Mark Twain,Mormons,Missouri and Malformed Animals

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Backcountry Illinois © Grainne Rhuad 2012


 By: Grainne Rhuad

We were leaving Chicago but not Illinois just yet.  There were a few things we wanted to check out before we left.

It came as no surprise, being an election year that most of the overheard topics in restaurants, lines, bars, and homes were the election.  The candidates, their policies, their lack of policies, their general lack of connectedness, their magic underpants.

Yes, everyday people are just as concerned about magic underpants and religion as the newspapers make it seem.  I saw street preachers proclaiming the unworthiness of such underwear.  I saw young missionaries struggle with inappropriate questions from almost hostile tourists, their children dripping with ice cream, staring dully at their smart phones about 19 year old youth’s underpants.

Despite the Republican condescension to allow Mitt Romney on the ticket despite his Mormon-ness, conservatives still struggle with this.  The conservative religious have been taught that Mormons are only one step above heathens after all.  Why do you think Romney picked Paul Ryan, a man sure to stick his foot in it?  Because at least he belongs to a church that one of our most beloved and martyred Presidents belonged to.

So, speaking of martyrdom, since it was on the way we decided to stop off at the place where the first Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith lost his life, Carthage Jail in Carthage Il.

A funny thing happened on the way to the jail.

We did not have any GPS.  Our phones were working sporadically and we were on cheap-tour so we didn’t spring for renting GPS.  Besides which, we came from a generation that actually had a unit on reading maps and orienteering.  Mine was in sixth grade.  Also, we didn’t think it would be a hard task, after all, what else could be in Carthage?

It turns out a good bit of frontier history.  Also, it’s not a particularly Mormon town, no surprise since the settlers there killed them.  But a funny scene ensued anyway when we asked the gas station attendant the way to the jail.  He went quickly from friendly to suspicious.  After all, Californians have a mythology of their own in other states of being godless hippies or Hollywood types.  He slowly drawled to us, “Do you mean the  historic  jail.”  In a tone that left no doubt it was suspicious either way.

As it turns out we were only a few blocks from it but had been driving in circles.  It sits there in a neighborhood area, neither downtrodden nor upscale, looking for all the world just like a Mormon church.

The thing about this historic site is from the moment you set foot on it you know you are not going to be left alone to reflect or soak up history.  Unlike other historic sites we had visited which had an air of at least trying to represent the time, this was clearly a site that was made in 20th century style and was set up to spread a message.   We were swarmed the minute we set foot in the brick gardens.

Directed to go this way and wait, we really weren’t engaged in conversation about the era or life of the time period, we were instead going to be given only a story of martyrdom.

Before the tour our group consisting of about fifty people was shown a video on the facts.  If you don’t know them I encourage you to Google Joseph Smith’s martyrdom.  Basically, he was killed by a mob while awaiting trial in custody of the jail keeper.  This was not an unusual occurrence, it was 1844 and this was the frontier, what has made this story important to American history is survival of the Mormon Church.  But then again other famous stories about Mormons have been told, like that of The Sundance Kid.

Window Joseph Smith Fell From © Grainne Rhuad 2012

I pointed out the numbers that were with us for a purpose, the goal here is as I said not for reflection but to disseminate a message. Fifty people were taken through a house that in its time of use as a jail held at most 8 family members and 2-3 prisoners.  The group was shuttled along at a quick clip and although you are told you can linger, they don’t mean it because if you do someone comes to get you.  In fact I watch sobbing house moms, their somewhat uncomfortable family members watching, led away because there was a new group queueing up.

I know because I too had stayed behind.  One reason was to see if they meant what they said; the other was because this was the only place in the trip, advertised as haunted or otherwise where I felt an acute psychic disturbance.

Let me explain, for me hauntings amount to acute feelings that have been stacked up in a place overtime and kept alive and fed by people.  So when there has been an incident that is told and retold and immortalized with pictures and setting it makes sense that you feel the history there, to me anyway.  This instance was strange in that the feeling came from an area not talked about in the tour and I got the distinct impression it had nothing at all to do with the Joseph Smith Story.  Which really is not surprising, it was a jail and also a house as well as a sort of dormitory at one point. A lot of other lives went through this place.

I described it to my companions as a knot of confused feelings, anger and sadness in the upper corner of the jail cell room behind the main door.  But, it felt like it was leaking through from the attic that was not on the tour at all.  Was it fed by people in there confused and crying themselves as well as the constant recitation of a pretty sad story?   Nobody else seemed to respond to it but my eyes were constantly drawn to that corner.  Maybe they were too busy crying or being rushed along.

We left to our first Midwestern thunderstorm which had come up while we were inside.  Full of all the fury of lightning and hail.  It was pretty exciting and we were further glad to be moving in the opposite direction of it, as we were camping out.  The closest and really a very nice campground turned out to be in Nauvoo Il., another illustrious Mormon history site.

I have mentioned in an earlier travel log how incredibly cheap it is to camp outside of California.  Another nice offering is every campground we went to was nicely acquitted and had showers.  This one had a pavilion, a station for charging your devices and only cost $5.00/night.  It was also close by a laundry mat which we desperately needed by that time and town.  The only drawback was food was scarce.

This is a town set up for Mormons to come and remember “The Shining City On The Hill” that they were run out of in the dead of winter.  As such, there really is not much more than a main street with 3-4 cafeteria style restaurants serving food you would expect to eat in a church basement.  It wasn’t Lutefisk but it was close. White everything.  White bread, white gravy, white pork meat.  We were amused to find the pizza parlor served a $20 pizza that was- no joke- Bisquick™  pizza.  Another place served only breakfast and a third which we settled on served hamburgers, hotdogs and catfish.   I went for the catfish, which was buttermilk soaked and dipped in plain white flour, no seasoning and hands down the plainest thing I have ever eaten.  At our morning meal cafeteria style we were downright surprised to see people passing up the only fresh food item-strawberries for canned strawberries, peaches, etc.

The other thing the town is famous for is its pageant, which as it turns out we were in town for the last night of, having nothing else to do we went and watched an outdoor full scale musical about Mormons, Joseph Smith and Nauvoo.  There were hundreds of people there.  And it struck me, as it has before, why is it that Mormons as a rule; do not seem to realize the silly things they do?  Like campaigning against gay rights, while putting on a musical full of brotherly love that was full of double entendres and even had a rainbow flag brigade?

Rainbow Flag Brigade © Grainne Rhuad 2012

Here too we felt swamped by over eager people wanting to get not only our names for their missionaries but the names of anyone we know.  On the way to the restroom which was a good clip away, we were stopped 4 times to ask if we wanted to know more and I came out to find a new group asking the rest of my gang the same thing.

It was something I reflected on as I drove on the next day.  I have visited many religious sites of many different religions.  In fact, I nearly always try to because usually they have very peaceful gardens and nice architecture.  I have been to Missions in California, and Monasteries in Oregon.  I have been to Shaolin temples and too many Goddess based temples to count.  At none of these places was my peace disturbed.  It’s part of the reason I like to go there; amazing art and peaceful grottos.  I couldn’t help feeling the Mormons were missing something by being over aggressive with their message to visitors.  After all, we had all, already come there of our own accord.

It’s also something that applies to people’s general mistrust of Mitt Romney and other some other Mormons in public office.  They are always on the edge of their seats trying to tell everyone they already believe the same thing.  Senator Orin Hatch once made a big to-do about wearing a star of Judah stating he was basically the same as a Jewish person because his people had been persecuted and sent on an exodus too.  (Incredibly paraphrased).  But they completely miss that it is the feeling of urgent message-giving that turns people off.  That and the fact that they completely miss social cues about things like their own very stereotypical behavior.

The next day we crossed the Mississippi into Missouri.  Quite on chance I noticed a turn-off sign for Mark Twain’s birthplace so, of course I had to go.

Birthplace of Samuel Clemens © Grainne Rhuad 2012

It turns out Mark Twain’s birthplace, a tiny two room cabin about the size of most modern living rooms, is housed inside a reception/historical center overlooking a lake named for him.  Of course it was wonderful and exciting to see where one of my real heroes was born.  This little house which was actually built in Florida, MI and housed already 5 children, two adults and a slave girl at the time of Samuel Clemens’ birth.

What I didn’t expect to love so much was the other sorts of history found in there, like flax weaving equipment his mother may have used to convert flax to material and some really very good information on slavery as well as Civil war lines.  Missouri was a terribly bloody state during the Civil War, being split in her sympathies.  There was a map there that showed new lines drawn sometimes several times a year.

If you are ever in the area, take the time to drive over.  There is excellent camping, all sorts of lake activity and Mark Twain.  Not to mention the countryside while clearly poor was really very beautiful.  In fact it was my favorite place to look at on the trip.  It’ rough forests and rolling hills dotted with small farms some in good repair and some not and rivers and creeks all about.  It was a lot for the eyes.

If you don’t plan ahead for stops as we did not, resign yourself to eating 70’s food.  Honestly, every grocery we walked into had food stuff I remembered buying when I was a kid and hadn’t seen since.  It was a hard state to eat well in.  That is, if you don’t like bologna, which I don’t.  If you do, you are in luck the deli we stopped at had no turkey to speak of but about 8 different kinds of bologna plus headcheese.  So if you are a bologna connoisseur you would be in luck.  The towns are mostly a ways off the interstate and the café’s serve traditional middle state foods like biscuits and gravy, cornbread and beans.  Salad is still iceberg and Thousand Island dressing here, maybe some egg.

Truly however, this is a state I would come back to and explore.  Packed with history and full of people who have not much use for big city types, it intrigues me.  I never felt unwelcome; even if I was fully aware the small town people were checking us out to see what sort of people we were.

Kansas on the other hand is a different story.   Let me jump forward to explain.  In Breckenridge, Co we were buying gas and groceries and chatting up the checkout helpers.  We talked about where we were going and where we came from.  The bagger made the statement, “At least you’re heading to Nevada and not Kansas way.” Which I had to think about for a minute.

The checker said, “Really, Kansas is worse than Nevada?”

To which he answered, “Oh yeah at least in the desert there are mountains and things to look at, Kansas is just corn, forever.”

I, an outspoken hater of Nevada, had to concede that Kansas was just that, at least on the Interstate.  I’m hopeful there is more tucked away in there someplace, but what we saw had given me an appreciation for Nevada which I never had before. Mountains to break up the skyline, not to mention towns with service.

Pretty Much All Of Kansas © Grainne Rhuad 2012

Kansas had none of that.  At certain points I began to wonder if people lived here at all.  Or if maybe they had gone underground, like Prairie Dogs.   It was long stretches between gas and no restaurants except for gas station pizza and Blimpies.  I was beginning to appreciate that 70’s food we had picked up.  The fields had been planted, mostly in corn but some soy and hay.  It looked so desperate and sad.  Brown and less than 4 feet, when it should have been green and taller than a man by early August.  This was due to several years of draught.  Farms were abandoned and for sale and many had oil rigs on them.  Those smaller pumps which when I was little I thought looked like huge crickets.

What Kansas lacked in towns it made up for in Churches and Billboards.  Churches and Billboards of Jesus-many of them homemade were everyplace.  My companions played a game of “which church do you think that is?”  Which I won the first few rounds; until they caught on that they were all pretty much Methodist churches. This is Methodist country.  The land of the Methodist Coloring Book.  Which apparently is colored various colors of yellow and brown.  Methodist Coloring Book, another reference which nobody in my car got, so yes they got to learn about it throughout the rest of Kansas.  Thank goodness for Pandora.  And the Dead Milkmen.

One incredibly awesome sideshow we did come across in Kansas however was, The Biggest Prairie Dog In The World Attraction at Prairie Dog Town in Oakley, KS.  This sideshow farm wherein you can see a live six-legged steer amongst other stuffed oddities and live ones was unfortunately too much for our wallet.  At $10 an adult and $8.00 for kids under 16, it was a tank of gas for us.  The owner apparently knows this and really couldn’t give two shits on his Roadsideattractions.com interview he states. “”If it’s too expensive, then put it in your car and get the hell out of Kansas.”  Which we of course did.  Here’s a secret though which I bet other people have figured out; with a good pair of binoculars you can see everything in the open air back corral area which is right up against the highway, the bonus is you don’t have to smell it and when it’s 102 degrees out who wants to smell musty goats even if they have an extra appendage.  The groovy oddity stuff is inside though where the beehive sporting and also couldn’t give a damn woman tried desperately to block you from peeking at stuffed things on the wall.  Also if being by a highway with farm animals and overcharging people sounds like your perfect job it’s your lucky day.  The “zoo” is currently for sale!

Pink Cadillac Diner © Grainne Rhuad 2012

Leaving Kansas after a day and a half we finally came to a place of food.  A little 1950’s styled diner just over the Kansas, Colorado border called, Pink Cadillac Diner in Flagler Colorado.  It was a heavenly oasis of real food after Kansas and while it was almost as hot inside as out we were happy to eat.  Our 70’s food had run out and the chili was just like a diner chili should be, home cooked.

From there we were heading to Alma, in South Park Colorado, with a planned stop off in Denver to go to Casa Bonita. For those of you who are South Park Fans, yes that Casa Bonita.  However we were just too tired and starting to feel the elevation so we passed on it which caused half of the car to whine in Cartman-like voices for the next half hour; “But Mo-oooom!”

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