Until recently, most of what I knew about levees on the Mississippi River derived from John M. Barry’s 1998 book, “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America.” I’ve read it twice now and plan soon to read it again. It’s that good.
On my recent wandering episode with friends Sonny and Dubs, though, I received a first-hand lesson as we rode that massive piece of earthwork for nearly 20 miles in Southeast Arkansas. We saw a lot of nothing, some wonderful glances at the mighty river itself, thousands of acres of soybean fields, endless miles of manicured pasture, lots of cattle, and a bald eagle—but few people.
We had stopped in the town of Elaine for a nice lunch at their local diner. Seems like the most recent event of note, and still a topic of conversation, was a visit by the “American Pickers” guys from that TV show. Of course the town still suffers from the memory of the so-called “Elaine Massacre” of 1919, the deadliest racial confrontation of our state’s history.
We didn’t talk about that with the other diners of course. We had another goal: to reach the end of the world, or at least the end of civilization. We were headed for Snow Lake, Arkansas, a site within the “Laconia Circle Levee.” It deserves its own space on another day, so stay tuned.
The nice folks in Elaine not only told us how to reach our destination, they also suggested that we “drive the levee” to get there. Being trusting by nature and hearing no banjos playing, we decided, “Why not?”
It was quite a ride. It was easy to imagine, from Barry’s book, the devastation caused by the great flood, and how we came to believe we could control the forces of nature with man-made earthworks. It was also humbling to see the vast fields of hay and soybeans and wonder at the labor involved in feeding the world.
This area will be part of the “Delta Heritage Trail.” It is described by the Arkansas State Parks Department as “ …a rail-to-trail conversion in southeast Arkansas … being developed in phases along the former Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way that stretches from one mile south of Lexa (six miles west of Helena) to Rohwer, and extending via the Mississippi River levee to Arkansas City.
Not much of a camper myself, I could, however, imagine a night spent in among the towering trees between the levee and the river. Closing my eyes, I could hear the sounds of blues being played in the juke joints on the other side, the smell of freshly picked cotton, and maybe even a glimpse of a couple of young boys floating downriver on a raft in the moonlight.
We eventually said goodbye to the levee and the wide open views it commanded. We descended into a maze of bean fields and proceeded to our destination. It turned out that my traveling companions were both inveterate “levee riders” from way back. Maybe I will be too, in the future.
That river can exert a pretty strong pull on a person.
Mississippi River Water: “It is good for steamboating, and good to drink; but it is worthless for all other purposes, except baptizing.”
Mark Twain – “Life on the Mississippi”