Departing Memphis with the Great State of Mississippi now in my sights. Doing grand – loving this trip – excited for the many stories to come!
Monthly Archives: October 2009
I had the pleasure to visit the “Youth Villages” Poplar Group Home of Memphis, TN, which is designated as a “safe place” for the abused, runaway, and homeless children of the area. Here the boys of the house are carving pumpkins and preparing their first pumpkin roasted seeds. Thanks to the outpouring of volunteers from the local area, via Volunteer Mid-South.
Upon entering the Cairo Women’s Shelter, in Cairo, Southernmost Illinois, one is immediately greeted with the smile of a lifetime.
Meet Jeannine Woods, Executive Director of the Cairo Women’s Shelter, who along with her rather gregarious staff, have made it their life passion to bring a sense of normalcy to the many battered women and children who, on a daily basis, buzz their way into the shelter. From that smile comes the prospect of a bona fide safe haven where the woman or often mother can begin to consider the prospect of – quite possibly for the very first time in their lives – thinking about themselves. Which can lead to positive goals.
When asked about the importance of goals, Natasha, mother of seven and resident of the Cairo Women’s Shelter, explained, “I pray every day for strength to keep me to do this – to give me the power to keep going … to keep it in me that I am here and I’ve got to protect my kids and that when I leave here, that it’s still going to remain the same.”
Buzzing with activity, Jeannine and myself, looking for a place to conduct the interview, decided it best to step outside, seeing as how it was such a picture-perfect day. Which brought us in view of the projects of Cairo – a place that Jeanne explained was safer than one might think.
“See that mother, just down the road, that one with a baby on her hip and another holding her hand?” Looking just down the road from where we sat, I could see it, the silhouette of the trio moving positive in the other direction, along the lane between the government formed homes. “She’s not scared,” explained Jeannine. “She’s walking with confidence, and she’s walking with pride.”
Above and beyond the shelter, Jeannine wanted me to see and experience the brighter side of Cairo – a town which has been on the decline now for several decades – often stereotyped by the media in a rather negative light. In so doing, she asked me “not [to relate] the plight of Cairo, but the positive of Cairo.” Which, thanks to a number of community and political leaders quite busily making a difference, turned out to be an easy task.
“The people who choose to stay [in Cairo] represent [a] picture of hope for our community. They don’t represent the dwindling and dire circumstances… they stay because they have hope for their community… because there is a glimmer of hope here.”
A positive spin on hope, to be sure, which in turn plays directly back into the shelter’s mantra of inner strength – a strength which helps the women of the Cairo Women’s Shelter find the wherewithal to move themselves forward.
“When she takes her shoes and plants them in her new life,” explained Jeanne, “she’s [facing the prospect] of a new life … [of a] hope for her children.”
LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER
The difference in river currents post Cairo, Illinois, has been, to put it mildly, dramatic. Am now facing rising waters that two nights ago, could have taken me under – while in my sleep.
Had camped on a patch of sand known as “Moore Island” approximately 30 miles south of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and come midnight, was forced to pull up stakes as the waters were lapping at my tent. Moved the tent to higher ground – back into the sands below the elevated trees, as high as it actually went on that island – but by 6am, the waters had climbed to the point where it was time to vacate. The water had actually risen five feet in total Sunday night, but it certainly felt like more. Still in the dark, my lantern, blowing in the wind like a hurricane lamp, guided my movements of bringing goods from tent to canoe as I was in essence evicted off the island.
Now in the river, I was greeted by raging waters, dangerous waves, monster barges, wind, and dark.
Made it to the first boat ramp I could find to get off the river where I met and befriended the pilot of the ferry service tug that operates between Missouri and Hickman, Kentucky. Edward Fuller has been on the river for some time, and had some ominous words regarding my mode of transport – pointing to a spot just across the river where a giant eddy has been known to spin full sized boats, as he put it, something silly.
After listening to my story, Edward told me, “I’m not sure if I should call you crazy – or praise you”. Edward gave me one of his bright orange rain slickers for good luck (so the barges could actually see me) along with some snacks and extra water. We talked shop while we waited for the next car to arrive as well as for the waves to calm down. During that time, I learned a number of good strategies to deal with the remainder of my trip: Hug the right side of the coast (at least for this portion of the river); get completely off of the river when a monster barge approaches; but do not step foot onto Island No. 8 (a large island approx 5 miles down from Hickman, KY), as “it is a hunting island where they will shoot you on sight.”
As luck would have it, I had to make two emergency stops onto Island No. 8, as two monster barges, one after the next, hugged the same stretch of coastline, immediately to my left. As Edward had explained, “hunters down here don’t care about Christmas. For them, it’s all about the start of hunting season. They stock that island with deer and if you land on their island without an invite, they will think you’re a poacher, and they will shoot you. They shoot on sight.”
Just before landing, the first time, I did see one deer who jumped out of my line of sight the moment I laid eyes on her. Laying low on dreaded Island No. 8, I was happy and quite fortunate that these were the only set of eyes to have seen me.
Am now talking with tug pilots whenever I get the chance to check out the rapidly changing conditions on this river. The waters continue to rise and it is now rare to find an island with a sandbar at all. Most islands are simply comprised of the top half of trees. I’d take pictures to show you but while I’m out on the river these days, I’m too busy concentrating. The river current has picked up to at times clock in at ten to twelve miles per hour. That’s up from two to five miles per hour prior to joining the Ohio River at Cairo. At such speeds the dangerous part of the river is not what is on top but indeed what is just below the surface. Logs, driftwood, and buoys. And at times, a medley of the three.
While that first morning out, post Moore Island, spooked me, the waves have not reached the levels that they did that day. I take solace in my suffering. There is still the nature. There is still the adventure. At this stage of the game, I am quite literally fighting to tell these stories – to make it to these towns. Upon landing at Cairo, at going on 10pm last Wednesday night, the good Reverend Kelly Cox asked, “Is this really worth the story?” To which question I answered honestly – without even thinking, “Yes, absolutely!”
Even with the rains, there are still the birds. Small birds with bright blue inner feathers, skirting about the canoe, as if to check it out, dipping and diving, always coming back for a second look. Today, the rain was sort of cool, scattered at first, like unto heavy sprinkles. But then it droned on and on, picking up steam, until it turned into a downpour. Cold rain that drives at you, in the case of today – all day long. Was so cold when I pulled out at Caruthersville, Missouri, late today that I checked myself directly into a hotel – with the kind (and essential) assistance of two new friends who live here locally. A wise investment for the hot shower alone. And now – at long last – for the bed. A bed that come morning, knock on wood, will not have floated away.
The positive voices of Cairo, Illinois are drowning out the exteriors of a now legendary, crumbling Main Street. When one takes the time to step behind this facade, there are a group of local leaders who are putting their best foot forward, hopeful of a future that has no other option but to be bright.
My muse for this story was singer/songwriter Stace England, who dedicated an entire album to the living legacy of Cairo, titled Greetings from Cairo, Illinois. After shooting a rather haunting rendition of “The North Starts in Cairo, Illinois”, Mr. England explained, “When [blacks] were traveling by bus from the South they were separated by a curtain from the white riders … They could take that curtain down in Cairo, because the North started here. So you can imagine people who had lived with segregation their entire lives getting into the land of opportunity [which would have been] a very dramatic thing.”
Yet the land of opportunity, or as Mr. Twain put it, “the promised land,” was not exactly full of promise for all citizens.
My first day in town, Preston Ewing, the City Treasurer and unofficial town historian, explained that before I could attempt to capture a glimpse of Cairo’s future, I’d “most certainly need to understand the past.” Mr. Ewing understands the past of this city as few others do, having served as the president of the local NAACP in the late 1960’s, a time in which Cairo gained national attention as a flashpoint of activity during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Cairo, Illinois is geographically important due to its location as the very first city of the North, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers along the Mason- Dixie Line, a place locals refer to as “the epicenter of the country.” As such, Cairo was referred to as “the promised land” by runaway slaves, headed north. “If you made it to Cairo and crossed the Ohio River, then you could consider yourself to be on somewhat free territory,” explained Bishop Paul Jones, who serves as Alexander County’s Circuit Clerk at the local Courthouse.
Bishop Jones is the first African American to hold the title of Alexander County Circuit Clerk, while Mayor Judson Childs is the first African American to hold the title of Mayor in the City of Cairo. An achievement for the African American community, on a local level, considering the town has been around for the past 150 years.
In the past, there have been two, rather well publicized communities in the town of Cairo – white and black. And yet, as Reverend Ronnie Woods, affectionately known by the town as “Coach”, (a title in reference to his twenty plus years as Cairo High School football coach) is quick to point out, these once separate communities are now coming together.
Take a look around, as Mayor Childs would say, “with your eyes and your ears” and one will find that folks here have moved past their racial differences. In only a few short days in town, I was able to witness this firsthand, from the positive energy of the teachers of the Jr. and Sr. High School, to a “20/20 Vision” program embraced by local entrepreneurs and city officials alike, to a number of patrons at the town’s local hangout, the Nu Diner, who confided that Cairo is, symbolically hand in hand, simply moving forward.
Music & Lyrics used with permission by Stace England. Copyright Pearlie Mae Music 2005. All Rights Reserved.
In a town showcased by major media as an epicenter of “urban decay”, it was encouraging to find a group of folks standing up for the historical “shotgun” architecture of the local area. Featured in this video are Professor Bob Swenson of Southern Illinois University’s School of Architecture, his students, Jim Schmidt, 25, and Toni Lettiere, 23, Shandll McGoy, 31, and local “Vision 20-20” entrepreneur, Bill Harrell. According to Mr. Harrell, one “could buy a local ‘shotgun house’ for between $600 to $1500 at auction [plus your own labor + $10,000] to make it livable.” Not a bad proposition for those looking to step into their first home – and save the living history of the community at the same time.
Reached the halfway point of my river sojourn tonight with a triumphant entry into Cairo, Illinois. The US Corp of Engineers calls it the halfway point because its where the river is divided into the Upper and Lower portions. In reality, I’ve got 1341 river miles behind me with 970 to go! Excited for the stories lined up here… Thanks everyone for following – here’s to adventure!