Sunday, June 17, 2018

A Night in Natchez

I knew nothing about Natchez.  I went there on the recommendation of a good guy I’ve gotten to know from Louisiana.  Hearing I was roughly following the Mississippi down to Florida, he said if I was anywhere near Natchez it was worth seeing.  So I went.
From Bostrop I drove toward Sterlington and headed the direction of Monroe.  In Columbia I turned on 4 East following it through Gilbert, Jigger, and Ft. Necessity.  I picked up 425 S. again there and crossed the Mississippi River for the last time, entering the State of Mississippi into the town of Natchez.

I went up a hill from the river, and drove through a town that looked much like any other.  I pulled into a gas station, filled up while I was there, and made an inquiry of a guy at the pump across from me.
“Guy told me there were old mansions and stuff in this town.  Where would I head to see them?”

“You’re over the hill.  You want to  down the hill to see old town.  Did you cross the river just back there?”
He pointed in the direction from where I came.

“Go back that way.  As you head down the hill take a right on any of several streets. You won’t miss the old town.  It’s big and fancy.” 

That it certainly is.  When cotton was king in the south the bluff in Natchez, facing the river with views of the Louisiana shore, became the favored building site for rich plantation owners to put their mansions, outdoing each other with architects, sparing no cost for design or furnishing.  It’s a spectacular display of antebellum southern lavishness, if you’re into that kind of thing.  There is something about regular people marveling the rich, from any time period including the present, that I don’t understand.  But hey, using an old river saying, whatever floats your boat.
I turned onto a street that gently swept through old trees, huge yards, and gigantic stone buildings.  I guided the Buick into a driveway with a sign pointing the way to a parking lot, a property obviously open to the public.  It was close to five.  As I walked towards an outbuilding behind a split rail fence I encountered two people in period costume.  An older woman in a long gingham dress walked towards me.   Behind her a young man was locking a door.  They were obviously leaving. The woman spoke to me.

“You can come back tomorrow morning for the tour if you’d like, but we’re closed now.”
As her words ended she sucked on one of those electronic cigarettes whose tip glows blue when you draw on it.  Vaping is the term I hear.  When she exhaled a cloud of white curled up around her big bonnet.  The boy behind her, in knickers, high socks, and suspenders was on his cell phone texting.  He didn’t look up.  Something about people depicting life 180 years ago using modern devices is weird but I get it.  They were off the clock.  I caught them at a bad time.

“I’m just trying to get oriented.  I plan to stay the night in Natchez.  Can you suggest a hotel? “
“Darryl, get this man a pamphlet will you?”

Darryl looked up from his phone, not terribly pleased, offered a smile (fake, I could tell), turned back, unlocked the door and went inside.
“I could tell you about hotels but Natchez is a bed and breakfast town.  Your best bet is Googling a list of B+B’s.  They’re all in the old part of town, you can get a good deal, and the breakfasts are to die for.”

Darryl handed me a pamphlet.
“You’ll find some in there but there’s more on line.  Really.  It’s the way to go.  Enjoy Natchez.”

I took her advice and ended up at Choctaw House.   The host at the bed and breakfast, or more accurately, splendid mansion with breakfast, was a southern gentleman, previously from Marlsgate, a plantation showplace in rural Arkansas.  Choctaw House is a four story Natchez mansion.  Architects call it transitional, containing the general Federal style while blending Greek Revival details.  I don’t know what that means at all.
It’s a damned big structure though, tall and built right out to the sidewalk in 1836 for a guy named Joseph Neibert, a southern real estate speculator.  I was shown into one of four guest rooms found in the above ground basement that once housed slaves.  That floor, once simple and crude, is now decked out with huge four poster beds, elegant bathrooms, and antique furniture.  Everything above, three floors of it, is parquet floors, shiny hardwood, elegant wallpaper, sweeping staircase, high ceilings, you name it.  Mr. Neibert didn’t look to be worried about expense.  If it was expensive in 1836 it went into this house.  You got your double porches, formal garden in the back, a view sweeping down to the river, and a widow’s walk on top.  It’s a helluva of a place.

My host explained that he provided the bed in this bed and breakfast deal, and assured me I didn’t want to eat his cooking so he would give me a voucher at Dunleith Historic Inn down the street which qualified me for a tour of that mansion, and of course he would give me a tour of Choctaw House whenever I chose.  I told him I was mostly hungry at the moment and would most likely take him up on that tour in the morning .  He recommended Cotton Alley for supper, three blocks over and one block down the hill.  He was a smooth talker, dapper little southern man with a handlebar mustache and carefully combed white hair.  He looked like a shrunken Colonel Sanders.      
Cotton Alley was an old restaurant with a small menu and great food.  I had a cup of gumbo and crawfish etouffee with a glass of wine.  After dinner I asked the waitress if they served Sazeracs, a rye whiskey cocktail.   She leaned down and spoke softly.

“Our bartender is new and has been looking drink recipes up in a book behind the bar for a week.  If you want a really good Sazerac go up the hill to King’s Tavern and have Ricky Woolfolk make it for you.  He makes the best cocktails in town.  Tell him Sarah sent you.”
Why stop going where people send you and taking their advice when it’s working for you?  I paid my bill and strolled up the hill in search of some joint called King’s Tavern.

Natchez has live oak trees and pretty vines that climb up fences and posts and break out into blooms, some red, some purple, which smell wonderful.  That night offered a kind of quiet that wraps around you.  It was warm even though it was of February and a slow stroll up the hill on dimly lit brick streets seemed the perfect thing to do.
Kings Tavern, as it turns out, is not only the oldest building in Natchez, but the oldest in the entire Mississippi territory.  It was built in 1769 as some kind of block house attached to a fort and has operated as a tavern and an inn more or less continuously since 1789.  It was the favorite place for riverboat men to hang out after they had delivered their goods on the Natchez docks.

Before steam engines and the locks and dams on the river commercial traffic was carried out by wooden barges that could float down the river but had no power to return upstream.  So they dismantled the boats, sold the lumber, and returned north overland via the Natchez Trace Pathway.  Many of the first buildings in Natchez, including King’s Tavern, were built from that lumber.  Stepping into that tavern,  through a small wooden door over a raised threshold, into a big room with low ceilings of exposed hardwood joists, dim lights, wooden tables and benches, made me feel as if I was stepping back in time.
Behind the bar was a friendly guy framed by rows and rows of whiskey bottles.  There’s something about being in well stocked bar that I find very comforting. 

“Are you Ricky?”

“Sarah down at Cotton Alley says you make the best Sazerac in town?.
“She did?  I’m going to have to buy that girl a drink soon.  What kind of whiskey would you like in that Sazerac  sir?”

“Pick me out a good one.”
He did.  Ricky Woolfolk’s Sazerac was so good I had another before making my way down the hill to Choctaw House.    Lying alone in that big four poster bed I thought it would be an excellent night to have a companion on the trip.  Travelling alone offers lots of freedom, an advantage not to be taken lightly, but it has its downside as well. 

I went to sleep thinking of Choctaw House as it was before the civil war, well aware that I was sleeping in luxury in a place once crude and inhabited by slaves, people owned by others, who were bought and sold, considered assets not unlike a herd of cows.  Funny how the past continues to affect the future.
Once my host heard that I was up in the morning he came down and inquired how I liked my coffee.  He made his with a New Orleans blend that included chickory.

“Not everybody likes it.”
“That’ll do fine.  I’ll take it black.”

He talked entirely too much for that early hour but I listened politely.  Southern history seemed to just roll out of his mouth.
He had purchased Choctaw House as a business venture to showcase his family’s art collection.  His family owned at its height a 7,000 acre cotton farm in Arkansas.  His great great grandfather (there is possibly another great there) just as short as he, was the original cotton planter.  He was awarded a land grant, given the land in other words, for most of that acreage and bought the rest for sometimes under a dollar an acre.

It was said in those days, according to my host, that if a man could plant and sell three consecutive cotton crops he would have made his fortune.  His grandfather did that, and following his success married a beautiful woman nearly six feet tall, took her on a grand tour of Europe that lasted nearly a year, and for three years following their return large wooden crates containing all manner of art, brocaded cloth, custom made furniture, silverware, dishes, and most importantly to him, fine porcelain all signed by a Frenchman named Jacob Petit were unloaded on the river docks and hauled up the hill by slaves to their plantation mansion, where the mere presence of those objects  loudly proclaimed their owners' wealth. 
“So did you become a cotton farmer?” I asked.

“Heavens no.  I studied art history.  My life has been devoted to the care and the preservation of these things.  I’ll show you after your breakfast.”
The Dunleith Inn is another imposing mansion on the Natchez river bluff.  Breakfast was served in a converted horse barn on the grounds of the mansion.  Fancy is the only word to describe that layout; heavy silver, nice table cloths, delicious omelet.  The staff there almost insisted I take the free tour of the mansion, but I figured one mansion was plenty, and I still had Choctaw House to get through.

My host began the tour outside by bringing me up the sweeping double staircase that leads to the big entrance and into the dining room of that old mansion, as invited dinner guests might enter the mansion.  The table was set with more dishes than I have ever seen in my life.  According to him his family owns seven sets of Jacob Petit dishes.  He also dropped the name of the silversmith who made the utensils.  There had to a dozen pieces of silver at each place setting.  A big ass crystal chandelier hung over the table.  I don’t know about you but I get nervous around all that breakable expensive stuff.  I know it was beautiful and valuable, but to me it was over the top gaudy.  If there is an opposite of Zen simplicity, the dining room table at Choctaw House is it.
It was that way through the entire house. Chock full of porcelain.  My host kept picking up pieces of it and showing me the signature on the bottom.  I believed him after the first one but he persisted.
One of his favorites was not a Petit piece but rather a figure of a pretty woman leaning out an upstairs window of a tall skinny house, waving a red kerchief.  He explained that the brothels in Amsterdam, in the red light district, gave their best and most loyal patrons a piece of this porcelain in gratitude for all the money they spent at their establishments.  The southern men, returning to America, often gave them to their wives who thought they were lovely, and were none the wiser.  His eyes twinkled when he told stories.  He was full of them I tell you.
He explained the origin of the curtains, the bedspreads, the step stools used to climb up into the canopy beds, the painting on the walls, the busts, the fireplace andirons.  By the third floor I’d about had it, but he just kept talking.

The fourth floor was the best, lots of windows and light, and a staircase leading to the roof. 
“If the weather is good on New Year’s Day we always have a party on the roof.  My serving boys hate those parties, they have to carry all the food and drinks up from the kitchen on the first floor.  But my it is a fine place to party.  Would you like to see it?”

On the very top of Choctaw House you realize the real beauty of Natchez.  It’s the valley, the bluff, and of course the river, the central feature of that part of the warm and rich south.  You can have the art, I’ll take the geography.
As we went back down the staircase I saw a curious painting on the wall.  It depicted a flood.  In the swollen river were black people on the roof of a building floating downstream.  One of the men was trying to pull a mule up on the roof.  A woman was reaching out to a child in the water.  And on the bluff, on a widow’s walk high above like the one I had just been standing on, was a handsomely dressed white couple, the woman in a long hooped dress, the man with a tie and hat.  They were waving at the struggling black people below.  Waving.

“You like that painting?”
“Not especially no.”

“A man wants to buy the rights of that painting from me and produce a set of prints.  I’m not sure I should let him.”
“I’d get as far away from that painting as I could if I were you.”

My host looked at me curiously.
“Well, you’re a Yankee and I understand how you might feel.  But it was a way of life.”

“How many slaves did your family own?”
“We can’t exactly tell, but we believe over 200 at one point.”

“How did your family and those slaves the Civil War and the end of slavery?”
“Well even though we lost the war we didn’t lose our money.  My great great grand daddy had confederate money of course but he also had money in European banks and Northern banks.  They hedged their bets.  And they adapted quickly to a new business model after their slaves were “freed.”

“What business model was that?”
“Share cropping.  The slaves had nowhere to go and no means to get there so the landowners sold them their mules, assigned them a patch of land, built them a shack and the cotton continued to grow.  And the people that owned the land still made money.  It would never be like before but the South still offered the rich a good life.”

That’s kind of what I was thinking when I went to sleep in the slave quarters.  The rich stay rich, and the rest of us look in from the outside.  I think that’s life in America.   

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Lunch in Louisiana

Soon after I crossed the Louisiana state line, traveling south on Route 425, I stopped In Bostrop for an oyster po’boy sandwich.   I’d been imagining that sandwich for quite a while.  Sam’s Southern Eatery looked to be the ideal place.  Old.  Their sign could have dated back to the 60’s.  I realized Sam might be long gone, but there were lots of cars in the parking lot.  When I entered I was slammed by with smell of hot seafood in deep fryers.  Fried shrimp baskets were their specialty.  I had my mind on oysters.
Back in the nineties a couple from Louisiana bought Fred’s Carry Outs across the street from the YSB office on Madison and made a go of it for only a short time.  They occasionally put a spicy shrimp po’boy on special and I inquired about oyster po’boys.  They reported they wouldn’t serve them because they just could not find good oysters in Illinois.

Around the holidays I brought them a container of oysters from Kroger, the kind they sell for Christmas and New Years’s Eve up north, and asked if they could Cajun them up for me in a po’boy.  The woman cooking laughed, declared it was the first time anyone had ever walked in with their own sandwich makings, but made it for me.  She said the oysters were pitiful.  Claimed you had to have oysters just shucked from the gulf for a proper oyster po’boy.  I thought it was delightful.  She suggested I get the real thing in Louisiana, and that was exactly what I was doing.
My order was up.  On the plate in front of me were light tan nuggets of fried oysters laid in a row between two sides of a  fresh baked baguette.  They were dressed with lettuce, tomato,and mayo.  On top of it I added several shakes of Crystal hot sauce. 

As soon as I bit into that sandwich from Sam’s Southern Eatery I understood what my old neighbors across the street meant when they said you had to have fresh shucked gulf oysters for a proper oyster po’boy.  If you find yourself in Louisiana, get yourself to a good place like Sam’s Southern Eatery in Bostrop.  You’ll understand what I’m talking about.   
Sam’s Southern Eatery was ringed with trees busting with beautiful white blooms.  It was the end of February in Louisiana and spring had arrived.  I asked the teen age girl who took my order what kind of trees those might be and she didn’t know.  Halfway through my po’boy I inquired of the nice old couple at a booth near me what those trees were and they smiled, looked at each other, and replied

“We can’t tell you, but aren’t they beautiful?”
I agreed that they were.

“You lived in Bostrop a long time?”
They laughed.

“All our lives,” the woman said.  “You’d think we’d know what those trees are don’t you?  I guess we just take them for granted.”
As I walked through the door on my way to the car a man approached the restaurant.

“Excuse me sir, do you know the name of these trees that are blooming here?”
“No idea.”

I concluded if the people of Bostrop could enjoy those trees for what they were, beautiful and in bloom, without knowing their name far be it from me to wonder any further.  Who does it matter?  I resolved to simply enjoy them,  just like I enjoyed that po'boy sandwich.
I got back in the Buick and headed for Natchez. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Leaving Arkansas in Sunshine

It’s amazing what a short whiskey and an hour and a half nap on a good bed can do to improve your mood.  I woke up hungry in another strange motel room.  It was dark and still raining hard.  I ventured down to the lobby. 
I asked the night clerk, the very cheerful woman who rented me a room, if there was a rib joint close and she suggested one straight out the parking lot blocks away.  As I guided the Buick through the rain I plowed water most of the way.  I couldn’t help but think of the flooded road I turned back from and whether I would have made it had I ventured into the pond around the Forked River Bridge.  I hunched over the steering wheel reading street signs, then turned, splashed through deep water at the curb, and parked in front of a little place called the Delta Q.

There weren’t many cars in the parking lot, and when I walked in a big garbage can was in the middle of the dining room, water occasionally dripping into it.  Only a few tables were occupied.  The waitress came right over.
“Excuse the mess.  It’s been raining for three days and our flat roof just stated leaking this afternoon.  I guess it’s a two day roof.”

She handed me a menu and set a small bucket of homemade pork rinds in front of me.  They had craft beer and I ordered one.  I used to love pork rinds.
The menu told me they served all the standard rib joint fare.  I have trouble deciding between ribs or brisket.  The waitress brought my beer. 

“It says you can get your ribs wet or dry.  Which is best you think?”

She didn’t hesitate.  I like that.
“The dry have good smoky flavor but sometimes they’re a little bland.  The sauce they use on the wet ribs gives them more flavor, but they’re still not what I call spicy.  Course you can put the sauces on the dry ribs yourself but I don’t know, I just think the wet are better.”

“You smoke your own meat here right?”
“Oh yeah.  The owner is all about the hogs, the wood, how hot, how long.”

“Good.  I’ll have a slab of wet ribs with baked beans and cole slaw on the side.”
“Coming up.”

I got on Delta Q’s wi-fi and checked out their competition at a site called ‘The Best 20 Restaurants in Forrest City.’  I found a little of everything; Mexican, Asian, seafood, barbeque, and steakhouses.  Twenty restaurants?  How did a town of 15,000 hit that culinary jackpot? It seemed so ironic that seven hours earlier I was unable to find even a hot dog near Frog Jump Tennessee and here I had my choice of foods.  It’s literally feast or famine in America.  Find the interstate and you apparently find the food.
Of course you do.  That’s where people with money are spending it.  This is where they’re travelling, spending the night, being away from home without a kitchen.  It’s the interstate, a funnel with people pouring through it.  I’m sure at one time you could find a nice hotel on Route 51, and probably a good cheap meal.  But why would I expect to find either there now?  The only people traveling on Route 51 are locals.  They don’t need a hotel room.  And how much money could you make in a restaurant in Frog Jump anyway?

Apparently not much given the looks of that shuttered restaurant where I regrouped in the rain.   Meaningful commerce and services appear to be over in those communities.  If you need something drive to a community which corporations find worthy of investment.  I’m not sure they are going back to small town America anytime soon.    
My waitress brought the ribs and she was right.  They were none too spicy.  I added some sauce from the table.  I figured there was not much dry rub on them either.  I get it though.  It’s that understated smokiness they’re after in the South.  I still like the sauce we’re used to farther north.  I was hungry.  The ribs were gone pretty quickly.  Good smoky beans.  The slaw was so so, drowned in sweet creamy dressing.

The waitress came to clear the table.
”What’s for dessert?”

“You sir, are in luck.”
People had been calling me sir all day.  I must look old.

“I’m biased but I serve the best bread pudding in Arkansas.”
“Did you make it?”

She laughed pretty big at that one.
“God no.  And you’re lucky.  The owner, who like me doesn’t know the first thing about bread pudding, buys two big pans a day from a lady in town that makes it fresh in her own kitchen every day.  If you want dessert, try the bread pudding.  Plenty of vanilla, touch of cinnamon.  I’m telling you it melts in your mouth.”

Not many waitresses describe a dessert like she did.  She looked hungry just talking about it.
“Bread pudding it is.”

“Good choice.  I’ll warm it for you.”
Sometimes you get an unexpected surprise on the road.  I expected bread pudding that stands tall, all square and sharp edged, sort of stiff and heavy.  This plate of bread pudding looked different, shallow and slumped over, a little sloppy.

When I got a forkful in my mouth I sat unmoving, closed my eyes, and hummed.  I did that involuntarily, I’m convinced, to shut out all other sensations but taste.  Who would think scalded milk, heavy cream, eggs, butter, vanilla, and a few spices with bread cubes could result in such complex flavor and be so damned good?  It was light and moist, disappearing in my mouth with little need for chewing.  I almost ordered another.
Hats off to the woman in Forrest City who bakes that delicious bread pudding.  I’m still mad at myself for not getting her name.  You ma’am, whoever you are, make the best bread pudding I ever had.

The next morning was still overcast and rainy.  At the breakfast buffet, still eating those instant scrambled eggs with lots of hot sauce, I caught the weather report.  There were flash flood warnings all around me.  I headed for the Interstate again. 
I took 40 W to Little Rock, thought of Bill Clinton in his heyday but not enough to stop, and stayed on 40 to Pine Bluff.  As I drove the sky began to clear.  The rain became a sprinkle, and then went away.  I turned my wipers off for the first time in days.   Screw the floods.  I left the Interstate in celebration, taking Arkansas Route south 425 toward Monticello.

On the floorboard of the passenger seat were a batch of CD’s in a cut down brown grocery bag.  My CD’s live in the shack and rarely travel.  I pulled it up on the seat beside me.  Music on the road trip was way overdue.
“Love and Theft” called to me.  I had been thinking about those songs in the silence of the past rain filled days, trying to recall whole lines and not just phrases.  Sometimes you just need to hear good songs again.  It had been way too long since I had heard those.

I first unwrapped the “Love and Theft” disc the morning of September 11, 2001.  My son had just pulled out of the drive on his way to high school.  Moe was away at college.  I had a little time alone before leaving for work and I skipped the news, anxious to hear the latest from my old friend Bob Dylan.  Later when I later got the office I discovered all hell had broken loose. 
You never know what you are going to get in a Dylan album.  I was pleasantly surprised with this one.  For Dylan it was positively buoyant.  Strong melodies and great unexpected lyrics like always.  Even his voice sounded better.  I turned up the volume that morning, just as I turned it up 17 years later, the sun shining on my Buick, speeding down some two lane Arkansas road headed for the  Louisiana state line.  The world has changed entirely since the first day I heard those tunes, but the feeling I get will always stay the same.

I was waiting for the lyrics to “Mississippi”, a state I would get to eventually, and there they came.  Four line stanzas, two rhyming couplets each.  Here’s four of the twelve.
Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is pilin' up, we struggle and we scrape
We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape

Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees
So many things that we never will undo
I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Dylan recorded his first album in 1962 when he was 21 years old.  This one was recorded in 2011, nearly fifty years later, when he was 60.  That made him 77 years old wherever he was as I was on my leisurely tour of the sodden South.  I hope he’s taking care of himself.

As I drove through the little town of Hamburg, Arkansas, “Floater (Too Much To Ask)” came on.  It’s a stroll of a tune, four line stanzas again, lines two and four rhyming most of the time.  Dylan, like many of us, makes up his own rules.  The stanzas are related in subject only a little.  Great musicians hold it all together.  Here’s but a few.

I keep listenin’ for footsteps
But I ain’t hearing any
From the boat I fish for bullheads
I catch a lot, sometimes too many

They all got out of here any way they could
The cold rain can give you the shivers
They went down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee
All the rest of them rebel rivers

My grandfather was a duck trapper
He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don’t know if they had any dreams or hopes

I had ’em once though, I suppose, to go along
With all the ring-dancin’ Christmas carols on all of the Christmas eves
I left all my dreams and hopes
Buried under tobacco leaves

It’s not always easy kicking someone out
Gotta wait a while—it can be an unpleasant task
Sometimes somebody wants you to give something up
And tears or not, it’s too much to ask

Turned out Hamburg was my last Arkansas town.  Civilization gets sparse near the Louisiana line.  I drove between two National Wildlife Refuges, Felsenthal and Overflow.  The Ouachita River flows through there.  Wetland areas it sounds like, full of birds, slow water, and gators.  I’m sure it’s beautiful, but I wasn’t stopping.  I was into the music, the trees, and a bright blue sky.  It was still cold in Illinois, but springtime had come to the South. 

“Moonlight” came through the speakers.  I’d forgotten all about it.  How many other beautiful things in our lives do we lose track of never to revisit?   I played it too or three times, trying to burn the tune and the lyrics into my poor old brain.  I don’t want to lose it again.  Three line stanzas, with two rhyming, and one line so pretty he repeated it in six of the eight verses.

I’ll give you the first five stanzas, but you really should listen to this one.  It’s short.   Ask Alexa or your favorite, always listening home robot to play it for you.  Bob appears to have the rights sewn up, as he should, so I can’t find a free link to give you and you don’t want to listen to a cover. 

The seasons they are turnin’ and my sad heart is yearnin’
To hear again the songbird’s sweet melodious tone
Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

The dusky light, the day is losing, Orchids, Poppies, Black-eyed Susan
The earth and sky that melts with flesh and bone
Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

The air is thick and heavy all along the levy
Where the geese into the countryside have flown
Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

Well, I’m preachin’ peace and harmony
The blessings of tranquility
Yet I know when the time is right to strike

I’ll take you cross the river dear
You’ve no need to linger here
I know the kinds of things you like

Sometimes a day and a song complement each other.  It was one of those days.  The Buick and I were headed to Natchez Mississippi, and we had all afternoon to get there.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Road Trip Re-routed.

There’s not much Kentucky between Cairo and Tennessee.  Before I knew it I was crossing the state line on Route 51 into South Fulton and heading down Route 43 to Greenfield, Tennessee.
Route 43 was still a little well traveled for my taste.  I was looking for America’s backcountry.  At Greenfield I turned off on Route 54 and headed toward Trenton on my way to Humboldt.  The towns thinned out considerably.  About the time I turned onto Rt. 54 the sprinkles on the windshield turned into bona fide rain.  I switched my wipers from intermittent to low and hunched forward a little in the seat.

I’d been worried about the weather all morning.  I made the mistake of overhearing a local weather forecast while I was eating breakfast, those instant scrambled eggs they serve you, and they talked about a strong belt of heavy rain extending from the southwest heading northeast.  The creeks, streams, and ditches  were full of water.
It had been raining for days.  I was a little concerned back in Kentucky when I passed Bayou de Chien between Clinton and Crutchfield.  Bayou de Chien translates roughly to “slow-moving creek of the dogs.”  I thought bayous were further south, like in the Louisiana swamp.  Bayous are typically low lying areas attached to a bigger body of water, a lake or a river, and have very little current.

But what did I expect?  I was following the Mississippi River, which drains the world’s third largest watershed area.  If you look at a map of the continental United States, the Mississippi basin brings water from the Eastern slope of the Rockies; Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and the Western slope of the Appalachians.  It’s over a million square miles, just behind the Nile, both of which are less than half the area of the Amazon River basin.  I wasn’t thinking of that at the time.  I began to pay as much attention to the rivers and streams on the map as the Tennessee back roads I’d chosen to travel.
The intrusion of modern life on those Tennessee woods was growing less and less all the time.  It was not readily apparent how people were making a living down there.  There was some pasture and beef cows, your occasional plowed field getting ready for a crop of some kind.  But there was not much in the way of commerce, aside from Dollar General and gas stations  I was a little mystified by the economy, but that interest was soon overtaken by the weather.

One thing seemed clear however.  Rural Tennessee car owners do not believe in trade ins.  Most country places appeared to have every vehicle the family ever owned surrounding their modest homes.  Cars and trucks, running or not, and your occasional pile of car parts, were a definite feature of the landscape.
Past Humboldt I encountered the unincorporated collection of houses and sheds known as Frog Jump.  Somewhere before Owl City I entered Hayward County.  The next county would be Crockett, which had to be named after Davy wouldn’t you think?  As it turned out I never made it to Crockett County, because to get there I had to cross the south fork of Forked Deer River.  It was raining even harder as the Buick nosed down a little valley on a wet two lane pavement.  I turned my wipers up to high.

You could almost see it coming.  Full ditches, big sheets of water in the pastures.  I’m not sure what constitutes a flash flood but there was a lot of water around me. 
You have to understand that when they built the interstate highway system they didn’t follow the lay of the land.  They changed it as they saw fit.  Graded the curves nicely and gradually so cars didn’t have to reduce speed, created overpasses, taking earth from adjoining land creating borrow pits, built up the low places, knocked down the hills.  The roads we travel most often, while not quite weather proof, are much less susceptible to floods, blizzards, and extreme weather than secondary roads, let alone the two lane track between Frog Jump and the Crockett County line.  As I got closer to the river I could see I was in trouble.

There was a big pond at the bottom of a flattened out valley that in normal times must have been but a small river.  In the middle of the pond was a bridge.  The bridge was above water, you could see a little sliver of open sky under it, but getting to the bridge was obviously a problem.  There was that, followed immediately by driving through the pond on the other side of the bridge to open road. 
At the point where Tennessee Route 54 disappeared into the pond was a dump truck with Tennessee DOT painted on the door.  He didn’t have his flashers on.  Just parked there.  I stopped a little behind him and surveyed the situation. 

I began something of a risk inventory by thinking of what was underneath the Buick.  I had fifteen inch wheels and fair clearance.  Between my feet and the surface of the road was what exactly?  A foot maybe?  A little more?  And in that space I had an exhaust system, an oil pan I imagine.  But being that the Buick was front wheel drive not much of a drive train.  I had a catalytic converter I suppose.  There were brakes to consider.  But brakes dry out.
Close to the river channel, wherever that was, there was would be current that could float a stalled car off the road I supposed.  But the water would have to be damn deep to kill a V-6 engine and sweep my full size Lucerne down the south fork of the  Forked Deer River.  That’s what I told myself anyway.

On the other side of the pond, an equal distance from the bridge, was another state truck.  As luck would have it a jacked up pick up, which had the look of a four wheel drive outfit, pulled up by the truck and began talking to the state worker inside it.
‘This is great,’ I thought.  ‘That four wheel drive pickup will drive through the pond and I’ll be able to see just how deep it was.  Besides that, he’s probably a local and I’ll get to see just where the road is.’ 

It looked like a straight shot to me.  Head to the bridge, cross it, go straight across the pond on the other side aiming towards the road ahead and up the hill.  I had a plan.  Now all I needed was for that truck to drive across and show me just how deep the water was.
In a few minutes the truck lurched forward, stopped, turned around, and drove off the way it came.  That was enough for me.  If he wasn’t willing to try it, I was out.  Discretion, I have learned, really is the better part of valor.  I shut off the Buick, put on my jacket, and went out in the rain to talk to the guy in the truck.  He rolled down the window and pulled the bill of his cap down.

“How you doing today?”
“Aw right.  You?”

“Well this rain is slowing me down.”
“Yeah.  There’s flash flood warnins out.”

“What’s the best way around this?”
You can go back to County Line Road, Take a left, go about a mahl, swing around and get on a ridge out there.  There’s a better bridge across the river on County Line.  Higher.  It ought to be all right for you I’d think.”

“Thanks a lot.”
As I walked away he called back

“Good luck.”
I’d rather he hadn’t said that really.

I drove as directed and about a mile down County Line Road I encountered a flag man, a whole line of trucks, and beyond them a backhoe.  He didn’t look any too happy to be out in the rain.  His truck had the Hayward County logo on the side.  I stuck my head out the window.  He walked up to where I was. 
“What’s happening?”

“Road’s closed.  Culvert washed out.  Going to take most of the daiy to get it fixed if then.”
“How can I get to higher ground and cross the river back there?”

“Fy were you, I’d go back to 54 and head east to Aig Hill road, take a raht.  Follow it on down around, get back on this here road.”
“Ag Hill Road?”

“Aig Hill.”
“A-i-g?  Aig?”

“No Sir.”
He was smiling.  Rain dripped off the bill of his cap.

“When you order breakfast wut do you order with hayem?”

“That’s the road you want.  Aig Hill.”
I laughed and so did he.  I felt dumb.  And to think we were both speaking English.  As I got further south my ear got better, and I embarrassed myself less.

I never found Egg Hill Road.  It started raining harder. 
I bailed out to Rt. 412 and headed west to Maury City where I would pick up Route 88.  It looked bigger in the road atlas.  But before I got there I was stopped by barricades. 

I was going nowhere fast.  I decided to get off the road, get a bite to eat, consult with the locals, and reassess my route on a bigger scale.
Damned if I could find anywhere to eat.  Closest I got was this defunct converted eatery/gas station, which at one time proclaimed they were serving pizza.  I’d say the last wedge of pepperoni pie was sliced some time ago.
I pulled under the canopy, which used to shelter the gas pumps, got out of the rain, walked around the Buick to stretch my legs, and took a serious look at the atlas.
If I really was in a storm system headed north and east it made sense to go west.  I’d spent half the afternoon in Tennessee, and hardly gone anywhere.  I decided to get to a bigger road, quit screwing around with these blacktops, and head west to Arkansas.
Somehow I got to Gates, got on 51 South (my god how far south does 51 go anyway?) and went to Covington, which put me on a path to Memphis.  I didn’t want to go to Memphis, but I needed bigger, better, and higher roads.  I’d find a way to cross the river north of Memphis if I could.

I couldn’t.  I’m sure there was a bridge somewhere short of Memphis, but I couldn’t see it on the map, and I didn’t want to spend time looking for one.  51 became Interstate 40, and I crossed the Mississippi once again on a big four lane bridge into Arkansas.   It was hard to see the river, but what I saw looked wide and very fast.
I hate being on the interstate in heavy rain.  40 West was full of semi’s and they threw a curtain of rain up from their tires that covered the Buick.  I didn’t see much, but managed get out of heavy traffic on Rt. 795 to Marianna Arkansas, then back on 40 W. for a short bit to Forrest City.

I was in constant heavy rain.  It’d been a long day.  I called it quits in Forrest City at a Holiday Inn Express.  Out of the backwoods and into mass market interstate commerce where everything was bright, shiny, and clean.
The young woman at the front desk greeted me with a big smile

“Good evening sir.  How was your day?”
I smiled.