Hayti to south of Holland. 21.7 miles/671.1 total
Monday, November 9, 2009
I start the day in Hayti, behind what used to be Boudreaux’s Café, Featuring Cajun Cuisine. I’m headed down south of Holland, to a Shell truck stop a mile and a half north of the Arkansas-Missouri border. It’s overcast and warm. No threat of rain, just lots of clouds. It’ll hit 70 again today, I expect. That strong wind from the south has died down to a gentle breeze.
Today will be my last full day in Missouri. Tomorrow’s walk will take me through Blytheville, Arkansas, which, I learned last evening from talking to a few old boys, is pronounced BLY-vull. It’s there that I have been staying for the last two nights, in the Walmart parking lot, and where I’ll stay tonight and probably tomorrow, too.
Besides learning how to pronounce Blytheville, I got a whiff of racial prejudice from these guys. This hatred is a nasty and unwelcome thing to witness. It’s always dished out to the white stranger in coded phrases, to see if the stranger understands. Then if there’s an opening, they go all out. If not, they fall back on their most tired line, which is that people from outside the south simply don’t understand how things are down here. The joke there is that it's obvious exactly how things are—white people hate black people. Black people sometimes respond in kind, but more often than not respond with a resignation and sullenness that’s perfectly understandable. And more than anyone has a right to expect, they insist on enjoying life and ignoring the white people as much as they can.
It makes me pessimistic that there will ever be a transformation of the soul of the south. I think the most effective solution would be to get rid of most of the white people. Ship ‘em off to an island somewhere, or back to Europe, where they came from.
I see another armadillo, my third, as I go past a work crew of about ten guys in grey jail clothes, who are weed wacking a stand of sumac on the side of the highway. It makes me grateful that I am free to walk past.
Yesterday I took a drive west, past Jonesboro, to Portia, Arkansas, where my grandmother was born. I figured I might as well since I was in the state. Portia is a little town of 400 or so, nothing much to see. It's past cotton country, getting close to the foothills of the Ozarks. You might remember that I checked out the town where my great grandfather was born, Cisne, Illinois, a while back. Well he moved down from Cisne to Grandin, Missouri, in the southern part of the state, where he met my great grandmother. Then they went on down to Portia and the neighboring town, Black Rock. But before too long they went south again, to Cleora, Louisiana, near Bastrop. That's where my grandfather met my grandmother, an auspicious occasion, since it led eventually to the birth of my mother. There was no need to go to any cemeteries, if I could have found them, because the whole family cleared out of Arkansas before the turn of the twentieth century.
On the way to Portia, I passed through a place called Black Oak, about twenty miles east of Jonesboro. All along the highway there were fields, with signs for Grisham Farms, Inc. I'll bet John Grisham or some of his relatives own that land. I remember a book he wrote called A Painted House, which took place in northeastern Arkansas, centering around cotton farming. And John Grisham was born in Jonesboro.
At just under nine miles into today's walk I enter the delightfully-named town of Braggadocio. I don’t know what god-awful way they pronounce it around here, and I’m not sure I even want to find out. The town itself isn’t much. It was founded in 1847, and according to one source, was named for Sir Braggadoccio, in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. Giving a place like this a name like that is a little like dressing a pig in a tutu.
There used to be a high school right here on Route J, where I’m walking. There’s nothing left except what looks like an arch from the school, with the name and the date of construction, 1923. Closed for lack of interest, probably.
At the intersection of Routes J and Z there’s the Braggadocio post office, and just down from the intersection is a place called Mary’s, purporting to be a store. I walk in to this old dilapidated white building and the smell of urine and accumulated filth is so overwhelming inside that I wouldn’t be able to eat or drink anything if I bought it. There’s no one at the counter, fortunately. Mary’s probably out back taking a dump or feeding the chickens. I back out and am quickly on my way past the rest of the dozen houses that comprise Braggadocio. Just thinking about the inside of that place makes me shudder.
At the corner of Route Z and Pemiscot County Route 442, I pause to sit in front of the ruins of an old gas station and store, overgrown and hardly recognizable as such. No roof or windows remain, and a few trees grow inside, together with giant weeds out front by where the pumps must have been. But the concrete skeleton is intact, and a couple of concrete benches are still in front, on either side of the hole that was once the front door. A great place to sit and listen to the thousands of birds that inhabit it now. It’s been a lot of years since old men sat on these benches, spitting tobacco juice and gossiping and gawking at customers. It’s a little like sitting in a cemetery. Today this place would be great for kids to play in, even though their parents probably would tell them not to. But this would make a great clubhouse, or a place to sneak cigarettes, or do such other forbidden things as young people are apt to do. Maybe set fires. Nothing can hurt this old concrete shell. It’s taken thirty years, at least, for it to get this way, and in another thirty it probably will be here. No one cares to tear it down and no one cares whether it stays up. This corner is nothing any more.
Next I enter the small city of Steele, population 2,263. This is where I rejoin Highway 61, which has been on the expressway for some miles. In Steele I see my first Piggly Wiggly store since I’ve been down here. Piggly Wiggly and Wynn Dixie are the two main southern grocery store chains. I’m pretty sure Walmart has put a serious dent in both of them. I wasn’t sure Piggly Wiggly was around anymore.
And here’s a historical tidbit about Steele that falls under the heading of “you just can't make this stuff up.” In 1934, four members of the Pacific Movement of the Eastern World (PMEW) were put on trial in Steele. The PMEW was a pro-Japanese movement of African Americans founded in Chicago in 1932 to promote the idea that Japan was the champion of all non-white people around the world. There had been some unrest between local whites and African Americans, who, particularly in Missouri, had become interested in the PMEW. The four defendants said they were innocent, and blamed the problems on members of a breakaway organization, the Original Independent Benevolent Afro-Pacific Movement of the World. Nevertheless the four were found guilty, one of the prosecutor’s arguments being that they had no business driving around in a high-powered Chrysler. After the trial the judge and the prosecutor stepped outside and allowed a mob of two hundred whites to go in the courtroom and beat the defendants. Then they were sentenced to one year in prison. At some point the conviction was overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court.
A few miles down U.S. 61 I reach Holland, population 247. I’m just at the outskirts of Holland and won’t go through it. But it’s not really necessary to walk right through a town of 247 to know what it’s all about. There are a couple of churches, a small school, and a few dozen houses, and a water tower. That’s it. But there is a cotton gin here, around the bend on Highway 61, with about a hundred cotton modules sitting out front. I stop to chat with a man who is digging in a ditch in front of a Pentecostal Church. I want to know more about cotton. I ask him how much the modules weigh. He says that a bale weighs 400 pounds, and that there are about fifteen bales in each module. So a module would weigh 6000 pounds. He confirms that this hasn’t been a good year because of the rain. The cotton is “knotty,” and not opened all the way, and clings to the plants, so the harvesters don’t get all of it. He said they still get about 80% of it. I had thought 60%, but he said there’s less cotton left on those plants than it looks like there is. He doesn’t know how much a module of cotton would be worth, but that's still a lot more than I knew before. I head on down the road.