Our man finds himself in the deep, deep South
BY JOHN SWART
I worked there for a year, and all I can say about Mississippi is one word—dogs. They’re big and mean, they don’t chain ’em up, and nobody has just one.”
That was my riding friend Niall, when I told him I was headed to Mississippi for a 10-day bike ride.
“On election day? Are you out of your mind?”
That was Bill, good friend of my brother-in-law Marten, when he heard that Mart was joining the Mississippi ride. Bill’s a staunch Republican, retired large business owner in California, thinks Trump is a national disgrace, and hasn’t slept well the last couple of years.
“That was Bill again,” said Mart, frowning, as he viewed Bill’s most recent text.
“I told him we’d be in Greenville, Mississippi election night. He’s seriously concerned.”
This ride seemed like a good idea two months ago, even a bit daring, as it would take us into the backwaters of Mississippi during the American mid-term election. Drive to Nashville, then ride the Natchez Trace 800 kilometres south through Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, to the Mississippi River at Natchez. Just to make the tour worthwhile, we’d ride 500 kilometres back north along the river through the Delta, before returning to Nashville.
We’d escape Niagara during a dull, grey November, ride through the mountains of Tennessee and the hills of Alabama and northern Mississippi, headed for the warm flatlands of the Delta.
Would the three days riding along the Mississippi River confirm liberal media-inspired opinions of the state, exposing a mix of history and poverty simmering like fried fast-food? Or would we meet generous everyday Americans of all colours, who talk with an accent that’s really hard to understand?
Turned out the whole trip just pissed me off, witnessing how special interests have sucked life and opportunity from so many American people for profit, and how those people don’t stand a chance.
Never before have I ridden along such beautiful roads, among trees blazing with spectacular fall colours, past streams trickling over rocks and tiny waterfalls, and gotten angrier with each pedal stroke.
Canada, and Canadians, are far from perfect. We’ve got our Leamingtons and Oshawas suffering from plant closures, our Aboriginal record is shameful, women and LGBT folks still struggle for true equality, and higher education can be a financial burden for many. But we’re working on these things, trying to advance ourselves, and we have safety nets. Compared to this, the blatant lack of fairness and compassion for its citizens that the current American political mess embodies is astonishing.
Our ride, as is this piece, was full of stereotypes and clichés. We were cycling rock stars—partly because we were dressed in neon and spandex, self-supported on flashy bicycles with very little luggage, in a land of pickup trucks and jeans; partly because for most folks we met, we might as well have been Martians as Canadians; but most likely because we were tourists and had money to spend.
Everyone we met was courteous, interested in our journey, and helpful with tips and stories. Drivers generally shared the road, and, contrary to Niall’s warning, all but a few of the hundreds of insanely barking dogs we encountered were chained.
Yet each encounter was fatiguing, and left me wanting to ask: Don’t you see where you’re headed?
I felt like I was watching a well-to-do best friend getting hooked on opioids or cocaine. I would be concerned and try to help, but ultimately would be powerless to intervene.
Growing up in Niagara Falls, going to “the States” was always second nature. You could drink there at 18 when it was 21 in Ontario, Club Lakewood in Youngstown was better than the Cove in Long Beach, and they gave trophies back to eighth place at the motorcycle races.
As our family grew, and Toronto traffic increased, all our vacations were taken in United States, and we skied Holiday Valley or KB rather than Collingwood. There was no more staunch defender of the Americans than I. Not of their government, businesses or military aggression, but of the average folks that we interacted with on a very regular basis.
The Natchez Trace is a historic two-lane road within a linear National Park 200 metres wide and 700 kilometres long. It has no commercial signs, no commercial traffic, and no commercial or residential buildings of any kind. The speed limit is just 50 miles per hour, and bicycles can legally take the whole lane to dawdle along. It is primarily forested on both sides, and one rides in a bubble that totally shields its users from the reality beyond.
We rode off the Trace to nearby Bywy, a community of a dozen dwellings and a one-stop emporium of gas station-snack bar-meat shop-grocery-appliance repair shop. There was no real food to be had, other than a few varieties of cold meat and white bread for sandwiches. Tired pickup trucks creaked in for ten dollars of gas, their worn out drivers walking slowly into the store to buy a few bags of chips and soda or beer.
You’ve seen the movie a dozen times, and I’ve stopped in these sad places on my bicycle travels more often than I can remember. But that was before I read Dark Money by Jane Mayer, the chronicle of how right-wing billionaires and superpacs have influenced American politicians, universities and the media. Or The Hillbilly Elegy, The Smear, Educated, and the Merchants of Debt, and understood how life for so many people in the U.S., especially in the South, isn’t a movie, and how much the odds are stacked against them.
Each stop or town played to a different page of the American Dream. Caution is needed here, because a short conversation with a stranger can hardly provide a definitive look into their situation or their thoughts. Yet, our experiences continually pointed to a heavily listing ship, and the frightening possibility it may be near capsizing.
In Belmont, a rural cotton-farming town of 2,025 people, Natalie greeted us with traditional southern charm and smiles as she welcomed us into her colonial hotel, which she claimed was the oldest in Mississippi. Newspaper articles framed on the wall explained that she was so happy to have re-purchased the hotel three years ago, making her the third generation of her family to own it.
Seeing only one other room occupied, and noticing during a walk around Belmont that just two of the seventeen storefronts were occupied, it was hard to share her enthusiasm
At Shipley Donuts and Hot Tamales just off the Trace near Jackson, over a bacon and brown sugar crumble donut, the owner told us to be careful when we got to Greenville because it wasn’t safe. Lots of drug violence and petty crime, and we’d be robbed for sure if we went out at night. “Those Delta folk, all they want to do is fight over nothing,” was her summation.
In Greenville, they told us that our next stop, Clarksdale, wasn’t safe. We were approached by a 40-something fellow at a gas station and fried food establishment outside town. He used to be a triathlete, and we chatted about biking back in the day. He said he was a pilot, crop duster, and things were good. He could afford to send his son to college out of state. When he heard we were headed to Clarksdale, he looked over both shoulders then told us, “It’s black-on-black over drugs, but they’ll take your money too.”
In historic Vicksburg, we stayed in an older hotel by the waterfront that the local casino had bought and restored. The receptionist implored us, four adult males, not to walk the eight blocks to Doe’s, a famous steak house, and called an Uber for us instead. Doe’s was a side-street dive that someone must have paid off the health inspector to allow to stay open, and an armed security guard was stationed at the door. Entry was through the kitchen, and your choice of steak was a 10-ounce fillet for $39 US, a two-pound ribeye for $42, or a two-pound t-bone for $54. Fries included. Spaghetti was $25, in case, I’m assuming, you had heart failure when you heard the meat prices. That was the menu, unwritten, and the place was busy. All the diners were white. (The meal, it turned out, was superb.)
We passed scores of tiny towns or settlements of 10 or 20 squalid trailers and homes tucked behind the Mississippi levees, always with at least one wooden church of various names and denominations, but seldom with a school. A gas station or store specializing in inedible processed food was the centrepiece, and the towns generally appeared to be segregated. Folks waved at us, engaged us if we stopped, and appeared genuinely friendly—but my outrage grew.
How could a country with so much have devolved into such a clear divide between the haves and have nots? How do they expect to face the technology challenges of South Korea, Japan, and China while driving their educational system backward in so many states? How can they not have universal health care, and be fighting over the benefits of Planned Parenthood? Who is talking about this, and who is poised to lead the revolution?
As we watched the election results, and saw women, aboriginals, minorities, and young candidates win congressional seats, we thought, just maybe, things may be different come 2019. Were more Americans realizing that their fellow citizens around the world need them? Do they know that we can differentiate between their administration and their citizens, and haven’t given up on them?
Post election, we rode past hundreds of campaign signs and billboards supporting Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith in her senate campaign against Democrat Mike Espy, still displayed because they faced a run-off election on November 27. Hyde-Smith’s the one who joked about suppressing the vote of students from liberal state universities, and said she would accept an invitation to a “public hanging,” a euphemism for a lynching. Espy was running to become the first black senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction.
I watched this runoff election intently from home last week, fingers crossed, feeling a personal connection to the political plight of Mississippi and the United States. Hyde-Smith was victorious. I sense that while Americans continue to assert what a wonderful country they have, actions are speaking louder than words, and their proclamations increasingly risk ringing hollow.
Amazing where a little bike ride can take you. ♦
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