Monday, July 7, 2014

Scatter My Ashes Over the Mississippi River

"Shit! Shit shit shit" I yelled. My palm struck the steering wheel several times. I was having a major rage attack. Daylight was almost gone, and Alabama roads apparently don't have signs or landmarks of any kind to tell you you're going in the right direction.

The map said to follow 78 (which doubles as Interstate 22) all the way from Memphis to Birmingham, then take I20 to Atlanta. But what the map didn't say was that I22 abruptly ends because of "construction." And the GPS on my "smart" phone hadn't gotten the memo, either, since it was telling me to follow 22 for 10 more miles. Peering down out the driver's side window at the road below, I noted that grass had overtaken much of it. Repair of I22 wasn't high on the list of priorities, I guess. I rode around in the dark for probably an hour before I found my way back to 78, furious, ready to leave this cursed state behind me. Besides, the stars Alabama's famous for weren't out tonight anyway thanks to a thick cloud cover.

I didn't know why I felt compelled to go on a road trip, but somehow I knew it was the right thing to do. I wanted to go vaguely west, and I figured that I'd probably head northwest, to Knoxville Tennessee. I'd rest there and figure out a destination.

The Historic Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, TN

I spent several hours in Knoxville, walking around, talking to folks, taking pictures. I chatted with Bill Page, a storied local street musician, who tipped me off on some places I could see interesting street art, including an alleyway that was pretty well covered.

Bill Page

I had an italian hero sandwich and looked at the map. "Should I go to Memphis or head north into Kentucky? I'd like to visit as many states as possible in the short amount of time I have," I thought to myself as I traced possible routes and sipped from a huge glass of sweet tea.

"Memphis is about 7 hours from here," said the waitress as she took my finished plate away. The amount of driving seemed daunting. But something told me that was where I should go anyway. I'd zip right past Nashville and head there.

As I drove it occurred to me that the Mississippi River is powerfully, archetypically American. Its waters flood the surrounding lands, facilitating agriculture in one of the most fertile areas in the world. It has played a key role throughout the history of this country and is one of the largest and longest rivers in the world. It seemed as though my purpose had become clear: I was on a pilgrimage to an important place, an historic place, a sacred place. I was to dip myself in the Mississippi; its muddy waters would baptize me. I realized I had had a purpose all along.

A wave of well-being flooded my consciousness as I took I40 over the River and into Arkansas. I had no purpose or destination there, but since it is just across the line from Memphis, I figured I'd put my feet on the ground in that state for the first time just to say I had. By the time I'd get home, I'd have visited or driven through six Deep South states - North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

The July Memphis sun fell hard and quick like a flail. I walked around Beale street, just to see what all the fuss was about, and had a beer and a plate of ribs, BBQ beans, and corn on the cob to keep me going. The streets were dirty and funky and bustled with other tourists. Street musicians played the blues. More music blared from the bars. I loved the place.

But the River called. I headed down Beale to Riverside Drive, where a public park was. From there you could see Pyramid Arena, former home of the University of Memphis' men's basketball team and later, the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. It's an enormous mirrored structure, abandoned for nearly a decade. It gleamed blindingly, angry in its lonesomeness. I turned from it and strolled down to the bank from the park. There was a foul piscine smell. A big dead fish floated there on its side, its eye peering up at me blankly. I thought it best to walk a ways down from that malodorous scene and find another site for my private rite.

Seven times I brought the dirty water to my forehead and prayed. I rose from my squatting position by the water and strode back up the bank, and up Beale Street once more. What all this accomplished, if anything, I neither know nor care, for when the spirit compells me, I move. My mission complete, I was free to just hang out there and drive back to South Carolina when the time came.

Beale Street, Memphis TN July 6, 2014

Now, about that drive. . .