During our last trip to the US, walking along the Mississippi on Mud Island in Memphis, an idea grew: to travel alongside the river from beginning to end. On that trip my husband Peter and I explored the States from east to west. This time we go north to south, following the Mississippi, one of the world's longest rivers, on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
We fly Qantas from Perth to Minneapolis and take in the Mall of America, one of the largest shopping malls in the US, while we get over our jet lag. Picking up our hire car, we set off westwards to Fargo, North Dakota, and the Great Plains. The Interstates make for easy driving, and the mobile phone and GPS help us locate good hotels along the way. We book a day ahead and stay longer if we like the place.
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In Fargo we stop at the fine Plains Art Museum, where a refurbished tractor warehouse makes a striking venue for powerful works by Chippewa artist George Morrison. His sculptures include references to Australian Aboriginal art and we find his abstract landscapes, with their focus on horizons, wonderful.
We drive east across the flat plains with huge skies to Bemidji in Minnesota. The wild prairie grasses and flowers remind me of WA wildflowers. Many garden favourites originate from these plains, including goldenrods and coneflowers. I see aquilegia and orchids on our walks. As in WA, there is a renewed interest in preserving this unique habitat in its original state, as much of the prairie has been turned over to agriculture.
Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes and it is at Lake Itasca where we get our first glimpse of the Mississippi, a trickle starting its long journey south. I walk across the river, ankle deep and crystal clear. The national park ranger is on hand to show visitors the hides of native creatures including skunks, racoons and beavers. The park is also home to black bears and bald eagles, and we see deer, red squirrels and what we think is a pine marten.
We continue eastwards. At Deer River, we pull over at a trash and treasure sale. I pick up some Depression glass but pass on the guns laid out for inspection and sale. Our next stop is the terrific Forest History Centre, where we learn about the lumberjacks who felled the red and white pine in the area in the late 19th and early 20th century. The sawn logs were piled on sleighs drawn by horses and slid down ice tracks to the Mississippi and then floated to the mills, and the tour includes an exhibition of the horses loading the sleigh. We have our picnic lunch not far from the river, which is wide and full of iris and water lilies.
Nearby Grand Rapids, birthplace of Judy Garland, is our next stop. Here the river, now fast and wide, powers the paper mill. The town centre has interesting shops and a craft centre in the old secondary school building.
We make our way south towards Mille Lacs Lake and the Mille Lacs Indian Museum to view the full-scale diorama showing how the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe lived in earlier times and how they live today. We see beautiful handmade dance costumes, watch an Ojibwe woman making moccasins and spend some time at the historic trading post buying souvenirs. That night we stay in Elk River, at a complex with the river flowing at the bottom of the beautiful gardens, jack rabbits hopping about the magnificent catalpa tree.
From there we motor through the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul into Wisconsin, with its beautiful country lanes winding through fields of corn and tidy towns with wooden church spires reminiscent of southern Germany. At La Crosse, the Victorian warehouses and shops in the city centre give the place an old-fashioned feel. Our hotel is right on the banks of the river, which is now flowing rapidly, with families enjoying water sports. That evening, sitting at the outdoor bar sipping our drinks, we spy a couple of terrapins resting on a log.
Our next stop is Hannibal, Missouri, the childhood home of Mark Twain. Our hotel is opposite the Hannibal History Museum, which offers a wonderful introduction to the history of paddle steamers, which Twain captained and which were so important in moving goods down the Mississippi to New Orleans and from there to the world. After dinner we sit on a bench by the street and listen to a small orchestra. Charming.
We loved our last visit to Memphis, Tennessee, the great centre of music and civil rights, where we went to Graceland, the Gibson factory and Sun Studio as well as sampling the music and Southern food on Beale Street. This time we have a great time at the Stax Museum reviving memories of the music of Booker T & the MGs, Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, among many others, and pay our respects at the National Civil Rights Museum. We top up our books at an extensive second-hand bookshop near the university and visit a plantation homestead with a history of slavery and the Civil War.
From Memphis we take a detour from the Great River Road and follow the Blues Highway in Delta Country: black soil and ever-present corn - alas no cotton - to Clarksdale, Mississippi. Near here is the spot where legendary blues musician Robert Johnson is supposed to have sold his soul to the devil. We make a pilgrimage to the Delta Blues Museum, full of memorabilia of the blues greats - Muddy Waters, Charlie Musselwhite and Ike Turner, among many.
We head back to the river, to Vicksburg, the site of a major battle in the Civil War. Its National Military Park on the hill overlooking the river is splendid, with the original trenches still visible. Monuments to the various militia makes us realise how far from home many of these soldiers had travelled, with some from states we have visited - Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arkansas - represented. There is a re-enactment of the canon firing, which is terrifyingly realistic.
A highlight in Vicksburg is our visit to the iron-clad riverboat Cairo. It was sunk by a mine in the Yazoo River, which flows into Mississippi, but was raised from the mud. Visitors can now walk on the huge decks and view clothing, ammunition and cutlery - everything the sailors needed for everyday life on board. Fascinating. Downtown, we visit the Lower Mississippi River Museum, where we learn about the trade, wildlife and ecology on the river and inspect a paddle boat tied up alongside the wharf. For more history and great food, it's on to the oldest European settlement on the Mississippi, Natchez, with its beautiful antebellum architecture. We visit the wonderful Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture and are fascinated by the Natchez Trace, the trail used originally by the Natchez Indians and later by boatmen who would float their wares down the Mississippi and then use the Trace to return up-river. The Trace was also used to move slaves down from states such as Virginia to work on the plantations in the south.
And so to the end of our trek, New Orleans. We drive over the bridge on Lake Pontchartrain and leave the car at Louis Armstrong airport - parking in the city is not good, but public transport is. We love everything about our stay: the food, the night life in the French Quarter, the trams, the tours of the cemeteries and the Lower Ninth Ward, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Highlights of our stay include our trip to the bayou to see the 'gators and a sunset cruise on the river in the paddlewheeler Natchez, with dinner and a wonderful jazz band.
In three weeks, we have driven more than 4000km, met helpful, friendly people and learned so much more about the United States than we could have imagined when we set out.