Reader Ride-Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri: The Great River Road Run

Text: Stacy V. Bearse • Photography: Stacy V. Bearse

Midway between my home near Lexington, KY, and Lake Itasca, MN, I begin to question the wisdom of making this trip in April. Although I rationalize that things will warm up and dry out, I travel 1,000 miles of chilly temperatures and driving rain before the real journey even begins. My goal is to follow the course of the mighty Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana. I am inspired by Mark Twain’s classic, Life on the Mississippi, a series of stories about his experiences as a steamboat pilot in the years before the Civil War. Despite many changes over the past 200 years, the power and influence of the great waterway endures.

The route south from Lake Itasca, MN, is the Great River Road (GRR), a network of super-slab highways and country byways that parallel the Mississippi. Running through ten states, often on both sides of the flow, the GRR is marked by signs featuring a steamboat wheel.

After traversing six of the ten, I reach the headwaters in Itasca State Park, MN. Ojibwa people dominated this area for thousands of years, welcoming the first European explorers in the mid-1600s. At mile-zero, an Ojibwa grandmother wishes me “boozhoo” (good day, my friend) and tells me about the spiritual meaning of the tributary. Native Americans called the Mississippi the “Father of Waters.”

The first bridge across the brook is a modest rock dam that formally separates lake from running water; the second overpass is a simple log. Riding through Minnesota is cold, damp, and gray as I follow the humble stream east, then southward to Little Falls for the night. Mark Twain called the Mississippi the “crookedest river in the world.” He had a point. The secondary streets that follow it carve sinuous, sweeping curves.

The torrent picks up size and speed as it winds its way toward Minneapolis. I enter the city via the new I-35W bridge. South of the Twin Cities, the waterway’s sharpest bend passes through Red Wing and continues to Wisconsin at La Crosse.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the January/February 2013 back issue.