Saturday, August 22, 2009

River of Home

Here are two old postcards of the U.S. 40-51 highway bridge over the Kaskaskia River at my hometown, Vandalia, IL. The bridge was replaced in 1962-63 by the present highway bridge. Although I was in kindergarten when this bridge was torn down, I remember crossing it in the family car as we drove to Grandma's.

And below are three views of the railroad bridge, just north of the highway bridge, at Vandalia. These are early 20th century postcards.

In the last picture, the railroad bridge is in the background, the old National Road bridge (replaced in the 1920s by the bridge in the first two postcards) is in the foreground, along with a group of well-dressed boaters.

Vandalia was founded atop a Kaskaskia River bluff in 1819. The river, which is the second longest wholly within Illinois' borders, is a narrow, serpentine waterway. According to legend, early French settlers of Illinois shortened Indian words so that when someone asked "Where are you going, neighbor?" he might respond, "Je vais aux Ka," or "I am going to the Ka." "Aux Ka" became "Okaw," the river's popular nickname. Another legend places a French trading post along the river with an ambiguous designation "Eau carre," or "water square." So we have two French expressions that may have originated the word "Okaw."

The Okaw is part of Vandalians' identity. Throughout Fayette County, streams like the Hurricane Creek, Sand Creek, Hickory Creek, and others wind through timber and hills and finally to the Kaskaskia. During the 1920s my dad and his father hunted rabbits and gathered pecans along its banks. Many local folk have pleasant memories of visiting its banks or boating on the water. Afraid of its rapid currents, I thought of the river as a swirling, pretty, midwestern Moldau, observed from a safe distance.

As Vandalia's eastern boundary, the river also became associated in my mind of journeys I might take in the future, not journeys down the river (although I fancied that sometimes) but journeys with my life. Now, the river is the last landmark for the trip home, like a promise that the trip has gone well and the destination is very near.

Little wonder that the Jordan River--a small, "boundary" river, too--is a powerful metaphor for the spiritual journey!

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