Ten days, eleven states (6): The mighty Mississippi, or is it?

It’s not even the longest river, as such, in North America. From its source at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota (that we visited in 2016) until the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi is 2320 miles long.

The Missouri, on the other hand, which joins the Mississippi near St Louis, MO, flows eastwards for 2341 miles from its source high in the Rockies of western Montana before it reaches that confluence.

One of the other main tributaries of the Mississippi is the Ohio River, at a mere 981 miles, yet its flow is much greater than the Mississippi, and at its deepest point, near Louisville, KY, it is over 130 feet deep. That’s some river! The Mississippi and its tributaries drain almost half the land mass of the the United States.

The Ohio joins the Mississippi at the southernmost point of Illinois, Fort Defiance, just south of Cairo, an almost abandoned town that looks like it has suffered one flooding event too many over the years.

Cairo was, apparently, the prototype for Charles Dickens’ ‘City of Eden’ in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (which I read recently as part of my 2017 Charles Dickens challenge) published serially between 1842 and 1844. Dickens visited the USA in 1842. He was not impressed with Cairo; neither were we.

We left Cave City, KY just before noon on the Wednesday (Day 8 of our road trip), heading to Troy, IL, and then to follow the Mississippi north through Missouri, Iowa, and southern Minnesota to St Paul. This is our route from Cave City to Iowa City.

Before reaching Fort Defiance, we had already crossed the Tennessee River, which joins the Ohio River near Paducah, KY. Just before Paducah, we turned west and reached the banks of the Mississippi at Wickliffe, just down river from the confluence.

There are two impressive bridges crossing the Ohio and Mississippi. Seeing the enormity of these constructions makes you really wonder at how much an obstacle these rivers were during the westward expansion of the settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today the Mississippi alone boasts more than 130 bridges along its length.

The Cairo Ohio River bridge on the left (5863 feet) and the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge on the right (5175 feet)

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped here in 1803, and it was a strategic location during the Civil War, for obvious reasons commanding the approaches upriver to both the Ohio and Mississippi.

River selfies! We are standing at the tip of Fort Defiance, the southernmost tip of Illinois. Top: the Ohio River, with Kentucky on the far bank. Middle: the confluence of the the Ohio and Mississippi, looking south, with Kentucky on the left bank, and Missouri on the right. Bottom: the Mississippi River, with Missouri on the far bank over the Cairo Mississippi Road Bridge.

Leaving Fort Defiance, we headed north along the Mississippi, on IL3 until Red Bud, when we headed north and skirted around St Louis to the northeast to reach our next stop at Troy, IL.

The following day, the penultimate one of the trip, took us from Troy all the way north to Iowa City, mostly along the banks of the Mississippi. I can’t deny I faced the 43 miles from our hotel on I-270/70 around the north of St Louis with some trepidation. Although it wasn’t quite as busy as I had feared, there was some careful navigation and changing lanes constantly to ensure we headed out in the right direction. Eventually we reached our exit and headed north on MO79, having crossed the Mississippi to cross into Missouri, and then the Missouri River.

Just over 40 miles north from where we left I-70, the road ran parallel to the Mississippi, and just a few meters away. Having been on the road for a couple of hours, and looking for the inevitable comfort break, we stopped in the small community of Clarksville. There’s a lock and a dam at this point on the Mississippi, and just at that moment a large grain barge (probably empty) was moving through on its way north.

Clarksville has been flooded many times, and some of the riverside properties looked as though they wouldn’t be able to sustain yet another one.

At Louisiana, MO (about 36 miles north of Clarksville) we stopped to view the Champ Clark Bridge from a high vantage point. Built in 1928, this bridge no longer has the capacity for the traffic on US54. By the end of 2019 a new and wider bridge will be in place.

In southern Iowa, north of Montrose, we were reminded once again of the great migration westwards, of pioneers seeking a better life, in this case Mormons heading to Utah. In 1846, Mormons were hounded out of Illinois just across the river, at Nauvoo. The river is well over 1 mile wide here.

A bystander told us that the white building on the opposite bank in Illinois was a Mormon temple, now abandoned.

We turned inland at Muscatine, IA to spend our last night at Coralville, a suburb of Iowa City.

The following morning, we continued our route north across Iowa: flat, rather boring landscape, and mile upon mile of maize. Once we crossed into Minnesota, we turned northeast to Winona and the Mississippi once again. To the west of the town, there is access to Garvin Heights Lookout, some 500 feet above the river. What a view, north and south!

In this stretch of the river, it forms a series of wide lakes. North of Winona, we stopped briefly to view Lake Pepin.

Then it was time to push on, and complete the final 63 miles of our epic road trip via Red Wing and Hastings, MN. Leaving the Mississippi at Hastings and pushing westwards to wards St Paul, we finally arrived at the home of our elder daughter Hannah and her family alongside the Mississippi in the Highland area. The final three days were certainly a Mississippi adventure, although I never aspired to be a latter-day Huckleberry Finn.

The video below covers the final three days of our trip from Fort Defiance to the Twin Cities.

 

 

Ten days, eleven states (1): Almost 2800 miles from Georgia to Minnesota

Yes. That’s right. Eleven states in just ten days.

2764 miles to be precise. Ninety-four gallons of gasoline consumed. Almost 30 mpg at just USD209. That’s not bad considering we rented a Jeep Patriot SUV (with a Connecticut licence plate!).

I’d opted for a car rental through Rentalcars.com and chose Alamo as the best deal. Just USD357 for the actual rental, USD250 for the one way drop-off fee, and USD98 for roadside assistance cover and various taxes.

I had planned our route meticulously, taking in various sites and landscape features I thought would be interesting, and avoiding as much as possible any of the interstate highways. I bought Rand McNally road maps for all states except Virginia and Minnesota (we already had a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer for MN). I checked precise US and State Routes using Google maps since the scale of the Rand McNally didn’t always show the road name. I even used Google Streetview to check the various intersections, and before we traveled I already had an image in my mind of the entire route.

I prepared daily detailed route plans on cards, which Steph used to navigate us across country from Atlanta to Minnesota, with each map marked at decision points corresponding to the route card details (you can just make out a series of circles on the map below).

Fortunately, US roads are very well signposted and road signs (e.g. US61 or GA23, for example) are posted every few miles. It was hard to go wrong, but we did on three occasions; nothing major, however. My first mistake was leaving the car rental center at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. I turned on to I-85N instead of I-85S, but was able to turn around within a mile. On two other occasions we made a turn too early, but realised almost immediately. Not bad really for such a long road trip. Nor did we encounter any road works that held us up, or any road accidents. We almost never saw a police car.

These four map links show the actual route we took over the ten days:

Atlanta – Savannah, GA – Greenwood, SC – Blairsville, GA
31 May – 3 June
Blairsville, GA – Cave City, KY
4 – 6 June
Cave City – Iowa City, IA
7 – 8 June
Iowa City – St Paul, MN
9 June

We stayed in ‘chain’ hotels like Best Western, Comfort Inn, Quality Inn and the like, about USD100 or so a night. In Savannah we stayed at The Planters Inn on Reynolds Square, close to the river and other historic attractions, and this was our most expensive at around USD230 including taxes and valet parking. Breakfast (if you can call it that) was provided in each hotel. For lunch, eaten by the roadside or at a scenic viewpoint, we picked up a freshly-made sandwich and with some fruit from the hotel, we had enough to keep us going until a substantial dinner in the evening. Surprisingly, we ate Mexican on three nights and had very good meals. There was even beer! Twice we ate at the nearby Cracker Barrel Old Country Store – reasonable food but no beer. Walking into our second Cracker Barrel in Troy, IL it was déjà vu; the layout of the restaurant and the store was identical to the one we patronised in Johnson City, TN.

Anyway, here is a summary of our epic road trip.

31 May, Atlanta, GA – Macon, GA, 82 miles
Our flight (DL73) from Amsterdam landed on time just after 14:15, and despite arriving at an E pier and having to walk the considerable distance over to the new F International Terminal for immigration and customs, then taking a 15 minute shuttle to the new car rentals center beyond the airport perimeter, we were on the road not long after 16:00. We were headed to Macon on I-75, some 82 miles southeast of Atlanta towards Savannah to spend our first night, and recover—to the extent possible—from our long day of travel from Birmingham (BHX), arriving to our hotel (Best Western on Riverside Drive) just around 18:00

Just arrived at Best Western in Macon

We had the room on the right of the balcony, overlooking Reynolds Square

1 June, Macon – Savannah, GA, 167 miles
Since we had only a relatively short journey to reach Savannah, and because I wanted us to get a good rest before setting off once again, we didn’t leave Macon until after 09:00. Our hotel in Savannah (Planter’s Inn on Reynolds Square) had contacted me that morning by SMS asking what time we expected to arrive and hoping to have a room ready then. Not only was our room ready at just after 11:00, but we’d been upgraded to a balcony room. Once we had settled in, we set off on a leisurely stroll around the historic riverside where the old cotton warehouses have been converted to restaurants and other retail outlets, as well as apartments.

Savannah oozes history (and Spanish moss) – a direct line of historical events from the early 18th century, when it was founded, through Colonial times, and the turmoil of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

2 June, Savannah – Greenwood, SC, 196 miles
We spent the morning in Savannah absorbing the Colonial, Revolutionary and Civil Wars history of this beautiful city. The weather didn’t look promising, with thunderstorms forecast, so we left the hotel by 07:30 and wandered through the various squares, parks and colonial streets for three hours, with just a small shower to bother us. After freshening up at the hotel and checking out, we were on the road again by 11:30, headed for Greenwood in the northwest of South Carolina.

The US17 route out of Savannah crosses the Savannah River over the fine-looking Talmadge Memorial Bridge, completed in 1991, 185 feet above the water.

We passed through a heavy rainstorm for the first 20 miles or so, but the weather brightened, and we stopped for a bite to eat beside the road in glorious sunshine. The road north was almost completely straight passing through small towns with names like Denmark, Sweden and Norway. There wasn’t much evidence of much agriculture, just some maize on this coastal plain with rather sandy soils. Communities seemed quite impoverished (according to the 2010 census it is the 7th poorest state). Nevertheless, the Southern Baptist (and some Presbyterian) churches and chapels stood in stark contrast. I’ve never seen so many places of worship so close together. There must be a lot of wicked souls need saving in South Carolina (and surrounding states) to require so many churches, often within just a few hundred yards of each other (or closer).

We were in Greenwood by 17:00, found our hotel, the Hampton Inn, and enjoyed steak and seafood meals at the Red Lobster outlet beside the hotel.

3 June, Greenwood – Blairsville, GA, 195 miles
Distance-wise this was never going to be one of the longest days, but I had planned our route climbing into the Appalachians through the Chatterhoochee National Forest on US60, a winding road among the trees.

We departed from Greenwood around 08:00 and made our first stop at the SC-GA state line to look over the Savannah River at Calhoun Falls. We had another stop at Cleveland, GA to tour the historic courthouse museum, and arrived in Blairsville by about 15:00.

Not wanting to go straight to our hotel, the Comfort Inn, so early in the day, we opted for a 55 mile round trip taking in some of the hills and forest to the north and east of Blairsville, arriving to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia at 4500 feet, around 16:30 just in time to take the last shuttle bus to the summit, and down again. I decided not to walk the 1 mile descent from the summit to the car park because the average gradient was more than 14%, and Steph and I were concerned that I might hurt my right leg, which is still giving me some grief 18 months after I broke it.

4 June, Blairsville – Johnson City, TN 282 miles
This was our opportunity of really traveling through the Appalachians. I’d chosen to travel east along the Cherohala Skyway in North Carolina. We had expected some poor weather this day, so set off as early as we could get away in order to enjoy the early morning brightness. The Cherohala offers some spectacular views along the way, and we were not disappointed at all.

Looking south from the Cherohala Skyway over North Carolina

But the further east we went, the more cloudy it became, and by the time we reached US441 to cross the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it was raining quite hard and we didn’t really see very much at all. We took the side route of about seven miles to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point over 6600 feet. Couldn’t see a thing! But lower down on the north side, the weather improved and we did see something of the Smoky Mountains.

We then dropped down to Gatlinburg in Tennessee. If you’ve ever harbored the desire to visit Gatlinburg – don’t. What a tourist disaster! A narrow highway through the center of the town, tackiest tourist souvenir stores lining both sides, and even though this was early in the tourist season, there were throngs of people about. I’m glad we were only passing through. Then it was on to our hotel on the outskirts of Johnson City.

5 June, Johnson City – Charleston, WV, 380 miles
The focus early in the day was the Cumberland Gap, northwest of Johnson City by about 80 miles or so. Not long after leaving Johnson City, along US11, we passed through one of the heaviest rain storms I’ve ever experienced. I could hardly see in front of the car. But by the time we reached Cumberland Gap, the clouds had lifted somewhat, and the sun appeared.

The ‘Cumberland Gap’ is familiar to me from my skiffle days, as sung by Lonnie Donegan.

We went up to the Pinnacle Overlook, hoping to see the views over Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky – even as far as North Carolina on a good day. It was only a case of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ as the clouds came rolling in, then dispersed. As a major pass through the Appalachians, the Cumberland Gap was strategically important for both the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War of the 1860s, and changed sides every so often. There is still evidence of military occupation high on the Overlook.

Looking north into Kentucky and the town of Middlesboro. The highway has just emerged from the tunnel through the Gap.

Then later in the day, heading east towards Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, we traveled along The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in Virginia. Until I was planning this trip, I wasn’t even aware that the Trail was a real entity, not after I’d heard Laurel and Hardy singing about it.

6 June, Charleston – Cave City, KY, 371 miles
Our destination this day was Cave City in central Kentucky where we planned to visit the Mammoth Cave National Park the following day. Heading west out of Charleston on I-64, we turned south at Morehead in Kentucky (about 110 miles west) to head south through the Daniel Boone National Forest.

We traveled some 125 miles along scenic highways and byways. Then we turned west on the Cumberland Parkway west of Somerset, KY for the rest of the day’s trip to make up some time and so as not to arrive to our hotel too late. However, Kentucky is divided into two time zones, so we gained an hour (from Eastern to Central Time) about 80 miles east of Cave City.

7 June, Cave City – Troy, IL, 367 miles
The Mammoth Cave National Park opened at 08:00, and we were at the Visitor Center not long afterwards. I had booked a tour of the Frozen Niagara cave some months back, at 09:20. This was a guided tour, the first of the day, and to a cave that was easily accessible. I didn’t want to contend with scrambling over rocks with my leg. In any case we planned to stay at the Park only until late morning as we still had the whole day’s trip of over 350 miles to make.

We enjoyed the cave, along with a group of fewer than 30 others. The caves are kept closed and it’s generally not possible to visit them alone. What amazed us is that the cave system, at over 440 mapped miles is the largest system in the world. The Park gets very busy during school holidays, and we were fortunate to have visited when we did.

Our next port of call was Fort Defiance at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the southernmost point of Illinois. Most impressive.

Then we followed the Mississippi north towards St Louis and our hotel in Troy just northeast of the city, catching a glimpse of the famous Gateway Arch as we skirted the city center on the Illinois side of the river.

8 June, Troy – Iowa City, IA, 332 miles
Our plan was to follow the Mississippi north through Missouri into Iowa. Heading west around the north of St Louis we crossed both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers close to their confluence. Heading north on MO79, we stopped at Clarksville to stretch our legs, and look at the dam and lock, where a very large combination of barges was being ferried northwards slowly against the current.

Further north we stopped also at Louisiana, MO to view the Champ Clark Bridge that connects MO and IL, from a vantage point high above the river.

Then it was on to our next, and last, overnight stop in Iowa City.

9 June, Iowa City – St Paul, MN, 333 miles
Our last day on the road, heading north on very straight roads, before crossing into southern Minnesota and crossing the Bluff Country eastwards to reach Winona on the Mississippi.

Just south of the Iowa-Minnesota state line we passed through Cresco, IA which proudly advertises itself as the birthplace of Dr Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution in wheat and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 1973, who I had the honour of meeting when I worked at IRRI.

In Winona, we took a short diversion to a scenic overlook about 500 feet above the river valley and had a spectacular view north and south.

Then we set off with added determination to arrive to Hannah and Michael’s in the Highland Park area of St Paul by late afternoon, and the end of our enjoyable 2017 road trip adventure.

Here are the individual blog posts about the various places we visited:

‘Perhaps the most typically American place in America’. (James Bryce, 1888)

Chicago, Illinois. The Windy City. Where we spent three very enjoyable days at the end of September, having made the trip from St Paul, MN on the Amtrak Empire Builder.

Each year when we cross The Pond to visit our daughter Hannah and family (husband Michael, Callum and Zoë) in Minnesota, we try to make a trip to see other parts of that vast and diverse country. In 2011, it was a trip to canyon country in Arizona and New Mexico. Then in 2012, we headed to the ‘Minnesota Riviera‘ along Lake Superior, and the Gunflint Trail. 2013 saw us on the coast of Oregon, then a road trip south to Crater Lake and the redwoods of northern California. And in 2014, we drove to Yellowstone National Park from St Paul.

Since we had already made a 2,300 mile road trip around Scotland and the Western Isles at the end of May-early June, I didn’t fancy another long drive. But a short break in Chicago seemed to fit in well with our schedule. And, after all, Chicago is one of the great US cities that has to be in your travel plans at some stage. Until we visited I hadn’t heard about the Great Fire of Chicago in October 1871 when several square miles of the city were destroyed. But this also gave an opportunity to build a better city, and upwards.

20150930 0707

The skyline of Chicago is stunning, see here from the Milton L Olive III Memorial Park on the shore-front of Lake Michigan. One of the tallest buildings, the John Hancock Center is the black tower on the right. Just click on any of the galleries to open larger images.

Chicago skyline

20150930 0530

The Milton L Olive III Memorial Park (with Navy Pier in the background), looking southeast from the 360 Observatory. The Chicago skyline photo above was taken from the platform halfway along the park shore.

Our train from St Paul arrived at Union Station on schedule just before 4 pm on the Tuesday afternoon, and we were at our apartment hotel, De Witt Place on the northern edge of Streeterville (seen here outlined in red) in about 30 minutes.

de-witt place

The hotel was fine, although the bathroom was small and a little ‘tired’. I’d found it through Booking.com that we have used on several times before when planning our travels in the USA. The price was right (USD416 incl. taxes for three nights), and because there was a kitchen we could make our own arrangements for breakfast. A well-stocked convenience store was just across the street. The location couldn’t have been better: just a block from the shore of Lake Michigan (and its miles of walking opportunities), and two blocks from the John Hancock Center and its 360 Observatory on the 94th floor, one of our principal objectives during our Chicago trip.

First thing on the Wednesday morning we headed to the John Hancock Center, expecting to find a large number of like-minded tourists aiming for the top. I’d read some horrendous reviews indicating that it could take more than 80 minutes waiting for a lift to the top. I’d already purchased tickets online (USD19 each).

20150930 0794

Just before 9 am we found ourselves at the head of the queue of about a dozen people, and after a 40 second lift ride we were whisked to the top and the stunning views over four states: Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan (and perhaps even as far southwest as Iowa). During the 1½ hours we spent there, it never did become really busy. We enjoyed a cup of coffee looking north towards Lincoln Park and its zoo and conservatory that we planned to visit the following day.

The latest attraction 94 floors up is Tilt. A section of the wall tilts out at an angle of almost 35°! Not for me. I suffer from vertigo, and am never completely comfortable until I’m on terra firma at ground level.

20150930 0514

Back down, we began our first day’s walking—at least six miles (and almost seven the next day, and four on our final morning). The weather could not have been better, with temperatures in the high 70sF, clear blue skies, great visibility from the 360, and for once, Chicago was the Windless City.

We headed south down N Michigan Ave (The Magnificent Mile) towards the Chicago River, admiring the ‘canyon’ of skyscrapers that have sprung up over the decades. One of the most beautiful is the older Chicago Tribune Tower (completed in 1925) with its Gothic, almost art deco embellishments. Chicago architecture is magnificent. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I really like these high rise, reflecting the beauty of the buildings all around them. And I never cease to wonder at the engineering and construction that goes into designing and building these masterpieces.

Chicago has taken a lot of effort to spruce itself up and welcome visitors. All along The Magnificent Mile, there are attractive sidewalk gardens, and in front of most of the hotels, flower beds are carefully tended.

The Chicago Riverwalk is still being refurbished, but is open along various stretches, affording excellent views of all the buildings gracing its banks. There are plenty of places to rest or sidewalk cafes where we enjoyed a light lunch of local pâtés and bread.

Among the tallest buildings in Chicago is Trump International Hotel and Tower and, from a distance, it is indeed rather striking. Up close, it’s rather jaded and a little tacky; few of the commercial outlets have been let, and I guess many of the 98 floors are yet unoccupied. Named after Donald, it must take an awfully large ego to have your name in letters on the side of the building, two stories high.

20150930 0641

Thursday morning. We headed north along the shore of Lake Michigan to Lincoln Park. Destination?

20150930 0732

20150930 0737

Then it was almost time to return to the Twin Cities. On the Friday morning we had an early breakfast, and crossed over to the Lake Michigan shore to walk through a ‘haven of tranquility’, the Milton L Olive Memorial Park. Just a short distance from the bustle of downtown Chicago, there were just a few joggers and dog walkers.

I guess there was so much more that we could have chosen to visit in Chicago—other parks, museums and the like. But we only had 2½ days, and we wanted to walk everywhere. And even though there were so many other attractions we could have taken in, we are quite happy with our trip (including the train journey). We found good restaurants, and convenient to our hotel. But we didn’t get to try the famous Chicago deep-dish pizza. On the other hand, the local Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Ale was excellent.

Would I visit Chicago again? You bet! But there are many other places around the USA I’d like to visit first.

Here’s a video of almost all the photographs I took: