Dubuque, Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico
August 26th to September 2nd, 2001
Day 1 - August 26th, 2001 - Dubuque to St. Louis
Please, folks... Don't try this at home! If there's one thing we could recommend to you, it would be not to attempt to drive such a huge leg of Great River Road in a week. It's not that the driving itself is impossible - it's that there are so many wonderful things along the Mississippi that just BEG for hours of your time, and on a trip like this, you can't do them justice.
We left Brandon's folk's house near South Wayne, Wisconsin around 7:00 am this morning, and arrived near Dubuque about an hour later, slightly ahead of schedule. Until we reached the Quad Cities, we drove the Illinois side, only stopping in a very terrible Mc Donald's in Savanna for breakfast. We visited both the Illinois and Iowa visitor centers near the Quad Cities and continued on our way. Traveling down the Iowa side, then into Missouri, we stopped every once in a while to snap pictures and pick up brochures, but because of our time crunch and the fact that it was Sunday, we didn't get to talk to as many locals as we had hoped.
The landscape from Dubuque to St. Louis can usually best be described as farmland (mostly corn) dotted by either declined river towns or those experiencing a renaissance due to either a river boat casino or simply renewed interest in the local history. And there always seems to be a smokestack, large, cumbersome bridge, train, piles of coal and other unfortunate representatives of increasing industrialization standing in the way of the perfect photograph or the perfect historic downtown setting. It's an unfortunate reality. It's also kind of ironic - people (including me!) lament the presence of the very types of industry that created these towns, albeit modern versions of those industries. I can guess that we wouldn't have nearly as much of a problem with meat packing plants or foundries if they were housed in renovated historical buildings!
One of the highlights of our trip so far was Burlington, Iowa, home of Snake Alley, the "Crookedest Street in the US", according to Ripley's Believe It or Not. This extremely winding street, established in the late 1800s, was developed to link the business and shopping districts of the town, as well as complement the city's European culture. This road winds through the width of one city block, is paved with stone and locally fired brick, and is great fun! We weren't able to drive down it, since there was a van blocking the way below, but I walked it, and it was a pleasant little stroll. I could just imagine all the horses, buggies, and ladies with parasols that sauntered down the street in years past. Check out the pictures on the picture page!
Probably the regret of the day was that we didn't get a chance to explore the reconstructed fort in Fort Madison, Iowa. It was a pleasant surprise to find this - not only is the fort reconstructed how it was back in the early 1800s, but it was staffed with people in period clothing and we were informed that they do living history demonstrations. I, for one, absolutely love that sort of thing, and wished I could have hung around a while! We stayed just long enough to get pictures.
Hannibal, Missouri (home of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, as well as the Unsinkable Molly Brown of Titanic fame) offered some good picture opportunities, but the real gem lies outside the city - Ilasco. What was once a thriving town of 3,000 people, mostly immigrants, has become absolutely nothing... except for a jail, grocery-store-converted-into-a-home, a church, and the reason the entire town existed: a cement factory. Ilasco thrived until 1963 when it was disassembled by the cement company (that literally owned the town). A monument stands there today, and it's a haunting reminder that the companies that helped build the towns along the river can just as easily destroy them. See the pictures
Now, sitting in our bed and breakfast in St. Louis, I realize I can't fake it any longer - I'm TIRED! Tomorrow we set out early to see the St. Louis Arch, a couple of nearby museums, the Cathedral of St. Louis, and St. Charles, Missouri. Please check back tomorrow for more adventure!
Day 2 - August 27th, 2001 - St. Louis
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What a relief to not need to drive eight hours today! Tomorrow the big one is coming up - well over 11 hours - and we SHOULD be resting for it. Not likely to happen, though. There's a lot to see around St. Louis and there's no chance we can even skim the surface. The only truly St. Louis attraction we ended up visiting was the Arch. It's frightening, but worth it. I didn't like the museum at the bottom of the arch - it consisted mostly of quotes, a very LONG timeline of US history, and photographs. There were a few exhibits of what must have been reproduction Native American villages, etc. but none of that was marked, and there were some very frightening animatronic people giving speeches. I'd think that a national park could afford a much more impressive museum. To me, it seemed to be completely lifted from a high school history book.
Unfortunately, most of the things to see and do in St. Louis are those that take several hours, such as visiting the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, the Missouri Botanical Gardens, St. Louis Zoo, or the many museums dotting the city. We decided to spend the day in St. Charles, an extremely old town just west of St. Louis. It's best known for its extremely old French district and Main Street, as well as for being Missouri's first state capital and the starting point (though that term is used loosely!) of Lewis and Clark's exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. We walked through old Main Street, hoping to do some shopping, but I was pretty disappointed. To get an idea of what we found, take any specialty shop you might find in a mall (The Mall of America has specialty shops extremely comparable to what was here), and separate them by old, old buildings, and you'll have Main Street in St. Charles. Instead of local crafts and antiques, we were bombarded with mass-produced items with overblown price tags. The best store, Brandon and I agreed, was the very first one we visited - a stained glass supply shop that also sold handmade stained glass. It was probably the only original store we encountered. At the very least, we had a terrific lunch at Magpies. We sat outdoors and we had half a turkey sandwich, baked potato soup, and chocolate cream pie (Brandon) and artichoke and parmesan quiche, spinach salad with strawberry, mango, almonds, and poppyseed dressing, and bluberry cobbler (me). It all was homemade and delicious.
We wanted to catch a brewery tour, but I got stuck chatting with some ladies in a quilting shop, so we narrowly missed it. Even though we were tired, we didn't want to go back and sit in our room all night, so we just stopped back to seek some advice on where to go shopping, rested for a little while, and headed out. We went to the most beautiful mall I've ever seen, with sculptures and fountains - the Garden Court had a sunken area with steps completely filled with water and plants. It was great!
For dinner we wanted to try Cicero's, an Italian restaurant in University City suggested by our Fodor's guide, but as luck would have it, it was closed for remodeling. Visiting University City's Loop, though, made me wish we had spent the day here instead of St. Charles. Instead of cookie cutter shops, there were all sorts of record stores, interesting clothing and jewelry stores, and restaurants, catering to the University community. And for a final sour note, we ended up going to a HORRIBLE Italian restaurant which is evidently a chain, called The Pasta House Co. The service was awful - even though we were one of three tables in the place. The prices were very high, and none of the pastas included salad (the entrees did... Salad was an extra $3.49 for one bowl or $3.99 for unlimited). Maybe that's good, though - the salad should be avoided at any cost. The lettuce (and that's all it was, save for a few bits of artichoke) was coated with slimy dressing, and there was probably an equal amount of cheap Kraft-style Parmesan cheese as there was lettuce. We both got the Pasta of the Month, cheese ravioli, since it was the cheapest item on the menu. It was OK, but definitely not fantastic.
If there are three good things we could say about St. Louis, they would be that the drivers are much friendlier than they are around the Twin Cities (is that difficult, though?), there isn't a lot of new development (I abhor sprawl!), and there are old buildings scattered throughout the metro, so you're constantly reminded of the city's history. When it comes down to it, though, I'll pick a small town anyday.
Day 3 - August 28th, 2001 - St. Louis to New Orleans
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I almost didn't think we'd make it!
We left St. Louis at around 7 am - a half hour behind schedule (oh my!). Our hosts at the bed and breakfast were kind enough to fix us a great breakfast at 6 am (it was great yesterday, too!), and after stopping for provisions, we were on our way. Even though I originally estimated the trip to be 11 hours long, it was much, much more than that... All I know is that it took us from 7 am to 1 am to get here, with minimal stops compared to the first day. We drove straight through most towns, including Ste. Genevieve, which deserves another visit, as it's the oldest town west of the Mississippi and FULL of French colonial architecture. The only place we spent any time was Cape Girardeau - we ended up getting lost trying to find the overlook park, and spent an hour in town total. It wasn't a complete waste, as we got a nice shot of the Mississippi from above, as well as pictures of the courthouse (it has 59 cement - as they say around here, SEE-ment - steps, the first concrete work in Missouri outside of St. Louis and Kansas City, and it was originally used as ballast for a ship from England), and a reproduction of an old fort built during the Civil War, on the original site, with the original embankments.
It seemed to take forever to reach Arkansas, and we immediately didn't like the state. We stopped at the first visitor's center, and not only would they not let us leave brochures for our website (we were told they all have to be approved through Little Rock... any other state has taken them so far), but they didn't even have many brochures for us to take. The visitor's center employee didn't seem very knowledgable, either. We made a decision ahead of time not to stop at ALL in Arkansas, because our research found little of any significance along the Great River Road, and we were in a serious time crunch. We admit - we didn't follow the Great River Road for about an hour in Arkansas, but there's a reason - there was hardly any difference between it and the Interstate, and on the Interstate, you can go 70 miles per hour! Arkansas was boring, boring, boring. Take Iowa, replace the corn with cotton, and turn it down about three notches, and there you have Arkansas. I think the name is a synonym for "monotony", but I'll have to look that up in the thesaurus.
By the time it was dark, we reached Louisiana... and now, we're in New Orleans. I don't know how it happened - I slept most of the way! We got quite a bit of rain, but the roads are smooth and straight, so driving was no problem.
Our guest house is right between the French Quarter and Garden District, and is housed in an old orphanage (I think) that if I remember correctly, was a hospital during a yellow fever epidemic... maybe there are ghosts! In any event, the building itself is grand. The furnishings aren't spectacular, but that's no matter to us, since it's wonderful to be in such a great structure in such a convenient part of town.
Unfortunately, we have more driving to do tomorrow. We're planning on heading to the end of the Great River Road in Venice, Louisiana. It'll be at least 5 hours round trip, but at least we'll be able to see a lot of antebellum homes in daylight!
Day 4 - August 29th, 2001 - New Orleans
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You have absolutely no idea how tired of driving we are! Thank goodness Brandon is willing to do most of the driving and I'm just a passenger... otherwise we would have turned around a long time ago! He's very dedicated to this trip, and I thank him for that.
We decided right away this morning that there was no way we were going to make the 5 hour round trip down to the end of the Great River Road in Venice, Louisiana today. We had hoped to travel the whole road, but we just couldn't stand to get back in the van. Instead we had breakfast (grits for the very first time!) and headed for the French Quarter. Our guesthouse, right on the end of the Garden District, was pretty convenient, but we didn't want to start the day by walking 15 blocks, so we hopped on the St. Charles Streetcar, which was pretty neat. It was a great way to see the downtown area - and probably great for seeing the most opulent homes of the Garden District, but we didn't go in that direction. To my delight, we passed Emeril's Delmonico... I love Emeril! :)
We started out on Bourbon street, which is full of burlesques and bars (one absolutely strange - and great! - thing about New Orleans, and maybe Louisiana in general, but I'm unsure - is that you're allowed to drink alcoholic beverages anywhere you please. The only caveat is that it must be in a plastic (or paper or styrofoam) cup and not immediately obvious... no glass containers allowed, for obvious reasons. There are daquiri bars all over, with more flavors of daquiris than you could ever imagine. I think down there, the whole attitude about drinking, dancing, partying, and the like is much more relaxed than anywhere else. Maybe it's heritage, or maybe I just saw the influence of Mardi Gras (ALL over in the French Quarter are cheesy souvenier shops, mostly selling beads and masks, and mostly selling the SAME stuff... and people seemed to think it was Mardi Gras year round). In any event, it's pretty fun.
Walking around the French Quarter, you're acutely aware of how much of a tourist trap this is. Aside from a few shops that we happened to encounter, the main thing to sell was Chinese-made Mardi Gras memoribilia. Alcohol came in second and food third. Even the French Market, which I heard good things about, was nothing but junk vendors and people selling the same types of hot sauce that you can get in the store, only for $6 more per bottle. Like St. Charles, Missouri, it was disappointing, but I guess it was to be expected. After we had po-boys (I had shrimp, Brandon had meatball - and probably the best meatball I've ever had!) we decided to head back to Magazine Street, where our guesthouse was located. I had heard of lots of great shops lining it, and thought we'd encounter them on the way. I couldn't have been more wrong! We walked all the way back - probably 25 blocks - without a shop in sight. It was hot and humid, too, so we were extremely uncomfortable. When we got to our place, we just laid down and took a long, long nap. In fact, we slept the entire day away! 2:30 to 7:30 pm, while the rest of the tourists were enjoying Garden District tours, the cemetaries, and Cajun food galore, we SLEPT!
It was a little disheartening to wake up to find out that we slept so long, but we obviously needed the sleep. After driving to see the beautiful homes around us, we went to Remoulade for dinner. This restaurant is kind of a stripped-down, less fancy version of the famous Arnaud's (and right next door), but it's still terrific. Brandon had file gumbo, a crawfish pie, and jamblaya, while I had seafood gumbo, baked crab, and red beans and rice. Just as I suspected, Brandon loves Cajun food! It's a very manly cuisine.
We couldn't very well go back to our guesthouse so early, so we decided to party on Bourbon Street. We stayed mainly at Cat's Meow, "the most famous karoke bar in the world" - with bad drinks at huge prices, by the way! - and Pat O'Brien's (which we, admittedly, visited at 10:30 am that morning for hurricanes and mint juleps!). It's a great, BIG, Irish pub with a musty, old smell, great drinks at great prices, great service (boy... I've used the word "great" a lot!). We sat in the piano bar and listened to their dueting ladies, as well as a 91-year-old gentleman who played a silver serving tray - kind of like tap dancing with your fingers. At midnight the ladies switched places with two others, but we still got a round of requested songs belted out and improvised on their terrific copper pianos. It was a very unique experience.
Hanging out in the French Quarter was fun, but also a little disgusting. I was disgusted more by the tourists, many who insisted that it be Mardi Gras all year 'round, asking for beads, throwing them all over (one crowd formed and packed the whole street underneath a bar's balcony packed with bead-throwers). It's not the joy and eagerness that was sad, but the fact that by insisting that their visit include the Mardi Gras experience, they decreased some of the magic and specialness. After all, why brave the crazy streets at Mardi Gras when you can create it all yourself, anytime you want? After all, if you want to see the floats and costumes, you can always visit the Mardi Gras headquarters, which gives tours of the inner workings.
Day 5 - August 30th, 2001 - New Orleans to Memphis
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We set out terribly late today, and I have no idea how we managed that. We woke up late, I think, and ended up forgetting two things at the hotel and had to go back - TWICE. I was in such a horrible mood all morning! We finally crossed into Mississippi at around 2 pm, far later than we should have.
I really wanted to see the plantation homes along the Mississippi River, but after finding one, then consulting our map to see where the others were, we realized that there was no way we could see any more, since they were spread so far apart. At least we got to see some bayou! Shortly before we left Louisiana we stopped at a gift shop near St. Francisville and had a nice chat with the owner about flooding, hurricanes... that sort of fun thing. He also reminded us that one of the most expensive, and probably least gratifying, trips you can take is down the Mississippi on the Delta Queen. After St. Louis, all you can see is levees, and we've definitely experienced that. Aside from places high enough to overlook the river, the Great River Road doesn't offer much of a view of the Mississippi. I'm looking forward to getting farther north so I can watch it again.
We haven't entirely been following the Great River Road because we were faced with the unfortunate reality of either following the road to the letter and taking a much longer time to reach our destinations and taking a larger toll on our sanity, or trying to merge our desires with the realities and realizing we can't possibly do it all and get the full experience... at least not with the little time we had. If we had another week, though, we'd follow every nook and cranny, stop at all the interesting spots, and enjoy it so much more. Of course, this trip is definiltely NOT a waste - we're seeing a huge amount of things in the small amount of time we have, handing out lots of brochures and getting a lot of pictures and information. It's interesting for us simply to be down here. The differences we've encountered have been subtle, but also poignant. The most odd thing, probably, was the realization that down here, we're the minority - and for two kids who grew up in areas where anyone who wasn't white, including Mexicans, Asians, Native Americans, and of course, African-Americans, was a very rare exception, it was particularily poignant. And of course, being Yankees, we were a minority to anyone - black OR white. For the most part, though, I can't say I'm uncomfortable. It just feels different, but that can be a good thing!
So, our day was spent traveling through Mississippi, which is quite a bit different than I had imagined. I was expecting cotton fields, run-down buildings, dogs running all over... New Orleans had more of the latter two things than Mississippi! We didn't spot cotton until we were over halfway through, since that's where the terrain changed and we were at a higher elevation with better drainage, which cotton likes. I must say that any perceptions of the South I had before this trip have been altered, and I've found that I actually LIKE it down here. I can't pinpoint what it is exactly, though. I definitely hope we can return to explore further.
Our bed and breakfast is fantastic. It's in Hernando, Mississippi, about 20 minutes south of Memphis and 20 minutes east of the Great River Road. It's in a big, grand house with great Victorian furnishings, and the hosts have provided everything we could possibly need.
The big regret of the day, at least for me: we didn't have much time to visit Natchez, Mississippi, which has the highest concentration of pre-Civil War homes of the South, as well as all sorts of rich history. It's like this town includes all the history of the South in one convenient package: plantations and slavery, the Civil War, Native Americans (the local university has excavated a Natchez Indian village and does a living history thing there), steamboating and paddlewheeling history, and anything else you could think of. What little we saw of the town was beautiful and there's so much to explore. We've already talked about returning.
Day 6 - August 31st, 2001 - Memphis
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After a delicious breakfast, we started out for our tour of Memphis around 9:30. Our first stop, of course, was Graceland, which was only about 20 minutes away. Our first reaction to it was shock: not only were neither the grounds or building as enormous as we expected, but on all four sides there's nothing but sprawl. We were BOTH expecting a grand estate spread out over a hundred acres, but instead we found a modest mansion in the midst of malls (how's that for aliteration?). We nearly missed it!
We ended up getting the platinum tour package: a tour of the mansion, car museum, personal artifact museum, biography movie (which we skipped) and two private jets - that was $25 each! Neither of us, at the end of our visit, thought it was a ripoff, though. We were kept busy for a good three and a half hours and the exhibits and audio tour were all wonderfully done. We got a great glimpse into the life of Elvis and even though I liked him before, I have a newfound respect for him. Most people don't know, for instance, that he gave huge amounts of money and gifts to charities and perfect strangers, as well as performing in dozens of charity concerts. According to his estate, by the end of his life, what he had given away in his lifetime was a much larger amount than he was worth at the end of his life, which was an extremely substantial amount! It was kind of awesome seeing how he lived. The house had simply awesome decoration... I don't care what anyone says - I think Elvis had terrific taste!
After Graceland, I convinced Brandon that we should do a little shopping. We went to a couple of antiques places and came up empty-handed. Memphis may have lots of antique places - more than any other city we've visited on the trip - but from what we saw, they're certainly not cheap. We had lunch at Huey's, which is a local bar/burger chain. They've been voted Best Burger in Memphis for the past 16 years, and Brandon and I agree that it's a darn good burger! The best I've ever had, I reckon, and really cheap, too. We went to a couple more shops, then headed to Mud Island, which sits in the Mississippi River just off of downtown Memphis. The tram was out of order due to the wind, but we walked across the bridge and took pictures. On the other side of the bridge is a huge scale model of the lower Mississippi River, carved from cement and stone blocks. You have to see it to believe it. The island also houses the Memphis Belle, one of the first B-17 bombers to go into service during WWII, as well as a Lower Mississippi River Museum which we didn't get a chance to see.
What would a visit to Memphis be without getting stuffed full of ribs? We went to Corky's, which has been voted Best BBQ in Memphis for 14 years, and they, too, live up to their reputation. We tried both the dry and wet ribs (we liked the wet better), as well as chocolate pie and pecan pie for dessert. Everything was incredible and priced well. We had fun looking at the pictures of famous people on their walls (including Dan Quayle, Aerosmith, Cindy Crawford, and Keanu Reeves), as well as wondering why in the heck anyone would pay $60 to have $30 worth of food FedExed to your house overnight. According to our waitress, plenty of people take them up on their offer. Maybe these things are addictive!
Brandon pointed out an interesting thing over dinner: Memphis is a very CLEAN city, and not just housekeeping-wise. We haven't noticed ANY industry around Memphis, which is a rare thing. There are no smokestacks dotting the landscape and smoke oozing into the air. Not to mention, we didn't run into any sort of red light district, nor were there any casinos within the city or state limits. There ARE casinos nearby, but they're in Tunica, Mississippi (about a half hour away). As far as I'm concerned, I like any city that keeps out the casinos! I can't say I'd like to visit Memphis again. I saw Graceland, which was the biggest thing for me, and unless you're really into the blues, there won't be a lot of attractions to see. It's a pleasant city, though.
Time to cut this short and head to bed! Our last day of business traveling is tomorrow, and we still have a lot to do.
Day 7 - Memphis to Clinton, IA
After yet another fantastic breakfast at our b & b, we headed out of Hernando, Mississippi. We got a very late start, mostly because breakfast couldn't be moved and we absolutely didn't want to miss it, and also because I wanted to stop at a store we visited the day before (there was an absolutely gorgeous - and expensive - ring there, and I'd been debating getting it... we finally decided to go buy it and guess what? The store was closed...).
We quickly realized that we weren't going to make Clinton, Iowa on time - we were due to meet up with a friend of Brandon's there. And so, unfortunately, we decided to take the shortest way, instead of the best way (i.e. along the Great River Road). Of course, we felt guilty about it, especially because Illinois is absolutely FULL of wonderful things to see, from Indian mounds (and the site of the largest prehistoric settlement north of Mexico), statues of giants and monuments to downed elephants, replica Mormon temples and impressive parks. I think it made it worse that Illinois has the best marked features of any state along the Great River Road, and all of the attractions and parks are clearly marked along the way.
We pretty much just whipped right through Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois, and didn't even get to Iowa until 11 pm, two hours later than we had hoped.
Most spectacular sight on the whole trip, possibly: in Illinois, I was driving, and came around a bend to see ACRES of nothing but sunflowers, backed by green hills, and with a low, golden sun behind it all. It was awesome - I got pictures and will have to load them down soon.
By the way, we made it home a-ok. We're happy we had a wonderful trip, and are already talking about the places we'll revisit!
Why in the world would we do such a thing??
Some of the sites and sights along the way.
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