Friday, December 4, 2009

Day 52: Road of infamy

Albin to Shellmound. 21 miles/890.7 total

Friday, December 4, 2009

Departing from the side of the road near the pretty much nonexistent village of Albin, I'm heading down Highway 49E to a long-abandoned gas station near Shellmound.

Today’s walk will take me through practically nothing in the way of settled communities. A little bit of commercial activity at about 12 miles, near Minter City. The rest of it is just walking down the road.

Overnight it got down below freezing. As I departed this morning from the parking lot of the Clarksdale Walmart, bidding goodbye to the city where I have spent five nights (and where the motor home spent another ten nights by itself before that), the sun shone weakly at the southeastern horizon. At the moment medium high clouds blanket the sky, leaving clear strips only in the east and west. The thick clouds hang like an enormous cap over the countryside, like a gentler version of one of those enormous alien spaceships in the movies, hovering over practically the entire visible firmament. It’s colder than yesterday, and the temperature is only expected to break into the low 40s. Tonight it might snow.

About a hundred yards to the east is a row of trees beyond a plowed soybean field, their late fall leaves a variety of yellowish greens, browns, reds, and coppers. They stand alongside a narrow crescent-shaped body of water with the elegant name of Swan Lake. About three miles to the east is a village named after the lake.

Today’s walk promises to be one of the coldest and loneliest I’ve taken. All the little towns hereabouts are on small thin roads mostly to the east, but those roads wind and snake so much that to take them through the communities would have added five miles to the trip. You can see what an advantage Highway 49 provided to the traveler when it was first created, cutting straight through the fields, while the train tracks followed the circuitous trails that predated it.

I’m always looking for themes for these walks, and today’s trip down lonely Highway 49E might be retracing a trail of infamy. The towns of Money and Glendora figured in the murder of Emmett Till, and the bridge I’m crossing right now over the Tallahatchie River could well be the one where they threw his body into the water.

Of course there’s no one place here where murderous hatred dwelled more than in others. Certainly the outsiders, like Till, didn’t suffer any more than the locals did. But often it takes someone coming down from another place and meeting his end as a stranger in a strange land to really get the attention of the outside world—Schwerner and Goodman from New York, Viola Liuzzo from Detroit, Emmett Till from Chicago. Even, when you think about it, Martin Luther King coming to Memphis from Atlanta or JFK leaving Washington for the hostile territory of mid-Texas. What each of these famous victims of murder had in common is that he was carrying a message from outside—a message that the locals didn’t want to hear. Even young Emmett Till had a message—that he was entitled to behave like a white person if he felt like it. And in a few hours, or days, or weeks, all of the people I just mentioned would have been gone back to the far flung places from which they’d come. If the locals could have just been patient, and waited them out, they wouldn’t have attracted so much attention with their murders. Mississippi and Alabama might have gone on killing their own for many more years. But they just couldn’t stand the thought of people from up north, or outside, coming in and criticizing their status quo. It was their Achilles heel, but if they’d been patient, everyone would have gone back home sooner or later, just like the Federal troops did a few years after the Civil War. What sane outsider would want to stay down here, after all? But the stupidity of the locals triumphed, and they were exposed to the whole world, along with their corrupt legal system and their nullifying juries.

Now here's an interesting coincidence. As I walk down this road, named in memory of Emmett Till, past Money and Sumner and Glendora, the places that loomed so large in the story of his murder, I think back on something that happened just last Sunday, when I was driving back down here from Michigan. I missed the exit or interchange to get on I-57 south, up in the Chicago area, and had to get off the expressway to turn around. As I stopped at the end of the exit ramp, in front of me was a large gated cemetery called Burr Oak. I was in the city of Alsip, Illinois, south of Chicago. Last evening I read that Emmett Till is buried in that very cemetery.

[Tonight as I prepare this post I have also discovered that two great bluesmen, Willie Dixon and Otis Spann, both from Mississippi, also are buried there, and that the cemetery itself has very recently come under a cloud because of some illegal exhumations.]

I enter the outskirts of Minter City. The town was started on land owned by James Minter, and was called Walnut Grove. But it turned out there was another place with that name, so they put names in a hat and Minter's was drawn. The post office is out here on 49E, but what's left of the old town is over to the east, hidden behind trees and fields. What I do pass here on the highway are an abandoned doctor’s office, an abandoned auto repair place, several more empty storefronts, and a neighborhood consisting of five ratty trailers whose lawns are strewn with old autos, bicycles, junk, and garbage. But there is one open business, Sanders Grocery, a convenience store and fried food restaurant with a lone gas pump out front. Here’s where I take a travel break, and sit on the bench in front to relax.

After Minter City, things get very quiet for a long time. I run into some road construction about five miles down, and chat a bit with the flagman as I pass, but otherwise it’s all plowed cotton and soybean fields.

I have left Tallahatchie County and entered Leflore County, whose seat is Greenwood, where I’ll be staying tonight. Interestingly, the county and the city were named after the same person, a Choctaw Indian chief with the improbable name of Greenwood Leflore. He signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, opening the area up to settlement by the white man (and his slaves). How did a Choctaw Indian get a name like that?

A couple of miles before the end of the walk I spot a shed antler from an eight-point buck. I pick it up and brush off the dirt and take it with me. Very nice.

I’m listening to Blonde on Blonde as the motor home comes into view. It’s 4:30, about the same time I finished yesterday, but it’s much closer to being dark because the clouds now cover the western sky. As I walk the last few hundred feet, and “Visions of Johanna” comes to an end, so does today’s walk.

Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles.


Anonymous said...

Great description of the sky. In case anyone thought I made up the quote about Michiganders and the weather, it's from Richard Ford in The Sportswriter...
Blonde on Blonde, very appropriate!

Anonymous said...

Greenwood Leflor has an interesting bio in Wikipedia that explains the origins of his name.

Peter Teeuwissen said...

Thanks for the info. Sometimes I forget to look in the most obvious place!