We took time on a beautiful September morning to walk down to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

This is the southern tip of Illinois at Cairo. Missouri to the west, Kentucky to the south. River Mile Zero for upper Mississippi navigation. A place of such great geological, geographical, historical, social and cultural significance, yet it feels overlooked and forgotten . . .

A steady stream of commercial trucks and other vehicles rumble over the US 62 and US 51 bridges—heading north, south, east and west. A surprising amount of traffic and a narrow bridge to Kentucky. We reluctantly decided to play it safe and drive over the bridge in the van. A decision that didn’t sit well, but would be corrected soon (see tomorrow’s post!)

The running route into Wickliffe, Kentucky on the Kentucky side was no better. The road was narrow and we had to run in the oncoming lane, jumping into a narrow ditch to avoid approaching vehicles. Side note: the commercial trucking industry is doing well on US 51!

We landed safely at Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site, Kentucky where we met our Kentucky host, Norma Pruitt (Promote Ky). She was our third team member for the next three days in Kentucky’s Great River Region. She showed us true southern hospitality and became a good friend along the way.

The park director at Wickliffe Mounds is Carla Hildebrand. She’s so knowledgeable and passionate about her field and has done wonderful work in this place over the years. She’s originally from Sikeston, Missouri and her husband is from Winter Park, Florida. They lived in Wickliffe for some time when she first began working at the mounds, but now they live in Paducah, Kentucky. Her career in archaeology was slightly delayed as she raised a couple of kids, but not for long. She pursued her bachelors and masters degrees and landed here, where she actually had done her first field work as a student.

What began as “Ancient Burial City” is now a world class historic site. The remains of 414 indigenous people were reburied here in a meaningful ceremony on June 2011. Carla is all about understanding the past while honoring and respecting human history and the original voices of the river. Stop by and visit with her when you pass this way. Jessica might be in charge by the time you get here . . .

Next stop was the Kentucky Hillbilly BBQ just outside the State Park. Norma graciously treated us to lunch and I soon realized that half rack of ribs was enough to feed two people—Victoria and I were in for full stomachs, especially with Norma feeding us some of her BBQ nachos as well. This was the first of many meals provided by her, and we are forever grateful!

Lunch was followed by a visit to see Sandy Hart at the Kentucky Veteran and Patriot Museum. She’s a St. Louis native. Her husband was a Church of Christ preacher and they lived in many locations around the US before she found her way to Wickliffe and this mission to honor and serve our veterans. For every image on the wall inside the museum, Sandy has a story at least an hour long, oftentimes a story that will move her to tears. She’s telling stories of people she’s met, people she’s listened to and in doing so, given their service testimony. She’s not a supporter of war, but warriors should be treated with respect, she says, and honored.

Norma led us over to the Fort Jefferson Hill Park Welcome Center & Memorial Cross of KY to meet up with Angela VanCleve from the Ballard County Judge Executive’s office. We had a chance to get a little of her story and also visit with Theresa, a local reporter. The view up-river of the Mississippi/Ohio confluence was stunning and the voices were genuine.

Angela has a history on both sides of the Ohio River, with relatives in both Cairo IL and Ballard County KY. She remembers Ballard County as white beans and home cooking while Cairo was a fancy upscale. How things have changed . . .

She lives on a remnant of family land – about 250 acres. The 1000+ acre family farm has been divided into smaller acreages now. Her fondest memories fall into the category of “Small Town Saturday Night”, riding the bottoms, music, bonfires and good friends. That’s why she makes her home here. Trips to Chicago and Denmark are nice, but it’s even better to get home, sit on the patio, and see the deer grazing out back. In her words . . . there’s no more beautiful scenery than this right here.

We couldn’t linger, though, because Norma had us booked to meet Mary Ann Elliott at the Hickman County Museum of KY in Clinton some miles away. We chased Norma down the country highway —she obviously knows these routes much better than we do!

Mary Ann was waiting for us, and as she gave us a brief tour of the museum, we asked her about her own life as well. She’s a Clinton native, but has traveled extensively with her husband’s career in the military and then later his work in construction. However, Clinton is home, and always will be, and she is invested not only in the museum, but in many aspects of life here over the years she’s been back, including the bank and the senior center.

From the peace and quiet of a historic museum to the rough and tumble of an ATV trail—that’s where Norma had us going next. Never a dull moment! Off to Wright’s Area 252 Riding Park, LLC to meet Dee Wright and experience the latest in Western Kentucky recreation. Dee is a young woman working in partnership with her father, not only on these ATV Trails but also on their family-run sawmill—a place I’ve got a raincheck to see the next time we are Carlisle County, Kentucky. According to Dee, she’s got a host of characters working there, and it’s tough work, real tough, with many of the men on a second chance after prison…

But back to the ATV trails. Dee took us out in a modern, four passenger ATV with windshield, seat belts, and hand rails. While seeming a little genteel at this point, she did keep it authentic by not cleaning or polishing the vehicle up—it was chock full of dirt and mud! Off we went down the trails cut through thick trees and brush, muddy at times, steep hills and drop offs, and on the straight aways—oh the scenery! Backwater, swampland, a paradise of hidden waterways and plant life all leading to the water’s edge at the “coast” of the Mississippi River. We were just in time to catch the sun setting. Dee and I talked readily over the growl of the ATV in the front seats, getting to know a bit more about her passions beyond lumber and mud riding, she’s also organized a dog rescue and gone back to school recently while raising some kids. Again, a raincheck here on getting to know her more and spending some quality time at Area 252.

By this time were too late for dinner at the Snack Bar at Columbus-Belmont State Park, but thankfully we had a slue of leftovers in the cooler and told Norma we could make do for one night. We munched on a few days old Cajun food from Cape Girardeau in our trailer (graciously arranged by Park Manager Cindy!), and soon fell asleep in the enormous bed somehow squeezed into the tiny bedroom. A much needed night of sleep to soak in KGRRO (KY Great River Road Region) Day 1 and prepare us for Day 2.