I’m on a quest of sorts, that I started last year. My goal is to vacation in every state in the US. This year, due to budget constraints, I chose Missouri. Not only is it within driving distance, but my father lives there, guaranteeing free lodging for most of the trip.
I took Thurs-Monday off work for my vacation. I booked a room for Wednesday night in Hannibal, MO. I’ve driven through it twice a year for several years now, but have never veered from Hwy 61 except to enter the driveway of a gas station or fast food place. It’s the childhood home of Mark Twain, so it seemed like something a tourist should see, but I didn’t expect much. It was a quick stop, to break up the drive to my father’s house and to say I’d been to something historical. I had no idea it would turn out to be one of the highlights of the trip.
To keep the costs down, I wanted to pay for my lodging Wednesday night with the rewards on my Discover card. They had to be used in $100 increments, so rather than go for the cheapest hotel I could find I looked around for something more interesting. I ended up choosing Reagan’s Queen Anne Bed and Breakfast. I’d never stayed at a B&B before. It was described as a former mansion in the historic district, and looked well kept in all the photos I saw online. Best of all, it cost me about $20 after they added tax and subtracted the credit card rewards. I signed up for a check in between 7-8, thinking it would take about 2 hours to get there and I should leave about 5.
Things weren’t going well for me when Wednesday rolled around. I stayed out too late on Tuesday night, and then threw together my bag of clothes and toiletries before going to bed. I did nothing about gathering the camping supplies I would need to take with me (for a later portion of the trip). So I hurried home from work at 4:30 and rushed around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to get the car packed up. I finally left town just about 5:30. In addition, when I printed out directions from Google maps, it predicted the trip would take 2.5 hours. This meant I was just barely going to make the 8 PM check in, if I treated the speed limit like a loose guideline.
Luckily traffic was light, and the worst weather I had was a few sprinkles during the first hour. I reached the city of Hannibal at about 7:55, at which point I realized that while I had the Google map directions, “turn left onto Palmyra road” is only a helpful instruction if you have a general idea of where Palmyra road is. And while traffic lights in every city I’ve ever lived in have signs on them telling you what street you are crossing, this is never the case in cities I am visiting with written instructions that depend on my being able to find a specific street. So I pulled over, called the B&B to tell them I was on my way, and got directions to their location.
The owners were lovely people. They gave me a free room upgrade because they weren’t full. The room I stayed in was nice, though decorated for Victorian rather than modern taste. It was comfortable, clean and spacious. I would not have minded the original room, but it was a generous upgrade. They were also very nice about my being late, which allowed me to finally relax.
Having rushed to get there without stopping to eat, I had to get out and find dinner. Just down the block was another old house, this one turned into La Binnah bistro. When I first entered it was empty except for the employees, but fortunately it was open until 10 on Wednesday nights. The menu was Mediterranean, with many dishes from Turkey. The music playing was Elvis. Amused by the combination, I was happy enough to sit and wait alone while my dinner was cooking.
I ordered a chicken dish from turkey that I don’t recall the name of now, and a salad. It was not cheap, but I wouldn’t call it overpriced- I have never paid that much for food and come away certain I got my money’s worth before. The salad was amazing. It had grapes and strawberries, a mix of greens which were not lettuce, and fresh cilantro, along with the more usual tomatoes and cucumbers and house vinaigrette. The chicken came out laid on top of a slice of French bread that was heavenly after soaking in the chicken’s juices. The chicken itself was almost anticlimactic after everything else, but was still very good.
The next morning, I was determined to take it easy. Breakfast was at 8:30, so I slept in until 8. Since this isn’t a food journal I won’t go into detail about the breakfast. Suffice it to say that should you be traveling to Hannibal, and considering a B&B, you should stay with the Reagan’s. I don’t know what breakfast is like at the other options, but it can’t be much better without defying some law of physics.
After breakfast I went out into the garden, watched the koi in the pond (from a distance, for they all seemed to think I would feed them if I stood close and I hated to be a tease), and enjoyed the fact that I did not have to be anywhere by any specific time that day. I checked out around 10:30, and headed for the museum.
The Mark Twain museum is actually a complex. There’s the Interpretive Center, Samuel Clemons’ boyhood home, the Huckleberry Finn home (where the boy who inspired that character grew up), the Becky Thatcher home (where Clemons’ first childhood crush once lived), and a Museum Gallery down the street. The whole thing costs $9. In addition, there’s a park with a Tom and Huck statues, where you can climb up to the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse.
There’s a trick to that part. I saw a t-shirt for sale that said something like “I climbed all the steps to the Mark Twain lighthouse” and wondered why that was such a feat. It didn’t look that bad. Then when I climbed the steps I could see, I realized I had to cross a small park and climb another set. Then the path went around a bend to another set. Then around a corner…you get the idea. There were 244 steps in all. I didn’t buy a t-shirt, but I did get my workout for the day. For all that, the lighthouse itself wasn’t much to look at
The museum was informative. I didn’t know much about Mark Twain going in, and now I know more. He was more interesting that I expected, and I came out wanting to read more of his nonfiction.
At the Museum Gallery, I saw posters advertising a performance of Twain’s short story “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It.” I did not know of that story, though from the poster I assumed it had something to do with slavery. I wasn’t sure I would be in town long enough, so I didn’t think much about it. But as I was browsing the Norman Rockwell section upstairs, I saw people beginning to gather where the chairs were set up, and the woman from the posters taking her place in the arm chair in front. I would have had to walk past her to leave, so I decided to stay.
The story, for anyone else who doesn’t know it, is about a former slave woman,called Aunt Rachel by the author. On some occasion, Mark Twain said he had asked this woman how she had gotten to her 60s without any troubles, because she seemed always too cheerful to have a troubled past. She proceeded to let him know all about her life, including the day her children were sold…but I won’t tell all that here. You can read that for yourself. It’s a story about a woman who suffered under slavery, but it’s also the story of the white man who grew up with slaves, who was blind enough to believe anyone could have made it through slavery with no troubles to speak of, and who listened to that woman’s story and learned from it. And around that story within a story, I’m going to tell you another.
The storyteller sat in the armchair, much as “Aunt Rachel” might have sat in her living room with the author, and told us her story. Shortly after she began, a group came in comprised of young adults with disabilities and their assistants. Some were in wheelchairs; all had mental challenges. I thought it was nice to see them. The juxtaposition of their presence with the story touched me somehow. I’m glad I live now, and not when slavery or segregation was legal. I’m glad I live now and not when people with mental disabilities were institutionalized, instead of being allowed out in public to enjoy the arts, and cultural events. Now isn’t perfect, but it was nice to be reminded of how far we’ve come, with two different types of discrimination at the same moment.
And then, as the story ended, the storyteller began to sing. The song was “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” One of the mentally challenged young men started to sing along; every time she sang a line he would repeat it. The venue was intimate enough that she made eye contact with individual members of the audience, and when she met that young man’s eyes she smiled at him. His face lit up with joy, and he began to sing a little louder. She kept her attention on him as they sang together, not as though she felt obliged to allow it, but as though he was adding to her performance. And I think he was. I can’t exactly describe how I felt; I couldn’t quite put my reaction into words at the time. So much joy in his face, so much love in hers, so much beauty in that moment. I think I would call it a moment of grace. When they finished the song, the assistants gathered up their group and left.
Then the rest of us learned more about the storyteller, Gladys Coggswell. She has been a professional storyteller for years. Though only the Twain story had been advertised, she also told us an old folktale she’d been told by her grandmother. Then she followed that with a song about a three eyed cat, which she made us all sing along with. In 2005, she had a stroke, after which she was unable to speak for a long time. I can’t imagine what that would feel like to someone who used their voice for a living. To hear her today you would never know. It was an excellent performance, and if you happen to get to Hannibal while it’s still running you should go. It’s worth the price of the museum fee in itself (it’s free with admission). I can’t promise a moment of grace, but the rest is worth seeing anyway.
After that, I filled up with gas and got back on the road. I left Hannibal refreshed, well fed, and happy with life. The rest of Missouri awaited me.