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The River Wild

The River Wild

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Our Sleep Storyteller-in-Residence, Phoebe Smith, talks about the adventure behind her latest Sleep Story, The River Wild.

The sea has always captivated me. I used to think it was due to its power and size – find yourself on a boat in the middle of an ocean (no matter how big the vessel), and you start to realize just how small a part we are of something so very much bigger than ourselves. I wondered if maybe it was owing to its color. Water that looks so idyllic on a hot summers day –  turquoise and still – can take on a much more foreboding feel on a stormy day when the water turns grey as it tumbles with waves and the sky itself seems to drip right into it.

But it wasn’t until I turned my gaze to smaller, less all-encompassing water sources, that I realized it was something else that attracted me to the water.

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It happened one day, out walking on my travels, when I noticed a babbling brook running down the side of the mountain that I was descending. I knew where it let out as I had seen it gushing in a watery torrent near the start of my hike but, with a growing awareness, I realized I had no idea just where it might have come from and what it had traveled through to get here.

Over the next few hours I became obsessed. I attempted to follow that stream right the way back to its source, compelled to locate where such a flow might start. I began by walking up one side of it, but was unable to haul myself over some steep-sided rocks.  So I made my way down and crossed to the other side of the stream, but just above the stones I lost it once more to a thick clump of long grass and boggy ground. I knew it was there somewhere, but with water all about me I couldn’t follow it any further – it was as though the watercourse was taunting me. I lingered a while longer on the mountain that day, but left, feeling defeated.

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Years later I traveled to the Deep South of the United States – at the far reaches of the state of Louisiana – to journey the Mississippi River to its source.

To do so meant following the Great River Road, a connecting stretch of small laneways and minor thoroughfares – avoiding the motorways and highways – which weave around the countryside in a similar way that the water itself meanders through the land.

I went with the intention of the glory and satisfaction I would feel reaching the ‘end’ or, rather, the beginning of America’s most famous river, found in Itasca State Park, Minnesota. But what happened on that trip surprised me. 

Over the couple of weeks I spent navigating it, I saw and experienced more than I thought possible. I watched wild alligators basking in the sunshine near the little community of Venice – a place which I had never even known existed before. I learned about the history of the cotton and sugar cane plantations and heard about the bravery of those souls who lived and died toiling on the fields – including one tale of the love between a man and his wife that was so strong that he continued as a slave even when freed so he could be with her while she still was in service. But it wasn’t just human history that captivated me, nature too seemed to be in competition to show off what it could do – from the blazing sunsets at Natchez, Mississippi, to the electric storm that pelted down through Memphis and the flying fish that leapt from the water in Tennessee while osprey swooped down from nests to get a better look at me. 

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I wandered through effigy mounds in Kentucky – built by native people from the past, and old style Main Streets with red brick buildings in Illinois which proud residents clean and repair so they still stand. I watched the efforts of the dam workers in St Louis who help barges navigate the water year-round. Books from my childhood came to life as I crawled through Tom Sawyer’s cave just outside the small town of Hannibal, and I felt like I’d climbed into a wildlife guidebook in Wisconsin watching the majestic bald eagles soar around the water’s edge. 

Despite experiencing all that, I remained obsessed with reaching the final of the 10 states through which the watercourse passes to the ‘ending’ in Minnesota. However, just outside the state park, which held the long desired source of the great river I was closing in on, I met one final person – a canoe guide called Terry. His family had been custodians of the land (where the river leaves the protection of the park) for generations. When I met him for a paddle on the water, the urgency to reach the headwaters almost seemed to float away. Spending time just ‘being’ on the river was suddenly all I wanted to do. We were supposed to meet for just an hour, but that soon multiplied to several. I was simply content pulling my oar through the water, feeling somehow connected to the Mississippi, remembering the people and the places I had experienced on route.

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When it was time for me to leave, Terry handed me a small canoe he’d made out of native tree bark, a gift to mark this moment, and asked me something an Ojibwe chief had said to another explorer when he too had been hell-bent on his mission to find the river’s origin:

“Why is it that men are so concerned with the beginning and end of everything, when it’s the middle that really matters?”.

His words resonated deeper than even the river ran. When I thought back to my day on the mountain, trying to locate the source of the stream, I had thought of it as a failure because I didn’t find it. But in my obsession to pinpoint the source I had missed out on the whole adventure I was having right then and there in the moment. 

I still visited the headwaters that day, but it no longer seemed so very important. Because it was my journey to that point that was the really life-changing experience. It was a powerful lesson to learn.

Now whenever I find myself rushing around trying to finish something or get somewhere too fast, I look over to the small canoe Terry made me that sits on my bookcase and remember: the Mississippi River flowed on before I was here and will still continue its journey when I am long gone but, right now, we are both here together and I need to slow down and enjoy it.

No matter what obstacles lie in the way, a river will find its way around them – and that is the quality of water I think is the reason I am captivated by it: its determination to continue, to forge a course and keep going no matter what.

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