It's an unprepossessing start. Not much more than a puddle abutting a spreading lake, really. But over the assembled walking stones, a stream about the width of a sidewalk trickles off into the underbrush past a homely sign telling you that you are right smack at the point, well into the midsummer forests of northwestern Minnesota, toward which numerous exploring parties drove in futile quests to find the source of the country's greatest river -- the headwaters of the Mississippi.
The Ojibwa myth has it that the puddle and stream come from a crying maid. Or, as the discoverer of this place, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (whose writings inspired Longfellow to write ``Hiawatha''), put it, ``these were tears, indeed, by fair Itasca shed.'' In fact, they are the runoff of a lake left by retreating glaciers more than 10,000 years ago.
You can walk ankle-deep in the stream. The river itself, stretching down half a continent to the sea, lies beyond your sight, beckoning. And the beauty of it is that you have also landed in a perfect spot to sample the heart of Minnesota country.
From this place in Itasca State Park to Bemidji, 40 miles away, the infant river cuts through a region of backwaters and forests and isolated communities. You can follow it on unmarked back roads, as my family did last summer, along much the same course that explorer Henry Schoolcraft and an Ojibwa party took when they discovered the headwaters in 1832.
In the process, you can find a bit of wildness to lose yourself in. There are also reminders of the warlike but sedentary Ojibwa people, whose character, in romanticized form, has been impressed on the world by Longfellow's legendary poem.
Established in 1891 to preserve what was left of the virgin pine stands and to protect the basin source of the river, 32,000-acre Itasca Park is habitat for more than 60 kinds of mammals -- from coyotes to black bear to chipmunks -- and over 100 species of birds such as the osprey, bald eagle, and great blue herons.
Wilderness Drive takes you to the Wilderness Sanctuary on the edge of a 2,000-acre virgin forest. Elsewhere around the park, Peace Pipe Vista gives you a splendid view of the lake; and Big Pine Trail takes you to Minnesota's largest red pine tree, 300 years old and 120 feet high, the second tallest living Norway pine on record.
The Mississippi headwaters draw half a million tourists a year to this place. That means you have to reserve a spot in advance in the Douglas Lodge, which offers rooms, cabins, and meals right at the southernmost end of the lake. Camping facilities are more readily available, as are motor home sites.
We came to Itasca State Park from the southwest on a hot August afternoon. Our route was along the flat country roads through Detroit Lakes on Minnesota highway 34 -- where you can rent an inner tube for $2 and be towed four miles up a small river to float gently downstream -- and then up US 71, watching the land shed its human comforts and become more and more itself.
There was no reason to stop until Preacher's Grove, a one-time open-air prayer meeting site halfway from the south entrance of the park to the headwaters. Here a group of 250-year-old pine trees stands in open invitation to the scant passing traffic. If you get out, you find yourself looking up at trees reaching, slender and distinguished. All the rest is forest and silence, except for the singing of birds and the occasional sound of a passing car.
My family scrambled down the hill to a lake shore, while I sat and listened to the wind.
The trees were Norway pines. The lake, it turns out, was Itasca. So we had inadvertently stumbled onto what explorer, writer, and Indian agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft had recorded on his first sighting in 1832: ``the cheering sight of a transparent body of water . . . Itasca Lake, the source of the Mississippi.'' In spite of the obvious signs of Park Service maintenance, there is a primordial feel to this place.
Certainly the fact that you can drive up and park in front of a lodge-style building and watch an excellent slide show about the discovery takes a bit of the primordial edge off the thing. But you don't have to go that way. From various places in Itasca State Park, you can leave your car and take the two hiking trails that wind along the lakeshore and through the ground cover to the headwaters.
I did alone it at the end of a long day's drive upstate. The trails were deserted except for the legendary north Minnesota mosquitoes and me. There was an end-of-day peace settling over things. From time to time I'd come upon a fragmentary view of the lake. The sun was making all sorts of shimmering mirages along the surface of the water.
When I got to the small grotto where the narrow stream actually begins, there was only this small pond and a threshold of stones, and the water itself moving quietly away.
To follow the river's meandering course on wheels, you take county road 2 north until you see a white tractor tire marked KEN FREDRICKSON'S. Then you turn right onto a sand and gravel road back into the country, jostling along through dense woods. You will be following a route few visitors take. The day we drove it, a tall poplar had fallen, wedging itself in the crook of a tree and hanging just low enough to obstruct the path of our motor home. So I climbed on top of the motor home -- which is long and flat and walkable -- and walked it over, as my wife drove and my son guided us along.
We crossed the river again, much later, flowing back through the deep woods, a full stream spanned by a rude one-lane bridge. You don't see it too often like that until Bemidji, where the road begins to hug the river more closely, long after county road 2 meets state road 2.
From time to time we stopped and followed footpaths back to the river itself, which swells imperceptibly as it turns through the countryside.
``The river itself has no beginning or end,'' T. S. Eliot wrote in 1950. ``In its beginning, it is not yet the River; in its end, it is no longer the River. What we call the headwaters is only a selection from among the innumerable sources which flow together to compose it. At what point in its course does the Mississippi become what the Mississippi means?''
To us, this was that point: where, for one moment, we were with the river in a private way, thinking not of maps and bridges, but only those kinds of lazy, motionless thoughts that hover in such places on a summer afternoon. Next month: Southern Indiana