We are on day one of our Illinois road trip and the sun is setting over the mighty Mississippi river. Bridges and buildings, the shapes of trees, pelicans, they all loose their colors as the sunball touches the horizon. We are standing on the deck of the Celebration Belle, a typical Mississippi paddle steamer, and watch the world around us fall asleep.
Quad Cities, this is how they call this part of Illinois. A conglomeration of four cities, joined in a common heritage of river trade, agriculture, immigration. We are in the heartland of America, on an adventure to explore the Great River Road.
What we experience as we embark on our road trip is the typical landscape of the American Midwest. Rural, historic, welcoming. Where eagles circle over the river on the search for prey, the locals hold firmly onto traditions, and small towns tell the story of the American Dream.
Mississippi River Cruise in Moline
Our road trip starts in Moline, the small town that is part of the Quad City area 160 miles west of Chicago. Nestled on the banks of the mighty Mississippi, it is indeed the river which dominates the layout of the town. It is the city’s most prominent feature, one that you really need to explore in detail when you are visiting Moline.
And so we find ourselves on a river boat, dining and drinking and watching the world go by. The Celebration Belle is like a time capsule. She was built in the 1980’s with lots of brass and plush furnishings that remind us of our childhoods and of watching “Dallas” on TV. Live music sounds from the speakers, a duo entertaining the audience with golden oldies from the 60s and 70s. It’s a different pace, a different age. So we lean back and enjoy this charming old-school atmosphere while wishing for a long life full of love and happiness like the people seem to have around us.
Sweet Treats at Lagomarcino’s
If we had grown up in Moline, maybe we would have had a first date at Lagomarcino’s “Soda Fountain”. It is, after all, Moline’s best known ice cream palor. On our road trip along the Great River Road, we also visit this turn-of-the-century store on Moline’s high street, 5th avenue. Here, we sit in original wooden benches and soak up the atmosphere. Our gaze wanders over the 108-year old shop interior, the tiles, the polished furniture, the mirrors. Four generations of the family have left their mark on the business.
Just like in the olden days, the family owners of Lagomarcino’s still make their own ice-creams and chocolates. It is a beloved institution in Moline, a place locals are proud to take their visitors to. Obama shared a romantic moment with his wife here on his pre-election campaign trail.. Just like them, we try some of the treats, sip on incredibly sweet cream sodas and let spoonfuls of banana split melt in our mouths.
The People of the Great River Road
As we travel north on the Great River Road towards Galena the next day, we learn that it’s the people that have shaped the area. Some of the biggest American names are associated with this part of the US. John Deere, for example, moved his budding business from Grand Detour to Moline to start a world empire in farming machines. Without him and his genial inventions, the Midwest would have probably developed very differently.
Besides the pioneers in agriculture and industry, there are also the stories of the countless immigrants that had come to Illinois to seek their fortunes. Swedes, Germans, and Dutch settlers started a new life here in the hope of a better future for their children.
Their story can be explored in Fulton. Here, for many years local volunteers lobbied and collected donations to built a Dutch windmill on the dyke. On our Illinois road trip we stop at the fully functional historic “de Immigrant Mill“. It was built by guest workers from the Netherlands using reclaimed bricks. The model windmill exhibition next door is truly fascinating. Overall, it’s a job so well done, you could easily believe that you were standing on top of a dyke in Holland and not in Fulton, Illinois.
Poopy’s: Not Just a Biker Stop on our Illinois Road Trip
From Fulton we travel further north towards Savanna. “Poopy’s” it says in big red letters over the Road 84 signs – a popular pit stop for travelers along the Great River Road. Not just a biker stop but a family-friendly roadside restaurant with a twist. Yes, you will see Harley Davidson’s at Poopy’s and neon Budweiser signs. But inside there is so much more to explore, and I am sure it will add a smile to your face.
As we munch on our oversized portions of pizza and hot dogs, we let our eyes wander. We see chandeliers made from empty beer bottles. There are license plates from all over the US, a vintage gas pump. Befitting to the name of the restaurant, the bar stools are made from toilet seats. There is so much to take in that this restaurant has indeed turned itself into a fun museum of curiosities, making it a destination in its own right.
We learn that on weekends it will get busy here. This is when live music fills the backyard and bikers and old-timer fans come together to exchange news and ideas. Before we move on to our last stop for the day, we shop for souvenirs at Poopy’s store, where we see a lot of stuff with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour.
Scenic Mississippi Views from the Palisades State Park
Day two of our Illinois road trip and we are back on the banks of the river. From the lookout platforms in the Palisades State Park we can see the Mississippi in all its glory. Like a big brown snake it meanders through the landscape, framed by trees with thick green foliage. There is almost no sign of civilisation. Just a lonely iron bridge that spans across the river many miles downstream. Railway tracks follow the river banks on one side, disappear between the trees.
Other than that there is just a great water scenery that spreads out in front of us, seemingly untouched. We cannot help but think of the first pioneers who reached the Mississippi. Is this how they saw it when they first laid eyes on the river? Did they feel as impressed as we are today? And what about the first settlers, those coming from the Netherlands and Sweden and Germany, did they see a land of opportunity?
The Great River Road: A True American Experience
It is hard to say what the immigrants might have felt when they saw their new home for the first time. But it’s not so difficult to see what they probably found here. From Moline to Fulton, this was a land that gave them peace, wealth, and security. To this day, you can see it in the quiet suburbs of the towns, the close-knit local communities, the endless rows of corn along the highway.
Exploring this part of the USA on a road trip was a glimpse into the American heart with the Mississippi at its core. It was refreshing to see a part of Illinois that was not Chicago, to walk off the beaten path to experience the true America.