The Mississippi is the greatest and most important river on the continent, forming a dividing line between east and west, and a useful feature to guide the next part of our journey.
We picked up the Mississippi in the Quad Cities area, where the river forms the border between Illinois and Iowa and winds its way through the towns of Davenport, Bettendorf, Moline and Rock Island. At the latter place we visited the US Army Corps of Engineers, which told the story of the engineering feats of the military in constructing locks to control the river and make it navigable. It was also the site of an important armoury going right back to the 1880s.
Cornfields dominated the landscape, and we were lucky enough to find some lovely places to camp, beautiful lakesides where we watched fireflies dance in the warm summer night air. The days are getting noticeably more warm and humid as we travel south, and the long light evenings that we had enjoyed across the northern part of the country are changing into hot sultry nights.
We stuck close to the river and proceeded through a number of small towns, including Carthage, IL – a Mormon settlement where the leaders of the then controversial new sect were lynched by a mob, causing the rest to move on and settle Salt Lake City all the way over in Utah – and Hannibal, MS, the hometown of one of America’s great writers, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Twain used his formative experiences as a Mississippi riverboat pilot to create the novels Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Perhaps the largest city on the Mississippi, and once one of the busiest ports in the country, is St Louis. The city is notable for the massive Gateway arch that stands defiantly next to the river. Construction finished in 1967 and the Arch is a powerful and striking symbol of St Louis’ role in the westward expansion of the nation. It is an awesome sight both from far away and standing underneath.
The Gateway Arch complex houses an impressive museum focusing on the settlement of the continent, including two movie theatres. But most of the many, many visitors (and there were thousands there the day we dropped in) are there to enjoy the very odd experience of ascending to the top of the Arch.
Due to its inherent design, a standard elevator could obviously not work. So a unique lift / trolley system was developed whereby the unsuspecting tourist is placed into a very small 5-person pod, connected to 6 other pods, which then run on rails up the legs of the arch, a bit like on a roller coaster. The pods hang down and rotate as you ascend like on a Ferris wheel, so you always stay upright. Not that you can tell as there are no windows. Not one for claustrophobics.
Still, it prepares you for the experience that is observation deck. Sitting some 600ft above the ground is a very small, poorly air-conditioned space, packed full of people, with a sloping floor and tiny windows at the end of wide sloping ledges. It’s like it has been designed to make you feel queasy… The views are impressive, but it’s only when you get up there, in that hot little space, looking at the shadow of the skinny arch cast onto the ground, that you realise that the whole thing just looks like it should fall over… And so, we enjoyed our visit, but I think once is enough!
The old St Louis Courthouse, thankfully only three stories high and fairly solid looking, also holds a really well done museum of the history of the city, from Native Americans, through early French settlers, the glory days as the centre of Mississippi commerce, right up to the present. An extensive exhibit covers the Dred Scott case – one of the most shameful chapters in the dark story of slavery in the US – where a Negro man’s petition to be freed from slavery went all the way to the US Supreme Court which decided, in its abhorrent wisdom, that Negros were not citizens of the States and could only the property of whites. The story is a bit more complex and nuanced, with political and social implications for the whole country lasting years. But I mention it here because just after we left St Louis came news that a white police officer had shot dead an unarmed black man in a suburb of the city, leading to race riots and protests that are still ongoing. It seems St Louis, like much of America, has still a long way to go to come to terms with its past.
It would be nice to finish our St Louis story on a happier note. Unfortunately, while we were in the museum, our van was broken into (11am Sunday morning in a paid car park with an on-site attendant, believe it or not). So we had our own experience with the St Louis Police Department, and we did lose a fair bit of valuable gear, including our passports… Bugger.
We dusted ourselves off and headed out, frankly glad to see the back of St Louis. We spent the night in Kentucky and passed through some lake-filled countryside before crossing into Tennessee to check out some music. First up was Nashville, the country music capital of the world. Now, I have to say that before this trip I had the preconception that country music was, well, rubbish. All silly twangy guitars and redneck lyrics about pick-up trucks, blue jeans, whiskey and girls. Well it is actually all that, but a lot more. It’s tuneful and surprisingly clever and quirky and witty, with a sense of humour and, I think, sometimes a knowingly ironic nod to being as ‘country’ as possible. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Either way, we have listened to a fair bit on the radio as we’re been on the road, and I now have some favourite county songs that I’d be unashamed to listen to. Youtube ‘Drunk on a Plane’ and you’ll get the idea.
And so to Nashville. It’s a small city with a nice small town feeling about it. The centre is very much for tourists, with the main strip a gaggle of gaudy neon beckoning you into bar after bar, each showcasing live music. There were quite a variety of venues, and we settled in to watch a very entertaining band, complete with fiddle and cowboy hats (the band that is, not us).
We left Nashville on the Natchez Trace Parkway, a special road that follows an ancient path almost down to the coast. It was used by Native Americans for generations and by white settlers, including the fledgling US army when travelling south to meet the British in the War of 1812. Today it is kept as a quiet country road, with a low speed limit and no commercial traffic. Along the way are plenty of campsites, trails, ghost towns, historical points, and other things of interest.
We visited the quaint town of Franklin, with a wonderful old town square that wouldn’t have been out of place in an English village. It seemed to be true that the further we went into the South, the friendlier the people were (and not just cause they didn’t break into our car), with that wonderful Southern accent and what just seemed like a more relaxed attitude. We were getting into Civil War territory, and Franklin was the scene of ferocious battle. We had a look at the battlefield and the nearby soldiers’ cemetery. Next day we spent the morning at an even greater battle site at Shiloh, one of the defining engagements of the war, with an equally sombre military cemetery.
The weather was heating up as we headed into Memphis, home of the blues. While Nashville had a niceness about it, Memphis felt less wholesome and more earthy. It’s a larger city, with many rundown or derelict buildings in amongst living buildings. Like Nashville, there is a neon-lit central tourist area – Beale St – full of all kinds of establishments playing various types of music, but the whole seemed less musically honest than Nashville. In Nashville you felt you were seeing genuine musicians trying to make it. In Memphis it all seemed more put on for the tourists in the central area, and you felt that the true music was in some nondescript underground club that only a select few know about. Having said that, we searched out the best we could find, in a small bar – an old BB King-type playing fantastic blues solos behind a larger-than-life soulful singer.
As well as music Memphis is, of course, home to other attractions. As well as Sun Studios and Graceland (which we didn’t see, having not a passing interest in Elvis – plus it costs a small fortune to get in), there are The Peabody ducks. These creatures live on the roof of the plush historic Peabody Hotel, and a solemn ceremony takes place each day at 11am on the dot, when the ducks come down the elevator and waddle across the lobby to the exquisite indoor fountain, where they spend the day. Sounds like a joke, but it is actually now a well-loved tradition, and every day the lobby (and first floor balcony for the best views) are filled by guests and visitors watching the odd parade.
Perhaps the most memorable part of our time in Memphis was our visit to the site of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, at the Lorraine Motel. Dr King, the great Civil Rights leader, was shot on the balcony just outside his room. The motel is now an extensive, fascinating and deeply moving museum to the Civil Right’s struggle. It is full of detailed exhibits depicting the tragic history of Black America from the slave trade, nominal emancipation in the 1860’s, the removal of political and social rights in the South through the 19th and 20th Centuries, and the non-violent protest movements of the 1950s and 1960s – actually there was plenty of violence, almost all perpetrated by whites and the police. The story the museum tells is almost unbelievable, yet is sadly all true. Passing through exhibit after exhibit, at the end you come out in the motel room set up as it was on the fateful day of Dr King’s death. It is one of the best, most informative and thought provoking places I have ever been to. It has really opened our eyes and readied us for further exploration of the Deep South.