By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
DYERSBURG, Tenn. – I crossed the pregnant Mississippi here today, my second choice for a crossing, the bridge at Cairo, Ill., being closed.
There’s something spectacularly daunting about the Mississippi River, the Old Man, even when it’s not out of its banks. I’m not sure why they call it “The Old Man.” The Mississippi is as alive and volatile and strong as a high-tempered, desirable woman. She changes her mind, her direction, and she doesn’t care who she rolls over on her way to the sea.
I made it home to Mississippi from Colorado in two long days. I meant to take three, but weather chased me in early. The long drive was a firsthand look at every disaster Mother Nature has hurled at the earth this spring.
The first night, in Kansas, tornado warnings were bleating as I felt my way through a purple thunderstorm to a motel that was last cleaned when Eisenhower was president. The carpet was wet from the torrential rain, and I remembered every yucky story I’d recently read about bedbugs. I was glad to be there. When you travel with three dogs, you’re lucky to find a room at all.
The next day, in Missouri, I passed eight miles north of Joplin, where poor harried people were getting tetanus shots in the parking lot of Lowe’s, and employers were doing head counts to see if all their employees had made it through the killer storm. Eight miles away, there was no sign that a tornado had altered lives, taken lives, forever. Those eight miles might as well have been 800.
And the Missouri misery wasn’t over. At one convenience store farther east, the clerk said a tornado was headed that way, so we rushed back to the car and sped away, storm in pursuit.
Also in Missouri, I saw the farmers’ fields flooded by the intentional breaching of Mississippi River levees. The muddy and receding tracks of floodwaters were a heartbreaking solution to record-breaking flooding.
It’s funny how adrenaline kicks in as you get close to home. I felt like Scarlett in the wagon after the burning of Atlanta. As she mercilessly beat that exhausted horse toward Tara, Scarlett just hoped to see her home standing.
I fed the poor dogs in a parking lot in Selmer, Tenn. We’d all been in the car for 12 hours, if you don’t count a few short stops to walk. Under the vapor lights of a McDonald’s, the dogs looked incredulous when I asked them to get back in that tightly packed car one more time, for the last leg of the journey.
No place has seemed safe this spring. The season began with a Japanese tsunami and has marched relentlessly across this old Earth. Those of us not personally affected know someone who was. And the near-misses, the eight miles of separation, make us exceedingly grateful for homes left standing.
For there is nothing like the lights of home at the end of a journey, the end of a day. I cherished every creak of my worn pine floor, every picture on the wall, as finally I walked into the little house that has sheltered me for the past 20-odd years. At the same time, my haven made me sad for those going through rubbish in Joplin, wading through mud in Vicksburg and Memphis, sweating it out in Butte LaRose.
Sometimes in this life the only real factor is luck.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.