Tenting alongside the Mississippi was an journey


As extended rains begin to slowly refill lakes, reservoirs, and rivers, Thanksgiving thoughts return to the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth, where the Mississippi River, just a mile from our milk barn, was a constant, often dominant, presence.

Except in the late summer months, when everything around the farm—cows, mercenaries, and even the river—moved at a slow granny walk. This was particularly the case on Saturday nights, when nearly a hundred panting Holsteins and an evacuated milking parlor promised a sweaty session of steaming drudgery.

However, those lazy Saturdays were the perfect time for two young adventurers, my older brother David and I, to ask our overheated mom if we could “camp by the river”.

It was a rhetorical question: Two less pouting teenagers for dinner and another late night in a farmhouse with no air conditioning? The answer came quickly: “Go!”

Like most Tom Sawyers, we traveled light. Two cotton sleeping bags, a couple of frozen hot dogs, potato chips, butter, a handful of sliced ​​bread, a black skillet, and a half-dozen eggs was breakfast, dinner, and sleep. A rinsed out chlorine jug from the milk barn held a gallon of water, and of course we each carried a pocketknife and matches.

We never took a tent because we didn’t have a tent.

Ten minutes later we crossed the heifer pasture to scale the dam that shouldered the west bank of the Kaskaskia River. Our “path” was the dam and its greatest danger was a sleepy dry cow or two blocking the path. When Kaskaskia Dam married Mississippi Dam, David and I left for a short hike through a forest of silver maples, rattling cottonwoods, and swaying willows.

As adventurous as it sounds – and for us it was – the simple geographical fact remained that if we had walked back to the dyke we could have seen the milk barn, the drying cows and Mama’s clothesline in the distance.

Still, we were in the midst of our own kingdom, a vast sandbar at the confluence of the brown, sluggish Kaskaskia River and the broad, turbulent Mississippi. Here was enough driftwood for a nightly fire and acres of sugary sand on which to make our starry beds.

In no time we were Marquette and Joliet or Lewis and Clark risking our holy lives, used bale twine and fast-melting butter by walking through a forest of ancient trees, unfamiliar streams and hordes of hot-dog-hungry possums and raccoons.

And we were free; the kind of freedom peasant boys only felt when there were no cows or alfalfa fields in sight. We were privateers on a free-flowing river with freedom to go anywhere.

Except in the water. Our mother’s only stipulation to rid us of her tousled hair was that she not swim in the Kaskaskia, a lazy, oversized creek, most summers, nor in the wide, mysterious Mississippi. And we never did. Honest.

But we explored the nearby woods, ran barefoot through the sand, and sat for long quiet minutes watching the Mississippi flow around the next bend. Dinner consisted of hot dogs roasted on the ends of sharpened willow branches. Breakfast consisted of eggs cracked, scrambled and eaten from the pan and toast cooked over the still hot fire. Both soaked in butter.

However, the nights were the best. We’ve always built a roaring campfire to ward off anything real or imagined. We were often woken up by the pounding diesel engines of the tugboats making their way through the Big River’s strong current. Another time their powerful searchlights searching for canal markers lit up our camp like the midday sun.

The next morning, after more dangerous explorations of deep forests and less dangerous sitting on sandbars, we slowly made our way home. We somehow always showed up a few minutes after the rest of the family left for church, another sweaty event we never regretted.

Well, that would be a small price to pay, though, for two old men meeting by the Old Man River for another starry, lazy night of sand, willow, and memories.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Farm and Food File is published weekly in the US and Canada.