With the passage across the Ohio River another great change came over the country. Leaving the North we entered the great Southland of America. The friendliness and courtesy attributed to this section was not a myth. Everyone wanted to talk and when we were forced to stop for directions, even the busiest individual took time to point the way. Our only problem was to keep from smiling as we listened to the broad Southern accents.
Our entrance into Kentucky marked a change in the country, but not in us. Nearly everything we saw or experienced seemed to remind us of something back home.
The first person to pick us up out of Henderson, Kentucky was a woman. She not only talked with a soft charming accent which was an entertainment in itself, but she also fed us bananas until we were ashamed of ourselves. To our objection that we had eaten most of them, she replied, "That's what I bought them for, to eat. "
"Have y'all ever been in Kentucky before?" she wanted to know. Indeed we had. Win started telling her how we had come down here with our parents, to visit Mammoth Cave and the Lincoln country.
On departing, this gracious lady gave us all the fruit remaining in the bag. As bananas were not on our regular bill of fare, because of their price, we could not refuse.
Travel was slow and the roads were poor. A rumor was circulating that a stretch of pavement, fourteen miles long, extended out of Nashville, Tennessee. How we longed to set foot on it. Hopefully, we bumped slowly southward, sleeping at night in a school yard near Crofton, Kentucky. The remaining bananas made our supper, washed down by drinking water from a deep well, obtained by tying our belts and straps together and lowering our little pail.
Another day saw us painfully thumping across the Tennessee border in a shaky old horse-drawn wagon. But Nashville still seemed far away. The atmosphere and the influence of the South, however, was upon us and it seemed peaceful just to drift along. We were now in our 24th state. Numerically we had accounted for just half of the total. But areawise, we had already traveled through three-quarters of the nation.
During the past two days we had been traversing one of the tobacco centers of the country. Little settings of tobacco plants under cheesecloth were in the open sunlit patches of woods. Trucks and wagons heavily loaded with the dried leaves slowly bounced their way to the markets. These tobacco trucks were about the only things we could depend on for travel.
A young tobacco planter, who had just sold his 40,000 pound crop for $14,000, gave us a leaf of tobacco for a souvenir. We lost some and chewed the rest. It took three spoons of malted milk and a package of lifesavers to take this "mild, healthful, and refreshing" flavor from our mouths.
Two rides later we were on pavement. That rumor had been true. A third ride carried vs into the Tennessee capital.
Our arrival at Nashville presented a problem. Our friend Vera, with whom we had gone through high school and with whom we had corresponded back and forth on this trip, was now enrolled at Ward-Belmont, a select finishing school for girls here in Nashville. Letters could be dispensed with. We could see her in person. It would be an antidote for our continuing homesickness.
Maybe! A letter from our mother had mentioned that girls attending Ward-Belmont were not allowed to go out with boys. Immediately Win and I had written Vera. Win used the pen, and I a pencil. My letter explained:
"We aren't dressed to visit a respectable girl in a high class finishing school. Out West we went to churches, etc. and it was alright, but high society in Tennessee I presume is different. We have hobnailed shoes, hiking clothes, our faces are tanned and sunburned till they are as dark red as a brick, and altogether we aren't so that we want to be seen by any of your hostesses, matrons, etc. So here's what we decided.
"If it's possible that we could see you without having to just go up to Ward-Belmont and sit down and talk while some chaperon sat and listened to it all, we want to do it. But if it's necessary to produce references to get an 'interview' or to have our first meeting for nearly a year spoiled by having some critic listin in' on our conversation, then we'd rather not see you at all, but just wait till we got home and could meet you as Vera, and not you as somebody says you ought to be."
Win expressed his thoughts this. way:
"I have looked forward to seeing you for so long now, that I can't bear to think that it must all be done according to rule. Why, we'd have to talk about the weather, the crops, how pretty your dress was and then leave. Isn't there any way we could meet you without a lot of rigamarole. But if rigamarole is required don't for love nor money, get into trouble trying to suspend it.
"Maybe we have got an exaggerated idea of the rules there, but if they are as we suppose they are, ain't it awful to consider how hard it makes it for three friends to meet when they are all a long ways from home and haven't seen each other for over ten months. Write us at once and let us know what you think about all of this."
Vera's reply was filled with disturbing doubts. Ward-Belmont rules were strict. She didn't dare say "yes" and she dreaded to say "no." The letter ended with one large printed word, "Darn!"
For most of a day Win and I explored the sights of Nashville. Then, reluctantly, we boarded a streetcar headed for the edge of town—and our road west. Perhaps it was a Freudian slip, but we took a car which carried us, instead, out to Ward-Belmont. At least we could look around the grounds a bit, then call it a day. As we were about to walk away, a girl in one of the windows screamed and waved excitedly. It was our friend. We returned the salutation, only to have a portly white-bearded old gentleman step up and inform us that we were no doubt violating the laws of Tennessee by flirting with the girls. Moving off down the street in the gathering twilight, we rolled up for the night behind a thick hedge, and next day wrote our friend a letter, apologizing for not storming the school to see her. Win said, in closing, "Our long visit with you last night was surely inspirational, wasn't it? I saw you put your hands on your hips and say 'Darn.' I said something worse."
After leaving Nashville we tried hard to shake off our disappointment and also any lingering inclination to keep thinking about things back home. In general, this strategy was successful.
Our plan was to be in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 25th to visit our aunt and uncle. This would take some doing. Travel was persistently slow. Everything was so beautiful, however, we couldn't help but enjoy the scenery. The roads became narrower and the country wilder. One man in a Packard warned that this densely wooded and hilly country was alive with moonshiners. Officers could not or would not go after them, for the old mountaineers were accurate shots, as an agile prohibition officer, who had survived so far, testified.
A couple of men picked us up. They claimed to be looking for a lost boy and a drink of whiskey. They didn't care a whoop about the former but were really concerned about the latter. Both men viewed our uniforms with some suspicion, but our obvious innocence helped quiet their fears.
When they stopped at an evil looking old roadhouse to inquire about snake medicine, one of a group of tough looking men lounging on the porch looked us over carefully. At last he spoke and suspicion was strong in his voice.
"Boys, there's a lot of revenue officers been missing in these woods lately. You'd better mind your own business, know what I mean?"
"Aw shut up, Bill," spoke up another of the disreputable loungers, "them boys is all right. Look at their noses."
I will admit our noses were a little red, but it was daily doses of outdoor living and sunshine, not moonshine, that was to blame.
A few miles farther on our friends found an overgrown trail which led off into the woods and here we left them. Many a ride was cut short in the next" day or so by the car turning off into these little trails. With our soldier's uniforms, we kept religiously to the main road for it did not suit our plans to be listed among the missing.
A Ford coupe approached us on a deserted stretch. The driver stopped and asked how far we were going.
"Jackson, Tennessee," answered Win.
"How would you like to get there tonight?" he asked. Jackson was one hundred miles down the road. We'd like it fine.
Wild and beautiful scenery, dimly visible in the night, and terrible roads, accompanied us on this ride to Jackson. We crossed the Tennessee River at Waverly, wallowed through mud for miles, bumped up and down rocky ledges which served as roads, and finally pulled into Jackson just about midnight.
Win and I had gone thirsty so many times on our trip that, even here in the South where water was certainly no problem, we had a hard time passing up drinking fountains whenever they showed up. One was in a corner of a small park in the town where our first ride of the next day ended.
"Don't you wish we had run across one of these out on the desert?" Win said to me as he turned the handle and let the stream of water shoot up into his face. I took a turn at it when he had finished.
A little Negro boy sidled up to us. "Could I have a drink, Mister?" he asked.
"Sure. Why not? Help yourself."
Turning around to see that no one else was looking, he adjusted the handle and drank for nearly a minute.
"Thanks," he said, and was gone.
We had seen drinking fountains marked "White" and "Colored" and suddenly realized why the little boy had asked our permission.
At another time, later in our trip, as we were walking along a city street, a Negro girl not far from us had a seizure of some kind and fell to the sidewalk. No one else around her paid any attention. Win and I rushed up, helped her to her feet, and tried to get someone to call an ambulance, or give some aid.
We had never experienced this sort of thing before. In our school back in Howell, Michigan, our sixth grade had elected Fred Allen, a Negro, as our class president. The Negro kids in our other classes, throughout our twelve school years, were mainly like the rest of us. There may have been subtle signs of prejudice among some of the parents, but no noticeable ones. On this trip several Negro drivers had given us rides; up in North Dakota we had made special friends with a young colored man, about twenty-two years old, who was traveling by motorcycle, all the way from Connecticut. He was writing up his experiences for a magazine.
After the drinking fountain episode we brought up the subject with a driver who picked us up.
"We've been wondering," I said, "why you have separate waiting rooms and drinking fountains for Whites and Coloreds. Things like that. It seems strange."
Our driver turned red in the face. "God," he said. "are you blind? Can't you see for yourself?" He stepped on the gas, never said another word, and let us out just as soon as the outskirts of the next town came into sight.
After that, throughout the rest of our sojourn in the South, we had to use care in broaching the subject but we did find it possible to discuss it a number of times. Occasionally the discussions ended in ruffled feelings. At other times, if we didn't say much, it was possible to get insights on the white's attitudes in the South.
"The 'Negras' and the whites get along pretty well down here," a white man told us once. "We're trying to educate them better. That way, they won't make mistakes and will know their place."
One night a Negro youth approached our campfire. Finding we were from Michigan, he told us his home had been in Jackson, Michigan. His conversation was guarded at first but when he discovered we were friendly, he opened up. He told us he had been down here in the South long enough to discover and experience the barriers which existed between the races. Separate schools, separate toilets, separate seats in buses and theaters. In the buses, Negro seats were at the back; in theaters, they were in "nigger heaven" high in the balcony.
Outside of Saguin, Texas, there was another, and quite different, meeting. A young Negro lad on horseback was riding slowly by. And he stopped to talk. Apparently thinking we were broke, he reached in his pocket and said, "Here, I've got a nickel. It will help you a little. "
That nickel meant a lot to him. We thanked him sincerely. Of course we didn't take it but we told him how much we appreciated his generosity. We remembered that incident for the rest of our stay in the South.
A lucky hundred mile ride carried us over mud-filled roads to the metropolis of Tennessee. Old Memphis welcomed us—a city over which the flags of Spain, France, England, the United States and the Confederacy have flown. Beale Street, home of the blues, was one of the principal places we wanted to see. But our Memphis sight-seeing was overshadowed by something even more important, so far as a hiker is concerned.
It became necessary for Win to buy a new pair of shoes. His old ones, in which he had left home, had served him well. He had used them to hunt in, had taken a thousand mile hike around Michigan in them, had worked three months in a silver mine where they had seen grueling service, and had traveled in them during the past ten months-17,409 miles, according to our log, of which well over 2,000 was on foot.
Repair had been found impossible. In Arizona experts had told him it was only a matter of days. Pieces of heavy wire had held them together as far as Kansas City, but the fight to preserve them was a losing one. As Win put it, "My poor shoes are so worn they just can't keep up with me anymore." Then he punned, "I tried hard, but I almost lost my sole in the attempt." Feeling they deserved a pension he tenderly wrapped the dilapidated shoes up and mailed them home, to be preserved as souvenirs. We picked up another pair for $2.00 and headed for Arkansas.
The Mississippi again blocked our way, just as it had once blocked the way of another traveler. De Soto discovered the great river near what is now Memphis. Dying of fever a year later, he was secretly buried in the river.
Here the Mississippi was more than half a mile wide, spanned by a bridge and wooden causeway over four miles long. By now it was an old friend. Stepping out briskly with his new shoes, Win led the way across the mighty river.
- Category: Foot By Foot Through the USA
- Written by Grace McKay
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