Adventure, Bicycling, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Road Log: Race, Threats & Tension in South Missouri

Last time I repaired my wounded bicyle and set off with new tires. But the day was far from over.

Hayti, Mo. Photo via St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Day 84 (September 28, 2012) continued

It was 45 more miles to Hayti, and I didn’t start till after noon—already hungry again, a I recall, but unwilling to delay to eat a meal. I sure wished I had the other half of that wasted salad from Lambert’s.

The ride itself was pleasant, except for the “phantom flats” I kept imagining. After you have a series of flat tires, every bump or weird section of pavement makes you think you’ve got another one. Or at least, that’s what happens to me.

Hayti was a trip. I kept wondering if it was named after Haiti, which Wikipedia says it was. Like their namesake they’ve even had earthquake problems, but the Missouri one only broke windows. I found out from locals that the town’s name is pronounced differently, too: Hay-tie.

As the name implies, Hayti is a predominantly black town. According to the Census it’s 50% white and 40% black, but I think if you counted the surrounding rural area you’d find those numbers reversed. In parts of the South there are white towns and there are black towns, and this is something I didn’t know before I rolled in on the Giant. The white people in town seemed (generally speaking) cliquish and wary, whereas the black people were friendly and open to me although totally incredulous about what I was doing.

First thing when I coasted in off the freeway I saw a giant Drury Inn & Suites hotel, a chain I’d never seen up north but would discover is ubiquitous in the South. It was late afternoon with plenty of time before sunset, but thunderstorms were forecast for tonight. I really didn’t want to camp out, and if I had to I wanted to at least be somewhere safe.

I decided to cruise through town and check it out. My goal was to identify a good dinner spot as well as somewhere to sleep. This is often the most stressful part of my day. I don’t like imposing on people and I’m not a natural at just strolling up to folks and making friends. But I knew I had to start canvassing the area.

One road took me through the center of town and out into some suburban African American neighborhoods. This seemed promising. I felt really awkward as the only white face I’d seen yet, but I reminded myself that that had little to do with whether people would be hospitable. I biked through a few neighborhoods and spoke with a family that was outside. They didn’t offer their backyard for camping, but they did want to help. But the whole idea really puzzled them. Why was I doing this?

This is something I’d see over and over on my trip. White people might be incredulous about my Journey, but they’re generally supportive or even wowed by it. They share my thrill of adventure. I’ve gotten mixed reactions from black people, but it’s much more common to just shake their heads in total disbelief. But this sort of adventure seldom ends well for black people in the United States: I don’t think it would be safe for a black person to do what I’m doing. Not without sponsors and planned stopping points. They wouldn’t receive any of the popular support that I’ve received, and given recent events I’m not sure they could expect good results from knocking on doors or sitting on someone’s porch in a rainstorm.

(That’s my own limited view as a white person trying to make sense of the different reactions I got. I’d welcome insight, especially from readers of color.)

(And if any of said readers of color <cough ahem Fly Brother cough> want to join up for a leg and challenge that status quo together, I would love that.)

For a place to spend the night, the family recommended I go a couple miles back up the freeway to a rest area I’d seen, which has a 24/7 McDonald’s. They suggested I could hang out there all night as long as I bought something.

I continued my search. Going around some more neighborhoods closer to town, I thought of trying what a friend had recommended: just call the police and ask them where you can camp out. The police were closed, at least via their non-emergency line, and a trip to their office by the town’s central square showed it was locked.

Next I focused on churches. Several were closed, but some local families directed me to one in particular with a pastor they knew would help. The church door was open, and it looked like they were getting ready for choir practice. The people gathered in the entrance looked at me like I was from Mars. I could easily believe that this was the only time in their church history that a white person walked in.

Timidly I asked for the pastor, and they sent someone upstairs to get him. He came down, looking every inch the Southern preacher in his immaculate suit, complete with a carnation on his breast. He was very friendly and asked me with true concern how he could help me. He looked totally comfortable talking to a person of another race, and that made me feel more comfortable too.

I explained what I was doing and, like the families I had met, he was incredulous. But he didn’t question it or make jokes. Unfortunately, for a place I could camp, he drew a blank.

“If we had known you were coming we could’ve talked to some of the families,” he said. “With so little notice I don’t feel there’s much I can do for you.”

That was fair. I tried to explain that I wasn’t looking to be taken into someone’s home, that even just permission to put my hammock next to the church for the night would do. (The church had no trees, so how I’d rig it up to sleep through a thunderstorm I can’t say, but I figured I’d leave that problem for later.) The idea of me camping there seemed to make him uncomfortable. I’m not qualified to say why: it may have been concern for my own safety, or it may have been the possibility of my hammock raising awkward questions with the police, which the church would have to answer.

One way or another, with a look of pain at having to turn me away, the answer was no. I thanked him for considering it and apologized for interrupting their rehearsal. I got on my bike and pedaled away.

I still had a couple hours before true sunset, but the thunderheads were on the horizon. I explored more areas off the town center and found a white neighborhood. I figured I may as well try my luck with them, too.

No one was outside so I knocked on a door. They had a large fenced yard and a front porch. I left the bike by the street where it was clearly visible. When a 50ish white man answered, I motioned to the bike and explained what I was doing.

He wore a deep frown at the sight of me, and nothing I said changed it. I asked if he knew of anyone in the area who might let me camp out for the night.

There was a long silence. When he spoke his voice was ice cold. “You’re on my porch,” he said.

My heart sank. I heard the threat in his tone loud and clear. I have no doubt he was a proud gun owner and for all I knew he was fingering one on his waist even as we spoke through the screen door. I raised my hands apologetically.

“I’m very sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to bother you.”

I took a step away from the door but he wasn’t done.

“Son this town isn’t safe. You camp out here someone’s liable to shoot you. And if they don’t you’ll get arrested. You better move on.”

Right. I better move on, on a bicycle, in a thunderstorm at night when the next town is 20 miles away and likely just as rude as your insufferable ass.

My mouth opened and every fiber of my soul strained to unload a, “That’s mighty Christian of you, sir.” Instead I said: “I understand sir. Thank you sir.” I got out of there.

Hopping on the bike, I considered then (as I still do now) that he may have just been the bad apple in a barrel of friendly neighbors. And maybe he was. But there was nothing about the white neighborhood that spoke of hospitality or even friendliness. Unlike the black streets, every door was closed, every yard had a fence and the few people I saw stared more with suspicion than curiosity.

Hayti is a pretty little town. But, like many towns I visited in the South, racial tension colored everything—and ultimately makes it unwelcoming to strangers. The black community was friendly but couldn’t help even though they wanted to, because we had no shared cultural understanding and everything I was doing was completely alien. I got the sense they wondered why I was there and not looking for help in a white town. Meanwhile the white people could have easily helped and didn’t because they’re irrationally paranoid. They cower behind fences and think they have to defend what’s theirs because the Revolution could come take it at any moment. The result is strangers, of any race, are threats to be neutralized.

At least, that’s my conclusion. I only had one day there, and admittedly I’m an unusual visitor. But I have to make sense of my experiences in that one day and to me, it shook out along racial lines. Throughout the South, any town I found with high racial tensions ended up being unfriendly toward me—from both sides of the race line but especially the whites. I felt much more welcome in single-race villages (white or black) or large cities.

I biked back to the freeway, headed not toward the McDonald’s but to the Drury Inn. I worried about the cost but I felt too defeated to stealth-camp in a thunderstorm. At the Drury, something good finally happened.

At the counter I found a straight-laced woman who could have been a school marm straight out of the 1800s.

She told me a room would be over $100.

“I hate to ask this,” I said. And that was certainly true. “I’m a minister and I’m bicycling to South America. I don’t have a big budget. Most nights I camp out, but you can see there are thunderstorms on the way—” Actually she couldn’t, in the Drury’s windowless lobby. “—Is there any chance you can offer a discount?”

She stared at me a long moment, not returning my smile. Then she pushed one key on her keyboard and said, “That’ll be $70, sir.”

I could have kissed her, although I suspect that’s against her religion. Instead I thanked her. I know that request only worked because she assumed I was a minister of the Christian variety, and probably that my South America plan was a mission. But after all the costs and setbacks of the last 24 hours, I didn’t care.

“May you be blessed,” I told her, a phrase I’ve found works very well in the South.

She also told me that if I hurried, I was just minutes away from the 9 pm closing of the Drury’s dinner buffet, free for guests. I couldn’t believe it. I had spotted a little black-owned restaurant in town that offered grilled sausages and barbeque, and I had planned to go back there for dinner. But I wasn’t about to argue. I stowed the Giant in a hurry and got in line for the buffet.

Happy Hour was also happening, but I didn’t feel like a drink that night. Besides, what kind of minister throws back two-for-one cocktails? Well, my kind, I suppose.

Sober, stuffed and exhausted, I found my way back to my room. Hopefully tomorrow would be a better day.

Effective miles 45.7 miles.

(As noted last time there was also 5+ miles of walking, 11 miles of biking around Sikeston, plus lots of biking around Hayti, not included.)

Map. (Shows only effective miles.)

Total traveled this leg: 45.7

Total traveled since Day 1: 1257.2

Next time I take my shot at Memphis—and a gamble on a bridge. Till then, here are all my road logs.

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16 thoughts on “Road Log: Race, Threats & Tension in South Missouri

    • Definitely. I’ve wanted to put them up for 18 months now. But it takes forever to write them; as you can see there’s a lot of info-dump, and also I didn’t save my routes on Google Maps back then so I have to reconstruct each route for the mileage. But I’m glad I’m doing it. I made it a point to dedicate my spare writing time to that this month, and hopefully will finish all through New Orleans before I leave Guanajuato.

      • I hear you. My current camera (Canon 6D) has GPS built in and any time I’m on the road I use it – it makes figuring out where I was and what I saw so much easier later, when it comes time to label and upload things! And since I often shoot out bus or train windows on the way from place to place, I’d have no idea where I was without it. Are you using some system like that now, or doing manual entries?

        • Well, I’ve never done much GPS tracking because my only device with that feature is my phone, and it drains batteries quickly if you leave it on while you ride. I usually leave the phone in airplane mode to save batteries and activate it briefly when I need to check route, weather or messages.

          I did do something different on the NOLA to Texas leg though. Every day (almost) I would take the time to plot my route on Google maps, instead of just looking at said map and then jotting down nav notes. Then I would save the link and email it to myself along with the date and the tag “road log.” So when I get to that leg of the adventure it will be a lot easier, I can just grab the miles and map link and write what I remember.

  1. Alien Mind Girl says:

    I can’t speak from a perspective of a non-white, although I have had lengthy relationships with (and conversations with) racists on both sides of the color and age spectrum. I’d rather leave that alone, and add something else.

    In my state, there is a BIG DIFFERENCE between country culture and city culture (the only time I have ever had culture shock was moving within my own state, from city to country), and in how friendly the people are to outsiders. Country people, of any color, are notoriously suspicious of and unfriendly towards strangers.

    In the city, people are used to strangers. But in the country, strangers have A Reason for being there. They are visiting family, they are tourists or sportsmen (if there is a park, hunting, or lake nearby), they are in school or training, or on business. If you don’t know why they are there, that is reason enough for rough language and getting a shotgun pulled on you (or if you work for the government, for any agency, doing anything). However spending money (like you mentioned, if you buy something, you can stay all night!) increases the friendliness exponentially. But you will still get the suspicious act. And HEAVEN FORBID you wear tie-dye. Then you get the suspicious act AND the stares. And “country stares” are not like city stares.

    But still. In my state we quickly learn better than to go walking anywhere that is obviously not public property without good reason when in certain counties. Not that i blame the country folks much… when people go to the country, they usually have a specific reason, and it is usually pretty obvious what that reason is at first glance. Just a guy on a bike is not what they are used to. And livestock theft is a thing – cattle rustling is not just in old movies. Also, pot grows wild and “wild” in my state.

    I thought ALL small towns were suspicious and unfriendly towards strangers?

    And like you said. This is generally speaking. Because all kinds of people live everywhere. But culturally here, even in the cities, we are often generally untrusting. Even I continue to work on a handful of (groundless) trust issues, but when they are bred, and you have little to no experiences to counteract it, it is hard.

    • Alien Mind Girl says:

      As usual, I only realize my point in retrospect and it is this: Distrust in the South is not due to a belief that the Revolution will come take our stuff. There’s a lot to it. I don’t know where it started (maybe it WAS with the Civil War, who knows, and I could argue a pretty good case for why that would make sense, but the perception that Southerners still believe we are fighting the Civil War is silly.). The truth is just that (generally) we have a mistrustful culture in general… to “outsiders” of any type or color. Until you get into the big cities, anyway, where that tends to fade away to background noise rather than in-your-face suspicion.

      I am sorry I always have to ramble so much to figure out what I am saying. I feel like this only happens on your blog. It’s so embarassing. Ug. In real life and also in other writing endeavors I pride myself in being succinct, if you can believe that.

      • Ha, no, I’m glad you post these things! You always make me think.

        And I think I may have miscommunicated. My “revolution” comment wasn’t meant to be Civil War related; my yankee mind hadn’t made that connection :) I was thinking more of the mythos among some white folks that eventually there will be race riots or hungry poor people will come to steal everything they own. None of the people in Hayti expressed that belief to me, but my Dad sadly holds that belief, and believed he’ll need to defend his farm eventually from people coming to steal everything he’s worked so hard for. Similarly, after Katrina a lot of non-looters who were just trying to escape the flood were shot or threatened by more well-off (always white) folks who thought they were going to rob them. It may be unfair of me to project this same belief onto the Hayti guy specifically.

        • Alien Mind Girl says:

          Hmmm. Interesting. Did you even have race riots in Minnesota?

          I guess we do have those that think the end times are coming, or that the federal government is going to collapse, or that the zombie apocalypse is coming (really), or that a natural disaster will leave us Mad Max style for an extended period, or any other number of things that strike me as similar to what you are describing. (I have a family member who was stock piling gasoline for when the terrorists disrupt our fuel supply. I thought he was going to blow sky-high… o_O until gas prices went up and he used his stock pile. Phew.)

          • I don’t think there were ever race riots in MN, no. My parents live in rural Wisconsin however, which has definitely never had race riots. (I’m from Milwaukee originally.)

            It took me a long time to figure out why “prepping” gives me the willies. I mean, in theory I’m all about learning to survive and being ready. But for many end of the world preppers, it seems to be a fantasy. The talk about being practical and being prepared is a pretty thin mask over the fact they would be much, much happier if there was a disaster and they finally got to put all their skills to use.

    • In my state we quickly learn better than to go walking anywhere that is obviously not public property without good reason when in certain counties. Not that i blame the country folks much…

      I think we should definitely, definitely blame (those particular) country people for acting that way. Not all country people are equally suspicious, and it’s bad behavior.

      But I would like to hear more. Here’s what I’m curious about: it wasn’t the same in all rural areas. Some towns were more welcoming while others were cold as ice. The variation seemed to become greater south of St. Louis. I could be wrong about it relating to racial tension. But if so, what do you think causes such difference between towns in the same county?

      • Alien Mind Girl says:

        I have been thinking about this on and off all day and I am not any closer to an answer.

        I have, however, arrived at the conclusion that Oklahoma, while sharing similarities with other states, cannot really be grouped in with them as a blanket statement; we are too unique in too many ways.

        I have also arrived at the conclusion that the stereotype of an old fart waving his shotgun around hollering “Stay off mah proper-tie!” is so… accepted that most people I know don’t question it. Because. We don’t think we have a right to be on someone else’s proper-tie without invitation. (Not that I have never trespassed, because I have.) Why should we have that right?

        I have also shot down a series of theories as to why people in one town might be friendlier than people in the next, all because these theories apply to EVERY small town. Not one versus another. These include:
        -Perhaps the country attracts antisocial people because they want to move out there to “get away”
        -country people are more likely to have their assets tied up in their land, and therefore more to risk by having strangers on their property
        -country people may have less exposure to cultural diversity in general
        -country people have fewer people coming through their town, and are just plain not as accustomed to it.

        But you know, cities are the same. One city will seem friendlier than another city. For example, you’re about to talk about Memphis… we visited Memphis for the first time this past year, on the way to Atlanta. We loved Memphis. We did not like Atlanta. But, on the flip side, my best friend loves Atlanta, so we obviously had different experiences there. I wonder if perhaps we are falling into the trap of trying to generalize too much, and that maybe it isn’t fair. Maybe the cyclist after you will stop at a different home, a different church, or a different diner in Hayti and find it to be delightful. People are heterogeneous and inconstant. So are towns and cities.

        There are a few things that do change dramatically as you pass St. Louis that I thought of.
        -religious majority – check out these demographic maps from the Washington Post
        -political majority – Google for maps on the outcome of the 2012 presidential race
        -Civil War involvement – which is a sticky subject that I hate to touch. It was a long time ago, but cultural memory can be very long even when no one can pinpoint where it started. I am not necessarily speaking to race issues (as they would not explain why white folk would turn down requests from a white man), but more to trust issues in general. The War was a national event but almost all of the battles happened in the South, and the federal government was not as adept then as it is now in things like reconstruction. Or anything, really, the US was still a baby.

        But again, you arrive at these are changes as you enter the South, not changes from town to town within a small geographic area. Maybe there are some subtler cultural microclimates, such as income or education or where the original settlers were from. I can tell you that we do have one tiny town (which I will not name) that is notorious for drug trafficking. Maybe other small towns have a little bit of it, but this one little town has a LOT. There are other little towns that have microcultures caused by strong, lasting influence from the original settlers (the “Little Italy” type of towns, the old mining towns, the old railroad town, the former state capital, the tribal capital, the spa town, etc). Each little town is affected by a unique history. I love small towns; I’ve spent lots of time in lots of different ones, and they have their own characters. And people are usually nice to me (if I don’t dress too weird). In the small town I lived in – in fact – people made a big deal about being nice to everyone. They’d wait until you turned your back and THEN they would be mean. Le sigh.

        So, eh, I don’t know the answer to the question, but I bet there are a lot of unique reasons. But in any case. Biking alone through a little town on a big adventure makes you a weirdo. :) But an awesome one. And going on someone else’s land without permission in the South is definitely cause for a loud Git Off Mah Proper-tie and at least some buckshot in the air. So much so that I honestly can’t imagine things being any other way.

        • I think you may have a point about individual experience. Maybe I hit these towns on an off day or happened to get the jerks in town. Someone else may love the towns I hated and hate the towns I loved. It’s hard to say.

    • By the way, I think this is great:

      But culturally here, even in the cities, we are often generally untrusting. Even I continue to work on a handful of (groundless) trust issues, but when they are bred, and you have little to no experiences to counteract it, it is hard.

      My journey taught me how important this is, to work on these trust issues and learn to reach out to people. Nothing can make or ruin a day as much as one person either going out of their way to help or quickly turning away. I work on trying to be more aware of the needs of people around me, and making an effort to help even when it’s inconvenient.

      • Alien Mind Girl says:

        I will say that I am surprised you couldn’t find help in a storm. In my experience, usually people will pony up if it is obvious that the need is sincere and the threat is real. :( Sorry you had such a rough go of it.

        I don’t trust that people in my state will help me out with gas money or hitchhiking (I know they won’t), but when it comes to the big stuff, I absolutely trust them with my life.

        • I think if it had been dumping rain on my head, I might have gotten some sympathy. the storm clouds were still on the horizon though, and people seemed pretty oblivious.

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