Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Pressing On

After the Eclipse we took a side trip to visit a cousin of Jean’s. Thus we crossed the river at Cape Girardeau and instead of continuing south we headed west into the Ozarks. Jean’s cousin, Mike, and his wife, Susan, live on a 320-acre farm. Like us, they don’t farm it; they inherited it from Mike’s parents. It is back in the woods, five miles off the end of the pavement. Driving those five miles on a barely graveled road made me glad I didn’t try the 20 miles into Chaco Canyon. A car on a dirt road is one thing, a motorhome is something else again.
We spent three days visiting. Mostly we just talked. Mike has done extensive family research and filled Jean in on many details she didn’t know about. She also had information that he didn’t, so it was a successful time.

On the third day, Mike took us just across the Arkansas line to Mammoth Hot Springs State Park. The park is small but well-done, with a restored train depot preserved and open to the public.

They have also preserved the original power station at the dam. Compared with today’s power stations, it looks awfully small.

On the way back, he took us through the village of Koshkonong. He told us that it was once one of the richest towns in the Midwest, thanks to shipping huge quantities of peaches. Today it is almost a ghost town. The streets look like they haven’t been repaired in decades, rough and full of big potholes. None of the commercial buildings is occupied except for the Post Office and a Senior Center. A couple of the houses appeared to be occupied, but there was no one on the street, or any traffic. A very sad sight.
Saturday we headed back to the GRR, after Susan, who makes historical clothing professionally, gave Jean a history of corsets — with examples. Then we rolled back down the dirt road we came in on and were soon heading east again. The weather in the Ozarks was most pleasant. Once we got back down on the prairie, the temperature went back up to air-conditioner range.
In the afternoon we crossed back over the Mississippi into Illinois, and were soon in Cairo. Cairo was a big surprise. During the steamboat era it was a major port on the river, at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi. After the Civil War, it was nearly destroyed by racial conflict. Today the population is less than 3,000. It has wide streets with some impressive buildings, both public and private, but no traffic and few people.

The main street in Cairo
Cairo Public Library

Like Portsmouth, there are murals on the (Ohio) river wall.

They concentrate on Cairo’s glory days.

At the bottom of town there is a park which it took us two or three tries to find (and an unwanted trip across the river back to Missouri). It is at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

There is also a sculpture commemorating the five days that Lewis and Clark spent there gathering their people and teaching them navigational skills, before beginning their epic exploration.

Parked alongside on the Mississippi side was the biggest tow we had seen so far. I could barely get it all in a wide-angle picture.

From there we drove down some beautiful countryside in Kentucky to a state park where we laid over a day to do laundry and catch up with other chores. It’s a beautiful park, with lots of amenities and a view of the river.
All along, we had been getting frequent text messages from Jean’s brother, Chillie, on the hurricane threatening, and then hitting, Texas. On Monday, we headed for the nearest big town, someplace where we could get cell service. We aimed for Jackson, TN. Part way there, at a lunch stop, Gene checked his Allstays app to see what campgrounds might be available in Jackson. He learned that the road we were on (the most direct way to Jackson) had two underpasses with 8-foot clearance. He didn’t even know the app showed that information. So we had to change our route.
Jackson is big enough to have lots of traffic and confusing streets. We wasted a lot of time trying to find a Walmart to do some shopping. We finally gave up and headed to the nearest campground. We found Jackson RV Campground, right at the edge of the city. It looked like an overpriced slum, and we gave up on that one. So far Jackson didn’t seem too welcoming.
Jean found another campground further out. With a name like “Whispering Pines” it held out lots of promise. When we got there it turned out to be small and kind of rough. But the proprietor was friendly and helpful — and it has cable. So we bought two nights. The main object is to watch the storm and make some decisions.
So far, all campgrounds we have been in have had at least bathrooms, often with showers. This one has a building labeled “Laundry.” I went there, expecting it to have a bathroom. It doesn’t, but there is a small room off the laundry portion that has a bathtub! Unique.
But it does have cable. We watched the coverage on the Weather Channel for a long time, then saw the news and some Monday night TV. Our original idea was to wait out the storm and then continue our trip. We are now about half-way down the Mississippi. After some discussion and consulting of maps, we concluded that the rest of the way was going to be a total disaster area. Going down there now, we would only be disaster tourists — not something we would want.
So as of now, we are stopping the trip and heading for home. Not that we will be rushing back. Here in Tennessee, there are other things to see and friends and relatives to visit. Gene has lived in Virginia for more than 50 years and has never been to the Great Smoky Mountains. So we have a new plan for a casual and interesting trip back to Virginia. We are thinking about picking up the rest of the GRR next winter, taking the long way to Florida for our usual visit. Keep tuned.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


After fueling up and doing our laundry, we headed for the Star View Vineyard. We had made reservations there last November for Sunday night, 20 August. We arrived to find very little level ground. We managed to get a suitable spot with the help of blocks. We were surprised that there was only one other RV there, a pop-up. We had expected more. I had had a piece of heavy filter material drop-shipped to me at the Vineyard. I spent some time that night cutting a filter to fit on my camera. I had also completely charged my battery and bought a new 8Gb card to be used only for the eclipse.

Next morning dawned clear. So far so good. There were a couple of people setting up telescopes on motor-driven mounts with cameras attached behind the pop-up. They had thousands of dollars worth of sophisticated equipment, but one of them had to borrow my Leatherman to make an adjustment. They were out working a couple of hours before the event, which was to start about noon.

The vineyard soon began to fill up with people come to enjoy the event. This contrasts with the attitude of earlier days. There was a total eclipse when Jean was living in Mexico. She and the children got all prepared with their viewing boxes, etc. The local housemaid was frightened and warned them that it was bad luck to be outside during an eclipse. Not all native attitudes were negative. One old story says that there is an old woman weaving a basket. When the basket is completed, the world will come to an end. But periodically a dog, named “Eclipse,” comes along and tears the basket up; so the old woman has to start all over again.

We were parked in the hot sun, so we ran the generator and the air conditioner all day. Meanwhile we took our chairs into the shade of some pine trees, where we were entertained by a couple keeping up with a two-year-old girl. About ten of twelve, I set up in the sun and started  shooting.  Jean came out and watched through solar glasses.

The event takes two-and-a-half hours to complete, so I got comfortable.

About that time, scattered clouds moved in. Also, as the disk of the sun got smaller, the camera began having trouble finding focus.

 During the moments of totality, I needed to take off the filter (and put it on again as the moon moved on). I continued shooting (though most folks left after totality) which allowed me to record the entire event.

At the climactic moment, I got some interesting effects.

As well as more normal pictures.

After resting from our efforts (and mainly the heat) we went in the air-conditioned tasting room and had sandwiches (with wine, of course) . Then we wrapped everything up, bid our hosts fond adieu, and drove back to the Devil’s Backbone. By that time the traffic had died down and it was an easy 34 miles. This event was our one scheduled stop. Tomorrow we make a side trip into Missouri to visit some of Jean’s relatives and then it is back to the Great River Road.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Iowa and Illinois

Goose Island County Park, just south of La Crosse, is one of our favorite campgrounds. We set up on grass next to a backwater of the Mississippi. We could do some bird watching right from the rig, how lazy can you get? One of our neighbors, a couple of sites down, had a sofa outside next to the fire ring (in which he made a huge blaze). This seems to be a place of comfort.
The sole of Jean’s tennis shoe started peeling off. This is something I can fix, but only at home. So we got directions to the big mall in La Crosse and set off. It was all the way on the other side of the city and there was plenty of traffic, but it was easy to find. Jean went in to Penny’s to look for shoes and I took refuge in Barnes and Noble. I convinced myself that I was doing research by browsing through travel magazines. I discovered a slick RV magazine aimed at Millennials, which I actually bought. I doubt that I can imitate a Millennial, but it is worth a little study.  It took Jean a long time to find a pair of shoes she liked, so I had lots of browsing.
On the way back, we stopped at Walmart for groceries, miscellaneous needs, and prescription refills. By the time all the shopping was finished, the day was almost over. So we went back to Goose Island and managed to get our same campsite for another night. I called my sister for her birthday and we got all caught up.
We stayed up late reading, slept in the next day. We are getting into the slowing-down process. We drove south a short distance, then crossed the river into Iowa. We had never been to Iowa before, so we didn’t know what to expect. Not surprisingly, this part of Iowa looks pretty much like Wisconsin, with bluffs along the river and small towns. Our first stop in Iowa was the Effigy Mounds park. The Indians built mounds all over the eastern part of the country. Some are simple, some are in the shape of birds or bears. Some of them contain burials, but not all. They seemed to be put on top of hills a lot, which is the case with this park. We started hiking up the path behind the Visitor Center, but ran out of steam before we got to the top. Disappointing, but maybe we will get another chance.
South of Effigy Mounds a few miles is Pike’s Peak State Park. This was named by Zebulon Pike before he ever got to Colorado. It is opposite the confluence of the Wisconsin River with the Mississippi and is one of the highest points on the river. It is also the place where Marquette and Joliet first encountered the Mississippi.

We took a short hike to Bridal Veil Falls. It is mostly down-hill on a boardwalk with 197 steps, almost like climbing to the top of a lighthouse. But these steps were spaced apart, a few steps then a short level stretch. Going down wasn’t bad, but we had to rest a couple of times coming back. The falls were attractive, but suffered from a dry spell. Still, worth the effort. We rewarded ourselves with ice cream while we watched the hummingbirds.

Bridal Veil Fall
Someone has put out three hummingbird feeders which have attracted 12-15 hummingbirds (they move too fast to count). They all appeared to be female ruby throats (or perhaps juveniles) since there was not a red throat in sight.
The rest of the afternoon we went in to McGregor to do laundry and get some dinner. The town had been hit by a tornado two weeks earlier. It has been mostly cleaned up and you wouldn’t know it unless you looked up to see the missing and damaged roofs. But that doesn’t explain the many empty stores on the main street. It seems to be struggling.
Next morning I took a picture of the river, and got into a conversation with a group of Amish (or perhaps Mennonites) that were visiting the park. Here the GRR is well-marked. The route takes you through several small towns, away from the interstates and big cities. Some are dying and appear to be falling apart; then once in a while you hit one that appears prosperous and attractive. Guttenburg was one of those. It is a lovely town, with a long downtown opposite a park on the bank of the river. It is a pleasure to drive through such a place.
We got to Dubuque in early afternoon and went to the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. This is a large, well done museum that is in two buildings. We went through the one devoted to rivers in general. It is a mixture of displays and large fish tanks replicating various types of rivers. About 4:30 we left, got some groceries, and camped in a county park. The campground was full of vehicles with racing canoes on top. Next morning we hung around to watch the beginning of the race which had a leg next to the campground. We talked for a while with a couple who were racers but not in this race. We also spotted a mink moving around in the rip rap.

The museum tickets were good for two days, so we went back and went through the building devoted to the Mississippi. It includes a wing for the classic Mississippi steamboats, which was very informative and interesting to Gene who likes anything having to do with boats. This building also had aquarium tanks, and some displays in a courtyard that included a small, sternwheel tug that we could go aboard. This tug was powered by diesel.
We wound around through downtown Dubuque and finally got on the River Road south. This part of Iowa is hilly and green, with big fields of corn. The road goes through many small towns. In Bellevue there is a state park with a butterfly garden. The garden is impressive, but nary a butterfly --- too cold? too overcast?

Bellevue Butterfly Garden

Next day, we got some rain in the morning. The land is beginning to flatten out; we’re heading into the prairie. We spent some time in Le Claire, a pretty town with active businesses. The main street has speakers with piped in music. We spent some time at the (misnamed?) Buffalo Bill Museum. It had a room full of Buffalo Bill memorabilia in cases, but the rest of the museum was devoted to Le Claire history. There is a building attached that contains a steamer under restoration. You can go aboard and crawl around. It is fascinating to actually be aboard one, albeit a small tug. The whole lower deck (above the hold) is devoted to machinery, with the boilers, propulsion engines, and several other steam-powered devices. The galley is here also, just a refrigerator, a sink, and some counters and cabinets among the machinery. Everything aboard is powered by steam, including a generator. Electricity was only used for lights (and the refrigerator). This boat was the longest-lived steamboat on the river, lasting 70+ years when the average life expectancy was about 10 years. It was also the last steamer to retire.
We stopped for the night at a Corps of Engineers campground. This is a Class A campground and is very well done, one of the best we have stayed in. We had a great view of the river. Next morning we spotted a tow that we had seen in Le Claire, heading in the other direction. He seemed to get stuck because he stopped, drifted back with the current a short ways, and then powered forward again, farther from the bank.

After breakfast in town, we crossed over into Illinois. We passed through many large corn fields. The river, in broad areas with quiet water by the shore, had acres of plants blooming that we took for water lilies. We found out that they are actually American lotus. They have a potato-like root that was used by the Indians.

American Lotus on the River
We went in to Nauvoo, a town where Gene’s great uncle lived and made blue cheese in the years before the first World War. The town is mostly known for its Mormon inhabitants in the 19th century. There is a big Mormon temple on the hill overlooking the river.

Next day we crossed into Missouri and drove to Hannibal. The day was overcast with occasional rain. The old downtown area is Mark Twain everything. We went into the museum, which has quotes and displays covering every aspect of Twain’s life. We spent a long time watching most of the Ken Burns documentary. The museum connects with several houses: Sam Clemens boyhood home, the “Becky Thatcher House,” Sam’s father’s law office, etc. Outdoors it even has the white fence that Tom Sawyer painted. You can take a selfie in front of a real fence painted by a fictional character.

We walked down by the river. This was the river as seen by young Sam Clemens, though in his time there was a lot more action than someone fishing.

Below Hannibal, the land becomes hilly, with farms in the broad valleys. The road mostly stays away from the river. We got tangled up in the edge of St. Louis, but broke free and found the Golden Eagle ferry. This is a tug-and-barge type of ferry that can handle about a dozen cars.
Golden Eagle ferry

It uses an arrangement I haven’t seen before. The bow of the tug is attached to the barge by a pivot on an arm from the middle of the barge.

When they want to go in the other direction, the tug just pivots around to the other hip. There are no lines involved.

On the Illinois side we had lunch at Kinder’s Restaurant “On and Sometimes In the Mississippi River.” This side of the river has part of the Illinois River and several other streams and backwaters, so we had to make a wide detour to get back on the River Road. We  finally got to Pere Marquette State Park campground. We arrived after hours, and the camp host was “off duty” but there were several sites listed on the sign as first-come-first-served so we drove in and picked a spot.
Next morning the camp host came around and collected the fee. The section south of here reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway north of Long Beach. The road is right up against the bank of the wide river, with bluffs close on the other side. There is not even the usual railroad track between. Perhaps the prettiest stretch so far.
But it can’t last. In a little while we approached St. Louis and all the industrial area on the Illinois side. We were headed for Cahokia Mounds, the biggest mound site in the country. But first we had to deal with the confusion and fast traffic of the city. Somehow we made it and got to the Mounds about 1:30. We spent most of the hot day in the large and well done Visitor Center.
Cahokia main square with large pyramid

Cahokia developed into the largest and most complex city north of Mexico. By AD ll00 it had a bigger population than London. At its height, the city covered about 4,000 acres and had 120 mounds. The population was about 20,000. The largest mound, called “Monk’s Mound,’ is an earthen pyramid more than 100 feet high and covering about 14 acres. The illustrations make the town look similar to Aztec or Mayan towns, but the raised structures were made of earth rather than stone. 
The city included a circle of poles constituting a solar calendar, now called “Woodhenge.”
Woodhenge on the model
We did get outside and it is truly an impressive sight. I took some pictures, but in one of those horrible moments when you push the wrong button too quickly, I lost all but one fairly puny mound.

However, it is a place that deserves a second visit.
Fleeing south from Cahokia, we were two days from the eclipse and entering the Zone of Totality. We have a paid reservation a few miles ahead for Sunday night, but it was now Friday and we were having a difficult time finding space anywhere. Panic time, everything was full and overpriced. We finally scored a site in a park called Devil’s Backbone. We had to rent for an entire week, of which we may use three days. But that was the best we could do. The park is kind of rough-and-ready, but it has power so we can run the air conditioner (it has gotten very hot) and it is right along the river. The people are nice, too. So tomorrow we head into the Zone of Totality; pray for sunshine.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Minnesota and Wisconsin

The Mississippi River begins at Lake Itaska in northern Minnesota. So on a Saturday morning we found ourselves at the Headwaters Center at the northern end of the lake. One of the first things you see is a large relief map of the whole Mississippi. This includes all sorts of information, such as the fact that the river loses half of its total elevation within the state of Minnesota.
There is a bridge over the little stream that flows out of the lake. There are also steps down to the stream, and several people waded the couple of yards across the river at that point. We elected to stay dry. This picture is from the other side of the bridge.
The Mighty Mississippi

 On the way back to the car, Jean spotted a bird running across the path and into the weeds. It was eventually followed by up to three chicks. We think it was a quail. As the day went on, we spotted eighteen deer and a small snake in the road. A good day for wildlife.
The road crosses the river several times. The first two times it looked narrower than where it issues from the lake; but after that it gets progressively wider. It’s hard to tell how deep it is, but there was a band of mud along the edge, implying that the water was low.

While there are occasional fields of corn or soybeans, for the most part the land is wooded. Prominent in the woods are stands of thin birch trees (paper birch?) and tall, pointy pines. Sunny areas were covered with yellow wildflowers.
Sign in Wisconsin

The road is generally well-marked, but we managed to lose it a couple of times. The worst was approaching Bemidji, where we may have been thrown off by some construction. We connected back with it several miles down the road. It mainly follows back-country farm roads — in one instance gravel. This makes for pleasant driving and more chances to see the river. But it also means that you should make sure you have plenty of fuel when you start, because you can drive for hours and never see a town or a service station.
We stopped in Grand Rapids and visited the Judy Garland Home and Museum. Grand Rapids used to be a place where the river ran among a lot of rocks. We were told that you could hear the river inside the hospital where Judy Garland was born. Since then, the river has been tamed by industrialization.

After a long day’s run, we got the last campsite in the Aitkin town park. So we spent the night next to the river. We hope we will be able to do that some more.
In Aitkin we had breakfast in a popular local café/bakery. We try to eat in local places, rather than franchises. That usually turns out to be good food and we get a sense of the local culture.
This part of Minnesota is flat, with huge fields of corn and soybeans. The road follows the river closely and you get lots of views when the trees aren’t too thick. You can be 100 yards from the river and the view will be completely blocked by heavy vegetation.
We spotted our first dam at Sartell, just north of St. Cloud. It was put in for a paper mill, which may or may not still be operating (there was no smell).

We decided that, being Sunday, this was our best time to get through the Twin Cities; so we shortly got on I-94. Before we got to the cities, we were trapped in a major traffic jam caused by a wreck several miles ahead. It eventually broke up and the trip through the cities was easy. We got to Wisconsin later than we expected, but managed to luck into a good, riverside campground — where we again got the last available spot.

The view from the campsite (in light fog)
In the morning we took a short walk on the beach. Jean brought her binoculars and spent some time watching a large raft of snow geese along the opposite shore of the bay.

We took care of several necessary jobs, and got away just after noon. The road runs between a series of bluffs and the river. We have arrived at the Driftless Region, an area that somehow was missed by the great glaciers of the Ice Age. What few fields we saw had corn and soybeans together.

In the afternoon, we came to our first locks, Dam and Lock #4 in the tiny town of Alma., WI. Somehow we missed the first three. We stopped and watched a huge towboat work through with a long tow. The tugs on the Mississippi are called “towboats” even though they never tow; they only push.

The raft of big barges was long enough that they had to break it in half and lock through in two pieces. This took quite some time.

Afterwards we had some lunch in a bar across the street. After the rush to get through the Twin Cities, we are consciously slowing down. So we often stop for the overlooks and to read some of the historical markers. But we still got frustrated going through La Crosse. Jean wanted to find a Wells Fargo bank, and she located the only one on her phone. But both the map and directions were impossible to follow, so that didn’t work out.
We got another campsite next to the water on a backwater of the river in a county park where we had stayed before. So far we are lucking out on campsites. Tomorrow we need to do some shopping, then hope to finish the Wisconsin portion and go into Iowa. That will allow us to color one more state on our little map.