Gallery of Excerpts

Incidents in the life of a mad poet-rambler. Scroll ever downwards to sink your teeth into some samples—if you find the topics interesting, consider purchasing a book!

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SMOKY MOUNTAIN GEM-MINERS

The road to Mason’s Ruby & Sapphire Mine was so twisted it made eight miles seem like thirty; I passed dumpy houses, Baptist churches and an airport bordered by cornfields. At last I was turning down a dirt driveway to an assemblage of wooden structures—the office and several mining flumes—and beyond that a big pit for digging. In my memory the whole place is awash with the ruddy color of dirt. A few people sat at the flumes, bent over screens full of pebbles like characters in a gold rush Western, while a radio blaring country music lent a festive blue collar atmosphere.

I stepped inside the office and was greeted by two men and a woman who collectively gave off a good aura; I asked what the story was here and they said you paid $30 to mine all day, digging your own dirt instead of just buying pre-filled buckets like they sold at most mines. Seeing as how it was already the middle of the afternoon, I figured I’d come back the next morning and get my money’s worth, so I asked if there was anywhere nearby to camp. The woman said they had campsites available on property for $10 a night, and glancing in the direction she indicated I saw several picnic tables and a row of portajohns. Not particularly scenic, but perhaps it was better than backtracking. Then suddenly one of the men piped up.

            “Shit, you can camp at my place,” he said. “Won’t charge ya nothin’ and we got real bathrooms.”

            I could describe this man right now based on observations made later, leading you to believe that I made an informed, logical decision about whether or not to accept his offer. But the truth is that somehow my heart was taking in things my head had no way of knowing at the time, so that approximately two minutes after making Keith’s acquaintance I could already tell he was harmless—a real goofy good-time guy.

            “Get a case of beer, grill out, get the gui-tar and do some pickin’,” he continued.

            “Sounds about my speed,” I broke in, and just like that it was settled. The kindly older woman in the office never batted an eyelash, which I took as further confirmation that my snap judgment had been sound.

Two hours later, Keith was off work and I was following him to his double-wide on the other side of Franklin, down a country lane called Sugarfork that paralleled a creek. We were greeted at the door by a sturdy fellow named Todd, who was staying with Keith at the moment. I hadn’t bargained on being outnumbered, but then again it did alleviate the awkwardness of one-on-one interaction…. These were the split-second things that were going through my mind, but all that was put to rest in an instant.

            “Ya thirsty, girl?” Keith said, handing me a Coors Light from the 24-pack we’d picked up on the way home. I said yes and the three of us sat down in plastic chairs on the front porch, sipping contentedly in the lulling warmth of evening. They told me they liked to come out here and play “dueling banjos,” waiting for tourists to go by on their bicycles so they could pick out the infamous melody from Deliverance.

“They hear that song, they pinch their ass cheeks and pedal faster,” Todd said, and I knew then there was nothing to fear in him either.

What followed was a long evening of beer slushies and talk, all of which passed in one agreeable time-bending instant. I learned a lot about my companions. Todd drove a full-size red Ford with extended cab and camper shell, its substantial build a perfect match for his own. He was big and pink-footed and freckly, with a baby face and fuzzy strawberry-blond hair, and he reminded me of what Lowcountry old-timers called a “honey bear”—though in fact those were just common black bears and Todd fit the name much better. I’m not sure how he got interested in gems, but they were more than just a hobby. He told me he’d spent a thousand days on the road rockhounding, an experience about which he planned to write a book, and it didn’t hit me until later that a thousand days equaled almost three whole years.

Todd was intelligent and thoughtful as a balance to his big outdoor constitution. The main thing you might not notice about him at first was a certain shy gentleness, born of good manners and a sensitivity uncommon to the male species. When Keith offered me the couch to sleep on—which by then I had full faith in the chivalry of my hosts, and why sleep out when you can be warm in the fold?—Todd wasted no time fetching pillows and blankets to make me a “nest.” He knew what it was like to be on the road.

“You’re out there by yourself for two, three weeks at a time,” he said. “People take you for dead. There’s no such thing as cell reception, you talk to yourself but the squirrels don’t care—Michele, I love it.”

            “Must be a cool line of work.”

            “There’s times when you’re about starved to death; I’m sure you know. But what it does, it alleviates all outside distractions—gone. There’s only one thing I’m lookin’ for, and that’s a green rock with a fucken ruby in it that I can sell for big fucken money. And when I find that it’s like yes! I can eat tonight!”

Keith was older than Todd, middle-aged but of a youthful disposition, like some high-octane 12-year-old-on-a-sugar-high grown up, bounding around with a joke and a screwball laugh. His hands shook from all the chemicals. He wore cargo shorts, plain t-shirts encircled by a “miner’s belt” of orange mud, and tennis shoes with white socks—a wardrobe that furthered the illusion of adolescence. His shaggy hair lay greased back under a woodland camo ball cap, and the mustache only partially disguised several missing front teeth. Have you ever had those dreams where your teeth fall out? They say this symbolizes fear of aging, failure, impotence and death; that you worry about what others think and cling desperately to your fragile ego. People with missing front teeth have obviously let a lot go.

Keith was an extrovert and a pal; quietude was not something he prized. The fun of life to him was in company, activity and noise. He kept up a constant stream of conversation, if not to others than to himself, and his statements were reinforced by exclamatory noises such as you’d see in a comic panel. “WHOA!!” he’d shout, or “PWAAAaaahhh…!!” like a cartoon character falling off a cliff. Originally from Wisconsin, he first came to the Smokies in 1984 because his parents had a cabin. He got a job at a mine, helping tourists during business hours and digging buckets of dirt at night.

“Twenty-five dollars a day, fifty cents a bucket,” he reminisced. “Made a beer run everyday—WAAHHH!! I was pretty spry back then, hell yeah! Tractor-trailer of cigarettes in me, a brewery of beer, and a warehouse full of pot! RRRR-WHOOO!!

Keith’s rock collection was impressive, but not necessarily to the untrained eye, as he tended to leave things in the rough. The biggest ruby he ever found was 462 carats, and when I expressed interest he went rooting around his bedroom in a vain attempt to find it. After a few minutes Todd asked me, “Is there a rock sitting there by your elbow?”

I looked down at the little end table where my arm was resting next to a rather plain looking hunk of stone. “You mean this?”

            “It’s out here!” Todd shouted to Keith.

“Solid from top to bottom,” Keith said, coming over and picking up the ruby. “Only way to find out the quality and how much it’s worth would be to cut it open. I don’t care! I like it just the way it is.”

He asked what I did in South Carolina, so I showed him a copy of Rambler’s Life without expecting him to take any serious interest. But he reached a grubby hand in his pocket, pulled out a fifty-dollar bill and shouted, “There’s two copies right there—and I’m gonna read the sumbitch too!” He gave the other copy to Todd and said, “Now I only owe you seventy-five.”

We had picked up a pack of pork chops at the supermarket, as well as some yellow squash and corn from a nearby gas station that sold a few baskets of local produce. But the spirit didn’t generally move Keith to cook until around 11 p.m. “I gotta smoke a bowl so I can get hungry,” he said, well into his eighth or ninth beer.

I was falling asleep in my chair by the time Keith’s dinner was ready at one in the morning. “You need to get mountainized, girl!” he reproached. Odd timetables notwithstanding, he was an excellent cook; our late-night feast consisted of baked taters, chops with Cajun seasoning, boiled corn on the cob and a big casserole of onions, squash and broccoli. Then at last I was free to turn in, and I passed out in my nest on the couch.

I suppose it did cross my mind that people might find my situation unthinkable—You did WHAT!? Stayed WHERE at the invitation of WHOM!?—but I slept with the innocent faith of a child.

 

—from “Franklin and the Gem Mine,” Rambler’s Life: the South Reloaded

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FARMER JOE

This is the story of a man too classic to be true. I’m almost afraid to tell it lest you accuse me of stereotype or outright fabrication. But as best I know, these are the facts of Joe King’s life:

He was born in Toomb County, Georgia, in a lil ole wooden shack. At age five he started working the peanut fields, and he hasn’t quit working since—fifty years on the same farm, employed by the same family, through four generations of boss-men. Joe actually enjoys picking cotton.

He had his first sexual experience at age seven, opening the door to a series of exploits that made Shaft look droopy by comparison. Now he’s a senior deacon in the church. He has witnessed demonic spirit possessions, been ridden by haints, and had his mojo interrupted by witches. Phantom jukes, fairy rings and prophesies are part of his day-to-day reality. His momma fell down dead while in the spirit at a tent revival. His last name is King instead of Burkes because his granddaddy was a gambler who got into some trouble in another county, so he went down to the courthouse and had his name changed to the moniker he earned by winning so much money. But the title suits Joe just as well.

When schools were first integrated, Joe’s principal stood up in front of the entire student body and said, Now I want y’all to know, there are more niggers here today than ever before. Sharecropping profits got Joe his first car, the fastest one in town. Back then he was a lean 170 pounds, could work thirteen-hour days in 100° heat and hop fences nearly as tall as he was; later he’d dance till dawn with his cousins to Gladys Knight & the Pips. This was a time when men walked twenty miles to court a gal. Today his disability check is supplemented by gathering pecans under other people’s trees with permission, and selling them at a tidy profit to Northern ladies making their Christmas baked goods.

Joe’s spent 52 of his 57 years on the same red dirt road, in a series of cabins and trailers set between piney woods and cotton fields. He’s come through the days of saying yessir to white men younger than you, of risking arrest if you walked too slow past the wrong house, of getting beaten for taking a white woman on a date. Now he’s so well-respected that even the most incorrigible toothless rednecks won’t use the n-word in his presence. He was asked to do a photo shoot for a billboard on Interstate 95, and more recently some people approached him about a reality show. Yet he’s never aspired to being the boss-man on a farm of his own because that would be too much paperwork.

            Suffice it to say Joe is not a stereotype, he’s an archetype: antihero of the near mythical American South. And the mere fact of our friendship is more than just a testament to the unlikely turns a human life might take—it’s a straight-up miracle.

 

—from The Life of Farmer Joe King


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SOLO-BACKPACKING THE SWAMP FOX TRAIL

By midday I’d come to Halfway Creek at mile 6, the first primitive campground, but it was only a stopover for me. Nobody else was there. I got water out of a really cool old hand-pumped well, then brewed tea and sat under a flowering dogwood to rest. I stared at my feet, and beyond them to a carpet of oak leaves warm and brown as a suntan. Birds twittered and fussed; spring’s new green shimmered; a little wind in the trees blended with the rush of an unseen car as it occasioned some lonesome highway nearby. Even the twig poking my back uncomfortably as I leaned against the dogwood was something to appreciate about the moment. I watched a dozen tiny ants crawl between dirt specks on my khakis, then a fly landed on my ankle and began rubbing its forelegs together but I didn’t brush it off. Everything sufficed.

            It is said that when the Buddha was a very small child, they left him alone under a beautiful shade tree, where he spontaneously assumed a cross-legged position and entered the first jhana, a deep meditative state. The rapture he experienced there, which had nothing to do with sensual pleasure but was born of detachment and solitude, would later be recalled by him when he began his quest for enlightenment.

            I had an experience sort of like that as a kid: there was absolutely nothing special about it. I was sitting on the front steps of Hilltop Elementary School with my sister and a friend, eating a snack, and none of us were talking. It was a clear day and I gazed out over the whole one-stoplight town of Ilwaco, Washington, beyond which lay the Pacific, and suddenly I experienced everything differently. The world didn’t glow or pulsate or anything like that; it just was, and for no apparent reason it filled me with the most profound contentment, a sort of elevated calm. It was like I had perceived that true happiness came from nothing.

Sometimes you have these moments, and you try to recreate them later but it’s never the same; a flash of insight just penetrated your mind by accident, was realized briefly by your entire physical body, then it slipped away.

            That didn’t happen under the Swamp Fox dogwood, but I was still having a good time. By mile 8 I’d found a bunch of ticks on my legs and pack, and just after mile 10 I stopped at a bridge over a blackwater creek. I felt a little footsore so I clambered down to sit on a gum tree root and soak my toes, in a restorative trickle with undefined banks where wild Easter lilies sprouted and cottonmouths certainly lurked. There I took my repose, gazing at nothing and feeling at ease.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent in a long silent trudge through pine flatwoods—a rediscovery of solitude. I spotted some wildflowers that I called dwarf azaleas, believing I’d made the name up; but later research proved this was in fact the correct designation. Small and delicate, they looked like a cross between regular azaleas and honeysuckle. Their native habitat was the understory of longleaf pinewoods, and they could be distinguished from similar swamp azaleas by the fact that dwarf blossoms emerged before their leaves. Also of interest along the trail: little wild violets and metallic green beetles that flew.

            The sun was getting low and I had hiked fourteen miles. The area where I now found myself was comprised mostly of pine trees and thick low shrubs, which prevented pitching camp; so when I came upon a clearing under an oak I determined to halt. I meditated for an hour to keep the peace, then picked some more ticks off me and settled down to supper. In the interest of traveling light I had brought only the most basic provisions and gear, thus my meals were rather spartan: tea and a fruit bar for breakfast, trail mix throughout the morning, tea again at lunch, chocolate to get me through the afternoon, and for the evening meal a cup of instant miso soup.

            Just at dusk there was a brief but exquisite chorus of songbirds; then this gave way to the usual program of crickets, spring peeper frogs and whip-or-wills. Rain was not in the forecast so I cowboy-camped, but the mosquitoes were so thick I had to sleep with a stinky t-shirt draped over my face. (Actually it had a heady bouquet of honey mixed with forest dirt and fresh sweat, and not liking the smell would mean I didn’t like myself.)

When I first lay down, in my sleeping bag on the hard ground, the night sky appeared so beautiful: that last pale glow in the west, against which spindly pines were silhouettes, and in the spreading black velvet a crescent moon with one bright star like its pet.

But as the hours dragged by I slept fitfully, with just the tip of my nose poking out and mosquitoes whining around my ears. I wished the birds would sing so I’d know it was finally morning. A little before dawn I dozed off, and when I awoke it was to the glad awareness that my only concern was walking.

 

—from “Last Hurrah for the Palmetto State,” Rambler’s Life: the South Reloaded


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GANDY’S BARBERSHOP

Picture a bright promising morning, 9:30 a.m. in the Memphis ghetto, when things are still on the up-and-up…I wanted to photograph a street food cart.

Let me tell you about this street food cart. It had a barbeque cooker built into it, and the end into which you fed firewood jutted out of the cart in such a way that as you stood at the window to order, hot coals glowed invitingly next to your head. The cart itself was painted in the colors of barbeque, mustard yellow and red sauce, with the word Malia’s spelled out in retro cursive script. What a sight it was! I didn’t feel hungry, but I ordered a smoked sausage and two corn cobs just so I’d have an excuse to snap a picture.

            In the midst of this process I was approached by a man in a three-piece suit. He was bald with a trim gray mustache, baby blue silk necktie and matching handkerchief in his breast pocket. Again I will reiterate that it was 9:30 on an ordinary weekday morning, with nothing in the vicinity to explain his formal vestment—another reason why I love the hood.

Immediately the man began jive-talking, and I corresponded with the appropriate hogwash; what specifically was said would be impossible to recount, as it made no sense then or now. But the upshot was that I took the man’s picture in front of the cart. His name was Mack and he was a traveling shoeshine man, who by his own introduction worked downtown and all over, including famous hotels where he shined shoes to the stars. Soon he was fiddling with loose change in his pocket and asking for money to buy a sandwich.

            “How can you look that good and not afford a sandwich?” I chided.

            “I ain’t made my money yet today,” he replied quite logically.

            So I told the man in the cart to make my new friend whatever he wanted, then I paid up and was about to go my merry way when Mack offered to shine my shoes for free. Today he was working at Gandy’s Barbershop just up the street and could shine my shoes there; but I would have to wait about an hour because at the moment he was riding with a buddy who had to get his car radio fixed, then he had to go to his momma’s house around the corner and get his shoeshine stuff, but he promised he’d do a really good job, any type of shoes, any color. I pointed out that my shoes were cloth slippers, but this did not deter him in the slightest. I was about to effect an escape when suddenly it occurred to me that my hiking boots could probably use a little TLC; and more to the point, why wouldn’t I go to Gandy’s Barbershop? I told Mack I’d meet him there.

            And that’s how I found myself the object of many bewildered stares as I pushed open the door to a shabby yet convivial establishment, traditional setting for so much male bonding, and a place where even local women would not have a whole lot of business…what in god’s name was I doing here? Just to be sure it was the right place, I asked for Mack and they said he’d be in later; but I could see by their faces that they had only one collective thought: What Mack done dragged up this time?

Undaunted by their lukewarm reception, I repaired to a side parking lot to wait. I ate the corn on the cob and fed my dog the sausage. I took a picture of a spraycan mural on the exterior wall—charmingly amateurish depictions of Elvis and B.B. King, in striped and checkered suits respectively, standing side-by-side like brothers with sparkling stars behind them. Was Mack ever going to come?

Then at last a beat-up brown sedan pulled alongside me, and there was Mack with a black roller suitcase of the sort commonly used by business travelers. He also had a black briefcase, black felt hat, black scarf, long black overcoat and a 24-ounce beer in a paper bag. His buddy sat in the driver’s seat, shaving in the rearview mirror with an electric razor. Mack made me hold his beer, then draped his outerwear over me like a mannequin so he could rummage around the suitcase for some cocoa butter, which he gave to the friend to rub all over his face after shaving. I asked how Mack enjoyed the sandwich.

“I gave it to my momma,” he said. “She wanted it so bad, and I ain’t wanna give it to her, but she ain’t had no food you know. We ate it togetha.”

I found this slightly touching. But more than that it struck me as curious, the way insignificant events can unfold in such an elaborate fashion: a woman in a bad neighborhood of Memphis had eaten half a barbeque sandwich this morning because a traveling writer from South Carolina stopped to take a picture of a street food cart, and that was the closest their lives would ever come to intertwining.

Mack and I went in the barbershop and he immediately set to work—removing the laces from my boots and shampooing them in the sink; clearing away dust and mud; polishing the leather before buffing and waterproofing it with a tin of special sealant. All this took a ridiculously long time—three hours perhaps—during which I did my best to look natural.

There were seven men besides Mack in the shop: two barbers, two getting haircuts, two either waiting or just hanging out in the chairs, and a fellow who appeared to be criminally insane sitting on a bench by the door. Bright white light streaming through the iron-barred window behind him resulted in a sort of iconic look, and he sat there in a slumped unnatural position, staring wide-eyed at nothing and never speaking a word.

Everything in the shop was rather dingy looking, full of little black hairs, but what it lacked in spiffiness it made up for in livability. This was a place where you could loiter for hours and no one would object. There were electric fans, a soda machine, an old arcade game, family photos stuck against the mirrors, and several “Art of Barbering” posters that depicted cuts, fades and intricate maze-like cornrows. Just as you’d expect, the men clowned and laughed and razzed each other. Someone put a dollar in the jukebox and invited me to make selections, and soon everyone was singing along to Marvin Gaye “Ain’t That Peculiar.” It was so authentic you’d think it was staged, that real life couldn’t possibly come this close to how you’d imagine it.

            None of us had any way of knowing that I would accidentally instigate a small riot at Gandy’s before the morning was out.

 

—from “Memorable Morning in Memphis,” Rambler’s Life: the South Reloaded

 

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DEMONS IN THE MOONSHADOWS

There is a gravel road in the Pisgah National Forest that leads toward the base of Pilot Rock, and being familiar with the area I knew it had free campsites along it. I decided to stick with the known, and in late afternoon chose a place to spend the night. Ahhhh, peace…there was nobody out here but the occasional passing car, perhaps one per hour, and even these would be gone by nightfall. Back in Bluffton I’d purchased a seat cushion and small pillow for four dollars at a thrift store, and now I took these out and laid them at the base of a tree to meditate.

Lately my camping had become minimalist. Rather than enjoy a few beers while pitching the tent, chopping wood, cooking dinner and reading before the fire, now I simply spread a ground cloth and sleeping bag under a laurel grove and awaited nightfall. It came with whip-or-wills and owl cries, that usual spooky lonesomeness; but this time instead of trying to push the feeling away, I simply let it sweep over me. Here is what I observed: a weight on my chest, a constriction in my throat…what’s so terrifying about that? I sat with the feeling and was at peace.

People often ask me, Aren’t you scared to camp alone? But I’ve learned that the only real fright is a jarring confrontation with yourself: take away the usual distractions and your inner demons are no longer held at bay. They rise up from their slumber and come out to dance grotesquely in the moonshadows—and the scary part is you realize they’ve been there all along, that you can’t condemn them because they’re you. Yet the mind recoils and names them “other,” criminals and ghosts and wild beasts….

And what it comes down to is you’d rather die from heart disease or a routine traffic collision than go into the woods at night.

 

—from “Freaks of Asheville,” Rambler’s Life: the South Reloaded


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A WALK IN THE WILLIAM BANKHEAD NATIONAL FOREST

My plan would be devised at the ranger station in Double Springs. The gray-haired lady who worked there hadn’t done much hiking herself, but she did have at her disposal all sorts of badly photocopied packets and maps. Thanks to this literature I learned that on June 19th, 1936, President Roosevelt issued a proclamation to enlarge the forest’s boundaries, and change its name from Alabama National Forest to Black Warrior National Forest. But they couldn’t leave well enough alone: Eisenhower shrunk it back, and had the name changed again to the terribly unpoetic William B. Bankhead. No one seemed to know or care much about the man Bankhead, and the lady at the ranger station found his expression in a framed portrait on the wall unpleasant.

            She detailed all my options, which consisted of different waterfalls and walks; but certain trails had been closed due to tornado damage, and all caves were off-limits for the sake of the bats. White-nose syndrome was spreading, and what it did was coat the bats’ little snouts in an itchy gunk that made them wake up from hibernation—once that happened they started burning through precious fat reserves and later failed to survive winter. It was best to steer clear until scientists could determine whether local bats had the white-nose thing or not.

            Borden Creek Trail in the Sipsey Wilderness Area seemed my best bet. I understood from the woman’s description that it had a waterfall and an enticing feature called “the fat man squeeze.” I drove to the trailhead, threw some essentials into my vest pockets (camera, notebook, water bottle, storm whistle, emergency thermal blanket and two apples) then set off with my dog Coosaw.

We followed Borden Creek, which looked orange because it was shallow, sandy-bottomed in the sun, and filmed over with fallen leaves; if the water moved you’d be hard-pressed to tell which way. The forest here was full-blooded and mature, with stacked shelves of rock partly concealed by fall foliage, and I found it at once comforting and mysterious. Sometimes cliffs loomed a hundred feet over the trail, dripping, with little vines and roots hanging out of crevices; ferns and backlit trees crowned the tops.

Wilderness areas don’t allow motor vehicles, and trails are intentionally left primitive. Still I was pleasantly surprised when I came to a dangerous place where the only way to proceed was by climbing steep rocks. You had to hoist yourself up by clinging to tree roots and a section of knotted rope that somebody had left as an aid, and there was no way Coosaw could follow. So I walked her back to the truck before continuing on alone.

            I loved Borden Creek. It didn’t make you want to hike a trail so much as go adventuring around on your own—rockhopping and peering into caves, testing out leaf-beds in airy groves, wedging yourself into clammy clefts where droplets echoed like reverent whispers. It invited you to get your toes in the soft sand of the creek bottom, to hear your sloshing steps ricochet off rock walls that you didn’t realize were there behind the trees.

Poking around some way up a slope from the trail, I found a caveman camp with fire ring and a log for sitting, under a rock overhang caked with smoke. I thought about staying there in silent meditation like Bodhidharma, the Shaolin patriarch who spent nine years facing a rock wall in order to behold his mind. I figured I could get water for tea in the creek, and that no one who happened along the trail would be likely to see me, which made me lonely just thinking about it. Anyway there wasn’t time.

After that I passed some people going the opposite direction—a father with his children and dogs—and we exchanged greetings. So far everyone I’d met in the Alabama park system sho’ nuff sounded like they was from Alabama; they always addressed me as ma’am. Which made sense because this area isn’t exactly on the tourist radar; I mean when was the last time you heard someone say wistfully, You know, before I die I’d like to see North Alabama. Based on my experience, however, I’d call it a well-kept secret and a highly spiritual place.

After 2.7 miles I reached the trail’s terminus at a roadside parking area—how had I failed to see the waterfall? I must have misunderstood the woman and confused two different trails. But what about the fat man squeeze? Perhaps I just wasn’t fat enough, or man enough. Oh well, the walk was pretty and held merit without novelties.

On the way back I couldn’t resist, I had to meditate on a rock shelf, any rock shelf would do. So I picked one and climbed up it and sat down and closed my eyes…and it was just like meditating anywhere else.

 

—from “The Wonders of North Alabama,” Rambler’s Life: the South Reloaded


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INNER PEACE AND SNAKES

It was still early in the day when I arrived at Cane Gully, the last primitive campsite on the map and a mere nine miles from the end of the trail. I could have gone on, but there was no telling whether I’d find anywhere else suitable to camp. Cane Gully was not a bay, a bog, a floodplain or a stream—it was a straight-up swamp, a lake of standing black water. It was the mirror of polished obsidian carried by Tezcatlipoca—Aztec god of chaos, beauty and strife—and cypresses rose out of it like smoke. To gaze at its surface was to learn about yourself, because it became a receptacle for all your worst fears; the portents it threw back were self-fulfilling prophesies. Ah, the dark mystery of a swamp!

            First order of business: soak my feet. I dropped my pack on the bluff of high ground where earlier campers had left a fire ring (no one had been here in a while because the ashes were quite old) then I went down to water’s edge to find a seat. The first good log I saw had a snake on it—little and harmless with yellow and black stripes—so I kept looking. A root jutting out of the bank would do; I took a stick and poked the area, and when nothing scared out I sat down. Cautiously I probed my feet into the water, which was so dark you couldn’t see but a few inches under; and as my tender white meat sank from sight a tense feeling welled up inside me—I was a little creeped-out.

Just then I spotted a pretty yellow songbird, the type you don’t see everyday, and for a moment I forgot my apprehension. Actually there were two birds, a male and a female, and they hardly seemed to mind me as they flitted in and out of a cypress knee that appeared to contain their nest. Cane Gully was rather delightful.

            I couldn’t have been there five minutes, and was just starting to let my guard down when a big ole snake came swimmin’ straight for me—I was so still he hadn’t noticed I was there. I moved slowly to get up, whereupon he ducked and went away. Guess I’ll go back up to the campsite now, I thought, hightailing it outta there.

But after making a cup of tea I was back: I needed to restore my feet or I’d never make the last nine miles, and more than that I had to come to terms with my fear. Michele, you like snakes, remember? I settled back in the same spot, and this time took a leap of faith: I allowed my feet to rest on the bottom. It was muddy and twiggy and full of hazards, unseen like the depths of my mind, and the longer I sat there the more completely I relaxed.

Fifteen minutes later I was in a state of alert reverie when another big snake came swimmin’ along from the opposite direction. This time I just chilled. He did not appear to be a moccasin. I made a small movement so he’d know I was there, and he paused to look at me with his little eye—observing me observing him with my little eye too. Then he went swimmin’ along again, his cute snaky head poking up out of the water, and after passing within a few feet of me he slid over a log and headed deeper into the wilderness. I would see one more snake within the hour, making for a total of four, and prompting me to encapsulate the moral of this hike in a phrase: You really have to be at peace with life to soak your feet in the swamp.

            But my night was only beginning. The mosquitoes were bad, and I had to sleep with a long sleeve button-down draped completely over my head, sleeves tied around my neck so that not an inch of skin was exposed. Then I put my hood up and burrowed into my sleeping bag. It was hot and I was suffocating. Cane Gully was one solid din of nocturnal clamor: frogs that sounded like dogs, frogs that sounded like geese, frogs that sounded like sick cows, frogs that sounded like crazy frogs; plus a million squalling insects, pierced at intervals by the deranged cackling booty calls of barred owls. Their gurgling whinnies were somewhere between funny and freaky. Yet in spite of all that, what I heard most were the mosquitoes droning around my head. My feet throbbed and burned, and any part of my body not in pain was filled with an itching tingling restlessness.

All this was tolerable to a degree as I just lay there meditating; I was in such a state of introspection that I hardly noticed the insanity of the swamp. But the insomniac hours would not pass; lucidity became a curse. And there arrived a moment when, driven to the brink of despondency, I thought Alright Michele, there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Even if you couldn’t take it anymore and hopped up in a dash, what could you possibly do? Can’t read a book, can’t go to the kitchen sink for a drink of water, can’t even turn on a light…. No choice but to find solace inside yourself.

And since nothing lasts forever, night passed on into day. At sunrise I sipped tea and regarded the swamp: cypress trunks of dusky purple, a foggy teal shroud of fronds, and the sky all pale orange and white like an ice cream Dixie Cup. It had so been worth it. I was glad I’d spent the night enduring privations like a soldier; and yeah, maybe one day I’ll be so at peace with myself that I won’t have to talk about it anymore—but when that time comes you can read back over this and see what I went through to get there.

 

—from “Last Hurrah for the Palmetto State,” Rambler’s Life: the South Reloaded


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HAIRDO IN THE HOOD

When we got home after church, Jacinta’s best friend and hairdresser came by to redo her braids. The two had met at a club: Jacinta was standing alone, staring out a window, when Mawu walked up and handed her a business card, saying she liked her style.

“The first time she came over to do my hair, her spirit was so broken,” Jacinta recalled. Mawu didn’t even finish the braids in time for a photo shoot Jacinta had to go to, but she went anyway and was happy. (She showed me the picture in a magazine: everyone looking all serious in their business attire, and Jacinta with braids on the sides of her head but a big shock of undone fuzz in the middle—which I found hilarious, but also a wonderful tribute to her loyalty and strength of character.) Back then Mawu was hoeing a rather tough row in her personal life, but Jacinta taught her to read scriptures, took her out and encouraged her to make changes. That was seven years ago; now the two were tight.

“People tell me I have been an angel in her life,” Jacinta said. “But I didn’t change her, God changed her. I consider myself a vessel. I like to help people, but it’s not me, it’s God helpin’ them through me.”

I had met Mawu briefly the previous evening. She was quiet, more reserved than Jacinta and a good person to balance out her intensity—you got the feeling Mawu didn’t mind playing the “best supporting actress” role, but would only take so much diva crap. When I asked about herself, she said she worked from home as a stylist, and that she liked to sing, dance and do hair. Birmingham was her city, but she thought it might be nice to travel. “I’d open up shops all over the world,” she said, “and be hairdresser to the stars.” When I think of Mawu now, I am filled with an unexpected tenderness.

Jacinta and Mawu were like sisters; they teased and bickered and kept each other in check. I could hear them in the bedroom laughing so I decided to join the fun. “Can you do my hair?” I asked jokingly, thinking it was like apples and oranges. But to my surprise Mawu replied, “Yeah, I can give you some braids.” Realizing she was serious I became very indecisive—you know how girls are about our hair—and I kept asking should I, or should I not? until finally Mawu lost patience and said, “I’m offering.”

That did it. What was I here for if not to experience? And it was sweet of her to offer. At their instruction I washed my hair in the kitchen sink, then took a seat in the chair of honor. Soon Mawu was dividing up slick strands of my hair, working her sister-girl magic, and all the while she and Jacinta clowned. They laughed and sang and broke into spontaneous bouts of beat-boxing and preaching; they belted gospel and egged each other on in the old call-and-response fashion. This was day-in-the-life for them, just some Sunday afternoon silliness between friends; but I was totally fascinated. I soaked up the intimacy, the feeling of having my head touched, and when they started teasing me like I was just one of the girlz I couldn’t have been more delighted.

I asked Jacinta if I might stay another night, and when she jokingly said no I told her I’d be sleeping in the truck right outside her door. She pretended to pick up a telephone.

“Yes hello, I would like to report some suspicious activity,” she said, talking low and cutting her eyes around apprehensively. “Mmhmm, a white female with a boat on top of the car.”

The three of us laughed and cut up and I was so happy just to be there.

When Mawu finished my hair, I glanced in the mirror and didn’t know what to think—not my usual look. But by the next day I found that the more I studied it, the more I appreciated her design: the asymmetry of it, the way she deliberately left one piece loose in front to showcase a natural highlight, how the collected braids hung down one side of my neck and sat perfectly on my shoulder like a pet. If I were a star, Mawu would be my stylist, and we’d both be worldwide.

            After she left I went outside in the gathering dusk, through the backyard to a trash-strewn alley behind the house. Drifting along this little backstreet were the comforting sounds of Sunday evening in the hood: soft strains of R&B, dogs barking and children shouting, crickets cricketing and the dull roar of the interstate in the distance. I did some kung fu there in my watermelon wifebeater and North Charleston pants (lemon-yellow cargo capris I got in the North Charleston hood) and with my hair in these new lovely cornrows I tell you I really felt like I was from that West Side neighborhood of Birmingham! Like I was Shelley from the Block just tryin’ to be strong in the midst of everything, believin’ in God and keepin’ hope alive. It was an urban feeling, a minority feeling, a youthful feeling and a woman feeling….

It was just a feeling and then it was gone.

 

—from “A Woman of Faith in the West Birmingham Hood,” Rambler’s Life: the South Reloaded


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GINA’S MAGIC CREEK

“Can I show her the creek, Todd?”

            “Oh, she needs to see that!” he consented enthusiastically. “That place is magical!”

            I followed dutifully as Gina weaved and staggered to her car, drink and smokes in hand; I climbed in the passenger’s side with the pack of little chihuahuas. It was pitch-dark and the gravel driveway had a steep grade—every time we rounded a turn, whole grassy slopes fell away before us in the yellow glow of the headlights. Down we trundled with a slow crunch, but my only thought was that I have relinquished my life and whatever happens now is fine by me; besides, she gets loaded and does this every day, so what are the odds the car rolls my very first time? I crossed my arms over my chest and slumped back with a contented grin.

            “What’s the creek’s name?” I asked.

            “No name.”

            “It’s just your creek.”

            “When I was sixteen I inherited a mountain on the other side of the valley. But I traded it for this.”

In a minute we were at the bottom, where she crossed the highway and a shallow ditch and came to a lurching stop in the grass. “I don’t want you to write nothin’,” she slurred firmly. “I just want you to see it.” Instantly recognizing this as wisdom in the eye of drunkenness, I left my notebook on the seat. It was quite dark, but I’m sure-footed and she knew the way under every sort of impairment imaginable, so we didn’t need a flashlight. A clear path between trees and planted flowers, then we were at a grassy bank, flat and well-mowed for the grandkids, and the creek was singing its nightsong. Peering into obscurity I spotted a hammock strung fully over the water, and in a jiffy I was laid out—Gina had expected this.

“You can look up in those branches and take yourself places you never even been,” she said.

            I kicked back with one arm behind my head, muddy hiking boots elevated and ears tuned to the gurgle; Gina sat down silently on the bank to smoke a cigarette. Neither of us spoke for a good long while. And as I looked up at the night sky, trying to determine which were fireflies and which were stars blinking between black branches, suddenly it occurred to me, This is this woman’s saving grace.

Presently all other thoughts vanished.

            After a few minutes she said, “The serenity kinda sweeps you away, doesn’t it? I’ve done tai chi, yoga, all that stuff that’s sposed to make you have inner peace—none of it compares to this.”

I contemplated her words silently, then became lost in a stillness of my own, until at last Gina’s voice broke through.

“C’mon Michele, you got to go.”

“I know.”

And without another word I followed her up the bank.

 

—from “Rubies and Moonshine for the Road,” Rambler’s Life: the South Reloaded


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SOUTH CAROLINA BACKROADS EPIPHANY

I believe it was in Luray that we spotted a church with a broken cross on its steeple, and a row of identical white clapboard houses that looked much like old slave cabins you see on plantation tours. These were only slightly more modern, and very much inhabited; bed sheets hung on the line and a black family burned leaves in the yard. We wondered aloud if being a tenant there meant you got issued a pair of shoes and some britches.

“A new millennium and this is how the people live!” I shouted with a mixture of amusement and outrage.

            “Oh that’s guvamint housin’,” Anthony stated matter-of-factly. “Can you believe they still puttin’ people in houses like that?”

            “Only cuz there’s still people who wanna live there.”

Scanning the radio we came to Barnwell’s hip-hop/R&B station, 97.9 The WIZ. They were playing the latest Dirty South anthem, a song called “Ain’t I” featuring a sinister beat and ignorant nasally lyrics: Ain’t my money long/Ain’t I got it goin’ on/Ain’t I ain’t I ain’t I ain’t I ain’t I… etc. ad infinitum until you wanted to claw your own ears off. Anthony and I laughed sadly. “I know kids who can sing every word to that record,” he said.

Vulgar rap songs once inspired in me a sort of righteous rage, but like so many things I’ve lately given up caring about it. Caring is overrated. I didn’t even care that much about the slave cabins, since these days all I do is ramble around, see stuff, laugh about it and move on. Furthermore, as was stated by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, maestro of magical realism and one of the few literary influences I claim, “There is nothing in this world or the next that is not useful to a writer.” Having understood this I no longer find reason to balk.

Passing through Luray we saw a girl Anthony knew from work; she was cruising slave cabin row in a shiny indigo low-rider all pimped-out with the chrome rims and stereo system. She seemed an amicable person, and skinny dudes with fresh wifebeaters clinging to their ebony torsos in long washboards of wrinkles were calling out to her from the porches. Anthony got the girl’s attention and they confabbed through driver’s side windows for a minute; but my eye was drawn just then to the Nubian Image Beauty Salon across the street, precipitating an epiphany….

Let me back up a second:

Perhaps a decade ago I had a unique experience on a jet plane—something like what Japanese Zen Buddhists call satori, a flash of sudden enlightenment. Air travel has given us a revolutionary new perspective on the world, but especially if you fly a lot you might not think anything of it; I myself took dozens of flights before this singular occurrence. At a certain altitude, coming in for a landing, I could see distinctly everything that was happening in the realm of mortals below, only it appeared like the movements of ants. All these tiny toy cars scurrying about, all these people believing they were important…in a few minutes I’d be one of them. And it’s going to be hard to describe what happened next but I’ll try: a total-package detachment, a release from cares and an absolute joyous calm—because none of it actually mattered. Which was hilarious and wonderful and a major relief all at once.

Of course, this awareness lasted but a fleeting instant; no matter how hard I tried to get it back in future flights, face pressed to the glass in hopes I’d find that magical altitude where everything became so clear, the feeling could not be conjured deliberately.

Yet funny thing was I now found myself having a similar illumination in Luray, contemplating the Nubian Image Hair Salon. Something about the thought of people commuting to Hilton Head for minimum wage; which led to the thought of others staying behind to do hair; which reminded me that in towns like this there’s nothing to do but get your hair done, nowhere to work but doing hair; which caused it to occur to me that this wasn’t actually more pointless than anything else one might do with a life—work just to live just to work, travel and see things you’ll forget, be born so you can give birth and die—ultimately resulting in the spontaneous revelation that if all this was empty then where did that put me in relation to the gals at Nubian Image if not right smack in the same predicament! Which oddly enough was liberating because it meant I didn’t have to judge.

And though the insight wasn’t quite as penetrative as my mini-satori on the jet plane, this time it more or less stuck: from then on I saw Luray and the slave cabins differently. Fathoming them, accepting them for what they were, I turned up the ugly rap music and laughed.

 

—from “God’s Acre Healing Springs,” Rambler’s Life: the South Reloaded


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THANKS TO HURRICANE KATRINA

I’m not the type of writer who goes seeking the sensational; if there’s a tragedy somewhere I’ll most likely head the opposite direction. People told me Oh, you’re going to the Gulf? You have to write about the oil spill! But I don’t give a lick about that. I report what I run up on, the stories people choose to tell me, things not normally considered; if occasionally I touch on something relevant, I assure you it’s completely by accident. Yet here and there topics do come up—Diane had been wiped out by Katrina.

            “It’s not the things….” she said slowly, trying hard to draw up a formula for loss. “It’s like you have a spiderweb, right, and there are all these really fine threads connecting to each other, and to sand, and to bits of tree bark and to all these different things. Then suddenly the entire thing is gone. A whole community is just gone. If one person is gone they are replaced; their spot can be filled because the roof is still there, four walls are still there. So you see it’s not the things, it’s the connections.”

After the initial shock there had come a period of gratitude, even a desire to get rid of what hadn’t been lost in order to complete the purge. I imagined it like the clean, light feeling one experiences after a bad case of the stomach flu. But this too was just a phase of grief; sooner or later life resumed its normal course, stuff accumulated, roots were sent back into the soil—there was no point in becoming attached to your non-attachment.

Then one day Diane was walking along the beach when she had a revelation.

“It was just a beautiful morning,” she recalled. “The sand was beautiful, the Gulf was beautiful; and I thought, But you were just a monster! I mean what we had was essentially a tsunami—a 35-foot wall of water.”

And suddenly there came a moment of transcendent understanding, when wisdom wasn’t just spelled out in the brain but imprinted in the very flesh:

“There is this thing,” Diane said, groping for words. “It has no name; it is a complete mystery. But in that moment it was palpable: an energy, a propulsion. I’m still going forward one step at a time, even though I’ve seen the abyss, and there the Gulf still is…. There are a lot of us who are really grateful to Katrina.”

So there you have it: a real statement by a real person who was there, the long-pondered viewpoint of someone who dares to see mass destruction in a good light—which is the antidote to mainstream reporting.

 

—from “Ocean Springs, MS,” Rambler’s Life: the South Reloaded


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A NEAT SURPRISE AT CHUNKY GAL

When I awoke it was with a single thought: Today’s the day we’re going to Chunky Gal!

I couldn’t wait. Todd had promised to take me ruby mining there, and since first hearing the name I was smitten; now for weeks I had been repeating it over and over to myself, coming up with various catchphrases: I found a fat ruby at Chunky Gal and Who doesn’t love a good Chunky Gal? It didn’t matter that I had no idea what Chunky Gal actually was—a quarry perhaps? a property or another mine?—because really what was not to like about this whole proposition?

Later I learned Chunky Gal was a mountain, named for some big-boned Cherokee chick who fell in love with a brave from another tribe; her father opposed the union so she fled to her lover over the long remote ridge that now bears her unflattering nickname. Further research uncovered something equally legendary, a headline from the Clay County Progress that went viral when Jay Leno made fun of it on his late-night show: “Men Arrested for Lewd Acts on Top of Chunky Gal.”

I mean, rubies or no rubies, this story was already good.

So the much-anticipated day had come and Todd was getting in his big red truck, waving at me to follow in my little red truck—I tagged after like a mini-me. Our first order of business was a run into town for supplies and a hot lunch at the Chinese buffet. Three plates later I confided that I hadn’t had a square hot meal in days, but Todd said he hadn’t had one in weeks; rations at the mine were sparse and ill-nourishing at best, and you had to just grab what you could—both of us appreciated this bounty.

We were dabbing at our mouths with napkins when Todd mentioned he had a surprise for me.

“A surprise, huh? I like surprises.”

When they brought out our fortune cookies, mine read Your friends will soon give you a great surprise. I showed it to Todd.

            “Two edits,” he said.

            “Take the s off of friends….”

            “And change great to neat.”

He paid for lunch and we went next door to the Walmart, where he asked if there was anything I needed. I figured I had it covered, but he insisted. “Please, I just cashed three checks and I hardly ever come into town—get whatever you want!” I admitted to being short on stove fuel and AAA batteries for my headlamp, so we scooped these items up before going in search of high-stress rope. “I need somethin’ that’ll hold a tap-dancin’ elephant,” Todd told the man in the sporting goods department.

Once we’d gotten that and some snacks we drove out of town, into the misty green hills of the Nantahala National Forest. I followed him up a steep, twisty, rutted-out gravel road, to the top of a hill where he backed into a red clay pullout in the woods. It was the middle of nowhere, a place he had camped many times.

I parked beside him and we rooted around in our respective trucks for awhile, independently self-absorbed; both of us were the sort of people you could mutter to yourself around and it wouldn’t be a big deal. He got busy scratching something with a ballpoint pen on a paper bag over the hood, while I sat on the tailgate brushing dirt off my feet so I could put socks and boots on. A few minutes later he came over and presented me with the Walmart sack containing fuel, batteries and rope.

“That’s part one of your surprise,” he said.

“Hmm…I think I should thank you; but what if I end up dangling from a cliff somewhere on high-stress rope with nothing but stove fuel and some AAA batteries, like okay, you said you were a survivor, now what are you going to do?”

“No cliffs around here darlin’ so keep ponderin’.”

I gave up and he handed over part two: a paper bag containing a fuchsia and gray parachute hammock.

“I thought long and hard about what to get you,” Todd said. “Somethin’ light and portable and really fucken useful. A hammock’ll getcha up off the ground, away from the ticks and snakes; stretch it over a stream and the bugs won’t cross because they know the fish’ll get ’em.”

On the bag he had scrawled a kind note:

 

Forever Road Royalty~Feeling the free wind in our faces and lighting up our souls. Anytime, Anyplace~I have your back always! You work very hard and deserve small breaks just to watch the clouds. I’m proud of you as a whole and always your true friend~RIDE ON, RAMBLER…But rest too~Your Blond Bear.

 

He told me he’d known from the first time he met me that I was go go go—as a DJ serving alcohol to strangers for whose dumb asses he assumed all liability, he had long ago learned to read people. Certainly his assessment of me was true; as a matter of fact it was something I was trying to work on. Within a few weeks I would thank him via email for having helped me rediscover the necessity of meditative pauses, many of which were accomplished in his hammock watching the clouds. He would write back saying he had just set his hammock up in a shady cool corner near the fire pit; that it made a great place to think and scheme; and that although he had given good advice on the paper bag, he never applied it to himself until I quoted it back to him—suddenly he no longer looked at resting as a waste of time, but rather an investment in himself.

Sitting there on the tailgate at Chunky Gal, surprise hammock in my hands, I felt flabbergasted at his thoughtful generosity; I wondered what I had done to deserve this treatment befitting a nomad queen. I know so many good people, I thought to myself. All I do is go around knowing good people!

But to Todd I only said thank you.

 

—from “Rubies and Moonshine for the Road,” Rambler’s Life: the South Reloaded


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REMINISCENSES OF A SOUTH GEORGIA REDNECK

There’s a favorite saying of Southerners, It is what it is, which hardly sounds profound but there’s no way you can argue with it. By saying this you say nothing, yet you’ve said it all. I liked Douglas, Georgia because it was so what it is. You drove the streets and saw old storefronts and historic homes give way to gas stations and fast food joints, which in turn thinned out to farmland, swampland and trailers. Everybody had pecan trees in their yards, and in fact Dewayne said it was a man from Douglas who invented the ingenious nut-grabber, a sort of rotating wire basket on a stick that sucks up pecans as you roll it over the grass.

 

Dewayne was going down memory lane again: the millponds where he used to fish (“Homework? Shoot! I stayed fishin’!”); the school he dropped out of in the 8th grade because it was so bad (that was in the black part of town and fights broke out everyday); the house where a millionaire lived (after he died they found hundred-dollar bills flattened under carpets, stuffed into cracks in the walls, and hidden in all the junker cars outside); and all the people Dewayne grew up with who were now either dead or messed up for life. If the drinking, smoking and drugs didn’t get you, there were a million other ways to die in Douglas: obesity, farm accidents, rotting away in jail, and of course the nuclear waste in the drinking water.

 

When we passed a man with a little flea market stall on the side of the road, Dewayne said, “I went to school with him. He got his wife pregnant, his girlfriend pregnant, his other girlfriend pregnant, then his wife again. Now he got five head o’ kids, he’s real heavyset, drinks a lot of Co’-Cola and all that mess.” It often happened that when Dewayne ran into people he used to know, he couldn’t recognize them because they’d put on so much weight and their hair and teeth were falling out. Dewayne was one of the few people who looked more or less the same.

 

Which wasn’t to say he never had his wild spells. He didn’t ever drink or use tobacco, but he liked to hotrod and otherwise test his luck. No doubt he got it from his daddy, a wide-girthed man with glasses, white hair, and a long, wavy white beard. Dewayne’s daddy always wore a red shirt with black suspenders, and I often saw him at the Bluffton farmer’s market, where he would ride around in a little motorized cart telling children he was Santa. He said this with a sort of jolly sternness, as though rather than lumps of coal this year he’d be doling out whoopins, and he even had a special business card he handed out whether it was Christmastime or not.

 

But back in his day, Dewayne’s daddy was a wild man. We went over the bridge where he used to hit 140 miles-per-hour in his 1970 Duster, with 9-year-old Dewayne in the back. “He has laid black marks all over the town,” Dewayne said, “and I done all the same things.”

 

Dewayne is one of those hard-livin’ country boys who makes you realize how much a human can actually live through. He’s had a goat run in front of his motorcycle, nearly gotten hit by trains, been struck by a rattler but the bite didn’t go through his snake boots, had his eyes drenched in battery acid, and gone seventy miles-per-hour on all the dirt roads at the farm with his cousin Ricky, purposely running old cars into trees just to see how much they could rattle them. He’s got his butt phenomenally whooped on countless occasions by “Paw Paw and his double-barreled belt,” been chased by a raging-drunk 300-pound black woman with a butcher knife in Miami, and leveled a shotgun at two intruders who grabbed armfuls of guns from over the mantle and Dewayne said drop ’em or he’d kill them both with one shot.

 

And those are just a few of his stories.

 

“Now this road here,” he said, making a right-hand turn onto a long straight stretch, “I ’bout like to died on this road one time.” From there he launched into a tale about how he went to the theater and saw a pretty girl he knew from school standing outside all alone. She had been stood up by her boyfriend, who was the baddest man in West Green, the next town over. Dewayne offered to ride her around for awhile, and they spent an innocent hour or two together before he took her back to the theater.

 

Well, who should be waiting there but the boyfriend and six of his cousins, all of whom were brandishing baseball bats and axe handles and anything else they could employ to beat in Dewayne’s truck. When the girl hopped out, Dewayne sped off and the boys gave chase, leaving the poor thing standing there alone again. Dewayne got to the first stoplight and his pursuers jumped out with their weapons, so after that he ran two stop signs and three red lights, hit Waycross Highway at 115 miles-per-hour, and luckily managed to lose them. He finally ran out of gas right here at the road we were on now, and had to walk to his grandmomma’s house.

 

“If they’da caught me, they woulda beat me to death,” he grinned. “They was that mean. I saw ’em a while back and we laughed about it.”

 

—from “Douglas, GA,” Ain’t a Rambler’s Life Fine: the South!


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SWISS CHEESE FALLS

Our walk began at a grassy, unmarked pullout off the highway. There would be no neat blazes or pretty little signposts on this hike—just an old roadbed slowly being swallowed by the forest, then a narrow footpath, then little more than a game trace, and finally no trail at all. This was the real mountain deal, Cherokee style, hill folk style; you didn’t arrive at this via hiking books. And the fall foliage was on: sourwoods were purpley-red, hickories brownish-orange and poplars a luminous yellow. Then there were the maples, all bright red and green and mottled with black spots, blazing up blasts of color.

 

Our destination for the day was a place called Three Forks, where three creeks came together to form the west fork of the Chatooga River. But hiking with Charlee and WS wasn’t about the destination; it was about all you saw on the way. As hobbyist photographers they never hesitated to linger over an image: a waterfall, a wildflower, a rare and delicate fern clinging to the dripping rock wall of a cave.

 

However when they were walking, they were walking, and nothing stood in their way. They hopped across slick rocks and forded rivers at low-water—Charlee removed her boots and rolled up her pant legs, but WS simply plunged in, shoes, pant legs and all. Bushwhacking didn’t bother them in the least. “If I drop dead, just go around me,” WS instructed. They could go all day on a packet of peanut-butter crackers and a few sips of water. Coming home from that first hike completely famished, I mentioned their apparent indifference to food and Julia said, “Oh, Mammy hasn’t eaten in fifteen years.”

 

“They must be living off the light,” I concluded.

 

It fascinated me how at their age they still scrambled up thickly wooded slopes, then slid back down on their rear-ends if necessary. “I always said that if I remarried, it would have to be to a man with a leather apron,” Charlee commented. “I read an old account of travel in the Smokies, and in those days the men wore leather aprons so if they got to a real steep place they could just turn the apron to the back and slide down on it.”

 

This prompted WS to tell the story of hiking with a friend one time when they came to a hundred-foot slope covered in dry leaves, “deep as what you’d rake in your yard.” He turned to the friend and said You wanna let’s go for it? So they slid down on their butts, and a GPS unit clocked them at six miles-per-hour.

 

When they weren’t discussing flora and fauna, WS and Charlee exchanged information on various trails, mutual friends, and which of the friends had done which of the trails. This was their world. Even though I’d said it was my first time hiking in the area, they kept asking if I’d been to this ridge or that rapid, obscure little spots that they seemed to consider points of general interest. It was like asking someone, Have you been to Alaska? Have you been to Fiji? Yet this intense geographical rooting was not at the expense of broad-mindedness. Well-read and well-spoken, worldly and inquisitive, they were anything but hillbillies.

 

Arriving at Three Forks around midday, it was decided that we should ford the river and continue along a stream that emptied into the opposite side. “They call it creekin’ when you wade up a creek,” explained WS. “Can’t beat that!” Somewhere in the bush above was a falls called Swiss Cheese, and I suppose the unpicturesque name left me uncertain of what to expect. But after a tough scramble up a steep incline—which Charlee accomplished barefoot since she’d left her boots down by the river—we came to a hidden spot that I would later recall as my favorite.

 

Deep in a cleft of the mountain, overhung with shade-loving green things, was a swirling tumult of whitewater. Over eons of unruliness it had bored holes into the rock along its narrow bed, and in the steep-walled sides—hence the name Swiss Cheese. The holes were large and round and very smooth, and water whirled around in them like an out-of-control toilet. The inaccessibility of the waterfall meant you had to look down into it from a cliff-edge directly above, adding a note of vertigo to the chaos; and as you moved around, the different views were like a series of abstract paintings that you didn’t really understand. But what made the place so wondrous was coming upon it secretly like this, no trail or nothin’, as though we were the first to lay eyes on it. The very air was heavy with damp mystery.

 

After that we started back; the way was a long corridor of crackly leaves, and when you kicked through them it was so loud you could barely hold a conversation. I was home in time for dinner.

 

—from “Long Creek, SC,” Ain’t a Rambler’s Life Fine: the South!


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THE MARTIAL SPIRIT

I never wanted to do tournaments, just like I never wanted to spar. The martial arts, to me, represent a path away from combat and aggression, a method of cultivating the self-possession that allows one to transcend conflict. (Ever notice how in all good kung fu stories the one who trumps everybody is a rickety old master so deadly he no longer needs to fight?) Like yoga, the practice of martial arts constitutes a search for the blissful still point within your exertion, a concept I find highly applicable to life in general.

 

As a child I was fascinated with ninjas and samurais. I checked out library books about martial arts, then bribed my sisters with candy so I could practice flips and throws on them. “Okay, here’s five skittles,” I’d say after a long hard workout. Sometimes I blindfolded myself and had them attack me simultaneously from every angle. Being the eldest, I could generally make them do whatever I wanted. But I hated it when Gioia refused to cooperate: instead of throwing punches she would giggle, sing and do ballet moves so there was no way I could fight her.

 

After I bought Ninja Secrets of Invisibility for 50¢ at the annual Friends of the Library book sale—along with Treasure Hunter’s Manual for a quarter, these were my two most exiting book sale finds ever—I diligently practiced techniques for walking silently through dry leaves, standing water, etc. I went through a phase where you’d be hanging out with me and suddenly I would disappear, only to pop up somewhere else and startle you. When a man began teaching karate out of a barn next to the cranberry bogs that butted up to the woods behind my house, I rode my bike there several times a week to train. He made us run around the bogs carrying milk cartons full of water, and once he demonstrated the improper way to fall by calling me up in front of everyone, grabbing my ankles and yanking my feet out from under me. I made it as far as blue belt before he moved to the next town over and my mom said it was too far to drive.

 

When I came to Bluffton, suddenly I was an adult on my own with a job and I realized I could do whatever I wanted. I saw a sign on Highway 46 that had the word KARATE and a phone number, so without further research I called to sign up. This would turn out to be the Sun and Moon Martial Arts Studio, specializing in a traditional tiger-crane style of kung fu called Hung Gar.

 

That was nearly six years ago, and when I began it was with fitness and self-defense in mind. We sometimes had little powwows at the end of class to talk about real situations and how we needed to mentally prepare, and I got really caught up in these what-ifs. I would visualize all the ways I could disable my attacker: Snake Hand to the throat, Crane Wings to the eyes, Shadowless Kick to the knee. Back then I lived alone, and after those talks I hated returning to my dark empty house on the dirt road, where suddenly it felt as though the object of my dread was lurking in every corner.

 

But since then my thinking has evolved. Now I believe our fears are nothing more than products of our own shadow sides, and fixating on them will only cause outward manifestations that serve to help us work through it. The best self-defense—in fact the only true self-defense—is attitude, a single-minded capacity to see the good in everyone we meet. If a mugger attacked Jesus do you think he’d fight back? Of course not; he would transform the situation by sheer force of loving compassion. And no I’m not Jesus, but I am making a commitment to the principle.

 

I love kung fu. I love the graceful poetry-in-motion of the forms, the Zen-like focus on breathing, the imitation of animals and their spirits. I love how it makes me stand up straight and move through the world with confidence, how it keeps me sober several nights a week. I love watching old kung fu movies where penniless warriors go questing about with nothing but a little cloth sack thrown over one shoulder, and drunken masters fly up into trees to laugh and recline with their wine gourds. I love the way the fabric of my uniform cracks when I do the moves, and the slapping sound of cloth-soled kung fu shoes on the street. I love the legend, the artistry and the mystique of kung fu; I enjoy the practice and I try to leave it at that. I am the only person I know who does kung fu not only affirming that I’ll never have occasion to use it, but actually hoping that if I got the chance I wouldn’t.

 

That’s why I rebelled when Sifu [Chinese for teacher or master] suggested I start sparring and competing in tournaments. The more advanced I got, the more he “strongly encouraged,” saying that whether I liked it or not, sport-fighting was part of the modern martial arts world. He didn’t care whether I won or lost, as long as I got some experience and represented the school. It became clear that if I didn’t fulfill his requirements, I wouldn’t get my black belt. Fine, I thought, I don’t want the stupid belt; that’s not why I do martial arts. But then we had a heart-to-heart and he pointed something out: “You can make a lot of money teaching this anywhere you go,” he said. “But no one wants to learn from anyone less than a black belt.”

 

Starving artists are constantly casting about for an income. Not only that, I actually enjoyed teaching; by the time I reached red belt I was expected to come in and help with the younger students, and what at first seemed like torture eventually became a genuine pleasure. The thought of making some cash by tutoring kung fu was enticing enough to make me jump through those final black belt hoops. So I started coming to sparring class, then I signed up for a tournament.

 

—from “Carolina Martial Arts Open,” Ain’t a Rambler’s Life Fine: the South!



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42 FORMS IN A FIELD

Now we were in the hill-country of southern Tennessee—nothin’ but hay fields and cow pastures and little one-horse towns all shimmery in the heat. The family farm was just outside Petersburg, population 508. Andy had a lot of memories here: visiting when he was a kid, wading the creek that ran all the way to town, playing whiffleball with his cousins while the grown folks sipped lemonade on the porch.

 

“See that water reservoir over there?” Andy said pointing to a rectangular structure on top of a distant hill. “Sounds kinda crazy but I used to think that was Noah’s Ark.”

 

Then there was the UFO sighting a few years ago. “You ever see somethin’ that made you question your sanity?” he asked Sifu and me rhetorically. “It was a ball of light and it looked the same no matter which way it moved. I sat there and watched it for like ten minutes. I started yellin’ for my dad and granddad—they thought I got bit by a snake or somethin’—and soon as they got there the light zoomed away to infinity. My granddad said Oh, a shootin’ star. But it wutt’nt no shootin’ star. I watch the sky all the time; I’ve seen planes, satellites, shootin’ stars, all that. I know what I saw.”

 

The big farmhouse was white with columns and black shutters, and a magnolia stood grandly in the front yard. We arrived in the heat of afternoon and the locusts were screaming shrilly. No one lived here now but different family members constantly came and went, and neighbors helped take care of the cows. They’d recently harvested hay and big round bails sat at intervals in an adjacent field; Andy said the farm paid for itself in hay alone.

 

The house had been built sometime during the 1800’s, and it contained relics of every intervening era: two grandfather clocks and handmade antique furniture; ornately patterned wallpaper and china; a mustard yellow rotary dial phone; family albums full of black & white photos and spidery scripted autographs; a wooden desk with secret compartment for valuables; rag rugs, quilted bedspreads and an ancient electric organ. The smell of the place was as authentic as they come—summer heat and mildew and woodsmoke and a thousand home-cooked meals recorded in the very walls. Down in the basement Andy showed me the old hearth where slaves once did all the cooking; it was cool down there but also sort of creepy. I laid my things in an upstairs bedroom that had two twin beds with finely carved headboards. One thing about an old farmhouse: it will always have plenty of beds.

 

Sifu had brought his .22 and a handgun and they wanted to do some shooting. So after grabbing the ammo we got back in the truck—them with their drinks and guns, me with my camera and notebook—and started for a far pasture.

 

“The best advice I can give,” Sifu began, “is never ride in your truck with a loaded gun. I was up at the Nicklepumpers the other day and I saw this guy, he used to look pretty good. But the next time I saw him one of his legs was gone. I said Bo I hate to ask, but what happened to your leg? He said, I was ridin’ in the truck with the twelve-gauge layin’ on the floor, hit a bump and blew my damn leg off.

 

They set up the target and started shooting, cows all lowing in the background, and Sifu wanted me to try but I politely declined. I’ve never shot a gun in my life and I doubt I ever will. It didn’t bother me if they did—I grew up on a farm and there were always guns around, for hunting and dispatching of livestock—but I figured I’d just stick to being a gentle spirit. Sifu had already shown me the first section of 42 Forms, in the driveway of the mountain house with a morning breeze off the slopes, and now I went through it on my own. Unlike the Hung Gar forms I’d been doing thus far, this one was fluid, gentle and slow. There was no tension in the movements, and though they all had fighting applications—Tai Chi Chuan is actually an internal style of kung fu, and the name means “grand ultimate fist”—the object of everyday practice was to feel the flow of energy.

 

“You have to have a quiet spirit to do this form correctly,” Sifu told me. “Do it in the morning when you’re nice and relaxed, outside breathing the fresh air—it gets you ready to tackle the day. What it does, it synchronizes your blood, your mind, internal organs, everything. Phenomenal form, worth more than gold bricks.”

 

Me doing Tai Chi in a field in Tennessee while Sifu and Andy had target practice:

 

Opening Positions Hands…Diagonal Flying…Double Pulling…Single Whip….

 

Blam! blam! blam!

 

Ward Off…Defending Hands…Mountain Climber…Cat Stance….

 

Blam! blam! blam!

 

White Crane Flapping Wings…Fetch Arm…Needle to the Sea….

 

Blam! blam! blam!

 

Hand of Clouds…Snake Extends Tongue…Fair Lady Works at the Shuttle….

 

Blam! blam! blam!

 

It wasn’t until later, doing 42 Forms alone amongst hay bails at dawn, that I started to get the hang of it. “Damn doll, that actually looks like real Tai Chi,” my kung fu teacher said when he saw my progress. “I must say, for once you actually impress me in martial arts.”

 

—from “Maggie Valley and the Farm in Tennessee,” Ain’t a Rambler’s Life Fine: the South!


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A HAIR-RAISING CROSSING

We had a mission at the start of this trip, and that was to smuggle bikes onto Sapelo. We’d heard you can’t visit the island without making advanced reservations on the state ferry and booking an authorized tour, or being a guest of a Hog Hammock resident. It’s like they have the place on lockdown. Bikes aren’t allowed on the ferry, and for a long time George had wanted to orchestrate a covert maneuver wherein he dinghied bicycles up to a hidden location at the beach, then used them to subversively explore the interior. Needless to say, I was more than willing to be an accomplice.

 

D-Day dawned cold and clear as we readied ourselves for action. George had two dinghies on the boat—a larger one equipped with outboard motor, and a smaller one that I referred to as the matchbox dinghy. This was a recent acquisition. “A guy built this boat, then abandoned it,” George had informed Lillian and I the first time we climbed aboard, whereupon she quipped back, “We might be about to find out why.” Lillian is of course used to George’s idiosyncrasies. It was determined that the matchbox dinghy was too small to transport all three bikes, so George made the executive decision to put the cargo with him in the big dinghy, while Lillian and I would be towed behind in the matchbox.

 

This arrangement started out satisfactorily enough. Lillian stuck an oar out from the stern and used it like a rudder, thereby diminishing somewhat our feeling of defenselessness. It was a pleasant if chilly ride. But as we exited our sheltered harbor and moved into the inlet, conditions began to worsen. The wind picked up and tidal currents clashed, creating an icy chop that peaked menacingly. Any sea is a high sea when you’re being towed in a matchbox. To our right was the inviting strip of white sand that George had selected in advance for landing; but he was passing the length of it with no sign of relenting. Every so often he’d look back at us with a bland expression, but he was out of earshot and insensible to our plight.

 

Meanwhile, amicable conversation between Lillian and I had trailed off…our attentions were focused wholly on the immediacy of our situation. Though turning over would probably not prove fatal, it was a little too cold for a dip. Finally, after a long, increasingly tense silence, Lillian said in exasperation, “Where the fuck is he going?” which sent me into spasms of debilitating laughter. But George remained oblivious.

 

I have oft been accused of torturing innocent people by compelling them to do things that make them feel uncomfortable, or getting them into situations that could easily have been avoided; of ruthlessly driving them onward when they’ve already had all they can take. Cecilia once asked rhetorically, “Have you ever noticed how you’re always the one responsible for causing people to have the worst day of their life?”

 

Perhaps they think I don’t know how they feel because I’m always the one in the lead. But this is inaccurate. As a matter of fact, I routinely entrust myself to the care of insane people like George Heyward, who are my equals, if not my superiors, in matters of pure uncalled-for “it seemed like a good idea at the time” absurdity. And just as things always turns out alright when I head up an expedition, so George landed Lillian and I safely on the beach. Understanding his good intentions and the fact that sometimes you just have to have a little faith, I didn’t hold the hair-raising crossing against him.

 

—from “Golden Isle Cruise,” Ain’t a Rambler’s Life Fine: the South!

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THE CRACK

The next morning I pulled out before dawn; the country roads were pitch black and unmarked, and I wasn’t really sure how to retrace my route from the day before—all I wanted was to make it back to the Winn Dixie in Dunellon.

 

I got there on the first try and went inside to buy provisions, then took out my camp stove and brewed a cup of tea on the tailgate. The day promised much. I had the hand-drawn map to Chassahowitzka, and if anything seemed off about the place I could always bail out.

 

But it didn’t take long to realize that my gut feeling had been right all the time: this was where I needed to be. Sleepy, shabby, unpretentious, Chassahowitzka was about the water and not what big money could build on it. It was a place in the truest sense of the word: a river, a community, a geographic area—it designated so much more than surveyor’s marks and the reach of civic authority. Sure, there were a few white-trash trailer courts on the way in, but that’s what kept it real. It had a beer-and-bait shop, the crusty River Lodge that billed itself as an “angler’s paradise,” and outside the First Baptist Church a reader board that said BE FISHERS OF MEN, YOU CATCH THEM GOD WILL CLEAN THEM.

 

I followed signs to the Chassahowitzka River Campground, pretty much the end of the line. There was a boat landing, canoe rental service, and a camp store that also served as the office. The woman working there said they had tent sites available in the Indian Ridge primitive loop—as a matter of fact, nobody else was currently there—but I couldn’t check in until 2 p.m.

 

Meanwhile I was free to explore the river, and a photocopied map was available for a dime. It showed a big blank area bloodshot by the Chassahowitzka River and dozens of veined and branching feeder creeks, all of which were federally preserved. The map was marked with handwritten names like Big Gator, Salt Creek, Blue Run and Old Tressel. From the “you are here” X to the Gulf of Mexico it was 6½ miles downriver, and the only houses along the way were fishing cabins that had to be reached by boat. Sweet. I was so ready for adventure!

 

I stuffed the map, my camera, a snack and a water bottle in double plastic grocery sacks and offloaded my kayak at the launch. There was a man there, barefooted and wearing ripstop guide shirt and shorts. His hair and beard were nearly white, but his blue eyes shone with ageless spirit; I knew he could tell me things about this river.

 

“So what should I look for?” I asked, pushing my kayak into the water.

 

“Out here?” he said with just the softest hint of a twang. “You have your manatees, otters, bald eagles. Sometimes we get dolphins in here. There are a few bear, but you’re more likely to see wild pigs coming down to the water.”

 

He was a mild, quiet man and I liked him. Take the first left, he said, and that was Snapper Hole, a little lagoon where the resident manatees lived. The second left would take me to what they called The Crack, if I followed the slough all the way up; I’d see several springs along the way but I’d have to get out and walk to the last one.

 

“Some people in Crystal River told me not to come here,” I confessed. “But this seems like a really cool place.”

 

He smiled gently. “As far as this sort of thing, it’s about the neatest you’re gonna get.”

 

I thanked him for the information and shoved off, figuring I could pick his brain more later. Right now it was time to explore. The river was flat and blackish-green, reflecting dense jungle on either side and a featureless sky above; the sun still hadn’t broken through. I paddled slowly, skimming over aquatic gardens (salad bars for the manatee) and past forests of Jurassic proportions. A lot of familiar species were present—palmettos, magnolias, live oaks—but in this rich black soil they grew to ridiculous heights. Bundles of outsized cabbage palm fronds sprouted all over everywhere, trying to outdo each other for the privilege of becoming a tree. And there were new things in the understory as well, giant prehistoric leafy things that a traveler would have to crash through; bushwhacking here would be no joke.

 

I turned into Snapper Hole but didn’t see any manatees, so continued on toward The Crack. First off, what’s not to love about the name? And second, there was no one else around. Against the current I stroked, up a Lipton tea creek lined with cane sugar grasses, into lagoon mirrors and under leaning palm overpasses. It got narrower and narrower, and every bend afforded a new perspective. I was reminded of old Hollywood classics like Tarzan and Creature from the Black Lagoon, both of which were filmed at Florida springs. This looked just like that, only not in black & white.

 

Finally I got to a place where the kayak would no longer float; it was just a thin pure stream of springwater that led into a jungle tunnel. I pulled my kayak onto the bank, took off my jellies and rolled up my pant legs—this must be where he’d said to proceed on foot. The soft white sand of the creek bottom felt good between my toes, and I was completely enchanted by the lushness—a living pulsing draping climbing spreading spawning green, a green you could hear and feel, and it was heavy-breathing its vapors all over me. I felt like a Spanish explorer! If someone had told me just then that the Fountain of Youth awaited at the end of that stream, I think I would have believed.

 

Or maybe The Crack was the Fountain of Youth, because next thing I knew I was naked as the Dawn of Time, holding for dear life to a rope swing that hung over a fissure of tropical blue. I was half-submerged in an underwater rift that transected this clear bowl of water in the Florida tangles. Fishes darted about in The Crack and plants leaned in from the shore, trying to get a better look. How deep was The Crack? What ancient magical forces welled up from within it? Who knew the mysteries of the inner life of the Earth? As soon as I was sure nothing would suck my legs down, I let go the rope and stroked around a bit, reveling in the moment: skinny-dipping in a spring source of some crazy river in West Florida that I’d never even heard of two days ago, pondering the romantic follies of Cortés, De Soto and Juan Ponce de León, hanging from trees like Tarzan’s silver screen Jane….

 

You can’t tell me a rambler’s life ain’t fine!

 

—from “In Search of Old Florida,” Ain’t a Rambler’s Life Fine: the South!


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