An appointment on a late winter Saturday afternoon in Columbus gave me the chance to revisit portions of the Flatwoods and Black Belt Prairie that I had not visited recently. A Clay County road carried me across Line Creek Bottom and through Henryville, a way station on the antebellum Coffeeville to Columbus stage route. South of Waddell on the C&G, a magnificent hardwood forest across Double Cabin Creek Bottom reminds me of Line and Chuquatonchee Bottoms when I was a boy – a sense of loss that haunted the beauty of the woods. Across the Trim Cane flood plain with sprawling dormant fields with wild onions giving a flavor to the breeze and henbit a dash of color on a dreary day, over the limestone bluffs, and there’s Starkville. Town and campus have changed much since my time there, and I take no pleasure in them. Few landmarks remain, and new construction is unremarkable. If there’s no moniker for college town architecture, there should be. Red brick, stucco, stone and glass, artsy-fartsy pretensions of expensive apartments and watering holes abound…soulless and depressing. I am glad to get through campus, past the mushrooming apartments, and retreat into the honest poverty of Blackjack Road.
There is nothing noble about poverty itself, but the way that some people deal with it is inspiring. Just a mile from the opulence of the sprawling campus and its throngs of pretty people with expensive haircuts sit modest frame houses or single-wide trailer homes on lots worn bare by the feet of children shooting baskets. I slow and move over for pedestrians and men working on stalled vehicles, and they acknowledge my wave – in stark contrast with the pretty people on campus who will not deign to acknowledge unfashionable seniors driving the posted limit through their playground. Shotgun shacks in New Orleans and cottages in St. Martinville painted unusual hues are considered charming and photographed for magazine spreads. Single-wides or “Jim Walters” similarly adorned out on the white rock barrens of the Prairie are considered merely tacky. Why? What’s the difference?
South and eastward across the Catalpa Bottom, I mosey into the little rail junction ghost town of Artesia. Few houses remain, and buildings lining main street facing the railroad are mostly empty, but the KCS tracks are shiny from traffic, and dozens of tankers, hopper cars, and coil carriers line the switch yards. Railroading may lack the romance of the pre-diesel era, but its critical role in our economy continues. Road and rail parallel each other to the industrial complex near the Golden Triangle Airport. The arteries, veins, and capillaries of transportation converge here to foster an impressive development that will be missed by those who keep to the four-lane. Steel manufacturing, aeronautical engineering and manufacturing, wood processing, and assorted service industries sprawl over the several miles between the airport and Tenn-Tom Waterway. Parking lots are crowded with autos bearing plates from three or more counties away – mute testimony to how few of the people in any given population center possess the skills or personality traits to be successful in the modern economy, a topic for another day.
The people that I meet on my back road meanders are universally cordial. They return greetings and meet my gaze. When I get into the city, I remember that eye contact is provocative, that I have no business in some neighborhoods, and the locals will remind me. Which is more unsettling – the baleful glare of young men loitering outside the pool halls, or the studied indifference of students and staff on the campus?
SONNY SCOTT is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.