Saturday, September 26, leaving Chillicothe to Shawnee State Park
As I sit in the evening by my little fire– fed and showered and in a fine mist wetting me slightly, to consider my day– I marvel at what can happen when nothing special is planned except to wander. I think of Dr. Suess– oh, the places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen…
I left Chillicothe for the Serpent Mound, another 2,000-year-old earth works. When I arrived an afternoon of poetry and music with a Native American theme was just beginning, a nice surprise. I ate my lunch purchased in a rural Amish bakery on the way to the beat of powerful drumming. A Lakota woman taken from her mother at a very young age to be raised by a white family read her wrenching poems clearly written in her attempt to find peace and sense in her life. After growing up, it took her 40 years to find her mother. The mood was lightened by clever funny poetry-stories by an Appalachian woman.
Rain began just as I left to walk the Serpent Mound, a huge undulating creature with certain bends of the body aligned with the equinoxes and solstices. Power radiated. I don’t think I was imagining it. Others were walking in the rain, too and we all greeted each other with a smile. I went back and heard a few more poems and more drumming before heading south to drive along the banks of the Ohio River and find a B&B or a campground (it was obviously the latter).
On the way in a sad little town like so many others I had been passing through was a fossil museum- a small dusty private affair next to the 19th century Gothic home of the owner-collector who was away collecting. I step in the odd museum and a slight dark young man approached me with his hand outstretched holding a flat piece of beige rock with a perfect imprint of a tiny fish. “Look what Richard just gave me” as he gently wrapped it with a piece of cloth. He was of more interest to me than the fish with his shoulder length coal-black ringlets, wispy beard, ink pool eyes and limbs so thin his joints looked like boulders. His friend who was minding the store offers me a tiny piece of Osha root (a western herb I knew about but had never seen) to chew after I had commented on a few herbs on the counter among helter-skelter fossils. I crunch into grit and wipe it onto my hand. “Uh-oh,” he says, “that must have been the Dragon’s Blood. Here’s the Osha.” I chewed as I said goodbye to the two men and the largest trilobite in the world.
Soon, the blue Ohio was meandering in my view, lined from time to time with an occasional nice house and many more abandoned and falling down. American flags flew proudly in front of some that otherwise looked abandoned. Such wreckage– a fresh flag was the only way to tell people were actually living in some of them.
Sunday, September 27 From Shawnee State Park, OH to near Frankfort, KY
I slept so hard in my little tent, I felt glued to the land and had to struggle up. Eventually, by a little fire in clean clothes (!), coffee in hand, and maps, I considered what to do next. I had thought of staying at Shawnee 2 days, but rain was threatening and I didn’t like the space too much. I learned that the park was on what had been Shawnee hunting grounds. I wanted time to absorb all that has happened, to walk a trail or two and plan. No cell reception made for old-fashioned trip planning.
I studied the US map I had brought with me so I could get an overall perspective and realized that I am not even going to get to the St. Louis area much less the far west! Today is the end of one week on the road. I decided to head toward Louisville which I had never seen and would have never thought much about except for hearing stories about it from a dear friend who was born there. I crossed the Ohio into Maysville, Kentucky, a charming old town with a few murals on its flood walls, cobblestone streets, and Victorian buildings. What a contrast to the decay on the Ohio side. It is as though one state chose the right approaches to their economy and the other the opposite. Of course, they both have desperately poor areas and wealthy areas but right here the contrast was stark.
Blue Licks Battlefield State Park provided my lunch place. The geology of the place had created salt licks so that in the olden days the buffalo had made a path all the way from the Ohio River to there for the salt. The path, known as Buffalo Trace, was used by the Indians and later, the whites. I walked on a bit of it. The sun was hot and as golden as the goldenrod that lined it. A man saw me studying my map as I lunched in front of the Pioneer Museum and got to talking. Spritely, mustachioed, safari-hatted and geo-caching, he was full of information about just about everything to do with that part of Kentucky. He suggested I stop at a farm for retired race horses, so, inspired by his enthusiasm, I did just that. The other folks on the farm tour were apparently into races and knew the famous retired horses. I savored my interesting glimpse into that world and then went on to a commercial RV campground on the Kentucky River as no state parks were close enough. The RVs were packed like sardines about 12 feet apart.
On my way back from the shower my nearest RV neighbors invited me to sit by their fire. A three generation family of about 10, all but one weighed twice as much as they should have, and all the adults smoked. We chatted and I asked about the eastern part of Kentucky. (I wanted to go to Hazard but it was too far out of my way.) “That’s too rough over there, they ain’t but a bunch of rednecks over there.”
My little tent area was bleak but I had the friendly RV neighbors and the moon I saw in the middle of the night made up for the campground that I saw as unattractive, even ugly. Though I missed the much-announced eclipse (foggy) and any peak of a blood moon, the moon I did see was huge and so bright I could only glance at it. And, I learned my neighbors found the campground attractive. There is a lot to ponder in between these two things.
September 28-30 Monday-Wednesday Louisville, Kentucky
Needing a rest and not being able to camp in the city, I booked an Airbnb room in a 1920s house near a lovely park called Cherokee. My first Airbnb booking. Most of the parks here have Indian names– Shawnee, Chickasaw, and more. The room was perfect, though rather bare. My hostesses, Amy and Amber were a college softball coach and a heavy equipment operator, respectively. They were helpful and friendly and mostly stayed out of the way except showing me how to use the washing machine which I certainly needed and appreciated at this point. The rest of Monday, I rested. Never drove the whole time in Louisville. Walked to restaurants for meals.
My notion that I hadn’t done any substantial walking on this trip is now assuaged. In the two days here, I must have walked 5 or 6 miles. The neighborhoods look so much like where I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, it was almost spooky. The brick houses, the cracked sidewalks uprooted by huge trees that had been growing for a half century or more, the mansions. I couldn’t stop myself from walking around blocks seeing houses that looked just liked those of childhood friends and my favorite– elaborate webs of alleys, even some brick ones! Alleys were my favorite place to walk and play when I was a child. One went around in back of our house and curved up in a mysterious way onto a higher street. One day, from my bedroom– I must have been 8 or 10– I looked out of my window into the alley and saw a flock of goldfinches. Yellow and black birds! They were magic to me. The other alley magic was the years of finding bits of blue glass in the gravel (more likely coal ash) and on one occasion, opaque yellow bits. I collected them. Forevermore, alleys make my memory dance with flashes of yellow and sparkling blues punctuated with velvet black.
Another first on Tuesday- I used Uber to get to town for a city tour, and then again to get to the house I learned my friend’s grandparents had built in 1916. From there I walked in a gentle rain to the huge, old and beautiful Cave Hill Cemetery where her grandparents were buried. Almost lost on the winding roads inside the cemetery, I finally saw a tall, thin, pony-tailed man tending a grave, clipping and raking. Though wet, it was warm and he was wearing shorts and a raggedy shirt. I assumed he was cleaning up a family grave, but no, he had been a grave tender there for 37 years. “I just left my shack since it stopped raining. Finished my Reader’s Digest. You should go see my shack, I fixed it up for Halloween.” He explained it was a small brick building near the way out that served as his headquarters. We chatted a while and I learned about grave tending and that he once stayed in the house in San Francisco where Charlie Manson lived for a while and that lots of people come to see the grave of the KFC chicken man, Col. Saunders.
Walking on, at last I saw the ‘shack’ and found it charming, enjoying the orange decorations that gave some color to the day. I thought about him having this place for 37 years to retreat into when he wasn’t working. Wow.
September 30 Wednesday Louisville to Cairo- I made it to the Mississippi River!
With no precipitation in 33 days prior to yesterday’s in Louisville, the morning broke chilly, dark and exceedingly gloomy with the rain falling reluctantly as though the clouds weren’t sure they really wanted to let it go. It made for dramatic scenes leaving the city on the expressways along the river with all that water, dark clouds, and so many bridges. I took a little cut through part of Indiana which was pretty, everything neat and prosperous looking, even the tiny towns. Listening to Diane Rehm interview Erica Jong as I drove along, I was so shocked to learn she had had a facelift that I missed a turn and ended up quite a bit out of my way. Jong said, “Society has no tolerance for saggy baggy women.” She further said, after Ms. Rehm (who is 79) protested, that though she had no regrets and would do it again, she admired women that don’t alter themselves surgically. I suppose it served me right to get lost, being so judgmental.
Driving across Kentucky, I looked for a post office in all the towns I passed through and finally gave up. So many businesses and homes flew American flags I could never spot a flag-flying PO. In one little town I stopped in, Princeton, the main attraction was a pretty pale lemon and white mansion on the main street. The owner, a single woman who never married or had children lived in it alone all her life. She left it to the town to be kept exactly as she had it and wanted the townspeople to enjoy it as much as she had. I hope she left a good endowment to go with it! The back of the house had two Japanese Kousa dogwoods (Cornus kousa) hanging with colorful curious looking fruit– very pretty.
As I drove along, I listened some to local AM radio to get a feel for the culture. Struggling to find my way to the Mississippi River on obscure little roads, Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” played and I had to smile. I realized it was the perfect theme song for my trip, which has now defined itself with its own theme– Native American past and the confluence of great rivers.
It wasn’t easy to find the confluence of the Ohio with the Mississippi. The roads were confusing on the map and the bridge over the Mississippi was closed. The experience was anticlimactic and disheartening. Fortunately, I had read in online travel posts that Fort Defiance State Park where the rivers met was in bad shape and hardly maintained. That combined with the nearby mostly abandoned town of Cairo, made for a post-apocalyptic feel that I haven’t shaken free of yet. The coming together of those majestic rivers should have been glorious. Though the blending waters were beautiful, the despair and poverty of the land that touched them made for a deep-down dissonance of heart that was hard to bear. So much history that I hardly knew and most of it destructive– Civil War battles, river boat disasters, ruining floods, racial violence, and, finally railroads and highways with their vehicles, making the rivers less vital.
There was nowhere nearby to camp. I stayed in the nicest place around, a Quality Inn. Next door was a long gone restaurant. There was nowhere left to eat in town that I wanted to go to.
October 1 Cairo to Paducah to Crowley’s Ridge State Park, Arkansas
My post-apocalyptic feel was heightened as I explored this unfortunate town. It looked like it had been deserted after bombings in a terrible war, which, in a way is what it has suffered going from 15,000 people in its heyday to about 3,000 now. What a history it has from its height when the rivers were the nation’s highways, to the Civil War, the coming of the railroads, the destruction of many floods, and toxic racism. Lest we think we are not barbaric here, Cairo was the site of a lynching of a black man and a white man in 1909 with a crowd of 10,000 watching and some participating. The former was burned, beheaded, and his head put on a post at the place of his alleged murder of a white woman.
A ghost town now, it left me with a feeling of profound despair coupled, oddly enough, with a sense of awe. Awe, in a negative way that we are a third-world country after all and should do better. And in a positive way, that these people have endured, somehow– the ones that are left. I saw blacks and whites laughing and chatting with each other in the only grocery store in town.
I back-tracked 34 miles to see Paducah, Kentucky, another river town, this one with a thriving historic district and more beautiful murals on the flood walls. It was laid out in 1827 by Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) and named after the Comanche’s. I had to pass up the American Quilt Museum as it would have taken hours to see it properly. I saw another confluence of great rivers– the Tennessee and Ohio.
Driving on through southern Missouri, I was enjoying some bright sunshine and the surprise of seeing fields of cotton. The area seemed ripe for a mini-dustbowl as dust was flying up from the plowed fields with the slightest wind. I was determined to get to Arkansas before nightfall since I had never been there and headed to the closet state park I could find.
Finally, at the park, it was so late no rangers were around so I followed late check-in instructions, got my ticket and proceeded to the tent camping area. No one else was there and it was a rather large area so it had a spooky feel. This was not lessened when a battered truck with two young men did a circle around. I ate, settled down and decided to take my sharpish walking pole into the tent with me that night. Sitting by the embers of my dying fire enjoying being entirely alone, playing the harmonica, and looking up at the stars I felt both an insignificant speck and part of something way beyond my comprehension.