It’s been a while since my last update, about 2’000 miles and 24 days. I’ll try to catch up on the trip since leaving Elkins, West Virginia.
Elkins, WV – Lexintgon, KY – St Louis, MO
My next stop was Lexington, Kentucky which was a halfway stop towards St Louis, Missouri. I discovered ready made, ready rolled pizza bases in Lexintgon. We made pizza by opening a can, spreading the base on a tray, and adding toppings. It was pretty darn tasty. Leaving Lexington I passed through 4 states on my way to St Louis. I woke up in Kentucky, had lunch in Indiana, stopped for gas in Illinois and arrived in Missouri.
I was headed to St Louis to see Liz, a friend I met in Guadalajara, Mexico. Liz was back home in St Louis, the home of Budweiser beer I discovered. I had a great time staying with Liz and her parents, Brian and Lynn McKenna. Lynn’s cooking is the stuff of legend. Brian is a retired police officer and now trains policemen to prepare for violent encounters. Made for some really interesting conversations.
St Louis is the home of Anheuser Busch, the brewers of Budweiser. The brewery tour was really interesting. An hour long tour of the facility including 2 free drinks at the end of it. I was impressed by the little details. Anheuser Busch give wood chips used in the brewing process to local parks. They run a stable of Clydesdale horses and Budweiser wagons that tour the country for parades and so on. The tour itself employs close to 40 people in the down season, and a ton of technology. Without bragging about it, Anheuser Busch seemed like reasonably responsible corporate citizens. Of course, maybe that’s the whole point of the tour, to create that appearance!
St Louis, MO – Springfield, MO – Pettigrew, AR
My next destination was Caitlin’s farm in rural Arkansas. I broke the ride with a stop in Springfield, Missouri. I stayed with Braden and Micah who were excellent hosts. We ate some of the saltiest, most stomach pain inducing bar food I’ve ever consumed at the local Wing Shack. A truly mid-western experience! Then Micah took me to a Springfield college party. Good times. Thanks guys.
Rural north-west Arkansas is really something to behold. There’s a very special kind of freedom enjoyed by the people in this part of the world. Life is so remote out there that enforcement of the law is sporradic at best. With an Arkansas state ID one can walk into a gun shop, pass a NICS background check, and purchase a rifle or handgun immediately, without permit or registration. Sale of firearms between individuals is largely uncontrolled and unrecorded.
The culture I experienced in rural Arkansas reminded me of my travels through rural, upstate New York. There’s a real survivalist mentality in a lot of rural America. The landscape is often harsh, with cold, snow covered winters. The “state” doesn’t provide much to the really rural households. Keeping roads cleared of snow, fallen trees, and so on often falls to the locals themselves. It’s simply not practical to maintain such an extensive infrastructure in places so remote.
Often descended from Scots and Irish, these people are from hardy stock. The people who choose to remain in these parts of the world survive under conditions that most other people choose to leave. Winter life is physically hard, cold and dark. Electricity, telephone and roads are about the only national infrastructure that reaches all the way out into the deepest forest. There’s no water mains, sewage, gas or rubbish collection. Houses are responsible for their own water supply, hauling their own trash and any gas is from bottles.
If the apocalypse comes, the folks who live in the woods in north-west Arkansas are well prepared for it. People out here pride themselves on hunting, persevering and surviving.
For a long time I assumed that rural was synonymous with hillbilly and redneck. In truth, I met some very liberal, open minded, well travelled, globally aware, almost hippies in rural parts. I think many people are attracted to the practical, daily freedoms enjoyed in these parts. When you live 10 or 15 miles off the nearest tar road, government bureaucracy has a slightly different flavour to it. Building regulations, planning laws, production and posession of contraband, they’re considerably more theoretical out in the depth of the Arkansas woods.
Personally, I had a great time on the farm with Caitlin, Matt, Jeff and Megan. I fired a handgun for the first time, a silver 38 special revolver. I also fired Matt’s 1943 M1 rifle. The rifle saw action in World War 2, Korea and Vietnam. Matt has a bayonettte, weapons belt and harness to match, mostly original issue.
After 5 days on the farm, trying to find a break in the weather, I said my goodbyes and set sail for Memphis, Tennesse.
In Memphis I stayed with the folks who live at De Cleyre. The house itself has a really interesting history and the folks I met there were, without exception, fascinating human beings. The house is cooperatively owned by the people who lived there. It was purchased in 1998 with a mortgage from another cooperative. The current residents pay rent towards the mortgage and upkeep. I was amazed to learn that of the current residents, Allyson is the longest standing and has only lived there for less than 3 years. So everyone who lived in the house over the years has paid a contribution towards the mortgage, then moved on. Amazing.
Terance calls the house “the experiment”. In many ways, De Cleyre is a fascinating experiment. A fairly unstructured model of cooperative living. There are a couple of fundamental house rules, any resident can ask any guest to leave for example. Otherwise, things generally seemd to “just work”. I enjoyed most of my meals in Memphis at the house, they were prepared by various people and shared. Before leaving I left a huge bag of brown rice to contribute to communal supplies. Not all meals were communal, nor did all the residents eat all the meals. In a wonderful example of the magic of chaos, those who were hungry ate, it all came together naturally, without planning.
I drank a local beer, danced on Beale Street while listening to Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis, smoked a Marlboro red and didn’t go to Graceland. I had a great time in Memphis on all fronts. 🙂
After 2 nights, I left Memphis on the final leg of my pilgrimage to the capital of country music, Nashville, Tennessee. My first night in Nashville I stayed with Yvonne aka The Travelling Vegetarian. We ate some amazing Ethiopian food. The centre piece of the meal for me was the bread, called Injera. Thin, bubbly like a pancake, soft and pliable, like a pancake only a little more stretchy. The meal was a collection of vegetable dishes served on a large piece of Injera with a side basket of Injera. The bread is the plate, the eating utensil and a large part of the meal.
The next couple of nights I stayed with Irina. On Saturday afternoon we took off into downtown Nashvile to tour the city. On the Shelby Street Bridge we happened upon what appeared to be the filming of a country music video. Music would blast while a fella walked down the bridge carrying his guitar case. The camera was on a little set of rails, it all looked very professional to me. Turns out it was Shane Yellowbird, a Canadian country singer, filming something for his break into the US.
Saturday night Irina and I took to the streets of downtown Nashville in search of country music and line dancing. Both were found at the Wild Horse Salloon. We paid the $5 cover just in time for the last line dancing lesson of the night at 8:45pm. Now I feel like I know how those poor Japanese tourists must have felt at their first ceilidh. I found line dancing to be a lot harder than it looked. We put in a valiant effort all the same!
From Nashville I rode 200 miles straight south down I65 to Birmingham, Alabama. I’m staying with Richey, Julio and Pari in Birmingham, this update comes to you from their couch. 🙂
Apparently 1 in 7 people in Alabama has a connection to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. There are almost 20’000 staff and another 20’000 students at UAB in Birmingham. I feel like Birmingham is a college town and perhaps not truly indicative of the state of Alabama as a whole.
I arrived in Birmingham just a few days before thanksgiving, a huge holiday in the US. Everyone on my list for Atlanta had said they would be away over thanksgiving. I was conscious that I might have trouble finding somewhere to stay. Richey said I was welcome to stay in Birmingham for thanksgiving. They were having a party and were expecting 10 to 15 people. Perfect.
Thanksgiving was a great day. I was on turkey duty. It worked out well. I pumped it full of seasoning with a giant syringe then roasted it in a browning bag. Came out juciy and flavourful, result. I took inspiration from my mother’s masterful roasting of chickens over the years. 🙂
Today I say goodbye to new friends in Birmingham. I’m heading for Jackson, Mississippi tonight and then New Orleans, Louisiana on Sunday.
I have taken some photos on this leg of the trip but I’ve yet to sort and upload them. I’ll try to put them on the map once they’re ready.