“Hannibal has had a hard time of it ever since I can recollect, and I was ‘raised’ there. First, it had me for a citizen, but I was too young then to really hurt the place.”
— Mark Twain, letter to the Alta California, dated April 16, 1867; published May 26, 1867
HANNIBAL, Mo. — Our rendezvous on the river didn’t take place at the time and place we had hoped for. But when it did happen, it was a fitting footnote to two journeys.
Neal at the whitewashed fence at Mark Twain's boyhood home
Last fall, as I was riding my bicycle across the United States from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., a friend of my son Ben, Neal Moore, was engaged in a longer and more dangerous adventure: He was canoeing the length of the Mississippi River from its headwaters at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to New Orleans.
We had communicated by e-mail and blog before and during our respective trips, and we entertained the fanciful notion that, with a bit of serendipity and the concurrence of the river and road gods, we might cross paths at St. Francisville
in southern Louisiana.
St. Francisville, a jewel of a town in West Feliciana Parish, was the place we would cross the Mississippi River — by ferry. Neal, of course, would have had to paddle past St. Francisville on the way to the Big Easy.
Unfortunately, he was still upriver in Mississippi — working on iReports as a “citizen journalist” for CNN — when we reached St. Francisville on Nov. 4 for a two-night stay.
Neal at the Java Jive coffee shop
Now, Neal is working on a book about his journey, and I — with less grand aspirations — continue to write this blog.
But serendiptity did, indeed, come into play to make possible our rendezvous on the river in a place very fitting for two people with a deep association and affection for the Mississippi: Hannibal, the boyhood home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain).
The graduation of a longtime family friend from the University of Missouri at Columbia prompted a trip to Missouri and my hometown, Alton, Ill.
, on the Mississippi River just upstream from St. Louis. I made the journey by car; my wife flew into St. Louis.
After the Saturday graduation, we visited my sister and her husband in Alton, and I took my wife to Lambert St. Louis Airport for the flight back to Fort Worth. I then drove upriver to Hannibal.
The Mississippi River at Hannibal
Neal had been working on his book in Oxford, Miss., but he decamped recently to Hannibal, where he is tapping the expertise of Cindy Lovell, executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum
. Through Neal’s good offices and Cindy’s hospitality, I lodged in the Becky Thatcher Room at Cindy’s rambling 1890s home filled with Twain memorabilia.
Cindy, a self-described “Twainiac,” has hung her favorite Twain quote above the door leading from the living room into the kitchen: “Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”
“Dr. Moore, I presume,” I said when I found Neal on Tuesday in the Java Jive
coffeee shop on Hannibal’s Main Street. He had been hunched over his laptop in the back of Java Jive working on his book amid the shop’s couches and easy chairs.
Signing the fence at Mark Twain's boyhood home
During my brief visit to Hannibal, we walked along the waterfront as the rising Mississippi crept up the brick-paved landing where steambots once put in. We toured Twain’s boyhood home and the nearby home of Tom Blankenship, son of the town drunk and an outcast from polite society who was the model for Huckleberry Finn
I signed the whitewashed fence immortalized in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
and talked Twain with museum curator Henry Sweets.
We tramped through the cave
where young Sam Clemens played and where Tom and Becky got lost.
And, heeding the adage to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, we sat on Cindy’s porch swapping mostly true tales about our respective adventures, drank some robust but flat stout that I had schlepped in a growler from a brew pub in Columbia and watched as a large, well-fed raccoon repeatedly raided the bowls of food that Cindy had set out on the porch for the neighborhood cats.
On the front porch at Cindy Lovell's house
When I was a boy, more than a century after Sam Clemens explored the woods and bluffs and caves about 90 miles upriver from my own hometown on the Mississippi, Tom and Huck were guiding spirits as I and my childhood friends pursued the same sort of adventures in Alton.
In later life, I settled on a triumverate of heroes, all Midwesterners: Mark Twain, Abe Lincoln
and Harry Truman
. But Twain was the one who has brought the most pleasure, inspired lame attempts at literary imitation and provided a fitting quote for many an occasion.
One of them, in fact, I had affixed to a page in this blog as I prepared last year to fulfill a longtime dream to ride my bike across America:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
I’ve tried to do that most of my life. I believe that Neal, too, has taken that advice to heart.