Your guide to the ultimate river journey, plus ten great Minnesota B&Bs for can't-miss getaways
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THE ROAD TO THE LAKESIDE HOTEL in Old Frontenac, about 75 miles south of Minneapolis, begins on pavement, turns to gravel, and peters out in the sandy bank of the Mississippi River. I’m not supposed to be here, according to the signs posted on the beach: private property. But most of the signs are falling over, like the concrete benches on the shore, the rusting referee chair on the weed-choked tennis court, and the hotel itself.
No one has stayed here in decades. Three stories tall, with multiple balconies and white-clapboard siding, the place resembles a Western movie set and I expect, peering through its broken windows, to see a black-hatted poker player slipping aces up his sleeve. But I don’t see a thing, save for a staircase and a few church pews, stripped from a nearby abandoned parish. A massive wood cornice lies across the front porch, where thorny creepers are making for the doors, crashing a party that ended long ago.
The Lakeside, just after the Civil War, was the heart of Minnesota’s first resort community, nicknamed the Newport of the Northwest. Here, where the Mississippi widens into Lake Pepin, steamboats dropped heat-stricken Southerners into the breezy wilds of America’s natural air conditioner. There was a horse track nearby and a theater, bar, dance, and billiards hall. President Ulysses S. Grant stayed at the hotel, as did the Randolph Hearst family and numerous other notables. On the bluffs above, you can still see the summer homes, sporting high ceilings and tall green shutters in the Southern manner, of the rich who came to stay.
The river was the place to be then, a 2,552-mile-long adventure—the Route 66 of its day. When President Millard Fillmore touted the nation’s prosperity in 1854, where did he go? Up the river, of course, on a parade of steamboats—the Grand Excursion from Rock Island, Illinois, to St. Paul. The Mississippi was the line between east and west, the edge of the frontier, daring the adventurous to cross, and, as a result, no other river in America runs as deep into our national mythology, symbolizing freedom and mobility.
But we don’t come here anymore. The merry-makers have moved on, along with the rest of us. Despite living within a couple of miles of the Mississippi for all of my adult life, I’ve never swum in the river, never fished it, never picnicked beside it. I’ve spent more time on rivers in Europe and Asia, and I know less about it than I do about Lake Superior—or almost any other body of water in my vicinity. I take the greatest river in America for granted.
TO SEE WHAT I’VE BEEN MISSING, I set out from Minneapolis on a 600-mile journey along the Mississippi, down one side and up the other, on the Great River Road, which is actually a series of roads comprising the ultimate scenic route from Minnesota to Louisiana. I head as far south as Dubuque, Iowa, covering most of what’s considered the Upper Mississippi, before the river broadens into what Mark Twain rhapsodized as the “mile-wide tide, shining in the sun.”
Twain’s rapture may have been misplaced. Whatever the cultural intrigues of the Delta, the Upper Mississippi is arguably the more attractive half—“God’s country,” as one local put it to me. Banked by bluffs and broken up by islands, it’s essentially a canyon river here, its narrowness precisely its charm. And, in fact, Twain was not immune. In his notes for Life on the Mississippi, he describes these bluffs: “Where the rough broken turreted rocks stand up against the sky, above the steep verdant slopes, they are inexpressibly rich & beautiful…the very tints to make an artist worship.”
Twain, of course, missed out on the Great River Road, which rises high into the hills and passes through river towns as sleepy as turtles in the sun. The byway was conceived during the Great Depression, when most of the 43 dams that now straddle the Mississippi were built to generate cheap power. By then, many Americans were already estranged from the river. Driving along it, I note the advances that have carried us, over the years, farther from the water: the railroad running alongside, the county highway through town, the interstate well inland. Once, we were amphibious, but we’ve evolved into landlubbers; the river is now vestigial.
In Dubuque, I immerse myself in this river history at the massive, Smithsonian-affiliated National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, which opened in 2003. Here, I encounter catfish big as go-karts, snakes, and sharks (who knew they swam as far north as Lake Pepin?). I learn how glaciers made the river, and how man, for better or for worse, remade it.
Theodore Roosevelt warned, “Leave it as it is, the ages have been at work on it, and we can only mar it.” But, of course, we couldn’t help ourselves. The Mississippi is part of the largest river system on the continent—the fourth largest in the world—draining 40 percent of the nation and flying through Minneapolis at 89,868 gallons per second. “This thing is awesome,” the thinking went. “What can we use it for?”
As the exhibits explain, we changed the Mississippi’s course, depth, flow, and floodplain. We dredged it and dammed it, and then we turned our backs on it, left it for dead. The river is now a channel, maintained at no less than nine-feet deep, where barge trains longer than ocean liners haul millions of tons of sand, scrap metal, and petroleum. Only now, in places like this museum, are we reawakening to the river as something other than a resource.
FROM ST. PAUL SOUTH TO WINONA, the river towns are lined with levees, parkland, and the occasional row of condominiums, mostly around Lake Pepin. Crossing into Iowa, clusters of mobile homes predominate, tucked into the riverside woods and sometimes quaintly called camps. The Mississippi must be the largest body of water in America not yet colonized by luxury homes.
This was the frontier not so long ago, and in the rugged “driftless area” where Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa meet—where the glaciers never arrived to grind down the scenery—that free-spirit, entrepreneurial vibe can still be felt. In northern Iowa, I pass a sign for a fur center, where you can sell your squirrel tails, rawhide, furs, and pheasant feathers. In the hills high above the river, a mechanic turned folk artist spends his days sipping Busch Light and taking a chainsaw to logs until the pompadour of Elvis Presley emerges.
In the river town of Bellevue, Iowa, I hit the state’s largest pork roast, arriving early for a church service that precedes the feast, blessing the gluttony. As I settle into a pew, a drum kit and accordion are brought out and I soon realize that even here, in the Lord’s house, individualism thrives. For this will be a service like no other—a polka mass.
“Let us proclaim the mystery of faith,” the priest intones, and the band kicks into the Liechtensteiner Polka, the lyrics praising God even as the music celebrates the area’s oompah heritage. When the congregation exchanges the “peace”—handshakes across the pews—we do so, ironically, to the tune of Hank Williams’s Cold, Cold Heart. I’m impressed with Iowa, which is supposed to be boring—clearly boredom is the mother of invention—and I devise a new travel credo: Where there appears to be nothing going on, that’s where people may be doing extraordinary things.
River denizens once made money off the river itself, punching pearl buttons out of clamshells, packing steamboats with grain and livestock. To remain relevant, river cities have had to find something else to offer. Some states began allowing riverside gambling, such that floating casinos now dominate the harbors of St. Louis and Dubuque. In other towns, change, if it arrives at all, often takes some strange turns.
As I drive down to McGregor, an Iowa river town about 1.5 hours north of Dubuque, the bluffs rise so steeply that my Honda Civic is climbing at a mere 40 miles per hour, floored. Locals call this place Little Switzerland and I wonder if I’ve stupidly brought a knife to a gunfight, not realizing that the Iowa terrain had any fight in it at all.
McGregor, population 876, is isolated both geographically and geologically, hemmed in by bluffs on three sides. It has a Wild West feel, its main-street buildings outfitted with balconies and boardwalks, the façades unchanged in 130 years save for signs in store windows: “Welcome to Outcast Alley,” “No Sticks in the Mud.” You could cross this town in less time than it takes to down a sarsaparilla soda, yet the streets are full of tourists, beaming at the oddity of it all.
In an antiquarian bookstore, stuffed with rare Mark Twain editions, the owner tells me that many river towns were so depressed a few decades ago they were taken by the kind of schemes Harold Hill might have proposed to River City—“great ideas,” he cracks, like building mini-malls to lure visitors. McGregor resisted. Or rather, he says, “No one in McGregor had any great ideas—and thank God.” Soon enough, people started coming here anyway, precisely because nothing had changed.
Among the first visitors were artists and musicians, who found the town’s empty storefronts perfect for enacting their own Wild West fantasies. Jim Boeke, a bushy-bearded fellow, started a Western-wear company on Main Street that’s now supplied outfits for just about every Hollywood cowboy movie made in the last 10 years. He claims to own only one piece of modern clothing, a sweatshirt from his mother-in-law.
I notice many other men strolling about town with holstered guns and cowboy hats, like extras from Deadwood—buying groceries, tossing footballs in the street. The locals pay them no mind. Then, shortly after high noon, these men gather tourists in front of Uncle Sam’s Saloon for a staged bank robbery, bullwhip tricks, and slapstick—what you’d expect to see in Deadwood, South Dakota, not Iowa.
“Welcome to the circus without a tent,” the group’s ringleader tells me when the shooting stops. He has long gray hair and a droopy mustache, like Wild Bill Hickok. He and his cohorts live here or just across the border in Wisconsin or Minnesota and they call themselves the Hole-in-the-Sock Gang. Along with these monthly shootouts, they also raise money for flood relief and other local causes, helping to keep this river town afloat, despite their outlaw appearance. “It’s the river,” he says. “Once you get attached to it, you can’t let it go—the beauty and the bluffs.”
It must be nice, I think, to become attached to a place simply through proximity, like imprinting. But something tells me these guys haven’t thought about it too deeply; in fact, that might impair the process. As we’re talking, another performer shouts at the ringleader, “Are you blowin’ smoke up his ass?” and he replies, “It’s McGregor, ain’t it?”