July 16, 2009

Right-angle town

The intersection is reminiscent, first of all, of that intersection in Alfred Hitchcock's classic, North by Northwest: Cary Grant in the middle of flatland nowhere, looking puzzled yet dapper as only he can, and eventually he gets cropdusted. Admittedly, this meeting of roads isn't quite as nowhere as that, isn't quite as flat, isn't surrounded by miles of crops and above all, isn't frequented by malevolent cropdusters. At least, none that I can see. But nevertheless, it is the first thought that comes to mind.

Cary, while looking for Casey.

After driving miles through a sunny but cool afternoon, I have stopped at a tiny dot on the map where two roads -- Kentucky Scenic Byways both -- cross at right angles. And as I roll to a halt, I remind myself: I have come here on purpose. Meaning, for weeks and months, going back to home on the other side of the planet, this very intersection has been a destination.

So having arrived at my destination, I get out and look around, feeling an inexplicable urge to soak in everything, maybe because it is such a nondescript spot. On my left a yellow sign says "High Water Possible". On the right is CJ's Liquor, Wine and Beer, where they sell Keystone Light -- featuring the vaguely suggestive slogan "It's Good To Be On Top" -- by the six-pack at $2.99, or by the case at $9.99. A few seconds go in trying to figure how "It's Good To Be On Top" might apply to beer. None of my answers are fit to print.

Next door, another store has dispensed with niceties like names. Above its entrance, a sign says simply, "Milkshakes, Burgers, Fries, Pizza, Catfish, Chicken", and another sign says simply, "LOTTO GAS BEER DELI". A few dozen yards south is Cayce Oil and Lube, Bait and Tackle. There, you can stock up on "crappie rigs, worms, jigs, lures, catfish, bait", while getting yourself a $23.95 oil change which will "feature Valvoline Products."

I like this place already. Cayce it is: tiny flyblown windswept nondescript you-pick-your-adjective town centered on this intersection in the far southwestern corner of the Kentucky.

Why did I come here? For that, oddly enough, it helps to know how you say the name. For months, I had known that Cayce is not, as I might have imagined, pronounced "Case". No, this is "Casey". As in Casey Jones, legendary train-man, subject of song after song, grew up here. One, by the Grateful Dead, famously if unfairly asserts that he was "high on cocaine". But that accusation, like all else we know about the man, only adds to the legend.

And this right-angle town gave him that name.

Casey was really John Luther Jones, a successful engine driver in these parts in the late 1890s. The story goes that early in his career, some colleagues asked him where he was from. When he said "Cayce", the name "Casey" stuck.

One day in April 1900, Jones took charge of a New Orleans-bound passenger train, the "Cannonball". A few hours later, whistling through Mississippi at 70 mph, he saw a freight train parked on the tracks ahead. With no time to brake the "Cannonball" to a stop, Jones ordered his fireman, Simeon Webb, to leap off and save himself. He himself stayed at his post, trying to slow his train. Futile, because he plowed into the freight train anyway. When they found his body, he was still holding the controls of the "Cannonball".

That kind of legend.

CJ's belongs to Judy and Kenneth Blackburn: she hearty and whitehaired, he tall and terse. Referring to the Casey Jones museum in Jackson, 2 hours south of here, she tells me: "That museum should have been up here, honey! Seeing as how he grew up here, not in Jackson."

"Would you have liked it here?" I ask.

Judy Blackburn thinks for a few seconds, and when she answers I realize she has misunderstood. "Yeah hon," she says, "I think Casey would have liked that."

It's such a charming answer that I don't feel like correcting her. Now I don't know what Casey Jones might have liked. But this intersection in Cayce, this desolate spot with its dollops of breezy quirkiness, makes a fine memorial to the man.

Sorry, Judy, but I hope they never have a museum in your one-junction town.

No comments:

Post a Comment