Bentonville, Arkansas to Paducah, Kentucky is 413 miles. We would travel through the nation’s worst Covid hotspots of Joplin, Springfield, and Poplar Bluff – all in southern Missouri. We departed Northwest Arkansas at 9:30 am with a bloated fuel tank and made our run through the Hot Zone with one pit stop. The first three hours were exactly as I expected. Flat, followed by mostly flat, with partly flat moving in by hour three. Forecasts in this neck of the woods are generally accurate.
The Jeep ran easy. I was careful not to push the RPM’s too high while stepping off the clutch to engage its tall throw-shifter while accelerating. Maybe we’ve come to an understanding. Kéa picked the tunes and we settled in for a long day behind the short boxy windscreen. The Jeep is very content to cruise at 60 mph, which makes calculating ETA quick and efficient. If things went well, we would pull into Paducah a touch before 5 pm.
To my surprise, southcentral Missouri began to resemble Vermont. Steep foliage laden hills cascading to rocky cliffs surrounded miles of curvy road. The Ozarks resemble northern New England and we snaked our way over moderate climbs and corners I never thought could exist in this part of the country. Behind the wheel, I feel every small wrinkle of buckled pavement and the slightest breath of wind. To say the Jeep’s tall profile and rigid suspension adds to the fatigue of its operation would be quite the understatement.
The road fell from the Ozarks and passed through Poplar Bluff where predictably our path straightened right out. Another hour of monotonous linear travel was broken up by crossing a series of long narrow bridges over giant muddy rivers. The Kentucky border sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Empty barges line the barren shorelines of these iconic aquatic thoroughfares, and Kéa leaned out the window to take photos of the mighty brown arteries from the rusty spans above the water.
The two-lane road off the eastern shore of the Ohio River to Paducah narrowed considerably. What I thought would be a major highway was little more than an alleyway. I wouldn’t want to navigate this route at night. Eventually we hit some odd sprawl. Not your typical suburban pockets…more like a balding cat. A patch of hair here, some whiskers there, and a lot of bare spots. McMansions lined one side of a random road while tenements lined the other. The only people I saw outside their homes were of different race and shouting at one another. We kept driving.
Passing the consummate fast food chain restaurants and drab local strip malls, we entered a residential zone that appeared to be trapped in time. Dilapidated homes from the 1950’s guarded the main drag into downtown, along with pit bulls and their shirtless owners. Cars on blocks, many with key parts missing, outnumbered working ones with tires…many with key parts missing. We kept driving.
A few blocks farther we found the Paducah Holliday Inn Riverfront Hotel. It looked nice enough. A giant wall along the river-side of the building ran the length of the city’s waterfront – a high-water barrier used to keep floodwater away from the main town. I felt that perhaps another barrier should have been built on the opposite side as well, to keep the town of Paducah out. Both Kéa and I were exhausted from the drive. I owned a 1957 PA 22-20 Taildragger for 10 years. I’m not sure what I find more stressful; flying that old airplane, or driving this damn Jeep. Either way, we were ready to be stationary for an evening.
We checked in, grabbed the valuables out of the Jeep including my bike, and pressed the up button for the elevator. As the doors opened a shirtless man smoking a blunt and holding the hand of a plump six-year-old girl wearing a “Jesus Loves Baby” T-shirt came strutting out. They looked us up and down as we traded places. The doors couldn’t close soon enough. “Nice Place” was all Kéa could say.
Paducah is depressed. The small downtown is mostly boarded up or vacant. Surprisingly, the hotel was full. It might be that the only thing in these parts to do is get a room at the Holliday Inn. Every room on the river-side had a balcony and was packed with shirtless party-goers, coolers, and twangy music. Kéa and I had the city view. We scoped out a few dinner options and set out in search of anything.
Not more than one block from our hotel, we passed the first tweaked out young adult talking to himself and staggering across the shabby weed filled sidewalk. At least we would know what to expect as we made our way further into the heart of town. Dodging dementia, we managed to find Paducah Beer Werks. It’s housed in an old bus terminal, but they failed to capitalize on the charm. The beer was not good. At least it didn’t werk for me. Thankfully, the food was excellent. It’s hard to screw up pizza and salad, and we very much enjoyed an early meal.
With a little time to kill, we explored every inch of downtown Paducah. A few minutes later we decided to take the river walk back to the hotel. The Ohio River runs 981 miles from Lake Erie to its mouth on the Mississippi. The air had cooled considerably and we watched the sun sink beyond the western banks of the water, turning both liquid and horizon into multiples of magenta. Cribbage board in hand, we sat down to listen to some live music on the back patio of the hotel.
Three guys in their 60’s, or maybe their 50’s, played hits from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and Today. I think it was bluegrass with some Johnny Cash mixed in…that was the Today part. After every song, the guy with mike would shout “Whir so ess-eye-tud ta bee heear eet thuh Hally-dye-Ian!!” I translated for Kéa, who then couldn’t stop giggling and found some redemption in our planned stop on the Ohio. I sipped a warm flat Yuengling lager while my daughter annihilated me at Cribbage. River towns…tomorrow we keep driving.