A family pilgrimage through the surprising heartland of America

I didn't begin to realize where we were headed until I was sitting on the porch of Harkin General Store, a well-preserved 1870s relic just north of this picture-book little town in rural Minnesota.

Sleepy Eye is a chunk of small-town America planted in the middle of flat Minnesota farmland. All the lawns are neatly turned. The quiet streets are broad and flanked by a mixture of old American gothic and modern suburban homes.

Harkin Store, almost 15 miles away to the northeast, and the surrounding river, trees, and road come close to swallowing you up, as you sit there watching the slender Minnesota River slip by, listening to the wind in the trees , feeling like nothing in this world could move you.

It was in such a frame of mind that our travel plans began to change. What had begun as a ride on the great spectacle-flanked Western highway became a passage, a journey into the American heartland. It was an accumulated experience , built up of passing homes, forests, cultivated fields, lakes, and rivers.

None of which was apparent in Norwood, Mass., as we prepared to put this show on the road. We were too taken up with the hassle of getting a 29-foot motor home ready for a five-week journey.

Through all the packing, buying, pulling, and straining, the children were everywhere at once, utterly smitten with the promise of the open road. Four-year-old Noel ran in and out of what she called ''the vehicle.'' Matthew, who is 13, occupied the shotgun seat as if trying out his new throne. Connie labored incessantly.

I walked in small circles.

Then, at 6 p.m., 51/2 hours after the last contemplated time of departure, we made it to the open road, rolling.

Our progress was soon interrupted, however, by a small red light, which signified that our refrigerator was on the fritz. Which meant that, instead of driving through to the first sightseeing stop, we would have to find a campground with electrical hookup to keep our refrigerator going. And so we found ourselves rolling into Gibbs farm in the eastern New York hills.

The Gibbs campground lies at the apex of an inverted triangle, whose base angles are Altamont and Gallup-ville, a tiny town centered around a white-steepled church and ringed by mountains. Gibbs is a place where the morning comes with gentle brightness; an open meadow fringed with woods and mild sunlight.

Walking with the dog down to a brook under the tall trees that morning, then reading quietly while Connie and the kids ambled by a pond, I had my first premonition that we were heading for such small places of the country as this, places with such an individualized soli-ude you feel you must need a key to get in.

You don't need a key to get into Watkins Glen on the finger lakes of New York. Watkins Glen is a magnificent gorge splashed by sculpturing waters. By night, it becomes the hollow darkness for a light-and-sound show that leaves you longing for someone to turn out the lights and let the dark echoes speak for themselves.

The gorge begins in the middle of downtown Watkins Glen. With sparkling Seneca Lake, nearby Corning, the skiing trade, and an international motor race, it draws a steady stream of tourists to the town.

Nothing to compare, of course, with the megahordes that flock to Niagara Falls.

We came to the Canadian side of the falls on the night of July Fourth, seeing only spray and colored lights, and hearing the roar of the water. Across the watery chasm, you could see the bursts of tinted flame from America's birthday party, which Canadians and Americans alike had gathered to watch.

It is said that the American side offers the nicest parks and other amenities. At night, it was hard to tell.

We spent the night at Niagara Falls KOA, a campground with all the camping ambience of a supermarket parking lot, and crossed the falls into Ontario the next day in a golden nimbus under the bright sunlight. There was a soft roll to the land, and we had no time to stop, to break the rhythm of passing landscapes, driving through sudden rains, then twilight, then more rains, until we crossed in the dead of night onto Michigan's route 21, which is all business at this late hour with giant trucks banging over the broken roadway.

From there, we journeyed up the middle of Michigan through the tiny point where the two peninsulas of the state meet at the Straits of Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) and St. Ignace. And, then, we turned northeast, away from Sault (pronounced Soo) St. Marie into Newberry and north on route 123.

I mention Newberry, because it was, for us, a watershed, the place where the wilderness began. From Newberry you see the road stretching up to the north, a slender strip through the blanketing forest. It looks as though it leads over the top of the world. It doesn't. It leads to Tahquamenon Falls.

The Tahquamenon Falls State Park is a 35,869-acre wilderness area traversable by two riverboat rides up to the falls: the Toonerville Trolley and Tom Sawyer's Riverboat. We took a local resident's advice to skip the 4- and 6-hour boat rides and drive up into the falls area.

As we made our way through the woods to these falls, Noel insisted on calling the place Niagara Falls. But it's infinitely more private and alone than that. Although a steady trickle of tourists seeps down the wooded pathways, the feeling of primitive power is not lost. Except for the falls, this is just an anonymous bend in the river flanked by deep tree-green wilderness.

The river, inky and swift, brings itself to the brink of the cliff and then abruptly plummets earthward, all streaked with iron and rust color from the hemlock swamps through which it drains.

The lower falls could be reached only in a rowboat, and after pulling our large and terrified dog over the prow into the boat we were rowed by Matt across the basin into which the falls empty. You walk from this basin along a half-mile path, among the smaller and, in their way, more impressive cascades. You move past their five terraces through wooded silences in which you feel alone with some unchartable wilderness. And that's the way you feel as you traverse the upper reaches of Michigan. Images glide by. You want to capture them. But they are unphotographable: a swampy green expanse suddenly appearing between the wooded hills; ground fog at twilight; and mostly just the broad expanse of wild land.

I guess I was prepared for that kind of wilderness in Michigan. But not in Wisconsin. My image of Wisconsin has always been flat land and lots of corn. What I found, instead, as we traveled along the central seam - through towns with names like Pembine, Polar, Tomahawk, and Elk - that divides the northern wilderness of the state from the fertile farmland below, was a strange mingling of rough and cultivated country. At one moment, you feel you are in America's backyard; at the next you find yourself back in the silent country of wild rivers and a thousand impenetrable footpaths.

Although Matthew called the passage through all the woodlands ''assembly-line driving,'' and Noel longed for playgrounds, all of us accumulated a great fondness for the silence and beauty of Midwestern wilderness.

By the time we had reached the end of it near Sleepy Eye, Minn., at Harkin General Store, I knew I had to plunge deeper into the Midwest.

The way you cut down into the middle of the heartland is to follow the Mississippi on its meandering course through the basin that historically divides America, east and west. And I hit upon the idea of following the river along the network of secondary roads called ''the Great River Road,'' down to Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi, and as good a place as any to mark the river's entrance into the Deep South.

The Mississippi ''is not a commonplace river,'' Mark Twain wrote in ''Life on the Mississippi,'' adding (no doubt with some exaggeration) that ''it discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, 25 times as much as the Rhine and 338 times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage basin ... (which is) as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile.''

Still, it is not the physical dimensions that draw one to the Mississippi, but its special character - the thing which led the editors of Harper's Magazine in 1863 to call its basin ''the body of the nation.'' The Mississippi still retains its preeminence among American rivers: It is our main aquatic artery and a nourishing stream of American culture.

It wasn't until we reached the border of South Dakota that we finally decided to follow this quintessential American waterway.

My daughter saw her first wild deer as we pulled up onto a hilltop campgound. Evening was settling, and you could hear an endless quiet all around. In the morning we found a bird's nest and four baby birds at eye-level: something soft and wondrous to a four-year old.

It seemed inevitable that we make our way back into the heartland. So, after a day's drive, I came in the late evening along the wooded paths that lead to the headwaters of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca, Minn.

No one was there when I reached the small marsh-pond edged with a threshold of stones and the gently flowing stream - no wider than a sidewalk - which later becomes the mighty Mississippi.

I sat down and listened, with my can of insect-repellent (an absolute necessity in this place where explorers wrote about clouds of mosquitoes that put their lanterns out), my camera, and my flashlight. The water made small, steady music over the stones. A fish jumped for insects. And an eagle lifted out of the nearby trees into the sky. It was almost sunset.

Then, a group of people came to splash in the water. The spell was broken. And I left.

We came back in the morning, so that Noel could see the stones in the water, and Matt could lie across the log bridge, his hand dangling in the stream, and all of us could say that we had stood together at the headwaters of the Mississippi.

And that we had followed the river down to Cairo, the destination that Huck Finn had been pulling for.

In the next week and a half we stayed as close as roads could keep us to the ''Father of Waters'' as it grew from a sliver to a virtual bay. We followed it into deep woods near the source and down through cities like Minneapolis. We came through Lansing, Iowa - with its riverfront houses, all neat and trimmed with gingerbread - and Prairie du Chien, Wis. We snaked through an area of Illinois with names like Andalusia and Cordova (strange for this region rich in the history of French conquest) and down past the factories and urban hardness of Rock Island-Moline to tiny Oquawka and Lomax.

We watched the Mississippi change into a mighty river of commerce and sampled its history in places like Hannibal, Mo., where Mark Twain grew up.

What we saw in the farmland and woodland was a country rich in beauty. It lacked only a Bruegel or a Cezanne or a Van Gogh to put its endless tapestry of green fields, dense woods, and blunt farm-building architecture on record.

From Pike's Peak, Iowa, the highest point on the river and an easily accessible state park, you can look across the broad expanse of waters where the Wisconsin joins the Mississippi. Curvy islands, some made up of only a few trees growing right out of the water, make random patterns in the currents. You get a sense of the magnitude of this river and the life it has fed over the years.

Life that grew up in towns like Nauvoo, which saw the great Mormon migration to Utah in 1846, a time when it was the largest city in Illinois. As a restored village, it now attracts many tourists.

Towns edged with cornfields and surrounded by lush rolling landscapes have been nourished by the river; small river towns and endless coves, reached by way of erector-set bridges and nearly impassable roads.

Finally, we came to Cairo (pronounced ''Cay-row'' down here) and the place where the two rivers, the Mississippi and Ohio, meet. We stood on the point of land at Fort Defiance State Park, where you can look across the broad meeting of the waters, and remembered the tiny stream where this thing begins.

The small place around Harkin Store had swallowed us up in intimacy. This place engulfed us in immensity.

We watched the river for a long time, while it turned broadly around the bend where the river flows away and disappears into the Deep South.

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