Early morning, the sun half asleep, the breeze strong and cool. I walk ten miles, wind-aided, past Admire’s bench and across Piasa Creek. Carol Admire was killed when, a couple of years ago, a drunk driver hit her bicycle along the Great River Road. The granite bench is caked in a thin coat of mud.
Most of the lowland forest ground is hard-caked mud, scars from the two-hundred-day flood. Still the paved path along the river is iced with dust, and hikers’ footprints and biker’s wheel prints play a game of Twister.
Along the eastern point of Scotch Jimmy Island, a mass of twenty-eight egrets fish on stilt legs: babies chasing mothers for piscine bits, small snowy egrets and the great whites mingling, squawking. Egrets and herons sound angry, their long throats making them baritones. Happy egrets cry, “Meh-meh-meh.” You’d think they were grumpy.
On Stroke Hill, monarch butterflies flit above the last wildflowers, dipping low enough to sip at clover blossoms. Catbirds mew in the rests of cicada music. Hummingbird Man’s feeders dangle in the breeze, the collective tiny birds making a boat motor sound. Three shirtless, dirty, half asleep boys stand in front of a house and drink coffee and watch me.
The bluffs along the river have changed perceptibly since I moved back to my hometown. Tons of limestone boulders have shifted closer to the path, the trees preceding them having been crushed. The houses on top are closer than ever to the carved-out precipice, the detritus from the yards boating down waterfalls and settling below.
Stevie’s fish stand at the bottom of Clifton Terrace has been set on a trailer frame, hitched to a truck, the fish sandwiches which drew crowds of bikers and bicyclists and hikers now just a memory. Stevie still keeps a cooler of water on her porch, for those of us in the know. She is old, bony, high-spirited, but not as old as the Mississippi River and nowhere as old as the limestone brimming with 300 million-year-old fossils: trilobites, crinoids, horned and honeycomb coral.
The biggest change, the most shocking change, high above the river, is that my friend Orville and his wife Quilt Queen have sold their pickup truck, trading it in for a modest SUV. A farmer without a pickup truck is like a diner owner without pans. Quilt Queen said they didn’t like driving the truck anymore.
Change. I don’t like it. I’ve only had seven years to get used to things here in my hometown. And now they’re already… changing. I wonder if the river feels the same way. Its cult of fishermen and boaters throw their trash into the Father of Waters; invasive carp rise as clouds of silver and choke out the native life; there are as many bits of Styrofoam in the river as there are egret chicks, as many beer cans as frogs.
Still, life persists. Wildflowers poke through asphalt and sidewalks heave from tree roots and groundhogs—which we love once a year and shoot the rest of the time—bore their way to happiness and dinosaur alligator gar and snapping turtles rule the murky river depths and peregrine falcons hold the blufftops and silver-spotted skippers sip their nectar suppers and blue-tail skinks sun in tree tunnels and orb spiders master weave between twigs and branches and communist, cooperative ants will outlive humans by eons.
Still, life. I’m not sure we deserve it.