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How I broke our family’s road-trip tradition and ventured west of the Mississippi

By Rebecca Powers
January 26, 2017 at 2:40 PM

I grew up on Eastern Time, and family road trips stayed in the zone. No resetting of the dashboard clock required.

The economics and logistics of five children coupled with my father’s corporate schedule restricted our Chevy to Eastern Daylight roads during our driving-distance summer vacations.

Our routes were a variation on Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover illustration, “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” in which America west of the Hudson River is a void. My Detroit family’s atlas dropped into an abyss west of Lake Michigan.

Mom and Dad made sure we saw the Eastern Seaboard — from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Cape Canaveral, Fla., with the history lessons of Boston, Arlington, Gettysburg, Pa., and the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk, N.C., in between. We went south to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave and north to Ontario’s Georgian Bay and west, past country blueberry stands toward Great Lakes sand dunes. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we awoke to morning mist rising from Sunday Lake and got lost in search of ghost towns from the days of the copper boom.

Our trips were a happy series of lobster rolls, foot-longs, pinball, mountain lookouts, triple-scoop ice-cream cones, roadside picnics, mini cereal boxes and motel pools. We leg-wrestled for dominance in the back seat and (unsuccessfully) mimicked our older brother, who could bite off the tip of his waffle cone and suck the ice cream through the bottom.

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Dad drove. Mom recorded the license plates we spotted and refilled Dad’s Amphora pipe tobacco. He was a commercial artist of the “Mad Men” era and we were children of secondhand smoke. (Thank goodness for open car windows — and the sight of my dad’s arm resting, relaxed and sun-tanned on the door.)

Most American family vacations are pretty much weekend-to-weekend driving excursions of about 650 miles round trip, surveys show. About 90 percent of American summer travel is by car, the Harris Poll reported in 2015. And I suspect we tend to self-corral according to the borders that define our personal regions: the rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, highways and state lines.

Car-trip planning is a calculus of time, distance and school calendars.

Like most parents, mine ranged farther and wider before and after raising their children. Late in life and widowed, Dad’s wanderlust became wistful longing. The last trip he managed was to Costa Rica. He traveled by train, and I imagine him eager to catch fellow passengers’ eyes in hopes of a little conversation.

“I’d like to see Galena, [Ill.],” he mentioned in passing once, when a diagnosis had put an endpoint on his life’s journey and he was no longer the family man at the wheel with a wife and a paper map at his side. “It’s a historic town.”

Dad grew up on two rivers, the Grand, in the countryside outside Grand Rapids, Mich., and the Licking, a tributary of the Ohio. Once, he told me how he carted a vintage morning-glory Victrola speaker from his grandparents’ barn to the water’s edge to see if he could hold it to his ear and hear voices across the river. He loved the romance of waterways and taught us to make boats using 2-by-4 lumber remnants with nails and string (for the railing). He liked the “my Huckleberry friend” lyric in the song “Moon River.”

In our family travels, we crossed the Ohio, the Potomac, the headwaters of the Hudson and the Shenandoah. We even drove across a shallow river after two fence-sitting Kentuckians directed us down a road that stopped at the water and continued on the other side. Rather than give them the satisfaction of seeing us turn back, Dad had us get out of the station wagon and tread steppingstones across while he forded the creek. (We fell and got our shorts soaked in the process.)

We never did cross the Mississippi, perhaps this country’s most storied river and a draw for a dreamer like my dad.

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Parents curate their children’s view of world — from first stroller rides to permission to bike around the block and beyond. From the day babies open their eyes, mothers and fathers begin to show them what they value, which gives them the pleasure of seeing it all anew.

Last spring, I decided to travel beyond my family’s vacation boundary. Destination: the Mississippi River, a physical and psychological line in the American soil, where broadcast-station call letters switch from W to K, and where east becomes west.

After years of flying over our country’s midsection, my husband and I pulled out of our suburban Detroit driveway, mom-and-dad style: snacks in the back, notebook up front for recording license plates. We pointed our car southwest, dipping down from our peninsula state toward Davenport, Iowa, and Galena, Ill., heading in the opposite direction of so many childhood trips.

Illinois brought corn-rowed fields, cupola-topped barns and rural-delivery mailboxes, their red metal flags signaling outgoing letters. A weathered beauty of a house facing the western sun prompted a pang of unnamed emotion.

However, the first feeling of seeing the Mississippi did have a name: euphoria. I felt the easterner’s thrill of leaping the first hurdle — an adult child’s “I-did-it” moment. I had passed through the looking glass and into a place where I personally know only a couple dozen people scattered across the next 1,900 miles.

We reached that other side in May, when mid-Mississippi-River towns are fecund. In the yards of century-old houses resting high atop bluffs, heritage gardens were awash in bridal-wreath spirea, bearded irises, climbing roses and peonies.

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In Davenport, one of the Quad Cities that flank the river in Illinois and Iowa, we checked into the 1915-built Hotel Blackhawk and explored the Hamburg Historic District, which was settled by German immigrants in the mid-1800s and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. That’s what you do when you’re the daughter of parents who randomly stopped to investigate old cemeteries, where gangs of mosquitoes flourishing under heritage trees turned us away from tombstones and sent us shrieking for the car.

For our mom-and-dad roadside picnic, we chose East Davenport, a village of gracious homes perched above the river, for a lunch on a park bench facing the water where barges churned the slow current.

My dad once told me he thought he grew up in the best era. And the river, no doubt, would have swept his thoughts back to a boyhood of needle-cushioned pine-tree clearings and music on the porch.

That evening brought my first view of Galena’s historic district. Its main street — European in scale with preserved brick buildings hugging the narrow street — was a sight for Dad’s eyes.

Now, I could go home.

At the Michigan state line, we turned north and paused to stretch our legs in the beach town of New Buffalo. There, a sunny rooftop lunch afforded a look back at Lake Michigan and its far horizon, once the blue line that defined the outer limit of my childhood.

I had crossed my family’s western driving threshold to see Galena for my father, because that’s what children do — they carry the ball forward by repeating their parents’ rituals of the road.

Rebecca Powers is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Her website is rebeccapowers.com.

More from Travel:

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Around the world in 20 days: How to visit seven countries in one 21,623-mile adventure

This isn’t Darwin’s Galapagos: The wildlife-rich islands are more tourist-friendly than you think

For the author’s list of recommendations for a road trip crossing the Mississippi River, visit washingtonpost.com/travel

Hotel Blackhawk

200 E. Third St., Davenport, Iowa

563-322-5000; 888-525-4455


Opened in 1915, the hotel was extensively renovated and reopened in 2010. Its sophisticated guest rooms have muted decor, a comfortable bed and a large bath with a glass-door shower. Amenities include a spa, indoor pool, fitness center and lower-level bowling alley/martini lounge.

The Saint Paul Hotel

350 Market St., St. Paul, Minn.

651-292-9292; 800-292-9292


This inn dates to 1910 and is within walking distance of the Mississippi River. The decor is classic and ornate. A rooftop fitness center offers views of St. Paul and its exterior floral gardens are abundant.

Redband Coffee

329 E. Fourth St., Davenport, Iowa



Consider this convenient road-tripper’s stop for all-things breakfast, such as in-house roasted beans and a fried-egg sandwich to go. (I suggest their egg, smoked Gouda and chorizo dish, which is less than $5.) Also good: made-from-scratch cookies and scones. Drive-through, walk-up window and walk-in counter service are available. Open 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily.

Village Corner Deli

1030 Mound St., Village of East Davenport, Iowa



Order from a menu of 20 sandwiches or build your own, then take your lunch out for a nearby picnic overlooking the Mississippi. Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

Devour Cafe

112 N. Main St., Galena, Ill.


Coffee, tea, baked goods and sandwiches offered in a quaint setting. Open 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends.

Root Beer Revelry

228 S. Main St., Galena, Ill.



Shelves display more than 60 brands of root beer and just as many cream sodas, ginger ales and fruit sodas. (Esoteric brands include Leninade, with a pun-filled label.) In addition to bottled beverages, five varieties of root beer are served on tap — with ice cream for a float, if desired. Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Stray Dog Bar & Grill

245 N. Whittaker St., New Buffalo, Mich.



The bar’s large, all-American menu includes burgers, tacos, sandwiches, ribs and pizza. On the grounds, just across a boardwalk from the restaurant, the Gear Shop sells a variety of items emblazoned with “Sit! Stay!” Open noon to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and noon to midnight Friday and Saturday.

Hamburg Historic District


This 25-square-block residential neighborhood lies about one-half mile northwest of downtown Davenport. Houses, which date to the mid-1800s, showcase a variety of styles, including Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire and Queen Anne, among others. Streets are easily tourable by car or on foot. A walking-tour guide is also available on the district’s website.

Ulysses S. Grant Home

500 Bouthillier St., Galena, Ill.



The president lived in this 1860-built Italianate-style home with his wife and children after the Civil War and before his 1868 election. Guided tours are available. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission costs $5 for adults, $3 for children.

— R.P.

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