The cultural and political divisions of our time look as nearly impassible as the snow-covered peaks of the Continental Divide, back before railroads and airplanes. Other great North American drainage divides offer more inviting models. The one I know best separates the watershed of the Lakes/St. Lawrence River from that of the Mississippi River. Waters on one side flow to the North Atlantic; on the other, to the Gulf of Mexico.
This divide looks far from dramatic. It is low, often marshy, and scarcely visible to the casual observer. Centuries ago, before canals, spring rains made some marshes wet enough to paddle across. Otherwise, travelers had to carry goods and canoes overland from one watershed to the other. French fur traders called such crossings portages, from French for “carry.” Major portages connected Green Bay with the Wisconsin River, Chicago with the Illinois River, and Cleveland with the Ohio River. To cross them was tiring but not prohibitive.
The Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Gulf of Mexico are two thousand miles apart. That’s a plausible metaphor for today’s societal distance between right and left, conservative and progressive, red state and blue state. We’ll never all think alike, and it wouldn’t be healthy if we did. But the barrier shouldn’t have to consist of impenetrable mountains. What if we envisioned it as low and possible to traverse? Might we aspire to connect despite differences, and some days even to paddle across?
Image: The Chicago Portage by Edgar Spier Cameron, 1862-1944.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.