After miles of driving, I have stopped at this intersection in the middle of a tiny dot on the map, and I have come here on purpose. Meaning, for weeks and months this very intersection has been a destination.
So having arrived at my destination, I get out and look around. On my left is a yellow sign saying "High Water Possible". On the right is CJ's Liquor, Wine and Beer, and I learn that they sell Keystone Light ("It's Good To Be On Top") beer by the six-pack of cans at $2.99, or by the case at $9.99. The next door store has dispensed with such niceties as names: above the entrance one sign says simply: "Milkshakes, Burgers, Fries, Pizza, Catfish, Chicken" and another sign says simply "LOTTO GAS BEER DELI". A large tanker motorvates past, making the turn at the intersection. "Tri-State Gas Company" is the banner on its side, and "Our Customers Are Our Warm Friends." ("Warm", get it?).
Behind is the first clue to where I am (and possibly why), had I not known: "Cayce Baptist Church Welcomes You." Indeed, this is Cayce, Kentucky: tiny town centered on this intersection in the far southwestern corner of the state.
Why did I come here? For that, the second clue helps: Cayce is not pronounced, as I might have imagined, "Case". Instead, it is pronounced "Casey". As in Casey Jones, who took his name from this town, legendary locomotive engineer and subject of song after song. One, by the Grateful Dead, famously if unfairly accuses him of being "high on cocaine". But it, like the others, only adds to the legend.
Casey Jones was really John Luther Jones, a successful engine driver in these parts in the late 1890s. In April 1900, he took charge of a New Orleans-bound passenger train, the "Cannonball", in Memphis. A few hours later, travelling at 70 mph, he saw a freight train parked on the tracks ahead. With no time to come to a stop, Jones ordered his fireman, Simeon Webb, to leap off and save himself. He stayed at his post, trying to slow his train. He plowed into the freight train and died still holding the controls.
The heroic stuff of legend, this man. As I stand there, I see the plaque across the street, under a pine tree. I cross and read:
- In this community, the famous locomotive engineer John Luther Jones (alias Casey Jones) spent his boyhood days. Casey's many record feats as locomotive engineer engrossed him deeply in the hearts of his fellow workers. On the morning of April 30th 1900, while running the Illinois Central Fast Mail Number 1, "The Cannonball" and by no fault of his, his engine bolted through three freight cars at Vaughan, Miss.
Casey died with his hand clenched to the break helve and his was the only life lost.
Famous for bravery and courage, the name of Casey Jones lives deeply set into the hearts of American people in both tradition and song. It can be truthfully said of him, "Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friend."
Casey Jones Memorial, erected by admirers of Casey Jones, July 9th 1938.
She is warm and kind, and the museum has some interesting things. But through the hour I spend there, I long to be back at the windswept junction in Cayce, where after the tanker barrels past, the only sounds are of the breeze and the birds in the pine tree.
CJ's at the Cayce intersection is owned by Judy and Kenneth Blackburn: she hearty and whitehaired; he crusty, tall and laconic. "The museum should have been up here," they tell me while I'm buying orange juice.
"Would you have liked that?" I ask.
Judy Blackburn thinks for a few seconds, and then I realize she has misunderstood. "Yeah," she says, "I think Casey would have liked that, hon."
I don't know about that. But to me, this intersection in Cayce, this beautiful and desolate spot with no museum, fits the legend of Casey Jones.