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Friday, April 22, 2011

Down the Great River Road (aka The Blues Highway) - Missouri

We crossed the border from Iowa into Missouri and I noticed some changes. Local accents lost some of the twang and picked up a bit of drawl. Preferred baseball headgear shifted from Chicago Cubs to St. Louis Cardinals. U.S. 61 was quite lovely in certain stretches of Missouri; we were often running right next to the Mississippi. And unusual roadside attractions did appear occassionally. The "Chopper War Memorial" is one such roadside attraction (see cell phone picture above). We passed through a very small town, and on our left was a late-1960's retired US Army helicopter on a strange pedestal. This old bird was the centerpiece of a lonely memorial to local service people that died in America's wars. We stopped and paid our respects; we were alone. There are a number war memorials like this along U.S.61 - generally neat and tidy, but devoid of visitors.

We pulled off the highway in Hannibal MO. Hannibal is best known as the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain). The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huclkeberry Finn were set in and around Hannibal; there are several buildings that have been preserved as tourist sites - Becky Thatcher's house, the law offices of Mark Twain's father, etc. The downtown is jammed with Mark Twain-themed stores and restaurants. Hannibal prospers from all of the tourist revenue. The town is neat, but the tourist stuff gets a bit repetitive and tiresome. Hannibal had some other semi-famous residents, including Cliff Edwards, the voice on Jiminy Cricket in all the Disney Pinocchio cartoons.

From Hannibal, we barreled south to St. Louis where we spent the night. We went to the top of the Gateway Arch on the Mississippi (nice view, but not a good trip for claustrophobic folks). The downtown of St. Louis was deserted in the middle of a work day. According to the 2010 census, St. Louis lost over 8% of its population over the past 10 years. It is still a lovely city, but it feels vacant. We had lunch at Charlie Gitto's Downtown, a wonderful Italian place in an old building near Busch Stadium. This is a classic baseball hangout - lots of pictures of the local Cardinal heroes, televisions set to the game, and all the rest.

We left St. Louis and pointed ourselves south again on the Great River Road. We came to New Madrid (pronouned "new MAD -rid"), which is down in Missouri's "boot heel." There is a large loop in the river near New Madrid - usually called the "Kentucky Bend." The river runs north, then loops back down south. This is the section of the Mississippi that allegedly flowed backwards due to the impact of the great New Madrid earthquakes of late 1811-early 1812; those gigantic quakes rang church bells in Richmond VA. If a similar earthquake were to happen today on the New Madrid fault, Memphis would be trashed. We decided to pull off the highway and go into the town.

New Madrid's Main Street was the commercial center of the town. I use the past tense because the little downtown strip consists mainly of vacant storefronts now. There are no restaurants and few functioning retail stores. We stopped in at the "General Store" (really a convenience market) and chatted with the folks hanging around. I asked them what happened to the downtown businesses. A sad-eyed guy in coveralls said one word - "WalMart." New Madrid may have lost its struggle. We stopped in at the local museum, which had a surprisingly good collection of artifacts. We were the only visitors. Perhaps the town does better in the summer months.

We got back in the car and rolled south to Memphis - will tell that story tomorrow....

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