More than a half dozen American cities fraudulently tease dollars out of tourist pockets with the merry falsehood they are the “Home of Mark Twain.”
Mark Twain himself would denounce them all as charlatans, swindlers. He’d say they were all wet.
All wet, just like the one true home of Mark Twain.
Yes, the greatest American writer was most at home on the greatest American river. Twain (183-1910) stayed for years in many places, but the Mississippi River was where he truly lived. It’s where he became who he was.
“With any great author, their best work will always center around the place they were most at home,” says Dr. Cindy Lovell, director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Missouri. “And with Mark Twain that place will always be the Mississippi River.”
That’s why self-described Twainiacs are enthused over the news that the first new Mississippi “steamboat” ship built in 20 years, is booking passage for 2012 cruises, with its sold out maiden voyage set for August 11, 2012.
The New Orleans-based Queen of the Mississippi will run excursions as far north as Minneapolis and northeast as Pittsburgh. The 150-passenger ship ($4,000 per person/per seven-day cruise) will mingle the nostalgic (paddlewheel propulsion) with the newfangled (wi-fi, hi-def).
Until then, cruisers seeking an authentic Mississippi riverboat experience the way Twain did might want to consider jetting to a town famous for choo-choos. That would be Chattanooga and the Tennessee River where the now-tethered Delta Queen, one of the last classic American riverboats, is serving as a boutique hotel.
“People enjoy the history of the boat,” says hotel spokesperson Julie Dodson. “It’s very relaxing and unique. We’ve been here since 2009 and it’s been great. But ideally, we’d love to keep her here part of the month and take her out on the river. It’s where she’s meant to be.”
Yes, no matter how novel and splendid the accommodations, there is something unnatural about boats built for rolling on the river being leashed to land.
That’s why the stakes -- and potential rewards for both passengers and owners -- are so high for the Queen of the Mississippi.
“We anticipate the Queen of the Mississippi will be the jewel of the crown,” says Charles Robertson, president of American Cruise Lines that runs 25 excursion ships around the country. “Mark Twain’s part of our American DNA. Anything that hearkens to Twain and the river needs to be done right. That’s what we’re doing with the Queen.
“Each room will have a private balcony. It will be very modern and very quiet. There won’t be gambling and there won’t be 3,000 strangers. It’ll be the difference between going to a country club and a disco. This will be a whole different cruise experience.”
Consider: a typical ocean cruise traverses the planet’s most redundant scenery. Most of the activities -- rock climbing, gambling, line dancing -- are hyper directed inward. What’s outside the ship is irrelevant.
With river cruising, it’s the opposite. The scenery is ever changing. There are cities, locks, bluffs and bridges festooned with waving strangers.
If the river boat runs out of booze, it can pull along the shore and send someone off to the liquor store. If it develops a slow leak, the captain will steer it toward a convenient shallows where passengers can get out and stroll to safety.
None of that’s possible on an ocean liner.
It’s a European attitude Americans are just beginning to re-appreciate, says Carolyn Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic.
“The popularity of river cruising in Europe is really beginning to explode,” she says. “Cruising the ancient rivers that spurred the creation of fantastic cities like Paris, Vienna and Budapest, is a perfect way to get into the heart of Europe and to experience the smaller cities and villages that often create such wonderful memories.”
She says cruising on the East Coast, whether it’s the Chesapeake Bay, the Hudson River or the St. Lawrence Seaway, is a small but thriving enterprise.
That makes the paucity of it along the Mississippi, our greatest river, so glaring.
Cruising the Mississippi is central to understanding Twain, the playful vagabond whose life-long embrace of leisure and relaxation are so indelible it’s fair to consider him our first true American Idle.
“He came back to the river over and over and used it for the setting of his best books,” Lovell says. “He was never more alive than when he was on the river.”
In fact, she says on-river research for the often overlooked classic memoir/travelogue “Life on the Mississippi” from 1883 (said to be the first book written on that oh-so-modern contraption, the typewriter), gave him the impetus to finish another river-based masterpiece, “Huckleberry Finn.”
Like the river he celebrated, our adoration for Twain rolls on.
A U.S. Postal Service Mark Twain stamp began circulating June 25, and Lovell says she anticipates an enthusiastic reception to “Mark Twain: Words & Music,” featuring Clint Eastwood (as the voice of Twain), Jimmy Buffett (as the voice of Huck Finn) and a host of other artistic luminaries including Garrison Keillor, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, and Emmylou Harris. The collection will be released later this summer and available at marktwainmuseum.org and other retail outlets.
None of this would be happening had Twain, by his own admission, stayed where he knew he belonged.
“I’d give up authoring in a minute if I could go back to being a riverboat pilot,” he wrote in the river memoir. “Piloting on the Mississippi River was not work to me; it was play -- delightful play, vigorous play, adventurous play; and I loved it.”
That means the King of Mississippi isn’t Twain.
It’s Capt. Kevin Stier, skipper of the Riverboat Twilight, the only mom ‘n’ pop river cruise still running overnight passenger trips on the mighty Mississip’. He and his wife, Carrie, have been running all aspects of the operation since 2006.
“He was a deck hand and I was a ticket taker when we met,” says Carrie. “We fell in love on the boat and then we fell in love with the boat. Then we bought the boat.”
Now, three times a week, they depart from Le Claire, Iowa, and run 140 passengers 88 miles to Dubuque then back the next morning. The couple have two children, Emily 18, and Jacob, 15, who both serve on board a boat that is basically a river-running B&B.
Passengers depart the boat in Dubuque to stay overnight at the Grand Harbor Resort. They receive passes to the Smithsonian-affiliated National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and are served six on-board meals. Total cost, including accommodations: just $349 per person double occupancy.
For all that, you can almost say you get the best part -- the river -- for free.
“Nothing compares to being out here on the river,” Captain Kevin says. “We pass 600 islands, see eagles, pelicans and pass through parts of this great river where it is five miles wide. I consider myself a lucky man.”
He’d get no argument from Mark Twain.