Thursday, November 5, 2009

Day 38: Out on Highway 61

Bertrand to U.S. 61 and Route HH, New Madrid County. 19.4 miles/608.7 total

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I'm on a side street at the east end of Bertrand, Missouri, headed through Sikeston and south for about 10 miles to a spot somewhere in New Madrid County. Another bright sunny cloudless day with a high of only about 60. Very comfortable for walking.

The sign in front of the Bertrand First Baptist Church says, “Thank God For Your Freedom. Thank A Veteran.” It occurs to me that we do have a state church in this country, in spite of the constitutional provision against such a thing. It doesn't have a single name, but all the conservative Protestant denominations are in lock step with the government, especially in matters involving the use of military force, hatred of foreigners, and anything else where vengeance triumphs over compassion and tolerance.

The official state church can best be described as the Religious Right. Anything calling itself Baptist, Church of God, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Disciples of Christ, whatever. It’s because these denominations are all wrapped up in that Old Testament stuff. They call themselves Christian, but their real champions are the kick-ass Israelites and their vengeful, jealous, punishing God. For the reforming message of the New Testament they have little or no use. They are really just a corn pone, Americanized version of Judaism (or Islam, for that matter), only they can eat pork. All the rest of the laws from the Pentateuch they love—the ten commandments, the eye for an eye thing, the condemnation of homosexuality, the dominance of men over women. All the things that make for an intolerant, patriarchal society.

In spite of this, I'm always struck by how much wiser and more restrained the African American churches are than the white churches when it comes to patriotism and toeing the government line. They’re usually branches of the same churches the whites go to, separated years ago by segregation, and they certainly believe is some of the same wacky things, like speaking in tongues, and all that. But they tend to emphasize the milder New Testament virtues of compassion, humility, forgiveness, and enduring life’s vicissitudes, over the Old Testament, us-versus-them nonsense.

For centuries white southern churches used their religion to justify the most brutish oppression of another race—slavery, segregation, abuses of all kinds. To do that they had to go to the Old Testament for all that crap about the Israelites being enslaved on a routine basis. And when the Jews did become slaves, the message was always, “Well, they got what was coming to them because they didn’t listen to God." And if they got their freedom, then backslid, it would happen to them again. When you spend all your time focusing on that, it’s easy to see slavery as just another instrumentality of God’s justice.

The sign in front of the Cornerstone Church, a few blocks down, says, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.” Well, who’s to say God doesn’t have a refrigerator? People are so presumptuous. He probably has a damn nice one. Not just a GE or Maytag, but one of those really huge restaurant-style refrigerators like you see on HGTV, all stainless steel, with black and white granite countertops next to it. Filled with processed food, ice cream, soda, and lots of pork.

Two or three miles outside of Bertrand, which went by quickly and without anything much to distinguish it, I enter Scott County, which is one of the two counties in which Sikeston is situated. The other is New Madrid County. Scott County was named, in 1821, for John Scott, the first congressman from Missouri.

Just outside the town of Miner, I see a cotton field. I had read that this part of Missouri had a lot of cotton, but this is the first I’ve seen. There it sits, all white as hell, looking like it’s just about ready to be harvested.

Miner is a town of about 1000, located just east of Sikeston on U.S. 62. I read yesterday that it was named after a guy named Minner, and got misspelled. I don't know if the guy’s name was really Miner and he spelled it wrong, or if it was Minner, and other folks spelled it wrong. Either way, it’s par for the course.

Miner has a little old downtown, which I can see from the highway, but most of the action is up here, near the interstate. I pass Miner’s claim to fame, which is Lambert’s Restaurant, “The Home of Throwed Rolls.” It’s a big warehouse-sized place where they specialize in giving you lots of food—refills on most things, including entrees, and where they throw the dinner rolls at you. Quaint. From the size of the parking lot they do a good business. The only thing on the menu that I find enticing is the hog jowls, but I think I’ll pass.

At a little over six miles I enter Sikeston, population 16,992. I spent a little time here yesterday afternoon, in the old downtown, which has brick streets. The modern city center is the intersection of this road I’m on now, U.S. 62, and U.S. 61. This could be just about any place in the country. It could be 28th Street in Grand Rapids, or Telegraph Road in Oakland County. Five lanes of traffic, and all the same stuff. Auto Zone, Family Dollar, Enterprise Car Rental, Taco Bell, Dollar General, Armed Forces Recruiting, McDonald’s.

I turn south on U.S. 61, the old Camino Real, the King’s Highway. Highway 61 is one of the great old roads, running all the way from Minnesota down to New Orleans, a distance of 1400 miles. Down in Mississippi, it’s sometimes called the Blues Highway, because it runs through the Delta. The intersection of Highway 61 and Highway 49 is supposed to be the crossroads where Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil.

But it’s the northern reaches of Highway 61 I’m thinking of now--the Minnesota part, which inspired Bob Dylan. For all you Old Testament scholars, this is the highway where God ordered the sacrifice of Isaac. Here's how it went down, from the guy who is as close to God as anybody I know of:

God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”
God said, “No.” Abe said, “What?”
God said, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you’d better run.”
Abe said, “Where you want this killin’ done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61.”

It seems appropriate to play that tune on the iPod a couple of times, to observe my official entry onto this auspicious road.

One more Sikeston fact. Sikeston was the site of the last known lynching in Missouri, in 1942. There’s a book about it called The Lynching of Cleo Wright, by Dominic Capeci, Jr. Apparently the grand jury indulged in a what we now know as “jury nullification.”

Mack the Finger said to Louie the King,
“I got forty red white and blue shoestrings
And a thousand telephones that don’t ring.
Do you know where I can get rid of these things?”
And Louie the King said, “Let me think for a minute, son.”
Then he said, “Yes, I think it can be easily done.
Just take everything down to Highway 61.”

Along busy Highway 61 in Sikeston, tucked between a Domino’s Pizza and a bank, is a field of cotton.

I’m now in New Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid) County. The name goes back to when this area was under Spanish control, although the first settlers were French fur traders, in the 1780s. These guys, the Lesieur brothers, got rich from the Indians in that funny way the French had, without slaughtering them.

It’s nothing but cotton now, with a few soybean fields thrown in. Nine more miles of cotton. It's about to be harvested in most places. Cotton harvesters with big cages on them cut through the fields, and lumber up and down the highway. Bits of cotton line the roadside, as if someone had scattered millions of cotton balls everywhere. Cotton. Of course it evokes images of slaves bending down to pick it. Back when people harvested by hand, I imagine they planted the rows a bit farther apart. Also, I'll bet they got closer to 100 percent of the cotton off the branches. Now it looks like they get about 60 percent, and the rest stays on the plants. But they still must get far more cotton than they ever did, and even more cheaply than when the labor was free.


Randy said...

The last verse----

Now the rovin' gambler he was very bored
He was tryin' to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We'll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61.

Change the rovin"to Rove. Hmm.

Have you figured out your route for the entire walk or leaving yourself some flexibility along the way? Wondering how much you will be on Highway 61.

Peter Teeuwissen said...

I try to stay flexible, but the way it looks I'll be doing mostly 61 through the rest of Missouri and Arkansas, and down into the northern part of Mississippi, but at some point I'll branch onto 49. (It'll be soon in the morning when I go rolling in Jackson town.)