I grew up in a Midwestern river town. There are dozens of these towns scattered throughout the middle of the country. Until modernity allowed us to colonized deserts and mountains, virtually all dense human settlements were founded by rivers, lakes, or seas, water being our only way to live in an otherwise inhospitable world. With the 21st Century’s domination of nature, our cities no longer depend on the bodies of water they are built beside. Most of our transportation is now over land or by air, and we can dig deeply for potable water or send it in via pipeline from miles away, but our cities and their locations still bear witness to our ancient need to be near the water. And so in the Midwest where there are no seas and the prairies stretch on for miles, our towns are built in or near those valleys that break up the monotony of the continent and once provided the easiest means to move heavy goods and raw materials in and out. The mighty Ohio and Mississippi and Missouri. The Wabash and the Miami. The Tippecanoe. The Calumet. Most of their names reminding us that none of this land is ours.
The river town I grew up in is also a university town; the university is the culturally dominant force in the region, changing an otherwise farm based economy into a diverse one drawing on what amounts to a second city’s worth of professionals, scholars, and students in the university community. But it is a town that remains distinctively Midwestern and distinctively Indiana. Because I could get a world-class education without leaving, I stayed—mostly out of necessity—until I had my degree and a way out via a funded grad program in Chicago (a lake town, not a river town, I should note). By that time, I was so ready to get out. For all the university’s civilizing influence, my hometown still felt like a backwater, a place I couldn’t wait to escape.
Leaving the small university farm town for the cosmopolitan City of Big Shoulders was a life transformative experience, molding me into the person that resembles the one I am now. But the intervening years between my coming of age in Chicago and now the writer of this blog were difficult and transformative in their own way. Rejection of profession. Divorce. Alienation. Desperation. Depression. Panic attacks that sent me to the hospital and led me to think about suicide in a serious way for the first time in my life. All stories for another time. What is important here is that in my desperate crisis where sanity and spirit seemed to have left me, I returned home to the river town of my youth.
Returning home felt like defeat. Once I had begun to excel in academics as an undergraduate, I knew I had my way out of there, and nothing would stop me from taking it. I took the first way out that presented itself, grad school in Chicago, but here I was back where I started, divorced, in a mountain of student debt, directionless, with that deep pit of dread intimating that my life was over.
No job. The fumes of a savings account buoyed by early withdrawals from my meager 401k. I had all the time in the world and very little money to spend (and nowhere really to spend it, even if I did). Almost all the friends from my hometown had moved on to other places as I had, and so besides my immediate family I was virtually alone in a place that was both familiar and yet felt like a distant memory. When in good mental health, alone with free time to burn for me means writing, art, creative energy, but in my state of depressive anxiety and existential dread, alone with free time can lead to desperation, more anxiety. Spiraling.
When I returned to my hometown, I also returned to my parents’ home. They live on the Eastern edge of the prairie that eventually gives way to the Great Plains and eventually the Rockies to the West, about eight miles from the center of town and the river valley in which it sits. During this period I would wake up every morning, pack up my things—a laptop, some books and a notebook, some weed, a camera—hop on a bike, and set off across the flat farmland until I found the bike paths and streets that would channel my two wheels down to the river. There by the river, paved trails run along both banks through parks, creek valleys, wooded banks, and an old abandoned golf course. I would smoke weed, get coffee and read at the cafe, and bike up and down those riverside paths, where the only people I encountered were joggers and the homeless, the latter setting up small camps in the woods on the banks of the river, camps that lasted as long as the cops would leave them be. Some days I would put a bottle of wine in my water bottle, pack a lunch, and sit under a tree in the old golf course overgrown with weeds, and watch the clouds, listen to the birds. Think. Be.
This river I grew up by and returned to is the Wabash, a tributary of the Ohio, which is then a tributary of the mighty Mississippi, which in turn flows into the Gulf of Mexico. So the Wabash is three degrees removed from the sea, but nevertheless songs have been written about it. The Indiana state song is “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” And Johnny Cash has a little known song in his oeuvre “If it wasn’t for the Wabash River” about an encounter he had with a local in my hometown of Lafayette, Indiana while on tour. Give the song and the story that goes with it a listen.
The story is about Johnny Cash pulling over his tour van in Lafayette and meeting a man who is fishing down by the river. This man’s wife left him for California, and he has finally given up trying to get her back. In his desperate depression he turns to fishing for catfish on the banks of the Wabash as a distracting solace, more about solitude and stillness than actual fishing. In Cash’s words, fishing by the river day and night, day after day, got him to the point where he just about has his mind back together. The chorus of the song goes “If it wasn’t for the Wabash River, I’d be out of my mind.” Substitute a bike for a fishing pole, and the song could be, just about word for word, about me and my time by the river.
All that time biking up and down the Wabash. Sitting under shade trees. Smoking weed and listening to the flow of the current and the sounds of song birds and eagles that fly up and down the valley. Alternating between pushing my body hard and leisurely riding those solitary paths under the trees that shade the banks was like a balm and a poultice on the boil of my throbbing dread and anxiety. Slowly the poisons came to the surface. Slowly the pressure was relieved. Some days I’d cry as the wind dried sweat and tears off my streaked face leaving salt stains on my shirt and messenger bag. Other days I’d laugh like a madman at the absurdity of it all. A summer of doing that, and though nothing was resolved about how I’d make a living or how to get over lost loves, I was well. My body was forming itself into something new, so too my mind and spirit. And in my memory’s eye I can still see myself pushing the pedals as the current of the Wabash flows beside me. And I can sing, right along with Johnny Cash, “If it wasn’t for the Wabash River, I’d be out of my mind.”