Saturday, December 19, 2009

Progress Report: Frugality in New Orleans

Saturday, December 19, 2009

This morning bright light came through a gap in the opaque curtains at the no-tell motel in New Orleans. The light was blue on the top and white underneath. Like the colors of the fleur-de-lis flag of the ancien regime. The blue was the sky, of course, and the white was a high fence that formed a barrier between the motel parking lot and the expressway entrance ramp just beyond. Atop the fence, every ten feet or so, were bright holiday decorations—inflatable Santas, snowmen, reindeer, Mary, Joseph.

After clearing out of the room I drove around a bit looking for long-term parking. I almost parked in the airport lot, but thought better of it and went across the street to the Hilton where, as it turns out, I will save about fifty percent for my two weeks of parking. This quest for the bargain drives me at some subconscious level, instilled by my parents or bred into me from both sides, depending on whether you like nurture or nature as the prime mover of human behavior. Of course it doesn’t always work out, as the peeling wallpaper, wobbling toilet, and washcloth-sized bath towels of last night’s bargain hunt reminded me once again this morning.

Now I’m in the gentle wi-fi environs of the airport itself, killing time until check-in, drinking that dark roast coffee everybody but me seems to prefer, and enjoying the comparative luxury of a strong internet connection signal. The Sprint card is great, but it’s slow. I really shouldn’t complain; the card is being paid for by one of Laurine’s former employers, and they haven’t gotten around to taking it away, or canceling it, or whatever happens. Talk about a bargain! It would cost sixty or seventy bucks a month, and I’d pay it for sure to have the internet on the road. No equivalent of a cheap motel there unless I want to drag my ass into restaurants and libraries all the time.

My fear of flying kept me out of airports long enough that I’m not tired of them yet. People love to complain, and frequent flyers like Laurine are probably entitled to do so (though she doesn’t, by nature), but I still get a kick out of the whole experience, especially when the Xanax starts to work. They're clean and spacious, for the most part, and the people are upbeat and on the move. And after all these weeks of inching along a stride at a time, I’m in awe of the speed at which the same distance can be covered through the air.

Though I visited Louisiana a few times years ago, I feel that most of its mysteries await me. The drive down last evening hinted at them--a welcome sign in English and French (just a gimmick, I’m sure, but cool anyway); parishes instead of counties; long stretches of swampy nothing under causeways; and a perceptible uptick in attitude on the part of the locals, conveying their confidence that they’re somewhere with more going for it than perverse pride in having lost a war. I can’t help contrasting that in my mind to the toxically nostalgic mentality of much of the rest of the south. It remains to be seen whether these impressions will stand up to the light of day.

Until then, good holidays to you.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Day 62: Church of the Good Sport

Norfield to Magnolia. 18.7 miles/1091.7 total

Friday, December 18, 2009

I'm on Mt. Pleasant Road off of Highway 51, a few miles south of the village of Norfield, heading down through Summit and McComb and finally to Magnolia.

It’s in the high 40s and completely overcast, with rain predicted. It’s dry at the moment. I was disappointed that they changed the earlier forecast for sunshine today. Something to do with the economy, probably. The weather people have decided that we should all be equally miserable. Actually I don’t mind if I get wet today. My shoes will have two weeks to dry in the motor home.

Today is my last full day of walking in Mississippi. The next walk will be about half in Mississippi and half in Louisiana. So it’s appropriate that this penultimate stroll in the Magnolia State should end in the town of Magnolia.

As some of you who follow have probably noticed, the Mapquest or Google mileage doesn’t exactly correlate with the mileage I’ve racked up so far. Mapquest said it was 1095 miles from Cedar Springs to New Orleans, but I will have gone almost that far after today and I’ll still have at least a hundred more miles to New Orleans. That’s because I take more twists and turns than Mapquest does. I can see now that it was unrealistic to think I might make it to New Orleans before Christmas. And this realization is liberating. I no longer care when I reach anywhere on this walk, except in the most vague and general way.

I pass a small herd of fat goats being zealously guarded by a couple of sheep dogs. One of them comes up to follow me and warn me away as I walk past the property. Just doing his job. When I briefly worked for the post office, I was issued a can of pepper spray to be used on attacking dogs. That’s because postmen have to invade dogs’ territories. It’s a simple thing, really. When I’m out here walking and a dog comes up to bark at me I usually just put my head down and keep going. Invariably (so far, at least) the dogs continue to make noise until I get to the edge of their territory, then turn back, satisfied that they’ve done their jobs, as this sheep dog does. But if I were to go down the driveway toward the goat pen, that would be a different story. I'd be asking for trouble. No doubt this shaggy guy is congratulating himself on having prevented me from killing a goat or two.

At a mile and a half I leave Lincoln County and enter Pike County, named for Zebulon Pike, the explorer, after whom Pike’s Peak was named. There’s a Pike County in Alabama, too. Hell, the country is probably full of Pike Counties.

After about an hour I go past the New Life Apostolic Church, where the motor home will sit for two weeks when I’m finished today. They have a nice large bus that says “Jesus Saves” on the back. People around here are really obsessed with Jesus’s habits of frugality.

In fairly quick succession this morning I’ve seen three dead dogs on the road. Not strays. They let their dogs run loose down here, and the results are pretty predictable.

Next is Summit, a town of about 1,400. This place started as a railroad town in the 1850s. It got its name from the fact that they thought it was the highest point on the Illinois Central between New Orleans and Jackson. But it turns out that point is really Brookhaven, where I was yesterday. So it was all a mistake.

There’s a historical marker in Summit about the Peabody School. Founded in 1868, it was the first public school in southern Mississippi. Started with money from the Peabody Fund. Wow. Shows you how benighted they were down here. No public schools until after the Civil War, and an outsider--a New England Yankee, at that--had to put up the money. For all their whining about outsiders, southerners have really benefited from the north. Education money from a Massachusetts philanthropist. Mechanization of agriculture by a guy from Connecticut. Rural electrification by a president from New York. They really did damn little for themselves before the middle of the 20th century except to oppress people and wallow in hatred and self pity.

I enter McComb, which calls itself a “certified retirement city.” I’m not sure I even want to know what that means. McComb is a city of about 13,000 that was started as a railroad town, like Summit. It’s the largest city in Pike County, but is not the county seat. That's Magnolia. It was in a swamp near McComb that two members of Lynyrd Skynyrd were killed in a plane crash, along with a couple of other people. It brings to mind the words of Warren Zevon:

Sweet Home Alabama,
Play that dead band’s song.
Turn the volume up full blast
Play it all night long.

Highway 51 takes a few twists and turns through decreasingly wealthy residential neighborhoods before it straightens out and goes down into the center of the city.

I pass the Episcopal Church of the Mediator. I saw another Church of the Mediator back up in Michigan. It makes me think of the amusing array of epithets Christians have for Jesus, all in addition to his already rather elaborate name of Jesus H. Christ Almighty. There’s the Son of God, of course, and the Redeemer and the Savior and the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But also the Mediator, the Prince of Peace, the Redeemer, the Comforter, the Good Shepherd. And on it goes. But you know, these names lack modernity. They evoke a bygone age of absolute monarchs and sheep and all that. We need some new ones that fit better with our democratic, urban, and less formal era. I call on the Episcopalians and maybe the Methodists to come up with some new names for Jesus. Let me suggest a few: the Dog Lover, the Joke Teller, the Good Sport, the Consensus Builder, the People Person, the Good Tipper, the Dude Who Abides.

Downtown McComb is about what you’d expect. Half of the buildings are in use, but of course all the real money-making concerns are out by the expressway. Still the churches are open for business. The J.J. White Memorial Presbyterian Church is another example of what I think is Moorish revival architecture. Turreted roofs and tower, levantine pointed window arches. Nice.

I'm out of McComb, south of Highway 98. Still no rain. In fact, the clouds have dispersed and the sun is shining brightly. I visit a little antique/junk store and buy a couple of pocket knives.

The next community I come to is Magnolia--or Historic Magnolia, as it is known. Shortly after the first sign, a second one again welcomes me. It says the town was chartered in 1856. Ansel Prewitt, local cotton farmer, started Magnolia as a railroad town. I pass a water tower that says Historic Magnolia. Then another water tower that says the same thing. Then yet another sign welcoming me to Historic Magnolia. But this one says it was founded in 1821. So there was something here before Ansel Prewitt did his thing. But so far the history of Magnolia is a mystery to me. Of course just about any town could claim to be historic. Historic Clawson, Historic Cedar Springs, Historic Stillwater. A town that can’t dredge up a bit of history for itself is a poor one indeed.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Day 61: Flarp!

Brookhaven to Norfield. 19.5 miles/1072.9 total

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I’m just inside Brookhaven, headed down through that city and a couple of small towns to my destination a few miles south of Norfield. Cloudy, temperature in the mid-40s. They predict rain for this afternoon .

I’ll be going right through the center of Brookhaven, which has a population of just under 10,000 and is the county seat of Lincoln County. The city was named for Brookhaven, New York by its founder, Samuel Jayne, in 1818.

This morning I awoke to discover that I’d run out of propane during the night. No propane means no heat, no hot water, and no stove. The stove I can do without, and use the microwave, but the heat and hot water are things I like to have first thing in the morning so I can take a warm shower. I just don’t feel human without that shower, and it’s nice to step out of the shower into a warm place. Overnight I can stay warm without the heat, at least in this climate, where it rarely gets below freezing. Finding propane will be job one at the end of this day, which I hope will be at about 4:00 p.m. The last time I filled the 25-gallon tank was up in Salem, Illinois, home town of William Jennings Bryan. So I can’t complain that the motor home uses too much propane.

Highway 51 widens from two lanes into five here in the northern outskirts of Brookhaven. Next to a little shack called Dude’s Hot Biscuits they’re selling Louisiana navel oranges from a stand. I turn left onto Union Avenue. It’s good to be in a bustling little city. I find walking through cities so much more diverting than walking through the country, at least so far. There’s so much more country than there is city that it gets a little tiresome.

Union is a narrow, paved, sidewalkless street of little brick ranch houses that give way, after the railroad tracks, to some larger and older frame houses with porches. They’re not necessarily nicer, just larger. Union has turned into Church Street, and I turn left onto Monticello. Downtown the old Brookhaven train station is still intact and being used as a train station, unlike most of its kind. Streets with downtown shops face the train station from both sides.

Down at the end of the park next to the train station there’s a historical marker and a little manger scene of white metal figures ringed with Christmas lights. Some wise men, too. If this is municipal property, Brookhaven is showing a disregard for the separation of church and state. I suppose that’s par for the course down here. But God knows there are enough churches that could put religious stuff up in their front yards that they don’t need to do it in the town parks.

There’s a bust of J.W. McGrath, 1861-1922, some kind of muckety-muck here in Brookhaven. Down from there is an old log cabin, the Foster Smith Cabin, circa 1820. At the far end of this little linear park along the tracks there’s another historical marker, which commemorates the Brookhaven Light Artillery, also known as Hoskins’s Battery. It saw action in numerous Civil War engagements, including the Battle of Jackson, the Battle of Mechanicsburg, the Atlanta Campaign, and the Battle of Nashville. Losers.

I walk down Chickasaw Street past the Presbyterian Church, a red brick building in need of paint and repairs that looks like it might have some touches of the Moorish revival style. Anyway, it has those middle eastern type pointed arches over the windows. Interesting structure, worth restoring if anybody cares to.

On down Chickasaw there are some hundred-year-old frame houses crisply restored, a few of which are painted pink and pale yellow, two colors I dislike in houses. But then, nobody asked me. It’s when I go through a neighborhood like this that I feel the inadequacy of my vocabulary to describe architectural styles. One of my deficiencies as a narrator. I should look for a little pocket-sized book on American residential and public architecture (similar to the one I have on trees) with roof styles, what the different kinds of columns are, and all that. Like George Costanza on Seinfeld, I've always wished that I could be an architect.

Outside the city, I come up to a fence behind which a herd of beef cattle are grazing and they all start moving away from me. They don’t realize that the guy who’s raising them is the one they should fear, not me, because he’ll be loading them onto trucks one of these days and then—look out. They’ll be dead meat, literally. I’m just a friendly guy passing by.

I see a sign by the side of the road that says “Jesus Completely Saves.” If you ask me, that kicks things up a notch from yesterday, when the sign said “Only Jesus Saves.” This one seems to imply that he saves everything. He puts it all in the bank. I guess he can just go into a wastebasket at McDonald’s and get part of a burger and do the whole loaves and fishes thing with it, then turn some water into wine, and kick back. Nice deal.

Soon I’ll be walking through the village of Bogue Chitto. When I first saw the name, I was curious about how the locals pronounced it, and I assumed it wouldn’t be exactly the way I thought it might be pronounced. On Tuesday I was driving back up from McComb and decided to get off at the Bogue Chitto exit and get something to eat at the Shell Truck Stop there. Well, first of all, don’t believe any of that crap about truckers knowing the best places to eat. Overfed and undernourished is what most of them are. From what I’ve seen, a trucker wouldn’t know good food if it came up and slapped him in the face, and there's no chance of that happening at a truck stop.

So as I was waiting for my cheeseburger and fries (edible but overpriced), I decided to ask the fat blond woman who was busy squeezing my burger down onto the grill with a spatula just how the locals pronounce Bogue Chitto.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said, “I’m not from around here. How do you say the name of this place?” She turned around and looked at me blankly, then her eyes began to narrow and it seemed to dawn on her that she was talking to a really stupid person. Slowly she said, “Shell.”

That was a joke. (Insert rim shot here.) Actually she said “SHAY-ull.” Another joke. (Rim shot.) Seriously, she told me that the name is pronounced “BAW-guh CHIT-ta.” Which, you have to admit, isn’t exactly the way you’d think they’d say it.

But you know what the really nutty thing is? There’s another Bogue Chitto in Mississippi, over east of Jackson, in Neshoba County. Two Bogue Chittos, no waiting.

A roadside phenomenon of southern Mississippi I’ve failed to mention thus far is the ant hills. Every twenty feet or so on the grassy shoulder there’s an ant hill about a foot in diameter and from three to six inches high. I think they might be fire ant hills. The ants are hunkered down somewhere for the winter, no doubt, but I would hate to step on one of these in the swelter of summer. I’ve been beset by a bunch of fire ants before and still bear the scars. So I have a healthy respect for the little suckers.

Next I enter Norfield, which is even smaller than Bogue Chitto, and that wasn’t much. It did have a gas station and a water tower, though, which Norfield does not. In that gas station I saw an old guy sitting there with the majority of his lower face gone, probably from cancer from dipping snuff. He had a little round open mouth, about the size of a half dollar, and looked like a modified version of the Edvard Munch painting, “The Scream.” It was hard to look, but hard not to look, if you know what I mean.

About an hour ago it began to rain and has been ever since. In the forecast they said there was a 60% chance of rain, and this rain is coming down at about 60% of the intensity of regular rain, so that’s about right.

Once in a while I see something on the roadside that sort of makes my day. This time it is a discarded whoopee cushion. It’s not the kind I’m used to seeing—the rubber inflatable ones with the old cartoon picture of the fat matron sitting on a chair and looking shocked as the word “pooooo” comes out of the cushion. This one is a foam-filled, “self-inflating” whoopee cushion. It’s torn and taped, and doesn’t work, but it’s otherwise more or less intact. On this model, the bit of onomatopoeia used to designate the sound that comes from the cushion is “FLARP!” What a choice word. It makes you wonder why that combination of letters isn't already being used for something.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Day 60: How does he do it?

Gallman to Brookhaven. 21.3 miles/1053.4 total

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I'm on Highway 51 just north of the Westhaven Funeral Home in Gallman, heading down through Hazlehurst to the northern edge of Brookhaven. The sun is trying to shine through some high clouds. It’s in the high 40s, going up to 50-something, with sunshine most of the time.

I pass the residence and place of business of Sister Sophie, Reader and Advisor. For my European audience, fortune telling for money is not legal in all states. For example, it’s illegal in Michigan, New York. Gypsies, tramps, and thieves, and all that. Down here it’s got to make you think of that movie The Gift, with Cate Blanchett. [I couldn’t remember the name of the movie during the day, so I looked it up this evening; Cate Blanchett has been in a lot of movies.] Keanu Reeves was cast a bit against type there as the vicious redneck accused murderer, and did a fairly good job (for Keanu Reeves), aided by the fact that he has that naturally spotty beard, like Joe Dirt.

The vegetation hereabouts begins to remind me of southern Alabama, where my mother-in-law lives. Hilly with lots of trees, not flat and full of cotton like the Delta. Southern oaks—live oaks, water oaks, swamp oaks--and tall pine trees. Decorative gourds made into bird houses hanging from posts. Magnolias in front yards. Red dirt (although not as red as in Alabama).

In less than an hour I enter Hazlehurst, a medium-sized city by southern standards—about 5,500 population. I pause to rest in front of Bumper’s Drive In. Even at this early hour music is blaring from the speakers. It’s Chuck Berry’s “Nadine.” There’s probably no song of his that better showcases the way his lyric virtuosity and uptempo musical exuberance potentiate each other than this one:

I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back,
And started walking toward a coffee-colored Cadillac.
I was pushing through the crowd trying to get to where she’s at
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat.

Nadine, honey is that you?
Oh Nadine, honey where are you?
Seems like every time I catch up with you
You’re up to something new.

The sun is shining brightly and the high clouds have dispersed for now as I make my way down into the center of Hazlehurst. The bright sun is the only thing that can really compensate for the fourteen hours of claustrophobic darkness in the motor home each evening.

I see the first acknowledgement that this is the hometown of Robert Johnson in the depiction of him on a mural on the side of a building. In the center of town is a little green with a historical marker about the city. Hazlehurst was named for the chief engineer of the first Jackson to New Orleans railroad. The last spike was driven here on March 31, 1858.

There’s also a marble monument to Robert Johnson. On one side it has a guitar and some musical notes and says he was born here on May 8, 1911. On the other side it says a few more things about him. At the moment there's a string of Christmas lights around the monument.

Behind some magnolia trees and a Confederate monument is the Copiah County Courthouse. It’s built of yellow brick, with four columns in front, but the doors are on either side, through columned porticoes. Inside there’s a small rotunda that looks up to a plaster dome. The main courthouse is set off in another wing behind, and it has a dome of its own and a circular gallery on the second floor. There were some renovations in 2008, with the addition of new oak railings on the second and third floors and cedar plank flooring. Altogether a unique and handsome building.

South on Highway 51 I go past a succession of large houses and mansions, no doubt of the merchants who shipped timber and other commodities from here. Most of these large houses were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I pause to pluck a late-growing rose from a bush in front of one of the more stately of the white mansions. It smells beautiful and seems like such a luxury in mid-December. I hold onto it for a long time.

About two-thirds through the day I enter Beauregard, population 265, but I’ll only be skirting this town. I’m guessing this place was named for Confederate General Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, from Louisiana, who didn’t learn to speak English until he was twelve years old. It may have been as president of the New Orleans, Jackson and Mississippi Railroad, after the war, that he became the namesake of this little town.

I pass a sign over someone’s mailbox that says “Only Jesus Saves.” That certainly points up one of the problems in this economy. While most of us live from paycheck to paycheck, sometimes having to borrow against the next one and use our credit cards, Jesus is actually saving--squirreling away a little bit of his money every week, for a rainy day, so when hard times come, Jesus has a something to fall back on. How does he do it? It’s a miracle, I guess.

Next I enter Wesson. I’ll be going right through the middle of this town. It has a population of about 1,700. Wesson was founded in 1864 by Colonel James Madison Wesson, who had lost his cotton milling business during the war and relocated here. After the war the mill began manufacturing high quality cotton, so fine that it became known as Mississippi silk. That lasted for a few decades until the mill went bust in the latter part of the century. Wesson still has a fairly prosperous look to it, with nice customized street signs, black with gold lettering. In the center of town I stop at the gas station-convenience store to get some refreshment.
I also visit an antique mall across the street, and a Case knife store next to the Ace Hardware. This is more stuff than most Mississippi towns this size have.

A couple of miles down the road I cross into Lincoln County, which was named for President Lincoln. I half expected to discover that it had been named for a different Lincoln. Who expected there to be a county named for him in Mississippi, a place where they still celebrate Robert E. Lee's birthday? But there you are. The state is full of surprises.

At last I enter Brookhaven city limits and the motor home comes into view. I won’t see much of the city today.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Progress Report: Where's Robert?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It rained all day in Hazlehurst, where I'm staying, so I decided not to walk. I was going to take one day off this week anyway. The next three days are supposed to be clear. After that I fly up to Michigan for the holidays. The goal of making it into Louisiana before my break has gone by the wayside, but that's okay. No hurry.

Today I took care of a few things that will make my life easier in the immediate future. In the car I drove out the next two and a half days of walking, down to McComb, so I won't have to figure that out while I'm driving the motor home, possibly in the dark, after a long day of walking. And while in McComb I found somewhere to leave the motor home over the Christmas break. I stopped in at a place with a large parking lot, called Patten's Metal Express, a purveyor of metal roofing products, to ask if I could leave it there. The guy said fine, but that it might be safer at his church in Summit, the next town north. Besides being in the metal roofing business he's a Pentecostal preacher. Pastor Kenneth Patten. So I will be parking at the New Life Apostolic Church. I told him the whole story of my walk and he was intrigued. But mostly he was kind and generous.

Then I went back up to Crystal Springs, through which I walked yesterday, to visit the Robert Johnson Blues Museum. When I got there I located the museum, in an old building downtown, but it was closed. The sign said only "Closed. Back at 12:30." Nothing about what hours or days they were open. It was about 2:00 p.m. and the place was dark. It had been a store at one time, and the display windows were filled with cheesy silver cloth and poster-sized photos of Robert Johnson, and not much else. I looked in through the glass door and there appeared to be very little inside in the way of exhibits, so I don't think I missed much.

In a way this was appropriate, given the paucity of information about Robert Johnson. There probably isn't really enough for a whole museum--even a little one like this. I recently looked at a biography of him, and most of the book was about his songs and their influence on others, and who had covered them over the years, and about Delta blues in general. The story of his life occupied only about twenty pages, and most of that was apocryphal anecdotal information supplied by contemporaries. A few things are known about him. One is that he was born in Hazlehurst, where I am now. The other is that he died in Greenwood, where I was last week. And in between he became a popular blues guitarist and singer and went to Texas and recorded a couple dozen songs, most of which have become blues standards in the hands of other musicians. Much of the rest begins with "He may have ...." So now I can report that there's a museum dedicated to Robert Johnson that may or may not be open, and that may or may not contain anything worth seeing.

One visitor was not quite so sanguine. Taped to the door, over the "Closed" sign, was a card that read as follows: "Dear Sir, We drove all the way from New York to visit your museum and you just hung up on me. Not nice. Sincerely, Vladimir Radojicic, photographer." I am glad I only drove up from Hazlehurst, eight miles away, and not from New York. I feel bad for old Vlad. On the other hand, I would never drive all that way just to visit a museum about a guy about whom practically nothing is known. Did he think they were hiding some important stuff down here?

The other thing I did today was visit one of those lovely laundromats, this one in Hazlehurst. Compared to the one in Yazoo City, though, this was a palace. You could see the original color of the floor tiles and things were semi-clean elsewhere. Somebody had written "hot" in magic marker above the dryers that had decent heat, and I was able to dry everything I had for only six quarters. However, all the washers were front loaders, so those of you who fret about the danger of contracting diseases from laundry bacteria can continue to worry.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Day 59: Tomatopolis of the world

Terry to Gallman. 20 miles/1032.1 total

Monday, December 14, 2009

Leaving from Terry Road and Wynndale Road, a few miles outside the village of Terry, heading down through Crystal Springs and Gallman. Mostly a rural walk, just filling in the gap between Jackson and Hazlehurst.

I come up to a cemetery that looks like it serves the village of Terry. I walk past the grave of Carolyn Donahue McGee, known as Minnie Ruth. There’s a nice photograph of her on the tombstone. I like that photo thing. More common in Europe than here. It really helps fill in the blanks. Especially for a wayfarer like me who doesn’t know the local players--the Minnies and the Willies.

I’m bypassing the village of Terry, walking down the access road parallel to the expressway. But just so you know, Terry is a town of about 650 first settled in 1811 by people from Virginia. That’s as much as anyone is going to learn about Terry from me.

I go by the Temple of Yah Hebrew Israelite Assembly. Minister Bobby Dixon. I’m not sure what kind of weirdness goes on in this church. Maybe it's some warmed-over version of Rastafarianism, an already pretty weird religion, even as religions go. [Later I looked up Temple of Yah on Google, and my guess proved pretty much correct although I had to wade through quite a bit of verbiage to figure it out. There is more than enough zaniness to go around there, folks. And that’s saying something, since we’re living in a society in which the accepted “normal” theology includes the belief that a virgin got pregnant by one-third of an indivisible three-part god, and the offspring god-man grew up, performed miracles, walked on water, then was executed and rose from the dead. Oh, and he was born on Christmas, died on Good Friday, and rose on Easter. That's a hell of a coincidence, if you ask me.]

I’m walking past some very large houses, costing probably 400,000 to 500,000 dollars. It’s been a bit of an adjustment over the past several days to see this kind of affluence, normal as it is, because of my trip through the Delta, where the poverty is so pronounced. But Mississippi isn’t all like it was up in the Delta.

At a little past the halfway point I enter the corporation limits of Crystal Springs, a pretty good sized city, population over 5,800. It was established in 1823, and according to a sign on the road, was moved to its present location in 1858. I don’t know where it was before that. I have to think it was in Mississippi somewhere. Crystal Springs once was known as the Tomato Capital of the World (seems a bit excessive, but then you never know). According to one source, it was the Tomatopolis of the World. Apparently they still have a tomato festival here every year, in June.

I turn onto U.S. 51, a two-lane highway that I’ll probably be on for most of the rest of my walk through Mississippi. I’ve left Hinds County behind and am now in Copiah County. Copiah comes from an Indian word meaning “calling panther.” Calling panther, hidden tomato.

I have observed that Missionary Baptist churches sprout like mushrooms, everywhere. Yesterday in Jackson I saw two Missionary Baptist churches within one block of each other. The buildings are never huge, like the mega-Baptist churches, but also not tiny and dumpy. Decent-sized churches, maybe with a capacity of one hundred to two hundred, but all over the place and almost on top of each other, even out here in the country, as if people are constantly getting fed up with one church and starting another. You’d think they'd stick together and make larger congregations. I have to assume that inherent in this denomination is the idea that where two or three are gathered together, there’s a congregation. Keep ‘em small.

South of Crystal Springs I pass Wilson’s Meat House and Custom Processing. The sign features a happy-looking pink pig. Just once I’d like to see a pig being chased by a guy with a gigantic meat cleaver on one of these signs. I go in to check things out. The smell of smoked meat is tantalizing, and the meat looks good, but not enough to make me buy anything. If they had some head cheese, maybe. But I don’t think they go for head cheese down here. Or blood sausage. I'll have to wait until I get to Louisiana for some boudin.

A couple of hours ago it began to rain, and now it’s coming down hard and steady, like it was on that day I walked into Yazoo City. And fortunately, like that day, it’s pretty warm. There’s nothing like the rain to make you focus on the goal at hand. Walking and slogging and looking straight ahead, while the water drips off the bill of your hat.

Nearing the end, I arrive in Gallman, a small community mostly on the west side of Highway 51. The Gallman Baptist Church is a big, sparkling beige pole barn. The sign says, “Come Grow With Us.” Just south of Gallman some delicious smells are coming out of a plant in the Copiah County Industrial Park. But the place from which I thought the smell was emanating turns out to be the Georgia Gulf PVC Division, Gallman Plant.

Next comes the Copiah County Sheriff’s Office, and the county jail. Next I pass Sanderson Farms, Hazlehurst Production Division. That's the food place, I guess. Down the hill and around the bend from there the white top of the motor home comes into view, and I have just a hundred yards or so to go.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Day 58: Flopping for Jesus

Jackson to Terry. 19.9 miles/1012.1 total

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sittin’ in a bar, tippling a jar in Jackson
And on the street the summer sun it shines.
There’s many a barroom queen I’ve had in Jackson,
But I just can’t seem to drink you off my mind.

Well, not exactly. But I did think of the Stones and “Country Honk” today, since it was the only song I could recall offhand that referred to Jackson.

I leave from north Jackson, between the Natchez Trace Parkway and Interstate 220, heading south on Highway 49, which is called Medgar Evers Drive here, down through the bowels of the city and out the other end, to just north of a little place called Terry. It’s cloudy and damp, but not raining. Temperatures in the high 50s going up to 60 or more. The better of my two current pairs of walking shoes has finally dried from the rain up in Yazoo City, and I’m pleased to be wearing them again today. Nothing like comfortable shoes.

I spent the last two days visiting my nephew and getting acquainted with my three lovely great nieces, whom I had never seen. A very enjoyable time. My nephew, Pieter Teeuwissen, has recently been appointed the city attorney for Jackson. A real rising star in the Mississippi legal firmament, I must say, and a very competent and honest guy, and a damned good lawyer, from what I can tell.

Yesterday my nephew and I went up to Indianola to the B.B. King Museum, a great place, well done. Worth a visit if you’re in the Delta, as much so as the one in Clarksdale. It’s built behind a cotton gin that he worked in when he was young.

There’s hardly a corner of the State of Mississippi my nephew hasn’t been to, either to try a case or involve himself in some legal matter, so spending a couple of days with him was an education in Mississippi law and politics.

During my time in Jackson several people have asked me why I'm taking this walk. It’s the simplest and most natural question in the world, yet I am always at a loss to answer it. The fact is, I don’t know why I’m doing this. I don’t think I ever quite knew why I was doing it. I’m just doing it. But I ought to have developed a pat answer by now.

So let’s talk a little about Jackson. It was named for President Andrew Jackson. Originally it was settled as LeFleur’s Bluff by a French guy named Louis LeFleur, and also was known as Parkerville. It was the choice for a state capital more centrally located than the original capitals, which were by the Mississippi River, in Natchez and Washington.

Jackson has a population of about 175,000, with a metropolitan area population of over half a million, which puts it on a par in that respect with Grand Rapids, Michigan. Of course as a state capital it has a bit more going for it than Grand Rapids does. There’s the state capitol, for instance, which I visited on Friday. Built in 1903-5 for $1.8 million in back taxes collected from the Illinois Central Railroad, it’s a plush and well-turned-out beaux arts building, very large and stately. Lots of marble, fancy woodwork, carpeting, curving staircases, all that. Three domes, skylights, a rotunda. Pretty typical, architecturally, of statehouses built from 1875 to about 1925 (which is most of them). And like all state capitols, it’s open to the public, free of charge.

As also happens in a number of states, there’s an older capitol, too, turned into a museum. Standing at the intersection of Capitol Avenue and State Street, the Old Capitol was built in about 1840. It sustained wind damage from Hurricane Katrina, so the governor wangled some federal money from the Bush administration and got the thing beautifully restored. The Old Capitol was where Mississippi voted to secede from the union, and where it passed the constitutions of 1868 (a racially progressive one, at the insistence of the federal government) and 1890 (in which segregation was formally imposed and the curtain came down on any limited progress African Americans had made down here). The Old Capitol is one of the few antebellum buildings of consequence that remains intact, due to the fact that the Union army burned Jackson pretty extensively (yes!). In fact it became known as Chimneyville, because chimneys were about the only thing left standing after the conflagration. Another pre-war building that survived is the Governor’s Mansion, which General Sherman used as his headquarters after the north occupied the city. One of the few times a decent guy has lived in that house.

I turn off of Medgar Evers onto Woodrow Wilson and then Bailey, where I begin to head straight south. This street is less commercial and more residential, and lined with churches on both sides. This morning their parking lots are filled with worshippers. Churches right and left. Wells United Methodist Church, Ebeneezer Missionary Baptist Church, Greater Mt. Sinai Baptist Church. There is one hell of a lot of good real estate being used up by churches, all for only a few hours of action a week. Some of the church names are really quite interesting, though: Crestwood New Life Church, the Greater New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church (the Reverend William “Dynamite” Albritton, Pastor), the Wings of Faith Cathedral Church of Deliverance (Bishop Roberta L. Porter, Pastor), the Old Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Church, the Pathway of Life Church, Inc., the Evangelist Temple House of Refuge for All Nations Church of God in Christ.

I cross Fortification Street, heading down into the center of the city. The tall buildings of downtown are coming into view. A railroad underpass is strewn with broken glass and empty 32 ounce bottles of Cobra malt liquor. Private security guards patrol the fronts and parking lots of churches, to protect cars while their owners are inside flopping around for Jesus.

Bailey has turned into Gallatin Street. At Amite I pass a large bus station behind the Hotel King Edward. I cross Capitol, then turn right on Pearl, and over to Terry Road, which I’ll be on for the rest of the day.

Along the way I am joined for a bit by a fellow traveler, a guy in coveralls who had been working on engines or something like that. We chat as we walk, and he asks me if I can spare 60 cents. I am struck, as I was up in Coahoma, by the relatively small amount of money he asks for. Ten years ago in Hartford the panhandlers were asking for a minimum of a dollar. I guess this is the land of reduced expectations. I give the guy a dollar or so in change. We share bits of our stories. He is originally from Gary, Indiana. We finally part when he starts walking a bit slowly for me. I really need to pick up my pace to finish by dark.

I’m passing the playing fields of Jackson State University. Terry Road crosses Highway 80, and I’m more or less out in the country again, although I think I’m still in Jackson. This is a middle class arrondissement.

Today is a momentous day for me, in that I have passed the thousand mile mark. That’s roughly the one-third point of the Big Walk to California. It’s taken me 57½ days of walking to get this far, 17.39 miles per day, on average.

Up hill and down dale I go, passing churches of God and churches of Christ and churches that are holier than me and more sanctified than thou. I could be in just about any place in the eastern part of the country on this two lane road now. Brick ranches, two-car garages, brown pine needles, acorns and rust-brown oak leaves lining the roadside and the ground in the patches of woods between houses. Cars and trucks for sale out front by the road--$1950 o. b. o., new tires and brakes, new exhaust, low mileage. RUNS GOOD. Churches breaking up the lines of houses, side streets with more of the same. Subdivisions with phony English-sounding names, evoking hills, glens, meadows. Brownish gray asphalt, cracked, snaking and gently rolling. Discarded bags, mattresses, compact discs, bottles, Bud cans, Busch cans, dead animals, dead wood. No trespassing, hunting, fishing, private property. KEEP OUT. Only I know where I am and I’m not sure. Anyone lived in a little how town.

The KFC box says “Life Tastes Better,” and I’m thinking, yeah, life certainly tastes better than KFC. Better than that watery/greasy skin that comes off in one piece and those little lungs or pancreases that stick to the ribs to help you remember that you’re eating a dead bird, for Christ’s sake.

I’m in the suburb of Byram. Things keep getting more affluent. Nothing like this in the Delta, that's for sure. Then I’m in Wynndale, where I pass the Wynndale Presbyterian Church and the Wynndale Steakhouse, neither of which is open at the moment. Now I'm verging on Terry and the motor home.

When I get back to the car, up in north Jackson, a pissed off man is waiting for me in front of his cleaners, where I parked. The place was closed so I took a chance, but he came in and took offense at my trespassing on his property. He bawls me out as I get into the car to drive it onto the dolly. "I called the police and had them check out your car," he says angrily. Yeah yeah, I think, as I apologize and leave. Then this evening my nephew calls me to tell me that the guy did call the Jackson police. They ran my Michigan plate and found that it was registered to Peter Teeuwissen. The officer happened to know my nephew personally, and called him to tell him that she thought someone had stolen his identity. He told her it was his uncle's car, and to tell the guy not to worry, that I would be there to pick it up later in the afternoon. I think the guy was upset because she wouldn't have the car towed. What a stroke of luck that this should happen here in Jackson. Jesus must have been watching over me.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Day 57: Communing with the dead

Bentonia to Jackson. 20.7 miles/992.2 total

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Today's just a journey from one parking lot of an abandoned gas station, in South Bentonia, to the parking lot of another abandoned gas station, at the northern edge of Jackson. The walk will take me through Flora and Pocahontas.

The temperature's in the 40s under mostly sunny skies, with some high clouds coming in. I don’t think it’s going to get much over 50, if that.

I might as well get this out of the way while I'm walking through several miles of nothing before Flora. My comments yesterday about the cause of the Civil War elicited, as I expected they would, a response from someone out there in the blogosphere. For those of you who don’t read the comments, I’ll summarize. The person agreed to a certain extent that slavery was the cause of that war, with the qualification that it was the secession of the states that forced the north’s hand, and that the “nullification of secession” was perhaps the chief impetus for the war. This seems to me to be a little bit of a tapdance. The only issue over which the states seceded was slavery—its continuation where it was and its expansion into new territories. So we’re back again to slavery as the prime cause of the Civil War, and the cause over which the two sides fought. I’m not sure why that’s so difficult for southerners to admit. I think it’s just too simple and straightforward for the obfuscating and self-deluding minds of some people.

I’ve left Yazoo County and am now in Madison County. I veer left off of Highway 49 in the direction of Flora. The first place I pass is the Primos Hunting Calls fulfillment warehouse, which looks like it employs to a few scores of people. Duck calls and the like, I suppose.

The road down to Flora, population 1500, is lined with horse pastures and middle class houses. I take a look to the left at the downtown of Flora, and am satisfied that I will not miss anything if I skip it. I get a snack at one of the three stores at this intersection, and walk on down the road. South of town I come to the municipal cemetery, a handsome-looking place. I wander around a bit and sit on the stone of Elizabeth H. Bentley, while a dog from a big house across the street comes over to bark at me. I don’t know if he’s trying to tell me this cemetery is part of his territory, but I can understand if he takes a proprietary interest in the place. It must be great to urinate on all these stones. I put out my hand for him to lick, but he’s a little shy, although he does quit barking.

At a little over eleven miles, I enter Hinds County, of which Jackson is one of the county seats (the other is Raymond). It was named for Thomas Hinds, an early U.S. Congressman from Mississippi.

I’m thinking of modifying the format I’ve been using for the blog so far. It’s getting a little hackneyed, and I’m growing tired of the “at so many miles I enter such and such a place” language. Maybe you are too. Also, I won’t guarantee that I’ll give you the weather every day, which is not to say that I won’t talk about the weather if it’s important to the walk. For now, since I don’t have anything to put in its place, I’ll probably keep doing it this way, but after the new year, all bets are off.

I guess I’m just tired of this whole thing, feeling generally out of sorts today. I think I’ve said it before, but I thought I’d get to the point where I felt pretty good walking twenty miles a day. Instead, I’ve just gotten used to being achy and tired for a good portion of the time.

I go over to the other side of the highway to the cemetery of the Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church, to have a little stroll around and see if it helps my mood any. Cemeteries seem to have a salubrious effect on me, which I suppose is a bit odd. I wander for a bit then sit down on the tombstone of Delouis Kennebrew. Her husband Robert is still above ground, waiting things out. Seeing what develops. I put my feet up on the stone flower vase on his side of the double marker and look around, thinking about the meaning of this walk, my life, and of all things. This is what walking all day by yourself will do to you, and where being by yourself all night in a motor home will take you.

Now that I’ve communed with the dead a bit, I can think more clearly. I should be thinking about all the things I have to be grateful for in connection with this walk. First, I have the leisure to undertake the project in the first place, and can afford to do it. Also, I have the health for it, and have enjoyed good health throughout the walk so far. Sure I have aches and pains, but I haven’t been injured so far. And the motor home and my car are working reasonably well, and all systems in them work okay, too. Each day I leave the motor home and the car and so far no one has touched either one. I’ve had safe places to stay every night. Everything I have planned to do I’ve been able to do. People on the road have treated me decently, and I’ve been offered rides by friendly folks all the way from Indiana to Mississippi. And I have friends and relatives who follow the trip and offer encouragement. So what am I bitching about?

Next I come to Pocahontas. It's a row of old shops on the east side of 49. There’s the Big Tee Pee (Barbecue and More), J.C.’s General Store, The Buck Shop (Quality Deer Processing), and some houses behind the shops. Also there is a rest area between the lanes of Highway 49 which I cross over to. It looks like this rest area was where there was once an Indian village. Cool. There’s something called Mound A, which is a big man-made hill, about thirty or forty feet high, with a flat top. I decide to walk up the mound, out of which are presently growing about a dozen large oak trees.

Well, that was fun, and I trot down the other side. It isn’t until I get down that I see the signs (facing the other way) that say “Keep Off Mound.” Too late for that. I see another marker with some descriptions of the mound culture. This was a platform mound, and the other kind is a burial mound, which is conical. I love the way they talk about these Indians as if they weren’t like us at all. “The burial of individuals in conical mounds was undoubtedly an elaborate and dramatic ritual meant to bestow honor upon the deceased.” Well, duh. That’s what our burial rituals are for, too, isn't it? Not to mention creating a place where people can go and commune with the spirits of the dead.

I pass a sign in front of a church that says, on both sides, “Jesus Love You.” He sho’ do. I stop to talk to a horse, but he doesn’t want me to pet him. A cow a few hundred yards down runs away from me. Maybe she knows that my favorite meat is beef.

At 18 miles I see the sign that tells me that Tougaloo College is off to the left. Tougaloo is where my brother taught English for about twenty years. In fact, the last time I came to Mississippi was when he was there on the campus, in the late 70s. He left Tougaloo years ago, but his son still lives around here and he’s just been appointed the city attorney for Jackson.

It’s time for me to get the iPod out and listen to Howlin’ Wolf singing “Highway 49.” It’s the version from the album entitled The Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions, recorded in 1970. To me, this is the best of all possible worlds, as far as the blues is concerned. It combines the top English guys who established their careers by covering the old bluesman with the masterful voice of the Wolf himself and the guitar work of Hubert Sumlin, his longtime accompanist. On the Brit side it features Eric Clapton on guitar, Steve Winwood on keyboards, Bill Wyman on bass, and Charlie Watts on drums.

I’m gonna get up in the morning, hit Highway 49,
I’m gonna get up in the morning, hit Highway 49.
I’ll be looking for my baby, Melviney’s the gal on my mind.

It’s a real up tempo piece, whose cadence exactly matches the speed at which I’m walking now. I give it a couple of listens.

Suddenly I come upon a bonanza of coins. Twenty-seven pennies, a dime, and a nickel--forty-two cents. Somebody emptied their ashtray out the window, I’ll bet, and forgot they had this stuff in it. That brings my Mississippi total of change up to $1.38. A good note on which to end this day.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Day 56: To The Vanquished

Yazoo City to Bentonia. 18.8 miles/971.5 total

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I'm in front of the Sunflower grocery store at the corner of Fifteenth Street and Highway 49 in Yazoo City, headed toward downtown, then out the south end. I'll end the day in Bentonia.

I'm headed west to Grand Street, then left and down the numbered streets toward the center. Yazoo City is the home town of the writer Willie Morris, who was once editor of Harper’s magazine. Also the hometown of Haley Barbour, a blowhard Republican who is the current governor of Mississippi. Additionally, Yazoo City is the birthplace of the actress Stella Stevens, who was born Estelle Eggleston in 1938. One of her first film roles was in the musical Lil Abner, where she played a character named Appassionata Von Climax.

Weatherwise, it’s a bright sunny day in the 40s, with a bit of a wind. It’s supposed to get into the 50s, but I don’t know about that. But it’s dry, and that’s good.

In terms of anything worth talking about, this walk is definitely front loaded. Once I get back out on Highway 49 south of Yazoo City there’ll be a lot of nothing until I reach Benzonia, which isn’t a hell of a lot, either.

Grand Street is wide and residential, filled with handsome late 19th century houses with wide porches and columns. The shacks and lesser houses are on side streets. The First Baptist Church is looking fat and happy between Sixth and Fifth Streets. In terms of money and influence there’s no doubt that the Baptists have it all going on here in the south. These premier Baptist Churches, one in each town, usually called First Baptist (Southern Baptist denomination), seem to be where the serious money reposes. It goes almost without saying that these are white churches. Most of them have several things in common. First, they’re very large, built on prime parcels in the nicer parts of town; second, they’re made of red brick; and third, they’re pretty new, built within the last quarter of the last century. What I’m trying to say is that the Baptists take very good care of themselves and they’re certainly part of the power base of the southern economy and political scene.

At Canal Street I turn right. I go past the Canal Street Laundr-O-Mat, about which I wrote a few things on Monday. As I stop to take a picture of the front a couple of people gawk nervously at me from the front window, and I see that one of them is the old woman I talked to when I was in there. Well, let her wonder and worry.

Next I pass El Palenque, the pleasant if undistinguished Mexican place where I ate lunch on Monday. Across the street are the Yazoo City Police Department and the Yazoo County Jail.

I turn south from Canal Street onto Main, which splits into two one-way streets. Here in front of an old building that might once have been a courthouse or city hall, is a Civil War monument dedicated to the Confederates. The inscription on the pedestal is so outrageous and absurd that I’ll set it out in full:


Oh my God, what a bunch of horseshit. Did I miss something? Wasn’t this glory and nobility and valor all expended in order to perpetuate chattel slavery? Wasn’t that the cause for which the south fought, and against which the north fought? I’m aware that there may be some blue dogs out there in blogland who think there was something more (or less) going on during that war, but guess what? There wasn’t. The Civil War was fought primarily over the issue of slavery, let revisionists try as they might to divert us from that essential truth. It matters little that many northerners were also racist. The essential difference between the sides was that the southerners were willing to fight and die so that white people could buy, sell, whip, and work to death black people, and northerners were willing to fight and die in order to end, or in the short run at least limit, that practice. Period.

You’ve got to wonder when people are going to take the wrecking ball to some of these monuments. Well, I have to climb up the outer edges of the base of the monument to get close. Then I summon forth from my lungs and sinuses everything I have available, and expectorate it onto this monument. Ah, that’s better.

I come to the Yazoo County Courthouse, built in 1872 and renovated and added to several times, most recently in the 1990s. It’s a white building. I go inside, but it’s undistinguished. No rotunda or clever marble work. Just a working courthouse. I’m aware that the courtrooms may be very nicely appointed—they usually are. But I don’t have time to go upstairs.

I take a quick turn around the downtown business district, with its empty stores and a few brightly painted ones, then head uphill on Broadway, toward the highway. The painted buildings are obviously an attempt to jazz up the downtown so people will come there, but the real business district is on the Highway 49 bypass. I could make a fortune as an urban planner in these little cities if people were willing to listen to the truth, which is that they should abandon their downtown business districts. Convert them to housing or raze them and make parks. I’d say to Yazoo City, pay more attention to development on Highway 49, which appears pretty willy-nilly and ugly and functional. Impose a few inexpensive design requirements out there just to beautify it a little, and forget Main Street. Nobody goes there. And while you’re at it, make these big fat churches pay some taxes. Oh, and tear down that Confederate monument.

The two branches of Highway 49 that parted in Tutwiler have merged again, just north of Yazoo City. I make my way across the four-lane divided road and begin trudging along the wide gravel shoulder, which is remarkably dry, considering how much rain we had last night. I guess it’s because it’s so hilly.

While I’m walking along with nothing to do, I might as well air another grievance about the south. It’s this obsession with nicknames and diminutive first names for men. Like Jimmy, Willy, Billie Bob, Johnny. Some people actually have those for their given names. I can see having a nickname and all that, but they should be given a respectable first name to begin with, not a nickname or something that makes them sound like a child for their entire life. Take me, for instance. I have a few nicknames, to be sure. I’m known as Pete, Petesie, the Petester, or even His Royal Peteness, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, but I was given what I consider to be a fairly dignified fullout first name—Peter. And that goes for most of the rest of you guys out there in the blogosphere.

So what’s the deal down here? Is it that the men of the south don’t want to be thought of as men--just as boys? It seems to me that if you come into the world with a name like Willie, which evokes an image of a boy in short pants, you’re going to live up (or down) to that name. It’s a statement by your parents. You’re destined to work at a gas station, like Goober, not to be a president, a general, or a mogul. This is a form of subtle preemptive emasculation. It’s a sign that this is a place with diminished expectations. People responsible for giving children their names have a responsibility. Maybe your name is Edward and they call you Booger at home, but at least when you go out into the world you can present yourself as Edward and hold your head high. But if your given name is Booger, well, that’s a different story altogether.

At 12.7 miles I come to the village of Little Yazoo, a collection of stores on the west side of Highway 49. I go into one of them, a sort of general store, and get a drink for the second half of the walk, then walk on down the access road, which is probably the original Highway 49, a two-lane affair. This must be the road Howlin’ Wolf traveled down in search of Melviney.

Eventually that piece of road stops, and I get back on the big road, and in a few miles I veer left onto Mississippi 830 into Bentonia, a town of about 500. Route 830 is called Railroad Street, and the tracks are on the west side while the east side is lined with tidy middle class houses. White peoples’ houses, in other words.

After a mile and a half I get to the downtown. There’s a little place called the Blue Front CafĂ©. A historical marker says this place was started in 1948 as a blues club by a couple named Holmes, whose son, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, still operates it. Every year there’s a blues festival here in June. Bentonia considers that it has its own style of blues, as played by Holmes and, before him, a guy named Jack Owens. Bentonia Blues.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Day 55: Gimme shelter

Mileston to Yazoo City. 20.7 miles/952.7 total

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It’s a fairly warm day as I leave Mileston, in the high 40s and going up into the 60s, with some very fast moving clouds coming from the southeast. They predict thunderstorms for later today, but I hope I can avoid them. It rained all day yesterday and was raining when I awoke today, but for the moment it is dry.

I’ll just make it into the northern outskirts of Yazoo City today, and won’t be walking through the downtown until tomorrow.

There’s a bit more to Mileston on the back end, but not much. A handful of trailers on the east side of 49E scattered over half a mile. A regular neighborhood. Off to the west I see a church steeple and some small houses. I’m not sure whether it’s more of Mileston or if I’m getting into the environs of Good Hope, the next place down.

I’m noticing in quantity along the bayous and swamps down here what I think is the palmetto plant. Yes, it's the saw palmetto. Today’s the first day I’ve really been conscious of seeing it, and it’s another indicator that I am moving south. At twenty miles a day, it's hard to notice the changes as they occur. Then suddenly there is something, like palmettos or cacti.

Beside me on the west is Bee Lake, an interestingly shaped body of water. It’s a loop of a river--I suppose the Yazoo--that got separated from the river proper. So now it’s a lake, but it is thin and snakelike, almost circling around on itself. Narrow bodies of water like this are common around here, where until recently the Delta area was so prone to flooding and lacking in natural earthen constraints, such as hills and rock formations, that the rivers just meandered, taking often more than twice as long to get between two points than a straight line would. Moon Lake up near Clarksdale also is one of these river-created lakes. Now that the levee system has been in place for over a century, I imagine such lakes aren’t being created as often. The border between Mississippi and Arkansas and Louisiana is interesting because there are a number of little islands and peninsulas between the states that are disputed territory. They used to be part of one state or the other but now they're in neither.

In an hour or so I enter Thornton. I think this might be the last place before Yazoo City where I can buy anything to eat or drink. There’s a place called Tiffany’s, but that isn’t a store. I think it’s a bar, and it’s not open anyway. There’s also a trailer called M & M’s, which is a food store, but it isn’t open either. On the front porch of M & M’s is a wooden cross on a plywood stand. I ask some old men who are gathered outside around a few cars and they direct me to a gas station about half a mile down the road. That’s where I head, and I get my drink there.

Just down the road from the Thornton BP station what do I see but another dead bobcat. I didn’t think I’d see a second one of these. This specimen is in much better shape than the last one. Also I see a whole dead armadillo, the first I've seen since Arkansas. I have seen lots of shells and bones, but very few whole animals. I'll bet they taste good to other animals and get eaten quickly. Probably like a cross between pig and rat.

The sky ahead is black and it looks as if the thunderstorms are approaching as predicted. I put on my emergency poncho just in time. The rain comes down in sheets, instantly soaking my legs and feet. Fortunately I’m a few minutes from a highway bridge, where I seek refuge and wait out the storm for about twenty minutes.

The topography has changed noticeably. No longer flat and alluvial, the land is hilly now. At 9.5 miles I leave Holmes County and enter Yazoo County. Yazoo City is the county seat, of course, and the whole business was named for the Yazoo River. It was old Bobby LaSalle who first named this river for the French, back in the seventeenth century. The name, as I mentioned a few days ago, is thought to mean “river of death.” It was in Vaughan, in Yazoo County, that Casey Jones, the famous engineer, met his end in a railroad accident in 1900.

The wind is blowing hard from the south right into my face, causing me to have to lean into it. Finally I get behind a ridge and it provides a little relief. The road begins to wind down and around toward the city, still some ten miles off. I go through Eden, another little place with very little going on.

I have hit the wall hard today. Usually I get to a point in a walk, at around fourteen to sixteen miles, when fatigue causes me to flag a bit, but then I recover. Today I have been feeling that way since about two hours into the walk, with no relief. I don’t want to be walking today, I don’t want to be walking tomorrow, I don’t want to be walking any time. I'm just bored and tired as hell, aching from my waist down to my feet. If someone offered me a ride right now I’d take it, and just end this whole project.

Well, someone did offer me that ride, about an hour after that little diatribe, but from force of habit I didn’t take it. At 18 miles I stop to sit on a guard rail and eat a snack in front of a refinery called Terra. A curl of yellow smoke rises discreetly out of one of the shorter stacks. It has a certain beauty against the gray-black sky, even though I’m sure it’s noxious as hell. Stygian and sulfurous.

Another thunderstorm comes up suddenly and I again happen to be near a highway bridge, and so take refuge again for about ten minutes, and when the rain lets up a bit I start back out. I can’t stay out of the rain forever. I have to get finished with this walk. It’s already about 3:40, and there are three more miles to walk before dark.

At about 19 miles I’m at the place the map calls Yazoo Junction, and I pass a sign that says “Welcome to Yazoo City, Gateway to the Delta.” I think, however, that from my perspective Yazoo City is the gateway from the Delta.

Now the rain is intensifying again. There’s really nothing to do at this point but to keep walking. It’s coming down so hard that I can barely see through my glasses. The good news is that my legs and feet can’t possibly get any wetter, and I don’t have to be choosy about where I walk. I just slog through the puddles and let the passing vehicles splash me. I’ve taken my wallet out of my back pocket and put it and the camera and recorder and notebook and phone in a couple of plastic bags and have them in my deepest front pockets on the vest This rain is beyond being kept out by a poncho.

When I get back to the motor home it’s nearly pitch dark and I’m soaked from head to foot. Fortunately it’s well up in the 60s, so the rain isn’t chilly.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Progress Report: Yazoo City, so far

Monday, December 7, 2009

I rolled into Yazoo City last evening after four days of walking, in need of a rest. There's no Walmart here, but I saw an internet ad for an RV park. However, when I got there I was informed that the owner lives in Jackson. I called him but wasn't able to connect last night, so I ended up staying in the Days Inn on 49E. Nice enough place, with lots more channels than I get in the motor home on my portable TV, and other amenities. So I relaxed and enjoyed the comparative luxury, taking the hot shower to end all hot showers, and checking out this morning only when prompted to do so by the front desk. Then I did get through to the owner of the RV park, a very friendly man named Montie Ramsey whom I met when he came over this afternoon to collect my money. So I'm here for the next three nights, with water, electricity, and sewer. The electricity especially is a semi-luxury, since it means I don't have to keep the generator running, rumbling and sucking down gas, while I use the appliances.

The Canal Street Laundr-O-Mat in Yazoo City was typical. It had a floor of grimy linoleum tiles, once white, many of them cracked and chipped, exposing the concrete underneath. About a third of the machines, both washers and dryers, were out of order, their coin slots covered over with different kinds and colors of tape. The machines ringed the outside walls, and there were a couple of rows of tables in the center area along with some falling-apart laundry baskets on wheels. This place had two bill-changing machines, which was exceptional. Sometimes you have the machines but no way to get change, or you have to go next door to another business to get change and ring the bell to get the employee to come up to the cash register.

Everything was filthy except the insides of the machines themselves. The idea of there being such squalor in a place where people go to get things clean has always been a bit mystifying to me, but it's more the rule than the exception. The smell inside was the same as the smell inside every laundromat. In spite of the dirt on the walls and floor, the deposits of dust and grease and slimy spilled soap under, in front of, and atop all the machines, the smell was more or less a smell of cleanliness, that is to say, it was the smell of detergent and bleach and moist heat.

As usual, there were a couple of older women who might or might not have been employees who were thoroughly knowledgeable about how to use the machines, how many quarters it took to to run them, which ones worked, and which ones would take your money and give you nothing. There were top loading washers and front loading commercial-sized ones. I couldn't get any of the top loading washers to work or to accept the six quarters they were designed to take. I was advised to use one of the front loaders, which took eleven quarters, but which, I was assured, would wash all the clothes in my basket. So I abandoned my original plan to do a dark load and a light load, and threw everything in together, except for a new t-shirt I bought at the Delta Blues Museum with a picture of Muddy Waters on the front and two lines on the back that said, "Got my mojo working but it just won't work on you." That one I kept out for fear of having it turn another color, in spite of the fact that in my experience it's the red stuff that turns the white stuff pink, and I had nothing red to wash. Nevertheless, better safe than sorry, especially with such a primo shirt.

Also typical of laundromats, the customers, mostly women, were tending children, yelling at them between their tasks while competently caring for the clothes, folding them just so on the reasonably clean tables, talking on cell phones, laughing, and carrying on conversations with one another. I took one of the seats in a row of cracked, sit-at-your-own-risk molded fiberglass chairs and half-read The New Yorker while answering the persistent questions of a three-year-old boy next to me.

Owning a laundromat must be a lucrative proposition, especially when you spend no money on maintenance or upkeep. It certainly doesn't take anything close to $2.75 in water and heat to do a load of wash, or $2.00 to dry them. The patrons don't seem to care much, either, since they are only there to do one thing, then get the hell out. Anyway, it's the only place they can go, if they have no appliances at home. The people who can least afford to spend this money. There's certainly some old acquisitive bastard behind this place, who probably lives in another city, I thought.

As I was folding my dried clothes an old white woman came by and commented on the broken handle on one of the front loaders. "Someone must have decided to tear this off." I looked over my shoulder and said, "From the condition of the rest of the stuff in this place I'd say it's more likely that the handle fell off." Suddenly I had a moment of realization that this woman worked at the place. "Well, they come in here and let their kids run all around the place." As she said this she gestured with her head in the direction of a black woman, without kids, who had enough folded clothing in front of her to outfit a small army. It must have cost her twenty or thirty dollars to do all that laundry. I knew then that the old woman's "they" meant not just the customers, but particularly the customers of that other woman's race. For a second I thought about responding to the ridiculousness of her comment--as if someone without a washer and dryer could afford to hire a babysitter to watch the kids while she went and did the wash. But I just said, "I'd rather let my kids play outside in the mud than on the floors in here." I'd hit a nerve. She sighed wearily. "Well sometimes I just don't think I can keep on doing this. Back when Jack Gilmore owned the place he used to keep it up, but then he sold it. Old Mr. Dawkins don't hardly ever come in here now, and you can't get nobody to work for what he wants to pay them." She was angling for sympathy, I could tell. "Yeah, but I'll bet he doesn't have any trouble coming in here and emptying out the change from these machines, does he?" With a gleam in her eye, she nodded.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Day 54: Ease on down the road

Sidon to Mileston. 21.3 miles/932 total

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Leaving from just south of Sidon, heading for Mileston. The only town of any size I’ll be going through will be Tchula, at about the two-thirds mark.

It’s cold. The sun is trying to shine through some high clouds. There are a few clear spots over in the west. The forecast is for the temperature to reach 52 today, but that doesn’t seem likely.

Less than an hour into the walk I leave Leflore County and enter Holmes County, which was named in honor of David Holmes, the first governor of Mississippi. Actually, Holmes was the last territorial governor of Mississippi, for about eight years, then in 1817 became the first state governor for two years. After that he served one term as U.S. Senator, then was governor again briefly. But more importantly, Holmes County is the birthplace of the great Elmore James.

I enter the outskirts of Cruger. The churches on both sides of the highway are busy, souls being saved and sinners being admonished on this Sunday at mid-morning. Down a side street I see a small group of young men congregated around a few cars and a dumpster, drinking from containers in paper bags, worshipping God in their own less formal way. At the Cruger First Apostolic Faith Church it’s a little early yet for the worship service. Across the street is the Cruger Washeteria in a dilapidated yellow building, combined with the Cruger Bait Shop and Quick Stop, featuring “snocones, hair, t-shirts, caps, slacks, men’s jogging suits”--all of this written in uneven white lettering on a red sign.

Just as the commercial strips in cities have their repeating cycles of businesses—a McDonald’s, an auto parts store, a Burger King, a dollar store, a Wendy’s, a car lot, a beauty shop, a gas station, a tanning parlor, a Taco Bell—repeating every couple of miles or in the next city, so also does the seemingly barren roadside have a repeating cycle of debris—a single work glove, a child's shoe, beer and soda cans, a dirty diaper, a used ink pen, a four-inch lag bolt, a chicken bone, a dead animal, a Styrofoam container, a rubber strap from a truck. It’s an almost endless succession, interrupted once in a while by something unique or an empty space, then happening all over again, so that sometimes I feel as if I’ve been yanked back in time and distance to a point I experienced five miles or five days ago.

I’ve now left the cotton fields behind and am walking along next to the Morgan Brake National Wildlife Refuge, at about ten miles into the walk. Where the entrance to the wildlife refuge is located the map says there’s supposed to be a place called Wyatt. But there’s no Wyatt, and not even the suggestion of a Wyatt. This is truly a phantom village. Maybe there was a railroad station here once. There was supposed to have been a place called Keirn about two miles back. No Keirn, either.

Once in a great while, as the commercial shopping strips occasionally offer you something a little different, so does the road. Maybe a nice tool, some coins, a different species of dead bird. It invogorates you for a few moments. Just now I saw a dead bobcat, the first I’ve ever seen. It’s mangled and flattened, but unmistakably a bobcat, lynx rufus.

At 14.1 miles, I enter Tchula. This is a community of some size, relatively speaking, with a population of over 2,000. It’s all laid out on both sides of 49E, but only goes a couple of blocks in either direction from the highway. I drove through the downtown of Tchula on the way back up from Mileston this morning, and I don’t think I need to visit it again. The old downtown has seen better days, although there was never any chance that it was going to be one of the ten most beautiful places in the country. What commercial activity they have is visible from here on 49E. Tchula has no fewer than two (count ‘em) gas station/convenience stores and a grocery store, not to mention several little pork, chicken, and booze emporiums, housed in tiny windowless trailers. And of course churches. There’s the Rock of Ages Church of God in Christ, where they’re still rocking, even though it’s almost 2:00 p.m. At the Lampton Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, the lights are still on, but no one’s home. There’s even a Presbyterian church in Tchula, which indicates that there are white people here (or were, since at the last census the white population was 3.4% of the total). Children in their Sunday best are getting dropped off at home. But the real action is at the Shell mini-mart, where cars come and go regularly and men chat beside their cars. I stop to get some refreshments, then sit outside and take a rest.

Tchula has a slightly hostile feel to it that I can't quite put my finger on, and I am happy to ease on down the road. I stop first at a historical marker that says Tchula was settled in 1826 by Charles Land. Then I go by the Holiness Pentecostal Church of Christ near the intersection of 49E and Route 12, which has recently burned to the ground. I ask a couple of passersby if they know anything about it. One guy says he thinks it happened just last Thursday night. This was a bad fire, and there’s little left of the church but ashes and a few small sticks of black wood. The metal front doors are warped and melted.

Wouldn’t you know it, I’m on Martin Luther King Drive now, as I pass the Klub Kitty Kitty, with a cypress swamp on the other side of the road, red and green algae covering the water.

A couple of miles down I pass Mr. T’s Mid-Night Grill Lounge. At 20 miles I breeze by what must be Westfield, about a dozen houses sitting a half mile to the east of the highway. Then I stop at the graveyard next to the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, Pastor Joe Jackson. I sit on the heart-shaped tombstone of Jessie L. Holmes White, who lived from 1946 to 2002. Rest in peace, Jessie.

Just before the end of the walk I enter Mileston, which isn’t much but at least has a sign. The motor home is in front of the farmer’s market, a converted gas station. It's been cold all day and I'm happy to get inside.