Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Day 37: Escape from Little Egypt

Cairo, Illinois to Bertrand, Missouri. 22 miles/589.3 total

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I’m leaving from the parking lot of the SuperValu food store in Cairo, Illinois, heading across the Mississippi to the little town of Bertrand, Missouri.

It’s another cloudless day, promising to get up into the low 60s. Today will be my most ambitious walk yet, at 22 miles. This is also the first time since back in Michigan that I have walked four days in a row. Since I’m getting an early start this morning (8:20) and taking tomorrow off, it should be okay.

I pass by the old United States Post Office and Courthouse on Washington Avenue, apparently not in use any more. It’s far too big for the postal needs of a city of 3600, and I'm pretty sure the Cairo of today is too small to have a federal court. I imagine the court was to handle customs claims rather than regular federal business. Right next door to the federal building is the old Customs House. According to a plaque in front, it was begun in 1867, completed 1872. There was so much river traffic up from the south that Cairo was a port of entry for goods. The Customs House too is closed, although there’s a museum inside. But since it’s only 8:30, I’m too early. In the yard in front of the Customs House there’s a monument to someone named York the Slave. He was a slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition, 1803-1806, sharing all their trials and tribulations, but getting none of the credit. He was the first African American to cross the continent, as far as anyone knows. The Indians thought he was cool.

A couple of blocks away from Washington Avenue, on both sides, I can see nothing but empty buildings—houses, warehouses, stores, motels—with gaping windows and missing doors. On Washington Avenue itself they’ve tried to keep things up, or at least get rid of the really bad buildings, but it’s a vain effort. It’s impossible to avoid comparisons to cities that have been devastated by war. This is the dilemma of the decaying urban center. When you have an abandoned building that’s beyond repair, do you tear it down and leave another vacant lot, or do you leave the building up so it looks like something’s there, even though the building is unsafe? Meanwhile, the folks who have to live in places like this try to go about the business of daily life like everyone else, knowing they live in an ugly, god-forsaken slum, but unable to escape from it.

There’s a two-block stretch of old storefronts and theaters that advertises itself as Historic Downtown Cairo. It looks as if it could be used as a movie set for a film about a post-apocalyptic world where people careen around lawlessly on motorcycles, or something. I wonder if Cairo could play up this angle? Come here and shoot your film about life in the ghetto, or the world after a nuclear disaster, or a war, or a riot. Use Cairo as a stand-in for Detroit or Dresden. We’ll give you the key to the city. You can even blow up buildings if you want to. Trouble is, you’ll all have to stay at the crummy little Days Inn over by the interstate, or the Belvedere Motel up on Sycamore, where the rats are the size of chihuahuas.

In the midst of this unpleasantness I came upon the largest and most magnificent ginkgo tree I’ve ever seen. It’s on Halliday Plaza, next to the Episcopal Church. This tree must be six feet in diameter, at least. Centuries old. And perfectly healthy, its yellow leaves just tinged with green. In another week there’ll be a beautiful blanket of yellow on the ancient sidewalk below it. Without question it is the prettiest thing I’ve seen since I came into Cairo.

I pass the virile art deco façade of the Illinois National Guard building, built in 1931. This place and the federal building and Customs House speak to the fact that Cairo wasn’t always what I see today. The city was once alive.

Because of the levees surrounding Cairo, I can’t see the Ohio or the Mississippi from the city. Last evening after my walk I drove up over the levee in Mound City and got a nice look at the Ohio, brown and wide.

Now I am outside the city, heading south toward the end of the peninsula on which Cairo sits, and toward the two bridges—one to Kentucky over the Ohio, and the other to Missouri over the Mississippi. It’s the latter I’ll be taking, off to the right. These two truss bridges are of the same vintage, from the 1920s or 30s. The problem for me is that they are narrow and have no pedestrian walkways. They were built when trucks, especially, were narrower than they are today.

Before I get to the Mississippi bridge I stop at a little park where there's a life-size statue of Ulysses S. Grant, looking down at toward the rivers converge. The guy looks like he was an inch or two shorter than me. I take my picture with him. Old Ulysses. My man. A great American. There’s another plaque that commemorates the Lewis and Clark expedition’s stopover here, on their way west. They camped on the peninsula for a couple of weeks. York the Slave probably did most of the heavy lifting.

I am now starting across the bridge. Fortunately, traffic is light. Still, I expect that this will be the most treacherous mile or two I walk on my entire trip. If I find myself at the point where two semis pass each other, one of them will simply have to stop. At least the speed limit is fairly low, about 45 mph. The Mississippi is about a mile wide at this point, muddy and fast flowing. A tugboat pushed a long barge up river to the north. At 2.6 miles I reach the center of the bridge and the middle of the river, and I am officially in Missouri. Now for the downward trip.

Well, about three-quarters of the way across, a Cairo police car came up next to me, going my way, and the cop asked me if I was okay. I said yes, that I was just trying to get across the bridge. His response was “get in,” and he said it in such a way that I took it as an order. So I hopped in the car, and he took me the last quarter of a mile or so to the end of the bridge and dropped me off in a turnaround for trucks. He told me he’d received a call that someone was trying to walk across the bridge. When he dropped me off, he asked me if I need a ride to anywhere, and I told him no thanks, that I was hiking. He was a very friendly guy, and told me to be careful. No lectures, just very professional. When I got out of the car, I saw on the door that he was none other than the chief of police. So I got an official escort of sorts. He was a little out of his jurisdiction by the time he picked me up, but it was a nice gesture on his part, and in all likelihood, he regarded me as a danger to myself and others.

That ride creates a bit of a problem for me. I have been scrupulous up to now about seeing to it that I walk every foot of the way. When I start from a spot where I left off the day before, I make sure I begin walking from as close to where I ended as I can. Someone asked me early on how I was going to walk across the Mississippi River. I expressed confidence then that whatever local bridges they had would be okay for walking. That has turned out not to be the case. And if any other bridges turn out to be as narrow and pedestrian unfriendly as this one was, I’ll just hitch a ride across at the beginning.

So now I am in Missouri, heading south into Arkansas. I could have gone down through Kentucky into Tennessee, but I decided instead to go this way, and cross the Mississippi back into Memphis. Then I’ll be going pretty much straight south through the State of Mississippi, crossing the river again, for good, in New Orleans. I am now in a former slave state for the first time on the trip.

Now that Illinois is history, time for some stats. I entered Illinois on October 19. I walked twelve full days there, for a total of 231.2 miles, an average of 19.2 miles per day. Illinois leads the way in friendliness and hospitality so far, with a total of 30 ride offers. I found $1.19 in change on the roadside. In road kill, snakes were tied with possums for the lead, with 28 each. You might recall that I only counted snakes that were at least as long as my shoe. In distant third place were raccoons—only 13 of them. Next were 9 skunks, 9 frogs, 8 turtles, 8 birds, 5 cats, 2 squirrels, and one each of newt, dog, and deer. (Sounds a little like a recipe for something.)

The road I’m on, U.S. 60 and 62, is on a levee here. It’s a two lane highway. After a long five miles on this levee, the highway curves away from it, and I come across something you don’t ordinarily see on the side of the road--a garter snake eating a frog. The snake is about two feet long. He’s got the frog’s head in his mouth, and he’s trying to get his jaws around its shoulders. Meanwhile, the frog’s legs are thrashing. Old brer frog is as good as dead, but he's not giving up yet. When the snake sees me taking pictures of him, he lifts his head up and hightails it down into the grassy ditch to finish his meal in peace.

The area just south of where I have entered Missouri is called the bootheel, because on the map it resembles one. These counties weren’t originally going to be part of Missouri, but part of Arkansas instead, and the southern border of Missouri was going to be straight across, following the rest of the Missouri-Arkansas border. But someone argued that the towns down here had more in common with the other Missouri towns along the Mississippi farther north, like St. Louis and Cape Girardeau, than they did with Arkansas towns. The county I’m in now is Mississippi County. It’s completely flat, with soybean fields stretching out for miles.

At 13.1 miles I enter the city limits of Charleston, population 5085. I still have a couple of miles to go before I get to the center. The first thing I pass inside the city is the Charleston Country Club, across the street from an affluent, upper middle class suburb, the first one of those I’ve seen in many a mile.

Next to the golf course is a historical marker telling some of the Mississippi County story. It was organized in 1845. Charleston is the county seat. It’s known as a cotton and shoe making center (or at least it was when they put up this marker, a few decades ago). Charleston was first called Mathews Prairie, settled on a Spanish grant in 1801. John Rodney laid out the town, named for Charles Moore, in 1837. The county was settled by people from Kentucky and Tennessee. The original settlement of the county was just about where the Cairo chief of police dropped me off. Grant fought a Civil War battle here, in Belmont, and won. Afterwards the Confederates strung a chain across the Mississippi to try to stop Union boats.

Next I come to the truck stop where I spent last night—a very nice place, where they have water and an RV dumping station. I stop there to get another drink and some refreshments before I begin the last long third of the walk.

As I walk through this part of Missouri I am aware that I am in Uncle John Crabb territory. He was my wife’s uncle, originally from Parma, Missouri, not far from here. I always liked Uncle John. He called them as he saw them. The straight unvarnished truth. If you asked him to, he’d give you his right arm. I’d like to think that a little bit of his spirit still lives around here, and I’m going to dedicate today’s walk to his memory.

Downtown Charleston was undistinguished, but here’s an interesting bit of info. In 1861 a confederate general named Jeff Thompson robbed the Union Bank of Charleston. He gave the teller an hour to get permission to open the vault. After receiving the money he gave the bank a receipt for $57,000, and discovered later that only $56,000 was in the bags.

South of town is an enormous cemetery, probably about 50 acres, as flat as the rest of the alluvial plains. One of the plots contains members of the Randol family. Thankful Randol was one of the early landowners of Charleston.

After this long day on the levees I have to end it by listening to Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” on the iPod. It seems appropriate.

Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good.
Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good.
When the levee breaks, mama you got to move.

At last I enter the village of Bertrand, population 740. Not much to say about Bertrand. I’ll be starting from here next time.


Anonymous said...

Your trek is incredible! I hope you make it. We did some touring (car) around Cairo and the area a few years ago on a George Rogers Clark history tour. As you note, it's hard to put a good face on the blight. Are you going to walk across Texas?

I especially enjoyed your comments about York the slave. York is one of the most interesting and tragic figures of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, with the possible exception of Meriwether Lewis himself. I wrote a novel a couple of years ago in which York was a major character ... it was interesting and painful to consider his achievements and the complete lack of hope for freedom or equality, or even appreciation, that he faced in his lifetime.

Peter Teeuwissen said...

It's an honor to have you reading the blog. I will definitely read your novels (two of them, right?) about Lewis and Clark. Hope you can stay tuned.