Although I had bumped into 1Mississippi a few times, I had not really looked at the website until recently. When I did, it was immediately clear that I had found a community of “my people” – folks who, like me, seem to have Mississippi mud in our veins. I signed up to be a “River Citizen” without a second’s deliberation and posted my testimonial to the great River’s place in my heart. A few days later, I “met” by phone and email Annette Gomberg, 1Mississippi’s Outreach Coordinator and she kindly invited me to do this guest blog post.

This will be the cover of my book – it is a backwater bayou of the Mississippi near Helena, Arkansas on a foggy November morning.

This will be the cover of my book – it is a backwater bayou of the Mississippi near Helena, Arkansas on a foggy November morning.

I am a travel photographer and writer and I have been in love with the Mississippi River since my first sight of it seemed to stop my world when I was nine years old. I have never lived near the River and, like many Americans, my contact with it for many decades was not much more than recognition of an old friend as I passed over on my way to somewhere else. Then one day, my husband and I came upon the Mississippi Great River Road and when I learned that it accompanies the River on its entire journey from the headwaters to the Gulf, I instantly knew that I wanted to see every foot of it.

Just before sunrise near Quincy, Illinois – from aboard the barge, The Phyllis

Just before sunrise near Quincy, Illinois – from aboard the barge, The Phyllis

One day, while researching a photography and text assignment for Country magazine about the Great River Road, I read a single sentence on the National Park Service’s website that literally rocked my world. A single drop of water, it said, falling into the headwaters of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca, will travel for 90 days to reach the Gulf of Mexico. In that second, I knew what was happening next in my life – I would take a 90-day road trip, keeping pace with an imaginary raindrop the entire length of the great River. I had no idea how it could happen, only that it was.

I plotted the pace of the raindrop on a map and searched for communities at points where I hoped to stay. Then, knowing that I could not afford that much lodging, I sent an email to Chambers of Commerce and Tourism Bureaus in those towns, describing the project and giving a link to my website. “If you are interested in having me visit your community,” I said, “and you can help with lodging, please let me know.” To my astonishment, responses poured in and, in the end, there were actually more invitations than there were available nights. Thanks to that amazing support, the road trip of a lifetime was possible.

Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana

Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana

Often, while in the process of making these arrangements, I would be asked about my preferences. My answer was always, “Just a clean bed, please and hopefully internet access. Beyond that, anything you choose will be perfect.” The result of that was a wonderful itinerary of unique places that I could never have planned. There were rustic cabins, fishing resorts, elegant B&Bs, historic hotels and inns, a tugboat converted to a B&B, a trendy downtown loft, private homes, sharecropper’s cabins and plantation mansions. And – in one town, I was actually handed the keys to a 30-room mansion and told that it was mine to enjoy for the weekend!

Covington Inn – former tugboat now a B&B, St. Paul, Minnesota

Covington Inn – former tugboat now a B&B, St. Paul, Minnesota

Other than where I would sleep, nothing was planned. I wandered back roads and met amazing people in their farm fields, on their front porches, in grocery stores and cafes and even while stopped for road construction. They welcomed me into their lives, introduced me to their friends and families and opened doors to opportunities that I could never have scripted. It was downright magical.

Beer, kraut and laughs - Oktoberfest – Burlington, IA

Beer, kraut and laughs – Oktoberfest –        Burlington, IA

I kept a blog as I traveled, called “Surrendering to Serendipity,” which spread from friend to friend and by the end of the journey, had received more than 20,000 views from all over the world  (it’s not only Americans who love America’s great River!). While I have been writing the stories and editing the photographs for the upcoming book about this adventure, the blog has been mostly silent. Now, however, the writing is done and I am in the production phase of the book and the blog is once again vibrantly alive – and I would like to invite you to join us!

This is the perfect time to jump in! We have just announced a new series called “Roadtripping With a Raindrop,” which begins this week. It will feature “Moments” from my travels along the Mississippi – there will be portraits of fascinating people I have met, peeks into unique cultures and lifestyles, crazy, fun, serendipitous experiences, interesting bits of history, things that moved me and lessons that the River teaches.

You can sign up here if you’d like to be notified when a new post appears.

Don’t miss “Moment #1 – Hazel With the Green Shoes”  

or “Moment #2 – Judy with the Golden Throat”

Thank you, all, for the work that you do for the Mississippi River – and thank you for the opportunity to join this very relevant organization. I look forward to working together and getting to know many of you!

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Gayle Harper, River Citizen