The Illinois and Mississippi Rivers converge at and sometimes over a tiny river town that bills itself as the Key West of the Midwest (KWMw). Nearly 20 years ago we celebrated our Silver Wedding Anniversary with close friends aboard a 40’ catamaran in Key West. Yesterday, the four of us aboard their boat, River Dancer docked for the weekend in Grafton (KWMw) shared a toast to “love so strong it thrives for a lifetime”. We celebrated a young couple who, oblivious to misty rain, said their vows in a woodland atop the rivers’ confluence.
The ceremony took place at Lovers Leap high above Pere Marquette Park. Viewed during the winter when trees are bare – the view is spectacular. Spring’s lush foliage obscures the vista and creates quiet spot where a leap would be more like a tripping off a street curb or playing on a backyard slip ‘n slide. As far as a wedding venue goes – it’s perfect. We should keep our focus on the bride and groom, they on each other, and not on the scenery.
All minds wander a bit during wedding ceremonies. Mine drifted to the namesake of our venue, Pere Marquette, a 17th century Jesuit who set out from north of Wisconsin to find the mouth of the Mississippi. Rumor had it the Mississippi bit the sea somewhere in southern California. With God in his heart, a map maker for companionship, and a paddle in callused hands, Marquette toiled southbound with the current. Just about the time his butt fused with the canoe he learned of irritable Spaniards occupying southern river territory. He accepted local lore that the big river blessed the sea in the Gulf not the Pacific, wisely reversed course and headed back north. Marquette wrote in his journal about a gigantic, horrific creature, a Piasa Bird, he saw boldly painted on the granite bluffs that glowered over the river just south of KWMw.The image was pockmarked with spears and arrows but endured.
The mythical Piasa Bird is an iconic figure that graces many a pub and gift nook along the Great River Road. It’s been repainted over the ages to befuddle tourists not besotted by the continuous loop of Jimmy Buffet wannabes. The Piasa Bird, in my imagination, not the original native artists’, is symbolic of advice for newlyweds. Beginning with it’s head – which should be kept on straight when entering into a lifelong commitment – the creature resembles a bird –dream to fly free – to walk the earth and swim in the sea. The Piasa has the horns of a deer – be gentle and blend with nature. Red eyes – if you bear children there will be sleepless nights. A tiger’s beard – it takes willpower and courage to forge two lives into one union. (Fish) scales – with happiness comes change and transformation. And finally, a long reptile’s tail – love may be eternal – but life is certainly not – decide when it is right to fight or take flight.
The Illinois is narrow, serene river that presents all of its possessions to the Messipi – the “Great Water.” Two streams blend at Illinois Mile Marker 0 and never stop flowing as one body toward their final destination. Yesterday two young lovers leaped into the vast and uncharted seas of marriage. May the spirit of the Piasa Bird and loving support of family and friends ensure that they live mostly happily ever after.
Congratulations Kari & Shane