I follow Route 66 ‘til it hit the Mississippi. Instead of following the Mother Road westwards, I turn south, skipping from one side of the mighty river to the other as I go down through southern Illinois and Missouri.
The most obvious difference between the two states is that Illinois is flat as my arse and mainly farmland, but immediately across the river in Missouri there are hills and trees as far as the eye can see.
I spend the evening driving down the Illinois side, coming across rather bleak small towns. Not really towns, but America doesn’t seem to throw around the word “village” very often. The legacy of immigration does leave these rustic Midwest towns with somewhat odd names, like Prairie Du Rocher. I was informed by a couple of Missourians that the nearby town of New Madrid was not pronounced like the Spanish capital, but rather Mad-Rid, so I have no idea what they’d do to Du Rocher.
The road that leads there hugs a bluff that is the only change in elevation for miles. I turn from it onto dirt roads heading towards the river and find myself driving up on top of the levee system.
At the end of the day I cross back over to Missouri at a town called Chester, IL. Its claim to fame is making children all across the world eat spinach. It’s the birthplace of Popeye creator Elzie Segar (Popeye isn’t based on historical fact, who knew?). They have erected a statue to the animated sailor, except by the time I reach him, the lighting on him has left him a little demonic looking:
Chester, Wikipedia tells me, has a few other brushes with fame, including a visit by Charles Dickens and reports of Mark Twain staying there. The connection that comes to mind, however, is a bit more recent: months after driving this path myself, I am listening to Neil Gaiman’s excellent American Gods, a meandering supernatural trip through Americana. At one point the protagonist, Shadow, is travelling through southern Illinois and, I realise, visiting all the places that I went through. More on that later, as I’m calling it a night on the Missouri side of the river.
In the morning I visit the Trail of Tears State Park, which partially serves to educate the public about the thousands of Native Americans who died during forced marches as they were relocated. The website for the State Park promises that it “has a cheerier side”. It does, at least, have excellent views of the Mississippi:
I head further south and cross back over to Illinois at Cape Girardeau. Shortly I end up at a tiny little place called Thebes. The buildings here are too close to the river to have any protection from levees, so they’ve taken other precautious against flooding:
I continue my journey south, eventually arriving at a town called Cairo (pronounced Kayro), at the meeting of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Just before you arrive in Cairo you see a sign for something called Future City and I certainly hope Cairo isn’t it, or all those dystopian authors are right.
Dilapidated buildings are a common feature of the American landscape, so it’s not it in and of itself which is so bleak, but rather, that the abandoned buildings seem to be the highlight of the town. It has, as all American cities seem to, a “Historic Downtown”:
The town seems not just dead, but American dead: there are no chains anywhere, for anything. I feel somewhat ghoulish as I take a few pictures and wonder who (besides some Egyptian gods) could possibly still live here. Heading further south takes me back into Missouri, which has become as flat as Illinois.
I’m driving through endless fields at this point on straight-line roads, whose only turns are 90 degrees onto another piece of ruler-straight road. This is one of the few times when driving across America that I am alone, or at least feel that way. Twenty minutes pass without encountering another car and, bizarre as it seems in a country as large as the US, that makes it one of the longest durations between cars.
Missouri’s contribution to abandoned America comes in the form of this prefab:
Also on offer is this somewhat more spectacular collapse:
My trip along the Mississippi nearly gets me a bit too close to the river, as the road I’m on decides to do this:
By pure chance, just as I arrive, a riverboat ferry is about to pull away to cross over to Kentucky. I squeeze my car onto it beside a truck and a SUV and set off, for the last time today, across the Mighty Mississippi.
I have no coin to pay the ferryman, but instead of him making me walk the shores or drowning me, he just directed me to an ATM in the nearby town of Hickman, KY. The main road through, unfortunately, was shut due to the West Baptist Church burning down:
I get the fare sorted out and angle my car towards Memphis, completing the Egyptian name trilogy. I cross into the fourth state of the day, Tennessee, and see that the state has already heard of the fire risk of churches, so they’ve helpfully put up warnings:
The day’s drawing to a close as I get further into Tennessee, so I’ll end the post here. Next time, we’re exploring Memphis and the home of someone very special. No spoilers, but if it doesn’t leave a fool such as I all shook up, I’ll have to check into the Heartbreak Hotel, which I hope isn’t in the ghetto. … Jailhouse Rock.
Lastly, a few misc photos from the day: