After eighteen months of waiting along with the rest of the world, we welcomed the tiny door for leisure travel that 2021 presents. We longed for something other than a day trip of hiking or a brief overnight trip within driving distance from home. Judi and I may have been more like Tom Sawyer than Lewis and Clark as we made our way to the river, but the anticipation of boarding a paddleboat on the Ohio and Mississippi created ripples of excitement that washed us right down to the dock where the American Duchess was moored. Demand proof of COVID vaccination. Test us before allowing entry aboard the ship. Require masks onboard if necessary. Just do it already, but let us go! We longed for an adventure that felt like more than a game of hide-and-seek or dodgeball with a ravaging pandemic.
By the time the launch date arrived, vaccination was indeed required but pre-embarkation tests were eliminated, as were masks on the ship itself once we were welcomed aboard. We didn’t actually leave the Midwest, so this was far from being the most exotic vacation we’ve ever taken but it was 9 days of enjoying somewhere other than our home county in Indiana. Sometimes you can’t put a price on a change of scenery, though travel companies have no problem assigning a value to the experience.
The itinerary was full of memorable stops: a tour of Churchill Downs with its storied horse racing history; the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln where even the local radio station’s call letters pay tribute to the late president; and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, among others. One of the most unforgettable proved to be the smallest site of all, at least population wise: a little port named Kimmswick, Missouri.
It had been over one hundred years since a riverboat stopped at Kimmswick. No one ever cited a reason for the long drought between visits, but I’d guess stops at other towns were more appealing. Larger ports mean potentially more attractions for guests.
Like many small towns in the U.S., Kimmswick is looking for a lifeline. Annual festivals for apple butter and strawberries are nice, but an economy won’t thrive on two weekends per year. A steady flow of riverboat guests would offer a mini-boom to local budgets.
On the day of the ship’s arrival to the newly built port area, Kimmswick’s welcome party surprised me. The freshly poured concrete pads that extended to the river’s edge were covered with rows of chairs. A small tent with a sound system was in place. First up was a barber shop quartet, crooning a few harmonized melodies. The local mayor, dressed in tails and a top hat, offered a remarks about what this historic day meant to the town. The ship’s captain joined the festivities, expressing appreciation for the town’s welcoming invitation to his passengers. Even the marching band from the local high school made an appearance. The most surprising thing of all was the steady stream of people who came to the river banks throughout the day just to sit and watch, play, or even picnic while watching the American Duchess floating in their port.
A half a dozen or so really interesting shops with quality local crafts anchor the Kimmswick experience. One of their sculptures caught Judi’s eye and found a place in our suitcase for the ride to a new home in our perennial flower bed. A restaurant with a wait upwards of two hours that day regularly draws patrons from the surrounding area. Apparently its Levee-High Caramel Apple Pecan pie is thatgood! A mastodon skeleton excavated in the area anchors a small archaeological museum. This little town offered several interesting opportunities to fill a day.
As we strolled through the town’s narrow streets, repeatedly we were greeted with smiles and words of welcome by the locals. Every store owner was helpful. Every passerby was pleasant. At one point I became aware of how much I was enjoying the day. As I took stock of the source of that pleasure I said to Judi, “It’s as though everyone here stopped whatever else they were doing just to throw us a welcome party.” I don’t know about you, but I find that a genuine welcome is a game-changer when spending time in someone else’s space. It doesn’t have to be as elaborate as a red-carpet treatment, but given a choice of where to be, somewhere that seems happy about my presence has a greater appeal.
Granted, the good folks of Kimmswick had a lot riding on the success of that day: economic gain, visits from future river boats, local publicity. Pure altruism is wonderful when you can find it, but there is nothing wrong with mutually beneficial transactions. It is certainly far better than one-sided gain or exploitation. This was a win-win situation.
Initially it was slightly humorous to see all the fuss being made about our arrival. For Pete’s sake, we were just a 145 passengers and a crew of about 80. Then again, if we all came ashore, we would double the size of the town for a few hours! Humorous, perhaps, but there was something refreshing, inspiring even, to see an entire group (okay, we didn’t do a nose count to verify that all 150 people were participating!) pulling together to help a project succeed. Their commitment clearly extended beyond the pomp and circumstance of ceremony. This welcome was equally strong at the grassroots level. And why wouldn’t it be? The success and longevity of their community is at stake. This was much more than helping riverboat passengers have a fun time; this was an investment in their own quality of life. The balance that allows a community to thrive can be quite delicate.
I don’t know how it is in your state, but ride through rural Indiana and you can pass any number of roads signs announcing the boundary of a Hoosier community, only to reach the other side and wonder where it was. A dilapidated house or two, an old grain elevator, and maybe an abandoned country store constitute the “town.” They hint that the area once knew a more vibrant time, but at this moment these remains are all that are left; that, and perhaps a handful of memories and stories among a scattered few who once called the area home.
Most of us can acknowledge the usefulness of a community where we belong, prosper, and serve. Creating and maintaining such a place takes effort. That day in Kimmswick we were seeing one important facet of that endeavor, and it was this: Pause and be present to those who come your way. Be welcoming in the exchange; be helpful when you can. Make the guest feel as though they matter – not as part of a ruse to take their money, but because they actually do matter, as we all do. For all the lip service we may give a statement like that, our time for and treatment of others speaks the real truth of the matter.
On those rare occasions when family or friends visit us in exciting Greens Fork, that is the kind of welcome we hope we offer. Drop in unannounced and we’ll stop what we are doing to ask how we can help and invite you sit down for conversation. Let us know in advance that you’re headed our way and we’ll rearrange our schedules to spend time with you—cook you a decent meal, offer you a room for a few nights, and even introduce you to the highlights of the area (Would you believe that the highest point in Indiana is just a few miles from our home? It is marked with a sign because you wouldn’t be able to recognize it otherwise!).
We probably won’t win any prizes for hosting, but neither will we invite you over and then ignore you though perhaps by the end of the evening you’ll wish we would. Greens Fork is one of those places where seldom does someone “just happen to be passing by” so if you’ve made the effort to come our way, the least we can do is honor that effort and be present to you and with you. That is how relationships form and strengthen. It’s part of what creates the kind of community that will sustain you through the best and worst of times.
Somewhere in the quest for pleasure and entertainment, or perhaps in the search for employment and opportunity, we all make decisions about where to settle down – perhaps for a while or possibly for a lifetime. What we may not realize in the moment is that this decision has implications for the community that will surround us and the quality of life that will be within our reach. It is here that we will find some of our best new friends and most intimate circles of support. It doesn’t always happen easily. And it is also here that we have an opportunity to join in an effort larger than ourselves to shape the reception offered to others who pass through our area. For some passersby, the visit may be nothing more than a watering hole stop—an outing for a piece of pie or a tank of gas–but the guests could be your future next door neighbors, or the bearer of ideas and dreams that allow your community to adjust with the times and remain vibrant for years to come. So much can depend on the connections made or not made in those initial moments of encounter.
Riverboats come and go, but communities can survive for decades. Whether they do or not to some degree depends on the quality of the welcome it presents.