On the Belvedere in Louisville there are several bricks embedded in the walkway that tell the story of certain cities on the Ohio, while following a strange bricked model of the shape the river that lasts for several hundred feet and looks like a pixilated version of the river from a 1981 Atari game. The one city I had never heard of that always struck me as curious was the last one: Cairo. Was that a Kentucke town? It’s situated West of Paducah. Was that some small Western Kentucke city I was completely unaware of? Wherever it was, it was the End of the Ohio. I’ve been going to the Belvedere since I was a kid; I don’t remember when they installed these informative bricks, but they’ve always intrigued me. Especially Cairo. I believe it even explains that it was so named because the city reminded the founders of its Egyptian namesake.
I had been on the road for approximately eight hours. I was tired. I was sore. But I was near. I could smell the end of the Ohio, and while Superman in Metropolis, Illinois, was inspiring and impressive and tall, and while the Angel Mounds of the Mississippians were legendary and almost a mythical foundation to the States, I was driving for one goal: to find the End of the Ohio.
I decided to make a run for it and finish the trip out that evening. Dusk was approaching, but I still had a couple of hours before night, and my plan was to hit Cairo by nightfall, and if there was lodging in town, stay there.
With the sun in my eyes, I rode away from the Ohio on 45 North, skipped onto 169 West, and headed back toward the river on 37 South, unfortunately having to pass the town of America.
Eventually, I decided to break from the music to listen in to some local talk radio. Out among the corn and tobacco and acres and acres of agriculture, I found the only station not playing Christian or Country music. It was, of course, Conservative talk radio. The host was extremely charismatic, quickly and often discussing his support for the Tea Party and the evils of the Left. I had recently watched a segment on The Daily Show that focused on the current state of America’s niche media. Liberals listen to liberal-friendly programs; Conservatives to Conservative-friendly programs; neither give the other side a chance, and according to the guest that night – Juan Williams – the ability to listen to varying viewpoints and truly debate issues has disappeared.
I decided to give the host, whose name I never got, a chance. But, my distrust of media, partially because of the truth in the theory that every program simply has too much of an agenda and a slant to actually offer fair views of any politics or economics, is too great. I don’t trust “Liberal” or “Conservative” radio, television or print. Stats and figures are always doctored in all directions to create an environment that will appeal to the probable demographic tuning in and to serve the purpose of tearing down the opposite political ideology. And with that, the chance I gave to the altered reality presented by the Tea Party host was a short one. He mentioned all of the selected talking points of the week and did nothing in the way of actually fairly discussing the debt ceiling debate that was occurring that particular week, but spent most of his time cheerleading the Tea Party and spitting accusations of incompetency at the president. So, I did what every red-blooded American would do and gave the radio the finger and popped in more music.
As I was driving through seas of tobacco, I looked out over level fields of green that ran up to doorsteps of homes sided by drive-ways where big red pick-ups were parked and kids were running through the yards. The thought of how that deregulation of media has led the US to this point came to mind. Out near America, Illinois, there aren’t many radio stations to choose from. Diversity fades away to corporate ownership, and that corporate ownership deems that this area of the country likes nothing but religious mantra, mainstream country music and conservatives yapping bullshit. Sure, I’m not defending liberals’ bullshit yapping, either; all political talk anymore is as informative as the bottom of my shoe. But deregulation was defended in the 1990s as a way to let the market decide with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. How can there be a decision from the market, though, if all you are offered is some Tea Party asshole spewing his one-sided fibs? There are no choices, just decisions made in some office somewhere that this is what the people of American, Illinois, want to hear, so by god, that’s what they will hear. At least offer a secondary fib, and have a chance to choose your fibs. And to break from that mindset, when you are that kid running through the tobacco fields all your life and what you hear is nothing but conservative religious country – that’s a tough agenda to sometimes break away from. Your parents’ listen to it; therefore you listen to it. And then your kids listen to it. And then you vote for Rick Perry. But I’m digressing.
I didn’t come here to tell you that.
As I found out in a rusty gas station over black Styrofoam coffee and change, the pronunciation is different. In Egypt: /ˈkaɪroʊ/. In Illinois: /kair-oh/. Dig it. Talk native.
While at the gas station, I asked the nice lady there, “Are there any motels in Cairo?”
“Let me ask,” She smiled, and turned to her partner, who was tending to a highway worker who had just spit water all over the floor yelling, “this water ain’t water! It’s like Coke without taste!”
“No, honey,” She returned. “No one really stays there. Kind of like no one really stays here in Mound City.”
Dusk was officially hunting me and I felt the pressure to find and Cairo and settle in quickly.
Mound City was another interesting small town with a population close to 700. It was definitely nice and historic, its Main St being a mix of old houses and deserted buildings I’d guess from the late 1800s. I wanted to take photos, but felt the need to continue on down the road, plus my exhaustion had increased my paranoia. As I drove through the town, I doubled-back to see the old buildings again, plau I realized I missed my exit for 51 South. During both passes of the town I saw a black Duster slowly following me. Feeling a cross between “Christine” and “Judgment Night” in my head, I stepped on the gas and headed onto my exit.
Cairo was just ahead, and darkness was starting to dawn. My eyes were droopy. To combat the sickness of tired, I reached for my secret weapon in my bag of Soundtrack tricks. I needed something cheesy, messy, loud, fast and, well, in the end, danceable, to keep me awake. The sun was harsh and my sunglasses were on, ready for anything. It was at this moment my hand found UK electronic dance band The Prodigy’s 1997 CD “The Fat of the Land.” You can’t say I’m not the hippest sunuvubitch to drive the Southeast/Midwest.
Again, it was out of desperation. But within minutes I was approaching the exit for Cairo while stiffly shaking my shoulders to the beats. The bass in the gold Toyota was deep and shaking the windows of the car. I was ready for the streets of Cairo. I felt tough.
I looked something like this:
And as I drove into the city of Cairo, I was listening to this until the windows actually shattered into a thousand pieces:
And I was dancing in the driver's seat.
I had not decided whether to find the point of the End of the Ohio, where it merges into the Mississippi River, or to find a motel first. As I neared the exit and realized what I was driving into, and as the night began to come closer, I decided to take the first place to stay I could find and gaze at the rivers in the morning.
I should have taken hints of the state of Cairo as I pulled in to the Best Western parking lot, which was surrounded by abandoned lots and cars overgrown with weeds, rust, and apocalypse.
|This restaurant sign pointed to...|
The events and sights and sounds in Cairo did not help my paranoia. Each little clue began to add up in my head.
While checking in at the front desk of the hotel, I thumbed through a brown notebook listing all of the local area restaurants. It was nearing 8PM. I was starving. I noticed that of the ten or fifteen restaurants listed, all of them but two had black marker lines running through them. A BBQ place was listed as still being open. I decided, after unloading my bags in my room, that I would search this place out.
Driving through Cairo was enlightening, or darkening, however it might be looked at. I passed under the bridge welcoming people to the city, and then passed a mix of amazing looking older buildings and factories. I eventually turned down the loud bass on the electronic music as I began to feel a little uncomfortable. It seemed nearly every building, every factory, everything was overgrown, busted out, destroyed, condemned, abandoned. Even a lot of the sidewalks became cracked with forests growing from underneath them. The town just seemed to feel…empty. I quickly gave up on my search for BBQ and instead pulled into a gas station, bought two pieces of fried chicken, and headed back to my room. The whole town gave me a very uneasy feeling, which again, was complimented by my exhaustion. And probably the fact that I had been talking to myself all day.
The Best Western of Cairo proved an experience that eventually drove me basically mad for the evening. As I unloaded the remnants of my belongings, a black SUV pulled in beside me. A woman looked over, “How ya doin’?” she yelled, stared at me as hustled about four bags around my shoulders, and then immediately pulled back out and left the parking lot.
In the room, which I cannot say was roach-free, I uncorked a bottle of wine, had a piece of fried chicken, and waited for morning. Sleep did not come easy. Throughout the night, cars pulled into the parking lot of the hotel, would stay for ten or fifteen minutes, then leave. Horns were honked. Police and fire sirens were a mainstay of the night. All sounds coming from throughout the second floor were of yelling, sometimes angrily, door slamming. People would sometimes sit outside listening to their radios at their cars, then abruptly leave. At one point there was a small party of people around a single car for hours.
I’ve stayed in some sketchy places in my life, and often welcome the unease or the bizarre or the suspicious. This was one of the few times I have ever felt like I needed to check my car to make sure nothing had happened to it during the night.
Allusions were easily made to the travels up the river in Joseph Keller's 1902 novella "Heart of Darkness" and John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film "Apocalypse Now." I was on a quest to take me to the end of the river, similar to Conrad's Marlow and Milius and Coppola's Willard, although I was not in search of the great mystery of the antagonist/protagonist (?) Kurtz, but rather the simple end of one of my favorite features in the world: the Ohio. Much like in those stories, my tired mentality and cups of wine coincided to the mythical inspirations found in those works. "You're in the asshole of the world, Captain," I mumbled with purple lips, staring at my untouched car.
Things were much safer than that. But my anxiety did not let me sleep well.
Further research after the trip revealed some facts about Cairo. It was founded in 1837, incorporated in 1858. Based on railroad and steamboat traffic, it prospered during the Civil War as a popular port city. It served as a strategic point in the Civil War with the building of Camp Defiance. In the late 19th and early 20th century wealthy merchants inhabited the town, building large mansions there. However, with the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad Bridge in 1889, the ferry business the town benefitted from decreased. By 1900, Cairo had a population of 13,000, of which almost half were black, a very high percentage for a town in the South. The lynching of William “Froggy” James in 1909, a black man accused of killing a white woman, basically raised the racial tensions to a high level that did not fall for years.
More bridges were built that eventually led much of the river, railroad and automobile traffic to bypass the town, and by 1937, employment prospects began bypassing the town, as well. As economic decline began to take hold of the town, it was again racked by racial tensions in 1967 when Robert Hunt, a black soldier on leave, was found hanged. The black community organized protests in the streets against corruption in the police force and government, eventually leading to violence between the black and white populations. Arson became one of the biggest crimes in the area. Shootouts between police and protestors occurred. Unemployment and racial tensions continued mounting throughout the 20th century. As of 2010, it had almost 3,000 residents, 50% of which lived under the poverty line (www.lib.niu.edu; wikipedia).
During the floods that occurred along the Mississippi River in May 2011, politicians raised the possibility of completely flooding Cairo instead of farmland, which I find to be a pretty scary and insensitive thought.
Despite the unease I experienced in Cairo, I’m very interested in the town. A combination of some of the most beautiful architecture and historic culture smashed against more than a century of decline and desolation. As I left it that morning, I passed an old billboard on the opposite end of the main strip, welcoming drivers to “historic Cairo.” The entire sign was faded and half of it was fallen inwards.
I approached Fort Defiance to take my photos of the Ohio River meeting the Mississippi. As I neared, I was stopped by a parked police car and a sign informing the state park was closed.
This was the goal of my trip. My reason for driving 500 miles along the route.
I turned around and immediately headed out and over the Ohio onto the very narrow Cairo Ohio River Bridge. This bridge was one of the reasons Cairo’s river industry had declined. It’s also one of the most narrow bridges I have ever driven, making it almost impossible for me to glance westwards at the Mississippi, much less photograph anything while I was driving.
Once back in the homeland of Kentucke, I snapped a few shots out the window, capturing the convergence of the two big rivers. Slightly foiled, but not wholly failed.
My drive home was through the middle of my home state. I would not see the Ohio River again until I walked to it on a lunch break the next week in Louisville. It was muddy and there was a snailish barge. I almost dropped my glasses in it. I’m not sure what got into me when I was a kid that made me obsessed with the Ohio, but I’m glad I am.