Mississippi River near Monticello, MN – September 23, 2012
I remember walking down a dry canyon in Southern Utah looking for a puddle. It was the only water source for twenty miles. Cow trails crisscrossed the land, the sun baked overhead, and all I had were empty bottles.
I found the water, but the cows found it first, leaving nothing more than a trickle of wet mud filled with tracks and piles of shit. I thought about it for a long time, then pulled out my filter, and hoped it was good enough.
Now I’m holding empty bottles again and staring at more water than that canyon sees in a decade, but I can’t stop thinking about Saint Cloud and Brainerd, Little Falls and Palisade, every street in every town that’s glossy with a bit of leaked oil before the next rain.
I can’t stop thinking about the dams and paper mills, the way the river clogs up into a lake above them and spurts out through cement and steel chutes, the way everything emerges smelling stale and old.
I can’t stop thinking about the power plant a few miles upstream and how I felt the water shift from cold to hot as I passed the discharge, how even now the water feels warm to the touch.
I can’t stop thinking about farms along the bank with their picturesque barns and their fields fertilized and sprayed with pesticides.
I can’t stop thinking about garbage washed on the shore, of whole cars left to rust, of a hundred different pipes that gurgle and spit into the water.
I could see it all in that canyon, the mud, the cow shit, the water, and drank anyway, drank until I couldn’t drink any more. You can filter out the wild, but even this far up, it feels like there’s too much civilization in this river. Too much for me to pull one clean liter from it. Too much to drink it with anything but my eyes.