Up in the dark and on the river at first light. Less than 20 miles to St Louis. This will be my last day on the river.
I’m just a few miles from Grafton IL where I plan to stop and get some food and drink for the day. My first chance in days. I get caught in a pinch with a barge again and this time I go to the bank and hang on to a tree. This will be pretty close. As the tow passes I let go to fight the waves in the open. A guy comes out of the pilot house and waves to me. This is the first from a pilot house. I wave back.
I cut behind some islands to go to the Illinois side to reach Grafton. I see a moving barge go past in front of me. What? The main channel of the Mississippi is behind me. The Illinois river! The Illinois, a major American river, merges with the Mississippi here at Grafton. The river just got bigger.
Grafton is an affluent summer town for St Louis vacationers on a beautiful stretch of the river. Condos and restaurants and fancy marinas. Everything is closed at 9 am monday morning. I walk to a gas station mini mart and pass a rustic shop selling wooden furniture and large slabs of wood. ‘Do you have a sawmill back there?” I ask an older guy in the yard. He laughs. “If I did they would run me out of town. They are already trying.”
Back at the public dock a trash truck passes me as I come out of a Porta-potty. At the boat one of the guys asks the questions. I tell him what I did but I am ending it today. “Well that’s quite accomplishment.” , he tells me with sincerity.
Fifteen miles to go. I pass a five mile long string of white bluffs. It’s a beautiful morning. I can see the bridge at Alton about five miles away and I take my time getting there. As I approach it becomes industrial quickly and I cling to the Illinois bank. Past a grain elevator loading rail cars, past a floating casino and past the concrete wall of an old lock. Under the bridge I turn into the Alton Marina and tie up to a public dock.
I walk into the office smiling and tell a nice older woman what I just did. She smiles and acknowledges it but says nothing. I pay $12 a night for three nights and move ‘Little Joy’ to a safer spot.
That’s it. It’s over. I’m stopping right here. I am in view of the last lock on the river about a mile away. (there is one more lock but it is on a ten mile canal used to bypass a bad stretch of river.) The Missouri River also joins the Mississippi here. The Missouri is longer than the Mississippi and has a larger volume of water at the confluence. Yep. On the other side of that lock the river gets much bigger and faster and has bigger barges since there are no dams to block its flow. Yes I will stop here for now.
I shower at the marina and put on the cleanest clothes I have and take an Uber to an Airport hotel. I’ll fly back to Minneapolis in the morning to get my truck and trailer for a long ride home.
In the Uber the driver is chatty but I sit in silence not sure what to say. Finally I tell him my story. I also tell him I rode my bicycle across the country two years ago and passed though St. Louis. That is when I first saw the Mississippi. He is stunned and mentions his own laziness. His reaction perks me up and we have a good conversion to the hotel. When he drops me off he points to an elevated train that goes from the airport to downtown St Louis at the river.
I check in to an airport budget hotel and then ask for a shuttle ride to the Metro train. It’s a commuter train with many stops and workers are getting on and off from work. I take it to the last stop before the river. As I get out I see the iconic Gateway arch right in front of me. I am also on the Eads Bridge, the same one I crossed by bicycle two years ago.
I climb up to the walkway and begin to go out to the middle of the bridge. I walk out with the sunsetting behind the the buildings of downton and the light reflecting off the polished steel of the arch. Cars are whizzing by on the other side of a low concrete barrier paying no attention to me.
I reach the middle of the river and look down. The river is muddy brown and moving swiftly and swirling and crashing around the stone piers of the bridge. My heart swells. I look up at the shining arch and the sun behind the city. I raise my arms and let out a yell! Yeahhh!!! There is no one else on the walkway and the cars whiz by don’t notice. “Yeahhhh!!!”
I did it. I built a boat and took it 650 miles down the whole length of the Upper Mississippi River. Yeah. I can go home.