Last summer I was antsy to undertake another pilgrimage. I wanted to fly over to England again and relish the passion of the moors or maybe follow the steps of Martin Luther in Germany. But that wasn’t to be. Lack of time caught up with me. But I did manage a quick three-day get away to Missouri where I ventured to the homes of two iconic American authors – Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
For the past years, much of my focus had been on planting myself at home and learning this thing called campus ministry. Unfortunately, this has led me to forgo one of the practices that has given renewed energy to my life – pilgrimage. I’m not sure why I do this – bare knuckle my way through an activity because I think I should, while ignoring other parts of life. Maybe I fear that if I allow any type of enjoyment into my schedule, I’ll give up practical work for foolish ventures. However, often these foolish ventures provide the impetus, and even wisdom, for the practical.
So back to my latest pilgrimage. I left on a Thursday afternoon to reach Hannibal, Missouri, on the shores of the Mississippi River. I’ve enjoyed reading Mark Twain’s works, but have never really studied him. One day in Hannibal wasn’t going to change that, but I thought it would help me to get back on track with my story. The evening was wonderful as I walked through this small town, gorged on Italian food, hiked up to the lighthouse, gazed at the flooding river, and listened to an outdoor concert. This was definitely a small town kind of evening and I allowed myself to just enjoy it as I was drawn into the interplay of people and place.
The next morning I made my way over to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. When I stepped in, a rush of familiarity overcame me as I entered this literary site. The museum was softly lit with well-produced displays covering the life of Mark Twain. Immediately I started reading the words on the walls, looking at the copies of his books, and picturing the life that had made this writer. I walked outside to the small Huckleberry Finn house and finally entered Mark Twain’s boyhood home. The rooms had to be viewed from the distance of a plexi-glass divider, but I still got a sense of the life lived here. Images of family life interspersed with lines from Twain’s works created a connection between the boy and the future writer.
Of course the tour exited through the museum shop, and I loaded up on books to familiarize myself more with this writer – particularly his travel writings. Striking out on adventures and telling childhood stories, even embellished ones, drove Twain’s life. Did it make the stories he told a lie? Not necessarily. It helped direct and provide meaning to his life. As a reader I was content to listen and be drawn into the adventures whether along the Mississippi (Huckleberry Finn) or in Egypt (The Innocents Abroad). These stories contain wonderful hijinx that show the characters relishing life. I ended my time with lunch in a former bordello – still with a musty smell of a well-lived place – and a milkshake from Becky Thatcher’s Sweet Shoppe.
No literary breakthroughs here. I can’t say I deeply connected with any of the stories. Yet, I found myself moving toward pilgrimage again as I engaged with the stories of the place. I even started to recall those my own from childhood. Stories of enticing neighborhood kids to our porch with a set of building blocks, playing dolls with friends during summer breaks, and building forts with furniture and sheets on snow days. It was a breath of fresh air that helped me break from the rut I had been creating. Let’s play.