LOUISIANA – One-thousand-forty-one miles so far; 1,333 miles to go. Not quite halfway on their trip from the headwaters to the mouth of the Mississippi River, a pair of travelers found themselves in Louisiana last Wednesday.
The physical element of their journey is imposing — Victoria Bradford and Tom Styrbicki take turns running or biking while the other follows in a mini-van. Together, they’ll travel the whole length of the river under their own power.
That’s meant to provide an opportunity to engage with the landscape they pass over — and the residents of the towns they pass through. In each of the 104 communities the duo stops in, they are sitting down for free-flowing conversations about the river and the people who live beside it.
The original plan had the team traveling through the wide, flat country on the Illinois side of the river between Hannibal and Louisiana, but news of the tight squeeze of the old Champ Clark bridge prompted them to stick to the Missouri side.
At a table in Trimble House — and, later, on a tour around town — Bradford and Styrbicki learned about the relationship between Louisiana and its river: as a site of recreation, a source of dangerous flooding and a potential economic engine.
They were shown around by Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kristal Pitzer and Economic Development Director Maggie Neff, who met them at the Trimble House late Wednesday afternoon.
The running, the pair has found, is not the toughest part of the task they’ve assigned themselves.
“A lot of people think that the running, biking, is going to be the most exhausting thing,” Bradford said. “Absorbing all of the new people, taking the time to listen — it’s so much, every day, non-stop. And it’s exactly what I asked for.”
“The quantity, the mass of everything — in the plan, I didn’t build in space to process, to really rest, to circle back, to revisit ideas. We have to accept that this isn’t the time for that,” Bradford added.
Some stories they’ve heard again and again as they make their way downriver: the many towns, for instance, betting the river as a draw for tourists. They’ve also observed the wrangling over the management of the river — how one use or vision for the river can conflict with another.
“There’s no panacea on the river. There’s no one or two things we can do and everyone will be happy,” Styrbicki said.
Other things change as they make their way south. As tributaries flow in and the river swells it becomes a more and more formidable force of nature. It wasn’t until they reached Iowa that they began to hear from communities effected by more than nuisance flooding
They’ve also noticed changing cultural norms. In Hannibal, Bradford said, they heard their first “ya’ll” from a cashier at a County Market.
The trip is, for the moment, a process in search of a product: maybe some sort of book or artistic work grown from the experience.
“This is a totally pure science, pure art, opening listening sessions,” Bradford said. “There are lots of things we’re learning through the listening that bring up questions that we didn’t start with.”
Bradford and Styrbicki hail from opposite ends of the river: Bradford from the state of Louisiana, Styrbicki from the Twin Cities.
Sitting at a table in the Trimble House, Bradford shared a realization about her own relationship with the river that planted the seed for the project. Her family had worked as trappers and tow boat operators and oil rig workers around the delta of the Mississippi River.
“My family has been all in the waters of Louisiana throughout my childhood. So that relationship was always very strong with the water — but not really understanding what was going on environmentally with the river until much, much later,” Bradford said.
“When the BP oil spill happened, I was in Chicago, living there,” Bradford added. “That’s really a big part of what my family’s story is, providing labor to the oil rigs through their... shipping company. It just became real to me that I was a part of the story and I needed to be connected to it, figure out my place in it. That’s what the big question for me was with this project.”