All that's great. And anyone who hasn't been in busy, exciting Nauvoo in the summer, really has missed out. But those of us assigned to year round missionary service feel a little sorry for those who haven't seen the "other" Nauvoo: the autumn or spring Nauvoo; or even Nauvoo in the middle of winter.
Nauvoo is a place that deserves several visits in a lifetime, and travelers really ought to think about making some of those trips in the "off season."
Beautiful Autumn and Blossoming Spring
The Mississippi River valley in October is an experience to remember. The autumn colors can be intense, and the clear air, the sunset on the river, the great flocks of migrating geese - it's all perfect for taking pictures. There's also a wonderful sense of peace and ease. If you've visited Nauvoo in summer and experienced the humid Illinois heat, you can imagine the pleasure of walking the old streets in gentle or even crisp temperatures, with all the trees in color.
In the fall, tourist lines disappear. It's easier to make your way through all the historic sites. The missionary tour guides can take time to answer questions or even chat a little - if that's what you would enjoy. Traffic on the highways is quiet and hotels are readily available.
There are some fun surprises that time of year, too. Nauvoo is well known for its "Halloween Walk." It's worth attending just to see Mulholland Street lined with ornately carved jack-o-lanterns, and to share the fun of a small-town celebration. Or what about coming earlier in the month for October conference weekend? Quiet walks, between sessions, make for a truly contemplative time. Many of the missionaries attend a taco dinner fund-raiser right after the Saturday afternoon session. It's a nice event, put on by the Catholic Church, and you'll have a chance to experience one of the interfaith bridges that have been built in Nauvoo.
Fall is a great time of year to stop in at the Land and Records Office, find out where an ancestor lived, and then go searching for the site. You can wander out to Ramus or to the Morley settlement, if that's where your family member lived, and enjoy a country drive when great combines are cutting corn and soybeans. You can search for relatives any time of year, of course, but the fact is, Nauvoo should be savored, not gulped, and fall is a time when it seems natural to take things a little more slowly and gently.
Spring is much the same, as the gold and green colors return to the trees, and the farmers begin to harrow and plant. It's a good time to cross the river and drive the loop through Fort Madison and Keokuk. You can stop at Montrose, where the Saints landed on the shore of the river after the exodus from Nauvoo. There's a spot near Montrose where many of the pioneers stopped on a bluff to take one last look back at their beloved temple. The temple has returned now, and it's just as majestic from the view across the Mississippi. You can stop your car at the same spot those pioneers stopped their wagons, get out in the pleasant spring air, hear the songbirds all around you, and experience what your third or fourth great grandparents must have felt. Chances are you didn't do that when you visited last time. You were in too much of a hurry. This time you can take the time to think about the past, probe your own feelings, and enrich your experience.
Off-season visits offer great opportunities to get to know local people. Folks in Nauvoo wave as you drive by in your car; they stop on the sidewalk to talk; they know how to take time for one another. In summer, with so many in town, that sort of thing is made difficult, but in April or November, the small-town life re-emerges. Your heart might actually slow its pace a beat or two if you find out that not everyone rushes from one thing to another all day long. You also might find it comforting to know that the people who inhabit Nauvoo - the town we love - are people we will also love once we take the chance to get to know them.
Early spring is when the ice breaks up on the Mississippi. Yes, the river does freeze most years, and when it finally cracks and flows, you'll see some of the drama of this great mile-wide river. In fact, a wonderful idea is a drive to the south, with stops in Mark Twain's Hannibal on the Missouri side and historic Quincy on the Illinois side, not to mention other old towns from Mormon history.
On Palm Sunday an interfaith choir sings an Easter Cantata. You'll find Latter-day Saints well represented among the Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Community of Christ members. That's nice to experience - this combining of faiths and voices.
Cold and Memorable
So fall and spring are great, but winter is very cold, with the wind coming off the river. Maybe you're hesitant about that. And yet, anyone who has lived in Nauvoo through a winter knows that to understand the full experience of the early Saints, a winter visit is part of the whole picture. In February the missionaries in Nauvoo commemorate the exodus. Latter-day Saints know the stories of that icy crossing, but to feel it deeply, there's no substitute for being there. Those who join the march only walk about a mile, but it's usually a frigid mile, and being part of the procession, perhaps dressed in pioneer clothes, is a heart-changing experience.
It's not all hardship in winter either. Christmas in Nauvoo is charming, with the historical sites decorated in red ribbons and greenery, with jingling bells on carriage-horse harnesses, and with the little town all fitted up for Christmas. It's a time for live nativities, story-telling in the sites, a mission choir performance, caroling on the temple steps on Christmas Eve, and a wonderful, old-fashioned atmosphere. Americans often complain about what Christmas "has become," but this is chance to be reminded of the simplicity we long for. It's a great time to bring children, out of school for Christmas break, and let them acquire a taste for "Christmas past."
And here's a bonus - something you probably haven't thought of: bald eagles in flight. The birds move downriver in winter to stay ahead of the ice. From December through February, into March, hundreds of eagles gather in the trees. They sweep down to fish when the water is open, or move below the dam at Keokuk, only a few miles from Nauvoo, when the ice is on the river. Other birds gather along the river this time of year, too, so if you're a birder - or you just love the majesty of the eagles - it's an added treat to see them. People travel from many miles to see the birds each year.
These off-season months also offer an excellent time to travel to Springfield to visit the Lincoln museum and library and other Lincoln sites when they are not so busy. Empty nesters can have a wonderful, relaxed time, and families can use long weekends or school breaks to get the most out of a trip.
Symbol for the Saints
Am I romanticizing all this? Cold is cold, after all, and Nauvoo's cold penetrates to the core. In fact, if you happen to visit when a freezing rainstorm has struck, you may not dare to leave your hotel room. And yet . . . some days, as we drive past the temple when it's lighted in the evening, or we glance out across the Mississippi at sundown, or we turn off Partridge Street onto Parley, we say out loud to each other, "We actually live in Nauvoo." It's a privilege for my wife, Kathleen, and I to be missionaries here because Nauvoo is a symbol to all Latter-day Saints. It's the place the Saints had to give up, but what we know is that in surviving those tough, early times, they were refined and strengthened.
They became who we are - or at least who we want to be.
When our church rebuilt the temple, our members said to the world, but especially to ourselves, We haven't forgotten our past. We can return to it, and we can discover in the "City of Joseph" who we were meant to be. And who we can be is represented partly in that ice-covered river and those cold winds off the water.
If winter tells us what the Saints suffered, autumn and spring tell us what they had to give up, and why their hearts were broken. With all that, the temple on the hill tells us what devotion means, both then and now.
It's great fun to visit Nauvoo in summer. Everyone should have that experience. But I recommend the full range of experiences that can only come with return visits at other times. Come see us. Missionaries often have to sit and wait for visitors during the off-season months, but they will welcome you with a full heart if you give them the chance. And you will return home with a heart just as full. What you'll also take home is an understanding you couldn't have gained any other way.