Farina to Salem. 19.7 miles/445.8 total
Sunday, October 25, 2009
I’m leaving from a parking full of miscellaneous old trucking equipment at the south edge of Farina, heading for Salem, going through small towns on the way.
Today’s walk will be 19.7 miles, the longest I’ve walked so far. I have been increasing the length of the walks since I came back from my three-day respite last week. I hope to start averaging 20 miles a day and get comfortable with that daily distance. (Comfortable isn’t really the word, but you get the idea.)
Shortly after leaving Farina I leave Fayette County and enter Marion County. Salem is the county seat of Marion County. I won’t know for sure until later, but I’m betting Marion County was named for Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, hero of the Revolutionary War from South Carolina.
This spacing of 5 to 8 miles between towns is familiar from Indiana. It was a pattern with the railroads to have stopping places spaced at these intervals, to take on water and coal or wood for the steam engines, and for convenient station points for the passengers and transporters of freight. Today, the Amtrak passenger train that flies through here every day is the famous City of New Orleans.
As I talk about the railroad, a freight train goes by, with 161 cars pulled by four Canadian National engines. This is part of the CN line now, and the CN and Union Pacific intersect in Kinmundy, just down the road.
I'm struck by the relative efficiency of pulling 161 freight cars with four engines, compared to hauling all that stuff by trucks. Of course we need semis for short haul purposes, but I’ll bet a lot of people are looking to beef up the capacity of the railroads these days. But many spurs and short lines have been eliminated over the years, so it would be difficult to recreate the level of rail transport this country had even 50 years ago. In that same time the country has been busy developing a very extensive, high-quality road system. And the interstates really are a great set of roads, not equaled anywhere else in the world. But those truck drivers. Why are so many of them recruited from the most rural and right-wing parts of the country, north and south? Even when the Teamsters Union was alive and well, it had a reactionary character to it that set it apart from many of the more progressive industrial unions.
Maybe there’s something about driving around the country by yourself all the time, and being inside your own head, that fosters right wing thoughts. Maybe it’s that non-stop Republican propaganda on the radio with absolutely nothing from the left to counter it. Then the truckers congregate at truck stops and talk on the radio and listen to country music and feed into each others’ redneck ideas.
But the trucks are what the interstate system is designed to carry these days. Individual mini-trains, consuming many times the fuel of a train, plying the highways, stopping at truck stop restaurants, truck stop churches, truck stop whorehouses, and truck stop porn shops.
Well, walking all day tends to solidify one’s views, too, just like being on the open road in a big truck does. You’re just lucky you’re receiving the benefit of a progressive perspective on things, instead of what some Rush Limbaugh-listening dude might give you. Politically, we’re all products of our environment, of course. Most of us have the politics of our parents. Some of us shift a little more to the right or left, but very few make a clean break with their fathers' ideas. Those who do renounce the conservatism of their parents and move to the left are the true heroes, in my book.
I have encountered some truly decent human beings of all political stripes—people who are willing to help others in the small ways that are available to all of us. As long as there is such generosity of spirit in people, there is hope for this country, in spite of the relentless right-wing propaganda machine that urges us to compartmentalize our decency, channel it only in the direction of those closest to us, and deny it to those we are taught to identify as The Other.
At about five miles into the walk I enter Kinmundy, population 900, incorporated 1857. The name is supposed to have come from a lake in Scotland. It’s the only place in the U.S. with this name, for what that’s worth. Kinmundy was a railroad junction, as I mentioned, and it was once larger and more prosperous than it is today, with a population that topped out at 1,500 in the early twentieth century. It had an opera house. A couple of major fires devastated the town, and probably hampered its continued growth. There's a recreated log cabin village outside town, but I won't be getting over there.
What I do have a chance to see is the old 100,000 gallon cypress water tower that was used by the railroad to service its steam engines from 1885 until 1953. After that the town of Kinmundy bought it from the railroad and used it for municipal water until 2000. One of the few remaining wooden water towers in the country. The plaque with all this on it was donated by the Woodmen of the World. Woodmen of the world, unite!
About ten miles into the walk I enter Alma, population 400. Most of Alma lies to the west, I think. Here on Railroad Street, which is what they call Route 37, the grain elevators sit next to the tracks, chutes hovering like the necks of giraffes, waiting for cars to fill. I could go into town to check it out, but I can safely predict what will be there, and I have no reason to think there are any secrets to be discovered: a mixture of older houses and prefabricated newer ones; a park with a covered pavilion; a war memorial of some kind; two or three churches, at least one of which is a dyed-in-the-wool independent fundamentalist bible-beating southern kind of church; a school; and probably a grocery store.
The internet says that Alma was previously known as Mound City, and also as Rantoul. Both these names now belong to other villages in Illinois.
The grocery store, Billy Jo’s General Store, is right here at the corner of Seventh Street. I go in and spend a little time talking to the young woman at the cash register, whose name is LaKrista (spelling approximate). I tell her about the walk, and she's kind of interested. She says she thought at first that I was a coon hunter. Apparently there’s a huge gathering of coon hunters down in Salem. That might explain why there haven’t been many raccoons on the road lately—they’re hiding or they’ve been killed by hunters. Anyway, Billy Jo’s is selling beer on Sunday, as one of the only places in Marion County that has a license to do so. I guess when you’re huntin’ coons you need to drink a lot of beer. Salem got special permission to open the bars on Sunday because of the coon hunters. I ask LaKrista if there is anything interesting I should know about Alma, and she can't think of anything. However, she does set me straight on one thing. Farina, where I started today, is pronounced Far-EYE-na. I guess that figures.
I stop at the Alma Cemetery. The surnames on the stones are all English—Smith, Johnson, Hinkley, Aldrich, Mayberry, Hutchinson. One of the grave markers is a bench made of shiny black marble. It’s a Smith. I take advantage of it to sit down and rest and gaze out at the soybean fields and the horizon with the brown and orange and yellow leaves on the trees. It’s a beautiful day here in southern Illinois, out on the prairie, where all the women have tattoos, a few of the men are good looking, and all the children are average to below average.
After another five miles I see a sign that says “The Churches of Salem Welcome You. Come, Let Us Worship the Lord.” Tingling with anticipation at the prospect of worshipping with the Salemites, I enter the City of Salem, population 8000. Although I have passed the city limits, I still have an hour or more of walking to reach my destination on the far south side.
I come to a delightful little place called Moonlight Park that has several hundred car bumpers buried halfway in the ground, an old Volkswagen up on stilts, and a small airplane posed with its nose buried in the ground and a mock skeleton in the cockpit. This park appears to be private, the creation of the Pollards, owners of a used car lot. They’ve taken some of the old cars and things they’ve collected over the years and made a tourist spot out of them. An unexpected pleasure.
Salem Community High School is a very large affair, with great art deco touches on its façade.
As I round a curve I get another surprise. There’s a municipal park with a statue of William Jennings Bryan. There’s a plaque in front. Bryan was born in Salem in 1860 and lived here until 1875. After his “Cross of Gold” speech made him famous in 1896, he was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908, and served as Secretary of State from 1913 to 1915. He died in 1925 after the Scopes trial.
Yes he did. So Bryan lived here as a boy. The great populist Democrat from the heartland. In his “Cross of Gold” speech, he used religious imagery to rail against some kind of monetary policy, saying, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The competition between advocates of the silver and gold standards was big back then, although now it seems pretty silly. And speaking of silly, in later life Bryan acted as a special prosecutor in the Dayton, Tennessee trial of John Scopes, who was arrested for teaching evolution in high school. (The teaching, arrest, and trial were a put-up job, in order to challenge the law in Tennessee.) So Bryan didn’t believe in evolution, and was defending the literal six-day version of creation in Genesis. A few days after the trial he croaked.
If you want a good look into the soul of the Democratic Party prior to World War Two, consider William Jennings Bryan’s infamous remark about Haiti, while serving as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State: “Imagine! Niggers speaking French!” It took two presidents from former slave states, Truman and Johnson, to begin to exorcise the demons of hatred from the Democratic Party and send them to the Republicans, where they belong.
The Marion County Courthouse occupies the block on Broadway between Schwartz and Main Streets. Of course it’s closed on Sundays. The building is made of fat white blocks, and looks like a lot of government buildings in Washington D.C. It was built in 1910. A plaque on the front steps confirms my earlier supposition about the naming of Marion County. It honors the Revolutionary War soldiers who were later buried in Marion County. Eight of them. And the plaque was placed by the General Francis Marion chapter of the Children of the American Revolution.
There's a nice little park on another corner of Broadway and Main, called the Sweeney Corner. It has a small, four-tiered fountain and some flowers, and a sign promises a mural on one of the walls, for which they are raising money.
I pass the offices of the local newspaper, the Salem Times-Commoner. That’s a reference to William Jennings Bryan’s nickname--The Great Commoner. A couple of blocks down Broadway I come to Bryan’s birthplace. It’s a two-story white house dating from about the middle of the 19th century. A sign on the front says to ring the bell for a tour, which I do. But no answer. So I don't get a tour of the birthplace of the great blowhard orator.
On down Broadway a sign in front of the county fairgrounds says “Welcome PKC 2009 World Coon Hunt.” In the distance I can hear the obnoxious baying of hunting dogs. So I guess the coon hunters are whooping it up at the fairgrounds, swapping stories. I could join them with coon stories from the road. “Yeah, well, I didn’t kill it, but I saw it dead on the road, guts hanging out of its mouth. Sucker must have weighed twenty pounds.”