Before you set out to drive any portion of the Great River Road's 3,000 miles, remember this: the Mississippi is in control. Travelers who follow a river know that discoveries come at the current’s pace, and rarely by the most direct path. Even if we’re only driving their banks, rivers can teach us much about the art of ambling along—assuming we’re willing to mute the phone’s constant orders to head for the interstate. It’s a matter of rolling where the two-lane asphalt leads.
And thinking like Huck. Many people say that when Missouri’s Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he produced far more than a Tom Sawyer sequel. Many say he penned America’s greatest novel, in which Huck figures out who he is only after joining the escaped slave Jim on a raft at the mercy of Ol’ Man River.
The Great River Road (America’s oldest and longest National Scenic Byway) winds from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to Venice, Louisiana, offering endless chances to gain your own insights along the Big Muddy. But if you’re relying on Huck Finn as your muse, it makes sense to start in Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. From there, Memphis, Tennessee, makes the perfect bookend for a weekend trip. Taking the fastest route, you could cover the distance in about six hours.
Before Amy Schumer and Jerry Seinfeld—even back before George Carlin and Bob Newhart—there was Mark Twain. The gloriously mustachioed character you know from elementary school reading assignments was, according to Richard Garey, the world’s first stand-up comedian, based on the author’s ’round-the-world speaking tours. And when it comes to all things Twain, it’s hard to argue with Richard since he is, to all appearances, the modern coming of the author. That makes him a pretty big deal in the northeast corner of Missouri, where young Samuel Clemens absorbed the source material that transformed him into the author Mark Twain. (Clemens took his pen name from depth-finding jargon he picked up while working as a riverboat captain.)
Richard has spent 14 years pacing the boards of Hannibal’s Planters Barn Theater in a white linen suit, rolling out Twain one-liners like, “Honesty is the best policy—when there is money in it.” The Planters Barn, a stone building with lace curtains, stands near the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum and not far from the cave that appears in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. International visitors often drop in during their search for the author’s roots. One Chinese traveler approached Richard after a show and explained because he grew up along the Yangtze River, he felt a special connection to Tom Sawyer. To Richard, it’s a clear illustration of why this Missouri author’s work has been translated into 70-plus languages. “Mark Twain captures those universals that people know and love all around the world,” he says.
(Top Left) The Hannibal History Museum features performances and festivals along with its exhibits. (Bottom Left) Tom Sawyer's roots pop up around town. (Right) Richard Garey says he could recite Twain’s words for seven straight hours.
Today, Hannibal consists of about 18,000 souls protected from the Mississippi’s foul moods by an earthen levee and concrete floodwalls. On Main Street, shops peddle antiques, and around town, it’s hard to walk a block without running into Twain’s legacy at the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge, Aunt Polly’s Treasures or Becky Thatcher’s Diner.
On the far side of the levee, Capt. Steven Terry easily finds his own Twain connections. “I see a lot of parallels between me and Sam Clemens,” he says as he steers the Mark Twain Riverboat, red-white-and-blue bunting draped from its three decks, downriver from Hannibal. “I love running the riverboat. I love telling stories.”
Over the course of a cruise, Steven shares legends like that of Lover’s Leap, a rocky outcropping where Native American lovers tangled in a Romeo-and-Juliet romance flung themselves into the river. In Life on the Mississippi, Twain himself noted at least 50 Lover’s Leaps along the river. But on a warm spring day with the Mark Twain churning the muddy water, it’s easy to believe that every Lover’s Leap except the one near Twain's hometown is no more than an imposter.
The Meeting of the Rivers
On the run from Hannibal toward St. Louis, it’s time for one of the decisions that separates Great River Road ramblers from speed-obsessed drivers. Around Winfield, Missouri, you could choose to follow State-79 to I-70 and beeline it for downtown St. Louis. But if Huck is truly whispering in your ear, you’ll cross over to the Illinois side and follow the two-lane road past rocky bluffs to towns like Grafton and Elsah filled with stone buildings. The Mississippi is gathering strength here, accepting the flow of the Illinois River near Grafton and the Missouri River near Alton. Trails at Pere Marquette State Park overlook the Illinois River, which appears mighty enough on its own even before it meets the alpha river a few miles away. Inside the park’s 1940 timber lodge, you can sit by the 700-ton stone fireplace or play a game of chess with 3-foot-tall pieces. Why? Because you have plenty of time.
On summer weekends, a jazz band entertains passengers on the Mark Twain.
As you roll south, there’s no chance of missing where the West begins. Shining up ahead, the silver brow of the Gateway Arch marks where Lewis and Clark ended their epic journey of discovery. This year, the museum below the arch reopens after a nearly three-year remodeling project. If you’re fine with tight spaces, buy a ticket for A Journey to the Top, a ride that carries visitors up the interior of the Arch’s leg in pods seemingly held over from a ’50s sci-fi flick. From the observation deck at the peak, you’ll see downtown to the west and the Mississippi and the Illinois to the east. Just to the north is Laclede’s Landing, a riverfront entertainment destination named for Pierre Laclede’s 1764 arrival. Ordered by his fur-trading company to set up a settlement at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi, Pierre found the spot too marshy and retreated 18 miles downstream to a spot that has turned into Cherokee Street, a business district since 1890. Today, Cherokee provides a couple of pleasant hours of browsing antiques shops, art galleries and local businesses like a letterpress shop. During a spring journey, you may be in time for a ball game at Busch Stadium, home to the perennial-contender Cardinals and the adjacent Ballpark Village entertainment district.
(Left) Side streets in Laclede’s Landing peek at the Arch a few blocks away. (Top right) Flowers to the People offers bright blooms in St. Louis' Cherokee Antique Row. (Bottom right) Peacemaker Lobster and Crab serves up hearty helpings in St. Louis.
Sixty-some miles south of St. Louis sits Ste. Genevieve, which claims to be the oldest European settlement west of the Mississippi. In a small shop in town, Patricia Hooper ladles molten pewter into an 18th-century candlestick mold on a long wooden table. To her right, her husband, Tom, works at a spinning lathe, deftly shaping the rolled rim of a drinking mug, long ribbons of shaved pewter gathering at his feet. Between them, stacked on tables and hanging from shelves, are ornate serving platters and plain bean bowls, elegant tea services and hearty beer steins. The couple with burnt fingers runs ASL Pewter Foundry, crafting pieces for clients such as Universal Studios, Disney and the U.S. Supreme Court. (When you see Paul Giamatti sipping from a pewter cup in the HBO miniseries John Adams, he’s showcasing the Hoopers’ work.) In their home/showroom/studio, you’ll find them working on their wares, every piece made in the same way it was two, three or four centuries ago.
Metal morphs into art at ASL Pewter Foundry in Ste. Genevieve. Check the foundry schedule for classes in casting and metal spinning.
Where the South Begins
The interstate grows most tempting in the long stretch (about 220 miles) between Ste. Genevieve and Memphis. Here, I-55 on the Missouri side of the river flattens out, seldom revealing the river. But travelers still hungry to trade convenience for experience have options. The official Great River Road route crosses to the Illinois side of the Mississippi and skirts the 280,000-acre Shawnee National Forest. But even if you choose the speedy route in Missouri, you’ll notice things changing outside your window. This is the spot where Dixie emerges. During the Civil War, Missouri had more than a few Confederate leanings. And today, cotton bolls’ puffy heads still pop up in Missouri’s five southeastern counties.
Even before summer’s humid blanket drapes across Memphis, you feel the atmosphere in this city near the intersection of Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee. Southern history has a way of surrounding you, prompting William Faulkner to write, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” History hangs heavily at sites like those commemorating Memphis’ pivotal civil rights battles in the 1960s. At the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the National Civil Rights Museum now tells the story. But the past also adds a welcome layer of soul here. Especially when the conversation turns to music and barbecue.
About a mile east of the Mississippi and a mile from still-rowdy Beale Street, Sun Studio gave rise to Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and a kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, who really shook things up. Today’s tours offer the chance to hear session outtakes and touch the microphone Elvis used. But most important, you simply get to stand Where It Happened. A few blocks west, you can get up close with other tools of the rockabilly (and rock ’n’ roll) trade with a tour of the Gibson Guitar Factory. The manufacturing lines you see at work have turned out guitars used by some of America’s most celebrated rockers.
(Clockwise from top left) Peek at Elvis' personal effects at Graceland. Follow famous footsteps at Sun Studio. The DeSoto Bridge connects Memphis to Arkansas. Southern breakfast at Arcade Restaurant, Memphis' oldest cafe. Snazzy Graceland guest quarters.
Inevitably, the time comes to pay your formal respects to the King of this scene, joining countless others who have made the pilgrimage to Graceland. Elvis’ home, standing in a rough part of Memphis, draws about 650,000 visitors a year (second only to the White House on the list of most-visited American homes). They come to soak up the chrome, mirrors, shag carpeting, costumes and family photos. Outside in the Meditation Garden, they stand at the King’s grave, often weeping the way they once did when Elvis knelt at the edge of the stage.
Among Memphis’ native art forms, music shares equal billing with ribs—dry-rubbed ribs, specifically. Some of the city’s 100-plus joints are almost literally the barbecue of kings; British princes William and Harry joined a party at the famed Rendezvous house of ’cue a few years ago. But roadside stands on surrounding country roads provide endless opportunities to sample ribs just as royal. It may take some searching to find the best ones, and you’ll have to be patient if the pitmaster is still about his methodical work when you arrive. But after a couple of days on the Great River Road, you should be dialed into Mississippi River time, where a little downtime just feels like part of a story that can’t be rushed.
Check out more stops on the Great River Road here.