Five years later, I’m back on the road to Cosby.
This time Becky, Max and Lester are along for the ride.
We branch off Interstate 81 onto I-40 East. We exit the freeway at Newport, then follow Tennessee 32/U.S. 321 south toward Cosby.
Back in 2007, it was Ernie Pyle’s deceptively simple, evocative writing that put us on the road to Cosby. Before he cemented his legend as the singular storyteller for World War II GI’s, he roamed the country as Scripps-Howard’s roving reporter.
And he found this place kind of intriguing.
“Newport, the county seat of Cocke County, is a modern little city much like any other modern little city in America,” he wrote in the fall of 1940. “But some 15 miles away, in the foothills of the Great Smokies, lies what they call the Cosby Section. Cosby is on the map, but you could hardly call it a town. It’s just a few houses strung along several miles of road, with a country store or two, and a post office in an old one-room shack. But the Cosby Section bears the honor of being the moonshine capital of America.”
And so we went. And Cosby remains as meandering, rural and undeveloped as it was in 1940.
We came, we met Me-do, we bought moonshine. And we ate country, in the little kitchen at the back of the junk shop, where Carolyn served her Yankee interlopers generous portions of soup beans and cornbread.
Before that we had wandered the store in abject wonder. I can’t remember what he had in there, but it was a lot more than nothing and just shy of everything. There were yokes for oxen and wagons for kids. Tools of all manner and trinkets of every kind.
Later he took us into a back room, lifted a blanket and unveiled rows of mason jars filled with clear, skull-popping mountain liquor. We bought a quart, maybe for $20, I can’t recall.
I borrowed one of those little reporter’s notebooks from Lauri, and ran around giddy as a spoiled kid on Christmas morning, trying to catalogue the whole menagerie. Later when she dropped me at the Phoenix airport, I had to rip those pages from her notebook. Somewhere in the rat’s nest that is our foreclosure-bound home in Washington, those notes survive.
We purchased other sundries. I bought an oversized pair of pants, britches that used to belong to Me-do and Carolyn’s son, who’s now a mortician. They cost me $2. I still use them for weedwhacking and the rare painting misadventure. Now they’re streaked with a lovely shade of brown the folks at Costco call sweet molasses.
And I bought an Ernie Pyle scrapbook, for the ridiculous price of $20, and only because Lauri and I were flush in the conception stage of an ambitious writing project based on Pyle’s American chronicles. Then we went camping, with firewood purchased from Me-do. He even schooled us on the essential “back log,” a hefty hunk of wood to use as a backdrop for your fire.
We built the fire, then we had a nip of the old Skull Cracker. And then we had no more.
Lauri freaked. She’d read too many horror stories about white lightning filtered through rusted radiators and natives going blind, dead and, finally, insane. Not knowing the provenance of Me-do’s moonshine, she wanted no more. Her panic was so intense it infected me. She recently informed me our batch of Popskull still rests in her home in central Pennsylvania, though she suspects someone has been nipping from it in the intervening years.
That about brings us to the present, with the exception of a few salient, predictable and mostly depressing details.
Added together, they do little more than enhance the sorry arc of my adult years, an unwritten memoir that might be titled “An Unfinished Life.”
A not-so-brief update on how I squandered the past five years:
- First off, I never read that moonshine book I bought for $18 just before running into Me-do. And I never got very far on my portion of the book Lauri and I were going to write, the one where we traversed America in the early 21st century, following in Pyle’s tire tracks and updating his stories for the post-9/11 age. (She has about finished the project on her own, I hear.) I never even wrote the sample piece on Me-do and Cosby I once promised Lauri.
- Oh, but I dragged Max and Becky to a lot of places and told lots of people about our Ernie Pyle project. In the autumn of 2009, when Max was barely 2, we drove all night to the southern Oregon coast and tried in vain to go to sleep at 4 a.m. in the car. We got up early the next morning to take a U.S. mail boat 32 miles up Oregon’s Rogue River from Gold Beach to Agness, as Pyle had done more than 70 years before.
- We went to Carmel, Calif., where a city attorney named Don Freeman told me he had a collection of Ernie Pyle photographs at home. He didn’t much like it when I informed that Pyle dismissed Carmel as a “city ruined by dilettantes.” He pointed out that most of the homes in town still didn’t have street addresses, and that Carmel remained parking-meter free. We even bought Becky a permit to wear heels downtown, to comply with a law that remains on the book as a vestige of Carmel’s eccentric past.
- We plunged into Death Valley, in search of the one-of-a-kind home a forgotten man named Adrian Egbert blasted out of the desert rock at Cave Springs, only to discover it had been swallowed up by the ever-expanding American military colossus.
- We stopped in Oklahoma City, where Pyle was thrilled by the night-time sight of a city aflame with illuminated derricks, deep in the midst of the oil boom when the roving reporter drove into town in 1936.
- We stopped at the Four Corners, the geographical oddity where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet. And we dropped in at Teec Nos Pas a trading post in Arizona not far from the Four Corners, where Pyle was greeted by the sinister stare of Navajos on the front porch and hostility from the white merchant inside. All I remember is a bunch of gee-gaws, a room with expensive Navajo rugs and a mildly annoying song on the boom box on top shelf that the digital readout informed me was Colbie Caillat.
- We hiked up Sierra del Cristo Rey, in New Mexico, just across the border from Mexico and El Paso, Texas. Pyle had walked there with Urbici Soler, who sculpted the 29-foot limestone Jesus that rises from the 4,675-foot summit. Christ of the Rockies, they call him. The mountain used to have a better name, Mule Drivers’ Peak. Now the little, stubbly mountain is Christ the King, and it is crawling with border cops, as it has become a favorite pathway for illicit traffickers and bandits of all persuasions.
- We visited the dazzling White Sands of New Mexico, marveling at both the stunning rise and fall of gypsum waves and the way you can’t turn right or left in the Indian southwest without butting heads with the U.S. military. A sign at a trailhead offered the following advice: “Debris and unexploded munitions may be encountered in areas away from trails. DO NOT touch, approach or remove any of these items.”
- Then we drove to Lincoln, N.M., to chase the legend of Billy the Kid for a while. At the visitors center, we met Joe Gallegos, who claimed to be the last Spanish-American in a town settled by Latinos. “They showed them the money, and they left,” he said.
- We spent a day driving around Isleta, N.M, hoping to find some link to the fabulous Pablo Abeyta, who told Pyle he’d taken 18 trips to Washington D.C. to work as an interpreter for Indian delegations. And he told Pyle an unbelievable tale of his clandestine meeting with Teddy Roosevelt in Albuquerque.
The other day I opened my copy of “Ernie Pyle’s America,” and a tattered paper fell out and fluttered to the floor of the camper. At the top right was a phone number for Pablo Abeita, grandson of Teddy Roosevelt’s confidante. Front and back were filled with notes culled from our brief phone conversation. I can even read some of them. Mr. Abeita directed me to a professor at the University of New Mexico’s Valencia Campus named Richard Melzer, who was supposed to be some sort of expert on all things Pablo Abeyta.
And so we drove a half hour, out to where we had a nice view of Los Lunas volcano, to find the campus, where I eventually found Dr. Melzer in his office. I walked in, introduced myself and blurted out some bollocks about researching a book about Ernie Pyle. He shrugged, offered a wan smile and then reached into his desk. He pulled out a thin, colorful book titled “Ernie Pyle in the American Southwest.” The author? Richard Melzer.
Suitably shamed and horrified, I wrote him a $25 check for two copies, and thanked him very much for his time.
Nothing much has changed in Cocke County, either, except nowadays you’re likely to read about cops turning up moonshine stills in their primary search for pot and pills. In August 2010, Tennessee investigators reportedly discovered 50 pot plants, 200 gallons of moonshine and seven 500-gallon stills while “while conducting marijuana eradication in an area of Highway 160 and Highway 321.”
In our search for Me-do, circa 2012, we drive the road which follows the undulating course of Cosby Creek, but just can’t seem to find his emporium of second-hand treasures. I’m crestfallen, worried he’s closed up shop, or worse, died.
Eventually we give up. I pull over, fish out the number for Edgar Parks in Newport I had stored in our cell phone, and call. Me-do answers on the second ring. I mention my previous visit and say I’d like to renew acquaintances. I’m sure he has no idea who the fuck I am, but he nonetheless gives precise directions to his place. In minutes we’re there, pulling the monster into a precariously graded spot at the bottom of Me-do’s forbidding driveway.
As it turns out, the Parks’ home is right on Tennessee 160, maybe, oh, a quarter-mile from the junction with 321, where those intrepid Tennessee authorities allegedly unearthed the aforementioned cache of moonshine and marijuana two years ago.
I didn’t remember all that much about Me-do, except for his impressive white beard and his penchant for punctuating sentences with rhetorical flourishes like “You see what I’m saying? “ and “Ain’t that right?”
They live in a sweet, little red-brick house on a hill which looks across 160 and down onto the bucolic French Broad. Carolyn grew up on this land, and her brother still lives in the family house a little higher on the hill.
They built their house 46 years ago, when they were first married. That’s when he first came by the nickname he’s carried ever since. Here’s a thankfully brief video (excuse the artistic camera work) wherein Carolyn rejects Me-do’s explanation of its origin:
I’m pretty sure he thinks we’re here to buy moonshine, since I mentioned the quart we giddily procured last time in our brief conversation. Carolyn remembers the previous visit immediately, and eventually the picture came into focus for Me-do.
Perhaps times have changed, and the moonshine trade is a pale reflection of the booming, $20-a-gallon trade during Prohibition, but the code of the mountain remains the same.
“We didn’t get to see any stills in operation, for naturally nobody knows where any are when a stranger’s around,” Pyle wrote in October 1940. “But at least they didn’t consider us important enough to start setting off the dynamite.
“That was the old signal system … One man lies along the one road that leads into the moonshining hills. When a suspicious car goes past, he jerks out his dynamite, throws it into the road, and off she goes. You can hear the boom for miles around. And a minute or two after the first explosion, the great dynamite blasts start going off in the timbered hills, one after another, until the air is so full of noise you can’t talk. That is the signal that carries to the farthest ridge of the highest mountain, and it means “Look out! The revenuers are coming.”
As I promised Lauri I’d do if I got to see Me-do, I throw her to the wolves the first chance I get. I confess we didn’t drink the moonshine Me-do sold us because Lauri was afraid of going crazy, or blind, or both. Then ask about the white whiskey’s origin.
“That’s one thing you don’t tell people, where they gettin’ their moonshine or where their liquor still at,” Me-do says. “That’s a snitch. That’s (the way you) lose your pride, respect. You understand? You ain’t got that, you ain’t nobody. “
And then, following a pregnant pause:
“And you won’t live very long then,” he says, punctuating the pay-off line with a hearty chuckle.
I think he likes to put on the barefoot-country-boy routine for strangers in a cunning sort of way. He’s country smart, and being a simpleton from the white-bread suburbs, I’m never sure if he’s playing me or being sincere. He’s carved out a nice little life for him and Carolyn. He says he doesn’t need to truck down to Cosby and sell junk to get by, and I believe him. He says he does it when he feels like it.
He says he spends his Sundays riding his motorcycle in the country, and in our two-hour visit, I can’t escape the feeling that he wishes we’d leave so he can hop on his bike and get the hell out of here. He even refuses my request to interview him in a more formal way.
I ask about his health, and he says he got sick a year ago, dropped about 40 pounds and was in serious peril. Now he looks fit as a 74-year-old country boy ever was. He invites me to feel the tautness of his right bicep. Ever the journalist, I do.
In the interest of his health, he spends lots of time walking in nearby woods, collecting fallen branches that he then turns into walking sticks. He has a barrel filled with his walking sticks in the garage beneath the house. And he says he has cases of moonshine in his basement. But he’ll only sell it by the case, and what the hell is a bumbling rube like me going to do with a case of moonshine?
In any case, he’s noticeably more reticent about the moonshine business than he was in 2007. Maybe the 2010 bust is troubling his mind, or maybe it’s something else.
He says he had a visit from a friend recently who told him the sheriff said to say hi and tell Me-do he can sell all the moonshine and pot he wants, that the law is primarily looking for illicit pills. As the conversation progresses, he seems to sell moonshine less and less.
“I don’t sell, I quit,” he says, in fact. “Too many people ’round here is snitches. That’s why I pulled up out there about three years ago, two-three years ago, in Cosby. (We’re) right there in front of the schoolhouse, you understand? It looks bad, you understand? I didn’t realize it at first, but I got to thinkin’ about it. People are talking, you understand? Back off, you understand? I don’t need it. I wanna be left alone.”
While we talk, Me-do’s son Kenny, from his previous marriage, is doing some work around the house, and whine of the circular saw and spray of sawdust pierce the air.
Down in the a garage along with a candy-apple red, 1952 Ford coupe, a replica of the old moonshine haulers turned into legend by Junior Johnson et. al.
“I had a real whiskey car that looked like that, a hot rod,” he says. “Just bought that for sentimental (reasons). It’s show car.”
Me-do worked at the yarn factory down the road, where he met Carolyn. He ran moonshine in his spare time, driving to Knoxville and Atlanta and up into Ohio.
He doesn’t seem to hear as I ask him how long he delivered illicit liquor. Maybe he never did, who knows?
“I just did it off and on,” he says. “I had a job.”
In any case, the illicit whiskey business in these hills largely has always been about poor people doing what it takes to feed their families, a fact Pyle underscored when he wrote about his day touring the country with a former revenuer back in 1940:
“This day in the moonshining country gave me a new conception of honor. For one thing, the bulk of moonshiners aren’t criminals at all. They’re violating a law, of course, but, as they say, how else can you make a living up here?”
Carolyn echoes Pyle’s conclusion:
“People don’t realize it, but they did it to feed their family. They didn’t do it to make the money to get rich, they did it to support their family.”
As for Me-do, he frequently returns to his mantra of wanting to enjoy a solitary existence, whether it means fishing for catfish in the French Broad or trout in Cosby Creek, riding his bike in the hills, walking in the woods or selling his second-hand merchandise when he sees fit.
“I just want to be left alone,” he says. “That’s the way oldtimers is.”
Only when he says “trout,” it comes out “kraut.” It takes me a while to figure that one out. And then when I ask about the French Broad, he says it’s good for catfish and soggers.
I ask, naturally, what the hell’s a sogger?
The answer to that one snaps us back into reality, and that reality is we’re in the hardscrabble hills of east Tennessee, where in many ways it might as well be 1962 instead of 2012.
Carolyn takes on the sogger question, and while she explains, Me-do, without hint of malice in his voice, says: “That’s what niggers likes.”
And before my jaw could drop an inch, Carolyn issues a corrective injunction:
“Niggers likes carp.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Parks have treated me with kindness and patience both times I happened by.
But if I happened by while happening to be black, well, all bets are off.