TRAVELS ALONG THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER - APRIL 2007

 

        I usually write about my travel adventures in other countries.  But I have also traveled extensively in the United States.  During my Spring Break from teaching psychology at Whittier College in 2007, I decided to explore three cities along the Mississippi River.   St. Louis, Missouri, became the Gateway to the West when the Louisiana Territory was purchased from the French.  Hannibal, Missouri, was the childhood home of Samuel Clemens, who used the penname Mark Twain to write about his experiences in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other books.  Memphis, Tennessee, was the birthplace of Rock ‘N Roll out of a fusion of White Country Music and African American Rhythm and Blues.  I visited many museums, pubs with live music, and dance clubs as I usually do when I travel. Here are some of the things that I experienced and learned. 

 

GATEWAY TO THE WEST

        In St. Louis, there is a 630-foot high Gateway Arch which symbolizes St. Louis as the Gateway to the West.  It was built for the Centennial Celebration of the Louisiana Purchase.  On Sunday April 1, I rode in a small five seat elevator car to the top of the arch for a spectacular view of the city.  At the base of the arch, underground, is the Museum of Westward Expansion which tells about the Louisiana Purchase and has artifacts such as a covered wagon and a Native American teepee.

        The Mississippi River was important for transporting goods to the port of New Orleans.  After the French lost the French and Indian War (called the Seven Years War in Europe), the British gained control of Canada (which contained a French Colony now known as Quebec) and the Spanish gained control of New Orleans and decided to block use of the port by the Americans. 

        Napoleon regained control of New Orleans in a treaty with Spain, and U.S. President Thomas Jefferson sent envoys to negotiate purchase of the city for ten million dollars.  Facing losses in the Caribbean and wanting to build ships to fight England, Napoleon offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory drained by the Mississippi River for fifteen million dollars.  It was agreed to in 1804.

        The Louisiana Purchase doubled the area controlled by the United States and furthered the notion of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was destined to extend from coat to coast.  St. Louis was the starting point of The Lewis and Clark Expedition, commission by Thomas Jefferson to explore the Pacific Northwest. 

            Lewis and Clark were looking for a Northwest Passage, a waterway to the west. They traversed many rivers and saw the mighty Columbia River leading to the Pacific Ocean, but found that there was no navigatable river the entire route.  Nonetheless, their discoveries inspired many others to travel west, including wagon trains leaving from Independence, Missouri on the Oregon Trail and also on the Mormon Trail to Utah.

        Later, the Eads Bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis provided a rail link between trains from the East and trains going West. Near the Arch is a Gateway Riverboat on which I took a cruise up and down the Mississippi.  It went under the Eads Bridge and told about the importance of steamboats in the past and barges today.

        A few blocks north of the Gateway Arch is Laclede’s Landing, a waterfront area where French explorers first landed.  The old warehouses now contain restaurants, pubs, and dance clubs.  On Saturday night, after flying from Los Angeles and checking into my hotel, I had gone to Hannegans where I ate Irish stew and listened to jazz played on a keyboard that was sitting on top of a piano!  At Big Bang I heard dueling pianos play popular songs as the crowd sang along.  At Club Duca I had a great time dancing from 10:30 PM to 2:30 AM, which my body felt was only 12:30 AM Los Angeles time.  When an announcer said that the club was closing, he called attention to me and noted that I had danced the entire time!

        I then walked four blocks back to my hotel.  When I travel I always try to find lodging near dance clubs so I have a short walk back late at night.  I often stay in hostels, which are cheaper and have kitchens and lounges where it is easy to meet people, but I couldn’t find any hostels on this trip.

        Unfortunately, Club Duca was closed on Sunday night so that night I took the Metrolink Light Rail to Washington University St. Louis and answered my email in the library.  Afterward I read for awhile at the hotel and went to bed early to be rested for driving the next day.

 

CHILDHOOD HOME OF MARK TWAIN

        Monday morning, I rented a car and drove 120 miles north to Hannibal.  I visited the childhood home of Mark Twain (Sam Clemens), the Interpretive Center next door, and a reconstruction of the home of Tom Blankenship (the basis for Huck Finn) behind the Clemens house.  Across the street I saw the home of his girlfriend (the basis for Becky Thatcher), the law office of his father (the basis for Judge Thatcher), and Grant’s pharmacy.  Down the street was the Museum Gallery which had life-size scenes from several of his books, including the fence that Tom Sawyer talked others into whitewashing for a fee.

        Sam Clemens’ family moved to Hannibal when he was four.  His father, who had been an unsuccessful farmer elsewhere before becoming Justice of the Peace in Hannibal, died when he was 11.  Sam became a printer’s apprentice in St. Louis at age 12, then returned to Hannibal at age 16 to work for his brother’s newspaper which failed. At 18 he worked for other newspapers in other cities, then returned to Missouri at age 22 to become a riverboat pilot.  His penname Mark Twain was what river men called out when the river depth was two fathoms, 12 feet, which was safe for boat passage along the shifting depths of the river.

        When his brother was appointed secretary to the territorial governor of Nevada, Sam rode a stagecoach west (the basis for his book Roughing It), and briefly became an unsuccessful miner.  He became a journalist in Virginia City, then San Francisco, and traveled to Hawaii, then by steamboat to Europe and the Middle East (the basis for Innocents Abroad).  He subsequently wrote Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s’ Court, and other books. 

         He used humor and satire to talk about human foibles, and said many wonderful quotes.   Haley’s Comet was in the sky the year he was born, and he said that he came in with Haley’s Comet and would go out with Haley’s Comet, which was true when he died at age 75. 

        His most popular book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has been assigned reading in many schools.  It deals with his personal struggle and the country’s struggle with slavery.  It created controversy when it was written, since it contained the coarse language that was commonly spoken, and it is still controversial because it uses racial terms.

        I drove a mile out of town and took a tour of Mark Twain Cave, which inspired the episode of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher being lost in a cave.  It was once a hideout of the famous outlaw Jesse James, whose name is written in the cave along with the names of thousands of others in the 1800s.

        I often look for signs in pub windows that say “live music” but the one pub in town with such a sign was quiet.  Having nothing else to do in the town, I went to an early evening movie which was the only one showing, then read a while and went to bed early.

        In the morning it was raining heavily when I went to the motel office for the free continental breakfast.  The TV there was broadcasting a warning of a severe storm, with car-damaging hail and 60 mile per hour winds, that was heading for St. Louis with danger of highway flooding.  I decided to stay in my motel room and read for two hours until the storm had passed before driving back to St. Louis.

 

MORE INTERESTING MUSEUMS IN ST. LOUIS

        After returning the rental car and dropping off my suitcase at the hotel I had stayed in before, I took the Metrolink to Forrest Park to see the Missouri History Museum.  It depicted the role of people from Missouri in important U.S. historical events, including Lindberg who was the first to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean.  It also had an exhibit on the Centennial Celebration, better known as the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.  American Indians, Filipinos, and others from the Far East and South America were invited to participate as “living displays.”  Reflecting the racism of the time, they were viewed as “primitives” as part of the Fair’s goal of showing the superiority of industrial civilization.

        I took the Metrolink to explore Union Station, a massive building which used to be a railway station and which now is a mall with shops and restaurants.  I had bought a weekly Metrolink pass when I first arrived at the St. Louis airport, so it was convenient to hop on the Metrolink to get around the city. 

        I then took the Metrolink to the Busch Stadium stop, where the Cardinals were playing the first baseball game of the season.  There were thousands of people there and all over the city wearing red Cardinals jackets. I walked around the stadium to get to the Blues clubs.  I listened to one group at the Broadway Oyster Bar, but left when a guy at a nearby table started smoking a cigar.  I really enjoyed listening to another group at BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups.

        The next day I took a bus to see the Black World History Museum.  It had a small replica of the hold of a slave ship which depicted the conditions in which slaves were transported from Africa to the New world.  The were chained together and locked in to prevent their jumping overboard.  Many died of disease in the crowded conditions. Other exhibits showcased the role of African American leaders, including the development of African American churches which were important in organizing protests and demonstrations for Civil Rights.

        I took the Metrolink back downtown to see the City Museum.  It is an extremely creative place made from recyclable materials.  It has tunnels made of plastic or iron rings through which kids can crawl, as well as slides, ramps, caves, a bank vault, and other things to explore.  It also has an aquarium where kids can see and touch sea animals.  The kids there were having a wonderful time.

        I took the Metrolink back to Forrest Park, and walked a mile from the Missouri History Museum to the St. Louis Art Museum enduring a very cold wind, not realizing that a city bus went through the park until I got to the Art Museum.  The temperature had dropped from 75 degrees on Sunday to 35 degrees after the storm.  I was very impressed with the Art Museum.  Instead of having hundreds of paintings which can overwhelm, it had about six paintings or objects in each room together with a sign explaining the style of art illustrated in that room.  It included art from Europe, Africa, Meso-America, Native Americans, China, Oceana, and Egypt.

        That evening I went back to Washington University St. Louis to answer email, then read a book and went to bed early since the dance club was still closed.

        Thursday morning I walked to the Old Courthouse behind the Gateway Arch. It was the location of the Dred Scott case, which was explained in an exhibit there. Dred Scott was a slave who was owned by a military officer, who took him to Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory.  In both of those locations slavery was illegal, while it was legal in Missouri.  Several slaves who had lived in slavery-free states had successfully sued in Missouri claiming that they should be freed since they had lived in a state where slavery was outlawed.  In the 1840s the Missouri Supreme Court supported their claims.  But there was a change in the justices, so when Dred Scott sued in the 1850s, his claim was denied.  He appealed to the US Supreme Court, and Chief Justice Taney not only denied his claim again, but argued that slavery could not be banned anywhere in the US.  This enraged many people and was one of the factors leading up to the Civil War.

        The Old Courthouse also had a timeline of St. Louis history, as well as an exhibition on repressions of Civil Rights during wartime.  It talked about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, with which I was familiar. One of my colleagues had been in one of the camps as a child.  It also said that local governments restricted the rights of German Americans during World War I, which I had not heard about.  I walked back to the hotel for my suitcase, took the Metrolink to the airport, and flew to Memphis.

 

MUSIC IN MEMPHIS

        I had planned to take the shuttle from the airport to my hotel, but after waiting a few minutes at the shuttle stop I called the phone number and was told that the shuttle service had been discontinued.  Fortunately there was a bus stop for a city bus which came a few minutes later.  After an hour-long ride around the city I arrived at the Northern Terminal, where I caught the Mainstreet Trolley south to Union Avenue, two blocks from my hotel.

        After checking in, I walked south four blocks to Beale Street. Along the way I had dinner at the Flying Fish restaurant which had large servings of great food at reasonable prices.  Beale Street has about dozen places with live music of various kinds.  I listened to groups at Silky O’Sullivans, Blues Hall Juke Joint (the best blues music), Pig on Beale (BBQ “Pork with an attitude”), BB Kings (where a few of us got up and danced), and Club 152 (where I danced for several hours to a DJ and a live band).

        Friday morning I had breakfast at Renee’s Sandwich Shop on Main Street, then took the trolley down to the National Civil Rights Museum.  It is located in the former motel where Martin Luther King was shot in 1968.  He had come to Memphis to support striking Sanitation Workers who wanted better wages and safer working conditions.  The museum documents the struggle for civil rights, including the slave uprising led by Nat Turner, the establishment of organizations such as the NAACP, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregated schools, the Montgomery bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks in 1955, the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1961, and other major events leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

        I had lunch at the Gibson Guitar Factory, then spent the afternoon at the Rock N Soul Museum near Beale Street.  It documents the major figures in the history of Rock ‘N Roll and in Soul music.  Throughout the museum are juke boxes from various eras where you can listen to music on headphones as part of the self-paced audio tour.   I had previously visited a similar museum in Nashville, Tennessee, and had audited a course on the History of Popular Music taught by a colleague of mine, so much of the material was familiar to me. 

        I dropped my daypack off at my hotel, then had a wonderful crepe at Crepemaker on Third Street on my way back to Beale Street.  I went back to Pig on Beale, and Blues Hall, and listened to new groups at King’s Palace and Rum Boogie.  I really liked the group at Rum Boogie and would have stayed longer, but the person next to me lit up a cigar and I couldn’t stand the smoke.  In California, it is illegal to smoke in bars and restaurants.  The bar owners fought the ban since many of their customers like to smoke, but after the ban their business increased.

        By then people were dancing at Club 152 so I stayed there and danced for several hours.  I again had a great time. 

 

THE KING OF ROCK ‘N ROLL

        Saturday morning I went back to Crepemaker for breakfast, and walked to the Rock ‘N Soul Museum to catch a free shuttle to Graceland.  There was a freezing cold wind so I stepped into a nearby hotel lobby while waiting for the shuttle to arrive.  It was being remodeled but I explained that I was just waiting out of the cold.  Everywhere I went on this trip people were friendly and nice.

        Graceland was the home of Elvis Presley and is still owned by his family but used as a popular tourist attraction.  My Let’s Go USA guidebook describes it as the “tackiest mansion in the US” but my wife insisted that I had to see it.  I learned a lot more about his life.  Elvis grew up in a poor family, and heard African American blues and Gospel as well as White Country music growing up.  At that time African Americans were not allowed in White music venues and Whites were not allowed in African American music venues.  But phonographs, and then radio, allowed each group to hear the other’s music.

        Sam Phillips wanted to market African American music to a White audience, and was looking for a White singer who could sing African American music.  When a truck driver named Elvis recorded some songs in his studio, combining African American and White music styles, he found a singer who could pull it off.  Elvis quickly soon became a star at age 18 and by 22 he was very rich and had purchased Graceland.  He started making movies in Hollywood, was drafted into the army, then returned to make many more movies.  Meanwhile, the Beatles took America by storm in 1964.  Elvis made a comeback in 1968 by singing in Las Vegas.  He was divorced in 1972 and by 1975 he was overweight and had been abusing prescription drugs.  He died in 1977 at age 42 from an overdose of drugs at a weight of 350 pounds.  Fame and fortune do not necessarily make you happy.

        I toured the mansion and his gravesite, then saw additional exhibits across the road.  One contained many cars that he had owned, including his famous pink Cadillac, and some of the golf carts that he liked to ride around his property.  Another had dozens of his white jumpsuits with sequins that he performed in at Las Vegas.  There also was his private jet with gold lavatory faucettes, and a smaller plane for short trips. 

        Most interesting, however, was a new exhibit called “Elvis at Night.”  It noted that he was an insomniac and preferred to give his concerts and make recordings at night.  Taking pills to help him sleep or stay awake is reportedly what led to his abuse of prescription medications.  When he went anywhere he was mobbed by fans, so he used to go shopping or attend movies late at night after stores and theaters were closed, by asking the owners to open for him.  In the exhibit he is quoted as saying “The world is more alive at night. It’s like God ain’t lookin’.”

        The free shuttle was provided by Sun Studio, which was a stop on the way back to downtown.  Sun Studio is where Sam Phillips first recorded Elvis and many other stars including Johnny Cash.   On display were various recording devices, including portable ones that Sam took to record music “anywhere.”  When the shuttle reached downtown, I took a city bus for a long ride out to Staxx Studio, famous for recording many rhythm and blues artists.  By the time I got there I only had half an hour to race through the exhibits before it closed. 

        When I got back downtown I returned to the Flying Fish for another great meal, then went back to my hotel to rest.  I was planning to go back to Beale Street later that evening, but was exhausted and went to sleep.  The week had caught up with me!  The next day I had a to take an expensive taxi to the airport since the city bus did not go there on Sundays.  I had a pleasant flight back to Los Angeles, and began teaching again the next day, with greater appreciation of the history and people of Missouri and Tennessee.