Did you know you can drive the whole length of the Big Muddy, Old Blue, or the Gathering of Rivers? These are just a few of the nicknames for the Mississippi River, America’s main artery. The Mississippi flows for some 2,300 miles, from Minneapolis to New Orleans, and into the Gulf of Mexico. Tributaries like the Ohio and Missouri join the journey that starts at the top and finishes at the bottom of the country.
The Mississippi River Route was first explored by canoes, quickly followed by paddle boats, in a seemingly endless adventure north. The exploration route cut a swath through ten of the territories that now make up the United States. This exploration led to the colonization and the introduction of the iron horse, aka the railroad network, which transported people and goods more quickly, safely, and efficiently than the sometimes-treacherous river.
To experience the marvels of the Mississippi and heart of America, I drove its length on the Great River Road, a National Scenic Byway. Its quiet two-lane roads follow the contours of America’s most famous river. The paved route officially starts in Canada, although the river itself starts in northern Minnesota. Because of logistics and time, I began my adventure in Davenport, Iowa, crossing the Rock Island bridge from Illinois.
Starting the Mississippi River Route
My first morning took me south on Highway 22, hugging the west side of the river through rolling hills. From my vantage point, the muddy river looked like a giant snake slithering its way through the trees. My Harley Davidson and I were happy. The open country offered gentle curves, hills, valleys, and shades of blue, green, and brown that made for a picture-perfect start to my adventure.
Highway 22 took me to 61, as well as through little burgs and towns that most folks have never heard of. Armed with only a road map, I crossed the river by bridge or ferry just to see what was on the other side. Crossing the Mississippi on a barge that was barely large enough for me and two cars was a bit unnerving, but very cool.
I stopped in Hannibal, Missouri, home of Mark Twain, and walked around the neighborhood that inspired Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Rumor has it that the outlaw Jesse James once hid out there after a train robbery. From Hannibal, I rode the west side of Old Muddy, passing through small towns that had seen better days. To the once thriving communities, the introduction of the Interstate Highway System was like getting cancer.
The history of transportation played out in front of me. At first, paddle-wheelers and river boats were the only way to penetrate the country. Trains came next. Some rail lines are still in use, while others rusted and became overgrown with weeds. Even the road I traveled had weathered with time, kept open only by federal requirements despite being ignored by the masses who can get places faster on the Interstate. Once-bustling factories sat idle and ignored along the entire river, victims of changing commerce and demographics.
The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers merged, as did my scenic route with a larger freeway taking me into St. Louis. The Arch loomed large on the horizon, appearing to span the dozens of lanes of converging highways. The city is a great place to drink beer, eat ribs, and closely explore the arch, but I only passed through. My trip was about the ride, and not so much the stops along the way. While I was on the Mississippi River Route, I discovered that it was those dots on the map — those little towns — that were the fabric that patched America together like a giant quilt.
Further down the road, Ohio joined me and the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The waterway got wider and moved faster. It kept me company into Memphis. Once again, I only passed through the big city, opting for cheaper and more scenic accommodations in small-town America. Vicksburg, Mississippi was a good place to stay and stretch my legs.
Decline of Small-Town America
Sadly, Vicksburg was yet another town with a vibrant and colorful past that found it difficult to keep up with progress. I give them an A for their efforts in refurbishing and trying to revitalize their once-famous city. They’ve beautifully restored many historic buildings with amazing wall murals depicting life on the river during the American Civil War.
Somewhere in the wide-open Louisiana countryside, where southern drawl slowed to a crawl, the Red River joined the fun. A few smaller tributaries had tagged along when I wasn’t looking; we all headed south to the Gulf of Mexico. My last stretch of road was I-10, which was built on stilts. It was freaky to say the least, with low guard rails and nothing but black water and swampland down below. Not the kind of place you want to break down.
The Mississippi River Route was a great ride, and New Orleans was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I’d splurged and booked a room in a historic old bank just off Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. Entering the city and seeing the historic buildings, I was taken back two hundred years. After riding a steady 55 mph, I slowed to a crawl. The search for my hotel was painful. I felt like I was in a sauna. It was the middle of August, so the peak of southern heat and humidity was as hell.
Mississippi River: Welcome to the South
Heat is okay, but I’m no fan of humidity. I especially took offense when the AC didn’t work in my cute and historic little room. Nonetheless, it was nothing that a shower, nap, and change of rooms couldn’t rectify. The next two-and-a-half days were mine to explore NOLA. It was everything they say it is: beautiful, dumpy, wild, scenic, noisy, exotic, musical, gastronomic, crime-ridden, historic, tragic, and special in all those ways.
I took to the street on foot and explored every inch of the French Quarter, keeping an eye out for celebrities (like Brad Pitt), who keep a residence there. Turns out I did see someone I knew, a doctor from home. What are the odds? I did everything you’re supposed to do in NOLA: sampled food, checked out street performers, and followed the cacophony of music into at least a dozen bars and restaurants.
In search of late-night munchies, I stumbled my way home in the wee hours only to discover that I’d been hustled and pick-pocketed for my money clip and a couple hundred bucks in cash. Such is life in the big city. Alcohol obviously played a part. I sloughed it off and added it to my list of worldly experiences.
Being the Traditional Tourist
The rest of my time was spent doing the usual touristy things like walking through cool graveyards, touring the lower ninth quarter that had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, and strolling through the Garden District to admire the beautiful historic homes. The old city center was easy to navigate on foot, and I liked how street names were spelled out in colorful tiles set into the sidewalks.
I listened to ragtime, Dixie, and Cajun music in open bars and right on the street. The horns were amazing. Musicians that played washboards and spoons were a sight to see. I tried gumbo, jambalaya, and even alligator. The spices and flavors were as unique as the cornucopia of people that I saw walking and working the streets.
It was a Friday night when I hit Bourbon Street, an experience I’ll never forget. The street was barricaded by cops on horses at both ends, creating one huge party where everyone carried their drinks from one bar to the next. Drunken revelers on balconies yelled down at women to expose their breasts, and if they did so they were showered with strings of trophy beads. The street was a wall-to-wall, bar-to-bar party.
Experiencing NOLA was a fitting end to my adventure down the Mississippi River Route. It was a trip with a humble beginning, like the Big Muddy itself. The miles and memories I collected along the way were like water and sediment the river gained downstream. While I celebrated the end of my journey with food and drink, the lifeblood of America drained into the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico.