Monday, November 30, 2009

Day 49: Coahoma

Maud to near Coahoma. 17 miles/827.9

Monday, November 30, 2009

Back on the road. It’s 10:40 a.m. I’m leaving from the center of Maud, such as it is, heading south through the villages of Dundee and Lula to my destination on new Highway 61 near Coahoma. I have to leave Old Highway 61 because I can't find it south of Lula, near Moon Lake. Moon Lake looks on the map like a piece of the Mississippi that got cut off from the main river due to a course change. That has a tendency to happen down here, because the Mississippi meanders so much.

I won't be walking through Coahoma as I had originally intended to do. That’s because I couldn’t bring myself to park the motor home there. Coahoma is a town of about 350 located on Old Highway 61. I have developed a kind of mental block about the place. Coahoma is the reason I left Mississippi on Thursday the 19th, instead of the next day. I was all set to walk to Coahoma that morning, and was looking for a place to park the motor home, but I got a bad feeling about leaving it there, because of the seriously Third World look of the town, where people wander about aimlessly on the main street at all hours of the day, drinking cans of beer from paper sacks, and looking hungrily at anything that comes into their town from outside. Coahoma is without doubt the dumpiest place I’ve been in on this journey, and I don’t bestow that distinction lightly. It has that kind of idle poverty that you see in places where nobody has anything to do and everyone just hangs out looking for any kind of opportunity. I couldn’t see stopping the motor home and detaching the car and then leaving it, under the eyes of the townspeople.

As I sat in Coahoma by the railroad tracks on the 19th, I did make an acquaintance. A fellow of about 30 or 35 came up to the motor home and greeted me, sort of unofficially welcoming me to the town. We chatted very amiably for a few minutes. He has, or had, a relative in Michigan. This morning I went back there to see if a week and a half had given me a new perspective on the place, and who should wave at me but my friend from before. He came up to the driver’s side of the motor home again, and I opened the window to say hello. He gave me a grin, showing at least four teeth missing on the top in front, and shook my hand. “You really like this little town, don’t you?” he said. “Yeah, I guess I do,” I replied gloomily. Then he asked me if I could spare fifty cents. I gave him the money, and decided once again, as I had last time, that I would go out to new Highway 61 and find another ending point for the walk. Last time I was looking for a place when I decided to chuck it for the day and start driving back. This time I knew I had to find a place, and fast, because of the late start.

But I’ve got my legs moving now, and I'm leaving Maud. Maud, you may recall, is where I left my dog Cotton. I see scattered armadillo parts that almost look like pieces of tire. They’re old road kill, from months ago. I guess the armadillos are hibernating or something.

Over the Thanksgiving break I got biographies of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson out of the library, to refresh my memory about some of these Delta locations and who played in them. Robinsonville, where I started my last walk, was a biggie, with Son House and Robert Johnson and others playing there. Clarksdale, where I’ll be walking tomorrow, is home to a museum dedicated to the blues. Today I’ll be walking a few miles east of Stovall, the plantation where Muddy Waters grew up and where he was “discovered” in the early 1940s.

Three miles down the road from Maud I enter the village of Dundee. Dundee is comparatively civilized, in that it has an elementary school. On the other side of the street is the St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, a one-story white shingled affair. A few dozen houses, and that's about it. Dundee, nursery of arts and letters.

South of Dundee I come to another country cemetery. It’s the usual bunch of haphazardly arranged, sometimes makeshift, graves. Some bear real tombstones and others have the little four by six inch stickers from the funeral homes, ordinarily used to mark the graves until the real tombstones are delivered. They look like larger versions of those colored plastic things they stick in your steak, for rare, medium rare, medium, etc. Here they're used as permanent markers until the white cards with the names typed on them fall out.

In the south they seem to be comfortable with the idea that a large part of the population is and will remain very poor. There is little in the way of formal social or moral commitment to eradicating poverty on the part of wealthier people. I'm not sure poverty is even considered a bad thing by those who aren't poor. In truth, until fairly recently poverty was a good thing from the standpoint of landowners and farmers, because it represented the large class of peons from which the cheap labor force was taken. Affluence and poverty seem to coexist more or less amiably, and have little influence on one another.

At 6.1 miles I pass a big sign that says “Johnson’s Bottom.” There’s no village, just cotton fields. Don’t know what that’s about. A mile or so later I leave Tunica County and enter Coahoma County, whose seat is Clarksdale. Coahoma, by the way, is a Choctaw word meaning "red panther."

Almost as soon as I get to Coahoma County I’m in the town of Lula, population 370. Lula isn’t quite as bad as Coahoma. Leading into the village from the north, on the other side of the tracks, there are some reasonably tidy-looking ranch style houses with a minimum of trash in front, some in need of almost no major repairs. I pass the Good Shepherd Market, a convenience store that doubles as a platform for evangelism, from the looks of it. Two blocks on down, the town sinners gather next to Hawkins Package Store--six or eight men in their thirties and forties, loitering, joking and laughing, drinking from containers wrapped in paper bags. Music plays from a car radio parked nearby. It’s noon on a Monday and the men are idle and half-drunk. One of them, with no teeth, smiles and waves at me. (Why do the toothless ones seem to like me?) Across the street sits an unmanned police car.

There’s a lot of railroad rolling stock sitting around on sidings in these crappy towns. Don’t quite know why. Maybe because the railroads know that nobody in these places will give a damn whether a couple of dozen tankers sit on the tracks for a few years, or forever.

With Lula behind me, and the Lula-Moon Lake Road as well, I turn on to Highway 49, which merges with 61 a couple of miles east of here. I’ve put on the iPod and am listening to Muddy Waters songs—from the early Chess days. At the moment he’s saying that he’s going back down to Clarksdale, because that’s where he belongs.

Where Highway 49 meets Highway 61, I pass the Senator Delma Furniss Welcome Center and Hospitality Station, where 24 hour security is provided. About three miles down on Highway 61 there’s a historical marker, about the Yazoo Pass Expedition. It says that on February 3, 1863 Union forces blasted the levee on the Mississippi to enable their flotilla to move on Moon Lake and some other subsidiary rivers, in order to get to Vicksburg. But the Union forces were stopped by the Confederates and the Yazoo Pass Expedition failed. So this marker sort of celebrates the Union defeat, although the north did take Vicksburg a couple of months later at considerable cost to the Confederates.

After reading the marker I sit on a highway bridge and take a rest and look at the waning afternoon sun. My legs and feet are extremely tired today, and out of shape from my ten days of rest.

I keep seeing little pieces of bleached out armadillo shell on the roadside. They look like bits of Styrofoam coffee cups that have been flattened out. The nine-banded armadillo, the variety native to this area, has a tendency to jump straight up in the air when startled, which often results in its colliding with the undercarriages or fenders of cars.

I reach the motor home, safely parked in front of the defunct Junction Rhythm and Blues Club, on Highway 61/49.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Progress report: Pure Michigan (whatever that means)

Friday, November 20, 2009
I really intended to walk yesterday, but things worked out differently. It was to be my last day of walking until after Thanksgiving. Early in the morning I drove the route, from Maud (where, by the way, I looked for but didn't find the dog Cotton, pictured above) into the town of Coahoma, a few miles north of Clarksdale. Then I thought I'd better find some gas for the motor home and check out a place to park it for ten days or so. I was planning to leave for Michigan late last night or early this morning. I asked around at a few places and found out there's an RV park at the Coahoma County Fairgrounds in Clarksville. I went there, but it was strictly self-serve and pay on the honor system. I talked to a guy who was camping who told me to go to the Clarksville Tourism Office. There, I chatted with several people and finally got permission to park next to the campground for free, since I won't be using any of their facilities (electricity, water, sewer). By the time all this was done it was late in the morning. I figured I'd start driving right away, go about halfway, then stop for the night. But I made good time, and drove straight through, arriving home at about 2:00 a.m., stoked by the caffeine I've been denying myself while I walk.
It's good to be home with Laurine. Our two-year-old grandson Jacob is here for a few days, too. Laurine and I will be going out to our daughter Katie's in Minnesota for Thanksgiving. I should be back on the road by November 30.
Thanks to everyone who's been following. It means more than you can imagine to know that I'm not doing this alone. Hope you all have a great holiday.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Day 48: Cotton

Robinsonville to Maud. 19.6 miles/810.9 total

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

It's another grey cloudy day, in the high 40s, as I leave from the village of Robinsonville. I'm heading to Maud, walking on Old Highway 61 all the way. My walk will take me through the City of Tunica and several places so small that Wikipedia has nothing on them.

Old 61 is the route to take to retrace the steps of the old Delta bluesmen. The Robinsonville area was home to Son House, one of the early influential figures in the history of the blues. Just north of here, in Clack (gone, with all the land owned by Harrah’s now), House was recorded by Alan Lomax in the early 1940s at the Clack Store. Others who played near here include Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.

Son House’s guitar style was slide guitar, often with the use of a bottle neck. Muddy Waters acknowledged that this man influenced him the most. One of Son House’s songs was called “Preachin’ the Blues,” and goes like this:

I’m gonna get me religion,
I’m gonna join the Baptist church.
Gonna be a Baptist preacher
So I won’t have to do no work.

It seems that Son House hit on one of the reasons there are so many churches in the south.

As for the new Highway 61, I looked carefully and in vain for any signs saying that pedestrians aren’t allowed on the big road. As I think I mentioned, it’s not a limited access highway, just a divided one. So I’m pretty sure that the prohibition against pedestrians on Highway 61 in DeSoto County is one of those crypto-laws, like the one against hitchhiking in Missouri that the cop in Hayti told me about. In other words, it's bullshit. There are a couple of possibilities. The first is that the sheriff may have been ignorant of the law. Cops, as we all know, are notoriously misinformed about the law, as well as about the various procedures for administering the law in a constitutional way. The other possibility is that the sheriff knew full well there was no such law, and was making it up as he went along, in order to have a pretext for stopping and checking out someone who looked like he didn’t quite fit in.

In any event, it illustrates the difference between de jure and de facto laws. A de jure law is one that exists on the books; a de facto law is one that the guy with the gun tells you is the law. Of course one must choose one’s battles, and if that is the greatest injustice I experience on this trip, I will count myself fortunate indeed. Anyway, I really don't want to walk on the new Highway 61.

Before the walk I met and chatted with a farmer in Maud, who gave me permission to park the motor home on his property for the day. He’s a retired Methodist minister, who had a church in Robinsonville. I asked him about the gambling boom in Tunica County. He told me that the casinos had saved the county, although the revenue has fallen off because of the economy. He said Tunica County is about 70% black, and for many years was listed as the poorest county in the country before the gambling came. Like almost all the rest of the folks I've met (civilians, anyway), he was very kind and willing to help.

At a little over five miles I enter Hollywood. I went through a place called Bowdre a mile or so out of Robinsonville, which didn’t amount to anything. Hollywood appears to be a going, if somewhat dingy, concern. Trailers, frame houses, old unused farm buildings. A black dog lies dead in someone’s front yard, up by the road. Ears up, listening for something it’s not going to hear. Sycamore trees hang over the road. Magnolias and swamp oaks grow on lawns. Off to the west across several miles of cotton fields is the Mississippi River. I pass a fairly large house. On the mailbox in front it says “Hollywood Plantation.”

South of town is a graveyard, bumpy and irregular and unkempt. Dotted with stones of people named Joe, Willie, Joe Willie, Earnestine, Viola, Mose. The veterans have government-issued tombstones; everybody else is on their own—some with store-bought markers and others with homemade ones, chiseled on chunks of concrete or made from metal signs that look like they might once have said "For Sale" in someone's front yard. I take a seat on a tree stump. I realize suddenly as I look at the indentations in front of me that the reason these poor folks’ cemeteries are so bumpy and hilly is that they are filled with old, no longer marked graves that have sunk down due to the decay of the wooden boxes in which the people were buried. I am looking at a neat row of several indentations, each about six feet long and two and a half feet wide and eight inches deep. They get filled with water and mud when it rains. Long forgotten people. There are more unmarked graves here than marked ones.

At about nine miles I enter the northern outskirts of Tunica, population about 1,100 in 2000. This area, called Tunica North, is where the casinos were originally located, until they expanded and moved out into the country where there's more room. A hundred yards to the east, on the new Highway 61, there’s a spiffy new middle school and high school, and a large new gymnasium. There’s also a new jail, sheriff’s office, and court building. Gambling money. Of course this infusion into the coffers of the county has not catapulted the majority of the citizens of Tunica into the middle class, by any means. The city and the county have treated themselves well, but individuals are still on their own.

Tunica has a cotton seed oil mill. It reminds me of something I learned at the Cotton Exchange Museum. One of the first products to use cotton seed oil extensively was Crisco, introduced by Procter & Gamble in 1911. They developed a method of hydrogenating cottonseed oil so that it would stay solid at room temperature. It was first intended to be a substitute for animal-based tallow used for candles, but when electricity pretty much did away with the need for candles, P&G figured that since Crisco looked like lard, they could market it as food. As a result, the company took a substantial position in cotton production in the south. Vertical integration. The name Crisco is short for “crystalized cottonseed oil.”

The downtown of Tunica consists of two streets, Edwards and Main, divided by a park-like town green about a block wide. You’re going to love this: In front of a store in downtown there’s a plaque that says it was once R.C. Irwin’s Mercantile Store. It says old Robert was one of the most influential men in the “material and moral development of the Mississippi Delta.” He and his family came west from Mecklenberg, North Carolina, but his parents became ill along the way, and the ten-year-old Robert and his brother made the rest of the trip alone, “along with their faithful slaves.” Robert became one of the largest landowners in Tunica County. When the Civil War broke out he gallantly joined the Confederacy, and afterwards “threw himself with all force of his character into the reclamation of his county from the wreck of war and its redemption from carpetbag rule.”

There’s a nice new fire department and city hall, too, and even a public restroom in the center of town. Over at the edge of the town square is another plaque, this one honoring Harold “HardfaceClanton, 1916-1982, a gambler who was known as the “Black Sheriff of Tunica County,” and reputedly was the first black millionaire in Tunica County. His promotion of illegal gambling for years helped pave the way for legalized casinos in the county in 1991. He had a place called The Barn where many famous Delta bluesmen entertained.

Three or four miles past the Tunica Gin and lots of cotton fields, I come to the village of Evansville, which consists of a grain elevator and a cotton gin and some shacks. A friendly black-and-tan dog comes up, tail wagging furiously, and licks my hand. I expect her to lose interest after a few hundred feet, when she reaches the end of her territory. But a mile later, the dog is still tagging along, dancing back and forth across the road and down into the ditches and the cotton fields, nosing around for garbage thrown from cars. At one point she starts sniffing at something lying on the other side of the road, and when I go over there I see that it’s a coyote, thoroughly flattened. I tell her to be careful, or that could be her. But she’s afraid of cars and trucks, and runs away from the road when one occasionally zips by. A good survival instinct around here.

As the next few miles go by, the dog continues to tag along, sometimes running ahead, sometimes shooting off into the fields, and occasionally walking alongside me. When I stop to pet her, she sits still in front of me and points her nose at the sky, waiting to get her neck and head scratched. Then she jumps up and puts her feet on my chest. I realize that in the space of an hour I have become rather attached to this creature. I even give her a name, Cotton, because she first darted out toward me from a cotton field, and because of a little white patch on the back of her neck that looks like a piece of the cotton lint that lines the roadside. She’s as quiet as cotton, too. I try to get her to bark, but she won’t do it. Once, when three other dogs rush out after her and start growling, I turn around to face them and they retreat. Cotton stays behind me and whines a little.

Every time I think the dog is finally gone, I look over my right shoulder and there she is. From her teeth and her overall condition I’d say she’s about two or three years old at most.

By the time I pass through Clayton, the next little nothing village down from Evansville, I realize that Cotton will be with me for the rest of today’s walk, six miles altogether. As I near Maud, my destination, I stop to have a talk with her. I tell her I’m leaving now, but that I’ll be back in Maud tomorrow to start my walk, and that if she’s still there, she can walk with me some more. Whatever happens, I’ve enjoyed the company of this dog, and I hope the feeling is mutual.

As I drive off, she's nosing around the yard of that retired preacher. Maybe he needs a dog. Maybe that's why she came here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Day 47: Why?

Horn Lake to Robinsonville. 20 miles/791.3 total

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I am leaving from a grocery store parking lot on Route 302 in Horn Lake, headed west to Highway 61 and then south to Robinsonville.

It’s cold and cloudy. I doubt if it will get much over 50 today. So far no rain, but that could come. It rained all day yesterday, but was quite a bit warmer. This weather feels like what I had up in Indiana in October.

I’m headed into Tunica County, which has been given over to casino development. Several of the major Las Vegas organizations have built casinos there, between Highway 61 and the Mississippi River—Harrah’s, Bally’s, the Horseshoe, and others.

I’m starting to accumulate Mississippi stats in my little notebook. I found my first dead raccoon, and my first penny, with duct tape on one side of it.

One of the things that strikes me about Mississippi so far, as well as Memphis and Arkansas, is the large number of churches. I thought West Michigan was full of churches, and it is, but down here they are on practically every corner. Some of them are little squalid flyblown dumps, but many are well-built and expensively turned out. There is a huge amount of money, and land, tied up in religion down here. Most of the churches, probably 70% or more, are of the “Baptist” type, generally. By that I mean that they practice Christianity with certain things in common, namely, baptism by total immersion, and a congregational form of church governance, with the ultimate authority being the individual congregation, rather than an ecclesiastical hierarchy. Down here, they also tend to be fundamentalist, meaning that they interpret the bible literally. This does not apply to the United Methodists, probably another 20% of the churches, who practice infant baptism by sprinkling and have a modified episcopal form of church polity, and generally take a slightly more enlightened view of the bible.

I’m walking through Lynchburg, another suburb of Memphis. Here Route 302 is five lanes wide and just waiting to be developed by someone other than Baptists.

I spent the day in Memphis yesterday, and went to Graceland. Imagine my surprise and delight when I got there and discovered that there are pictures of Billie Bob everywhere! On signs, billboards, t-shirts, and all kinds of souvenirs.

Here are my impressions of Graceland for what they're worth, and in no particular order. The house itself is smaller than I thought it would be. It’s large, but not what you'd call a mansion. The swimming pool is pretty small, too. The furniture and decorating are very tacky, which is partly because it was last decorated in the 70s, and partly because Elvis was a hick.

Graceland sits on about 13 acres, which is a pretty good piece of land for a house in a city. The other thing that impressed me, as I looked at a number of the outfits Elvis wore, was that Elvis himself was a big guy. A big hunk of burning love. And, I must say, very good looking, at least during the period starting from when he got out of the army to about the early 70s.

In addition to Graceland and its outbuildings, I visited exhibits dedicated to Elvis's army stint, his movie career, and a museum dedicated to his vehicles (some of which were repurchased for the exhibit)—limos, Rolls Royces, motorcycles, sports cars, a John Deere tractor, and the pink 1955 Cadillac he gave to his mother. Also, Elvis's two private jets, the full-sized Lisa Marie and the smaller Hound Dog II. They pack a lot of Elvis into the tour.

Next I went to the Cotton Exchange Museum in Memphis, where I learned a lot more about cotton. I had been told by a guy I met on the road in Missouri that a module of cotton was fourteen bales, and that a bale weighs 400 pounds. But the woman at the museum set me straight on that. A bale weighs 500 pounds, and that’s after ginning (removal of the seeds). A module will yield fifteen bales, so that’s 7500 pounds of ginned cotton. But about two-thirds of the weight of the raw cotton in a module is the seeds. That means that a module of cotton weighs more like 22,500 pounds. That makes a little more sense to me, considering the size of a module (about 8 x 8 x 30 feet).

Cotton is judged and graded on its color and how clean it is, and also on the length of the fibers of the plant, called the staple. Short staple cotton has fibers that range from about half an inch to an inch and an eighth. Long staple cotton, traditionally grown in Egypt, can have fibers of two inches or more. The longer the staple, or fiber, the finer and thinner will be thread, because there will need to be fewer splices. Sheets that have up to sixty threads per inch are made from Egyptian cotton, mostly. Short staple cotton makes thicker and bumpier thread, like the kind used for denim.

The woman at the museum also told me that she knows someone who is writing a book about Robert E. Lee Wilson, the guy who founded the town of Wilson, Arkansas. He was once the largest single cotton farmer in the country, with 65,000 acres. I wrote a few things about him in one of these posts. I’m looking forward to reading that book when it comes out.

Kudzu lines the ditches as I approach Highway 61 and turn south. Here Highway 61 is more like an expressway than it was up in Missouri and Arkansas. I’ll take it a few miles and then turn west and pick up Old Highway 61, a more sedate, two-lane road, that runs parallel and goes through the little villages.

Well, I run into a little snag out on Highway 61 about two miles down. A DeSoto County Sheriff deputy stops me and informs me that pedestrians are prohibited on this part of Highway 61. I was not aware of that, and hadn’t seen any signs. It’s not limited access. Anyway, he makes me get in the back seat of his car, after taking my driver’s license to check me out. First he says he's going to drop me down at the county line, about six miles from where we are. I tell him what I'm doing, and ask if he can take me somewhere a little closer. I mention that I was planning to go to Star Landing Road and take that over to Old Highway 61 in Lake Cormorant, so he says he'll drop me off there, which is only about two miles from where we are.

Before he has me get in the car he asks me if I have anything on me he “should be concerned about,” meaning, I think, weapons. I give him my pocket knife, which he holds onto, then he begins feeling the many pockets of my vest.

“What’s this?”
“An apple.”
“An apple?”
“What’s this?”
“A sandwich.”
“A sandwich?”
“Yep, a sandwich. Wanna see it?”
"What else you got in there?"
"Lots of stuff. I'm really harmless."

And on it goes as he frisks me, top to bottom. Then when I'm in the back seat and he’s finished running my driver’s license, he takes me down to Star Landing Road. I try to engage him in conversation, but he isn’t too chatty. I tell him about the motor home in Robinsonville, and the car up in Horn Lake, and try to explain the whole deal, but he's really having a hard time taking it in. Finally he turns to me and asks, “Why? What’s the point?” As always, a good question. Anyway, he lets me out of the car and gives me my knife back and I thank him for the ride and for his courtesy, and we go our separate ways.

So I have another slight gap in my walk, to go with the one I got up on the bridge from Cairo, Illinois to Missouri. At least I can still say that I haven't voluntarily taken any rides. Now I’m heading down Star Landing Road, which a sign says is the Hernando DeSoto Trail, 1541. It's amazing to think that almost 470 years ago some Spanish dudes walked right along here, with those outrageous helmets of theirs.

Now I’m on Old Highway 61, a two-lane road, and it’s about as lonely as it can be. I see what might be a cormorant taking off from some bushes—a large black water bird—so I know that Lake Cormorant is as good as its name. According to the map I go through the villages of Newport and Penton, but I would be hard pressed to say exactly where these places are. There's nothing to either of them. Lake Cormorant isn’t much, but it does have a post office and what was once a store of some kind.

In the distance I see the water tower of the Harrah’s hotel and casino complex, and at about 16 miles I leave DeSoto County and enter Tunica County. This is where all the casinos are, and as soon as I enter the county I’m on Harrah’s property. Old Highway 61 is called Harrah’s Boulevard here. According to the map, in this area there was once a village called Clack, but it probably wasn’t much of anything to begin with, and now it’s all gone.

Just over the county line a fleet of about thirty stretch limousines, black and white, is parked and waiting. The sheriff’s little ride has afforded me some extra time before dark, so I walk another half a mile down to the casino entrance and take the long driveway in. I’m going to try my luck, doing the same thing I did at the casino up in Michigan City, Indiana, which was to play five dollars in the lowest denomination slot machine they have, and quit when I’ve either lost the five or get ahead. About a half hour later I walk out of Harrah’s, warmed up but five dollars poorer.

After about about a mile I reach Old Highway 61 again. I’m in Robinsonville, except that in 2003 it changed its name to Tunica Resorts. There are nine casinos in this vicinity. Locals still call it Robinsonville. The post office doesn’t have any name on its front, but the guy inside says it's the Robinsonville post office. Robinsonville is a little of the old and a little of the new. It has an old village and some new condos and apartments. Plenty of money here now, and jobs for the locals. And plenty of new ways for them to lose their money.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Day 46: Dead Confederates

Memphis, Tennessee to Horn Lake, Mississippi. 20.1 miles/771.3 total

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Today I'm starting from DeSoto Park, in Memphis, high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. My destination is Horn Lake, Mississippi. I’ll be making a sort of arc through the city, first going north, then east, and finally south down U.S. 51.

It’s a sunny day and warm already, with a few high clouds. It’s supposed to get up to 77 this afternoon.

Next to DeSoto Park is an abandoned U.S. Army Reserve Center, consisting of a compound of old buildings, empty and for sale. At one end of the compound is the National Ornamental Metals Museum, which I visited yesterday afternoon after my arrival across the bridge. An interesting collection of sculpture and small ornamental pieces made of iron and bronze, mostly. They have a working blacksmith shop in the back, and the grounds are covered with metal sculptures. The museum collection is a bit too small, however.

On plaques set in a large stone in the park it says that in this area Hernando DeSoto viewed the Mississippi River in 1541. What is now the park was at that time a fortress of Chicsa, chief of the local Indians. But it was also the site of a mound built by earlier inhabitants at some time in the distant past. During the Civil War the Confederates dug a hole in the mound and used it to store artillery ammunition. I climb up on the mound and have a look around. There’s a depression about ten or fifteen feet deep and maybe fifty feet in diameter at the top of the mound.

I won’t get to see everything there is to see in Memphis, but I do plan to see two more tourist sites tomorrow, my next day off--Graceland and the Cotton Exchange Museum. Today I’ll try to get a flavor of the city, from downtown to the outskirts.

This will be my most urban walk. The last time I was in a city of over 100,000 was back in September, on the second or third day, when I walked through Grand Rapids, Michigan. Memphis is much larger, of course. The population is 670,000, in a metropolitan area of about 1.3 million. It’s great to be in a city.

I take McLemore east to Kansas Street. I’m in the warehouse and light industrial district of the city here. It’s all weed-choked sidewalks, strewn with broken glass and garbage. This is the stuff I love. Nature reasserting itself up through the cracked infrastructure, side by side with things cast off by humans. Not that it’s all that way here. There are a few thriving businesses, including the Memphis plant of the Hershey Corporation. If today were a weekday, I’d probably be smelling something delicious right now.

I cut over to Florida Street, which will turn into Georgia and then Front Street, which I can take up into the center of town. At the corner of Florida and Georgia the warehouses give way to some new luxury condos, evidently part of a gentrification project. I pass the site of the Memphis farmer’s market.

I realize I’m only a block away from the Arcade Restaurant, where I ate a few days ago, and also from the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. So I swing over to Main Street and walk up through that neighborhood. A few people are sitting out on the sidewalk in front of cafes that are open for breakfast, sipping coffee and reading newspapers. Nice to see that there’s a place to do that in Memphis.

A few blocks up from that neighborhood I pass the bookstore of the Church of God in Christ. The C.O.G.I.C. was organized in 1907 and is headquartered here in Memphis. I see the acronym all over the place in this part of the south. It’s a predominantly African American group. Serious bible-thumpers.

I walk down Beale Street for a couple of blocks. It’s packed with restaurants and clubs and souvenir shops, including B.B. King’s Restaurant. Blues music plays from loudspeakers in front of buildings. Most of the colorful places are closed this morning, but I get the idea.

From here I head north up past Peabody Place, a sports and entertainment venue. A couple of blocks up from Peabody I turn east on Union Avenue and pass the studios of WDIA, the first radio station to have an all-black music format, back in 1948. Past that is a minor league ballpark, the home of the Memphis Redbirds, the triple-A farm team of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Another half mile down Union is the Sun Records Studio, where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and others made their early recordings. I pop in and take a look around, but don’t take the tour. Maybe tomorrow. Gotta keep moving.

At the corner of Union and Manassas there's a park dedicated to the memory of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the man after whom Forrest Gump, the smartest white guy in Alabama, was named. The park was set aside by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to honor Forrest and Confederate veterans in general. What the marker out front fails to mention is that Nathan Bedford Forrest was a slave trader before the war, and was particularly virulent in his hatred of blacks. After the war he became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Old Nate and the Mrs. are buried right there under the statue of him on his horse. With great pleasure I go up to his gravestone and spit on it.

Across the street is the Cathedral of the Scottish Rite of the Masons. Over on another corner is the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, behind which looms a huge medical complex, combined somehow with the Baptist Hospital medical center. Not long after that I come to the Methodist Hospital medical complex, at the corner of Union and Bellevue Avenues. I turn south onto Bellevue, which is also Highway 51. it would seem that besides competing for the salvation of the sinner, the Baptists and Methodists compete to take care of him when he's sick.

The first few blocks south on Bellevue are shady and filled with large houses. There’s the Annesdale neighborhood, established in 1903 as Memphis’s first exclusive subdivision. For a few more blocks the houses on either side of Bellevue remain handsome and well-kept-up. Gradually I start to see an occasional empty one, and a few in need of paint. The alleyways become choked with weeds.

I go through a filthy underpass decorated with really nice murals of Stax and Atlantic Records recording artists, including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, and Sam and Dave. The sign says that I am heading toward Soulville. Not too promising, somehow.

I visit Calvary Cemetery, which is the main Catholic graveyard in Memphis, to see what ethnicity the surnames of the city’s Catholics are, here in this predominantly Protestant city. They’re English, mostly, just like everybody else's, with a few Irish names thrown in. I sit down under a statue of St. Paul to take a rest.

At Parkway, Bellevue Avenue becomes Elvis Presley Boulevard. I walk through a barren stretch of crummy motels, storefront churches, empty gas stations, and fried chicken places. The sidewalk ends. Then after a few miles things start looking a little better. The name Graceland starts to appear here and there, on used car lots and dingy little shopping centers. I must be getting closer to the home of the King. Here’s a sign for Graceland Inn, no longer in business. There’s a Day’s Inn that offers free 24 hour Elvis movies and a guitar-shaped pool.

Finally I walk by Graceland, set way back from the east side of the boulevard. The parking and the ticket office and the souvenirs and Elvis’s two private airplanes are across the street, on the west side. This part of Memphis is called Whitehaven. I guess that figures.

Elvis Presley Boulevard south of Graceland is a great improvement over the area north of the mansion. It looks comparatively prosperous and sort of like a normal suburban commercial strip, with name brand stores and fast food joints.

Weatherwise, it’s warmer than at any time since September. If it weren't for the thin quality of the light and the sun being so low in the southern sky, it would seem like spring or summer.

At about 15.5 miles, I leave Memphis and Tennessee, and enter Mississippi. I'm in DeSoto County and the City of Southaven. Southaven is a city of about 44,000, started only in the 1960s, as a suburb of Memphis.

I close the books on Tennessee, as a walker. I found three pennies on the street and one dead bird. No one offered me a ride, although I would have been amazed if someone had. I walked 16.2 miles in Tennessee altogether.

Almost immediately after entering Mississippi I come to a bronze plaque on a stone, honoring Jefferson Davis, put up by the Mississippi Daughters of the Confederacy. I read it and spit on it. That’s two Confederate icons I’ve spit on today.

I think Mississippi is going to be full of surprises and contradictions. For a state that has consistently remained isolated from the rest of the nation, Mississippi has an odd tendency to view itself with respect to other states. For instance, this place where I am now is probably the northernmost city in Mississippi, but it’s called Southaven. Similarly, there’s a city called West Point (where Howlin’ Wolf came from) that isn't in the western part of the state at all, but over on the east side. It’s west with respect to Alabama, just like Southaven is south with respect to Tennessee. There’s an old saying in the south that the three biggest cities in Mississippi are New Orleans, Memphis, and Birmingham, meaning that there aren’t any really big cities in the state, and that Mississippi looks outside itself for its cultural bearings.

I could take U.S. 51 all the way to Jackson. That would make sense. But I've decided to cut west over to Highway 61, because it goes through places in the Delta where some of my blues heroes lived. So I’ll take 61 to Clarksdale, then Highway 49 down to Jackson.

In a couple of miles I enter the city limits of Horn Lake and head west on Mississippi Route 302. This road looks like 28th Street in Grand Rapids. Horn Lake appears to be middle class, neat, well-maintained, and bi-racial. The city hall is pretty new, and it sits on the corner of Tulane Road and 302, looking prosperous. I don’t know where Horn Lake is getting its money, but it’s doing okay. These are city folks, oriented to Memphis.

At last the motor home comes into view in the parking lot of Schnuck’s grocery store.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Day 45: Father of Waters

Clarkedale, Arkansas to Memphis, Tennessee. 19.2 miles/751.2 total

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I’m leaving from next to the post office in Clarkedale, Arkansas, heading through some small towns and the cities of Marion and West Memphis, and ending the day in Memphis, Tennessee, just on the other side of the Memphis-Arkansas Memorial Bridge.

It’s a sunny day with some high clouds, and a fairly strong breeze out of the south. It’s in the low 60s now, but the forecast is for it to get into the mid-70s.

Just down from where I start is the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, with a cemetery out back that looks like Boot Hill. Some homemade stones among the store-bought ones, everything all topsy turvy and leaning at odd angles, the soil hard and dry and devoid of grass around the graves. A slum of a cemetery. There’s Nellie Sledge, Alberta Turner, and Jetel Clemens. You can almost see people digging the graves by hand, with shovels and picks.

The next little village is Jericho, population 184. Jericho, in spite of being smaller than Clarkedale, appears to have more going on in it than Clarkedale did. One place that I at first think is a house turns out to be the True Holiness Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here, unlike in Indiana and Illinois, I'm far beyond marveling that churches look like large trailers. In the south, if something is standing, it's generally used, no matter what it looks like or what condition it’s in. There’s seldom any attempt to fix something up once it’s been built, and when it falls down or becomes too dangerous to occupy, it’s simply abandoned. Rarely is a building torn down on purpose out here in the country. What’s the point? Just build something else next to it. Demolition and renovation are the luxuries of those who have more money than land.

Here in the center of Jericho is a brick building, perhaps thirty feet square, painted grey, with no windows and just a black front door. It’s called Da Spot. It looks like it might be a thriving nightclub. Just the kind of place that B.B. King or Howlin’ Wolf would have played at years ago.

Until earlier this year, Jericho had a rather ambitious police force, consisting of a seven police officers. That's a lot of law for a town of 184. Things came to a head on August 27, when one of the officers shot the assistant fire chief in the hip in court after he had appeared twice on the same day to protest traffic tickets given out by the force. Residents had complained that the cops gave out excessive numbers of tickets for frivolous reasons, and that they couldn't account for the extra money brought in from the citations. The force has been temporarily disbanded and the sheriff's department now patrols the area.

After Jericho I come to the community of James Mill, no population given. At the crossroads there is some business, maybe now or formerly a sawmill. Just on the other side of the train tracks it sounds like someone is shooting a gun, probably into the steep embankment by the tracks.

I think I went through a place called Harvard, although I didn’t see a sign for it. Also, at some point, I have gone through Sunset. I think the signs are better coming from the south.

Next comes Marion, population 10,415. Marion is the county seat of Crittenden County, although West Memphis, also in this county, is much larger, with a population of over 27,000. There’s a reason for this. West Memphis was originally three smaller towns, and until the early 20th century was known as Bragg's Mill. It changed its name to West Memphis when people became aware that lumber from the Memphis market commanded higher prices from foreign customers.

By now we know that Marion was probably named for Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, like many early American towns and counties. The Crittenden County Courthouse, closed today because it is Saturday, could use a coat of paint. It’s a brick building, not too distinguished, dating probably from the early 1900s, two stories, with four huge columns in front and a low wooden dome. The brick has been painted a terra cotta color, and the columns and trim are white. Across the top of the front are the words “OBEDIENCE TO THE LAW IS LIBERTY.” That’s a slightly inaccurate paraphrasing of something Jean-Jacques Rousseau said: “Liberty is obedience to the law which one has laid down for oneself.” I think the way Crittenden County has it is a little more the way Orwell might have put it in 1984.

There are several very upscale neighborhoods south of downtown Marion, many with new houses that would sell for $300,000 to $500,000 in the north. This area is evidently becoming a desirable place for affluent Memphians to settle.

A few thoughts on Arkansas, since I will only be in the state for a few more hours. Arkansas and Mississippi usually compete for the honor of being the state with the lowest per capita income, and the highest incidences of illiteracy, obesity, diabetes, and other poverty-related ills. But Arkansas doesn’t get the kind of press Mississippi does, due in large part to the fact that Mississippi was so spectacularly brutal and Klan-ridden during the era of the civil rights struggles. So Arkansas needs to try a little harder.

At a personal level, I found the people of Arkansas to be friendly—to me, at least. No complaints there. I drove through Jericho several times without incident. And considering how poor a state it is, Arkansas has been very generous in leaving a trail of change on the roadside for me to find. I thank the people of Arkansas for that. Even as I speak I continue to stop regularly to pick up pennies, dimes, nickels, and quarters.

By the time I get halfway across that bridge over the Mississippi I will have walked a total of 77.6 miles in Arkansas, over two full and two partial days.

Also, I know the people of Arkansas can’t help it if they talk funny and look funny.

And Arkansas, as you’ll recall, is the birthplace of my very own Grandma Smith, and so I have to give it a little bit of deference just on that account. Grandma was a washed in the blood Southern Baptist and a died in the wool Southern Democrat, and looked favorably on the Ku Klux Klan. She would have been one of the first to say that the people of the north just don’t understand how it is down here. But one’s grandmother is one’s grandmother, and she was kind and loving to me.

Having gone under I-55 I'm pretty sure I've entered West Memphis, although I didn’t see any sign. The banners on the lightposts say “Open for Opportunity.” West Memphis had a reputation, early in the last century, for being a wide-open town, where you could get just about anything you wanted. Don’t know if it’s still that way.

As always in these southern cities the First Baptist Church and the First United Methodist Church are the fattest and most prosperous-looking houses of worship, sitting across the street from each other like Macy’s and Gimbels. People obviously left fortunes to these churches, and they have huge wings named after benefactors.

I turn east on U.S. 70 as I head for the Mississippi. In the far distance in the haze of mid-afternoon I can see some of the tall buildings on the Memphis waterfront as I look down Broadway. I walk through a variety of smells as I traverse the downtown. Car wax from an auto detailing place, fried chicken, the hot wet smell of a laundry, garbage, stale beer, burning leaves. But there’s a smell in this city that transcends those. It’s the smell of poverty papered over with Christianity, of instant credit no money down used car lots, of places that specialize in repairing things that most of us would throw away, of motels that rent rooms by the hour, of off-brand supermarkets, off-brand gas, off-brand drug stores, and off-brand churches.

A middle-aged woman in a hot pink shirt and hot pink bedroom slippers carries groceries across the five-lane highway, groaning with each step. Finally, the city tapers off into land that’s too prone to flooding to be developed. But West Memphis doesn’t need any more space for development. They’ve got all the empty space downtown that they could ever use.

At last I reach the entrance to I-55 that goes onto the bridge into Memphis. The problem is that the bridge itself, with its pedestrian walkway, is at least two miles farther, and the only way to get to it by road is to walk along the side of the expressway, with traffic. That seems like a dangerous proposition, so I’m going to bushwhack it, as the hikers say, and try to walk under and next to the interstate for as long as I can, until I’m closer to the bridge itself.

There’s a path of sorts, used for off-road vehicles, over some swampy and very uneven ground. After about a mile, I come up to a dirt road next to a soybean field, which turns into an old paved road for a half mile. At the end of that road, past the barriers, I pick up another pair of rough ruts that takes me across a meadow, through a copse, and over a dried mud flat until I reach some railroad tracks, which I climb over. Finally I see the beginning of the Memphis-Arkansas Memorial Bridge. So yes, there is a pedestrian walkway across the Mississippi, but to get to it you must either walk on the interstate with the semis whizzing by or trek through open country for a couple of miles.

I’m finally on the walkway of the bridge. I pause to empty the pebbles and grass out of my shoes and pick the nettles off my clothing. I am now ready to cross. I still have at least a quarter of a mile before I get out on the water. On the bridge I find my last penny in Arkansas, my 36th in just four days. My found money total for the state is $1.91, plus a 1981 English two pence coin. A very respectable total, considering the short time I have been in the state.

At the midpoint of the bridge, out over the water, I pause. Concrete barriers and steel girders are between me and the traffic. The bridge rumbles and shakes. I look west to Arkansas, the Natural State, whatever that means. I look east to Tennessee, the Volunteer State, whatever that means. Then I turn and look south, at Old Man River, the Mighty Mississip. Off to the right the sun is beginning to have its way with the clouds on the horizon. Its bronze light shimmers on the water. In the tranquility of the late afternoon I bid ave et vale—hail and farewell—to these two states, and urinate into the Big Muddy.

I don’t know how much of my offering was received by the Father of Waters. I think I mentioned earlier that there’s a stiff wind blowing from the south today, and up here on the bridge that breeze is even stronger than it is on land. Instantly I am reminded of the scene from The Big Lebowski where John Goodman tries to throw Steve Buscemi’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean. Don’t worry, nothing came back in my face, although the railing and concrete bridge deck received the majority of the libation. But that’s okay. The dude abides.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Day 44: Arkansas traveler

Bassett to Clarkedale. 19.3 miles/732 total

Friday, November 13, 2009

This morning I'm heading south from Bassett through one or two little towns and ending up in Clarkedale. It’s a sunny day, with some clouds in the west. Right now it’s about 65, and might get up to about 70. There’s a breeze blowing from the south again, in my face.

The cotton harvesters, cotton trucks, and cotton compactors drive by in a procession that is becoming quite familiar. I stop by the cemetery to take a quick look at the dead of Bassett, and make sure no one is trying to escape. Nothing to report. Nice neat cemetery. A stray black dog, part lab, but smaller, comes loping up to me, curious. I pet her and she licks my hand and wanders away into a field. Tufts of wild chives give the cemetery an agreeable oniony smell.

One of the things they grow around here besides cotton and soybeans is rice. There’s a rice mill just north of Bassett, next to the cotton gin.

Typical of the day after a rest day, I woke up feeling achy and not very interested in walking. It happens, but I need the days off. I’m on a three-day work week--three on and one off. That’s pretty cushy compared to a lot of people, so I can’t complain. It seems to be working pretty well. The first day is the getting-back-into-it day, the second day is hump day, and the third day is the looking-forward-to-a-day-off day. At some point I will probably increase it to four days of walking and one day off, but not yet.

This is only the second full day in Arkansas, but it's also the last. Tomorrow I’ll start in Arkansas and get into Memphis by the end of the day. So my sojourn in Arkansas has been brief. Tennessee will be even shorter--I'll be out of it by Sunday afternoon.

A mile and a half down from Bassett, I enter Joiner, population 540. I pass by what used to be a high school, now closed and empty and a little vandalized. There’s a stone pillar in front that was donated by the class of 1941. I guess the kids from Joiner go up to the South Mississippi County high school in Wilson now.

Another thing I've learned about cotton is that they rotate it with winter wheat. Each crop probably puts something back into the soil that the other takes out. Some of the fields are starting to green up with the wheat, looking from a distance like vast lawns.

I continue to marvel at the efficiency of modern mechanized agriculture as I’ve seen it practiced throughout this trip. I don't think anyone in his right mind would want to go back to the kind of farming people did a hundred years ago, except to fulfill some nostalgic fantasy. Today there are more acres under cultivation by fewer people than at any time in our history, and I’m having a hard time seeing that in a negative light. Sometimes people like to bitch about progress for the sake of bitching, possibly because they need simplicity in their own lives. They think farming is some idyllic way of life. But farming is tough. Besides, farmers are almost always Republicans, so the fewer of them we have, the better.

Five miles into the walk I enter Frenchmans Bayou. Sounds like something from Faulkner. According to one source, the Frenchman in question was none other than Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, also known as Frog One. He put up a fort near here in the mid-1600s, I think on the other side of the river, which he named Fort Prudhomme. It was know by that name as late as 1725, but under the Americans it became Fort Pillow. Speculation is that the English-speaking types couldn't pronounce Prudhomme, so they just called the area Frenchmans Bayou.

A scruffy little black and tan dog noses around on the asphalt, dancing off it when the occasional car zooms by. A large white chicken lies dead on the roadside, prompting the age old question.

Three miles below Frenchmans Bayou I enter Crittenden County. I’ve been in Mississippi County ever since I came into the state, for about 48 miles now. Crittenden County was named, in 1825, for Robert Crittenden, first secretary of the Arkansas Territory.

This is one lonely stretch of highway here, from Frenchman’s Bayou down to Turrell. I could just about walk down the center of Highway 61. All the traffic is on the interstate. Finally I reach the point where 61 merges with I-55, so I am now walking on Arkansas 77. I’ll skirt the outside of Turrell.

It was in these little places like Turrell and Joiner where Howlin’ Wolf used to come up from Mississippi and play. Some of the little joints wouldn’t even have been recognizable as venues for music. They were just shacks, made of unpainted clapboard, with little porches out front. There would be barely enough room for the band in one corner and a few dozen audience members. Howlin' Wolf and the other bluesmen would come up on weekends and entertain people all night long for a few dollars and something to eat and all the whiskey they could drink. Fights would break out and people would sometimes get killed. The authorities didn’t care much what a black person did to another black person, and often the plantation owners would get their own sharecroppers out of jail because a worker was too valuable to waste over some crime. Even when African Americans went to prison, they were less likely to be convicted of serious felonies, because that might keep them from being able to work on chain gangs.

Turrell, population 959, has a high school on Route 77, and out in front there’s a missile of some kind, aimed up and to the east. Perhaps they’re getting ready to invade Tennessee. Turrell high school has the distinction of having been the 1999-2000 boys' state class A basketball champions. Overall record, 34-3.

I get offered a ride by a guy in one of those harvesters. He's sitting way up high, and has his dog with him. That would have been interesting.

At last I enter the limits of Clarkedale, population 236. For such a small place they have a lot of land. It’s two miles more to the post office and the place where I'm parked, and there’s no sign of a town here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Progress report: Preview of Memphis

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Took a trip into Memphis today, even though I am still two days' walk from there. It's been so long since I've been in a city of any size that I hardly knew where to start. First, I verified that the I-55 bridge across the Mississippi does indeed have a pedestrian walkway, so that logistical problem is solved--no police escort will be necessary. Then I visited the National Civil Rights Museum, which is in the building that used to be the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. The front has been preserved as it was. The museum also includes the rooming house across the street, where James Earl Ray shot King. The interiors of these buildings have been gutted and converted into exhibition halls, but key rooms have been preserved. Very moving, and full of information about the history of the civil rights movement. Well worth the visit.

Next I visited the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the city's main fine arts museum. Not many works by big name heavyweights. Lots of "school of so and so" stuff, you know. But a nice collection of paintings, all in all.

On Monday, the next day off, I'll visit Graceland, which I'll be walking past on Sunday. Should be some good paintings there--on black velvet.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Day 43: Jesus

Luxora to Bassett. 21.9 miles/712.7 total

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

It's cloudless and cool as I leave from behind Charlie’s grocery store in Luxora, headed through Osceola and a few small towns to my destination, Bassett. I should get there by just before dark today. There's a breeze blowing at my back, like a gentle hand pushing me along. I’m back to wearing my sweatshirt, at least for the morning. It’s supposed to get up to about 66.

Lately I’ve been seeing, here and in Missouri, green and white signs on front lawns, bearing the word “JESUS.” The signs are about the size of the campaign signs people put on their lawns at election time. It’s got me wondering if maybe Jesus is running for office down here. It can’t be sheriff or even governor, since I’ve seen the signs in two different states. (Unless he’s trying to be in more than one place at the same time, a possibility, I suppose.) The other possibilities are that it’s not the Jesus—Jesus H. Christ—but maybe some Hispanic guy who’s so well known that people just call him by his first name. Or it could be someone like Jesus Shuttlesworth from Spike Lee’s movie, He Got Game.

Such speculation is frivolous, I know. More likely people are declaring their allegiance to Jesus over all the other candidates running for all offices—dropping out of mainstream secular politics in favor of religious rule for the country, like in Iran. They're saying, in effect, “A pox on both your houses. We’re going to back the guy who died on the cross. He’ll put an end to those pro-choice commies and their homosexual fellow travelers. And he'll make sure all the criminals get the needle, all the lazy mud people get off welfare, and when he's done with that, he'll kick some serious Arab ass!”

I’m sure that if Jesus ran for office around here he’d be overwhelmingly elected. The problem with that is that it brings up the whole question of WWJD—What Would Jesus Do? That gets dicey, because what if he doesn’t do what people expect? What if these southern Baptists are all wrong about old Jesus. (Do ya think?) What if--he does absolutely nothing. Puts me in mind of the last lines of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, “A Coney Island of the Mind No.5”:

Him just hang there
on his Tree
looking real Petered out
and real cool
and also
according to a roundup
of late world news
from the usual unreliable sources
real dead

One thing I’ve noticed in the south, and in rural places generally, is that you don’t get a whole lot of choices when it comes to coffee. Lots of places out in the country don’t have decaf, and even the regular stuff is all gone by about noon. I guess after that if you want a pick-me-up, you get yourself an RC Cola and a moon pie. Hell with all that fancy-Dan cappuccino and latte.

I’ve had a few comments from friends about the sinister capabilities of southerners. No doubt the south has a history and tradition of committing atrocities in connection with race, from slavery to Klan activities to the assassinations of civil rights people. That can’t be denied. But having said all that, I remember from growing up in Oakland County, Michigan, that the town I lived in had racial hatred every bit as deep as anything in the south, just not directed at any one in particular, because we were all white. There were kids who used the “N” word as a common insult, in place of “asshole” or “jerk.” And on the very rare occasions when someone would try to integrate the township, they were shown the door. So let’s not kid ourselves. Outside of a few urban and academic enclaves, Michigan is as redneck a state as any in the nation.

After an hour and a half I enter Osceola, population 8,875. Osceola shares the name of the county in Michigan where my other grandmother was born, in Reed City. Osceola was a leader of the Seminoles. But I think this Osceola was named for a nearby river. Here it’s pronounced OH-ceola.

In the center of town is the Mississippi County Courthouse. Because today is Veteran’s Day, this and all other government offices are closed. Actually, this is one of two county courthouses, since Blytheville also has one. Osceola is the seat of the southern part of the county. It’s a brick building of an unusual brown color, topped with a copper dome. A little monochromatic, but interesting. There’s a plaque honoring William J. Driver, who donated the land for this courthouse. Also in front of the courthouse is something I expect to see more of now, a monument to the Confederate veterans of Mississippi County, put up by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

A couple of historical markers tell the story. This has been the county seat since 1836. Since about 1900 the county has maintained the other courthouse in Blytheville. This neo-classical courthouse was built in 1912. The big deal around here was the establishment of a drainage system, in which old William J. Driver was instrumental, enabling the area to become the largest cotton producing county in the world. I’ll have to check out the building tomorrow when it’s open, and also visit the museum across the street, housed in an old store.

In front of the Eastside Baptist Church, south of town, is another one of those Jesus signs. He obviously has the votes of the Baptists of Osceola. Wonder when the election will be?

I sit down on the wall at the memorial garden in front of the Roller-Swift Funeral Home and watch the cotton being harvested across Highway 61. There are no tombstones to sit on, just those bronze flower holders with the artificial flowers, looking all bleached out and especially phony.

Unlike the machines that harvest corn and soybeans, that cut down everything, blow the chaff out the back, and keep the grain, these cotton pickers either pick or suck up the cotton and leave the plants untouched. Later on, the plants will be cut down and ground up, maybe for fodder, I don’t know. When the hopper in the picker is full, they dump it into a truck with a large cage in the back. Then the cage trucks take the loose cotton over to machines that operate like giant trash compactors, using hydraulics to compress the cotton into the large rectangular bricks, called modules, you see everywhere. It’s a thing of beauty to see the sophisticated mechanization of the whole process. Only a fool would look back nostalgically at the days when the raising of cotton took huge numbers of low-paid or unpaid workers. Millions of jobs for peons is not what this country needs.

About halfway through the walk I come to a sign for a place called Rotan. A road goes up over the railroad tracks and I can see about six houses and a few pole barns. Down the road a piece, there’s another little community called Driver, named no doubt for William Driver of Osceola. I sit down in front of the post office and watch a BNSF railroad engine go by pulling 96 empty flat cars.

At 16 miles I enter the town of Wilson, population 939. For a half mile or more coming into Wilson I pass a succession of large mansions set back 500 feet or so from the road, with ancient sweet gums, oaks, and bald cypresses growing in the front yards and along the driveways. Each place has a large horse pasture. In the far distance are the cotton fields. There’s definitely some money around here, and has been for many years.

This town was named after Robert E. Lee Wilson, who was the big bossman around here. Wilson is an unusually shady town. Old trees, old houses, old money. Shady. The small downtown business district has been done over with faux Tudor facades, a not unpleasant touch. Somebody put some money into this little facelift. Up close, however, the Tudor stuff is a little dingy, and not all the buildings are occupied. There’s the Gunn Supermarket and the Wilson Drug Store, and a bank. That’s about it. But an interesting idea. There must be a story here somewhere.

Well, sure enough, there is a story or two in Wilson. One thing is that they found a mastodon skeleton not far from here. Also the remains of a pre-Columbian village. But that’s just everyday stuff. Check this out. According to an undocumented story on the Wikipedia page, in the early part of the 20th century, the Frisco Railroad would throw hoboes off the train in Wilson, where, regardless of race, they would become slaves on Lee Wilson's cotton plantation. If they were caught trying to run away, they would be shot and killed. This practice allegedly persisted into the 1960s, when it was ended after a senate investigation.

True or not, it’s a good story, obviously inspired by hostility toward old Robert E. Lee Wilson. Another source says that in 1925 the Wilson plantation was investigated after complaints by the Mexican Embassy that Wilson had recruited 5,000 Mexicans to work for him but was not paying them the wage he had promised. Lee Wilson was charged with tracking a guy down in Memphis and having him arrested and put in the Mississippi County jail (in Osceola, probably) until he agreed to go back and work at his place.

The moral of those stories is to keep moving when you’re in Wilson. Which I do. Hundred year old trees line both sides of the highway. A few of them are so massive that they may have stood here when Confederate soldiers marched down this road, perhaps after having been released from the Union prisoner-of-war camp in Rock Island, Illinois--sick, skinny, weak, and dispirited. The thought makes me feel robust by comparison.

All afternoon, dozens of soybean trucks have been driving by, along with the cotton trucks (some from Lee Wilson & Co.) taking modules to the huge Willow Gin, near Bassett. Next to the gin is a plant of the Gilster-Mary Lee Corporation, from which a tantalizing sweet smell emanates, like maybe from some sort of fruity drink mix.

At last, nearing the end of my day’s journey, I enter Bassett, population 168. The sun is low in the sky, directly in front of me, just a few degrees above the trees. I’m always happy when my home away from home comes into view. Today it is parked right alongside Highway 61.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Day 42: Dixie Pig

South of Holland, Missouri to Luxora, Arkansas. 19.7 miles/690.8 total

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

It's bright and early as I leave from the Car-Mac truck stop and Shell gas station at Exit 1, a couple of miles south of Holland, Missouri, headed for the town of Luxora, Arkansas, traveling through the city of Blytheville. It’s warm already, and partly cloudy, promising to get up into the 70s. I might work up a sweat today for a change.

I’m savoring my last minutes in the Missouri Bootheel, as I draw toward the Arkansas border. I’ve learned quite a bit about cotton, and I'm learning about armadillos. I know I’ll continue to see lots of both as I proceed south.

Last night as I tossed and turned my dreams were filled with the story of Viola Liuzzo. You might remember that she was a woman from the Detroit area who went down to Alabama in 1965 to help civil rights workers in connection with the Selma to Montgomery marches, and was shot to death in her car by the Ku Klux Klan. In the dream I could see LBJ on television talking about arrests of KKK members in connection with the murder and I heard people speaking a mixed-up version of her name. I kept thinking, in the dream, it’s Viola Liuzzo, Viola Liuzzo.

I’m not sure how that popped into my head. Who knows how dreams work, anyway? But I'm sure it had something to do with the guys I was talking to and the stuff about the four men in Steele, Missouri, and the Pacific Movement of the Eastern World.

I realize how much guts it must have taken to be Viola Liuzzo or Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman or Medgar Evers. Or these four men in Missouri who had the audacity, in 1934, to be part of a movement that not only stood up to the white man, but aligned itself with a less-than-friendly foreign government. What incredible bravery, bordering on insanity and born of a desperation I can only imagine.

How pathetic, by comparison, that from the safety of my blog I take potshots at this doddering ancienne regime--this “old bitch gone in the teeth,” this "botched civilization" (to borrow a couple of phrases from Ezra Pound)--that is the white south of the 21st century.

At 1.8 miles I cross over into Arkansas, The Natural State, as it advertises itself on its signs. The welcome point is a concrete arch, about fifteen feet high, looking like a more squat, miniature version of the St. Louis Gateway Arch. It’s much older, though. It looks like a nice public works project that might have been undertaken in the 20s or 30s. Sure enough, the plaque on the arch says it was erected in 1924. Put up by the folks of Mississippi County, Arkansas, which I’m entering now.

It’s time for a summary of Missouri stats. I walked in Missouri for almost five full days and part of a sixth. Adding the two partial days together I get what amounts to five full days, and a total of 103 miles walked in the state—20.6 miles per day, on average.

For road kill I saw 10 possums, 7 raccoons, 6 frogs, 5 birds, 4 squirrels, 4 skunks, 4 cats, 3 turtles, 3 armadillos, 3 snakes, 2 dogs, 1 mouse, and 1 crawdad.

I got nine ride offers, close to two per day. Very respectable, illustrating the kindness and friendliness of the folks of Missouri.

Last but not least, I found $1.21 in change on the roadside.

With that I bid farewell to Missouri, and enter the fifth state of my journey.

As I step into Arkansas, I am entering my first Confederate State. (As a slave state Missouri was far from neutral in its sentiments, but was neutralized and occupied early on by the Union.)

Near Yarbro, which I pass by but do not go through, I go into a junk store that calls itself an auction house, to have a look around. I realize that I must be instantly recognizable as a stranger, because both my eyes aim in the same direction, I don’t mumble or drool, my gut doesn’t hang down over my belt, and I do not dip snuff. Also, I’m wearing reasonably clean clothes. Ah, the salt of the earth.

I enter Blytheville, population 18, 272. This isn’t quite a new area to me. I’ve stayed here three nights already, and probably will stay again tonight. I already had a nice chat with some white guys and explored the region of my grandmother's early childhood. But today I’m getting the ground level view.

The Highway 61 northern shopping district is mostly grocery stores and drug stores. Super D is a big drug store chain. Also Sonic drive-ins. Lots of Sonics. The real action, of course, is over by I-55, where the Walmart and other big stores are located.

Blytheville is the home town of the actor George Hamilton. He spent the first twelve years of his life here. Old George isn't exactly Laurence Olivier, but he’s very likable. At least, I like him. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. You might say he laughs all the way to the bank, like Liberace. Today, in honor of Blytheville's native son, I’m working on my George Hamilton tan. I really need to take my hat off to get some color on my forehead, but it makes me have to squint too much. Those crow's feet.

I remember that George Hamilton played Hank Williams in a biographical movie, fairly early in his career. I used to think it was funny casting, but given the fact that he’s from here in Blytheville, it seems okay. Hank was from Alabama, and George Hamilton actually does look a little like him.

And of course George Hamilton played the lawyer in The Godfather, Part 3, the part that was supposed to be played by Robert Duvall. Too bad they couldn’t sign Duvall. George did a game job and all, but what the hell. As I understand it, Duvall would have settled for half of what they were paying Al Pacino and Diane Keaton to be in the movie, and he would have been well worth whatever that was. It might have saved the movie. (Well, that and someone else to play the daughter and someone to play Vincent who didn't have a Cuban accent.) I don’t know if that was Paramount’s fault, or Coppola’s, or both, but it was a big blunder.

Blytheville is one of two county seats of Mississippi County. The city was founded in 1879 by a Methodist minister named Henry T. Blythe.

I pass a place called Dixie Pig. That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

As I turn right on Highway 61, I see the gigantic First Baptist Church, looking as impressive as a church can look. It takes up a large square block. Across the street behind First Baptist is the First United Methodist Church, which I suppose is really the mother church of this city. It’s another large edifice, of neo-gothic design. Two churches fighting for the souls of the white people of Blytheville.

Walking down the shady, affluent residential streets near these two churches, I get to experience fall all over again. Brown sycamore leaves the size of elephant's ears sail to the ground. Delicate ginkgo fans lay a yellow path, and the accumulated leaves of oaks, elms, and a few maples all crunch beneath my shoes.

As U.S. 61 takes me south out of town, I pass an abandoned building with the word “Halal” on its front. This might have been a Muslim food preparation center, the equivalent of a kosher place, maybe for the preparation of poultry or beef. Wonder how the Muslims of eastern Arkansas are faring these days? They're probably mostly doctors.

Just down the street is a cemetery where some of the Blytheville dead await me. I walk across the five-lane highway to take a look. I sit on the tombstone of someone named Rex Baker and look across the street at warehouses and the ubiquitous tufts of cotton lining the roadside . A cemetery has the power to take me so quickly out of the world where I've been walking and to a place of rest, that it’s a great antidote to the fatigue and pain. Nobody’s here right now, on a Tuesday at about noon. Just me and the folks who aren’t going anywhere. The Shaws and the Duncans. Charles and Louise Purtle. Bud Ratliffe and his wife Edna. Byrdie Mae Lawhorn.

One section of the cemetery is called the Garden of Memories, where the stones are all flush with the ground. In the middle of it is a stone about the size of a pulpit, topped with a marble effigy of an open bible, about three feet wide. Chiseled on the two open pages are the familiar words from the 11th chapter of John, from the story of the raising of Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” Someone has laid a necklace down in the center of the two stone pages, with a pendant that consists of three little metal pages about a half inch square, on a ring binder so they can be turned. And the message in tiny lettering on the three pages is this: “Never frown, even when you are sad, because someone might be falling in love with your smile.” (Hey, I don't make it up, I just write it down.)

This has been an absolutely great day for money on the roadside. Just since entering Arkansas I have found 79 cents—a quarter, four dimes, and fourteen pennies. If this keeps up I’ll be rich by the time I get to Memphis.

Down past the southern I-55 exit for Blytheville nothing remains on this walk but an eight-mile stretch down to Luxora, my destination. Luxora is another of those Egyptian towns along the American Nile--the Mississippi. In Illinois there are Cairo and Karnak, and of course there's Memphis. Probably an Alexandria around here somewhere, too.

With less than a mile to go I at last enter Luxora, population 1,317. I peel off of Highway 61 onto Arkansas 158 and head diagonally over toward the center of the town. A couple of horses greet me as I go by, looking for a handout, no doubt. I pet their noses; it's the best I can do. In the background a donkey brays. An old man shuffles past, looking distracted or demented or both. A little boy and girl laugh and chase each other. For the hundredth time today a pickup truck passes and someone waves at me.