Monday, November 30, 2009
Back on the road. It’s 10:40 a.m. I’m leaving from the center of Maud, such as it is, heading south through the villages of Dundee and Lula to my destination on new Highway 61 near Coahoma. I have to leave Old Highway 61 because I can't find it south of Lula, near Moon Lake. Moon Lake looks on the map like a piece of the Mississippi that got cut off from the main river due to a course change. That has a tendency to happen down here, because the Mississippi meanders so much.
I won't be walking through Coahoma as I had originally intended to do. That’s because I couldn’t bring myself to park the motor home there. Coahoma is a town of about 350 located on Old Highway 61. I have developed a kind of mental block about the place. Coahoma is the reason I left Mississippi on Thursday the 19th, instead of the next day. I was all set to walk to Coahoma that morning, and was looking for a place to park the motor home, but I got a bad feeling about leaving it there, because of the seriously Third World look of the town, where people wander about aimlessly on the main street at all hours of the day, drinking cans of beer from paper sacks, and looking hungrily at anything that comes into their town from outside. Coahoma is without doubt the dumpiest place I’ve been in on this journey, and I don’t bestow that distinction lightly. It has that kind of idle poverty that you see in places where nobody has anything to do and everyone just hangs out looking for any kind of opportunity. I couldn’t see stopping the motor home and detaching the car and then leaving it, under the eyes of the townspeople.
As I sat in Coahoma by the railroad tracks on the 19th, I did make an acquaintance. A fellow of about 30 or 35 came up to the motor home and greeted me, sort of unofficially welcoming me to the town. We chatted very amiably for a few minutes. He has, or had, a relative in Michigan. This morning I went back there to see if a week and a half had given me a new perspective on the place, and who should wave at me but my friend from before. He came up to the driver’s side of the motor home again, and I opened the window to say hello. He gave me a grin, showing at least four teeth missing on the top in front, and shook my hand. “You really like this little town, don’t you?” he said. “Yeah, I guess I do,” I replied gloomily. Then he asked me if I could spare fifty cents. I gave him the money, and decided once again, as I had last time, that I would go out to new Highway 61 and find another ending point for the walk. Last time I was looking for a place when I decided to chuck it for the day and start driving back. This time I knew I had to find a place, and fast, because of the late start.
But I’ve got my legs moving now, and I'm leaving Maud. Maud, you may recall, is where I left my dog Cotton. I see scattered armadillo parts that almost look like pieces of tire. They’re old road kill, from months ago. I guess the armadillos are hibernating or something.
Over the Thanksgiving break I got biographies of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson out of the library, to refresh my memory about some of these Delta locations and who played in them. Robinsonville, where I started my last walk, was a biggie, with Son House and Robert Johnson and others playing there. Clarksdale, where I’ll be walking tomorrow, is home to a museum dedicated to the blues. Today I’ll be walking a few miles east of Stovall, the plantation where Muddy Waters grew up and where he was “discovered” in the early 1940s.
Three miles down the road from Maud I enter the village of Dundee. Dundee is comparatively civilized, in that it has an elementary school. On the other side of the street is the St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, a one-story white shingled affair. A few dozen houses, and that's about it. Dundee, nursery of arts and letters.
South of Dundee I come to another country cemetery. It’s the usual bunch of haphazardly arranged, sometimes makeshift, graves. Some bear real tombstones and others have the little four by six inch stickers from the funeral homes, ordinarily used to mark the graves until the real tombstones are delivered. They look like larger versions of those colored plastic things they stick in your steak, for rare, medium rare, medium, etc. Here they're used as permanent markers until the white cards with the names typed on them fall out.
In the south they seem to be comfortable with the idea that a large part of the population is and will remain very poor. There is little in the way of formal social or moral commitment to eradicating poverty on the part of wealthier people. I'm not sure poverty is even considered a bad thing by those who aren't poor. In truth, until fairly recently poverty was a good thing from the standpoint of landowners and farmers, because it represented the large class of peons from which the cheap labor force was taken. Affluence and poverty seem to coexist more or less amiably, and have little influence on one another.
At 6.1 miles I pass a big sign that says “Johnson’s Bottom.” There’s no village, just cotton fields. Don’t know what that’s about. A mile or so later I leave Tunica County and enter Coahoma County, whose seat is Clarksdale. Coahoma, by the way, is a Choctaw word meaning "red panther."
Almost as soon as I get to Coahoma County I’m in the town of Lula, population 370. Lula isn’t quite as bad as Coahoma. Leading into the village from the north, on the other side of the tracks, there are some reasonably tidy-looking ranch style houses with a minimum of trash in front, some in need of almost no major repairs. I pass the Good Shepherd Market, a convenience store that doubles as a platform for evangelism, from the looks of it. Two blocks on down, the town sinners gather next to Hawkins Package Store--six or eight men in their thirties and forties, loitering, joking and laughing, drinking from containers wrapped in paper bags. Music plays from a car radio parked nearby. It’s noon on a Monday and the men are idle and half-drunk. One of them, with no teeth, smiles and waves at me. (Why do the toothless ones seem to like me?) Across the street sits an unmanned police car.
There’s a lot of railroad rolling stock sitting around on sidings in these crappy towns. Don’t quite know why. Maybe because the railroads know that nobody in these places will give a damn whether a couple of dozen tankers sit on the tracks for a few years, or forever.
With Lula behind me, and the Lula-Moon Lake Road as well, I turn on to Highway 49, which merges with 61 a couple of miles east of here. I’ve put on the iPod and am listening to Muddy Waters songs—from the early Chess days. At the moment he’s saying that he’s going back down to Clarksdale, because that’s where he belongs.
Where Highway 49 meets Highway 61, I pass the Senator Delma Furniss Welcome Center and Hospitality Station, where 24 hour security is provided. About three miles down on Highway 61 there’s a historical marker, about the Yazoo Pass Expedition. It says that on February 3, 1863 Union forces blasted the levee on the Mississippi to enable their flotilla to move on Moon Lake and some other subsidiary rivers, in order to get to Vicksburg. But the Union forces were stopped by the Confederates and the Yazoo Pass Expedition failed. So this marker sort of celebrates the Union defeat, although the north did take Vicksburg a couple of months later at considerable cost to the Confederates.
After reading the marker I sit on a highway bridge and take a rest and look at the waning afternoon sun. My legs and feet are extremely tired today, and out of shape from my ten days of rest.
I keep seeing little pieces of bleached out armadillo shell on the roadside. They look like bits of Styrofoam coffee cups that have been flattened out. The nine-banded armadillo, the variety native to this area, has a tendency to jump straight up in the air when startled, which often results in its colliding with the undercarriages or fenders of cars.
I reach the motor home, safely parked in front of the defunct Junction Rhythm and Blues Club, on Highway 61/49.