Mississippi River Route: A Road Trip

Mississippi River Route: A Road Trip


edmond gagnonDid you know you can drive the whole length of the Big Muddy, Old Blue, or the Gathering of Rivers? These are just a few of the nicknames for the Mississippi River, America’s main artery. The Mississippi flows for some 2,300 miles, from Minneapolis to New Orleans, and into the Gulf of Mexico. Tributaries like the Ohio and Missouri join the journey that starts at the top and finishes at  the bottom of the country.

The Mississippi River Route was first explored by canoes, quickly followed by paddle boats, in a seemingly endless adventure north. The exploration route cut a swath through ten of the territories that now make up the United States. This exploration led to the colonization and the introduction of the iron horse, aka the railroad network, which transported people and goods more quickly, safely, and efficiently than the sometimes-treacherous river. 

To experience the marvels of the Mississippi and heart of America, I drove its length on the Great River Road, a National Scenic Byway. Its quiet two-lane roads follow the contours of America’s most famous river. The paved route officially starts in Canada, although the river itself starts in northern Minnesota. Because of logistics and time, I began my adventure in Davenport, Iowa, crossing the Rock Island bridge from Illinois. 

Starting the Mississippi River Route

My first morning took me south on Highway 22, hugging the west side of the river through rolling hills. From my vantage point, the muddy river looked like a giant snake slithering its way through the trees. My Harley-Davidson and I were happy. The open country offered gentle curves, hills, valleys, and shades of blue, green, and brown that made for a picture-perfect start to my adventure. 

Highway 22 took me to 61, as well as through little burgs and towns that most folks have never heard of. Armed with only a road map, I crossed the river by bridge or ferry just to see what was on the other side. Crossing the Mississippi on a barge that was barely large enough for me and two cars was a bit unnerving, but very cool. 

I stopped in Hannibal, Missouri, home of Mark Twain, and walked around the neighborhood that inspired Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Rumor has it that the outlaw Jesse James once hid out there after a train robbery. From Hannibal, I rode the west side of Old Muddy, passing through small towns that had seen better days. To the once thriving communities, the introduction of the Interstate Highway System was like getting cancer. 

image of a motorcycle on a ferry crossing the Mississippi River

Merging Rivers

The history of transportation played out in front of me. At first, paddle-wheelers and river boats were the only way to penetrate the country. Trains came next. Some rail lines are still in use, while others rusted and became overgrown with weeds. Even the road I traveled had weathered with time, kept open only by federal requirements despite being ignored by the masses who can get places faster on the Interstate. Once-bustling factories sat idle and ignored along the entire river, victims of changing commerce and demographics. 

The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers merged, as did my scenic route with a larger freeway taking me into St. Louis. The Arch loomed large on the horizon, appearing to span the dozens of lanes of converging highways. The city is a great place to drink beer, eat ribs, and closely explore the arch, but I only passed through. My trip was about the ride, and not so much the stops along the way. While I was on the Mississippi River Route, I discovered that it was those dots on the map — those little towns — that were the fabric that patched America together like a giant quilt. 

Further down the road, Ohio joined me and the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The waterway got wider and moved faster. It kept me company into Memphis. Once again, I only passed through the big city, opting for cheaper and more scenic accommodations in small-town America. Vicksburg, Mississippi was a good place to stay and stretch my legs. 

An image of a distant bridge on the Mississippi River

Decline of Small-Town America

Sadly, Vicksburg was yet another town with a vibrant and colorful past that found it difficult to keep up with progress. I give them an A for their efforts in refurbishing and trying to revitalize their once-famous city. They’ve beautifully restored many historic buildings  with amazing wall murals depicting life on the river during the American Civil War.  

Somewhere in the wide-open Louisiana countryside, where southern drawl slowed to a crawl, the Red River joined the fun. A few smaller tributaries had tagged along when I wasn’t looking; we all headed south to the Gulf of Mexico. My last stretch of road was I-10, which was built on stilts. It was freaky to say the least, with low guard rails and nothing but black water and swampland down below. Not the kind of place you want to break down.

The Mississippi River Route was a great ride, and New Orleans was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I’d splurged and booked a room in a historic old bank just off Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. Entering the city and seeing the historic buildings, I was taken back two hundred years. After riding a steady 55 mph, I slowed to a crawl. The search for my hotel was painful. I felt like I was in a sauna. It was the middle of August, so the peak of southern heat and humidity was as hell. 

Scenic road along Mississippi River Mississippi River: Welcome to the South

Heat is okay, but I’m no fan of humidity. I especially took offense when the AC didn’t work in my cute and historic little room. Nonetheless, it was nothing that a shower, nap, and change of rooms couldn’t rectify. The next two-and-a-half days were mine to explore NOLA. It was everything they say it is: beautiful, dumpy, wild, scenic, noisy, exotic, musical, gastronomic, crime-ridden, historic, tragic, and special in all those ways. 

I took to the street on foot and explored every inch of the French Quarter, keeping an eye out for celebrities (like Brad Pitt), who keep a residence there. Turns out I did see someone I knew, a doctor from home. What are the odds? I did everything you’re supposed to do in NOLA: sampled food, checked out street performers, and followed the cacophony of music into at least a dozen bars and restaurants. 

In search of late-night munchies, I stumbled my way home in the wee hours only to discover that I’d been hustled and pick-pocketed for my money clip and a couple hundred bucks in cash. Such is life in the big city. Alcohol obviously played a part. I sloughed it off and added it to my list of worldly experiences. 

Being the Traditional Tourist

The rest of my time was spent doing the usual touristy things like walking through cool graveyards, touring the lower ninth quarter that had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, and strolling through the Garden District to admire the beautiful historic homes. The old city center was easy to navigate on foot, and I liked how street names were spelled out in colorful tiles set into the sidewalks. 

I listened to ragtime, Dixie, and Cajun music in open bars and right on the street. The horns were amazing. Musicians that played washboards and spoons were a sight to see. I tried gumbo, jambalaya, and even alligator. The spices and flavors were as unique as the cornucopia of people that I saw walking and working the streets. 

It was a Friday night when I hit Bourbon Street, an experience I’ll never forget. The street was barricaded by cops on horses at both ends, creating one huge party where everyone carried their drinks from one bar to the next. Drunken revelers on balconies yelled down at women to expose their breasts, and if they did so they were showered with strings of trophy beads. The street was a wall-to-wall, bar-to-bar party. 

Wrap Up

Experiencing NOLA was a fitting end to my adventure down the Mississippi River Route. It was a trip with a humble beginning, like the Big Muddy itself. The miles and memories I collected along the way were like water and sediment the river gained downstream. While I celebrated the end of my journey with food and drink, the lifeblood of America drained into the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

If you want to read about any of my southeast Asian adventures take a look at the travel section of my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

by Edmond Gagnon

46 thoughts on “Mississippi River Route: A Road Trip

  1. What a fun adventure. I felt like I was on this adventure with you. I’m definitely not a fan of humidity. My husband was out there for a business trip, and told me all about it. Loved all the photos!

    1. Great read. Sounds like you had a great trip. I especially love how you were able to shrug off being pick-pocketed! It made for a great story.

  2. Thanks Shannon, being a former cop and experienced traveler, my drunk-ass should have known better. You can’t let minor set-backs ruin your trip…and it does make for a better story 😉

  3. This was a great read Ed. The Mississippi River route would be a fun adventure. I’d love to do the trip one day.

  4. Honestly, I like to read this kind of trip most especially if I am not familiar in the place. Such a beautiful and full memories of that road trip.

  5. Sounds like an awesome trip. I had never heard any of those nicknames for the Mississippi River before! And I hope you got to try some beignets while you were in NOLA!

  6. I had no idea that you could drive the full length of the Mississippi. That sounds like a great trip to take (after the border opens and I can head down there once again). We’ve been talking about purchasing a trailer and taking some bigger road trips, camping along the way, with our dogs. I’ll have to check out the campgrounds and dog-friendly areas around the Mississippi and look into planning something!

    1. I think it would be a great trip hauling a trailer…might not be a lot of campgrounds right on the route but lots of quiet areas to get off the road. Google: The Great River Road…there are maps and websites with lots of info. The way things are going you’ll have to wait until next year. We did Route 66 last year…saw lots of trailers doing that trip from Chicago to LA. Check my website for posts on that trip.

  7. I’ve wanted to see the Mississippi ever since I read Huckleberry Finn back when I was a kid. sounds like such a fab trip to drive alongside. One day…

  8. What a fantastic adventure – I didn’t know you could drive the Mississippi route. Loved reading your observations on the evolution of transportation and the decline of small towns.
    You know, your post reads like a little short story, loved your prose!

  9. Thank you! I’m glad you liked the story…it’s how I prefer to do my posts for DA but in shooting for high SEO they prefer different formats to garner more attention. If you like these kind of stories check out my web site or my book called, A Casual Traveler. Cheers Smita!

  10. What a great idea for a trip. It’s a shame that some of the towns declined after the arrival of the highway system, but it’s probably inevitable. I would be really interesting to visit Mark Twain’s area, as I loved the books as a kid.

  11. Looks like so much fun! I love trips of any kind and water is definitely my thing! the mix seams lovely

  12. I had no clue that you could drive the entire length of the Mississippi River! How cool for a scenic drive that really lets you explore middle America. A trip to New Orleans is in order for me one of these days because I want to eat at Johnny Sanchez. But now I really want to add in a journey down the Mississippi in that trip as well.

  13. It was cool, Erica, and you never know what you’ll run across on the backroads and in small towns. I drove through one place that looked abandoned, maybe even a little sketchy and could only find a run down little rib joint to eat at. It was one of my best meals on the trip!

  14. Really enjoyed reading the story of your adventure. My wife and I just crossed the Mississippi at the borders of Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois. It is the area where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers combine, very wide. There is some thing magical and majestic about the great rivers and lakes. I worked as a deckhand on a tugboat one summer over during college down on the James River and the Chesapeake Bay, it brings back great memories. My wife and I would love to drive along and take a cruise down the Mississippi river.

  15. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, Don. I did another on the Great River Road, for Dreams Abroad. Look under my name for Mississippi River Route…I biked from near the source (top), right down to New Orleans. I think it’s something you would enjoy. Feel free to hit me up for more info.

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