This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
Growing up in southern Minnesota during World War II, I spent many late-night summer hours under the streetlight with my buddies discussing where we were going when we grew up. It was Alaska or Oregon, New Zealand, the Amazon. Never in that circle of light along the curb did I dream it would be Rock Island, Illinois, where I would be sitting here writing "Rock Island Lines."
I brought that same attitude with me when I came to live by the Mississippi River in 1960. I planned to stay for three years, and then go someplace interesting. I dreamed of teaching in Appalachian valleys in Kentucky or Indian reservations in New Mexico.
How I woke up from these dreams is a very short story—the story of an hour. A colleague and I rented a houseboat to take our families for a week on the River—exploring the sloughs and byways behind islands, stopping at small towns huddled below the bluffs for a beer, sleeping in the boat, rocked by that water world.
On the next to last morning of the trip, we had spent the night tethered to a small island. I woke early. An absolute calm, thick white fog hung four feet above the water. In that narrow world, a blue heron, unafraid, stood erect and stock still. Fish jumped in the channel. Two fishermen in a flatboat drifted into view and out again with the current. Somewhere an invisible towboat whistle sounded.
When my wife awoke, we took cups of coffee and walked the edge of the sand island. The fog thinned. Around a curve of shore, a whole flock of white egrets rose in unison from a tree, like apple blossoms blown upward.
I had found another place on this earth: a narrow valley and its river. Two days later, we turned in the keys of the houseboat, got in our car, and drove home through the evening. The streetlight lit the stairs up toward the house. We had come home to stay.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.