During my two and half years in northern California  I never got used to writing “San Francisco, CA” as the return address on my outgoing mail. In the three years I lived in Taipei, I always felt a sense of wonder whenever I went through an entire day without seeing a non-Asian face (other than my own). Here in La Crosse, after thirty years in the same place, the only time I have a similar sensation of pleasant disbelief about my place of residence is when I stand on the riverbank in our city’s Riverside Park and realize the body of water before me is the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River possesses a mystique like no other waterway in the US. The reason might be Huckleberry Finn. It might be that, for a half century, the Mississippi was the dividing line between civilization and wilderness. It runs nearly the entire length of the country, and it was the starting point for Lewis and Clark’s great adventure. Even today, it symbolizes the boundary between old America and new America – so much so that small towns, colleges, hospitals, and birthplaces of American presidents continue to proclaim themselves “first west of the Mississippi.”*

For me, the Mississippi River also serves as an international reference point for home. When I visit friends in Taiwan and Mainland China, none of them have ever heard of La Crosse. Telling them that La Crosse is in Wisconsin seldom clears up the confusion. It is when I describe La Crosse as a river town on the Mississippi River that they break into a smile and exclaim, “Ahhh, Mì-xī-xī-bǐ Hè.” Hè is the Mandarin word for river.

My usual bicycle route takes me through Riverside Park, and on Sunday I stopped riding for a few minutes to enjoy the view. In spite of the lousy air quality caused by the Canadian fires, there were at least fifty recreational watercraft at the bend in the river. A tugboat with six large barges passed by. Two paddlewheel riverboats were moored at the wharf. One was the La Crosse Queen, a local tourist attraction that is always there. The other was a much larger craft, four stories tall with sleeping accommodations for a hundred-plus tourists. Depending on whether this re-creation of a past era was traveling upstream or down, it would soon continue on its way to either St. Paul or New Orleans. I’d intended to spend ten minutes along the river, but stayed an hour. Sixty minutes added to my normal bike ride kept me from home long enough for Manyu to start worrying.

Now in retirement, Manyu and I talk about moving back to Taiwan. Two things hold me back. One is proximity to our daughter. The other is the river. 


  • The first town west of the Mississippi was Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. The first hospital was Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Louis. Herbert Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi. The first institution of higher learning was St. Louis University, but it did not start out as a four-year college. The first college to offer a full bachelors degree was Grinnell. 
Steven Simpson