Last time I repaired my wounded bicyle and set off with new tires. But the day was far from over.
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.
My book Lúnasa Days has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”
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