It was a year of Sundays ago…setting out for the mountains and waylaid by the Missouri. It is appropriate I should be reading Out West by Dayton Duncan who in his opening chapters talks of the Missouri and its people. He rightfully asserts that the Mississippi has no claim on the title of the divider between east and west, that there are forests on both sides of that river and settlement was less risky. The Mississippi is large with great width and more volume, so it gets its claim, but it is the Missouri with its massive floodplain and the geography of the empty plains to the west that rightfully deserves the title.
Duncan’s narrative should serve as a good read and is certainly more outward than my reading by St. Teresa, but even here there is a certain poignant inward quality as he travels alone trying to average only 150 miles a day. He talks often to those he meets, but on the highway he is alone. The book was written in 1987 and in the preface he thanks and says he thinks often of a Dianne Kearns on his trip. Later his travel writings would have him with Dianne Kearns Duncan and then later still with kids in tow, but in this book there are only the people he meets on the road and the lonely stretches of road gripping the wheel without company.
Where I am at now in my reading….he is only at the Missouri talking to river people who tell him even after the Flood Control Act of 1944 that made it possible to farm the rich land of the Missouri valley, “the river still holds the first mortgage on every home.” Following the Water Resource Development Act of 2007, which allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to return the Missouri to a more natural state, the river now holds more than the mortgage. In light of that federal legislation, Duncan’s rule of the road to avoid the interstate unless you are driving at night, should be amended to allow for interstate travel any time of the day when one is in a floodplain.
In the winter of 10-11, the Rockies received 220% of its usual snowfall. From GNP snowfields fed the headwaters of the Missouri and from RMNP the snowfields melted into the tributaries of the Platte to join the Missouri at Omaha. Rain was also ample across the Midwest and by June 15, 2011 water was gushing over the breached levees of the Missouri at a rate of 1.2 million gallons per second.
Things have changed in a year. There are no floods this year. The land is dry and very soon America will see higher food prices and the world less food aid. As we sit now in a summer of extreme heat and little rain, I wonder if there are those who miss the dilemma of 2011.
It was hard to look at the flooded plain of the Missouri and not think of God’s mercy born in water. Indeed we are born in water. We live in that element in the opening months of our lives in the belly of a creator even as we are reborn with its anointing that marks us as belonging to the Creator. The great feminine element is as necessary for us as the air we breathe and no life exist without it.
Yes in destruction is born mercy. God did not take from us the dignity of labor and the love of family when he cast us from Eden and neither did He permit the flood to destroy all life. At baptisms, I often hear a greatly sanitized version of the flood prayer, one that speaks solely of mercy. I would not so much mind the older version for it makes sense of water as a terrifying as well as merciful element. In that version, the congregation hears that God washed clean a wicked world in the waters of the flood even as He saved a remnant by which humanity and the creatures of the earth. In the next petition it is proclaimed that the armies of Pharaoh are destroyed in the river valley as the children of Israel are allowed to portage the Nile’s torrent as they make their way as sojourners to Sinai’s height. In all travails the prayer also reminds us the Church is the ark in which we are baptized in the element of life and rescued “from the flood of mortal ills.”
I do not know if Duncan is a religious man, but being aware of history, his travel must certainly make him aware of how mythic his drive was. The story of our ancestors is one of being led safely across the Mississippi and Missouri into the “deserts” of the Plains, over the heights of the Rockies and finally to the shores of the Pacific. No wonder we so often think of ourselves as chosen.
I look forward to reading Duncan’s account as he will now make his way over the treeless landscape of brush and cattle country to the granite monsters and toward the ocean. Such a sojourn is truly mythic.
First though I will concentrate on Teresa, whose interior voyage is, at this point in my reading, fraught with perplexity and building joy. And she is of course more intentional in recognizing the spiritual quality of her journey. But the point remains that all true journeys are spiritual ones whether they traverse the recesses of the soul or the fierce landscapes of the good earth.
Image: Missouri River flooding at the Mormon bridge, 2011