College Spring

This picture, man. It captures so many aspects Carleton. First, the greens and blues of the trees, grasses, water, and sky! It’s easy to forget the unusual gorgeousness of campus – true in all seasons but especially pronounced in the spring.

Second, there’s the island in the middle of the scene: Mai Fête Island, site of dance parties and general merriment in the 1920s and 1930s. Now it’s a quiet picnic spot, occupied in this shot by two of the geese that take over the Lyman Lakes (really just a wide spot in Spring Creek as it flows toward the Cannon River) and some gorgeously mature trees. Plus naturally one of the college’s three-bin trash/recycling/compost containers. 

In the distance, the Recreation Center and, beyond it, the highest spot on campus, the college’s shiny water tower, with its bright blue C on each side. The trees of the Arboretum run north and east from those two landmarks. More green, and onmy maybe a third of the  way to the plush verdance they’ll display in a few months. 

In the foreground, the east-reaching branches of the gnarled old oak that clings to the hillside above the lakes, a newish paved path intended to keep students from using the shoulder of the highway to walk from campus proper to the Rec, and a disc golf goal. I don’t think I’ve seen more than ten people playing disc golf there in my ten years of waking the route. 

Just out of the left side of the frame is a functional tin-can telephone. Some student installed it a couple weeks ago, bolting one terminal to a fence along the sidewalk running next to the oak. You can just baaaaaaarely see the yellow line running over the water just above the lowest oak branch down to a post on Mai Fête. So bizarre and so Carleton. I have to find the time and a partner to try it out.  

Companionship in extremis

(Warning: contains confession of possible craziness.)

In a short essay on the Adventure Journal website, Erin Windauer describes the occasional but not rare sense of athletes, adventurers, and others that they are in the presence of someone or something which is benevolent or reassuring but which isn’t actually *there*.

Ernest Shackleton’s epic tale of survival after the sinking of his ship the Endurance in Antarctic waters is well known, but less known is what he and two of his companions experienced after they made their way by open boat, above, to South Georgia Island and trekked across to a whaling station to find salvation. Each of the three felt the presence of someone with them: “During that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia,” wrote Shackleton in his memoir, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

Though I don’t quite see the link between this sensation and the lab experiments summarized in Windauer’s piece, I can’t stop thinking about the phenomenon, which is one I’ve experienced in some of my winter races.

I didn’t even know that my feeling of being… joined? guided? accompanied? was a thing; I just chalked it up to being hungry, cold, and exhausted. And yes, all those stressors might have contributed to my sense that *something* was with me while I rode and walked off Two Top on January 8, thirty-six hours into the Fat Pursuit.  

But still: to have that experience in common with Shackleton is strangely satisfying.

Wicked River Read

For my birthday, Shannon gave me Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, by the late Chicago writer Lee Sandlin. The book is best described as a history of the Lower Mississippi, focusing on the chaos and violence of the first century of white efforts to settle the river. As a Minnesotan, I was a little disappointed that the book didn’t include anything substantial on the river north of St. Louis – our own saint-named river town has a crazy history that’s worth knowing, as does its bigger, more serious sibling. (Sandlin does mention that the river, like its source state, gets its name from its native denizens – in this case, an Ojibwe term – Mizu-ziipi – for “very big river.”)

But man, does Sandlin make the most of his focus on the lower Mississippi, telling no end of amazing stories about the river as a highway, as a border, as a battlefield, and as a natural wonder. In a set piece early in the book (pp. 12-16), he sails with the reader from the evergreen forests around Lake Itasca down the infamously winding river to the trackless swamps near the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a wonderful passage, as evocative and mournful of the best John McPhee. What a journey that would have been in 1800 or 1700. To have seen the bison herds right up along the river!

In describing the river’s many faces and uses, Sandlin focuses – as the title suggests – on the untamed nature and people that, he says, characterized the Mississippi before the Civil War. Among others, he discusses pirates, traders, gamblers, soldiers, settlers, missionaries, sinners, and both the slaveowners and the enslaved – most of whom encountered or caused trouble, if not disaster, on the river. A long section on lower-river slaveowners’ terror about slave rebellions rings some familiarly contemporary notes of violence and paranoia.

The chapter on the 1863 siege of Vicksburg could have served as the emblem of human experience on the river – a horrific battle that ended in a Union victory, splitting the Confederacy and contributing to the Union’s victory two years later – but instead Sandlin provides an even more awful climax. Just a day after Lincoln’s assassination, a horrifically overloaded river steamboat, the Sultana, suffered a boiler explosion near Memphis and sank. Thrown into the river, 1,700 passengers died, including hundreds of Union troops traveling north from prison camps in the Confederacy.

The Mississippi did not need to sink steamboats to do damage to the people living on and around it, though. In some of my favorite parts of the book, though, Sandlin describes some of the jawdropping natural disasters on and around the river, like a massive tornado that struck Natchez, Mississippi, 1840. He has a great chapter on the amazing New Madrid earthquakes, which were probably the largest earthquakes in U.S. history – so big that they created temporary waterfalls on the river.

The Mississippi’s quintessential natural disaster, though, was flooding – a calamity that recurs throughout the book. The federal government’s post-Civil War efforts to control the floods led, Sandlin says, to the end of the river’s “wild” age. The Sultana‘s death toll in 1865 was so high, in fact, because the river was running high and cold with spring meltwater. Even more cinematically, Sandlin describes a bizarre episode in February 1856, when a brief thaw interrupted an unusually cold winter. At St. Louis, the melt freed a giant ice floe, which then smashed along the city’s famous levee, crushing forty steamboats and countless smaller vessels:

“The day was bitterly cold, and the pieces soon froze into place. By evening the levee had been covered over by ice; by morning there was a mountain range of ice twenty feet high. People peering into it could see the wreckage of the steamboats–the railings and chandeliers, the gambling tables and the wine goblets–preserved within the gleaming shadows of the ice mountains, where it would remain until the spring thaw came.”

Unbelievable, and yet completely in keeping with the character of wild river that Sandlin describes.


Postscript: I noted that Sandlin wrote several other books focused on the Midwest, and thought immediately that they’d be good to read. Then I saw online that he died unexpectedly in 2014. Why does this make me so sad?