All the stories he could tell…

Hank Williams Sr

“Stared at that guitar/At that museum in Tennessee/Nameplate on the glass/Brought back twenty melodies”

A musical pilgrimage. That’s what I called my trip to Luchenbach, Texas nine years ago.

Today I still pine for seeing Sun Studios in Memphis, Abbey Road, LaGrange and for standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona. I’ve a road-tripped to see U2, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Jimmy Buffet, Bob Dylan, Robert Earl Keen, Willie Nelson and The Rolling Stones. I’ve stood in the presence of Merle Haggard and a host of country stars because I was country when country wasn’t cool. One evening I walked around downtown Athens and heard the haunting melodies of REM float over the town from a concert at Legion Field. Once upon a time I even took my mama with me to see Hank Williams Junior. And I’ve listened to Americana under the stars at Luchenbach.

art in hall of fame

A journey isn’t just a beginning and an end. The in-between is crucial.

This latest adventure—to check The Rolling Stones off Nolan’s bucket list—started in the Upstate of South Carolina and led us all the way to The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  But a journey isn’t just a beginning and an end.  The in-between is crucial.

This epic road trip to see The Stones was also a musical pilgrimage, with the principal detour being a visit to Nashville, two nights spent under Todd Snider’s East Nashville skyline, nameless musicians in honky tonk bars and a visit to The Country Music Hall of Fame. Add a quick trip to Bass Pro Shops and it’s staggering what you can cram into two days.

The essence of Nashville is to be found downtown on Broadway. Honky tonks with bad bar food and good cover musicians who don’t stand a chance of making it are interspersed with boot and hat stores and retro clothing boutiques. Every fifty yards or so there is a street musician busking for bucks, everything from one-man bands to traveler kids to Johnny Cash lookalikes to drum acts.

Johnny Cash's black suit

“Do you wonder why I always dress in black?/Why I never wear bright colors on my back?”

Up the street The Country Music Hall of Fame was packed on a Thursday morning. Curiously we arrived at the same time as a large group of excited but well-behaved black children. I happened to stand before Dwight Yoakum’s nudie suit with them and listened to their teacher point out details of the costume.

“See these pockets?” She said, gesturing to upper chest pockets. “They are called smile pockets because they turn up at the corner.”

Darn. Learn something new every day, I thought.

The children sat on the floor and filled out worksheets.

“This is, well, I’ll let you read it. Can you write down his name?”

* * *

art at Country Music Hall of Fame

“If Hank Williams was alive today/I can tell you where he wouldn’t be/Hanging around that Hall of Fame/In Nashville, Tennessee.”   Marshall Chapman, “A Thank You Note” from the album Jaded Virgin

Greasy and Nolan blew through it and I felt like I did as well. There is simply too much too see in one quick visit. Season passes and frequent trips are what it would take to absorb this museum.

Besides Dwight Yoakum, I worshiped at a few displays: Hank Williams’ guitar, Mother Maybelle’s guitar, one of many man-in-black Johnny Cash suits, Gram Parsons’ pills-and-cannabis nudie suit, Elvis Pressley’s Cadillac, Earl Scruggs’ banjo, the cornfield set of the television show Hee Haw. A wall of portraits of country music’s power couples: Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash and June Carter, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Web Pierce’s nudie Cadillac, obscene with tooled saddle leather and steer horns on the front. Little Jimmy Dickens’ display of tiny boots and lime green nudie suit. George Strait’s everyday Western shirt and Wranglers. Actual blue suede shoes.

Bob Dylan, Johnny Cast and the Nashville Cats

“Rock and country, they flow back and forth between each other.”

The current exhibit of note is Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats. I’d known that Johnny and Bob were friends. This huge exhibit was a testament to their sense of awe at each other and to the behind-the-scenes individuals that make Nashville tick. Session musicians and sound engineers.

nudie suit

Cannabis-and-pills nudie suit worn by Gram Parsons

It’s also an affirmation of the fact that music is plastic and fluid. Rock and country, they flow back and forth between each other. To me this is a huge paradox: I grew up thinking that you either liked country or rock. Not both. And this couldn’t be further from the truth. To hearken back to my biologist’s training, country and rock are mutualists, locked in a symbiotic relationship.

Right before the museum’s inevitable exit-into-the- gift-shop is the Rotunda. My glimmer twins walked right past it and sat down in the lobby to wait for me.

Whispering, a docent gestured, her voice reverent, “This is the actual hall of fame.”

A small fountain and wishing well were just inside the entryway, full of coins. The rotunda was magic. Holy. Quiet. I circled clockwise, reading the brass plate of each member. I was reminded of my emotional overload experiences at The Alamo and The Astronaut Memorial at Cape Canaveral. There were souls there with me. Souls.

* * *

 

Nashville Tennesse honky tonk

Nolan takes in Nashville from a honky tonk

We walked from the Hall of Fame to Broadway, where we stood on the corner and

Nameless musician in Nashville

“This city is slam full of broken dreams.”

Nolan eenie-meenie-minee-moed over where to eat. He selected a three-tiered honky tonk that boasted a different band on each level. We ascended to the third floor and the view was amazing. A trio of musicians played cover songs that reiterated the flux between country and rock ‘n roll.

“This is incredibly sad,” I said, still feeling all those souls, though this time I was thinking of the non-famous ones.

“What?” said Nolan.

“This city is slam full of broken dreams.”

One only had to look to the stage before us: three men holding guitars and two girlfriends making up the audience.

I put a twenty in their tip bucket as we left, leaned over and whispered conspiratorially to them, “We’re on our way to Indianapolis to see The Rolling Stones.”

“Aw, man, you’ll love ‘em. I saw them a couple of weeks ago when they were here and they were awesome.”

Thank you, sir, I thought.  In case nobody ever tells you, you are, too.

A musician huddles in a doorway in Nashville

“With a million dollar spirit/And an old flattop guitar/
They drive to town with all they own/In a hundred dollar car.”  ~Thom Schulyer; performed by Lacy J. Dalton.

Post to Twitter Tweet This Post

  • Share/Bookmark

Ladies and Gentlemen–The Rolling Stones. Part I, Venue Review

Part I of our epic road trip to see The Rolling Stones in Concert

Stones picture

Ladies and gentlemen…The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Fourth of July. An epic road trip. What could be more right?

Apparently football stadium shows with actual seats are a lot more right. This spectacular concept was good in theory. I had tickets to park in the infield, a great tailgate venue if there ever was one. And we couldn’t get there until after the opening act Rascal Flatts had started their set because of horrible traffic.

But before I begin lambasting the venue and production, I want to say some positive things about the city of Indianapolis! It was easy to navigate. The downtown was beautiful with streets and sidewalks that were wide and super-clean. The people were very nice, from fast-food waitresses to Dollar store employees to the staff at upscale restaurants. We would gladly go back and southern monster cities like Atlanta and Charlotte could learn something from this sleeper city in the Midwest.

Greasy and Nolan in Indy

My very own glimmer twins take in downtown Indianapolis

I’ll also add that driving through the tunnel into the Brickyard was an incredible thrill, even though I am not a race fan.

 

Approach

A short YouTube video produced by Indianapolis Motor Speedway gave instructions of how to get to the venue. It was woefully inadequate. It told of what street to approach from but not which direction and did not tell premier ticket-holders which gates were in use. Likewise the paper parking admission ticket did not tell which gates to use or which direction to approach. Fail, fail, fail.

If I learned anything it was to do a mock approach the day before and figure that (expletive) out.

Rolling Stones silver ticket section

Nolan, in Silver seating section.

 

Comfort

The big lie was our actual paper admission tickets. They boasted a section, row and seat number. They promised a vista of the enormous stage. In reality there were zero seats. I found this out the afternoon beforehand on the video from Indianapolis Motor Speedway on how to safely get there and enjoy the show as well as what you could or could not bring in.

It was presented like an incidental announcement—they advised then that it was festival seating. Bring blankets and cushions. No chairs would be allowed.

Blankets and cushions? No chairs?  Insert the world’s most common profane acronym here. We found a Dollar Store in Avon and bought three $7 cushions and a cheap fleece throw, all in suitably bright-almost-psychedelic patterns. It didn’t matter; we couldn’t sit comfortably there. The stage was at the bottom on a little hill. Sitting on the hill was more torture than standing. I won’t even go there about the chiggers.

I saw a medical tent. And remembered Altamont. And wryly wondered how many heart attack, strokes and fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up were taken into it.

 

Visibility

You needn’t have worried that I would throw my panties on the stage.

I never saw the actual stage or the actual Stones.  Just their images on the big screen. By carefully standing on tiptoes and peering between giants standing in front of me I could see the top ¾ of the huge screens above the stage. I saw images of Mick dancing around on stage. I even saw an image of –Keith, yes, Keith—running twice.

I like having the drunk and stoned dancing around me, a whiff of ganga, a splash of spilled beer and a passed out person or two. It adds to the whole experience.

But let’s face it—The Stones are old and so are we, their audience. I saw a lot of white-haired women like myself, cripples and really fat people hobbling along. It was a long but far from unbearable walk to the seating area, a hunt for a place to throw a blanket and a very long stand. Along the way some people took advantage of bicycle-rickshaws and some bumped along in their motorized wheelchairs.

Would Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie endure that cheerfully? I doubt it.

The Rolling Stones

Ronnie, Mick and Keith during the Indianapolis concert July 2015

Security

My sense of security was also let down. What do tens of thousands of people, the proximity of an airport’s flight path, alcohol and drugs, thousands of fireworks, the most patriotic national holiday and a heightened terror alert have in common?

A recipe for unparalleled disaster is what it is.

I may be a tiny bit more situationally aware than most people. Maybe it’s that I read too many Jack Reacher novels. I do like to have an escape route planned ahead. And I fully exercised it the night before when some jackass pulled the fire alarm in the hotel. I knew where the stairs were. Down and out in the middle of the (expletive) night!

Beforehand at the hotel, I mused aloud, wondering if The Stones had played a US speedway since Altamont.  Knowing that my own glimmer twins were naïve to the story I read it to them from the internet. All of it—poor planning, poor setup, drunk Hell’s Angels, fights/knives/gunshots, death. The alleged botched Long Island hit on Mick Jagger.

And I ended my soliloquy with the hope that I wanted to be carefully searched going in, because if I was, every potential terrorist or testosterone-fueled would-be killer du jour also would be carefully searched.

We weren’t. Going into the tunnel under the famed Brickyard a woman barely glanced at our tickets. Instead of scanning them she scribbled on them with a red magic marker. And we were in.

Tickets for the Rolling Stones Indianapolis concert 2015

Our infamous paper tickets, with red scribbles

Parking was a breeze. Well-handled and well directed. Once in the venue a security checkpoint was a joke. The search of my cavernous beach bag was cursory. And the pat-down? She barely brushed my pants.

Going through the bag beforehand I had removed my Thermacell mosquito repellent device because it has an internal ignition system and runs on butane cartridges. They wouldn’t have known that. A pile of confiscated items there at the checkpoint attested to the fact that they didn’t want you bringing in your own water and candy. My granola bars were not detected during the search. And once again, our tickets were never scanned.

Driving into the infield we stopped at a bathroom building to use the facility. Right near there we saw row upon row of fireworks sitting wired and ready to be detonated. Out there in the open, apparently unguarded. What if some nut with a match had run through there?

During the show I was able to relax and forget that someone could crash a plane into the crowd or point the fireworks into this knot of mellow old humanity and fire away. Was the security just carefully hidden? Were there armed moles scattered throughout?

Let’s just say that I was a bit on edge until the biggest fireworks display in the USA started shooting up into the sky instead of into the crowd. 10,530 charges. It was a suitably big bang. It could have made a much bigger bang.

This was the premier rock concert event held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Here’s hoping there are improvements before the next one(s).

The Show and General Musings

Must wait for the next blog.

In this one I’ll just say: They are old. We are old. Everything is so much sweeter with age. They are just as good as when I saw them (twice) in 1989. Raunch and roll at its pinnacle. Two hours of starting me up, making a grown man cry, a gasgasgas. I got a lot of satisfaction.

I’m alive and richer for it to tell the tale, though, and now must go soak my ancient feet.

Post to Twitter Tweet This Post

  • Share/Bookmark

Yes, I am a pirate.

OK, so if I'm not a pirate, at least I've got a tugboat named after me.

It’s safe to say I’ve been aware of Jimmy Buffett since high school—from his initial hit, “Come Monday.”  I can even remember being in Mrs. Keith Oakes’ English literature class my senior year.  Someone had a guitar there for some official reason and between classes,  class clown Mark Burke picked it up and began to play and sing “Margaritaville. “

That’s all well and good, enjoying those two radio hits in the 70’s, but like many now-middle-aged, college educated middle-class men and women, there was a time when I was called to Buffett, surely as I received a call from the Lord to come down front while heads were bowed and the pianist quietly played “Just As I Am” .   It was, I remember, some ten years after that alter call, in a car with some college friends on the way to Florida, mingled with some Fleetwood Mac, Kenny Rogers and even David Allen Coe.

Mother, Mother Ocean, I have heard you call.

There was an intense period of immersion that followed my conversion to Parrotthead:  Son of a Son of a Sailor, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, A1A, Living and Dying in ¾ Time, Havana Daydreamin’ and A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean.  I listened to them over and over and over and memorized every line.  I played them on the old turntable and was careful to run, jump and pick up the needle so my parents wouldn’t hear me play “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw)” or any parts on the live album You Had to Be There where there was cursing .  The irony is that nowadays my mother loves her some JB and you can bet she and my daddy knew, knew we played “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw)” when we thought they couldn’t hear.

Known for sculpting his own genre and elevating it to cult status as well as for  his diversified marketing genius, Jimmy Buffett never enjoyed a lot of Top Forty airplay.  It’s just as well.  He’s done more to influence other musicians and keep his fans boogieing than just about any other public figure I can think of.

Last week I read a blog by a blogger called Preacher Mike.  Mike lists his top ten and ties them into his Christian belief system.  Inspired,  I have come up with my Top Ten List of Jimmy Buffett songs:

10. Incommunicado (Coconut Telegraph)  With a tip of his hat to Travis McGee and a palpable moment of silence for John Wayne, JB captures the essence of times when we all need to retreat into ourselves, go away and just be non-communicative.  This song actually inspired my visit to Cedar Key, a sleepy Gulf hamlet way off the beaten path—where I enjoyed the local delicacy, smoked mullet—and, as always, it’s not a waste of time “taking the long way home.”

9. The Wino and I Know (Living and Dying in 3/4 Time)  I’m on the right track with this obscure JB song because when I posted a few lines from it on Facebook yesterday, people I’d never thought of as Parrottheads answered my post with more great lines from the song.  Distilled down to its meaning, the song illustrates that there are intangibles in life that can be grasped and appreciated by children, drunks and even songwriters. And I hope one day to make it to Café du Monde for coffee and beignets.

"God bless Johnny Cash"

"I got a Carribean soul I can barely control/And some Texas hidden here in my heart."

8.  There’s Something So Feminine About a Mandolin (Havana Daydreamin’) –  I strongly considered the title song for this list.  Strongly.  But this song paints such a vivid picture–a pasture in central Texas, a graceful young woman bent over her instrument, the high lonesome sound of the mandolin.  It reminds me of the time I saw a young bartender, a fit brunette in hiking shorts, finish her shift and pick up a guitar to belt out songs by the potbellied stove in Luchenbach Texas.  This tune’s  message is of simplicity, feminine grace and of the things we love that we hope to pass on to our children.  “When I get older and I have a daughter/I’ll teach her to sing/And play her my songs/And I’ll tell her some stories I can barely remember.”

7. Migration (A1A) How many of us have gone introspective, “Looking back in the background/Tryin’ to figure out how I ever got here”? There is the bashing of Yankee tourists in “mobile homes that cover the Keys/I hate those bastards so much,” somewhat of an ecologist’s rallying-cry for sending them back up north towards Disney and preserving the keys habitat and vibe.  This song also deserves to be on my list because it contains the very definition of JB’s public persona “I’ve got a Caribbean soul I can barely control and some Texas hidden here in my heart.”

6.  He Went to Paris (A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean)  Simply epic JB.  A human life well-lived is full of ups and downs. Yes, you can boogie your ass off until you die.  In fact, it’s the only way to consider living.   “Some of it’s magic and some of it’s tragic but I had a good life all the way.”

5.  Tie:  If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me (Last Mango in Paris) and  Coast of Marseilles (Son of a Son of a Sailor)  They’re essentially the same song, odes to love and loss.   “Would you be remembering me, I asked that question time and again?” I’m pretty damn sure the answer is yes, and yes, the phone isn’t ringing, so I know it’s you. We move on, but there are wistful times of remembrance for all of us.

4.  Captain and the Kid (Down to Earth) I sure wish I could get the chance to climb on my grandfather’s knee again and talk of things he did.  This song captures the essence of a child’s relationship with a grandparent.  Someone who wows them, fills them with wonder.  My Papa Julian sat in front porch swing and blew smokes rings for our amusement, made up silly songs and told stories that would never pass inspection by the politically correct.  In my head I have rearranged Mr. JB’s lyrics to fit my papa: ” I never used to miss the chance/To climb upon his knee/And listen to the many tales/Of life in Enoree.”

3.    A Pirate Looks at Forty (A1A) I’ve heard my teen-aged son say this was his favorite JB song and I understand why.  “Mother, Mother Ocean/I have heard you call.” The ocean draws Homo sapiens to her just like moths are drawn to a flame.  The hypnotic crash of the waves, the sure and steady rhythm of the changing tides—embody the circadian rhythm of life,  life which is full of adventure and uncertainty.  Even if we were born two hundred years too late, there is a pirate in each and every one of us.

2.   Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season (A1A)   Every now and again, we in the landlocked upstate of South Carolina experience what I call a squalls out on the gulfstream day, a day where it is overcast and not too hot with a balmy breeze.  There is some kind of front coming through, a low that’s just right—you can feel it in your inner barometer.  ” It’s time to close the shutters; It’s time to go inside.”   You have to confess, you could use some rest, and this is the perfect day to do it.

1. Cowboy in the Jungle (Son of a Son of a Sailor)  “I don’t want to live on that kind of island/I don’t want to swim in a roped off sea.” Buffett is really for everyone.  Everyone has a longing to chuck it all and go sailing, to end up somewhere when the money runs out and live in the moment.  It’s almost Christ-like to think of giving up worldliness and know that some way, somehow, your daily needs will be met and your life will be richer.  What JB offers Parrottheads is a slice of redemption, the idea of escape from daily pressures that sets our spirits free.

I’ve asked my son Nolan to write up his own JB top ten list, so stay tuned for his list and maybe his comments.  And check out Precher Mike at :  http://preachermike.com/2011/04/19/top-10-jimmy-buffett-songs-caribbean-soul

Post to Twitter Tweet This Post

  • Share/Bookmark

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.

Post to Twitter Tweet This Post

  • Share/Bookmark