Looking at my map in eastern Iowa, I decide to swing northeast so I can then drive south along the Mississippi River. The road out to the river is pretty as the map advertises, but it doesn't prepare me for the dose of charm I experience in Bellevue, right on the Mississippi. Come through town to a T-junction, and there in front is the river, placid and wide.
When I park, I slowly realize that there's a lock on the river, right here. The giveaways are a dam, an elaborate looking gate mechanism, and various signs warning about cables and US Govt Property Keep Out. There's a chain-link fence that I can go up to and look through, and that's a pretty good view of the river, so I'm satisfied, I'm willing to Keep Out. But I wonder, since it's a lock, will I get a chance to see it at work, for some ship coming through? That would be a fine bonus.
For the time being, I walk up and down the area, into a patch of grass that tells me I should clean up after my dog. Don't have a dog, but that sign makes me walk about the grass a little more carefully. After a while, I yank out Chinese food leftover from last night and sit on a bench for a nice, if cold lunch.
Then, a toot on a horn. Another toot on a horn. At the locks, there's a large ship, one of those Mississippi steamers that are now tourist experiences. Definitely a fine bonus. The toots, actually, are not from the steamer, but from the dock, where a man announces its arrival at the lock. I stroll closer and yes, this steamer is awaiting its turn to go through the lock. Standing around on the boat's various levels are various overweight people, mostly retired-looking and taking photos in every direction. High above them is the captain, leaning on a truly giant wheel.
I'm taking photographs through the fence, and a tough-looking muscular young man walks past saying "It's a good thing you're over there, otherwise I might break your camera". I'm startled for an instant, wondering if this has something to do with the "Keep Out" business. But then he breaks into a smile and says, "No, no, just kidding that if I was in your shot, I'd have broken your camera!" We both laugh, though mine is a little uncertain. He has "Runde Streif" on the front of his T-shirt.
He walks down the dock to a control room. I ask him if he's about to open the gate; he says yeah, just as soon as the water level goes down enough. From a gauge on the side of the lock, I can see the water level falling as we speak, it's down to 5 feet and sinking. I can tell it was up at 12 feet when this started.
In minutes, the gates open slowly, and a small boat that had been hidden below the rim of the lock shoots into the open like a bird let free, meandering about the surface of the river beyond almost as if it is, indeed, suddenly free to explore. Then the captain behind me mutters into a mike to his passengers. The steamer swings away from the side of the lock and, picking up speed surprisingly fast for such a big boat, overtakes me as I try to keep pace. It shoots into the open river too, though being so big it doesn't look so much like a bird set free as a bear, perhaps, set free. (Having said that, I don't recall ever watching a bear being set free).
Within minutes, it's a blue dot in the distance, a blue dot with tall smokestacks.
My Runde Streif friend walks back from the control room and tugs at some random cables. I ask him (protecting my camera as I do), why are the locks necessary? He looks into the distance, with a look that says he's either thinking through his answer or wondering "Oh lord, when will I be free of stupid questions?" He explains that the Upper Mississippi has a very low "draft", averaging only a few feet through its length. Boats that ply the river tend to need a draft of 12 feet. The locks, 26 of them along this stretch of the river, one every couple dozen miles, maintain that 12 foot draft. In effect, boats are not so much floating down the river as climbing down a series of long steps. Or terraces.
That's my technical exposition for the day.
Nearby is a Coke vending machine and I suddenly realize I'm thirsty, maybe vending machines do that to me. Walk over, digging precisely 65 cents out of my pocket, and I find it needs 75. Walk over to my car and find an extra 10 cents lying around inside. Walk back to the vending machine, feed my coins into the slot and push the button for what I hope will be an ice-cold can of Coke, perfect for this hot day. The machine burps and grinds encouragingly. But nothing comes out. I push every button I can see. Neither a Coke nor my money emerges. I'm about to grab the machine and shake it hard, when I see a sign: "Shaking this machine will not release product."
Beyond the fence, my Runde Streif friend is watching.