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Not a Vacation

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In August of 1978, two Minneapolis schoolteachers, Marsha Berry and Janet Dagliesh, made an impulsive decision which horrified their parents. They would leave their classrooms and canoe down the entire Mississippi from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. They had been teaching long enough to sense burnout ahead unless they took a vacation.

Wrong move. Both had lived along the Mississippi without ever paying it much attention. They learned too late that the Mississippi has always been a working river and is stingy when it comes to handing out vacations.

The two began their trip at the headwaters in August, to avoid the high water of spring, planning to arrive at New Orleans four months later. Slowly, the Mississippi changed from the small recreational river above Minneapolis, bordered by asters and Joe Pye weed, with shallow ripples now and then, to a working world of locks and dams, with heavy tows to watch out for, and cross traffic that paid them no attention.

More and more, the world of the river defied their preconceived notions. Mark Twain’s Hannibal turned out to be littered with castoff tires and other debris. Just when they imagined they were on a wilderness voyage, full of foxes and egrets, they would round a bend into a sprawling industrial complex. They arrived a New Orleans, deeply tanned, on December 1st, and paddled down to the Gulf, their vacation over.

Or so they thought until they returned to Minneapolis and tried to settle down. Four apartment walls turned out to be too confining. Standing in front of a classroom with a book was no longer teaching, after a term on that long outdoor classroom called the Mississippi. Job security no longer mattered. Middle class was no longer a magic word.

Other canoe trips followed—to the Northwest Territories in Canada, a backpacking trip along the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Mountains, jobs as camp counsellors, as a guide for Woodswomen in Ontario, as a clerk in an outdoor store. They had learned to follow the channel, trusting wherever it might lead.

That’s the difference between a vacation and a voyage. One returns from a vacation refreshed; from a voyage there is no return.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.