When author and photographer Gayle Harper learned that it takes 90 days for a raindrop to travel from the Mississippi River’s headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, she knew she had a new project: Follow the path of that raindrop.
That path became a book, “Roadtrip with a Raindrop: 90 Days Along the Mississippi,” full of photos and a series of vignettes. Along the way, Harper said she found that there’s something special about life on the river.
“The cultures, the accents, the foods, everything on the surface changes,” Harper told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Tuesday. “But what I found, there is something that just feels to me like river energy, that is just a warm, open-heartedness. That was consistent all the way. There is something unique, I think, about people near the river.”
Harper started at Lake Itasca in Minnesota, where the river “just springs right out of the side” of the lake, and plotted a 90-day path to the gulf.
“Other than where I was going to sleep, I didn’t schedule anything at all. I just let it unfold,” Harper said. “Every day was filled with surprises. I met people everywhere: in farm fields and cafes and when we were stopped for road construction — everywhere. And they just invited me into their lives.”
One of her favorite days, though, was the 24-hours she spent on a barge near Quincy, Ill. “It’s like the invisible industry out there,” she said.
“It was an amazing experience to be there in the dark,” Harper said. “Out on the back, we’re far away from any ambient light. It was a brilliant fall night, and the stars were like I’ve almost never seen them, and then they’re reflected in the black water beneath, so it was like being suspended in this star-studded space.”
Long ago nicknamed the Big Muddy, the river starts in Minnesota “pristine and blue,” Harper said. “It gets browner as you go farther south.”
“The river itself … starts out a tiny little fragile system, and then it’s sort of a wild and scenic river, and then, after Minneapolis, it becomes a working river because that’s where the first lock and dam is that makes it possible for commercial traffic.”
Along the way, Harper said she came to appreciate and enjoy the energy of the river.
“Life is intended to be this easy,” she said. “It’s really intended for us to just go with the flow and let it happen. After spending 90 days living that way, it was much easier for me to approach the rest of my life in the same way.”
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.