Highpoints: Literary, Ecclesiastical and Geographic
Hannibal, MO; Nauvoo, IL; & Hawkeye Point, IA
June 1, 2014
Ecumenical rainbow over the Catholic Church & Mormon Temple in Nauvoo IL
Highpointing is a mixed passion – part road tripping and part alpinism. The spring found us itching for a road trip, and we headed north and west to finish off the highpoints in the upper Midwest – Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. These are big, and largely flat states, and the peculiarities of physical geography ensure the highpoints are typically either as far to the northwest as possible (Iowa and Illinois), or as close to the Great Lakes as possible (Minnesota and Michigan). Wisconsin is an anomaly, as the highpoint is detritus from the terminal moraine of the last ice age – a big pile of dirt left 10,000 years ago right in the middle of the state.
Getting to these places means a lot of windshield time from Nashville, but also allows a little sightseeing along the way, and a chance to get a couple of cultural highpoints as well as the geographic ones.
First stop was Hannibal MO – childhood home of Samuel LanghorneClemens (Mark Twain) – and the setting for two of the best American novels ever, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I grew up on a river, and vastly enjoyed the adventures of Clemens’ characters – and couldn’t miss the chance to stop and see if my imagination squared with reality. The town has preserved some of honky-tonk that I would have imagined, and some of the important original structures are still intact. Martha was invited to help paint a fence by some kid in a straw hat, but balked when the kid suggested paying for the opportunity.
Martha lends a hand in Hannibal
Original structures and stories still intact
Up River to Nauvoo
There are certain places on earth were the stars align to create great religious fervor – such places as Istanbul (Constantinople), and Jerusalem come to mind. On a more approachable level, La Salette Shrine in on Lake Mascoma was first home to a Shaker Colony, and then a group of Catholic Monks. For some reason these spots draw the religious passions from all comers – often with violent and cataclysmic outcomes. For no immediately apparent reason – such a place is Nauvoo Illinois, home to 9 churches and at least two distinct utopian religious/social experiments.
Afternoon on the Mississippi near Nauvoo
Nauvoo is a town of 1,200 souls, lying on a big bend in the Mississippi River atop a spectacular set of bluffs. The town dates back to the Sauk and Fox Indians, and was originally named Quashquema in honor of one of their Chiefs. It became the home to the Mormons fleeing Missouri, and was renamed Nauvoo (beautiful place, in Hebrew) by Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. By 1844, Smith was mayor of Nauvoo, leader of the Church, and increasingly powerful and controversial in the state. Nauvoo at this point had over 12,000 people, and was equal in size to Chicago. The town had its own militia, and was increasingly drawn into controversy regarding polygamy and related issues with the Church.
A double rainbow favors the Mormon Temple
Joseph and his brother Hyrum were murdered after being imprisoned in the local jail in 1844, and the remaining Mormons left en masse for what proved to be a permanent home in Utah.
Detail from the Mormon Temple in Nauvoo
They were followed shortly thereafter by the Icarians, a French-based socialist utopian group led by the novelist Étienne Cabet. The Icarians were a mixed of hard core communists – complete with the role of elected despot played by Cabet – and free form hippies living in communal bliss. Like all of these experiments, the Icarians ultimately succumbed to the human need to control property and have families, and the movement failed by 1860, with Cabet leading a remnant group to a colony in Iowa that survived until 1890.
Statues of the Smith Brothers
Martha shares a contemplative moment with the Smith Brothers
The hole left by the departing Icarians was, in turn, filled by a Catholic order on Nuns, which continues to this day – Catholicism remains the largest religious group in Nauvoo, with a very active parish and school. Groups of Mormons began to return in the 1950’s to rebuild their Temple, and celebrate the heritage that the town entails. Visiting Nauvoo today is today an overwhelmingly religious experience – lots of religion, very few people.
Off to Hawkeye Point
We sailed out of Nauvoo filled with vaguely conflicting religious messages (and a great breakfast from Papa John’s Pantry) – headed for Hawkeye Point. I had hoped to listen to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, recently inspired by our visit to Hannibal, but instead was tortured by Martha with a Pandora station seemingly dedicated to endless replay of The Gypsy Rover by the Seekers – I simply can’t imagine what I did to upset her so. Iowa is home to Martha’s paternal family, and was therefore a bit of a nostalgic voyage as we crossed the great corn belt. The past was blasted into the future, with a brief Sunday morning visit to Riverside, which optimistically bills itself as the future home of Capt. James T. Kirk.
Martha prepares to join Capt. Kirk, a future native of Riverside Iowa
The peculiarities of geography in this part of the world produce the greatest number of tornadoes on earth, and the storms are something of a passion for these folks. We were treated to a day of driving through these storms, testing the efficiency of our windshield wipers. This state is not geologist friendly – we drove all day and I did not see a single piece of rock in situ. Trying to understand the geology here is kind of like trying to see into the bottom of hot chocolate – all you see is dark brown.
Preparing for the coming storm in Iowa
About to get wet
The Hawkeye Point (1,670 ft.) is the highest bit of dirt in Iowa, in the extreme NW corner of the state, just a few miles south of the Minnesota border. These folks don’t have much high ground, and they seem to exalt in what little they’ve got. The highpoint is just off route 60, on a farm owned, until recently, by the Sterler family which they generously donated to Osceola county, to build a permanent monument to Iowa’s highpoint. The site includes an old silo, which the county plans to convert into an observation platform.
One of a series of markers near the summit
Tomorrow is a trip across Minnesota, and the fond hope of addressing a highpoint that requires leaving the automobile.
Adios, From Hawkeye Point