October 2, 2015 To Helena, Arkansas
Somehow, I had never realized there are thousands of acres of pancake-flat land along the Mississippi where cotton, rice, and soybeans are grown. I decided not to go to Memphis, and the next bridge south across the river was at Helena, quite some way south. Thus, I ended up driving for many miles in this flat land called the Arkansas Delta. There were seas of cotton, often alternated with huge fields of rice and some soybeans. By 1860, Arkansas was the 6th largest producer of cotton, made possible by a considerable amount of slave labor. The number of slaves grew from about 20,000 in 1840 to over 400,000 in 1860. It is also one of the largest rice producers. There is some thought that many of the rice-growing techniques, such as levying and flooding the land at the right times, was learned from slaves who had grown rice in their home countries.
Huge machines that looked like monsters worked the land sending up billows of dust. The irrigating mechanisms with their metal spines and ribs reminded me of the long and huge dinosaur skeletons my little grandson had recently shown me in one of his favorite books. Occasional houses broke up the tedious landscape, mostly little clapboard affairs with peeling paint. And then, rounding one of the few curves, a grove of trees which framed a lovely little church and old cemetery. I made my lunch there and strolled among some of the very old gravesites, pondering the lives of these people.
Again, I was the only guest at my night spot, this one greatly different from the night before. The weather was too chilly, overcast, and windy to camp so I went to the only B&B in Helena and what a treat that turned out to be. The new owners had only been there for 2 weeks, and with no other guests, I could explore all I wanted and talk to them at length. Escaping from Dallas corporate life, they were trying something totally different. The mansion was built in 1904 by a cotton baron. The interior was full of intricate woodwork, beautifully preserved. Every fireplace was different. Then, as now, there must have been an enormous contrast between the rich and poor. A building as wretched as any I have seen in third world countries was only a few blocks away. Like most other towns I saw along the way, much was abandoned and falling down. The liquor store was the busiest place in town. I know, because (I ended up walking from my Inn about 20 blocks total, having been told it was a shorter distance!) it was a bustling place- walk-in and drive through. After I bought a bottle of wine, the clerk stepped outside with me and talked at length about the town. A very nice guy. Everywhere I have been, people are so friendly and helpful. By the way, Arkansas is from Indian words meaning “land of downriver people” or “people of the south wind” depending on the tribe.
October 3, 2015 Into Mississippi
I had no idea when I fantasized about my trip, that I would end up in Mississippi! It is an interesting experience to wake up in the morning and not know where one is going or where the coming night will be spent. I’ve reflected on this quite a bit but haven’t come up with anything profound. I do know I am very glad for the experience.
Since the bridge took me to the northern part of Mississippi and I had never been there, I decided to go more or less across and see what unfolded. Luckily, there was a welcome station as I needed a map. A most pleasant welcomer greeted me and her smile revealed a solid gold tooth seemingly in the middle of her upper teeth that fit perfectly in a gap among her lower teeth. I found her charming. She soon had me married off to a man standing beside me and laughed and laughed when I told her we weren’t together. I noticed that he didn’t laugh. I chatted for a while with a couple from Lyon, France who were doing the entire blues trail from Natchez to Chicago!
I had seen enough of flat cotton and rice fields and grain elevators, so put on an audio version of a book by Stephen Hawking, “The Universe in a Nutshell” and was soon trying to grapple with thoughts of evaporating black holes, multiple dimensions, P-branes (what in the world?) and the limits of the universe(s). It was too much. Apparently I wasn’t as bored with the scenery as I thought, as my focus wandered at the things I was seeing and I couldn’t follow the book. I know no more now than I did about these esoteric matters except that there are now various theories in quantum physics having to do with ‘string’ theories and multiple dimensions and no way, at least so far, to prove any one right. Physicists live with theories, not exactness. Sounds like my trip.
At last the land warped into rolling hills and the roadsides were covered with more kudzu than I had ever seen, seas of it going as far as one could see until heavy forest was reached. Trees in the kudzu’s way had become bent green goblins, the spookiness traveling with me down the road. I saw a restaurant and stopped for vegetables, desperate and craving. Bad as they were, they were good.
I ended up in Oxford and the Faulkner home, Rowan Oak. He named it after these trees, though none were on the property. A beautiful place built in 1840, he moved in 90 years later and added electricity, water, and an addition. Whiskey and his typewriter, in part, inspired his writing. I tried to soak up writing vibes while I wandered around. A fitting place to visit– I just finished “As I Lay Dying” a few weeks ago. Then, greatly surprising myself, I ended up at Elvis’s birthplace in Tupelo! What a day. Got spoiled by the very nice hotel I checked into. By the way, those that research these matters think that “Mississippi” is an Indian word meaning “the Father of Waters.”
October 4, 2015 The Natchez Trail
I discovered that Tupelo was where the headquarters of the Natchez Trace Parkway was and went straight there in the morning. I had barely heard of it, and now think I always confused it with the Natchez Trail that follows antebellum homes. The narrow 444-mile-long national park is credited to the local DAR ladies in the early 1900s who wanted to preserve the disappearing ancient pathway from Natchez to Nashville. This Indian trail had been in use for thousands of years before modern ways made it obsolete.
It was another raw, dreary day. Grey and somber, it was still a pleasure to drive with no trucks, no billboards, and the early fall colors. Patches of bright yellow tick-seed sunflowers struggled here and there to fight the dreariness. A Wisconsin couple on recumbent bikes had just stopped at the headquarters. Apparently, the Trace is a mecca for bicyclists and they were there to do the entire thing with another couple. These two were at least my age and the man was pot-bellied! They average about 40 miles a day and an escort brings their supplies for overnights. Modern cycling includes cell phone communication, flashing laser white lights in front and red in back. Many bicyclists were on the road with their blinding lights as I drove along.
I found myself feeling heavy and sad as the miles passed. Flags were at half-staff at park headquarters because of the latest mass shooting. The Trace’s history, posted in various ways along the route, about both Native Americans and whites is about struggles, death, war, treaties and broken treaties with the Indians, suffering, and, in the case of Meriwether Lewis, suicide as he was making his way to Nashville. I stopped often at the marked places of interest– Indian mounds, the monuments, a cave and spring the Indians used, and the reconstructed cabin that served as an inn where Lewis shot himself. At one point, there were a dozen or so vultures in the road attracted by an unlucky raccoon. I slowed to let them get out of the way which they did walking slowly and without concern. In my rearview mirror, I saw them regathering around the animal, the group moving as one with a grace that resembled gently flowing water. I was astonished by the whole display.
I walked solemnly on a part of the original Trace. I considered the courage and fortitude it must have taken to walk on this path for miles and miles whether for trading, for war, for mail delivery (after the white people took over), and so many other reasons. The Trace is too narrow for wagons—it was either foot or horseback. I read where men called the Kaintucks in the Ohio River Valley around the 1800s would build flat boats and float their goods to trade— furs, wheat, whiskey, and more— down to New Orleans; then, as the Mississippi River current was too strong to go back up the river, take the boats apart, sell the wood, and, if they couldn’t afford a horse, walk back to Ohio, using the Trace as far as it would take them.
Finally, I could take no more and decided to leave the Trace and focus on beauty and happy things as much as possible. I had crossed a corner of Alabama and was now in Tennessee. The gloom and cold remained and I was about to check into a motel when the sun broke through! So, at the last minute I was able to find a nearby state park and camp by the Duck River which was good for my spirit. By the way, the origin of the names Alabama and Tennessee are not known with certainty. Alabama may be from a Creek word meaning ‘tribal town’ or a Choctaw word meaning ‘thicket clearers.’ Tennessee may be a modification of a Cherokee word meaning ‘winding river’ or ‘river of the great bend.’ From what I have seen, both are suitable.
October 5, 2015 Across Tennessee
This morning I find myself up at 6am EST because it is Central Time here. It is barely light and I watch the half-full moon grow dimmer as the sky lightens. The fog grows denser over the river or is it just that increasing light makes the fog easier to see? I am never outside at this hour so I have a lot to learn! Fire burning, coffee ready, now I am literally a ‘happy camper.’ I am glad to have my own camp coffee- a French press pot and good beans from home. Across the river the sky is showing a pale pink glow. Large water drops fall from time to time making tiny plop sounds. It must be the dew collecting on the leaves above me until it gets to a critical mass, then ‘plop and plink’ sometimes even on my head.
I am starting to get homesick if that is what is means to be longing for my dear family, my cello, my daily routine, friends, and home and gardens. I am surprised to find myself like a barn-sour horse on a trail ride, that you have to be ready to hold her back or she will take off at a gallop when she knows that the homeward stretch and barn are near. I am propelling myself faster toward home than I had intended so now it is clear I will get home a few days sooner than what the calendar shows. So, crossing Tennessee was a travel day. I made no special effort to find interesting things to see or do except to identify a state park to camp in as the weather was beautiful. Nonetheless, I did have a small adventure.
My route to the park took me through Oak Ridge. My children had a great-uncle who was a physicist there through much of his life so I decided I would look for a public visitor center. Well, Miss Google Map was again not reliable. I asked Miss GM for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Visitor Center and up came the route, 3 miles from where I was. Off I went and was soon at a security gate. “Mam,” says a heavily armed but very nice guard— guns strapped on his legs, a thick pouch on his chest— “since you have arrived unauthorized, I will have to check your license, take your photo, and photo your car before you turn around and leave.” Can you imagine how happy I was that they didn’t need to search the car! It would have taken hours with my now chaos of stuff and I would have been so embarrassed.
My campsite was on the edge of a TVA lake, it was warm and sunny, and for the first time, I got there early enough to cook a real dinner. I craved greens so much I had canned spinach! It is not at all as bad as I remembered. Maybe it helped that I warmed it in a dollop of coconut oil.
October 6, 2015 From Andersonville, TN to Hot Springs, NC
Leaving Big Ridge State Park looked, on the map, like one of those ‘you can’t get there from here’ places. It is Union County, way out of the way– union supporters in the Civil War and helpers to escaping slaves. Hairpin curves and beautiful mountain scenes turned into strip malls near Knoxville. I had little choice but to get on I-40 but was surprised and rewarded coming up over a rise by a breath-taking view of the mountains as far to the north and south as the eye could see. This was just before I-81 split off. Leaving the interstate madness as soon as I could, going on Route 70, as the miles went by I reflected on how certain scenes—a porch, a hillside, an old swing, a tiny brook—have always evoked in me a deep stirring of memory that I have never been able to grasp. Then a longing and wondering sets in until a bit of time has passed and the feeling fades. Today, it was a porch of a certain style attached to a simple white clapboard house on a hillside looking towards a high mountain. What is this tug at my heart?
I was headed into Hot Springs, NC. Having lived in NC for 45 years plus and always wanting to see Hot Springs and Marshall, both in Madison County, here was my chance. Hot Springs turned out to be a cute little town at the confluence of a bold stream, Spring Creek, and the French Broad. Indians began used the healing springs 2,500 years ago. By 1778 traders were stopping for the waters. The town was named Warm Springs for the 98˚ springs, then changed to Hot Springs when a 117˚ spring was discovered. In 1884 a large hotel was built for people coming from all over to ‘take the waters.’ Sadly, it burned and another was built which was used to inter German soldiers in 1917. Three years later it, too, burned down. Now the springs are in private hands, the current hotel dating from 1990 and people still come from all over the world for the waters, though far fewer than in the heyday.
I found a cute room at the Alpine Court and walked all over the town which was about 2 blocks long and wide. By the end of the warm sunny afternoon, I felt like I had talked to half the people in town, all friendly– an interesting combination of local mountain people and hippy-granolas. The Appalachian Trail literally goes down the main street.
Being the last night of my trip, I splurged on a proper dinner (local trout and collards, at last!) and even dessert. The restaurant was in a building dating from the late 1800’s. Two blues musicians played and sang and, boy, were they good! Especially the harp. I learned the two went from Chicago to Florida on their performing path. While I ate, I mused about the paths my life has taken— some by choice, others by happenstance or necessity. There are probably other things I could have done reasonably well, and plenty I could have never done. In the midst of my thoughts, I see the young male waiter bounding up 25 stairs (I counted them) carrying a large box. That, I know, I could have never done along with plenty more serious things.
Walking back to my 1950’s motel, the blues harp still singing in my mind, I reflect gratefully on what a perfect last trip afternoon and night this has been. Will I be any different when I get home, will I spend more time on things that bring me joy? I already know I want to do a trip like this again.
October 7, 2015 Hot Springs to home!
The morning found me walking the town in the fog, clutching my travel mug, looking for a place to get a cup of coffee. Things were not looking promising. I didn’t see another soul and only 2 stores were open—the town’s two hardware and goods stores. I rounded a corner to one, determining to ask about coffee inside, when a tall lanky man suddenly appeared clutching a large shoe box under one arm. “Excuse me, ma’am, (in what I would soon learn was a Texas drawl), do you know where I can get a cup of coffee? I’ve just slept a few hours in my car on my way to see my son in Brooklyn. My horse on my farm hurt my leg and I came here to ‘take the waters.’ (He hoists up his pant leg to show me the damage.) My shoes fell apart and I just got a pair at the store (he motions to it).” He goes on. He tells me he wants to walk the Appalachian Trail and asks if I think the shoes he just bought are suitable. I don’t. “I am 67. Do you think I can do it—walk the trail?” I tell him it takes study and preparation and training. I go on about these things a bit as he is interested and doesn’t seem aware of the reality of walking the AT at all. He is humble, deferential. Clearly, not a man with much money. “Thank you so much, ma’am. I don’t want to take more of your time. God, bless you. Please pray for me.” I walk away not thinking of wanting coffee just now.
Heading out to Marshall, I did find coffee. Rounding a curve some 15 or so miles from Hot Springs, Marshall, the Madison County seat, suddenly appeared in my view– a tiny town in a narrow valley made by the French Broad River. I was astounded by my first ever glimpse of it. It looked almost European.
Eventually, I made it past Asheville and onto I-40 and intended to zip on home. Apparently, I wasn’t quite ready to give up my trip as, on an impulse, I turned down Highway 18, past South Mountain Park, past a pumpkin and apple stand where I bought a beautiful eating pumpkin from an overall clad farmer who had gotten up at 3am to drive to Hendersonville to get the apples, and, then, onto Route 150 which skirts the top of Lake Norman. All of a sudden I am gazing at a HUGE plant full of contraptions past a sign “Marshall Steam Station” that made me feel I had entered a land of giants. I looked this up later. It is a coal power plant owned by Duke Energy. I am not sure I had ever seen one before. I learned that the Marshall plant is the second largest Duke Power coal facility in the Carolinas. It generates enough electricity to power approximately two million homes. I couldn’t help but wonder where that coal ash goes.
Driving along, I realize one of the reasons I like to travel so much is to see and feel the lay of the land, how is changes, how the soil changes, how that determines the economics of the area, what plants grow where, how long it takes the mountains to rise and smooth out again, what the tiny towns look like, what people put on their porches– so many more things. Feel it in my bones. Smell it.
Feeling full of gratitude and thanks, I arrived home safe and sound in the afternoon from these 2,550 miles trip with no mishaps. I so appreciate all of you who followed my journey and kept me company with your insights and comments. It made a rich experience even richer. So many thanks to you.
∞ The End ∞