Thursday, November 29, 2012

Cathleen and I arrived into Centerville, TN around midnight. We had traveled from central Arkansas  the day before, and I was looking forward to the prospect of reconnecting with the McDonald family.

Our 1986-'87 Walk really was a journey of discovery. We kept our minds open to whom we might run across or meet in the small towns across rural America. The first Tennessee town we walked through was called Bolivar. We had stayed in the Bolivar Inn for a couple of nights. One evening after walking, we ate at Austin's Restaurant where met Rick Kee, the general manager. It turns out that he had bicycled from Tennessee to Los Angeles and could relate with some of what we had been up against. Rick turned out to be very helpful to us by referring us to various friends and colleagues who could provide us a safe place to camp during the next couple of weeks from western to central Tennessee.

On Saturday April 11, 1987, my Dad and I were walking a segment east of Parsons when a man rode up on his bicycle. He asked in a European accent whether we knew of or happened to be the people walking across America. The young man introduced himself as Ben from Austria. He had ridden his bike all the way from Alaska and was on his way to Florida! As we were chatting by the side of the road, another man pulled up across the street and walked over to where we were standing. He introduced himself as Harold Fasmire. Harold and Rick Kee were friends in Bolivar. Rick had given Harold advice on how to finance his own bicycle ride to Florida!

Harold then recommended that Ben head to some friends of his at the McDonald Funeral Home in Centerville about 35 miles down the road. He said that they would take care of him for the night. Coincidentally, Rick had lined up the McDonald Funeral Home for us to camp in their back parking lot. Ben was pleased because he wanted swap more stories with us. So we ended up inviting Ben to join us for dinner that night in our tent trailer.

I can remember swapping stories with him and enjoying the intersection of our paths crossing. Bill McDonald, who owned the funeral home, was out at a function at the local high school when we pitched camp behind the funeral home. We met him later that evening.

Centerville just happened to be the town where all the signs for McDonalds Restaurants were manufactured. So at the back entrance to the funeral home, there is a sign that reads McDonalds in strangely familiar lettering. The factory presented it to the funeral home. Bill confessed later that he would tell people there are two McDonalds in Centerville...long pause...and one's a restaurant.

That night, Bill made the studio apartment above the morgue available to anyone who might appreciate some privacy and a warm bed. Ben was offered a room in the family residence next door because he usually had to sleep in a backpacker's tent. After Bill's invitation to sleep in the funeral home, there was an awkward silence. My mind raced as I weighed the new opportunity.  I blurted, "I'll take you up on that!" My parents exchanged concerned looks, but then said, "If its okay with you, Bill, its okay with us. Behave yourself Allen." As if I was going to climb into one of the coffins or do something crazy. "No way! I'll be fine...When will I have an opportunity like this again!" Aaron piped up, "Uh...when you're dead!"

I began to privately question the wisdom of my decision, but I couldn't back down now!

McDonald Funeral Home, Centerville, TN.

Parking area where we camped behind the funeral home with he familiar McDonald's restaurant sign.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

There are few places in a America more beautiful than the back roads of Tennessee. Lush green hillsides give way to valleys filled with hardwood forests. Ash, Poplar, Oak, Hickory, Cottonwood and Cedar are just a few of them. The steady hum of insects fill the evening sounds of the forest as the sun steadily dives to meet the Western horizon. Lightning bugs illuminate the deepening shade of the trees on either side of the highway. The heat of the day begrudgingly gives way to the pleasant mild warmth of a Tennessee Summer night. A canopy of shimmering silver stars begin to fill the sky.

The rural highways my family walked stretch nearly 500 miles from Bolivar, Tennessee east of Memphis to the Appalachian Trail east of Elizabethton in the northeast corner of the state. The small corner of Mississippi that we walked allowed us to skirt the large city of Memphis and afforded greater perceived safety. 

Soon after crossing into Tennessee from Mississippi, my Dad and I found a strange metal tower that was built similarly to the giant metal structures that carry high voltage wires high above the ground below. Inside the structure was a metal staircase. Some might call it a ladder. It beckoned to our curiosity. Such a tower would surely be off-limits in California to keep people from jumping off, but not in Tennessee! The tower rose at least 50 yards above us. We had to climb it! After we had climbed about 30 feet, the tower began to sway under our weight and the strong breezes would shake the tower without warning. Neither one of us was afraid of heights, but we soon experienced some healthy respect and concern as we neared the top of the tower. It was then swaying more than either of us was particularly comfortable with. The view outweighed our concern as we were able to survey the terrain for miles around. The tower was built as a look-out for fires. As Cathleen and I were driving, I was surprised to see one still in existence in 2012! I didn't feel the need to climb it this time.

We awoke the next morning in Centerville, TN. Twenty-five years ago in this very town, I had spent a few nights sleeping alone above a morgue!

Tennessee fire lookout tower

Friday, June 22, 2012

Northwest Mississippi was impoverished when we walked through 25 years ago and it seems impoverished today. Cathleen and I drove past homes flying the Confederate Battle Flag and sometimes that flag was flying by itself. People are proud of their state's history, but in Mississippi, it seems that some are content to live out their own reality that the South is still separate from the Union. I did not stop to take any photos of the flags, feeling that it my not be safe to do so.

The terrain is primarily flat with rolling hills. Trees cover most of the land where crops are not planted. The air is humid. As a kid, I wrote in my journal that we walked past occasional bayous. Dad and I were walking a segment through a small black community when I saw a kid playing basketball. The basketball hoop that was made out of an old plastic milk box attached to a pole with a plywood back board. I felt that it was so clever. I wrote about feeling guilty because I had a beautiful fiberglass backboard and basketball court that my father had built for Aaron and me back home. It was arguably the best in the neighborhood, and I used it only occasionally. I felt homesick, but I also wanted to join the kid and check out his homemade court.

Cathleen and I stopped in Holly Springs, MS to take some pictures of the town square. It was patriotically decorated with American flags because of Memorial Day a couple of days prior and the upcoming 4th of July. The town seemed deserted at about 7pm in the evening, but for some black young adults socializing just off the square. I passed them with a nod and a smile and continued walking to a better vantage point to snap pictures of the historic town.

Holly Springs had housed several Union generals during the Civil War. My family had attended a Presbyterian church that was built before the Civil War. The story goes that locals had begged the Union Generals to spare their beautiful church. It still had a slave gallery where African American slaves would have sat during Sunday services. It seemed strange to be standing in this town again with so much history. As I stood thinking about the past, one of the men who had been socializing just off the square approached me from the back and asked why I was taking pictures. I smiled and said that I was taking pictures of their historic town. He said, "Oh, its got a lot of history all right! Its historic!" He and a woman with him, continued on down the street.

As I was walking back to the car, the woman ran back to me and started telling me about how hungry she was and how she had lost her job. I asked her where her man was and she just mumbled that he  was somewhere else. Regardless of her motives, I felt compassion and reached to give her my last couple of bucks.

As I walked back to my car, I felt like I was being watched. About five minutes out of town a Chrysler 300 with all tinted windows rapidly approached our car from behind. It slowed and began to tailgate our car with its hazard lights on. The road was empty and it was in an area with a passing yellow dotted line. My senses were instantly heightened. I knew that I was not going to pull over, but strangely didn't feel any fear. After a couple of miles, the car pulled around us and whizzed off. A few minutes passed and suddenly the Chrysler was speeding towards us and back into Holly Springs.

It saddens me to think racism and ignorance still exists. This is perhaps more obvious in an area where some people are content to pretend that the Confederacy won the Civil War and slavery should still be legal.

Watching us watching him.

Driving into Holly Springs

Courthouse in Holly Springs

 Flag decorated town square.

Pre-Civil War First Presbyterian Church of Holly Springs, MS as seen in 1987.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

East of Clarendon, my family came across the original starting place of the survey for the Louisiana Purchase. Originally purchased from France in 1803, the surveying of the land began in 1815 at this spot in Arkansas. Unfortunately for the surveyors, it was in the middle of a swamp. Because of our crisscrossing segments with the car, we were able to drive the two miles off our course to see the monument.

When Cathleen and I drove to the same place, the water level was two feet lower than it had been 25 years ago. We learned from a friendly Arkansan that Arkansas was suffering from a bad drought, despite all the swamps in this area. We stopped our car and walked about 1/4 mile on a special boardwalk to the spot of the original marker. I saw strange bubbles emerging from the murky water surrounding us and witnessed the gurgling of swamp creatures. A strange and colorful lizard ran across the path in front of me, and I quickly scanned the boardwalk for any snakes that might have left the swamp for a dry place to rest.

We paused to take some photographs and then drove onward towards Helena, Arkansas on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. The same giant steel bridge was still spanning the river dividing Arkansas and Mississippi. Across the river, there had been nothing but open farmland and trees back in 1987. Today there stands a mega Indian Casino on the Mississippi side of the river.

I remember being so excited to be walking across that river so many years ago. It represented a psychological milestone, and I knew that we were only a couple of states away from the Atlantic! Our walk through Mississippi was shorter than the other states because we were purposely skirting around the city of Memphis, TN. We had avoided big cities whenever possible for safety reasons.

Cathleen and I stopped at a Mississippi Welcome Center that had not been there when my family walked. The people inside were friendly, and it felt nice to be in an air conditioned room. Within the Welcome Center, many items, articles, and pictures showcased the proud elements of history and points of interest.

A few miles down the road, we began to see living history that told a less optimistic tale of continued racial divides and the evidence of widespread poverty.

Louisiana Purchase Survey Marker present time. Previous water level evident

Original 1987 photo 
Crossing the Mississippi River on March 25, 1987
Mississippi River bridge today

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Before celebrating the completion of my family's walk across the United States on the actual anniversary of June 5th, 2012 in Yorktown, VA, I had left our rediscovery in Texarkana on the Texas and Arkansas border. 

It was March of 1987, and after about a week of walking, my family stayed for a few days in Pine Bluff, AR at a Comfort Inn. We again experienced Southern hospitality when the hotel placed a message on its billboard wishing the Huff Family safe travels on its Walk across America. 

The stretch of country highways through Arkansas filled our ears with the sounds of frogs and insects. Much of the terrain was marshes and pine forests. The air smelled refreshing unless we were downwind of an unfortunate armadillo that had made an untimely decision to cross the highway and never made it to the other side. 

As we walked into Stuttgart, AR, we could see miles of rice paddies and huge grain elevators. The city is famous for the number of ducks and geese that stop on their annual migrations from Canada to U.S. and Mexico. Stuttgart got its name from German immigrants, and one can surmise that they missed their homeland. I could see the fabric of America in the communities of immigrants from all over the world. 

In my journal, I wrote that we had stayed at the Best Western Duck Inn. Cathleen and I stayed in the same hotel 25 years later. With all the changes with businesses closing because of the economy, we were surprised that it was still there and the nicest place in town.

A few miles past Stuttgart, the land changes to primarily swampland and marshes. The next major town past Stuttgart is Clarendon. On the way into town, we had walked nearly four miles of levies and long narrow bridges that had no room for pedestrians. For the last half mile, we walked a large narrow bridge over the White River.

As Cathleen and I drove through, I got chills thinking about the dangers we had faced crossing that stretch of highway. We stopped our car in Clarendon to have lunch at a little cafe called Bendi's Diner. They served traditional Southern fare such as fried frog legs and crawdads. Basically life found in the local swaps. They also served hickory smoked BBQ. Cathleen and I had fun eating food we would never have at home. We started with a basket filled with Cajun fried crawdads and Cathleen had frog legs that tasted surprisingly like fried chicken. Well... not surprisingly. I had a BBQ pulled pork sandwich and taught the friendly waitress about how to make an Arnold Palmer. 

After an adventurous lunch, we continued eastward. The swampland became more dense and the wildlife diverse. The sounds of nature echoed in the air where frogs could be mistaken for the the songs of birds in the trees. Within this swamp, the boundaries for the Louisiana Purchase were conceived.

The Duck Inn
Narrow levies and bridges for miles on the way into Clarendon, AR
Bridge over the White River
Bendi's Diner
Take yer pick. It's all good!

Has to be eaten with the right Cajun dipping sauce!
Getting full fast.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Steps from our goal at the Yorktown Victory Monument-June 5, 1987
Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of finishing a 3,062 mile walk across the U.S. with my family. As Cathleen and I were driving down the Colonial Parkway that connects Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown together, we could see the gray sky above us against a backdrop of lush green trees. A light rain fell intermittently, and it was considerably cooler than it had been so many years ago.

We arose early on that final day 25 years ago. Through the eyes of a 13 year old, I was in disbelief that we were actually going to achieve our goal that seemed insurmountable just nine months before. Grandpa drove the four of us out one final time to Jones Mill Pond on the Colonial Parkway where we had left off the day before. Aaron and I could hardly contain our excitement! We laughed and tussled as brothers often do. The occasional sting of the tenacious May fly hardly bothered us because nothing was going to hinder us today. A couple of miles into our final day of walking, the trees to our left gave way to sandy shores of the Chesapeake Bay. I remember thinking, 'Why couldn't we just finish here!' But no, it had to be in Yorktown. 

My parents had chosen this location to finish our walk across America because of its historical significance. British General Charles Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown to General George Washington ending the American Revolutionary War in 1781. They could not have chosen a more beautiful and perfect location.

After a couple of miles, we were hiking away from the beach and back into the woods. The preview we had just experienced along the beach made us want to sprint the remaining distance. My heart pounded through my chest and anticipation mounted. As we walked past the Yorktown Battlefield and into historic Yorktown, the four of us stopped in front of a giant monument dedicated to the victory that ended the Revolutionary War. On that final walk day, the monument was symbolic of accomplishment and served to beckon us the last few hundred feet to our own victory.

As we approached the beach, my grandparents were waiting along with reporters and photographers. They were there to document this historic moment. Little did we know that the stories being written about the completion of our walk would soon catch the attention of the White House.

Yesterday morning, Cathleen, dropped me off a couple of miles shy of Yorktown Beach. This time, I had an umbrella in hand. The rain had stopped for good though. I used it as a walking stick. I paused on a bridge to look into the creek below. My eyes fell upon an ancient turtle that was easily two feet long and undoubtedly close to 100 years old. I smiled and took a couple of photos. I felt like a kid, exploring a world that is missed by the cars racing by as I slowed life down to a walk once again. I continued the remaining distance to the beach filming the road ahead and sharing my thoughts about taking the walk. I missed my family today and wish they could have been here with me. 

This time, Cathleen was waiting at the beach. She smiled while taking pictures and video as I sat on a bench, removing my shoes and socks like so many years ago. I slowly walked into the waters of the Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic, creating solo footprints on a freshly raked beach. I felt gratitude to God and my parents. I felt gratitude for the countless people that helped us along the way. After thanking God, Cathleen and I walked across the street for a savory lunch at the Yorktown Pub like we had done so many years before...
The Colonial Parkway
Along the the Parkway
A few more miles!
Starting place of the final day of walking. June 5, 1987

View of a giant turtle from the bridge above.

Yorktown Beach, Chesapeake Bay

Looking down the beach to the north.
Yorktown fishing pier.

Lunch time!

In a few days, Cathleen and I will drive to Tennessee and back into Virginia exploring the rest of the original walk route. More posts to come in the upcoming days when the rediscovery continues.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

This rediscovery has been priceless in so many ways. My original time table is turning out to be too optimistic, forgetting that people and places should not be rushed. With this in mind, I will be posting again on June 5, 2012 after commemorating the 25th anniversary of completing my family's walk across the United States. I want to assure any of you who have traveled along with us through this blog, that Cathleen and I will rejoin you again in about week. We will continue to retrace the last portion of the walk from Arkansas to Virginia through some absolutely incredible country. The tales and the experiences we are having continue to humble and amaze us.

See you on Tuesday June 5th when I dip my feet into Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic for the first time in 25 years.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Texarkana is a unique place. The city exists in the two states of Texas and Arkansas. The shared attribute that each proud state shared was the U.S. Post Office which sits on the boundary of both states. In front of the post office, there is a tribute to the heritage of both states. One can stand in the middle of the stairs and be in both Texas and Arkansas simultaneously. The grand Federal Building towers behind like a proud uncle reminding the children that Uncle Sam's watching.

Every week, it was my parents custom to take us kids to a new church in whatever community we happened to be staying. This particular Sunday, my family was in Texarkana. We had met a man named Dr. Dan Bookout at a Kiwanis Club luncheon that we had been invited to attend. Dr. Bookout had set more international aviation records than any other person alive at that time. Dr. Bookout invited us to attend his church called Rose Hill Church of Christ. After church he invited us to join him for lunch. So  Aaron and I dressed in our Sunday best. Dad drove us to the famous post office, and my brother and I stood on either side of the state marker. I was in Texas and Aaron represented Arkansas, our new state to explore. Cathleen and I paused to remember that historical social science lesson experience that Aaron and I had enjoyed.

Dr. Bookout invited us out to his hanger to see his plane, the "Texarkana Baby." We were driven out to his hanger where we got to see his beautiful world record setting Piper twin engine 7 seat "Lance" with a six cylinder 300 hip engine. Try to say that three times fast! Mom decided to get some much needed time to herself and enjoy an interrupted nap. That day I think she missed out because Dan said as Dad, Aaron, and I gawked at the incredible flying machine, "We can't go anywhere unless you get in!" Up into the air we soared and viewed the terrain far beneath us that we had taken days to traverse on foot. He took us over the mighty Red River into Oklahoma and over Texarkana. The three of us were on cloud nine!

I'm in Texas and Aaron's in Arkankas

Texarkana U.S. Post Office

Texarkana Baby!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Our family continued to walk eastward out of Denton, TX. A couple days down the road, we had passed through the town of Greenville, TX. One afternoon during the last segment of the day, I could see our car in the distance. I decided sprint the last 1/2 mile and suddenly my weight came on my ankle instead of my foot. I howled in pain and dropped to the grassy shoulder about 100 yards from the car. I could not get up. I needed my Dad to lift me up, and I hopped to the car in agony. My ankle instantly began to swell. When arrived back at our motel in Greenville, my Mom carefully wrapped my ankle with an ace bandage and an ice pack. The next day my parents asked me to walk back and forth across our room to see how my ankle was holding up. I could only manage to limp, feeling intense pain in my ankle.

Suddenly we faced the reality that I could no longer continue, and we had to stop for me to heal. We took the next couple days and drove a couple of hours to the city of Longview, TX. My Dad had a college buddy named "Bud" who lived there. Bud and Sammy Austin had invited us to come over to their home for dinner. Bud had become the president of LeTourneau University at the time.

A couple of days later, I was well enough to continue. We drove back to the mile marker where we had left off east of Greenville and continued east. I wish I still had the same resiliency at 39 that did at 14! We walked six miles that day. I had a little trouble, but got through it.

As Cathleen and I drove on, we found the approximate spot where I had sprained my ankle and stopped to snap a picture. About an hour later, we stopped to take a picture in Paris. Paris, TX that is. While I was standing by the sign. An older man in a Ford pickup stopped in the middle of the road and yelled out in a heavy Texas drawl, "Y'all need he'p!?" I replied, " No sir, we stopped to take a photo." He yelled out, "Ok! I thought y'all needed some he'p! In Texas, We he'p people! Not like people in the big cities!" I was amazed! The same southern hospitality still existed today. It seems like some younger folks these days would be content to snap a picture of someone stranded on the side of the road, post it to Facebook, and then drive on without saying a thing.

The approximate spot where I sprained my ankle back in 1987

While taking this photo, a man stopped to try and help us.

We were soon nearing the border with Arkansas. The city of Texarkana lies in Texas and Arkansas. Twenty-five years ago, my family would meet the man with the most world records in flight at the time and find ourselves staring at the route we had walked from thousands of feet in the air!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Snyder, Texas became one of the many highlights of my family's walk across America. It's a city with character and friendly folks. On January 16, 1987, after spending the night at Royal RV Park in Snyder, we found two to three inch icicles hanging from the canvas on our tent trailer. Dad remarked that our little electric heater worked full tilt all night long to keep us warm.  Dad and Mom decided to get us a motel room for the remainder of our time in Snyder because the ice storm was bitterly cold.

Art and Helen Feinsod owned the Purple Sage Motel at the east end of town. The rooms were comfortable, and their hospitality would make the town of Snyder proud. Mr. Feinsod had small collection of vintage cars that included a 1929 Ford Model A and a gorgeous 1939 Buick convertible. I wrote in my journal that he let me drive both cars on a Sunday afternoon out on a dirt country road. I was in heaven as a 14 year old. We had attended church with them and their 2 children Virgil and Celia.

We also had dinner with another innkeeper in town named Jack Pointeau. His family gained national notoriety back in 1989 because they were almost deported back to their native France. It had something to do with red tape and our broken immigration policies. They owned a business, employed other American workers, paid taxes, and they were embraced by the Snyder community. Their story had a good ending because they were eventually allowed to stay, and I believe they became U.S. citizens.

Snyder had an old drugstore on its town square with an old fashioned soda fountain. My Mom especially missed getting a soda from the town drugstore as a kid. She had fond memories of getting old fashioned soda growing up in the late '40s and early 50's. So Snyder, TX also provided us with a much appreciated first soda fountain experience. Across the street from the old drugstore, there is a statue of a rare albino buffalo that sits on the county courthouse lawn. Mom, Aaron, and I posed for a picture in front the buffalo. 

So on Saturday, Cathleen and I raced to find as many things from my original account that still remained in Snyder. I remembered right where the soda fountain had been, but there didn't seem to be a drugstore anymore. We stepped into Pam Robertson's Mason Jar Mercantile Gifts & Antiques. It was a charming little store, and the owner was just as sweet. She was talking to a young woman named Baylee Lewis. We explained why I was looking for the soda fountain and about my family's "Walk." They both opened their mouths in surprise. I quickly shared about my family's adventure. Both women were amazed and shared a nice conversation with us before directing us to the other end of the block where she thought we could get some information on what happened to the drugstore. The original soda fountain now sits in a theater across the square and is only open during shows and plays. We also learned Helen Feinsod's home number and we gave her a call. 

A few minutes later, we were happily reunited with Helen and her daughter Celia, sharing old memories. Helen no longer owns the Purple Sage, but she and her daughter own a laundromat called "Wash Happening" and a party room known as "The Gathering Spot." Helen was very interested in reconnecting with my Mom who still runs a laundromat on Ventura Ave back home. I'm glad they will be talking after so many years of losing contact.

Cathleen and I were soon driving towards the "Walk's" half way point of Denton, TX. We stopped in the historic town of Albany where there is still a working soda fountain, and I had a chocolate soda. It was delicious. We stopped to take some pictures of a Hickory BBQ restaurant my family had eaten at when we walked through. It was closed until 6 PM and we had to press on. 

After the ice storm

White buffalo 1987
Today's buffalo

Remembering the fallen in Snyder, TX for Memorial Day

Chatting with Pam and Baylee

Where the old soda fountain used to be.

Reconnecting with Helen and Celia Feinsod

1929 Model A. Look who's driving!

1939 Buick