Late last week, I decide that we’d take a little road trip. Camps were done and over, Scout trip, Florida & South Carolina family trips are around the corner and here were these few days….
We have read a lot of Twain this year. Joseph read “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and The Prince and the Pauper on his own and we’ve read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as read-alouds. I’d never been to the Twain boyhood home in Hannibal, it’s not horribly far…
We have been to St. Louis (Hannibal is about a hundred miles north of St. Louis) before – a couple of times, but they were both pretty small, and neither remember a bit of it.
(I was telling Joseph today about his first trip to St. Louis. It was 2001, He was about two months old, and I was speaking at the St. Louis Archdiocesan Eucharistic Congress. As per usual, we decided to take in a sporting event. In this case, we walked into a Cardinal’s game the very moment Mark Maguire hit (I believe) a Grand Slam (or at the very least a regular home run…but I do think it was a Grand Slam). The place erupted, there were fireworks, and poor little tiny Joseph lost it…and still is not a baseball fan to this day….)
We left Sunday after Mass and were in St. Charles by 6. Joseph slept all the way through Tennessee and most of Kentucky. I had “St. Charles” and “picturesque” associated in my subconscience for some reason, but what I didn’t realize was that it was the actual starting point of the Lewis Clark expedition, marked by many plaques and a super-sized statue, with dog.
A nice evening at the Missouri river-front park, although I can’t say much for the absolutely mediocre and fingers-drumming-on-table- slowly-appearing meal at the Trailhead Brewery. Strike one for meals!
Up early to head up to Hannibal.
A librarian friend of mine asked if it was “touristy.” Well, every other business is “Mark Twain” this or that, but is that surprising? Other than that, it doesn’t have a touristy vibe at all. The little riverfront main street, while as typical as you’d expect isn’t a developed as the St. Charles equivalent, with far fewer restaurants and shops.
We hit the cave first, though. I didn’t know how admission to the cave worked, how the tours were timed or how busy it would be, so I wanted to get it out of the way so I wouldn’t be wondering about those issues all morning. We arrived just as a tour was getting started – we missed the movie, but go the rest of the tour. It was your typical cave tour, with scripted corny attempts at humor and the ritual pointing out of formations that seem to resemble animals.
While pricey, it was worth it if you’re interested in getting a better sense of Tom Sawyer – for this was the cave Twain based the story on, with several landmarks, including the cross that marked the treasure spot, clearly seen.
For his illustrations, Norman Rockwell came to Hannibal for research. He was struck by the cave, for all other illustrations up to that point, had depicted a cave dripping with stalactites and so on – it’s not the case. It’s a mostly dry cave marked by stack-like formations of rocks and narrow passageways.
Now back up to town.
The museum “complex” is well-done. You can read about it at the link, but in essence what your ticket buys is admission to several small houses – the Clemens home, Becky Thatcher’s house, Judge Clemens’ office, Huckleberry Finn’s house – and two museums – one close to the Clemens home, the other, larger one, down on Main Street a couple of blocks away.
(Of course when we say “Becky Thatcher” we mean Laura Hawkins, the real person who inspired Twain. Some with Huckleberry Finn/Tom Blakenship)
The museums were very good, with lots of photographs and quotes from Twain’s work offering a full sense of his childhood in Hannibal and his family’s background. It was very interesting to see the connections between Twain’s life and his fiction.
The larger museum was more clearly set up for school groups, with five large interactive areas, each based on one of Twain’s books. The second floor of this museum holds the originals of Norman Rockwell’s paintings for special editions of TS and HF, and a small, but decent collection of personal memorabilia – including a sad little death mask of Twain’s only son, who died when he was 19 months old. He had three daughters, only one of whom outlived him. She married and had a daughter, but that daughter had no children, so there are no living descendants of Mark Twain.
The first attempt at lunch was at a place along Main Street where we waited for ten minutes to be seated in a restaurant where there were four empty tables, and then were brusquely told upon placing an order for a hamburger, “Oh, we’re out of hamburgers.” Thnx Bye.
So we left and walked down the street to the place that the nice lady in the Becky Thatcher house had recommended in the first place – a cafe in the back of a Christian bookstore, called, not surprisingly, Christian Ambiance.
Very good food – homemade bread, included – served with interest and warmth.
This day revived my interest in Twain. I’ve enjoyed reading through TS and HF with the boys, but had to remember today, as they played around in the interactive Connecticut Yankee section of the museum, intrigued by the premise and expressing interest in reading it, of that book’s strong anti-Catholicism. It was, in fact, Twain’s disparaging remarks about Catholicism in Innocents Abroad that turned me away from him for decades when I read them as an older teenager. But I do think I’ll take a shot at Roughing It and Following the Equator.
Then back down the state highway, past this giant statue of Twain with tiny hands. We arrived in St. Louis (proper) about 5, settled into the hotel, and then headed east to…
They’d been up it before, and Joseph had probably been 4 at the time, but he still had no recollection. We arrived about 7, and didn’t have to wait at all – it seems to be a good time to go.
Such a fascinating structure.
More meal disappointment – returning to the hotel vicinity around 9:30, I pulled into a highly-rated diner that I could have sworn I’d checked out as advertised as open 24 hours. They guy poked his head out the door and drew a line across his throat. I assume that meant he was closed, although perhaps he was communicating me that he was in great danger and I missed the rather obvious signal?
(Checked the website when we got back..yup…supposed to be open 24 hours…)
All in all, a very satisfying 24 hours. Low-stress learning and exploring, with the centerpiece being seeing with our own eyes what we’d only read about. Seeing where Lewis and Clark began their journey and walking along the same river from which the pushed off – to me, that kind of experience is so helpful. I loved taking the boys to Hannibal. It was great for them – us – to immerse ourselves in this great – not perfect, but still great – writer’s childhood and, through the excellent exhibits, his creative process. We could situate the Tom, Huck, Jim and everyone else in this small town on the river, we could look out and imagine that raft out there, be chilled in the darkness of the cave. It shows the boys some truths about the creative process, which is certainly a mystery, but not magic, either. Mark Twain’s stories came from a place, a time, and experiences. In addition, and of great interest to us, Twain, like so many of the great American creative and accomplished minds, had relatively little formal education – that is – he didn’t go to school for very long. So wandering around Hannibal on this very hot day, we can experience that truth one more time: Living in a creative way in this fascinating, crazy world is about keeping your eyes and ears open and working hard – maybe even out of desperation sometimes - to give that world something new. School might be a part of that, or it might not, but learning, growing in wisdom, and bearing good fruit from it is what we do all the time, everywhere, because we can.