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.