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.