Missourians with regrettable tattoos and not enough sunscreen, myself included, float their way down the Huzzah each summer, including this pandemic summer where it is preferable to social distance on this 38.5-mile clear-flowing Ozarks stream while drinking cold cans of beer nestled in koozies attached to our necks in single-person kayaks.
You can see and experience it all on the Huzzah: tubing, canoeing, fishing, camping, drinking, smoking, flirting, fucking, catcalling other floaters, losing a bikini top or bottoms or both, someone invariably puking or pissing in the water, and even one brave mother I spy with her eight-month-old baby in a hot-pink floral swimsuit. On this 90-degree day, this child receives a floating baptism in this bacchanal as her mother dips her tiny toes into the cool water.
Like this baby, I grew up swimming anywhere and everywhere in my home state of Missouri—cattle tanks, man-made lakes with funny names like Lake Lotawana or Pomme de Terre, chlorinated pools, and once a stagnant creek where leeches glommed onto my skin as a six-year-old girl. I cried and squirmed while my father, a man born at home to a mostly Creek Nation mother and a son-of-a-bootlegger, World-War II-veteran father, applied a lit match to my arms and legs instead of a credit card to break suction.
The French named Huzzah Creek “Huzzaus,” most likely after the Osage, the first people to settle Missouri long before I see a terrifying white woman wearing an honest-to-god Confederate-flag bathing suit. I wish this sight surprised me, but it is July 2020 in the lower Midwest, and it does not.
In the 1830s, the Trail of Tears would pass through Steelville, the nostalgic main-street town closest to the Huzzah where, in the 21st century after kayaking with a friend, I stop for black walnut and cookie dough ice cream before heading back to St. Louis. It is also in Steelville where 10,000 Choctaw and Cherokee stopped to bury their dead in 1837 and 1838, to have “scarcely room on the wagons for the sick,” to continue their 5,043-mile forced march to Oklahoma. Native elders like my own late grandmother and her father, my great-grandfather, and his parents before him.
It has been this sad, shitty way since Lewis and Clark, since Manifest Destiny, since the Missouri Compromise of 1820, since sun-down towns and jazz legend Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at him at the Reno Club. Bird was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1920, the city I would lust after and visit from my strip-mall suburban hellscape in the early ‘90s, which I moved to at age seven with my kid sister and divorced, single mother from rural Missouri.
Kansas City signaled progress, hope: skyscraper milkshakes at Winstead’s post-prom, Ernest Hemingway’s six-month tenure as a cub reporter for The Kansas City Star, 18th and Vine, witnessing Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s iconic Shuttlecocks installed on the Nelson’s front lawn during my high-school years, knowing someday I would leave this state and never look back.
Yet, as an essayist born (Jefferson City) and raised (Odessa, Blue Springs, Lathrop) and returned (St. Louis), I have found there is no escaping Missouri, even if, especially if, you leave. There is an inescapable jazz-like hum of the past in our sentences, an on-going riff of our grievances and joys, of our hardships and confessions, and the heartbreakingly absurd juxtaposition of stopping to get ice cream in the same small town where our ancestors buried the dead.
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