Notes from the Lower-River Desk

Having spent some months driving the Mississippi Valley from St. Louis to Gulf—what used to be called “the lower river” by people other than the Army Corps—I am reminded of what there is to be gained by going over the same piece of land again and again.

As kids, my friends and I came to know things about nature and the seasons running around our small town and its wooded lots, strip mines, pastures, and nearby Wildlife Refuge. This was not the same knowledge you build up as an adult, running a rush-hour route, day after day, seeing the same highway, buildings, and billboards. Driving the Valley reminds me of childhood’s new knowledge.

I use two routes to roll down-continent. In weather bad enough that it that takes a satellite to see it all, I use I-55, the main north-south highway. Like all big highways, it is somewhat generic. It is longer than my alternate route but more efficient, so it takes the same amount of time. The high steady whine of engine and tires without interruption is more tiring. The best part is getting to cross the Mississippi River three times in one day—at St. Louis, Memphis, and Baton Rouge. The River has flooded its valley floor, and it is interesting to watch the tugs and barges underway in what looks like a lake, the leafy tops of drowned trees in its shallows.

Depending on the season and whether the sun will be in my eyes, I like to take US 67 instead, down through Missouri and Arkansas to Louisiana, over the Ozark Plateau, along the Black, Current and Fourche Rivers, and past flooded cottonfields. It must be what Route 66 used to be in places—long stretches with an occasional car approaching in the other lane, but often never anyone in my lane for hours. Parts of US 67 are being widened to become extensions of Interstate 57 to Chicago. Traffic has been getting heavier in those sections with every trip. (I am one of the reasons.) Still, there is a wonderful, unhurried sense on most of it, and much to see.

This time of year, Redbuds are blooming an hour north of Little Rock. Wisteria hangs like bunches of purple grapes, and the pine cones are blown wide open at Hampton, Arkansas. Bayou Butts and Booze, in Ruston, Louisiana, is open for business, no waiting. The light is still strong at 7 pm in Winnfield, summer coming on and a good feeling rising. RAF (yes, Royal Air Force) BBQ has a fiberglass hog wearing an Elvis wig out front, next to a crudely hand-lettered sign that reads: Freddy Porcury. Jesus I Am The Way Riverbend RV Is just up the road.

The man who lives in the house in the median strip, near Landfill Road, has begun to sit out in his lawn chair of an evening.

Mr. Ed Mann, who makes the pies for the Fast Track gas station and cafe, has several left at this hour. His majestic meringues are long gone, but there are chocolate, strawberry, and sugar pies left and do not need a cooler to get them home to be shared with others. A hand pie and a piece of fried chicken are for me.

Time takes its regular shape on a drive like this, due to physical inactivity and being stripped of digital entertainment. Even the twin cities of Junction City, Arkansas, and Junction City, Louisiana, have no cell service. I tried to call home as I passed through, but my phone looked at me and said, “Not even gonna try, brother.”

There are so many local preachers and yowlers on FM radio, for hundreds of miles, that when Jack Speer’s national voice comes on NPR, from a station in Monroe, Louisiana, I want to cry. There is still a greater United States of America that is not a multitude of locals.

Alice Cooper, “your professor of rock n roll,” is spinning CDs after dark. He is surprisingly square, plays “Mony Mony” and “I Don’t Care Anymore,” and that is a comfort too.

Down the home stretch, south of Alexandria, impossible greens spring up in the burned Palustris Experimental Forest. Long leaf pines make walls on both sides of the road, interspersed with shorter, deciduous trees. From Route 165 they have the look of young maple about them. The Indian casino lies ahead, and suddenly there’s the Gulf—not in sight of course, but on the air. Despite all we have done to it, it smells fresh and clean, like a return to something new.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.