Blog 2: The Eclectic South

One week and 1,500 miles later we are meandering through the eclectic south. The ferry from Cape May to Lewes [pronounced Louis] in Delaware carries 90% geriatric snowbirds, some in trucks towing pop-up campers,

some in vintage land yachts with antique plates, a few Harley-beards, tattooed and helmeted, and another few, slim and spandexed, whose bicycles are draped with bulging panniers. At the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula we take the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel to Virginia, stopping to stretch our legs at the half way fishing pier. I walk out to visit with

a row of hopefuls dangling their lines down through twenty feet of air into the churning water. Behind each one is a small bait bucket —live crabs and dead squid seem to be the favorite incentives— and a pail to hold the catch: all the pails empty. The fifty or so fishermen, and two woman, array themselves by ethnicity: closest to the jetty, Vietnamese; next along the north side what looked and sounded like Philippinos speaking Tagalog; then a mixed medley of English speakers, whites and blacks. I ask one black fellow who is rebaiting his hooks— four to a line— with chunks of squid if anyone was having luck.

            “Nah. We’s just fishin, we ain’t catchin.” 

            Next to him a white guy just as slim as the first guy is fat, who I assume was his buddy since they are drawing bait from the same bucket, adds: “Guy at the end of the pier caught a sheepshead about an hour ago. Fat one, maybe five six pounds. He’s the only one caught anything. Then he left.”

            I had left my camera in the car, but the dozen or so Buddhist monks —Nepalese? Tibetan? — who had piled out the van parked next to us all have their I-phones and tablets in hand and are snapping pictures as fast as they can point. The fishermen pay no heed. Probably used to the tourists. 

            Southwest to Asheville, in the Smokies, Friday night and fall color at its peak. Motel rooms that with the coupon went for $49 on Thursday are selling at $185, and many hotels are full up. Leaf peepers everywhere. Again, mostly our age. We see a ribs joint named Ralph’s across the highway, and we think, well, what with Linda’s dad being named Ralph ... But the hotel desk clerk says he wouldn’t eat there on a bet. It has recently changed owners, and the new folks just don’t have it. He recommends a ribs buffet place a mile up the road and it is superb. Ribs, brisket, pulled pork, beans pinto and green, chicken and fish fried crisp and hot, pups (that’s hush puppies, for you Yankees), and pans of peach and apple cobbler. The sort of clientele you see at the Chinese buffets up north: families with bulging guts and squalling kids, folks our age carrying mounded plates back to their parents who are sitting with their walker frames and tall plastic glasses of sweetened tea at the formica tables.

            Saturday starts gray with drizzle. We spend an early hour at the Appalachian Folk Arts Museum out on the Parkway. Wow. The best of the best local crafts in wood, wool, and wicker, glass, and ceramics: jewelry and furniture, shawls and quilts, toys and paintings, canes and marquetry boxes. The cases in the downstairs gift shop hold artifacts nearly as good and in some cases better. It is a good thing Linda and I are on the way TO Mexico rather than on the way home, because we would have jettisoned all our clothing to make room in the car for the turned burl bowls, landscaped quilts, and birds-eye maple sideboards and rocking chairs.

   

         Outside the museum the morning mist is rising and the sky is brightening to blue, so we join the parade of peepers on the Blue Ridge Parkway, winding through mountain laurel, rhododendron, and mixed hardwoods, climbing at 30 mph up to the thin pine-covered summit of 6,300 foot Mount Pisgah. We stop every mile or so to pull off at an overlook. In the crisp air sumac on the roadsides glistens a bright crimson; hickory and beach shout yellow. We see patches of flame red maple, oak darkening to russet, stands of hemlock thick velvet green anchoring the patchwork of color on the hills that recede below us into distant valleys. Last time we’d been over this road, two, maybe two and a half decades ago, it was in December, and we were fighting sleet on the lower portions and snow squalls on the high bits. Swore we’d never do that again. But in mid October .... It is easy to believe why—as the sign says—the Parkway is the United States’ most visited National Park.



After two hours we exit the two-lane Parkway into the Ocoee River gorge, twenty miles of churning torrent that once hosted the whitewater kayaking event of the Summer Olympics. Now it is October and it hasn’t rained in a while, so the river is merely savage and not demonic. Kayakers paddle by, sheathed in life preservers (kevlar?), helmeted, teeth clenched and knuckles white on their paddles. Two-, four-, and and eight-men (and women) rafts, bucked over the rocks and fought to keep from spinning like tops when they are caught up by the eddies. If the paddlers know what they are doing, the oars dipping in unison make the rafts look like water striders; if they don’t, they are flailing bobbins of chaos. Hard to imagine what the river was must be like in late spring at the peak of the winter melt. We find a picnic table on a relatively tranquil stretch, and nibble our carrots and sandwiches as the momentarily relaxed paddlers drifted past. A couple of monarchs float by, following the Ocoee on its foamy route toward the south.

            Just before Chatanooga, worn out by the exertions of the kayakers and rafters, Linda and I stop at a Micky-D’s for a mocha frappé. Linda waits outside, straightening the tangle on the back seat of the car. Inside, the server looks like she is eighty trying to pass as forty-five. Her face, lined as deep as the Ocoee Gorge, suggests that she buys her eyeliner and rouge by the pound. Her bleached blonde bouffant swirls at least eight inches above her head. She greets me pleasantly enough, though in the plural:

            “Gorgeous weather now isn’t it. What can I get for y’all today?”

            In toto, almost a caricature of a stereotype. The only part that doesn’t fit are the nine metal studs protruding through the rim of her left ear.

            An hour later our CRV climbs up to the Cumberland Plateau, where a thin side road takes us into the Domain of Sewanee, the University of the South, and the home in the woods of our good friends Steve and Jenny, fellow Santiago pilgrims, good cooks, and all around beautiful people. For the next 36 hours we

schmooze; Steve and I hike, Linda and Jenny raid the local textile crafts outlet. We catch glimpses of the pileated woodpecker that sometimes pocks the side of their house looking for insects.

            We drive route 64 west toward Memphis. Historical markers tell us we are following the Trail of Tears, where in the 1830s the US Cavalry drove the Cherokee, Chicasaw and Choctaw tribes out of the south to resettlement in Oklahoma. The road goes through more farmland than forest: mostly soybeans, corn, cotton, and a few pastures of black beef cattle.

New houses, double-wides and red-brick ranches alternate with abandoned cabins and hundred-year-old two story farmhouses covered in green mats of kudzu and yellow bittersweet. The road, too, alternates then and now: stretches of two lane that hug the topography, winding down to the creeks and around the knolls, and stretches of four lane, posted 70 mph, that bridge the hollows and slice through the hills. The towns, those that aren’t bypassed by loop roads, are mostly crumbling, the one or two formerly-commercial blocks boarded up, the “For Rent” signs tattered and fading. At best a gas station or two, a Piggly Wiggly for groceries, a Family Dollar for necessaries, sometimes a cafe

            We stop at one for lunch in a town that is a county seat. It is on the central square across from the court house, between an antique store and a shop that does nails and hair. Not much on the outside, but inside it is packed, mostly with folks our age, as usual. Farmers in bib overalls; groups of white-haired women. There’s a lunch buffet—fried stuff and steam table veggies, quick, plentiful, and cheap—that has made this place the county social center. We decide to order off the menu. Everyone in the cafe is white except the woman who comes to take our order. She apologizes for the delay:

            “We’re short-handed today, two waitresses called in sick.”

            “That’s all right, we’re in no great hurry.”

            “I don’t usually do this—I’m the manager—, but what can you do? Folks is hungry.”

            An Amish couple come in, he with a long beard and black hat, she all in black—shoes, full skirt, blouse and close-fitted cap that is encased in a stiff cowl that cuts off all peripheral vision: this women is committed (or has been committed) to look only straight ahead. They fill their plates at the buffet, and have eaten and gone by the time our club sandwich and burger arrive. The lunch crowd thins as we finish our meal. Then, as Willie N says, it’s "back on the road again".

 

            David & Linda

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