It’s been years since my sister, Katy, and I got the chance to go on a mini-road trip, but we finally made it happen this past weekend. Destination? Hannibal, Missouri. Why not? Don’t laugh. It was as far as we could go in the time given. Katy wanted to junk shop, and I wanted to be an English teacher / nerd and find out more about our nation’s teller of tall tales, Samuel Clemens. Mark Twain to you. So, after looking up our destination on the map and our iPhones’ GPS systems, we headed out. Oh, and Katy, being the radio DJ, had me listen to old school Michael Jackson songs as we pulled out of her driveway. (Don’t judge. You know if you heard “Billie Jean” and “P.Y.T.” you would be singing along too.)
We didn’t make it too far (only 3 songs in) before we stopped about 20 miles down the road to get coffee in the small town of Monticello, Illinois. A little gem of a town, really. It has a beautiful downtown with small shops on main street, and a sweet coffee shop that once was an old, small church. They serve great cafe mochas with soy milk (hold the whip cream). Cue the angels on harps ad a light from heaven shines down on us.
Always the savvy traveller, Katy grabbed a few tourist pamphlets before leaving the heavenly coffee shop. As we strapped ourselves into our seats, she mentioned that Monticello has a street once known as “Millionaires’ Row”. Only a few wrong turns later, we found it. The homes ranged from the Victorian Era to The Arts & Crafts Period. One house looked like something out of a Jane Austen novel, complete with a long, wrought iron, gable-roofed greenhouse in the side yard. People walking by waved at us as we lurked and gawked at the houses (even stopping to photograph a few with our cell phones). Thankfully our windows were rolled up so they couldn’t hear us saying, “Oh my God!” and “Holy Shit! Holy Shit!” as we drove under the speed limit up and down the lane (twice).
As we left town, Katy put in her Billy Joel Greatest Hits CD, Part 1, and we sang “Uptown Girl” as we headed towards Springfield, Illinois. We spent the majority of our day there because we took our time touring Abraham Lincoln’s Museum and Library. Katy loves history and I wanted my picture taken with the life size figurines of Abe Lincoln & his family, so it was a win-win situation. Truthfully, the museum and library are well worth the stop and it is very interesting and moving, especially when you get to the gallery that documents The Civil War. We rambled around downtown on foot in search of somewhere to eat, and landed at The Feed Bag restaurant (excellent potato soup, and old school slushy ice for your soft drinks). After that, neither of us could resist spending more time and money in an old used book shop next door. Both of us left with treasures and a bargain.
Later in the evening, we arrived in Hannibal, MO, the birthplace of Mark Twain. The town itself is not noteworthy, and it appears that tourism is currently the only saving grace of this river town. However, the two of us were happy to be in an historical town that glimmered with the possibility of good food, good junk, and good sites and stories. On all three of those fronts we were not disappointed. Katy drove us into the Best Western hotel on the River and our parking was so steep (Hannibal is built on river bluffs and cliffs) that she had to put on the parking brake. We were looking at our brochure guides (again, Katy has the knack of always picking them up at every visitor station or rest area we end up at) when I realized just how steep the parking was. My head was involuntarily leaning on Katy’s shoulder, and her shoulder was leaning on the driver’s door. When we got our luggage out, Katy set hers down and it began rolling down the parking lot and would have gone into the oncoming traffic had it not been for her quick maneuvering (with a few “Holy Shits” thrown in for good measure).
After looking through more brochures, making phone calls to restaurants, and driving up and down the main streets for almost an hour, Katy finally convinced me to eat at “Mark Twain’s Dinette”. I was a little skeptical only because I had my heart set on eating at Lula Belle’s (which was once a brothel until it was converted into a restaurant in the late 1960s), but once we sat down in the comfortable booth and started talking about life in general, I was happy to be there. I was even happier when my perfectly fried catfish sandwich and hot, tasty steak fries were in my stomach. As proof that I care enough about my sister’s opinion I will admit that she was right, and I was wrong. (For any of you who are older siblings, you know how hard it is to express this sentiment in words.) In retrospect, I should’ve just bought the Mark Twain Dinette coffee mug that had his silhouette on the front.
In the morning, I was the first to wake up early. Not because I was super excited (which I was) but because the family next to us were loud, and their conversation was bizarre. I tossed and turned as I heard the following riveting and meaningful conversation:
Wife: “Why did you wear your socks to bed?”
Husband: Mumble, mumble, mumble
Wife: “Hurry up. We’ll miss the free breakfast. Let’s go.”
Husband: Mumble, mumble, mumble
Wife: “Where ARE YOUR socks?”
Husband: Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle
Our morning tour of Hannibal began with a short walk up a bluff that overlooks the Mississippi River. Then, we bought our tickets and toured the Mark Twain interpretive center, a recreation of Huck Finn’s home, Twain’s boyhood home, a viewing of Becky Thatcher’s house, and the iconic fence Tom Sawyer convinced his friends to pay him money for the privilege of white washing. It sounds silly, but it was worth the $10 (especially when that includes the Mark Twain museum and gift shop at the end of the tour). My imagination was on fire to be walking the same streets Twain once did. I laughed out loud as I read passages from his autobiography or novels that were artistically arranged around memorabilia or photographs of him. I learned that Twain also had a boyhood friend, Tom Blankenship, after whom he modeled Huck Finn. Huck is one of my favorite characters in literature because despite how uneducated, uncivilized and ill-mannered as he was, he had so much love, kindness and loyalty in him. His free spirit, to come and go and do as he pleases (though he always does the right thing), is still something a lot of us wish we could tap into more often. It was refreshing to know that a real life Huck Finn really did walk this earth many moons ago.
Once the self-guided tour was over, the junk shopping began. We came upon an antiques store on Main Street, and I’m so glad we stopped. We found treasures galore! Yet, the treasures weren’t ones to buy (though Katy did want a gaudy spider ring and bracelet). Instead, we happened upon a lot of life-like (and often creepy) mannequins that were displaying the different styled and themed antiques. Words fail me, but the photos don’t.
Our last stop in Hannibal was Rockcliffe Mansion, which was built in 1898 for a wealthy logger, Cruikshank. The drive to the mansion included not only a steep climb up a tall cliff, but hairpin turns as well. Again, Katy was driving. I noticed she was a bit nervous, not because she was muttering, “Holy Shit. Holy Shit,” but because she was leaning forward in her seat, chin jutting out at a 90 degree angle, shoulders hunched, and hands gripping the wheel. I started laughing, and she looked over at me and snapped, “Megan! Lean forward!” This mediocre attempt at physics made me laugh even more. She turned and looked at me again and said, “I’m serious.” So, I appeased her and leaned forward, laughing all the while, until we came to another hairpin turn and I leaned away from it and into her. In the parking lot, I was making fun of her again and she tried to laugh it off while simply saying, “You know I was just joking, right?” Yeah, right.
We joined a tour in progress and were told that the mansion was abandoned for 43 years until 2 private owners bought it a few years ago and began the restorations. The mansion is still in some disrepair, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Fortunately all the Tiffany stained glass windows are in excellent condition, and the chair that Twain used to sit in when he visited the family is still there. The tour guide swore that the place has the signs of a haunting, but try as we might to capture something supernatural on camera, all we got were beautiful pictures of a bygone era (oh, and one of a creepy attic housing a dismantled, nude mannequin, but no ghosts that we could find).
Despite this drought, the ride home was scenic and peaceful. There is something about the Midwest that tugs at my heart strings. Maybe it’s the rolling hills of varying fields of corn, soybeans and wheat, the trees, the beautiful, blue skies with white puffy clouds. Or maybe it’s being in the company of my little sister who sings along to the Bee Gees and ABBA which makes me recall bygone days of our childhood when a family road trip was one of the most exciting and memorable moments of our young lives. As I took my last photo of the trip of the the haunting and graceful windmills acting like sentinels of the farmland, ghost-like memories of my past swirled in front of me and silently whispered of a future filled with happy road trips with my kid sister by my side.