Johnboats leave their watery marks on ripples of the Ohio—Mother River. Towboats ease their barges up and downstream, Catlettsburg to Cairo, views repeated to Kentucky Bend and on to Reelfoot.
I prop my chin in hand, prayerfully watching, listening, giving thanks for all places to be.
No guarantees. No unforgiven regrets. Time to go to work.
River channels, bridges, and connecting highways lack absolute certainty, gravity binding, and challenging humanity. It’s wise to prepare for the worst.
In the winter of 1811-1812, the New Madrid earthquake stubbed and reshaped the lower Ohio, giving Kentucky’s western toe a small part of Reelfoot Lake, now a National Wildlife Refuge. Watching the sunrise over the flooded cypress trees of Reelfoot is to witness a whole new world of “lotus pads with yellow and cream-colored flowers,” as described by William B. Scott Jr. in The Kentucky Encyclopedia.
Reading is certainly useful, but no substitute for a personal visit to Kentucky Bend, also called New Madrid Bend. (Tennesseans call it Bessie Bend.)
Take Highway 22 out of Tiptonville, Tennessee, and head north. Cross back into Kentucky and you’re on Kentucky Bend Road, where there are no fences and no billboards, but a place where you might come upon Barbara Lynn, her sons David and Donald, and her daughter Mary Catherine, representing a new generation of soybean and corn farmers. They carry on optimistically after the passing of Kenneth Lynn and Kentucky Bend matriarch Adrienne Stepp.
The Kentucky Benders cultivate the soil as they find it, not fearing floods or earthquakes. But the living and the dead watch Old Man River with a careful eye.
In a letter dated March 22, 1816, Eliza Bryan wrote: “On the 16th of December, 1811, about 2 o’clock a.m. we were visited by a giant shock of an earthquake…followed in a few minutes by a complete saturation of the atmosphere with sulphurous vapor causing total darkness.”
The next New Madrid earthquake is expected sometime during the next 500 years. But that means it could happen in the next five days or five minutes, so the Lynns plant new crops and pray for the best harvests.
Heading upstream, the first Kentucky River town is Hickman in Fulton County, where you won’t go wrong at Memaw’s Café, assuming you’re hungry for down-home food. With only the concrete floodwall between it and Old Man River, downtown Hickman is a haunting memory of what once was and might become again with renewed commitment and inspiration.
Farther upstream is Columbus in Hickman County, site of the Columbus-Belmont Battle of 1861. The view from the high bluff is as wide and as breathtaking as any place in the Commonwealth. It was here that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant confronted the Confederate forces of Gen. Leonidas Polk. Historians still grapple with the wisdom of Polk’s attempt to block the Mississippi with a chain, the anchor alone weighing two tons. Who won and who lost the battle that September day? That’s the rich stuff of which military histories are revisited.
What’s to be learned in October of 2007?
To the Kentuckian with chin in hand, the list of challenges and ports of call stretches from Reelfoot through Kentucky Bend to Hickman to Columbus, past Cairo to Paducah, Henderson, Owensboro, Louisville, Covington-Newport to Ashland-Catlettsburg.
Towboats and barges filled with coal are a major element in the grand design. Electric power is fundamental. The same might be said for highways and bridges. Communications are equally vital. Political cooperation is essential.
Consider Chapter 13 of the Atlas of Kentucky: Kentucky in the Future.
“Kentucky’s economy will continue to expand; estimates indicate that the Gross State Product (GSP) will grow nearly 50 percent between 1995 and 2025.”
But this positive projection will not happen without individual effort—blood, sweat, and tears—and that’s not all.
To omit religion is to leave out the spirit of humanity—the Golden Rule being the best infrastructure.