Mississippi yearning: driving down America’s Great River Road

Published in The Guardian (December 4th, 2010)

As we nudged the Mustang on to the vast metal bridge spanning the Mississippi, a glorious sunset broke behind us, shading the skies in luminescent reds and streaks of burnt orange. The bluffs by the great river were clad in lush foliage and draped in mist, while below us families celebrated the Fourth of July with barbecues on the banks.

It was the perfect start to a long-cherished dream. An hour earlier I had landed with my son in Minneapolis, a place peopled by some of the driest wits I have encountered.Pulling out of the airport, we ignored the lure of the world’s biggest mall and set off on a 2,000-mile drive along the river to New Orleans, a trip I’d promised Hamish, 18, more than a decade before to celebrate the end of his school career.

The plan was simple: to follow the Great River Road from top to bottom through 10 states along the nation’s backbone. As darkness fell, however, the reality of trying to find somewhere to stay on a public holiday dawned. The first town looked horrible, all strip malls and neon, so we pushed on. At Lake City there seemed to be a party by the water’s edge, with people in deckchairs munching burgers, drinking beer and watching fireworks, but every hotel was full – as they were in the next town, and the next.

By midnight – or 6am according to our body clocks – we were discussing sleeping in the car. Eventually, in a gritty place called Winona, we found a cheap motel room. There was a view of a petrol station to one side and a McDonald’s on the other. But it was clean, so we turned in with 140 miles and three river crossings in the bag.

We woke to the sound of rain hammering down and headed through the downpour into La Crosse, an engaging university town that seemed stuck in the 1950s. Ducking into Fayze’s restaurant for breakfast, I asked the waiter if he knew where we could find a bookshop.

“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t read books.”

Mark Twain would have been shocked. In his book Life on the Mississippi, he praised La Crosse as one of the great towns of “this amazing region”, populated by an independent race, well-read, educated and enlightened. Few could fault their efforts to bring in visitors, however. Who could resist the lure of the town’s landmark: the world’s largest six-pack of beer, holding enough for 7m cans?

In such a big country, small towns do their best to stand out. We had already passed the world’s biggest boot, and ahead of us lay such delights as the world’s biggest ketchup bottle and the largest picnic and barbecue (at the wonderfully named hamlet of Fancy Farm, in Kentucky). Then there were the welcome signs proclaiming towns as the home of something: from watermelons to water-skiing.

Such hometown pride is part of the joy of middle America. But the real attraction lay in the unfolding landscapes. The midwest may have a lot of farms, but instead of dreary prairies there were lush green hills, upland meadows, thick forests, looming limestone cliffs and, further south, cypress swamps.

Leaving La Crosse, we meandered south through verdant scenery, the sun burning wisps of mist off the jutting bluffs. As we crossed into Iowa, the scenery softened, with sweeping vistas of rolling hills and ripening corn dotted with white clapboard farmhouses and futuristic metal silos.

After 240 miles, we ended the first day in Bellevue, which lived up to its name, with panoramic views down the river. Following in the footsteps of Kevin Costner when he made Field of Dreams, we checked in to the Mont Rest B&B, high above the town. The chatty owner, Christine Zraick, directed us to a cosy riverside restaurant, where we ate shrimp and pike while fireflies flashed green lights at us and hummingbirds hovered over flowers outside the window.

Back at the B&B, freshly baked peach pie and beers were waiting in the kitchen. We talked into the night with Christine and her husband Ralph, a professor of politics, about small-town life and the state of the nation. Pictures of the couple with Barack Obama, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis hung on the wall, a reminder of Iowa’s pivotal role in presidential elections.

With sun-drenched hills carpeted in corn and sorghum, the much-maligned Hawkeye state turned out to have a timeless charm. At gas stations families in check shirts ate homemade burgers and children slurped ice-cream floats.

Suddenly the skies turned dark and water lashed down so hard we could not see the road. Laughing at our summer holiday weather, we crawled into the hamlet of New Boston and a friendly farming bar.

” That’s some rain,” I said to the woman serving us.

“Glad of it,” she drawled. “Been so hot I nearly sweated the flesh off my bones.”

The lyrical rejoinder was a reminder that we were heading south. In southern Illinois, there were vineyards, then glimpses of the great midwest prairies – and of an idiosyncratic world view. We spent an entertaining hour with a vintner who tried to persuade us that his president was a communist destroying the American dream and Sarah Palin was the nation’s saviour.

In Missouri, the rolling hills were studded with hickory and maple trees, and the corn had turned golden. Sunflowers started to appear, then white picket fences. White-tailed deer watched us speeding by. But the rain continued to follow us. A stop in Hannibal – Mark Twain’s hometown – was interrupted by flash flooding so severe the police were called to rescue drivers trapped in newly formed lakes.

Checking into a luxurious cabin at the Pere Marquette state park, we disturbed a racoon raiding a bin. The sun was back the next day, so after a blueberry stack and a game on the giant hallway chess board, we went for a hike. We were soon drenched in sweat, trudging along trails through the creeper-clad trees, but were rewarded with grandiose views over a swollen river and lakes that had burst their banks. After a quick swim it was on to St Louis for huge hickory burgers in Chuck Berry’s local diner.

The days drifted by in this amiable fashion. I drove, keeping off the main roads and enjoying the Mustang’s ability to eat up the empty roads. We took turns to control the iPod, while Hamish navigated, a task made easier by the green signs – with pilot’s wheel and steamboat – that identified the Great River Road.

As the landscape changed, we had the rare luxury of time to talk about anything and everything. And never knowing where we would spend the night added to the pleasure. We spent evenings eating pizza and sharing six-packs of beer in cheap motels, or catching glimpses of small-town life in genteel B&Bs.

The greatest joy was never knowing what was over the next hill. Arriving in Nauvoo, Illinois, at dusk we stumbled on a massive, and slightly spooky Mormon pageant, with scores of people in 19th-century costumes. Natchez, Mississippi, once home to the most millionaires per capita in the nation, still offers an amazing display of antebellum finery. Sainte Geneviève, Missouri, the only surviving French colonial village in the country, is full of beautifully kept old houses, antique shops and smart cafes.

The next two stops, celebrations of American popular culture, could not have been more different. First up was Chester, Illinois, home of Popeye, with rather tragic statues to Olive Oyl and Bluto and the spinach-guzzling sailor. Then came Metropolis, also in Illinois, declared “Superman’s hometown” by the state legislature in 1972, despite having no connection to the superhero beyond its name. It was making strenuous efforts to exploit its supposed link, with an enjoyably tacky 15ft bronze statue, plus a ragbag of museums and gift shops, and a quick-change telephone box. But the town’s real landmark was a far bigger statue advertising the Big John supermarket.

In Kentucky, we turned off into the Land Between the Lakes, where damming has created a beautiful island nature reserve, with wooded slopes by the water. A skunk ran across the road, then a deer stood defiantly in our path. We pitched the tent and lit a fire. “We’ve only got three beers,” Hamish complained, so we headed back to a nearby petrol station. The owner shook her head: “You want beer you’ll need to go another 21 miles. This is a dry county.”

Kentucky steadily became more rural. It was a Saturday, so an endless parade of husbands were circling their front lawns on sit-on mowers. Towns stopped inscribing their population on their welcome signs, presumably because many were little more than a handful of houses and a church.

In Tennessee the towns became smaller still, and more unkempt. Bars had signs warning people against carrying guns, or that fights would lead to a jail sentence. We sped past place names from afar: Paris, Cadiz and Bogotá joined the likes of Cairo, Genoa, Lima, Warsaw and Wakefield. It felt almost like a world tour.

Memphis was the hit of the trip. Arriving in the early evening, we passed prosperous, tree-lined streets on the way to Central BBQ, where a slab of sticky ribs was sensational. Beale Street had blues blaring out of the bars and buskers competing in the streets, giving it the feel of a festival. But best of all were the museums: the National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated; Graceland (elvis.com/graceland), more homely than imagined but still a joyful temple to kitsch opulence; and best of all, the mellow Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

We cruised on through the realm of King Cotton, passing a stream of floating casinos on our way to Clarksdale, the heart of the delta and the real home of the blues. This was where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads, and where locals included Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. It was a dishevelled place, with boarded-up shops and decrepit shotgun shacks, but dripping with character that crept into your soul. The Shack Up Inn, a collection of converted sharecropper huts, with old pick-up trucks and rusting farm machinery on the lawns, offered an unexpectedly charming place to stay.

All too soon we were in New Orleans. Bourbon Street was a disappointment, with its tourist dross, sleazy clubs and drunken gaggles clutching cocktails. But at the harbour we watched a paddle steamer pull out slowly into the massive expanse of what we now felt was “our” river as the sun set. After a dinner where ordering fried oysters led to jokes from the laconic waitress about BP and Brits, Hamish and I waddled off to Preservation Hall.

It was tiny, like a faded old church, but the old-style gospel jazz was brilliant and my hip-hop loving son adored it. Even after two weeks and a lifetime together, I was learning new things about him.

Afterwards we strolled up to Elysian Fields Avenue. Music blared from the bars, a woman was writing poetry on a battered typewriter on the pavement, a wasted man directed the traffic, and a brass band played on a street corner while people danced.

“Now this is what I imagined New Orleans to be like,” said my son happily.

It seemed a world away from the clean and orderly Minneapolis of a fortnight earlier. But it was just another of the myriad faces of America seen on our trip down its greatest river. The joy of seeing so many sides of the nation and its people was magnified by the pleasure of sharing such intense time with my son. As Mark Twain, sage of the Mississippi, once said, you must not dream your life but live your dream. Sadly, it was time to wake up, for we had reached the end of our road.

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