Hannibal, Missouri, is a little off the beaten path. Actually, Hannibal is a LOT off the beaten path. I can’t even find the beaten path anymore.
On the way into town, my GPS kept getting confused in rural Missouri, and at one point I ended up in—this is true—Illinois.
It’s a river town. The gray Mississippi eases along Hannibal at 5.8 miles per hour, moving ever southward. The floodgates are up today. There is a flood warning in effect right now, wind gusts are clocking in at 33 mph.
I’m at a bar called “Rumor Has It.” Beside me is a riverboat captain.
“This is a beautiful river that can kill you,” says the captain who has been a commercial pilot on the Mississippi since the early ‘70s. “My wife calls her my mistress, because I spend more time with this river than with her.”
I am beneath the mistress’s spell this afternoon as I hang out on Hannibal’s sidestreets.
In the distance, a barge drifts along the Muddy Mississippi, moving at a tortoise pace. There is a riverboat docked at the landing. A train passes and lays on the whistle.
Riverboats. Barges. Trains. It’s the 19th century in Hannibal.
“This is a town so small both city-limit signs are nailed to the same post,” says one merchant. “It’s great because it’s charming, and it’s actually affordable. And you meet tourists from all over the globe. Just yesterday I met people from Norway, Australia, and Japan.”
Downtown is quaint and touristy. It feels like the aftermath of a gift shop explosion. But everything is done tastefully. You won’t find any deep-fried Oreos or CBD shops here.
It’s Monday, for example, and all the shops are closed. Which is unheard of in a tourist economy.
And that’s the beauty of Hannibal. It’s a real small town. Even though it’s a tourist destination, these merchants have real families, and real lives. Shops close at four and five p.m.
Thankfully, the local beer joint is open, and that’s all that matters to this writer.
I am on North Main, sipping cheap lager, watching tourists on sidewalks, darting in and out of the precious few storefronts that are open today.
“People come here to see how America used to be,” says one guy. “This is Mark Twain’s hometown, but in a way, it is America’s hometown.”
Tourists buy all sorts of Samuel Clemens stuff. I see one kid is wearing a white Mark Twain wig and cotton walrus mustache. He is maybe 9. All that’s missing is the cigar. He is from Nebraska.
“He loves Mark Twain,” says his mother. “We read ‘Prince and the Pauper’ a few times every week.”
I can relate. The first book I read twice was “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” I was 12. It ruined my life. I never wanted to be responsible or productive again. And for the most part, I’ve remained true to that ideal.
For instance, it’s too early to be drinking beer, but here I am. I think Clemens would be proud.
There are other tourists here, consuming malt beverages. And I’m listening to their conversations.
Behind me are a few old guys sitting before a gaggle of empty longneck bottles. They are from Minnesota. They are talking about divorce.
“…That judge looked at me,” the old man says, “and the judge said, ‘Sir, I’ve reviewed your case, and I’ve decided to give your ex-wife $800 bucks a week.’
“I said, ‘Well, Your Honor, that’s very fair. Every now and then I’ll try to send her a few bucks, too.’”
Two older women beside me from Detroit are swilling Miller Lite. They’ve traveled here by RV. One is crying. She’s talking about doctors and surgeries.
I overhear the woman say she has kidney stones. Whereupon she describes a kidney stone’s arduous journey from the urethral sphincter to the toilet bowl.
“It’s like having a baby with razor blades,” she reports.
On that note, I take my leave.
I’m walking the streets now. On my walk, I meet a child from Alaska. She is an Inupiat Native, a foster child (14), she has had a leg amputated, she is a survivor of fetal alcohol syndrome. Her biological parents didn’t want her.
Her new parents are from Georgia. It’s a long story, they explain.
“We’re visiting Hannibal because we’ve been reading Mark Twain for our homeschool classes,” said her parents. “He went through so much tragedy, and yet he remained full of humor. That’s how we want our daughter to be.”
She’s never seen the Mississippi before.
“What do you think of the river?” I ask the girl.
“I think it’s amazing,” she says. “This is a 2,340-mile river, did you know that?”
“No,” I say.
“Yep. And it never quits moving forward, you know? My mom says there’s a lesson in that.”
I ask what she wants to be when she grows up.
She smiles. Her eyes are beautiful and her smile full of light. “I want to be a writer, just like Samuel Clemens.”
Well. Join the crowd, kid.
stephenpe - May 2, 2023 12:13 pm
Samuel Clemens was a national treasure like you are becoming. He would have loved this line you wrote: “The first book I read twice was “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” I was 12. It ruined my life. I never wanted to be responsible or productive again. And for the most part, I’ve remained true to that ideal.”
Susie - May 2, 2023 7:03 pm
Yes, stephenpe, Sam would have loved that phrase, indeed!
Amelia - May 2, 2023 9:33 pm
I’m sitting in a coffee shop on Hannibal’s Main Street reading this right now! Google’s algorithm has a sense of irony, it seems. You did a wonderful job painting the scene. Hannibal is quintessentially American and Midwestern, yet the steady stream of visitors gives it a much more expansive feel. I’m so glad you enjoyed your visit here. 🙂
Susie Murphy - May 2, 2023 11:36 pm
Hannibal is part of my childhood. My Dad was born in Palmyra as was his father. My grandmother was born in Quincy but lived across the river between Palmyra and Taylor. I love that area. Like a small part of the Ozarks transplanted in the north.
Sunny Leffel - May 3, 2023 2:11 pm
Hannibal is all that. But dude, as a journalist u missed the other side of that story. It can also be loud, annoying, and hucksters abound.
Carol Stout - May 3, 2023 9:17 pm
My husband grew up in Hannibal and I have been there so many, many times. Love visiting there and walking down Main Street. Thank you Sean for a wonderful story about a small wonderful town I have so many great memories of.
Amanda - May 4, 2023 2:54 am
I enjoyed this writing very much ❤️
Karen Snyder - May 6, 2023 10:07 pm