Our time on the Ohio River Scenic Byway is a journey that starts at river's end and flows almost a thousand miles upstream to its beginning, passing through an ever-changing landscape of people, history, scenery, and events.
Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.
- Marcus Aurelius
Tommy Lee Jones Sat Right There
The Ohio River, which is the Mississippi's largest tributary by volume, was the waterborne route followed by many settlers heading west in the 18th and 19th centuries. Lewis and Clark followed it to the Mississippi and then headed up the Missouri River in keelboats on their famous expedition. During the Civil War, the Ohio served as a dividing line and water barrier between the North and South. In later times, though, it became a vast industrial corridor, somewhat similar to the Ruhr Valley in Germany.
Motorcycles & Gear
With these thoughts sifting through my consciousness, we begin our expedition at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers on a narrow spit of land occupied by Cairo, IL. Florian Neuhauser is on the Buell Ulysses, and I am riding the Harley-Davidson Fat Bob. Cairo was an affluent river town in the 1800s and, during the Civil War, it served as a strategically important supply base and training station for Union soldiers. The decline in river traffic afterward exacted a heavy toll on the town's economy, from which it may never have fully recovered. One can only hope that someday there will be a concerted effort to restore and capitalize on the town's historical and architectural legacy to make it a more attractive tourist destination.
Southern Illinois may seem like an unusual place to find Superman, but the river village of Metropolis pays tribute to "The Man of Steel" in a big way. Although Lois Lane is nowhere to be found, a larger than life statue of Superman dominates the town square. And directly across the street is the Super Museum, stuffed to the rafters with over 20,000 items relating to the 61-year Superman saga that's been chronicled in comic books, on television, and in the movies. Florian asks me to take his picture behind a muscular life-sized Superman body cutout. I do so and declare, "I'm certain your mom will be proud."
Our overnight destination, Bay City General Store & Lodging, is located just across the road from the Ohio River. The owner informs us that the airplane crash scene in the movie US Marshalls was filmed "right here!" Florian watches the movie clip, which the owner just happens to have on hand for guests' viewing pleasure; and later, as we're enjoying the evening breeze on the porch, Florian points to a spot on the steps and says, "Tommy Lee Jones sat right there in the movie. Really, right there!"
The route between Bay City and Golconda, IL, has nice sweeping curves and excellent pavement, encouraging me to twist the throttle and scrape the Fat Bob's floorboards. The spirited riding and green fields of the scenic landscape are stimulating, and my heart is pumping and the blood is flowing in correlation on this beautiful August morning.
Elizabethtown, a little village perched beside the Ohio River, has more than enough nice-looking shops and attractive B&Bs to entice travelers to stop and stay awhile. But we've got a lot of river to cover and press on to Cave-In-Rock, IL, where folks are crossing the river the way their forefathers had in the last three centuries, on a ferry.
Just east of town, we park at Cave-In-Rock State Park and follow a pathway to a large cave carved out of the rocky bluff by the Ohio River long ago. First discovered by the French, it was later occupied by river pirates, merciless criminals who would lure boats of westward bound settlers to this lair with the promise of fresh provisions. The pirates would then ruthlessly murder them all and sell their possessions.
Dwelling a bit on those happy thoughts, we ride on to Shawneetown, our intended lunch destination. Not too many people are stirring, however, and few restaurants are open on this Sunday morning. After asking a local resident about places to eat, we finally locate Frieda's Restaurant in a nondescript building on a side street. With fairly low expectations about the cuisine, Florian and I both order the "Sunday Special" and are pleasantly surprised by delicious home-cooked Polish sausage, mashed potatoes, corn, and cherry pie for dessert. Bountifully satisfied, we sluggishly don our riding gear for the afternoon's adventures.
At the narrow two-lane toll bridge over the Wabash River, I pull up to the booth, expecting to pay the usual East Coast highway-robbery toll. And while I'm searching frantically for paper money, the nice lady chirps, "That'll be 30 cents, please." Feeling munificent, I hand over a dollar and tell her to take out Florian's toll also. It's like dad used to say - "Son, always offer to pick up the small ones."