St Louis’ City Museum is part amusement park, part playground, part museum, part indoor mall and part living sculpture. Kristen and I lost ourselves (quite literally sometimes) in this magnificently unique space that occupies ten stories of an old shoe factory downtown. If you are passing through St Louis, this is an absolute must. Make sure to pack some knee pads and it wouldn’t hurt dusting off your old calisthenics routine… it’s a workout.
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.
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.
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.
Getting from one side of the Mississippi to the other is not quite as straightforward as you might think. Even as far north as Wisconsin, the river is already incredibly wide, so building a bridge across the Mississippi and its vast backwaters and sloughs is an expensive and complicated undertaking. As a result, bridges are few and far between. Even the existence of a bridge doesn’t guarantee an easy crossing. Take the bridge at Lansing, Iowa.
Fed up with traffic in Wisconsin, Kristen and I were eager to try our luck west of the Mississippi. Black Hawk Bridge was our ticket. Named for the Sauk chief, whose people were slaughtered by US troops in 1832 despite repeated surrender attempts, the bridge was built during the Great Depression. The cantilever through truss design is astonishingly narrow and steep, making it uncomfortable to share with cars and trucks. What’s more, the bridge deck is a loosely woven metal grate, which gave us a fine view of the river nearly 70 ft below. Only later did we learn that the bridge received a sufficiency rating of 40% and is considered “obsolete.”
You can imagine our relief putting Black Hawk Bridge behind us. We turned onto the main drag in Lansing and began searching for ice cream to celebrate our successful passage into Iowa. The town forms a thin strip nestled between the river and steep limestone cliffs. Ancient gray-yellow limestone buildings that once held lumber offices had been turned into antique shops and insurance offices. Two young girls put the finishing touches on their hopscotch game as we rolled by.
What we thought was a colorful VW bus at the end of the block turned out to be a gigantic strawberry ice cream cone. Eager for a treat, we rolled up to the Skinny Dip and immediately began poring over the menu. A pair of old ladies had the same idea. They had just crossed from Wisconsin on their weekly “junking” excursion and were gearing up to hunt for knickknacks and ephemera with enormous chocolate sundaes.
Inspired by the old ladies’ appetites, Kristen and I ordered malts, hot dogs and fries to go with our celebratory ice cream. In case it is any mystery, you can eat whatever you want on a bike trip. Bon apetite!
We first encountered the Mississippi a few miles outside of Bemidji, MN, home of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. The countryside, one of dark fragrant pine forests and vast grassy marshes, was beginning to yield to agriculture. Scandinavian style barns, with their steeply curved roofs, staked claim beside rocky meadows where cattle grazed. Where enough rocks had been cleared, enterprising farmers planted plots of corn, much shorter at this time of year than their Illinois cousins to which I am accustomed. We were crossing from the Great North Woods into the agricultural Midwest.
Still impressed by our meeting with Deb and Hob, the veteran world bike packers of earlier blog post fame, we rolled away from the natural foods co-op. In a place where convenience stores have been our primary source of groceries, the co-op was an oasis. Laden down with heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, cured sausage and other ingredients that would reunite to form “thin crust” (read tortilla) pizzas in Nevis, MN, a culinary high point for us on the trip, we pedaled toward Lake Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi.
Shortly out of town, the road sloped gently downwards. At the bottom of a shallow valley, a small dark ribbon wound between grassy banks flanked by gnarled oaks, white pines, glistening birch and maple. We had reached the Mississippi River. It was hard to believe that this little stream, hardly big enough for two canoes to travel side by side, would become the enormous working river that connects these North Woods to the Gulf of Mexico, draining a third of the country along its path.
The gentle roll of the land continued as we followed the Mississippi upriver and south towards Itasca State Park. At the boat launch along the side of the road, two First Nation men lashing their canoe to the top of their truck waved as we rode by. Storm clouds brewed to the west as afternoon rays cut bright angles across the sky. Our campground was still 15 miles away.
The first wave of rain came. We took shelter under a large oak tree, thinking with apprehension of the miles ahead of us. At a break in the rain, we pushed on and put a few more miles behind us. Just as another dark bank of clouds bore down from the west, Kristen spied a driveway with an archway adorned with old bicycle wheels and frames. “Broken Spoke Drive” read a sign nailed to the archway. “We should find out who lives here,” Kristen said. We turned down the gravel driveway in the otherwise solid bank of trees that lined the road. Here and there, the front halves of bicycles protruded for tree trunks. An old rusty beach cruiser hung suspended over our path from another free.
Eventually, the lane opened up into a large asphalt driveway bordered by work sheds, garages and a large wooden house with a wraparound porch overlooking a sweeping valley with cornfields, pastures and forest. Scattered around the driveway were an assortment of children’s bikes.
An old yellow golden retriever chow chow mix bellowed our arrival and a smiling young woman stepped out of the house with a youngster on her hip. She introduced herself as Caren. We soon learned that her husband Sam was the owner of Itasca Sports bike shop, which explained the extensive bicycle decorations. When we inquired about a safe place to camp, without hesitation Caren insisted that we pitch our tent anywhere on the property. While we spoke, other curious children emerged from the house and started showing off on their own bikes and trikes. Ten-year-old Grant rode his unicycle, which I attempted and quickly realized was extremely difficult and almost nothing like cycling on two wheels.
Kristen and I pitched our tent in a lovely oak grove and set in on preparing a meal of tuna mac and cheese. Just then we heard the sound of an ATV and looked up to find Sam with one of his daughters approaching. Tall and trim with red blond hair and goatee, he warmly welcomed us and asked about our ride. We learned he is an avid cyclist himself and builds custom bikes as a hobby. Before leaving us to our dinner, he asked whether we would be interested in joining their family for pancakes, eggs and bacon in the morning, to which we heartily agreed.
At a few minutes to eight the next morning we set off walking down the misty lane back to the house while soft morning light filtered through the canopy, a omen of good weather for our visit to the headwaters. Before we even knocked on the door, the irresistible smell of frying bacon met our nostrils. One of the smallest children answered our knock and let us into the bustling home. Sun poured in the large bay windows overlooking the valley while kids played and helped set the table. Grant, the mohawked unicyclist, manned the griddle, flipping pancakes and frying eggs like a seasoned line cook. We were warmly welcomed with a steaming cup of coffee and local honey. It was Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, one of the busiest for the shop, but Sam had arranged his staff so that he could spend the morning with his family.
A short while later we sat down to a table heaped with pancakes, eggs, apple cider, fresh fruit, bacon and carafes of coffee. After a quick prayer, in which Sam wished us a safe onward journey, we dug in. Between mouthfuls of delicious food, we learned that Caren and Sam had met in the Navy. Sam had grown up on the same property he and his family now lived on. Caren hailed originally from New Jersey. They first met in Hawaii where she was a Navy dental technician and he was deployed on a submarine. As breakfast wrapped up, Kristen and I repaid what little we could of the hospitality extended to us by attacking the stack of dishes.
Caren and Sam inquired about our route since they were planning a trip down the river of their own. A fellow Navy vet was swimming the entire length of the Mississippi and Sam, a trained EMT, had volunteered to accompany him in a kayak on the southern portion. Since the bike shop business slowed in the fall, the family of eight planned to set off in their RV and spend a few months exploring an unknown stretch of the river that began in their back yard. Their experiences would complement the homeschooling the kids would receive for their fall in the river.
After exchanging contact information and making a plan to meet up somewhere farther down the river, we stepped out onto the sprawling front porch for a photo. We said our goodbyes to this lovely and welcoming family, packed up our bikes and rolled off towards the headwaters of the Mississippi.
Itasca State Park, MN | How small the source! I am awe-struck at the humble conception of the largest watershed in North America. We gingerly walked across the shallow spring-fed creek. Slowly, most of the water between the crests of the Rockies and the Appalachian Mountains will wind its way into its flow, draining 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces.
The water from this spring will be traveling the length of the Mississippi at almost exactly the same rate as I will on my loaded bike. So, on the day I reach the muddy, mile-wide delta, when my bike wheel hits the beach, these same Itascan droplets will be entering the Gulf of Mexico. –KM