The Great River Road, Part 12: Hannibal, MO to Pere Marquette SP, IL

“I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.”                             – Meriwether Lewis

 September 5, 2015 – Day 15 – Alton, Illinois

Our parting gift in Hannibal was a phone call from Jason, our eldest, telling us he and Rachel were alive and well and that he had built his first artificial leg. How cool is that! It’s always good to hear from progeny, even when he calls while riding the Dallas Area Rapid Transit and every 30 seconds a woman interrupts screaming things like, “Next stop, Lake Highlands!”

We said farewell to all things Mark Twain, crossed the Great River, and headed south toward Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton, Illinois. This beautiful state park, which we’ll review in a separate blog, would serve as our base camp for the next few days. While heading down the Great River Road toward Grafton at cruising speed, Lil Jan snapped a great picture of two John Deere tractors having lunch in the shade of a tree by a cornfield. There are two things we’ve seen a lot of on our trip: bugs taking on our big windshield and losing…and corn. Lots and lots and lots of corn. There were days when an hour would go by and the only thing visible on either side of the road was corn. The United States produces as much corn as the next three countries (China, Brazil, and the European Union) combined. Illinois is actually forth in U.S. corn production, behind Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska. With all this corn, it’s a wonder how anyone goes hungry.

Bluffs & River north of Alton
Bluffs & River north of Alton

As the Great River Road approached Alton, we enjoyed the high bluffs on one side of the road, and the Mississippi River right next to us on the other. There were sections where you could just about jump into the river from the road. Our first stop was the Village of Elsah, which was established in 1853 and is on the National Historic Register. As we pulled in, Lil Jan commented that she had been here before but couldn’t recall under what circumstances. It finally came to her that she had done a getaway weekend here with two girlfriends (Lynne Gentry and Michelle McDougald) back in the late 90s while we were stationed at Scott AFB, IL. I asked for details, but she informed me that what goes on at girls’ getaways at the Green Tree Inn in the quaint historic town of Elsah stays there. Well, all right, then.

Confluence Tower
Confluence Tower

We continued south because it was time to pay tribute to one of my heroes, Meriwether Lewis, and one of my favorite all time adventures, the Lewis & Clark Expedition. I studied this expedition in grade school, but really got into it later in life after reading Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. I was fascinated with all the planning and preparation that went into the trip, with the correspondence between Lewis and President Jefferson, and by the many obstacles the team had to overcome to reach their destination. I seriously think it brought out a bit of my adventurous nature, which has manifested in things like this crazy RV adventure and one day hiking the Appalachian Trail. So we stopped at the 180-foot Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower, which sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. It was near this spot that the Corps of Discovery, on May 14, 1804, departed from Camp River Dubois and began their voyage to the Pacific Coast.

Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center
Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center

A little further down the road we came to the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site, which includes a 14,000 square-foot interpretive center and an outdoor replica of Camp River Dubois. The interpretive center contains multiple exhibits and displays, a theater, and a 55-foot full-scale cutaway keelboat like the one used by Lewis’ team. We inadvertently timed our visit with some sort of music festival and encountered a group of rather good musicians in period costumes playing folk music. Camp River Dubois came to life through an informative tour guide who knew his Lewis & Clark history.

Melvin Price Dam
Melvin Price Dam
Aerial View of Locks and Dam
Aerial View of Locks and Dam

Our next stop was the National Great Rivers Museum next to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam in Alton. The highlight of the museum for Lil Jan was discovering what she called “The Steve Fish”. I informed her that it’s actually known as the Weakfish (or Croaker or Grunt) …Cynoscion regalis…of the drum family Sciaenidae. She said, “No, it’s the Steve fish…just listen to it.” She then played the audio of the fish (link attached) and I had no choice but to agree with her assessment. So we renamed it The Steve Fish, of the drum family Big Croaker. Next to the museum stands the towering Melvin Price Locks and Dam, a true engineering marvel that took fifteen years to complete. It’s part of a system of 29 locks and dams on the upper Mississippi River that create a “stairway of water” so that pleasure craft, towboats, and barges can travel the river. We finished off the night with some tasty fried chicken at Castelli’s, an Alton restaurant opened in 1937 and now managed by the 4th generation of the Castelli family.

Hiking Babler Park near St Louis
Hiking Babler Park near St Louis

September 6, 2015 – Day 16 – Saint Louis, Missouri

 We began this Sunday by worshipping with a friendly group of folks at the East Alton Church of Christ. We then changed clothes and headed for the popular Saint Louis Zoo, which consistently ranks among the top five zoos in the United States. It’s technically free, although you’ll pay to park, eat, drink, and for some of the exhibits, like the children’s zoo. Our challenge was not the cost, but the heat index, which was over 103 degrees that afternoon. In fact, the first three exhibits appeared empty, as the animals were smart enough to hide under or behind any object they could find. Things started picking up, though, and the animals slowly but surely started to come out. We especially liked the polar bear and the various apes and monkeys. The butterfly cage/exhibit was amazing, and provided the awkward moment of the day. I didn’t realize one of the butterflies had landed on my shoulder and I exited the exhibit with him riding the Big Steve Train to freedom. I thought about just letting him go, but instead decided to re-enter the exit door and return him to a life of bondage.

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Go Cards!
Go Cards!

We would have done more things in Saint Louis had we not already visited the city earlier in the summer. We went there, twice actually, to hear Kyle preach. He spent the summer interning with the Lafayette Church of Christ and lived with the very hospitable Kevin & Cindy Fields family. During that visit, we hiked the Babler Memorial State Park, visited the Arch, went to a Cardinals game, and dined at Gian-Tony’s on the Hill with Kyle and several members of my family. An even better meal came courtesy of Kevin, Kyle’s host dad.  He did a shrimp boil that was out of this world. He had the cooking process down to a science with a boiler, stopwatch, and just the right combination of seasonings. He brought out bucket after bucket of shrimp, potatoes, onions, corn on the cob, and Andouille sausage, and dumped them on the table in front of us. Well done, Kevin! It could only have been better if I hadn’t been on day two of an abscessed tooth, which would quickly result in a root canal. Ugh! We appreciate the Fields for keeping Kyle over the summer, for letting us stay with them on two consecutive weekends, and for the amazing shrimp boil.

Our First Shrimp Boil
Our First Shrimp Boil
Thank you, Fields Family!
Thank you, Fields Family!

September 7, 2015 – Day 17 – Pere Marquette Riding Stables

Lil Jan loves horseback riding. It’s one of her love languages, along with Christian fiction and grits. I promised her we’d go horseback riding at some point during our Great River Road travels, and today was the day. I love and appreciate horses, but riding them is not one of my love languages. In fact, it’s not even a “kind of like” language for me. The first reason is because several years ago I saw a woman (the previously mentioned Mrs. McDougald) thrown from a horse, and I had to pull off my shirt and apply direct pressure to her head to stop the bleeding. Thankfully she lived, although she never fully recovered from seeing me with my shirt off.

Her Love Language
Her Love Language
Canter Daddy
Me…Not So Much

The second incident happened about five years ago on an anniversary weekend at a beach near Jacksonville, Florida. I was trying to fulfill one of Lil Jan’s bucket list items to ride a horse on a beach. So we mounted up, and all was well as we set off with our guide and horses down the beach. With the sun setting and the wind blowing through my hair, it reminded me of a Patrick Swayze Saturday Night Live skit. Our guide then had to go and ruin everything by asking, “Do you want to canter?” to which Lil Jan replied, “Yes!” while I replied, “What’s a canter?” Next thing you know our horses took off down the beach and it became immediately apparent to me that something was wrong. Without being too graphic, let me just say a part of my body was not fully strapped in and began slamming against the saddle, causing my eyes to well with tears. These weren’t “oh, Lil Jan is fulfilling a life-long dream” tears. Rather, they were “it feels like someone is hitting me with a sledge-hammer” tears. The pain intensified, and with each bounce I started chanting things like “Oh—this—too—shall—pass” and “Throw—me—in—the—ocean—so—I—can—drown”. Both ladies were laughing and talking, unaware that I was suffering immensely behind them, certain my life was about to end, and asking God to either kill the horse or miraculously deliver a strip of duct tape. To this day, I don’t know what canter means but I’m pretty sure it’s the French word for “to sterilize.” Anyway, back to 2015, our ride through Pere Marquette State Park wasn’t nearly as bad, as I have learned to keep one hand on the reins and one hand cupping myself. This may have looked odd to the Cowboy tour guide riding next to me, but I told him it helped me focus; and besides, I had already been cantered.

Big Steve

Steve Fish video link…

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The Fam Throwin' Down Some Ted Drewes Frozen Custard
The Fam Throwin’ Down Some Ted Drewes Frozen Custard in St Louis

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