Saturday, July 9, 2011

Life on the Mississippi -- and Illinois

Except for that brief foray onto the Trails of Madison County, most of the first three weeks of this trip is on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.  We did about 50 miles on the Big Muddy, then turned at the mouth of the Illinois and did 20 miles there before crossing peninsula-like Calhoun County to return for another 150 miles up the Mississippi.  In our next blog entry we'll be back on the Illinois for another 100 miles, but first things first.

Highlights of this part of the trip are of course the rivers, and surprisingly the trade that goes on up and down these two rivers; then Hannibal MO, home of the author of Life on the Mississippi, Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huck Finn, three books that have profoundly shaped the thoughts of generations about the Mississippi River; and finally curious Nauvoo IL, our last town on the Mississippi until August.

As you all know, the "Father of Waters" is a very long river.  It is also a remarkably busy river.  That was certainly true in Mark Twain's time, but then came the railroads and the river's challenges of low water, rapids and occasional floods left it with relatively little commerce.  But in the last half-century it has come roaring back thanks to the "9-foot project," a series of dams that have turned the river into a series of channels and lakes that maintain a minimum depth of 9 feet from the Twin Cities down to St. Louis, at which point the addition of the waters of the Illinois and Missouri Rivers makes the channel naturally deep the rest of the way to the ocean even as the river drops 400 feet over those miles.  The dams are quite effective for the purpose intended, but are not meant for flood control, so the Mississippi still does get out of hand from time to time.

Every day we were along both the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, we saw barge traffic.  Much of it is in 15-barge units, or "tows," 3 barges across and 5 deep front-to-back, pushed by a single "towboat" (a misnomer since they now push rather than pull barges, but the old name stuck).  Their carrying capacity is staggering.  The one 15-barge tow pictured below is capable of carrying as much grain as two trains consisting of multiple locomotives and over 100 rail cars each, or as much as over 1,000 semi tractor-trailer trucks!  On the Illinois we canoed past this 4-barge tow, and the closest barge with the red chemical tanks on it is replacing 45 rail cars or 140 semi fuel trucks!  Add to this that the fuel consumption per ton of freight moved is over 25% better than rail and about 350% better than trucks, and you can see why barge traffic is a big deal today on these rivers.

This has been an exceptionally wet Spring all throughout the northwestern part of the U.S., and thus of much of the Mississippi-Missouri watershed.  At the moment the Mississippi is only a tad high, as shown for example by Water Street in Grafton, which runs (more fluidly than usual in this picture) from right to left.  You can usually drive across Water Street to that lighthouse.  Our smiles over Water Street Grafton turned into frowns two days later when we turned our tandem onto Water Street in Hamburg IL headed toward Hannibal, until we discovered a parallel street two blocks away that got us through.

We had booked two nights at Pere Marquette State Park Lodge, and they were a wonderful respite.  En route we stopped at a canoe rental place and got taken 6 miles up the Illinois, from which we paddled in the 3-knot current rather easily back to the mouth of the Illinois and a mile further down the Mississippi to the boat house.  Signs of flooding abounded, especially in the strong current, but also in the water moving across rather than around the islands we passed.  Close to Grafton Louise paused to consider paddling down the state bike trail that follows the river, in this case a bit too closely.

We had a wonderfully large and comfortable room in a limestone cottage built by the CCC boys in the 1930's, and nice meals in the dining room.  We've been concerned about getting enough vegetables while dining day after day in mid-America, an area not known for health-conscious food, so tonight we ordered one steamed veggie dinner and one order of shrimp scampi.  It worked.  Food is a challenge in small-town America, and meals like the next one, a fantasy of vegetables and tofu from a Thai restaurant in St. Louis, are a distant memory probably until we reach Chicago.  While it's not all as dire as this morning repast on the right of breakfast pizza and a sausage croissant at one of our motels (which was actually tasty, and was a "hot breakfast" as the place advertised), we do have to be creative.  We have folding plastic dinner plates and bowls that fit together like origami and occasionally make a chef's salad for lunch or dinner.  But healthy cuisine is paradoxically hard to find in this agricultural heartland of America.

Another challenge not faced in "ordinary" life at home is daily laundry.  We have largely one set of bike clothes and one set of street clothes, and two sets of undies.  Each day we hand-wash the undies and maybe a bike shirt, then put on the clean set.  In the morning the washed set is dry and ready to be the next day's clean set.  At Pere Marquette we caught up with washing more items that get washed only every few days.  The routine is to wring things in the sink as dry as we can get them, then put them on the towels we used for our showers, roll up the towels, and wring them one last time in the towels.  It's remarkable how much drier you can get things that way.  Just don't try this with anything cotton.

Pere Marquette State Park has over 12 miles of trails, and on our "rest" day we did a modest 5 miles.  Acually a fairly tough 5 miles considering the heat and humidity, and the fact that the trails went up and down the limestone bluffs along the Illinois River.  However we did get to see this quite charming final resting place for some unknown Mound Builder Indians overlooking the river, and to inspect part of the river we had canoed the day before from a perch 372' above it.  The middle channel is the river itself, and the two sloughs on either side are more like bays, with no real current.  In the third photo you can see a cardinal and behind him the ridge we climbed on the bike the following day.

Our next major stop was Hannibal MO, boyhood home of course of Mark Twain, a fact that the locals never let you forget.  At least it didn't have a Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum or any of the ticky-tacky that some other famous places have attracted, but that's not to say there aren't some ways that the locals find to earn a few more of your bucks while stopped there.  Indeed, we were almost tempted by this t-shirt.  Now if they only had made it out of quick-drying lycra . . .
Our lodgings were at a B&B, quite a step up from where Jeff stayed on his last visit to Hannibal 41 years ago while biking solo from Boston to St. Louis.  He actually made it on just $700 by exercising great frugality and inventiveness.  At a party in college someone from the midwest had told him that jails in that part of the country sometimes would let a person sleep in a jail cell for free, and that was a price that appealed to him.  So he walked up to the desk sergeant at the Hannibal Jail and was indeed given complimentary quarters -- on bed that consisted of a piece of sheet metal with swiss-cheese-like holes in it, just in case he leaked.  With his sleeping bag under him as a sort of matress, he got an OK night's sleep.  The prisoners have moved elsewhere and the jail building has seen better days, but it was still there and evoked some bittersweet memories for him.
Robard's B&B was right in the heart of town, and comes with some history.  It was built by a schoolmate of Mark Twain's in 1871.  On Twain's last visit to town in 1902, Twain visited Robard's young daughter in her bedroom here.  She was a big fan of his who was in the final stages of an illness that in fact killed her shortly after the meeting.  There were several other B&Bs nearby, including this quite stunning green one, but Robard's was a bit more affordable.  We found out at breakfast perhaps why that was so -- we had to sit through some of the innkeeper's religious views.  Well, he and his wife were quite pleasant in every other way, and surprisingly spry to be running a B&B at 80 and 77 respectively.

Now young Samuel Clemens did not grow up in anything quite so grand as those B&Bs.  His boyhood home became a museum even before he died, and today it is joined by a small museum and a gift shop on the same block and by a second museum 2 blocks away, where we took the shot of the Norman Rockwell print of Huckleberry Finn pretending to be a girl and being tested by a clever housewife who asks him to thread a needle (which he does like a boy, she later tells him).  That boyhood home is a very small house.  Sam and his brothers shared this small bedroom, which Clemens/Twain used as the model of course for Tom Sawyer.  The display nicely contrasted the older Mark Twain in the foreground with a young Tom Sawyer contemplating a drainpipe exit out the bedroom window for another of his midnight escapades with Huckleberry Finn.

The first story that launched Mark Twain as an author was The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, so for Hannibal's Fourth of July/Mark Twain Days celebration, they had a frog jumping contest for kids.  Many kids brought their own, but no worries if you left your frog at home, the local Boy Scouts had a rent-a-frog program for only $2. You place your frog in the center of a canvas mat and try to encourage it to launch, sometimes with help from Dad if you're on the young side.  The frog usually gets the idea, but doesn't always jump in the direction you expect.  A lady with a cane marks where the frog lands on its third jump, and someone measures it.  One surprise was to find out that frogs land on their front feet!  And to think of all the years we spent as kids playing leap-frog the wrong way!

There are a few other Clemens-era buildings to see, such as Grant's Drug Store, built in Cincinnati then disassembled in pieces and set to Hannibal on a steam boat.  It still stands across the street from Mark Twain's home, as it did when he was young, next to the tiny office where Sam Clemens' father had an office as a justice of the peace.

At one end of Main Street is an evocative statue of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, and behind it a bluff with two lookouts, one on Cardiff Hill and the other in Riverside Park, where a statue of Mark Twain looks out at the river he so loved.  Seeing the river divide into sloughs around numerous islands helped us imagine the scenes in his books where Tom, Huck, Jim, the Duke, the Dauphin and all the other colorful characters in his books have adventures on the river in canoes and on rafts, floating through this confusing web of waterways.

We had two more days to ride along the Mississippi.  The valley is actually a pair of limestone bluffs, one in Illinois and the other in Missouri, generally about ten miles apart.  The river itself is about a half-mile wide when it is a single channel, sometimes a mile wide when divided into sloughs, and the rest of that ten-mile width is fertile farmland, called "river bottom land," which can be on either side of the river.  So sometimes we rode along just under a bluff with the river far off in the distance, and sometimes (though actually not as often as you'd expect) we were squeezed in between the bluffs and the river.  Either way, it was extremely flat riding, aided by a light tailwind both days, and might almost have been enjoyable except for temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s.

One of the more challenging moments came when we went down a road that had a "road closed" sign on it.  We were about to take a 2-mile detour when the mail delivery person drove out of the road and told us that a bicycle could get through, as the culvert had collapsed on one side of the stream crossing only, making it unusable by cars but passable for pedestrians or bikes.  So off we went, and sure enough there was a pile of dirt across the road where they were working on it.  Or rather, had worked on it, and removed the broken culvert at 4 a.m. that day, as we learned later.  There was no way we were getting across that deep, wet ditch. 

We now faced a 6-mile detour, until Louise noticed that there was a second culvert 50 yards away, near that grey pile of gravel in the top picture, which perhaps we could reach by walking along the edge of a soybean field on the right.  Jeff reconnoitred and OK'd the plan, and off we trudged.  It worked!  Guess this is a "cross-country" trip after all!

Quincy was an architectural adventure.  We stopped first for a tour of "Villa Katherine," built in 1900 by a world-travelling local who was much taken by Moroccan architecture he had seen in his travels. 
After dropping our panniers at our motel we pedalled to the East End Historic District and explored an area a dozen blocks long and half a dozen wide that was filled with interesting homes in Victorian, Second Empire and Richardsonian Romanesque styles, among others, and with little delights like this unusual fence surrounding one of the grander homes.

We were lucky to have gotten here this week, and not a week earlier when an 80 mph wind storm had roared through Quincy at 1 a.m.  This neighborhood was particularly hard-hit due to the many older trees, and all the streets were piled high with piles of debris.  A neighbor told us how it took three days to get power back, and the papers are full of stories about how it will take until the end of the summer to clear out the last of the storm damage.

Our final destination before leaving the Mississippi for now (we will return to it in three weeks a few hundred miles to the north, near Winona MN) was Nauvoo.  In 1839 the Mormons were kicked out of Missouri -- the governor himself said they would either be expelled or exterminated -- and were looking for a place to settle.  Joseph Smith liked the small town of Commerce and bought the whole place, renamed it "Nauvoo" saying it was Hebrew for "beautiful place," and the Saints began constructing what they expected to be their city of god.  By the mid-1840s there were about 12,000 inhabitants and a number of attractive homes.

However a dispute arose between the Mormons and their non-Mormon neighbors, and in 1844 Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered in the nearby town of Carthage IL.  For a year the Mormons debated what to do, then a large contingent agreed to follow Brigham Young west in search of a new place where they could live in peace.  Not all believers in the Book of Mormon joined them, and in fact there are still today a number of factions, the second-largest of which is called the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  And so today Nauvoo is a place of pilgrimage for these two churches, the Mormon Church and the Community of Christ, and each has preserved and restored and in some cases rebuilt structures from the brief shining moment of Nauvoo history from 1839 to 1846.

The family of Joseph Smith actually stayed behind in Nauvoo for some time and became core members of today's Community of Christ, and we had a very pleasant and informative walk through several of their buildings, including the Smith Homestead where Joseph and his wife Emma lived for the first few years in Nauvoo.  The log cabin portion was built shortly before the Mormons arrived, and Joseph Smith had the additional sections added on.

Nearby were two other old structures, Mansion House and Nauvoo House.  The former was built in part to be a larger home for the Smiths, but with a hotel wing for visitors to Nauvoo.  The hotel wing was slapped together a bit too hastily, and later had to be torn down, leaving just the part today, where the Smiths lived.  Nauvoo House was also envisioned as a hostelry of some sort, but monumental plans for it were thwarted by the effort to first build a temple, and then by the exodus out of Nauvoo.  What was built was only a small part of what had been planned.

The Mormon Church has preserved and rebuilt another large part of town, and more recently put up a visitor center and rebuilt the temple.  The scale model shows what the town looked like about 1844, with the temple on the highest point.  Two years after Brigham Young led the vast majority of townspeople out to Utah, an arsonist severely damaged the temple, and a few years later a tornado made a direct hit and destroyed what remained.  This Sun Stone was carved in the 1840s and was part of the decoration near the roof line, and is one of the few original parts of the temple that remained.  We did less visiting in the Mormon area but did stop at the Brigham Young house and took the tour, which included this unusual combination rocking chair/cradle, and the home's kitchen.  Take a close look at that nice oak panelling.  It's not oak.  Brigham Young couldn't get oak, so he bought pine lumber from boats coming down the Mississippi, and had it painted to look like oak!

We're now on a 5-day push 240 miles across the Illinois prairie to Starved Rock State Park, for a multi-day rest.  We'll tell you how that went when next we write.  By the way, anyone interested in our route, we posted a map in our first blog posting for this trip, two posts down.

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