EUDORA TO LAKE PROVIDENCE
We woke at Will and Terri’s place on Grand Lake and were treated to a delicious breakfast of cheesy scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage thanks to Will’s handiwork in the kitchen. While Terri went out to teach Sunday School, we got a bit of work done, trying to catch up on our notes, fold laundry, and grab a shower. Before long it was time to leave, but Will and Terri wouldn’t let us leave empty handed—not only did they give us an awesome Arkansas Great River Road mug, but they also packed two gallon ziplock bags full of leftover fried quail from last night’s feast! We will never ever go hungry… that is one certain takeaway from our time in the South so far!
Tom ran out from the J. Austin White Cultural Center south on Main Street. He got about a half mile in and realized there was no connection back to US Highway 65, so he turned around and ran back to the starting point and east to the highway. This added another mile and a half to the run which doesn’t seem like much, but there’s a headwind today . . . Before long we were outside the city limits and into the flat agricultural land that makes up much of the Arkansas Delta region. Agricultural fields left and right, the Mississippi River levee sometimes appearing miles to the east. Did I mention the headwind? It’s incredibly strong – coming straight out of the south. This would not be an easy day . . .
I’m at the exchange point waiting for Tom and suddenly realize we are going to be late for our welcome at the Bernard House. He should be here by now, but I know the headwind has trapped him in its snares, so I decide to forgo my final run into town and call him up to do a reset on our plans. I drive ahead and nearly make it on time to the Bernard House (but in the van), and Tom is set to ride in the last leg now—I think he’ll be here in a half hour. The reception in Lake Providence was not unexpected—Southern hospitality is revealed again. A crowd was gathered with snacks and a cold pitcher of water. A welcome sight, especially once Tom rolled in. This is our first Louisiana community and things are already different. Today we experienced the first “figurative” gumbo reference we’ve heard! Once I arrived I was quickly introduced to both Cassie Condry Lemsing, the owner of the Bernard House, and James Davidson as well, a young man who recently kayaked the length of the Mississippi. He and Cassie are here to share their stories with us thanks to the help of Linda Waller, our host for the day in Lake Providence, Louisiana.
After much informal visiting, and Tom finally coasting in on bike, we all arrived at a plan for gathering these stories before eventually heading to Linda and her husband Hal’s house for a small dinner party with more folks from the community. First we sat on the steps of the house with James, born and raised in Choudrant near Ruston, Louisiana. He and a friend of his from Lake Providence decided to paddle the Mississippi River last year, taking 59 days to complete the journey. They camped their way downriver, using a tent he had traded for a raccoon he had trapped. James has recently applied for seminary in New Orleans. He feels called to work as a chaplain or a teacher, and now seems like a good time to go back to school with few obligations. He currently belongs to Temple Baptist Church, but sees his future ministry as providing disaster relief or something like that, not directly in pastoring. James feels deeply connected to Louisiana, and hopes to stay here in his future—home is where the family is for him.
We convened with Cassie next—first on the stairs then for a tour through the Bernard House, her latest project. Cassie and husband Pete are refurbishing this historic home just on the south end of the lake—just north of town. She was born and raised in Lake Providence, but then went away to Duke University and married a Connecticut man. She put her masters degree in fine arts to use, teaching Creative Writing in Boston while her husband lived in New York. They finally came together when they moved to Argentina, where he had family. After a transition period, she came to love it there, but they eventually went to Singapore for her husband’s work. This was the most bland place on earth, according to Cassie, and she was experiencing chronic stomach aches amongst other stresses.
Cassie was writing a lot while she traveled, and got published a couple of times in the process. At a certain point both she and her husband realized they were ready to have a child, but not so much with each other. In the end, Cassie moved back stateside to New Orleans for a while and ran into Pete, a childhood friend who has now turned into the love of her life and father of that child she wanted to have. Both of them were looking to make roots, and while the debate began between New Orleans and Denver, in the end they settled for Lake Providence. Pete is a petroleum engineer who can live anywhere for his work. He just has to travel several days out of the week to Houston. It appears to be one way to make small town living work.
According to Cassie, Lake Providence is just a small version of every place else. It made sense that she could start here to work on socially conscious things. She is involved with local recycling, several initiatives downtown, she’s working on a festival as well. Cassie sees improvements in the community, but there is a way to go. She totes her one year-old daughter Millie around with her as she charges ahead with her mission to make change in Lake Providence—thank goodness Millie is also a go-getter, from what we hear! Writing has had to take a back seat to all this community activism and mothering, but from what we can see, she’s just building material. We can’t wait to see and read what comes from Cassie Condry Lemsing’s return to Lake Providence!
Now it was time to head down to Transylvania. That’s right, the place with the bat emblazoned water tower! And also the place where our hosts Hal and Linda Waller live. As soon as we arrived, we hopped in Hal’s truck and took a ride out through the bottomland and up over the levee to a wooded area right along the Mississippi River. It’s actually a hunting club that Hal is a member of along with several other folks—mostly dentists, he says. It was a beautiful evening, and we checked out the new wing dam project that the Army Corps just put in to keep the navigation channel in check. As we looked out over the river, we spotted a boat in the distance and pulled out the binoculars spotting a two tow boats—one pulling and one pushing a barge with some very extravagant steel structure towering on top of it. It seemed like quite an operation.
As we drove back to the house, Hal kept pausing looking for alligators—he didn’t want Tom to make it back to Minnesota without seeing one! However, this would not be the night for a sighting. It was the night for a great jambalaya dinner with a great group of people though!—Andy and Laura, Larry and Ann, Cassie and Pete, Hal and Linda, and us! We ended up with a male table and a female table, so I can only imagine the men talked about hunting and farming while we females talked about more serious social issues that the town is facing. Ha. No, I’m sure we all had a few laughs and a few more sobering moments as well. All in all it was good getting to know a new group of people in our first Louisiana town.