Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Day One-Hundred-Fifty-Eight, Kentucky!

It is these days awfully cold in the morning. A lesser man would stay in bed. But my little air mattress deflates overnight. It is less comfortable than you'd think. And it does warm up with reasonable speed, into the high sixties. And the skies are blue and the winds aren't so bad. It is pretty good weather for walking.

I passed through Future City, Illinois, a sort of suburb of Cairo. If this indeed a glimpse of our future, than our future looks mighty bleak. A few salvage yards and a funeral home. And one very large dog. He was roped to a tree with a length of chain. I wish he were roped with two. He made every effort to get at me. I looked into his eyes. He really wanted to kill me. Not just bite me but tear me apart. He could have done it too.

Cairo, rhymes with sparrow, is a sad little town. It is home to some 2800 people. Mark Twain once described the town as "majestic." I think he was being snide. Or maybe it was better back in the day. It couldn't have been much worse.

Cairo sits at the tip of Illinois, between the Mississipi and Ohio rivers. With another small river and swamps to the north. It is more or less an island. It is of a lower elevation than the rivers that surround it. It can go any time. And nearly did earlier this year. The fact is it would make a nice lake.

Seriously. I've studied the matter. We could call it Lake James. Or Lake Mark Twain or Lake Cairo, if we really wanted to be kind. It would revitalise the southern half of the state. There are a few people living here. Give them all lakefront lots. And free fishing licenses. And two jet skis or one ski boat.

Because there is not much else keeping the town alive. Industry has gone. Factories, not boarded up, but abandoned altogether. A good dozen abandoned service stations. A number of weedy lots. Haunted houses, Victorians, crumbling and decayed.

I'd been expecting a much bigger town. We might blame Mark Twain again. My geography is a little weak. I figured if I had heard of it then it must be big. But I knew it from Huckleberry Finn. You'll recall that this is where they meant to turn left. But they got to smoking their pipes or something and wound up going South. Wackiness ensued.

I spend a big part of my day there. Battery problems, don't you know. My little computer has been very unhappy from being too long undercharged. And too cold, I think. I thought I'd give it a treat and really gas it up good. I spent the time at their fabulous library and their historical museum.

Cairo is predominantly black and has been since the early days. They've had all manner of racial strife. The museum gives it a miss. Who wants to reflect on lynchings and the White Citizens' Brigade. But therein lies the story of the town. It was doing OK for a while. But the railroad died and they moved the bridge and barge traffic died down. And the black people started getting pissed off because the police kept beating them up.

In the nineteen-sixties there were boycotts and riots. The white people all left town. And took what little money there was with them. And now here we are. Sad thing is, it's a part of our history. It is perhaps worth saving. You could probably buy the whole town for a few dozen millions of dollars.

I spent several long hours in town. I didn't dislike the place. But I thought I should put in a few token miles. I went in search of the bridge. There are two. One goes across the Missippi, back the way I came. The other crosses the Ohio and takes you into Kentucky.

NOTE TO YOUNG WALKERS ACROSS AMERICA: Do not, I repeat, DO NOT try to cross the Ohio at Cairo, Illinois. Don't even consider it. You will as likely as not die.

I did ask people about the bridge. I knew there was no pedestrian lane. The Department of Transportation assured me there was a shoulder, though not through official lines. "Just be careful," the nice lady told me. I assured her I would.

The shoulder is about as wide as my butt, and not when I'm sitting down. It is a very long bridge. There is truck traffic. I must have been out of my mind. If I had the merest brain in my head I would have hitchhiked across. Or walked to Paducah and taken my chances there. I must have been out of my mind.

Now if everyone played by the rules I would have been just fine. Watch the road and stay between the lines. I did not need more than that. But there was zero, I mean zero, margin for error. People make errors all the time. One inch out of line and I would have been dead. Literally. One inch. Dead.

A half-dozen times I found myself scrunched up against a railing that was lower than my center of gravity, two-hundred feet above the river. A few trucks had to swerve at the very last minute when they saw me screaming and waving my hat.

I must have been out of my mind.

When I did get across I was pale and shaking. I thought I might have to throw up. I'd developed a twitch below my eye that lasted until after dark. I had to sit by the road and breathe. I had too to get out of Dodge. The State Patrol would have been within their rights to cart me off to jail.

For my own protection, certainly. Under observation.

My life has not been free of adventure, but I have never done anything that stupid or dangerous before. Ever. I bet you all a dollar each that I dream about it tonight.

I must have been out of my mind.

Anyway, I am in Kentucky and I couldn't be better pleased. Everywhere else I've been I've been before. This is my first new state. Kentucky. It's exciting. I am not being snide at all.

So far it looks pretty much like Missouri. There's a moon but it isn't blue. I met a man with tattoos on his bald head but you see that in Seattle too. But it is a new state. It's like visiting a new country, like seeing a new corner of the world. I've got my eyes wide open. I'm just a little bit scared.

It is awful pretty around here. The Mississippi looked blue. And was so wide where it hit the Ohio that it looked like the ocean itself. The sun was gleaming off the waves. It was warm this afternoon. It was a little glimpse of Florida. I'm happy to be alive.

I'VE BEEN LOOKING for differences in the South. So far, this is what I got: People drink more iced tea. Crushed ice, which I greatly prefer, is more widely available. There is more pie.

I HEARD TWO people say "y'all" today. I'm so happy.
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  1. Glad to hear you made it over that crazy bridge and into Kentucky! That does sound horribly scary. When do you anticipate arriving in FL?

  2. I wouldn't call it tea. More like sugar water with a tea after taste.