A reader who grew up in this area recently posted a comment, remembering her thrill as a child crossing the long bridge across the Mississippi. My first crossing of the great river is indelibly stamped in my own memory and has floated to the surface of my mind many times on this journey. I was seven years old and in the back seat of my family’s blue and white DeSoto. I can hear the rattle of the iron bridge and smell the earthy scent of the river. I can feel again how it stopped my heart and filled me with wonder and questions. I can hear my Dad teaching me to spell its name with the little singsong chant, “M….i….crooked letter…..crooked letter…..i…crooked letter…crooked letter…i…humpback…humpback….i”. In all the years since then, that chant still plays in my mind whenever I approach a bridge across the Mississippi. And the thrill is not even the tiniest bit diminished. In fact, it might be greater.
It might seem strange that a woman with a notoriously bad sense of direction would undertake a 3-month road trip. But, “getting lost” works very well for me (and my GPS pulls me back when needed). I have no clue how many times I have crossed the river so far – many times intentionally and a fair number of times because I got turned around and found myself funneled into an approach onto a bridge back to the other side. That’s just fine with me. I just smile at the opportunity to be suspended again over its breadth and to feel that combination of soaring exhilaration and draw into its deep mystery. When I have been out of sight of it for a while and it suddenly appears again, it makes me catch my breath and smile every single time. I am thankful for every moment that I am in its Presence.
Davenport, Iowa is one of a foursome known as the Quad Cities clustered on both the Illinois and Iowa banks of the river. I came here once several years ago for the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. (You can see some of the shots from that trip on my home website if you like – click here.) I met a friend on that trip; one of those meetings that, at least from my perspective, felt like a very old connection from the first instant. I had wandered into the River Music Experience, a non-profit organization dedicated to the music that is inseparable from the Mississippi River itself. RME provides lessons, workshops and live music venues for virtually every genre of music for every age and taste.
Ellis Kell is the Director of Programming and Education and although he was in the middle of “Rock Camp” when I arrived that first time, he welcomed me warmly and I enjoyed every minute we spent together. We have been in touch several times since then and there was never any question I would stop to see him again on this journey.
Over coffee, Ellis talked about music, what it has meant in his own life and the lives of others, from slaves singing in the cotton fields of the South to the urban kids and adults he sees in the programs at RME. And he talked about his daughter, Karli Rose, who died in a 2002 car accident at age 17 – and how he and his family and Karli’s many friends have channeled their pain and grief into helping others through the Karli Rose Kell Music Scholarship Fund. “You never know”, he said, “where the next Eric Clapton or Bonnie Raitt might come from. It just might be one of these kids who don’t have the money to follow their dream.”
After some running around Davenport, I came back to RME to catch a bit of the live music over lunch. It was a happy surprise when Ellis showed up again and invited me to lunch at the Woodfire Grill next door. Not only did I have the best chicken pot pie of my life, but there was the pure pleasure of meeting the owner, Toby Christianson.
As an infant in Korea, Toby was left in a basket at an orphanage and then adopted by a loving American family and raised in Minnesota. The Woodfire Grill is one of several restaurants he owns and operates and although he loves the work, he sees it all as an opportunity to do something greater. “I see it all in my mind right now, but watch for it – someday you will hear about ‘Eat Well’. When families have suffered some loss and have friends and relatives coming from all over”, he said, “the last thing they should have to worry about is how to feed them.” His idea is to have as many of the 400 restaurants in town as possible join him in pledging to offer free catering and facilities to those families. He is certain the program can then spread to other communities, and as I listened to him and saw the goodness and the fire in his eyes, I am too!
Although my bed for the night was nearly two hours drive away, I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear Ellis and two buddies, Tony Hoeppner and Mike Frank, play at a little Barbeque joint last night.
I wished I could stay for every note! Their talent, their obvious enjoyment of playing together and the original songs and old favs made it worth every second of the dark drive. (besides, I had some great new CDs to listen to!)
So, we’re in Burlington now – gearing up for this afternoon’s Oktoberfest – oom pa pa! Gayle