Days 91-93/ May 28th-30th – Arrow Rock, MO to Higginsville, MO: Jim the Wonder Dog

County Road 202 in Missouri

Another surprising detour en route to Highway 41

It’s become so numbingly hot over the last few days that we’ve begun getting up at five, in the hope of enjoying at least a few comfortable hours of walking at the start of each day.  There are bright patches of molten tar on the shoulder, and by noon each day our walk is effectively a series of tiny hikes between one pool of shade and the next, across zones of searing sun in which, like a space probe on a hostile planet, we can last only a limited time before we begin to malfunction.

The sign outside Hardeman R-10 School read ‘School’s Out for Summer!’  We walked into Marshall along Highway 41, which along this stretch followed the route of the Santa Fe Trail.  This was deep farming country, and although for several hours the most interesting thing we passed was a Monsanto soy-bean factory, we had to remain alert for approaching tractors.  These weren’t the benignly chugging machines of the English countryside, but terrifying behemoths straight from the set of Avatar, with wheels taller than we were, the driver encased in a tiny Perspex cabin perhaps eleven feet in the air, and an alarming collection of hooks, spikes, flails and threshing claws dangling from every side.  They were so large that they couldn’t fit onto the one-lane highway, but thundered towards us along the shoulder, forcing us off the road if we wanted to remain in our unthreshed state.

Graveyard near Concordia, Missouri

Farming, fast food and death: The only certainties of life in western Missouri

We came into Marshall through a ring of grain elevators, the cathedrals of the Midwest.  It seemed an anonymous town, built around a heavy stone courthouse, surrounded as usual by a square filled with failing small businesses and abandoned shops.  The tragedy of the British high street is that it’s been so completely taken over by retail chains; the tragedy of the American Main Street is that it’s been so completely abandoned by them.  There was little left on the square but a few sub-prime loan companies and the campaign office of a losing Congressional candidate.  In the window of the Marshall Democrat News, a poster was advertising a Demolition Derby on the Saline County fairground.

Stop signs near I-70

Ambiguous signs are the bane of the cross-country walker

We made a bee-line for Marshall’s main attraction – the memorial garden to Jim the Wonder Dog.  Along a brick path around a shady lawn, a series of small panels related the story of Jim’s exceptional life.  He was a Llewellyn setter, owned by a local man, Sam van Arsdale, in the Twenties.  One day, so the story goes, Sam said to Jim, “Let’s have a rest under that hickory tree.”  Unbidden, Jim went and sat under the correct tree.  Sam, astonished, tried giving Jim a range of other spoken commands (the natural next step for any sane person), which, to his amazement, Jim followed to the letter.  As the panel put it, ‘his master was astonished by the realisation that his dog understood all that he was saying to him’.

Sam began charging audiences to see Jim in action, or, to quote the panel, ‘exhibiting a sense beyond human comprehension’.  He picked people out in crowds from their descriptions, identified cars in parking lots from particular states, and apparently predicted the sex of babies and the winner of seven Kentucky Derbies.  As the panel concluded, ‘the fact that he was able to predict the outcome of future events seems to indicate that he possessed psychic power’.

So far, so hucksterish.  Jim was examined by that fortress of academic rigour, the University of Missouri’s veterinary department, where he astonished the assembled luminaries by obeying instructions in foreign languages and even in Morse code.  He won a measure of the sort of fame that is the portion of psychic dogs everywhere: appearances in Ripley’s Believe it or Not (we chose ‘not’), an invitation to the White House, and offers from Hollywood, which he turned down (Sam, not Jim, though presumably this would have been well within Jim’s compass).

Jim the Wonder Dog in Marshall, Missouri

Jim the Wonder Dog: He's probably reading your thoughts right now

‘It was a common observation,’ read one panel, ‘that Jim had large, piercing, human-like eyes.’  It was impossible to ignore the unspoken belief enshrined in the garden: that Jim was a human being, with psychic powers, trapped inside the body of a dog.  This belief was apparently shared by Larry, a middle-aged man who sidled up to us in the garden to strike up a conversation.

“I’ve lived in Marshall fifty years.  My girlfriend’s aunt was related to the people who owned him.  Jim could do jus’ ‘bout anything.  He was for real.”

This, of course, was how religions began.  Larry also shed light on a new angle on Jim’s story: local rivalry.  A town fifty miles away also laid claim to a miraculous dog of its own.

“Oh, yeah.  Marshall has Jim the Wonder Dog, and Warrensburg has Old Drum.  They have a statue of him in the courthouse square.  But Old Drum was shot because he killed somebody’s chickens, I think.”

Jim died in 1937.  Pearl, Sam’s wife,expressed disappointment that they never found the source of his power’ (though poor educational standards in Depression-era Missouri seem like a good bet).  Marshall’s slogan today is ‘Smart Dog, Nice Folks’, though perhaps ‘Smart Dog, Credulous Folks’ would be more apt.  But living in this heat, to be fair, would be enough to impair anyone’s judgment.

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