Mud Island sits in the Mississippi River outside of Memphis, between Tennessee and Arkansas. You get there by a monorail that snails across the wide river and affords you a view of the vast water and the city of Memphis. On Mud Island is the Mississippi River Museum, a wonder of curatorial ingenuity. Running crookedly the length of the island is a model of the upper Mississippi River with accurate geological features, scaled so that each step you take is equivalent to one mile of river. The history of the river is explained in concise and well-written plaques at important points. Water flows continuously through this mini-Mississippi, and the cumulative effect of the winding walk and the reading of history becomes quite overwhelming. When you raise your eyes from the dense interior of islands, channels, Civil War battles, pirates, exploding steamboats, and heroic struggles with the river itself, you realize that you are in fact in the middle of the river, the mighty Mississippi. You are standing right in the water and the place where you are standing is also noted in the model at your feet. It's a dizzying moment of post-modern vertigo, a window within a window.
The river was placid in a blue and bright autumn day and a bluegrass band had set up near the (mini) Gulf of Mexico where some parents and children were actually paddling boats. The "Gulf" was so near the actual Mississippi that it looked like they might merge at any minute. The museum inside the building prolonged the unsettling illusion of being inside a real world shrunk just enough to be made comprehensible. There was the prehistoric civilization of the Mississippi Valley, followed by a replica of a steamboat with unsteady floors that sat in moving water, a fortified Confederate fort on the bluffs of Vicksburg with real-sized cannons flashing into an ironclad Union ship below, a music world of honkytonks, a movie of river-related catastrophes that was like an epic poem that stopped just before Katrina, and a small fishing universe.
I'd always known that the Mississippi River had a dense and complex history that mirrored its constantly shifting course, but I never saw it all at once, in a flash. And what I saw was that the geological and human history of the river experiences major events every few years, that the river is alive and vast, and that we cannot understand American space and habitation without making the river part of every decision about the future. Mud Island was a perfect mirror for thinking about all this, and the music provided an eerily spiritual background to a story of heartbreak.
Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).