St. Joseph to Mt. Vernon, Ill.

Another late start this morning. Both of us had vivid dreams last night. I can’t remember what happened in my dreams; I used to write detailed notes of my dreams, but gave it up a long time ago because dream narratives are usually confused and ridiculous, the characters strange and inconsistent. Reality is already confused and ridiculous and strange and inconsistent, there’s no need to add to the trouble. Nevertheless, this morning I knew I had had vivid dreams, and I was glad to let the sunlight drive them out of my head.

In Nevada and Wyoming, the interstate highway gives you the best view of the landscape, generally showing you pastoral idylls and hiding from view the huge mining operations and industrial plants. But once you get as far east as Missouri, the interstate highway shows you the large industrial plants and huge warehouses; industries want to be close to the interstate, and you see only occasional woodlands, and fields of corn or soybeans.

We past Columbia, the state capitol, and drove south through exurban housing developments to Little Dixie Lake Conservation Area. A map showed a trail going all the way around the lake, and we started walking along it. It started out as a broad trail which had been mowed through the grass and plants growing under the second growth trees, and as it wound away from the boat landing it slowly narrowed until it was no more than a path. It wound along near the shore of the lake, and tract houses on their one- and two-acre lots were sometimes visible through the thousand foot wide woodland. The beauty we found was in the trees and plants and shoreline immediately in front of us; the broad views were unremarkable.

Little Dixie Creek CA, Missouri

A light breeze blew off the water and kept us cool. We kept coming across Great Blue Herons sitting like sentinels on snags out in the water. We had been listening to an audiobook of Homer’s Odyssey, and when I saw the herons I thought about the eagles Zeus sent in answer to Telemachos’ prayer:

“So spake Telemachus, and in answer to his prayer did Zeus, of the far borne voice, send forth two eagles in flight, from on high, from the mountain-crest. Awhile they flew as fleet as the blasts of the wind, side by side, with straining of their pinions. But when they had now reached the mid assembly, the place of many voices, there they
wheeled about and flapped their strong wings, and looked down upon the heads of all, and destruction was in their gaze. Then tore they with their talons each the other’s cheeks and neck on every side, and so sped to the right across the dwellings and the city of the people.” (trans. S. A. Butcher)

Halitherses, who excelled his peers in his knowledge of birds, interpreted this augury for Telemachos: the suitors who took advantage of Odysseus’ absence to try to force his wife Penelope into marrying one of them — these men would meet certain doom. The young men dismissed Halitherses, just as you now no doubt are dismissing him, saying that the actions of birds have no meaning. Of course the actions of birds have no meaning, other than finding food and procreating; the same may be said for human beings, our lives are nothing more than the attempts of our DNA to mindlessly preserve itself. The Great Blue Herons standing like sentinels had no message for me or for anyone. They just reminded me of my father, who liked Great Blue Herons so much.

We walked for half an hour, then it was time to turn around. I saw some sassafras seedlings, and cut a twig for Carol. “Mm,” she said, smelling it, “what is that?” “Sassafras,” I said. She wanted to know what you can do with it, and I said you can make tea, which supposedly has very mild narcotic effects. Upon hearing that, I think she dropped her sassafras twig. I chewed on mine for a while; I found the taste very refreshing, but I didn’t notice any narcotic effects.

The rest of the drive was uneventful and not particularly scenic. I craned to see the Missouri River as we crossed over in west of St. Louis, but mostly what I saw was the guardrail and bridge abutments and a little bit of water as we sped across.

Crossing the Missouri River on I-270

Avoca to St. Joseph, Missouri

We stayed in Avoca last night, and our next stop was St. Joseph, Missoui, which turns out to be only a two and a half hour drive away. Yet I thought I had scheduled us to drive six hours every day. But I planned this trip right around when my father was dying, so it’s no wonder I made a mistake. And as it turned out, we needed an easy day. We slept late, took our time getting out of the motel, and as a result I felt far more rested than I’ve been feeling.

We went for a walk at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, three quarters of a mile along a dike through a huge freshwater marsh out to an observation platform. The deer flies began swarming us almost as soon as we started walking; they were undeterred by the steady easterly breeze. Carol put up a bright red parasol for the sun, and to decoy the deer flies to bite the parasol instead of her head. But I think she had just as many deer flies near her head as I did.


We flushed two or three Great Blue Herons out of the water near the dike, and they flew low over the cattails and rushes, necks tucked back against their bodies, long legs trailing behind, huge wings flapping slowly. My father took endless photographs of Great Blue Herons in the national wildlife refuge near where he lived: herons wading, herons stalking prey, herons about to take flight, herons standing and looking warily at the camera. He got access to a large-scale printer, and of course he printed out a large photo, some 20 by 30 inches, of a Great Blue Heron. From the observation tower, we could see for a mile or more across marshlands in all directions, except behind us, where trees growing along the dike blocked our view. We saw more than a dozen Great Blue Herons standing here and there, and one White Pelican sunning itself on top of a muskrat lodge.

Half an hour after leaving Squaw Creek NWR, we were in St. Joseph. We followed the signs to the “Historic Downtown,” parked the car, and wandered around. We saw a great many empty storefronts, and hardly any pedestrians. Some of the buildings were beautiful, like the German American Bank Building, made with red brick and red stone, with details including staring heads of fanciful animals or perhaps gargoyles.


A map in a storefront declared this neighborhood to be the Arts and Entertainment District, and the map showed where to find restaurants and bars and arts venues. One of the restaurants on the map was closed and a sign in the door read: “Business for Sale.” A couple of other businesses had closed at three in the afternoon; it was now just before five. The Missouri Theatre had no shows scheduled for the near future, and the last performance took place more than a week ago. We went into the Bourbon Street Restaurant, where several people were already eating early dinners. We had blackened shrimp and broiled catfish; one of the wait staff raved about the fried okra, so we had extra helpings.

Later we went to Tiger’s Den Bookstore and Bar. The emphasis was on the bar, not the books; but they had a pretty good selection. For two dollars I got a clean copy of Graham Greene’s biography of John Wilmot, a book I’ve always wanted to read though I don’t think I will like it. We paid the bartender for our books, while a woman sitting at the bar made friendly small talk with us. Outside on the sidewalk, Carol said we should have stayed and talked with her. But it was late and we wanted to get to sleep.