Where does the midwest stop and the south begin? I’m not sure, but it could be at milepost 83 on Interstate 55 south of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where the rolling hills of southern Illinois and Missouri come to an abrupt end. A table-flat plain stretches off to the horizon. “This is it,” says geologist David Stewart. “The last hill before the Gulf of Mexico.” If it were up to him, there would be a big billboard here reading “You are entering the New Madrid seismic zone,” and another one 101 miles south at Blytheville, Arkansas, reading “You are leaving the New Madrid seismic zone.” Since he’s not in charge, you just have to know that this area is earthquake central for the lower 48.

The simplest seismic-zone tour is a semicircle you can travel forward or backward. One way is to start at Cape Girardeau in the north (check out the narrow Mississippi River bridge), proceed south almost to Arkansas, then cross the big river into Tennessee on I-155 and meander back north to Reelfoot Lake, the most famous creation of the 1811-’12 quakes. Lodging is easily found in Cape Girardeau (population 35,438), which offers most of the standard motels and half a dozen bed-and-breakfasts. (Warning: the local Convention & Visitors Bureau has issued a brochure in honor of native son Rush Limbaugh, complete with a map of long-defunct drive-ins where he’s said to have hung out as a teenager in the 1960s.)

An alternate travel plan is to start the semicircle tour at Reelfoot, which is just east of Tiptonville on State Highway 21. In addition to motels, it offers two state-park campgrounds. The more attractive one, among cypress trees by the lake, is open April 1 to November 1. The other–a collection of bare lots staked off in an open field, suitable for motor homes–is open all year.

In their seven years of driving the area to research three books on the New Madrid quakes, Stewart and his colleague Ray Knox have developed what amounts to a geologists’ gourmet guide to the five-state quake region, with special emphasis on Missouri. If you’re feeling a bit flush and touristy, Sikeston (exit 67, population 17,640) beckons with Lambert’s, 2525 E. Malone (573-471-4261), an eatery well publicized as “Home of the Throwed Rolls.” The food is good, plentiful, and not especially cheap; the piano is live; and warm rolls are indeed lobbed through the air. The atmosphere is a bit like Redamak’s in New Buffalo, Michigan, but with more variety on the menu and more stuff on the walls. If you’re allergic to tour buses, don’t stop.

Sikeston also has a mall with 34 factory-outlet stores, I-55 to exit 57 (800-908-7467), and Granny’s Antiques and Museum (573-471-3945). Granny’s is six miles off the interstate, not two as promised; follow the signs from U.S. Route 60-62 onto ever smaller blacktops. Be patient with the farm machinery; we met a John Deere 9600 combine that took up both lanes and both shoulders. The store–one huge single room on a concrete slab–contains antiques ranging from hand drills and a canopy bed to antique canning jars full of marbles, Dukes of Hazzard lunch boxes, and yardsticks with small-town business imprints ($12 a pop, so make sure you want to measure something important).

In New Madrid itself (exits 44 and 49, population 3,350), Rosie’s on Highway 61 at the corner of Scott Street (573-748-7665), offers your choice of ambience, depending on which of her three doors you enter: “cafe,” “lounge,” or “dining room.” (The roadside sign calls the establishment “Rosie’s Colonial Tavern,” and the cafe menus read “Bar and Grille.”) All share the same kitchen. Stewart and Knox recommend the pie. Downtown, a block from the New Madrid Historical Museum and the offices of the Weekly Record newspaper, the River Bend Cafe, 535 Mott (573-748-9334), a pleasant local hangout, has a reputation for smoked pork chops and Creole gumbo. “Southern hospitality is no myth,” says Stewart. On a friendliness scale of 1 to 10, everyone we met in New Madrid rated about 15.

Earthquake connoisseurs shouldn’t miss the New Madrid Historical Museum, 1 Main (573-748-5944); small admission fee, located in a former saloon and fish market hard by the Mississippi River levee at the foot of Main Street. Maps, books, photos, a video, and a seismograph help make sense of the geology. Especially fine is a graph comparing the energy released by a tornado, the Nagasaki A-bomb, the New Madrid quake, and the 1964 Alaska quake; it makes dramatically visible the fact that an 8 on the Richter scale releases 32 times as much energy as a 7. Also on display is a 1950s aerial photograph of the town, showing the surrounding farmland freckled with sand boils large and small, each one a place where the ground erupted in 1811-’12.

When it was first opened in 1975 the museum was devoted entirely to “Indians, the Civil War, life on the Mississippi River, and early American history,” according to founding director Virginia Carlson. (You can still learn a lot about the key 1862 battle U.S. and Confederate armies fought here for control of the river.) It had nothing about earthquakes. “In all the years I went to school here and lived here, nobody ever told me that there was a possibility of another earthquake,” she says. “Even the big one back in 1811-’12 was never talked about.” Outside at the top of the levee, a wooden observation deck lets you watch the river (flowing west to east–if you don’t understand this, go back inside and check the maps again) and the barge tows (going both ways).

If you haven’t had enough history, the Hunter-Dawson mansion dates from 1858 (573-748-5340); small admission fee. In spring don’t miss the blooming pink dogwoods along Scott Street. And for what it’s worth, Stewart and Knox believe that the New Madrid Golf Course, 1376 Mill (314-748-7794), is “the only one in the world with seismic sand traps.” If you get a lie so bad you wish the earth would open up and swallow you–it just might.

The best way to cross the river would be the ferry between Dorena, Missouri (about 15 miles east of New Madrid on county roads), and Hickman, Kentucky (about 25 miles north of Reelfoot Lake on state routes 78 and 94). “The Mississippi River looks awesome from the bank,” says Stewart, “but you don’t really appreciate it until you’re out on it.” The ferry hasn’t run for the last four years, but operations will resume in mid-June; for up-to-date information call Fulton County judge executive Harold Garrison (502-236-2594).

The rest stop on the northbound side of I-55 at mile 42 has tourist info aplenty, but it doesn’t offer the fact that it’s the “Bull’s Eye,” in the words of Stewart and Knox’s Fault Finders Guide, “the very center of Epicentral Ground Zero for the largest earthquake in the history of the coterminous United States”–an estimated Richter 8.8 on February 7, 1812–during which the ground rolled in waves and a section of the Mississippi River ran backward for hours.

Moving south, you come to Hayti (I-55 exit 19, population 3,280), which is festooned with fast-food eateries. But the knowledgeable geologist ventures past them to Boudreaux’s, 100 N. Highway (573-359-1616), which offers, among other things, “shrimp ten ways,” “crawdad lovingly stuffed,” and cajun gumbo.

A bit farther off the big road, at Caruthersville (I-55 exit 7, population 7,389), Knox and Stewart praise the liver and onions at the Roundhouse Restaurant, 830 S. Third (573-333-1330). And across the river in Tiptonville, the galloping geologists recommend the “outstanding catfish” at Boyette’s Restaurant, Lake Drive, (901-253-7307).

Visitors from the upper midwest shouldn’t skimp on Reelfoot Lake. It’s not just a hunting and fishing enclave. The state park’s first-class visitors’ center, on 22 just east of 78 (901-253-7756), is open from 8 to 4:30, though it may close during the lunch hour. Boardwalks built over the swampy lake edges are perfect for viewing wetland wildlife and cypress “knees.” Pontoon-boat rides are available from May 1 to October 1; prices vary according to the age of the passenger and the length of the cruise. Daily tours (December 1 to mid-March, except for about a week around Christmas) to view the lake’s wintering population of bald eagles require advance reservations. Reelfoot State Park itself includes less than 1 percent of the lake’s shoreline, but much of the rest is in wildlife preserves of one kind or another.

–Harold Henderson