After a relaxing night at Marquette State Park, we headed out Monday morning for the return trip to Alton. This time the ride was immensely more enjoyable than our ride up; the temperature dropped, a tail wind greeted, us a breakfast was served and weekend traffic disappeared, leaving the four lane highway with extra-wide shoulders to us and the occasional commuter.
From our vantage point on the west side of the road we could see the spectacular bluffs to the left, something we missed on our ride up as we were too close to get a good view. On our right was the Illinois River, which had recently returned to its banks after flooding that went on most of the summer.
When Marquette first observed the Illinois in the summer of 1673. he marveled in his journal at its “wide, deep, and still” waters, and he praised its plentiful “cattle, elk, deer, wildcats, bustards, swans, ducks, parakeets, and even beaver.
“We have seen nothing like this river,” the explorer-priest wrote. The scenic vistas are still breathtaking but most of the wildlife he described have disappeared and been replaced with invasive species like Zebra Muscles and Asian Carp. The water is also wide and still but it isn’t deep or clean.
The bluffs are still lovely, however. Near Alton we passed the reproduction of the Piasa, a depiction of one of two monsters that Marquette noted in his journal:
“While Skirting some rocks, which by Their height and length inspired awe, We saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made Us afraid, and upon Which the boldest savages dare not Long rest their eyes. They are as large As a calf; they have Horns on their heads Like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard Like a tiger’s, a face somewhat like a man’s, a body Covered with scales, and so Long A tail that it winds all around the Body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a Fish’s tail. These 2 monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author; for good painters in France would find it difficult to reach that place Conveniently to paint them. Here is approximately The shape of these monsters, As we have faithfully Copied It.”
The original pictures were mined away long ago, but it is thought that they were created before the arrival of any European explorers in the region, and possibly before 1200 AD. It may have marked the edge of Cahokia, the largest prehistoric city north of Mexico and a major chiefdom. Cahokia was at its peak about 1200 AD, with 20,000 to 30,000 residents. Icons and animal pictographs, such as falcons, thunder-birds, bird men, and monstrous snakes were common motifs of the Cahokia culture. The Piasa creature may have been painted as a graphic symbol to warn strangers traveling down the Mississippi River that they were entering Cahokian territory.
Or maybe it was the equivalent of a Taco Bell sign on I-80, announcing good food just around the bend for all anyone knows.
Cycling back to Alton, we then drove to our next destination: St. Genevieve, Mo. As its website proclaims, this a charming, laid-back town where bicycles don’t need locks and people stroll in and out of inviting little shops filled with antiques, crafts and wine. It’s also the oldest settlement by Europeans on the west side of Mississippi in Missouri and many historical sites have been preserved.
The town seemed a little hung over the Monday we arrived as the weekend before was Jour de Fete Days, the city’s largest celebration that draws thousands of people. Not only had our reservations at the Hotel Genevieve been misplaced but it was shut down completely. However, a few quick calls by the kind people at the visitor’s center soon tracked down the owner who arranged for us to not only get a key to a room but one to the entire hotel as the only guests. If you’re looking for an elegant hotel, look elsewhere, but for $45 a night the room was clean and the location in the heart of the city, excellent.