Editing the Bucket List

Nolan at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park, 2011

I worked on my bucket list a little bit this morning.  Its changes over the past six or so years reflect little accomplishment and a lot of mellowing out.  The thing about a list, you see, is that it is ever changing.

  • See my son graduate; live long enough to be a grandmother
  • Go trekking in the Himalayas Mongolia!!!!  Sleep in a yurt, ride those little horses and drink fermented mare’s milk
  • Remember my father every single day of my life and appreciate my mother every single day.
  • Ride a horse across some Godforsaken Western landscape…alone Teach my son to ride a horse; he can fish, shoot, hunt and play guitar.  Learning to ride is the only essential life-skill I think he should have that he has yet to master.
  • Raft the Snake River in Idaho Finish rafting the rest of the Chattooga after almost drowning there last year.
  • Fly over Alaska in a tiny little plane and then set it down somewhere to hunt moose  I’d settle for killing a really big whitetail
  • See a black bear in the wild  (in South Carolina)
  • Bungee jump—Well I did a bungee tower, not quite as high as a bungee jump, but close
  • Take my son and husband to the Outer Banks.
  • Read all the classic (again) from Beowulf to Jayne Eyre to Silas Marner to The Sun Also Rises to The World According to Garp
  • Run a marathon Not so important anymore.  I do want to do more triathlons, maybe up to Olympic Distance.
  • See Hamlet in an off-off Broadway play or college theater group; See Godspell again
  • Learn to scuba dive What was I thinking!?!
  • Go to a cooking school
  • Catch a rattlesnake Accomplished May 2009.  Pin and pick up a venomous snake with my hands Accomplished May 2010.  Catch an alligator (again)
  • Visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras; have coffee and beignets at the Café du Monde
  • Hang my clothes on a clothesline again, on  a regular basis.
  • Work a humanitarian mission, mission trip or field research project in a Third World nation
  • Deliver a calf again
  • Go to a tent revival and really get in the Spirit
  • Go to the Super Bowl!
  • Nude beach?  No, private beach, nude
  • Remember hearing my grandmother giggle
  • Have a really great garden again ; freeze and can things for winter
  • Finally see an Ivory-billed woodpecker  Should I can this?  I’ve made two attempts already that did not go well!!??
  • Take my son to Disney World Accomplished April 2011
  • Go to an Irish Pub and close the thing down, singing too loud
  • Learn to do basic carpentry, and minor to moderate home repair—or learn to sew, which is basically carpentry with cloth
  • Attend La Tomitina, that tomato-throwing festival in Spain
  • Run the Peachtree Road Race again  Set to do this a week from tomorrow.  Pray that I finish!
  • Walk through a street market in a Third World Country and not worry about what (or who) I am eating
  • See a Jimmy Buffett concert again with friends and family
  • Go to the Kentucky Derby  wear an outrageous hat and drink mint juleps
  • Finally get one of my book manuscripts published; I have  five languishing in drawers
  • Spend a month in Mexico, immersion-learning the language
  • Tour Switzerland with my mother (her ancestors came from there) Not looking too likely; her health is not great
  • Take my family on a tour of the American West—Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone.   I hear the Grand Canyon is nice.
  • A day at work where EVERYTHING goes right
  • Watch or re-watch all the movies that won Best Picture at the Academy Awards; Well, maybe not all of them; gotta figure some are boring.
  • And my ultimate:  hitch-hike, take a train, walk, ride a horse, sail, etc, etc, from here to Tierra del Fuego Paddle my kayak across the Okefenokee Swamp and ride my bicycle back (accomplishing my first “Century” on the bike and so much more!)

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Revisiting the List

Yesterday I was flummoxed by a simple question from a friend, “What’s on your bucket list?”

As a strange coincidence, I had  run across a hard copy of my list only two days before.  I glanced at it and realized with amusement that I had accomplished a couple of the things on the list.  I can check those babies off now.

But when the question was put to me, I drew a complete and total blank.  What exactly was on my list?  I couldn’t remember a blasted thing!  I struggled to remember, uh, maybe run a marathon, and, uh, maybe, uh raft the Chattooga?  And maybe bungee jumping was on it, but never skydiving?  I couldn’t even remember the things I had noted that I could check off.

Midlife is a strange time.

You are struggling to stay young and you know you are losing the battle day by day.  Your priorities change, and you wish you weren’t mellowing out quite so much.  It was plumb unsettling to know that I couldn’t even remember the things that seemed important to me only five or so years ago.   And it should be eye-opening to re-do the list and even comment on the previous list.

Here, for posterity’s sake, is my list from 2005 or ’06.   It is reprinted from Tidbits, The Best Little Paper Ever:

At Huntington Beach State Park a few weeks ago, I added another bird to my life list.  Birders, you see, keep a list of all the birds they’ve seen and identified in their lives.  They are meticulous about keeping this life list, and the Peterson Field Guide series conveniently provides a checklist in the field guide.  Though I always thought I’d eventually see a male painted bunting, it was anticlimactic when I unexpectedly encountered two of the most colorful birds on the continent visiting a feeder there at the state park.

This much anticipated sighting reminded me of another list I made, one made several years ago when I had an unexpected scare from a medical test.  Fearful that my test results would be bad, I made a list of all the things I wish I could do before I die.

Some of these things are poignant, almost sad.  Some are way out of reach.  Some are doable.  And some are mundane.

Here’s just part of my list:

  • See my son graduate
  • Go trekking in the Himalayas
  • Remember my father every single day of my life and appreciate my mother every single day.
  • Ride a horse across some Godforsaken Western landscape…alone
  • Raft the Snake River in Idaho
  • Fly over Alaska in a tiny little plane and then set it down somewhere to hunt moose
  • See a black bear in the wild
  • Read all the classic (again) from Beowulf to Jayne Eyre to Silas Marner to The Sun Also Rises to The World According to Garp
  • Run a marathon
  • See Hamlet in an off-off Broadway play or college theater group
  • Learn to scuba dive
  • Go to a cooking school
  • Visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras; have coffee and beignets at the Café du Monde
  • Work a humanitarian mission, mission trip or field research project in a Third World nation
  • Go to the Super Bowl!
  • Remember hearing my grandmother giggle
  • Finally see an Ivory-billed woodpecker
  • Take my son to Disney World
  • Go to an Irish Pub and close the thing down, singing too loud
  • Attend La Tomitina, that tomato-throwing festival in Spain
  • Run the Peachtree Road Race again
  • Walk through a street market in a Third World Country and not worry about what (or who) I am eating
  • Go to the Kentucky Derby
  • Spend a month in Mexico, immersion-learning the language
  • Tour Switzerland with my mother (her ancestors came from there)
  • Take my family on a tour of the American West
  • A day at work where EVERYTHING goes right
  • Watch or re-watch all the movies that won Best Picture at the Academy Awards
  • And my ultimate:  hitch-hike, take a train, walk, ride a horse, sail, etc, etc, from here to Tierra del Fuego

I’m proud to report that recently I checked off another of my life’s “to do list,” I swam-biked-ran my way to finish the Greenville Triathlon.

Do you have a life list?

Some things are for dreaming; some things are for doing.  But one thing’s for sure, life is as much of an adventure as you choose to make it.


“Learn to scuba dive?”  What the heck was I thinking? I don’t recall ever pondering it.  Snorkeling was fun, but scuba? Whassup with that?  And why wasn’t bungee jumping on the list?  And now we can trash can the trip from here to Tierra del Fuego.  What I want to do now is kayak solo across the Okefenokee Swamp and cycle back.  And the ivory-billed woodpecker, hmm, after one failed attempt at seeking them in Arkansas and one poor attempt in Florida, that one might have to go bye-bye, too.

We accomplished Disney two months ago and God willing, the Peachtree will be in the can on July 4, only two weeks away.

Looks like I need to re-do the list.  Stay tuned for an update.

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We might be rednecks…ya think?

Yes, I might be one.

After 25 years of working most Saturdays, I’m enjoying having a Saturday off every now and then these days.   This morning I had in mind getting a pedicure and manicure and settling in to convert locally grown organic pears into jars of golden jam. 

My 14 year old son had other ideas. 

“Take me to Academy Sports,” he begged.  After about 45 minutes of running out of excuses as to why I didn’t want to take him, I turned his request to my advantage. 

“Take your laundry out of the drier, fold it and put it away,” I said.  “Pick up all of your clothes up off the bathroom floor and put them in the laundry sorter.  Start a load of laundry.  And I’ll take you to Academy Sports.” 

It’s about 45 – 50 miles from our house to Greenville.  We arrived just in time for an early lunch.  I’m convinced that 80% of our family income goes to feeding this boy.  We went to Red Robin where we ate until we both acknowledged that we wanted to puke. 

From there we battled traffic down Woodruff Road to Academy Sports.  For a short period of time, we dithered around together along the main aisles, then he left me to go shop for bullets for his deer rifle.   I looked at meat-processing equipment, dog items and folding lawn chairs.  He and I rendezvoused in the backpack aisle. 

We drifted past deer stands and trail cameras and into my personal favorite section–deer lures, where I tend to get a little carried away.  For a change, selection and prices were good.  Often I shop too early and they don’t have the good stuff in yet.  Or I wait too late and the good stuff is picked over. 

We discussed a few choices and I started grabbing things.  Pretty soon I had to send him for a shopping basket.  I bought 3-packs of scent wick dispensers–the kind with a felt wick and a handle that easily hang from a branch.  They’re bright orange and easy to retrieve when he you get down from the stand.

I picked up a spray bottle, economy-sized, of a scent eliminator spray. 

And, oh, the deer pee!

I bought doe urine and a nifty three pack that includes plain doe urine, doe-in-heat urine and, yes a bottle of buck urine.  Great products by my current favorite Code Blue and at a very fine price.  The lad and I briefly discussed purchasing a pack of preloaded Tink’s 69 scent dispensers but I balked when I saw that they had to be actived by a chemical heat pack and only lasted for four hours.   

The fun part, really, was the check-out line.  All the lines were long.  We were lucky to be behind a family who, hmm, maybe don’t get to town very often. 

The matriarch went nuts over a little display of crazy bands right by the checkout counter. 

The boy and I made eye contact and shared a very faint smile when she began to squeal with delight over them.  I think I’m short, but the lady was about 4″9″, with a long, black and chemically damaged hair.  She had an odd facial structure, a speech impediment and  few teeth.  And she wore a tee shirt that said “Trailer Park Chihuahua.”  It featured some dandy-looking singlewides, two badass chihuahuas and Confederate flags, plus the slogan “the South”s gonna rise again.” 

While she and her family ripped through the silly bands (“Look!!! They got all kinds!”) behind us, the daddy in front mumbled something to the effect of “Y’all better get up here ‘fore I haveta pay or you’re gonna be SOL.”

Meanwhile another lady in line wearing her Clemson Tigers game day orange was getting pretty spun up by the lighters shaped like little fishing rods and deer rifles. 

“Look!”  she hollered to her friend in another checkout line.  “It’s a lighter made like a fishing rod!” 

“How much is it?”

“Ten dollars.”

“We better wait til closer to Christmas.”

The lad and I shared another slight smile and I whispered, “These people obviously don’t get out very much and are excited by the colorful trinkets.” 

And I thought we lived in isolation.

The gnomelike woman and her five to seven kids continued to paw through the silly bands and the lady in front of me was still mesmerized by the lighters.  “Hey,” she called to her friend again, “The one shaped like a football is only eight dollars.”

All of the sudden a scream ripped the air from a line off to our right.  Startled, I started to grab my son and hit the floor.   I have a healthy paranoia of being stuck  in line somewhere during a holdup.  

But the two Hispanic guys standing by the screaming woman started laughing and the woman started loud, fast talking in Spanish, and she was beating both guys with her fists. 

“That line over there is moving faster,” my son said.

“Yeah, but this one is way more fun.” I countered.  The woman was still cursing those guys when we finally made it through the checkout counter.

We live in a rural area, a bit off the beaten path.  At times I am inclined to believe that everyone I meet lives in a trashy home and either cooks meth or makes moonshine in the shed out back.   But today, in metropolitan Greenville, I felt rather…sophisticated. 

Until I got home and got out of the car. 

 “Hey, boy,” I yelled to my son, “don’t you leave that pee in the hot car.”

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A Wednesday in September

"The River of Muscadines"

Enoree River -- the river of muscadines

Wednesday promised to be an aggravating day for me.  The afternoon schedule include my annual eye exam and then a dental appointment.  I knew that before it was over, my pupils would be dilated, blurring my vision and increasing my sensitivity to light for several hours.  And I knew that my mouth would be numbed and drilled on. 

Simply, ugh.

Yet it was warm (not hot!), sunny and calm, a glorious September morning.  I decided to go to the river. 

My family’s ancestral stomping grounds–both the paternal and maternal sides–run along the Enoree River from the vicinity of Youngs community down through Enoree and Lanford Station, ending up near Cross Anchor and Horseshoe Falls.  Sometimes it calls to me like a siren’s song.

I went to the falls first and had them all to myself.  Wearing a skirt and flip flops, I walked the path down to the creek, ditched the flops and waded into the water.  Minnows scattered before me  in the clear water around my feet.  I hitched my skirt up around my thighs with my left hand and balanced the camera and truck keys in my right and photographed the falls from several angles. 

Horseshoe Falls

Images played in my mind–flickering, jerky home movies of my mama and daddy.  Mama with a picnic spread on a quilt, the Skotch cooler full of sandwiches and cold drinks.  My little brother Joey, maybe a year old,  playing on the rocks.  Jeff, also still a toddler, standing still for once, mesmerized while my daddy took a stick and dipped up a water snake that he had just killed with his pistol.  The snake was limp and kept sliding off into the water.  Daddy, young and slim,  had his pistol in one hand and the stick in the other. 

Next I drove down the road to the Enoree.  In childhood, this short drive was sullied by litter, a dumping grounds for household garbage, old television sets with shattered picture tubes, cans and broken bottles.  Now it is prisine.  There is a small but tidy parking area with a sign that marks the way to put in kayaks and that gives a brief history of the area’s Revolutionary War significance. 

Again, I waded into the river, clear water rushing under my feet.  My  eyes are peeled for snakes and, unlike my daddy, I am not packing a revolver.  Just my camera.  Snakes, I  love ’em. 

Purple Muscadines

After this I made a quick trip up I-26 to the farm store at Live Oak Farms, where I purchased an organic blue corn taco kit, a pound of butter made locally from Upstate cows and a hunk of local white cheddar with green olives in it.  I enquired about muscadines for my jelly-making enterprise.  She didn’t have any, but soon I was on my way to a small farm between Cross Anchor and Pauline where the owner and I picked three gallons in 15 minutes working in the warm September sunshine, careful around a host of lazy bumblebees.

That night, with the whole left side of my face numb and my eyes dialated, I made bronze scuppernong jelly, gloriously golden. 

When all is said and done, I will have made bronze scuppernong and purple muscadine jelly, peach and pear jam, all from fruit grown within a 30 mile radius of my home.  Why go to all the trouble when I can buy all the jam and jelly I want from the supermarket?   Like my trip to the river, it connects me to the earth, to family, to my past and that of my ancestors.

Purple Muscadine and Bronze Scuppernong Jelly

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Rush Hour…and then some. Atlanta adventure.

Consider that you are dropped into one of the busiest cities in the USA at rush hour on a Friday night.

You are suddenly teleported into an unfamiliar vehicle in an unfamiliar city…and expected to follow an ambulance carrying your spouse to a hospital you’ve never even heard of.  Whoops.  With an anxious teenager riding shotgun.

That happened to me last weekend. 

Barreling down I-85 just across the state line into Georgia, my husband suddenly slammed on brakes and jerked the wheel to the side, landing us about where an on-ramp entered the interstate.  Nonplussed, I simply figured there was a blue light flashing behind us.

Wrong.

Mr. B had suddenly become very dizzy and lost most of his vision.  “You’re going to have to drive,” he said.

I schlepped us down to the next exit where I pulled over and checked his blood sugar.  170.  Certainly not contributing to his dizziness.  My son got out and helped him try to walk it off.   It didn’t work.  A recently diagnosed early diabetic on blood pressure medicine, Mr. B had left his blood pressure cuff at home. 

We decided to motor on, with me at the helm of his F-150 pickup truck, dizzied myself by the array of controls.  I had driven this truck exactly twice on very rural South Carolina roads.  I didn’t even know were the door locks and window locks and seat adjustment buttons were, much less how to work the navigation system and cruise control, yet I was in command of this beast of a truck at 75 to 80 mph for the next hour and a half. 

Some of it was bumper to bumper stop-and-go traffic, some was easy cruising.  And some was rush hour in Atlanta.  All the while checking every few minutes to see if my Mr. B was still breathing.  His eyes were closed and he was uncharacteristically silent, responsive but barely.  I tried to stay calm for the lad beside me.

There are a few cliches about Atlanta.  One is the old joke that when you die, you have to be routed through Hartsfield on the way to the pearly gates.   The other is that if your middle finger is disabled, you can’t drive in Atlanta.  Both are pretty close to true. 

With the help–or hindrance–of the navigation system, I muddled my way to the Omni at the CNN Center  in downtown. 

I consider myself a pretty sophisticated person.  I’ve been a good many places by plane, train and automobile.  Driven in most of them and am competent at checking in and out of hotels, motels, country inns and B&B’s.  Ditto for campgrounds and, yes, even yurt villages.   But this downtown hotel confounded me.  Parking valets and bellmen descended on us like ants at a picnic.  I had no time to decide which bags we would take in and which we would leave in the truck.

We had coolers of drinks and snacks, a shotgun and a case of shells, two laptops, grocery bags of sugarless snacks and our raggedy assortment of what might loosely be called luggage.  I felt like we were the hillbillies arriving in Beverly Hills. 

Somehow we managed to get Mr. B up to our room and receive our luggage from the bellman.  Whereupon he tried to walk and fell down and said, “I hate to say it, but you’re going to have to take me somewhere.”

Yep.

I tried to call the concierge desk and the damn phone didn’t work.  “Excuse me,” I said, coolly, like I did this every day, “I’ll just go down there and talk to someone.”

Things came unhinged from there.  Our concierge said protocol dictated that she would have to call security and 9-1-1.  Then she quickly, diplomatically and calmly accompanied me to room 415.  We got there before security and my husband was still out flat on the bed, eyes closed, poorly responsive. 

While we waited for the paramedics, the phone maintenance guy drifted in and in broken English explained that he would have to come back later and reprogram the phone.  We paced and waited…and waited…and waited for the EMS to arrive, with me fretting, thinking, I’m glad he’s not having a heart attack.  Truth be told, I didn’t know what was happening to him.  Recently he has lost weight because of the diabetes, and this has helped his blood pressure, but I feared a stroke.  And time is critical with those.

The paramedics arrived after twenty minutes.  Given the traffic, I could understand that, but it did little to instill confidence in having him get the help he needed.

They assessed him and advised that they transport him to a hospital.  I was given two choices, and considering what I’d heard about one of them, hoped that I’d chosen wisely.  Things moved very quickly from there.  While one EMT set an IV, the other tried to give me directions to the hospital.  Uh, slower, I’m trying to type this into my cell phone.  The next thing I knew, he had an oxygen nose piece on and was strapped to a gurney and being loaded into an ambulance.

An ambulance that I was going to have to follow through downtown Atlanta at 5:30 pm on a Friday…in a truck that I was just learning to drive. 

We made it.  I ran a couple of yellow lights, got separated from the ambulance once but never lost sight of it.  I even managed to thread the big 4WD pickup into a parking garage at the hospital with just a few inches to spare and my son coming unglued, yelling “Don’t scratch his truck!  You’re gonna scratch his truck!”

Less than an hour and a half later, he was treated and released, the diagnosis being vertigo.  Relieved, I navigated to a Walgreen’s with excellent directions from the nurse and got his prescription filled.  We made it back to the Omni and somehow led him to the room.

He stayed in the room for two days, wobbly and nearly blind, before beginning to toddle out a bit.  A little over a week later, he is gradually feeling more and more normal.

Gimme a truck, any truck, and I guarantee that I can drive it anywhere under battlefield conditions.

And the irony?  His physician was in the same place as we were..at the same time as we were running around like chickens with heads cut off…and we didn’t know it.

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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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Hearing Bea Laugh

We lost a family treasure this week. 

Aunt Bea passed away peacefully at the home of her daughter and son-in on Monday.   She was ninety-six years old. 

Bea had many names.  Her given name was Lydia.  She was called Lottie Bell by many, which was  shortened to Bea.  Unable to pronounce her name, her first grand-daughter began to call her Mudgie.  It stuck.  All three of her grandchildren called her Mudgie. 

I have a theory that the number of nicknames one has seems to be directly proportionate to how much one is loved. 

Bea was a feature of my childhood.  She lived with her mother–my Granny Cooper–on the mill hill in Enoree.  They had their own home, a four room mill house near the Enoree School.  But they could likely as not be found at Nanny and Papa’s old big house–one of the biggest houses on the mill hill.   Papa was entitled to the big house because he was the night superintendent at the mill.

But there were curious things about Bea. 

Mind you, I am looking at things through the eyes of a very naive little girl growing up in the Sixties.  Nothing bad had ever happened or ever would. 

Aunt Bea had no husband.  I suppose at various times my innocent mind partitioned her off as a widow or even a spinster, never mind how she came to have a daughter and grandchildren.   So it was a shocker to find out that Bea had been married and divorced.  Nobody we knew of in Enoree except scandalous Aunt Jennny had been divorced.  People whispered about folks who got divorces.  It just wasn’t done.  There certainly was plenty to whisper about Jenny, but Bea was just Bea.  No whispering required.

A second curious thing about Bea was that she didn’t drive.  She walked to work, walked to Nanny and Papa’s.  Wherever else she needed to go, there were always relatives and friends to take her.  A good many women in the Sixties did not drive.  Nanny didn’t, but I remember Papa Claude teaching her…or trying to, and she eventually got a driver’s license.  I don’t know if Bea ever did.  

Bea and Papa Claude shared a special friendship, even after Nanny died.  Bea was his sister by marriage but also by the heart.  Papa liked puzzles and trickery of all kinds, but he was a master of practical jokes.  One time he got a mail-order motion activated recording that he hid under the toilet for Bea.  it said something like, “I SSSEEEEEE  YOUUUUUUUUUU,”  in a man’s deep voice.  My little old Papa giggled for days about that.

If Papa Claude giggled, Bea laughed.  Not a loud, crazy laugh, not a dainty little laugh.  A just right laugh.  She laughed a lot.   Shortly after mama got the call about her death, in the quiet of her home with her mind turned to a simple task, mama heard Bea’s laughter. 

Bea stayed healthy and vibrant well into her senior years.  I reckon all of that walking all over the mill hill kept her slender and strong.  She worked long days in the cotton mill into her seventies. 

Keep on laughing Bea/Lottie Belle/Mudgie.  We’ll see you again someday over yonder.

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This ain’t the Low Country

It happens all the time. 

You meet someone somewhere–at a convention, a vacation, a meeting, a resort, even on line or while conducting business on the telephone.  They ask, “Where are you from?”

Any more, I sort of hate to say South Carolina.  Because inevitably, there is a squeal of pleasure, “Oh, we LOVE South Carolina,” and they go on to prattle on about Charleston or Hilton Head or Pawley’s Island or Beaufort.   About seafood and beaches and live oaks and palmetto trees and golf courses. 

I have to grit my teeth and politely say, “We’re from the Upstate.”  You know, near Greenville?

The Upstate, it seems, is invisible to the world.

We have our own topography, red clay and hills, lush and green and punctuated by cow pastures, chicken farms, hay fields and deer leases.  Flowing with brown silty rivers and creeks with the occasional rocky shoal. 

We have industry and farming and our own regional accents.  We have a rich history of Piedmont blues musicians and textile league baseball.  We are dotted with former cotton mill towns and historic sites from the Revolutionary War.  We have miles and miles of beautiful lake shores, campgrounds and state parks.  We are covered with liberal arts colleges and state universities.

Aside from the expected–a local variation of barbeque sauce–we have a regional cuisine.  It is pinto beans and cornbread, fatback and fried chicken.  Peaches in the summer and collard greens in the winter.  It is potatoes instead of rice.  And a squash is a yellow crookneck, not a zucchini and not one of those Yankee things that looks like some kind of little pumpkin.

We have a sense of self, an identity, a pride.

We are the Upstate.

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Pull up a chair, pass the cornbread…and set a spell.

Wry wit and wisdom

We have teeth.  We are educated.  For the most part, our family tree actually branches. 

Sure, we might whip out a banjo but we just as easily could play our iPod.  We might dine on fusion cuisine or we might crave some butter beans cooked with a little fatback.  We like to go deer hunting and bass fishing but we compost our kitchen waste and sort our recyclables. 

We’ll update our facebook page from where we sit drinking corn liquor from a jar beside a camp fire.   We read Garden & Gun magazine and we whoop and holler at the Friday night high school football games.  We might sip wine at an art gallery opening tonight and troll through yard sales looking for bargains tomorrow morning.

We wear our Carhartts on the ski slopes, and we always try to leave  at least one Christmas decoration up year ’round to stay in line with our neighbors.  We can toggle between Oprah and NASCAR without batting an eye.

We are the new.  The old.  The rural South.

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