The Great River Road route along the middle Mississippi starts in northwestern Illinois, at the southern edge of the Driftless Region, and proceeds through sandy floodplain and fertile prairie, nipping back and forth across the ever-locked and dammed Mississippi between Illinois, southern Iowa, and the generally more-developed Missouri uplands. Here, small towns bypassed by much of the 20th century are more likely to be forlorn than quaint, a prelude to those Southern states in which local ordinances appear to require the public display of rusty appliances.
With a few exceptions—such as the historic Mormon town of Nauvoo or Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal—our route now mostly runs through communities whose best years may have passed. This stretch of the GRR also includes one of the most dramatic sections of the entire route: the 25 miles around Grafton, Illinois, at the northern doorstep of St. Louis.
South of St. Louis, I-55 is the recommended route, as it bypasses the auto dealerships, appliance stores, shopping centers, and other prefab conveniences lining old US-61. Passing by the enticing old river town of Sainte Genevieve, the GRR crosses the Mississippi once again, ambling back to the corn, soybeans, and cicadas of southern Illinois. Accents, “Bar-B-Q” signs, and Baptist churches leave no doubt that our route has entered the South; in summer the heat and humidity confirm this with a vengeance. Fortunately, after leaving the “American Bottom,” the GRR skirts the edge of the Shawnee National Forest, whose shade brings up to 25°F of relief from the temperatures along the roadside fields on a sunny July day.
Occasional levees, raised roadbeds, and brackish seasonal ponds are reminders that the mile-wide Mississippi is only temporarily out of sight of the GRR, which finally crosses into Kentucky beside the giant turbid confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at Cairo.