Sunday, December 9, 2007

Missouri loves company

It was 80° and humid as we drove out of Memphis. I was dismayed to see that, in places, Memphis appeared to be in as much disrepair as central city in New Orleans. We saw rubble piles, houses abandoned and boarded up, smashed windows, and burned cars. I understand why New Orleans looks like this, at least a little bit, but it's quite affecting to think that Memphis could come to this state by poverty alone.

We were surprised to find the whole of Arkansas and Missouri swaddled in immovable fog. I associate fog with the ocean, but evidently the Mississippi can muster up a decent fog itself. It almost felt like we were driving through the river -- that the water hadn't stopped at the shore, but spread up into the air and out over the land. The colors of the crops and dirt in the fields beneath the fog were vivid and rich compared to that flat white.

(Erika says: We've been living alongside the Mississippi this whole trip -- our bunk house was nestled in the corner of the river, so we'd find it if we went south, east, or west. We've walked, sat, eaten, and napped on its banks in New Orleans, Steamboated up and down its final port, leaned against its levees, learned about its usefulness, history, power, and fetters, followed its route on our maps, but it still seemed like a distant entity. Yesterday, surrounded by the dense muffling fog in Caruthersville, Missouri where my mother's parents grew up, watching the roiling silvery waters silently buffet a fishing boat and slide under the branches of an elm, I felt the undeniable presence of the river for the first time. All rivers are forces more than objects, this one more than any other I've known.)

Petra again: The levees that bordered the public fishing and boat launch where we stopped in Caruthersville looked quite similar to the ones that run along the lower 9th Ward. I’d heard, of course, that the federal levee system runs all the way along the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis, but to actually see the truth of that was quite something else.

We found the City Museum of St. Louis was unexpected and eerie east. We didn’t even have to pay for parking. Those of you who haven't heard me rhapsodize about this institution might be surprised to hear that my desire to bring Erika to the City Museum was an extremely significant factor in our decision to drive North and then East rather than straight northeast from New Orleans. I was secretly convinced that by the time we actually got there, something would've gone wrong: it would have gone out of business, become entangled in a dramatic lawsuit, or be otherwise closed unexpectedly. For her part, Erika was sure that there was no way it could possibly live up to my elaborate descriptions, nor be worth going approximate the 600 miles out of our way or the steep cost of admission. In fact, it was open and she instantly fell so in love with the place that she put away her camera to free up her hands for climbing only two minutes into our visit. For her to enjoy something more than taking pictures is extremely rare. They had to kick us out at closing. Erika now wants to move to St. Louis -- specifically, to the twig nest above the white whale in between the first and second floors.

Perhaps further explanation is warranted at this point. The City Museum of St. Louis is not so much a museum as a beautifully mosaiced, lovingly constructed, fantastically designed, and unbelievably elaborate five-story building cum sculpture. While you could walk upright through most of the building, why would you, when you can instead climb through a spiral of shiny metal into a suspended tunnel decorated with tree branches, hurdle down the steep three-story slide covered by an arch of spinning colorful paint rollers, and wriggle your way down 2 1/2 stories of dark tunnels and caverns to find St. George’s Dragon? It's a sculpted 3-D maze large enough for adults to get lost in, and every detail is perfectly crafted. Most of the materials are scavenged, like the paint rollers: we took a break on a bench next to a pillar that someone had decorated with a realistic and detailed mosaic of the gecko made entirely out of old watchband's. It's gorgeous and whimsical and filled with stuff straight out of the myth, or out of your favorite dream. Incredibly, nothing is caricatured, cheesy, or childish. Although it may sound like a place for kids, adult enjoyed it just as much and crawl through the tunnels with just as much glee.

After the City Museum, we went to see our friend Soda, a temporary St. Louisian, who lived in the same dorm as me at Smith. These days, it seems we only get two see her for twelve hour periods every three years, which is very sad. Accordingly, we made the most of our time together before finally sending her back to her homework. We fell promptly asleep.

em eye ess ess eye ess ess eye pea pea eye

We’re on the road again. (La la laa la la la laaa la la – come on, you know that song.) It’s really nice to be on our own after such tight community living, but it was very hard to leave our new friends, our meaningful work, and the bunk house that has been our home.

Our route took us hundreds of miles due north from New Orleans up the long edge of Mississippi (lots and lots of Mississippi) to Memphis, Tennessee. We first skirted the surprisingly large and varied western shore of Lake Ponchartrain, which surely is actually thirteen lakes banded together in a subterfuge of identity. Unfortunately, we couldn’t verify this, since the lake(s) were almost entirely covered with stagnant impermeable fog. I was previously amazed to learn that, to this day, whole communities of Native Americans and Cajuns live undetected in these marshes
Lake Ponchartrain marshes. Having now seen their extent and density, though, I’m sure that within a mile of the Interstate dozens of people could live without anyone on the outside knowing of their existence.

After more marshes and lots of flat boring stuff, we came to the first hill we had seen since arriving in New Orleans. We hadn’t realized the lack of hills until we saw this one. We greeted it gladly—a mound of earth that was not a levee, and had no other purpose than just being a hill!

Next there was Jackson, which was only interesting in that it prompted us to sing “Jackson.” We couldn’t really remember all the words (hotter than a pepper sprout… go comb your hair… teach ‘em what they don’t know how?), and neither of us sounds like Johnny Cash, but we gave it a full faith effort.

The unscintillating prospects out the car window prompted me to examine the area map in great detail, resulting in my discovery of a tiny notation north of Jackson: “Mississippi Petrified Forest.” Needless to say, this prompted a swift change in our itinerary, and we soon stepped out of the car into a strange, quiet, humid rural valley. The path (guarded at the beginning and end by truly adorable fuzzy kittens) led through wooded “Badlands,” former agricultural lands that had eroded into untellable steep, rocky, winding gullies and banks, in the process uncovering piles of petrified tree trunks. These beautiful tree fossils lie as they fell 36 million years ago, resting amidst the detritus of the modern forest surrounding them. It was often hard to tell at first glance which were wood or stone. And, yes, we made all of the obligatory “Petra-fied” jokes.

A few hundred miles of lovely farmland later, we arrived in Memphis. After a few choruses of “Graceland” and “Walking in Memphis,” we checked into the Pilgrim House hostel. It’s very cozy and chill (and has a cute fuzzy kitten named Soup), and interestingly is run by a Congregational church. In addition to housing the church and this hostel, this building also has a bike organization, a day care center, a performance/dance space, a shelter of some sort, and probably other things too. They do churches big down here.

We treated ourselves to a dinner of delicious veggie food (vegetables! tofu! and hummus! oh my!), which …oh my goodness I am already hungry for more vegetables. I think we mentioned before that New Orleans doesn’t believe in vegetables. I LOVE VEGETABLES! My enthusiasm is unfeigned and currently knows no bounds. I will spare you my odes to the zucchini, though, and go to bed.

P.S. There were cute kittens next to the restaurant too. Piles of them. A surplus of cuteness today.