(Requisite note: Tech difficulties continue to abound, photos to follow as usual. Thank you for your patience again!)
Reporting in from Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis! We are now in states that can truly be considered Southern by all metrics, not just our hopeful "math" that made us feel better about our progress. Truly in Dixie, and seven hundred forty-five miles from the Gulf. Ninety less than that to go to New Orleans.
When we last updated, we were celebrating America in Cape Girardeau. The next day, we rose very early to get into town to do our weekly interview with Melanie of the Sidney Daily News as well as any tech business (blog, photos, correspondence, etc.). It was an excruciating morning of hiking around, desperately seeking wifi, and finding it, huddled in a doorway. We learned a few things that morning, especially that businesses at large do not open the day after Independence day on a weekend. We ended up doing the interview in the shade of an alley, passing time talking to Travis, a homeless veteran about my age rambling around with his brother. Seemed like an excellent fella. He'd had a strange luck for finding marbles along the way for the past few years, hundreds of them. He figured that was god's way of telling him he'd lost them sometime and was on his way back up, maybe.
We wandered some more before finally hiking way out to a McDonald's to do all of our tech stuff. After hours of that, we were worn out. It was past noon, and watershoes do not make great hiking footwear. Frustrated, we took the rest of the day to work and write. We also got to watch the U.S. win World Cup and play volleyball, which was a great way to recharge the batteries. Add in a lovely visit from the ever-fabulous Virginia Siegel and her pal Janel, and our day was quickly turned into one of the happier and more accomplished days off of the trip.
The next day sent us to Cairo (CARE-oh), at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio. It was once a very important river town, even plays a major role in Huck Finn, but is now a shadow of what it once was. It's falling apart at the seams. The people there, as usual, were very good to us. Even just walking by, people would offer us water, food, assistance. I think it's important to remember not to judge the hearts of the people of a community by the condition of their buildings or streets. We explored the city a while, and were eventually given a ride back by some folks who ran a church there.
Oh -- and there was the lady who I assume thought we were homeless. She'd been kind of peeking at us while we sat and worked out some notes covering the last week. She disappeared a while, then brought us sandwiches wrapped in foil, smiled, and walked off again. It was very sweet, if just a little incidentally demeaning. Definitely a reminder that we're starting to look a little rough.
I would like to take a moment to be frank about the state of Cairo and places like it as they relate to the rest of us, if you would be so kind as to bear with me. Geologically, Cairo is a dagger point at the end of Illinois, and a town originally designed to hold around fifteen thousand. Now a community of around two thousand, downtown Cairo is predominately black and apparently impoverished. Structures are crumbling in on themselves, vines growing wild over them. Most establishments we tried to seek out had closed or left, even a bar I'd been at not three years ago. The outskirts were a bit better off and predominately white. It baffles me why a place at the confluence of two major rivers, as well as being just off major highways, is home to such marked disparity and decay. I urge you to investigate these cities, see what their people are going through and why. These are our fellow Americans and our historical cities. They are our fellow taxpayers, schoolchildren, and voting citizens. It is shocking and disheartening to know the reality here is that what should be a strong American city is like this while so much is taken for granted elsewhere. Not just a neighborhood in a city, but an entire community. The contrast with where I grew up, with people caring about the folks around them at least to a rudimentary degree, is sharp and indelicate. The point of what I mean to say is that we are all connected, just like this ecosystem we have been talking about on our trip. To have the small town, an important aspect of the people that make up the fabric of America and the world at large, fade and become threadbare -- it seems to throw the whole construction off kilter. But, I digress --
Next up was our longest day distance-wise so far, just over 71 miles in under twelve hours from Cairo to New Madrid (MAD-rid). We were run ragged by the end, but very proud. As usual, like clockwork almost, we were greeted by some fishermen as we pulled up, who supplied us with directions and libations before departing. It was a beautiful day -- right up until the end. Right up until we had put everything we owned out to dry, splayed out all over the levee, and Forrest and Shea had split into town to procure supplies and charge things. Right up until a torrential downpour started, paired with a forceful gale that sent tents, sleeping bags, and anything else it could pick up sailing into the river. I was sprinting around, grabbing what I could and stuffing it into the mud under the pier, which was the closest thing to dry, when Forrest sprinted over the levee singing Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" in the rain at the top of his voice. We managed to save everything, I think. But now all of our stuff is moldy, so "saved" is maybe an innaccurate word to use. Shea eventually found us again, wet and miserable, and we made "camp."
We should have known better than to camp when we saw lightning so close to the city. Not to mention we had camped on a fault line. New Madrid had suffered earthquakes of enormous magnitude in 1811 or 1812, when there weren't many white settlers there yet. They are still the most powerful earthquakes to hit the eastern U.S. in recorded history. They were felt over one million square miles from the source. The shock was so strong that the river flowed backward for around ten hours. I recommend reading into it -- the eyewitness accounts are horrifying.
We dried stuff out the next morning a while, then headed out. Stops have been yielding less and less to talk about now, though, because of how many miles we need to make. We're so tired by the end and there's so much to do in terms of making camp and keeping up correspondence that we don't get to explore like we did in the North. Our next stop was Caruthersville, and it was a quick camp on a flooded road once again. We'd been resupplied somewhat recently, though, so good food was had while we made enough postcards for the remainder of the trip and continued to organize items in the canoe.
The world of critters and creatures this week has been fairly animated and interesting again. The asian carp, an ever present nuisance-turned-danger, have continued to annoy and strike fear into the hearts of your favorite transients. One decided he'd had enough of us and followed the lead of our first encounter (the one which nearly took Shea's head off), but this time I was the target. Another narrow miss, but this one landed in the boat. Thankfully, it landed behind me, on top of our splashguard, and quickly finned its way back into the drink. In better, more fun news, we spotted one of our sponsored endangered creatures, the least tern. A beautiful, slight bird with swept wings, they are loud and quick, flitting this way and that all over the water. Pretty little things.
Our last stop before Memphis was meeting Grace, Forrest's mother, in Osceola, Arkansas. We'd tried to stop off earlier, but the flooding has been getting worse and worse as we proceed south. It's kept our speed up, but it's very dangerous for all of the communities bordering the river. We've seen entire fields completely drowned, irrigation equipment sticking up and out, and little towns cut off from the rest of the state by flooding. Grace was a sight for sore eyes after a day that hot and frustrating. Osceola has a landing just south of it, Sans Souci, where we met her for the end. She had a welcoming party of (admittedly, slightly tipsy) locals already waiting for us, taking photos and telling us a bit about the area. That part of the river was home to one of the very few naval battles on the Mississippi during the Civil War. Actually, the U.S.S. Cincinnati fought there, but was unfortunately sunk. The Union lost that one, but came back to win the Battle of Memphis later on. The city was also one of the first invaded by carpet-baggers and nickle-and-dimers from the North after the war, who were put out by the informal lawmen who arose from the community in the form of the KKK. So, a varied history, to say the least.
Grace helped us out immensely. Not only did she bring a fantastic resupply, but also emptied out the boat for a couple days so we had a light craft to pull for a while. Also, she's paddled the most miles with us out of any visitor we've had. Add to that the fact that she brought us thirteen saplings so we could plant trees for our supporters (in Shelby County Forest, no less), and she's made this an incredibly valuable visit. She was also kind enough to get us a room so we could get cleaned up. With the sandwich lady incident to put things in perspective, I'm sure you can guess how important that is. I am very much looking forward to seeing a barber in New Orleans.
Now we have made it to Memphis, trees planted, spirits high. Only a couple weeks left. There's a sort of nervous energy rising, like you might get before stepping on a stage in front of a big crowd. I'm very curious to see what's around the next bends.
Ah, and one last thing -- I'd like to take a moment to mention Forrest's sister Teague. She's a truly indomitable, wonderful lady and she's soon headed into a tough surgery. It would be very kind of all of you to keep her in your thoughts in the next few weeks.
And once again, especially since I missed it last week, thank you all so much for following along with us on this adventure of discovery. May your skies be clear and may your enemies never be able to find the cool side of the pillow.