Day 55/ Apr 22nd – Louisville, KY to Greenville, IN: Hoosier daddy

“The Ohio is the most beautiful river on earth.  Its current gentle, waters clear, and bosom smooth and unbroken by rocks and rapids, a single instance only excepted.” – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

Today we left Louisville bound for St. Louis via a town called Vincennes, so it won’t require all of your mental faculties to deduce that we’ve entered an historically French part of America.  In fact, all of America from the Ohio River here in Louisville to the Mississippi at St. Louis used to be French.  Both cunning and lazy, the French realised early on that rather than hacking their way west through miles of thick forest and vicious Indians like the British, they could grab much more American territory by simply sailing up the Mississippi and then fanning out eastwards.  They set up a network of forts and trading posts between the two rivers, which were eventually ceded to the British in 1763 after the French & Indian War.  The United States inherited the land from Britain after Independence and called it the Northwest Territory; over time, it spawned the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Sally walking across the Clark Memorial Bridge

Crossing the Clark Memorial Bridge over the Ohio

We struck out into it over the Clark Memorial Bridge – a fine example of the Massive Rusting Girders school of architecture – and across the Ohio River.  The Ohio was vastly impressive: slate grey, apparently motionless and over a mile wide.  It’s the first of four great rivers that we’ll cross on our walk (the others being the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Platte), but I must confess ignorance of its magnificence until we crossed it today.  It’s the largest tributary of the Mississippi, and, incredibly, runs through six states for almost a thousand miles (the Rhine, to offer a European comparison, is more than two hundred miles shorter).  This is the astonishing thing about American geography: just as you feel you’re getting to grips with it, it springs upon you a thousand-mile-long river that neither you nor most people outside the country know anything about.

It seems always to have been a great boundary.  The Iroquois and Osage Indians fought bloody wars to control the land around it, and in the 18th century it was for a time the border between European and Indian territory.  Later, it was an important migration route for Europeans from Pennsylvania (its source is in Pittsburgh) to more westerly states.  In the 19th century, it was the de facto boundary between free and slave states, and then between the North and the South during the Civil War.  Slaves in regions near the Ohio, especially around Louisville, were often taken from their families and shipped down the river en route to New Orleans; the practice gave us the expression ‘sold down the river’.  Conversely, by crossing northwards over the Ohio, slaves could escape to freedom.

We were escaping to Indiana rather than to freedom, but the route was the same.  Through the gaps between the bridge’s girders we could see the slowly shifting water eighty feet below.  We were, predictably, the only pedestrians on it.  The bridge had been a great deal busier last week, when it was used as a launching platform for thousands of fireworks during ‘Thunder Over Louisville’, an annual fireworks spectacular whose apparent purpose, having watched it on television, is to recreate for those Americans who were unable to fight in Iraq the experience of Baghdad civilians during the ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign.

Indiana sign on the Clark Memorial Bridge

Indiana: 'The Slightly Nondescript State'

There were no ‘Welcome to Indiana’ signs on the other side, only a granite pillar at the end of the bridge with the state’s name carved into it, so we had to be content photographing each other in front of that.  Our first impressions of Indiana weren’t good: an ugly highway interchange and a smoke-belching factory behind a barbed-wire fence.  The state struggles a bit with its identity – one sign above the highway on-ramp read ‘Indiana: Lincoln’s Boyhood Home’ (a rather feeble slogan given that its two neighbours, Illinois and Kentucky, boast ‘Land of Lincoln’ and ‘Birthplace of Lincoln’ respectively), while another one beside the bridge plumped for ‘The Crossroads of America’.

There’s confusion, too, about Indiana’s nickname – the ‘Hoosier State’.  Remarkably, no one seems entirely sure what a hoosier is, and why the state – and, by extension, its inhabitants – is named after it.  The name first appeared in the middle of the 19th century, either as a word for riverboatmen or as a derogatory term for local hillfolk (to this day, ‘hoosier’ is used in St. Louis to mean roughly ‘white trash’).  There was a Samuel Hoosier who led the construction of the Louisville & Portland Canal in the 1820s and who apparently preferred to hire men from Indiana, who may thus have become known as ‘Hoosier’s’.  And, finally, a persistent folk myth has it that the word originates from the practice at shouting ‘Who’s here?’ at visitors to frontier cabins.  We trudged into the state with the mystery still unsolved.

Indiana signs on I-65

Indiana: 'The Two-Slogan State'

We skirted around Clarksville, a largely charmless riverside town that was largely destroyed in a terrible flood in 1937.  Not for the first time on the walk, we had the uncharitable thought that it might have been better not to rebuild.  The town was used in the early 19th century by Kentuckians as a venue for duels, which were forbidden at the time across the river in their own state.  It’s most famous, though, as the place where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark met to plan their great expedition to the Pacific, in October 1803.  They recruited nine men from Clarksville – a third of the eventual expedition party – who returned to the town three years later having taken part in one of the great feats of exploration of all time.

Just before we reached Greenville we saw a curious sight.  Just after three o’clock, school was getting out at Floyd Central High (‘Home of the Highlanders’).  Several hundred children streamed out of the school building into the car park, like workers clocking off at a factory, and got into their cars and began queueing to turn out onto the road.  To us, this was a bizarre, Bugsy Malone transplantation of children into an adult world, and we found the sight of all these sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds sitting behind their steering wheels lined up for their commute home oddly depressing, as though we’d stumbled upon a group of kids filing tax returns or filling out mortgage applications.  Still, with petrol less than three dollars a gallon, at least it won’t make much of a dent in their pocket money.

Gun shop sign near Greenville Indiana

Yosemite Sam: Not exactly the epitome of responsible gun ownership


One Response to “Day 55/ Apr 22nd – Louisville, KY to Greenville, IN: Hoosier daddy”

  1. Jeff Says:

    I’ve been enjoying your well-written comments through, especially, Indiana. One error that I might point out is the graduating class at Shoals High School. Unless I misread your musings, you indicated that only six students were in the graduating class, while, although not an actual count, there are approximately 50 students graduating this year (actually today, I think). Again, I am enjoying your writing, and shall continue to read your comments as you progress Westward.

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