Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Day 32: Little Egypt

Mt. Vernon to near Whittington. 19.7 miles/485.6 total

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Let's see. . . . where was I? Oh, yes. In Mt. Vernon, Illinois, heading south. Going through the rest of town.

I didn’t even bother to attempt to hitchhike today, because on the way down I went past a prison, and there were signs saying not to pick up hitchhikers. So much for that.

Beginning my excursion in earnest into the region known as Little Egypt. I didn’t need Wikipedia to tell me that the sensibilities of the people in Little Egypt are closer to those of Kentuckians and people from southern Missouri than to the rest of Illinois, but it did say that. Perhaps influenced by reading that, I'm beginning to sense that I'm drawing closer to the south.

Here’s a bit of local color. I found a place to park the motor home for the day, and just for good measure I went to the house next door to check if it was okay. The guy who lived there was a friendly older guy, who was about to say something to me, then he suddenly got a call on his cell phone, and interrupted himself. Here’s his side of the phone conversation:

Hello. Yep. Yep. What? His name is Dewey Ray Wilkins. Lives over by the tar [tower]. I don’t know what kind a tar. Cell phone, mebby. One road goes to the tar, and the other goes to Dewey’s. Yep. Yep. No, it’s not unoccupied. The roof fell in on the one building, but Dewey lives in the other one, the north one. Yep. Yep. Well, I got a feller here. Gotta go.

After he hung up, he looked at with a smile and said, "Buddy, you can park over there as long as you want. See that stake out there?" He was pointing at an iron pin in the ground near his mailbox. "Well, that’s my property line. That over there’s state property." So I guess I got permission from one of the people of Illinois to park on Illinois property.

The northern part of Mt. Vernon is distinctly nicer looking than the southern part. Shady older residential neighborhoods with mature trees and good-sized lawns. All kinds of houses, but all neat and well-kept. This is where the better-off folks of the city live. It’s not as if you can go out to the suburbs around here—there are no suburbs outside the city limits.

Each day the trees grow more colorful, and the leaves are beginning to pile up on the sidewalks and lawns. The sweet gums are everywhere, all red and yellow. I walk through piles of rustling slippery leaves. Their smell is invigorating, reminding me that I like this time of year best of all. I’ve been fortunate that by walking south I’ve been able to prolong the fall.

Over on 9th street, a block east of Route 37, is the handsome art deco façade of the old Granada Theater, which is featuring a Halloween Gala this evening. Just down from the theater, on Main in the block between 9th and 10th, stands the Jefferson County Courthouse, built in 1939. Effigies of Jefferson and Lincoln are chiseled into the marble above the doors. I go inside. It’s nothing fancy, but in the lobby there’s a series of murals telling a bit of the Mt. Vernon story: Zadok Casey blazing a trail through what is now downtown; the first courthouse being erected in 1819 on this site; the second courthouse in 1829, poorly constructed, that only stood briefly; the next courthouse, mid-Victorian in style, destroyed by the great cyclone of February 19, 1888. They kept my camera when I came in, so I can’t photograph the murals.

The south end of town is old and worn out. Closed up motels. Large empty parking lots. Used car lots, which seem to flourish, like weeds, wherever there’s space. One story storefronts, a few occupied. A rescue mission. Housing projects, dilapidated houses. The very antithesis of the north half of town, full of promise and industry and tidiness and domestic warmth. Here it’s all second chances, last chances, and no chances. Destitution. Over it all the leaves are falling, on the just and the unjust, floating in the grey mud puddles and clinging to the bases of rusty sign posts.

I pass a place called Mom’s Tattoos. What an odd juxtaposition of words for those of us old enough to remember when the only women who wore tattoos worked for the circus, and our mothers would have fainted dead away at the very idea of putting ink into their skins.

At a little over eight miles I enter the village of Bonnie, population 450. I couldn't find out anything about the origin of the name, but I’ll bet Bonnie and Ina (the name of the next town) were daughters of some railroad guy. The former Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad runs right alongside. Today the tracks are used by the Union Pacific and others. One thing the internet did say is that the Bonnie Interdenominational Holiness Camp meets ten days each summer, and has been a continuous summer camp for over 130 years.

Bonnie is modest but very neat. No junk or wrecked cars in peoples’ front yards. Laid out pretty evenly on both sides of the tracks. There are towns where you can tell at once that people care about how the place looks. This is one of those. Bonnie may have little else to boast of, but that’s quite a bit.

Another explanation for how Little Egypt got its name is based on the Old Testament. The story goes that there were times of famine or poor crops when folks outside this area would have to come to Little Egypt to obtain grain for feed. Just like when the Israelites had to go to Egypt because they were starving (only to find their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery, in charge of the food distribution).

At the Kirk Cemetery, just across the railroad tracks from Route 37, the sign says, “Your loved ones are dependent on your contributions for maintenance here.” Well, I beg to differ. I think the loved ones are beyond being dependent on anyone for anything. They’re pretty much without a care at this point. The oldest stones have the names Farthing, Kirk, Dunbar, Booher. I sit down to rest for a few moments on the tombstone of Esther Williams, whose husband Claud died just last year. Esther’s still with us, but her stone is ready for when she comes to join Claud. All the stones face the setting sun, over the tracks and across the road, where there are a couple of shacks and a fifth wheel for sale, and a backhoe by a pole barn, waiting to dig the next hole in the cemetery.

Nothing surpasses the peace of a country cemetery. The collective slumber of thousands of those who have gone before. The quiet of nothing but earth, bones, and stones. There’s no hurry here. The dead can wait. You can join them tomorrow, or many years from now. They'll be here.

At twelve and a half miles I enter Ina, population 2500. Obviously there’s more to this place than meets the eye, but still it has nothing to offer the wayfarer along Route 37, and I don’t want to add another mile to this walk by going over by the expressway, so I will forgo the second drink I had hoped to buy. Back around 1840 Ina had a number of Cherokee Indian settlers probably refugees from the Trail of Tears. During the 1800s it was sometimes referred to as the Cherokee Reservation.

About a mile south of Ina is the Big Muddy River Correctional Center. It’s not too large, but it looks like it means business, with plenty of barbed wire and fences and guard towers. And tiny windows covered with bars. Again Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol comes to mind:

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
Ever should look upon!

I am now approaching Rend Lake, which is a huge reservoir and recreation area, created by the damming of some river. I am on a causeway about a mile and a half long across a branch of Rend Lake. Whenever I use the word causeway I always think about The Godfather and the great scene where Tom Hagen tells Vito Corleone, “They shot Sonny on the causeway. He’s dead.” They should have paid Robert Duvall what he was asking to be in The Godfather Part 3. It would have been well worth the money.

Because I haven’t seen a single store since I left Mt. Vernon, I finally stop at a little café on the edge of the recreation area, and have a drink and spend a few minutes talking to the waitress about her troubles with her cholesterol medication. It's nice to have the human contact. The pause that refreshes.

I pass the Whittington water tower, and the other tower next to it, which is as close to Whittington as I’m going to get. And I pass old Dewey Ray Wilkins’s place, just as the guy had described, with the one building with the caved in roof and the other one where Dewey lives. And in a few more minutes the truckster comes into sight.


Billie Bob said...

Apparently, the fall weather has you in a more poetic mode. Nice writing! I really enjoyed this installment, maybe because I like the fall too, and you certainly got the "feel" right.

Anonymous said...

My mother would not even wear red and she would lower her voice to say D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Tattoos, no way!

Anonymous said...

Hi Pete. It sure is good of you to write all this stuff down. On account of I gotta work for a living I don't get out much, so this writin sure is friendly like at the end of the day.

Mrs. Moses

Peter Teeuwissen said...