Finding a Soulmate on the New Madrid Fault

I met a great lady last week. The Grandest of Grande Dames. Her name is Dorothy Cramer, "Cramer with a C," if you please. Dorothy is the docent at the New Madrid Historical Museum, but to me she is much more than that. I think I found my soulmate and rediscovered a connection with the spirit of my long lost maternal Granny. It all began with serendipity and an urge to take the quintessential road not taken.

A detour off the Avenue of the Saints, just inside the Missouri State Line, offered the necessary psychic pull. I had just returned from a two week trip to Rwanda and was on the road driving for five days. Under that kind of travel stress even a three-mile detour can seem like too much, but two factors intervened to make me take that exit. One, I have always been fascinated by the story of the New Madrid earthquake, and two, after what has happened in Nepal, earthquakes are front and center in my cerebral cortex. Memory and perceptual awareness dwell there in tandem.

Dorothy Cramer "with a C" (Photo: Nienaber)

How wonderful that a road aptly named the "Avenue of the Saints" led me to the New Madrid Historical Museum and Dorothy. For those unfamiliar with the blue highways of the Midwest, the Avenue of the Saints is a 563-mile ribbon of asphalt and concrete that connects St. Paul, Minnesota with St. Louis, Missouri. Along the way travelers will encounter the birthplace of Mark Twain in Hannibal, the colorfully named "Lewis and Clark County Line" and the Daniel Boone Bridge crossing at the mighty Missouri River.

New Madrid looks like the town that time forgot. In a good way. It looks, so Midwestern. The city center oozes history and a certain comfort in knowing that some things remain the same. The Midwest is like that, and travelers encounter people who embody the meaning behind the phrase "salt of the earth." Life can be simple there--unpretentious.

Photo: Nienaber

My first stop was at the levee and the historical marker that delineated the fault line of the 1811-1812 series of quakes. 2000 tremors rocked the area in five months, and five of those were 8.0 or more in magnitude. The Mississippi River reversed course, and church bells rang on the eastern seaboard due to the massive movement of the earth. The New Madrid Museum that Dorothy reigns over documents the event and much more; including seismograph recording of continuing activity.

Dorothy was alone in the little museum when I walked in the door. I introduced myself as a traveling photojournalist. "Five dollars and take as many photos as you want. I have two movies I can show you also." Signing the guest book was a priority with Dorothy, and she made certain I did so before turning me loose in the exhibit area.

I politely demurred on the movies and went on my way, exploring the mysterious rooms and artifacts; including many relics from the Civil War.

Most interesting was a truly "petrified" snake, forever preserved in a defensive strike position. It has been dated to the time of the quake and speculation remains whether it was coiled and ready to strike because of the foreshocks of the earthquake. Either way, the snake is oddly preserved behind its Plexiglas exhibit space, and whether petrified by time or primitive reptile emotion is all in the mind of the beholder.

Tecumseh's Comet made an appearance during the quake cycle, and was visible for seventeen months. With an orbit spanning 3,065 years, it was last seen during the reign of Ramses II. Whether serendipity or omen, the advent of the comet invites even more pondering than a petrified snake.

Photo: Nienaber

Dorothy was waiting for me as I rounded the corner near the seismographic exhibit space. "In 2102 we might have dodged a big one." She pointed to a chart on the wall that indeed indicated that experts picked that year as part of an "earthquake cycle."

Yeah, Dorothy knows everything there is to know about earthquakes and keeps tabs on even minor tremors. "There was a 3.3 a few days ago. The local paper prints the events."

We were bonding over seismology. I liked her. She liked me. Her spirit enveloped me like a comforting blanket, and I searched for a reason to linger.

"You from here?" I asked.

"Now, yes, but I was born in St. Louis and lived in New Orleans."

The Mississippi runs in Dorothy's blood. I told her that I also had a "pull" to the river, but nothing I could pin it on.

"Well, just remember Cramer with a C. People can't find me in the phone book if they use a K. My maiden name was Baker, everyone could spell that---well except for one teacher who asked me how to spell Baker."

And so the conversation rambled from this to that in a simple, easy flow. Dorothy reminded me of the Grandmother I wished I still had, but I am too old to have a living Grandmother. I wanted to sit at her knee and have her tell me stories forever.

I wanted to experience an earthquake with her.

My real Granny still visits in dreams, often speaking to me that she is watching over me. Granny once saved my life. I sensed her presence in Dorothy and that feeling offered great comfort to a traveler alone on the road.

Dorothy said she hoped I would come back when she noticed me getting fidgety about hitting the road. I shook her hand and sincerely said, "I am so happy to have met you."

Dorothy beamed. "I am happy to have met you too," she said. "You are a kind lady." "A very nice lady."

My turn to beam. No one ever called me a lady before. And, I am not always kind.

"You are the best, Dorothy. A great lady."

With that, she blew me a kiss as I went out the door.

I will return, but for now Dorothy will inhabit memory; especially on this coming Mother's Day.