Cairo, IL – pronounced not like the city in Egypt but more like KAY-RO
It’s an area perched on the invisible boundary between North and South. The states of Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas are all within 100 miles of each other and the accents, foods and ways of the people are a rich stew of these varied influences. It’s also a transition from one climatic zone to another, so the plants and animals native to each intermingle here.
Here, also, the Ohio River surrenders its individual identity and becomes part of the Mississippi, creating the border between the Upper and Lower Mississippi. The Ohio is itself a river of consequence, as it has been gathering water from its own tributaries for nearly a thousand miles. Mark Twain had said the Ohio water resists mixing with the Mississippi as long as possible – that you could actually see the blue-greenish tinted Ohio water clinging to the bank and trying to hold itself apart from the muddier Mississippi for a good distance downriver. I was curious to see if this was still true, so I was searching for a vantage point.
The land is low and flat here, so there is no possibility of a bluff or high bank. There is a bridge across the Mississippi and one across the Ohio, but none near enough to the confluence. Fort Defiance State Park lies at the very tip of the peninsula jutting between the two rivers and I had been told the Boatmen’s Monument there had an elevated platform that might work, but the view was obstructed by trees. So, I needed to fly.
A kindly man named Ron answered the phone at the Cairo Airport, filling in for his niece, who is the airport manager. Ron had access to a small plane with a window that opened and loved to fly, so he agreed to take me up at sunrise. The sky was just beginning to show pink when we took off in the tiniest plane I had ever been in. Our two bodies and a camera case maxed out the available space inside. The steering mechanism was duplicated on my side and moved as Ron moved his, so I needed to stay clear of that. The window opened from the bottom out, only about four inches, which meant I would need to shoot down and at an angle. There was a wing strut just in front, so my field of clear view was pretty narrow. But, “Freedom is Flying” was painted in large red letters on the side of the plane and whatever happened would be perfect.
The window kept blowing shut at first, but Ron reached across and somehow fixed that. Later, though, the handle actually fell off and we watched in wide-eyed horror as it tumbled toward the ground. Fortunately, we were over an empty field, so no harm done. Between the noise of the engine and the wind, there was no chance of hearing each other, so we communicated by gestures. I would see something I liked and pantomime how I’d like to approach it and he would grin and put me there. The morning was glorious and we were both having great fun!
It turned out that it was indeed possible to see the different colors of the two rivers and the long, gradual blending of the waters. It was mid-April and the fields were that impossibly green shade of new growth and the first rays of morning sun were casting long, soft shadows from the trees. The two rivers arched into each other gracefully from this perspective in long, sinuous curves, like dancers striking a pose. When I saw a tug pushing its massive load of barges upriver and the water around it sparkling in the warm light, my heart raced and I gestured excitedly to Ron. He nodded and maneuvered us into position. I got the shot I wanted, thumped him on the back and gave him a big “thumbs up”.
On the way back to the tiny airport, there was a smile coming from my heart, not just because of the photography, but because of this shared, wordless experience of watching the sun awaken the earth from the vantage point of the sky. When I glanced at Ron, I saw the same little smile tweaking the corner of his mouth. Another day on the Great River Road….