That is why it felt especially cathartic to drive along the Mississippi’s wide, lazy expanse the next morning and pass the green pilot wheel sign in the Quad Cities indicating the Great River Road. Had it just been the two of us, Nancy and I might have mused over what it all meant – the arc of our marriage seen through the prism of the river. But our youngest, Sylvie, was annoyed at being in her car seat, so we rushed to our first stop, Arsenal Island, the largest island on the Mississippi.
Our guide during the entire trip was a surprisingly useful – and free – foldout map of the Great River Road, published by the Mississippi River Parkway Commission. It identified interpretive centers connected to the byway in each state along the river. These were a mix of museums, historic sites, nature centers and other attractions. Iowa was an overachiever with 16. We chose to stop at the places that interested us the most, and we were never disappointed.
On this first stop, though, the map probably should have indicated that the blandly named Mississippi River Visitor Center Lock and Dam 15 was within a heavily guarded military base. Arsenal Island is headquarters of the First Army and a weapons manufacturing facility that dates back to the Spanish-American War. To gain access, we had to talk to an armed security guard standing behind bulletproof glass, get our picture taken, and undergo an instant background check.
It was worth it. At the visitor center, we watched the lock at work, lowering boats from one portion of the river to the next. We learned that the first bridge to span the Mississippi was built on the island. Completed in April 1856, it was destroyed soon after, rammed by the steamboat Effie Afton. Abraham Lincoln defended the bridge company in a legal case that followed, a trial that elevated him to national prominence.
From the visitor center, we walked past the sole remaining stone pillar from that first bridge, and then stopped to throw rocks and sticks into the water. Our children sat on the generous, bowing limb of a shoreline oak tree and reveled in their climbing abilities. We were totally alone. It felt like something out of Mark Twain’s childhood.
Arsenal Island, like other subsequent stops along the Great River Road, lacked tourists but held many layers of history. Originally the site of a wooden fort that extended American control into the upper Mississippi, it also contained a Confederate cemetery, a National Cemetery, a U.S. Army museum, and 19th-century stone buildings that give the base the feel of a college campus.
We could have stayed there for a while, but the Quad Cities were only 160 miles west of Chicago, and we had a lot more of the Mississippi River to see. Over the next two days, we wandered down through Iowa and Missouri and the southern tip of Illinois, where the river’s unmolested banks were marked by transport and industry. Sometimes the Great River Road ran within a stone’s throw of the Mississippi. However, when the road swerved away, I could always find the river again by searching for the cooling towers of factories that lined the banks. Some of the factories looked abandoned, others were grimy with work. They processed corn, phosphate, meat, stone and sand, the base materials of our world.
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The wild Mississippi was nonetheless easy to find. Hawks flew everywhere, over fields just beginning to blossom, over forests and water. My son asked if they were playing tag. We stopped at little river towns and threw more rocks into the river. As we drove further south, the budding trees looked fuzzy and newly born.
Sometimes traveling is filled with annoyances – missing the turn off a highway or negotiating between three children and only two pretzel sticks. But other moments are so unexpectedly profound that they make the entire trip worthwhile. We had one of those in Southern Illinois.
Our Great River Road map led us to Fort de Chartres, a mostly reconstructed French fort that dates back to the 18th century, when the French claimed sovereignty over large portions of the Mississippi River basin. As we neared the site, I realized that the markings on the road had disappeared. It was nothing more than a ribbon of asphalt. Insects rose thickly from the fields and we opened the windows to let in the afternoon sun. Everything in this little corner of the world seemed happy.
The parking lot at Fort de Chartres was nearly empty. Acres of luminescent grass surrounded us, dotted by tall cottonwood trees. An ancient playground set, rust-streaked but still functional, tantalized our children. I climbed the levee that stands between the fort and the Mississippi’s floodplains. On the other side, an abandoned mailbox and driveway lay under several feet of water.
Walking back, I approached three people dressed in French colonial attire. One of them was a middle-aged woman so perfectly outfitted that I was momentarily surprised that she spoke English. They were members of “Les Amis du Fort de Chartres,” a volunteer organization dedicated to the upkeep of the fort. She showed me around – the small but excellent museum, and an intact powder magazine, the oldest structure in Illinois. Afterward, my 6-year-old daughter spent a half-hour trying to pet suspicious cats. As I watched her, my mind flashed back to a memory so old it seemed more like a dream. I was the child searching for cats, and my father was watching me, grinning happily, just like I was grinning at my daughter.
We left Fort de Chartres and passed an old cemetery with a memorial that read, “Here lie buried the remains of Michigamea Indians, early French adventurers, black slaves, victims of wars, massacres, floods and plagues.” We got lost afterward, and drove along a tiny road built on top of the levees. In the distance, something sat in the middle of the road. I slowed down and stopped nearby.
Nancy ran to check it out, followed by our children. It was a huge snapping turtle, its shell covered with a mix of mud and dried prairie grass. It looked like it had emerged from an ancient era, when the Mississippi River basin held great and wondrous animals – like the mastodons whose skeletons are still found everywhere. Another car hurtled by and almost hit the turtle. Quickly, we lifted it into the grass.
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The levee road ended at the Mississippi River, next to a man fishing and a faded sign indicating that the area used to be the landing point of a ferry. Our car and phone GPS gave us conflicting instructions, but it didn’t matter. We were in no rush for the moment to pass. With the windows still open, we drove into the setting sun.
We kept heading south, through the boot of Missouri on the way to Memphis. By design, we stayed on the western side of the river, far away from Dyersburg and the site of our honeymoon crash.
In Memphis, the midway point of our trip, we stayed at the Peabody Hotel, where our children spent nearly two days splashing in the pool and watching the hotel’s famous duck residents. Finally, we set off for the town of Helena, Ark., to visit the Delta Cultural Center. It turned out to be another excellent museum that highlighted the music of the delta as a response to slavery. There were a few exhibits for children, but mainly they loved listening to recordings of gospel and blues musicians.
Leaving town, we visited Helena River Park and walked along a wooden pier that soared through trees and stopped at the river’s edge. The muddy water ran fast. Everything from twigs to branches the size of trees floated by. Dozens of birds sat in the treetops and chattered loudly to each other. It was around here that the Mississippi started to expand into the land around it. The Great River Road tiptoed around countless oxbow lakes, formed when the river meanders elsewhere and leaves behind trapped water.
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