Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Barranquilla IV: The Turk's Granddaughter

There was a disposable camera I brought back from college that sat on my desk at my mother’s house for years. I’d look at it each Thanksgiving and Christmas and think about getting it developed, then didn’t, reasoning it was several pictures short of a full reel. When I finally got around to taking the seven-year-old film to the pharmacy, the negatives had long turned the color of tomato soup. In the muck of reds and browns and rust I could see the outlines of faces, but they were indistinguishable to the point I couldn’t tell which face was my own. On my last evening in this apartment on avenue 43B, I woke up reminded of those negatives. Afternoon sleep for me has always been tinged with death and sweet lost time.

Since my Protestant upbringing has left me ill suited to siesta, I had tried to fight off the drowsiness, but my work ethic proved no match for Mama’s fish stew. Few sedatives were more powerful than the pungent broth special to this city of baking concrete where the only air conditioners are found in the bedroom. I had planned to cool off just a little, while waiting for the three o’clock sun to soften. Instead, I leaned back onto the uneven mattress, just to rest my eyes.

I woke up groggy, the even stripes of yellow streetlight on the wall had appeared sometime beyond the blink of twilight at this latitude. I reached for the remote to turn off the ac so that sun-baked walls would flush the cool air from the room and me from the bed.

The sound of heated argument that came from next door, as it did almost every afternoon and evening and on every weekend morning, was no longer the unsettling reminder that I was far away from home. The shouts had become familiar, and now that I knew their source, Rosita shouting into the phone line so that her 86-year-old mama would not miss a thing, I would probably come to miss them.

The old woman was leaning forward in her plastic chair, her ear cupped towards her daughter’s conversation. Rosita smiled and waved me to the couch, and she shouted through the line that their gringo was about to depart.

“Wee-liam! You are leaving! Us!” she shouted after she put down the phone.

“Returning! To the United States!” she said. Though she spoke at maximum volume for her mother’s sake, she now screamed each word with an exaggerated emphasis that surely even an American could understand.

“Mama! Will miss you! You are like! A son! To Mama!”

“Mama will also miss her primary source of income,” I thought.

The flat next door was in her name, and her daughter couldn’t possibly have wheedled as much money from a Colombian boarder. Perhaps they should have thought of that before they decided to turn me out for Carnival. They could easily fetch a month’s rent over the next five nights, and then I wish them good luck while waiting for another wayward gringo to fall out of the sky.

Still, I was going to miss this apartment house with Elena and her daughters competing to keep me stuffed with tabouleh, babaganoush and the other dishes passed down from their Lebanese great-grandfather they referred to as the Turk. Elena kept the most watchful eye over my plate, and she hovered in the space between the counter and the stove, serving spoon in hand to fill any spaces that might open on my plate.

“Mama doesn’t think you are coming back,” Rosita shouted, word by word, when I sat down on the couch. Elena pursed her lips into a pout and shook her head. I assured her it wasn’t true

Elena knew that I wasn’t coming back, despite everything I had said and done to the contrary. It was easier to say I’d return than it was to say goodbye. I had almost convinced myself it was true, why else had I gone through the charade of sending resumes to all the colleges for teachings post next year, hedging my bets? I hadn’t read an American paper in three months, but if it was true that gringolandia was settling into the next Great Depression, maybe I could do worse than spending a few more years in Colombia.

“If you stay for Carnaval, maybe you’ll meet a Colombian girl! Not a cachona!” Rosita yelled, sticking two fingers behind her head to emphasize cachona, a devil woman Rosita was convinced populated all the regions of Colombia outside of Barranquilla, though she suspected more than a few cachonas outside the radius of our block.

“Lots of Cachonas” Elena repeated, chuckling into her lap.

Elena mumbled though the beginning of a story. I struggled to make out her raspy words, but it was a story I had heard before. When she was a young woman, barely 20 years old, her family forbade her to go out the Saturday before Carnival. That has always been the night locals celebrated before the tourists arrived. At time Elena was engaged and her father did not think it appropriate for her to be out on the night when Barranquilla went wild.

“Phew,” Elena whistled through her dentures, in rebuttal to the past.

The hell she was staying home. Her brothers were going out, her parents were going out, even her grandparents had bought seats for that night’s parade. Who had ever heard of staying home on Guacherna on the account of marriage?

A friend of Elena’s was hosting a party for her comparsa, a group that is the equivalent of a New Orleans crewe. This comparsa dressed as Marimondas, one of the most traditional of the Barranquilla Carnival disguises. Marimonda wore a clownish suit and a mask with elephant ears, a long, brightly colored tubular nose and matching tubing that made exaggerated eyes and lips, combining for a-not-so subtle symbol of the cock and balls.

Elena noticed her fiancé almost immediately by his height and the wobble of a bad leg. She was busted. But he did not notice her, and since she was not supposed to be at the party, she did not let on to him.

“When he died, and I still hadn’t told him I was at that party,” Elena chuckled into her lap. "that was 43 years ago."

The minibus for Monteria left early, so I wished Elena and Rosita well, and in another token gesture that I would see them again, I entrusted them with a few books I had brought and a few more I had accumulated during my stay that I had no intentions of hauling through the jungle. I threw the rest of my things in a backpack before going out on a night walk.

No one walks in Barranquilla, at least not in this relatively well-off quadrant of the city. During the day the tropical sun stirs a noxious cocktail of car horns and diesel fumes on roads where traffic signals are suggestions and pedestrians a nuisance. At night there are no cars, no pedestrians, and it is possible to walk on the roads alongside two foot high curbs that allow the streets to double as a drainage system in the rainy months.

The breeze that blew in off the Caribbean during winter months was a gale tonight, and my blood had thinned to the point I almost agreed with the locals that 70 degrees qualified as cold. I walked across a concrete park, and weaved along a grid of riverbed streets in the direction of a supermarket Cineplex.
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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Barranquilla III: Donaldo

“Donaldo, leak the duke.”

Like the duck, he said.

That’s how Donaldo introduced himself the first time he sat down at my table at the vegetarian place in Barranquilla. In a culture whose social currency is it’s grilled meat, the vegetarian restaurant is like a social club for adults with Asperger’s. Colombia was not as bad as Argentina, where downtrodden vegetarians didn’t dare make eye contact with one another as they shuffled through the buffet lines of second floor haunts invisible from street level.

If the patrons here didn’t bear the shame of their Argentine compatriots, they shared in an element of ritual about this restaurant and health food store where printed placemats announced two calendar months worth of daily menus without a repeating meal. Everything else about the place was OCD delight.

The same regulars made up the daily lunch crowd, and they would trickle in to what might as well have been assigned seats, designated by profession. Nurses occupied the two tables nearest the door, the next two tables in the shotgun floor plan were filled in by the secretaries. At the other end of the narrow dining hall, businessmen with suspiciously round bellies conspired underneath the overmatched air conditioner on the back wall of the dining room. Various artisans and professional types I couldn’t quite pigeonhole filled in the remaining tables.

As the only representative for the freelance gringos I took a less desirable table next to the kitchen door. By second week Donaldo, an emissary from the professors table, began joining me for coffee and by the second month I became a part of his lunch crew.

A few days before Carnival, Donaldo unfolded a map of Panama and Northwest Colombia across the table. As he leaned back in his chair a wide smile revealed the gaps between jagged teeth. The way the corners of his lips stretched to his back molars and his small black eyes squinting under thick lenses balanced atop a long and pointed nose he reminded me less of a duck and more of cartoon crocodile.

"El Tapon," Donaldo said, tapping in the space between a broken red line that represented the Panamerican Highway.

"Juan D, ease possible."

I nodded my head to buy the time I needed to figure out what he had said while hoping Julio or Maria might offer a clarifying comment, but our lunchtime companions just sat there staring into the map.

It would have been easier if Donaldo had spoken in Spanish, but he was proud of his language skills. Rightfully so in a city where neither of the two English professors I had met, including Maria at my right, were reluctant to speak more than a few words. Donaldo did not lack confidence, though his inclination for outrageous pronouncements made his arbitrary grammar and thick accent difficult to decipher.

“One day? You are saying I can cross the Darien Gap in one day?”

“Si,” Donaldo’s smile broadened.

As he nodded, wisps of mad professor hair flew in all directions.

“How is that possible?” I asked, “That’s at least 100 kilometers by land.”

I measured a 100 kilometers with my forefinger and thumb on the map’s scale and transferred the pinched off space to connect the only missing link in a network of roads that stretched from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

“No, leak these,” like this, the old man bit off his smile as he concentrated on the map.

Donaldo then ran a finger past my thumb up the wedge of Northwest Colombia that tapers between the border and the Caribbean coast until the two lines met at point marked Cabo Tiburon, Shark Cape. The top of this little sliver of Colombia was north of the of the Pan American Highway’s terminus at Yaviza, Panama. He pressed his thumb down on a distance half the width of the north-south break between the red line of roadway.

El Tapon means the plug, the 100 km wide swath of jungle clad mountains and treacherous swampland between Colombia and Panama otherwise known as the Darien Gap. The Darien is not only home to some of Earth's least inviting terrain, it is teeming with tropical diseases and all sorts of venomous life forms that creep and crawl and slither.

The noxious plant and animal species are only outdone by the particularly terrifying strains of homo sapien found in the Darien, nominally left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries who have eschewed political ideology for cocaine profits. The variously affilated drug traffickers and arms smugglers contest the few semblances of trails that meander through the Darien Gap.

I expected Maria to interject, or to give me some signal that this man in the gray smock seated across from me was putting me on, that gringos should not think of blazing trails through the jungle. She stared into the blue space that indicated the Caribbean on the map, her far off eyes seemed lost in a daydream. Julio was with us, but the shop teacher wasn’t as worldly wise as Donaldo. He waited for his friend to continue the lesson.

I’m not sure I could have found another three Colombians more consenting of an American making a land crossing of the Darien Gap. While I sat there and watched Donald connect the blue coast to the red line of the Pan American with a single joint of his gnarled thumb, it looked possible.

Donaldo had given me the idea for a trip back up the spine of Central America while looking though a folder of ESL materials I had brought to teach conversation classes to some university students Maria had referred me. He took interest in a wrinkled brochure I had picked up years ago in the Nashville airport. The brochure had become a stock lesson plan, students used it to make an advertisement highlighting the places of interest in their own hometown.

“Nashville, Music Seedy, U. S.A,” Donaldo said, smiling at the words on the cover.

He flipped open the brochure and read from the list of tourist attractions with a voice of mock wonder.

“The home of William Walker”

The grey-eyed man of destiny was definitely not included in the list of Music City attractions. How Donaldo had linked Walker to his place of birth by looking at that dog-eared brochure, I will never know.

“William Walker?” I said, “How do you know about William Walker?”

“El Filibustero, from Nashville Nosh Veal!”

Donaldo knew a great deal about William Walker. He had spent some time living in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where the name William Walker, was still an incantation used by grandmothers to scare the children at night. Be careful, or William Walker is going to get you!

The crazy professor knew when he had a captive audience. He gave me his widest crocodile grin and told me a story I had yet to hear about my doctor-turned-lawyer-turned-journalist-turned-soldier of fortune ancestor.

“Walker had plans to invade Martinque, he was going to use it as a beachhead to invade Central America. He was going to use the blacks on the island as plantation slaves in Nicaragua. The President of United States had given him permission,” Donaldo said.

His anecdote made about as much sense as William Walker’s motives in his filibustering years, so though I had never encountered this particular rumor, I scribbled it down in my notebook. This just egged him on, and on. He rambled through stories of his time in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras.

The more he spoke the less I understood, until his swallowed Costeño accent washed into the whine of the hopelessly overmatched air conditioner losing ground to the afternoon heat. But I knew I had to go back to Nicaragua to find the other wild haired professors who dug for arcana and yellowing half-truths to spin legends about the little man from my hometown and family tree who came to terrorize a region and personify two centuries of American imperialism.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Natchez Trace XII: Training Days

On the map day six did not look challenging. Rather than try and make it 77 miles to Florence, Alabama in a day, I booked a cabin at Tishomingo State Park, just 45 miles from Tupelo. I needed every last pedal stroke of my training to not break down on the ride.

Seven weeks earlier, I wrote my friend Adam before leaving Colombia, “Can a guy without much cycling experience train for a 450 mile ride in a month?”

Adam is one of those guys with the fancy jerseys. He is on a racing team and regularly rides a 100 miles in a day, a century, the insiders call it.

“Absolutely,” he replied.

I should have remembered sports enthusiasts are the most incorrigible optimists when it comes to the realm of the possible.

To his credit, he kept the instructions simple. Train as much and as hard as possible before the ride. Don’t train in too high of a gear; better to keep the legs moving at about 90 rpm. He recommended that if I couldn’t train on a real bike the next best thing was spinning. Spin bikes more closely imitate the pedal action on a road bike than regular exercise models. Just as importantly, they have real bicycle saddles. Sure enough, after my first workout a sore butt became the weak link in my training.

If I didn’t find every spin bike between Barranquilla and the Rio Grande, I came close.

I figured I could sneak in 25 training rides to get into shape for the Trace. This regime would shaped the course I took to get back home. I had a few more days in Barranquilla, and Rosita told me there was a gym just around the corner from our apartment building. I thought I had understood her wrong. I had lived in this place for 3 months without noticing a gym not even 50 yards away.

There it was, opposite the concrete park, a dusty little storefront with aluminum grilling over the windows. I had never noticed the Atlas figure on the rectangular sign above the door, or the spin bikes looking out the front windows. It was just a single room with some free weights in the back, and a few worn exercise machines sprinkled around the place. The ten spin bikes were well worn, the resistance knobs were rusting from the years of sweat and humidity in a room without air conditioning. The gym was run by a short body builder with the strut of a silverback gorilla. He’d occasionally stop near the wall opposite his counter for no apparent reason but to steal a glance in the mirror at his biceps.

I bought a weeklong membership to the Atlas. This was my first gym membership, a good place as any to make some novice mistakes.

The first five minutes of my first ride were interminable. I checked the minute hand on the plastic clock above the counter about once every thirty seconds, regulating my rpm, I convinced myself. There were no fans to stir the oppressive tropical air. I thought if I took off my shirt maybe it would be slightly more tolerable in the 90-degree room. There were no women around, just a couple muscle junkies on the bench press.

As soon as I had peeled off my dripping shirt, the silverback bounded over from his habitat near the free weights, one set of knuckles almost scraping the concrete floor, while his other arm wagged a stubby a finger. Next to the bike, he started pantomiming, even though I had negotiated the membership fee in a more than passable Spanish.

I knew what he was telling me, though if I hadn’t, the sign language would have just confused the issue, his bulky arms were not meant for painting pictures.

I gave him a blank stare in hopes he might continue the show. If this were charades I might have guessed he was a studio ape ripping off a tuxedo near the end of a trying day on set. The gesture became more convincing with repetition, two hands grabbing in front of his washboard abs and violently lifting up and out over his head. Then he wagged a finger close in front of my nose.

I’d learn it was a universal gym protocol I had violated—do not remove your shirt. Still, I imagine most gyms are built less like pizza ovens. At least my soaked shirt felt cool against my skin. I’d make some more faux pas on my gym hopping up the isthmus, but I’m glad I learned the basics in Barranquilla

In Monteria, I spun with the wives and girlfriends of some of the most terrifying figures in Colombian paramilitary. This ranching capital is the last seat of power for the AUC, its higher ups protected by President Uribe himself, as he is the owner of a sprawling hacienda north of town. One can guess how important a person is based on the strength of their bodyguard. Collectively, my workout partners were important enough to merit one half dozen AK 47 toting guards at the front door and another half dozen out back. If I had been in some nowhere town other than Monteria, I couldn’t have felt as confident these weren’t just drug henchman. Paramilitaries, mafiosos, and left wing insurgents are all involved in the drug trade, and they largely agree on their assault rifles of choice, the durable and cost effective Kalashnikov. Colombians have told me the only reliable way to know the difference between Paras and the FARC is by their jungle boots. The right-wingers wear leather, and the lefties sport cheaper plastic footwear. Cartels stick to the concrete. Government troops, who could also be anywhere, are easier to distinguish, just look for their Israeli designed Galil rifles.

This wasn’t the kind of gym where one needed a lock for the lockers. It was just me, another silverback trainer--this one probably a eunuch--and a dozen kept women, spandex clinging to their surgically enhanced bodies.

If there was a spin bike in the Darien, I missed it.

Panama City was like an extension of Miami, the athletic clubs notwithstanding. I am surprised they let me enter with my grungy black shoes and bathing suit. It’s amazing what a gringo can get away with sometimes.

In San Salvador I found a gym near the University that would only let me ride if I joined a spin class. They rode like they were always in the mountains. The only reward at the summit was asphyxiation, gulping down San Salvador smog was like jumping into a trench fogged with mustard gas. The air was darkened by eternally gridlocked second-hand American school buses puking black clouds of diesel smoke. The city somehow smelled worse than the diesel fumes; it stank of burning garbage. When I hit the streets after a workout my eyes watered and my lungs burned and I wondered what the hell was the point in exercising in a city where breathing might prove unhealthier than smoking. At least cigarettes come with filters.

Guatemala City might have had a gym, but I’d prefer a week in San Salvador to a night in that cesspit of urban agglomeration gone terribly wrong. The villages around Lago Atitlan were gym free. One of the expat hippies I met there suggested an astral projection class, where, for 40 bucks, I could visualize the challenges of my coming bike ride on a higher plane of consciousness. I opted for a massage instead.

The gym owner in crumbling downtown Veracruz took one look at my black shoes and told me to come back when I found something decent to wear. This exchange came after I had paid the cashier. Oh, and No Refunds.

I found a gym on the back streets of old town Monterrey, where a leathery man outside in a rocking chair let me in for a dollar. The dusty hall had a few weight machines and four rusted bikes directly across from a boxing ring. The instructor was teaching a lesson in counter punching to a teenager. Each time the teenager jabbed the instructor deflected the blow with a target glove and smacked the boy in the face with his other glove hen shouted “again!” After a while he looked frustrated with his pupil and started yelling in my direction, beckoning me to step into the ring. Glass Jaw Wilson knows his limitations. I declined, and rode for an hour one and twenty minutes while the lead-footed kid took a beating. I got off that bike in as good of shape as I’d been in my entire life.

I managed 17 workouts before New Orleans, where I tried my new bike out on the levee. I chose a hybrid, the narrow tires on road bikes made nervous, and though the upright position on my Giant Cypress meant less efficiency, it also meant less leaning over day after day for 450 miles. I figured my back would appreciate it.

The day before I got on the Marty Baskerville I learned that road miles really were different than time logged on a spin bike. After 12 miles, I felt my thighs tightening, so I prescribed myself a beer. I spent the rest of the afternoon alternating riding and drinking. Twenty-five miles and five beers later, I felt pretty good. I was ready for a week on the Trace.

Turned out the 45 miles to Tishomingo would be the most challenging ride of the trip. The undulating hills got steeper, the ascents longer than anything before Tupelo.
Three miles from the park, within sight of the highest point in Mississippi, a hundred yards from the top of the last hill before the park, I surrendered. I got off my bike and walked it to the top.
My legs weren’t broken, so the defeat was mental. Next time I’ll take the hippie class.

My Wal Mart bought dinner was delicious, a bachelor’s recipee I call the Calorie Bowl, baked beans topped with sliced almonds. I ate the last of the French Camp loaf, and ignored my only dinner companion, a deer mounted on the wall across from the bed. I slept for 10 hours untroubled by my insomniac roommate’s disapproving glare. At dawn I was ready for my last morning in Mississippi, my only day in Alabama, and a delicate spring afternoon in southern Tennessee.
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Friday, November 6, 2009

Natchez Trace XI: A Death on the Trace

“Still,” officer James Myers shook his head. “This is the only road for bicycling in Mississippi.”

Even with the grisly wreckage strewn out on the black top behind him, his words rang true. The Natchez Trace was the only road even remotely safe for long distance cycling in the state of Mississippi. Mississippians do not abide sharing right of way with slow moving geeks under foam helmets.

Since mile marker one five days ago, I had totaled less than two miles off the Trace, and twice in that time I was run off the road. That averages to just over one terrifying incident per mile outside the Parkway’s federal protection.

At least both drivers had the decency to honk before running me down. In Port Gibson, a man in a white minivan was enraged at the prospect of waiting 15 seconds before he could safely pass me due to oncoming traffic on Church Street. Then he realized he didn’t have to wait. He laid knuckles into his horn and accelerated. I had been looking over my shoulder and had just enough time to swerve into a ditch.

My near miss in Mathiston was less provoked. I started day five with a quarter mile ride from the motel back to the Trace on a four lane divided highway. I was riding near the shoulder in the right lane when another white minivan approached from behind. Rather than changing to the open passing lane, he slowed down which led me to think he was about to turn. Then he started honking. I held my ground a couple inches from the white line, clear of the glass and twisted metal detritus on the paved shoulder. I waved my arm, motioning him to pass me in the open left lane—we were the only two people on the road. Instead, he dug into his horn and gunned for my back tire. As I swerved into the shoulder my pannier bag dodged his front bumper by a few inches. He gave me the finger out over the roof of his car. Happy Earth Day, mother fucker.

I had a better Earth Day than the cyclist whose mangled bike lay beyond Officer Myers’ car.

I first heard something had gone wrong after lunch when I pulled back onto the Trace and was flagged by a southbound pick up truck.

“Were you riding with a girl back there?” the man asked.

“No, why, is she alright?”

“I don’t think so,” he said as he rolled away.

A few minutes later one, then another police cruisers roared past, their blue and red lights traced the road’s gentle curves at 100 miles an hour. Then an ambulance sped past from the other direction. Without flashing lights or horn, the bulky vehicle marked the silent retreat of a crestfallen warrior.

A few minutes past mile marker 240 I rolled up on a Chickasaw County police car parked horizontally across the road. An officer was directing cars to turn around and take a detour back and around the Trace. I asked her how long I would have to wait for the road to open. She did not have an answer.

It was not clear from the scene behind her what had happened. Carnage from the wreck was strewn 300 feet and seemed improbable to have been caused by a single collision. A white road bike with crumpled tires and busted pannier bags rested on the double yellow just beyond the police car. The guilty SUV sulked midway down the grassy shoulder.

I figured if I waited long enough one of the officers pacing back and forth through the scene would escort me through. After a half hour I asked the traffic officer what was going on, and she deferred my question to an approaching pacer. Meyers had been the first officer to arrive but had since been relegated by his superiors.

"Were you traveling with a woman named Esther?" he asked.

I said I was not.

He told me he couldn’t answer any questions about the collision. He then went on to tell me everything but the suspect’s name and age. The road was blocked because it was a crime scene; they were waiting for a coroner to arrive from Tupelo. The cyclist, a “heavier woman” from the Netherlands, was most likely killed upon impact.

"This is the first fatality in about about three years," Meyers said.

He said most collisions happen at twilight, when it got hard to see bikers on the road. He noted that my bright blue jersey had stuck out nicely as he streaked past.

It was past 4:30. I had a little over twenty-five miles to go, and if I was going to make it to Tupelo before sundown I would need to get pedaling soon. An eight-mile detour wasn’t an option for me. Sixty-five miles was already pushing it today, and there was no way I was venturing outside the relative sanctuary of the Trace. I pointed out to James that I would be faced with a twilight ride if I had to wait much longer.

James agreed, and after a few more minutes he walked me past the roadblock.

A hundred feet behind the mangled bike, the cyclist’s items spread out in a wake, a plastic shopping bag smeared with coleslaw, fried chicken, a can of Budweiser. Further down the road were her extra clothes: a red raincoat, jeans and underwear. Closely bunched at the far end of the plume, a hundred yards from bike, lay a helmet still in tact, a pair of sunglasses, a cell phone, and a streak of congealed blood.

A television crew had set up on the other side of the roadblock. The reporter wanted to ask me some questions. I told him what I had seen when I pulled up and mentioned that sad, quiet ambulance with its lights in mourning. He seemed disappointed with my report, perhaps goading me to elaborate for the audience on the other side of the lens. I had nothing sensational to say to the camera. They went with the footage anyway. I guess I had looked sufficiently aggrieved.

The cars that passed me the rest of way that afternoon did so with extra deference. Drivers were also unexpectedly cooperative on the mile I was forced to ride on a busy six-lane road into downtown Tupelo, where I got the feeling that Esther’s death was all over the evening traffic reports.

I’d learn after watching myself on the news the next morning that the victim’s name was Esther Hageman, a 51 year old journalist from the Netherlands who was on a cycling tour of the South. The driver of the SUV, whose name would be released later, was 58-year old Wendell Blount, a convicted felon who had been high on morphine at the time of the collision.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Natchez Trace X: Kosciusko to Mathiston

A beautiful Indian woman was working behind the counter of the modern stand at the Days Inn Kosciusko. She and her husband weren’t natives of course, but from the subcontinent Columbus had been trying to find before claiming Hispaniola for his Crown. These Indians had come by way San Jose, California. They had just finished the company’s management program and were now working up the corporate ladder. I couldn’t imagine a lower rung than Kosciusko, MS, though in fairness it was dark when I arrived and I was too tired to walk the mile into the center of town.

My hostess was diplomatic when I asked her what she thought of Mississippi—she dodged the question—though she did tell me she missed living in the Bay Area. She was hoping they would receive another placement within the year. I can vouch for the couple. They ran a clean and friendly operation.

The town of Kosciusko was named after a Polish engineer who had an impressive Age of Enlightement resume. A believer in the promise of an American republic, Thaddeus Kosciusko sailed from Europe to Philadelphia and enlisted with the rebels. His talents were quickly recognized and he was promoted to Chief Engineer of the Continental Army. He designed the defensive fortifications at Philadelphia and Ticonderoga as well as the academy at West Point. Upon leaving America for Poland, he decreed the lands given to him for his invaluable services be used as capital to buy the freedom of slaves.

His work in Poland was no less impressive. He commanded an army that scored successive victories over the larger forces of the invading Russians. Poland being Poland, her Prussian and Lithuanian neighbors sold her out for their own gain. Still, Kosciusko won battles against the encroaching Czarist army and might have triumphed had the Polish King not reached an agreement behind Kosciusko’s back to capitulate and save his own skin. Never having lost a battle as head of the Polish armies, Kosciusko was forced to accept the terms negotiated by his king that reduced their nation to a minor state-let. In a last effort to mobilize the people against the invaders, he abolished serfdom and raised an insurgent army that for a time threatened to repel the Russian forces. This time he was defeated in the field and captured. He was forced to watch from a St. Petersburg prison as Russia, Austria, and Prussia swallowed up the remainder of Polish territory so that politically his homeland ceased to exist.

There is a museum dedicated to Thaddeus Kosciusko just outside of town at mile marker 162. Why someone had chosen this spot to commemorate the Polish hero, a site that was just as much in the middle of nowhere at the close of the eighteenth century as it is today, and why there was an annex with a tribute to Oprah Winfrey, the museum did not make clear.

The weathermen didn’t forecast the cold rain that fell on the stretch between Kosciusko and French Camp, or maybe they did, and figured it not worth mentioning if no one would be there to notice. I only saw two cars that morning.

Even with my legs pumping at 90 rpm the steady rain drove the cold into my bones. French Camp was the only ink on the map between Kosciusko and my destination for the night, and luckily there was a small country restaurant right off the Trace.

The couple from Tupelo at the table next to me claimed this French Camp retreat had the best BLT’s in Mississippi. The bread was homemade, baked by the students at the French Camp Academy who also served in the restaurant. I opted for a thick slice of white bread and potato soup, the perfect lunch to bring some heat back into my hands and feet. After lunch I wandered into town and stopped at the welcome center operated by the school. French Camp Academy was a second chance special education school that emphasized work and prayer. I chatted with some of the students who came from all over the southeast. They were happy to have a distraction and they asked me every question they could think of to ask. The kids were sweet, if not imaginative. They soon ran out of questions and their supervisor put them back to work before giving me suggestions for some bike rides in the area. She sent me off with a half loaf of home made bread.

I finished day four in Mathiston, a one-diner town across the Trace from Pigeon Roost named for the passenger pigeons that had once chosen it as a favorite rest stop. It is impossible to imagine the extinct birds that used to travel in flocks of millions, by some accounts billions. Their flocks stretched for tens of miles, thick enough to blot out the noonday sun when they passed overhead. After landing for the night, they would leave a wake of broken tree branches and blizzards of bird shit.

The stand at Mathiston did not compare with the previous night in Kosciusko. The cinderblock cells at the Mathiston Motor Inn were a refuge for truckers, prostitutes and, from the looks of the corroded sink and tub in the bathroom, itinerant meth chemists. I was too tired to be bothered by the grime, and the room sufficed for bike storage and sleeping. Two hundred miles down, two hundred and forty to go.
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Monday, November 2, 2009

Natchez Trace IX: Old Hickory and the Death of the Old Trace

Though there is no clear beginning to the history of the animal runs and footpaths that became the old Trace, its end is easier to pinpoint. In 1811, the New Orleans demonstrated to a multitude of skeptics the possibility of coupling steam engine to riverboat and pushing up current, past the treacherous sawyers, snags and whirlpools on the Mississippi.

Once upriver navigation became reality, smoke-stacked paddle wheelers proliferated like algae blooms on tamer waters. Within a decade nearly a thousand steamboats plied the Mississippi. By that time even the poorest farmer could afford the third class passage that entitled him a spot on a crowded deck where he would sleep out in the elements. Given the accidents and violence on the river, the water route was no less treacherous than the Trace, but it saved at least a month in travel time and avoided a 500-mile walk back to the Cumberland Valley. It should have meant less business for the Native Americans who by treaty had exclusive rights to operate the inns, known as stands, along the road's desolate stretch through the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations.

Though at the same time the road was losing its northbound traffic, greater numbers pushed south. Unscrupulous characters drove chained men for whom they had no or dubious title. Otherwise they too would have taken the quicker, and more policed, river route to the Mississippi bottomlands where cotton production was booming and the demand for human capital insatiable. Settlers with an eye for this wilderness, now within the boundaries of the young republic, arrived in increasing numbers hungry for land and confident their government would soon wrest it from tribal control.

The Trace was already losing its commercial viability by the time Andrew Jackson earned his most famous moniker on this road. At start of the War of 1812, Jackson led the volunteer Tennessee Militia down river to aid the defense of New Orleans. Yet his troops were delayed, then abandoned, in Natchez due to the perfidious maneuverings of Jackson’s military superior in New Orleans, Major General James Wilkinson. The treasonous Wilkinson, archives have established he had once worked as a spy for the Spanish Crown, wanted no competition from the able Tennessean. Rather than allowing Jackson to join his forces in New Orleans, Wilkinson commanded him to proceed no further than Natchez while he worked to secure orders from Washington that would dismiss the Tennessean from command.

Denied permission to join forces along the Canadian front, and cut off from the government commissaries, Jackson staked his personal fortune to march the 1500 Volunteers in his charge from Natchez back to Nashville. Along the way the commander who was tough as a hickory tree offered his own mount to the sick and encouraging words to the dying. By 1815, the scalawag Wilkinson had stood court-martial for incompetence during the war and Jackson was a national hero for repelling a superior force of the British regulars at New Orleans. Jackson’s march home was a last hurrah for the road that Jefferson had deemed to be of vital national importance a decade before.

Old Hickory would commence with his most villainous legacy along the same road that had catapulted him to greatness. In 1820, at the close of that last relevant decade for the Trace, Jackson arrived at Doak’s Stand, just a few miles southwest of Kosciusko, as an agent of the federal government. There he set the terms by which the United States would claim the rich bottomlands of the Choctaw, who a few years prior had fought alongside Jackson in the Creek War. Jackson repaid his allies by pushing the tribe into Arkansas on the false promise that these new lands lay beyond white encroachment. Within another decade, Jackson had ridden the western vote into the White House and rewarded his constituents with the Indian Removal Actthat pushed the Choctaw, along the with other Indian Nations, even further west. When the last Native Americans east of the Mississippi shed their tears across the Trace, the road no longer held national importance. Nor could it be thought of as a cohesive unit. In the 1820’s the Trace began splintering into a series of local throughways. They would not be fully reconnected until my 29th birthday, the day when the last stretch of smooth pavement was opened to the public, over seventy years after the Natchez Trace Parkway was first conceived as a Depression era WPA project.
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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Natchez Trace VIII: Gentleman, Scholar, Athlete

"I am not an athlete," was all I could tell Hank when he asked me a cycling question just before we unloaded my bike near mile marker 102. He must have realized then how hare brained this trip was for me. He gave me his cell phone number in case I got into trouble.

It is true—I am not an athlete. If I managed to finish the Natchez Trace, it would rank as the greatest athletic accomplishment of my life.

I have never belonged to a gym or run more than 1 ½ miles, and that was for middle school cross country. I should be able to claim having run three miles, back in the dark days of MBA intramurals, an athletic program designed as punishment for students who didn’t play varsity sports. The curriculum consisted of rounding up the debaters, drama kids, slackers, and other athletically inept for a three-mile run through the neighborhoods in the vicinity of campus. At a school with the motto “Gentleman, Scholar, Athlete,” we were the short bus kids shoved into the module with the broken AC unit farthest from the principal’s office.

None of us were in a particular hurry on those milk and honey spring afternoons. We’d trail behind whichever teacher drew the crap assignment of babysitting our run. The teacher was usually a jogger who had more interest in maintaining his pace than keeping tabs on the delinquent pack behind him. He would soon stop checking over his shoulder and start pulling away. The slackers had long dropped off, lighting their cigarettes in the first bushes suitable to hide the smoke. The debaters’ jokes would lose subtlety after the first half-mile, the teacher having grown smaller in the distance. After another half mile it was back to argument. The theater kids did, in English accents, whatever it was thespians do on an afternoon walk in the suburbs.

I would have been happy if they had given us a football or basketball and told us to play a game. Yet field space and court time was at a premium at old Montgomery Bell, and this limited the options for the non-athlete. The option was to run, away from campus.

So we schemed. Once we knew what days we’d have which teacher-jogger for our thrice-weekly runs, we could predict the routes he would be taking. Then a couple of us would coordinate in the mornings to stash a car somewhere along the route. This took some creativity in the last generation before cell phones.

Occasionally our taskmaster would catch on that not all of us were coming back from the runs and change up the course. He’d keep tabs for the first mile and a half and jog in a straight line away from campus. At this point the teacher could resume his normal pace and the rest our sorry crew would be forced to complete the three miles, by jogging, walking or smoking our way back to school.

On one of the afternoons we had guessed wrong I found myself stranded almost two miles from my car. I had stashed it along the Latin teacher’s normal running route to the west of campus; he took us south and east. Suddenly I didn’t have so many jogging buddies, and none of these fair weather delinquents offered me a ride to my car once we got back to campus.

At the halfway point the teacher blazed for home. The debaters grumbled, the slackers found a smoking bush, and the thespians traded old Monty Python lines. I didn’t feel like arguing, didn’t smoke during the school week, and didn’t find Holy Grail jokes that funny. I didn’t feel like jogging either.

I stuck out my thumb to the next car that passed. No luck. The second car I thumbed slowed then stopped about 15 feet in front of me. I caught up with the car as the driver lowered the passenger window.

“I’m probably not supposed to do this,” she said.

“Probably not.” I said.

“Get in the back.” she said.

I could hear a couple of the debaters snickering about 50 yards back. The same guys who hadn’t offered me a ride when the route changed. I opened the back door and flipped them a bird.

“I have to go the bank first. My son Charlie has a soccer game on campus.”

She knew where I was headed, the alma mater’s letters were branded across the chest and thighs of our gym clothes. I knew of her son, his dad had been my pediatrician. Like most kids, I idolized my pediatrician. I told her what a swell guy I thought her husband was.

“ EX-husband,” she snarled.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You wouldn’t believe how cheap that bastard is with his own children. A doctor who can’t find the money to pay his alimony!”

In our wait at the bank’s drive thru lane, the EX-wife was determined that I get a fuller picture of the man. I thought about getting out of car, but I was still on the other side of campus from my car, and I was afraid she might figure out who I was and report me for siding with her cheapskate husband. I just sat in the backseat stone-faced, waiting for her to change the subject. She didn’t. Who knew the guy whose jokes kept the shots from hurting and whose amoxicillin cleared up countless ear infections would have…well, Nashville people read this blog.

I kept my mouth shut.

The unforeseen dangers of hitchhiking with a soccer mom—she might smash your childhood idols.
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Monday, October 26, 2009

Natchez Trace VII: Beers with Rube and Hank

I didn’t notice Rube, Kathryn and Hank pull into the parking lot. Rube had finally traded in his iconic Volvo station wagon for a generic Japanese sedan. Kathryn had long been encouraging the upgrade.

“Now we’ve got to work on his wardrobe,” Kathryn said.

Michael Rubenstein was a long time sports broadcaster in Jackson who has founded and for the last 15 years run the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Rube’s stentorian voice and cracking wit made him a natural television personality.

Rube went to Vanderbilt with my stepfather, and was the guy I wanted to sit next to at the homecoming games. For one he broke the lawyer, doctor, businessman mold of most of the guys who showed up that weekend, and he also knew what was going on down on the field, whether the coach was any good, and what we could expect in a couple of months from the basketball team, the real Vanderbilt sporting interest. He was also the seasoned traveler and had been just about everywhere in the world I wanted to go.

I got the chance to travel with Rube when he joined Steven, David and I on a trip to China in 2002. Three weeks on the gringo trail is ample time to get to know a man, and Rube demonstrated he was one cool customer.

We were floating down the Yangtze River two months before they closed off the Three Gorges Dam and flooded its namesake valley when Rube realized he had miscounted his pills. These pills weren’t cholesterol regulators or happy candy; Rube was short the medicine that kept his body from rejecting his transplant kidney. He must have been worried, though he only mentioned the oversight in passing one morning at breakfast, casually enough so that it didn’t interrupt for too long our oggling the waitress with the largest chest in China. No, death’s shadow did not stop the man from appreciating the oddity of a humongous pair of boobs on a tiny Chinese girl.

He must have been really worried when Fed Ex screwed up the emergency shipment Kathryn sent that night from Jackson. If we had taken this same trip five or ten years before, Rube might have died in central China, or at the least found himself back on a dialysis machine, perhaps for the rest of his life. Fortunately there was a new pharmacy in Chongqing that had the proper medicine in stock.

Hank Klibanoff was Rube’s other houseguest for the night. Hank won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his book The Race Beat. Meticulously researched and masterfully written, his book will become the definitive history of journalism in the civil rights movement. The protagonists in his tale, the small band of enlightened newspaper editors who fought for equality in the Jim Crow south, were the models I looked to when I first sought to be a liberal. No elitist dweebs, these liberals presented an easy going, disarming face to the world, men who personified the good qualities of the southern way of life even while they battled the great majority of their contemporaries to expose and defeat the glaring injustices and inequalities inherent in racial discrimination.

Not even a Pulitzer could shield Hank from the cost cutting blades of the publishing industry; he has since been laid off as managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Hank’s position encapsulated the vicious cycle ravaging the American press. An editor flush with contacts and germane knowledge of the history and politics of his region is invaluable to maintaining a standard of excellence in the press. Yet the profit model for print journalism today cannot afford this excellence, and continuing decline in circulation must be in part a response to a diminished product. Worse, the stakes are far more serious than profit models eviscerated by the internet. The fourth estate has long been the pillar upholding transparency and accountability in democratic governance. No army of bloggers or TV screaming heads can replace the guild of newsroom editors steeped in the rigorous pursuit of objectivity and civic interest.

Hank is now director of the Cold Case Truth and Justice Project. His center examines civil rights related murders that were never investigated or were dropped by local police departments. Through interviews and the examination of old documents Hank hopes his team can bring conclusive evidence against alleged perpetrators who evaded the slipknots of criminal justice in the Old South. In some cases they seek out suspects from new leads. The aim is not to bring octogenarian defendants to show trials, but to document the many unsolved cases so the stories of the victims can be remembered and the guilty tried in the historical record.

Rube and Hank became friends back when Hank was a reporter for a local paper. They were introduced one night by their respective girlfriends who had planned a double date. They spent the evening talking to each other more than to their dates.

Rube took us to a restaurant on the reservoir north of town. It was a warm night and there was a band playing on the docks. The crab sandwiches were tasty and the cold beer was the perfect tonic to soothe my legs.

Hank told us about why he was passing through Jackson. If my retelling is murky, it is no fault of Hank’s, he was a raconteur in the best of Southern tradition. I was too tired to take copious notes later that evening, and my brain was awash with endorphins and in no shape to nail down details. Two days on the road and I already had the makings of an exercise junkie.

Hank was investigating an unsolved murder from the Oxford riots that erupted when James Meredith arrived in the fall of 1962 to enroll in the University of Mississippi. Before the army could step in to bring back order, the Mississippi Highway Patrol stood idle as a white mob rained rocks, bricks and gunfire upon the campus. Two men were killed in the maelstrom, one a French journalist who had come to cover the Meredith story.

“People don’t realize that a lot of these people came from Alabama,” Hank, The Alabamian, said.

“Our rednecks in Mississippi, they try,” Rube conceded, “but those Alabama rednecks, they’re the real deal.”

Hank had recently received a tip from a man living in Jackson who remembers as a boy one of those Alabama rednecks visiting his house to retrieve a rag-wrapped parcel hidden in the basement. The man believed the parcel might have been a gun. Hank had reason to believe that it could have been the murder weapon used to kill the French journalist.

There are many reasons the boy’s family would have been afraid to speak up. A KKK riddled police department was unlikely to be interested in such a report in the 1960’s, and the Klan had a reputation for brutal retaliation against snitches. Hank wasn’t sure if the story would lead to anything, but the chance was enough to pull him from Atlanta.

That night Kathryn left us with the best pound cake on either side of the Mississippi. Rube got the best of worlds, the bachelor lifestyle and a fantastic girlfriend who was always bringing homemade treats to his kitchen, and then leaving. Women have always chased after Rube, and he has always resisted encroachment. He had been with Kathryn since before the China trip, but they still maintain separate residences. Kathryn has figured out the formula for keeping in the picture, and seems happy with it.

Before bed there was time to absorb what wisdom I could from these esteemed elders. I questioned Rube about bachelor life and asked Hank for his perspective on the state of journalism. I have yet to earn my stripes in either field, but as I yet I am relatively young. There is still hope.

“Last time I heard from your mom and Stevie, you were damn well near married,” Rube said.

“I guess I dodged a bullet,” I replied.

“Good for you.”

“I might not have been so lucky, but I couldn’t pass on the French girl.”

“French girls.” Rube smiled. “It’s something about the way they talk.”

That’s exactly what it was. Even English sounds seductive in a French accent.

Rube told us about the French Canadian girl he met on the beach in Acapulco. It was probably from thirty years ago, but Rube told it fresh, uncluttered with the embellishments that tend to accumulate over time. Wise men knew which memories to preserve. It would have the perfect weekend if he hadn’t gotten food poisoning just before he could get her into bed. Still, he managed to see her a couple more times, once in Montreal, and another time on a weekend in New York City.

“Not bad for a boy from Booneville, Mississippi,” Rube said.

Not bad at all. Rube’s college housemate Steven Fayne, later my boss in San Francisco, told me a story that sized up Booneville. Steven and some Zeta brothers were on a road trip between semesters and decided to spend a night in Booneville. They pulled into a gas station in town with a payphone and dialed Rube’s house.

"Rube, we're in town!" Steven said.

“OK. I’ll come down and get you.” Rube said.

“How do you know where we are?” Steven asked.

“Because you’re at the payphone.” Rube said.

An old veteran from Booneville I’d meet later on the trip was impressed when I dropped Rube’s name. He was even more impressed that a TV personality had hailed from Booneville. He had assumed Rube was a Jackson man.

I wish I had talked less and listened more that night with these heavyweight Southerners from Booneville and Florence, Alabama, but my body was spent and my mind still swimming with those damned exercise opiates.

I had more of Kathryn’s pound cake for breakfast, and wrapped up a big chuck that would last half way to Tupelo. I wanted to visit Kathryn’s classroom, she worked as a fourth grade teacher at a public elementary school. Her career sounded like an extension of my brief experience teaching in the Delta. That she does her job well, presents a positive and fun loving face to the world, and manages a successful relationship with Rube likely qualifies her for sainthood.

There just weren’t enough hours of sunlight to see her children and get to Kosciusko before dark.

Hank didn’t have his interview until the afternoon so he offered me a ride back to the Trace. We went for lunch at a Greek restaurant where the friendly owner opened a half hour early when he saw us pull up.

As I unloaded my bike, Hank gave me a copy of his book to take with me on the road. Few books were worth hauling 300 miles in an overstuffed pannier bag. I suspected right that this was one of them. The civil rights movement was perfect subject matter for a slow crawl through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

Just after noon I started peddling north along the reservoir. Fueled with stuffed grape leaves, pound cake and great conversation, I peddled over the bumpiest stretch of the Trace and reached my next stop well after sundown in the last minutes of twilight.
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Friday, October 23, 2009

Natchez Trace VI: The Road to Jackson

There are 61 miles of nothing between Port Gibson and Jackson. That's a bit unfair, perhaps you know more about trees than I do.

At least I had the wind at my back. I decided to bypass the one stop light town of Raymond, known as the site of a skirmish that was one of the last road bumps on Grant’s inexorable drive to Vicksburg. I doubted the lunch counter on the square was worth the two mile detour, and couldn't be sure they would even serve me. It crossed my mind that the woman who told me her restaurant was closed, inexplicably, for dinner on a Saturday night did so based on my dark complexion, greaser mustache and the Spanish lettering on my El Salvador jersey. That border control agent in Laredo had questioned me Spanish, after all.

I hadn’t looked at the map carefully and didn’t think to stop and fill up my bottle at the one rest stop I’d pass. So I went without water for the last 25 miles, dripping with sweat under the afternoon sun. This last third of the ride was one of two dangerous stretches for bikers on the Trace. The parkway straddles the city limits for 20 miles where it is used as a throughway for Jackson residents. It took all my energy to keep a straight line on the shoulder as a steady line of impatient SUV’s and trucks sped past. I had been spoiled the first day when I was saw less than ten cars per hour. Those drivers were not in a hurry as they too were here for the scenery, and almost all of them noticed me in time to pass on the other side of the double yellow.

The man at Western Auto had warned me about this stretch near Jackson and another that ran through Tupelo.

“It is not what this road was meant for,” he said.

With each vehicle that approached from behind, I would look back over my shoulder until I saw them drift to the center and only then would I yield the two feet I kept between me and the white line. This last minute shift to the curb spared me the worst of a passing camper’s strategic release of its gray water. They only managed to douse my shoes.

I called Rube when I got cell phone reception near the city. My legs were rubber and I did not trust myself to navigate any more city traffic, especially when that city is the capital of a state where motorists are awarded as many points in the road kill game for smashing a bicycle as for running down communist hitchhikers. I was relieved when he offered me a ride. I walked my bike down the embankment at mile marker 101 to Millennium Mall we where we agreed to meet.

I gulped down a two-liter water bottle on a bench outside a boutique and watched the women of Jackson circle the discount racks. I saw a couple of the bikers from Oak Square on their way to the mall. I was annoyed by how spry they looked. This sentiment must have been plastered on my face because one the guys made the others pick up my bike so they could all comment on how heavy it was compared to their carbon fiber jobs. They wished me luck and said we’d be running into other the rest of the way, but I knew better. That was the last time I would catch up with any racing shirts on my ride north.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Natchez Trace V: Oak Square Bed and Breakfast

There were several bikes parked in front Oak Square Bed and Breakfast. I hoped they were just overflow from the group at the Bernheimer House. This was my last bet for a room in town. The wind was clawing through Magnolia branches as the clouds to the west darkened.

The Oak Square mansion was more traditional than Bernheimer’s eclectic mishmash. The columned antebellum stood at the center of a complex that spread across most of the block between Oak and China off Church Street. I rang the main bell a few times, and after a few minutes I heard laughter coming from the back patio. It was easy to pick out the proprietor. Her laugh was the female equivalent of the rebel yell, a rapid fire staccato that struck each note like an opera singer practicing scales. Her tittering would have sent a chill down my spine if I could have felt it after 6 hours on a saddle.

The cackling belle was Deborah. The raven-haired hostess had eyes as sharp as her laughter; try as she might to soften them with a falsetto smile.

Deborah managed Oak Square and lived with her daughter in the old bachelor’s quarters that made a wing off the backside of the main house. Deborah’s mother was the sole resident of the original structure.

Deborah wanted California prices for what she claimed was her one remaining room. I didn’t have much choice as the rain had started coming down. Still, when she motioned as if to hand me the key, I looked off to the side. I could save 120 bucks at the motel a few miles north on old 61. As tired as I was, I was feeling cheap and angry at myself for not having reserved a room at the Bernheimer House, a place with the history and family connection that would have been well worth the splurge and still cheaper than Oak Square. At this point my body would be numb to a downpour.

Then she hesitated, sensing I was about to walk. Women with a laugh like hers know how to read men less transparent than me. Her eyes flashed.

“You said you’re a writer. How about you write something about your stay with us and I won’t charge you for the room.”

At her prices a comped room was more than I could hope to get out of a travel article in this economy and m lowly perch in the pecking order. Somewhere beneath the exercise endorphins still flooding my brainpan flashed the thought that I shouldn’t accept. The backpacker crowd doesn’t spend 165 dollars a night on their honeymoons, and any bicyclist worth his racing jersey wouldn’t stomach advice from an obvious neophyte. I intended to write about my Scarlet O’Hara meets Elvira hostess, but I doubted my flattery would be just compensation for a warm bed and a hot breakfast.

My hesitation melted with the first thunderclap. Less than a minute after Deborah handed me the key, the skies opened. I scrambled to get my bike in the shed outfitted to accommodate a racing team.

I spent the rest of the afternoon waiting for the worst of the front to pass while soaking my spent body in a scalding bath. I walked to the grocery in a driving rain counting the lengthening gaps between lightening and thunderclaps. It felt good to walk on my heavy legs. I settled on a dinner of pimento cheese and Bunny Bread with a box of gingersnaps for dessert and a six-pack of Schlitz to wash down the Advil before a second soak in the tub. I had just burned more calories than in any other eight-hour period of my life, so the cold dinner was delicious, especially the beer. Before that dusty shelf in the back of the Piggly Wiggly, the only time I had seen Schlitz was in movies from the 70’s.

There was a footstool beside the antique four-post bed for short guests and bow legged bikers. I waddled up and over the edge of the mattress at eight thirty and enjoyed a lullaby of far off thunder and the cool air drifting through the plantation shutters. I fought the sweet anesthesia of magnolia blooms long enough to lock in the memory of perfect sleeping weather.

The cycling group was already at work on a breakfast of scrambled eggs, biscuits and grits when I walked into Dixie House, the smaller of the two guest buildings that also housed the breakfast room. With a plastered smile Deborah explained, probably for the thousandth time, the mystery of the grit to a visiting Californian. She graciously segued from grits to plantation breakfasts that the guests were served at 2 am. Sweltering afternoons were for sleeping, not exercise, and the parties did not commence until sundown.

Her practiced nostalgia of the halcyon days before busing, or the 14th Amendment, gave me thoughts of slipping out unnoticed. Instead I chose more coffee to wash down my eggs and Advil, a little more caffeine would help me palate Deborah’s brand of antiquarianism. We shared a common interest in time and place but came at our regionalism from different angles. Deborah had copious knowledge of 19th century family histories and the furnishings and fabrics they imported from the Continent. I had spent my college days studying the minutiae of the Louisiana slave revolts imported from West Africa by way of Saint Domingue.

In Deborah’s South young debs batted eyelashes at dandies who came from across the region to attend the lavish parties at Oak Square. Matrons planned festivities to the last detail and ruled the social scene with iron in their white glove--some things don't change. I couldn’t fault her if her tales weren’t stained with mention of the slaves who refilled the iced tea glasses, or of their even less fortunate family members toiling the fields. That’s the stuff for Marxists, economic historians, African-American genealogists, and me, the jerk thinking politics at the breakfast table.

Besides, the cotton fields would not have been visible from the porch. Oak Square was a town house. The family wintered in Port Gibson so the parents could socialize and the kids could go to school. They lived in the country during summers and harvests.

The big city cyclists lapped up the Margaret Mitchell routine, and why not, how many times will a Los Angelino spend the night on a plantation? The hard-core among the riders had had their fill and were furtively glancing at maps unfolded beneath the table.

Deborah’s phone rang. It was her mother with instructions from the big house.

“Yes mother…yes mother.”

Each yes mother was a little more strained than the last.

“Make no mistake who is boss around here,” Deborah said as she hung up the phone.

After the other bikers enjoyed their strawberry shortcake dessert-for-breakfast, Deborah gave me a quick tour around the property.

Deborah and her daughter Martha lived in the old bachelors quarters, an-add on structure built to maintain the illusion of chastity for the young ladies asleep in the main house. Martha was home on break from design school and eager to show me that the chastity was indeed an illusion. She pulled back a tapestry on the wall revealing a trap door that opened onto a secret passage to the main house. The wily dandies would crawl through the tunnel during the sweltering afternoons or after the shortcake served with 2am breakfast.

I asked about the antique billboard that hung above the stairs announcing the F.S Wolcott Rabbit Foot Minstrels.

“They did blackface shows here in Port Gibson,” she said. “They had the High Brown Follies, the famous mulatto dancers.”

Deborah summed up the show in a couple lines before pointing out the impressive cupola that rose over the staircase. I made a note to find the story of the minstrels.

Turns out that Fred Wolcott was a white carnival owner who had purchased the Rabbit Foot Minstrels from the estate of Patrick Chappelle, a black promoter who had created the show in Jacksonville at the turn of the century. Chappelle’s outfit began at a time when the popularity of the minstrel shows were in severe decline as they long been losing customers to musical comedies vaudeville. Chappelle had an eye for talent, and with the gorgeous follies and the voices of William and Gertrude Rainey, among the earliest singers of the Blues, he drew crowds to a dying stage formula. His refigured model would extend the life of minstrel shows for another 50 years.

Minstrelsy had been one of the most successful entertainments of the 19th century. At first the performers had been white men performing in black face, lampooning Africans as lazy, superstitious and ignorant souls happy to dance and sing about the simple life back on the plantation. After the Civil War the performers were predominantly black, though they still wore blackface, and the variety show followed closely to the traditional three act models.

Chappelle’s touring company had started out performing in opera houses in the South and up the eastern seaboard. Racial discrimination increasingly made the economics of minstrelsy a bigger obstacle than competition from vaudeville. In 1906 the Supreme Court justified the codification of racial segregation—separate but equal—in Plessy v Ferguson. Chappelle had chosen a rough decade to start his enterprise. He needed to fill the Opera houses with mixed audiences to turn a profit, though many of these halls had been built without the thought of segregated seating. The Rabbit Foot Minstrels soon abandoned opera houses for tent shows, and Chappelle was compelled to buy custom made Pullman train cars to carry his performers since third class colored-only compartments would have been intolerable for a traveling show. Then Chappelle had to fight the southern railroad companies in court to secure passage for his cars on their lines. His Pullmans were rumored to have secret compartments in the event of trouble in an era where a misplaced look could foment a lynch mob.

The Rabbit’s Foot troupe became the most popular touring group in the south. Upon arrival in a new town, the follies would march ahead of the large brass ensemble, an improvised parade to advertise the coming performances. Under the tent, cries for encores would follow every song, and the crowds roared approval of the dancing, tight rope acts, and comedy skits that punctuated the show.

I wondered if the later incarnation of Rabbit's Foot had ever performed at the Westside Theater. I wanted to ask Deborah so many questions about the brief sketch of her family history she had given at breakfast. She had lived through much of the recent history of this state that I had only known from books I read in college. When she was a child Mississippians chose to mourn the July 4th defeat at Vicksburg rather than celebrate Independence Day. She had been in the last all white class to graduate her high school, a fact that still curled her lips. Maybe I could have pried some stories of these years while making eyes with Martha, who must be bored out of skull in a town where one needs a klan card to make dinner reservations.

But I had 61 miles between Oak Square and my friends in Jackson and I was already a half hour behind the $5,00 bikes and fancy racing shirts. I thanked Deborah for the undeserved hospitality and got back on the road.
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Natchez Trace IV: Port Gibson

Back uphill and onto the Trace, I was hitting a stride when a train of bikers quickly closed on me.

“Where are you headed?”


“So are we!”

“And he’s carrying his own gear”

It was a short conversation as they flew by me. But compared to their $5,000 space-age carbon fiber frames, unencumbered by luggage or extra water, I was pumping a battleship. Five minutes later their van passed me hauling their luggage up from Natchez and lunch that would be waiting at the next rest stop. Seems like cheating somehow.

My legs felt strong until mile marker 35, a little more than 40 miles into my day. It was still early afternoon, and the only sign of the front was the steady breeze at my back. By Fred’s calculations the storm was about to cross the Mississippi.

Port Gibson was the first town of any size after Natchez along the Trace. There was a time when the third oldest town in the state was a functioning port. In the early 20th century the Army Corps of Engineers built up the levees and sealed off Bayou Pierre from the Mississippi. A victim of flood control, Port Gibson was left to wallow in its history at the crossroads of old Highway 61 and an even older Trace.

From the southern approach along the Blues Highway, it was not evident why Grant declared Port Gibson too beautiful to burn. Then I noticed the strange site that had been welcoming travelers long before Grant and his men descended on the town. A golden fist squatted atop the town’s highest church steeple with an index finger pointed skywards. This celestial warning would have been a fitting welcome for the generations of gamblers and whoremongers on the southwest frontier. Maybe it gave pause to the old Butcher himself.

The old town was only a few square blocks long, and most of the remaining antebellum homes off Church Street had been converted into bed and breakfasts. The aging daughter of the Confederacy who greeted me at the welcome center just outside of town could not remember for sure which of these houses still took guests. She said it as if she couldn’t remember which innkeepers were still living.

She gave me a couple leads. I had arrived ahead of the storm and was hoping I might yet save a few bucks over the two pricey joints with listings on the internet. Both her suggestions took me on gravel roads that wound up hills on the east side of town. I should have listened to my thighs barking to me that nothing was worth another climb today. My thighs were right. Neither turned out to be inns, nor did they look recently inhabited. I didn’t even bother knocking. These were the kind of creepy old homes that made horror film producers on tight budgets salivate. On the way back through town I checked out Port Gibson’s restaurant. A 45 year-old blonde who looked like she had fallen asleep in her tanning bed came out onto the porch as I crunched across the gravel drive.

“We’re closed,” she said.

“Ok, are you open tonight?”

“No, we’re closed.”

The woman at the visitor center had told me this restaurant was only open on Saturdays. It was Saturday.

“What is open tonight?”

“Nothing in Port Gibson,” she said. “Closest place you’ll find is up towards Vicksburg.”

I looked down at my handlebars and then back up to the porch. Vicksburg was almost 30 miles away, out of reach for a guy with a suitcase on his back tire. I waited for a second, as if she might change her mind, tell me it was ok as long I didn’t bring my Yankee friends. Nothing. She walked back into the restaurant with her UV scorched smirk.

A couple of guys were setting up a smoker outside the Westside Theater, an old Vaudeville place that looked like it would have been shuttered long ago. The guy with a single gold chain and cross and with a gut that suggested expertise in the BBQ arts noticed my interest and invited me to come in and take a look.

I took out my moleskin to make a note of the theater.

“That’s theater with an –ER,” Big D said.

With the help of some other local musicians, Big D had turned Westside into a community center and entertainment venue. He showed me some flyers for upcoming shows announcing rappers from as far off as Memphis. The lobby was decorated in gangster kitsch, with low hanging chandeliers and velvet paintings of characters from Scarface and the Godfather. A plaque with a .38 handgun mounted below a headshot of Tony Montana shared a wall with a life-size poster of the “Dogg Father” Snoop. Hanging in between the chandeliers was an airbrushed portrait of the patron sporting a Big D hat, black shades, and his signature chain.

Party tables were set up on the dance floor of the main hall. Big D explained that they were hosting a wedding party later that night. While they set up he had the NBA playoffs projected onto the big screen.

Big D wanted to show me the VIP lounge. We climbed the stairs and entered a room of faux wood paneling and thick shag carpet. The lounge was empty except for a red velvet love seat and a plush recliner. A balcony looked out onto the basketball game and the dance floor. Big D posed in his recliner, the coolest spot in “PG”. He invited me to come back for the BBQ that would be ready in a couple of hours. I thanked him and said I might.

The past half-hour summed up my two years in the Delta—awkward exchanges with scowling, suspicious white people who hid behind closed signs and locker doors, and chance encounters with black people who invited me for food I was ashamed I couldn’t eat.

I peddled over to the Bernheimer House, named after my stepfather’s ancestors who had built the place back in a time when southern towns of any size had a synagogue. Grant made his temporary headquarters at the house in the spring of 1863. They did not have a room for me. The bike tour that blew past me in the afternoon had made its temporary headquarters here this evening, so after a quick peek into the parlor and the exterior’s whimsical mishmash of old English and colonial styles, I pushed on to the last inn on my list. As I turned towards Church Street I caught another glimpse of fist whose warning now was more earthly than celestial. The finger was pointing to the retreating gaps of blue sky in the east.
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Natchez Trace III: Emerald Mounds

Stumble over serpentine roots and bat away the stinging vines inked in 4 a.m. darkness, claw your way up the slippery stones of an ancient temple straight up through jungle canopy. The momentary exultation of reaching the summit will be fleeting. Soon you discern the outline of the twenty Israeli teenagers who got there ahead of you. Just try to keep their hyena laughter from spoiling what you imagined for months would be the most sacred moment of your trip into the jungles of the Mayan homeland.

If you want to be only guy basking in the mystery of some ancient monument, you’ve got your work cut out for on this planet. There are no sacred moments to be shared amidst the swarms of tourists on day trips to Angkor Wat or the Pyramids at Giza.

Want to find some "undiscovered" destination? Well, adventure travel is for braggarts and morons. Before the ink dries on the next peace accord in a hellhole African province you’ve never heard of, some lunatic Aussie or Frenchmen will have opened a guesthouse near whatever passes for an attraction. If the soon to follow gap-year adventurers don’t get violated by the lingering rebel soldiers whose standard kit includes pouches of palm oil for the occasional anal rape, Lonely Planet will dispatch a writer for a chapter in their next guidebook to the Eastern Congo.

Which is to all to say that I did not take for granted my moment of solitude atop an earthen pyramid in Southern Mississippi. I hadn’t expected to find Israeli teenagers on the top of the Emerald Mounds, but I imagined someone would have been here taking pictures. I couldn’t see anyone for miles in any direction. I wanted to sit here as long as it took for another visitor to break my little meditation on the first wonder I had encountered free of flash bulbs and gift shops. I had to stay ahead of the rain. As I took a rest, I left my mind to wander.

Through a combination of instruction, story time and field trips to Fort Nashborough, my elementary school classmates and I were encouraged to develop a certain mental picture of the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi in tune with the legends of the old frontier. The shores of the Mississippi, the Tennessee and the Cumberland gave way to empty forests settled by sparse bands of Indians. By middle school we learned to call Native Americans.

For millennia these tribes had been uninterrupted stewards of the forests primeval, right up to the time Daniel Boone crossed the Cumberland Gap in his deerskin getup. These noble hunter-gatherers, as we learned to describe them, could not fathom land ownership. They had no need considering the bounty at their fingertips. By the time they wised up to the avaricious ways of the Europeans, naïve chiefs had exchanged vast stretches for worthless beads and even more worthless contracts for lands not yet taken by the new settlers. The disparate tribes were susceptible to the Europeans strategy of divide and conquer. The ceaseless flow of white men with their rifles pushed the indigenous people--as we learned to call them in high school--farther west to the barren reservations waiting at the end of the frontier and at the end of that really long movie directed by Kevin Costner we had to watch in history class.

That schoolhouse rubric doesn’t explain the 35-foot high mound I was sitting on. Tribal bands, whether hunter-gatherers or farmers, could not have devoted the manpower and resources required to refashion thousands of tons of earth into this New World pyramid. Of course no one is claiming the Daniel Boone types built them. It would have taken a civilization with a degree of economic complexity not found in our history books to leave a mark this permanent upon the earth. At least that’s how these same books explain the pyramid builders in every other corner of the world. Civilizations based upon thousands of farmers and artisans directed by consecutively smaller castes of soldiers, priests, and chieftains. The kings who comprised the capstones of these pyramid shaped societies built pyramids to remember themselves by.

The plateau below me was still an active religious complex as late as the 1600’s. Abandoned mounds even larger than the one here were found up and down the Mississippi when LaSalle and his men charted the river in 1682. Other mound networks have since been discovered throughout the Midwest. They are the last remaining monuments to an ancient civilization decimated long before the Natchez battled the encroaching French. A collection of trails, of which the paths that preceded the Trace were a part, linked the mound civilizations of the lower Mississippi to the Cumberland valley and further to the other mound civilizations of the Cahokia, the Adena, and the Hopewell. The economies that supported these monuments were based on the intensive cultivation of corn, beans and squash, and extensive trading networks that sustained a population as much as fifty to one hundred times as large as the native population at the time of first European settlement in this region.

What happened to the mound builders?

The mound I was sitting on would have looked about the same to the English, French, and Scotch-Irish settlers who arrived in the 1700’s to fight and to trade with and sometimes to marry into the scattered tribes of the Natchez, Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw. Yet the first Europeans to reach the Mississippi, the gold obsessed Spaniards under Hernando De Soto, saw something much different. The centuries that followed DeSoto and La Salle brought a host of competing theories for the mystery of the lost mound builders. One of these served as the mental springboard to a major new religion.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the historians of the day recognized the unlikelihood that the mounds were built by the natives as they existed at the time. Some speculated they were evidence of the lost tribes of Israel in the New World. Joseph Smith claimed to find his golden plates in a mound just south of his family farm in Palmyra, New York. The Book of Mormon didn’t just come out of a mound, it was an expansive narrative that explained the history of these ancient monuments in a manner which corroborated the scholarship in Smith’s day.

The non-Mormon world now recognizes these mounds were not the last defensive positions of fratricidal Israelis. The going theory is centered around the Columbian exchange, in which Europeans got corn, squash, tomatoes, cacao, tobacco and maybe syphilis, and the Americas got small pox, yellow fever, malaria, measles, the plague, typhoid, cholera, influenza, horses, and maybe syphilis. Everyone blames the other side for syphilis.

Historians now posit that Cortez and Pizarro conquered with germs that in some cases preceded them. From there the consensus fractures. One of the most intensive disputes among professional historians is just how many Native Americans were wiped out by first contact with these diseases to which their bodies had zero immunity. Those that use models with mortality rates of 95% are suggesting there were more people in the Americas than in Europe circa 1500. This would require radical revisions to the school books over the dead bodies of many a historian who believe the numbers are now being inflated.

Maybe we can call the chapter the First Pig Flu. We know that when Hernando De Soto landed near Tampa Bay to explore what is now the Southeastern United States, he brought 300 pigs as livestock. These pigs had no natural enemies in the New World, and they were free to spread even faster than the De Soto’s men could explore. The pigs carried all the Old World germs familiar to their Spanish owners but alien to the Americans. The Columbian Exchange had a porcine vanguard in North America.

Within months of landfall, the pigs made contact with the natives, and by the time De Soto’s men chanced upon the civilizations of the Lower Mississippi, some accounts at the close of the expedition suggest the possibility that diseases including tuberculosis, whooping cough, trichinosis, anthrax, measles and small pox were beginning to ravage towns along their path. It would not have been a subtle event. Imagine a half dozen Black Deaths leashed upon a population at once. Entire cities would have been destroyed, collective graves, if there was time for them, haphazardly dug to inter the victims of what must have seemed like the end of the world.

The same riverbanks De Soto’s men described as, “thickly set with great towns,” bristling with fortifications were empty stretches 140 years later. La Salle’s French expedition encountered large swaths of emptiness. Where the large population centers once stood, herds of buffalo ran wild over the landscape. Imagine if Joseph had known of the Columbian Exchange and had weaved his narrative out of the tragedy. It probably would have resonated in the burnt over district—only a wrathful Old Testament God could have wreaked such devastation.

My daydream went uninterrupted for nearly a half hour, with this moment all to myself. I got up and shook out out my thighs. Thirty more miles to Port Gibson.
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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Natchez Trace II

 At two minutes past eight I was the first customer in the Western Auto. A bike shop had a corner in the auto parts store. 

The bike guy was out riding, another man informed me.  As he sized up my bike I could tell he knew more about it than I did.  I asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking a look at the tire.  I was afraid it was rubbing against the brakes, but turned out it just needed some grease.

I asked him what I could expect for terrain the first few days. He told me the big hills were past Tupelo but I could expect rolling terrain all the way home.

“I hope you Nashville folks realize you live at the end of the Trace, Natchez is the beginning of the road.”

I don’t know who could argue otherwise. Natchez has always been the start of the road that bears its name. Mile marker 0 was just a few pedal strokes from Western Auto, not far from where Cumberland Valley folk and the Kaintucks gathered for their walk back north after floating their goods down river for sale here or in the larger port of New Orleans. 

Their trails followed high ground, along ridge tops where possible, thereby avoiding the worst of the mire and malaria in swamplands below.  The natives before them didn’t have to worry about malaria, though their footpaths provided superior defensive positions, and they did avoid the mud.  Even before humans traveled the ridges, the migratory animals that first marked the land also choose high ground as they munched their way up and back from the salt licks on the Cumberland.

Some men started back for home on horseback with pockets full of the Spanish gold, the prevailing currency on the Southwest frontier.  These men had to be wary of the murderers, pickpockets, and various con artists, many who dressed as preachers and carried a Bible to conceal their daggers.  At either end of the trail, merchants who doubled as fencers tipped off bandits to the more lavishly equipped traveling parties.  Sometimes they would buy back their own merchandize at pennies on the dollar and resell the goods to the next gentleman brave or foolish enough to travel along the Devil's Backbone.

Most men didn’t have money for a horse and faced a month and half walk back to the rich hunting grounds and fertile valley that would in time become the city of Nashville.  The gamblers and roughnecks, many life-long flatboatmen, lived to spend their bottom dollar on the seedy wharves at Natchez-under-the-Hill. These men took to river life for the fire of Monongahela Whiskey in their bellies and a few fleeting hours inside the floating brothels and behind velvet curtains with an octoroon whore.  Time offshore was for drinking, fighting and fornicating.  The inevitable hangover announced the grueling slog upriver for their next river assignment.  Pity the unfortunate families that depended on these men as husbands and fathers. They did not return to put bread on the table. Their only gifts manifested long after homecoming, these the days before penicillin. 

I turned onto the Trace a little past 8:30, and peddled northeast.  The undulating hills were subtle enough to be unnoticeable in car. I was not in a car. I labored over the slightest inclines and tucked my head into the handlebars on every descent. I didn’t choose this bike for efficiency.  I wanted a comfortable seat and my head positioned high to enjoy the scenery. 

 Mid-April, Southern Mississippi was already deep into spring. Trees and undergrowth blushed deep green, with foliage already as thick as it would be mid-summer in Connecticut.  I convinced myself that I had made the right choice in bikes. My upright position was comfortable as the high handlebars allowed me to keep a straight back and afforded a nice view of this lush bottomland forest.

 A strong southeast wind was blowing ahead of the storm front. The gusts made a sail of my whole body, a great aid to each peddle-stroke.  I was lucky to have the wind as an ally—up to half the energy spent on a bike is spent fighting wind resistance. I couldn’t imagine biking 40 miles into a strong head wind on my first day. 

I grabbed a map at first exhibit shelter at mile marker eight. The strip map was folded into panels that stretched out all the way to Nashville. I was traveling one panel today, and was already a quarter of the way.  The map noted the mile markers of every historical site and rest stop, I would belatedly learn to make special note of the stops with water. I was still dedicated on this first day to seeing every last historical site on the route. 

The first site was a ways off the Trace, but I decided with all the free wind power I could make another half mile and turned left at a crossroad that led me downhill in the direction of the river. It was not yet ten, and sun was breaking through the clouds and the canopy with its rich tapestry of ash, maple, cypress, catalpa, poplar, water locust, bay and magnolia as well as a few solitary pines atop the sandy ridges.  The side road bottomed out into a bend with a few trailers to one side and on the other a long bank of earth that made a steep eight-foot rise to a grassy meadow.  Two squat hills rose at either end of this plateau.   My quads already tight, I waddled up the stairs to the top of the nearer of the two peaks, 40 feet above the trailers across the way.  

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