A dear professor once wrote to me: “I think of your work as these lasting but fleeting things full of lasting but fleeting little things: someone gone, someone turning the corner, a memory dissolving, trees and road and sky all disappearing, all present…”
That was before I’d ever written about Amelia Earhart.
In 1832, Henry Schoolcraft journeyed to find the source of the mighty Mississippi. The story goes that the name Itasca was cobbled together from the Latin words for “truth” and “head”—veritas and caput, respectively.
But I have always been interested in things that disappear.
I took Latin for seven years, through middle school and high school.
On July 2, 1937, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, named for the lake in Minnesota, was anchored off of Howland Island, Amelia Earhart’s next stop on her final, round-the-world flight.
After I saw the movie Titanic in third grade, I read everything I could get my hands on about the ship and its sinking.
In the same letter, my professor also told me, “Your cadence, your sense of syntactical accumulation relies on repetition, that way in which things appear, disappear, come back, stay with us.”
Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for the second time in 1911, in part for her discovery of the element radium, from the Latin word radius, meaning ray.
Itasca’s radio communications with Earhart were poor from the start. Her last intelligible transmission was WE ARE RUNNING NORTH AND SOUTH.
The waters at Lake Itasca are slow-moving and narrow. Tourists visit there every year to walk across the Mississippi River.
Judy Garland was born on June 10, 1922 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, part of Itasca County.
I wrote about the boots on the ocean floor that outlasted Titanic’s passengers.
Beginning in the Renaissance, artists began to experiment with more accurate perspective by painting the distant horizon a shade of blue. Leonardo da Vinci dubbed this “aerial perspective.” It’s all a matter of wavelength. The Encyclopedia Britannica: “the colours of all distant dark objects tend toward blue.”
Marie Curie disappeared, half-life by half-life, without even knowing it was happening.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, a city on the Mississippi River.
Earhart transmission, 7:42 am: KHAQQ CALLING ITASCA WE MUST BE ON YOU BUT CANNOT SEE YOU BUT GAS IS RUNNING LOW BEEN UNABLE REACH YOU BY RADIO WE ARE FLYING AT ALTITUDE 1000 FEET
All that water. All that sky.
Because Howland Island is so small, the Itasca was supposed to generate a “smoke screen,” a thick cloud of black smoke, to help Earhart locate the runway and land safely. According to documents, “Itasca was laying down smoke screen stretching for ten miles.”
Radium glows a soft blue. Marie Curie kept a jar by her bedside.
Judy Garland disappeared into pills and depression.
I wrote about Pompeii’s buried residents, now just plaster molds. About Hiroshima’s bodies, irreversible shadows.
Zelda Fitzgerald disappeared into the fire that consumed the mental hospital where she spent most of the last 12 years of her life.
The same professor who wrote about my preoccupation with the vanished drove the length of the Mississippi River, 2,350 miles, writing poems along the way.
Scott Fitzgerald disappeared into his gin, his ambition, his obsession with fame.
The course Amelia set from Lae to Howland Island was 2,556 miles.
Transmission, 7:58 am: KHAQQ CALLING ITASCA WE ARE CIRCLING BUT CANNOT HEAR YOU
To reach the place where I would first write about Amelia, I drove across the country, a distance of 2,540 miles.
Amelia herself disappeared, somewhere in the vicinity of Howland Island, somewhere above the Itasca, though no one can be exactly sure where.
In a month, I will move to Minneapolis, a city four hours south of the Mississippi’s source, to start the next leg of my journey.
Who can say what it means.