle trip. "What about the joy of bicycling. The independence. Wind in your face. Euphoria." I'd heard my husband complain before during our 40 years of marriage and searched for magical words to change his mind. "This is the trip of our lifetime, maybe the last chance to bicycle together. Just the two of us."

Eleven years earlier Ted and I had cycled across the United States with 26 bikers for another lifetime adventure. He had detested the group rules. "Next time," Ted told me, "the two of us will tour."

Here it was: One more big bicycle trip. We'd pedal alongside the Mississippi River for our last gasp. We weren't ready to be counted out yet.

But he had nixed the whole concept when I presented it. At 62, retired seven years from his aerospace job, Ted had become less of a risk taker than I. "To bike the entire length of the Mississippi River isn't something I've always wanted to do." He listed his reasons: Six hours a day on a bicycle seat, the hassle of camping, overpriced motels, food and airplane tickets. "I want to go to Minnesota but your river route's hardly a direct route from California."

I threw down the gauntlet -- in this case, my fingerless biking glove. "Then I'll go alone." I meant it. Some deep urge pushed me toward this challenge. I had finally discarded childhood river raft fantasies for the reality of this bicycle river ride. The banks of the Mississippi River and its dream-like landscapes with real people beckoned to me.

I had been born in St. Louis but had ignored its river culture. With husband and three small children, I escaped from my Midwestern past to Los Angeles 30 years ago. Yet my father had predicted, "You'll be back."

Now the Mississippi's locks and dams, floods and freezes, hog farmers and river folk, Indian mounds and heartland culture of America demanded my attention. On this trip I wanted to see what I had missed when I lived there. I wanted to know who I was and where I had been. I was ready to take off my mask of transplanted Californian and embrace my personal history.

Drug peddlers prowled my former middle-class neighborhood in North St. Louis. Could I walk those familiar sidewalks, and visit my schools there? I felt drawn to family, friends and those old classrooms.

Ted, a former Minnesotan, considered the southern Mississippi Valley an exotic culture with its mint juleps, rebels and Ku Klux Klan. Because of my trip plans he had nightmares about tough Southern sheriffs: "One wouldn't let us bike out of town. The sheriff said we couldn't take a bus or train or anything. From a grocery store I phoned your brother. George came from St. Louis in his station wagon to get us."

Besieged by doubts, Ted watched me get ready. Our three grown kids didn't think my plans were too outrageous: "That's just Mom."

I wanted Ted to go with me, to share this adventure and be my companion. Such a trip might stir up our life as retirees. At deadline-time Ted said to count him in. "But I'm only going to please you."

The man I had married on a steamy August day in St. Louis still tried to please me. A warm glow flooded my body from biking shoes to helmet. But I didn't miss the dig that he wasn't going to have any fun on this trip.

* * *

WE CAUGHT the 8:00 a.m. Canal Street Ferry in New Orleans on Sunday, May 5 to start our bicycle ride on the western side of the river. The half-mile-wide sepia tide of water lapped at our barge-like ferry. Ted and I stood at the railing, muscles tensed, poised to begin.

"You'll see the snow in Minnesota," said the ferryboat worker when we told him our goal. "That's what brought all this water to us."

Snow? I shivered and leaned against Ted, my reluctant companion. Sure, there was snow and ice in Minnesota, but it would be melted in the 50 days we had allotted to get there. Rain, which we both feared to bicycle in, was more likely. A ten-inch rainfall the week before had flooded north and central Louisiana, closing 65 roads. The state police ran out of barricades and sandbags. "You can't get there," they warned, "unless you have a boat."

Few passengers shared the ferry with us. Our bikes with their bulging panniers, or bags, looked lonely in the boat's bike rack. The husky boat worker, resplendent in neon-orange coveralls, threw off the dock lines for the short trip across the river. Misty haze from the morning drizzle hid downtown New Orleans. The ferry moved against the pulsing 75-feet-deep mud-brown water that carried "every rivulet and brook, creek and rill, carrying all the rivers that run down two-thirds of the continent," as poet Pare Lorentz describes it in "The River."

Yes, our boat plied snow runoff from Minnesota's spring storms, and from Montana's mountains via the Missouri River, and from the Appalachians down the Ohio River. It all funneled through this river bed, a relentless 300-billion-gallons every day, and then out the Mississippi's mouth into the Gulf.

We docked at the swampy far shore. Ted and I wheeled our bikes down the ramp and turned north into a headwind. Why did we always seem to go against the current? "Oh, we'll be prayin' for you," the boatman called out to us. "Bless you. Bless you. Have a good trip. Tell the papers so we'll know you made it."

For a moment I almost asked him for his name and address so I could send him a postcard. But I reverted into the staunch wayfaring stranger who never sends cards, doesn't look back, and keeps going. Our lives brushed against his, and others on this trip, and I wouldn't forget them. The stench of dank mud welcomed us to the wet side of the river. We knew we were in floodlands from the sign: "Unlawful to track mud on highway."

"It's more like a river," Ted said, "than a road."

We sloshed through puddles. What was that line from the newspaper? "Dangerous and life threatening." Our river route started us next to a rain-swollen river that seeped through roadside dikes. I looked for the little Dutch boy who could plug the holes. The river level, which we couldn't see, crested high above our roadbed beside the levee. Was this something like being in a submarine, or what?

"In case of flooding," local residents advised, "head for the levee, the highest place around." For 1000 miles north from New Orleans to Memphis, Tennessee, 40-foot-high levees line the Mississippi River. Ted and I bicycled next to the 100-foot-wide base and looked for leaks or "boils." The danger was not so much from water overflowing but from the water "fingers" of geyser-like boils where water broke through. We couldn't tell where the water on the road came from.

Few cars drove our bayou road shaded by spreading oaks. Seagulls shrieked overhead. Sandpipers hopped between white clover and pink wildflowers. My shoulders tensed at each puddle and this splashy baptism of our bikes. "I suppose the water's symbolic," I pointed out to Ted. "Like the boatman's blessing. It's a ritual we can repeat at the source when we get there."

The "there" of the source is in some dispute. Explorers had searched for the Mississippi River headwaters at every lake, swamp or slough in the north until the mid-l800s. That's when an Indian chief showed Henry Schoolcraft Lake Itasca. Yet Minnesota legislators only recognized Itasca as the true source l00 years ago. To get there, Ted and I first pedaled these flooded roads. Or we could try riding, Ted suggested, on the leveled top of the dike.

We pushed our loaded bikes up the incline to a roadbed of crushed clamshells. Our narrow tires lost traction and skidded so we guided our heavily-loaded bikes with greater caution. The wide Mississippi, its backwaters, and main channel with barge traffic were spread out on our right. The water level lapped at the levee about three feet below our path.

River lore claims that this brown river water is too thick to drink and too thin to plow. But oldtimers like a Capt. Barney, quoted by the Missouri Historical Society, drank it for their health: "Every evening before supper he lowers a tin bucket into the muddy river, and when it is filled, drinks the thick brown fluid until every drop has vanished. 'Keeps my health a-going good,' he says. Filtering, he believes, takes 'all the strength out of it.' "

A peaceful calm, like a prayer, descended on our river scene and I renewed my commitment to bike along this river for the next 2000 miles. Forty feet below us on the left side, the mud-puddle road wandered by factories, farms and swampland. Spanish moss dripped from the trees and chartreuse-colored algae bordered the silent bayou. I rode behind Ted in his daybrite-green shirt and saw the greens merge. "Your jersey matches the swamp," I called out.

"Is that a compliment?"

Of course. Everything was okay on our first day, in this land of bayous, canals, lakes, intercoastal waterways and swamps. Few roads or towns cluttered our route through the five-mile floodway which separated the rivers, Mississippi and Atchafalaya -- it almost rhymes with jambalaya. We pedaled in North America's largest river basin swamp, 60 by l7 miles.

The nearby and energetic Atchafalaya River had once tried to "capture" the Mississippi River. By the l940s, that insistent river had wooed and won one-third of the Mississippi's volume. Seven hundred miles up the river in St. Louis, I had missed all the drama. I didn't know that this newly swollen waterway, the Atchafalaya, could have plugged the Mississippi River and doomed the port of New Orleans.

My front tire warned me of its own kind of doom, with a whine like a siren. The noise of the rubbing tire drilled right through my helmeted head. The drag from the rub turned my leg muscles into marshmallows. I whined, too. "Sonething's wrong."

I had not ridden my fully loaded bike with this new, wider tire before. Ted had installed it at the last minute to help carry the weight of my panniers "It's a tight fit," Ted had admitted. "There's too short a distance on the forks."

My tire had squealed a little as we biked New Orleans during our three days there. But my full pack of 35 pounds (Ted carried 45) had remained at our hostel while we visited tourist attractions and ate Creole food. I never suspected that the added weight of my pack (and perhaps personal girth), plus the extra one-fourth inch width of the tire, would derail me.

Our first day wasn't as idyllic as I had tried to pretend. Besides the rubbing tire, the toeclip on my right pedal had split. And something was wrong with my eyes. In the mirror that morning, swollen turtle-like orbs had stared back at me. I dreaded medical hassles, bills, and a messed-up schedule. Was it poison oak? An allergy? What should I do?

I ignored it and biked into strong headwinds that reminded me of warnings we had received from cycling friends. "Never bike against the wind. That's crazy."

"Remember," my friend Susan had also told me before we left, "you don't have to finish."

Couldn't we even have one good day at the start? I expected some times to be confusing and unsettling because bicycle trips were like real life. We'd have brief insightful encounters with river folks, cafe owners, motel mangers and campground hosts to punctuate every day, as well as mechanical breakdowns. I knew this but still my initial momentum crept to a halt.

"I can fix the tire," Ted said. "Look for a can." His Minnesota farmer-father had showed him how to repair things -- anything. Garbage littered a dirt road on the swamp side of the levee. I leaned my bike on a big red valve, that must have regulated the river somehow, and climbed down. "Plastic cups," I called out. "Bottles, paper and cardboard boxes."

"No cans?" Ted spied a pop can. With his pocketknife he cut a narrow strip of aluminum. "This will be the shim." He took off my quick-release wheel and placed the metal between axle and drop-outs. My wheel spun in silence. He taped my toeclip together. Day One continued as planned, and my wrap-around sunglasses hid my puffy eyes. Together Ted and I faced the wind.

We wanted to spend the night at White Castle, Louisiana. Its Nottoway Plantation offered rooms in the mansion at $100 a night, too high for our budget but I hoped for a nearby motel. I was intrigued by plantations. We didn't have any around St.Louis because we really weren't that Southern.

Back on the road, those mud puddles dried up and rainclouds disappeared. Cattle rested in the shade near a fence as Ted and I pedaled by. I called out, "Moo, Moo, how are you?"

One cow looked at this apparition on two wheels in helmet and Spandex, and lumbered to her feet. This huge animal ran. Twenty others hammered along behind her next to the fence. The herd raced with us for a mile. Our bicycles looked tiny next to this speeding tonnage of hamburger. Tails and ears and udders flopped and the stampede thundered along.

"Will the farmer be mad at us?" I called out the question to Ted who was ahead of me and even with the leader.


The 80-or-so hooves shook the ground like a concrete truck. No traffic passed by to see our ridiculous cattle run. Ted moved ahead of the lead cow by a wheel and a headset. She veered off and led her group into a barn. Silence reigned without another creature in sight. Ted and I rode on around the bend.

To follow the bends of this meandering river, we regularly confronted north-to-south winds. For bikers, and boat people, wind is an out-of-control problem that can't be turned off. Headwinds hadn't loomed as a big consideration when we planned the trip. Weather-wise, New Orleans in May and Minnesota in June sounded more important than prevailing winds so we started in the South. But these blasts tightened my neck and shoulder muscles, and numbed my fingers so I couldn't feel the handlebars.

Stretches helped. Some Louisianans looked surprised to see Ted and me push against a tree, keeping both of our feet flat on the ground. They stared and we stretched those muscles until tenseness eased. The wind currents continued to beat up on us like a tangible opponent. I became a catfish swimming up the Mississippi or a runner caught in wet cement. The wind teamed up with a noonday sun to hammer our bodies even more.

Cages attached to our bike frames cradled water bottles with top nozzles so we could drink and ride. Ted and I each gulped down a quart of water, which freed us from muscle cramps. Because of our sweating, we didn't need many restroom stops but had to refill bottles every l5 miles. Now we looked for water and lunch. Also, the pop-can shim had compressed and my tire whined again.

At Luling, a tiny crossroads town, a new restaurant sign announced its opening on Monday, the next day. The owners painted the counters inside. "Maybe they'll have some bread and water," I said to Ted.

"And peanut butter," he added.

A bouncy blonde waved her paintbrush. "Come back tomorrow. You can be our first customers."

"Well be miles from here by then." I hoped.

Her roly-poly husband pointed out a gas-station store, the only other place in town. "Sometimes they have sandwiches."

A sullen clerk there sold us two chicken sandwiches, with lots of mayonnaise and catsup packets. The young black woman showed no interest in our trip, bicycles or great thirst. Ted and I filled our water bottles and bought large l0K Thirstquenchers. He peeled the blue plastic seal off the top of the drink and stuffed it in his pocket. "This will make a better shim."

Ted replaced the flattened pop-can shim. Blue plastic did the job. The whine was silenced, mine and the tire's. "All this and looking gorgeous, too." I thanked him with this favorite, well-worn compliment of mine. Our daughters could make their father blush if they admired his bicycler's legs. Just another advantage of the bicycle.

And such a simple, elegant machine. It can be repaired with creative knowhow and a little plastic, and runs on chicken sandwiches.

"THERE AIN'T nothing for miles," said the man in Edgard Center, Louisiana. At mid-afternoon we had stopped at the town's tidy convenience store. After 30 miles of humid heat, Ted and I needed some conveniences. The man at the cash register laughed when he heard about our trip. His mahogany skin wrinkled around his eyes. "Glad it's you and not me."

I was a pariah in this swampland.

"It's too hot," agreed his friend, sheltered in the air-conditioned store, "and there's nothing out there."

Nothing to see? Ted and I had lived for 30 years with Los Angeles freeways and malls. The Louisiana swamp offered us a contrast. We prized its moss-dripping trees, and pulsating river. Sure, on the map the area looked empty except for the blue lines for waterways, but this Nothing-nothing land spoke to us of river lore, mystery and ominous beauty. "Our cops will take care of you," said one of the customers who turned to look us over. "They'll escort you."

"What do you mean 'escort us?' " I asked. Was it because we were white?

The black men were dressed in jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps. "The cops will look out for you," one of them repeated.

"Keep you safe," said another.

Safe from what? Our friends at home had urged us to take a gun or mace at least to protect ourselves. We had dismissed their cautious advice. But here the police looked out for us. Were they some kind of protective web, or the good-old-boy sheriffs that Ted dreaded?

We settled on the store's front porch, next to our locked bikes. I sipped some juice and opened my carton of peach ice cream. Several customers from the store followed us outside to talk. A young man on a shiny bicycle pedaled over. He said he biked to recover from heart surgery.

"You look too young," I said. His red T-shirt said Terre Family Reunion. Here in tiny Edgard Center? I pictured a big barbecue where kids ran around and dressed-up ladies fanned themselves and drank iced tea. Did his family have an Aunt Mildred to organize everything like we did? I hated to miss my own family reunion again this year, in St. Louis in August. Every year l00 descendants of New Orleans-born, Great-aunt Barbara gathered in Florissant, Missouri. I yearned to see my cousins once more, most of them with big brown eyes like hers. and like mine. Now swollen from my mystery disease.

Two kids from one of the frame houses behind the store called out to us. Their father brought them over. The boys, with curly eyelashes and black-satin skin, looked at us like we were celebrities. "You can take a bike trip like this," I told them, "when you're older."

They giggled and looked at our bikes. The owner of the store sent his clerk out. "Sorry but you can't sit here," he told us. "You could stand out under that tree."

Ted and I hadn't seen the "No Loitering" sign on the porch. I felt like an oaf. We had loitered. That wasn't allowed at the Edgard Center convenience store. Our entourage moved with us to the shade tree to discuss local roads. "You'll be safer," the biker with the reunion T-shirt assured us, "here on the west side of the river."

"Seventy-five miles of industry on the other side," said a man in a pink baseball cap, "all the way to Baton Rouge."

"Not good for bikes," Ted agreed.

I stepped on an ant hill and ants covered my shoes. The heart patient looked concerned at my dilemma. "Those ants bite."

"You don't want to stand there." This man swatted my shoes with his bandanna. I danced and shook my feet, all the way back to the bikes. We waved goodbye to the friendly group. Ted and I had our momentum back into gear again.

He spun the combination lock. I coiled up the cable and asked, "Thirty miles to White Castle?"

Ted checked his bike-mileage computer and map, and pursed his lips. "It might be more than that."