By Suzanne Bopp
Flowing from a lake near the Canadian border, ending in the Gulf of Mexico — 2,350 miles in all — the mighty Mississippi River is like America’s backbone. Native Americans camped beside the river. Lewis and Clark crossed it. Mark Twain piloted a steamboat on it. It’s memorialized in the timeless song “Ol’ Man River.”
A voyage on the river, such as one of Viking Cruises’ new Mississippi River itineraries — sailing in 2022 remains a Huck Finn-style adventure, a chance to explore a panorama of American history and culture.
Watch as small towns, vast rows of crops, high rocky bluffs and deep forests pass by your ship, as well as birds of all kinds. About 40 percent of North American waterfowl and shorebirds rely on the Mississippi Flyway as their migratory route. You may spot pintail ducks, swans, pelicans, double-crested cormorants, bluebirds and eagles. Stop at a port near Wabasha, Minnesota, and visit the National Eagle Center to learn more about our country’s majestic symbol.
Other highlights of the Scandinavian-influenced upper Mississippi include craft beer, cheese curds and polka music. Come ashore in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, for an excursion to Decorah, Iowa. Here you’ll explore Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American Museum & Heritage Center. Follow that with a local brewery tour, bring home some heirloom seeds from the world-renowned Seed Savers Exchange or pedal along a bike path through the gently rolling hills.
Further down the river is Hannibal, Missouri, the setting for Mark Twain’s most famous books. You can explore the author’s boyhood house and other museums devoted to Hannibal’s history.
Continuing down the Mississippi, the scenery transforms. Bayous and wetlands thick with cypress trees appear. Stop at Memphis to hear authentic blues, savor tangy barbecue and experience the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the building where Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his last hours.
In New Orleans, where Cajun, Creole and French influences blend into a complex cultural stew, learn to make jambalaya and pralines and stroll through the French Quarter, basking in its steamy, festive atmosphere.
Meanwhile — as the song says — that ol’ man river, he just keeps rolling along. The river flows past New Orleans, and about 100 miles later, it meets the Gulf of Mexico and disappears.
Visit your local AAA office.
(Traveler Fall 2020)