EMILY HAYES AND DANNY WILSON
The Getting There
A late February morning, and we are already neck-deep in Illinois, gray air and sky, in the middle of winter and the rest of our lives. Our destination is Hannibal, Missouri, a weekend writer’s workshop, but today is just as much about the journey, just as much about the sharp path that curves away from home. Today is just as much about back roads and by-ways, names we already know - Sangamon County, Petersburg, Atterbury - the bridge that carries us over the Mississippi River, the moment where prairie grass breaks into snow drifts on Cardiff Hill. Early in a new century, our tires kick up cinder and salt, and we turn an interstate trip into a seven-hour trek through our corner of a familiar and fading America.
All day long, we hear echoes from Edgar Lee Masters as we move through Spoon River country, among gravestones and winter wheat fields. We bump into Vachel Lindsay’s ghost on the outskirts of Springfield; he offers rhymes to be traded for bread. We are no strangers to Sandburg’s Illinois. Mark Twain whispers over the cracking of the frozen Mississippi, and the low hum of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town roots us to these places, ties us to land and water, houses and silos and barns.
That night, the play is palpable. We walk through local art galleries, we meet friends for dinner. Drunk on wine and moon, we listen as Cindy Lovell and Neal Moore mention a time capsule for the museum. Nearing the 100-year anniversary of Twain’s death, Our Town, Act I flashes over us. We remember Halley’s Comet coming to take Clemens away, and, in an instant, Hannibal is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.
Is there any culture or love of beauty in Grover’s Corners?
So - people a thousand years from now - this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. - This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.
Instead of newspapers or books or paintings, we seal away memory - an account of the night itself - the beauty of the light that pools under the street lamps on the walkway by the river, the camaraderie of good friends - our lives in the beginning of the twenty-first century.
After hours, we wind back to the museum. The train whistle moans at midnight, the ukulele sings Huck Finn Blues and Mississippi Tonight and someone paraphrases Joseph Campbell. There are some things that are still sacred, some things that are still spiritual. Cindy and Neal read from their manuscript, speak of bliss, and we float on a raft of Wilder’s words, while another snowfall covers Hill Street.
Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it - every, every minute? … The saints and poets, maybe - they do some.
This tie to people and places is nothing new. We aren’t shocked when a weekend’s symphony of voices deepens our connection to Hannibal. Most days, we feel as though we’re on a road where we’re re-learning something we’ve known all along, something from another lifetime, perhaps. We’re getting there; we keep picking up pieces along the way. We meandered through Masters, Lindsay, and Sandburg to get to Campbell and Twain, to live life through the one-hundred-year-old lens of Wilder, but there is always more, another back road, another by-way, another journey. There is always another adventure, another experience loaded-down, heavy with poetry and art. And on the way home, we always smell our grandparents’ houses; we stare into the rearview mirror, we drive past other versions of ourselves, filled with wanderlust and the stuff of old dreams.
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