Never Mark Twain shall meet


The next stop on our journey is the venerable, picturesque Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Missouri.

What Stephen Foster is to Bardstown, Kentucky, Mark Twain is to Hannibal, only times 12 and on steroids. Absolutely everything in this town is Mark Twain This and Tom Sawyer That, with a handful of Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher Somethings or Other thrown in on the side. Along with the popular author and humorist who was born Samuel Clemens, Hannibal’s other notable native is Titanic survivor Margaret Brown, of The Unsinkable Molly Brown fame. You’ll see a few Molly references around Hannibal, a sort of welcome break from the relentless Twain-ness of the place.

I’d like to say that Hannibal has the most gift and antique shops I’ve ever seen in one place, but we just came from Galena, the all-time champ in that regard, last week. I guess it says something about Middle America today that these small towns that once thrived on farming, shipping and manufacturing now rely on tourism to survive.

It was nearly dinner time when we reached Hannibal, so we searched for local restaurants and found a funky little place in town, The LaBinnah (Hannibal spelled backwards). It’s an 1870s-era house with folksy wallpaper, antique posters on the walls and a TV monitor in a corner showing classic black-and-white movies (e.g., Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps). An interesting place.

Back at the motor home, we made reservations for tomorrow’s activities, including tickets for a short riverboat tour on the Mississippi and – what else? – another ghost tour. Hey.. small town, older than the hills, lots of big Victorian mansions… what did you expect?


This day began with an unexpected dose of reality that will lead to a change in plans and impact the rest of our trip.

My sister Kathy called this morning to tell me Mom had fallen on the floor in her kitchen last night and had to be taken to the hospital. With my mother’s age and condition, a fall like that – her second in six weeks – can be a life altering experience. We’re worried about her now and not sure exactly what we should do, but after discussing it with Kathy, we decide to follow through on our plans for today in Hannibal and then head back to Waverly first thing tomorrow morning. First task: making reservations at the same Waterloo campground we just left the day before.

Today’s riverboat ride was a one-hour tour of the Mississippi, with the boat’s captain pointing out a few area landmarks, including a high bluff near Hannibal known as Lover’s Leap.

The captain explained the bluff’s name comes from a local legend about an Indian maiden who dashed herself off the cliff rather than be forced to marry an Indian warrior she didn’t love, yadda, yadda, yadda... You’ve heard it before. There are similar lover’s leap rock formations, with the name based on more or less the same legend, in pretty much every river town from Minnesota to Louisiana, but.. so what? The tour guides have to come with something to tell the visitors and why not a good ol’ Indian legend?

This being Mark Twain’s hometown, of course you knew a couple of cute kids dressed as Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher would be on board the boatfor picture-taking purposes. Since we’re tourists, we’ll play along.

Speaking of legends, how about we do a little ghost hunting? We went on a fun trolley tour tonight, led by a tour guide who knew a lot about the town’s history and didn’t try too hard to be funny about it. This tour featured a new activity we’d never experienced before on any previous ghost tour: the use of divining (or dowsing) rods to hunt for ghosts in an old cemetery.

Dowsing has been around for centuries as a way to search for water underground. The dowser walks slowly over an area, holding in his hands L-shaped metal rods pointing away from his body. At a spot where the rods cross over each other (or, if he’s using a Y-shaped twig, where it bends down toward the ground) is supposedly where a well can be dug to find water. A new twist: apparently the newest, latest fad in the ghost tour industry (and there are enough of them in every old small town in America that I think I’m safe in calling it an “industry”) is to escort tour participants to an old cemetery late at night and hand them all dowsing rods. Not to search for water, but to “communicate with the spirits” through electromagnetism… or something. The idea is to offer the ghosts some kind of vague instruction – “if you’re standing next to me, turn the rods to the left” – and then see what happens.

Deanna gave it a shot while I manned the flashlight. In my humble opinion, the results were….less than convincing. The rods in Deanna’s hands spun around a bit and occasionally crossed over each other, but what does that mean? Ghost communication or just unsteady hands? We detected far more bugs than ghosts. I remain a skeptic.

This should have been an enjoyable day of doing touristy stuff around Hannibal, but my mind has been on my mother’s health all day and it’s been hard to have fun. We’ll be heading back to Iowa tomorrow.

JULY 24, 25, 26

We’re back in Waverly, spending most of our time over the next few days with my mother in her hospital room in between running a few errands to take care of her needs.

The next three days are a flurry of tests and monitoring for my mom, while Deanna and I engage in discussions with the hospital’s social workers about options for assisted living, home nursing assistance, prescription medication management, and so on.

We have many discussions as well with my sister, who’s a former registered nurse, and my cousin Donna, who lives in Waverly and has been a huge help in taking care of my mother.

What comes next for Mom after her fall is unknown, to her and to all of us who love her. We will study the options, talk them over with her and see where it goes from here.

Wednesday, we begin the long journey back home.

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