Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chapter Three. "Fire in Cairo: Bothering the Ohio, Part I"

I’m not sure what began my obsession with the Ohio River, or when it began. Even when growing up in Louisville, I lived far on the outskirts in the Southern suburb of Fern Creek. I spent most of my adolescence nowhere near the actual river. Trips to the Highlands or even Downtown were not necessarily flanked by excursions to see the river. The overlook of the river called the Belvedere (way before the construction of the useable waterfront that exists today) was the closest I visited it, mostly for festivals or chow wagons. I think I went on a date there once in high school and gave my girlfriend a “promise ring” (isn’t that what they were called?).

Still, at some point, the Ohio River snuck up on me and I think about it constantly, especially since returning to Louisville in 2005. On my lunch breaks at work I often walk to look at the Ohio. I based an unpublished short story (“Also Southern”(now published here on this handy blog)) on the Ohio, briefly following a character’s trip West on the river.

The Ohio River is 981 miles long, starting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and conjoining with the Mississippi River in Cairo, Illinois. It’s the biggest tributary of the Mississippi and considered the main stream of the whole river system. In the last five years I’ve had dreams of sailing the river in its entirety. This idea is also coupled with the fact that I’m a terrible sailor. In July 2011, I decided to follow a section of it by car and see some of its parts I had never experienced.

There is a marked path known as the Ohio River Scenic Byway that follows the river through all the states it touches, which include Illinois, Kentucke, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. I based my path on this byway, which favors the northern side of the river (Kentucky does not seem to be represented at all in the official byway map). I have only followed the river West of Louisville to the Mississippi. I plan on documenting a trip East to Pennsylvania, next.

The following is my documentation of my first trip following, albeit not on it, to its end at the Mississippi. It was Enterprise’s rental car, but it sure as shit was my mission. (How can you not make “Apocalypse Now” or “Heart of Darkness” comparisons?; well, probably really easily, but for me, not so.)

I began hungover after seeing a Hayes Carll concert at Waterfront Park overlooking the Ohio with some friends visiting from Lexington. Determined, I set out late, and immediately got lost in Indiana, realizing my maps and directions were printed to take me East, toward the Ohio’s birthplace. After struggling to understand what the hell I had done, I reconsidered, came back home and re-planned until late at night. I started at 6:30 AM the next morning.
Every road trip has a soundtrack. Considering I put somewhere near 1,000 miles on my rental, I had several. But, it definitely all started with Bowie’s “Eight Line Poem.” I almost listened to it on repeat while leaving Louisville, heading North over the river into Indiana.

The byway finds much of its direction in Indiana from State Route 66. My first stop was Sulphur, Indiana, just breaching the Hoosier National Forest, where I would spit out from 64 West onto 66. Sulphur is a natural crossroads for entering the byway, and should be famous for housing the Ole Country Store. I entered Ole Country Store to load up on coffee, catch up on gossip and fishing news from the two ancient men in overalls sitting in the middle of the store, and to purchase the finest egg and sausage sandwich on a hamburger bun I have ever had.

These roads I had picked were all mostly state routes. You know the type: low or no shoulder; dips and curves, usually both at once; narrow; and corn. Every mile is either you as a driver completely isolated, or you as a driver being tailed by a large black 2011 pickup truck with a hemi (I still don’t know what that means) that is used to traveling these roads at 86 miles an hour, frustratingly trying to pass you in a no-passing zone. And the corn is everywhere. It reminded me of points brought out in Robert Kenner’s doc Food, Inc.: we are a nation using corn for everything. Corn is probably involved in the making of hemi’s, as well.

Indiana’s 66 follows the river through small towns and then smaller towns. I’ve been to small towns, but I’m not sure I’ve seen as many places with signs that read “population: 350” as I did on this trek.

It was in the unincorporated community of Derby that I finally caught back up with the Ohio. Seeing this as an opportunity to take my first shots of the river, I pulled off near a log cabin sitting on the river. It was near 8am. As I snapped some photos, a man in a green shirt was taking out the trash from the cabin and loading it onto the back of a golf cart.

“Hot one today. What cabin y’all stayin’ in?” He said, working.
“Just passin’ through,” I said. “Takin’ some pictures. Followin’ the river. I think I’m headed somewhere near Angel Mound?”
He threw a bag full of bottles onto the cart. “Shoo; you got a long way to go.” He hopped in his cart. “If I were you, son, I’d just stay here. Have a good one.”

I thought of those words several times on the trip. Maybe I should have just stayed in Derby.

Like many of the towns I passed through, Derby was a community that came into being because of the river. It offered travelers a place to rest, party, get supplies and maybe even eventually just stay. The Ohio also served as almost a dividing line between free and slave states, and many of the towns along its route served as important strategic points for regiments during the Civil War. Derby was no different. Some of these places became cities with industry, some remained small or declined into tiny communities that were sustained by tourism, agriculture and various industries, and the families that kept them afloat; some, as I was to see, did not die, but did not necessarily survive well, either.
Derby was just the beginning. I snaked through the routes, eventually stopping to see the Cannelton Locks and Dam, built in 1966. I can get not only overly excited about seeing the river, but at the same time the huge concrete and steel behemoths that were created on it. It’s all the reality of humans on the river over the centuries; it’s ugly and it’s beautiful.

Right before Cannelton I found the Lafayette Spring. The spring simply sits right off the road, looking like a giant rock with a rusted pump in front of it. I had not heard anything about it when researching and planning the trip. Lafayette refers to the major-general who served under George Washington during the American Revolution, as well as being one of the most respected military leaders from France. Yeah, I had to look some stuff up about him later, because, I have to admit: I’m a little rusty on my American Revolution history. Fellow Kentuckian/pal/writer/artist Jeffrey Scott Holland actually recently discussed Lafayette's US tour in an article at the KYForward site.

On a tour of America at the age of 68, Lafayette’s steamboat the Mechanic sank in the Ohio in May 1825 while he was on his way to Louisville. Being so revered, Lafayette and his crew set up camp at this spring, where he was visited by pioneers throughout the night coming to pay their respects to him. He caught a ride on a passing boat the next morning.
I hope the cigarette packs and bottles tucked back into the cliff’s cave where the spring bubbles don’t simply mean Lafayette’s stay is just used for making out and smoking some Marlboros in the 21st century. Then again, maybe Lafayette’s men did that, too, so they might be OK with that.

66 took me through Tell City, Maxville, Newtonville and Grandview, eventually splitting off the river at the city of Rockport, which housed something that looked frightening to coffee-bleeding eyes: the Rockport Hydroelectric Plant.

After overcoming confusion at my own directions to myself concerning the use of Yankeetown Road, I found myself at the Angel Mounds.

The Angel Mounds is a 450-acre archaeological site of a Middle Mississippian Native American village dating back to 1100 AD. “Mississippians” refers to a culture of Native Americans that covered the Southeastern US from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic. The mounds were man-made, built in a similar fashion to pyramids, and represent a village that housed a population of thousands of people, and was a political and religious center for communities that grew outwards from it for miles. Around 1450, they mysteriously all deserted the massive, powerful village. The biggest theory seems to be the land’s resources, after so many years of use, could not support the amount of people there. Depletion of resources: yeah, it’s a big deal.

I mean, I wonder if there were Mississippians who debated whether the timber was actually running low or if it was just a left-wing conspiracy theory? The other main line of thought was that the society dispersed because of a lack of confidence in its leadership. History constantly repeating.  
So now, people like me show up early in the morning to look at the mounds. 
Me, and an entire school bus of tiny children. I found myself in the lobby that led to the museum and eventual self-guided tour of the mounds. The confusing point that occurred to me was the lack of staff there to greet me or the kids and their teachers. In some comedy routine, I stood in a mixed-up crowd of what seemed like 1700 eight-year olds, all of us fidgety, scratching our heads, needing to use the bathroom, talking about the events of the day. 

We traded stories. After Susie and Bobbie told me about how Jenny fell and busted her knee but that she was a cry baby about it and that Mrs. Meade was a meany but sometimes she was nice like when she bought us ice cream that one time, and I asked them their theories on the debt ceiling debate in Washington and what they knew about Larry Brown. No, not the basketball player, I explained. Then Mrs. Meade told us all to be quiet and to get in line!
I excused myself to use the restroom. When I returned, it was eerily quiet; all my friends, even Susie and Bobbie, were gone. I was alone, and still saw no staff. I stood at the counter for another few minutes, and finally, walked into the museum, unpaid. 
The museum is a collection of exhibits explaining the societal structure and history of both the Mississippian culture and the Angel Mounds site. It was armed with wall paintings, interactive TV things, and eventually, as I gasped, a whole recreated version of the village made up of animatronic Mississippians that talked at you when you approached them. I had not gotten to experience anything like this since King’s Island train used to take you on a ride around the park (mostly to give the your parents some time to rest, get out of the sun and stop watching you wait in line to ride The Beast), stopping to watch animatronic settlers talk and shoot at each other with cotton smoke and nearly inaudible speeches. The strangest part of all of this was that I was completely alone having conversations with the leader of the Mississippians; it was a little bit of heaven for me, but eventually I figured I should find some staff, or otherwise be kicked out. The leader of the Mississippians agreed. 
I walked down another hallway and found the staff setting up models of toy classic cars in a room that looked to be decorated like a 1950s drive-in. I’m not sure, but I don’t think the Mississippians used 1950s classic cars. But I’m no Native American historian. Confused, I paid my four dollars and walked out onto the site.

The tour of the Angel Mounds is a grueling one if it is 112 degrees outside. There is absolutely no shade. You are basically told, “see that huge field; start walking; you’ll see stuff.” I feel like, if I had walked its entirety, I may have died, and no one would have ever known. Maybe I would have become part of the tour. “That was Brian; he was a seeker of adventure that met his demise while blazing old trails. We still have his blue t-shirt in our animatronic museum.” I would feel emblazoned on the heart of America if they constructed an animatronic version of me, explaining the perils of walking the tour with no water.

As you approached my robot self, I would suddenly light up, looking like I did the day I fell in the grass of the Mounds.
“Hello. My name was Brine. My car rental cost too much. I walked way out that way without properly hydrating. Don’t do drugs, kids.”

Maybe my arms would stiffly move and I would give a thumbs up and subdued smile. Much like I do in real life.

Now, don’t get me wrong here: the staff were friendly and helpful; I think I just caught them on a very busy, erratic day. And the Mounds are amazing; I felt honored to be on the same grounds as the Mississippians. I have a heavy interest in history, but my interest in American history in the last few years goes back to the cultures represented here, before Europeans showed up and, you know, started killing everyone. I have heard the joke that Europe has all the history. Africa, the Middle East and the Americas have more of the history, it just ain’t all white history. The society this place represented was mindblowing and I definitely felt reverence for what I got to see and touch.

Each mound represented different uses. I walked a circular path to climb and survey Mound A (pictured above), which was considered the site used by the religious/political leader of the community, as well as his family. Impressive stuff.

Although, I won’t lie: it looks like a giant hill covered in grass with a flat top. But, the Mississippians built these humongous mounds, then built their housing on top of them. The housing is all gone. Reconstructed versions of the housing are present, however:

As I stood on top of Mound A, I was able to survey a large portion of the rest of the village. I could see several other mounds in the far distance. Eleven in total. It was pretty humbling.

And then I felt dizzy and realized I was a mile away from the museum lobby, had no water, and had not eaten more than the egg and sausage hamburger from the Ole Country Store. And the heat was really beating.

There was no way I could walk to the other mounds.

I descended the steps to the bottom of Mound A and began shuffling my weak European-descended ass back to the museum. My feet dragged through fresh cut grass, raising brown clumps of straw that started sticking to the sweat I was frothing through my clothes. This Heat Wave Summer of 2011 is real fun. I had to turn and salute the Mississippians and compliment them on being more Men and Women than I could ever be.

I’m willing to admit the Angel Mounds kicked my ass.

I made it to the lobby, took a bath in their sink before limping to my rental, slipping onto North Pollack Avenue, and attempting to find the next segment of the trip, which would now switch to State Route 62, towards Evansville, Indiana. Soundtracks resumed.
to be continued...    

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