Happy 2022, all!
Have to own I’m getting distracted from this post by a pretty rare phenomenon occurring outside –
Yup! Song lyrics aside, it does rain in Southern California (a little…) to make lawns lush, freeways flooded, and drivers dumb.
While still taking a raincheck on any trips these days, I’m content to call up fond travel recollections – like of a long-ago and partly rainy roadtrip to the Midwest. It reminds me (as if Covid doesn’t…) how it can rain all over our best laid plans – but that doesn’t always make for the worst of times.
One summer back in the 80’s, I made a solo drive from California to Missouri as a pilgrimage to view the storied Mississippi River and all things to do with one of my favorite authors – Mark Twain!
As a kid, I’d loved reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer after first falling in love with the Sherman Brothers musical version. I studied Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in college, was tickled by Twain’s comic pieces, and charmed by the depiction of his riverboat pilot youth in Life on the Mississippi.
I was between jobs at the time and not at all sure what to be doing with my life. Having tried adulting for a couple years by then (and not being entirely sold), I felt this pull just to “light out” for some territory I hadn’t yet explored – and Twain’s hometown of Hannibal seemed a fine choice. So I figured I’d grab a bunch of AAA books (what we did in ancient pre-internet days), load up my old car (despite its clutch problem and lack of a working A/C), and see where a month of days took me.
I mean, humidity shmoo-midity, right? How hot could it be? And was a functioning clutch really that important? I would discover that the answers were: “very” and ”yes”. But starting out, I considered this a solid, well thought out plan.
I was younger then.
Anyhoo, after some grand cross-country adventuring (parts of which I’ve catalogued before), I made it to Missouri – Twain country! I visited the birthplace of Samuel Clemens (Twain) in Florida. I wandered through his boyhood home in Hannibal. And I toured a nearby cave (now Mark Twain Cave, of course!) that he used to explore. It was a delight to see the very spots that had inspired so much of Twain’s classic writing!
I decided the most appropriate grand finale for my Twain-a-Palooza would be to take a riverboat dinner cruise on his beloved Mississippi!
I was actually no stranger to riverboat rides. I’d had a terrific time once on a steamboat trip around New Orleans with Mum! There was also the riverboat that cruises gorgeous Lake Tahoe:
I’m going to forgo a judge’s ruling and just count the short ride at Disneyland (on the Mark Twain!), as well as the time I waved goodbye from a moving riverboat set piece in a production of Showboat (at dear Contra Costa Civic Theatre in El Cerrito!). And, en route to Missouri on this trip, I took a riverboat ride on the Missouri River out of Kansas City!
Steamboats have always enchanted me with their shape, ornate detail and, of course, those iconic paddle wheels. They’re like wonderful, floating birthday cakes – and I couldn’t wait to sample the next one!
On a mild evening in Hannibal, I strolled down to the dock and was among the first to board so I could stake my claim to a table with a proper view. Soon we were pleasantly churning down the Mississippi and I was glued to my window, determined to savor every moment of the journey!
Which was a good thing since the journey quickly and abruptly appeared to shorten. After only about ten minutes, the boat made a u-turn and seemed to be churning right back the way we came. Had my sense of direction gone wonky? Did I hit the no-host bar too hard?
Nope. Our captain came on the speaker to confirm we’d be dining tied back up at the dock as a serious storm would be passing over.
Well, that was not the plan…
Leading up to this cruise, I’d been getting tons of mileage just imagining how it would be – down to the kinship I’d feel with Twain as the boat glided majestically along his river. I’d wanted to know that same elation as when I was a little girl and an episode of The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would come on The Banana Splits Show and Tom and Huck and Becky would stand cheerily waving from the railing as their steamboat took them off to new adventures and it was like they were waving at me to come along too and everything! Even before starting on this trip, I think I was desperate to greet the world again with the sweet anticipation Twain describes in Tom Sawyer – when “Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life”.
Instead, here I was struggling to stay upright through the buffet line as our bound-up boat bobbed away like some over-painted fishing lure.
What a let-down…
I had to admit at the time though that the storm was quite something to see. When the full force of it was right on top of us, there were flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder every few seconds, and the water roiled and bubbled like mad all around us. I don’t think I’d ever seen nature quite so angry.
And in fairness, I did find some consolation in a dessert I’d never tasted before called turtle pie – a super-rich combination of chocolate and caramel with pecans on top. I consoled myself with several helpings.
Then, with only minutes left to our scheduled excursion, the captain announced it was safe to venture back out, and he invited us to move about the boat and enjoy some tunes from the calliope. I had no idea what the calliope thing was, but I rushed up on deck to get as much of an unfettered view of the river and its banks as I still could.
The storm had moved past, but it was still putting on a brilliant show, lighting up the sky at intervals downriver and briefly revealing the banks we were finally cruising past! And next, carried to me through the still electric air came the music of the calliope! I didn’t know at the time this was an instrument like an organ that’s powered by steam. The sound through its pipes was like so many huge whistles and reminded me of carousel music or a circus – pretty impossible to listen to and hold onto any cranky kind of a thought. An amusing soundtrack to an amazing trip!
So there it was. I didn’t wind up with the riverboat experience I’d imagined – but what I got was a deeper and much more fitting encounter with Twain’s Mississippi. A thing unpredictable, volatile, powerful, and magical –
And what a gift it was!
On rainy days like today, I’m heartened by the memory that despite some dreadful squalls, there can still be surprising and beautiful moments in store! But should those moments prove elusive as they sometimes do, I wish everyone the aid and strength they need for waiting out the storm. Oh – and I highly recommend some turtle pie.