When I woke, I had to ask myself, “how much of last night actually happened?” At some point in the night, I’d been woken up by someone walking through the forest shouting “F**k me!” and shining a torch light around. The light shone on me for a few seconds, but it just sounded like a rambling drunk idiot. I was so sleepy, I almost didn’t care since my car was locked but I knew my phone was almost dead so I’d be in trouble if I needed to call for help. I managed to plug the phone in and hold it in my hand as I drifted off to sleep again. Trains woke me intermittently and there was a loud boat in the river at one stage too. Even though I could have used the bathroom, I had the self control to remain inside the van the whole night as a precaution.
When I woke up, it all seemed like a dream but I’ll never know. I had the place to myself when the sun came up so I bathroomed and had myself a refreshing shower. No need to heat the water. After breakfast, I hung out at camp a while, blogging and doing some Spanish. While sitting in my possie, the caretaker for the place was emptying the bins and seemed very concerned for me. He asked if I needed a trashbag and I said no thankyou. He then drove over and parked nearby, then said from his window, “It’s gonna be a hot one today, you got enough water?” When I assured him I did, he slowly went on his way. Maybe I should have been more conversational, but I was sitting in my underwear so thought that might have been a bit awkward. My next piece of entertainment was watching a huge barge of goods being pushed down the river by a boat. I’d heard the boat’s engines working hard earlier and figured the boat and its cargo must have just navigated the lock that was just upstream of me.
I’d woken up early so by the time I hit the road, it was still only 9am. I didn’t have anything interested I wanted to stop and see today so I just had driving ahead of me, not the most exciting prospect, so I settled in to my audiobook and podcasts. When I got to the town of Louisiana, a sign telling me the bridge north was closed took me on a circuitous route north on highway 79. I didn’t mind, it meant I got to see more small towns, but I was on a multi-lane highway for a stretch which I didn’t fancy. I was happy to get off it and do full circle into Louisiana. I filled up with petrol here then carried on.
At Hannibal, I crossed over the Mississippi into Illinois for the first time, just another state to add to the list! I continued on the Great River Road that hugged the great river. Near Quincy, I saw a sign for Lock & Dam No. 21 and figured I’d go check it out. When I was in England with my family a few years ago, we saw many a canal lock and even the greatest of them all, the Fallkirk (shit, that’s probably not how you spell it) Wheel. I was keen to see what America had to offer, especially since the Mississippi seemed to be first and foremost an industrial river.
It wasn’t far off the highway and hard to miss (ha ha, get it? Miss-issippi) thanks to the great size of the river. I joined a family on the viewing platform above the lock where a barge just like the one I’d seen this morning was on its way through. The older man in the family seemed surprised to see me. Maybe because I’m on the only young person in the world interested in locks?
I watched as the barge moved painstakingly slowly through the lock, the downstream gate open. I couldn’t figure out how it was propelling itself forward and so when a man in a vest walked by below me and said hi, I asked him and he explained that it was just the river’s current pushing it along. They controlled the speed through valves at the upstream lock. Makes sense! The older man next to me then asked how they stop it and Mr. Vest told us they just tied ropes between the barge and the port. I wonder how many they’ve had float slowly away?
The family left, but I stayed to see the downstream gate close and the upper one open. The lock’s water height rose at a rate of 1 ft/30 sec, which was bloody fast considering the sheer size of the lock. Nothing like the canals of England! As the upstream gates opened to let the next barge and pushing boat through, I considered my fun card full and carried on.
In Quincy, just another American town, I took care of some admin work, printing out my car insurance document and Canadian work visa letter at a Staples, then I was right back out of town looking for somewhere I could cool off. Just the other side of the Mississippi, back into Missouri, was the Wakonda State Park. A quick look at Google showed that it had a lake or river to jump in so I was sold.
Like yesterday’s state park, it was free to use, a feature I really like about Missouri. Being a Tuesday, it was also pretty thinly populated. There were a few families down on the “beach”, their kids playing in the water, but for me it was no family outing, just a means to an end. I got into my bikini and walked down to the green water. Seeing an incredibly fat woman in the water wearing nowhere near enough clothes, I was almost turned off by the whole thing, but it was hot, this was necessary. I walked into the enclosed swimming area and dove in as soon as I could, even though the water was fairly shallow. It was like the water of the Ozarks, only really cool down the bottom. I swam out to the edge of the bright yellow enclosure then back again, ready for lunch.
In the bathrooms, I discovered an outdoor shower, so it hadn’t been necessary to go to the beach at all! All for the experience though. I parked my car in the shade and made a salad for lunch. Wanting to have a long stretch relaxing before getting back into the car, I got my comfy chair out and watched a TV episode over lunch. By the time that was done, I was ready to face more driving time.
I stayed on the Missouri side of the river and dipped into Iowa for just a minute before crossing the river again (third time now) back into Illinois at Keokuk. This next section of road north between Keokuk and Nauvoo was the prettiest of the day. The road ran right alongside the Mississippi, with a field of lily pads lining the shores. It was a beautiful sky, especially with the blue skies above.
Nauvoo was a pretty town, warranting a stop to look at the stone arch bridge, which was hidden perfectly underneath a thin layer of grass. It sparked my imagination as a gateway into another world but when I walked through the arch, I came out the other side to find I was still in Illinois and the Astro was still blue. I’ll have to keep hunting for portals.
The rest of the town had some pretty architecture, but I was too lazy to stop and give it a proper look, instead electing to snap a photo out the window of the most prominent building sitting atop a hill.
Wanting to stay near the water, somewhere north of Burlington, I got caught out by Google maps and ended up on some dirt roads. They weren’t anything challenging, but with all the windows open, the amounts of fine dust that came into the car was alarming. After thinking to myself that it would end soon, I eventually pulled over to shut the windows, but the bulk of the damage had already been done. I could look forward to feeling the grainy sand on everything I touched for the next few days.
After getting back on the tarmac, I remained in Illinois the rest of my way up the Mississippi, finishing my Theodore Roosevelt book along the way. It was a brilliant read and taught me much about the man who was one of the most compelling presidents I know about and with absolutely no similarity to the current one. The book talked briefly about the area I was in and a lot about the western side of America that I’d been to which made it all the more interesting. I also managed to listen to a StarTalk episode that went on about the science of Game of Thrones. Even in my isolation I can feel the hype building for the upcoming season.
At Lock & Dam No. 18, I turned off looking for a camp, but found nothing but residential area. I consulted freecampsites.net once I got to the river and found a paid camp another half hour’s drive north. It was better than the free option that was over two hours away so I set my nav. Music kept me busy now as I drove into the shade of thick white clouds. It was a nice reprieve from the heat and I hoped for some rain, maybe even a storm?
I took a dirt road down to Blanchard Island Recreational Area and after going over a small mound, I drove down a road in the middle of a swamp-type thing. There were two huge pools of water 100% covered by green cover that immediately settled back into place after throwing a rock into the water. I expected to see the place abandoned and it was, apart from the camphosts right at the entrance. John seemed surprised to see me and I got out of the car and greeted him and his wife Tammy. “Got any room?” Ha ha, he told me it was $12 a night and that I should pay at the fee station and come see them if I had any questions. Thanks very much! I like a good campground all to myself. It just started to sprinkle with rain as I drove down to site 16 underneath some trees to set myself up.
I walked back to the fee station and paid my way, then wandered back down the road I’d come in on for a closer look at these bright green pools. I threw many rocks and saw a few scurrying animals out the corner of my eye. It was starting to rain properly now as I walked back to camp but I was loving it. It was the first tropical rain I’d experienced since leaving home over two years ago. I was still in my bikini and perfectly comfortable.
Next, I explored the banks of the Mississippi. Swimming or wading was forbidden thanks to the strong undercurrent, but I just wanted to test the temperature. When I discovered that the banks were muddy, one thing lead to another and soon my shoes were off and I was squishing around in the stuff. That switch in my brain that makes me act like a kid was going off.
I figured I’d set up my tarp so I could sit outside, so I washed my feet off then set about putting it up. When I went to get my tie-up string from the passenger door, it was nearly ripped from its hinges thanks to the wind that had suddenly picked up. The thunder claps I’d heard off in the distance were now right overhead. So, no tarp. I was hungry for dinner so I grabbed a few things from the back and transferred them to the living room. By the time I’d got everything I needed, the rain was pounding and the wind roaring. Woo!
While dinner was heating up, I put up my water catchment system and marvelled at how quickly this weather had arrived. Dinner ready, I decided I shouldn’t just sit in my van, I had to go out and experience this! I nearly fell over as I stepped out of the van, my feet slipping in the mud that had quickly formed underfoot. I yelled out in surprise at the wind and rain howling at me, but it felt great! So great in fact that I lost it. I started running around getting drenched by the falling water in seconds. I looked up, opened my mouth and swirled around shouting, oblivious to what the camphosts may have thought. Unable to contain my excitement, I started doing kartwheels across the grass. This was such an amazing feeling! I ran to one end of the campground then back again, all the while feeling like a crazy person. A few more kartwheels and the rain still pounded on with thunder and lightning accompanying it. I spun around and took it all in.
Eventually, I retreated back to the van, laughing as I nearly fell over dozens of times. Drying myself inside, I continued watching out the window in amazement. What a beautiful storm. Now calm, I ate my dinner and watched some TV as the storm abated. By the time I was ready for dessert, the rain had calmed enough for me to use the kitchen so I set up my back tarp over the doors and set about making some banana pancakes. I was pissed off that my bananas had gone squishy so wanted to make use of them and the chocolate I’d been carrying around for months. All was going swimmingly until I knocked the frying pan off the stove while four pancakes were cooking. Bugger. At least I had enough mixture left to make a couple more!
By the time I was done, the rain had picked up again so I was back into the van for the rest of the night.