The Missouri River stretches 2,341 miles from mountain springs in southwestern Montana to its confluence with the Mississippi River just above St. Louis. Some historians have so much regard for the Missouri that they consider it the dominant stream of the nation’s midsection, attaching tributary status to the Mississippi. This doesn’t matter too much to me, though the thought that it’s the Missouri that courses all the way down to New Orleans and the Louisiana Delta at the Gulf Coast appeals to my contrary leanings.
On a crisp white wall at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, I can trace the entirety of the Missouri, along the many knobs, kinks and curls that complicate the contours of its arcing profile, via the silver simulacrum made by the sculptor Maya Lin. The piece spans about 15 horizontal feet on the wall at a scale of 75 miles to the foot (and counting all those zigs and zags), yet most visitors to the museum hardly notice it. I always stop and take it in as a reminder of the earth’s essential energies.
I live less than 10 miles south of where the Missouri River, in its mighty, muddy sprawl, spawned a French trading post and a frontier settlement during white America’s march across the continent. Kansas City was born there on the river’s edge. I don’t visit the river regularly, but every so often I do pay a silent tribute. I stand above the river’s bank and watch its languid turn eastward near the elbow fed by the Kansas River. There’s a point of land at that turn where Thomas Jefferson’s appointed explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, camped on their way up the Missouri in 1804 and where they ventured through again on their way home two years later. From here, the river meanders a few hundred miles, creating a fluid, vital belt across the state to St. Louis.
Watching the Missouri flow is nothing like taking in the power of the Atlantic Ocean as I experienced it in my New England boyhood: the explosive spray amid towering rocks, the push and pull of waves against my ankles. But the Missouri carries its own historical force, and in its many guises, from wildness to silent humility, it deserves attention and respect.
While merely passing through many years ago, Jack Kerouac lamented how Kansas City had turned its back on the river. He was not alone in his feelings, as we who live along it can attest. One can understand how the stream’s unpredictability and often destructive force could overpower the imagination of political leaders and their budgets. The 20th century witnessed at least three catastrophic floods in the riverine bottomlands in and around Kansas City. (In the city, at least two more devastating and fatal floods have occurred in my time here. It’s not emphasized enough how the unruly overflow of Brush Creek and efforts to channel its force further exposed Kansas City’s racial and social inequities.)
Now mostly tamed by levees and navigation channeling, the Missouri River at Kansas City still is largely inaccessible though efforts to plant residents closer to it have increased in recent years.
The river’s status as an economic force and a natural resource spanning the interests of multiple states and a diversity of uses has long set it up for political and ecological battles. Stealing a template from John McPhee, I once arranged a magazine feature in which our editorial team traveled down sections of the Missouri with an environmentalist and a representative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We settled no debates, but we awoke one morning, having camped on an island, surrounded by birdsong and a penetrating, mesmerizing fog.
The settling of the site that became Kansas City followed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, under which Congress granted statehood without slavery to Maine, formerly a province of Massachusetts, while Missouri joined the slave-holding South.
As a transplant who grew up in Maine (and Massachusetts) and has lived in Kansas City for half a century, the complicated paradox of this connection has not been lost on me, especially as the nation has entered a new phase of racial reckoning.
Missouri’s Southern sympathies have long been troubling to those with open-minded, open-hearted bearings. And the realities of discrimination and racism have become even more starkly etched in the wake of Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the persistence of reactionary and grandstanding Missouri politicians who bring embarrassment and shame to the state.
This is not to let Maine off the hook as some kind of free-thinking, pine-scented paradise untainted by history. I was reminded of this recently by new accounts of its rarely discussed, early slaveholding history. And I need not be reminded—because I know quite well—that many Mainers do not much welcome those who sound or look or think differently from them. This makes authentic Mainers very much like the mule-stubborn stereotypes of the Show-Me State.
I’ve spent the last few years peering into the life and work of Evan S. Connell, a writer born and bred in Kansas City. He felt the need to leave his hometown, essentially for good, before the age of 30. Except for some periods of extensive travel, he spent the rest of his years, nearly six decades, in the American West. Yet, Connell never identified as a Westerner. And for all his conflicted feelings about Kansas City—some of which can be found in two related novels about the affluent Bridge family—he recognized he couldn’t escape the landscapes of the Midwest, physical and mental, that had shaped him.
Similarly, for me, the tidal pull of Maine still registers. But the Missouri River, with both its wildness and tentative urban presence, remains a strong and nourishing artery along the life stream.
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