Day 118 to 121
The Statue of Liberty standing tall, not over New York, but a little Arkansas town called Strong, population 500 odd.
I walked 20 drizzly miles through pretty, wind-lashed pine forests to reach here and was bracing myself for a cold night: it’s due to drop well below freezing.
Fortunately, big hearted local stalwart, Juanet, came to the rescue and let me into the 1st Baptist church.
I lucked out on arrival at 4.30 and was invited to a birthday party taking place in the church hall – for 2 year-old Grayson! Hot dogs, Coke and a huge chocolate cake shaped like an American football all did the rounds.
Later I met Bubba and Paula Medlin, a remarkable couple who, on top of their own children, have fostered over 25 others. Bubba, who half Arkansas seems to know, set up a hardware store in Strong in the 70s and stuck around. He was also responsible for Strong’s very own Statue of Liberty.
‘When people ask where my store is,’ said Bubba. ‘I tell them it’s right by Liberty!’ A recent fall in local logging jobs (due to advances in felling machinery) sparked Bubba to set up a small roofing company too.
I’d wanted to reach the city of El Dorado the evening before but had conked out after 30 miles, post sunset, with still 5 miles to go.
Instead, amazingly, Fernando and Zafadi of nearby Mi Familia Mexican restaurant let me in, fed me tacos and Fernando allowed me to sleep on the sofa of his mobile home. Muchas gracias, amigos.
I was chuffed walking a 30 mile day recently but have just heard about British vet, new mum and record smashing fell racer, Jasmin Paris, running 268 miles across the Pennines in 83 hours. Respect Jasmin!
I feel like a complete wimp in comparison – and she even did it while expressing breast milk!
That really would have been beyond me: even if I did have impressive man boobs at the start of the walk, they’ve long since deflated.
Though pleased with the way I’ve been clipping along lately, after hearing of Jasmin’s inspiring, nay, stellar, feat, I need to up my game!
Day 122 to 123
Bunked down in a barn tonight with all my trustiest kit on display.
Chris, a forester, and his kids Maddie and John were outside their farm having just buried a dog that had been run over.
Despite the beauty of the Arkansas landscape: rolling hills, forest, swamp, it’s always sad to see so many squashed animals – dogs, raccoons, deer, exquisitely plummaged hawks.
On spotting me Chris dashed inside to fetch a hearty mug of soup. He and Maddie had seen me walking earlier on my way from Crossett, over 20 miles away, famed for its paper mill.
We had a yarn and, as it was darkening, Chris said I could sleep in the neighbouring barn. Perfect! Lovely folks.
Many have asked what I keep in Koko so the photo might help.
On show is my superb red MSR Hubba Bubba tent (being used as a pillow tonight!), tarp, mat and 4 season sleeping bag.
Plus woolly beanie, phone, charger, Wal-Mart head torch and lantern (love my two buck lantern so much), journal, pen, half dozen elastic bungees, a tub of Tiger Balm (cures everything from headaches to sore calves), map of Arkansas (the real deal, not just google), a lucky horseshoe given to me by Clay, an ex-rodeo rider, who put me up in Texas, an apple and pride of place, a photo of my daughter, Eliza (important to have one proper photo, not just on phone).
On top of this a change of clothes, extra socks, tiny towel, flipflops, 1st Aid kit, thermals, shades, rain poncho, bin (trash) bags, loo roll, wash kit, basic Koko repair kit and WD40, food and snacks, plastic water bottles (use over and over). In the desert I carried up to 12 litres, now in soggy Arkansas, far less.
Also a Spot GPS (great but eats batteries) and Followmee GPS for security and to track progress.
Having had a rough US map on my site for ages, the last few days had a very accurate one. Many pointed out it’s not a good idea for safety reasons if I can be pinpointed by anyone to within 20 ft! Now working on a compromise.
Oh, forgot the Twix bar, eat at least one a day: my record 5.
Day 124 to 126
What a thrill to walk over the Mississippi River, the vast, revered vein that splices the country in two.
My crossing was delayed by a torrential rainstorm which meant covering Koko in a trash liner and me in a yellow poncho.
Today, though, I set off at first light for a 22 miler as hopeful as Huckleberry Finn. I was excited but anxious, unsure whether I could hike across the Greenville Bridge. There’s no info on the internet and everyone I spoke to in nearby towns said they’d never seen a walker cross the 4000 metre structure, one of the longest cable bridges in the US.
I need not have worried – there was a decent hard shoulder to walk along and not much traffic.
I zipped across, snapping the odd photo, praying the police wouldn’t stop me. If I hadn’t been able to cross it would have meant a radical detour to another bridge as I have to walk America in a continuous line.
Reaching the other side and seeing the Mississippi sign put me in an exultant mood. 5 states down now, only 3 to go until I reach Savannah on the East coast.
I was sorry to leave Arkansas though, its forests and swamps had enchanted me.
The last time I crossed the Mississippi was in 2001 at the pretty, historic city of Natchez, sadly the murder capital of the South at the time.
I was accompanied by my splendid if ornery mule, Browny. Two cops kindly agreed to give Browny and I an escort as we walked across the bridge. When they turned on their car’s blue flashing siren, Browny freaked. Nostrils flaring, ears swirling, she bolted. Perhaps the fastest mule and man crossing of the Mississippi in history!
Earlier in the day I’d met Frankie Jean Lewis, the sister of that wild and legendary rocker, Jerry Lee Lewis.
She’d shown me around the Lewis family home which included John Lennon’s piano, or ‘peeyana’ as she said it, and a cheque from Elvis.
Afterwards I told her how funny and flambouyant she was, to which she replied: ‘At my age, darlin’, I’m only flamboyant from the knees down.’ A class act.
Mississippi, the Magnolia State, awaits.
Many thanks in Arkansas to Julie Klutts and Marcia Howton Fowler at G and G Grocery Store and to Terri in Garland City, Fernando Alatorre at Mi Familia, Caitlin and Mike at El Dorado Chamber of Commerce, Juanet Gaskin, Bubba and Paula Nations Medlin and Tad Dugal in Strong and Chris, Maddie and John near Snyder. Also, to world runners Tom Denniss for Mississippi logistics and ever helpful Tony Mangan for visa advice and contacts.
For more info on the three wonderful causes I’m walking for – the Alzheimer’s Society, the Puzzle Centre and Medical Detection Dogs – or on how to make donations, please go to the Charities page.
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