A Walk to the Mill Pond

Me at the rock wall at the Mill Pond, circa 1976

Me at the rock wall at the Mill Pond, circa 1976

A couple of nights ago, I dreamt of the Mill Pond on Duncan Creek off Fleming Mill Road.  I can close my eyes and smell the water, silty and fishy and fresh.  Nothing quite smells like creek water in the Piedmont.

It was some 20 minutes’ walk from the house, just off the frontage road along the interstate highway.  Down the hill we sledded on when it snowed or iced and maybe a quarter mile beyond was a dirt road on the left snaking back into the hardwoods.

The mouth of the dirt road was piled with garbage—an illegal dump consisting of old television sets, bed springs and bottles, dismembered baby dolls and beer cans aplenty.  It was where old sofas and ruined carpets and broken kitchen appliances came to die.

It also reeked of death.  There was usually a decomposing dog carcass or two, sometimes on the bare ground, sometimes wrapped in a sheet or ripped plastic bags.  It is where I became familiar with the process of decomposition as I tried to hold my breath until I passed.

Once past the putrid smell of garbage, the road was picturesque.  It wound through a gorgeous and open oak-hickory forest punctuated by holly trees, dogwoods and the occasional beech.  Where it dead-ended you could hear the roar of water rushing over the shoals, which were a short walk through the trees.

As you came upon the shoals, a fairly level slab of rock stretched ahead and to the left, where it met with the creek. Closer and to the right, though, sat twin boulders, half-overlapping with a waterfall rushing between them.  During the spring when the suckers ran they jumped like salmon in Alaska trying to get past this little waterfall.  Water from here sluiced to the right some ten to twenty yards into a shaded and shallow fishing hole.

If you followed the linear level slab to the creek, you could fully appreciate the shoals.  To the left the creek was still and deep, but at this pinch-point, it met the rocky shoals and roared to the right across a fairly steep drop-off into the deep green swimming hole/fishing hole, a combination waterfall and water slide.  The poor man’s water park.

Across the creek from where the still deep water met the shoals was a rock wall, and all around the creek were earthen berms that must have sluiced water down to the mill when it was operational.  Since no wooden structures remained, I can only imagine that the grist mill itself must have sat below the swimming hole somewhere near the right bank. When we first went there, the millstone sat atop a rock wall over a deep drop off.  Sadly, on a later visit, the millstone was cracked in the bottom of the pit, a victim of vandalism.

This place was pure magic and contained an abundance of micro-habitats up and down the creek, likely forming the collective Holmesfeel for conservation of all things nature.

Upstream the water was narrow, deep and still and there was an oxbow or two alongside the main channel.  It was floodplain habitat.  In winter with a good pair of rubber boots, you could wade and find the gelatinous egg masses of salamanders and frogs.  And on rabbit hunts, you might shoot a cottontail and a swamp rabbit if you were lucky.  An occasional woodcock would flush spinning like a whirligig.

On the left bank uphill from the shoals and swimming hole, there was a tiny almost- xeric habitat where sun broke through the canopy to crumbly rock, prickly pear and lichens in one spot, and club moss under shade not too far away.

Further downstream the woods were wide and open to a bend in the creek where a hill piled with boulders on the right bank gave the feel that you were in the mountains.  You could sit up on the hill there with your BB gun overlooking the creek and pretend you were waiting in ambush for some old-time movie bad guys to come along.

Within eyesight on the same bank, the terrain flattened into a cane thicket. You could almost get lost in it bushwhacking your way through the cane and green brier, and most adults would caution you to avoid going in because you might get “that bird disease.”

Back in those days, there was little concept of private woodlands and posted land.  Unoccupied woods and fields were open to anyone to ramble, fish and hunt.  The Mill Pond was a lot like other sets of shoals in the country—a popular place to hang out and picnic or even camp.  Teenagers went to places like this to do their beer drinking and necking.  And families with small children often made such locations a Sunday afternoon outing.

As people are wont to do, someone bought it and built a house on it.  You cannot go there now, and I am certain I would not want to.  It is still the same in my memory.

I grew up wild here—swimming, fishing, hunting.  Seeing, touching, smelling.  Put a watermelon in the falls and let it get cooled by the water before cracking it open on the rocks.

Time spent at the Mill Pond, I am sure, is time that will not be deducted from my life.

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Thoughts on Cecil the Lion by Guest Blogger Ab Abercrombie

Elephants at a water hole in Zimbabwe

Elephants at a water hole.  Hwange, Zimbabwe.

I want to share the following thoughts by my friend Ab Abercrombie with his permission.

Dr. Abercrombie is a Professor Emeritus at Wofford College and teaches Plant and Animal Resources of Africa and Techniques and Strategies of Wildlife Management at Africa University near Mutare, Zimbabwe.  Africa University is a private university affiliated with the United Methodist Church.  Its students come from 22 diverse countries throughout the continent.

Read along with an open mind.  Abercrombie’s words are in blue:

OF LIONS, SYLLABI, NEOCOLONIALISM, AND DEFERRED DENTAL SERVICES

I really like lions, especially the one that finally decided not to eat me some years ago near Vic Falls. Furthermore, I think that Cecil, a late, lamented resident of Hwange National Park, was a fine lion, a glorious lion if you like. I am saddened by the tasteless manner of his death. Heck, I’m so mad that if Walter James Palmer were my dentist, I might skip one or even two cleaning appointments.

male liono with kill

Not Cecil, but an injured older male lion photographed at a kill.  Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe 2013.  Being a wild lion is not for wussies.

I am also disturbed that Cecil’s death has dominated America’s Africa-headlines for days on end. During this same period, South Sudan has been descending into the

greater kudu

This graceful antelope, a greater kudu bull, is one of the most sought after hoofstock trophies in all of Africa. Hwange, Zimbabwe.

abyss of renewed civil war. Guinea has been racked by scary health-care catastrophes. And in east-central Congo, juvenile higher primates, of a species that y’all know very well, have died because proxy fighters for “developed” nations have sought the cheapest coltan to make for us the cheapest cell phones. Probably some truly wonderful things have also happened in Africa, but how would we know?

OK, I’m upset in general. But I’m also upset in particular because Cecil’s death & the furor surrounding it will affect my own life. In a few days Chrissy Hope and I shall depart for a semester in Zimbabwe. She’ll teach “Rural Development.” I’ll teach “Plant & Animal Resources of Africa” and “Techniques and Strategies of Wildlife Management.”

I have taught the Management course before. And I always spend a lot of time on trophy hunting. Of course I’ve never been a trophy hunter myself; I don’t have the money. But some people do, and I am thankful for that. Ecologically, trophy hunting is very low-impact. Properly managed, it is entirely sustainable. Justly administered, it provides revenue for local communities that are desperate for money.

And thus, when it’s done right, trophy hunting can be a powerful tool for conservation. The death of an elephant by Yankee gunfire can contribute $20,000 to a dirt-poor village. Then perhaps elephants will no longer be defined as five-ton rats that will destroy your maize-crop—and perhaps ivory poachers will be condemned as game-thieves rather than praised as agents of nuisance-animal control. Similarly, a trophy-hunt for a big male lion might generate > $30K; then perhaps a villager can tolerate the loss of the occasional cow and can teach her kids how to be very, very careful. Otherwise, well, poison is pretty darn cheap, and somebody will know how to use it.

female lion on a kill

A lioness enjoys dinner in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that trophy hunting in Zimbabwe always works super-well. Mr. Cecil’s death certainly proves that point! But before you propose a general condemnation of trophy hunting, please scan presentations by Zimbabwean, Namibian, and South African biologists at Plenary Meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Or read articles about lion and elephant

lion injured by cape buffalo

Note this lion was photographed at his pride’s kill. Being a wild lion is hard work. He is not bearing weight on his left rear leg, probably from an injury in bringing down the buffalo upon which he was feeding. Hwange, Zimbabwe.

management in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Or meditate on the conservation triumphs made possible by Teddy Roosevelt, the greatest trophy hunter of all time. Or, best of all, come to Zimbabwe and do some serious research. I guarantee that you’ll discover plenty of nastiness, complexity, inefficiency, cruelty, and injustice within the trophy-hunting enterprise. But if you keep your eyes and your mind open, you’ll also recognize some substantial successes—the schools, the clinics, the empowered communities, the changing attitudes about conservation.

buffalo and cattle egrets

A cape buffalo, one of the “Big Five” dangerous game trophies in Africa. Hwange, Zimbabwe.

In the end, of course, you might decide that you still want to oppose trophy hunting. But if you do, management biologists will challenge you to offer a just way immediately to infuse several million replacement-dollars into Zimbabwe’s economy. And if you can’t invent such a plan, then do an honest gut-check on which you like better: tawny-skinned lions or black-skinned people.

ADDITIONAL, PERSONAL NOTE: I do not enjoy killing anything, and therefore I am uncomfortable in supporting trophy hunting. Nevertheless, I am completely convinced that resource managers in developing nations should possess that option within their repertoire of potential conservation strategies. Alongside my students, I’ll think enthusiastically about how this might work. Furthermore, to tell the truth, I’ll be sympathetic when my students brand as neocolonialist certain American attempts to frustrate African-designed and CITES-approved wildlife management programs. And, yeah, you guessed it: for a whole bunch of reasons, Chrissy and I are nervous about this Zimbabwe-semester; we would appreciate your kind thoughts and even your generous prayers.

Grace and Peace, Ab.”

Ab and Chrissy

Drs. Chrissy Hope and Ab Abercrombie off to work at Africa University. Near Mutare, Zimbabwe.

From further speaking with Ab, I know that different African countries are applying varying plans in an attempt to balance wildlife and the revenues that wildlife-watching and legal, responsible safari hunting bring in.  For example, Rwanda charges trophy hunting level fees (Ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching!) for the privilege of watching mountain gorillas in the wild.  Botswana has ended trophy hunting and is experimenting with two different fee structures for wildlife-watchers (camera safaris), something akin to “first class” and “tourist” class.

Ab told me that he would hate to see Zimbabwe price middle-class tourists out of being able to go there and view wildlife.  As a middle-class American, I simply wish I was well-off enough to take a couple of weeks off and purchase a tourist class plane ticket to Zimbabwe!!!

Remember that you cannot generalize about Africa.  It is made of many diverse countries, each attempting to make its way into the 21st century.  It is my opinion that carefully managed wildlife-watching and trophy hunting are important tools to protect their precious resources and bring in revenue.  Sadly these nations also must fight the bushmeat trade, habitat loss and a level of poaching that is tantamount to organized crime in order to protect many game and non-game species.

It is noteworthy that in the United States, much of the revenue used to manage game and non-game species and their habitats is generated from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, tags and permits.  Hikers, campers, birdwatchers, etc do not have to purchase a license to view animals here. If you like seeing our native wildlife, thank a hunter.  Better yet, purchase a hunting and fishing license even if you do not intend to use it.

Thanks to my sister-in-law Sarah for the photos accompanying this blog.

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From my lungs to his…

…Breathing life into an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake

Crotalus adamanteus

Big Chief, male Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and king of the forest. Photo by Alex Bentley

Handling venomous snakes under anesthesia is never straightforward.  At any moment, an anesthetized snake–particularly during induction of anesthesia or during awakening from anesthesia–can experience enough arousal to snag you with his fangs.

It is my third Eastern diamondback rattlesnake this year, a vigorous 6.5 pounds male sporting a 9 inch circumference and at 66 inches total length, much longer than I am tall.  An impressive individual and a member of the largest species of venomous snake in North America, he is nonetheless fairly easy to handle.    His radio transmitter, thermal recording device and identifying pit tag are already sutured up tight inside his lower abdomen.  Biologist and field coordinator Mike Martin places the sleeping serpent back into his box and three biologists, a veterinary technician and I all walk around muttering, allowing the tension of having handled him before and during surgery to diffuse.

prepping the diamondback

Tension is evident in the faces of biologist Mike Martin and Kathi S. Craft, LVT.  These procedures always carry some risk to the handlers.

After a few minutes, we wander back to the snake’s box and observe him.  He is not waking up, not even a little bit.  This is not unusual; they can wake quickly or slowly.  But we all stare at him with his crazy pattern of diamonds long enough to decide he either isn’t breathing or at least isn’t breathing enough to be conducive to his well-being.

The three biologists rightly become nervous.  They’ve actually seen, assisted in or done many more of these procedures than I, a mere mortal veterinarian, have.  But it is my O.R., a sacred place where I command the bridge and seldom perform my job with an audience.  It is usually just me and one or two technicians.  But their concerns are buzzing in my ears like a swarm of bees.  And I am the one who has to make the call as to what must happen next.

applying glue to incision

The procedure is done, I have removed the drape, cleaned the patient of blood and I am applying a cyanoacrylate tissue adhesive to the incision.  Photo by Charles Smith

I go on autopilot, a place where I am directed by years and years of training and my emotions are checked at the door.  Come, go along with me.

Me:  Do you want me to entubate him?

Them:  It might be a good idea to give him a breath or two

Me:  OK, get him up on the table, head on this end.

Them:  Do you have a red rubber catheter? (a tube used to pass into the glottis of snakes)

Me:  I have a trach tube that will fit him.

Me, to my LVT:  Kathi, I need a tongue depressor.

Kathi, instantly at my side, is bearing a handful of tongue blades:  Right here, doctor.

rattlesnake mouth

Opening the mouth, it’s a tricky thing, whether you are doing it to tube feed the individual, as team leader Ab Abercrombie and I are doing with this one, or whether you are entubating it to assist breathing, as I did with “Chief” and Mike Martin.

Mike silently and carefully considers what he is about to do and then holds the snake’s head up off the table for me.  Then it is happening.  Holding it flat with my right hand, I insert the tongue depressor laterally between the patient’s mandible and maxilla and I turn the blade 90 degrees to open the mouth.  The fangs unhinge and drop down and I hear biologist-intern Alex in the background remarking on how big they might be.

I am not looking at the deadly fangs at all.  My focus is on the glottis–the tracheal opening–in the floor of the mouth just behind the front teeth.  Automatically, I use my left hand to insert the tip of the endotracheal tube and advance it slightly.  It is a snug fit, and I don’t need to put it far.  During this procedure, both of my hands are within two inches of the fangs.

Then it happens.  I lean forward, put my lips on the adapter end of the trach tube and generate a breath from my lungs into his, my face mere inches from his truly impressive fangs.  But I am not looking at the mouth or the fangs or the glottis.  I am looking beyond to watch my own breath expand his glorious body.

At the apex of the breath, I pause.  Air is neither leaving my lungs to go into his, nor is it leaving his lung to come back into mine.  For a second or two, we are one.

I release my lips and take the trach tube out of his glottis and observe a fractional spasm.

Then, perhaps a bit too bitchily, I say:  I think this is unnecessary.  He is getting body tone back.

I might add that I slept like a baby that night.

endotracheal tube

A 3 mm endotracheal tube is designed for cats, kittens and tiny dogs. It fit our patient perfectly, though the majority of snakes need much smaller and more specialized tube.  In a pinch, a red rubber catheter may be used in place of a designated tracheal tube.

 The patient began breathing well on his own right after my gift of breath.  He was rattling and tongue flicking in short order.  Because snakes have only one elongated lung and lack a diaphragm, sometimes they need a little help to jump start their respiration after a surgical procedure.

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Herping the Light Fantastic

 I just returned from a trip to the sky islands, isolated mountain ranges near the junction of Arizona, New Mexico and Sonora, a magic high-altitude oasis that offers world class-birding and some of the most amazing biodiversity of herpetofauna to be found.

At times I felt simply overwhelmed as I attempted to add birds and reptiles to my life list, literally not knowing whether I wanted to look up…or down.

lizard

My first Arizona herp, a plateau lizard hand-caught at the Southwestern Research Station near Portal, Arizona. A lifer.

For those of you who are not familiar with “herping” as an activity, it is similar to bird watching, aka birding.  Birders try to spot different species of birds and add them to their life list.  It is an established fact that birding field guides have a checklist in the back to this very purpose.

In herping, you are seeking to find, view, catch, photograph and then release all manner of reptiles—lizards, snakes, turtles and crocodilians and amphibians—frogs, toads and salamanders.  The individuals who participate in herping are called herpers.  The sighting of a new species is considered a “lifer,” the same as it is with birding.

This is where all similarities come to a crashing end.

Sky Islands

The Chiricahuas--sky islands--a Mecca for Birders and Herpers alike

Birders can often be found slathered with SPF-50 sunscreen and wearing their matching khaki field clothes and Tilley hats with uber-expensive binoculars secured to their chests by straps to make bearing them more, er, bearable.  They sometimes carry ridiculously long-lensed cameras on tripods, and their soft twittering voices remind you of, well, birds. 

The birder’s natural habitat includes boardwalks and nature trails.  Their preferred diet seems to be granola bars, seeds, nuts, berries and expensive bottled water.  They tippy-toe.  They titter.  And they are as pale as albinos.

Mojave rattlesnake

A venomous Mojave rattlesnake being photographed by herpers, all of whom hold at least one doctorate. Cowboys, all.

By contrast, herpers are cowboys, clad in all manner of tee shirts and jeans.   Some don snake chaps, but many simply wear sneakers.  They also strap headlamps to their baseball-style caps and carry snake hooks and tongs.  And remember this: heaven forbid that you ever mess up and call a pillowcase a pillowcase.  It is a snake bag or capture bag.

Their natural habitat—swamps, deserts, fields and forests.  A favored activity is cruising up and down roads that transect these locations.  Driving long distances at 20 mph, they can suffer from road hypnosis with their eyes glazed over in spot-a-snake mode.   If somebody yells “Snake!” (whether or not there is one) the herper will jump out of the vehicle and run around in little circles, cursing.

Tin at the Southwestern Research Station in the Coronado National Forest, Portal, New Mexico.

Herpers often flip tin looking for reptiles that use it as a "hide." Finding tin is like finding hidden gold. Near Portal, Arizona in the Coronado National Forest.

To get going in the morning, herpers might have to swig coffee and prop their eyelids open with toothpicks after long nights of road cruising, and they guzzle colas during the day to stay sharp.  And as their evening of road cruising winds down, out come all manner of alcoholic beverages.  Beer, by and large, is the preferred one, though the brand trends from year to year, as some of us are quite the afficionado.

Preferred foods include a wide variety of the bad-for-you:  jerky, pickled eggs, red sausages, chips, barbeque, hot dogs.  And sometimes, in the middle of a slow day, a herper just might sneak away for an ice cream cone.

While birders seem polite, orderly, refined and quite knowledgeable about bird calls, herpers are people of a rich and varied vocabulary.  Most know the Latin binomials for all of the species they could possibly encounter, and they know the vocalizations of the frogs and toads in their area.  They can go on and on, ad nauseum about the habitat requirements of the various herp species, and they certainly can cuss a blue streak.

Herpers checking out a glass lizard

A glass lizard poses for the paparrazi. Can you tell which ones are birders and which ones are herpers?

A birder may just tippy-toe off a trail to have a little peep at a swallow-tailed whatchmacallit, but a herper will plunge headfirst into a ditch in order to grab a retreating Lampropeltis. Sunburn, skinned knees, ant bites, groin rashes and cactus spines are de rigeur for a field herper.  In fact, coming home without such badges of bravery just might expose one as a weakling, subject to ridicule. 

Baby bird

Photo of a black-throated gray warbler fledgeling, taken by a herper with ridiculously tiny camera who happened to observe it being fed by its mother at very close range!

Return home with leeches and abrasions and you will be long-celebrated as a hero.  Pick cactus spines out of your behind for six years and are a legend.

Birders observe.  Herpers touch.  Birders enjoy decorum.  Herpers are anarchists.  Birders are tidy. Herpers surrender to entropy.

Birder=alt-folk, pop, jazz.  Herper=heavy metal, country, blues.

Birder=butterflies and rainbows.  Herper=ground-in dirt and black soot from a recent burn.

Stay tuned for my next blog with actual herping adventure in the desert Southwest!

Spider

A tarantula assumes a defensive posture while being admired by herpers near Portal, Arizona.

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Angles and Apertures: A Photo Essay of the Carolina Winter

An old baptismal pool's angular wall contrasts with the free-form flow of the spring behind it. The baptistry once was used by Beaverdam Baptist Church, the oldest brick church in Laurens County. Bricks for the construction of the church were made on-site.

Piles of cow patties highlighted against an overgrazed and muddy pasture have always defined late winter in South Carolina for me.  Like a city street photographed in black and white, there is a certain bare grittiness about it.  The pale tan of the pasture.  The dark brown of the muck where cattle push and shove for access to the hay.  The black piles of manure scattered randomly among it all.

skull of a Procyon lotor

The skull of a raccoon rests on the leaf litter

It paints a picture of a struggle for life against all that is cold and wet and meager.

Stark is the perfect word for a Carolina winter.   The very opposite of lush, it is represented by angular light that reflects off bare limbs and trunks.  There are no canopies of green leaves to diffuse the light.  It bounces off of the trees like they are pewter mirrors, dull and spare.

A fallen tree leads the eye to an opening into what you could imagine is another dimension.

I find winter a great time to walk in the woods, scouting for the upcoming turkey season or even next fall’s deer season.  I can see a long way.  Without leaves to interrupt the view, things the next ridge over define themselves. My eyes are drawn to foci that are different—an abandoned fox’s den dug into an embankment, the way a vein of boulders seem to rise from the soil in an organized fashion, the skeleton of a raccoon.  A turkey feather, splotches of owl manure like white paint on brown leaves, water seeping from rocks and the back of an old boat cushion all catch my attention.

Winter, you see, presents itself as a study of light and dark, texture, angles and apertures.

Yet among the hollows, bones and various scattered human artifacts, there lurks the promise of life.

An invasive plant, nonetheless the Eurasian water milfoil brightens up the stark March landscape.

Shoots of new growth rest just beneath the surface, and here and there they push through the leaves. Buds sit on tree limbs, ready to burst themselves open when the time is nigh.  I see things to come in the brilliant green of the invasive milfoil and in the humble yellow of a dandelion blossom.

Come, go on this walk with me.

A study in texture, a dead dogwood trunk lies partway across a path.

Breaking bleak--late winter's harbinger of spring, the dandelion.

whitetailed deer anters nailed to a barn

Stark against weathered barn wood, the bleached bone of these antlers somehow emphasizes that it is still winter.

a hole in a living tree forms aperature

A hole in a living tree forms a lens-like aperture--almost as though you could step through the looking glass.

a vine clings to an old house

A woody vine sinks its fingers into the wood of an old house.

fungi on a log

Curled edges of lacy white fungi punctuate the dark trunk of a fallen tree.

Moss on rock--vegetable meets mineral

A series of boulders on the south side of the creek look as though a giant stonemason cleaved them and left his project unfinished.

a deadfall tree with a hollow center

Aperture--a hollow tree

a series of boulders

Out of place in the Piedmont landscape, a series of boulders descend a steep hillside to the stream below

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Jewels of the Carolina Winter

Ambystoma maculatum

Two spotted salamanders dancing cheek-to-cheek

It is March, cold and muddy, just like a South Carolina upstate winter should be.  Our pickup slips and slides in the mud along the river of muscadines but Joey Holmes finesses the two track and we don’t have to engage the four-wheel drive.  There’s a hint of mystery and excitement.   Joey’s wife’s cousin Leon Cook is here from Maine, and we are on our way to find some spotted salamanders!

Chances are you could live your life in the upstate of South Carolina and never see the official State Amphibian, Ambystoma maculatum.  These hidden jewels spend their lives underground in wooded areas.  This is oversimplifying things a bit.  They have rather specific habitat requirements.

Vernal pool that hosts breeding salmanders

This inauspicious upstate pasture hosts the party of the year for the official State Amphibian of South Carolina.

We run a gauntlet of cattle gates with Leon as gate man before Joey parks the truck beside some open flooded timber.  Quickly Leon and I gather binoculars, cameras, tripods and cell phones while Joey arms himself with a potato rake for turning over muddy logs.  He strides towards the first log with purpose while I whisper to Leon that Joey is like a salamander savant.

“He knows which logs they are under and he turns them in a specific order.”

We work through this temporary wetland with Joey turning over semi-rotten logs adjacent to the water while Leon and I wait for the salamanders.  We are not rewarded instantly, but have to work for our prizes.

Winter is the salamander’s mating season.  The spotteds work their way down from the forest and hide under logs near temporary wetlands called vernal pools.  These pools are filled with winter rainwater now but dry up during the summer, so they contain no fish.  This makes them ideal for the salamanders, because there are no fish to eat their jellylike egg clutches.

Abystoma maculatum pair

Freshly baptized by Joey, these two spotted salamanders pose for their glamour shots

During this time, the salamanders can be found under logs as they wait to deposit their eggs in the nearby water.  Once mating season is over, the spotteds will retreat to their underground home in the forest, where they eat worms and insect larvae.

Ambystoma maculatum, cranium

You can see my self-portrait reflected in this salamander's shiny head.

Joey has herped these vernal pools for well over twenty years.  We are soon rewarded with quite a find—two robust and beautiful spotted salamanders practically cheek-to-cheek under one log.  Leon and I photograph them in situ, experimenting with flash and camera settings, before Joey takes the salamanders out and places them on top of the log for more photos.

Their little bodies, about seven inches long, feel as cold as ice and surprisingly dry, with bits of rotten wood and dirt sticking to them.  The ambient temperature is about 42 degrees.  Joey takes a bottle of water from his pocket that is easily twenty degrees warmer than the salamanders and washes them off for the photos.  In spite of its relative warmth, you can practically see the spots gasp as he douses them.

Ambystoma maculatum

Plump female in situ

We find a total of four spotted salamanders.  One is ridiculously fat, and Joey says, “This fat girl hasn’t let go of her eggs yet.”

Leon and I remark on the texture and temperature of the spotteds.  They are cool and dry, and with their fabulous spots, they seem like jewels of the Carolina winter.  I can’t imagine why everybody isn’t out wearing rubber boots, looking for them with a potato rake.

“Hmmrhh,” Joey rumbles.  “Some herpetologists call them gummi lizards.”

I can’t help but laugh at this.  They do look and feel like gummi bears.

Joey keeps careful records, and knows the salamanders by their spot pattern.  They have a dark brown to black background color with two lines of offset yellow spots along their top line.  Near the head, the spots may be orange or almost red.  I marvel that he can tell them apart by their patterns.  But in real life, he has a little help from his meticulous record-keeping.  He takes photos he will later compare to past photos to see if he has ever found these individuals before.

Ambystoma maculatum

"Gummi lizard"

Spotted salamanders share this wetland with a similar species, marbled salamanders.  I tell him I hope we can find some marbled and he gestures with the potato rake and says, “They’re more likely to be over there.”

“Why?” asks Leon.  “Do they have a different habitat that the spotted?”

Ambystoma maculaum

A rare chance to hold one of these treasures

“No,” Joey concedes.  “They seem to be the same.  But they like it over there, perhaps for reasons known only to themselves.”

We don’t locate any marbled salamanders on this trip, but all four of these spotted gems turn out to be new-to-Joey.  Fair enough for a cold March 1 in the Upstate, herping in winter.

 

All salamanders are documented and released unharmed after their glamour shots.

Upon comparing photos of these salamanders, Joey says he has found eleven new-to-him spotted salamanders this season.

I will add these individuals to my list of “Spottings” (no pun intended) on my www.projectnoah.org.

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Cataloochee. Another NABventure in the Can…

September was slipping away, and with it, our opportunity to visit the Great Smokey Mountains National Park without having to drive an armored vehicle and wear shoulder pads.   October brings out an army of leaf peepers hell bent on seeing the prettiest fall colors ever.

Elk in meadow at Cataloochee

Lone bull in meadow at Cataloochee, NC

And so it came to be that I tiptoed up to my son’s room and disrupted his slumber at five o’clock.  I beckoned him to come downstairs and shower quietly to avoid waking his father.

By 5:35 a.m., Nolan and I hit the road for our latest NABventure.

Another NABventure

Nolan demonstrates that every NABventure has a jumping off point

Way back when his father and I were going through potential baby names, we were mindful of any acronyms the child’s initials might spell.  We hit upon his name and noted—to our delight—that his initials spelled out NAB.  For the uninitiated, “nabs” are what country Southerners call the little cheese and peanut butter Lance crackers that come in packages of six.  Simple working folk in the South don’t take coffee breaks.  They break for a coke-a-cola and a pack of nabs.

So when the lad and I head out for parts unknown, we call it a NABventure.  Sometimes, little cheese crackers are actually involved.

Our destination in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park was the Cataloochee Valley. The reason for our trip there is that elk have been reintroduced into the park.  Before European settlers came, elk were native to most of the country.  But the last elk in the Smokies were extirpated in the mid-1800’s.  The Eastern elk subspecies is extinct.   The initiative to restore elk to the Smokies took flight in 2001 with a handful of animals brought from the Land Between the Lakes herd and was supplemented by Canadian imports the following year.

If you look at a map, Cataloochee is right off I-40 just beyond Waynesville, North Carolina, and quite close to the popular tourist destination of Maggie Valley.  It appears that it would be easy to get there.

Uh, not!

We made exit 40 at 7:30 a.m., came off the exit ramp and almost immediately found our right turn marked by signs.  And we proceeded on a vertical journey that soon left even

iPhone panoramic view

The iPhone with new iOs 6.0 will take panoramic views

pavement behind.   I squinted at the screen of my iPhone and read directions aloud, “Stay to the Right (at one point, the road will “Y”) Road becomes gravel, and very narrow…proceed UP mountain with caution.  After reaching summit, proceed down same gravel/narrow road.  At the base of the mountain, road bears to the left and becomes paved again.”

I am mortally afraid of twisting turning mountain roads and high bridges.  I’m not talking a little bit scared.  I’m talking lie down in the seats.  I’m talking places where I will get out of the car and walk rather than be inside a vehicle negotiating certain tight spots.  I’m talking medications are really needed.

Farmhouse in the Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley Farmhouse

This did not go well.  That part of the journey is 10 miles long.  The dirt road is one lane.  There are no guardrails.  A sixteen year old male was driving.  I was beside myself, digging my nails into the armrest and pressing my right foot through the floorboard.

There is no telling how many times I begged “Slow down!” or beseeched the deity I worship to help me.  Near the summit, my prayers were heard and I was helped by scads of chipmunks in the road.  I would holler “LORD!” with one breath and “Oh, look at the cute little chipmunk!” with my next breath.   Chipmunks, you see, were present in unprecedented numbers and they are some really pretty little squirrels.  They were a welcome distraction.

Amazingly, the road is paved in the valley.  It’s a mystery as to how they got heavy equipment in there to pave it.  I wanted to stop, get out and kiss the pavement, and I vowed to never return.  At least not without Xanax.

Cataoochee valley barn

Barn

Just past the ranger house and the small campground, the Cataloochee Valley opens up into a series of broad meadows.  Nolan focused on the wild turkeys, which were everywhere, but I immediately spied a bedded bull in the field, a nice 6×6.  We passed a man walking a well-behaved golden retriever and I spotted a herd of elk in the field on our left where perhaps a half dozen cars had pulled off the road and parked.

In the chill mountain air, several people were photographing a bull and his harem of cows with cameras that I’m sure cost more than some cars.  There were guys with lenses over two feet long and as big around as my thigh.  I got out my binoculars and fleece pullover to the music of bulls bugling up and down the valley and Nolan whipped out his iPhone and began taking pictures.

People with cameras and elk

Elk paparazzi seeking that perfect shot

I had neglected to bring my tripod and a charged battery for my camera, so we were stuck with our iPhones.  Compared to the serious photographers with their obscenely outfitted cameras, we felt a little like David facing Goliath.

Some of the elk wore radio collars and ear tags, but the herd bull was a splendidly naked 7×7.  He guarded his harem and bugled back when a challenging bugle came from up the valley.  The animals were very close.  Cows and calves feeding to our left brought them ever closer to the line of tripods and cameras.

Dominant bull elk

The splendidly naked herd bull. Photo courtesy of Nolan Burns, taken with this "Redneck Zoom Lens."

Calf nursing his mother

A calf nurses, oblivious to the excitement. Taken with our "redneck zoom lens."

A cow elk is not a tiny little deer.  But a bull is enormous.  Much taller than my horse and armed with about a hundred pounds of sharp headgear, he is a testosterone-charged monster all but bellowing smoke.  As his harem came closer to the cars and photographers and the dog walker came back up the valley, the bull became somewhat nervous.

He began running at the cows and circling the harem, keeping between the cows and the line of paparazzi.  There are park rules against using elk calls and rules about how close you can get to the elk.  The elk were oblivious to the 50 yard limit. Through no fault of their own, many of the onlookers and photographers became too close.  The bull trotted towards the road.  The closest guy folded his tripod and beat a retreat.

Nolan scooted behind the truck.

The dominant bull gives chase to a radio-collared cow

Our Redneck Zoom Lens captures love in the the air

He is always openly skeptical about each NABventure.  In fact, sometimes I don’t let on that we are actually on a NABventure until we are in the truck and halfway there. Earlier this year I sneaked in visits to a Revolutionary War battlefield and the Sumter National Forest.  Just tell him that he gets to drive and he will get into the truck.

On this outing, Nolan seized the day and saved the day.

“Mama, give me your binoculars,” he said.

Nolan’s idea worked.  He stuck his iPhone’s lens up to the binocular lens and began to photograph the elk through the binoculars.  A similar attempt of mine failed a few days before, when I tried my iPhone against my microscope lens at work.   But he was able to get some decent shots with his “Redneck Zoom Lens.”

Belting out a bugle

Herd bull sounds off. The bull elk's loud whistles are called "bugles."

Great Smokey Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States.  In spite of the Appalachians being right in the backyard of most people in the Eastern U.S., they are rugged mountains, nearly vertical.  I’ve visited and hunted elk, deer and turkeys out West.  Many take the Rocky Mountains seriously and take the Smokies for granted.  People, these are some serious mountains.  Don’t take them for granted because they happen to be in your backyard. 

Cataloochee take home points:

  • It’s really hard to get there!  Take everything you think you will need, including nerve pills for the drive in.
  • No fee to get in the park.
  • There is no visitor’s center or store of any kind.
  • There is a public bathroom which is handicapped-accessible but it does not have running water, electricity, climate-control or a baby changing station. There is a dispenser of hand sanitizer.
  • There are old buildings from before the park service bought the land—barns, a school, a house, a church.  You can and should go in them!  They are our heritage.
  • There are hiking trails but you can see the elk quite well from your vehicle or side of the road.
  • Elk are most active 2 hours after sunrise and 2 hours before sunset.
  • The park is most crowded during the summer and during the month of October.
  • The elk rut is in September-October.  Bulls are bugling and mating is occurring then.  Ideal times to see rutting activity and without having to fight crowds would be mid- to late-September.
Subordinate bull with radio collar

Subordinate bulls are often referred to as satellite bulls

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The Probability of Cyndi Lauper: Hell Hole 2008

 

 

It took two showers to wash the funk of three days camping in the wilderness off of me.  That and a swim.  In a couple of days I’ll be semi-satisfied that I no longer smell like I spent three days bicycling in a jungle.

 

Day 1

 I arrived in the Hell Hole Wilderness area of the Francis Marion National Forest on the heels of a May thundershower.  In the darkness, the misty roads were disorienting.  My dashboard GPS, which speaks to me in a robotic male voice I call Bob, only served to make matters worse, commanding, “Entering unverified area!  Use caution.” 

 Bob didn’t know diddly.  He kept telling me I had about 15 miles to go and I knew it was a flat-out lie.  But the further I drove, the more confused I became.  I found a Forest Service spur road, number 198A that was also labeled Hell Hole Road.  It wasn’t the one I knew, but rather was bushy—overgrown—and even curvy.  The smell of wood ash stirred by rain on a fresh controlled burn filled my nostrils.

 Bob commanded me to “Make a u-turn, if possible” and my iPod shuffled to Cyndi Lauper. 

 I had to escape

The city was sticky and cruel.

 Hmm.  And I thought girls just wanted to have fun.  I gripped the wheel tighter and wondered if I was going away from Hell Hole campground or towards it.

 The road grew thick with toads.  Thick like an Alfred Hitchcock movie.  Though I needed some air, I rolled the window up so I couldn’t hear them when they popped under my tires. 

 Finally 198A came to a t-intersection.  I glanced at Bob and his screen showed a blue dotted line connecting me with a target-shaped destination.  I hung a right.  I’d get there eventually.  The road grew straight and flat and cypress trees in the headlights gave my mist-limited vista a feel like something out of a sci-fi movie.  I strained myself for a glimpse of headlights to confirm that my comrades were out on the roads.  They weren’t.  Ah, well, it’s a wilderness area—there isn’t supposed to be traffic.

 Toads hopped everywhere in front of my tires.  I usually swerve.  There were too many.  There were so many I saw them hopping over each other.  Twenty minutes and maybe two thousand amphibians later, I spotted the campground, though I use the term loosely.  It’s a two acre clearing the national Forest.  There are two meat poles, a big steel trash can that rednecks use for target practice and a concrete picnic table.  No electricity.  No water.  No bathrooms.  We use the woods. 

 *  *  *

 I found out why there no one was out cruising the roads.  Everyone was in the campground, the cars circled like covered wagons in a cowboy movie.  And there in the center of it all was my brother Jeff and his bride Miss Punkin plus old friends and some yet to be made.  I was home.  Yes, Cyndi Lauper is right–I would drive all night to get there. 

Understand that this is an annual event, a reunion of sorts.  Snake hunting is the term we use for this activity but it is a gross misnomer.  We do not hunt snakes, at least not with guns.  We look for them and catch them.  It is an act of intimacy, this rendering an uncooperative reptile into your hand.  You are touching it against its will, if they have a will. 

 So we go out herping and visit and play a lot of music and gather around a fire.  But our purpose is clear.  We are re-aligning ourselves with nature under the pretense of hunting snakes.

 Operating with special permits from appropriate state and federal wildlife agencies, we count, catch and release any animals we find.  Mark their locations with GPS coordinates.  Share the story of the species with others.  We talk about the habitat, the impact of hurricanes and drought and humans. 

 Like me, some choose to camp in the national forest.  Others stay in at a Holiday Inn in Monck’s Corner, which is quite a distance from Hell Hole Wilderness.  There is an occasional commuter from the Charleston area and even from near Georgetown.  We are an eclectic group consisting of a mixture of naturalists, fans of the indie rock band The Floating Men and borderline TFM stalkers.  Looking around I saw cast of characters easily described as Southern gothic, a jumbled mix of tragedy and triumph, part refugee and part genius.

 The lovely Miss Punkin helped me unload a few things from my truck and we pitched half a camp in a few minutes.  I chose not to erect my tent in the dark and possibly end up sleeping on a hill of fire ants.  And even if it is me, I think there is something just right about a middle age woman willing to sleep in the back seat of her pickup truck.  It strikes a pose between self-confidence and self-flagellation.  I sleep there because I want to.

Day 2

I was already stinking.  To avoid being carried away by mosquitoes, I slept with the windows rolled up tight, tangled in my sweaty sleeping bag and worried about whether or not I’d be getting enough oxygen.  But I woke surprisingly fresh; the seat of my truck apparently is shaped so that my shoulders and spine were in perfect alignment all night long. 

 The night had passed without rain, but everything in our camp was soggy or covered with water and soon my running shoes were squishy.  My matches were so damp I couldn’t light my stove.  Still, I’m such an early riser that I managed to make it to the closest convenience store in nearby Jamestown.  There I was dazzled by a staggering array of exotic coffees and creamers.  I chose Kona and half-n-half.  What the hell.  After briefly considering bathing in the ladies room sink, I purchased a bag of ice and, feeling like a little bit of a cowboy, headed south for Hell Hole.

 *  *  *

 I am the bicycle guide.  I guess.  Maybe the bicycle geek.  Three years ago I decided that we might see more snakes, turtles and lizards from the seat of a mountain bike than a truck and started leading small groups of eager cyclists on a thirteen to fourteen mile out-and-back on Hell Hole’s main road.  I have a high dollar road bike that’s high-tech, light and fast and I consistently can’t live up to what my bike is designed to do.  But on these gravel roads on a heavy steel-frame hard tail with knobby tires, I can kick ass.  One year I sent tee shirts that read “I Survived Cycling with Jackie” to those who rode with me. 

 This year I was expecting to ride alone, to maybe make a day of it.  But Jeff had more participants than guides and low and behold, Gordon and Ronnie brought their bicycles and had the guts to go out with me for a second year.  I arranged for people in vehicles to give us water when they passed us and told Gordon and Ronnie that I had packets of Hammer Gel should they need it. 

 Right down the road from camp I spotted a swallow-tailed kite, a dramatic, graceful raptor that winters in South America.  It is a species of special concern in the southern states in which it occurs.  We see them every year, but I proudly pointed it out to my two cyclists.  These kites have deeply forked tails and are a blue color like where the sky meets the horizon on a clear day.  Gordon and Ronnie didn’t know how lucky they are to see it, but I did. I would report it to the Citizen Science for Swallow-tailed Kites Network.  Last year they gave me an actual refrigerator magnet for my effort.

 Later I spotted a medium-sized alligator as it slid into the road ditch.  Ronnie and Gordon didn’t see it and snakes weren’t crawling.  By this time last year I had caught two snakes and detained another one.  It felt like we were in a steam bath, but the temperature really wasn’t that high.  Maybe seventy-five, not ideal but plenty warm enough for crawlers.  I’m being generous to describe the mood as subdued.

We reached the end of Hell Hole Road and started back.  Soon I saw what I thought were people in the road ahead.  In Hell Hole, I’m never sure if what I see is a mirage or not.  But finally I realized it really was someone.  Eddie, Patrick and Ty materialized on the road, arms extended and thumbs out as though they thought I could pick them all up on my bicycle and ferry them from the swamp.  They had spotted an alligator, scared it into the water and just took off on foot to look for more neat stuff. 

Ronnie and Gordon caught up and we went with the Hade family to where they had pulled their car over for the gator.  Of course it wasn’t there.  These gators are savvy and go into the water fast if they feel pressured.  They have good eyesight and keen hearing and since they have been harassed before, they usually don’t linger in an area this accessible to people. 

Ronnie found it, though, on the opposite side of the road, its prehistoric head sticking out of a culvert.  The six of us clustered around the culvert, and I was certain the gator would disappear in a swirl of black water.  I thought wrong. 

It stayed while every frigging one of us tramped onto its culvert and then it stayed some more.  Eddie got close, really close and patiently took photo after photo, grasping for just the right light and exposure and angle.  I stepped down the ditch a few feet and into the edge of the water to take some photos of my own.

Since we had permission from state and federal agencies to handle reptiles, I’d quizzed Holmes—which is what the fans call my brother—before heading out.  Hey, Jeff, should, uh, opportunity arise, can I catch an alligator?

 “Hmm.  They’re not endangered any more.  But they’re not clumsy and they are really fast, even on land,” he said. “And this year’s hatchlings—remember the mother’s not far away and she’ll get pissed if you mess with her babies.”

Then he gave me a conspiratorial little smile, one that said, ok, you didn’t hear this from me but, maybe one a foot long or so. 

Gordon and Ronnie and Patrick and I pow-wowed while Eddie continued to take photos and Ty played around in the road.  They wanted to call Win.  Win, they reasoned, would try to grab it.  But between all of us, we didn’t have a cell phone with enough battery to text anybody.  Good thing we hadn’t encountered a venomous reptile.

But my womanhood was threatened a bit.  Call Win, my butt. 

“I’ll try to touch it,” I said.  “But it’s too big to grab.”

I had handled alligators and crocodiles before.  Small ones are easy enough to grab bare-handed and bigger ones can be handled with the proper tools.  This one was maybe four and a half to five feet, its snout easily broader than my hand.  It would take two hands fast on the snout, simultaneously, flawlessly, to avoid being bitten.  Knowing myself rather well, I worried about getting the clumsies and rolling into the water, where it might slash me with its claws.

This alligator, it was way too large to hand-grab and I knew it.

Still, you will never get this close to a wild gator, at least not outside of a national park where the animals have no fear.    I could, though, envision counting coup on it, extending my hand and touching its snout as it quickly submerged.

I could also imagine it slashing its head sideways and ripping the meat off my hand. 

I stretched out on my belly on the culvert and cameras came out. 

“Whatever you do, don’t get my butt in the picture,” I said.  “I will kill you.  I mean it.”  They, being men, understood.

Time stood still.  I realized the water was clear though dark orange from the tannins in it.  The gator was tantalizingly close, a beautiful thing, eyes rimmed in gold lamé.  My face was maybe a foot and a half from his.  I extended my hand to six inches from the reptile.  My fingernails, polished pink and shiny with my own gold bands, glistened in the sun.  I hesitated.  Okay, no, I suddenly went chicken.  I choked.  But so did the gator, which submerged just as I paused. 

I am so down with no emergency room visit.

*  *  *

Meanwhile, Holmes and Miss Punkin got lost, really lost, in the swamp.  For an hour and a half.  Jeff, who has become somewhat of a techno-geek, went temporarily insane and left his cell phone and GPS in their Land Cruiser.  They tried following the sun.  They finally nagivated back, zeroed in on the music of the frogs.  Punkin, I said, I’ve been in a swamp with Jeff and I can tell you he can get lost with a GPS in his hand.  I’ve been lost before and I know it’s true what they say in the Westerns.  You do go in circles.

*  *  *

A front blew through and the weather went from sort of okay to really chilly.  Folks snacked and napped.  Steve and Sylvia arrived and Cris mistook Steve for a stray dude wandering into our camp.  Pam and Tyler came in and put up two tents.  Junkman and his girlfriend put up a tent.  I noticed him trying to pound pegs in with his knife so I produced a rubber mallet for them.  I must own three rubber mallets, having had days when I couldn’t get a peg in the ground for nuthin’.  At any given time, I can find one of my mallets.  Good thing.  Everybody needed it.

Then we went back out cruising for reptiles.  This time, I took them in cars.  Alysen and Misty rode with me.  It was party time.  We started with my iPod on shuffle again and then we rocked out.  Every artist had a story, split between my softer, flatter accent and Alysen’s high-pitched and very fast mountain twang.  We got hung up on Prince for a while. I could barely drive for dancing.

“That’s one sexy, tiny little black man,” Alysen said.  I laughed my butt off.  She is so right.

Back on shuffle, the iPod spat out Billy Idol and by some improbable cosmic occurrence shuffled back to Cyndi Lauper. 

I was dreaming as I drove,

 The long straight road ahead.

 

How likely is that? A machine with almost 4000 songs, set to random shuffle, picking up one of maybe two Cyndi Lauper songs on it and playing it twice in one day’s time?  Not very, I thought. 

Alysen had a story about that, too.  “Cyndi Lauper.  I ‘member I used to like her better than Madonna.  Tried to dress like her. ”  I grinned, mentally envisioning tweenaged Alysen and Misty decked out in some mixtures of clunky beads, ripped lace and plaid with crimped pink hair and pouty lips.

Later I had the pleasure of taking out Junkman and his girlfriend Sarah, who I promptly nicknamed Junkwoman.  Nice kids, first Hell Hole experience.  I let them drink beer in my truck.  Junkman, I was told, holds the dubious distinction of being the only Floating Men fan ever arrested at a Floating Men concert.  He served twelve hours of hard time for trying to talk a policeman out of taking his friends to jail.  We talked a lot and quite naturally didn’t see any snakes but found two dead hogs and a dead pit bull near the meth head’s trailer.  Such is Hell Hole.

Back at camp my matches had dried out enough that I could start my stove.  I cooked butterfly pasta.  Tossed it with some olive oil and canned smoked salmon.  No capers—according to Miss Punkin, the Monck’s Corner Food Lion was fresh out, though I hardly think there was a Memorial Day Weekend rush on capers. I put some olive oil in a cup and sprinkled it with Italian seasoning, served it with French bread and offered it up to the public.  I guess I stunk so badly that nobody but Jeff’s old college friend Lauren took me up on it. 

People drifted in and out of the campsite that I occupied with my gal pal Cris.  In Hell Hole, Cris is in her happy place.  Happy with carrots and white bean hummus.  Happy with spring water. Happy with blackberries and yogurt.  No wonder she’s a stick.  Me, I gotta eat something with major carbs.  I have a little tool box full of necessaries.  Instant oatmeal.  Seasonings.  Olive oil.  Jiffy pop. Mustard, ketchup.  Crackers.  Tuna.

Junkwoman looked shyly at my box. “Do you have any marshmallows?” She asked. 

But of course.  I even offered to pull the skinny wire legs off my plastic pink flamingos to use as skewers.  Too bad the Leap-people weren’t there.  Michelle, I’d bet, could produce something Starbucky.

Everyone arrived by the fire.  It was as large a Hell Hole gathering as I’ve ever seen.  And as quiet.   Where’s Leftwich when you need him? No one was loud or drunk and disorderly or the least bit boisterous.  Ty ran around quietly playing with a turnip he found on the ground.  We sat close by the fire, partly for the warmth.  People left and came back with blankets.  It was that cold.  No snakes? No wonder.  And no worries.

Jeff took requests from each of The Floating Men’s studio CD’s.  Win’s friend Randy nabbed me and got me to serve wine that he and his wife Kim had concocted.  Home-made blackberry merlot.  It was damn fine stuff, though fortified, he said with some real alcohol.  I took it real easy, produced some clear plastic glasses and served it like communion, circulating quietly through the chairs.  Coffee, tea or me ran through my head. 

Holmes, sans indigestion this year, gracefully played the requests.  Then he took a short break and launched into his new material with Punkin holding a flashlight onto his notebook full of lyrics.  Good stuff.  No, great stuff.  Not a soul heckled him or talked out of turn.  Near the end (wink) I thought I saw Eddie nodding off.  Then he got up and put Ty to bed in the back seat of their car.  The wilderness area biologist arrived late with his wife and three daughters.  We talked after Jeff was through singing and I wished they had come sooner.  True, the guy was fine (A Georgia alum and all) but his wife could’ve been the life of the party.  Gordon cranked the TFM on his motor home stereo and a few stalwarts hung around the fire and visited over marshmallows. 

I was snuggled down in my sleeping bag, rated to zero and oh-so-comfy by 11:30.  This time in a tent.

Day 3

Morning found me energized though stinkier than ever and wanting to head to Jamestown for more Kona and cream and maybe–just maybe–a sponge bath in the sink at the convenience store.  It was not to be.  That scoundrel Bob had stayed up all night partying and his battery was as dead as my tent peg mallet.  I located a semi-dry match and made coffee in my enamel percolator on my stove and Cris boiled some water for my powdered eggs. 

They were simply not edible.  But Hell Hole, being a little bit of a temporary commune, took care of me. 

Pam popped up, handy with jumper cables and cars were hastily rearranged to let her Mustang Ka-Thunk, a girl car, couple with my Honda.   Randy showed us how to connect the terminals and Bob purred to life, basking in the afterglow of his chance encounter with a real American auto. 

Randy and Kim and Amanda and Paul and Hope and Win cooked enough eggs and bacon for the entire camp.  They offered and I accepted, my appetite for eggs apparently whetted by the disgusting powdered stuff that I had tried to reconstitute in its pouch.  We folded the eggs and bacon in giant flour tortillas and I spiked mine with Tabasco and shredded cheddar.

Hell Hole?  Hell, yeah. 

Then I took Miss Punkin on a run down Hell Hole and to the old cemetery off Yellow Jacket Road where we saw a flock of turkey hens and admired a little plastic saxophone that’s always on one of the graves. We stopped and watched woodpeckers in the tall stand of long leaf pines at the intersection and I whipped out my Antsy McClain CD collection.  Punkin said nice things (though her colorful use of the English language would make a sailor blush) about the cover art on Way Cool World and we couldn’t stop laughing so we sat there and listened to “Skinny Women Ain’t Hip” and watched red-headed woodpeckers where we should have seen red-cockadeds.

She is getting out more because of changes in her office.  I’m glad.  Her laughter is contagious, her wit keen.  Both of my brothers have excellent taste in wives.

We didn’t see anything of great significance but this is not failure.  The sun was bright, though, and the day promised to be warmer.  Maybe someone would catch some snakes before the day wrapped with the Ghost Tour on Pawley’s Island, but I knew it would not be me.  Like many parents, I get the guilties for taking some me time.  And there was a lad at home and he won’t be twelve forever.

I left Hell Hole at noon, gassed up and put the iPod back on shuffle.  Inexplicably, just before Summerville, Cyndi Lauper came on again. 

I drove all night

To get to you

Is that alright?

I drove all night.

 

Yeah, I probably will next year, too.

 

I remembered this essay and posted it today due to the duplicity of Led Zepelin.   Driving home from the grocery store, the radio was playing “Fool in the Rain.”  When I got home and got out to unload the groceries, “Fool in the Rain” was playing on my iPod, which I had set up outside by the pool.  I laughed out loud.

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