Popeye, the beloved spinach-guzzling sailor, was born in Chester, Illinois, in the mind of native son, Elzie Segar, who was himself born here in 1894. Popeye and Wimpy, the hamburger fiend, were reportedly based on real life Chester characters and Chester has not forgotten! There is an annual Popeye Picnic, Popeye statue, park and murals, and a “Spinach Can Collectibles” store with more Popeyes and Olive Oyls than I ever imagined existed!
After 52 days on the road, I was in need of just the kind of super-rejuvenation that crusty old sailor got from popping his can of spinach. I was long overdue to wash my car, do laundry, catch up on emails and back up images. Plus, I was craving some “riverbank time”, to just sit, watch and listen. I found all of that in Chester.
Sandra Starr had invited me to stay with her at the Stone House B&B, perched high on a bluff overlooking the river. The beautiful setting, our conversations and the great food worked wonders (way better than a can of spinach could have done!). Recharged, I was ready to meet the next sunrise!
A reader recently wrote to share some childhood memories of visiting her grandparents in an Iowa town on the Mississippi. Going “uptown to get the mail” with grandpa was a social event and all the old gents passing time at the post office greeted each other not with the usual comment on the weather, but with an assessment of the mood of the river that morning. She remembers hearing, “The Mississippi is always a woman, but not always a lady.” (I love that one!) Or they might say, “She’s ridin’ pretty high this mornin’”, or “She’s smooth as a baby’s bottom today.”
When I paused beside the Chester bridge to say good morning to the river, the surface was indeed “smooth as a baby’s bottom” and the soft colors of the pre-dawn light shimmered and glowed quietly. I know that if you watched a lifetime of riverside sunrises and sunsets, no two would ever be the same. I am thankful for every opportunity.
In stark contrast to the high bluffs and hills on the Illinois shore, the land on the Missouri side is flat and low in this area. The last lock and dam on the river was at Granite City, Illinois, near St. Louis. Most towns south of that point have built levees and floodwalls to protect against flooding. In some places, it is possible to drive out on top of the levees and it’s one of my favorite places to be. Sometimes they are steep and narrow and turning around can require a 10 or 12-point turn, but they offer great vantage points for fields of rich bottom land and backwater bayous.
The Mississippi constantly changes, creating new channels, land locking some towns and moving toward others. Its power is incontrovertible and it will periodically remind us of its supremacy. Mark Twain once said, “The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise…” That power can be heard and felt when you sit quietly beside it. Sometimes it is deep in a whisper and sometimes it seems to roar inside your head, but always it puts things in perspective and washes trivial concerns away. The next time you cross a bridge over the Mississippi, look for a road that will take you to its banks and when you find it, sit and be open to what she has to say to you. It is a gift you will treasure. Peace, Gayle