|Oct/Nov 2005 Travel|
New Orleans is where the Bible belt comes unbuckled. I realize this on Bourbon Street when a black transsexual offers me his unconscious, whiskey-drenched sister for a ten-dollar blowjob or a twenty-dollar screw. Suddenly, an all-white jazz band appears. Clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, banjos, and drums pummel the tragic siblings with "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Race, rye, and religion are constant themes on the Mississippi. In the American Odyssey, Huck Finn and sidekick Jim float downriver to escape racism, alcoholism, and fundamentalism. One thing is as clear as the water is muddy: they went the wrong way. Now I, Huckleberry Lyn, am heading upriver in search of some answers and the ever-elusive freedom.
Exit the French Quarter to what was once Storyville. Here jazz was born and named for the jasmine aura of the local whorehouses. I step into a bistro for red beans and rice with turnip greens. My food tastes like history—an edible incarnation of bygone days and neighborhood spirits. In nearby dirt alleys, the hungry, seven-year-old son of a prostitute once dragged around a coal cart. Jailed by age eleven for firing a pistol in New Year's Eve revelry, the boy was taken from the only family he'd ever known to reform school. Solace took the shape of a silver trumpet. Though as entitled to bitterness as anyone ever was, Louis Armstrong set out to give the world a hug instead.
Satchel-mouthed "Satchmo" single-handedly invented improvisation and swing time. His "West End Blues" has been called the most perfect three minutes of music ever made. When his sheet music fell off during recording, he introduced America to the scat. He crooned "La Vie En Rose" with enough romantic charm to make cats kiss dogs. His canonical rendition of "What a Wonderful World" has done more to combat global misery than World Vision. Plus, forty years after redefining music, the aging master still bumped the unsoulful Beatles down the charts to make "Hello Dolly" number one in the nation.
Despite his triumphs, when Louie returned to New Orleans for Mardi gras, community and religious leaders banned his racially integrated group from performing. Heartbroken, he scrapped plans to be buried here in his hometown. Though his favorite song was "Sleepytime Down South," Armstrong chose to spend his eternal rest up North. Haunting lyrics still reflect his great soul and his suffering: "My only sin, is my skin. Why must I be so black and blue?"
Later in the day, a telecom company V.P. invites me R.S.V.P. to watch a football game A.S.A.P. from their Superdome balcon de V.I.P. The Saints play horribly. The sinners are much more fun: our catered gluttony includes jambalaya, gumbo, etouffée, muffulettas, every local longneck beer, and every imported single-malt Scotch. Gentlemen wear khaki trousers and blue oxfords. Ladies wear huge diamonds and large breasts with the former looking genuine.
No one follows the game. Latecomers invariably ask the score only to hear awkward silence then a backslapping executive slur out, "Hell, I dunno! D'jou come ta talk er drink?" The corporation thoughtfully reduced liability by providing rooms just across a walkway at the Hyatt. When the stadium staff informs us the game has long ended, our swaggering, staggering crew stumbles to bed.
Next day, I leave Creole N'AW-lins, driving thru Cajun country. Cajun is short for Acadian. Acadian is short for "a bayou-dwellin' French-Canadian with an accordion." These folks have had it rough. Driven from France to Nova Scotia by hardship, then South to Louisiana by British, they got their fishin' nets, washin' boards, and moonshinin' stills set up just in time for Napoleon to sell their new home to the Americans for pocket change. The final insult came when McDonald's announced the new Cajun McChicken sandwich. Now, I see with my own eyes how les meserables have been driven to the point of actually enjoying country music. Somebody oughta do somethin'.
A roadside eatery boasts, "Seafood buffet: crawfish, frog legs, and alligator soup—technically inaccurate, but I guess "swamp smorgasbord" wouldn't sound tasty. I step inside for directions. Wood-carved signage reminds gentlemen to remove their hats, out of respect for the ladies. However, muddy boots, greasy overalls, and tobacco-stuffed, toothpick-dangling mouths are apparently considered a tribute to the aforementioned babes.
In one corner, a massive singer fronts a rockin' zydeco band. Each time he belts the hook, "Born on a Bayou," his body squats down to spew the lyric, his face turns purple implying a hernia in progress, his superfluous flesh rolls with the downbeat, and his arm flies back yanking blue jeans up over freshly exposed ass-cleavage. Damn, he was good!
Back on the Mississippi, cypress-crowded basins give way to oak-dotted plantations. Palatial estates recall one of the world's last medieval societies. Within their walls, white knights and damsels lived by a code of honor and chivalry. Alas, this didn't extend to the surrounding fields where fellow humans died under a code of barbarism and slavery. Gone with the wind? One can only hope.
Antebellum Natchez rises up ahead on the river bluff. Cock-on-the-Walk Restaurant serves me catfish, coleslaw, pickled onions, and hushpuppies, then a landmark bed & breakfast surrounds me with fine antiques and plush pillows. Slumber comes nice and easy. Rosy-fingered dawn goes unnoticed, but smoky-tentacled bacon taps me on the shoulder and pulls me down the hallway. I drive off greatly full and fully grateful.
The road forks at D'Evereaux Drive, where people were once yoked together like cattle and auctioned off. I park and stand a while. When the biblical villain Cain asserted he wasn't his brother's keeper, God responded, "Listen! Your murdered brother's blood cries out from the ground." The blood of slaves has long cried out from the dirt on which I stand. Such cries carried on Natchez blues radio WMIS directly cross-river where rockabilliest Jerry Lee Lewis was born.
While trying to become a preacher at Southwestern Bible Institute, Jerry was asked to play the song, "My God is Real" during worship. He pounded it out boogie-woogie style and was promptly expelled. They didn't want God that real. Lewis then applied his "great balls of fire" to something less original in the Deep South: tickling both "the ivories" and "the ebonies" as pianist and patron at Nellie Jackson's Natchez bawdy house, then marrying over half a dozen women, including his thirteen-year-old cousin.
Traditional religion had no place for black music. Yet, there was plenty of room in the fold for the white sheep of the family, Jerry's other cousin: Jimmy Swaggart. (Before Jimmy and Jerry were scandalized by sex and rock-n-roll, federal agents arrested their fathers for distilling the local drug of choice, corn whisky.) Lewis did eventually get to preach his own prophetic message, "There's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on." As Plato wrote, "A society's foundations shake when musical style changes." Here on highway 61, where I'm cruising along toward Memphis, the world got "all shook up."
Vicksburg hits me like a brick wall. Or rather, its 17,000 Civil War graves do. This final bastion of the Confederacy, guarding the continent's main arterial waterway, held the high ground against Ulysses S. Grant's stranglehold siege to the virtual last man. Sweet magnolias scent the air as a permanent funereal bouquet.
How does one internalize such mass sacrifice on such minute terrain? I envision legions of starving, sickly adolescents laying down their lives for some personalized conception of freedom—a country free from slavery or a homeland free from federalism or just a conscience free from accusations of cowardice. They lined up to exchange flesh and blood for ideas and emotions. People long for freedom; war craves youth for its valor and naiveté. Warriors must believe they fight on moral high ground. My veteran neighbor, Jim Shaw, wears a belt buckle he took off a dead Nazi. The back is inscribed: "God is with us!"
I leave the profound silence of the battlefield for the mindless din of a riverboat casino near Greenville. Lose a couple bucks on roulette. For most locals, gambling is either a major thrill or a mortal sin. For me, it's just a tax on folks who can't do math. I'm soon back on the road.
From Vicksburg to Memphis, the Mississippi Delta was once a vast swamp of gum trees, panthers, snakes, mosquitoes, and malaria. For eons, the great muddy river gently deposited dirt on the site. Now, it is a land of rich black soil and poor black people, of fat white cotton bolls and fat white cotton bosses. The population is around 80% black. The landscape is awash in shotgun shacks without plumbing or electricity.
Ironically, a century ago, as diminishing crops were being carefully weighed and sold, a priceless musical harvest sprung up unnoticed, then scattered its seeds to the wind and the Windy City. Chester Arthur Burnett's story is somewhat typical of the region's legendary bluesmen.
Chester, a.k.a. Howlin' Wolf, was born in 1910 on the Illinois Central train line near the Mississippi/Alabama border. His eighteen-year-old, Black, sharecropper dad married his fifteen-year-old, Choctaw, pregnant mom unceremoniously.
During the toddler years, his father moved away, his native grandfather nicknamed him "Wolf" for his mischievousness, and his mother threw him out to fend for himself. He found shelter with his brutal, violent uncle—a church deacon. His new guardian leather-whipped him into working cotton from sunup to bedtime while providing him with bread, milk, and eventually a pair of shoes.
Chester whistled or sang while plowing. During breaks, he beat on a bucket or made a one-string diddley-bow out of board and bailing wire. After saving for and donning his first pair of trousers, he was knocked into mud and slop by the family's prize hog. He beat the pig to death, then ran for the train, just ahead of uncle's whip—barefoot, raggedy, thirteen, and Delta-bound.
On the Young & Morrow Plantation, he slaved behind a team of flea-bitten, farting mules. The blues, a series of twelve-bar phrases based on three chords, an A-A-B rhyme pattern, and simple, passionate truth, came as naturally as sweating. The music was a road out of hell. It provided escape during work, relaxation after work, and with mastery a way to quit work.
Chester played Delta juke joints with mentor Charlie Patton and pal Robert Johnson. These hangouts were dangerous outfits, where bluesmen brought in the women, women brought in the men, and men, drinking whisky from bottles or tin cups while packing guns or knives, gambled with deadly intensity.
Under the scorching sun, Chester grew into a six foot, five inch tall, almost three hundred hulking pound adult with huge head, hands, and feet. His skin was smooth and dark. His blue-gray eyes, growly voice, and paranoid/sexually predatory nature truly seemed wolfish.
Onstage, Chester beat his guitar like a drum and rode it like a pony. He bent strings with his fingers or made them sob with a slide. He played one harmonica with his mouth and another simultaneously with his nose. He padded around like a caged animal or crawled across the floor. He licked his lips, humped the air, stared balefully, mumbled to himself, and always carried a pistol.
In Clarksdale, I visit the Delta Blues Museum to research more on Howlin' Wolf. At Boss Hawg's Bar-B-Q, I perform last rites on swine that stains my clothes like Chester's nemesis. (Of all the things that damage the heart, I regret pulled pork and torrid love the least.) I reach Beale Street and Sun Studios in Memphis with mind and body still digesting.
In the 1950's, Chester Burnett played on Beale Street while a teenage Elvis Presley hung in the shadows. The Wolf also preceded the King into Sun Studios, recording his masterpieces, "Moanin' at Midnight" and "Smokestack Lightnin'." On the latter, hypnotic rhythm gradually picks up steam like a locomotive. Full-moon falsetto-howls punctuate work-song field-holler vocals. Dark, cryptic lyrics convey a Gothic spirituality and summon up ghost trains from his disturbed nightmarish childhood near the tracks. All throughout, Wolf's primal soul wails for his mother like a lupine cub lost in the wilderness.
This theme of "a woman done him wrong" permeates Chester's musicology. In real life, his mother refused to speak to him. Neither his serial adulteries nor her child abandonment troubled her much, but playing the devil's music (blues) in places serving demonic drink (alcohol) was inexcusable. She insisted that she was Jesus' child but he had sold his soul.
Near the end of his life, he tracked her down in Clarksdale and hugged her, slipping a five-hundred-dollar bill into her pocket. She found it, spat on it, stomped on it, and yelled, "I don't want your dirty money!" He cried all the way to Memphis.
In his tormented classic, "Goin' Down Slow," Chester begs for pardon: "Please, write my mama. Tell her the shape I'm in. Tell her to pray for me: forgive me for my sin." Wolf always remained skeptical of organized religion; he figured if his mom and uncle were on that side, he belonged on the other. Yet, he knelt by his bed in prayer every night. British bandleader Chris Barber hosted blues and gospel musicians for decades and recalled, "The only one who ever said grace before meals was Wolf, the only one!"
When his kidneys failed, he phoned mom from his Chicago deathbed. She refused to take the call.
Religion's designation of blues and later rock-and-roll as "devil music" was a thin disguise for its real crime of being "nigger music." (W.C. Handy, first great composer of the blues, was a pious bible-believer who wrote uplifting songs.) The contagious groove and earthy lyrics were commonly attributed to the "primitiveness" of the black race. However, primitive nature was not the muse, primitive treatment was. Reduce people to survival level and they confront life's elemental themes and rawest emotions. In parlor talk, "Necessity is the mother of invention." In the Delta, it's just a mean motherfucker.
Chester once told an interviewer, "The people that come up the hard way—that come up sufferin'—they can play that music. You think the blues is gone down for the count? Blues is gonna be played in people's homes. Even to this day, I wouldn't be allowed in their houses—but my music is gonna be." Today, statues of him span the length of the Mississippi and his image dons a U.S. postage stamp. Now, everyone plays music from the Delta, but not just anyone can put the Delta into the music.
I sit in the lavishly elegant lobby of the Memphis Peabody Hotel. Mallards splash softly in the marble fountain. Lovebirds playfully tinkle at the grand piano. My request for whisky without a glass is refused, until I explain my desire to toast Howlin' Wolf. As if by hoodoo, a bottle, a gathering, and even a harmonica materialize. An intimate fellowship descends upon the room and prevails unto the wee hours.
In the morning, I do Graceland—the Taj Mahal of tacky, architectural proof that the unexamined life can be worth living, if you've got the cash. Elvis was as unrefined as he was charismatic. Like the Great Gatsby, he remade himself into a squire but really only convinced his "po' white trash" brethren. He found rising from dirt-poor son of a bootlegger to filthy-rich king of rock-and-roll much easier than rising above class snobbery.
When bought by Presley in 1957, Graceland stood on Bellevue Boulevard a couple miles North of the Mississippi line, at the border between the impoverished rural South of his upbringing and the bustling redneck metropolis of Memphis, where the first drive-in movie, motel chain, and supermarket were born. The roadway was renamed Elvis Presley Boulevard over the loud protests of the non-rockin' Bellevue Baptist Church, whose thousands of mostly-white members have since fled to suburbia leaving Graceland an outpost in drugland.
The location as a hilltop showcase on a busy thoroughfare was intentional. Elvis wanted adoration but not invasion. His see-over stone wall and see-thru wrought-iron, music-note gates were designed to remind the simplest fan, "Me: Elvis, you: tourist, look but don't enter." The king's relatives formed a homey but firm security force. The physical site and retention of the old "Graceland" name reflected the heavenward hymn, "I've got a mansion, just over the hilltop," which Elvis tearily quavered out on his 1961 gospel album.
The overdone white columns, pediment, and façade echo the then current fetish for the umpteenth re-release of "Gone With the Wind." The film saga became a national epic, transforming the American Dream from "a chicken in every pot" to "a column on every portico." Depression era need was replaced by modern consumer greed. The manse itself was constructed of stone from Elvis' birthplace Tupelo, bricks from Mississippi mud, and timber from Delta swamps. Home is where the heart is and when Elvis' heart wasn't in some Vegas showgirl's pants, it was here.
The mega-columns may also have offered a retort to Northeastern elitists who ridiculed him as a country bumpkin. A year before the property purchase, NBC's Steve Allen Show made Elvis sing Big Mama Thornton's classic: "Hound Dog" to a slouching basset hound in front of classical columns. The intent was to reveal his "uncultured" Negro music for what it was. In contrast, "classy" non-hillbilly guest Milton Berle joked about being Presley's long-lost twin (who was tragically stillborn) and performed his lame transvestite shtick to "enlightened" approval. Elvis was humiliated. The next morning, after a gander at the ratings, former critic Ed Sullivan offered him the highest fee ever paid for a TV gig. The language of black music was foreign to the establishment, but money was their mother tongue.
I step into the foyer. Inside, Graceland is like a Hollywood set with disposable (albeit expensive) rotating furnishings and theme rooms. The front half of the house presents ceremonial, image-projecting space; the back half features functional, chaotic sprawl.
On my left is the dining area. White carpet surrounds a glass table and black upholstered chairs resting on marble floor. To my right is the living room. Plump damask chairs and a fifteen-foot white couch face a stone fireplace to rival Citizen Kane. The music room extension displays a genuine gold piano. Above me, a chandelier illuminates a gilded staircase with golden balusters. The top landing leads into the royal playboy pad then the infamous throne room/death potty.
I descend to the basement. A pool table fills a chamber where walls and ceiling are made from mass quantities of pleated Indian-paisley fabric forming a tent. The mood is warm, organic and hippy. Adjacent is a blue and yellow cubical with mirrored ceiling, lightening-bolt wall-mural, and NASA-mission-control bank of TVs for simultaneous viewing. The ambience is cool, angular, and art deco.
An oh-so-private deluxe home bar equipped for serious drinking contrasts starkly with the oh-so-religious younger Elvis who wouldn't be seen in a Nashville pub to check out a band with his agent. Of course, this wasn't the only time that fundamentalist rules produced more hypocrisy than moderation. However, it may have been the first case to go out in a milkshaked, cheeseburgered, prescription-drugged, liquored-up blaze of glory.
I proceed to the den—a legendary eyesore. After Presley's death, the monstrosity was nicknamed "the jungle room" for tours, to make the décor seem meaningful rather than embarrassing, a little gag not a big gaffe, like a brief rainforest intermission from Priscilla's palatable palace. Yet, no bullshit can explain this dogshit! Here, Elvis repeatedly shot out the TV set when Robert Goulet or Mel Torme' came on. Here also, a friend installed the waterfall (with plastic hoses still visible) that shorted out and flamed up during a 1971 Christmas party, until the family sledgehammered the wall wiring.
During Elvis' funeral, Carolyn Kennedy (another booze smuggler's progeny) visited Graceland for a "condolence call." The family thought it was a sort of state visit and ushered her into this room, where they were grieving privately and inconsolably. Ms. Kennedy noted the decorating instead.
She rushed Rolling Stone a stunned story about the tasteless Polynesian Primitive décor, which included mahogany paneling, floor and ceiling green shag carpet, Wookie-fur lampshades, plastic hanging vines, and chain-saw-sculpted pine thrones. In short, Elvis' lack of sophistication had once again been pointed out by a Yankee elitist as lacking in scruples as he was in class. Jungle motif meets savage tactics.
Perhaps, the raunchy room was a defiant joke on the world, a man's primal rebel yell against fashion magazine interviews, Priscilla's syrupy domestications, and clergymen who dubbed rock-and-roll as faddish jungle music. The 1970's Vegas show included the lyric, "I'm the king of the jungle." While Elvis' pelvis no longer shocks the world's sensibilities, his polyurethane-coated myrtle wood coffee table still does. Rock on Elvis!
Today, when most Presley recordings sound like the Fonz singing with a barbershop quartet, it's hard to grasp how they were once the vinyl incarnation of multi-ethnic hipness and teenage rebellion. Yet, it's so. Defying religiously buttressed prejudice, he united black and white teens into a single musical tradition—a pretty spiritual accomplishment for a not-so-spiritual guy.
I pass through the trophy hall, full of gold records and jeweled jumpsuits, to the meditation garden. The spot harbors a mish-mash of angels, goddesses, and faux-classical columns with some upside down. Elvis constructed the shrine during a brief period of spiritual searching. His friends laughed. Religiousness is expected in the Bible belt; spirituality is not. The King's grave is also here. He lies between a Jesus statue and a flickering flame, betwixt heaven and hell, just as he lived in turmoil between religion and hedonism. I pause, reflecting on my own thirst for something that transcends both.
Departing Memphis, I stop at Mud Island to pull off my shoes and wade down the mile-long, several-inch-deep cement-and-water topographical model of the Mississippi. Sounds silly, but it's a fast and fun geography course not to be missed. The only question the museum doesn't answer is whether the crowd lying around drunk at the New Orleans end are tourists or part of the replica.
Driving over the real Mississippi, I glance back at the glistening Memphis Pyramid. The monument offers a proud comparison to the city's namesake on the Nile. It entreats the beholder to only partly remember two great civilizations, both built alongside rivers and on the backs of forced laborers. I discard all serious thought at a mid-bridge sign reading, "Welcome to Arkansas: home of Bill Clinton."
Speed past West Memphis: dirt, dust, truck stops, moon pies, and R.C. Colas. Take U.S. 55 North traversing hazy rice fields and catfish farms. Twist the radio: Jesus, Shania, quilting, fertilizer, blessed silence.
Nearing Sikeston, Missouri, miles and miles of billboards foretell the "Home of Throwed Rolls." The promised miracle turns out to be a diner where if you hold up your finger a distant waiter tosses you a bun, where anything that can be fried has been, and where macaroni and cheese count as one side-vegetable. Actually, like the previously glorified barbeque, if you're gonna die from somethin', this is a fine way to go.
The highway, to which I return in a gaseous, bloated stupor, could be called the "Home of Throwed Souls." An exodus of Southern blacks to Chicago along this stretch in the 1940's and 50's was one of the largest peacetime migrations in history, often compared with the flight of Jews from Egyptian bondage to the Promised Land. Perhaps, the preservation of blues is a holy rite akin to the celebration of Passover.
The threadbare road joins parallel black threads, until finally merging with a big, tangled knitting-ball of freeways. Saint Louis is gateway to the North, where the Blues is a hockey team not a way of life. In this freer metropolis, over a century ago, black composer Scott Joplin could emerge as the American Chopin and even produce operas. His ragtime classics such as "The Entertainer," "Easy Winners," and "Maple Leaf Rag," blend raucous frolics with deep sentimental longings, symphonic elegance with chromatic hints of down-and-dirty blues.
Joplin took black syncopations into the cultured salons of the world, demolishing the long-held truism that music was a hierarchy of virtue descending from the European to the darker races. Even so, the Sedalia Maple Leaf Club, a respectable black-owned fraternal organization for which Scott named his masterwork, was perpetually harassed by local churches for allowing liquor, playing cards, and (worst of all) interracial dating. The biblical witness that Jesus distributed wine, Moses married an African, and Apostle Peter used games of chance didn't slow their zeal to shut down this musical heritage site. Apparently, waltzes can be "devil music" too.
I take the Anheuser-Busch tour of the planet's biggest brewery, then visit a church housing the world's largest Byzantine mosaic collection. One pope called it "the greatest cathedral of the Americas"—the church not the brewery. Being a renaissance man, I test the acoustic reaction of the colossal space to whistling the Budweiser jingle. (Yep, I'm goin' straight to hell.) In the shadowy, stained-glass stillness, I once again ponder the alternative to stuffy religion or empty hedonism. There must be a better way. Perhaps, I can gain a higher perspective from a loftier vantage point.
Long before the banks of the new world Nile thrust up a triangular pharaoh-phallus at Memphis, they hoisted a kinder, gentler geometric. The Saint Louis Arch is a graceful, unimposing curve of shimmering steel—unless you ascend over 600 feet inside the creaking, swaying, sculpture/carnival-ride. From the apex, my eyes can see much more than my stomach would prefer.
Across the river is East St. Louis. In this violent slum, Howlin' Wolf and Albert King had a knock-down drag-out brawl as band members, who kept their guns so close that one blew off a testicle while drumming, got sent to the hospital trying to break it up. In this same ghetto, Scott Joplin had to debut his first opera under deplorable conditions. Turns out the white folks only wanted to hear his "satanic stuff" after all. (Lucky break for the soon-to-be-spawned, classically untrained luciferites: John, Paul, George, and Ringo.)
Off to the North is Hannibal, birthplace of Mark Twain. According to Hemingway, all of American literature descends from Twain. Most of Twain descends from this river. Across the panorama before me, Huck and Jim and every reader's inner child make their great escape from the shackles of this world. On one of these marshy islands, Jim, the runaway-slave-within-us-all, comments, "I's rich now, come to look at it. I owns mysef, en I's wuth eight hund'd dollars." How many of us truly own ourselves or even grasp the value of such ownership?
Above all, the arch now making me queasy celebrates St. Louis as gateway to the West. The Mississippi—badly pronounced Chippewa for "Great River"—once marked the line between civilized East and wild frontier. St. Louis boasted the first railway bridge to span the mighty flow. The city also stands at the confluence of the Missouri. Had this westward fork been called the Mississippi, the whole would constitute the world's longest river. Instead, Jack Kerouac called her a muddy poem flowing thru the heart of a vast country where a tree falling in Montana can drift to the sea. (Warning: this description is nearly worthless and sounds goofy when asking directions.)
In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out from here to investigate the Missouri in all its glory. I freely admit that following their route on four wheels and asphalt is grossly anticlimactic. However, after too many years of too many beers, Chicago nightlife appeals little more than Southern religion. So, I defrost a poem flowing from the heart of my muddled schooldays and take the river less traveled by hoping that will make all the difference.
Crossing the Great Plains, one can feel small and windblown. I spot coyote, antelope, jackrabbits, prairie dogs, and even a distant tornado. As daylight wanes, rolling hills and boundless horizon give way to a dazzlingly clear and starry sky. Past Sioux City, Iowa, I toss my sleeping bag onto the land of the Lakota, then drift away counting phantom buffalo and ghostly hunters.
Up and gone with a fireball sunrise, I pull over near Bismarck, North Dakota to pee in complete isolation where Mandan farming villages were once more populous than St. Louis. Drive and drive and drive to a funny-smell-motel-from-hell. Drive some more. Just short of deciding to give up the plains crossing and homestead for the winter, I reach Great Falls, Montana. The thundering cascade is 300 yards wide and 80 feet high, conceals more falls behind and more behind those. Here, Lewis and Clark's expedition had to abandon river and portage overland. So would I. Here also, their whisky supply ran out. Alas, my cache of wry tales of rye would soon be restocked.
Bearing Northwest, I sojourn in a small valley where the Shoshone once hid from the well-horsed and heavily armed Blackfoot. A current resident named Eldon still lives in fear, but it's hellhounds not warriors on his trail. When Lewis-and-Clark-companion John Colter ran naked for many miles ahead of pursuing Blackfoot, he stumbled into a "hell of steam and boiling mud": Yellowstone. Eldon has been fleeing the dogs for years, stumbling into his own personal hell. His wife serves me Huckleberry muffins.
"What do you do, Eldon?"
"I'm second shift foreman at the mill."
"How ‘bout you, Bev?"
"I stay busy with my church. (She lays her head on his shoulder.) I wish he'd go with me, but he prefers not to."
(He pauses long, running a trembling hand thru sparse white hair.) "I guess I'm just destined for hell." (His soft matter-of-fact voice contradicts his terrified look.)
"Why do you say that?"
"(He sighs.) Way back in the war, we captured some Japanese prisoners. (His voice quivers.) Sarge showed us how to get ‘em to talk. (His eyes tear up.) I didn't want to do it, but I was afraid. (He sobs.) So, I joined in. I guess unless I get saved, I'm toast."
"What holds you back?"
"When I married Bev, we agreed I wouldn't drink but that every year on our anniversary we'd sit outside to watch the sunset and share a bottle of wine."
"I've kept both commitments, always will, but most folks at that church drive over to Idaho to buy their liquor where no one knows. I know ‘cuz I see ‘em. You can't be a hypocrite if you wanna follow God. Honesty is all I got left to give. So, I guess I'm finished…. (Coughing and crying, he stumbles off to be alone.)"
Bev offers me another muffin.
Approaching the Canadian border, I skid over an icy fogbound pass into the remote Yaak Valley. A steamy river-marsh winds thru wilderness past the rusted-out metal of the Dirty Shame Saloon. The pub's name comes from a favorite tune of Son House, who vacillated between bluesman and preacher. Seems the long arm of religion even reaches here. I stop for a brew.
The leathery face of a much-tattooed barmaid is crisscrossed with dark crevices mirroring the deep cleavage that plunges into her unbuttoned denim shirt. The jukebox is playing ZZ Top blues...
Jesus just left Chicago and he's bound for New Orleans.
Mark Twain once quipped, "If Christ were here now, there's one thing he would not be: a Christian."
Took a jump thru Mississippi, muddy water turned to wine.
Whether Jesus will return to perform this miracle, I don't know. If he does, one thing is certain: the fundamentalists will crucify him again.