Cross Country to Topeka
I woke deep in the night to the sound of our tires going over the steel grate of a drawbridge. No other cars were in sight and no moon or stars were visible. The sky was pitch. I looked over at Jerry and he appeared to be hard-wired to the steering wheel but otherwise ok. Lights on the approaching shore twinkled in a light fog and distantly and dimly reflected on the water we were crossing.
To the right—upstream—a barge and its tug were discernable by their running lights. We came off the grate and I could plainly hear the drone of the tugboat’s engines as it propelled its charge steadily northward. The effect was ghostly—ethereal. The low lying tendrils of mist gave everything an extra-dimensional quality. We seemed to be in a submarine sliding effortlessly through an otherwordly sea.
From one of the craft, a man shouted an indecipherable query and was answered in kind. The fog and night muted everything—sight and sound. A fog horn blew one short blast and pushed the drapes temporarily aside but was quickly followed by the black moisture of the river air. I couldn’t see but could well imagine boxes, crates, and steel containers covering the deck and filling the holds.
The car radio was playing soft jazz. We were north of Memphis and well south of St. Louis. The song on the radio ended and the mellow-voiced announcer gave the station’s call sign beginning with the letter “K.” This was the Father of Waters—the Mississippi.
I never think of the Mississippi without Mark Twain and William Faulkner coming to mind. I have read their stories often and they never fail to cast me back in time. I meet the peoples and hear the voices of a land that is uniquely American and of a different era. The fastest transportation was a slow train. Long distance communication was by mail or telegraph. There were no cars, planes, telephone or even electricity. Nothing manmade orbited the earth. News came by newspaper and took days and weeks to reach you, especially in the remoter regions in which we now traveled. The world was a hell of a lot bigger back then, bubba. A whole helluva lot.
And, a damn sight less complicated too. The vast majority of the, by comparison, miniscule U.S. population still lived on the farm. Oh, wait . . . Don’t get the idea that just because we were simple that we were also innocent. We may have been simple but we still carried the violence and capacity for evil that inhabits us today. In 1870 we were only five years past the Civil War where we slaughtered between six and seven hundred thousand of America’s youth. Then after we finished decimating our own progeny we went after what was left of the American Indian. By 1880 they were pretty well rubbed out or penned up.
The Civil War freed the black man—but not so you could tell. One hundred years later we were still trying to work our way out of that cursed mess. In 1968 a black man was shot and killed in Memphis, just a few miles south of where Jerry and I were now motoring, for daring to say that a man should be judged on the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. Imagine that. What a radical concept.
I was awake now but my brain and body were still starved for sleep. Soon I would lay my head back against the window and close my eyes, but not just yet. We were no longer on the Interstate. When and where we got off I didn’t know, and didn’t really care. It was just a curiosity that quickly passed. I looked at Jerry and he looked back. We communicated eye-to-eye and wordlessly. We communicated our bond and all that needed expression found its voice therein. I reached between us, picked the Wild Turkey from the seat and offered it to him. He shook his head and went back to the business at hand—heading west.
I pulled the cork and took a long mouthful from the half empty bottle. Taking a deep breath through my nose I tilted my head back and swallowed. It burned all the way down and radiated warmth to all my extremities. For a moment I was fooled into thinking that I was alive and that it was the amber fluid that bestowed the life upon me. Was I alive? Perhaps, but just barely. More on this later.
It is only natural that my darkest thoughts come during the darkest hours of the day, but daylight does not exorcise them. My demons travel by earth, air, fire, and water. As a matter of fact, full light allows them the opportunity to lurk in shadows and disguise themselves as items belonging to the real world and devoid of the dark spirituality which is their true nature. They are elemental in substance and subnatural in essence. At night they come in front of me and laugh and caper. During the day the attack is oblique and insidious. I am led to believe that things from outside myself assail me. I can feed the denial. In the dark we become one. It is my curse to write it down. The Ancient Mariner has very little on me.
We were off the bridge now and heading northwest through Missouri. At the foot of the bridge on the Show Me side of the Big Muddy was a ridiculously lit all-night gas station. No cars were at the pumps. The only sign of human habitation was a late-model Ford parked at the curb near the door. The graveyard shift was in force. Next door to it was a darkened liquor store which was immediately recognizable by its less than unique name—“Liquor and Beer.” On the other side of the four lane highway was a roadhouse, also closed. What time is it? We continued through the still Missouri night. We were going to miss St. Louis by a large margin and I suspect that this was one of the reasons we left the Interstate. We’d spend a little more time on this route, but the difference would be negligible and the miles saved would more than compensate.
I wanted to go back to sleep but my mind kept drifting back to the barge. It was heading north, most likely to St. Louis. Finished goods brought in through the port of New Orleans. Relatively little is produced in the United States anymore. Or maybe it was partially assembled. Parts made in Japan and shipped to Mexico where cheap labor constructed the components for reshipment to the U.S. where they were assembled into the final product—Honda motorcycles.
As we climbed from the flood plains and into the Ozarks, it struck me that this land was once the frontier in the not so distant past. Less than 200 hundred years ago the great unwashed fought and scrabbled to hold on to a piece of it. The farther they got from the river the more they were forced to hunt for their daily bread. There were no Food Lions or Piggley Wiggleys. Everything was made by hand from the nearby raw materials. Later their descendants would move further west, but not by any great leaps and bounds. These people moved by horse drawn wagons at best. The land to the immediate west was fertile and so were the people.
We pushed and bullied some more Indians and Oklahoma became a state.
Those who remained behind in the dark terrain through which we now climbed, were no less fertile and their history no less ancient. They were as married to the soil as their fathers and mothers before them. They were not stuck here. They chose to remain.
We entered Mark Twain National Forest and passed through and by small towns with names like Coldwater, Lesterville, and Dilliard, Fort Leonard Wood would be on our way, or so Jerry informed me. Somewhere in the forest rising into the Ozarks, near the almost nonexistent town of Bass, I fell asleep.