Gang aft agley

My plan for Sunday morning was brilliant. We’d leave the the hotel in Collinsville at 7:00 and drive north along the Mississippi River on the Illinois side for about 20 miles. When we got to the town of Grafton, we’d take the free Brussels Ferry across the Illinois River to Calhoun County, a remote rural peninsula that for most of its length can only be accessed by boat.

After a leisurely drive through the county, we’d take the inexpensive Golden Eagle Ferry across the Mississippi River to Missouri. We’d be about five miles from St. Charles where we were scheduled to meet my brother-in-law, nephew and daughter. We’d probably have a few hours to kill before lunch, so we’d stroll around the historic downtown area of St. Charles (think Galena). That was the plan.

Things started out fine. We left the hotel at 7:04 and headed north. Just outside Alton, we happened upon the famous Piasa (Pie-a-saw) Bird painted on the riverside cliffs.

In 1673, when Marquette and Joliet explored the Mississippi, they described two “water monsters” painted on the cliffs somewhere in this vicinity. Twenty-five years later, the paintings had disappeared. Fast forward 140 years — a writer named John Russell embellished the legend in a novel, describing carvings in the rock of a dragon with wings. Russell is the one who came up with the name Piasa, which he said meant “the bird that devours men.” That story, and some obscure legends, inspired the city of Alton to paint this creature along the river.

The cliffs by the painting have some interesting caves, but, of course, this being Illinois, they were fenced off (something about falling rocks).

Route 100 along the river was stunning, especially for Illinois. The road ran right next to the water.

We could tell the water was high — here’s a house on one of the islands — but we thought nothing of it.

The road was sandwiched between the river and the cliffs.

We arrived in Grafton, just a few miles from the Brussels Ferry, by 8:00 a.m. But that’s when things began to unravel. As we drove into town, we saw a sign that read, “Detour ahead due to high water.”

We soon came to the detour and were turned off onto an alley through the backside of the town.

It wasn’t long before we were back on Route 100, but we could see flooding all around.

We soon came to another detour.

This one routed us along even smaller, rougher roads. At one point, the city had dumped gravel on grass so we could drive through someone’s yard. Residents had stuck “Go slow” signs in the middle of the track so we had to drive on their grass to get around them. Finally, we were back on Route 100. But not for long.

There were no more detours. This was as far as we were going along this road. I turned around and drove back along the detours. Now, a smart person would have stopped and asked if there was any point in going on. But I’ve always operated on the principle that “If you don’t want the answer, don’t ask the question.” We found a road away from the river and took off to get around the flooding to the ferry, which was about two miles ahead of where we’d been stopped. Our new route took us about 40 miles out of our way. We finally got to Route 100 near the town of Hardin and headed back south.

It wasn’t destined to happen. We made it as far as Pere Marquette State Park. We were along the Illinois River now, and it was just as flooded as the Mississippi. Water was across half the road as we pulled into the lodge. I asked a girl at the counter about the ferries, and she said they were all closed. It had never occurred to me that we would be unable to take a boat because there was too much water. Our plans were officially squashed. The lodge was impressive, and we’d like to get back there sometime. One of the features of the lobby was a giant chess set.

Here’s the river in front of the lodge.

Time was now becoming part of the issue. We had spent half the morning getting to this place. We were about 20 miles from where we were to meet the family, but we were on the wrong side of two flooded rivers. The nearest bridge to the north was much too far to be of any use. There was only one thing for us to do — retrace our path all the way back to Alton and cross at the bridge where we’d been early that morning.

Not only did we have to retrace our path, something I hate doing, but even once we got across the Mississippi, we were still about forty miles from our destination. Our 30 mile pleasant drive had turned into about 120 miles of frustration.

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