By KATE PAYNE from Iowa Public Radio
An artistic couple who are largely running and biking their way along the length of the Mississippi River passed through LeClaire Friday. The trek from the river’s headwaters in Minnesota all the way to the Gulf of Mexico is part of a storytelling project that spans 10 states.
The Relay of Voices project is the vision of Louisiana native Victoria Bradford Styrbicki and her husband Tom. They’re stopping in towns along the river to hear about residents’ everyday lives, and traveling largely on their own steam – by foot and by bike.
Growing up on the Gulf of Mexico and now as a resident of Stillwater, Minnesota, Bradford Styrbicki says she was inspired to document the lived experiences of residents up and down the Mississippi in order to get a better understanding of how peoples’ relationship to the river changes from one end of Big Muddy to the other.
Watching her home state be ravaged by erosion, wetland loss, and the so-called “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, Bradford Styrbicki wanted to delve into the environmental role of communities upstream, but also examine how quality of life and the fabric of a community can so drastically change from one end of the Mississippi to the other, and from town to town.
“The erosion, Dead Zone, all the environmental factors there. But also, honestly, my home state is ranked as the lowest state,” she said. “Whether it’s environment or healthcare or quality or life…”
“I’m looking at the quality of life I have in Minnesota and it is amazing and it’s beautiful and we have trails and people care about their water quality, but why?” she asked. “Why is there this difference? And I want to understand this relationship and where does it start to change?”
For the next few months, that involves Victoria and Tom traveling from one town to the next, running and biking in and out of the communities and driving the balance of the distance when it’s longer than 20 miles or so. They shadow residents as they go, speaking with bartenders, gun shop workers, Native American tribal members, anglers and mayors, sharing their stories in other communities as they travel downriver.
One of the people they met in LeClaire was Ryan Burchett of Mississippi River Distilling Company, who shared his persepective and the stories of some of the farmers he works with in crafting liquor from Iowa corn.
“One of our farmers came down here, he said, ‘my corn’s in this? In vodka?’ And I said yes. He goes, ‘that might be the first time I’ve ever known where my corn ended up,’ because most of the time it ends up on a barge down to the Gulf over to China,” Burchett said.
“There’s no family farmers left,” he continued. “I mean these guys are family farmers, but it’s huge business.”
Overall, the couple hopes to give voice to the people spending their lives along the river, hoping to hear what it’s like to stay in these communities, many of them small and shrinking, and what it will take to build a future there as well.
“How they’re making ends meet. What they do each day? Who they come in to contact with? What is life like for someone on the Mississippi River today for someone who’s not just holding on to the past but is really hoping for a future in this place,” she said.
One of the stories that stuck with Victoria is that of a farmer and lock and dam worker in Bellevue, Iowa who recently returned home to retake the family farm, even while he and his wife have both taken off-farm jobs to make it work. Up and down the river, some common themes have floating to the surface, she says.
“The theme of returning home, leaving and returning home,” she said. “We’re hearing that kind of returning theme a lot. We’re hearing a theme of arriving, of people really seeking out or happening upon the river and then being wooed in by it,” she said. “Like oh my god, once I saw the river, once I discovered the river I couldn’t escape it! It made me crazy and I had to buy a building!”
The couple ultimately intend to compile their experiences and residents’ oral histories into a book.
They plan to make stops in the Quad Cities, Muscatine, Oakville and Burlington over the next few days before heading to Illinois, with hopes to make it to the Gulf in November.