I realised I'd left the Deep South when I drove past a house in central Kentucky that had a sign saying 'Proud Union Home'. This was the first time I'd seen a declared allegiance to the northern union, the Yankees. Thus far, every home that choose to express an allegiance did so by flying the Confederate flag. This area was the dividing line in the most bitter dispute in American history: the Civil War. I spent a harrowing afternoon at Shiloh, the first major battleground, before heading north to Columbus, a strategic location for both Union and Confederates. This phase in history has done more to shape the United States than any other, and still resonates today. It's going to take me a while to write about it; I'll do that when I'm home.
But here's an abbreviated draft about a landmark on my journey:
It was fair to say that the town of Hickman, Kentucky had seen better days. I drove into town down a dirt road from the east, passing The Roper Pecan Company, its large building indicating a former prosperity. It was boarded up and not even for sale; the remnants were clearly worthless. The General Store had dust-covered cardboard boxes stacked up against the window; I guessed the previous owners had been packing up their unsold stock but gave up half-way, realising they’d been selling worthless tat all the while. I hoped they’d sold up and retired to Florida but somehow felt it more likely they were now sleeping rough. The Generations Tanning Salon had also bitten the dust, which I found less surprising. It was over 100 degrees outside and the sun was blaring; the working folk of Hickman were hardly the vain-but-pasty captive audience of, say, Manchester or Liverpool. I only saw one person – a tourist in an old Chevy camper van, the same model Mr. T. drove in the A-Team – taking a photo of a poor quality mural painted on a whitewashed wall. Apart from that, Hickman was deserted.
Hickman was a blink-and-you’ve-missed it sized town. I quickly popped out the other side, the road rising abruptly over a levy then back onto a gravel track. And then, there it was, right in front of me: a vast expanse of water, a mile across, glistening in the morning sun, stretching out into the distance in both directions. I’d reached the Mississippi.
From Hickman, it’s almost 50 miles either north or south to the nearest bridge across this mighty river. A sign on the side of the dusty road was what I was looking for: ‘Push button for Ferry.’ Ahead of me, an old red Chevy Silverado was waiting patiently on the ramp. The driver’s window descended as I approached. “Is the ferry running?” I asked, spotting it tied up at the bottom of the ramp, its access gates closed.
“He’s just changin’ the fuel filters,” the young local chap driving told me. He wore a duck-shooting cap; his face spotty, his teeth crocked and browned.
“Should be runnin’ again in a few minutes,” his scrawny passenger said, not looking at me.
Sure enough, after a few minutes, a rough-looking fellow appeared from the engine room; he put his green ferry uniform t-shirt back on as pulled the gates open, indicating us to proceed.
The ferry was just a barge with an old black-and-white tug-boat strapped to the side. But its engines fired up with a reassuring thrum, pushing us gently into the fast flowing current of the Mississippi, steering clear of a grain-barge making its way down river.
I strolled up to my new friends in the Silverado. “It’s hot,” I said, attempting to start conversation with them.
“I could do with a cold beer,” I tried.
“I don’t drink beer. But I could do with a cold moonshine.”
His friend perked up. “I can drink a gallon of that stuff before I feel it.”
“Oh. What do you guys do?”
“I work the river,” the passenger told me. “Bargin’. 24 days at a time. Four days from here to Baton Rouge, eight days back against the current. Do that twice.”
As the ferry chugged across this famous, mighty river in the searing July heat, I thought of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. I was strangely jealous of my new friend’s life on the river. “How is it, living onboard?”
“It’s hard. Six hours on, six off. People go crazy, start fighting and shit.” Ah, maybe not.
The ferry made hard work against the current as it moved a mile upstream, traversing as it went, eventually driving itself into the bank where a concrete ramp climbed steeply passed uprooted trees laying either side, an indication of the power and scale of this river in flood. The road flattened and turned to asphalt. A large blue sign with white and yellow lettering made me smile warmly: “Missouri Welcomes You.” I was making progress.