Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Letting Go of the Old, Welcoming the New

I’ve spent the last few days of the year deleting e mail and unsubscribing from things I no longer read. I don’t know what got into me, but I signed up for all kinds of messages and communiques I thought I would enjoy, needed even, but didn’t. It feels good, paring down. I made some big changes when I retired, lost contacts, stopped getting mail from lots of places. Maybe I thought I had to replace those communications with others. Maybe I feared boredom. I don’t know. But it’s pretty clear I don’t need those e mails in my life. Adios, happy trails, and see you later.

Before the sun came up today I cleaned the ashes out of my stove. It hadn’t been burning well, smoked more than it should, and seemed to want for air. I started thinking it wasn’t drafting well, that there was a problem with the chimney, the trees blocking the air flow, but what could have changed since last winter? Then I realized since I put on new stove black at the end of the summer, and poured a new layer of sand in the stove's floor getting ready for winter, I hadn’t scooped out the ashes since. Not once. As I removed four inches or so of packed ash, freeing up the air intake holes on the side, making more room in the firebox, I thought; ‘this thing is going to burn better-put out more heat.’ And it did. It’s nice and warm in the shack this morning. Just in time too. It’s almost 9:00 a.m. and it’s still only 5 degrees out there. In here it’s pushing 65 on the outside wall away from the stove. Where I sit it’s even warmer.

Wood burners create radiant heat, so things closest to the stove get warm first. I’m pretty close to the stove. Right now my right shoulder is warmer than my left, as is my right thigh. If I were to lay down on the futon next to the wall I would feel colder yet and need the blanket. I’ve been out here in the shack since just after six pouring the wood to my newly cleaned stove and filling in the gaps with corn cobs. The sun shines in the big east window and makes shadows of quivery heat that comes off the stove and its pipe that leads up through the ceiling. Wavy shadows that rush and swirl are thrown on my desk and keyboard and then stream diagonally up on to the east and north walls. I know the heat from the stove continues to fill the shack, helped a little now by the sun. It’s been a good morning.

A nice woman with land gave me three big black garbage bags of cobs from her cornfield. They burn beautifully, and fill space between the oak chunks. I think of the huge cob piles on our farm, created when we shelled out the corn crib, which we burned annually. Giant flames collapsed into red hot caves of glowing coals. My Dad would start the cobs on fire with gas and maybe an old tire. All those BTU’s wasted. I could heat the shack for a year with just one crib’s worth of cobs, now long gone along with the crib.

We’re going into the city for a New Year’s Eve with friends. I remember being there at the turn of the century, on Navy Pier, with people of all types: strangers, Chicagoans, out of towners like us. That night it was my wife, my son, and I glad to put the 1900’s behind us and anxious to experience 2000. A young man and his girlfriend shared his champagne with us in Styrofoam cups as we stood in the thick crowd. When the fireworks were over we walked through the clear cold night back to our hotel, unable to get a cab. Hard to believe that was fifteen years ago. So much has changed.

Monday I took tools out of the shack, facing the inevitable fact that my wood shed roof will not be done till spring. I loaded them in the wheelbarrow and rolled it into the garage. I had kept the saws, the plane, the levels, the chalk line, the hammers, the shingling hatchet, the nails all piled up in the corner as a reminder, in hopes a patch of warm weather would let me knock out the last hours of work needed. Warm weather happened, but when it did I wasn’t here. I’ve decided it’s a project that can wait till April. I’m confident the work will still be there then, and fairly sure I will be too.

I’m not making resolutions for 2015, just adopting an overall resolve to stick to principles. To do that of course you must first find the principles. Generally mine are these. Relax, be patient, waste as little energy possible on anxiety, and write steadily. I have for the last year sought the wisdom of writers, given up on their wisdom, and then returned to them. Some you would never suspect were in the least thoughtful say very profound things.

Here’s what Henry Miller wrote about finding resolve during 1932 and 1933, the time he was writing his second novel Black Spring. It was written in Paris and released by a French publisher in 1936 between his more famous works Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Henry had significant trouble getting published. If you read those books you will find out why. I imagine Miller has fallen out of favor with modern readers but he was prolific and wildly creative. I have a hunch Henry wanted to write more than publish. Here are his thoughts on writing as work.

Work Schedule 1932-1933
-Henry Miller, Miscellanea

Commandments
1. Work on one thing at a time till finished.
2. Start no new books, add no new material to Black Spring
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is at hand
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it-but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema all these come afterwards.

Here’s hoping we all have a happy and productive new year. Enjoy the day.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Road Trip Epilogue

It’s good to be home. When I got back to the shack everything was as I’d left it Thanksgiving night. It smelled like cigar smoke and from the empty bottles by the stove it was evident the family and I had seriously depleted my stash of hard liquor. I started a fire in the stove, lit a stick of incense, and began to tidy up. Eventually I started writing. As you can see I’m writing now. The shack is warming up.

I travelled alone 1,327 miles in the Buick from Ottawa, Illinois to Oldsmar, Florida. Just My Location, my handy free app, put my destination in Oldsmar at

Latitude 28.03
Longitude 82.55
Elevation 36 feet

I had travelled 28 degrees and 3 minutes south and 6 degrees 18 minutes east of the shack. Going east, towards Greenwich England which is zero, matters little weather wise but getting closer to the equator was major. The sun was hotter, the days were longer, and it was warmer. Plants were green, people wore less clothes, there were more birds about. It was nice.

My solo road trip became a vacation with people. My wife flew down and joined me in Oldsmar at her brother and sister in law’s condo tucked safely inside a gate. We hung out on the lanai (which is what they call screened in porches in tropical places), watched birds fish the pond in the backyard, make a trip to St. Pete and the Salvador Dali museum, and caught up on each other’s lives. It was there we began to each and drink much too well, better than anyone deserves really, something that would continue during our entire stay in Florida. I broke out my loud Hawaiian shirts and shorts.

After a few days we travelled farther south to Sarasota and stayed with Colleen’s sister and her husband. That was downtown city high rise living. We went to the farmer’s market, drove to Cortez and ate on the fish docks, sat on our hosts’ deck overlooking the city and the bay. At night we had drinks out there and smoked cigars. Every day the sun shined. We wore no coats.
We were joined by friends and drove the Buick down to Fort Myers Beach

Latitude 34.18 N.
Longitude 81.93 E.
Elevation 19 feet

We stayed there in a cottage for a week and relaxed in an even bigger way: golfed, went to the beach, saw movies, ate in restaurants, sang songs, and explored. Somehow you feel closer to the ocean there and lower down. You start to get the feeling that a big wave could send you tumbling even when you’re standing in the front yard.

One day we went over the bridge to Sanibel Island. The elevation on Sanibel is 9 feet. If I owned a beach house on Sanibel I would pay close attention to global warming and the ocean’s rise over the next twenty years. Anyway, on Sanibel we visited a place called the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. An old friend we visited put us on to that place or we wouldn’t have known anything about it. He said we could drive our car through for $5. When we got there we decided to take a trolley ride with a naturalist. We’re glad we did.

Much of Ding Darling is a mangrove swamp that changes constantly with the tide. It contains both fresh and salt water, and water that is both. We learned a lot from our guide about this complicated and wonderful place filled with birds, fish, and alligators. The birds, some of whom live by us in Illinois but wisely spend their winters in Florida, pretty much take over the state at some point. They certainly don’t fear us. We saw roseate spoonbills, egrets, ospreys, pelicans, storks, you name it. My favorite birds are the little sandpipers. They do this thing where they stand on one leg at the ocean’s edge. I think of it as a sort of yoga pose in a beautiful place. The sandpipers have it pretty good.


Next time I want to complete the trip by going all the way down to Key West and the very end of Florida and America. Who knows? Maybe by then we can catch a ferry to Havana and smoke the really good cigars. The future is full of possibilities.

Colleen and I saw our friends off back at the Sarasota airport, spent another night at Carol and Jim’s, and after breakfast began the drive home, this time on the Interstate Highway. Unlike the road trip we stayed primarily on three roads: 75, 24 and 57. That brought us to 74 in Champaign, and the 39 in Bloomington. In LaSalle we hit Route 80, and as you know we live about a three wood away from Route 80. Maybe a driver now as I get older. We drove from Sarasota to Cartersville, Georgia.

Latitude 31.18
Longitude 84.80
Elevation 759 feet

There we stayed in a Best Western, ordered a pizza and crashed. The next day we drove all the way home. It was a radically different trip than the solo road trip.

So my Dad, who has been a major character in this tale, said this about modes of travel. He was born before the automobile was popular and both farmed and travelled using horses. Here’s what he saw as the difference between travelling by horse and travelling by car.

“When you’re riding a horse, or behind one in a wagon, you go past the big oak in the neighbor’s pasture, through muddy spot at the bottom of the hill, past the Smith farm, up the hill, past Miller’s corn crib, over the creek bridge, and into town. When you’re in a car, you just drive to Danvers. The faster you go the less you see.”

Now that we’re always driving, we’ve added another level. When you drive on a two lane road you go from Dellwood, to Two Egg, to Grand Ridge, then Selman, Blountstown, Bristol, and Hosford. When you’re on the Interstate you just go to Tallahassee. When you’re on the Interstate you go from one big metropolitan area to another, from Atlanta to Nashville. The towns in between become unimportant.

You only see the names of towns that have exits off the Interstate and even if you take the exit you rarely if ever get into the actual town. You just pull into the businesses along the interstate. And the businesses along the interstate have become amazingly the same.

The stuff you can put on your Subway sandwich, the spinach, banana peppers, pickled jalapenos, shredded lettuce, pale tomatoes, sliced black olives-look and taste the same no matter which Subway restaurant you are in. In fact, the restaurant itself is often indistinguishable from the one you just left 500 miles earlier; the booths, the counter, the cash register, the parking lot. It’s the same over and over and over.

The gas stations are increasingly chain operations. The pumps, the rest rooms, even the racks of candy bars seem identical. Occasionally there are local crafts or products but for the most part you could be in Kentucky or Connecticut and not notice any difference. On planes we fly over America’s small town entirely. On the Interstate we drive past them.
Americans, maybe everyone on the planet, are more and more separated from one another. I think maybe we’re scared of each other. We must like travel the way it is, kept apart, isolated, each in our car interrupted only by stops at gas stations and a handful of franchised restaurants. It’s safe, and comfortable, and very unremarkable.

I used to hitchhike extensively, both in this country and others. In one day I would meet, sit next to, converse with, and get to know from five to ten new and different people. I though on this trip I would encounter hitchhikers. When I did I planned to pick them up, as people used to pick up me, returning the favor as it were. It would be like meeting myself 40 years later.

It didn’t happen. I saw no hitchhikers. Zero. There was a kid with a backpack sitting outside a gas station by Interstate 75 in Georgia, but it wasn’t clear if he was waiting on someone or hoping someone would offer him a ride. He had no sign. He looked neither composed nor happy. He certainly didn’t have his thumb out. That was the closest I came to seeing someone trying to find a free ride in one of the nearly empty cars crisscrossing the country. 2700 miles and not one hitchhiker. What happened? I don’t know. I really don’t. I can only guess its fear. Fear of violence I suppose. Fear of each other.

I encountered no violence on my trip. Not only was their no violence, there was little if any anger or confrontation. In fact, throughout my trip there was a fair measure of welcome, friendliness, and acceptance. Imagine that. I don’t think we do imagine that. I think we perceive America as something entirely different than what it truly is. And I don’t think we’re right in our perception.

The road tip gave me the kind of freedom that comes from solitude, interrupted by positive interactions with kind strangers, knowing I would soon return to settled life surrounded by people. My road trip was but a brief departure from that life. But it gave me an answer to Robert Zimmerman, the Minnesota kid who grew up to be Bob Dylan, to the question he posed in 1965 on his album Highway 61 Revisited:

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

It feels good Bob. Very good. Still.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Road Trip Six

After church I avoided Tuskegee and went through Troy, Spring Hill, and Enterprise on my way to the Florida border. l had a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Hartford, which looked as if it were once a fine little town. The young Chinese couple’s establishment was one of the last open on the little town square. How will these towns survive?

Esto was my first Florida town. Florida looks a lot like Alabama up there. But in Esto I saw a palm tree. I think Floridians believe they deserve palm trees somehow, whereas the Alabama folk don’t. Those big palms are native to neither state I’m told. It seems to be a matter of identity.

The towns were spread out. I headed east Noma and Grapeville (which has a sheep and goat auction every Tuesday), then Campbellton. Somewhere out there I saw a John Deere cotton picker finishing up a big field. Driving alongside it was a truck hauling a big cotton wagon.

Though the afternoon was getting away from me I stopped to watch how it all worked. I walked into the field and stood at the end of the row just to watch the action of that cotton picker. It was like a shrunken combine we use in Illinois for corn. Instead of metal snouts between the rows it had soft sided canvas chutes with something like spring teeth instead of snapping rollers. Where corn is crunched cotton is sort of finessed off the stalk, the stalk still standing once it is passed over by the picker. At the end of the row the cotton picker made its turn and dumped a white fluffy load of cotton into the wagon.

After the picker went on driver’s side door of the truck hitched to the wagon opened and a middle aged man stepped out. I put my palms up and waved them, trying to communicate that I didn’t need anything, but he walked towards me anyway. I met him halfway.

“I don’t mean to bother you. Don’t need anything. Just wanted to watch that picker up close. Don’t let me hold up your work.”

“You’re not bothering me,” he replied. “That work will be there when I’m done. I thought you might want somebody to talk to.” And as a matter of fact I did.

“Dale Wilson” he said, extending his hand. (I’m making that up. Forgot his real name, most likely soon after he told it to me.) I shook it. Dale was wearing a chambray shirt with a pack of Red Man chewing tobacco in the pocket. I really wanted some but restrained myself from asking.

“Dave McClure.”

“So where you from Dave, and where are you headed?”

“Coming from Illinois, heading to Florida.”

“Well congratulations, you made it.”

“Oh, I guess I did. I’ve been saying that for days, didn’t adjust to my surroundings. Ft. Myers I’m going to in the end.”

“You down here for the winter?”

“Nah, just a week or so.”

He seemed eager to talk. I explained that I grew up on a dairy farm in Illinois that raised corn and beans and was just interested in the farming. He and his brother farm 600 acres, raising both cotton and peanuts, rotating them. They also run something of a peanut buying business, a co-op of some kind, which keeps them busy.

“I always wanted to come up and see that corn harvested. We tried to grown corn a couple of years ago when the price got way up, but it just wasn’t profitable. Our ground isn’t right for it. Had to irrigate too much. Needs a lot of nitrogen too.”

“You should come up to Illinois about the first two weeks of October. I’d be glad to show you around.”

“Yeah I’d like that. Maybe after I retire. I’d like to see your part of the country.”

“That’s the only reason I’m here, being retired.”

We continued to talk for nearly an hour. Somewhere in that hour Dale offered me a chew which I readily accepted. I forgot how sweet and good that stringy moist tobacco tastes. I pushed it into my cheek by my back molars with my tongue and felt that nice spiciness. Within a minute saliva mixed with the strong sweet juice from the tobacco filled my mouth and required me to spit. Dale didn’t spit near as much as I, hardly at all in fact. We talked about lots of stuff, Dale and I, but started with machinery.

The cotton harvester doesn’t gin the cotton the way a combine shells corn. They still make it into bales (another truck mounted machine in the corner of the field was there for that) and take it to a gin. I’d gone by a gin in Alabama. There was so much cotton on the roadway leading to it I thought it was snow at first.

Dale was a hell of a nice guy. I tried not to think of that same field 160 years ago, no doubt filled with slaves, picking cotton out of the bolls and putting it in long bags drug between the rows. Nor did I long ponder Dale‘s ancestors who, if they were big cotton farmers, were certainly also slave owners. “Twelve Years a Slave” went through my mind. I didn’t see any of that in Dale. He had nothing to with it. He was about my age or younger, probably born in the 1950’s eighty five years after slavery ended. His concern was mostly with the future. That is energy more well placed I think
.
“You take my town there, Malone, you’ll go through it once you leave here. I call it my town but it’s not. I went to school there, my family has done business in Malone for generations. It used to have five gas stations. We had a little department store for pity’s sake, two grocery stores, a lumber yard, and lots of people in business for themselves. Now poor Malone is down to almost nothing. One gas station, a branch bank, a coffee shop, a pain clinic and a damn dollar store. I just don’t know what the future holds for rural Florida around these parts. Even for farmers. My brother and I used to big farmers with 600 acres. Now we’re small. The future is not bright I’ll tell you that.”

If you were concerned about time, or daylight, you would have said I wasted an hour or so talking to Dale but I didn’t see it that way. For a time on a Sunday afternoon we both enjoyed some human contact and learned some things. We discovered we agreed more than we disagreed. When you’re alone for long periods of time conversation with a thoughtful person can almost be a tonic.

We had a neighbor like that near our farm by Danvers. Worked all the time. You rarely saw him in town and if you did he hardly spoke. Wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful. But on occasion he would engage someone, often my Dad, and talk for hours. We would see his pickup truck parked by a field where Dad was working with the tractor. They would stand at a fence post and not move for the longest time. My Mom thought it was crazy. She monitored my Dad’s activity rather closely and was, you could say, a gentle critic of his productivity.

“Well Dad, you didn’t get much done this afternoon, talking to Josh Mueller as long as you did.”

“Yeah, well I guess Josh was just ready to talk.”

“What did you talk about for so long?”

“Oh, you know, this and that. Farming. I enjoyed it.” Dad didn’t divulge a lot of things to my Mom.

My mind flashed to Dad and Josh Mueller as I stood in that cotton field shooting the breeze with Dale Wilson. Come to think of it Josh chewed Red Man too. I keep thinking of my Dad, have been the whole trip, and how he enjoyed simple pleasures. I feel close to him even now, 26 years after his death, so close he could have been sitting beside me in the passenger seat of the Buick. I’d give anything to hear his voice and see his smile again

I finally begged off my conversation with Dale Wilson, saying I had a ways to go yet and better get started. We shook hands again. I thanked Dale for the chew and the talk. You can meet nice people on the road if you give it a chance.

At Malone, Dale wilson's town, I pointed the Buick South in the general direction of Tallahassee passing through Two Egg, Dellwood, Grand Ridge (again) and Selman. At Blountstown I headed east again towards Bristol and Hosford. By making that little jog I guaranteed I would not pass through Tallahassee. Instead I drove south of it. I crossed the Ochlockonee river and at Bloxham entered the Apalachiola National Forest. There were no towns in there. It’s amazing they could even build a road. It was pure swamp from Sopchoppy to Spring Hill. Don’t you love the word Sopchoppy? I think I’ve felt that way before.

It was beginning to get dark. The Apalachiola National Forest is a big fishing area. Cars with out of state plates towing trailers were showing up. The few gas stations that existed along the road became something like oases selling fishing gear, fried chicken, catfish, ribs, hush puppies, beer, bait, gas. As I pulled into a gas station an especially obese man in blue bib overalls, Dickies I think, was celebrating a recent inside food purchase by simply putting the carry out container on the hood of his pickup, cracking open a Bud Light, and shoving food in his mouth, starting with the French fries. Right there in the parking lot, breaking nearly all the rules of etiquette as he dined. No visible sign of napkins. Wiped his mouth on the corner of his T shirt. It’s guys like that who give bib overalls a bad image.

As I stopped to gas up and do a little route consultation with the staff inside, I texted my brother in law in Oldsmar near Tampa and asked him how far he was from Tallahassee. He responded that it said three and a half to four hours. I thought I was maybe an hour away. What little planning I’d done didn’t extend past Tallahassee. Turns out Florida is a pretty long state. It was getting dark.

The young woman at the cash register recalled I believe each and every turn, and what building were located on the intersections where they took place, on the route she takes when she goes from her hometown of nearby Panacea (we should name more towns after unattainable ideals) down on the coast by Piney Island, to Tampa, where she visits her grandmother. She gave the directions in way too much detail, but with such enthusiasm that I kept nodding my head as if I understood perfectly, even though I lost track very early on. All I really remembered was to follow Route 98 which becomes 19. I could take it from there on my map.

Darkness changes road trips greatly. It narrows the experience to the scope of your headlights, the streetlights if there are any, and the occasional annoying lighted billboard. I had pledged to myself not to travel in the dark but I was close enough to my relative’s home that I decided to push on and sleep in a house with people I loved. My sister in law texted that they would wait dinner on me and I asked her to please not, I’d get something to eat along the way.

I was in the final leg of my solo road trip and my field of vision was confined to two paved lanes and their watery North Florida ditches. I put Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in the CD player. I sang along to all the crazy lines I remembered, then concentrated hard on track twelve - 4th Time Around. After all the obscure impossible lyrics that song is a fairly straightforward conversation between a man and a woman during a fight. Buried in there, between the spare drum line and the pretty guitar, were the words I recalled and was waiting for, written and sung by a brash clear voiced twenty five year old Bob Dylan in 1966. I used to think relationships were that simple. If only it could be like that again.

She said, “Don’t forget.
Everybody must give something back
For something they get.”

And you, you took me in
You loved me then
You didn’t waste time.
And I, I never took much
I never asked for your crutch
Now don’t ask for mine.

I played it over and over. I followed Route 19 down the Florida coast. Everything changes on the coast. Stores sell swimming suits and sunglasses. Signs try to grab you off the road. Drive through windows appear on fast food restaurants. Life gets gaudy and promises to be fun. Florida becomes vacationland, and people with out of state plates become tourists. It got tacky.

In one of those towns, Homasassa Springs or Weeki Wachee, I pulled into Fat Boy’s Barbeque right at 9 p.m.. There was only one truck in the gravel parking lot. It was one of the few real restaurants I could find, the rest all fronts for big food corporations. They were, however, not pleased to see me.

Waitresses were mopping the floor and the chairs were upside down on the tables. A woman behind the cash register was counting bills.

“Are you open?” I asked.

“Technically,” she said, looking up at the clock. “Francine, lock that door. What can I get ya? How about a carry out?"

“That’s all I wanted was a carryout. How about making me a sandwich out of some, any kind, of smoked meat and putting a side of cole slaw with it?”

“We can do that,” she said. “How about I just charge you $4?”

“It’s a deal.” I paid in cash, which I think she put in her pocket.

After they let me out and I sat in the Buick eating the barbeque from Fat Boy’s, which was delicious by the way, it occurred to me that it would most likely be the last meal I would eat alone for a long time.

At Tarpon Springs I headed inland for Oldsmar and turned to my IPhone for help. Either I put Pat and Dale’s address in wrong or the woman in the phone had a brain cramp but somehow, try as she might, she couldn’t find their place. Following her directions whenever I felt they were even slightly plausible I drove down one big street then another, passing trailer parks, brightly decorated entrances to gated communities, golf courses, shopping malls with the woman periodically telling me to make U turns. It was fitting that at the very end of the trip I was profoundly and utterly lost.

I called my brother in law Dale who, like an air traffic controller helping a airplane through dense fog, guided me in. I put numbers in a keypad by a gate which made it go up, drove under it, went slowly down a street with lots of speed bumps, and finally spotted my brother in law and sister in law standing under Christmas lights outside their condo by a carport. I pulled the Buick into a parking spot as if it was made for it and stepped out, closing the door behind me. I hugged my relatives, the first people I’d encountered in three days that knew me on sight, and have for 36 years. It was very good to see them. With those familiar hugs my solo road trip ended.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Road Trip Five

On Sunday morning I drove through the Talledega National Forest at sunup. There’s nothing flashy about that national forest; it’s deserted, quiet, and beautiful. Perfect for a Sunday morning. My two lane was such that I was chasing east into the rising sun much of the time. Often the sun streamed down the hallways created by tall straight pines on both sides of the road forming a narrow column of bright sky. The hills rolled gently. When I rounded a turn the sun fell through the trees in yellow stripes across the road, the Buick going light then dark as it passed through them. I turned off the CD player for the quiet and put the windows down for the air. Just me and the Buick, the trees and the sun. It was damn near religious.

I was still driving the speed limit. The run in with the tiny cop in Tennessee was hundreds of miles back but I had maintained the pokey pace of the posted speed since. On I- 55 near Chicago if you go the speed limit you and your vehicle are practically a hazard. Cars fly past you like you are standing still. More than once I’ve been frustrated by getting behind some laggard going the speed limit. But on the two lane roads of America’s South cars take their time. I had taken to pushing the Buick to the speed limit and setting the cruise control right there. I thought I would never do such a thing. But I did. To my surprise when doing so I often pulled away from cars in my rear view mirror. I’m telling you, you never know what you might do. Maybe even follow the rules. You know what I found? The slower you go the more you see.

My first town out of the national forest was Ashland, followed by Millerville and Goodwater. It was nice country there, a little less cotton and more cattle on healthy looking pastures with good barns. I caught some early morning fog on Route 9 about 6:45 and had to slow down. On a stretch of road with nothing but timber I thought I saw a patch of grave markers out of the corner of my eye. No sign, no gate, just some grave stones in tall trees along the road. I turned around and went back to check it out.

There’s something sad about old forgotten graveyards. This one had seen better days. There were a few graves decorated with faded bouquets of artificial flowers but more were festooned with beer cans. Bud Light mostly. Markers were knocked over. There was a falling down section of wrought iron fence which at one time might have set one family apart, but now all seem equally forgotten. Most of the names you couldn’t read. But the few that were legible told stories.

The family of Jesse Suttle placed a new granite marker at his grave in 2004 inscribed with these words: “Born 1775 N.C.-Died May 16, 1836 Coosa County, Alabama. First person to be buried in this cemetery. Died by the hand of an Indian near Oakachoy Creek. Marker placed here by his great grandchildren.”

Zacheus Powell, born in Wilkes County in 1788 and died in Coosa County Alabama in 1856. He was spared from seeing the Civil War change the South.

Solomon Robbins, a grandfather who was born January 11, 1791 and died May 19, 1879 at age 87 was no doubt witness to the destruction.
Captain Westley D. Walker was a member of Company B, 2nd Battalion of Milltadt’s Legion of the Alabama Infantry of the Confederate States of America army. He died in defending the South on October 10, 1863 at age 34.

While I poked around that cemetery early on Sunday morning not a car passed. The paved road I was parked beside was most likely a dirt track traveled by a family in a wagon the day they buried Jesse Suttle in 1836. It might have been a morning much like this, 178 years ago, when the ground I was standing on received its first dead body. This, I thought, is an occasion for the selfie of a person still above ground.


By the time I got to Wetumpka I was hungry but couldn’t find a Waffle House. I settled on a Huddle House. I don’t know who came first but someone is trying to copy the success of someone else there. The Wetumpka Huddle House allowed smoking and the place was hazy blue when I walked in. I sat at the counter while an enthusiastic young waitress set me up with silverware, a menu, and coffee. She was skinny, had a lot of tattoos, and an amazing amount of jewelry, especially earrings. I was afraid she had “Keith” tattooed in very big letters on her neck, the first flowery letter in red and black just below her ear, but her hair obscured it a little and I couldn’t read it. She moved fast. I was hoping, for her sake, it wasn’t the word Keith because something about her suggested the odds she was still with Keith were small.

The place was buzzing with talk about the football game. Bama supporters wore their shirts and hats proudly while Auburn fans came in quietly. My waitress, seeing an old guy in the doorway, yelled out loudly

“Hey baby, where’s your Auburn hat today? “ Then she laughed in a fast and long rising sort of bark and ran to give him a hug. Yep, I thought, Keith was probably years ago.

I had eggs over easy with grits. The grits were unremarkable, as grits can be, and the eggs were greasy. It was good, but not as good as Waffle House. The smoke put me off. It appeared the waitresses were required to go outside to smoke. At the end of the counter by the cash register their cigarette packs and lighters were stacked beside styrofoam cups of pop with their names written on them in ink pen. I’m amazed we ate in the midst of those smoke clouds as long as we did. But it sure didn’t seem to faze the Huddle House regulars that Sunday morning.

Before I left I saw that the word on my waitress’ neck was not Keith but Faith, which relieved me. Even if Faith is her name, or the name of a lover, it is also a concept, a wonderful concept in fact. And concepts unlike names are more acceptable and tolerable when permanently displayed on your skin for the world to see every moment of your life until you die. I paid, left, and went down the road, a bigger road that got bigger and busier than I was comfortable with. Before I knew it I was hopelessly lost in Montgomery.

Montgomery is fairly big, and I had successfully avoided big towns until then. I didn’t know Wetumpka was so close. A page turn in my large print road atlas screwed me up. I was so lost in Montgomery I had to resort to Google maps on my phone and the eerie sound of that woman’s hidden voice to get me out of town. The disembodied voice did its job well however and set me on the road towards Tuskegee. I began to look for a church.

It was after all Sunday morning and I have long wanted to drop into a black church, preferably Baptist. I envisioned a big choir in flashy robes, a theatrical minister with a loud and tempestuous style of preaching , listened to raptly by a congregation that responded enthusiastically from the pews. To get that I figured I needed a big church with lots of cars in the parking lot.
I couldn’t find one. There are lots of churches all over the South, plenty in Alabama, and it was Sunday morning. But the parking lots were empty. It was 9:00. When do they have church in Alabama anyway?

While driving and looking closely for churches I came upon a small road sign pointing to China Grove. China Grove was a great Doobie Brothers song. I instinctively turned the steering wheel.

Acting on impulse can cause you problems. I should know that. I’m 63 years old. But try as I might I can’t shake impulsiveness. Impulsiveness is rash and potentially exciting behavior. Unfortunately it can also get you into trouble.

Had I thought for just a moment longer I could have gone over the lyrics in my head and realized that the China Grove I was headed towards was not the Doobie Brother’s China Grove because they said so in the song:

When the sun comes up on a sleepy little town
Down around San Antone…

And though it’s a part of the lone star state
People don’t seem to care…

The Doobie brothers were clearly talking about Texas but there I was driving toward China Grove, Alabama which the Doobies probably aren’t aware exists. When I arrived I discovered the Alabama town of China Grove is nearly gone, reduced to two streets, no businesses, and more houses abandoned than occupied. Could this be all of it? I followed a road past the last set of buildings thinking maybe it would lead to more of a municipality. Pavement quickly turned into a gravel path that dropped into a marshy area with no opportunity to turn around. The gravel began to feel like sand under my tires. An algae covered pond stretched along one side of the road. I think it was a logging trail. So I kept going. There were no turn offs, no culverts. I couldn’t chance pulling onto the shoulder to make a three point turn. I went further and further on that narrow winding road until I was terribly turned around. Going back seemed pointless. I kept on, finally coming to a paved surface and later an intersection of paved roads. I used my phone again, this time as a compass. I was heading west. It was going on 10:00 and I was missing church. Having little choice, I drove on. And then it came into view, a small brick building, Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church. Not many cars were in the parking lot, but no doubt a service was underway. I parked, walked to the double front doors, and opened them. Six faces turned to look at me.

“Welcome!” shouted the woman at the altar. She was dressed in stylish clothes and her hair was nicely done. It could have been a wig. I felt very white and definitely underdressed. I expected, I don’t know why, to slip into a church unnoticed. That didn’t happen. I came down the center aisle and began to take a pew well behind those seated in the first few.

“Please, come down and be with us!”

I moved nearer the front and sat by an elderly woman with a Bible in her lap.

“Thank you for having me,” I said to everyone. “Please don’t let me interrupt.”

“Sir you are not interrupting. We’re in the middle of our Bible lesson,” she said. “We’ll continue. Our scripture readings today come from the Old Testament. Lila Lee? Why don’t you just re read the verse we’re workin on for the benefit of our visitor today. What’s your name sir?”

“Dave.”

“Please, Lila Lee, please read our verse for Brother Dave. It’s short. Won’t take but a minute.”

Lila Lee was a young girl maybe 14 years old, in church with her grandfather. She stood up and read, flawlessly, five verses of Numbers from a bright white Bible. It was the story of Moses and the bronze snake. In that story the people lose faith. They grow impatient with Moses and doubt his wisdom.

“Now where were we? We were talking about impatience. Brother Ray, what were your thoughts again?”

Brother Ray launched into heartfelt and lengthy personal testimony. He gave examples of how his personal life was dominated by uncertainty and fear, and a lack of trust in those around him. He attributed it all to a lack of faith. What was required of him, he learned, was to slow down and have faith. Actually he said he needed to “slow his mind down.” As he said that the woman beside me, who had introduced herself as Marilyn, began to nod vigorously.

“I know what you say. Yes. Yes. Tell it Brother Ray.”

Others supported Ray with Amens as he spoke. It was not church as I knew it, nor the church I expected. It was a group experience. The woman at the pulpit, Sister Gloria, directed the action rather than taking responsibility for the preaching. She asked those who had not spoken to share their thoughts, drew our small group back to the text, and offered her own comments at times. She paraphrased the Bible in an understandable contemporary way. Like this:

“You know,” Sister Gloria said “God told Moses and his people not to fear. He said he would protect them and lead them to the promised land. But they forgot. Listen to what they say here in verse five ‘"Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.’ They was complaining to Moses. They wanted everything right now. Isn’t that what we do too? They forgot back then, and we forget now, that when God gives his word, it’s a done deal. He does it in his time, but you don’t have to wonder if God’s gonna make good on what he say. Uh-Uh. When God say he’s going to do something, he does it. Always, always, always. And you can take that to the bank brothers and sisters.”

As the service wound down Sister Gloria called on each of us by name to comment on the lesson. She called on me last.

“Brother Dave? What will you take from our Bible study today?”

“Well, I have to admit that when I came here I was lost. I was looking for a church all morning and yours was the one I found. I am very glad I did. I am far from home and traveling alone. I have much to learn about patience, and I believe this trip and this experience with you all today will help me. Thank you for welcoming me so warmly.”

Sister Gloria beamed back at me. “You may believe you were lost Brother Dave, but I believe the Lord led you here to be with us.”

I didn’t want to tell her it was the Doobie Brothers. So I just smiled.

Brother Ray took up the collection, making change when needed. A quiet young man in the front row, Brother Darien, put a bill in the plate, whispered something to Brother Ray, who dug out his billfold, exchanged the bill in the plate with some of his, and then handed money back to the Brother Darien. I’m not sure, by the look of concern on his face, he got back everything he wanted. When Ray came to me I threw in a twenty. All I had were twenties.

“You want to give all that?”

“Yes.” Ray went on coolly.

The service continued with Lila Lee and Ray conferring quietly up front at a folding banquet table while Sister Gloria spoke. Ray placed money in an envelope which he and Lila Lee both signed. Sister Gloria then asked Lila Lee to read the minutes. Like a secretary at a city council meeting, Lila Lee read a short report of the December 7, 2014 service of the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church that included, members attending (6), guests (1), scriptures read and by whom, worship leader, and finally the amount collected in the plate-$40.

When she finished all the brothers and sisters, including me, came up front and held hands in a circle around the altar. I stood between Sister Gloria and Brother Ray, across from Sister Lila Lee and Brother Darien. Sister Marilyn smiled especially broadly my way. It was Marilyn who led us in an a cappella version of “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine.” I knew the words but Marilyn didn’t sing it straight like I learned it in Sunday school. She brought some soul to it, and I followed along as best I could. Marilyn’s version was better.

With that the service ended. Each of them shook my hand and wished me safe travels. I asked how to get back to the main road and a service station. And that was my Southern black church experience. Like so many things in life it was not what I thought it would be but it could not have been better.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Road Trip Four

The road trip as a metaphor for life has been worn out and overdone. But it got that way because it rings so true. Travel and life go hand in hand. in our heads life is a journey. It feels linear. One road leads to another. You come to forks in the road and make choices. Decisions which seem trivial at the time can change the course of our lives. Or just change our course. Not everything in life is momentous.

After I was busted for speeding in Tennessee Ridge and opted to head towards Dickson, rather than Waverly, TN my chances of getting to Tupelo, Mississippi were pretty much reduced to zero. I didn’t know it at the time. I couldn’t see that far ahead. On a map of America it’s easy to imagine a line of travel from Illinois to Florida which passes through Tupelo, but when really get out there, and discover the choices and the turns required, looking up from your map and seeing the actual road in front of you, everything changes. The journey you plan is nearly always different than trip you take.

Why I wanted to get to Tupelo in the first place is a good question. Tupelo is of course the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Outside of that it’s likely just another mid size Southern town, although the sound of it is intriguing isn’t it? There’s that Van Morrison song “Tupelo Honey” that plays in the background of my brain every time I see the word.

Most probably Elvis’ boyhood home in Tupelo is preserved. I can imagine in the kitchen a stove, cupboards and a refrigerator (maybe an icebox) in the bedrooms beds, and in the living room a couch and chairs. We don’t live much differently, one from another, in our American houses than we think. What’s to see really? No doubt the Tupelo house would be much different than Graceland, his mansion in Memphis, but what do we get by standing inside either place? It’s not clear. But we are inexplicably drawn to these things. So something drew me to Tupelo.

I was drawn to Tupelo right up to the moment I realized that to get there I would have to go west 120 miles out of my way. I went to Dickson, TN rather than Waverly. Waverly would have led me to Sugar Tree, Parsons, and Jack’s Creek angling the Buick and I west towards Tupelo. Instead I went to Dickson, Santa Fe, Columbia, Riddley, Mount Pleasant, and Campbellsville on a line west toward Montgomery. My trip simply set me down a different road. I missed Mississippi altogether.

I also missed the David Crockett Cabin and Museum in Lawrenceburg Tennessee which I was drawn to probably because I used to wear a coonskin hat as a kid and pretend I was him. Missed it because I kept thinking I would see a sign telling me to turn to the right and while I was still looking for it I found myself in Leoma and didn't want to go back. From Leoma I continued on to Loretto where I angled off on Route 227 towards the Alabama border. Unsure of myself and the map, I stopped in a ramshackle automotive establishment that was either garage or junkyard or both. Standing in the doorway was a striking figure. Striking because he could have been my double, a doppelganger. I looked at him through the open driver’s side window of the Buick.

He was leaning on the door jamb working his smart phone with his thumb when he heard my car on his gravel driveway and looked up at me.

His eyes were blue and he had a white beard. He was about 6’1”, only a little heavy, and wore bib overalls that were much greasier than mine have ever been. He seemed surprised to see me. I didn’t get out of the car.

“I don’t provide curb service,” he yelled.

I opened the door and walked over to where he was standing.

“You texting?” I asked.

“Checking my Face Book,” he replied. I think that makes it official. If smartphones have penetrated society to such an extent that the proprietor of a junk yard in Loretto Tennessee, a city of not very many at all located in an area very close to nowhere, is peering at the small screen then digital addiction is now ram;pant everywhere in America.

“You have a Face Book page?”

“For the store here yeah. I got my own too but not too many friends.”

“How’s business?” That’s my standard conversation starter.

“Good. Brisk trade in transmissions this week.” He looked over my car, as if he coveted its potential for spare parts
.
“You come all the way from Illinois in this?”

“Yeah.”

“How many miles you got on this LeSabre?”

“Close to 159,000. It’ll have 160,000 by the time I get home.”

“It’s a 2000 ain’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Got the 3800 engine?”

“Yeah.”

“Ought to get 200,000 easy, maybe 225, I’d say.”

“That’s what I’m hoping for.”

“So what can I do for you?”

“Tell me this. If I turn left at Route 227 back there will it take me into Lexington Alabama?”

“It sure will. The question is, why do you want to go to Lexington Alabama? And for that matter, what are you doing in Loretto Tennessee?”

“I’m on my way to Florida.”

He looked at me and pulled on his beard. “Well that’s a curious proposition, going to Florida by way of Lexington Alabama.”

“I’m travelling two lane roads. Sort of finding my way as I go.”

I’m not sure he believed me.

“Well have a good trip. Check your oil.” With that he stuck out his hand. It was black with grime. I shook it. He had as firm a grip as me. We got into a bit of a handshake squeezing contest there on the gravel. I’ll never see that man again. But something about him makes me think I’ll remember him a long time.

No sooner had I crossed the Alabama state line than I encountered my first cotton field. Near a ditch by a lane cotton was still standing. I promptly pulled off and picked some. It came out of the boll easier than I imagined. On closer inspection, there was cotton everywhere. In the red dirt between the rows, stuck to the grass, mashed down into the gravel. I was to see cotton like that throughout Alabama and into Florida.

As I headed south on Route 101, passing through Town Creek and Elgin, Moulton and Wren I noticed a change. The farther I went the poorer it got. There were a lot of things that out to be torn down in Alabama-caved in trailers, falling down barns, collapsed houses. I’m afraid there’s not the money, or the potential value of a sale, to warrant demolition. I could be wrong, but rural Alabama almost looks as if it is being walked away from by people with money. I saw more and more people walking along the road. Moms with kids. Young people by themselves.

Sadness filled the air inside the Buick and I got worried about America. It wasn’t the best part of the trip.

Somewhere out there, I was on a two lane road that got close to the interstate. Flea markets began to spring up. And not even flea markets, just people with tables by the side of the road, sometimes not even tables, just heaps of clothing or the most mundane stuff sitting on the ground. It was a cold afternoon. The vendors were hunched beside their things in hooded sweatshirts, sometimes a blanket, desperate for customers They would set up at the site of closed gas stations or failed restaurants. If I had bought everything on vendor displayed it couldn’t have put more than $100 in their pocket. I thought of the money clip in my jeans, the bills folded in it and what that might mean to the woman standing by the pile of cheap throw rugs. I’m sure they were doing what they had to do to survive, but what does their future hold? What’s ahead for the poor people of Alabama?

I kept the wheels turning. I was beginning to realize that if I didn’t keep the wheels turning I didn’t go anywhere. I had wanted to stop most everywhere. There I didn’t.

Alabama has biker bars and barbeque stands, and sometimes they are the same. Late in the afternoon I stopped at a modest stand near the interstate highway I shunned. It reminded me of the shack without the cedar siding, and was supplemented by an attached trailer of some sort and f heavy extension cords powering the place. Could have been a generator running in the back.


When I walked up to the counter the young woman behind it was having a conversation with an older one on my side.

“Since we got the award things have really picked up and we think pretty soon, maybe by February if it goes well, we’ll be able to rent that store front in Lincoln. It’s got an apartment above it? And have enough money to improve the kitchen so’s we can have a proper restaurant, maybe four tables.”

“You still living with Carl’s folks?”

“Yeah, and that works good cause Gramma can watch the baby and I don’t know who I’ll get in Lincoln.”

“They’ll hate to see you and Carl go.”

“Yeah, well I’ll hate to leave in a way but a couple oughta be on their own, you know? It’s hard living so close together.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“Sir, can I help you?”

In the South people are loathe to end one conversation before starting another. Northerners would do well to practice such patience waiting their turn. I am as guilty as the next Yankee, but that afternoon I did not mind. It gave me time to study the menu.

I settled on the $3 Barbeque sandwich with Carl’s potato salad.

“What you want to drink with that?”

“I’d really like a beer but I don’t see it on your menu.”

“We don’t sell but lemonade, sweet tea, and bottled water but I can charge you five dollars for the sandwich give you a can of Bud Light.”

“That sounds like a plan.” Bud Light is the rural local craft beer of Alabama.

“Who you rootin’ for in the game tonight?”

“What game?”

She looked at me and her eyes grew wide.

“Carl,” she was yelling over her shoulder “I asked this man who he's rootin’ for in the game and he said ‘What game!’ She looked back at me and laughed. Carl emerged from the trailer and loomed behind her, sweating. He might have played football himself. I’d take him for an offensive lineman or a tight end.

“What game?” Carl looked at me in amazement and spoke in a high voice, despite his size. “What game you say? Alabama Auburn. University of Alabama Crimson Tide against the Auburn University Tigers. It’s the Alabama bowl. Where you been man?”

“I’m from Illinois.”

“Yeah, well tonight you better watch the game. Everybody in Alabama and everybody that’s ever lived in Alabama gonna be watching that game. It’s going to be a barn burner now, always is.”

“Who’s going to win?”

“Bama probably but Auburn will give them a fight. It’s always a fight. You don’t want to miss this game.”

I took Carl’s word for it and then took his barbeque and potato salad to a nearby picnic table. The pork was tangy and tender. It was the good stuff, meat that was not smothered in sauce but instead cooked slowly and saturated with smoke. Carl would do better with more salt in his potato salad but I didn’t have the nerve to tell him.

I was washing it all down with my bootleg Bud Light when a man appeared on the porch of the ramshackle building next to me. On a clothesline strung between porch poles were thin camo coveralls that looked to be new, along with used clothes, a table filled with miscellaneous kitchen stuff, mostly old coffee cups, and other assorted gee gaws and knick knacks. He walked to the edge of the porch and spit a long string of tobacco juice back toward the building. Noticing me in the area he looked at me and smiled. His teeth were brown and rotted.

“How you doing?” he said.

“Fine.”

“That Carl makes some mean barbeque don’t he?”

“That he does.” I thought the conversation might end there. He continued to look at me. I heard the whirring of a sewing machine coming from inside the building.

“How’s business?” Sometimes it’s wrong to ask.

“Business is terrible. My wife spent all week sewing these camo cover-ups for the deer hunters and we ain’t sold shit. Got money invested in the material and thread and all not counting her time. We been working this corner for most of the year and it’s drying up. We’re going to have to find some other place to go or I don’t know what.”

“Do you live here as well?”

“No we got my Mom’s old trailer bout six mile from here. I should be putting wood together for winter, or shooting us a deer this weekend but here I am trying to sell this shit and going broke.”

Kids, a boy and his younger sister, came from inside the shed and walked to either side of their Dad. They were I’d say eight and six. They looked at me curiously while holding on to their Dad’s legs. They were skinnier than they should have been. Had that sort of hollow look to their faces. I wadded up my paper plate and styrofoam container, stood up, and looked for a garbage can.

“Is there a bathroom here?”

“No sir there surely is not. We go out the back.”

With that the little girl smiled, displaying the same discolored and decaying teeth as her Dad. I used to see teeth like that from time to time when I was a kid on the farm in the fifties, but that kind of advanced decay is more or less gone where I live. Not here. Tooth decay is alive and well, along with poverty, hunger, and despair, in the South and across America if you look for it. Among the five states I would travel through on this road trip Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida have refused to accept federal dollars to expand their Medicaid programs to families like the one by the barbeque stand despite obvious need. On what are those decisions based? Certainly not the well being of the people living there.

By declining to expand Medicaid government leaders in those states have denied health care to an estimated 1.3 million people. Poor people have lots of needs and can be helped many ways. But no help is more basic, and does more for an individual’s dignity, than access to health care. It’s a lot easier to debate problems like poverty and lack of health care in the abstract, when they are framed as policy. It’s more difficult when it’s standing right in front of you like the family smiling on that porch on an Alabama Saturday afternoon.

I didn’t go behind the building to relieve myself. Suddenly I wanted out of there. I got in my car and drove to the nearest gas station. In the rest room I realized what I really wanted was to clear out, get the tires rolling, and put some distance between me and the pain of other people. With a full tank of gas I could drive steady till dark, get a room, and put this day behind me.

I filled the Buick's tank and put the hose back in the pump. When I got behind the wheel and started the car, this was the Bob Dylan lyric that greeted me from one of his best albums, Love and Theft:

Well today has been a sad and a lonesome day,
Well today has been a sad and a lonesome day,
I’m just sitting here thinking with my mind a million miles away.

It seemed apropos. I drove till dark and found myself in Talledega. If not for its famous speedway, Talledega would be like any other poor Alabama town. I checked into a Holiday Inn Express at the far edge of town. Just My Location, my handy app, told me exactly where I was.

33.44 degrees latitude
86.08 degrees longitude
616 feet elevation

I watched the first half of the Alabama/Auburn game before falling asleep. It was a good game, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. With any luck my next day on the road would see the solo road trip end and me safely with family in Florida.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Road Trip Three

When I got to Tennessee it was apparent my trip had changed. I was in the hills. Towns were small and commerce appeared to be at low ebb. Antique stores abounded, but looked from the outside to contain very few actual antiques. I would classify them as junque stores. I went through Dover, Bear Spring, and Carlisle only to find myself headed towards Tennessee Ridge, where I seriously doubted the wisdom of my route. I wouldn’t call myself lost, only somewhat compromised.

It’s hard to find a straight road in the hills. In order to make my way south I sometimes had to head straight east or west to find a route which advanced my ultimate goal. The roads were marked neither well nor often, curling up and diving down, which slowed me considerably. The speeding ticket affected my pace of travel as well. I learned a hard lesson there on the outskirts of Tennessee Ridge.

I was concentrating on the route markers I guess. I was trying to stay on either 49 or 46 South. The roads run together there for a while which always confuses me. The relative absence of restaurants and gas stations also concerned me because I was low on both fuel and breakfast. I was looking for places to stop, consulting the atlas, and changing CD’s from Nashville Skyline to Blood on the Tracks. Despite those distractions clipping along nicely when I saw flashing lights behind me. I honestly thought it was an emergency vehicle and pulled over only to let him pass on the narrow two lane road. I was very surprised when he pulled in behind me.

Didn’t there used to be size requirements for law enforcement officers? I’ve seen some short cops lately but when this young man stood outside of the Buick window I don’t think he had to stoop to look me in the eye. His voice was squeaky.

“Can I see your license, registration and insurance card please?” I had them gotten them out before he reached the car. This was not my first rodeo, so to speak.

“Do you know why I stopped you Mr. McClure?”

“I really don’t. No.”

“I clocked you at 62 in a 35 mile per hour speed zone.”

“Is that right? I wasn’t aware I was in a speed zone.”

“Yes sir, you are. You entered the city limits of Tennessee Ridge which established a speed zone some ways back. Even if you had not entered that zone the speed limit on this road is 55.”

“I’m very sorry. I am unfamiliar with the area.”

“All right sir, please wait a moment and I’ll try to get you on your way as soon as possible. Where are you headed today?”

“Florida.”

“Florida, sir?”

“Yes.”

“All right then. I’ll be back shortly.”

I once received two speeding tickets in less than a week. It was a busy time at work. I purchased a radar detector. I’ve gone to driver’s school. I’ve gone to court and asked to be placed on probation. I once got a ticket, soon after I started driving my Mom’s 1980 Malibu, which was so far over the speed limit it qualified for reckless driving and resulted in my insurance company dropping my coverage. My wife was dismayed. You could even call her upset. Our insurance rate increased. It’s been a problem.

But I sure as heck didn’t see a speed zone change in the middle of those hills. If I was entering the town of Tennessee Ridge you couldn’t prove it by my surroundings. A solid bank of trees lined the roadway on both sides. Not a building in sight. And I was in the town of Tennessee Ridge?

When the little policeman came back to the car I have to say he was very professional.

“Mr. McClure I’ve reduced your speed in my report considerably to lower your point score. You may appear in court or you may pay this ticket by mail. Instructions are all there on a separate sheet which outlines your options. Have you had any tickets in the past two years?”

Two years is a long time. “I’m really not sure officer.”

“Well if not you may also be eligible for a safe driving course that would erase this ticket from your record if that is a concern.” He handed me the ticket.

“Thank you very much. While I have you here would I stay on this road to get to Erin?”

“No sir, this road will take you down to Route 13 and then on to Waverly. For Erin you would need to go back to Route 49.”

“So this is not 49?”

“No sir this is a county road. To get to 49 you would need to turn around and go back about a mile and a half.”

“I see.”

“I have to say sir, we get very few folks passing through here on their way to Florida. Have you considered Interstate 65? I could direct you there.”

“Thank you but no. I’m going a different way.”

“Ok then, well have a good trip and watch your speed.”

“I will. Thank you.”

Why we thank the people that bust us is a phenomenon that goes unexplained. But there you have it. Busted on the outskirts of Tennessee Ridge and proceeding cautiously, I went in to town anyway hoping to find gas before making my way back to Route 49 and on to Florida.

In Tennessee Ridge I filled up at a forlorn Citgo station which had the oldest gas pumps I would encounter on the trip. Far from having a card reader, you started the gas flowing by turning a crank on the side of the pump. Inside the dark station corn dogs under the dim glow of a heat lamp created a greasy aroma. A wrinkled Indian man speaking English with a very thick accent laid my credit card over a carefully placed carbon papered form and slid a bar violently across both to register my purchase. He must wonder, like I did, how in the world he ever ended up in this place. I walked outside and took a quick look around. In addition to the gas station there was an antique store and a nail salon. A nail salon? Those businesses and a handful of houses looked to be the entirety of Tennessee Ridge. Maybe there was more town down the road. I’ll never find out. I got in the Buick and turned around, my tires crunching the gravel drive, and left. I doubt I’ll be back.

After Erin came Dickson, a town of more substance. I was drawn, like a moth to a flame, by these big black letters on a block of yellow panels. W-A-F-F-L-E H-O-U-S-E. I have a thing for Waffle House. I knew they would be coming and that one in Dickson was the first I’d seen. Having obeyed the speed limits impeccably, I was having breakfast later than usual. But breakfast at the Waffle House? It was one of the reasons I made this trip alone.

My wife had a bad experience at a Waffle House in Florida. I’ve tried to persuade her that one should not judge a whole chain of restaurants on a single establishment but that has not been a successful strategy. I have not been in a Waffle House with her since that day. I admit it was a bad encounter. It involved vomit, not by us but rather a Waffle House staff member, and it truly was not pleasant. It’s a bad story and I’ve promised her I won’t tell it. Suffice to say that I have forgiven Waffle House while my wife has not. And so I go there alone.

I love it there. I sit at the counter so I can be close to the cooking and the waitresses. The big griddle and stove are directly behind the counter. And because Waffle House exists only in the South the waitresses call you by endearing names. As soon as I hit the stool and reached for a menu it began. I heard the lilting voice of a sturdy 55 year old waitress in her Waffle House uniform call out to me from the other end of the yellow formica:

“Watcha drinking honey?”

“Coffee.”

“You want that black?”

“Yes.”

She slammed down one of the thick Waffle House coffee cups and a glass of ice water in front of me. The coffee could be better. But it was so good to back in the Waffle House.

I’ve had practically everything on the Waffle House menu and that day I had my mind set on eggs. The only question was whether I ordered them with hash browns or grits. I love both. Decisions like that are not easy for me. In the end I had the hash browns because I couldn’t resist the add ons. At Waffle House there are many ways to enhance your hash browns. If you know what I’m about to write skip over this, but for those not familiar with the ingenious and wonderful hash brown ingredients available at Waffle House let me run them down for you. The possible options, though not endless, are considerable.

The hash browns are so good because they are scattered on the big hot griddle and thoroughly cooked unlike the square patties of riced potatoes that start frozen and often emerge with lukewarm middles that never touch the heating surface. After scattered, which is a given, you can have a single, double or triple order any of these ways:

Smothered -with Onions
Covered -with American Cheese
Chunked -with Hickory Smoked Ham
Diced -with Tomatoes
Peppered -with Jalapeno peppers
Capped -with Mushrooms
Topped -with Bert’s Chili

Or the ultimate, scattered all the way-with everything.

I had “scattered all the way” years ago and it was a meal. It crowds your taste buds though,confusing them. On that day, in Dickson Tennessee, I craved simpler fare. My waitress came with more coffee and a ticket book in her hand.

“Watcha gonna have honey?”

She took her time, settling her elbows on the counter. It was more like a consultation really. She seemed very interested in my meal, which I appreciate because I take these things seriously. I knew my waitress, whose name tag identified her as Marla, would run me through a series of questions, not unlike an interview, and I was prepared to answer each question as accurately as possible. What resulted, after all, would be my breakfast.

“Two eggs over easy.”

She leaned in close and spoke softly. I detected the faint smell of cigarettes.

“Our cook this morning doesn’t do over easy very well. Breaks the yolks. If you want them a little runny I’d order over medium. Real runny? Go with sunny side up.”

“Sunny side up then.”

“Two eggs up. Toast?”

“Wheat.”

“Buttered?”

“Yes.”

“Hash browns or grits?”

“Hash browns.”

“How you want ‘em?”

“Smothered and peppered.”

“Bacon or sausage?”

“Neither.”

“No meat?”

“No.”

She looked at me quizzically as if I was making a mistake.

“You can get your hash browns chunked (ham) for only 70 cents darlin’.”

“No, it’s OK. No meat.”

“OK then. Anything to drink?”

“Milk.”

“Large or small?”

“Large.”

“Now or with your meal?”

“With my meal.”

“You got it baby.”

She then loudly called the order to the cook, a large woman in a hair net standing in front of the stove not five feet away who was working slowly, serenely, and steadily. I liked the way she puddled the oil on the griddle before she broke the eggs into it. She did it with flair.

At Waffle House they call out the orders, not placing the ticket on a little shiny wheel with alligator clips, not entering a thing on an electronic device. Old fashioned yelled orders. I love the sound, the cadence, the call and response interaction of the waitress and the cook.

And I love it when the waitress calls me baby. It might make me blush a little. Sometimes I think I’d like to live in the South. And sometimes I think, not now given my age and the trouble I would have being on my feet all day, that if there is such a thing as reincarnation I’d like to come back as a short order cook. Or a big bird of some kind. I can’t decide.

The breakfast was terrific. As I ate I studied the road atlas.

“Where you headed?” my waitress asked.

“Florida.”

“Oh it’s so good. I took my Mom and my aunt last month to Florida, the panhandle, and they never been on vacation. Never even been out of Tennessee. It was wonderful. I’m going back, soon as I can save up the money again.”

“How’d you get there?”

“I went over to 45 which takes you all the way through Alabama.”

“That’s four lane isn’t it?”

“Yeah, most the way. But not interstate.” Four lane wasn’t compatible with my plan.

“How long you worked at Waffle House Marla?” She looked devoted to her employer, lots of Waffle House pins on her hat and apron.

“Thirty years.”

“Thirty years at this Waffle House?”

“No. Fourteen years at another Waffle House, sixteen at this one.”

“Why’d you change?”

“They pissed me off at the first one.”

“I see.”

I asked Marla where I could pick up Route 46 or 49 again. Seemed I had lost it once more. She smiled big.

“Turn around sweetie and look out that window.”

I swiveled on the stool and there, on a post hanging above my Buick, was a big sign with an arrow that read “46 SOUTH.”

We laughed. I gave Marla a big tip. She and Waffle House did not disappoint. My eggs were just right, the hash browns were impeccable, and Marla managed to work the four horsemen of customer endearment into our conversations; honey, sweetie, darlin', and baby.

I love the South.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Road Trip Takes a Detour

Writers’ conventional wisdom tells me this; every story has background, but you don’t have to tell the whole story. In fact you shouldn’t tell the whole story. The background, that bigger story, is probably only important to you and not your readers. I was never good at following advice, nor have I often been accused of being conventional. And so I offer you this today, a detour from the current road trip which takes you into the past. Let me add that no cows were hurt in the writing of this story.


I had never seen Henry in the pool hall. Henry was our closest neighbor to the south and my Dad’s best friend. He was a kind man, and that day he had a worried look on his face. Standing in the doorway and calling my name his eyes, behind silver framed glasses, said something was wrong.

I had come to the pool hall in Danvers, not far from the community hall where basketball practice was in its first week, to use the phone and wait until my parents could pick me up and bring me home to the farm. Mom usually made the short three mile trip after she helped Dad bring the cows across the road and he began to get ready for milking. Why Henry was there confused me.

“Your Mom called and asked me to come get you David. Your Dad’s cows were hit on the road.”

I got my satchel and simply walked away from the game of eight ball I was playing. The thought of cows hit on the road was our family’s biggest fear realized. I don’t think I had ever been in Henry’s car. As we neared the three mile Y intersection on Route 9 Henry said this.

“Your Dad’s upset.” I had never heard Henry talk about my Dad’s emotions, or anyone’s for that matter. “The state police were called.”

He paused and I pondered the gravity of what he just said. I wanted to know which cows were hit, but Henry wouldn’t necessarily know their names. Instead I asked

“Who hit them?”

“Mr. Lindenfelser’s hired man.”

“How many?

“Three.”

Our farm was split in half by Illinois Route 9 that ran from Bloomington and parts east to Pekin and parts west. Near the current road there was, when I was younger, a still visible trace in our front yard of the previous road, the old state road, which ran at a different angle. When the road’s route was changed it created little triangular patches of land, small pie shaped plots, that were remnants of progress I guess, but awkward, almost too small to farm. The new road was concrete and would be forever known in our family as the hard road.

Land that was ill suited for farming, with a creek, near the timber, a natural pasture, was north of the road and the best farmland, along with the dairy barn and our house, was south of the road. My Dad, his father in law, and for all we knew everyone and anyone that had ever milked cows on that farm had driven cows across the road to pasture in the morning and back across the road to the milking barn in the evening during the time of year the pasture provided sufficient food for the cows. Always Jersey cows. Rich raw Jersey milk was delivered to the little town of Danvers until pasteurization and homogenization requirements during World War II put local small farm dairy delivery out of business due to the cost of upgraded equipment. Dad and his father in law built a new barn in 1941 and shipped Grade A milk to a larger dairy until he sold the cows in the late 70’s. Much changed, but driving cows across Route 9 stayed the same. We had never had cows hit on the hard road even though it had grown to be busy. Trucks hauled corn to the barges in Pekin. Car traffic grew and grew over the years, until they built Interstate 74.

Getting the cars across the road required at least two people (better three) or two people and a good dog. We had some good dogs. It was Mom and Dad and our border collie Champ the afternoon the cows were hit. The cows gathered at a gate near the road, usually by themselves, sometimes requiring someone to go get them. When they were at the gate Mom took her place on the road to the west with a red flag, Dad checked the traffic both ways, opened the gate, and took his place with a flag to the east. The cows crossed between them, protected by their owners.

“Sic ‘em Champ” was the command for the dog, waiting behind the cows, to get them moving, nipping at their heels if needed. Both the cows and the dog knew the drill, so it all happened pretty much at once.

The people, Mom to the west and Dad to the east, stood in the road with red flags high in the air. The west was the biggest worry, because there was a hill. Cars and trucks could crest the hill and be on the cows quickly. You could see a long ways to the east and vehicles could see you. If anything was coming west, either past the hill or on the hill behind it, we waited to release the cows. But if a vehicle was coming way east you could almost have the cows across the road before they arrived, and if not they were easily stopped. Dad claims he saw nothing coming when he opened the gate, but after he took his position on the road with the flag he saw the white car way down past the bridge from the east.

The cows were moving slowly across the road as dairy cows do, placid, not in a hurry. Champ moved back and forth behind them, but not nipping or making them run. Dad saw that the car was coming fast and began to wave the flag. It was not unusual to stop a car from one direction or the other. Most saw not only the flag but the mass of cows on the road. We drove as many as 26 cows across the road twice a day in late spring, summer, and early fall. You could see them on the road from far off. More noticeable were the red flags held by our family.

The car continued to approach, speeding Dad figured. The speed limit there was 60. Dad walked down the road towards the car and waved the flag faster, listening for the driver to let off on the accelerator and slow his vehicle. Nothing changed. He saw it was a white Pontiac convertible. By the sound he knew it needed a muffler. He thought he’d seen the car before.

It kept coming. Dad ran towards the car, whipping the flag, a large piece of bright red cloth on a metal rod, back and forth quickly and yelling, both to the driver and to his wife Catherine. The sound of the engine didn’t change. Dad looked back and saw the road covered with his cows. He looked at the car and saw the driver, a skinny man with a cigarette in his mouth and long blonde hair. At the last moment he jumped into the ditch and threw the flag at the car and its driver. It landed on the hood. He heard the sound of his cows being hit, the impact, breaking glass, frantic mooing of the cattle. Only then did he hear the squeal of tires, brakes finally being applied.

As Henry and I approached the farm we could see the lights from the state police car flashing. When Henry got closer and stopped I saw three cows. Mom had taken the rest to the lot by the barn. Queenie lay near the road, not moving. Bess was lying in the yard with her head up and her feet under her. Blood ran from her nose. Wilma was in the ditch and Dad was near her. She was struggling, trying to get up, while Dad held her head down. A state policeman with a clip board was talking with a man by a white car. He had pale blue eyes and greasy hair. Blood had spattered his white Tee shirt.

We walked to where Dad was holding Wilma down, her back legs were obviously broken. A bone, amazingly white, poked through the skin.

“Is there anything more I can do to help Dean?”

“No Henry we’re about done here. Thank you very much. You can go home.” Henry walked back to his car.

“David, I need you to go into the house, in me and Mom’s room, and get that nickel plated pistol Denny brought home from Germany. It’s in the bottom drawer of Mom’s dresser. Bring that and four shells. They’re .22 longs. The shells are in my sock drawer in the chest of drawers.”

I knew all that but Dad didn’t know I did. I ran to the house.

Dad loved his cows like we all did. He named them himself, sometime with our help, and kept their names on a chart in the barn for breeding. They were purebred Jerseys, not registered, but beautiful animals from a herd that had been on that farm continuously for as long as we knew. Dad thought Queenie had a regal look. She had a white blaze above her black nose and two white socks by her hoofs. Wilma was a dark Jersey, almost black, and had long legs. She was a great milker. Dad named her after Wilma Rudolf, the Olympic African American sprinter he admired so much, flashing down t he track on our black and white TV screen with that long stride. I don’t know how Bess got her name. Bess would walk up to you in the pasture and nuzzle you until petted her.

Queenie, Mom later said, was the first to be hit and never saw the car. Her head was down, the car’s right side, the bumper and fender, hit her squarely in the head, breaking her horns and killing her outright, throwing her in the ditch where I saw her lying. After hitting Queenie the car was thrown into Wilma, striking her in the back legs and lifting her up on the hood for a time. She rolled off, tried to get up, fell, inched her way onto the shoulder. The car was slowing then and hit Bess, pushing her over. She slid down the pavement, knocking down another cow, but was able to get up, only to walk into the yard and lay down of her own accord.

I brought the gun to my Dad. The policeman standing beside him, asking questions, offered Dad his own pistol, which was a larger caliber. Dad refused it.

“I’ll do this myself officer. After I’m done taking care of my cows here I’ll talk to you.”

I looked closely at my Dad as he loaded the revolver. His hands were shaking.

“You go to the barn and help your Mom with the milking.”

“I want to stay.”

“No. You go.”

I was almost to the barn when I heard the snap of the .22 pistol. Just a snap. Then another.

Days later I was helping Dad at the corn crib. We were putting the speed jack on the corn elevator so it would be ready when we started shucking corn. I wasn’t much help with mechanical things but I enjoyed being with Dad and he liked having me around. Out of the blue he said this:

“You know what that man said to me when he got out of his car after killing my cows?”

“No. What?”

“He said ‘Where were you?’ Can you imagine? ‘Where were you?’ Dumb bastard. Dumb hillbilly bastard.”

With that my Dad started to cry. It had happened days before and only now did Dad cry. I didn’t know what to do. Just he and I standing in the lot by the corn crib in the afternoon, him crying. I put my hand on his shoulder. He reached for the red handkerchief he always kept in his bib overalls and blew his nose.

Mr. Lindenfelser’s hired man was from Kentucky.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Road Trip Two

My Dad, born in 1909, used to talk about the Tennessee Valley Authority and big government public work projects like Kentucky Dam created by the Corps of Engineers. He was solidly behind and spoke fondly of all the initiatives FDR undertook to create jobs and make life better for America’s poor. He told stories about the TVA. He said the government sent agents into those Kentucky and Tennessee hills to persuade the people who lived there to move out before their homes were flooded. He claimed that some shot at the government men, flatly refusing to believe them and leave their homes, modest as they might have been. He didn’t call them “the people who lived there.” He called them hillbillies.

Dad had a low opinion of Kentucky. He maintained that Southern Illinois and Southern Indiana were actually Kentucky, along with the Ozarks in Missouri. Kentucky to him meant bad English and little education. He said Kentucky was 75 years behind Illinois. What will be the prejudices and stereotypes my kids remember about me?

I don’t think my Dad spent any, or if any very little, time in Kentucky, but he encountered people from there moving up to Illinois, mostly poor men seeking work and being used by established farmers as “hired men.” A hired man was given an old house on the farm kept livable for that purpose, meat from the farmer’s cows and pigs when they butchered, as many in kind benefits as possible to offset very low pay for the hard work required to make small Midwest farms profitable. They often had large families, little schooling, and spoke English in a manner different from us. As agriculture mechanized and farm equipment improved the need for hired men faded quickly. The hired men and their families from Kentucky blended elsewhere into the Illinois workforce seamlessly. But my Dad’s opinion of Kentucky as a backwards place stayed fixed in time.

The Kentucky I have experienced in my life seems just fine. While going to the Kentucky Derby and passing through the State on our way to points south on family vacations, Kentucky has been clean and inviting. I especially appreciate and value the whiskey making skill of Kentuckians. The part of Kentucky I experienced on this road trip was unexpectedly beautiful. But l had to wait to see it.

I found myself wide awake, unable to return to sleep, before 5:00. I’d barely unpacked the night before so I got up, quickly gathered my things together, put my bag in the Buick, got my bearings from the night clerk at the hotel desk, and set off back across the dam to the entrance of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. As I entered the park it was still dark. I hung out at the closed welcome center to kill a little time. I read the big map, perused a few pamphlets, took a walk around the very edges of the parking lot; and still no hint of the sun. I got back in the Buick and backtracked to the Kentucky Lake Scenic Loop Road, an extravagant use of asphalt designed to give the drivers who take it nice views of the lake while going nowhere.

Kentucky Lake is gigantic. The dam I crossed, deep and wide, must have flooded so much of the Cumberland and Tennessee River valleys, so many hollows and mountain hideaways, that it’s no wonder the inhabitants of those mountain haunts didn’t want to move. Life may have been tough there for early Kentuckians, but it was no doubt their own, free and independent. Plenty of hills still remain, as I was about to find out. Standing there, gazing at that vast lake, I saw the first hint of red in the clouds above the horizon. I got back in the Buick and headed down the road.

As the sun came up I was greeted by a dense hardwood forest and a deserted twisting two lane highway. I felt totally alone. I was totally alone. I decided it fitting for Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan to join me, so I put “Nashville Skyline” in the CD player, knowing the deep strum of those acoustic guitars by heart, along with the lyrics, of the opening song.

If you go-o, where the snowflakes fall
And the winds hit heavy, on the borderline
Please see for me that she’s wearing a coat so warm,
To keep her from, a the howling wind.

The Buick and I rose and fell, curving down between the cut rock and exposed red clay, up along the ridges, moving through the trees, quietly making our way South. It was a beautiful drive. I had a little cold coffee from the day before. I sang loudly along to “Peggy Day.”

The hardwood trees thinned a bit and prairie grass began to appear. A rare road sign told me the road to the Bison and Elk Refuge was in a half a mile. Bison and Elk? It is difficult if not impossible to pass up such a roadside attraction on an open ended trip like mine. I took the turn and encountered a smaller paved road equipped with a turnstile not unlike those seen in parking garages. Big arm blocking my path, credit card slot, pay five dollars, take a ticket. All in perfect quietude, just me and the automatic, micro chipped machines. I paid my money and the arm went up. Next sturdy metal gates swung toward the Buick and I drove over a pit covered by pipes. A cattle guard. I drove in, the gate closed behind me, and the road took me over a small ridge. Before me lay a beautiful little valley, a rock with a plaque, and a gravel parking area. I got out and read the story of early settlers and their relationship to buffalo. I imagined the valley covered by buffalo. It was empty of everything but plants and me.

Back in the Buick, I proceeded down into the valley onto a road that carried me to the ridge. As I topped the hill the road was covered with buffalo, on the road, on both sides of it, spaced apart, grazing, absolutely unconcerned that a four door 2000 LeSabre carrying a bearded man was in their midst. I rolled down all the windows and turned off Bob Dylan. A buffalo calf stepped onto the pavement, stopped in the middle of the road, and slowly turned its head to look at me through the windshield. It looked at me for a long time, chewing its cud in that serene bovine way. I turned the engine off.

It was me and a hundred buffalo somewhere in the wilderness of Kentucky, just past the credit card reader and the cattle guard. I tried to imagine how the frontiersmen felt when they first experienced this prairie and the buffalo it supported. Hungry I imagine. Reaching for their rifles. It was 6:30 in the morning and I was parked in a buffalo herd on the second day of my road trip. You never know what’s going to happen do you? If you start thinking you do, put yourself on a road you have never traveled. Good things emerge.


Eventually I made my way out of the bison herd and down into the next valley. Still no Elk. At a place in the road that warned of high water during rains, a ford in the creek, something caught my eye on the ground, something black and moving. A closer look revealed a flock of wild turkeys. I got out of the Buick. I heeded signs that warned not to leave your vehicle when encountering buffalo and elk, but I wanted a closer look at the turkeys. Thanksgiving just passed, they were still much on my mind. The turkeys were more wary than the buffalo, keeping a safe distance. One of the toms turned toward me and flared out his tail feathers, making quite a display. They moseyed on down the creek bank, pecking at the ground. I was able to get a little closer to them and experience a personal turkey moment. It was rare for me to be so close to wild turkey not in liquid form. The sun was well over the ridge, lighting a beautiful part of America and marking the start of a beautiful day. I returned to the Buick.

Somewhere out there on that empty road I crossed in to Tennessee. I had encountered more Kentucky buffalo and turkeys than people, but not one elk. The day continued.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Road Trip Day One

I didn’t leave home as early as I’d hoped. The Flaherty family was in a mood to talk, drink, and have a good time on Thanksgiving, so I didn’t sleep as much as I’d hope. Too much time in the shack, where we got into the whiskey and cigars, played old vinyl records, sang along, told old stories, laughed. You get the picture. I left for Florida at 9:00 a.m. rather than 6:00 as planned. When I left the driveway I turned South.

The goals for this solo road trip were as follows: no Interstate highways, no big cities, no itinerary, no deadlines, no detailed pre planning, no rush. On a U.S. map Florida is South and East so it seemed fitting I start by going South. I started in Ottawa. Using Just My Location, a handy app developed by my ingenious nephew Jim Zwica (free, available on Itunes) which tells you exactly where you are in three dimensions, I know my house is exactly here:

41.37 degrees latitude
-88.85 degrees longitude
577.4 feet elevation

I went South through Grand Ridge, East on Richards Road, again South towards Champaign and have been repeating that same routine pretty much the whole way, a long series of left and right turns, except when I lose my way and have to double back, or I take a small side trip, or whatever.

On a big map it looked like a good general route would be Tennessee, Tupelo, Ms., Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Tallahassee, Fla. Once I got to Tallahassee I would figure out where I was specifically going in Florida by calling my brother in law. He and his wife Pat live South of Tallahassee somewhere. I liked that route idea because of the alliteration of the repeating T’s. While it may have looked good on the map, when I got down to real choices on the highway it made no sense. And it made less sense to try to go that way just because I said I would. So the three T’s went out the window pretty quickly. Last night, as it turned out, when I couldn’t make it to Tennessee, I stopped for the night at a Kentucky State Park lodge on Kentucky Lake, just past a whopping big dam that forms Kentucky Lake and was the beginning, I think, of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s giant undertaking to bring electricity to that part of America. Here’s exactly where it is:

37.01 Latitude
-88.27 Longitude
641.11 feet elevation

Between those two points, on a day when I travelled South 4 degrees of latitude and East 0 degrees 12 minutes, I had a great time. I was tired, it was cold, but it’s just so good being out there and being free.

I refueled for the first time in Clay City, IL. That’s on Route 45 on a fairly straight line going South marked by towns like Forrest, Sibley Bondville, Tolona, and Montrose. The Buick’s gas gauge doesn’t work and is too expensive to fix so I use my trip meter to avoid running out of gas, which I hate. To be safe I fill up somewhere after I’ve travelled about 300 miles on a tank. I thought I would stop in Sailor Springs but one look at Sailor Springs and I knew there was no gas station there. It’s seen better days, that Sailor Springs.

Where do you suppose Southern Illinois, as we know it, really starts? In Clay City the snow was pretty much gone. The sun felt a little hotter as I stood by the gas pump. Two guys were working on a Ford pickup, peering under the hood, and the gas station’s biggest window ad was for Copenhagen. I think maybe Clay City is as good as any to mark the border between Southern and Central Illinois. It could be their motto “Clay City-Gateway to Southern Illinois.”

Things like defining Southern Illinois and other endeavors that entail more concept than fact depend of course on who you are, where you live, and what your perspective happens to be. Chicagoans think anything South of Route 80 is Southern Illinois, but us Northern and Central Illinoisans know that’s poppycock. Southern Illinois is much farther South. Actually, in Northern and Central Illinois we don’t use the word poppycock. We tend to say bullshit.

One of the highlights of my day was taking the ferry at Cave in Rock (just past Norris City and Omaha) over the Ohio River to Kentucky. I expected a big self contained ferry boat. Turns out it’s a gutsy little tug boat pushing a barge which pulled up on the Illinois side at a glorified boat ramp just as I was arriving. Maybe eight or ten cars or trucks max fit on the barge. It doesn’t take five minutes from the time you drive on the barge, cross the river, and drive off to get across the Ohio River, which is fairly narrow there. Everyone sits in their car. So fun. And it’s free. The Cave in Rock ferry was a great way to leave Illinois.

When I reached Kentucky I had no idea I was so close to Tennessee. At its East end Kentucky narrows down quite a bit. As states on a map Kentucky and Tennessee both are wide but shallow. I drove a short way, till it got dark, and found myself near the entrance to Land between the Lakes, a narrow National Recreation area South of Kentucky dam between the flooded Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. It promised to be a beautiful drive, and I wanted to see it in the day light. Besides, I was dead tired. I had dinner in the lodge dining room (great vegetable beef soup) and turned in early. I’d hoped to be farther along, though I had no solid idea where that would be, but I was glad to be where I was.

I spent that first day alone talking to virtually no one but the waitress at the lodge when I told her I wanted a bourbon barrel ale and the buffet. A day like that is good for me from time to time. I used my solitude to look closely at what was around me listen to songs with words. In the shack I listen mostly to songs with instruments only so nothing gets in the way of these words I’m writing. Perfect for driving are the good lyric guys. In a bag of CD’s were my favorites: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and The Tallest Man on Earth with some Steely Dan and Mumford and Sons thrown in for diversion. I also brought the Singing Bowls for the hell of it. Every time I listen to these old songs I find new gems of language blended with music. Leonard Cohen gave me this on that first driving day from his song "Famous Blue Raincoat".

Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried


Day two would start in the Land between the Lakes National Recreation Area. Though I didn’t plan it that way, it seemed like the perfect beginning. I’d passed through 22 towns on the two lane roads I travelled in Illinois that first day. On day two I would pass through no towns for a long time.