We like to wander the back roads, taking a break now and then to walk for a few moments in interesting places. A couple of hours from Crossville found us in McMinnville, Tennessee, where we hoped to learn about a 1900s-era photography studio and school. "Dad" Lively was the founder and director of the Southern School of Photography, He was perhaps best known for his giant camera, which took life-sized photos, of which only three Cotton bolls to harvest remain. One is at the Eastman Kodak Museum, one at the Smithsonian Museum and one is in McMinnville, where the town hopes to open a museum to honor this famous son. Alas, the town has fallen victim to the new highway bypass. Many of the stores were empty, and the museum has not yet been opened, although hopes are still high. The big construction machines had torn up most of downtown, perhaps planning to put in pedestrian malls. From the looks of all the closed stores, they might do better just to make the entire downtown a park. One thing we've noticed, though: in every town there are a few banks, and in every county seat a few law offices. And at least one restaurant where the lawyers, bankers, judges, and their clients eat lunch.
As we moved farther west, we left the Appalachian foothills, and found more farm country. Near Florence, Alabama we saw cotton ready for harvest, and the towns had cotton gins and cottonseed oil mills. When cotton is harvested, it is compressed into a large rectangular stack, about the size of a big truck, and left in the field with a colored plastic cover over the top and the name or initials of the owner spray-painted on the side of the white fibre. We were familiar with these large white stacks, having seen them around Bakersfield, California, but we wish some day to see how they pick up the stacks to bring them to the gins.
More than just a cotton-growing region, the Quad Cities -- Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia and Sheffield -- are a major shipping port, with the well-dammed-and-locked Tennessee River providing a waterway to the Gulf. And of course the lakes so formed attract fishermen and hunters. The Quad Cities present anything but a uniform appearance, with plenty of wealth and modern development in Florence and Muscle Shoals, but virtually Melba's in Norman, AR no development at all in all-black Sheffield. Tuscumbia is a buffer between the two extremes. Our motel was in Florence, near a large, thriving mall. We had excellent catfish one luncheon, Memphis-style barbecue another, and topped it off with ice cream from Bruster's, which we recommend to you future Florence tourists.
From Florence we drove west across Mississippi, entering Oxford just at the end of a most exuberant Homecoming weekend. Oxford itself seems barely large enough to cope with the numbers of students and faculty. Further east, the cotton fields were bigger and flatter and the yields seemed greater, as the stacks of cotton dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see.
We had to leave the main highway to make our way to the bridge across the Mississippi, and suddenly found ourselves in tiny rural towns that can only be described as economic disasters. The wooden houses were barely standing, the crossroads stores were boarded up, people sat listlessly on their porches. We have read that the worst poverty in the United States was in rural Mississippi, and here in the Delta cottonlands we saw it for ourselves.
In the middle of these Delta cotton fields and abject rural poverty, on the banks of the Mississippi, arose a taj mahal of glitter and glitz, Norman P. L. the Isle of Capri Casino. It consisted of multiple buildings, casinos, restaurants and buffets, and drew upon customers from Memphis and Little Rock. We wish some of the casino profits could be skimmed off somehow to relieve the poverty of the cotton workers. But of course poverty has its own psychological barriers to escape.
On the Arkansas side of the river there was rice and duck hunting, both heavily featured in the town of Stuttgart, Arkansas, just down the road from Ulm. But German culture was not particularly in evidence (drinking beer is a universal pastime) and the accents sounded just like rural Arkansas.
We stayed in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, which has not improved any since our last trip through. The plate glass window in the Band Museum has been knocked out -- a fundraiser is planned -- and the general business climate looked weak. Why were there five tire outlets in a row on one street? We are reminded repeatedly of the relationship of education, high-tech, and prosperity. When the carpet in our motel room became soaking wet after a long rainy day we cut our visit short and got on the road again.
We crossed Arkansas on Highway 8, not heavily travelled. Mena, where we spent the next night, advertises itself as the home of Lum 'n' Abner, although the store and museum is 16 miles east in Pine Ridge. For you younger folks, Lum 'n' Abner was a radio program of hillbilly tales and legends, more or less contemporary with Pepper Young's Family and Stella Dallas, but perhaps closer in tone to Fred Waring's story-teller, Uncle Ancient Viking writing? Lumpy, or to Fibber McGee and Molly.
Tiny Norman, Arkansas rewarded us with a nourishing lunch at Melba's, and a one-room (but still functioning) town library.
Rain had been following us for days, and so we saw virtually none of the splendors of the Talimena Scenic Byway, which is a real shame. This is a purpose-built scenic road, cresting a ridge of hills west of Mena, and the views would have been dazzling if not obscured by fog and clouds.
Our big treat this morning was the Heavener Runestone State Park. In 1874 record was made of a large monolith bearing mysterious symbols. Native Americans at the time said the stone had been known to them in 1830. The runes are similar to those used by Vikings around 700 A.D., and have been translated by a modern Ph.D. to signify a land claim. A local woman has made the study of the runestone her life's work. Since a navigable portion of the Ouachita River stops 3 miles from the location of the runestone, she figures the Vikings came by boat. Meanwhile additional runestones have been discovered, mostly in Oklahoma. In the 1970s Oklahaoma made it into a state park. The park ranger appeared to have no scientific training. We asked two questions: Were there any other states that had runestones? (Yes, one in Minnesota), and Why couldn't the markings have been made by a nineteenth century European traveler? (No reason, except somebody has claimed to have used ultraviolet light to date the runes back to the eighth century.)
In 2000 we read a fine book about graffiti down through the ages, not a little of which has been designed as practical jokes. Consequently we tend to favor the hoax approach, but citizens of nearby Heavener seem happy to entertain tourists with Viking tales. Hmm...mm!