I'm riding down some back road with two sandy-headed girls-- one seven, one four-- in the back seat, bluegrass music turned up loud and the windows down. We're not going anywhere in particular, just driving and jamming. Puffy clouds are drifting in the wild blue skies over hay fields and cow pastures. The girls are watching fence posts and mailboxes flying by, pointing at donkeys and cows and a new house being built in a clearing where a peach orchard used to be. They're laughing and cutting up in the back seat, dancing to the music playing on the radio. They ask if we can stop at the store and get an ice cream, and I tell them we will. Turn here, they say and we cross the river bridge and start around the big curve. They both have their arms hanging out the windows, the wind making their arms flap like the wings of eagles. My girls are having the time of their lives, and so am I. This is about as free as you can get. We pull in the parking lot of the store, and they jump into my arms when I open the back door. Three orange push-up pops and we're back on the road, tires roaring on the asphalt again, headed to wherever they decide to go.
Monday, July 24, 2017
I saw an eagle today. A helmet of white covered its head, and the wingtips like fingers were stretched out to touch the wind. This is not a rare sight in these parts, not anymore. Up until the last few years, though, the only place you could see a bald eagle was in a zoo somewhere, or if you were lucky, maybe you could catch a glimpse of one in the Smokies. My wife saw one twice in the last year, flying over the swamp near our house.
The first time I saw an eagle in the wild, I was bass fishing, just off of a rocky point where giant long-leaf pines stood, casting their reflection on the water. I had just poured my second cup of coffee, and laid my thermos bottle down on the casting deck, when I heard the screech from above. I looked up into the treetops and locked eyes with the biggest winged creature that I had ever seen. I froze. It's eyes were sharp, I could see the talons wrapped around a limb as big around as my leg. It peered down into the water below, leaned forward and dove out of the tree like a missile. For a second there, I thought he was coming after me, but instead, he snatched a bass-- better than the ones that I'd been catching-- and flew back up into the tree.
I sat there and watched until I could tell I had worn out my welcome. I wish that I had had a camera.
There's a small airfield that I pass on my way home everyday. The other evening, one of the small planes had just taken off, heading toward the mountains to the northwest. All I could think about was a bush plane, headed into a northern wilderness, carrying fly fishermen or big game hunters into the back country. Or a float plane, topping a snow-covered mountain top, descending to land on a hidden high country lake full of cutthroat trout.
I've always wanted to go on a trip like that, but that's quite a stretch for a poor boy like myself. I would watch old films of Fred Bear and Glen St. Charles, hunting the interior of Canada, the Northwest Territories and Alaska. At night, I would dream of boarding a plane to parts unknown with my recurve bow and a quiver full of arrows(and a Ruger Red Hawk!).
I made five wooden arrows and fletched them with turkey feathers. The shafts were as straight as I can get them. I glued on five razor-sharp steel broadheads. I spun an arrow in my fingers, simulating its flight. I watched the fletching turn in unison with the arrowhead, thinking about the moment I would release it into the air.
Monday, July 17, 2017
We're driving home after dinner this evening, watching the storm clouds build off in the west. As we crest a hill on the highway, in the distance I can see the purple contours of the Blue Ridge Escarpment under the bruised sky of sunset. This view never fails to make my heart beat slower, and it is oddly comforting, knowing that these hills have always been, and always will be. One can't help but feel protected from whatever lies beyond them. When I was a little boy, I thought that was the top of the world, that nothing existed beyond those hills except more hills.
Most of my family are from the Piedmont, the mill villages, the red soil where cotton grew and the rivers were slow and muddy. My father wanted to move up here, closer to the mountains, but not so close that you can't step back a little and enjoy the view. I have been here most of my life, and this is my landscape just as much as the flat farmland is to the south.
When we arrive home, darkness is gradually beginning to overtake our yard. I put my lab on her leash and take her out, despite her protest due to thunder rumbling off in the distance. The mosquitoes are welcoming me home. They are so glad to see me there in the edge of the yard, that they land on my bare legs in coveys while I wait for my dog to do her business.
The storm is getting close now, and the lightning is getting more and more intense by the minute. My dog drags me into the house, and nearly knocks the back out of her kennel to hide.
My daughters are now playing inside games, their ideas of chasing lightning bugs squashed by the inclimate weather.
In my recliner now, I pick up a book of collected nonfiction by Jim Harrison. Though my wife hopes the storm ends soon, I secretly pray that it lingers, at least long enough for me to read a few essays before bed.
Saturday, July 15, 2017
In my library, I have several books on foraging and survival skills. One of my favorites is Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart. There are many guides of edible and medicinal plants, water purification, and magazine articles on shelter building skills. But having all of this information at my fingertips doesn't do me any good if I don't get my hands dirty from time to time, practicing these skills. Not only does it make me feel more confident in the woods, but it is a lot of fun, too.
I would like to think that if I had to, I could survive and provide for my family from the woods and waters around here. I could probably kill plenty of squirrels or catch enough fish to feed us for a little while, but it would be a full time job, especially with a wife and kids.
On The Fourth of July, though, I witnessed something that gave me a whole new perspective on survival-- actually watching someone having to forage for food on the streets of Greenville. This is what I like to call A Chamber of Commerce Moment. The side of a city that people don't want to see.
A huge crowd was gathering, as Greenville prepared for their annual Red, White and Boom! celebration. Hundreds of people were standing out in front of the Westin Poinsett, awaiting the big fireworks display, and here was this man, a ragged young man, digging through the garbage can, looking for something to eat or drink.
He pulled a styrofoam cup out of the can and removed the lid to check the contents, then he put the straw to his cracked lips and he drank it all.
People with their bottles of water, people standing there sipping their frappes and lattes, people wearing their red, white and blue outfits and Uncle Sam hats, people with their American flag T-shirts and their God Bless America buttons on their clothing, they just looked at him, and looked at him. Some watched in horror, some just looked away.
He put the empty cup back in the can, and stood there, head bobbing to the music playing on the streets. Kids were dancing and playing, eating their ice creams and funnel cakes, adults with wristbands were chatting and drinking their beer and wine in celebration, and there's this guy right there in front of them with a dirty sweatshirt and worn-out jeans and dreadlocks, foraging in the garbage can, right before their very eyes.
The man walked amongst the crowd for a few minutes and then disappeared.
I'm sure that I was not the only one there in that crowd, giving thanks for everything that I had. I couldn't imagine having to survive that way. I know that I would have to be pretty low to drink something I found in the garbage, but I would have to be absolutely on the verge of death to do it in front of people. I guess when it's a matter of life and death, there's no such a thing as pride.
This may sound strange, but in that moment, my hat was off to this guy for being a real survivor. I don't think I could ever be that tough. When you see someone like that, it's human nature to wonder what the person did to end up like that, but I honestly didn't even give that a thought. I just thought about how tough that has to be to live on the streets, or in some back alley, every day, and have to use whatever you can find to stay alive.
I have seen homeless numerous times before, but I think this guy served as a reality check for a lot of us gathered there on that sidewalk that July evening.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
That's the name of a game we play here at our house at night. It's usually my wife who first hears something, then calls on me to go check it out. Fortunately for me, she puts a flashlight in my hand before she shoves me out the door and into the unknown. If I'm real lucky, she'll bring me my pistol--as if when I do run into something out there in the dark, I'll be able to shoot it and not myself.
Usually, it's cats messing around, or deer in the woods causing the dog to bark. That's what I try to tell her, but she doesn't buy it. "Cats don't slam car doors," she tells me. She's got me there.
There were several nights that we'd hear dead limbs snapping and it would sound like something was stripping muscadine vines out of tree tops on the other side of the creek. I'm pretty sure we have a bear hanging around, and whatever something that size wants to do in the dark woods is his or her business. I'll stand out back to listen and shine the light through the woods for a while until she gives me the OK to come back in. Sometimes I'll get spooked and ask her if I can come back in for my own safety. She usually let's me in.
I've found possums and feral cats and a big hornet beating around the back porch light. I've sat out in the driveway to ambush coyotes trying to get to our chickens. I've picked up turned over garbage by flashlight, looking over my shoulder the whole time.
I know that eventually I'll have to deal with something serious. One night I'll venture out to secure the perimeter and run into a bear, or maybe a cougar that SCDNR says does not exist.
I just hope that when I finally do meet Bigfoot face to face that my flashlight is bright enough to blind him temporarily, till I can either chamber a round, or get my wife to unlock the back door.
Monday, June 5, 2017
From the west, dark clouds move across the mountains and valleys bringing with them wind and rain and thunder and lightning. Water, running in rivulets down hillsides, filling ditches and indentations, swelling creeks and gutters. Hard rains pelt tin roofs of old barns and corn cribs and houses. Wind shakes these structures, thunder rattles window panes and lightning illuminates the landscape veiled in darkness by the great grey mass above the valley. The storm grows in both size and intensity, and the wind bends trees in all direction. The wind, though invisible, can be seen in the tops of trees, their leaves showing what the wind looks like. In a strong wind, every branch of a tree moves independently, each is effected differently. They sway and shake, some breaking, some only bending, but all of them effected by the wind. Lightning hits the hillside, runs through the earth tunneling, and splits a great pine to mere splinters as it makes its exit. The smell of fire and pitch along with the scent of warm rain fills the valley where the storm rages, pounding the ground with pellets of ice, tearing leaves and bark from trees, paint and glass from windows, and stalks of corn from the fertile soil. Lightning from cloud to cloud, cloud to ground, ground to cloud. Trees break, fall, split from bolts of electricity. Earth flies up, dirt and rocks fall back to the ground, along with balls of ice the size of large marbles. The bark, the shredded leaves, the splintered trees and ripped-off tin from barn and house litters the ground. The smell of pitch and sap, fire and ice and summer rain is blown around in the valley. Blinding light and great darkness from the sky causes all living things to hide in fear. Waiting out the storm is part of living. Just as sure as the storm overtook the valley, it leaves it, and the sun comes out and the sky is the bluest blue you have ever seen. All that is left of the storm is the evidence, the casualties littering the roads, the hillsides and the fields. In the distance, to the southeast, you hear the thunder, a freight train on the way to its next destination. You know there will be another one soon. There always will be.
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Right now, a construction crew is working on demolishing the bridge over the South Tyger near my house. My son and I walked past the Bridge Out signs last week, just to take a look at the progress they'd made so far. The guard rails had been torn down partially, and the crew had put up erosion barriers to hold back the little bit of dirt they'd pushed around. The water under the bridge is shallow there, as that portion is being silted in. We talked about how great it would be if they would do a little dredging there, deepening the run like is was years ago, back when the bridge was a killer catfish hole.
About twenty-five years ago, I would stand on the bridge and catch channel cats by the dozen. Chicken liver slime marked the spot on the concrete rail where I'd cut chunks of bait, because that's the only bait I knew to use then. I'd drop my line down beside the pilings and wait to set the hook. With a jerk and a bowed rod, I would play the fish out from under the bridge and haul them up to me, dropping the perfect channels cats in a five-gallon bucket.
I kept every one I caught, and we'd save them up for a fish fry on hot Saturday evenings when all of the family would show up for a (free) meal. I never liked fillets of big catfish, they taste to much like the muddy bottom of a pond. I like smaller whole catfish-- minus the head, of course-- fried with the bone in 'em. Salt and pepper, battered and fried, please.
We'd go down there at dark, and fish for hours. It was nice just sitting down there, listening to the sounds of the river bottom on a warm summer night. What was left of the old, old bridge-- one that had fell in years ago-- was a good place to sit, fishing right off the end of it. The part of the old bridge sticking out over the water was a good place to put a folding chair and fish straight down into a deep hole full of bream and catfish. Now, if you stand in that spot, the nearest water is a trickle, seventy yards away. Another good fishing spot lost to hundred of tons of silt and sand.
This place has changed a lot over the years, some changes by nature, others by man. Just goes to show you how things don't stay the same. When I was a kid, I guess I thought it would always be like that, it would always be a good place to catch a few fish for supper. Now from the bridge, all you can see is the shallow water where the carp roll on hot July evenings. If you bushwhack your way upriver or downriver a ways, you may pick up a bass, or catfish or two, but I guess the days of filling the bucket with channel cats are over. That is, unless, mother nature decides otherwise. At least I have the memories.
Hopefully this new bridge with last for years, and provide safe travel for school buses and big trucks traveling across it. For a while now, buses from the school up the road have been going the long way around to avoid crossing it, according to what I read in the paper. Progress is good, run down bridges are bad, no matter if they're a good fishing spot or not.