I've managed to get there in almost every one of the last 30 years. When I reach the point on the Great River Road just at the crest of the hill above Red Wing and see the valley stretching wide below I am sure all over again that there is no sight quite like it.
There it is, just as Mark Twain described it, glinting in the sun, "the shining river, winding here and there and yonder, its sweep interrupted at intervals by clusters of wooded islands, threaded by silver channels . . ." with "glimpses of distant villages . . . of white steamers vanishing around remote points . . ."
The river. The Mississippi. The upper Mississippi -- for much of the 19th century the goal of the "Fashionable Tour" of a young America in love with the exotically wild parts of its own new territories.
Not too long ago, I had difficulty convincing Washington friends and acquaintances that I grew up both on the Mississippi and in Minnesota. They would eye me incredulously. The Mississippi? Steamboats? In Minnesota, home of Scandinavians and the lowest winter temperatures in the network weather reports? Surely I was joking.
The late 20th century sense of our country has been shaped by the movies, rather than by the writers of the Romantic era, and the Mississippi, as everyone knew, belonged to New Orleans and St. Louis.
Nevertheless, for some 400 miles the Mississippi is a Minnesota river. It is also the state's southeastern border. The river emerges from Lake Itasca in the north country as a tiny stream, meanders through heartland Minnesota gathering tributaries like the Sauk and the Crow, becomes a large navigable river between the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis and leaves the state -- having been fed by the St. Croix, the Cannon, the Chippewa and the Zumbro -- as one of the world's greatest rivers, stretching, with its old channels, inlets and sloughs, two to five miles shore to shore.
Today the skepticism is disappearing. Public Broadcasting has helped. People have seen "The Emigrants" more than once. The cult followers of American Public Radio's "Prairie Home Companion" and its host Garrison Keillor know that Keillor's mythic Lake Wobegon was once mistaken for the source of the Mississippi. Jacques Cousteau and his crew have been our way.
And we have had the rather churlish equivalent of Dickens (who tried but disdained the popular steamboat travel of his day) in British writer Jonathan Raban, who wrote the bestselling "Old Glory: An American Voyage," an account of a trip from source to mouth of the Mississippi.
But, even before these signs of renewed national interest, the "Fashionable Tour" was back, much the same tour that caught fire only a few years after the War of 1812 finally secured this territory made ours by treaty and purchase much earlier.
Although some of the land along the upper Mississippi became part of the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, our government did not really lay claim to this land of Chippewa and the Dakotas until much later. The establishment of Fort Snelling at the juncture of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers in 1819 made a haven for adventurous travelers.
The first steamboat arrived with supplies in 1823, and aboard it was Minnesota's first tourist, an Italian enthusiast, Giacomo Constantino Beltrami, bearing a red umbrella, intent on following the river to its source and ready to pen his adventures for the Italian nobility. (It is an Italian count very like him to whom Keillor ascribes the confusion over Lake Wobegon.)
During the next decade Beltrami was followed by many others. In 1835 the Fort Snelling surgeon wrote to his brother, "I should not be surprised that in a few years this place will become as great a resort as Niagara." That same year the painter George Catlin suggested that the "Fashionable Tour" should really be a tour of the Upper Mississippi, where "the eye is riveted in listless, tireless admiration upon the thousand bluffs which tower in majesty above the river on either side" -- and the numbers of visitors grew.
In the 1830s, steamboat companies were offering excursions up the river to the Falls of St. Anthony (near the future site of Minneapolis), which is still a local attraction. In 1837, the aged Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, widow of Alexander Hamilton, arrived to visit her son and to "see all she could." By 1850, four and five luxurious passenger steamboats a day were arriving during the summer months at the levee of the new town of St. Paul.
The passengers were whisked by carriage to view the touted Falls of St. Anthony and the Falls of Minnehaha, soon to be immortalized in Longfellow's "Hiawatha." They read aloud from poets like Bryant and Browning as they picnicked on the shores. These travelers experienced what Mrs. Elizabeth Ellet, a prolific New York travel writer of the time, called "a curious blending of savage and civilized life," and generally professed to be enraptured by the scenery. (Like the 400,000 to 500,000 New Yorkers and Bostonians who had viewed traveling painted panoramas of the valley, their imaginations had been prepared and their vocabulary of admiration acquired. Words like "grandeur," "sublimity," "majesty" sprinkle their accounts with repetitious sameness.)
The words may be over-grand, but today's visitor will agree that the vistas of the forested valley where the broad river winds between mountainous bluffs topped with castle-like outcroppings of stone are truly memorable.
In the revived "Fashionable Tour" you can travel the Upper Mississippi again aboard "authentic" steamboats or luxury yachts and take what one travel brochure calls "the most picturesque river cruise in America -- through seven locks -- 140 miles of the incomparable beauty of high craggy bluffs and gently flowing water." This is advertising copy, but I would tend to agree with it.
Like their 19th-century predecessors, the steamboat and yacht companies promise luxurious accommodations, excellent food and entertainment. Or you can drive, as I do, along the Great River Road, a scenic route following the course of the river to the Minnesota border.
Whether you follow the river north toward the pine forests and the lake country around its source or turn south through the historical "Fashionable Tour" country, the best starting point is in the metropolitan area. St. Paul and Minneapolis are the industrial and educational leaders of the upper Northwest. Both cities are celebrated for their art, music, recreational facilities and clean orderliness. (This year St. Paul won the nation's most liveable city award, presented by the U.S Conference of Mayors.)
St. Paul, with the white-domed state capitol on one hill and its cathedral on another, is more picturesque, but Minneapolis is a handsome, vigorous city. There are 11 lakes within its borders, almost all suitable for swimming, canoeing and small craft sailing.
Those of my generation have fond memories of canoeing "dates" on which we paddled from one lake to another, stopping in the lee of a wooded islet to watch the moon track across Lake of the Isles or drifting lazily within earshot of the Lake Harriet bandshell. Later, as young parents, we spent long sunny hours shepherding our small fry on the sandy beaches of Lakes Harriet, Calhoun or Nokomis.
The cultural renaissance of both cities has had nationwide effect. The Guthrie Theatre is perhaps the best regional theater in the country, the symphony orchestra well known, and it is a rare Washington music lover who doesn't know Pinchas Zuckerman and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Both cities have conquered weather with networks of downtown covered plazas and flower-filled skyways connecting shopping, entertainment and business.
The people of the Twin Cities, descended from a hardy mix of north Europeans, are still very much like the upper river people Mark Twain marveled at in 1882 -- "an independent race who think for themselves and are competent to do it because they are educated and enlightened . . . abreast of the best and newest thought." They -- who populated "this amazing region bristling with great towns, projected day before yesterday . . . and built next morning" -- adapt to change.
The great food and grain industries are still centered there, the transportation, lumber and ore industries still present -- all welcoming visitors with tours of mills, laboratories and factories; but there are also the new giants contributing to the technology of the '80s like the multinational 3-M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing), Control Data, Honeywell and others. One of the nation's largest universities (50,000 students) is in Minneapolis; its agricultural campus is in St. Paul, as is the Minnesota Metropolitan State College, and five private liberal arts colleges are also in the city.
Because history in this metropolitan area has moved at such a rapid pace, the past and the present are mingled as they are not in older states. It is hard for the tourist from the East or the South to realize that the grandparents of today's Twin Citians lived in log houses and fled from the terrors of Indian massacres.
The descendants of the French voyageurs and coureurs du bois still worship in the French churches of both cities. Fort Snelling is still there on its promontory, restored and staffed with costumed guides, a gateway to the past. For the full flavor of former times, it is fun to take a paddle-wheeler there from the St. Paul levee.
Across the river from the fort is the historic village of Mendota, where the Daughters of the American Revolution have preserved a trio of pioneer landmarks -- the Sibley House, home of the delegate to Congress who brought the Minnesota Territory into being; the Faribault House, home of fur trader Jean Baptiste Faribault; and that of Hypolite Du Puis, who was private secretary to Sibley. They are situated in a quiet enclave amid old-fasioned gardens, lilacs and apple trees.
It is easy to envision the life of the river frontier, when these men and their wives played host to an unlikely mix of Indian chiefs, trappers and elegantly clad visitors from the east -- rolling out barrels of whiskey or proffering five-course meals at polished tables, as the case required.
Above the Twin Cities the river country is a mix of farm country and the traditional north of pine forests and beach-girt lakes stocked with sports fish. The river itself is the resort of canoeists, naturalists and trophy fishermen. There is talk of a 45-pound muskelunge taken last year from the river at Little Falls, Charles A. Lindbergh's home town. Vacationers flock there every year.
But for me, because it is my country, the true river experience is to the south.
Here one sees the river as it truly is: the waterway for a continent. It is alive with traffic: barge towns laden with grain and freight, passenger steamboats, houseboats, sleek yachts, darting small pleasure craft, white-winged sailboats and, plying the shallows, the rowboats and skiffs of fishermen. Every town has its levee and its marina.
No excitement or anticipation since has equalled what we Wabasha youngsters felt once a year when the excursion boat nosed slowly into our levee with the calliope blaring and the paddlewheel raining droplets of river water as it turned slower and slower. At just the right moment, the deck hands would leap ashore with coils of rope to tether the boat, and finally, finally, the gangplank was slowly lowered and we could stream aboard for a magic day on the river.
To those of us who grew up on its shores, it was the life of the river that was its fascination.
To lie in bed in Wabasha in the hot summer's night and hear far off a steamboat whistle signaling for the opening of the pontoon bridge at Reads Landing three miles up river, to wait expectantly until the beam of its searchlight swept the wall of the room and left it again, to hear very near the lookout calling the depth as lookouts had for a hundred years -- "M-a-r-k three! . . . Quarter-less three! . . . Half twain! . . . Quarter twain! . . . M-a-r-k Twain! . . ." -- that was to be part of a wider world.
It set us apart from those living in the landlocked towns. The river was our source of pleasure and romance. We roamed its sand bars and marshes, swam and fished in its waters, skated on its sloughs and dreamed of where it led.
A mixture of contemporary pleasures and progress with the presence of the past pervades the valley all along the Great River Road. As one goes south the woods-covered hills and the waterways are at first sight much the same as they were when first seen by the French explorers and missionaries. The river towns work hard at presenting both present and past to their visitors. They offer fishing, boating, campgrounds, golf courses, beaches -- and history.
Hastings, 20 miles south of "The Cities," boasts the LeDuc mansion, built in the Hudson River style, and the mill ruins at Vermillion Falls. Nearby is the site of the boom town of Nininger, once advertised by real estate promoters as the "New York of the West." A little farther on signs beckon the traveler to Prairie Island, now a Dakota reservation, and to the new source of wealth for the tribes -- the big Bingo game.
At Red Wing, site of the great Dakota chief's village, a melange of modern shops occupies the old Red Wing pottery, and a magnificent view can be seen from the summit of Barn's Bluff -- the highest point in the state. Old Frontenac, on a headland over Lake Pepin -- a great widening of the river created by the Chippewa River delta -- was one of the smart summer resorts of the country in the 1870s and '80s. Many of the elegant white clapboard summer homes of people from New Orleans, St. Louis and St. Paul are still there standing on the graveled lanes bordered by stone walls and lilac hedges. The river valley between Frontenac and Wabasha is often, and accurately, compared to that of the Rhine because of its deep gorge and craggy rocks. Lake City, midway on the shores of Lake Pepin, was the birthplace of water skiing and is a mecca for freshwater sailors.
At the foot of Lake Pepin is Reads Landing, a sleepy village once the center for the lumber trade. Some 400 to 500 river raftsmen at a time waited there for the logs floated down the Chippewa to be made into rafts. As many as 27 steamboats tied up there waiting for the ice to break on the lake. In its heyday it is said to have had 17 hotels and boarding houses, 15 stores and 21 saloons. Relics of the time may be seen at its historical museum, an old schoolhouse.
Three miles down river lies my hometown of Wabasha, described in the state's tourist literature as a typical river town much the same as it was a hundred years ago, and I see no reason to disagree. The downtown district is on the National Register of Historic Places. It has one of the oldest newspapers in the state and the oldest operating hotel -- the Anderson House. To stay in one of the old-fashioned comfortable rooms furnished with Victoriana is to step back into the era of the family-run hotel. The hotel kitchen makes use of Grandma Anderson's famous recipes, and her great-grandson welcomes today's guests.
In 1857 the area around this small town was a rich wheat-producing region. Farms still flourish there, but today it is better known for its harbors and fishing guides and as the place where the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge begins; 194,000 acres of wooded islands, waters and marshes extend southward from here to Rock Island, Ill., the longest reach of any federal inland refuge. In the winter the great bald eagle can be seen wheeling over Wabasha; the bird winters in numbers nearby.
The valley is a major migration route. Among the spectacular flights are those of the waterfowl -- whistling swans, canvasbacks, ring necks, redheads, mallards, widgeons and many more. The bright-colored wood duck nests here. During spring and fall hordes of warblers, vireos and thrushes drift through the trees and shrubs of the bottoms of bluffs. Rare bird sightings are common. Great blue herons and egrets raise their young along the backwaters.
Fur-bearers along the Mississippi include muskrat, mink, beaver, otter, weasel, fox and white-tailed deer, the latter abundant in the timbered areas. There is hunting in season. There is year-round fishing for walleyed pike, sauger, bass and other fish and also commercial fishing for carp, buffalo, sheepshead and catfish.
Annually millions of visitors come to the refuge for wildlife observation, environmental education, fishing, hunting, bird study and sight-seeing. Thousands use the sandbars and beaches along the main channel for picnicking and swimming.
As you continue on the Great River Road through Kellogg, Weaver, Minnieska, Rollingstone, Winona, Homer and La Crescent you are within the boundaries of the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Forest, which abounds in camp sites.
Winona is a pretty little city with comfortable accommodations and interesting historic sites -- a good place to center your last stay along the river before leaving Minnesota and Minnesota's stretch of the Mississippi.
Side trips could take you to nearby Rochester and the famous Mayo Clinic and its medical museum, to Kipp State Park -- known for the mysterious Indian mounds left by long-vanished tribes -- or along the Apple Blossom Drive in the fruit-raising area near La Crescent.
When you leave Winona, only an hour's drive will take you to the spot where the river leaves the state on its long flow to the Gulf of Mexico.
One caution: A river trip, to get the full flavor of river life, must be leisurely -- at the pace of the river itself. And once taken, the trip may well leave the river in your blood.