I am standing in this old penny of a town, on the edge of the Mississippi River, fishing the same stretch of riverbank Mark Twain fished as a boy.
Twain grew up two blocks from here. He fished, he swam, he worshiped these alluvial waters. In the late 1800s, he turned around and made it all ridiculously famous. What was his gift? Twain "cheered and comforted a tired world," according to the monument at his birthplace in nearby Florida, Mo.
I have more modest goals on this late-spring road trip: to figure out what elements of this Missouri village inspired Twain's magic. And mostly, to land a Mississippi catfish as long as my arm.
I've come by car, north on U.S. 61 out of St. Louis, where diesel fumes quickly give way to the scent of fresh-cut hay. Soon I am reminded of why I love to drive. Open road. Wooded, rolling hills. On the radio, someone's singing about having a "possum in a sack and a belly full of beer." Clearly, I've entered God's country.
Missouri 79 ambles along the river and knits together several small towns of galleries and crafts stores. Here, you can drive the country roads for 30 minutes without seeing another soul.
In less than two hours, I've reached Hannibal, arriving just as the moon slips behind a cloud.
"All that goes to make the me in me is in a small Missouri village."
— Quote at museum display
In his best books, Twain described a town of cracked church bells and down-on-their-luck congregations. Today's Hannibal is that and more. This town of 18,000 features pawn shops and fancy B&Bs. Trains whistle past every 20 minutes. At the river, yellow fin tuna is served in a former bordello called Lula Belle's. I turn down the little street where Twain grew up. At dusk, there is virtually no one at Twain's boyhood home, except for two kids clacking along the brick street on skateboards. The house where Twain's sweetheart lived — the inspiration for Becky Thatcher — sits across the street.
Hannibal has dubbed itself "America's Hometown," and there's nothing here to dispute that. Main Street's great, old red-brick storefronts are mostly intact. This is no burnished, overly manicured historic enclave, however. Like characters in a Twain novel, some of the homes teeter a bit. It all adds to the authenticity and charm, even as the shops hawk all manner of Twain memorabilia.
"Holiday's Hill in our town was the noblest work of God. It appeared to pierce the skies."
— From "Innocents Abroad"
Climb the bluffs three blocks from Twain's home and you see a sweeping view of one of the world's most famous literary settings.
The island where Tom and Huck played pirates — and fooled the town into thinking they'd drowned — rests directly across the river. A mile down river are the caves where murderers and lovers hid.
Twain's own story started 40 miles from here, in the tin-cup town of Florida. From Hannibal, you can be at his birthplace in 45 minutes, a two-room cabin where Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born, two months prematurely, in November 1835.
About 60 families lived in Florida, where Twain's father ran the general store. Sam lived here until he was 4, when his family took off for Hannibal.
His birthplace is marked by a red granite monument. The cabin has been moved to a modern facility nearby, where first editions of the author's works are on display.
But if you're in search of Twain, Hannibal is where you'll mostly be. If you do nothing else, be sure to visit eerie Mark Twain Cave. In town, tour majestic Rockcliffe Mansion. Twain was an overnight guest at Rockcliffe and, to hear the locals tell it, at nearly every home in town.
The tales of the town's ghosts are just as rampant.
As I await my pasta at Lula Belle's Restaurant, the waiters talk, without prompting, about paranormal experiences. At Robard's Mansion, on 6th Street, a B&B where I stay two nights, owner Leon McClellan offers up stories of sightings from years ago.
The finest inn around is the splendid Garth Woodside Mansion, which sits among stately oaks 10 minutes from the center of town. I stay one night and wish I had longer to visit.
Don't miss the three-deck riverboat. In daytime and dinner cruises, owner-operator Steve Terry gives a terrific overview of the area's history as a 19th century crossroads.
As I sit back, enjoying an afternoon breeze, I appreciate the easy pleasures of this little river town even more.
Romance of the riverboats
"When I find a well-drawn character I generally take a personal interest in him, for the reason I have known him before — met him on the river."
— From "Life on the Mississippi"
A century and a half ago, this little village was the juncture of small-town innocence and worldly brio. The river brought the brio — all manner of thief, misfit and scholar. The setting gave Twain all the goods he needed to produce charming tales of pathos and adventure.
And although you'll never really find the essence of any place in a few days, you can still sit on the overgrown riverbank here, fishing pole in hand, and pay your respects. Even if, like me, you can't snag a giant catfish, it's mere child's play to summon those voices of long ago.
"Like it?" Tom said. "Well, I don't see why I oughtn't to like it.
"Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?"
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More on Missouri
From LAX, nonstop service to St. Louis is offered on American, direct service (stop, no change of plane) on Southwest and connecting (change of planes) on United, America West, US Airways, Southwest, Continental, Northwest and American. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $348.
WHERE TO STAY:
Garth Woodside Mansion, 11069 New London Gravel Road, Hannibal; (888) 427-8409, http://www.garthmansion.com . Outstanding B&B. in country setting. Doubles from $119.
Robard's Mansion Bed and Breakfast (formerly Gilded Age), 215 N. 6th St., Hannibal; (573) 248-1218, http://www.thegildedage.net . Doubles from $60.