August 22nd, 2017 (Travel Date)
I did not want to leave the Basilica. But the hours were slipping away from the day quickly.
Across the river, back into Illinois, we eventually arrived at a place I had wanted to visit since the mid 1990s. Cahokia was a settlement, a city built by a people archaeologists call the Mississippians a great many years before Europeans came to these lands.
The known grounds covered 3,300 acres. The tallest of the mounds (Monks Mound) was about ten stories. My mother made it half way up the staircase of Monks Mound before deciding to rest on a bench while I continued to the top. From the top I gazed toward Saint Louis with its arch and skyscrapers. Along the south and east horizon I noticed a ridge that appeared to be about the same height as the top of this mound. “What a view this must have been at the height of the city’s existence,” I thought. There are so many landmarks we humans have left behind over the years on this planet, and so many lost forever to time. So many stories have never been told because the remains are simply gone, conversations taken place along those hillsides and floodplains that line the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, that will never be known; perhaps millions of stories for every few that stand the test of time.
Looking out across the lands, from the mounds that remain of one civilization to the sun reflecting on the structures of another in the distance, it is difficult not to think about the importance of our time on this planet. In the end, whether one contributes to a lasting history, or leaves no trace behind, it is important that we all recognize what little time there is to live the kind of life we want for ourselves and/or others.
I didn’t stand there long before descending the staircase and walking back with my mother to the vehicle and heading north back to Hannibal. This was one part of the trip that I had greatly underestimated the amount of time I wanted to spend here. At least I have books to read, in place of experiences to be had. One isn’t the same as the other, but it sure beats nothing at all.
The light of the sun had almost completely disappeared when we drove across the bridge over the Mississippi and back into Hannibal, Missouri, to the hotel at dark. I wasn’t sure that I understood how much I had missed the road until this week, but I’m sure I’d say the same thing at some point about the sedentary life back on the farm in Texas at some point were I to only travel. I wonder if Samuel Clemens had such thoughts before leaving Hannibal as a resident, never to return as such again. It’s difficult to understand what any of us have until it’s gone. Finishing the last page of a really good novel has the same effect on me. The experience is one thing, but when it’s over, it’s just over.
I took one last look out of the hotel window into the darkness before going to sleep, wondering if the mind I once knew would ever return. Distraction works for a while, but with mental illness it’s never lasted forever. Still, if those hours after the eclipse offered any hope, it’s that somewhere with the changes distractions create, there is a solution to the illness.
Living is much like the waters flowing down the Mississippi. Sometimes running lower, revealing changing sandbars upon which a boat might run aground, sometimes overflowing, ruining crops, homes, businesses, and lives; if not changing the course we are on forever. But every now and then one can find a channel through which to navigate where the waters provide ample clearance from obstructions.
Before my visit here, I don’t think I understood just how influenced authors are by the lives they’ve lived nor the power of imagination within the author’s works as transferred to the mind of the reader. The town and surrounding geography that inspired the tales of Tom and Huck and the cast of characters I read about as a child were as imagined a place in my mind as Kipling’s jungle setting for the characters of Mowgli and Baloo the bear from an animated movie version of the Jungle Book. However, here in Hannibal, for a few days, I got to know a place that was anything but fictional.
We all have experiences to share, lessons we’ve learned that can hopefully improve the lives of generations to come. A friend out on some distant reservation in New Mexico once told me, “Your experiences are yours and yours alone.” I’d just like to add to that, “Don’t let anyone ever convince you any different.” Thanks, Hannibal, for the influences you’ve had on authors who have lived here, and those who are just passing through.