This is hardly the first time I’ve set out across the country in a fit of wanderlust, searching in vain for whatever it is I’m still after on the road to nowhere in particular.
The rambling narrative below takes place in the spring of 2007, when Max was kicking up a fuss in Becky’s belly.
Our beloved friend Lauri Lebo had just completed the first draft of her wonderful book “The Devil in Dover.” Me? I had impregnated my wife at the advanced age of 43. We both figured we were in line for a celebratory road trip.
I flew to Raleigh, N.C., where she picked me up in her old, reliable VW Jetta. This little arrangement caused more than one skeptic, one of them Lauri’s oldest son Alex, to wonder just what the hell she thinking leaving her husband at home to go gallivanting about the country with a questionable fellow who’d left his pregnant wife in Washington.
All this came back to me the day after we said goodbye to Arnold Via at the veterans hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va. We were wandering without purpose, heading south on Interstate 81, wondering how long it might take us to reach Dallas.
I recalled the strange and wonderful visit we had with a country boy who went by the name of Me-do in Cosby, Tenn., the onetime moonshine capital of America. Lauri and I had stumbled upon Me-do at his spectacularly stocked junk shop on the road fronting Cosby Creek. Before the day was over, we’d bought a quart of moonshine from Me-do and supped with him and his wife Carolyn, who served up a downhome repast of soup beans and cornbread.
I thought it’d be cool to look up Me-do again. Only I couldn’t remember his real name, and even Google was powerless to turn “Me-do” and “Cosby” into a verifiable phone number and address.
I did a search of my email, which surprisingly unearthed the following bit of doggerel from five years ago:
Perusing the Roadside America Web site the prior evening in search of a suitably oddball haunt that might jump-start the journey, we came across Moonshine Junction, a mountain
curiosity in a place called Bat Cave. There was even something about an authentic Appalachian hillbilly named Cletus, though the name seemed to telegraph a clever New Age marketing plan gone awry.
We found Moonshine Junction with little trouble but were disappointed to discover a little tourist haven on the hill. Crawling with tourist kitsch, including hillbilly joke books, and jams, syrups and barbecue sauces, Moonshine Junction left much to be desired, at least in respect to whatever sort of vaguely defined authenticity we were seeking. Boy, that’s a mouthful of a sentence that says nothing.
A hallway in the back was done up to resemble a homespun museum. There were old-timey ringer washing machines. There was a goofy bird cage cloaked by a red cloth promising “two rare white bats” inside. Brace yourself: for a corn-pone joke with a Louisville Slugger punch line (two white bats, ha ha!).
The most intriguing paraphernalia was a two-stop tour of the white lightning trade, including a weathered old still and a paper listing the various names moonshiners and their consumers used to describe the illicit booze.
Perhaps it was just the curious colorfulness, the archaic randomness of the names that kind of pushed me past the point of extreme indolence and into the realm of give a shit. Some of the best: Skull Cracker, Popskull, Stumphole, ‘Splo, Ruckus Juice, Catdaddy, Mule Kick, Panther’s Breath, Tiger’s Sweat, Sweet Spirits of Cats A-Fighting, Happy Sally, Blue John, See Seven Stars, Block and Tackle and Wild Cat.
We slipped out without asking after Cletus and headed up the mountain. We hadn’t been going long when we pulled off the Asheville-bound road and stopped at Nita’s Grocery in the hamlet of Gerton.
Nita wasn’t around but her mama, Marjorie, was working the counter. Sweet and petite, Marjorie Owenby asked if she might help us. We agreed without discussion that, yes, she might.
She cast a spell on us just by opening her mouth and letting that mountain syrup ooze out in all its backwoods splendor. We said we might like some cheese. She retrieved a football-sized chunk of cheddar wrapped in plastic.
While the last thing we had hoped to procure was five pounds of cheese for a 10-day trip that would take us through southwestern Louisiana and through the heart of Texas, we did not want to disappoint Marjorie Owenby. She allowed me to shave the desired quantity from the main block.
We picked up a Vidalia onion, a tomato, and then I remembered that box of good, old cosmopolitan Ritz crackers I’d passed on the shelf.
The box came in at $3.79, and only for Marjorie would I pay this usurious mountain surcharge.
She rang up our meager haul and said, “Now let me hunt you a bag, sweetheart.”
At that point I’d wished we’d agreed to buy the small mountain of cheddar.
We left, pleased with ourselves. We drove without much sentient thought back and forth along the hill-strewn highway between Lake Lure, eventually rewarding
ourselves with a dip in the French Broad River. The Cherokee called this beautiful, serpentine waterway the Agiqua.
It was Memorial Day (I’d forgotten), which must have been more or less opening day on this section of the French Broad.
Recreation seekers parked their cars all along the river’s winding path. Some gingerly found their way to the bank and plopped down in the direct line of the sun. Others, younger and lithesome, bounded without worry and raced each other into the water’s soothing cool. A Latino family set up a grill and embarked on a holiday cookout.
Lauri fearlessly wandered upstream, navigating from one rock port to the next, while I tried to look young and insouciant on the large rock we’d call home for the next hour, toting the cheese and crackers we got from Nita’s.
Then, predictably enough, it happened. Directly in view of two sun-seekers, I lost my footing on a slippery river rock and fell on my ass. Physical pain was present, but at the moment I suffered most acutely from damaged pride.
Geezer falls on arse.
Someone must’ve got a good laugh, but I didn’t catch them.
Lauri eventually found her way back to our home rock, where once again I sat looking for all the world as if nothing could or had caused me injury.
We decided to pack up and move on up the road toward Asheville.
The road eventually broke into four-lane highway, and we decided to bypass Thomas Wolfe and his ilk and follow Ernie Pyle west into the Tennesee Smokies in search of moonshine.
First we stopped off at the West Asheville farmers market, a sprawling, two-barn enclosure. Lauri’s affection fell upon a basket of ripe strawberries, while I changed out
of my French Broad shorts and into something a little drier.
We stopped to ogle some tomatoes. And me, always making the wrong move if it is available to me, asked the proprietor how one assessed the ripeness and readiness to eat of your garden-variety tomato.
He had been studying me for a minute or two.
“Well, you don’t squeeze it,” he said with dismay. “That’ll ruin it.”
I was curtly informed that one doesn’t perform the Charmin test to ascertain if a tomato is primed for eating. No. Sight and smell, that’s what it takes.
And I ask, you can smell if a fucking tomato is ripe?
Yeah, the farmer from Leicester, N.C., averred, you just hold a tomato in the palm of your hand, lift it to your nose and let your olfactory skills do the rest.
Pants dry and suitably shamed, we piled back into the Jetta and headed across U.S. 74 into Tennessee.
The singular Pyle had preceded us into Cocke County by more than 66 years, years before he would consecrate his legend writing about the travails of the average soldier during World War II.
He first reported from Newport, the seat of a county that sits in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, where the national park had been foisted upon the local populace only six years prior to Pyle’s arrival.
He had called Cocke the “moonshiningest county in America.”
Soon we were in Cosby, with moonshine on our minds.
The visitors center, which apparently housed a vintage still inside its often-closed doors, was closed. We drove up a side road and found an appealing little bookstore called “Our Place,” run by a pair of teetotalling, semi-friendly escapees from Chicago.
They had vacationed hereabouts for 15 years before deciding to chuck it all and relocate into the handsome bosom of these mountains.
Now they looked askance upon others who did the same, wealthy folks from Florida and elsewhere who were gobbling up the landscape and turning a tidy profit.
Dianne unearthed a book on moonshine as an answer to my question about same. It was $18, out of print, and she assured me it would increase in value and that someday I might sell it for a profit. I hadn’t come here to invest in book futures, but I felt there was little choice. We got some coffee, me with the requisite chocolate and steamed milk to make it amenable to my pussy-boy palate.
I asked if she knew of any oldtimers in the area who might provide insight for a couple of out-of-town greenhorns looking for local color. Oh, she did. But she didn’t really want to inflict us upon them.
About moonshine, she said it’s still around.
“People came in here all the time trying to sell it to us.”
There was a women who made quilts and a man who sold knives, but we’d seen these folks on the way in.
No, she really couldn’t help us, but she did appreciate the purchase.
We drove back down the hill to the main Cosby road. We might’ve plowed straight into the Cosby Creek if it hadn’t been for the arresting sight of what appeared to be an out-of-time Civil War veteran standing guard outside an armory filled with junk.
I was a little queasy, as I always am in strange lands. I want to know all the secrets, but I usually lack the courage to approach natives with even the simplest inquiries.
And I wondered about that baleful couplet from the hillbilly anthem “Rocky Top.”
“Once two strangers climbed ol’ Rocky Top lookin’ for a moonshine still/
Strangers ain’t come down from Rocky Top, reckon they never will.”
Much as I hated my workaday life and wished to magically transform myself into an intrepid wanderer who unearthed compelling regional tales of general interest and unavoidable humor, I hated even more the idea of turning into the kind of guy who asked impertinent questions of the wrong guy, only to be discovered two days later floating face-down in Cosby Creek.
I parked in front of a collection of walking canes and wrenches. We went in and said hi to Edgar Parks, or as he likes to call himself, “Me-do.”
As, he said, “Me do this, Me do that.”
But before he introduced us to his country-boy sobriquet, he caught me off-guard by asking if we’d like to hear tales of his days running moonshine.
Not knowing how to react to this manna-from-heaven intro, flabbergasted at the odds that were just defied and the chasm just crossed.
Here I was, fumbling around in my head trying to work out the calculus about how long you had to meander through the small talk before you could bring up the “m” question, and he interrupts my mental shilly-shallying and brings us right to the point.
Of course, even with that lucky break, I must try to fuck up and set the whole situation back to a place commensurate with my original state of mind.
I put up my index finger, excused myself and run to the car for the $18 moonshine investment I’d made only minutes ago.
When I came back and showed it to him like a good dog or a proud boy, he became suspicious.
“You a law-dog,” he asked?