The story of a 30-day winter exploration through California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range

Day 30: Eudora — The Sierra of the South

benje williams
My First Winter in the Sierra
12 min readDec 1, 2022

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“Whether you think you can, or think you cannot, you are right.”

This was Grandma Ollie’s favorite saying, and one of the few stories my dad ever told about her when I was growing up. How she went from being a cotton sharecropper in Arkansas to the first black woman vice president of the fifth largest bank in America. “I guess she was right,” my dad would say, with a smile. It was the same smile every time — amazement and pride. But there was a sadness inside of it too. From a story that was too hard to tell. A story that was incomplete. And didn’t have a happy ending.

Despite his mom’s life outlook and stubborn optimism, there were some things, like breast cancer, that she stopped thinking she could overcome. And she was right.

She passed away the year before I was born. Although we never met, I felt like I was near her as I hiked through the Auburn foothills with my dad. As I drove underneath the California redwoods with my sister. As I watched my one year old niece learn how to walk. “Great job, Ollie,” my dad said, stretching his arms across generations as young Ollie fell into them.

But these days, I feel like I’m falling and there’s no one to catch me. I’ve left the solid ground of the Sierras, where my feet were planted. I knew the way. I understood the pines, the fir, the cedar. And my family walked by my side, through the foothills and along the American River Canyon. Now, 3,000 miles of unknown country lie ahead of me, like a book written in a language I don’t know if I can read, which might be punctuated by a New York City I no longer recognize.

But somewhere in between those 3,000 miles, perhaps a day or two off the path, is Eudora, Arkansas. “Whether you think you can, or think you cannot, you are right.” I’m somewhere in the middle. Of a lot of things, including whether I have the strength to deviate from my route. To finally seek out my Grandma Ollie and Grandpa Benjamin. The town that was their home. But also the town they left. What parts did they carry with them? What parts did they leave behind? Why did they never come back and why has no one ever visited?

These questions are buried in my subconscious until they rise to the surface as I drive across Arizona and New Mexico, where I had last been with my maternal grandparents, nearly 30 years ago; then as I drive into Texas, to visit my younger cousin Andrew, one of Grandma Ollie’s only other grandkids, outside of my siblings; and finally in the north west tip of Arkansas, where I thought I could sneak through, visiting two national forests and continuing on to an Understory project in Kentucky, without detouring to Grandma Ollie’s southeast corner of the state. But the Ouachita and Ozark forest are shockingly beautiful. A golden eagle glides in place against high peak wind. An armadillo stuffs its long stout under fallen oak leaves in search of a lunch. Bald cypress roots buttress out of still swamp water. An orange sun spills over the aqua-green water floating down the Mulberry River.

“Arkansas is called the Natural State for a reason,” a forester named Seanna in Ouachita tells me. Usually there’s a high turnover in most Forest Service offices, she says. People know they have to move out in order to move up. But not here, people are in it for the long haul. This is home.

Trees grow fast in these conditions, so her team harvests more timber, mostly loblolly pine, than any other state, outside of Alabama and Mississippi. But the revenue covers less than 10% of their budget and their government funding has shrunk, so they consolidated their four offices into two. “Not to mention all the projects we’ve had to sideline.” She says it matter-of-factly, like that’s just the way things are. I tell her about Understory and the work we’re trying to do. She’d love to help and gives me her contact details and the name of three teammates I should reach out to. I thank her and tell her about my grandparents. That they were from Eudora. That I was thinking of going down there to visit them.

The words stumble out like a love confession. I’m shook by the feeling of pride and belonging. The feeling of a home. Of Grandma Ollie, calling from across the state, from her corner of the land — her Auburn, her Sierra Nevada.

One day you finally knew / what you had to do, and began.

Pink hues stretch across the flat land the next morning. Outside my hotel, there’s a lake I hadn’t seen the night before. Above it, hundreds of geese are migrating south. The staff downstairs is entirely black. And at the gas station. And at the market. I haven’t seen this many black people since I left Harlem in 2009.

“Well, Eudora is a few miles south of here, sweetheart,” the woman at the visitor center says, after a two hour drive. Her name is Dorothy. Her brown hair is streaked in grey and her white glasses bespeckle her dark face. I’ve never heard my grandma’s voice, but I imagine it might have sounded like this. Soft, sweet, structured, unrushed.

To understand a place, you must understand where it belongs within the landscape that surrounds it. The geology and time that made the place what or who it is. This is the lesson of Auburn, of Sierra Nevada, of California. And now, perhaps, of Eudora.

“Well, sweetheart, Eudora is the south eastern-most part of the state. The end of the line. The state’s little toe.” We both chuckle and Dorothy says that Mississippi is only 5 miles east. Louisiana 10 miles south. We’re in the great Mississippi Delta. The river used to flow through here, until the great flood of 1927. 300 people died. Possibly some of my ancestors. They built one of the world’s longest continuous levees, totaling more than 650 miles. The levee cut off this part of the river here, creating the largest natural made lake in Arkansas, and the largest oxbow shaped lake in North America. Dorothy points to the water behind us. The lake is C-shaped, like half of an open heart.

“We’re part of the Mississippi byway,” she says, talking about the migrating Canadian geese I followed from my hotel. There were thousands of them, many stopping to eat breakfast in the rows of dormant crop. Mostly soybeans and rice. “We’re the country’s largest producer of rice now,” Dorothy says. But there’s still cotton. Which I can see as I drive away from the visitor center, towards Eudora, past a green industrial shed branded in capital letters: Cotton Picker Works Inc. I look at the fields, possibly the same fields my grandparents picked, and see speckles of crop residue on top of the brown soil — small white remnants of the past season’s harvest.

I approach the town, pulling off the road at the welcome sign. A Corolla waves as I get out of my car. Eudora, 2,819, the sign says, colored in the same tent of green as the grass that surrounds it. The oak trees above look barren, but still hold some leaves. A breeze blows from Lake Village. And just off the side of the road, lies an adult heron — with shiny grey feathers, scaly black feet, and yellow pupiled eyes — lifeless in the grass.

I drive on, past a bouquet of Mississippi Delta life — Eudora Grill and Chill, with dozens of lunch-time cars parked outside; John Deere Arkansas Ag Company, New Mt Zion Baptist Church, Eudora City Park, Body Kreations, Commerce Community Bank with a 24 Hour drive up ATM; Family Dollar, Dollar General, Mini Mart, Scott Gasoline, Carquest Auto Parts, Mini Storage, a closed down Exxon, Jay Ross Used Car Sales, Superior Group of Companies, with dozens or maybe hundreds of cars parked in front of it; Double Quick Gas with an attached Hot and Crispy Chicken; Lil Wil’s Food Truck, selling chili dogs, hot tamales, nachos.

I’m driving below the speed limit and it takes three minutes to drive through the whole town, earmarked at the end with a sign for the next town: Tallahala, LA 52 miles. I turn around and return to the sign that caught me most by surprise: Business District. I follow the arrow, turning left off of Highway 65, left on Main Street. Jake Up Learning Center is open. So is Better Beginnings, where every child deserves our best. Eudora Drugstore has moved locations. Miles Beauty Supply and Variety Store is closed, so is Curious Center and Tommy Marshall’s. The Cultural Center is closed too, even though there’s a We’re Open and We’re Awesome sign.

There’s hardly a car on the block, with the exception of a small congregation in front of the building at the very end. City Hall. I park in front of the sign, which is carved into faded wood and covered in a layer of peeling gold paint.

Inside, there are two glass doors on the right and a staircase that leads to a door that is boarded shut. A woman sits behind the first glass door, which says Revenue. She’s on the phone, but points me to the woman next door, which says Water. It is also, I find out, the office of the mayor. The woman inside says her name is Beverly. She grew up in the backwoods and moved to Eudora a while back. “The town’s seen better days,” she says, looking at the single window behind us. “We used to have two all-night diners, a hotel, cafés, a grocery store, a movie theater, and a high school.”

She’s talking about the time when my grandparents would have been here, which is hard for me to get my head around. That a place could have gotten worse over time. And also better. Things started booming in the early 1900’s, when the railroad came to town, she says. Businesses started buying the property right here, downtown, along the tracks. “But we black folks weren’t allowed on the other side. Had to get permission just to cross over the tracks after night.” The railroad became the town’s Mason Dixon line, an invisible wall separating blacks from whites.

“One of the few things I know is that my parents lived on the wrong side of the tracks,” my dad had told me the night before. I’d replayed his voice note twice, but didn’t realize he meant the literal wrong side of the tracks.

Now the town is over 80% black and Beverly lives on the old white side. “But the roads everywhere are bad,” she says. And so is the water. And the economy. There’s only one main employer, which is Superior Group of Companies, the corporate uniform manufacturer I had passed earlier. And there’s no high school or grocery store. But they’re trying to change that, she says, and tells me about the newly elected mayor, who I later learn is the first black woman mayor of Eudora.

We talk about their strategic plans and I ask about the old school, which had been boarded up. Now kids get bussed to Lake Village, which can take hours. If a kid lives in the rural parts, they wake up at 5, walk to the bus stop, and spend an hour on the bus just to get to school by 7 something.

I tell her more about my grandparents — that they picked cotton as sharecroppers and managed to become valedictorian and salutatorian. My grandpa was about to retire from the Air Force, at age 40, when he died in a mysterious snorkeling accident, in water that was only 5–10 feet deep, while he was on an unaccompanied tour in Okinawa. In California, my grandma climbed her way through the glass ceiling of corporate America and became the first black female VP at the fifth largest bank in the country.

I tell Beverly my grandparents’ names and the name of their school — Eudora Colored High. She goes back to ask the mayor, who comes out from the back. “Ollie Williams, that name sounds familiar,” the mayor says, and picks up her phone. “Ma, what was the name of the school called, before G.C. Johns,” she says. “Eudora Colored High?” She smiles and hangs up. “You know the building’s still there. On Baker and… What’s that street called?”

“Swanigan,” Beverly says.

They give me their email address and phone number and tell me to let them know the next time I’m coming to town. “There are only a few elders left, but with a day or two notice, we can call them up and you can sit down with them.”

Outside, I check the cultural center again, but it’s still closed. I see the water tower in the background: Eudora, Catfish Capital of Arkansas. Later, I look at online pictures of glasses and sinks and bathtubs filled with brown liquid. The tower hasn’t been cleaned in years.

I drive past a caravan of cars and mechanics outside of Selman’s Auto Service, a hybrid Mexican restaurant and bait shop, and a vacant grocery store called Sunflower. I drive over the train tracks. There’s a pretty blue house with a massive oak tree, probably twice as old as my grandparents would be today. A plane roars overhead, twenty or thirty feet above the ground, followed by a pesticide downpour over rows of brown soil. A yellow school bus pulls up behind me, then turns left.

I pass the tracks again and turn left, on to Baker. An abandoned agriculture structure sits at the intersection, beyond the tracks. The road gets bumpier. Another water tower rises in the horizon. A partially demolished wall emerges — exposed yellow bricks saturated in sunlight. Brown strands of woody vines climb up the walls. Patches of green grass dot crumbling cement floor. G.C. Johns Lower Elementary School, a blue sign says, as I turn on to Swanigan.

This is it. Where my dad and Aunt Trina became possibilities. Where Grandma Ollie and Grandpa Benjamin first met. Stairs they climbed every day. Halls they ran down. Grass they jumped rope on. Oak trees they ate lunch underneath. Perhaps the room they were first told, “Whether you think you can or think you cannot, you are right.”

I walk around the buildings, my face warmed by the sun. A man drives by in a truck and waves. I look inside a classroom, which is dark and piled with wooden furniture. I put my hand along vines that ascend the brick wall. They are tough and hard and I can’t tell if they are breaking down or holding up the wall. I look up at the field behind me, across the train tracks, and see a heron flying over it. Grey, silent, majestic. She’s flying over an empty field. Her extended wings spread over all that is. All that could be. Her head pointed north. Her feet pointed downward.

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benje williams
My First Winter in the Sierra

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || nature novel in progress || recent writing at benjewilliams.org