Recently I had the pleasure of driving from Saint Louis, Missouri to Des Moines, Iowa. Having heard about the number of deer that cross the highways in those parts, I rented a new and very sturdy Jeep wagon. Some folks call parts of this road Blood Alley, and you can quickly understand why, with the carcasses of dead deer all over the roadsides. Fortunately, none of these beasts chose to play “chicken” with my Rocinante.
My Sunday mission was Des Moines, but I knew that I would cross by the town of Hannibal, Missouri, so I timed my departure so that I could reach Hannibal around the noon hour. For many years I had dreamed of visiting the childhood home of Mark Twain, and finally I was heading that way. I had already been to his home in Hartford, CT; the home he lived in later in life, so I was eager for a trip here.
As I drove, really not in any kind of rush, and very attentive to any stag jaywalkers,
Twains’ words were coming back to me; from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer;
“…all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face and a spring in every step. The locust-trees were in bloom and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air. Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was green with vegetation and it lay just far enough away to seem a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting."
To go north to Iowa, you must first go west, and in about 100 miles, you come to Hannibal. When you drop down from the highway into the town, you begin to realize the great size of the river. Jackson’s Island lays out in the middle, and the palisades (Cardiff Hill) and Lovers Leap frames the little valley on the north.
In Playa Del Rey, California; the beaches of my youth, you measure the vastness of the ocean from shoreline to the horizon, and on very clear days, to the outline of Santa Catalina. But to say, “measure” is really not correct, as it is impossible to really gauge any determinate distance. Of course, we know from the song that Catalina Island sits about 26 miles ‘cross the sea, but beyond that, it is just a vast open water.
At Hannibal, the mighty Mississippi River twists into the region, and it is nearly one mile across; but it looked miles more than that. In fact everything looked larger than it should be, and it almost takes your breath away. If you look beyond the tourist trappings and get your head around it, it is really remarkable. You drive by Becky Thatcher’s and Injun’ Joes Cave (“By and by somebody shouted, Who’s ready for the cave?”), and you can easily see yourself out on a raft on the river with Huck and Jim. And I wouldn’t be the first Duke to do so.
I did not stop at any of the tourist places, and settled down to a late breakfast at a café near the river and some good strong coffee, before leaving the river and returning to the highway.
Twain wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 1886;
"It is strange how little has been written about the Upper Mississippi. The river below St. Louis has been described time and again, and it is the least interesting part. One can sit on the pilot-house for a few hours and watch the low shores, the ungainly trees and the democratic buzzards, and then one might as well go to bed. One has seen everything there is to see. Along the Upper Mississippi every hour brings something new. There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods and villages--everything one could desire to amuse the children. Few people every think of going there, however. Dickens, Corbett, Mother Trollope and the other discriminating English people who 'wrote up' the country before 1842 had hardly an idea that such a stretch of river scenery existed. Their successors have followed in their footsteps, and as we form our opinions of our country from what other people say of us, of course we ignore the finest part of the Mississippi.”
And I have to agree with Mark Twain; “Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs.”