Bittersweet

Saturday, my friends John and Judy drove me south along the Natchez Trace parkway, in Tennessee. We stopped at several Trace original sections and hiked them and admired the brilliant spring wildflowers. We stood where a ferry once crossed the Duck River, in the early 1800s, and where many soldiers of the War of 1812 are buried. Bloody Andrew Jackson had ridden on horseback here, and it is probable that Davy Crockett had used the ferry.

Meriwether LewisBy mid-afternoon we were nearing the site of the grave of Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame. We suddenly realized that Hohenwald, the writer god William Gay’s hometown, was very near the Lewis site. In fact, William’s house and Lewis’s grave are but a couple of miles from each other, and so this had become the Lewis and Gay Expedition.

I had visited Chris Gay, William’s son, two Christmases ago, on Little Swan Creek, and sat in William’s chair and listened to Chris weave stories. I don’t recall any Gay stories or novels in which a character might have made a pilgrimage to the Lewis site, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Gay, the dark writer and Lewis, the dark explorer would have understood each other perfectly.

We drove past the infamous Harrikan, the deep wood where so many Gay characters meet their fates. The seemingly endless forest was so many shades of green, and mockingbirds screamed impersonations and wild turkeys poked at the wild grasses. There had been a lot of rain, and waterfalls up and down the Trace were full and pouring and thundering. Little Swan Creek was a slick of thin water and glistening stones.

John asked if I wanted once again to eat at the Hohenwald Pizza Hut, site of William Gay’s brilliant story, “The Lightpainter.” But I said no. The William house and treehouse platform and the shelves of books and the chair where William died and Chris’ guitar leaning against a wall and the hound dogs nuzzling me: all are locked in my memory, not to be disturbed, still fresh and elating and scintilant. I understand better with my archaeologist’s intuition than with my eyes.

And so we came to Meriwether’s resting place, just north of William Gays’s home. A half column of hardstone stood on an obelisk of carved stones. The half column represented Lewis’s relatively short life, the man who, in his day, along with President Thomas Jefferson and explorer William Clark, was world famous. Yet he rode alone to the Natchez Trace inn of Mrs. Grinder, his finally finished diaries in his saddlebags, and sometime that night he was shot, probably by his own hand. Both Jefferson and Clark said they were not surprised. Lewis was introspective and moody, and fame only made him more uncomfortable. He spent his last years aiding distressed Indians, not a popular avocation in Indian Wars days.

This afternoon, I was at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. I was driving home when I saw Bellfontaine Cemetery, in North St. Louis. I turned in and located one of the more famous residents, William Clark. A bust of Clark’s head sits prominently among tall obelisks and above his and his second wife’s tomb. Clark, who advocated for the tearing down of twenty-nine prehistoric burial mounds, the Indian culture of which he had not a clue, to build St. Louis. Clark, who freed his slave on the Expedition only to re-enslave the man after the Grand Adventure. Clark, who as an old man seems to have realized what Meriwether Lewis felt earlier, that the expedition did as much bad as good.

Buried next to William is George Rogers Clark. President Jefferson, after a devastating defeat to the colonial army by the great Shawnee Indian warrior, Blue Jacket, wrote to George Rogers, commenting, The Indians were perfectly capable of driving the white people out of the country. “We must terrorize them,” Jefferson wrote. George Rogers Clark complied, torturing and hanging captured Indian women and children by their fingers from trees, those smashed ornaments the first scene of the final Indian act.

“Savages.” This is the word that enables otherwise civil people to turn into mass killers. A savage, whether slave or Indian or African or Mayan, may be slaughtered with impunity. In William Gay’s world, the “plain people” savage each other and the carpetbaggers who intrude. In 1799, the Harpe brothers, Big and Little, indiscriminately killed thirty-three people on the Natchez Trace and at Cave in the Rock, near Golconda, Illinois. They were wreaking revenge on the world, poisoned by their King George sympathizing father. Meriwether Lewis braved such pirates on the Trace. John Brown justified the killings of Kansas farmers by branding them savages, and so it goes. The Natchez Trace is but one open artery of the American Body Politic, and there is the bloodbath at Murfreesboro and Nat Turner’s slave rebellion blood drive. The silly vampire myths seem tame by comparison. Blood is our national tea.

We’re all civilized now, fortunately. Should there be a savage outbreak—or a dance of black youth—men with concealed weapons will save us and more blood will keep us drought free, will slake our thirst.

Green trees and wildflowers are the tombstones soaking up the blood of an earlier age and the perfume of lilacs is a drug for forgetting and there is no sweetener better than bittersweet.

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