Driving the Great River Road in Illinois.
Two green and white signs at the fork in the road pointed in two directions: straight and left. Both were marked “Illinois Great River Road.” I pressed my foot against the brake, slowing the car to a 15-mile-per-hour crawl and tried to determine which arrow to follow. I was driving the Great River Road and had no paper map of Illinois, I had neglected to pull up the route on my iPhone, and I had no written direction. I didn’t think ahead. Typical me. As I approached the crossroad, two cars waited impatiently to turn left behind me so I impulsively accelerated, pressed on, and kept moving forward. It was maybe half a mile later that I saw the bridge and, with the two cars now tailing me, had no choice but to cross the Mississippi River into Iowa.
Driving the Great River Road
The Great River Road follows the Mississippi River for 2,340 miles, passing through ten states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. In Illinois, the road runs for 550 miles. And I had decided to drive the length of it.
I’d only made that decision a few days before. I had a car loan, a bright orange Chevy Trax, for the week, that I’d been granted at a Travel Massive event. When I asked about the conditions they told me I couldn’t take the car out of Illinois so I took to Facebook to ask opinions for where I should go. Many suggestions stood out, among them The Great River Road, Galena, and Shawnee National Forest. When I realized all three were all pretty much connected I decided to do it all. Plus a trip to IKEA for dining furniture. Because IKEA is somewhere everyone who has recently moved into their own apartment should get to visit. Just sayin’.
The first two days of my car loan I let the car sit on the street, all the while paranoid that I’d missed a no parking sign and it would get towed. It had been two years since I’d driven a car and I couldn’t get up the nerve to get behind the wheel. When I took off for Galena on the first morning of my road trip I did so with caution, barely reaching the speed limit and never leaving the right lane of the highway. I sat straight with the seat pulled forward, and tried not to blink.
By the time I reached Galena, Illinois, a town at the north end of the Illinois Great River Road, around 11:30, an apparent prime time, the streets were congested with cars all on the same mission as me: to find a spot to park. After driving around several of the blocks I settled on paying someone for a private spot, frustrating the salesman who waited as I tried several times to parallel park (the rear-view camera on the Trax helped greatly, but I was coming in at an awkward angle). Later I found a sprawling free lot just on the outskirts of the main road making me feel foolish to have paid. Those are the instances, I suppose, where it helps to do a little research first. Where it helps to plan ahead.
Galena was nice, though I felt that it would be nicer if I was a little old lady out shopping for antiques or, at least, with a friend or two. I’d heard good things about the brewery, Galena Brewing Company, and the distillery, Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. But, being only me, a solo traveler and a lightweight who had to drive the rest of the day, I passed on those and instead just wandered the shops and explored the park and walked past the historic buildings.
After a couple of hours in Galena I was itching to move on and to start my journey south.
Unfortunately, my phone was getting no reception and I didn’t know how I was going to find where to actually start the Great River Road drive. I’d hoped to find a pamphlet or a map, knowing that Galena was one of the prime stopping points on the road, but I had no such luck. And, of course I didn’t think to print a map. And, of course, I have a terrible sense of direction. Luckily the Trax had built in wifi so I hooked up my phone, plugged in the direction to my hotel, 90 miles down the way in Rock Island, and, after a few self-inflicted wrong turns, found my way.
I was hoping for a relaxing drive. Imagining the journey to come I had pictured me and my car and autumn nature and the river the whole way down. A flawed vision that began with the fact that it was still summer and the leaves were mostly green.
The first day on the Illinois Great River Road was anything but my fantasy. There were too many cars and all of those cars wanted to go fast and they wanted me to go ever faster. So the start of my road trip was a few of hours of driving in which I nervously sped and was even more nervously followed. Driving while constantly wishing whoever was behind me would just pass me already.
It made me so nervous that at one point I had to backtrack fifteen minutes because I realized I’d missed one of the Great River Road roadside attractions I’d hoped to hit: De Immigrant Windmill in Fulton.
Add to that that I really, barely, saw the Missippi River, and I was ready to pack up for the night. I arrived at my hotel in Rock Island, one of the Quad Cities that also includes Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, and Moline and East Moline in Illinois, got some dinner at the adjoining Bennigan’s and then crawled into bed to watch cable.
The next morning was rainy and gray, but I braved the weather, if only for ten minutes or so, to seek out two things: first, a statue of the Blues Brothers (Rock Island is, after all, the home of the fictional Saturday Night Live characters) and second, The Missisippi River.
Both were wet, but impressive. And, despite the clouds, I was optimistic about the rest of the Great River Road drive.
The second day was better. Getting away from the major towns meant less traffic and less cars tailgating. So I could relax and enjoy the drive. And, while I didn’t get a full-on autumnal leaf-scape, the trees were, just barely, turning a burnt shade of yellow.
There were times on the road trip where I’d drive fast, through cornfields. There were times I crawled into towns where the speed limit would drop to 30 miles then 15. Sometimes there would be an overlook or a locke or a roadside attraction that would veer me off the path.
But, mostly, I drove.
Before the trip I didn’t realize that the Great River Road is not, in fact, one road. Instead it is county road linked to county road making it easy to accidentally miss a turn and have to do a three-point around at a deserted gravel driveway to get back. Easy to drive for miles upon miles without seeing one of the green and white signs that marked the way. Or easy to come across a junction where the road went this way or that.
When I crossed the Mississippi on that second day, I panicked. But, with two cars right behind, I had no choice but to cross into Iowas, turn immediately into a parking lot and cross back into Illinois.
I also didn’t realize that the Great River Road did not, in fact, follow right besides the Mississippi River. I don’t know if it was general naivety or my lack of geographical knowledge but I just assumed that the Great River Road was a road that followed the great river. And, I suppose it does. But not in the way that you can constantly look right and see it. In the way, instead, where you can constantly look right and reason that it is there, just beyond that farm or that house or that antique store.
It’s there. It’s just not right there.
That’s not to say I never saw the Mississippi River. And maybe depriving the driver of seeing it for so much of the drive makes those times where it does come into view all the more majestic.
For a small stretch between Nuavoo and Hamilton it felt like driving next to paradise. Turn off after turn off I swerved to park and look out of the blue-green water. To see lush, tree-lined paths. To see the optical allusion from clouds mirrored against the water. To see thousands of floating lillypads. To see the Mississippi.
I drove from Galena, Illinois, to Alton, Illinois, before giving up on the rest of the journey. I’d left with grand intentions of driving the entire Great River Road in Illinois, all of it, all 550 miles from one end of the state to the other. But, by the time I laid my eyes on Alton’s Piasa Bird etched into the side of a rock, my back was aching (I’d thrown it out a couple of weeks earlier and it still wasn’t 100%) and driving was becoming monotonous.
It doesn’t look like that far of a drive when you’re just going from point A to point B: Galena to Cairo. But, when the road is jagged and mixed in between, when the road varies from 70- to 15-miles an hour, when there are so many places to stop, so many roadside attractions to see, the journey becomes longer than you’d imagine. If I had another day, more time, fewer plans, I could have made it the whole stretch. But two days for 550 miles just wasn’t enough.
So, my Chevy Trax and I left the road at Alton, after a sizable chunk of driving, and continued on, instead, to my last stop for the night: Metropolis, Illinois (the home of Superman), favoring a highway to get there.
And I vowed that someday, maybe, I would drive the entire length of the Great River Road: all the way from Minnesota to Louisiana. Someday, when I have more than three days time. Someday, when I can take a car outside of Illinois.