Crossing the Missouri River at Omaha one lands at Council Bluffs, Iowa. It’s there one turns south onto Interstate 29 and heads for the green farms of Missouri. As the highway slithers south along the eastern Missouri River Valley, it’s not long before the “Missouri Welcomes You” sign appears. It’s here that one enters the state where the Pony Express, the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail and the California Trail all began. It’s here that thousands upon thousands of settlers, of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds, set out to tame the frontier. And it’s here that the gateway opened to the American West and that that all-American author named Mark Twain (1835-1910) came into the world.
Florida was my next destination. Not the Florida of palms and oranges, but the Florida of weathered houses, a white-painted clapboard church and a memorial park overlooking the waters of Mark Twain Lake. This Florida is the birthplace of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. Located off the beaten track towards the eastern side of Missouri, one’d never guess that one of America’s great writers was born here. Road signs point the way, but without them Florida would be more isolated than it already is, which is hard to fathom. Unfortunately, my arrival that afternoon saw the museum closed, but the trek was invaluable. It impressed upon me the humble roots from which Twain arose, not unlike that of President Herbert Hoover (see Into The Great Wide Open: Touring The American West (Part I)…).
When Twain turned four years old, his parents moved the family to Hannibal, Missouri. The town finds itself on the west bank of the Mississippi River about 40 miles northeast of Florida. To visit Hannibal is to visit a quintessential Mississippi River port town. Climbing the hill to Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, one earns a sweeping vista of the Mississippi River. Looking south, one procures an unvarnished view of Main Street with the princely Mark Twain Hotel at the south end.
In 1874, Twain published his celebrated novel Tom Sawyer, which is based upon his years of growing up in Hannibal. Although he left home in 1861 to tour the American West and eventually travel the world, he always reminisced about his times in Hannibal. Today, the house where he spent his youth still stands, as does the office where his father practiced law. Both can be seen and yes, a whitewashed fence still stands in front of his childhood home as described in Tom Sawyer.
Thankfully, historic Hannibal has survived the ebb and flow of the Mississippi over the decades and has experienced something of a renaissance. Thousands of tourists visit annually. They come to catch a glance of a bygone era well-depicted by Twain. Walking the streets, one expects Huck Finn with bindle and Tom Sawyer with stock to go sauntering by at any moment. Then again, seeing the Tom and Huck Statue overlooking Main Street at the base of Cardiff Hill, why wouldn’t one?
As my time ended in Hannibal, I departed thinking about Twain’s many wise aphorisms. Crossing the Mississippi over the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge into the Land of Lincoln, my next stop would be Springfield, Illinois. Being the birthplace of President Abraham Lincoln, perhaps it was him who Twain thought of when he wrote, “Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” For if ever there was a man to epitomize this, then it would have had to have been Honest Abe. Another giant of the American landscape, who like Twain, was a source of boundless wisdom.
The road continued east as I moved through the Illinois twilight towards Springfield. Tomorrow would bring another day, and with it another story of the American West…
Note: Photos are by the author.
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