A Surprise at Fountain Bluff


As much as possible, we try to spend the night in official campgrounds. But on occasion, we find ourselves in less populous areas where neither campgrounds nor hotels are an option. In these instances, we look for spots of green on Google Maps that indicate public land or  parks where we can inconspicuously pitch a tent and not risk trespassing on private land. 


One dusky evening, we found ourselves looking for green spots on the map and spied Fountain Bluff, a geological anomaly in the Mississippi floodplain between Carbondale, IL and Cape Girardeau, MO. This island of sandstone sporting 200′ cliffs in an otherwise flat expanse was once the bluff buttressing the western shore of the Mississippi. At some point in its meandering history, the river chose to bore a new channel and carved Fountain Bluff off from its neighbors. 


In spite of the waning light, the rocky monolith loomed clear in the distance and beckoned us closer. Skirting the bluff near its base, I craned my neck to see if the cliff might be climbable and was surprised to see silver glinting that indicated bolted climbing routes (there’s climbing in Illinois, believe it or not!). 


Farther along, I spotted a faint footpath receding into the thick undergrowth and decided to see whether it led anywhere promising. With my headlamp shedding a narrow column of light, I scrambled up a steep slippery incline to the base of the cliff. I reached a broad flat sandy patch with traces of footprints indicating that we were not the first people who had come hear in search of a campsite. 


The traces of human activity made me wonder whether this portion of the cliff contained climbing routes as well. Sufficiently satisfied that the sandy patch would accommodate our tent, I turned my headlamp toward the cliff. It was evident that the face in front of me was, in fact, the rear wall of a wide shallow cave. Tracing the contours of the cave, my beam glanced across an unusual shape. When I redirected the light, I saw a large bird shaped like a cross next to a smaller bird. I studied the figure for a few moments not quite sure what to make of it. I moved my light again and saw another figure. This time, it appeared to be a large deer and another animal, possibly a dog or a horse, facing off with a quartered circle between them.


At this point, it dawned on me that I might be witnessing something more significant than some neerdowell’s chiseling. Sweeping the beam all over the cliff face revealed a dozen more figures ranging from hand prints to other animals and symbols that looked ancient in origin. There was also a handful of more modern initials and carvings, including one from 1936. The more I studied the figures, the more certain I became that these were Native American petroglyphs. 


Eager to learn more, we scoured the Internet for any information regarding the Fountain Bluff petroglyphs. Research revealed that these petroglyphs were first “discovered” in 1954 by local archeologist Irvin Peithman who enlisted boy scouts and members of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity to help clear the area of brush and document the petroglyphs (hence the Greek letters). The petroglyphs are estimated to date back to between 1,000 and 1,250 CE, during which time the mound-building Mississippian Culture flourished across what is now the Midwest, Eastern and Southeastern United States. 


Evidently, this place was not just a destination for travelers in search of shelter but also a special place where the original inhabitants of this land expressed themselves and communicated between the ages. 

The Rendezvous at Fort de Chartres


I have participated in only one historical reenactment in my life. In sixth grade, during our unit on the Civil War, I was assigned to the esteemed role of “cannon fodder” on the Confederate side. Needless to say, the part I played was brief, but I died with gusto at the appointed time. My middle school experience was meager preparation for what awaited us at historic Fort de Chartres.


South of East St. Louis lie the American Bottom. This massive floodplain sits between wide bluffs and is flat as a pancake. So flat, in fact, that we passed numerous sod farms; a nice break from the endless fields of corn and soy bean. The Mississippi River has historically flooded and changed course so many times in this area that the historic state lines and waterway no longer line up leaving chunks of Illinois stranded on the Missouri side and vice versa. Woe unto the Illinoian farm whose fields are on the other side of the river!


Fort de Chartres was first built as a wooden stockade in 1720 to protect the French colonial territory known as Pays des Illinois, or the Illinois Country. As a result of the Mississippi’s tendency to flood (you may recall the massive flood of 1993 that put this area under 20 feet of water), the French crown ordered the wooden ramparts to be replaced with limestone masonry. What you see here is a recreation of the original fort. 


The strategic location between the Ohio and Missouri Rivers made the fort a major meeting point for fur traders, Native Americans, French soldier and settlers. They would historically gather twice a year to exchange goods, share news and have a good time (it seemed that almost every reeneactor was toting a mug or canteen of sorts…).


It was a recreation of these historic rendezvous dating back to the early 18th century that we stumbled upon as we rolled up on our bicycles. Since we were planning to visit a second fort later that day we had almost passed Fort de Chartres by. We made the right choice in coming. 


From a distance, we saw a vast sea of cream canvas tents and we knew something special was in store. As we got closer, we realized that each tent was selling different wares ranging from old muskets, knives and metal work to cloth, Hudson Bay blankets and confections. Everything was period appropriate. To ensure authenticity, the event had “dog soldiers” that would patrol the grounds and reprimand anyone that wasn’t acting in character or indulging in more modern luxuries. As you can see, visitors were not held to the same standards. 



As the day wore on, we were attracted to a crowd gathered in the parade grounds within the fort. We learned that while the market was taking place, other participants were competing in “mountain man” challenges in the adjacent forest. The rendezvous organizers were giving out prizes to the best marksman, tomahawk thrower, quickest fire builder, best orienteer, and, of course, best dressed. 


Of the numerous people we met at the rendezvous, a good deal of them were from nearby Missouri and Illinois and could trace their roots back to French settlers that may have attended an actual rendezvous at Fort de Chartres. One man told us the story of his forebears coming to Quebec in 1608 and making their way to the Illinois Country by way of the fur trade canoe route north of the Great Lakes and then down the Mississippi. We learned that there are even still small communities in the area that speak “Paw Paw French,” a dialect that is similar to Canadian French but which has been influenced by English and even Spanish, African and Native American languages. 


After spending the better part of the day at the fort, we noticed the sun getting low on the horizon. While most people were packing up, some tents were still up. Groups of people gathered cast iron pots of stew or chili hung over neat fires. Fortunately the dog soldiers didn’t make a fuss when we pitched our decidedly non-period tent on the outskirts. 

Aerial photo of the fort during the flood in 1993

A Chance Encounter

The majority of people we meet on our journey are kind, curious and welcoming. An orchard owner in the St. Croix River urged us to take as many free apples as we could carry. A gas station attendant took her smoke break early to inquire about our bicycles and our route. A retired man in Cordova, IL insisted we pitch our tent in his yard but not before a shared a cold beer with him and listened to some of his vintage rock records. 
Nevertheless, we always have to be on our guard. We are strangers where we ride and are physically vulnerable on our bicycles. So when I saw a silver convertible pass us and then do a U-turn in my rear-view mirror, my radar went off. The convertible drove up from behind then pulled onto the shoulder ahead of us. At this point, Kristen and I had stopped and exchanged questioning glances. A middle aged couple bounded out of the car and came striding up to us excitedly. Before we could make out their faces, the woman cried, “we took your photo in Nevis, MN!” Instantly, we recognized Randy and Sandy, whom we had met as we fussed with our camera trying to take a self-timed photo in front of the World’s Largest Tiger Musky. That was more then 500 miles and three weeks ago. Our collective excitement turned to disbelief as we considered the odds of us crossing paths with each other. 

When we first met, Randy and Sandy had driven up from Rochester, MN to look for a piece of property on one of the many beautiful lakes that surround Nevis. Today, they were driving the Great River Road after a visit to in-laws, the same day Kristen and I were riding south from Guttenberg to Dubuque. Our reunion happened to coincide with the hilliest day on our trip. Randy and Sandy caught up with us on the interminable climb up to Balltown, IA, which felt like it must be situated at the highest point in the Midwest. Randy informed us that they had just come from an iconic restaurant at the summit and that we should stop in for the experience. We ruefully admitted that we had a meager picnic lunch planned but that we would enjoy the view nonetheless. Without hesitation he took out his wallet and pressed a $20 bill into my hand and said lunch at the summit was on them. 
Overcome with gratitude, we breathlessly thanked them both and said warm farewells. We pedaled on in disbelief, hardly taking notice of the remaining climb. As we rolled into Balltown we were treated to another surprise. The day had been crisp and beautiful and hundreds of motorcycles had passed us on their Sunday ride. As we came upon the scenic overlook on the outskirts of town, we noticed a long line of parked bikes. Rounding the bend into downtown, we saw the line of motorcycles extended unbroken down both sides of the street as far as we could see. A rider looked up from tinkering on his bike and exclaimed, “we passed you guys 20 miles ago!” The rest of his gang cheered, which attracted the attention of other riders. As we struggled the final blocks to the restaurant, the cheer of encouragement echoed up and down the street, putting big grins on our faces.    

 It seemed that the restaurant was the rallying point for every motorcyclist within a hundred miles. As we stepped foot inside the sprawling tavern, we saw a sea of jeans, bandanas and leather vests adorned with bike club insignias. After eagerly taking our seats, our ravenous eyes could hardly settle on which of the delicacies we wanted for our special lunch. After climbing nearly 3,000 feet, we were prepare to eat anything in sight. We decided to celebrate with some local beers and toasted Randy and Sandy. I ordered the house specialty – a breaded and fried pork cutlet the size of a dinner plate. Kristen got a stacked double bacon cheeseburger. We ate with relish in silence. 

 As we were settling up, the proprietor came over and thanked us for our business. We admitted that we would not have stopped at his establishment but for the chance meeting with our friends from Nevis and their generosity. Upon learning that we were on a bike trip, he shared that he, too, was an avid cyclist. Some urgent business took the owner away and we returned to our bikes and prepared to continue riding. Just as we were about to roll out of the parking lot, the owner reappeared and hurried over to us. He wished us a safe onward journey and pressed something into Kristen’s hand. “Next lunch is on me.” Kristen opened her hand. In it was a $20 bill.