Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Day 14: The silence of the raccoons

Wanatah to San Pierre. 16.8 miles/182.9 total

It's 10:15 a.m. I'm departing from the center of Wanatah, Indiana, and will be walking straight south to San Pierre. Unlike the last two days, it’s partly sunny today, with only a mild breeze. Temperatures are in the 50s.

This walk will take me through just two little towns besides Wanatah. LaCrosse and San Pierre.
Heading out of town on a side road, I have almost no company other than the cornstalks for a couple of miles, until I re-enter busy U.S, 421 with its narrow shoulder and incessant fast traffic.

I’ve scheduled a rest day for tomorrow, but I’m so far out in the sticks, I may take a side trip in the car over to Valparaiso, where there’s at least a university. It’s about 10 miles west of Wanatah. So I’ll stay in Wanatah in the motor home tonight, take my day trip tomorrow, then venture on down the road to LaCrosse, where I can spend the next night.

I think I may be drifting in and out of the Central time zone. When I went to check my cell phone for the time, it read an hour later. So Sprint has picked up the fact, somewhere, that I went into Eastern time. Here in greater Wanatah, it’s definitely Central. I believe this part of Indiana decides on a county-by-county basis which time zone it’s going to be in. There’s this cluster of counties in the northwest of the state, oriented to Chicago, that are in Central time. LaPorte County where I am now, is one of them.

Out on U.S. 421, if it weren't for the sound of vehicles, there wouldn’t be much other sound at all, except for the singing of the insects. No industry or commerce, just the sound of the crops growing. And the lonesome whistle of the occasional freight train. No passenger rail here; I left that behind up in Michigan City. Sure enough, the crossing gates go down and I am waiting for a train to cross. There’s so little train activity any more in Michigan, that I almost forgot about crossing gates, clanging and blinking.

And what a freight train it was. It had 132 cars, pulled by three engines of the Norfolk and Southern Railroad. Probably a couple of miles long. Mostly flatbeds carrying containers, which is what takes the place of boxcars these days.

I pass a field of tomatoes. A couple of semi trailers are piled high with tomatoes, to overflowing. Many more out in the field still ripening. These aren’t your fat soft slice-and-eat tomatoes. They’re small and thick-skinned and relatively juiceless and round. Probably developed that way on purpose, and used for tomato sauce and ketchup.

Here’s an interesting roadside find. A plastic burnished gold-colored cross, about seven inches high, with a pair of praying hands in the middle, at the crux. Something like this can't be ignored. I put it in my back pocket. Now if I’m found on the road dead, people will assume I am a person of faith, rather than a heathen. On the whole, I suppose it’s better to be mistaken for a person of faith when you’re not, than to be mistaken for a heathen when you’re religious. Not to mention that I am now armed against vampires who might try to get into the motor home while I’m sleeping. That’s always a good thing.

This Indiana countryside has me singing “On the Banks of the Wabash,” which, as some of you know, is the state song of Indiana. I happen to know all the words, thanks to a great album of Victorian-era standards by Ann Arbor musical artists Joan Morris and William Bolcum, called After the Ball. So I’m walking along, singing to the insects, who are singing back:

Round my Indiana homestead wave the cornfields,
In the distance loom the woodlands, clear and cool.
Oftentimes my thoughts revert to scenes of childhood,
Where I first received my lessons, nature's school.
But one thing there is missing from the picture,
Without her face it seems so incomplete.
I long to see my mother in the doorway,
As she stood there years ago her boy to greet.

Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight upon the Wabash.
From the fields there comes the breath of new-mown hay.
Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming,
On the banks of the Wabash, far away.

There’s a second verse, too. Hell, I bet most Hoosiers don’t know either one of the verses.

I’m beginning to get alarmed. I haven’t seen any dead raccoons yet, and I have already walked seven miles. In fact, I have barely seen any road kill at all. Just a lonely possum and something I couldn’t quite identify. This is singular, because over the previous two days I saw something like 23 raccoons, almost as many as I saw the entire time I was walking through Michigan. What has happened to the raccoons all of a sudden, I wonder?

I enter the village of LaCrosse. This is a small place, with a population of about 500, just spread out along 421 for a few blocks. The internet says it used to be part of Starke County, to the south, but was ceded to LaPorte County during the 19th century, for some reason, and became Dewey Township. The first township settler was George Schimmel, in 1854, and many of the early settlers were German farmers. No word on how it got its French name, since the French were long gone by the time this area was settled. It’s a shady little place, but without much going for it. Pretty dumpy, in fact. A liquor store, a bank, a few schools, churches. One gas station. I stop to buy a bottle of water, then I'm out of here.

As little as there was between Wanatah and LaCrosse, there’s even less between LaCrosse and San Pierre. Just the lonesome road. And really pedestrian unfriendly, I must say. The “shoulder” of the pavement is about a foot and a half wide, then there’s a dropoff and a slanted gravel embankment of another foot or so, then a ditch. There’s no practical way to walk on the pavement, and walking off the pavement requires walking at a slant. Pretty soon my left leg starts to hurt.

So what has happened to the raccoons? Still not a one. Eaten by the locals? The cans and bottles are still here, and the corn and the soybeans. But no raccoons. It’s as if someone told them not to go south of Wanatah. Or are they smarter down here? Quicker? Luckier? Nothing else has changed that I can see.

A great roadside find! A portion of the Guinness Book of World Records. The front torn off up to the letter “B.” The first page has a picture of the beef tapeworm, the world’s largest tapeworm specimen on record. Over 75 feet long. Damn. The book is soggy and not worth keeping, but before I toss it back I open it at random to one more entry. Most cobras kissed. Gordon Cates, of Alachua, Florida, kissed eleven cobras consecutively on September 25, 1999. Man, those Florida cobras must be pretty hard up.

I come to a bridge over the Kankakee River, where I leave LaPorte County and enter Starke County. The skies are cloudless now, and it must be in the high 60s as I trudge on toward San Pierre.

Many of you will have observed that there’s something of a linguistic anomaly in the name San Pierre. There’s San, the Spanish word for saint, followed by the French name, Pierre. I’m going to speculate that this might be due to either transliteration or what linguists call “false analogy,” or both. When the French say the word “saint,” it sounds pretty much like “san.” English folks may have heard French people saying St. Pierre, and written it down as they heard it—San Pierre. And maybe they knew already that the Spanish word for saint is San, so they figured it was spelled the same in French. Or they were barely literate and just didn’t care. Anyway, we’re left with San Pierre. Of course, the real reason could be even stranger or more ridiculous than that. You never know.

The sign says “Welcome to San Pierre,” but that’s just a teaser. The real San Pierre isn’t for another mile or so. Just before entering the village I stop to check out the cemetery of All Saints Catholic Church. After a day of no road kill, I’m eager for some evidence of death, even if it’s human. I suppose you could say that a cemetery by the side of the highway is the ultimate road kill, after all. The older graves have mostly Irish names—Carroll, Fitzgerald, McLaughlin—then give way in later years to eastern European and German names—Mazurek, Kohler, Simic, Smolek.

I enter the town. Such as it is, most of San Pierre is spread out for a couple of blocks along the west side of the road along a bend in 421. A few dilapidated storefronts, most of them closed. This is an eerie and unkind looking place. There’s a veterinary clinic at the corner of the main intersection, and on the other corner a building that's been condemned as unsafe for habitation. It's windows are broken out and the doors are all open, revealing trash and wreckage. A pretty grim-looking place. Down Eliza Street I have parked the motor home across from All Saints Church.

I stop to ask a postal truck driver if he knows how San Pierre got its name. He doesn't, but he suggests going over to the library. I'm amazed that there even is a library, but sure enough, there it is, about the size of a two-car garage. I ask the librarian if she knows why San Pierre is called that, and she doesn’t. She tells me she's just a substitute, from another town--Knox, the county seat. She says there are some books on Starke County history, but they're all over in the Knox library.

I then ask her whether San Pierre is on Central or Eastern time. Here she laughs, and says Central, but that Starke County and its neighbor to the south, Pulaski County (which she pronounces “Pulask-eye,”) switched over a only couple of years ago, and it’s been very confusing ever since. Over in Knox people are constantly missing doctor’s appointments and such, and the town government has refused to switch, and the post office still uses Eastern time, and so on. Also, before they switched to Central, Starke County didn’t go on daylight saving time, so that for part of the year they were on the same time as Central (after the “spring forward”), and for the winter months they were an hour later. They call it Eastern “fast time” and Central “slow time.”

Afterwards I check out the map, and sure enough, it still lists Starke County as being on Eastern time. Also I notice that as I go south I will go back into Eastern time permanently in Indiana, until I cross over the line into Illinois. Strange.

When I googled San Pierre, I got some really weird explanations of why they call it that. First, I should mention that San Pierre isn’t even a village, it’s a “census-designated place,” with a population of about 150. Back in 1854, it was originally called Culvertown. Then, according to legend, it was either renamed after a French Canadian whiskey seller, or a French railroad man, both named Pierre. The “San” was put before the name to add importance to it, according to some. In 1894 the name was changed to just Pierre, and in 1899 it was changed back to San Pierre.

I don’t believe either of those stories. And the raccoons still remain a mystery. The raccoons, Clarice.


Billie Bob said...

Apparently you haven’t heard. The raccoons south of Wanatah embarked on a great crusade to smite the heathen raccoons of the North. There they met their bloody fate in what became known as the battle of the 421, putting an end to a long running feud. In a huge strategic blunder, Raccoons of the South fell for the famous white-line maneuver. Allowing themselves to be enticed by Northerners to cross a busy highway during “rush hour”, the unsuspecting masked bandits were sitting ducks. To this day, people claim to see the corpse of many a raccoon when the light is just right…

Anonymous said...

Having spent a while on Google Earth which has very good views of that stretch between Wanatah and San Pierre (found the railway, the cemetery...) and then checked raccoons on Wikipedia, although the above explanation is heroic and all, I think it probably all boils down to Northern Indiana and Michigan offering better food and cover. Corn and soybeans don't seem to be their favorite food and maybe pesticides have just destroyed the insects the raccoons feed on and there aren't enough fruit and nuts to keep them happy.
Cousine S

Peter Teeuwissen said...

Billie Bob's theory is compelling, but I guess Suky's is even more so (if less dramatic). Didn't know raccoons ate insects. Thought they specialized in garbage. The test will be in the next couple of days, when I expect to go through areas identical to this one.