All road trips come with their own unique admixture of successes and disappointments, of highs, lows and humdrums that are no more, and no less, than manifestations of the ordinary lives we lead. Someone once said that you don’t know how good you have it until you don’t have it anymore, which is about the same for digesting the afterimages of an outing. In my case, our recent visit to St. Louis remains a muddled, confusing mess in equal parts photographic, written word and uncertain recollection, now to be sorted, organized, vetted, judged, revised and, in many cases, deleted. Each step a spelunker’s descent into the caverns of memory, each discovery a reawakening and a renewal.
For better or worse. Because of a genetic predisposition for negativity and a penchant for continually sensing greatness through better, and more expensive, tools, so much of what I remember now carries an air of regret. Perhaps it’s simply an aftershock, normal after a drive where the road seemed endless and the cities and towns mirror images without the slightest redeeming characteristic to set them apart or otherwise distinguish them, an inexhaustible procession of fast-food joints, mega supercenters, squalid billboards, bewildering cloverleafs and insane traffic, with some rain and lightning thrown in for good measure, and a faint shimmy from the front of our Taurus that grew worse as the miles stretched into infinity. Most of which could have been alleviated by taking backroads, our usual forte: Lesson learned, sort of.
And yet, even in the midst of a lingering despondency there are glimmers of depthless awe and exquisite beauty that reel me in like a trout. While sorting through the hundreds of photos taken during our four-day jaunt, I was struck not so much by the limitations imposed by my camera and lenses but by what was there all along, and what remains in our absence. For we captured merely an echo of another time, transposed into the present like two slides sandwiched together, the ancient and the new conjoined into a seamless fabric and us on the outskirts looking in. Riverboats and paddlewheels navigating past sleek bass boats, vast steel bridges swiveling on a dime, the slow ponderous weight of the Mississippi, lush fields inundated and flooded, agriculture and industry sharing the rolling green hills, American expansionism, burgeoning cities with gleaming towers, hamlets moldering into impenetrable forests, Germanic culture and the new, fusion-based ethnicity where anything is possible, majestic churches whose slender spires raked the sky like daggers, upscale wineries and hillsides terraced with measured rows of grapevines, art so intuitive it rendered us speechless, and a name that will forever inspire awe: Cahokia.
Begun as a small village around 700 A.D. near the confluence of the Mississippi River and Cahokia Creek in what is now western Illinois, the area exploded a century later as the Mississippian culture ascended into a complex social, religious and political system. By 1050 Cahokia became a regional center surrounded by farmsteads and satellite villages, extending over six square miles with a population of up to 20,000—the largest community north of Mexico. The majority of its residents lived in small single family thatched huts, but ceremonial structures and homes of the elite were build atop earthen mounds. Some mounds were conical, others rectangular or wedge-shaped, and all were aligned on a true north-south axis. The centerpiece of the city was the massive Monk’s Mound, the largest prehistoric earth construction in the Americas, containing an estimated 22 million cubic feet of soil. Here the leader lived and ruled, but the mound was more than a mere pile of dirt. As with other ancient civilizations, it was a solar calendar marking the solstices.
And then, like Chaco, Mesa Verde and the Mayan and Incan cities to the south, it was mysteriously abandoned.
Getting there in this modern age required a harrowing jump onto a congested and insane series of flyovers and underpasses and traffic hellbent on getting from point A to point B in the least amount of time. The park staff were either too helpful or at worst incompetent, and through a series of bizarre steps I was left with a purchase I only half-heartedly wanted and a fading desire to look through the rest of the visitor center. My plan to wait out the day until shadows textured the mounds was dashed by a fateful juxtaposition of people and withering heat, so Lori and I did the only thing left to us—we walked the Grand Plaza, circumnavigated the Twin Mounds and Stockade, and made the long march to the top of Monk’s Mound.
The day was excruciatingly hot, with a heat index of 106 degrees. Coupled with the high humidity, it was nothing less than brutal, with little shade or cover and the sun like molten fire on exposed skin. The few passerines kept to the shade, panting, their beaks open. But for all the misery there was an abiding sense of wonder on that flat bottomland studded with grassy mounds of a lost civilization, where the sounds of a hustling city fell silent to the whisper of wind and the chitter of swifts as they hunted the crest of the highest embankment. What are road trips but our own search for our place in the universe? Cahokia, Chaco, Chichen Itza: Since man first looked to the night sky and felt awe, he has reached for the stars.
We were almost back to the parking lot when we came across an earthworm trying to wriggle across a sunblasted stretch of sidewalk. It writhed and contorted in pain even while stretching to full length to pull itself toward the safety of the grass. The sensation of the suffocating heat radiating off the concrete must have been like frying in a hot skillet. Reaching down, I gently picked up the worm and set it beside cool waters flowing from a culvert. The worm rolled in the wet grass as if in ecstasy. Remember this, you gods of small things, for when I transgress against you in other ways.