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It was dark when we first crossed the Mississippi, and we caught only a glimpse of its swirling mass beneath us. The next day was gray and windy, and the dark mass had turned into a steely, uninviting barrier. The day after that was cloudless and blue — and the suddenly friendly river was too.

Sarah van Schagen and I had only just begun our weeklong reporting trip, but already we’d learned a key lesson: there is no such thing as the Mississippi River. There are many Mississippis.

From its source at Minnesota’s Lake Itasca, the legendary waterway wends about 2,300 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it narrows and widens, rises and falls; it passes farming communities and major metropolitan areas; it is swimmable and decidedly unswimmable; it is controlled by locks and dams, levees, and channels that change its character from one mile to the next. They say you can never step in the same river twice, and nowhere do those words ring more true than along the Mississippi.

Yet despite all this ceaseless variation, there is a common current that runs deep in these muddy waters, tying riverfront communities together north and south. It’s a shared history that goes something like this: abundant river draws settlers; settlers create communities along its banks; industry comes to town, damaging the land and water but boosting the economy; river becomes unloved, mistreated, ignored. Then, part two: that damaged land and water starts damaging the economy; community realizes river is an untapped asset for tourists, new residents, and lifelong citizens; and community springs into action.

It’s that last part that has begun happening in recent years — in many places and taking many forms. We visited three communities where change is occurring, albeit in very different ways: in Dubuque, Iowa, city leaders and citizens have come together to revitalize their riverfront, investing in a bustling mixed-use complex; in St. Louis, Mo., several organizations are partnering to help a regional greenway take shape; and in Memphis, Tenn., proponents of two different riverfront visions are duking it out.

Their stories vary, but they — along with many other communities undertaking hug-your-Mississippi projects — share similar goals: giving residents a place to recreate; attracting young professionals and tourists who can give the economy a shot in the arm; appreciating and protecting this magnificent natural resource. And maybe, just maybe, floating a small apology onto those age-old waters.

“You can’t help but be impressed just by the sheer size of this river, the power of the river, and what it’s capable of doing,” said Brad Winn, a historian in the St. Louis area.

“It’s something to be respected,” echoed Teri Goodmann of the National Mississippi Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, “but it’s not our enemy — it’s really vital for our life.”

Without the Mississippi, we’d be a country poorer in many ways: history, exploration, shipping, trading, literature, music. And without a legacy of turning their backs on the river, these communities wouldn’t know what it feels like to re-embrace what many consider to be their most valuable feature — whatever its color, shape, or form.

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Get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the trip:

Girls Just Want to Have Fun Mississippi Outtakes
Music: “Pig Ankle Rag” by Gerry Dempsey/Ian Jacks; “Take a Ride on a Riverboat” by LeRoux.

Special funding for this project was provided by the McKnight Foundation.