The Grass Is Always Bluer . . .
He knew the things that were and the things that would be and the things that went before.
HOMER: The Iliad
No sooner had I downed the last drop of tea laced with Jim Beam than the cloudburst began. I grabbed up my gear and scurried inside the shelter. Rumbling thunder barely preceded the cracks of lightning that slashed through the dusky sky and silhouetted rivulets of rain streaming down the sides of the opalescent rain fly. The storm was right overhead. Mother Nature was putting on one hell of a light show. Good thing Chad had reminded me to reseal the tent.
On this first day's walk, I had dragged myself from Bardstown to a KOA camp on the Lincoln Trail just outside Elizabethtown. The tramp was better than twenty miles. Uphill, and with no place for food or water. Frisky foals and a constant melee of mayflowers running riot through the bluegrass had helped divert me from the arduous hike at the time. Now, neither downpour nor bourbon could distract me, or dull the dolor in my hips. Though I had walked only one day, I decided Id better take tomorrow off.
Cynthia and I had spent our last night together in a Bardstown motel. It wasnt the same one we stayed in before. For although we were well south of Louisville, it was Kentucky Derby Day and that place was booked solid. So were most others.
Everyone appeared in a festive mood, everybody except us. We were saddened at the prospect of being separated for so long. The blues didn't last though. During dinner a large group of merrymakers seated at a table across from us was celebrating their good luck at the track. Seeing we weren't as happy as they were, one of them called out, "What's the matter? Did you lose?" I told the man that we hadn't attended the race. I was resuming a walk across the country, and we were unhappy about being apart. "Well, we can't have that!" he said. He must have been a big winner. A bottle of bubbly quickly arrived at our table, and we were soon as happy as they were.
Since I had a long walk ahead of me and Cynthia needed to get back home to prepare for school, she had dropped me off early on the outskirts of town. Instead of taking the thruway back to Columbus, she was going to take the smaller roads. Because the last time I was in Kentucky I had to skip Cynthiana not exactly Cynthia Ann but close enough she wanted to drive through the town to see if Id missed anything. It would turn out that I hadn't.
The storm passed as quickly as it had arrived. I drifted off into a dreamless sleep, only sporadically disturbed by twitching legs.
To keep my hip joints from stiffening more than they already were, on my premature day off I walked two miles back and forth into E-town to buy food for dinner. There was a large supermarket with a surprising selection of fresh vegetables. It was amazing the amount of different ethnic foods available, everything from jalapeños to jicama, snow peas to plantains. They wouldn't sell me a half dozen eggs though. Few places will anymore.
On my return to the KOA I talked with the owner, a fellow named Jeruszelski. During the course of our conversation I learned we were in the army at the same time, though not at the same place. While I was in the 2nd Army Band at Fort Meade, Maryland, he was with the 7th Army in Stuttgart, Germany. I asked if he knew my friends Richard Hurwitz and Lanny Morgan. They were in the 7th Army Symphony when he was there. He said, "No, I was an MP." I told him that was even more reason he might have met them. We also discovered that we were on leave in Barcelona at the same time and hung around the same places. We might even have seen each other. Both of us were struck by life's coincidences.
After joking around awhile, I asked how he felt about ethnic humor. I had remembered an incident that happened at The Place several years before. He said, "I don't mind . . . as long as it's funny." I told him there was a musician's joke about the Polish musician who went into jazz for the money. That didn't bring a laugh; perhaps you have to be a jazz musician to understand it. Hoping the follow-up would, I continued. "A lot of Polish musicians from the cruise ships used to come into my club to jam. One night, a local piano player named Fritz Kersting a man not known for his tact came into the club. After we finished a set, he walked over to a Polish sax player and asked, Did you go into jazz for the money? The saxophonist, thinking how much money he made compared to his countrymen, gave him a big smile and said, Ja! I did! "
He didn't think it was funny. I guess I needed to learn something about tact myself. That, or how to tell a joke. To distract from the egg on my face, I asked his wife if all of Kentucky was uphill. Like the woman at the motel a few months earlier, she replied matter-of-factly. "No, only half." That, he thought was very funny.
She proved right. The next day's walk did add a few downs to the ups. My hips were feeling better and it was a cool, cloudy day with only a few sprinkles, so on the whole the walk was pleasant. The only drawback was that the next place to stay was in Leitchfield, thirty-some miles away.
Around three-thirty I stopped for a bite to eat at the first shop I came to. I asked the couple if there was someplace nearby I could camp for the night. They told me there was a small pond about five miles ahead, owned by a man named Walter Miller. He also owned the store across the road. They said I might ask him, but not to be surprised if he refused. Unsure of their meaning I was uncomfortable asking for favors, especially since they hadn't given the man what you would call a glowing review. But left with no prospect other than continuing to Leitchfield, uneasy I trudged into the gloomy place across the way. It was a stark contrast to the bright place and friendly folk I had just left.
A frail adolescent ceased sweeping and timidly asked if she could help me. I said I'd like to speak with the owner, Walter Miller. She looked apprehensively over her shoulder, then pointed the broomstick toward the meat case. Behind it, a gaunt, glassy-eyed man was slicing baloney with a large shiny butcher's knife.
He stopped, scowled and said, "I'm Walter Miller. Whaddaya want?"
Knife in hand, he walked from behind the counter to where I stood. An aroma of cheap bourbon preceded him. The girl backed off and went to the far side of the room to continue sweeping.
"I was told that you own a pond up the road," I answered.
He looked me up and down. "Who told you that?"
"The people in the store across the road," I said. "I'm looking for a place to pitch my tent tonight. They said you might allow me to camp at your pond."
Miller continued glaring at me, saying nothing.
"I'd be happy to pay you," I offered.
After a long pause, the forbidding frown above his reddened eyes relaxed. He said, "Yeah, I suppose it'd be all right. Just don't make no mess."
Relieved, I told him that he wouldn't even know I had been there. Then I asked if he'd like some money. He said, "Naw. I don't imagine you're gonna do any fishin', are ya? Sides, the place is closed this time a year, anyhow."
I thanked him. Then, feeling that I at least owed him some business, I asked if he'd sell me a half dozen eggs, which is all that my hard plastic container would hold. His face slacked a little more and he said, "Sure. I reckon I can always take the other half-dozen home with me."
Five or six miles up the road in Summit, I spied a large oval pond down in a hollow. It was a fishing club, stocked with channel cat. After removing my pack and shoving it under the wooden gate that blocked the entrance, I climbed over the fence. A wide dirt road encircled the water. A couple of wooden latrines squatted at either end. Owing to the rain the road was muddy, not a good place to pitch a tent. Too, I suspected that it would be a cold night, especially in a hollow close to the water. So I trudged up a steep slope on the far side and searched for a level place among the trees, taking great care to step between the delicate spring foliage.
As soon as I had finished setting up shelter, the rain came. I hurriedly dragged my gear and myself inside, grateful that I had eaten only a couple of hours earlier. There definitely wouldnt be any cooking done in this downpour. For a long time I lay on my back, cozily snuggled in my sleeping bag, delighting in the sound of raindrops bouncing off the fly. Then I took out my radio and tuned into the PBS station to see if I could catch the weather report. An early Judy Collins album was playing. She and a large chorus were singing Amazing Grace, my favorite hymn. I closed my eyes and let the music fill me. " Was blind, but now I see." The final chord sounded and faded away. Simultaneously, the sun came out. Amidst magnified raindrops sparkling the pearl-colored covering above me, long, shadowy spikelets of grass danced with unfolding ferns. Overhead, a grasshopper took up its guard post, the way the daddy longlegs had on the Appalachian Trail. It was better than a Balinese shadow show.
From Summit to Leitchfield the road leveled off some. Now there were more downs than ups. I was grateful to have finally found "the other half."
The road wasn't the only thing going down. LA. was afire. That night, the TV news showed my old neighborhood engulfed in flames. Dissatisfaction with the outcome of the Rodney King trial had started a riot. Looting, beating and burning had broken out over all South Central.
Mammoth Cave National Park was only twenty-four miles south of Leitchfield. I would really have loved to see it, but that was a two-day walk out of the way unless I went on south. Since my intention was to ferry across the Mississippi River near New Madrid, Missouri, I decided against making the detour and stayed on Rt. 62. After what that fellow at a bar in Pennsylvania told me even if he was just joking about Tennessee drivers playing pedestrian polo I wouldnt voluntarily go anywhere near the "Volunteer state."
At a store in Millwood, I asked a woman if she knew of any place nearby to stay. She said there wasn't a thing until Beaver Dam, thirty miles ahead. She also warned me to be careful around Spring Lick and Horse Branch. "There are lots of unsavory characters." A man coming out of a bank in Caneyville, however, told me that she was mistaken. "They might be a little rough around the edges, but they won't hurt you none." He didn't know of a place to camp though.
The next town on the map was Steff. When I walked what I thought was six miles, all I found was a small store. Inside, a friendly young woman greeted me. There was no sign, and clearly no post office, so I asked her how much farther it was to Steff. She laughed and said, "This here's Steff! Least what's left of it." Seeing my puzzlement, she added, "Everybody moved out since they put the parkway through. Now, this is all there is. Can I gitcha anything?"
Thinking that this might be my last chance to eat for a while, I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich as near as I could tell, the only thing available other than baloney. "I thought you had to have a post office to get your name on the map," I said. "Oh, we used to have one," she replied. "It was right here. I ran it! But when everybody moved away, they closed it down. I guess they just ain't taken us off the map yet." She laughed.
When she brought the sandwich which was larger than any I've ever seen, even those at Rubens and Cantors Delis I asked her if she knew of anywhere I might pitch my tent. "Nowhere around here that I know of," she answered. "You might ask somebody else, if you can find anybody else to ask." She laughed again.
It was late afternoon and I had already come twenty miles. Still, the Good Lord had provided so far. I was hopeful.
I finished the sandwich and asked, "How much do I owe you?" She told me "just a dollar." That was a surprise. I don't know if it was the regular price or if she was only taking pity on a weary wayfarer. Perhaps she was just grateful for any business at all.
Down the road an old man was sitting on his front porch. Again, I repeated my question. He told me of a dried up pond ahead. "It ain't much to look at, but you'll be safe there." He was partly right; it wasn't much to look at. What it was, unless I misunderstood his directions, was a garbage dump. Also, it was barren and clearly visible from the road. Not knowing whether to believe the woman or the man about the unsavory characters in the vicinity, I decided to go on. Maybe this wasn't the right place. If I couldn't find anything better soon, as disagreeable as this place and backtracking was, I could always return.
I was spared both prospects. Just before Horse Branch, I came to another store. The young woman behind the counter said that Caney Creek was just ahead. "Lots of people go there to fish an' camp an' stuff." Confused, I told her that I had already crossed Caney Creek a couple of times. She laughed, then said, "Oh, it runs all over the place." Wanting to be certain there would be no problem, I asked if anyone would object to me camping there.
"No," said the young man who had been flirting with her when I walked in. "It's government land, maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. Nobody'll bother you."
The woman asked where I was going. I told her I was on my way to Los Angeles. "What-in-the-world for?" the man wanted to know. "Don't you know the place is on fire?" I said that maybe the fire would be out and LA. would be rebuilt by the time I got there. "Besides," I added, "I lived in that neighborhood until the early fifties, and it was fit to be burned down then." The man said, "You may be right. Just the same, those people say they want to be treated like Americans? Well I say if you want to be treated like Americans, act like Americans! Americans don't go around rioting, burning and looting!"
I declined comment.
"Where'd you start?" the woman asked. When I told her New York, the young man exclaimed, "New York? Man! You really do like to live dangerously!" They laughed. I explained that those places were really no more dangerous than any other place. "Fear and trouble are things you bring with you," I said. "Fortunately, I don't travel with either of them."
They told me that the creek was just ahead. It crossed under the road, so I couldn't miss it. As I was leaving, the man said, "You sure got a lot more gumption than I do. But even if you don't travel with trouble, you just might find some anyway. It's been a mild winter and a wet spring, so watch out for ticks!"
After crossing the bridge over the creek, I located the entrance to the rutted dirt road that ran alongside it. A bank of red clay was piled high above, but all was clearly visible from the bridge. While it's true that I didn't carry trouble with me, I thought it best to trust prudence as well as providence just in case the woman in Millwood had been right about the dangerous characters living hereabouts.
Not wanting to camp in clear sight, I followed the dirt road half-a-mile until I came to a sharp bend. The opposite side of the creek would have been the safest place to camp; there was no road. But there also was no bridge, and the creek, swollen from the rain, was too deep and too swift to ford. Even though I was around the bend and couldn't be seen from the bridge on the main road, that was only if I stayed down by the water. While I didn't relish the idea of being in the middle of a rut so close to the creek, I liked even less the idea of being in clear sight up on the high grass-covered clay bank. It was probably infested with ticks, too, and I had learned that Lyme disease had now spread west even this far.
Settling for the lesser of the two uncertainties, after making sure there were none of the little bloodsuckers in the immediate vicinity, I pitched my tent in the middle of the rut, and quickly dragged my pack and myself inside. At least the space between the tire tracks was level and without grass, and should someone come driving along in the middle of the night, I could hopefully hear them in time to scamper up the bank before being run over.
As it turned out, my concerns were for naught. The thing I hadn't counted on, though, was the deep drop in temperature during the night. Although I had put on my thermal long johns under my clothing, kept on my socks and donned my woolen cap, halfway through the night I awoke, shivering. Just before daybreak, dressed in every article of clothing I had with me, with every zipper tightly zipped, and, for as long as I could stand it, burying my face in the hood and breathing into my mummy bag, I was still severely shaking. Even the handfuls of jerky and trail mix I ate during the night didn't provide enough warmth. Sleep was damn near impossible. Through the diffusion of dawn's early light, I began to see why. The tent, inside and out, was covered with hoarfrost. It was like being inside an igloo. If I had thought it would get this cold I'd have brought along some whale blubber.
When I unzipped the tent and stepped outside, I found it encircled by ticks. It looked like I was under siege. They must have come down from the slope during the night looking for a warm place and something to eat namely me! Hastily I shook the frost from the tent, hopefully all the parasites, too, and hurriedly got the hell out of there. We would all have to wait for breakfast.
A couple of hours later I arrived in Rosine what there was of it. Bratcher's grocery made up the entire town. It was a white wood-frame that sat next to a big barn, one apparently undergoing repair. Lumber was piled on the ground; new boards were mixed with the old weather-beaten siding; hammering ricocheted around the walls inside.
I walked up the stairs onto the wide porch then on past the Royal Crown Cola machine into the store. Just inside the door a low wooden stage had forced a potbellied stove into the corner. Tattered flyers and yellowed posters pasted the wall behind. Several rows of mismatched chairs huddled in a semicircle around the front. I couldnt help wonder what sort of place this was. There wasnt much stock on the shelves. Neither were there many shelves to stock.
"Good mornin!" A voice crackled through the gloom.
Startled, I replied abruptly. "Good morning." Lost in wonder about the mini-theater and scarcity of food on the shelves, I hadn't noticed the glass case and counter on the right, or the pleasant middle-aged woman who greeted me from behind it.
"Kin I gitcha somethin?"
"Yes, please," I replied once I'd recovered. "I'd like something to eat . . . if you have it." I didn't see much in the cooler, either.
"How about a hot smoked baloney sandwich?" She held up a big round hunk for my inspection.
"That sounds good." It looked good, too. Though at this point almost anything that wouldn't eat me first would have looked good. I smiled as I wondered what the ticks were doing for breakfast.
As she set about building the sandwich, I removed my pack and helped myself to a cup of coffee. Still curious about the stage and chairs, I asked her. "Are you preparing for a revival meeting? Or maybe going to show some home movies?"
She laughed. "Naw! This here is the home of bluegrass music! Bill Monroe, the daddy of bluegrass, was born here in Rosine. Every weekend we have bluegrass jam sessions. Musicians from fifty miles around come here to play."
"Really? I used to be a musician myself. During the folk revival of the early sixties played a lot of bluegrass. Some groups I worked with did concerts with Bill, and Flatt and Scruggs and people like that. As I recall, Bill appeared on the very first Hootenanny. I was the show's bass player."
"Is that a fact?" She handed me the steaming sandwich of toasted light bread filled with thick slices of smoked bologna. "Bill was born just down the road from here. His family's lived in these parts just about forever." Hoping to keep her talking so that I could eat the sandwich, I asked, "Does he still live around here?" She shook her head. "No, he moved away a long time ago. I think he lives in Nashville, now. But some of his family still lives here. He's always on the road, so we don't get to see him much anymore."
A cadaverous little man wearing a black suit and string tie shied in through the front door. He looked like a cross between Don Knotts and John Carradine. Gave me the feeling he was one step ahead or behind a lynch mob. "Is this where they play bluegrass on Friday nights?" he nervously asked.
While the woman took care of him, I walked over to look at the posters and finish my sandwich. I had never had smoked baloney before. If I ever have the chance, I'll sure have it again.
The man left and she came over to where I was standing. "He's a mandolin player," she said. "Siding salesman. New in the territory and he just heard about us. He's gonna come join us tonight. ...You said you're a bass player? Why don't you stick around and play, too?"
"Well, as you can see, I don't have my instrument with me." I joked.
"Heck! That don't matter, none," she said. "There's always somebody around with a bass fiddle. They won't mind if you use it."
I shook my head. "I haven't played for several years now. I'd probably get blisters and bleed all over the bass. They wouldn't like that."
"Well at least you can stick around and listen," she coaxed.
"I'd love to," I said, "But I really have to keep moving. I promised my daddy I'd see him in Jonesboro by Memorial Day, and Arkansas is still a long way off."
"I guess it is at that," she smiled. "But you come back again, y'hear? By then we'll have the barn finished. We cain't hold all of the people in here, anymore. We're gettin' so popular we don't have enough room. But we're puttin' heat in the barn so's we can play all year long. It'll be finished by the time you come back this way."
"If I ever do, I'll be sure to come see you," I said. "If for no other reason than to have another one of your hot smoked baloney sandwiches. By then you'll probably be bigger than Branson, Missouri." I wished her luck, then packed up and strolled off down Bill Monroe Avenue.
I hadn't gone very far when a man on a bicycle stopped on the opposite side of the road. He appeared to be in his late sixties or early seventies, and was nattily dressed in a shiny, multicolor-spandex cyclist costume, topped by a bright yellow crash helmet. He was quite thin. Almost as thin as the ten speed racing bike he stood astride.
"Hullo, there!" he called. "Jolly good day for a walk, isn't it?"
"It is, that," I replied. Checking to make sure no traffic was coming though hardly any had all morning I joined him on the far gravel shoulder.
"I say. That's quite a large cargo you're carrying. Where are you off to, then?" When I told him that I was on my way to the West Coast, he said, "Really? Good show! So'm I. Where did you start?"
"New York City," I said.
He looked aghast. "Oh, I say. That is a far walk. I started in Williamsburg, Virginia. I've been a dentist all me life, tucked away in a small room not that I minded, mind you and I always wanted to see America. See what you Yanks have done with it since the Rebellion, so to speak. Williamsburg was smashing all those people parading about in costume. Now I'm on my way to Oregon."
"That's a long ride," I said.
"Yes . . . I suppose it is." He seemed to have just realized that. "Anyway, I'm having the most marvelous time. Nice chaps, you Yanks. Very decent."
"So you haven't had any trouble then?" I recalled his countryman I had met in Pennsylvania. A young cyclist whod been run down by drunken teenagers playing "chicken."
"Good heavens, no! I've been treated most respectfully. Why do you ask? Haven't you?" When I related the story of his compatriot and the times I had been almost run over, he sputtered, "That's bloody awful! Were you hurt?"
"No," I said. "Fortunately, the misguided miscreants' aim was no better than their judgment. On the whole, my journey has been benign. And by now Im an artful dodger."
"So, what takes you on this grand adventure?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," I said. "But I think it's because mama wouldn't let me join the Boy Scouts. Or maybe it's because daddy wouldnt let me join the Girl Scouts."
"Wonderful!" he chortled. "Jolly good! It puts me in mind of what Teddy Roosevelt said when he was canoeing up the Amazon in his later years. A reporter along for the ride asked him why he was doing it. Teddy said, It may be my last chance to be a boy again! "
"That's excellent!" I said. "I've never heard that before." But I would keep it in mind. Even belatedly, it was one more good reason to add to Harvey Jacobs indispensable dozen.
Pleased that I was pleased, he asked, "How many miles do you travel a day? I shouldn't imagine very many, what with all that weight you're carrying. You do seem to have an awful lot. Do you mostly sleep in the woods?"
"I do, whenever I can," I answered. "But that isn't as often as I would like. So far, most of the land has been posted with 'No Trespassing' signs, just like that one." I pointed to the sign on the tree beyond, which warned that trespassers would be shot! "And so far as the mileage is concerned, I try to average about twenty miles a day. Sometimes less, sometimes more, it usually depends on where I can find accommodations." Then remembering back to the last time I rode a bike (a red Schwinn Flyer, circa 1950), and the highest I ever raised the speedometer (20 MPH, steeply downhill), plus allowing for his age and delicate physique I did some quick figuring and asked, "How about you? You cover what, fifty or sixty miles a day?"
"Good heavens, no!" First he feigned shock, then gleefully gloated. "One hundred, one hundred and ten."
Wow! That meant he'd be in Oregon before I even made the Mississippi. Of course he hadn't yet reached the Rockies. Still, I was astounded. He looked so frail. "Even up these hills?" I asked. "You must do as much walking your bike up them as you do riding down them."
"Oh, they're no bother at all." He explained. "With these marvelous new bikes and all these gears, you hardly even notice them."
"Even so, I'm very impressed," I said. Noticing the bundle strapped to his bike frame, I conjectured, "You must sleep in the woods a lot also."
"Dear me, no! I'd be terrified!" He laughed. "This roll is only a prop. I stay in the finest hotels and motels," he confessed. "Holiday Inns when I can find them. I like me comfort, you know." Then slipping his visor down over his twinkling blue eyes and putting his foot on the pedal in preparation to leave, "Well, it's been nice chatting with you," he said, "but I must be off. Cheerio!"
He disappeared over the rise before I had a chance to respond with Walter Mitty's immortal line: "Pip, pip, and a Mrs. Miniver!"
In the week's walk from Elizabethtown to Central City, although there was only a drop in elevation of three hundred feet, I was definitely headed downhill the blister under my big toe told me so. The rest of my body and my spirits were in great shape, however. Even my alter egos Bob and Robert had been atypically silent since we resumed the journey. The slopes were gentle, the air filled with delightful aromas and the joyous warbling of spring's winged messengers, the roadside delicately dotted with flowers bursting through new blue-green grass, how bad could it be?
One morning I passed a marker placed by a local historic/conservation group. It stood between the gravel shoulder and the railroad tracks, at the point of a narrow wedge-shaped triangle marked off by a string attached to wooden stakes. The total area was less than two hundred and fifty square feet. The sign read that this was the beginning of the Great Plains. Huge herds of buffalo once grazed here. Near the center of the triangle was another sign, even larger: DON'T MOW. It reminded me of the Cargo Cult of New Guinea. Did the conservation group really believe that if it could keep the maintenance crew from mowing that the buffalo would return? I had to laugh. Still, I wished them good luck. There was definitely enough room for huge herds to graze. Many farms I passed in western Kentucky had only a few horses or cattle, and much of the land lay fallow. Also, most of the farmhouses I saw were not houses at all, but mobile homes. This was far different from the luxurious estates I had seen in the north-central part of the state.
On the outskirts of Central City, Route 62 became Everly Brothers Boulevard. Southerners really honor their local "boys made good." I wondered does Washington, D.C., have a Duke Ellington Drive? Or Red Bank, New Jersey, a Count Basie Avenue?
Shortly before I reached town, an adolescent boy driving a pickup truck with a ride-around mower in the back stopped to ask me if I'd like a lift. I declined his offer, saying that I was enjoying my walk. This was evidently an unsatisfactory response.
He drove slowly alongside me. "I want to talk to you! Come on, get in!" I thanked him for his offer but, again, declined. "I'm sorry but I don't accept rides. Anyway, I'm almost to where I'm going."
It soon became apparent that he would not be put off. He sped up, made a quick left turn, and a few hundred feet ahead pulled into the entrance of a long driveway. When I caught up to him a minute later, he was out of the truck, pacing around, looking first at me then down at the ground. His shoulders were hunched, his hands jammed deeply into the pockets of his jeans. His eyes appeared frenzied often a sign of either drug-induced derangement or a state of religious fervor. Both, I have found, are to be avoided if at all possible. In this case it wasn't. His truck blocked the sidewalk.
"I said I want to talk to you!" He shouted.
It had been an eighteen-mile walk from Beaver Dam, and was now early evening. But I was in a good mood, so I said, "OK. I hope you don't mind if I sit down though."
"Nah! Go ahead," he said without looking up.
Trusting that this wasn't going to take too long, I left my pack on and lowered myself onto the tailgate. A long period of silence followed. Since he seemed suddenly dumbstruck, I asked, "How's business?" I nodded toward the mower.
"It's all right," he answered noncommittally, still pacing about with his eyes fixed on the ground.
"So what did you want to talk to me about?" Removing my canteen from the sternum strap, I mimed an offer of a drink to him. Head still down, he didn't see me. So I took a swig.
"I was just wondering where youre goin?" He finally answered.
"The nearest motel," I said. "It's been a long day, and I'm tired and I'm hungry."
The answer didn't seem to please him. He kicked an imaginary rock out into the street and said, "No! I mean where are you GOING?"
"Oh!" I said, amused by his peevish display. "Im on my way over to the Land Between the Lakes. Golden Pond. You ever been there?"
He warmed to this, so we struck up a conversation. It was mostly one-sided though. For someone who so desperately wanted to talk to me, he had little to say. He continued to pace around, eyes on the ground, only occasionally glancing up when something I told him penetrated whatever it was clouding his mind. Finally, the reason for his wanting to talk to me became clear.
"You ever been to a Pentecostal church?" The question struck me obliquely. It came out of nowhere, like an unobserved meteorite.
"Yes, I have," I told him. "When I was thirteen I went to one with my sister Anna every Sunday for a couple of years." What I didn't tell him was that if Anna hadn't been four years older and bigger, and if she hadn't physically dragged me there, I never would have gone back. Those people writhing around on the ground babbling in tongues scared hell out of me.
"Which one?" He asked suddenly, momentarily stopping to look straight at me. In his excitement, his eyes glittered like a lemur on LSD.
"It was called Firebrands for Jesus." I also didn't mention that the minister, a Jew by the name of Brother Ivy, was the greatest con man I have ever come across. He could really work a crowd. Every Sunday, after working them into a frenzy, he'd shout at the congregation, "Brothers and Sisters! Last night I had a Dream! Somebody placed a check for Five Thousand Dollars on the collection plate!" And sure enough, when the collection plate was passed which was several times during the service there was always at least one check for five thousand dollars in the basket. During the two years I attended his squalid little storefront church, the congregation bought him a palomino ranch, a private airplane, a radio station, an enormous circus tent and the land to put it on, and the mansion of a former governor of California.
"We're having a revival meeting tonight. I want you to come with me," he demanded.
"I'm sorry. Like I said, it's been a long day and I'm tired and hungry. All I want is to go to a motel, clean up, get something to eat and go to bed."
The circle he had been pacing drew smaller. His head bobbed up and down like a dashboard doll. "You gotta come!" He shouted. "I'll take you to get something to eat! Then we'll go!"
Confronted by an overzealous Pentecostal (is that redundant?) and remembering all that I had ever read or heard about placating such maniacs, I quietly said, "I'm truly sorry, but I really can't. I'm far too tired. Perhaps some other time."
"No!" He screamed, stopping again. "Tonight's the big night! You gotta come!"
I was beginning to wonder if there was a bounty on sinners. Was he was paid by the head for dragging people in dead or alive? At any rate, I wasn't going to wait around to find out. I stood up and said, "Thanks, anyway, but I have to be moving along." I hooked the canteen back on its strap and started to leave.
"You said youre a musician, didn't you?" He pleaded, making a last-ditch effort. "Come on! There'll be music! We have a really good band!"
I didn't tell him either that I couldn't stand those loud, electric, rock&roll revival bands. There had been one at the Church of the Firebrands for Jesus. The only way I could stomach it was to drink a half bottle of the Mogen David wine used for communion before they started their screeching. Although judging from the state he was already in it was completely unnecessary, as I strolled off I said, "I sincerely hope the spirit moves you tonight, brother."
Next door to the crummy overpriced motel in Central City was a Mexican restaurant. I didn't expect much from it, but at least it wasn't one of the fast-food franchises. Except for a blond in her early-forties hunched over a cup of coffee, I was the only customer in the place. It occurred to me that she might be the owner. She seemed tired enough.
The burrito plate I ordered was brought in on a colorfully glazed Mexican platter about the size of a Sonoran sombrero. Heaped from one end to the other with a burrito, rice and beans and guacomole, not only did it look authentic it tasted authentic. This was a pleasant surprise. I hadn't seen anyone here who even vaguely resembled someone from south of the Mason-Dixon line!
When I finished, the woman asked if I had enjoyed my meal. I told her it was the best I'd had in many years. She confirmed what I had suspected earlier; she was the owner. "You don't look Mexican," I said. "How do you get the food to taste so authentic?"
She smiled. "I studied and worked with a Mexican chef for six years."
"You certainly learned your lessons well." I congratulated her. "The refritos were especially good. Did you fry them in lard?"
"No," she said. "I cook them in the stock from the meat."
"Well it sure works. But don't you have trouble finding all the necessary ingredients here in Kentucky? We're a long way from the border."
"The supermarkets have just about everything I need," she explained. "And the rest I order from a catalogue."
I told her that I hadn't traveled in the U.S. for many years and was constantly being surprised by the changes that had taken place in the interim. In the past, outside California, the Southwest and a few major cities, you never saw so much as an avocado, much less jalapeño, serrano and poblano peppers. And although every diner between Caribou and the Cascades and from San Diego to St. Petersburg had chili on the menu, it was hardly ever authentic.
"That's true," she said. "But we've had so many different nationalities move here in the last several years, you can get just about anything you want anymore. Heck, I'm even thinking of exporting frozen hushpuppies to those Damn Yankees up north," she joked.
At daybreak the following morning, I had a breakfast of huevos rancheros there. I brought my pack along with me because I didn't want to take the time to walk back next door. I had to start early for unless I could find a closer place to camp, the next site was in Mortons Gap more than thirty miles away.
When I left the restaurant and went to put on my red bandanna, I discovered it missing. It must have fallen off when I was taking a snapshot of the Everly Brothers Boulevard sign to send Jim Butler. Jim's a big fan. Though I knew more-or-less where I'd dropped it, I wasn't about to waste time searching. So I took the blue bandanna out of my pack and wrapped it around my head. Maybe now people would stop mistaking me for Willy Nelson.
There were now many more ups than downs. When I reached White Plains, twenty-some miles and several hours later, I was almost totally whipped, with yet another seven or eight miles to the Best Western campground in Mortons Gap. I asked a woman in a store if there was a shortcut. "Sure," she said. "Just go up the street here and take 813. The motel and campground are right on 813, so it'll cut out a mile or two."
Rt. 813 wasn't on my map. Forgetting my vow of several months ago the one I made to never again ask directions from a woman I followed her instructions. After a while the road headed up a steep hill. By the time I reached the top I was panting and perspiring heavily. There was an old cemetery, so I sat down on the stone wall surrounding it and had a smoke. Evening was fast approaching, but I was in no hurry. It couldn't be more than another two or three miles to the campground. I took my time.
Just over the wall I noticed a gravestone. The inscription read that the woman buried there was born Feb. 29th, 1880, and died Jan. 30, 1964. It occurred to me that, although she had lived almost eighty-four years, the poor woman had only celebrated her birthday twenty times. She never reached her majority. Even when women (and later eighteen-year olds) were finally granted suffrage, she still was never old enough to vote!
Amused by life's ironies, I continued down the road. There was no disturbance of traffic, so in those magical moments that come with the long shadows of twilight, engulfed by scents of spring flowers and freshly plowed earth, I soon was rapt in a reverie of years long gone. Boyhood memories overtook me. Time and space merged. Then became Now. Only Now. The pure reality of Now. Now was bliss. Om sweet Om.
Into and out of my dusk dream, a 39 Dodge drifted slowly past with scarcely a sound. I smiled in recognition. Then all at once I snapped back to harsh unreality. Time and space shattered. A sleek red convertible of recent vintage whizzed by. It missed reducing me to road-rubble by mere millimeters. It was driven by . . . yes . . . a blond! Abruptly aware how dark it had become, I quickly took off my pack and removed my headlamp. Several more cars shot past. Soon the road became a speedway. I slung on my pack and increased my pace. An hour later there was still no sign of a motel or campground. Except for the headlights of passing cars there was no light either.
I rushed on.
As I rounded a bend a mile later, I suddenly heard ferocious barking. Shit! Just what I needed, an attack by a hound from hell! Across the road, a large canine leapt a stone wall and raced toward me. It was worse than a hound from hell it was a Doberman pinscher. The only dog that ever bit me was a Doberman. That was almost fifty years ago and I still haven't forgotten. Nor have I forgiven. Praying that its owner would quickly appear and call it off surprised that it wasn't already upon me I raised my staff to defend myself.
All at once the outright absurdity of the situation struck me. It started me laughing and eased my anxiety. Near panic, I hadn't noticed it before. The poor beast encircled in my headlamp was missing most of its right foreleg. Like a dervish caught in a dust devil, the harder it hurried to get to me the faster it ran in circles. As I scurried away, though I sympathized with the hapless canine, I silently thanked God for its misfortune.
It wasn't long before I was cursing, however. Miles later there were still no lights. Now even the evening rush was over and I was all alone. "God! I yelled. You sonuvabitch!" (It is OK. We go back a long way together and He forgives.) "You promised me that the camp was just a few more miles!" I rounded another bend and my prayer was answered. (Swearing is sometimes an effective way of praying.) Up ahead I could see a large neon sign that spelled out GREAT WESTERN. I was almost there. Now I was really moving. My usual pace of two to two-and-a-half miles per hour had increased to more than four. Down below I could see lights along the parkway. Soon. Soon. Soon.
As I got closer I saw that the neon sign was all there was. No motel, no campground, just a huge neon sign, now joined by several others. They all advertised one motel, restaurant, gas station or another. And when I got close enough to read them, they also all said the same thing: two miles to the next exit. Deluded, dazed, disappointed and disgusted, I began to wail. "You Bastards! You Promised Me!" I blubbered, impotently shaking my staff at the sky.
I doubt I was heard. The woman who told me of this "shortcut" was much too far away. God was probably doubled over with laughter.
Wheezing and sobbing, drenched with sweat, tears and the rain that had begun minutes before, two miles as the parkway goes closer to three on the road I was on I finally saw lights far ahead. Through the mist the whole horizon was ablaze. It was like stumbling across Disneyland in the middle of a midnight desert.
When I drew closer I began to make out restaurants, motels, a truck plaza larger than the one in Pennsylvania, I don't know what all. Too tired to even contemplate pitching my tent, definitely not in the rain, I checked into the Best Western. It was expensive, but rationalizing that I had done two days walk in one and the price did include breakfast at Granny's Kitchen, I decided that I deserved to treat myself well. And I did . . . for two whole days.
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© copyright 2001 Robert Bowers
This page was last modified April 12, 2002