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Gayle Harper’s ‘Roadtrip with a Raindrop’ beckons to us all

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Gayle Harper's "Roadtrip with a Raindrop" is loaded with nearly 200 color photographs and essays recalling her 90 days along the Mississippi River.

Gayle Harper’s “Roadtrip with a Raindrop” is loaded with nearly 200 color photographs and essays recalling her 90 days along the Mississippi River.

By GEORGE FREEMAN
Editor of Ozarks Living

Every journey, whether a step off the easy path to a new way of life, or some unplanned turn, begins with a moment that halts our momentum and forces us to begin anew.

For Gayle Harper of Springfield, already a successful photographer (nominated for the prestigious Santa Fe Prize for Photography in 2009) and a successful freelance travel writer, it was a turn of phrase on the Internet written for the National Park Service that began her journey: “A raindrop that falls into the the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota will reach the Gulf of Mexico 90 days later.”

“I knew then, without question,” Harper writes in a chapter titled “The Omen,” that this moment would come – that I would be here watching the sun rise on the first day of my own 90-day journey keeping pace with a raindrop on its way to the Gulf.”

And yet there were many variables in the journey that preceded this adventure, beginning with a childhood alert from her father that the family’s blue and white DeSoto was about to cross the river: “I can feel the rumble of our tires on the bridge and the variation of it tickling me deep inside. I can smell the river’s earthiness, see the vast expanse of murky water and feel its movement, its power and its mystery. It had me completely.”

OZL Dec-Jan 2014 Cover (Small)

On the cover of Ozarks Living Magazine, Gayle Harper with cranberries picked from a canoe.

“Roadtrip with a Raindrop” is Harper’s elegant 240-page volume just published by Acclaim Press of Sikeston, Mo., in time for gift-giving and sure to be studied time after time. At $39.95, it may even produce some sticker shock until you realize that this is not just any book. It is a trove of nearly 200 photographs and 55 essays (she calls them short stories) describing a 90-day journey that Harper took for all of us who have marveled at the mighty river. It will surely redirect many of us to find our own road trip, even it is to find some unexpected path on a one-tank trip. (Note: This is a virtual departure from our series that lets us all savor Harper’s expedition from a warm winter’s holiday hearth).

As an observer, writer and photographer, Harper makes “Roadtrip ” a joy to experience the people who befriend her along the way. That she also is a historian, researcher, sojourner and storyteller enriches our understanding. Her exploration of the Mississippi River is part travelogue, photo essay and spiritual metaphor. She introduces us to friends who become characters in a novel.

Twain described life on the Mississippi from the perspective of a steam boat pilot. Although she spent many hours on the water, Harper’s insights are rendered from the people who live and work on the river, who harvest the fish, harvest the flora and the fauna and sometimes suffer the calamities of its power. We learn from them, share their good times and feel their heartaches, almost to the point of smelling the water and feeling the warm breezes that turn up again and again in Harper’s words and photographs.

“The baby Mississippi springs from the side of Lake Itasca, deep in the pristine north woods of Minnesota, about 20 miles north of Park Rapids.”

Even at this early stage, half-a-million visitors come for a look, so that each one can proclaim, “I walked across the Mississippi River.”

An aerial view of Cairo, Ill. at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

An aerial view of Cairo, Ill. at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

And we learn:

  • That the river grows in depth and volume from less than six cubic feet per second to 12,000 and a depth of 200 feet at the Gulf of Mexico, splaying out for 2,552 miles in a delta that feeds us all and serves as a roadmap for 60 percent of migrating birds in North America.
  • That 41 percent of the continental United States drains into its watershed, third largest in the world.
  • That Native Americans before written history lived in communities of up to 20,000 people, creating mounds that later white settlers at first destroyed and now are protected and venerated.
  • That this “main artery of transportation” carries 487 million tons of cargo annually, 60 percent of all the grain produced and drinking water for 18 million people in small towns and metroplexes drink from the Ojibwe name for “Great River.”

Although Harper is back home now in the Parkcrest neighborhood of Springfield, she is still very much on the road, handling interviews, book-signings and the whirlwind that accompanies publication of an acclaimed new book.

And yet each day she climbs the dozen stairs to a writing room, accompanied by a very mellow cat named Louie, looking out the west window to blue Ozarks skies above a small window bed while she writes, edits and contemplates her next project.

In Hannibal, Missouri, statues of Mark Twain with his two most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

In Hannibal, Missouri, statues of Mark Twain with his two most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

“Roadtrip” is tireless reading, divided into nine chapters, each with five to 10 segments accompanied by color photographs that belie the challenge of capturing it with a lens. You can enjoy it almost as if you are the traveler, to be savored in small quantities. Or, it’s available for purchase online at GayleHarper.com, as well as from the publisher, or online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, where Gayle will be signing her books from 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, Dec 13, 2014. (Contrary to the printed version of this story, the book is not available to download.)

“It almost seems like I was charged with this task of creating a piece like this,” says Harper of her quest, which dates back to 2009. Harper’s mission was to neither get ahead or behind the raindrop, which she named “Serendipity.”

Before she began, she used e-mail to contact one or more potential hosts in each community along the “Great River Road.”

“I actually had more invitations than I had available nights,” recalls Harper. Although her itinerary was carefully planned and timed, the hours miles and unexpected side trips often were not. “I do really have the worst sense of direction,” Harper admits. And yet each time she felt bewildered, a feeling of being pulled back soon followed. “It just feels like a wise mother. It’s eternal, it’s continually changing and yet always the same. It’s constantly…a silent wisdom.”

She benefited from arranged access (to a tug boat) that helped her produce her stunning photographs, opportunities to feel the serenity of the river and its power to move both emotions and the freight of a nation.

On one occasion, having arrived in Little Falls, Minn., she tours Linden Hall, once the adjacent homes of the Weyerhaeusers and the Mussers, timber barons who were the best of friends, each one heir to a lumber fortune that allowed them to build their respective mansions 30 feet apart in which to raise their respective families.

Gayle Harper takes a break in Alton, Ill., with husband Mike Junger with a statue of Robert Wadlow, 8'11" tall.

Gayle Harper takes a break in Alton, Ill., with husband Mike Junger with a statue of Robert Wadlow, 8’11” tall.

Today, the homes are historic attractions, open for tours, weddings and other special events. Normally, however, not for a night – or an entire Labor Day weekend.

“Are there other guests?” asks Harper after a casual tour. “No, this is your house for the weekend.”

Although she and husband Mike (dean of students at Missouri State University) talked each day by phone, only once did they take a break together, at Alton, Illinois, site of the last Lincoln-Douglas debate in October 1858, a historic prison that housed 12,000 Confederate prisoners of war. It is also the home of Robert Wadlow, 8’11” tall, who walked on size 37 feet, and is honored by a bronze statue of this special man, who lived before there was treatment for his pituitary disease and died at age 22.

“Mike was wonderful,” says Harper. “I was a traveler and he knew that when he married me.”

And perhaps that life after the Mississippi and its people would never be the same.

“There’s an essence and a presence after spending 90 days with the river; it just saturates you.”

George Freeman is editor of Ozarks Lving Magazine. You can follow him and Ozarks Living on Facebook.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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