Across the Mississippi

We spent a pleasant night at Love’s in Hamel, Illinois. They explicitly gave us permission to stay overnight. They didn’t even charge me for my coffee this morning, even though I had my wallet out to pay. 10/10, would stay again.

Our first stop of the day was the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. I’d never heard of it, which is why I’m glad to be traveling with others who have done the research and found the cool sites. This used to be the Route 66 bypass around St. Louis, Missouri, before I-270 replaced it. It was shut down in 1970, but later reopened to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. After my visit I learned it was also the scene of some grizzly murders in 1991.

My first time at the Mississippi River.

This was my first time ever seeing the mighty Mississippi River. Of course I grew up reading Mark Twain and learning all about it, but I’d never actually been here until today. Also, on the other side of that bridge, all the radio station call signs begin with K, not W as I’d known all my life. (It’s an insignificant detail, but I’m a radio nerd, so it’s significant to me.) I didn’t walk all the way to the other side in Missouri. Instead I spent some time just looking out at the river, enjoying the moment.

Monk Mound.

A short drive away was the Cahokia Mounds. Over 1,000 years ago, the Native city on this site rivaled the size of London at that time. It was the hub of a sprawling, powerful civilization along the Mississippi River. It started to decline in the 1200s, and was gone before Europeans set foot here. These mounds are all that remains of their once great city. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to what I was taught in school about how “Indians” were small, undeveloped, nomadic tribes. While some certainly were (and there’s nothing wrong with being a nomad — I mean, look at me), it’s interesting to have a completely different, and more factual, version of history stare me in the face.

I also found a phone in the parking lot. It was out of power, so I plugged it into a USB-C charger and got it to turn on. This revealed that it was a T-Mobile device. I didn’t want to hack the phone, but I wanted to see if there was a way I could find and contact the owner. Between the security settings and a half broken screen, I couldn’t.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis was visible from the top of Monk Mound. (I didn’t make the climb to go easy on my previously broken foot, but Buffy and Birgit did.) That was our next stop. We passed through East St. Louis, Illinois, to get there. I have never driven through such a run-down, sketchy place. As interesting as pictures would’ve been, I didn’t want to stop or unlock my doors. It’s easy to see how this was once a thriving community. It’s anything but that now.

St. Louis, Missouri.

We crossed the Mississippi, and Google got us lost trying to find parking for the Gateway Arch. It also took us down bumpy brick roads we could only drive at less than walking speed. The 100-year-old Route 66 was much better than this. We gave up when it tried taking us under a bridge too short for Birgit and me to fit under. We pulled over, took the photo op, and declared another case of “every van for itself.” We would regroup at our next planned stop in Missouri.

Some friends had told me about some places I should’ve visited there. Others told me to just get the heck out. I’m not much for cities, so I got the heck out. I found a T-Mobile store that was on the way to our regroup point, and hit the highway to get out of the city fast. I hate city driving, especially in the van, and I was done. I ended up leaving the phone at the store, since I was leaving the area and they might have some way to identify the owner. I hope they get it back.

Route 66 State Park in Missouri.

Taking the highway put me ahead of schedule, so I found my way to Route 66 State Park, in particular the visitor center next to another decommissioned bridge. Unlike the pictures at the link, no road surface remains, only the steel truss structure. I had to either take I-44 to get there, or drive 20 miles out of my way to the next bridge. The visitor’s center is interesting, but really offered nothing I hadn’t already seen except a Missouri-centric take on Route 66. The nice woman at the desk did give me a useful Route 66 map of Missouri. A similar map for Illinois proved useful, so I snagged it.

Then on to our regroup point, Shaw Nature Reserve in Grey Summit. Buffy was already there. Birgit and Tom were 30 minutes out. There was a charge to drive through the park, and they were starting to get impatient about us waiting there. Also, we learned no pets were allowed when I let Lister out to explore. The woman was very nice about it, and loves cats herself. We moved to the commuter lot across the street to wait for the others to join us.

It was after 4:00 pm, later than we usually travel, but we had to get out of St. Louis to regroup. Unfortunately there was nothing nearby that would allow us to park overnight, and the nearby campgrounds were either unreachable or overpriced. We were ready to stop, yet pressed on down the road to a Cracker Barrel, a known-good overnight spot. Three of us went inside for dinner, while Buffy decided to get some work done instead.

We didn’t stay on Route 66 very much today. I just happened to pick it up again after the T-Mobile stop because the mall the store was in just happened to be on it. But we’re back on track. To a great extent, Route 66 has been overrun by I-44. Passing through Route 66 State Park on I-44 you can see where this literally happened. We’re sticking to the frontage roads, which have essentially replaced 66 for slow rollers like us. We’re also getting back into some hills and curves, which is nice for this New England native to see instead of the straight and flat of Indiana and Illinois. The weather is warming up, too, as we head south.

It was a long day. I had a lot of firsts today:

  • First time seeing, and crossing, the Mississippi River by land vehicle (I’ve flown west a few times before)
  • First time in St. Louis
  • First time in Missouri at all
  • First time seeing the Gateway Arch

It was also just a long day of driving. As a former delivery driver I’m used to spending all day on the road, but Birgit was feeling it long before we got to Cracker Barrel. So tomorrow we’re planning a short day of driving, and probably stops for laundry and showers. I’m even open to taking a full day off the road to get stuff done and rest a bit, if that’s what the group decides to do. Buffy wants to complete this trip in six weeks. That’s very possible, far longer than most people take to do it. If every day was like today we’d finish in half that time. But we don’t want every day to be like today. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and get through the city. Not tomorrow, though. Meanwhile, I’ll sleep well tonight.

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