Three dogs, one cat, eleven suitcases, pop, candy, toll booth change, and two humans crammed into a station wagon to follow the Mississippi river to New Orleans. Our flight from Houston left in four days – final destination: Costa Rica, Central America.

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“A foot can never touch the same river twice,” I remembered someone once said as I walked along the river shore for the last time. The Mississippi River had been my home for 35 years. I picked up a gray stone with white stripes. My foot slipped into the cold, rushing water. As I walked to the car, water squished from my shoes. I clutched the gray rock and dropped it into my pocket.

The head waters of the Mississippi is a stream, turning into one of the longest and deepest rivers in the world. A drop of water emerging from Lake Itasca in Minnesota takes 60 days to reach the ocean. The Mississippi changes its mind often, flowing first north then squiggling in every direction down the center of the United States.

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The first night on the road, we stayed somewhere in Iowa. No motel allowed four animals (especially four unruly, drooly, shedding animals). So, my husband and I had a plan. He would check us in while I stayed with the herd in the car parked in the back lot behind semi-trucks.

I sat and waited. My blood sugar level plummeted (the Taco Bell for lunch was wearing thin). The windows fogged from dog breath, and the cat meowed somewhere between the suitcases. My husband returned cupping his nose with a white handkerchief which was now sopped with blood. “I hit my nose,” he said. He was a bit pale, but my patience level for minor injuries was low.

“Okie dokie,” I said figuring if he could walk we were ahead of the game. “Let’s get a move on. The animals are hungry. I’m hungry, and I smell like the inside of a dog’s mouth.”

Part two of the plan was to shield our small gaggle of animals from security cameras and check-in clerks with the suitcases. It began to rain. I ushered in the animals – two by two – carrying a suitcase at my side. Once we were dry, and all six bladders were emptied, we ordered pizza. After waiting for two hours, I could no longer watch CNN due to hunger pains. I decided to clear my head by walking to the lobby to fetch some ice.

I noticed a large piece of glass from the lobby doors was shattered (probably I bullet I thought). I returned to the room and told my husband that there was a huge shattered piece of glass in the lobby and that I thought there had a been a drive by shooting. “No,” he said, “that was my nose.” I handed him the ice.

Our next stop was in Hannibal, Missouri. We stood on the hill where Tom and Huck played. Huge bridges spanned over the fast current. Back in the station wagon, the cat panted. I rubbed an ice cube on her head. We loaded the dogs back into the car and headed south.

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We stopped in Natchez, Mississippi for a tour. We parked the car in the shade (yes the animals were inside, but it was a cool morning and we had the windows down). Longwood Estate was on octagonal brick house surrounded by huge live oaks that dipped to the ground for support. Haller Nut, the owner, had designed this “Moorish castle deep in the forest.” said the brochure.

The Nutts lived in the basement while construction took place on the floors above. Plates were still set on the dining room table. I expected the Nutts home at any moment. On the main floor, construction was never finished.

Tools lay on the floor exactly where the Yankee workers dropped them when the call came to fight in the Civil War. The house was never finished. Mr. Nutt sympathized with the North and the South, so both sides ended up taking his money. He died penniless in the basement.

I changed maps as we entered Louisiana. Cyprus trees grew out of water. The river spread like an oil spill into the backwaters and bayous. In New Orleans, jazz played from inside old wooden houses. And on Bourbon Street, men that looked like American football players strolled with beer in their hands.

Finally we arrived in Houston. Our last night in the United States was spent in a cheap motel surrounded by restaurants that only served deep fried food in baskets. A neon sign blinked behind the pleated curtains. The cat slept behind the toilet, and the dogs sprawled on the beds. The room smelled like fried chicken. I stared at all our belongings and wondered how it was all going to fit into the suitcases.

The next morning, we drugged our animals (as required by the airlines).After paying fees and locking crates, men in gray uniforms wheeled off our pets with our luggage. I paid $3.00 for an espresso and waited to board.

The pilot greeted us in Spanish and English. My pulse raced. Maybe the espresso was kicking in, or maybe I felt something – something exciting. I watched from my window as my dogs and my cat were carted up a a conveyer belt into the belly of the airplane. I fiddled with a necklace I carried for good luck – a little bag of rocks from places I wanted to remember.

The flight from Houston to San José is about three hours. I finished the miniature salad and brownie, handed back my tray, and buckled up for the landing. I pulled the rock from the Mississippi out of my pocket and rubbed it until my thumb was warm.

We flew over green tufts of trees and uneven mountains of Central America. I dropped the rock into the bag; it clinked like a marble against the others. I pulled out another rock, one I had picked up from Costa Rica five years ago – the first time I had ever seen the country. I held the rock in the palm of my hand as the wheels of the plane touched down.

Susan Carmichael is a freelance writer living in Costa Rica. She has developed several education curriculums for children and adults. She has also taught journalism. Susan produced and hosted radio programs and documentaries in Costa Rica including a short story program called “In the Moment” and an hour long interview program focused on the issues of women called “A Woman’s Voice”.

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