Thursday, October 29, 2009

Day 33: Pennies from heaven

Outside Whittington to Cedar Grove. 20.7 miles/506.3 total

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I'm leaving from that state-owned land near old Dewey Ray Wilkins's place, heading into the cities of Benton, West Frankfort, and Johnston City, to the village of Cedar Grove.

It’s cloudy and windy this morning, and I won’t be surprised if it starts to rain before I’m finished. This is my most ambitious walk to date, at 20.7 miles. As overcast as it is, I’ll be getting down to the destination just before dark, and that’s cutting it a little close. I have to start getting up earlier, and spending less time puttering around before I start walking. After that time change, I'll have to get up even earlier.

Since Mt. Vernon the terrain has been noticeably more hilly, and very little land along the road is under cultivation. Back where I came in to Illinois, near Terre Haute, there was nothing but corn and soybeans. I think this is coal mining country down here.

They’re having elections here in Little Egypt next week, local ones, and I think maybe a special election for governor after Rod Blagojevich got bounced out earlier in the year. What surprises me is that there are quite a few Democrats running for sheriff in these counties. The reason that’s surprising is that most of the white southern Democrats switched over to the Republican Party starting in ’64, leaving the Democratic Party to African Americans and a tiny minority of white liberals. By 1980 white southern Democrats were as scarce as hen’s teeth. I’m going to speculate that here in Copperhead country they vote Democratic at the local level, out of habit and tradition, but they vote Republican in the bigger races--governor, senator, and the presidential elections. Anyway, these guys who are running for sheriff down here all have these southern-sounding names, like J.T. Moore and D.L. Richardson.

The modern Democratic Party still likes to trace its roots back to Jefferson and Jackson, and the populist, anti-Federalist, anti-banking, anti-big business issues. The party of the little guy. But until well after World War Two they were pretty much just for the little white guy. Today the Democrats have more in common with the progressive wing of the old Republican Party, embodied by Theodore Roosevelt, than with their own populist tradition. As for the Democratic Party before and after the Civil War, they made a lot of noise about decentralization and state’s rights, but that was code for racism and the right of southern states to continue to have slavery. Northern Democrats of the same era had a little more claim to being pro-labor and opposed to business conglomerates, but they always had to accommodate the southern faction of the party, which was their little deal with the devil they couldn’t get out of until about a century after the Civil War.

A couple of miles into the walk I enter Benton, population 7200. Just a little inside the city limits I pass the office of the United Mine Workers of America, District 12. So I know there's still some mining going on. This is probably where all that coal I saw in the freight trains a few days ago was coming from. Benton was organized in 1841, and named after Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. The internet says that George Harrison visited his sister here in 1963, and also visited the nearby town of Eldorado. His sister’s house is now the Hard Day’s Nite Bed and Breakfast. But the coolest thing I’ve been able to find out about Benton is that it's the home town of the actor John Malkovich. Remember him as the Russian guy Teddy KGB in that movie Rounders, breaking apart those Oreo cookies while he was playing poker? His accent was a little over the top, but the part was good.

In the middle of Benton I arrive at the Franklin County Courthouse, which is surrounded by a large town square in the downtown business district. The building was completed in 1875, but has had some rather ugly expansion to the ground floor since then. Because cell phones aren’t allowed in the building, I decide not to go in. In some places you can take them in, or leave them with the sheriff at the metal detector. I can’t think where I’d leave my phone, and from a peek in the front door it doesn’t look like I’m missing much. All around the square there are antique malls, about four or five of them. After spending time in two of them, I have to walk on out of town before I spend too much time and money. But I do get some good bargains, and come away with four pocket knives and a straight razor. Among the knives is a genuine Walt Disney Davy Crockett knife, with a picture of Fess Parker as Davy Crockett on the handle.

Benton has a warm feel to it. It’s old, and making no serious attempt to look new. So the trees are large and mature, and the church buildings are from a century or more ago. There’s still a train depot standing, now used as a food pantry. Down past one of the few new buildings, the public library, I stop to wait for a Union Pacific freight train that is crossing Route 37. On the other side of the tracks I pass under a graceful old gingko tree, its fan-shaped leaves a bright yellow trimmed with green.

The sign in front of the New Life Apostolic Pentecostal Church says, “Look up, your redemption draweth nigh.” Involuntarily I raise my eyes to the sky. I wonder what form my redemption will take today?

Next up is the City of West Frankfort, population 8500. I assume it got its name because folks from Kentucky came here and named it after the capital of their state. (Later I find out it was named after a fort built by a guy named Francis Jordan, which became known as Frank’s Fort. The fort was for protection against the Indians in the early 1800s. The original settlement was to the east, and later there was another settlement west of that, which became this city.)

Between Benton and West Frankfort it started to rain, and it looks like the rain has settled in for the day. My pants are wet up to my thighs and my feet are soaked. But the good news is that it’s fairly warm—somewhere in the low 60s—and I can’t get any wetter, so all I have to do is get used to it. I’m going to breeze on through West Frankfort without getting too familiar with it. It’s raining like crazy and I want to keep moving.

I spend the next five miles, from West Frankfort to Johnston City, slogging through the rain, entertaining myself by singing “Desolation Row” and other Bob Dylan songs.

Suddenly money seems to start falling from the sky along with the raindrops. First I find a quarter on the roadside, then three pennies in quick succession. Then over the next few miles another penny, and another. It makes me think of what Shakespeare said, in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

The coins I'm finding are like that. My blessing goes out to those who dropped them. Pennies from heaven. What a beautiful thing.

I enter Johnston City, population 3600. Route 37 takes me down the west side of the city, and whatever earthly delights the city center holds for a weary wanderer, I will not partake of them today. Gotta keep moving. Johnston City’s main claim to fame is that for many years it hosted an annual pool tournament, attracting hustlers from all over the country, including frequent visits by Minnesota Fats, who lived in nearby Dowell, Illinois.

At just under 19 miles, I enter the village of Whiteash. (It's not on the sign, but the internet tells me the population in the last census was 268.) Quite a bit of commercial activity for such a small place. There’s a junk store called The Yard Sale Shoppe, and Whisker Willy’s Bar and Grille, and a package store and an army surplus store. Not to mention a couple of big churches—the All Nations Church of Whiteash and the Whiteash Freewill Baptist Church.

This has truly been a fat day for change found by the roadside. Altogether since it started raining I have found two quarters, ten pennies, and two nickels, for a total of 70 cents. That’s the biggest single haul since that day in Indiana when I picked up over a dollar, including a Kennedy half dollar. It could be because the rain has washed the dirt off these coins, making it easier for me to see them, or that I'm just looking more carefully. But I don’t think so. I’ve always got my eye on the road for coins and other things, and I’ve walked in the rain a number of times. I think there might be something bigger going on here. Suddenly I get a thought. At those antique malls in Benton they were playing oldies from the big band era. Is it possible that one of the songs I heard might have been Bing Crosby singing “Pennies from Heaven”? Nah, who would believe that?

Less than half a mile after I leave Whiteash I come to another little village called Cedar Grove. This one isn’t even on my map, which is so detailed that it has just about every road in the State of Illinois. Yet here it is, with its own green and white sign.

Cedar Grove is where I parked the motor home, in the large parking lot of a construction company, just across the street from the world headquarters of the TCT Television Network. Probably one of those religious outfits. (It is indeed. Turns out TCT stands for Tri-State Christian Television. Part of the vast right-wing conspiracy to turn our brains to mush with a continuous barrage of mumbo jumbo.)


Anonymous said...

Love your blog! I have lived in West Frankfort for a few years now and learned quite a bit from you about this area's history and politics. I always wondered why so many locals had yard signs for both McCain and local Democrats. Now I know!

Sorry we rained on you. I hope you get to come back to W.F. someday when it's nicer. We have a terrific city park, a Presidential museum, and a memorial statue that tells the story of the 1951 mining disaster which took the lives of 119 men. The biggest employer in town is Crownline Boats, which is the largest privately-owned custom boat company in the world. It almost folded a few months ago but was brought back from the brink. (Thank goodness! We really need those jobs.)

I hope the rest of your trip is magnificent and fun-filled!

Peter Teeuwissen said...

Thanks so much for the information, and for your interest in the blog. It's great to have a local reader to fill in the picture and keep me honest. What's the presidential museum about--Lincoln? Stay tuned, since I'll be walking on down Route 37 to Cairo. Maybe you can provide more details.

Anonymous said...

The Presidential Museum is a collection of artifacts gathered by former Congressman Ken Gray during his long career. (Gray still is extremely popular in this area, recently having a stretch of highway named after him and often asked to speak at local events). His collection contains over 12,000 items of memorabilia like greeting cards, dolls, autographed gavels -- even antique cars! It's quite eclectic to say the least. Ironically, a television news story ran today, telling that museum is suffering from funding issues and may have to be sold.