Tag Archives: town

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After an very fine day working in Chris’ studio, Whitney arrived and invited us to join her parents at a special Thanksgiving service at Triumph Church. I am so glad to have had that experience: the first authentically multiracial church service I’ve been to on this trip, and for it to be here in Vicksburg makes me totally happy. The music was forgettable but heartfelt Christian pop, and there were video screens everywhere projecting the song lyrics, various announcements, and inspirational snippets: call it the Church of Powerpoint. But then the sermon, given by the cowboy-booted casual-Friday-dressed pastor, was quite a strong discussion of communion as thanksgiving. I feel a bit silly that had it somehow never occurred to me that the Greek word for thank you has the same root as the word eucharist. Of course!

I am definitely feeling very thankful these days, that is for sure! After church, Chris and Whitney took me out for a night on the town: first dinner and then to a blues club, and hanging out with the two of them was really great. Whitney is a nurse who used to do house calls to disabled seniors until the program got cut: I think she might know every impoverished old person in town. Her real passion is end-of-life care, but at the moment she’s working in a GP’s office. What kind of a world is it that won’t let people do the hard jobs they actually want to do!??!

Wednesday morning I got a glimpse of contemporary Vicksburg city politics, and boy, the Civil War isn’t over, in ways I’m not sure I’m really equipped to describe. It seems there’s been a concerted effort in the last few years to revitalize downtown by fostering live-work mixed-use development. Chris is a prime example: her gallery is on the ground floor of a building on the main downtown street, and her apartment is the second floor. A guy wants to open a second-floor dance club above his restaurant two doors down, and he’s got the new young mayor’s fierce support: to the point that the mayor decided to override all the existing architectural guidelines and allow the bar owner to install a staircase from a balcony down to the public sidewalk in order to meet fire department rules for two means of egress. It doesn’t matter that the staircase will intrude in front of the building next door and interfere with the flow of pedestrian traffic, it doesn’t matter that the egress problem could be solved by making a deal with the next door neighbors: basically, the mayor has decided to give the bar owner everything he asks for, no matter how ungainly, impractical, ugly, shortsighted, and just plain silly. And he calls anyone who disagrees with him a racist. Hello?! Yes, the bar owner is black, the mayor is black, and most of the people currently living and working on that street downtown are white. But the staircase is a bad idea no matter what color skin you have. It seems to me that the trouble is that the mayor has no way of seeing anything but race in this story, and his anger is making him do foolish things. It was really painful to sit in that meeting, and to realize that what was going down had little to do with logic or practicality or common sense, and everything to do with the Confederate flags and Mammy dolls being sold in the Old Courthouse Museum. And my heart goes out to the mayor in his rage, but he is still wrong about the staircase.

when the levee breaks

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Monday morning, I drove down to Rosedale and headed first to the library, where Martha the librarian gave me an excellent orientation to the town and its history. Turns out this area was a big center for making moonshine during Prohibition — instead of the requisite cannon displayed in front of the State Park visitor center, there’s a whiskey still. The most famous moonshiner was a guy named Perry Martin, who was the son of a successful rice farmer, and had trained for the ministry. He lived on a houseboat on the river side of the levee, and had a bunch of stills set up on Big Island. He eventually built a house on the dry side of the levee, got sick the first night he slept there and never did again. But he would come over the levee every day for lunch with his wife.

I camped out for two nights like Perry Martin, on the river side of the levee, in the state park. The weather is beautiful–clear and warm–and I can sleep in the hammock without the tarp over me, so I get to look at the stars as I fall asleep, and wake up with the dawn. I’ve been doing a good deal of reading: finally got to Lanterns on the Levee, which is a heartbreaking book. The wisdom and the wrongness are so inextricably interwoven, there’s no way to pull them apart. And it’s not just that Will Percy is a white supremicist aristocrat living past his time, it’s also that he is so obviously a closeted self-lacerating gay man who knows he will never live up to his father’s standards. It is a tragic and awful book, but it is beautiful. Read it and weep.

The towns here are hideously far apart: to find an internet cafe, I had to drive 35 miles to Cleveland, where there’s a great coffee place in an old gas station, they roll up the garage doors and you sit in the former repair bay as if it were a terrace.

On Wednesday, I drove down a bit, past the town where Baby Doll was filmed, up to the levee and then biked around the area where the levee broke in the 1927 flood. There were No Trespassing signs everywhere, and I was spooked into imagining someone might shoot me for ignoring them, so I loaded the bike back on the car and drove down into Greenville, which, like all these Delta downtowns except maybe Cleveland, the college town, seems at first glance to be in such a state of decay and poverty that you can hardly imagine how people continue to live here. The buildings in best repair downtown are the churches, including the one built by Will Percy’s Dutch tutor and priest with his own money, (see pp. 86-91 of Lanterns on the Levee), and the synagogue (there has always been a thriving Jewish population in Greenville), and the First AME, which has been visited by Langston Hughes and Leontyne Price (and Herbert Hoover during the flood.)

I had made a plan to meet up with the musician and ethnomusicologist Mark Howell and his wife, Stephanie, at the BB King Museum in Indianola, so I drove out the back way through Leland, site of the old Percy plantation, where there is now quite a nice town with houses along a bayou, and arrived in time to meet up with Mark and Stephanie and hear an interesting panel discussion about this book. Afterwards, Mark and Stephanie and I had dinner and headed over to Lake Village, which is the town across the river from Greenville on the Arkansas side. Mark, with the help of his father and brother, has built a house right on Lake Chicot, based on a design adapted from excavation data for a Mississippian-era house in the Delta. It is a totally great place, surrounded by just enough trees to feel cozy but not obscure the view of the lake. And the light is gorgeous! I went down to the dock and watched the sun set into the lake while having a fine long call with Despina in Athens, and a little gray cat came and sat on my lap and sang a song to me, and I am very happy to be here.

everybody’s doing it

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I went to church in Clarksdale Sunday morning. No one I had met in town could recommend a particular place to go, so I went over to Martin Luther King Blvd. and chose the first church along the street: First Baptist, which ended up being a relatively small congregation, with just a pianist and a few singers. This is definitely not Al Green’s church, with visitors from all over the world: I would guess they probably haven’t seen a white person at First Baptist in years. The welcome I got was authentically kind; the preacher, learning I was from New York, threaded the Yankees’ win into his sermon, people came up and spoke to me enthusiastically of having lived in Brooklyn or Camden; and at the end of the service, they have a tradition I like a lot: the preacher and deacons get into a receiving line, and the congregation goes down to the front, greets those already there, and then each person joins the line themselves, so that by the end, every single person has greeted every other. There were a couple of people in the congregation who greeted me only perfunctorily, perhaps not so delighted I was there, and it got me to thinking: if I were a black person, I’m not sure I would want to see my white self in my church. If I were a child of slavery and sharecropping and lynchings and all that, I’m not sure how much loving-kindness and openheartedness I would be ready to muster for every white stranger who walks in the door. I am grateful and a little shocked by the warmth and welcome I am given by almost every person here. Church is after all the most segregated institution left in America, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon.

I spent the afternoon at John and Sarah and Emma’s house: which may be a sort of heaven. They have a big old rambling house right on the other side of the Sunflower River from John’s shop. It used to be a boarding house; in fact, a girl lived here with a collection of glass animals that inspired Tennessee Williams when he was living in Clarksdale. John has painted the house Greek blue and white, and has embedded decorative river creatures in wavy curlicues, and everything about it feels good. I had been working in the study for hours before running across Mara, who also lives there, and is a visual artist currently working with addicted mothers and their children. Everything about this place and these people is so excellent, it makes me feel kind of shy and awkward and self-lacerating. I begin to feel like my whole life has been one of self-absorbed elitism, living and working in the provincial bubble of the NYC new-music scene and its international tendrils, in an abstract self-congratulatory liberalism that actually doesn’t do much to improve the world or give hope to those without it. Yes, compared to an investment banker or a fashion photographer, I feel confident that my life and work have meaning and value, but compared to people like John and Mara, I’m really not so sure.

I didn’t want to leave Clarksdale without getting out to one of the clubs at least once, so I pulled myself away from Mara and Sarah (John was upstairs putting Emma to bed), and went over to Red’s, where Super Chikan’s son was doing a low-key solo Sunday night show, singing his original songs, and accompanying himself on an electronic keyboard. The songs were built from Casio drum patterns with funky bass lines and simple comping — the lyrics were about his girl being his best friend, about being glad to have had the parents he’s had: totally heartfelt and artless in the best sense. The audience was a couple of tables of locals, some of whom would get up and guest in on one song or another, and some very dear visiting young people from Australia.

The whole scene felt like a tiny glimpse into a community where basically everyone I’ve run across is making art of some kind: music, paintings, dance, whatever. And it isn’t separated from the rest of life, it’s not like there’s a professional class of artists and then a bunch of art-consumers. Everyone is making things. Who would have thought: Clarksdale is the Bali of America!

Al Green in Minnesota

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I didn’t want to leave Memphis without doing a pilgrimage to the Stax Museum. Mary had gone last week while I was immersed in my deadline, and had raved about it, so instead of continuing south today, David and I headed over there and spent a really fine few hours reading and listening. The Museum is very well done, both a wonderful overview and lots of tiny, offbeat tidbits. For example, did you know that Al Green was born in Forrest City, AR (yup, one of those places named after Nathan Bedford Forrest) but then moved to Grand Rapids, MN?!?! That’s right, Judy Garland’s birthplace, still on the Mississippi River, just a thousand miles north! His first recording was made in Grand Rapids, and is about trains, which makes total sense when I think of the number of trains that go through Grand Rapids to this day. Here it is, in case you’re curious:

honoring the indefensible

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Even though it was still rainy, we headed back up to Tiptonville Friday and I did a good long ride, mostly through open farmland, ending up pretty sodden and very grateful for the excellent shower at Fort Pillow State Park, where we stayed for two nights. Mary did the biking Saturday, and I spent the day driving around and checking out various towns (Ripley, Henning, Covington) looking for an open library or internet cafe, pretty much fruitlessly. These are the closest towns to the river around here, but they are all a good ten to twenty miles away from it, I guess because floods and earthquakes make it too unstable to site a town any closer. Towns that are right on the river can only add sprawl on one side, so if you keep your orientation to the river, you can travel for weeks without having to encounter McDonalds and Taco Bell. But these towns, even though they have an old town center that feels specific and real, are surrounded by Walmart and Pizza Hut sprawl in every direction, enough to make you weep.

Sunday morning, we explored Fort Pillow State Park, taking a hike up to the old fort, which has been reconstructed, and spending some time in the interpretive center. The battle here is notable because the Confederates, led by Nathan Bedford Forrest, massacred Union soldiers after they surrendered, because Forrest did not want to treat integrated troops according to the rules of war.

Here is a statement by the Confederate Secretary of War at the time: “I doubt, however, whether the exchange of negroes at all for our soldiers would be tolerated. As to the white officers serving with negro troops, we ought never to be inconvenienced with such prisoners.”

After the war, Forrest reportedly became the first Grand Master of the Ku Klux Klan. And all around these parts you can find memorials to him: Forrest Park in Memphis, Forrest State Park near Camden, Forrest City in Arkansas, Forrest County in Mississippi, and various statues and obelisks and markers sprinkled in government buildings and public places all over the south.

Call me an insensitive northerner if you like, but I really need help understanding how it is okay to have kids going to Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. Do we have Lieutenant Calley High School? How about a Specialist Charles Graner Park?

land of cotton

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Jim invited us to breakfast at Jen’s Diner, which I believe is the only operating restaurant (perhaps the only commercial establishment of any kind) in Columbus, a curious state of affairs for a town that only lost out on being the capital of the United States by one vote. It’s interesting to think about how differently the country might have developed if Columbus had turned out to be the capital. While I don’t think it would have prevented the Civil War, it seems possible that Reconstruction might have turned out differently: the worst failures and rampant corruption might have been addressed more successfully if the center of gravity of the government had been authentically in the heart of the country. One can at least hope that might have been true.

We had a leisurely breakfast punctuated by visits from various townspeople — Jen’s serves a similar function to a Vermont country store — and then Jim took us to a few of his favorite haunts, read a vivid and beautiful passage about the river from his unfinished novel, and introduced us to his charming and welcoming horses. It was hard to leave, and I didn’t set out on the bike until well into the afternoon, but it was a beautiful ride on back roads down to Hickman, where Mary retrieved me and we drove down to Reelfoot Lake to camp for the night.

We are definitely in the South now. There are cotton fields everywhere, still unharvested because there has been so much rain, and you see the farm machinery all set up on the sidelines, waiting for the fields to dry out enough to be able to harvest. I don’t think I had ever seen a cotton field before this trip, so northern and urban am I, and I can’t look at a cotton plant without immediately thinking about slavery and sharecropping, and the inhuman exploitation that benefited both southern landowners and northern merchants.

another confluence

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Because I wanted to go to church this morning, Mary decided to paddle the first part of the day, so I helped put her in at the tiny town of Commerce, well-named, since an unpleasant guy there actually charged us ten bucks to put in at his decrepit ramp, which I had to clear of logs and trash before we could use it. I decided to forego church in Commerce, and drove west to Charleston, MO, and ended up at the First Baptist Church. I was a bit worried what I would hear, after my experience of Baptist church in Fort Madison, but I really liked the service. There was a strong chorus, accompanied by both piano and organ, and the conductor was skilled, and she would have us sing the final verses of the hymns without accompaniment, a fine way to experience the coherence of the gathered congregation.

The sermon was good, nothing about beating children or the fires of hell, but an exhortation to give of the gifts we have been given, not just the offerings required by law, but freewill offerings from the heart. And he spoke vividly of time and talent, as well as treasure: it was not all about money, for sure. The sermon was all the more effective because he got quieter at the climaxes, drawing us in to follow his argument. Not unlike the a cappella final verses of the hymns.

I was repeatedly and warmly invited to stay for dinner (no coffee and donuts here, it’s a whole meal!), but I had to leave right after the service to drive way out on farm roads to the boat launch where I took over paddling from Mary. The last bit of road was too muddy and pitted to drive, so I left the car and hiked about a half mile to the ramp. Beautiful place, really remote: it’s at the beginning of a ten mile meander the river takes, shaped like the Greek letter omega, almost doubling back on itself before continuing down to the confluence with the Ohio. When Huck and Jim traveled this stretch it undoubtedly looked very much as it does now.

It’s becoming a Sunday afternoon tradition to hit a big confluence! I took a back slough at mile 5 (the river mile numbers start again at Cairo), and came out on the right side of the ”long tongue“ below Cairo Mark Twain describes, and there’s actually a point, the tip of the tongue if you will, where the Ohio and the Mississippi come together. It was a bit intense getting across the confluence and down a couple of miles on the left where I had told Mary I wanted to get out. The swells were big enough that the kayak disappeared in the bottoms of the troughs, and down in them I couldn’t see land at all. The ramp was obscured between some dry docks, so I almost missed it, and had to paddle hard to get in. No boils or breakers this time, just fierce big water. I take it very seriously.

We drove back in to Cairo and picked up a bottle of wine to celebrate the official completion of the upper river. 1325 miles. I am very moved to be here in the heart of the heart of the country. But it is heartbreaking to see the state of decay Cairo is in: practically a ghost town except for some pretty awful barracks-like projects on the outskirts. The liquor store was virtually the only functioning place in the whole town. We camped completely alone at Fort Defiance, which felt a bit risky, but somehow necessary, and were rewarded by a clear night with a million stars. I kept Uncle Bob’s very sharp knife in the hammock with me, more as a totem than as an actual weapon, and slept without fear.

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flow in flux

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Leaving St. Louis was sort of hard: spending time with Amy and Frank and Emma and Spencer is fun under any circumstances, and my excellent uncle Joe arrived Tuesday night, adding to the pleasure, but hanging out here is especially comforting when I feel a bit like I’m about to launch into the unknown. I’ve spent very little time in the south before now, (Los Angeles doesn’t count!) and St. Louis is the last place along the river where I have family or close friends, where I know I can land for a while if need be. And it’s rainy and gray and unseasonably cold out, so it really took some self-discipline to get in the car and drive down to Cliff Cave Park, where Mike told us we could put in to avoid the crazy-busy port of St. Louis.

We got to the park, which is the antithesis of North Riverfront Park — all manicured, with a gorgeous shelter and bathrooms and everything, but of course it’s in a wealthier area — but there’s no official boat launch, so Mary helped me get the kayak down to the water, and I put in and paddled off, uncertain until the very last minute if I had enough juice to do it.

And of course, once I was paddling I was no longer cold or uncertain. For one thing, it’s really fun to be able to do thirty or more miles in the time and effort that twenty took before. The current is really moving, there isn’t much traffic other than towboats pushing barges, and they are the best drivers on the river, and most of the logs and stuff are already downriver ahead of us because we’re behind the hump of the highest water. The trees are turning, so in the midst of all the gray-brown water and gray-white clouds, the reds and yellows and greens of the trees on the bluffs look positively gaudy. And now and again huge flocks of birds will fly over, dancing against the clouds, turning in the wind, and I just stop paddling and watch them go. Yesterday the clouds were really low and the wind was pushing them at about the same speed and direction I was traveling in the water. Only the land was still, everything else visible was moving together in concert down towards the delta.

We have camped out every night, and it’s been pretty cold, but there have been an excellent succession of campsites: Magnolia Hollow was a tiny hunter’s hideout way up a back road, three fire pits and a few picnic tables; at Kaskaskia State Park we hung our hammocks in a stand of pines away from the official campsite; and at Trail of Tears State Park, we had the tent camping area all to ourselves. It’s beautiful country, rolling hills and farms, and fewer towns than anywhere I’ve been on this trip except maybe at the very beginning.

The Trail of Tears is well-documented in the visitor center at the park, and also commemorated in highway signs in this whole area, as are the paths of Lewis and Clark and Marquette and Joliet. When I then add the multiple layers of Mark Twain (Huck Finn and Life on the Mississippi), it feels like I am traveling with hundreds or thousands of people, and the virtually unpeopled landscape that is actually before me is really surprising. There are places on the river where I can see five or six miles up and down and not only not see anyone, but also not see evidence that people currently inhabit this place, even though I know that this part of the river has been settled by Europeans for centuries now, and by Native people for millennia.

But then I remember that this part of the river keeps changing its mind, moving course so as to orphan towns away from the river or flood them into oblivion. Islands appear and disappear, attach to one shore or another. Nothing here is permanent, everything is in constant flux. The maps Nick gave me are out of date here, 1991 is too long ago to accurately document the river of 2009. It’s a strange sensation to look at this imposing, serious river and think that it will be likely flowing some yet new way in another twenty years.

high-fiving Asian carp

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We had a really fun night at Bob and Wita’s in Alton. Their house is on a bluff with a great view the river, and they were amazingly warm and generous to us: we had dinner with them and their neighbor Barb, and heard lots of stories about Alton and growing up in Calhoun County (Bob grew up on a farm there that didn’t have electricity until 1955!!!), and it was also great to sleep indoors after these days of dealing with the rain, that’s for sure!

We headed back up river this morning to Pere Marquette State Park, where Mary put in on the Illinois River (just for a bit of variety) and paddled down to Grafton, which is the confluence with the Mississippi, and I took over from there. It’s a gorgeous run through this whole area: beautiful limestone bluffs line the river on the Illinois side with just enough room for a road with a great bike path that goes all the way from Pere Marquette to Alton.

Two days of rain caused the river to rise twenty feet! The river looks fat and happy, it’s carrying lots of stuff down the river, mostly tree branches it grabs off the shore, and I certainly don’t have to worry about the water being too low to be able to get through the back sloughs. There’s just more river everywhere, and it’s moving faster even here in the Alton pool (the last lock and dam is just below Alton.)

About halfway through my trip, I got ambushed by several schools of Asian carp. (It’s an invasive species that’s been a problem ever since the 1993 flood, when they escaped the pens they’d been kept in before that.) There must have been about 100 crazy fish jumping out of the water, hitting the boat — one even hit my paddle. They get stirred up by any movement in the water and just jump straight out and up in the air, and they are big! It’s as if they’re all on crack or something. You can hear them jumping behind you, which is bad enough, but when they jump in front I’m really glad to be wearing a spray skirt. I definitely wouldn’t want one landing in the boat with me. It’s like something out of Guindon, or perhaps Tobit.

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I arrived in Alton at a launch directly under this beautiful cable bridge, and Bob and Wita took Mary and me on a drive to view the sights of Alton: we stopped for a beer at Fast Eddie’s, a huge bar downtown, very fun; looked at a lifesize sculpture of the gentle giant, a resident of Alton who was 8’11”; drove around the campus of the community college and the town park, visited the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate, and then had a really excellent dinner downtown. A very fine time in Alton, which is doing a great job of maintaining its own unique identity even with St. Louis looming just a few miles downriver.

raindrops are falling

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It’s been really rainy the last couple of days: we spent the first rainy night in the middle of the tiny river town of Hamburg, IL (pop. 150) in a shelter in the town park. The hammocks worked great strung up along the shelter supports and we didn’t feel too much like vagrants, since we were invited guests of a lovely guy named Steve, who I had met while waiting for Mary to arrive, but I did think we resembled bats a little bit: big green bats hanging in our hammocks under the eaves.

Hamburg is on a sort of peninsula bounded by the Illinois River on one side and the Mississippi on the other: there are no bridges across the Mississippi except up north at Louisiana (the cool narrow bridge Susan commented on), and the Illinois is another barrier to easy travel, so the towns on the Illinois side feel quite different from the Missouri side. Hannibal, Louisiana, Clarksville, even though they’re pretty small towns, feel like they’re along the highway of the river, but the Illinois side feels much more rural. I’ve been re-reading Tom Sawyer, and Twain gives you the same feeling about Illinois vs. Missouri: it’s interesting how geography trumps development even when there are almost ten times as many people living in the US than in 1860. My guess is there aren’t a whole lot more people living in far western Illinois than there were when Samuel Clemens was hanging around these parts.

Last night, Mary and I drove down to Pere Marquette State Park, which has a really great lodge and cabins that were built by the CCC during the Depression. The greatroom of the lodge is a total wonder: I’d say it’s about 50 by 80 feet and four stories high, all built of huge wooden beams. Angie in the bar gave us a sampling of the local wines, and we hung out for a bit hoping for the rain to stop, but eventually headed out to the campsite in the rain and rigged up our hammocks in the trees.

It was great at first to be cocooned all cozy and dry in the hammock with the tarp right overhead tapping with raindrops, but as the night wore on my tarp slid down and I woke up around 5:30 in a clammy bath of cold wet sleeping bag and clothes and staggered to the car and changed into dry clothes and slept a bit more in the front seat. Mary hadn’t fared much better in her hammock, so we headed over to Jerseyville to the laundromat to dry everything out and then came back to the lodge because I wanted to spend the day hanging out in that great greatroom! So I’m writing this looking out at the still-rainy day and the Illinois River and hoping that the rain will let up and let us out on the river tomorrow.

We’re heading down to Alton tonight, to Bob and Wita, some friends I haven’t met yet. Bob’s grandfather and father and uncle all worked on building the lodge, how cool is that?!