A Little Care . . .
All strangers and beggars are from Zeus, and a gift, though small, is precious.
Homer: The Iliad
Three days after leaving Mortons Gap I reached Suwanee not to be confused with Suwannee, Florida, which somehow had confused both Steven Collins Foster (Old Folks at Home) and George Gershwin (Swanee). In truth, I was a bit confused myself. There was no Suwanee, Suwannee or Swanee shown on my map. Which was, after all, no more than your basic gas-station road map. In Dawson Springs I had planned to drop south to spend a night in a state forest resort called Pennyrile which some ignorant pioneer thought was the proper pronunciation of the thyme-like plant "pennyroyal." I changed my mind along the way when I learned of a wilderness path (The Trace) that ran the full length of the LBL (Land Between the Lakes). As fate would have it, there was some confusion about this, also.
"You mean it isn't a wilderness trail?" I was certain that was what the man in the store at Dawson Springs had told me. "No, Sugar," the woman in the motel said. "The Trace runs the full length of the LBL, alright, all the way down to Tennessee. They don't allow no heavy trucks on it, but it's jist a highway, not a footpath. There is a trail called the North-South Trail that goes parallel to it, though. Just ask the people at the welcome station. They'll give you a map."
Armed with this new information doubtful it was correct (after all she was a woman) I continued over the bridge above Barkley Dam. A flight of swallows formed a welcoming committee to accompany me across. Below, tugboats maneuvered huge coal-laden barges upstream and down.
The Land Between the Lakes is a 44-mile peninsula, the result of work begun during the Great Depression as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal something Republicans derisively called make-work programs and quickly demanded a reshuffle. President Roosevelt established the Tennessee Valley Authority with the noble idea of bringing electricity to every farmhouse in America. To help the TVA with the LBL project, FDR also founded the WPA and the CCC, which was the beginning of what eventually became known as governmental alphabet soup or GAS. The Army Corps of Engineers dredged a channel between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, the Work Projects Administration built The Trace and the hydro-electric dams that formed Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, and the Civilian Conservation Corps cleared the land and laid out the trails. An added benefit of this New Deal's rough slough was that it stopped the flooding once common to the region. A flood in the 1800s annihilated a whole Indian tribe.
On the other side of Lake City, I stopped for a break at an underpass. A state trooper pulled up and stopped. Now what? I wondered, remembering my experience on the thruway in Pennsylvania. That was where I learned pedestrians are disallowed on interstate highways. Why? Hikers pay federal taxes, too. And they cause much less wear and tear and emit far less noxious gas.
It turned out the trooper was a backpacker and just wanted to talk about my equipment. He told me that when he was transferred here, they put him on a six-day on, two-day off schedule. Now he rarely got a weekend off so he didn't have much chance to hike anymore. He said he really missed it. Still not sure what it was, I asked him about The Trace. He told me that it was, indeed, a highway. "But there's a bike trail just on the other side of the bridge that you can take to the North Welcome Station," he said. "That way you can avoid the traffic."
Following his directions, I crossed over another bridge and found the bike path. Somehow, though, I bypassed the welcome station and ended up at the Hillman Ferry Campground. I was wandering around looking for it when a man, sensing my quandary, came over and asked what the problem was. I told him, and he said, "You missed it. It's about two miles back." It was no more difficult for him to read the disgust on my face than it had been for him to sense my puzzlement. "I've got to drive over there, anyway," he said. "You can ride with me if you like." My look of relief was just as apparent.
When we arrived, the woman at the welcome station asked, "Where'd you find this one, Mr. Williams?" "Oh, he was wandering around over at the campground," he replied. "Looked like a lost pup. I brought him over here to see if you could fix him up." She laughed. Things like this had happened so often that they were no longer an embarrassment to me. I laughed too.
Mr. Williams finished his business and asked if I wanted a ride back. I told him, "Thanks, no. One way is more than enough. If nice people like you keep rescuing me from my mistakes, I'll never learn." He laughed, wished me good luck, hopped in his pickup and left.
"So, what can I do for you, Sugar?" I told her that a map would be helpful. "And I suppose I owe you something for a campsite." She handed me a map and said that if I followed the North/South Trail I could pitch my tent anywhere I liked. "There are also shelters all along the way. But if you stay at the Hillman Ferry Campground, it'll be $8.00." Checking the map, I saw that the first shelter was too far away to make before nightfall. Also, there was no water there and I badly needed to do my laundry. So I decided on the campground and gave her $8.00.
"Judging from all that stuff on your back it looks like you're headed clear 'round the world," she said as she filled out the card. I told her, "No, just to Southern California." She stopped writing and looked up. "Boy, that's a long ways off! Where'd you start?" When I told her, she said, "Oh, I gotta put that on this card. They're never gonna believe it!" I asked, "You mean somebody actually reads these things?" It never occurred to me that anyone actually did. "Sure!" she said. "They'll get a big kick out of it. Ysee, everyone who comes through The Trace has to register. We especially like to keep track of hikers. When you've finished the trail, you check out at the South Welcome Station. That's sixty-five miles from here if you take the trail. And if you're gone too long we send somebody out to look for you." That's comforting, I thought. "It's good you told me that," I said. "I may not be doing the whole trail, and I wouldn't want you to worry about me." "Well the only place you can get off is at Eggners Ferry Bridge," she said. "So if you do, just tell them at the Golden Pond Visitor's Center." She handed me a copy of the card and a sticker for my windshield. "What do I do with the sticker?" I asked. "Gee, I don't know." She laughed. "Put it on the back of your pack, I guess. I don't know what else to do with it."
There were no mileage markings on the map, but because the trail followed the shoreline it appeared to be almost twice as long. Since it was getting late, instead of following the trail I walked back to the campground on The Trace. It was a nice walk. The road, a wide swath through mixed forests of new and old growth, was smooth and flat. Songbirds serenaded me, and a wild turkey, startled by some motorcycles whizzing by, flew directly over my head. The bikes, mostly Hondas, were surprisingly quiet. What surprised me more was that the riders were mostly middle-aged couples.
A doe suddenly sprang from the woods and bounded across the road. Unlike many of her fellow denizens littering the route, she made it. With 300 miles of shoreline and 170,000 acres of woods, LBL is filled with wildlife: deer, beaver, bobcats, bison, waterfowl, turkeys and songbirds. So I found it strange that I saw none of them among the roadkill. It was mostly frogs, turtles and lizards. I guess amphibians and reptiles haven't yet mastered their land-legs.
The following day I took the trail. Despite the same horrendous heat and humidity, the leaf-covered dirt path with its gentle inclines and declines was much more enjoyable than the Appalachian Trail. It was narrow and overgrown, however, which made the going slow. After several hours I began to worry that if I stayed the course, I wouldn't make it to Golden Pond before nightfall.
At Sugar Bay, I came across a crew cutting timber. I asked one of them if there was a shortcut back to The Trace, and explained that I wanted to hit Golden Pond before dusk. He told me to follow the gravel road up ahead and keep bearing left. It would take me out just above the Jenny Ridge Picnic Area. "It's not as pretty as the trail," he said, "but it'll cut off a few miles."
Eventually, I made it to the main road. It was a welcome relief. The gravel road had ground my feet to hamburger. My water was almost gone, and what remained was hot enough to make tea.
"Hi!" said a young woman sitting beside a pickup. "Would you like something cold to drink?" "That would be great," I responded. "I could really use one. My water's only fit for bathing." "Cara!" she called. "Get this man a cold drink."
Another young woman, equally pretty, stood up from where she had been crouching over a cooler in the back of the pickup. I had been so taken by the honey-haired beauty before me that I hadn't noticed her.
"Hello." She smiled. "What would you like?" Stifling my initial instinct, I said, "Oh, whatever you have to offer will be fine." She asked, "How about a Dr. Pepper?" It reminded me of an early '40s radio commercial. Hyped as a tonic, Dr. Pepper was to be taken regularly at "10:00, 2:00, and 4:00." A clock with those hours marked was impressed in the bottle. What went into the drink was a hotly debated issue; many people thought the primary ingredient was prune juice, which is pretty much how it tasted. "That sounds good," I lied. It was never among my favorites. Actually, I never liked it at all. But right now anything cold would have served to cool me, and owing to my irregular diet a good dose of prune juice couldn't hurt.
"I'm Tammy," said the woman beside me, "And this is Cara." She pointed to the back of the truck. I told them my name, and threw in my Appalachian Trail name "Jet Plane Bob" just in case it was also customary here at LBL.
"Where are you headed?" Cara asked.
"Right now I'm on my way to Golden Pond," I said. "But my ultimate destination is Los Angeles." They were in awe, especially after I answered their question of where I had started. "How about you? Where are you going?"
"We're on our way to Kenlake, right now," Tammy said. "Tomorrow we're gonna come back here to do some hiking."
"But nothing like what you're doing," Cara broke in. "Although, we are planning to hike the Grand Canyon next year, so this is training, for us." Now it was my turn to be impressed. She asked, "Have you ever hiked the Grand Canyon? Or are you planning to?" Not if I can avoid it, I thought.
I told them that I had seen the Canyon several times but had never hiked it. In fact, I had never done any hiking until now. And my present itinerary took me far south of there. "I hope you've made reservations, though," I added. "From what I've read, it's become so popular that it's almost impossible to get into unless you book far in advance. If you can't, though, you might try the Canyon De Chelly, in the eastern part of Arizona. It's nowhere near as grand, but it's loaded with Anasazi pueblos if you're into early American architecture."
"I've heard of that," Cara said. "We'll keep it in mind in case they won't let us into the Grand Canyon."
"You also might want to read Colin Fletcher's The Man Who Walked Through Time." I said. "You could probably pick up some good pointers."
"What's that?" Tammy asked.
Cara told her. "It's a book by a guy who hiked the whole rim of the Grand canyon." She said to me, "I've read it. It's great."
I told them, "I've also heard that you have to be very careful in the canyon now."
"Why's that?" Tammy asked.
"Well, as if hiking the canyon wasn't already dangerous enough, in the last couple of years there has been an enormous amount of mugging. It seems the bastards have tired of their urban and suburban mischief and have moved into the great outdoors. Though why anyone would want to rob people on the trail, then have to schlep the loot out on their back, is beyond me. I find it hard enough just carrying my own stuff."
"Have you had any trouble like that?" Cara asked.
"Fortunately, no." I said, then paused for a swarm of bikers to roar past. It was a long wait: There were at least fifty. "Other than several stupid teenage drivers and a pair of mouth-breathing cyclists who played "chicken" with me" I gave a jerk of my head toward the jerks up ahead "it's been a very pleasant walk. But at least you won't have to worry about them in the canyon. Wild burros, maybe, but definitely not bikers." The Dr. Pepper being finished, I thanked my caregivers and wished them good luck on their hike. "I'd better be on my way if I want to reach Golden Pond before the office closes."
The soda hadn't quenched my thirst. It had made it worse. Between the calories from all the sugar and the hot muggy air, I was sweating like a rustler at a lynching. When I reached the Jenny Ridge Picnic Area, I was also having difficulty breathing. My mouth and throat were stuck shut from the sticky liquid. I plopped my pack down on a wooden picnic table and parked myself beside it on a bench. The water in my jug was hot enough to unstick almost anything. As disgusting as the thought was, I set about trying to liberate the water bottle from its pocket on the side of my pack. My hands were trembling; the sweat-soaked zipper refused to budge.
At the site next to me, a young man was playing with his children. He saw my struggle and walked over. "Hi!" he said. "You look like you could use something cold to drink. How about a soda?" Inwardly, I recoiled in disgust. Outwardly, I smiled and said, "It's kind of you to offer. But what I'd really like is some ice, if you have any." I had finally succeeded in getting the recalcitrant water bottle out of the pouch and hopefully held it up. "Sure," he said, taking the half-filled polystyrene bottle from me. "I'll be right back."
While I awaited his return, another clutch of cycles cruised past. Several seconds later another bunch blew by. Although there were no bearded bikers among them riding Harleys or dressed in silver-studded black leather or swastika-smeared Nazi helmets and iron crosses, I still had the uncomfortable feeling that I had accidentally stumbled into the filming of The Wild Ones.
" Here you go." The young fellow handed me back my bottle, now filled with ice water and dripping with condensation. My recent pleasant encounter with Tammy and Cara aside, it was the most beautiful sight I'd seen all day. "Thank you," I managed to say, after rinsing out my mouth enough to get it unstuck. "I really needed that." "It's nothin," he said. "Happy to help. My name's Joe Wadkins." I told him mine, and we shook hands.
"You're that fellow that's walkin' across the country, aren't you?" I was mystified. How could he possibly know that? "Saw you on TV last night." He did? George must be doing some publicity I was unaware of. "Yes, I am," I said. "But I didn't know I was on TV." He said, "Well, if you ain't him, you sure look like 'im." You mean there's someone else as loco as me?
I really wasn't surprised, though. After I decided to make this journey I discovered that I wasn't the first, as I had originally thought. While I was preparing myself for the trip I found out that several people had already made it. Peter Jenkins, a man in his early twenties, walked across America in the '70s. Then a young Frenchman trekked from Tierra del Fuego to the North Pole (the longest contiguous land mass in the world). In the '80s a young man from Ohio named Steve Newman walked across five continents including the full length of Australia. Right before I left, a bass-player friend told me that his cousin had walked around the world twice! Once around the Northern Hemisphere, once around the Southern! I consoled myself with the thought, if I'm not the first, I'm probably the oldest.
"Would you like a hamburger or a hot dog?" he asked. "We got plenty." I said, "No, thanks. This water will do me for right now. I'm trying to make it to Golden Pond before the office closes; I want to camp there tonight." "You're almost there," he said. "It's only another mile or so. Sure you won't change your mind?" I declined. "I do appreciate the offer though. You people here in Kentucky have really been kind to me. Are you from around here?"
"Yeah, we're from Hardin, just over on the other side of Kentucky Lake," he said. "We like to come over here to picnic every once in a while. The kids really like it here."
"I can see that. I can see why, too. Its a beautiful place. How is it for ticks, though? I saw a warning about them in the brochure they gave me at the welcome center."
"They're terrible this year," he said in disgust. "I've already picked several off my kids today. The big ones aint too bad. Those are the dog ticks. But those little black bastards the lone star I think they call 'em they're awful! Those are deer ticks, and they can really make you sick." "Do they have a little white dot on their backs?" I asked. "Yeah! They're the ones," he said. "They're so damn small you can hardly see em. Look like a flyspeck till they fill up on your blood, then they look like a freckle." "I guess that's what I've been picking off me all day," I told him. "Fortunately, I could see them against the white of my socks. I picked them off before they got any higher." "Well, you better make sure you got em all," he warned. "Once they dig in, they're a bitch to get out."
I told him that I had sprayed myself with insect repellent, but I was the only thing that it repeled. He laughed and said, "Yeah, that stuff aint no-damned good. Best to drink a lot of beer!" "I would if I could find it." I laughed. "But I haven't seen any for several counties. It seems to keep mosquitos and everything else off, too!" "Yeah, that's right. It sure does." He laughed too. "But you're in the Bible Belt now, an' the direction you're headed you're not likely to see any beer till you leave Kentucky." Unfortunately, he was right.
I asked for his address so I could send him a post card. He wrote it down on my LBL map and said, "Sure you wouldn't like something to eat before you go? We got more than we can eat. It's just sittin over there on the grill." Again I thanked him for his kindness and hospitality, but declined. Then, preparing to leave, I slung on my pack and picked up my cap. In the headband was a tick.
Killing any living creature goes against my better nature, so I took no delight in it, but I did dispatch the little bloodsucker back to tick heaven.
It was late afternoon when I arrived at Golden Pond. Although I had never seen Jane Fonda's film starring her father and Katherine Hepburn, over the years I had heard so much about it and seen so many promos that I felt as if I had. For several weeks I had been looking forward to seeing what, I assumed, was the movie's location.
There was a pond, all right, and, with the late afternoon sun reflecting off the yellow banks onto the surface, it was sort of golden. But my assumption that this was the site of the movie was all wet. It wasn't big enough. Even an unskilled canoeist could paddle across it lengthwise with only a few strokes. Also, it was in a clearing right off the road. Here and there were some trees, but hardly what you would call a forest.
That turned out not to be my only incorrect assumption. I had expected to see some campsites, some cabins, or maybe even a lodge. But after I followed a line of trees up the long concrete driveway, all I found was a large cement building: the visitor center and planetarium. There on the outside wall, like a justifiably modest man caught naked, the clock's big hand hid its little one. It was 6:30. The place had closed at 5:00. To make matters worse, there was no mention of a campground. The ranger at the North Welcome Station had told me it was all right to camp anywhere in LBL, so I suppose I could have pitched my tent on the lawn. But though the drinking fountain outside the building was working, the toilets were inside, behind locked doors. And whether or not Dr. Pepper is made of prune juice, something was surely working.
Hoping that the lack of mention of a lodge or campground was merely an oversight, I scouted around the far side. A sign pointed to a grove of trees. It said Golden Pond. Evidently I had been wrong in my assumption that the pond by the roadside was Golden Pond. The real pond was in that cluster of trees ahead. That's where I would find the cottages and campground! Flushed with expectation, I rushed up the path toward the trees. Visions of people paddling about in canoes amidst gaggles of geese, and clusters of quaint cottages and cabins speckling the shores of a great golden pool fired my imagination. Salvation was at hand.
At my feet, however I quickly discovered when I cleared the brush was a small oil slick surrounded by cattails. It was definitely not golden, and it would take an overly generous imagination to call it a pond. It looked more like a cesspool. Even bogged down with my heavy pack and my anal sphincter tightly clenched (and it was), with a good running start I could easily have jumped across. I couldn't understand why, with all the people I had told about my intention of camping beside Golden Pond, no one had bothered telling me that there was no camping, or, for that matter, no pond?
Left without choice, I hurried back down the path toward Kenlake State Resort Park, almost five miles away. I was in such a rush that I forgot to drop off my card at the guard station. For all I know they're still searching for me.
The sun was just setting as I crossed the bridge over Kentucky Lake. Like the whole walk from Golden Pond, it was a magnificent sight. In the gloaming, shimmering water reflected the orange disc of old gold, which silhouetted fishers on the bank far below.
By the time I reached the campsites night had settled in. After a rush to the facility, I pitched my tent in the dark. I had walked twenty-four miles since sunup, with nothing to eat since breakfast. Now I was too exhausted to cook. I crawled into my sleeping bag hoping that I wouldn't get the shivers, regretting that I hadn't taken Joe Wadkins up on his offer. Whether from lack of food, too much exertion or the combination, my hope came to naught. My muscles twitched until I reached blessed oblivion.
On the way to Aurora early the following morning to do my laundry, I found out what all the motorcycle hullabaloo was all about. This was an annual bike rally. Fourteen hundred bikers showed up. You become hypersensitive to everything around you when you've been walking alone for as long as I had. It may be a survival mechanism, or it might only be due to the blessed scarcity of the cacophony of modern life. But even with the relatively quiet mufflers on the Hondas, there was still more noise than I could bear. I suppose it could've been worse, though. I could take comfort from not having been here the year before. More than three thousand came.
The dryer at the coin laundry was broken, so I brought the soggy mess back to camp and hung it up to dry. I was sitting at the picnic table studying my map when Tammy and Cara drove by. They stopped, got out and walked over.
"Good morning," I greeted them. "Off to do some hiking?"
"Yeah, at least as soon as we get something to eat," Tammy said. She looked a little bleary-eyed, as if she hadn't had her morning coffee yet. Cara seemed about the same. "Sorry to disturb you," Cara said. "I just wanted to give you this. Send it to me when you get to California, OK?" She laid something on the table. Without saying goodbye, they climbed back in the pickup and drove off. I picked up what she'd left. It was a self-addressed stamped post card. I smiled, thinking it would do us all good if we learned what the folks in Kentucky already knew, the simple message borne in her name: Cara Little.
Sunday saw another sort of gathering in LBL, nearThe Homeplace where a herd of buffalo roam. Woodsmen were staging a get-together to fire flintlocks, throw tomahawks and knives and demonstrate the skills necessary for survival in this part of the country a hundred and fifty years ago. I would love to have seen it; maybe John T Markel would have been there. But that jamboree was in Tennessee, just too far south for me. So I went on to Murray.
Murray is a college town, home of Murray State University. At first I was puzzled. No students were around. Later I found out they were already on vacation. That seemed a bit early to me, though come to think of it it was already the middle of May.
I hadn't eaten since breakfast, so spotting a Sonic drive-in across the way, I raced across several lanes of traffic to get a bite. I was really excited. When I was in high school I worked as a busboy at a Clock Drive-in in Bell Gardens (the busiest in Southern California), but I hadn't seen one in many years. I thought they had gone the way of dinosaurs, dodos and drive-in movies.
Some picnic tables lined the median between the two rows of parked cars. Call boxes hung on posts under large menus. Thinking that it would be pleasant to sit outside and be served by a cute carhop, I placed my order on the call box: their special burger, French-fried onion rings and a chocolate shake. A typical meal when I was a teenager.
The call was swiftly answered. I told the carhop that she could just hang the tray on my pack. She laughed. When I told her that the carhops where I worked as a boy wore short skirts and roller skates, she thought it a great idea. "It sure made their tips bigger," I kidded.
The owners of the Murray Plaza Motel were an amiable couple. When they asked where I was headed and I told them, the woman said she had lived in San Diego and Santa Barbara for several years. She had enjoyed both places, but couldn't understand why anybody would want to go to LA. "Don't you know about all the trouble going on out there?"
Her husband was puzzled too. "You're obviously an intelligent man. You're well dressed and have expensive equipment. And you certainly have enough money to stay wherever you damn-well please. Why in the world are you doing this?"
They laughed when I said it was because mama wouldn't let me, etc. But it was a serious question and deserved a more thoughtful answer. "When I was on the road in the 50s with one band or another," I said, "I traveled extensively, from Canada to Mexico, Italy to Hawaii. Mostly it was one-night stands. And it was always by automobile, train, bus or plane. I saw a lot of places and met a lot of people, but it was superficial. There was never enough time to get to know anything or anyone in depth. Being naturally curious, I was left with a lot of questions.
"Now I'm finding that this is the best way to see the country. You get a better feel of the land and of the people, the textures and colors, the aromas, the differences and the similarities. Even riding a bicycle is too fast to see what's truly happening. Pedaling at even ten or fifteen miles an hour, you miss the subtleties. Hell, I'm on a first name basis with every grasshopper between here and Manhattan."
"I'll bet you are," he laughed.
I continued. "If the saying God is in the details is true which, as a creative artist constantly struggling with details, I believe it is! then you might say that I'm getting closer to God."
"Well," he chuckled," "You may be right. And I admire your guts. But I sure as hell wouldn't want to have to do it."
Halfway to Lynn Grove the next day, I passed a couple of young men. They said, "Hey! Ain't you that fellow that's walking around the world? We saw you on the TV news!" I was becoming more puzzled. It was the second time I had heard that. I'd tried to call George from Kenlake to see if he could shed light on the mystery, but again without success. His answering machine must still be on the fritz.
On the other side of Tri City, the same thing happened. A young couple pulled over to the side of the road. "You're that fellow walkin' around the country, aren't you? We figured you must be thirsty, so we brought you this." The man handed me a 2-liter glass bottle of Pepsi. He said that if this wasn't enough to quench my thirst, there was a little store about three miles down the road that had lots more. That's where they got this one. They'd passed me before, then drove all the way back here to give it to me.
Recaling how thirsty the Dr. Pepper had made me, I wanted to refuse. But you can't really refuse kindness from those who care a little, can you? I thanked them for the thought and took a couple of sips. When they drove off (although I felt guilty as hell), I poured the rest out on the gravel shoulder. I did carry the heavy bottle all the way back to the little gas station/store in Lynville, however. I dont hold with littering.
The attendant told me he didn't know of a motel or campground between here and Fulton. "There are some deserted outbuildings several miles ahead, though," he said. "The roofs are mostly gone so they won't give you much shelter, but you could pitch your tent beside 'em."
Getting to Fulton would have been impossible. I had already come sixteen miles and it was still eighteen miles away. Also, it was ninety degrees out, with the humidity almost that high. That kind of climate drains your energy. It was only two in the afternoon, so even though the sky was starting to threaten, not wanting to waste time waiting out the approaching storm here, I decided to take a chance. Maybe I could reach those outbuildings before the rain came. If nothing else, with Lady Luck's help I could always camp by the Obion. It was only three miles ahead.
I had almost reached the Obion when Lady Luck took a powder. The sky was now completely obscured by ugly black clouds. Even in Puerto Rico I had never seen anything quite as bad. It looked like it was going to be worse than the mistral Cynthia and I had driven through in the south of France, the one in the autumn of 1987 that washed away most of the vineyards in the north of Spain.
Lightning flashed off to my left. Trying to determine the distance and how fast the storm was moving, I counted the seconds until I heard the thunder. One, one thousand, Two, one thousand, Three, one thou it was impossible to tell. Thunder now came from every direction. I was completely surrounded by lightening. A bolt struck the tree just a few feet in front of me and split a large branch. Smoldering, it fell to the ground. The hairs at the back of my neck raised like a dog's hackles.
I immediately threw down my staff and slung off my pack. This was no time to try and remember the principles of electricity, and I wasn't about to chance whether they would act as a lightning rod I'm not as brave as Benny Franklin was. Quickly I unzipped the top pouch to get out my rain gear. The proper thing was to immediately prostrate myself in the lowest ditch I could find. But whether I was struck by lightning or was drowned in a flash flood, I at least wanted my corpse to be dry.
Fortunate for me, I was spared both possibilities. A big old pink Cadillac pulled up beside me. "You better get in! Quick!" The driver shouted. I barely heard him over the rumbling thunder. Taking time to stow it in the back, I shoved my pack in the front seat and rapidly followed. No sooner had I closed the door than he put the pedal to the metal. The sky opened up, heavier than any tropical downpour I had ever seen.
"Woo-o-o-o-wie! Looks like I came along just in time!" The driver's eyes were almost squinted shut, trying vainly to see through the windshield. With the wipers flashing at top speed and the defroster blowing full blast, it still was impossible to see past the hood ornament.
"I'll say it was! Normally I don't accept rides, but this time I'm glad I made an exception." I gave a nervous laugh. It was only partially due to my narrow escape. Mostly, it was because he was doing fifty miles an hour.
"Name's Allan," he said. "What's yours?"
After I told him and we got the usual questions out of the way, he said that he had spent some time in California. "I was in the navy there," he said. "Did three years in San Diego and three in San Francisco." I told him I knew about the base in San Diego. That that's where some of my more adventurous high school buddies used to stop for 'pro kits' on their way back from the Tiajuana whorehouses. "Yeah," he laughed. "Some guys still do."
Curious about all the unplowed land and the mobile homes I'd seen in western Kentucky instead of farmhouses, I asked him. He confirmed my suspicion that most of the farmers were with the program. "Goddam government gets into everything," he said. "And the people are too stupid or too lazy so they go along. And the reason they don't have houses isnt by choice: They cant afford them! The fuckin government doesnt pay em enough for not growin to buy anything better. Shit! And they think theyve got a good deal." He finished, clearly disgusted with the whole lot.
When we arrived at the gas station in Pilot Oak, the rain suddenly stopped. The sun beamed down. If it weren't for the wet pavement you'd have never known there had been a storm. I removed my gear and thanked Allan for the lift. Since it was now only four o'clock and there was no place in Pilot Oak to stay, with Fulton now just nine miles away, I decided to continue.
Two miles down the road, I saw a young couple headed my way. We stopped to chat. When I told them I was headed for Southern California, they said that's where they were from. Lately it seemed hard to find anyone who wasn't. They said they were just visiting relatives here. "You know of course that it's been burned to the ground, don't you?" asked the woman. I said yes, I was aware of that. "Well, it probably needed it," the young man said. I told them that he might be right. It was my old neighborhood, and it was already pretty seedy when I left there in the early fifties.
A few more miles passed. A bluebird lay in the road ahead. My lyricist Jim Butler came to mind. One of his most prized recordings was Jan Peerce's rendition of Bluebird of Happiness. It wasn't the singing that Jim treasured; it was Peerce's corny, over-articulated recitative between choruses that broke him up: "For evry bit of sun-shine, there's a lit-tle bit of rain." This bluebird was shining in the sunlight, all right, but it wasn't singing, and there was no happiness. Like Jim, it too was "broke up."
I stooped to scoop it from the pavement. It was still alive. There was no blood on its beak or radiant blue feathers, so, hoping it was merely dazed or in shock, I clutched it to my bosom to keep it warm. I walked on, chanting my healing-mantra and praying that it would work as well for the bird as it always has for me.
Feeling no stirring, after a mile I stopped. The birds eyes were closed; it looked at peace. Not sure whether my mantra had worked and it was still alive, not knowing if this would be a temporary or a permanent resting-place, I gathered some straw. In the tall grass, several feet from the road, I built a nest. Then I gently placed the tiny, shiny creature in it, said a brief prayer, and admonished it that in its next life it shouldn't come back as a shuttlecock.
At dusk, about a mile from Fulton, a black sedan slowly pulled into a driveway several yards ahead. It blocked my way. I could see a couple of shadowy figures inside. It was apparent that they were waiting for me. What now? I wondered, squeezing my staff more tightly. When I reached them, I saw that it was only a middle-aged couple. The man wore a dark suit and tie; the woman seated beside him was sedately attired. I relaxed. They hardly looked like Bonnie and Clyde. The man, solemn as a judge, asked where I was going.
"Fulton," I replied.
He said, "Get in. We'll drive you there."
I politely declined. I explained that, as a rule, I didn't accept rides.
"Hell, we're not going to hurt you! I'd like to talk to you. Get in!" He spoke with the voice of authority of someone accustomed to having his orders obeyed.
Since it was only a mile into Fulton I didn't think the purist police would object too strenuously even if I had already accepted one ride today. So, although my natural inclination is to defy those who believe they have power over me, I meekly did as he bade and got in.
"You must be the man we saw on TV," he said as he slowly backed out onto the road. "The one who was thrown off a bridge in North Carolina?" Thrown off a bridge? Damn! Now I was sure that it was somebody else on the news, and extremely grateful that it wasn't me. I told him, no, I had come from New York. "You mean there are two of you crazy people walking across the country?" It was difficult to tell if he was joking. Though in the rear-view mirror I thought I did see a devilish glint in his eyes.
"I'm Fred Homra," he said. "And this is my wife." He asked me about myself: my name; education; profession; marital status; why I, a seemingly intelligent, apparently well-educated man, was doing such a stupid thing as walking around the country with a pack on my back? I tried the "mama wouldnt let me" line. He didn't laugh; he didn't react in any way yet I did detect a minute upward curling at the corners of his wife's lips.
"So where do you go from here?" he asked. I told him that I was going over to Hickman to take the ferry across the Mississippi to New Madrid. I knew that in Kentucky Ma-DRID is pronounced MAD-rid, so when in Rome . . . Then Im heading on down to Jonesboro to see my father.
"There isn't a ferry at Hickman, anymore!" he exclaimed. That was a shock. I was hoping to walk along the New Madrid fault. I hadn't been in a good earthquake since the big one that leveled Tehachapi Prison in 53. And the gloom-and-doom-sayers all said the Mississippi Valley was well overdue.
"How about at Heloise?" I chanced the pronunciation HEL-oise just in case the perversity went all the way. "There aren't any ferries at Hickman, Hel-o-ISE!" he corrected me, "or anywhere else on the Mississippi." He spit it out as if the words were distasteful. "Haven't been since they put those damned Interstates through. The only way that you can get where you need to go is to go down to Dyersburg and cross over to Caruthersville. That, or on down to Memphis."
What a drag. Either way meant having to go south, then north again. It also meant walking through Tennessee. I really wasn't seriously concerned that the drivers might run me down just for sport, but I didn't want to go anywhere near Graceland. After all, Elvis was almost single-handedly responsible for replacing jazz with rock and roll as the popular music in America. Though, in fairness, the jazzers may have also played a part. By the mid-fifties jazz had become so complex, sophisticated and intellectualized that you needed a college degree to understand it. Too, it pretty much stopped swinging, so the masses couldn't dance, snap their fingers or tap their toes to it anymore even on the downbeats. Hell, it was difficult to know where the downbeat was!
I looked at my map. "Oh, I see. From Caruthersville I have to go up to" I knew that in these parts Bogotá was pronounced ba-GO-ta, and Obion, o-BI-un; so hoping that the founding fathers had only spelled Haiti strangely so that everyone would say it properly, I took a chance "Hayti."
"Haiti?" For a moment he was puzzled. "Oh! You mean HAY-tie!" I just couldn't win. "Yes," he said, chuckling at my ignorance. "That's the place." The corners of his wife's mouth curled even more.
As we passed over a creek on the edge of town, I asked him about a place to stay.
He told me there was a motel run by Indians just up ahead. "They dont get many guests. Theyll be so happy to have any business, at all, that you can probably get a room for fifteen or twenty dollars. But I own this land over here," he nodded his head to the right. "You can pitch your tent there if you like."
Seeing how soggy the lowland next to the creek was and remembering how cold it got next to bodies of water, I told him that the motel was all right with me. He pulled up in front of the StarDust motel and stopped.
"Well, if you don't like the room or you change your mind," he said, "My land is right next door."
When I had removed my pack from the back and thanked him for the lift and his offer, he said, "Listen, how would you like an interview with the local newspaper? I've got some friends there, and we can always use some news about interesting people. We don't get many celebrities around here."
I told him I'd have to think about it. My ambivalence was due to several things. Walking is hard enough without being bothered by celebrity seekers. Too, there are a lot of nuts around who might go out of their way just to hassle you. And I remembered reading that Bill Irwin, the blind man who hiked the Appalachian Trail, finally stopped giving interviews because the press took up too much of his time. Still, now I was writing a book, so any publicity might help.
"Well," he said. "If you decide to, give me a call." He handed me his business card. "It'll only take a few minutes to set it up."
As Mr. Homra had said, the Indian owners of the motel were delighted to see me. And I was the only guest. They weren't delighted enough to give me the big discount he had predicted, though. Aware that I wasn't about to go looking for another motel at this time of night, even after a lot of haggling they charged me more than double.
Once in the room a shabby, dirty cubicle with a threadbare chair and a badly sprung bed I tried to call George Hoover again. This time he was home.
"Bobby! How ya doin', Pal?"
I told him about all the people I had met who said they'd seen me on TV. And how at first I thought that maybe he had been doing some publicity for me until one of them asked me about being thrown off a bridge.
"No, Bobby. That was some other guy. He got beaten and robbed in North Carolina. They thought he was dead. The bastards just threw him off a bridge and left him. He's OK now, though. How about you? Nothing like that's happened to you?"
I told him, no. I was just curious if he had gotten anything in the news about me.
"Bobby. You said you didn't want me to, Pal." Then when I told him about the offer for an interview with the paper here in Fulton, he said, "Bobby, do it! I really don't know how much I can do for you. Maybe a mention once in a while in USA Today, but that's about it. Geez, Pal, I don't think UPI would be interested, and any publicity you can get would help you. People would be a lot more friendly and helpful if they thought youre a celebrity." Just in case I ever needed anything or ran into trouble, he gave me Marion's 800 number at ABC.
Despite my ambivalence before, he'd helped me decide. I'd call Fred Homra to set up the interview after I had something to eat. Just before we crossed the bridge, I noticed a small cafe. So I walked back over the creek to see what they had to offer. It sat next to something I hadn't seen since I left Elizabethtown almost three weeks ago: a liquor store. Delighted at the prospect of having a beer after so long a time, thinking that I'd pick up some takeout next door and have it with my beer while I called Mr. Homra, I went in.
The beer cooler was heavily stocked with American major-corp. brews. As I scanned the shelves for the least offensive, stuck among them, almost hidden from view was a single row of Grolsch roll-tops. Delighted, I grabbed one up and went to the counter.
"We caint sell just the one of them," the cashier said. I asked her why not? She told me, "They come in a two-pack, so you have to buy the two." I told her that they are sitting singly on the shelf, and all I want is one. "Well, they were in a two-pack, but they didn't fit in the case that way so I had to take them out of it." I asked her if that were some kind of law? "No," she said, "That's just the only way the owner will let me sell them."
It came as no surprise. Ever since some greed-head came up with the idea of the six-pack, and other greedy-guts glommed onto the idea, corporate America has dictated how much we have to buy, whether it's beer, eggs, soap or toilet tissue. It's not difficult to see why we're running out of places to stow all the trash.
Tired of the hassle, hungry, weary and wanting to get back to the motel to make my call and get to sleep, I said, "It's no wonder we have so many alcoholics. Of course, I suppose I can always use the other one for hair rinse."
On the way back to the StarDust, I saw a sign posted on Mr. Homras land, one I hadn't noticed before. Re-elect Fred Homra. Funny, I hadn't pegged him as a politician. When I called him from the motel, he wasn't in. His wife, a charming, gracious woman, said that he'd be back soon. She told me how much they'd enjoyed talking with me, and how excited he'd be to learn that I'd consented to the interview. It would only take about twenty minutes to set it up, and she'd have him call and arrange it the moment he returned.
I finished my food and a beer. No call. I finished the second beer. Still no call. Hump! Politician's promises.
Well, sleep was more important to me than any interview. I wasn't going to stay up all night awaiting his call, and I damn sure wasn't going to stick around the next morning, either. Now that I had to change my route, I had too far to travel. So I decided to go to bed. Before I doused the lights, I looked at his card again. Even if my power of observation was faulty from fatigue, it hadn't impaired my judgment. I saw something that confirmed what I had first thought. He wasn't just a politician. At the bottom of the business card was his title: County Executive Judge.
© copyright 2001 Robert Bowers
This page was last modified April12, 2002