I took the route as close to the Mississippi as possible. Being by the “mighty river” was contradictory in my mind: the Mississippi I imagined meant the heat of the south and still here I was, in minus celsiuses, in ice and snow driving close by the very same river.
After the rest in St Louis I was re-energised, and set off first to the “meeting of the great rivers”. (Marked blue in the map above, click here for the interactive map.) It refers to the area where the rivers of Missouri and Illinois meet the Mississippi. It was probably my favourite and, at times, the scariest part of my trip.
The river was absolutely gorgeous. I can only imagine how great it must be during spring and summer when it’s busting with life. It is full of campings as well, to serve the part of visitors who wish to spend their time as close to nature as possible. But the silence of the winter did not take anything away from the power of this great river, it still delivered the message: we’re all but tiny parts of this world.
The Lewis & Clark State Historic Site made me not only think about but feel what it must’ve been like living here 200 years ago. It’s an exhibition that is good for kids and adults alike, highlighting surprising details like how much meat the pioneers ate (a lot!) what was it like to travel on a ship in areas they knew nothing about, how and what they packed and why they set off in the first place.
I couldn’t help but wonder: if I were given the chance, would I have gone through it? When the river disappeared under my ship, would I have gone further on foot? Would I have had the persistence to keep going in the mountains? I believe one of the reasons why I so love the stories of the early settlers is because they are and led a life I would love to have – but know that I couldn’t. Sure, those were different circumstances, different choices but I don’t see me finding the peace they did.
But that was also the other thing I learned here: that peace was short-lived for some of them. While Lewis was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory, he wasn’t happy. He tried suicide and then died shortly thereafter under questionable circumstances. While Clark lived a long and successful life, his friend couldn’t process what happened to them the same way.
For me, the Mississippi is inextricably linked to books of my childhood: Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe both influenced not only what I think of America but also of the world. To see some of the places where the stories happened was super-sweet. Growing up in Hungary, I never thought it possible to visit here – and here I was, looking down at the river that flowed amongst so many people, so many stories and history. How can we not be faced with our insignificance in front of such an old phenomenon like the river? How can anyone think that we have more right for industrialisation than it has for staying clean?
However it wasn’t the river or nature in any form that scared me but people. Wanting to drive the backroads I ended up in places where the detectives of many crime series I watched, kept shouting in my head: “this is exactly the place we would find a serial killer that hides its victims in the cellar”. Some signage saying “Pray against abortion” didn’t exactly make me feel like it was an open, understanding community.
On the other hand I drove through little towns where a sign advised drivers to watch out, “deaf child in the neighbourhood” which I think is a great way to make sure drivers act appropriately if said child does not react to the horn for example.
However my must-see if you visit the area, is the village of Elsah. It’s got the most gorgeous houses I’ve seen, all different styles crowned with a lighthouse nearby – perfect for a lovely walk.
Read more of my roadtrip of the Illinois triangle: