When I was about fifteen, a surfer movie came out called Endless Summer, and I loved it. It made me wish I’d been born in Southern California instead of Northern Iowa. But I eventually came to accept that my roots are deep in this place where summer ends rather dramatically and the green things dry up and the temperature drops and the leaves fall and need to be raked. At the end of summer in my part of this country, the harvest comes, and it is a time of celebration. September is my favorite month, beginning with the State Fair, bringing cool nights and some healing rains after the heat of July and August.
Summer officially ended last Saturday evening with the autumnal equinox. At that moment, Lisa and I were sitting by a fire on the shore of Lake Pepin, a large, wide section of the Mississippi River at Lake City, Minnesota. Lake Pepin is a popular spot for sailing and is said to be the birthplace of water skiing. Our 80 mile bike trip down there capped off a remarkable three weeks during which we closed down a remarkable summer. We were experiencing the last of a series of events which truly were a confluence of the river, music, biking and friendship.
On the second Saturday in September, we hosted our ninth nearly annual backyard concert – during which our sloped yard becomes an amphitheater and a musician or band we admire performs for our friends and neighbors. The show is a benefit for our favorite environmental organization, Friends of the Mississippi River. FMR advocates for the protection of the Mississippi within the Twin Cities metropolitan area. We book the performer, invite our friends, family and neighbors, fill a canoe with beverages, and provide a table to hold the many gifts of food that everyone contributes. It has become a highlight of the summer for us, and we’ve been able to introduce our guests to musicians and to the work of FMR, and as a recognition of this too-often-taken-for-granted resource from which most of us get our water (and, remember, your body is 80% water). Lisa and I walk, run, bike, and drive across the Mississippi River every day, most often on the high Lake Street bridge from which we can see the gleaming buildings of downtown Minneapolis, the rowers down on the water and the gorge itself, lined with forest and cliffs. It is beautiful, and many times we’ve been there as the bright moon shone down on us, or as an eagle or two circled over the river looking for fish.
Our show this year featured the music of the delightful Lucy Wainwright Roche, who was on tour in the region (with her dog Maeby) and who responded quickly to our invitation to play for the fundraiser. The evening was perfect, and we had more people sitting on the hillside than ever before, and they contributed more generously than ever before, raising over $4,000 for FMR. We couldn’t have been happier with the evening that felt as though it was the celebration of the end of this adventurous summer.
And then last week we attended the FMR annual gala at a beautiful event space in downtown Minneapolis, celebrating their 25th anniversary as an organization with a variety of artists speaking to the theme “The River Inspires.” It was a stormy night and we drove through a downpour to the party. We’d invited our great friends Tom, Joe and Jill to join us, making it an even better evening as we were audience to poetry, art, storytelling, and music inspired by the Mississippi.
Our friends at FMR had asked us to compile a playlist of river songs to close out the evening. Making a playlist of our favorite river songs wasn’t easy – not because it is hard to find music about the river, but because there is so much – after all, the Mississippi has been a musical highway and an inspiration forever. Lisa and I worked on it together and over a few weeks came up with a list that we called “River Stories.” Some of the stories are happy (Greg Brown’s “Mississippi Serenade”) and some are pretty melancholy (Lissie’s “Oh Mississippi.”) It contains Delta blues and songs about the floods and storms that have destroyed so many places and lives over time as well as songs about the spiritual river – “I’m going to lay down my heavy load, down by the riverside.” Through all the songs, the Mississippi keeps flowing, and we give thanks for the opportunity to sit on the banks and watch and meditate. As Bob Dylan writes,
But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow
The list began to acquire a kind of logic – we started at the north, with local musicians, and worked our way south – from Peter Ostroushko to Greg Brown to Pokey LaFarge to Bessie Smith and James Cotton and down to Aaron Neville. It turned out to be a fun and creative experience. Here it is if you’d like to listen (if it doesn’t play, or only samples from here, open with Spotify to hear the whole song.)
And then last Saturday morning, we woke up to get on our bikes, packed with the tent, sleeping bags and a few clothes for one last overnight biking adventure along the river. In this part of the country, the nights (and days) start getting pretty cool in September, and there were not many more weekends that we could attempt this trip. We rode south on exactly the same route as we did last May 20, replicating the first day of our long ride. It was very different, and so much the same – the hills had not gotten smaller!
In May, the corn was just getting started – it wasn’t more than a few inches high. Now it is nine feet tall and golden brown and dry, the leaves rustling and crackling in the wind. A few farmers had started to harvest. Pumpkins are big and orange and we saw a large truck full of them on its way to a store somewhere. In May, the lilacs were blooming and now the leaves were falling. In May, we had no idea what lay ahead. Now, we were full of memories from the summer.
We rode along this beautiful stretch of the river in the sun and wind and thought of Lucy Wainwright Roche’s song, “Last Time” –
Between forever and one day there is the finest line
And we knew this was maybe the last long ride in a remarkable year, and that we are ready to move into a quieter season, with more time inside, perhaps by a fire in the fireplace, trying to stay warm, day dreaming of next summer’s adventures.