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Couple journeys along Mississippi River for Relay of Voices

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Biking and running the entire length of the Mississippi River is a formidable feat. That’s exactly what Victoria and Tom Styrbicki have devoted the last 72 days of their lives to doing.

When the couple stopped in Tiptonville on Sunday, they were a little more than halfway through their 120-day, 2,400-mile project.

The project, aptly named Relay of Voices, began at the top of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. From there, Victoria and Tom have visited communities along the river, meeting residents and soaking up local culture and landscapes along the way.

As they visit communities along the river, Victoria collects “voices” of community members. She interviews a few people at each stop, observing their movements and finding out what makes people decide to call these river communities home.

What makes these communities special? What do citizens wish they could change about the community? These are just a few questions the project hopes to answer. In addition to interviews, Victoria and Tom wear video cameras to document movements and landscape.

Once Victoria and Tom have completed their journey, Victoria plans to work with research organization The Water Institute of the Gulf to compile the data she collects. Eventually, she plans to write a book about the project.

Sunday, Sept. 15

The couple rolled into Tiptonville on September 15 from Hickman, Kentucky. They met with Shelby Barker at Tiptonville City Hall to talk about Tiptonville, the Mississippi River, and what makes it home.

Barker, an officer with Tiptonville Police Department and a seasoned commercial fisherman, gave Victoria and Tom a tour of the museum at City Hall. Being a Tiptonville native, Barker was able to tell the couple what it’s like to call Tiptonville home. They also discussed the history of Tiptonville and how the river affects agriculture.

The couple spent the rest of the afternoon discovering one of Lake County’s greatest treasures, Reelfoot Lake.

“We got to experience some of that Reelfoot Lake culture,” Victoria said of their afternoon.

Victoria and Tom often rely on the hospitality of the communities they stop at to supply them with a meal and a place to sleep. In Tiptonville, Boyette’s generously donated dinner and a room for them.

Monday, Sept. 16

Ridgely was the next destination on the Relay of Voices trail. Victoria and Tom stopped by the Ridgely Senior Center before going to Lara Kendall Elementary School/Lake County Middle School to learn about the Falcon way. They spoke with Principal David Ayers and gave a presentation about their journey and its purpose to the middle school students.

The students had the opportunity to ask questions about Relay of Voices and talk about what makes their hometown special.

“What makes this place home to you,” Victoria asked the students.
“The country and all of the animals,” one student said. He explained that he and his family enjoy hunting.

Before the presentation wrapped up the students were given postcards, on which they could write their thoughts about their town. The cards will be turned in to LCMS English teachers and then returned to Relay of Voices to be used as part of the data they collect.

Victoria and Tom left Ridgely that afternoon after speaking with their last voice of Ridgely, Kristy Choate, librarian at Ridgely Public Library. They continued on to Dyersburg to rest for the night before continuing their journey on to Ripley.

The art of the river

Relay of Voices is the brainchild of Victoria, an artist originally from Louisiana who has been based in Chicago for the last 10 years.

Long before she could begin her journey down the river, Victoria had to begin extensive research and planning. It was during the planning stages of the project when Victoria met Tom in Minnesota. The two later married, and now Tom assists Victoria in tackling this major project.

They act as a relay team—one of them leaving their latest stop in their minivan as the other runs or bikes and then switching places when the journey gets too tiring. One of them is always biking or running, allowing them to observe the subtle changes in landscape and weather between stops.

Victoria is the executive and artistic director of A House Unbuilt, a not-for-profit organization focused on movement research. She is especially interested in social choreography, which she defines as moving people both physically and conceptually toward greater connectivity. The idea for Relay of Voices came to her as she was thinking of the changes her hometown in Louisiana had gone through since she had last lived there.

“Back home my community has moved and changed,” she said. “My mom always said we were a water people.”

She began thinking about how she could personally reconnect with her hometown, which led her to Relay of Voices.

“Perhaps there is a linkage [in these communities],” she said, “not just through the river but through how they live their lives.”

For more information on Relay of Voices and to follow Victoria and Tom on their journey, visit realyofvoices.com or keep up with them on their Instagram and Facebook pages.

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