A Great (Safe) Escape to Grafton Helps Battle COVID Blues

A lighthouse icon marked the Port of Grafton while a barge chugged its way down the Mississippi on Thanksgiving morning last week. The tiny historic town had a thriving boat-building industry at one point. Barges, towboats, skiffs and ferries were built here, but the last manufacturer closed its doors in the early 1970s. (Photo by Dick Hakes)

“We can’t stand it. We have to get out.”

The voice on the other end of the line was my son’s, cooped up in his home six blocks away in North Liberty with a wife and three kids, all working and learning from home, all staring at screens for endless hours, all piled on top of each other like lab rats in a glass cage.

For nine months now.

So many other young families in the territory and around the country are in this same boat. More sympathetic I could not be.

“How about Thanksgiving on The River?” said he. “We’ll get a VRBO for our family, you get a smaller one for you and Mom and we’ll do a small family Thanksgiving thing, distanced and masked, as safe as we are at home.”

So we did exactly that, and came to know Grafton, Illinois, a tiny tourist town of 636 souls on the shores of the Mighty Mississippi where it curves in a huge arc just north of St. Louis.

No potentially Covid-infiltrated planes to catch. Only a scenic four-hour drive by car. And safe we appeared to be.

Several classic riverside bars like this one border the Mississippi River at Grafton, Illinois, which also offers modern condo living and considerable family entertainment for a very small tourist town. (Photo by Dick Hakes)

Most stores were locked up tight, traffic was sparce and there were almost no pedestrians in sight for our time there. A ghost-town feel, something you don’t mind during a pandemic when crowds can be hazardous to your health.

Grafton’s empty streets were in high contrast to the warmer months when its several riverside restaurant/bars are normally rocking with pleasure-seekers, some ferried from the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles. The tourists are drawn by its authentic river town feel and boatbuilding history, plus more hip attractions like a zip line, water park, ski lift up the bluff, quaint gift shops, wineries and proximity to a nearby 8,000-acre state park – the largest in Illinois.

Should we return during a post-virus summer to enjoy this other side of Grafton? Maybe.

"We drifted out to sit by the fire pit, commune with the seagulls and admire the spectacular river bluffs along the gently rolling Mississippi outside our door. It was relaxing." Dick Hakes, Grafton Visitor

This giant snapping turtle sculpture can be found near the Grafton riverfront, awaiting discovery by children. River turtles of many varieties are popular in Grafton, and some restaurants have turtle soup on the menu. (Photo by Dick Hakes)

But for this trip, we sought isolation and found it. Thanksgiving morning saw me virtually alone while strolling the vast covered docks of the marina with my morning coffee. A barge chugged downriver past a nifty lighthouse icon on the shore. Nearby was a gigantic snapping turtle sculpture which doubled as a tot’s climbing toy, patiently waiting for a kid -- any kid -- to climb it.

This adventuresome Australian couple, Megan and Jamie Sunderland, packed up their miniature husky named Barry, boarded their classic 1935 wooden cabin cruiser in Chicago and are off on a 6,000-mile cruise called “The Great Loop.” Shown stopping at a Grafton dock, they will travel by water all the way to the Gulf, then loop up through Florida to New York and eventually through the Great Lakes waterways back to Chicago. (Photo by Dick Hakes)

My aging reporter’s soul brightened to finally spy a couple with their dog near the “Naida,” a 45-foot antique wooden cabin cruiser which looked out of place at the end of a gas dock. There I met Jamie and Megan Sunderland, Australian transplants to Chicago who were two months into the cruising adventure of a lifetime called “The Great Loop.”

“Loopers” travel the continuous waterway that runs from Chicago down the Illinois River to join the Mississippi near Grafton, then to the Gulf, east to Florida and up intercoastal waterways to New York, threading back through the Great Lakes and home.

This congenial couple was not retired. They live on the boat and manage their jobs by internet as they cruise.

“We were working from home in Chicago anyway because of the pandemic,” said Megan, “so we figured, why not work from the boat?”

They were docked at Grafton to seek repairs for their vintage 1935 classic yacht with its gleaming, polished teak and mahogany cabin house. “Naida” was actually built in Chicago but spent much of her life on the West Coast and was rumored to have been owned by Humphrey Bogart at one time. Barring further delays, the Sunderlands planned to finish the 6,000-mile loop by next summer.

“What’s with you Australians and boats?” I kidded Jamie when he said they also enjoy vintage sailboat racing on Lake Michigan.

“Well, we’re an island, mate,” he said with a grin.

This spectacular view of Grafton and the Mississippi River is enjoyed by residents of condos high above the town on a bluff. Dan Ebbing was spotted tending this fire pit on Thanksgiving Day. He was also tending his turkey smoker in the parking lot nearby. He is a five-year resident of this tiny tourist community and said “I love it here.” (Dick Hakes)

Later in the day, our Thanksgiving dinner was not very Norman Rockwellian, but pleasant. A couple of turkey dinners in plastic containers from the lodge at the state park and two racks of ribs from the Hawg Pit, a biker bar down the road.

On Friday, we happily watched Iowa prevail over Nebraska via YouTube TV on a laptop in the open-air game room at my son’s VRBO. We drifted out to sit by the fire pit during the commercial breaks, commune with the seagulls and admire the spectacular river bluffs along the gently rolling Mississippi outside our door. It was relaxing.

And it gave us a chance to ponder those who have it so much worse during this pandemic and count and recount our blessings.

But you may ask, did this safely-executed change of scenery actually help alleviate the Covid blues?

Yes. Somewhat. Anything to break the daily drudgery of home incarceration, even for a day or two, is welcome.

We came back thankful.

About the Author

Richard Hakes

Richard Hakes is a former newspaper editor who recently traveled to Grafton to enjoy a Thanksgiving break -- COVID-style. He wrote about his recent adventure in the Mississippi river town.