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Report 20: Ottawa ON to St Louis MO

Highlights

We've started our southward trek. This year we were the last RV to leave Hither Hills RV Camp in Ottawa (camphitherhills.net), and the weather was great. Tramping along the woodland trails and through the fields enjoying the tranquillity and the few remaining colourful trees was lovely. There's something joyful about the sound and feel of autumn leaves underfoot.

Our first 'encounter' was a the U.S. border. Usually we get waived through customs after a few simple questions. Not this time. We thought we were out of the woods after they asked a bunch of questions, in their typical overly-officious manner, then they decided to do an inspection. It must have been a slow day. Compartment by compartment, all went well until they saw the satellite TV dish, “What's that?” Us, “a Satellite Dish”. Them, “Huh?” Us, “For TV” Them, “Does it work?” Us (getting flabbergasted), “Well...ya.” Them, “What's in that compartment?” Us (loosing it), “Same kind of shit” Having finally decided that we were not a threat to national security they let us go on our way.

In Detroit we took a wrong turn and went through a truly scary neighbourhood; it looked bombed out! On the way out we encountered a fantastic, huge building, which stood out among the ruins, the abandoned Michigan Central Rail Station (http://www.seedetroit.com/pictures/mcsweb), a once-beautiful example of Beaux-Arts classical style of architecture. It's a pity that such an iconic building, one listed as a heritage property, has not been fully restored and used.

We spent the first night in a Michigan State campground on the western shore of lake Erie. The wind coming over the lake was blowing the clappers off the bells and although the temp was above freezing at night, it was bitter cold. Our friends back in Ottawa were enjoying balmy weather....what the heck!

Our first planned major stop, Galena IL was a bit of a bust. Virtually everything was closed for the winter, including the campground that we had chosen...our error. With daylight declining we found the nearest open campground, Whitetail Bluff Camp. Alas, it is located nearly an hours drive away in a very rural area. Getting there over the narrow, hilly, twisty roads at night was a trial. Generally, we avoid driving at night. First, we nearly ran out of fuel, then ended up on a dreaded dead end road, which had been dug up for construction and poorly marked, trying to get to a filling station. This caused us to have to detach the toad to get turned around. And we still had to find a filling station. Then we got lost, or thought we did. Dark as pitch and in the middle of nowhere, we phoned the campground, only to be told that we were less than a hundred meters away from their driveway. It turns out that the position is plotted wrongly on the Trailer Life Digital Campground Navigator program that we otherwise find to be an ideal software for RVers.

Whitetail Bluff turned out to be a good place to stop so we stayed a few days. There are lots of little roads to explore, some that run down to the banks of the Mississippi, some to cliffs with beautiful vistas overlooking the river. One ran down to a little park with a boat landing scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. It's also an easy drive up to Prairie du Chien, which has some interesting sights, including some Indian burial mounds, preserved in a lovely park with walking trails. We had a nice picnic lunch in a city park among beautiful trees and piles of fallen leaves.

Hannibal MO (http://www.hanmo.com), our next major stop, was somewhat better. Hannibal's main claim to fame is that it is the childhood home town of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). We had hoped to take a Mississippi River cruise aboard the MARK TWAIN a stern wheeler, but it had been closed for the winter. just a week previous Richard Garey's Mark Twain show was also closed for the season...sigh. However, most shops and museums in historic Hannibal were open, as was the Mark Twain Cave, made famous in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We truly enjoyed the tour of this cave system, which was considerably larger and more historic than we had thought. Apart from these interesting things, Hannibal is a rather sad little city, as is the surrounding area. It's economy is clearly sputtering and the average income, as evidenced by the condition of the streets and buildings, is clearly well below average for the USA. Thanks to the fame of Mark Twain, the caves and a few local industries, though, the city soldiers on It probably looks much better in the summer, when the tourists and the leaves are both out.

St. Louis is an interesting city. It looks huge as one drives through. Although St. Louis proper only has a population of about 350 thousand, it is surrounded by many other cities, making the greater urban population and area about that of Toronto. Most of the city is in decent condition, although some parts are dilapidated and can be rather dangerous, especially in East St. Louis (across the river), as we experienced and reported on a few years ago. We toured the Anheuser-Bush brewery (LinkHere), the largest brewery in the world. It was an interesting tour and we were fascinated by the huge Clydesdale horses (LinkHere); their stables are pristine, as is the entire brewery. It was also amazing to us that buildings so old (late 1800s) could look so new.

The St. Louis river-front was good for several days of exploring. We finally got our Mississippi River cruise, this time aboard the TOM SAWYER, and ersatz stern-wheeler that is actually driven by diesel engines and propellers. Still, it was an interesting hour and the commentary was well done, what we could hear of it. Much to our chagrin, we shared the boat with two school bus loads of unruly children who were hell bent on screaming and running, rather than learning something...kind of what we probably did at that age. The highlight of the river-front is the Gateway Arch complex (www.stlouisarch.com). The Gateway Arch is the tallest national monument in the United States at 630 feet. We rode to the observation room at the top in a little car that runs inside the arch—way cool. Underground, below the arch, there is a really good museum that chronicles the Lewis and Clark exploration to the Pacific ocean, via the Louisiana Territory and the Columbia Gorge; it's very well done. We also viewed a large-screen presentation on the Lewis and Clark expedition. The screen was curved like iMax; several sequences were so realistic that it was almost like being there. Under the arch and a block inland we visited the Old Courthouse, which is interesting both for the building itself and for the works of art and museum displays. The building is in the Greek Revival style and features a large dome of wrought and cast iron with a copper exterior. Four lunettes in the dome have paintings by Carl Wimar depicting four events in St. Louis history. They were painted over in 1880, but were restored in 1888. It looked to us like they are again being restored, as there was scaffolding and oil paint fumes when we visited. The Courthouse is the site where an enslaved husband and wife, Dred and Harriet Scott (LinkHere), sued for their freedom, and Virginia Minor (LinkHere) sued for woman’s' right to vote in 1872. We viewed an interesting presentation on the Dreds in the theatre. Two of the courtrooms have been restored. Just as we were leaving the courthouse a large demonstration took place. It was a parade of the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement, surrounded by nearly as many police as there were demonstrators.

Alas, all has been going well with the RV until we tried to leave St. Louis. One of the slides would not fully retract. So, here we sit until we get it fixed.

Route

From Hither Hills RV Camp in south Ottawa we drove east on Mitch Owens Drive to ON-416, which we took south to ON-401. We stayed on the 401 through Windsor/Detroit, where the 401 becomes I-75. South of Munroe we turned west on US-20 and more or less followed it through to Galena IL, where we took, a bunch of secondary highways up to Cassville. From Casseville we backtracked, turning south on US-61 and 64 into St. Louis.