The Great American Summer Road Trip continues! The
first leg of our epic, cross-country journey took my wife and I from New Jersey to the Midwest, making stops in Ohio, Indiana, and the Madison region of Wisconsin, before visiting with family and friends in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. For the second part of our travels, we would spend several days in and around Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, before winding our way southward, following the Mississippi River through Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi.
In over a thousand miles of driving, we would see the homes of two famous American authors, stand above a train as it roared beneath us, catch amazing views of the Mississippi River, gawk in disbelief at the sheer magnitude of a soaring American monument, walk silently through a sacred Native American site, ride the world’s shortest and steepest railroad, visit an important museum that chronicles the story of the civil rights movement in America, see ducks floating in a hotel fountain, and follow the trail of American blues.
The Great American Road Trip – Rollin’ Down the River
The next leg of our journey would take us from Wisconsin through Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi, as we followed the mighty Mississippi River southward. Days 4 – 6: The Twin Cities
After being on the road for several days, it felt great to confine ourselves to mostly local driving around the Twin Cities area, as we spent time with family and friends. We did add another state to our list when we crossed the St. Croix River and entered Minnesota.
My wife’s family home in western Wisconsin abuts a large, wooded tract of land – a great setting for practicing some nature photography!
Although we weren’t doing much in the way of sightseeing during our rest days, I still managed to find time to keep my camera busy. This northern cardinal was content to pose for me.
I was fascinated by this woodpecker – check out the way its talons grab the wooden branch!
My favorite shots, though, were taken with my camera pointed at the hummingbird feeder my wife’s relatives hang from their back porch. With wings that can beat up to 70 times per second, photographing these little ones can be a tricky affair. My only advice is to crank the camera’s shutter speed up as fast as it can possibly go, pre-focus on a specific point where the hummingbird will likely appear, and then cross you fingers for good luck.
Perhaps one of my favorite shots from our time in the Midwest!
Of course, we made some time to visit some old favorites, like Caribou Coffee, one of my favorite coffee chains (although I’m a frequent Starbucks customer, that company would lose my business quickly if Caribou ever expanded to the East Coast). If you are ever visiting a Caribou, make sure you try the trivia challenge. Each location posts a daily trivia question, and answering correctly results in a small discount on your order.
And while our family filled us with lots of delicious home-cooked meals, we still made time to grab lunch at Taco John’s, a Midwest-based taco chain. That’ll be an order of Street Tacos (bottom left) and potato oles (top right). Yum!
Betty, Mom’s trusty Honda HR-V, earned herself a bath at the local car wash. Interior vacuumed, exterior washed, waxed, and free of bug guts, she was shined up and ready for more driving.
Although the drone didn’t get a ton of action on this trip, I had fun trying to snag a few sunset photos in western Wisconsin. After several days of recharging our batteries, it was time to say our goodbyes and begin the next phase of our journey. Day 7: Wisconsin to Iowa – Little Honda on the Prairie
Our first day back on the road would see us travel from western Wisconsin to eastern Iowa.
After stopping for coffee in Prescott, Wisconsin, we made a brief detour to visit the Great River Road Visitor Center. A series of roads that follow the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana, The Great River Road was first established in 1961, to encourage vehicle tourism of the 3,000-mile long Mississippi River (via Experience Mississippi River).
The staff of the visitor center were friendly, and gave us a map that helped us plan our route through Wisconsin and Iowa. For a small center, it also offered a good amount of information about the ecology and history of the upper Mississippi River.
Our next stop was to the town of Pepin, Wisconsin, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie, gained fame for chronicling the lives of settlers and pioneers in late 19th century America. Pepin was the home of her parents when Laura was born.
For a nominal fee, visitors can learn about life in the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood. The museum does an excellent job of maximizing available space – this exhibit on the trades and professions of late 19th century prairie life in America was fascinating.
I was most interested in the 19th-century kitchen on display. Check out the “toaster” hanging on the wall near the stove’s exhaust pipe – a rack designed to hold slices of bread near an open flame… a bit more labor intensive than pushing “start” on my Black & Decker toaster!
For families traveling westward, the covered wagon, nicknamed the “Prairie Schooner,” was an essential tool. Built light in order to minimize the number of animals required to pull it, the wagon was also constructed to be waterproof to aid in river crossings. As a child of the 1980s, when I saw this display I immediately thought of the video game Oregon Trail: “Broken wagon axle. Would you like to repair it?” We enjoyed our short stay in the museum, but we had other locations to visit – time to get back on the road!
A bit south of Pepin, we pulled off the road for Betty’s glamour shot beside the Mississippi River.
With clear skies and almost no wind, I put the drone aloft for some aerial photography. I flew the drone about a mile downriver, but so massive is the Mississippi that when I watched the footage later, it looked like the drone was standing still!
A little while later, as we were driving through the town of Alma, my wife spotted something in the distance and immediately parked in the first available spot. She told me to grab my camera and hurry. We climbed up a metal bridge that crossed a railroad bed, just in time for a freight train to come rumbling by!
There’s nothing like standing on an old, somewhat rusty metal bridge as 10,000 tons of steel thunder beneath your feet. It was a rush of adrenaline… exacerbated by my fear of heights. However, I’ve got to admit… it was very, very cool.
For at least 2,000 years, the Mississippi has been a major source of trade and commerce. The river was a place of commerce for Native American peoples for thousands of years, and since the early 19th century, it has been a critical waterway for trade in the United States. In the 1930s, the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed numerous locks and dams (such as this one in Pepin) to maintain an average minimum river depth of 9 feet to support barge traffic (via Wikipedia).
Almost two hours later, we crossed into Iowa, the Hawkeye State.
Our first stop in Iowa was a return visit to Effigy Mounds National Monument. We had previously stopped by this historic site in late December, but the trails were covered in snow and ice. We had promised ourselves that we would return when the weather was warmer.
In the visitor center, we were able to stretch our legs, refill our water bottles, pick up some souvenirs, and add another stamp to our National Park Service Passport!
Numerous Native American tribes in this region engaged in mound building – creating mounds of earth in the shape of animals, birds, or geometric forms. The purposes of these mounds are still unknown to us – they may represent boundaries between peoples, or signify important calendar events, or have other religious and mystical purposes. The mounds remain highly sacred to the Native American peoples who still inhabit these areas (via National Park Service).
Although we didn’t have time to explore the entire park, we did hike a trail to the overlook at Eagle Rock. With temperatures in the upper 80s and not much of a breeze, it was a short, but hot, walk.
The climb to the top was well worth it, however. Eagle Rock offers a stunning view of the Mississippi River valley. As we started our descent, a strong breeze began to blow, offering welcome relief from the hot temperatures. I’m glad we came… but it was time to set our sights on our next stop: dinner!
We had reservations at a restaurant in Dubuque, but made a slight detour back to Wisconsin to visit a one-of-a-kind site in the town of Dickeyville: the Dickeyville Grotto. Built over a ten year span from 1920-1930 on the grounds of the Holy Ghost Parish, the grotto was the idea of Father Wernerus, a local Catholic priest.
In addition to Christian imagery, the shrine is also dedicated to patriotic symbols such as Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln, in part to demonstrate the patriotism of Catholic Americans (via Wikipedia).
The grotto and shrines are made from shells, stones, tiles, wood, and other objects donated by church parishioners. The grotto is free to visit (donations are accepted). It was certainly a unique stop on our travels!
We headed further south, to Dubuque, Iowa, for dinner in the charming downtown section of the city.
We had reservations at L. May Eatery on Main Street. Almost every item on L. May’s menu is either gluten free, or can be made gluten free.
I ordered a “Good Old Potosi” Golden Ale with my dinner. Potosi Brewing Company has roots that stretch back to 1852 in Potosi, Wisconsin. The golden ale is synonymous with the brewery, and locals who ask for this beer simply say, “I’ll have a Potosi.”
For dinner, my wife and I shared our entrees. I had a gluten-free Hawaiian pizza, while my wife had the Polynesian shrimp (shrimp, bell peppers, carrots, coconut rice, and pineapple tamari sauce). It was a fantastic meal!
After dinner, we drove across town to ride the world’s steepest, shortest railroad!
In 1892, local banker and politician J. K. Graves was faced with a problem. His house stood on a bluff overlooking the city, but he worked in the lower section of Dubuque. A ride home in his horse-drawn buggy took a half hour each way to climb the roads that led to his house, despite his office sitting only a few blocks away. What does a man of means do in such a situation? He built a cable car on a 269-foot track (via Fenelon Place Elevator).
Mr. Graves eventually opened the ride up to the public, who came to depend on it. When fire ravaged the system, neighbors banded together to rebuild it, creating the Fenelon Place Elevator Company. Rates are very reasonable – adult tickets are $2 one way, $4 round trip. Children ages 5-12 ride for $1 one way, $2 round trip, and children under five ride for free.
When you reach the top of the elevator, you are offered a stunning, panoramic view of Dubuque and the surrounding countryside. If you’re in the city, it is definitely worth the ride! Taking in the vista one last time, we returned to the car and set off for our hotel in Davenport, Iowa. We had to get some sleep – the next day was set to be a busy one! Day 8: Iowa to Missouri
Another day, another four hundred miles, and another itinerary of cool places to visit!
We started our day with a visit to the Iowa 80 Truck Stop, which bills itself as the World’s Largest Truck Stop. The station has fuel, eight restaurants, maintenance and repair services, a parts department, a dentist, a barbershop, a movie theater, a laundromat, a library, the Trucking Museum, and many more services. It’s huge! You know, they really should give it a nickname. Like the “World’s Largest Truck Stop” or something…
Although we woke up to gray skies that threatened rain, by the time we crossed into Missouri, it was blue skies and sun as far as the eye could see.
We detoured to the town of Hannibal, Missouri, for one major reason – it is the site of Samuel Clemens’ childhood home. Generations of Americans would come to know Clemens under his pen name of Mark Twain, and Hannibal inspired the settings of Twain’s novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (via Wikipedia). Today, the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum is open to visitors, preserving the early years of one of America’s most famous authors.
Twain’s father was a lawyer, and a replica of his office is on the same block. While the Mark Twain boyhood home (built in 1844) is original, the other buildings on the block are replicas, built in the 1930s as Works Progress Administration projects (via Wikipedia). Another building on the block completed more recently is a reproduction of the home of Tom Blankenship, who was the basis for the character of Huckleberry Finn. Twain was an ardent abolitionist, and the Blankenship home examines Missouri’s historical relationship with slavery.
This building is a replica of Grant’s Drug Store. Twain’s family fell on hard times in the mid 1840s, and the Grant family allowed Mark Twain and his parents and siblings to live in the drug store’s second floor. A few years later, Twain’s father died when Mark was only 11. He left school and took a job in a printing press, a position that would eventually lead to his career as a writer.
We then walked into town to stop by the Mark Twain Museum on Main Street to grab some souvenirs.
Numerous murals cover the walls in Hannibal, evoking life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Before getting back on the road, we refueled (ourselves… Betty still had plenty of gas) at Java Jive. That’ll be an almond milk latte for my wife, and an oat milk latte for me (both iced… it was a hot day!). Refreshed, it was time to head further south.
We then stopped by St. Louis to visit another National Park – Gateway Arch. Built in 1965 to celebrate the westward expansion of the United States, Gateway Arch stands 630 feet above the ground. An engineering marvel, the concrete and stainless steel structure can withstand earthquakes and 150-mph winds (via Wikipedia).
Up close, the arch looked more like something from a science fiction movie than it did a human-made object.
We headed underground to the visitors center. Although tram tours to the top of the arch were sold out (well, gosh darn, no heights for me that day!), the visitor center features a free museum that was both informative and well-designed.
Given that the Gateway Arch is a celebration of the westward expansion of this nation, the museum takes care to present how that expansion affected different peoples, from United States leaders who saw westward expansion as a necessary step for the nation, to Native Americans who saw the country’s expanding borders as a threat to their existence, the museum does an admirable job weaving the different messages into a coherent story.
If you look closely, you can see the observation deck at the top of the arch. Well, shucks, sorry I didn’t get to go up there. Another time! Maybe.
We got back in the HR-V and headed south to our hotel in Cape Girardeau, about an hour away from St. Louis. We drove through several showers before the skies cleared and we were treated to a double rainbow… I took it as a good omen for our travels!
After dinner, we took a quick walk from our hotel to see another unique roadside oddity. At a Rhodes gas station exists the World’s Largest Fountain Cup! This 15-foot tall cup set the record when it held 4,730 gallons of lemonade (via Roadside America). Here at The Open Road Ahead, we bring you only the best in roadside attractions! Day 9: Missouri to Mississippi
Our next four hundred miles of driving would take us from Missouri to Jackson, Mississippi. Along the way, we’d spend a morning exploring Memphis, Tennessee, and then follow Highway 61 and explore a little of the history of the blues.
Cape Girardeau, which sits beside the Mississippi, suffered a series of devastating floods over the years. In 1964, the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed an 8,000-foot flood wall to protect the city. We had read that it has been decorated with spectacular murals, so we grabbed a light breakfast from Starbucks and headed downtown to check it out.
In 2005, a new public art project was unveiled – a thousand-foot stretch of the flood wall was covered in murals that tell the history of Cape Girardeau, from the earliest Native American inhabitants to the 1980 River Fest in the city.
In 1909, President Taft visited the city, as part of a tour of the Mississippi River region. October 26 is still celebrated as Taft Day in Cape Girardeau. After finishing our exploration of the mural, we got back in the HR-V and headed further south.
Our route took us (briefly) through Arkansas.
We did stop by the Arkansas Welcome Center, and what should have been a quick break turned into a larger exploration…
Unlike most rest stops that have restrooms, snack machines, and a water fountain, the Arkansas Welcome Center was more like a museum of the life, history, and culture of the state. This case was dedicated to blues musicians from Arkansas, and included the Danelectro Silvertone electric guitar of Robert Nighthawk, who was born, lived, and died in Helena, Arkansas. Nighthawk never experienced great commercial success during his lifetime, but is now regarded as an influential musician. In 1983, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame (via Wikipedia). Head over to YouTube and check out “The Moon is Rising” by Robert Nighthawk if you’d like to hear a taste of his music.
We crossed yet another state line, entering Tennessee as we headed to the city of Memphis.
Our next stop was perhaps the most serious of our journey. We were going to the site of the former Lorraine Motel, known as the location where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
The motel has been preserved as it appeared in 1968, but the interior has been significantly changed – it now houses the National Civil Rights Museum, which chronicles the history of the struggle for equal rights in this nation.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated as he stood outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. Two late-60s cars help to recreate the feeling of that April evening, and the large wreath marks the site of Dr. King’s death.
The Lorraine Motel served predominantly African-American celebrities and wealthier clientele looking for lodging in a Tennessee slowly emerging from segregation. Some of its notable guests included Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding. Dr. King stayed at the Lorraine frequently when in Memphis, so much so that the room was nicknamed the King-Abernathy Suite, as Ray Abernathy, a Baptist minister and civil rights leader, often joined him while in the city (via Wikipedia).
The wreath marks the location where Dr. King fell after being struck from bullets fired from across the street.
As we entered the National Civil Rights Museum, I misheard the directions from the PA system. I thought that photography was not permitted (my wife later clarified that video recording and flash photography are not permitted, but still photos were allowed). As such, I have no shots from the inside of the museum. Perhaps it’s better that way… if you’re in the Memphis area, I would strongly urge you to visit this terrific museum. I personally found the exhibits on the Middle Passage, the lunch counter sit-ins, a replica of the burned-out Greyhound bus used by the Freedom Riders, and the exhibit on Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as the most moving, memorable sites in the museum. The museum is open Wednesday through Monday (closed Tuesday) from 9:00 am – 6:00 pm. Admission is $18 for an adult, $16 for seniors ages 55+ and college students, $15 for children ages 5-17, and free for children 4 and younger, as well as active duty US military personnel.
After leaving the museum, we next made a more lighthearted stop – a photo at Sun Studio, known as “The Birthplace of Rock N Roll.” Artists who recorded here include Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis (via Sun Studio). This would have to be our one music history stop for the day, as the line for entry to tour Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, was ridiculously long. We’ll save that for a return visit to Memphis!
Finally, we paid a visit to the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, site of one of the more unusual parades in the US.
Every day at 11:00 am, five mallard ducks are paraded from their room in the penthouse down to the lobby, where they are then allowed to bathe in the fountain. At 5:00 pm, they parade back up to their penthouse suite. The tradition dates back to the 1930s. Hey, why did the teacher get annoyed with the duck? Because he wouldn’t stop quackin’ jokes in class! (I’ll be here all week, folks).
Departing Memphis, our next destination would be to spend the night in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi.
The fastest way from Memphis to Jackson would be to take I-55. Forgoing the interstate highway, however, we instead opted to follow Highway 61, a road that follows the Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans, Louisiana. The road runs through the Mississippi Delta region, an important location for the development of blues music in America. Highway 61 has gained the name the “Blues Highway.”
Similar to Effigy Mounds National Monument, Mississippi is also dotted with mounds constructed by Native American peoples. We detoured off Highway 61 to explore one of the thirty-three identified mounds on the Mississippi Mound Trail. Johnson Cemetery Mound was built in the 13th century. In the early 20th century, its summit was used as an African-American cemetery. The Mississippi Mound Trail was established in 2016 to commemorate these important locations.
Resuming our drive along Highway 61, we stopped by the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. Established in 1979, the museum sits in a former train station and is the first such museum of blues history in the nation. It is also part of the Mississippi Blues Trail, a series of historical markers of important locations related to the blues in Mississippi. Unfortunately, the museum was closed the day we arrived, but two people who were working to re-line the parking lot kindly gave us directions to another cool site across town.
At the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 is a marker for The Crossroads, the location where blues musician Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil to gain mastery of the guitar. Born in 1911 and dying at the young age of 27, Johnson made the most of his time, recording several tracks that are considered highly influential for later blues artists. This site is also associated with Johnson’s song “Cross Road Blues.”
If you are interested in hearing this highly influential blues song, which also had a significant impact on the development of rock and roll, I have included it here:
After Clarksdale, we headed southeast toward Jackson along Highway 49E. A seemingly never-ending two-lane road through small towns and endless acres of farmland, it certainly gave us a far better appreciation for the state than if we had just stuck to the interstate.
Once in Jackson, we stopped for takeout dinner at Breaux Ridge, a Mississippi-based chain of restaurants that marries Cajun and Asian cooking styles. It had good reviews online, so we thought we’d give it a try.
That’ll be an order of the blackened redfish (left) and the Cajun crawfish fried rice (right). Absolutely delicious! While waiting for our food, we also struck up a conversation with Rex, the bartender, who invented a new mixed drink on the spot based on our conversation. If you’re in the Breaux Ridge in Jackson, go to the bar, ask for Rex, and order a “Jersey Shore.” You’ll thank us later!
With the HR-V safely parked, it was time to settle in for a good night’s sleep. The next leg of our journey would begin the following morning as we headed south to New Orleans. Through our journey, the HR-V has been a stellar road warrior, gobbling up miles with ease, swallowing our cargo, and sipping gently at the gas pump. Wrapping Up
States Visited: WI, MN, IA, MO, AR, TN, MS
Average Fuel Economy: 31.2 mpg
Average Speed: 54 mph
The second leg of the Great American Road Trip of 2022 is now in the books, and what an adventure it has been! On this leg of the trip, I visited three states I had never before entered – Missouri, Arkansas, and Mississippi. We saw national parks, important museums, traveled a historic highway (or two), ate great food, and met some awesome people. For our next adventure, we’re going to drive down to The Big Easy, and then begin our journey back to New Jersey, following along the Appalachian Mountains.
Thanks, as always, for coming along on another adventure down the Open Road Ahead.
‘Til next time.