On Monday, I chased after a river that I don’t really think about that often.
Lightning crashed on either side of me and a curtain of rain fast approached northward along the Mississippi River as I pedaled furiously toward the Chain of Rocks Bridge along the Riverfront Trail.
Let me back track: I didn’t expect this weather to happen. The forecast called for a 40% chance of rain and the Memorial Day bike ride started off with pleasant weather in the mid 80s. But a 40% chance of rain this year in Missouri may as well mean 100%.
Back to the trip: soaked, confused and cold, I steered my bicycle under a trail shelter with two walls and a roof as rain dinged off the tin structure. I was 22 miles into my ride, nervous and far away from home next to a webbed-looking bridge where two sisters were brutally raped and murdered in April of 1991.
I sat on the concrete floor with a 67-year-old cyclist named Mike, who also sought shelter from the storm. He was a nice guy who made it apparent that he was Catholic, a member of St. Andrew’s parish in South County, and a graduate of Washington University. We shot the bull about education, KMOX, and, of course Cardinal baseball.
The rain poured harder. Then, a man, drenched from the storm, walked into the shelter. Mike and I had seen him earlier on the trail, shooing geese away near a pond. He wore a tan ball cap, a worn, striped collar shirt, and khaki pants. The man, who looked to be in his 50s, spoke slow and his eyes sort of bugged out of his grizzled face. Mike asked him where he was going.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m leaving.”
He told us his name was John. He had been walking on foot since the summer of 2009 when he lost his job as a trucker in Las Vegas. John said he wandered through the mountains in Nevada before finding a Greyhound bus to take him back to St. Louis, his hometown.
John didn’t have a home. He’d been working part-time and, for the last six months, he was living out of a car in the city with a 47-year-old woman who had seven kids. He wanted to get away from her and be his father, who was dying in North Carolina. At the moment, he was hungry, en route to the closest Schnucks he could find along the 11-mile trail in order to buy some fruit.
John also seemed tired and lonely, like he needed someone to listen. Mike and I absorbed what he was saying and confided in him while the rain slowly let up and the lightning moved away. The conditions were improved enough that it was time for me to ride back home.
“Goodbye,” I said to John. “Good luck.”
He thanked me and continued across the bridge into Illinois. Mike and I biked through patches of rain and mud. The temperature cooled and the dirty river exhausted itself over its banks.
All of the sudden, three miles to the trailhead, we bumped into a mess of fire trucks, first responders and a KMOV cameraman. A fireman pulled Mike and I aside and asked if we’d seen a car fall into the river. We told him no, and I looked out to see a rescue boat, motoring up and down the water looking for the car. I shivered. Two days prior, a 54-year-old fisherman’s body was found floating face-down in the river.
On the way back to the trailhead, I thought about the muddy river, a waterway that’d held its share of dead bodies and abandoned cars, gave life to fishermen and guided the homeless like John to new places. But the river is much more than that. The Mississippi also offers shelter to those who sleep next to its banks. Slaves crossed the mighty expanse at night to Illinois. Native Americans built the largest city in North America next to the river.
St. Louis exists because of the big Muddy. Still, people live and die by the river. But inland county and city dwellers like myself seldom think about the brownish water that shaped our city into what it is today.
When’s the last time you saw the Mississippi river? Or, at the very least, thought about the river? If it wasn’t for this vital waterway that cuts through our country, St. Louis wouldn’t be what it is.
Maybe the history and importance of the river overwhelms me too much while writing this piece, but we are a river people. Sometimes, I think people in St. Louis forget that.