Among the legends of America, the Mississippi River is one of the greatest and most enduring. It is the second largest river in North America, running from Northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, and for many years served as a natural boundary for the frontier and great wide-open West. If I’d driven so hard the day before, it’s because I’d wanted to get close to the source of the Mississippi, Lake Itasca. There it begins as a small stream, leaving a glacial lake. I knew about it because I’d been there once before, floating down it naked to celebrate a record I’d just made called Deep River in my Heart. The plan for today was a more conservative one, simply to revisit the stream and walk beside it.
It was only a half hour from the Hungry Man Forest Campground, where I’d arrived late the night before, in a dark spell of exhaustion and mania, stumbling to set up my tent like a disoriented child in a Grimm Brothers Fairy Tale. Now in the daylight, the forest and roads were easy to navigate. How could I have gotten so lost? The world is not such a frightening place, not all of the time.
There were only a few cars in the parking lot of the Mississippi Headwaters Center. An arrow pointed out that the headwaters were only eight hundred feet away. There were a number of exhibits about the history of the river and flora and fauna of the region. I made my way to a signpost, stating that the Mississippi starts right there, at 1475 feet above sea level, and flows 2,552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. My idea had been to sit right at that spot and meditate. Instead, I found a woman had shown up first and snaked my idea, so I had to turn it into a walking meditation in an attempt to walk off my annoyance.
A trail ran beside the stream, back in the direction of the Visitor Center. I stuck to that and counted my breaths, only managing to draw them to the middle of my chest. There was a small bridge that crossed the stream. I walked out and stood in the middle of it, looking down on it, only fifteen feet wide and very shallow, white stones breaking the surface, the sides of it cluttered with bushes and small pines.
It had been fourteen years since I’d gone floating down it naked, pushing myself along the bottom with my hands. Where had that guy gone to? All over the world since then. What about that record that I’d been so proud of. It had vanished without a trace, not garnering a single compliment. So, it goes. When you finish a project, you open up the door for something new. You need to look at it that way. If you wait around for results, you’ll die prematurely of a broken heart.
There were three reservations I was close enough to visit that day. The White Earth Indian Reservation was only forty miles away. I plugged it into Google Maps, and Karen began to guide me towards it. Driving west on the 200, however, there was a road work project that made it impossible to go left on the road she’d directed me to. From that point on, she began to harangue me, ordering to turn around or take a left at even the smallest lanes I came to. I got confused and began to argue with her. What are you talking about? I can’t turn left here. Are you out of your mind? That’s not even a road. By the time we got to the 3 south, I was seething, determined to shut her up as soon as the reservation was in sight.
The White Earth Indian Reservation, named for the white clay in the ground, is a thousand square miles, with a population of close to 10,000. They are one of the six band of the Minnesota Chippewa, or Ojibwe. In 1867, ten Ojibwe chiefs met with President Andrew Jackson and came to terms over the reservation, but over the years the government attempted to make it a catch all for all the other tribes, including some from their historic enemies, the Lakota. The Dawes Act of 1887 allowed the government to break down the reservations into allotments of land to each individual member, the surplus then being put up for sale. In this manner, many tribes lost a great deal of their holdings.
At a Cenex station, I filled up on gas, only twenty-seven dollars for almost a full tank, and got a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich. Just down the road was the Shooting Star Casino, offering Bingo, a Sunday Brunch, and upcoming concerts by Ambrosia and A Flock of Seagulls. The tribes may have been stripped of their culture but look what they got in return.
It was an hour to Bemidji from the White Earth Reservation. There I pulled over at Library Park to see their version of America’s first dynamic duo, once again Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. I’d seen them in California and now they were in Minnesota. If anything, that’s a testament to how much they got around. Across the street, in front of a jewelry and souvenir shop, a ten-foot shirtless Indian was raising his hand and saying How!
To get to Red Lake, the largest lake in Minnesota was another hour. I took highway 18 north to the Red Lake Reservation. The reservation is unique in that it never left control of the tribes. It is about 1,200 square miles and seven clans reside on it; those of the bear, turtle, bullhead, otter, eagle, marten, and kingfisher. I passed the Red Lake Nation College, stretched out beneath the wings of a giant eagle, and a veteran’s memorial, beside the frame of a sweat lodge. There was also a recovery center I pulled up in front of, a reminder of the plague that addiction has been, not only for the tribes, but for vulnerable, sensitive people from all walks of life. A hand-painted sign across from it said When you mess with meth, you mess with death. True that.
The last reservation I passed on my way to Duluth was the one in Leech Lake. It was created more out of an amalgamation of different treaties and executive orders than any one act and was also the site of one of the last major Indian uprisings in the northwest, the Battle of Sugar Point. In 1898, two US Marshals attempted to arrest a native of the Pillager tribe they suspected of bootlegging. In the standoff that ensued more troops were brought in and 6 soldiers were killed.
I’d contacted some friends in Minneapolis and planned on breaking up my trip by stopping there for a few days. In the meantime, I had one night to kill and figured I’d get a hotel in Duluth, get cleaned up, and organize the car. If it looked like I’d been living out of it, it was because I had, living in the driver’s seat, driving sixteen hours a day, up the West Coast, across the Northwest, now smack dab in the middle of the Midwest, following the Mississippi River.
I don’t know if I’d call what I was doing living in a car, but it was definitely living. That was for sure.