Friday, October 16, 2009

Day 24: The holocaust of the turtles

Terre Haute to Sugar Creek Township. 8 miles/337.1 total

Thursday, October 15, 2009

I am leaving from the parking lot of the Rural King store on the east side of Terre Haute, headed for a spot west of West Terre Haute, just inside Indiana, near the Illinois line.

I have a short walk today, only 8 miles. There are several reasons for this. First, I'm going back to Michigan for three days at the end of today's walk and I want to get back before midnight. Second, a short walk will give me a little more time to explore downtown Terre Haute, and visit a museum and the Eugene V. Debs house. Another reason for the brevity of the walk is that I drove over into Illinois for a bit and discovered there is really nowhere to park the motor home for the day within the first several miles in that state, which would necessitate making the walk unusually long or unusually short. I opted for the latter. And while I' m looking forward to taking a few days off, in my limited experience so far, taking time off from the routine doesn't help much, and I usually get more tired on the day after taking time off.

On the way back from my ending point I secured a place to park the motor home for the time I will be in Michigan. I stopped into a scrap yard that had a gigantic parking lot and ended up getting permission from the guy who owned the business next door to park at his place. Everyone was very cordial and willing to help.

I should mention that I spent the day in Terre Haute on Tuesday, getting my computer fixed (bad hard drive) and at the library, where I caught up on blogging.

The east side of Terre Haute is definitely the nicer side. U.S. 40 is given over to commercial establishments of all kinds, and a few blocks back from the street I can see good-looking older neighborhoods.

Regarding the famous line, "Go west, young man," I did a little research this morning before the walk. I had read that Horace Greeley didn't really originate it, but cribbed it from a guy named John Soule, a writer for the Terre Haute Express. Then today I read that Horace Greeley never exactly said "Go west, young man." Instead he said something longer that was later paraphrased into that more succinct phrase. Furthermore, there's no evidence that John Soule the newspaperman ever said it, either, although the story that he did was circulated forty years later, in the 1890s. Wherever this phrase did come from, it has, like many famous things, taken on a life of its own that doesn't rely on historical truth for its continuing vitality.

The near-downtown of Terre Haute can best be described as seedy. In that respect it's not much different from most other cities in this country. However, the campus of Indiana State University is also located right downtown. I suspect that if it weren't for the university, the center of the city would have been given over a long time ago to the derelicts and the demimonde. At 14th and Wabash (which is what U.S. 40 is called here) I'm approaching the city center, as the more prosperous businesses give way to empty storefronts, vacuum cleaner repair shops, warehouses, and low-end lawyers' offices. But most of all, vacant lots. Lots of lots.

I stop in to a place called Square Donuts, to see if their donuts are really square, and they are--at least some of them, including the chocolate glazed one I'm eating. I then go over to check out St. Benedict's Catholic Church, at 9th and Ohio, a brick and brownstone place with romanesque overtones, built between 1896 and 1899. It's well kept up, and the brass on its huge oak doors is polished. I'd like to go in, but it's locked up tighter than a drum on this Thursday afternoon.

The next thing I want to see is the Sheldon Swope Art Museum. Across the street from the museum is the marvelously ornate rounded stonework front of the Indiana Theater. After spending an hour or so there, I must say that this museum was very much worth the visit. It's a small but classy collection. There are single works by several prominent American artists, including Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana, and Edward Hopper. And lots of other paintings by local artists, from 19th century landscapes to 20th century graffiti.

Well, in Indiana, it's all about being the Crossroads of America. The state calls itself that, but here in Terre Haute there's a historical marker that says that this city is the crossroads of America, because it's where two early U.S. highways, 40 and 41, intersect. Terre Haute, the No-Shit Crossroads of America.

From the Swope museum I go up to 451 N. 8th Street, on the campus of Indiana State, to visit the Eugene V. Debs house. Built in the 1890s, it's very nicely kept up, filled with his furniture and other period pieces, and lots of memorabilia from his life--books, papers, photographs. Debs was born in Terre Haute in 1855 to Alsatian immigrant parents. He was named for Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo, two writers who, with Voltaire, were read extensively in his home. So he grew up with egalitarian and reformist sensibilities. The fifth and last time Debs ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket, in 1920, he was in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where he had been locked up for speaking out against the U.S. involvement in the First World War. He got over 900,000 write-in votes that year--not bad, especially considering that the population of the country was about a third of what it is today. He was pardoned on Christmas day 1921 by Warren G. Harding, who had him over to the White House for a friendly chat. From the staff member at the house I found out the straight scoop on where Debs is buried. It is not in section 3 of Highland Lawn Cemetery, as the website I checked out the other day said it was. It's in section 1, much nearer the front, that Debs and his wife are buried, away from the rest of the family. So let that be a lesson to all of us internet explorers--we can't believe everything we read.

I'm now walking through Indiana State University, formerly Indiana State Normal School, surrounded by lots of students who are passing between classes, on this crisp fall day with the leaves turning a hundred different colors. There's a street here named after Larry Bird.

I'm now headed west again, with the Vigo County Courthouse as my beacon. Compared to the Tippecanoe County courthouse, which is sort of my benchmark, this one is as large, but with a dome atop a three story tower, topped by a cupola, topped by another smaller dome. It is heavy-duty Victorian, with mansard roofs and wrought iron railings atop the roofs. As I go up the steps the smell of fried chicken wafts over from a nearby fast food place. Inside it's strictly utilitarian, with little ornamentation. The outside is the more attractive view, without a doubt. No artwork or anything of that nature. Most of the interior woodwork has been painted a dark grey or taupe, whose leaden look matches the grey marble that has been sparingly used for trim. As in Tippecanoe County, the experience of the visit was marred by the presence of the Seekers of Justice--the wretched refuse of the court system--and their suited attorneys. Reminds me of the life I left behind. It also reminds me of a famous quote from Eugene Debs--"While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." These are definitely Debs's people.

I'm back on U.S. 40, heading out of town, like Richard Kimble on the Fugitive TV show, slinking away at the end of each episode. That's the feeling I get as I leave each town and city, like I'm escaping, only to wander to another place sort of like it.

The highway bridge across the Wabash River is called the Paul Dresser Memorial Bridge. Coming back the other way, eastbound, the bridge is the Theodore Dreiser Memorial Bridge. So both brothers got their due. I say goodbye to Terre Haute, as I head west across the Wabash, singing Dresser's song, "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away." Both verses.

Beyond the river is a large wetlands area, crossed by an elevated causeway. On the side of the road I spot a dead turtle. Then another, and another, and another. I quit marking them down individually in my notebook and just start counting. In the short space of about half a mile, I count no fewer than 85 dead turtles, all crushed by the tires of cars. Not hatchlings, either. These are adult turtles. This is a road kill phenomenon for which I wasn't prepared. It dwarfs the tally for raccoons. It will be known as the West Terre Haute Mass Turtle Die-off of 2009.

After the turtle killing fields comes West Terre Haute, a city of 3,300 or so, which is pretty ratty. In fact, it's a collection of abandoned gas stations, used car lots, and ramshackle houses. Let that be a warning. If someone offers you a choice between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute, take Terre Haute every time. In three windows of an empty storefront someone has written GO WEST VIGO. I'm fairly sure that's an exhortation to the student athletes of a school called West Vigo--Go, West Vigo. But move the comma over one word, and you have Go West, Vigo. That suits me better.

West of West Terre Haute the road rises uphill to enter the vast prairies of Illinois. And as it had to eventually, the motor home comes into view. I end my last full day in Indiana as I began my first full day here, in the parking lot of a fireworks store, closed for the season.

No comments: