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.