This installment of “Marvelous Tales of Misadventure” takes place amid an epic road trip I undertook with my brother, Max, in the summer of 2016. He had flown into Minneapolis from New York and from there we were bound for our Seiber Family Reunion in Crossville, Tennessee. The trip was well planned and our wanderlust was whetted with thoughts of the places between MN and TN we hadn’t yet been to. Destinations such as the Quad Cities, Springfield and St. Louis. Our imaginations ran wild with what the upper Mississippi would have in store for us.
That first day we struck out for the “Quad Cities” of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois – about a five hour drive from the “Twin Cities”. I wonder where the Triple Cities might be found? Starting the drive early, it was a relaxing one, full of zest and vigor and despite what I know to be true, I thought “how could anything go wrong?” Well, not that something went wrong per se, but we did lose track of the original route and ended up adding an extra couple of hours to our drive time. I actually didn’t entirely mind the excuse to see the landscape of eastern Iowa.
Whatever you might think about endless miles of corn is true. However, here in the east, the cornfields may be vast, but hardly flat. Our county road meandered through green green corn as tall as the vehicle. It seemed as if I was driving through a maze of corn, never knowing what was around the bend or where I would come out. Eventually, I came out to the Mississippi River as it butted up against the highway only to disappear again for several miles, only to re-emerge once more. It was truly lovely.
What else I admired about this landscape were the river towns, first settled in the 19th century when the land was still raw and the economy was centered around the ferry boats and barges that traversed the ports from St. Paul to New Orleans. It was in Dubuque where the river front was most charming, with brick buildings hearkening back to those dusty, wild west days.
From Dubuque we ambled south to Rock Island where we were to visit the Rock Island arsenal and do some research into our Great Great Great Granddaddy, Charles Smith, were was one of the “Galvanized Yankees” of the Civil War. This topic itself warrants it’s own blog, but in a nutshell, the Galvanized were about 2000 captured Confederates who were given the chance for redemption by enlisting in the Federal Army. So it was with my ancestor who escaped the miserable conditions of the Rock Island prisoner of war camp. Now bear in mind, the arsenal of Rock Island is still an active military post and you can visit the museum and historical sites but you must first concede to a gruff man behind a plate-glass window who will run a background check on you. Indeed it was worth it and on that little island in the Mississippi I was able to play detective and research the until-then-mysterious war records of Charles Smith.
The Quad Cities themselves have to be one of the most interesting places I’ve yet been to in these United States. Here on the river, history and hipster collide as you’re exposed to those wonderful 19th century buildings, now converted to local breweries, museums and even a minor league baseball team, the River Bandits. This was once of those places that just felt good, you know? Max and I both agreed that we would back some day but for the present, we had a campsite to get to, not too far way between the Quad Cities and Moline, Iowa.
This is where things begin to get interesting.
In theory, Wildcat Den State Park was about a 20 minute drive from the Quad Cities. This theory was eventually proved to be wrong but great experimentation from the Brothers Hannam. We drove and drove with no true bearing on where we were. No, our cell phones were not a help in this remote pocket of America. When we reached the city of Moline we knew that we had gone too far. We scratched our heads. Was there a sign we just hadn’t seen? Maybe. But for a state park it sure wasn’t advertised very much. We retraced our steps and drove and drove. Sign? Anywhere? Nope. Hmm… let’s go back.
And we drove right back to the Moline city limits with no indication we were passing Wildcat Den. Finally we resolved to just ask somebody and we popped into a Race Track to ask the clerk. What do you know, she told us to go to RIGHT WHERE WE HAD BEEN. Then I touched a shelf and it completely fell off its brackets spilling candy and lighters everywhere.
Back on the road we saw a sign! A little brown placard that we would have missed again had we sneezed. I veered right off of the highway and followed the path, confident there would be the proper signage to guide us.
Nope. None. Nada. We followed this road and that and where did we end up? Back on the main highway.
To say I was frustrated would be an understatement. Here we were going on an hour and we still hadn’t found the campground. Nearly a year later I am still wondering why the State of Iowa doesn’t believe in signs. Perhaps I should right the governor, or whoever is in charge of such things. Now for the sake of your interest in this story, I will skip to the part where we DO in fact EVENTUALLY find the campground.
Wild Cat Den State Park is a small plot of territory, on a bluff adjacent to the Mississippi. The river was invisible to us, but we knew it was close. The area reserved for camping was equally small and there were a few other travelers around. Max and I hopped out of the Corolla and began to pitch the tent and prepare food. Naturally the first order of business was to build the fire but ironically, for all the forest surrounding us there was very little wood laying around and what was on the ground was green and wet. We gathered what we could and burned even less, basically enough to warm up the food. A cozy night spent by the fire was not in the cards but that disappointment was tempered by the fact that it was a beautiful summer evening. The air was perfect and the sky clear. Absolutely nothing to portend the events that would conspire to wake us up at midnight…
It was at that magic hour when Max rustled me awake, accompanied by a distant thunder clap. In our little tent we spent the next thirty minutes listening to the rain slowly pick up and the wind increasingly bellow louder. Would it last? Around 12:30 it seemed to subside and we agreed there was no use in staying awake all night. Why did we worry? Mother Nature was going to decide for us anyways.
It was then at 3:30 that I was jump-started from my slumber by a crash of thunder and I knew I wasn’t going to be doing much more slumbering that night. The storm was at it’s zenith now with the wind screaming and the thunder howling. Our little tent was simply not made to withstand such a display of force and water streamed in from every corner as all four sides of the shelter whipped and billowed in on us. What were to do? We shoved our pillows and blankets into each other and piled them into the middle of the tent, covering them with a tarp. What about us? We deliberated – shouting over the furry of the storm. What would happen if a tree or limb should crash into us? Being in that pitiful tent was like being in a leaking lifeboat. We were going down and we concluded we had only one option –
At 4:00 in the morning we made the call and fled the shelter, making a mad dash through the sideways rain as lightning illuminated the path. Puddles soaked our legs as we clambered into the car, wet but safe. I turned the radio on and the weather service was announcing a flash flood warning for the area. Eventually, by 4:30, sleep overtook us and the storm decided to give us a break.
I awoke around 9:30 and saw that Max was out taking advantage of the lull in the storm. For the rain had stopped but the sky still harbored menacingly dark clouds, waiting for the chance to pounce on us once more. I got out and helped tear down the tent. Despite our best efforts, the blankets were soaked and we laid them out best we could in the back seat. I don’t think I’ve ever dismantled a campsite as quickly as I did that morning. We both knew we were in a race against time – that the rain was bound to return.
We sped out of Wildcat Den and back to the Quad Cities where we crossed the river into Illinois, on our way to Springfield. This drive felt more like an evacuation as my entire rear-view mirror was black with a wall of storm clouds. On it followed us, for hours, and we were always just a step ahead. It was an amazing image, a dynamic show of force from an untamed sky.
From there we rolled into Springfield where we were able to resupply at a Wal-Mart, the rain replaced by the humidity of a now sunny day, so while the sun shone on the blankets, they had a hard time truly drying out in the moist air. The smell of slight mildew overcame the car. Nonetheless, we had found – and escaped – Wildcat Den State Park…