Looking for stories along the Mississippi, she's found love

Victoria Bradford Styrbicki and Tom Styrbicki
Tom Styrbicki (left) and Victoria Bradford Styrbicki met while Victoria was scouting a route for her journey along the Mississippi River last spring. They were married exactly a year later, and decided to attempt the trip together. They’re pictured here on the shore of Serpent Lake in Crosby, Minn., on July 21, 2019.
James Napoli | MPR

Victoria Bradford Styrbicki had just finished a 20-mile trek, by foot and bike, between the northern Minnesota towns of Aitkin and Crosby. Now it was noon, and she was cooling off at a town park in Crosby.

That 20 miles may seem like a long distance, but it’s a hop compared to her goal: She’s following the Mississippi River from the headwaters at Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s roughly 2,500 miles. Traveling only by land, she intends to complete the trip in about four months.

It’s a physical feat, but for her, the journey really centers around storytelling.

Along the way, she’s stopping in just over 100 communities. In these cities and towns, she’s meeting with locals to hear about their relationship to the river. Then she’s taking the stories she hears and retelling them to residents downstream.

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The goal is to build empathy — to understand how communities that may seem far removed on a map are linked together, culturally, by the water.

“Maybe it’s not a huge leap to have a connection between Itasca Township and Aitken,” she said. “But maybe from Brainerd to New Orleans, it is.”

Victoria Bradford Styrbicki and Tom Styrbicki
Victoria Bradford Styrbicki (left) and Tom Styrbicki talk with head librarian Abby Smith at the Jessie F. Hallett Memorial Library in Crosby, Minn., on July 21, 2019.
James Napoli | MPR

Victoria is originally from coastal Louisiana and, in a sense, she’s running home. Helping with logistics is her mom, Dinah Bradford, in Lake Charles, La. The project is called Relay of Voices.

“To be honest, I’ve always thought it was sort of a crazy idea,” Dinah Bradford said, laughing. When Victoria first raised the prospect of this journey a couple of years ago, Dinah persuaded her to delay her timeline so they could first take a scouting trip by car to scope out logistics.

That was last spring. While in the Twin Cities, someone suggested they meet with a man who worked for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, a bridge engineer named Tom. He was an avid runner, and might have advice on the route.

They met at a bar on the river in Minneapolis. Victoria remembers it as a chilly day — she wore a wool coat. Tom showed up in shorts and short-sleeved shirt. They hit it off immediately.

“Two hours later, he was like our best friend,” Dinah Bradford remembered. They hugged goodbye, and mother and daughter continued on their way. But the text messages from Tom kept coming.

“At a certain point, my mom looked at me, and she’s like, ‘Who’s that? … is that Tom?’” Victoria said.

“I could tell,” her mom said. “No guy is just texting you because he thinks this is a good idea.”

Victoria and Tom fell in love. This spring, exactly a year from when they first met and just a couple of months before Victoria planned to set off from the headwaters, they were married on a railroad bridge over the St. Croix River.

They decided to do the journey together. “This is our honeymoon,” Tom joked.

They’re partnering with The Water Institute of the Gulf, a Louisiana nonprofit, to log details of the trip — including geographic data, images and sounds. They’re recording much of that information with body cameras as they travel and talk with residents along the way.

Victoria, a performing artist and choreographer by training, is hosting public events in many communities to share what she’s learning along the river. She’ll be at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis at 6 p.m. Monday. Her last stop in Minnesota is Winona on Aug. 4.