Much like Kansas, we had to book it through Missouri. We had tickets to see The Old Crow Medicine Show at The Grand Ole Opry on July 1st and we were still pretty far away.

This is as close as we could get.

This is as close as we could get.

Because of our time crunch, we had to Griswold the Gateway Arch (it’s over 600 ft tall, that’s 60 stories to you and me), which was fine because the whole park is under construction anyway. We’d planned to get to St. Louis around lunchtime to eat BBQ — one of our favorite pastimes.

THE best pulled pork we've had.

THE best pulled pork we’ve had.

Pappy’s Smokehouse was our destination — shockingly, as we got closer, there were three parking spots across the street, so we snagged them and plugged all 3 meters while Deke grabbed the grub. It was the best pulled pork we’ve ever had. Go there.

Three parking spots is the perfect size for the truck and the Airstream.

Three parking spots is the perfect size for the truck and the Airstream.

We traveled south out of St. Louis and found a few State Parks on the map, but being reinvigorated by the BBQ, decided to put in more miles and ended up at the Trail of Tears State Park which is, no kidding, right on the Mississippi River.

Great view!

Great view!

The park has two campgrounds, one with hookups (The Mississippi Campground) and one without (Lake Boutin Campground)– we chose “with” since it was 92 outside and we needed the A/C. The Mississippi Campground is no joke — you can sit at your dinette and watch the barges go down the river.

One of several barges throughout the day.

One of several barges throughout the day.

But beware: there’s also a train that runs by the river — we only heard 3 trains the whole time we were there, and we had the A/C noise blocking it out, but just know it’s there!

That's our fire pit in the foreground.

That’s our fire pit in the foreground.

The park has great trails for hiking and a lot of roads for biking. They even have a Laundromat — the place was beautiful and clean and the camp host has been there since 1997 — he’s not very talkative but the place is wonderful, so he’s going a good job.

SIDE NOTE: THE TOWN WE DIDN’T TAKE PHOTOS OF (aka you don’t have to read this)

For most of this trip, we didn’t get on too many highways, which is always our preferred way to go. We passed through quaint little American towns that were thriving, and rundown towns with burned up buildings. But no where in our travels have we come across a place like Cairo, IL. It was so surreal that we didn’t even get any photos of it — we were just in awe as we drove through wondering what events must have taken place over the last 100 years that resulted in beautiful Victorian and Beaux Arts homes with perfectly manicured lawns sitting right next to burned down hardware stores and boarded up, graffiti covered factories, all while sitting pretty along the Mississippi. And what was with those giant gates we drove through? To the internet!

Cairo was once a great city of 15,000 people — shipping and the railroads made it a boomtown. It sits on a penninsula at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and was once a stop over for Lewis and Clark as they traveled west. It was incorporated in the mid-1800s and during the Civil War was a base for the Union Army frequented by General Grant who set up shop in hotels around the city. After the war, Cairo became a holding area for freed slaves– many decided to stayed in the city — there were a lot of jobs as industry kept coming in by rail and river. With the arrival of African Americans by the thousands, Cairo had the second highest population of African Americans in the state of Illinois at the end of the 1800s– my guess is second to Chicago, but I couldn’t find any info on that.

The river made millions for businessmen, both American and European, and those men built homes, factories and public buildings to show off their wealth — hiring architects from around the world, Cairo had some beautiful structures of all styles up and down Commercial Avenue. Quickly, the men realized that their houses would be in danger because of flooding every few years so they built levees — these levees were so elaborate that if needed, the entire city of Cairo could become an island — protecting it completely from the flood waters around it (that was the gate we drove through – it was like the gate at The Wall (winter is coming…). Thankfully a lot of the structures were saved from the flooding and are now on The National Register of Historic Places and can still be seen!

The town’s history took a turn in 1900 when two lynching’s took place, followed by race riots and more killings. The National Guard had to be called in several times because of mob violence, riots and even bombings. This turmoil continued and got worse as the economy began to dwindle with the construction of a railroad that bypassed town. Bootlegging and mob (as in gangster) violence took over in the 1940s, and racial tensions swelled well into the 1960s, when more and more businesses packed up and left.

Throughout the 50s and 60s, the African American community pushed to integrate Cairo’s schools (which didn’t happen until 1967), and all city facilities were segregated well into the mid-60s. Citizens formed the Cairo United Front, backed by the NAACP, to get equal pay, integrated schools and desegregated public buildings, but it didn’t really work. The white community built a white only school and refused to hire non-whites in their businesses. In return, the African American community boycotted those businesses and picketed outside their stores, which led to arrests and more riots.

Now Cairo is a city of under 2,000. There are efforts to bring businesses back, attract tourists and bring more jobs, but it looks like they have a long way to go. If we travel this way again, we’ll definitely stop by  — I hate that I didn’t get any photos to show everyone. Until then, you might want to watch Between Two Rivers, a 2012 film about the town.