Mississippi River

Mississippi is difficult word. Especially for non native English speaker, like me, all those double consonants were impossible to memorize. Only after some years I learnt how to spell it. It is also one of those names which start imagination. When I was young I was looking at maps of USA and this great river was always catching my attention. Then there were books, (anyone remembers Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer) and movies which placed Mississippi deep in my head. Finally, last summer, I decided to visit central USA, including the Mississippi river valley.

I started my trip in rather unusual place which was Davenport, Iowa. Now, it is not where most people start travelling alongside the Mississippi River. Iowa in general is not a state where tourists are going in droves. In my case I had to cross it on my way from the great plains of Dakotas and Nebraska to the Great River itself. Davenport didn’t really look like city worth stopping, (apart from the night in a cheap motel), so I immediately crossed to Moline, Illinois, which I would probably pass as well but I got lost. But let’s start from the beginning. I got off the highway to stop at the Illinois welcome center. Most states in the US operate tourist information centers alongside the major interstates. They are usually real mines of useful, as well as useless, information, brochures and glossy magazines. After getting all I needed I was trying to go back to the interstate 80 but somehow ended up in Moline. Driving up and down, trying to get back to the freeway, I found place called the John Deere pavilion. John Deere is one of the American icons. In the Midwest John Deere baseball cap is as important part of the local clothing as Stetson hat is in the American west. Pavilion itself, apart from great gift shop full of toy machines and branded clothing, offered a chance of getting into some seriously big machines. Where else could you try how it feels to sit in the driver’s seat of a combine harvester or the 8345RT tractor with caterpillars instead of wheels? If you have even a bit of child left in you, don’t skip this place!

From Moline I used main roads away from the river to get to Hannibal, Missouri where the real trip along the Mississippi started. Hannibal is small, quintessentially American, town famous as a place where Mark Twain grew up. The town became inspiration for fictional town of St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nowadays the biggest attractions in town are those connected to the great writer himself like his boyhood home, museum or J.M. Clemens Justice of the peace office (Mark’s father office). But the best way of experiencing the town is to wonder aimlessly around its few streets enjoying lazy atmosphere. South of town there is a vista point on top of the high bluff which offers great view of the Mississippi valley and the town of Hannibal itself. Similarly good view you can find north of downtown from the lighthouse. Yes, there is a lighthouse in Hannibal, thousands of kilometers from the nearest ocean.

The best way of following Mississippi is to drive the Great River Road, a well marked scenic byway, running almost the entire length of the river. It uses local, county and state highways on both banks of the river as close to the water as possible. Navigation is made easy by signs featuring steering wheel but it helps to have some detailed map as this road can be a bit more complicated than you might expect from a popular tourist route. I decided to follow eastern branch of it which offered a taste of the real rural Illinois. Fields, farms, small towns, lush greenery and heat.

After passing towns Quincy and Warsaw I arrived to Nauvoo. It is small town, with population just above one thousand, but historically quite important. In 1839 group of Mormons settled there, among them Joseph Smith founder of the religion and Brigham Young, leader who after death of Smith led Mormons west to Utah territory. Because of that it is a place where you can probably see more Utah license plates than anywhere outside the Utah itself. Today Nauvoo is a very well preserved town with number of historic houses and local businesses (like black smith shop, bakery, post office or gunsmith shop) looking almost exactly as they did 160 years ago. There is also replica of the historic temple. Build in 2002 but looks identical as the original one.

North of Nauvoo I continued along the Great River Road. It wasn’t the most spectacular part of it. Land was flat and I couldn’t see river from the road as it was hidden behind the tall levees. Finally, I spend a night on some god forgotten campground where mosquitoes wanted to eat me alive.
In northern Illinois things got much more interesting. High bluffs appeared on the both sides of the river with road squeezed between them and the Mississippi itself. One of the best places to explore this varied topography is Mississippi Palisades State Park. Short hiking trails lead from parking lots to scenic overlooks from where you can see the river valley stretching for miles north and south. Apart from a spectacular topography, the northern Illinois (and Iowa on the western bank of Mississippi) offer interesting small towns like Fulton, Clinton, Savanna or Sabula, the last one located on the island in the middle of the river.

The most famous of them is actually few miles of the Mississippi. Galena at its peak in the mid-19th century was booming mining community with population of 14,000. Now, with only 3,500 inhabitants, it is much more quiet place. Its downtown is almost completely preserved and is full of historic houses and churches located on a hilly terrain. One of the main attractions is home of general Ulysses S. Grant, the civil war hero. The whole town is a perfect place for lazy stroll, doing some shopping, or having a nice meal. It is also very photogenic but the best time to take pictures is in the earlier part of the day as it is located mostly on the north-western slopes and in the afternoon you will have sun facing you. After Galena I left Mississippi river valley for a while and moved inland to southern Wisconsin. My destination was town of New Glarus. As the name suggests it was established as a Swiss community and even now in the countryside surrounding the highway leading there you can spot farms proudly displaying Swiss flags next to the American ones. The town itself offers quite bizarre experience with some pseudo-alpine buildings. In some moments you can get really confused. Are we still in USA? But all this unashamed commercialization hide community with really interesting history. You can explore it in Swiss Historical Village which preserve some original wooden buildings from the early pioneer times. At the end you can have pizza in pizzeria Ticino, which looks exactly like moved from the Alps.

After continuing my detour to Madison, where I visited Wisconsin State Capitol, it was time to get back to the river. In Wisconsin the Great River Road follows state highway 35 and it is a truly spectacular drive. One place which you shouldn’t miss is the Wyalusing State Park at the confluence of Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, just south of the Prairie Du Chien. It offers spectacular views from the 150m tall bluffs, on top of which you can find prehistoric Indian mounds. Campground in the park has some of the best tent sites I have seen in my life. They are located right on the bluffs edge so you can see spectacular views practically from your tent. Unfortunately they have to be reserved in advance, so I couldn’t stay there. That caused other problems. There was some convention or gathering going on the weekend I was there so all the hotels in Prairie Du Chien, and also in town of McGregor on the Iowa side of river, were full. I ended up driving over 20 miles west, inland into rural Iowa, to the town of Postville where I stayed in the worst motel in my life. Doggy, dirty, creepy, with bad service and not as cheap as you could imagine.

Anyway, the following morning weather was great and I got back to the river in a good mood indeed. North of Prarie Du Chien lays probably the most spectacular part of the Mississippi Valley. Almost all the way to the outskirts of St. Paul (about 200 miles away) you encounter one amazing vista after another one. The valley is also dotted with small towns like Ferryville, Genoa, Stockholm, De Soto or Alma. They usually contain few houses, a bar or two, local shop, sometimes a gas station, all which makes them very tranquil. It is also fun to cross the river on some narrow and steep steel bridges linking Wisconsin with northern Iowa and southern Minnesota. It is big attraction especially for road and bridge geeks like me. One of the best spots to enjoy the great view of the Mississippi valley is Garvin Heights City Park in Winona, Minnesota. Located just off the US Hwy 61, this view point offers an amazing vista of Winona, which is located in the middle of the valley, and the surrounding countryside. Equally good view you can find from Wabasha Overlook at the outskirts of the town of Wabasha, also in Minnesota just few miles up the river. The difference is that if you can drive to the viewpoint in Winona you have to climb to the one in Waabasha. The landscape is really impressive all the way to suburbs of the Twin Cities.

It was my dream for many years to follow the Mississippi river. I red books about it, explored maps, watched movies etc. And I have to say I wasn’t disappointed seeing it in reality.

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