pinkpig

Pork Stop – an excerpt from Amateur Camping

All ten Amateur Campers continued our convoy north on I-575 which became Highway 5, aka the Georgia Mountain Parkway. Jasper Jeep, the highest volume Jeep dealer in Georgia, came into view just as the mountains jumped in elevation. Springer Mountain and the Bent Tree ridge were perched above Jasper, a picture postcard town that begged for four-wheel drive adventure.  The miles clicked by as we drove on toward Elijay, elevation gains presenting long views of the Piedmont below us.

The deep mountain majesty of the Blue Ridge wasn’t yet visible, though its mystique pulled us inexorably closer to those self-sufficient, fiercely proud, geographically isolated southern Appalachian descendants.  Our little band, feeling as though we were leaving our troubles behind, were unaware of our incursion into a culturally troubled region framed by intense beauty.

While I was engrossed in peering at the horizon, Ella practically shouted, “next exit right to the Pink Pig,” and just in time.  We all exited east of the expressway, then were drawn by a bright spotlight focused on all those wooden pink pigs we’d heard about. Set into a steep slope in back of a ramshackle tin-roof building sat the overly illuminated 2-dimensional wooden pigs. No Miss Piggies with a fancy hairdo, just dozens of bald Porky Pig look-alikes – the massive piggy family all pointed downhill into the back of the restaurant.  Piggy hillside advertising seemed to do the trick as the parking lot was packed.  After locating an adjacent field to park, we carefully navigated some slick asphalt to enter.

A few how-ya doin’ nods from happy, toothpick toting patrons greeted us in the breezeway as we entered. “Let’s push those two tables together,” said Chip, who supervised matching up table corners and evenly distributing the red and white plastic table-cloths. Chairs slid easily on the greasy floor as we plunked down. Elbows on the table, our bodies leaned in, eagerly anticipating our last evening meal prepared by other hands before consuming camping cuisine the next two days.  Orders for sweet tea, slaw on chopped pork served on white buns rang out. “Bring us five French fry baskets,” said Howard, the least affected by greasy indulgence, given his lanky frame.  What the hell, I thought, bring it on, even the Brunswick stew for surely we’d hike it off.  Knowing our packs would be personally backpacked in, knowing the approach trail was nearly five miles, understanding we’d have to fiord creeks to reach our campsite, chowing down was our focus.

Our stumpy red-headed waitress seemed to be taking a personal moment, right as our appetites were peaking.  “Meg, my belly showing?” our plump server asked.  “Gee Grace, you look bout’ same to me as a few weeks ago,” said Meg, “but just a mite more glow I’d say.”  That put a smile on Grace’s rosy cheeks. She then scooped up the baskets of fries and waddled quickly by to drop them at our table. “Thank you Grace” I said. Oily hot fries with ketchup liberally applied were scarfed by the guys, picked at by the girls. And no wonder, the ladies know health-hazard signs when they see them – starting with the greasy skid plate look to the asphalt.  The sheen was aided by a floodlight’s glow reflecting off the 10’ by 20’ Porky Pig lookalike billboard over the front door – not to mention the caked vent hood lacking its stainless steel glow, and silverware lacking even a glint.

Prior to our pork fest, a few customers caught our eye. “Y’all, did you see that man who must be waiting on a take-out order?” asked Sarah. One glance toward check-out raised at least one eyebrow apiece.  A Matlock-like blue and white striped suit, thick slicked-back strawberry hair, horn-rimmed glasses, polished penny loafers and a snappy paisley green and blue bowtie – a complete 360 from the rest of the overstuffed, t-shirt and shorts male patrons. Fact is, all the men, except the exceptionally well-dressed searsucker suit gentleman, wore high-brow visor mesh caps advertising every American made truck, auto parts or motorcycle manufacturer in the country – each cap worn so snuggly it created a forehead callous, visible whenever a man tipped their cap to female passers-by.

“Who is that?” I asked Grace. She was loaded down with humongous pork sandwich plates she plopped in front of us and then answered, “Oh that’s Elijay’s Mayor-elect, Jeb Royston. He still on the campaign trail. Afraid there could be a re-count any day now.” “Really?” I said.  Grace quickly added, “yep, most locals thinkin’ his wardrobe was a unreturned campaign slush fund, put ‘ta personal use, Brylcream and all.” My ears perked up when the Mayor-elect shook hands as vigorously as if working a dry water-pump with a big burly man, one Herbert McIntosh. Mr. McIntosh was indeed the McIntosh family of apple orchard fame, according to our informative waitress. “Couldn’t done it without your support Bert,” said Jeb. “Pleasure Jeb, now about those cider-permits…” Mr. McIntosh asked.

Politics aside, Pink Pig got an overall C+ rating from our band of 10 (we’d become accustomed to passing out restaurant grades). Scott, Chip and I graded roadside dives on the curve, less-scrutinized than Atlanta’s chef-driven restaurant scene where everything counts. Instead we were in it for the Anthony Bourdain experience – less about ratings, more about the culinary experience, atmosphere and the mating of food with the surrounding community. John was simply a volume-eater, stating “hey isn’t this Q great!” when the rest of us were underwhelmed by our slaw on pork sandwiches.  And Howard, well, he had his hands full trying to keep Kathy from making rude faces about what a dive we were in.

Our report card you ask?

First, the Pork – greasy bits with some smoky pinkness, skin crisped & mixed in a bit much when tender pork should be the focus, not mini-pork rind chips. Pork rind bits seemed to be thrown in as an attempt to help a sandwich with slaw be less soggy. Bottom line – toast the buns longer and add less rind to move up our estimable grade scale = C-

Fries – well, you got a sense already, droopy, oily and less than firm, but since they’re served hot, heat and ketchup can cover a bunch of tater-prep imperfections. Biggest concern, don’t look at the fryers too closely or you may never come back again = C

Stew – local corn overcame the frozen limas, canned diced tomatoes with a hot-mustardy spice-kick – just too watery as most stews are…C+ this time.

Attitude – this catch-all for patrons, staff, décor and mating to the local flora, fauna, culture – you know, what’s the restaurant’s relationship to it’s surroundings, does it make a lasting impression.  No suspense here as everything is out in the open to see – and no denying a step up and drum roll = B +

Finally an uptick in our grading on the most important measurement – Attitude.  I mean how could anyone listen to country twang, eat tangy Q, rub elbows with local gentry, watch babies belch, mommys chuckle and men talk hunting and politics, all in an over-the-top immersion of pig pics everywhere.

A sampling of artwork and photos – Arnold the Pig from Green Acres, Porky Pig, Pig Troughs, Pigs in Blankets – truly, Pigs in slop – unruly, clean little pink baby pigs – too cutie, and of course a Pig in a Poke – no joke.

Overall – a worthy, held together by duct-tape bygone roadside 50’s era precursor of the drive-in with very average BBQ… still an unforgettable experience, one you’ll get a hunkerin to revisit, if only to see those hundreds of hillside Piggies again that permeate the mind.

Robbinsville Pool Hall

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Robbinsville Pool Hall

Dogs are man’s best friend.  Dogs sit, stay and roll-over. Dogs listen, discern, and are people-centric except when they’re sniffing their fellow-dogs most fragrant parts.  Some dogs are so-called pure-bred and lots of dogs are mutts. Give me a good mutt over purebreds that are inbred, and give me a great disposition over a frantic tail-chaser.

Our camping assortment of dogs – two chocolate Labrador retrievers, owned by one Mr. Carson, one dark orange Golden retriever, owned by Mr. & Ms. Busbey, one retriever-terrier mix pending road-kill rescue named Roadie, saved by Mr. & Ms. Goodman.  And finally last but certainly not least, the proud offspring of an international show winner, one light Golden retriever named Molson.  After-all, if your coat is the color of a light pilsner beer and your human mother is clever, you might end up with a name like Molson Golden. And please note a Molson Golden cold brew is worth a taste if you’ve not previously indulged in one of Canada’s best exported goodies.

In a field of field-worthy dogs, each of our four legged companions held his own. Stature and demeanor was a plus in each. Tail wagging and cooperation was high. Clearly a laid-back pack with no alpha-dog insistence.

Then there was dog royalty. Descended from a supreme lady of the ring, a renowned champion – Molson the Golden.  Fellow hikers, walkers, neighbors in unison acclaimed his incredible draw. The leader of the pack with an unforgettable coat and perfect lines, broad brown eyes set atop a perfectly proportioned snout. But it was the luxurious coat, long, soft as a baby’s bottom and wavy with a color of light sunshine that stole the show. A dog to catch the eye and make you smile – Molson – a loving companion who knew no enemy and drew all to his side to be pet in admiration. Molson the pick of the litter and a show in and of himself.  Intelligence to the point of fetch and release, though he lacked a big vocabulary, but never lacked in love. His head was the size of a one-year old, and his tongue would cover their face. Molson, a licking, wagging, charismatic pooch.

We walked into the pool hall with momentary caution. Checking our surroundings and checking the native Robbinsvillians, we stepped into another realm. Greeted by the bartender – who could only offer sodas and leathery hot-dogs – with a ‘hey there,” we filtered around the outer perimeter of the three pool tables.  Two were clearly in better shape than the one furthest from the entrance, and had some pretty focused action. Our worst fears, high-strung locals hell-bent on winning or fighting, appeared to be a false alarm as there was little jawboning between the competitors.  In fact, the PacMan video machine and Superman pin-ball sitting in the back corner added more audio ambiance. While the PacMan said “wacha, wacha – gulp” Superman pinball exclaimed “ping-pi-ping-ping—boing,” launching Superman further into the stratosphere with each paddle strike of the silver ball.

“Howard, do you play pool,” I asked. “Absolutely, we used to have a table in our house when I was young.” “So did we!” I said, remembering how my older siblings told me I was too little to play.  Nothing a cue-stick bridge and determination couldn’t overcome. Our challenge, finding a table-opening.  Men clad in overall and plaid surrounded the tables – racking, breaking, passing time in a stress-free environment.  I was thinking how an opening might occur when a Coca-Cola craving kicked-in. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the more grizzled veterans of the felt-top tables snapped his pool cue back in its wall holster.  “Jimmy, you want a cigarette or a Coca-Cola,” a stringy, mousy brown haired late forties professional drawler said to his pool partner.  “Neb, ain’t no break worth taking till you done got both,” said Jimmy. “Yep, I reckon you right about that Jimmy.  Miss May, couple fountain Cokes please,” asked Neb, all one-hundred twenty pounds of him. Neb was down-right wiry, long-arms unusually bony and large, vein-protruding hands. It was as if Neb performed curls with each finger to build grip strength, while the rest of himself just looked on.  His hands had their own existence at the end of Neb’s arms – a sharp breaker of the rack, nimble maneuvering of strategic spin on the cue ball, always leaving the easy shot, Neb nearly ran the table in the few short minutes we meandered around his stage. A result of those crazy strong and swift Neb fingers – he could extract a cigarette like Doc Holliday could draw a pistol – fast.  And his trigger finger on a lighter – smooth.  Jimmy and Neb started puffing, smiling, stifling us with smoke. They were surrounded with an aura of pure manhood as though they’d caught their fly-fishing limit in the swift waters of a deep black Montana rapid.

While Jimmy and Neb, the kings of the table, got high on nicotine and caffeine – not to mention processed sugar cane that triggers the need for more nicotine and caffeine – Howard and I jumped at the table-opening.  “Can we join y’all,” Howard asked the two remaining players.  “Course. Wanna break?” came a quick retort from a measured eye.  “Campbell,” said the keen observer as he extended his hand, “and this here is Jake,” added Campbell.  “Good to meet you.  This is Howard and I’m David.” We managed to shake hands without knocking over any ashtrays, breathed in between the smokiest air pockets, and grabbed a stick.  Though I loved the sharp crack and percussion of racking & breaking to begin the game, I knew Howard had more leverage and length. “Howard, crack ‘em open” I said.  Howard could have been a multi-sport star but focused his talents on the tennis court where he carved a wicked left-handed kick serve.  His so-called American twist serve won him many a high-ranking match, and resembled world top-ten John Isner’s second serve, which at its apex is untouchable.  Given my recollections, and knowing Howard still played a bit of pool, I figured he could carry my rusty, poor excuse for a pool player-ass, to victory.

As Howard applied chalk to the tip of his pool cue, I glanced around the pool hall.  Everyone was engaged in conversation, unconscious of the cigarette smoke trail (no smokeless cigarettes in these parts) that crept along like the Mississippi river just over our heads. This noxious vapor cloaked the old fashioned light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. I couldn’t tell if the bulbs were white or yellow as light emanated thru the fumes.

Then suddenly a shot rang out just as the force of Howard’s break nearly split his pool stick. As the cue-ball concussed the other billiard balls, the patrons all froze.  An uncomfortable moment passed as all realized no gun had gone off, just the short explosion of a high crack, followed by balls rolling this way and that – bumping every side bumper, bumping each other, with one finally settling into a corner pocket.  “Stripes,” Campbell called out, our team had knocked in a striped ball. Howard followed his opening volley quickly, setting up on the left flank and notching the second ball for our team in the opposite corner.  Emboldened, Howard was walking before his shot fell and set up to the where he knew the cue ball would next reside.  Another quick stroke ensued, his eye using the pool stick to line up the next shot like a quail hunter sights his prey with the barrel of a twenty-gauge.  Another ball fell in the side pocket. We, or I should say Howard, looked confident.  A pause followed as Howard asked for a lighter for his cigarette which seemed to appear from nowhere.  I then noticed Neb putting his cigarette pack back in his shirt pocket. Howard drew a breath, squinted his left eye and mumbled something to Jake that I couldn’t quite make out over the music. Willie Nelson’s hit, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys – one of the longest song titles in history – drowned out their conversation.

I looked over at Campbell, leaning against the railing of the half-wall that separated the front soda fountain and rear game room.  He was clearly in no hurry, just keen on trying to discern where the heck we’d come from. “Where’d you say you from,” he asked, walking over by my side. “Not sure I did. We’re all up from Atlanta. Looking forward to some hiking,” I started to say we were headed to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in the morning, but somehow thought better of it, sensing Campbell could care less. “Atlanta you say. Bit a traffic down there these days?” he asked.  “Yeah you might say that. Guess we’re a bit immune to it by now, seems to come with the territory.” He then said “territory, what territory you in?” to which I think I replied, “ah, sorry, just an expression of speech,” which didn’t seem to register with Campbell as he continued to scan the room.  Campbell’s eyes lowered, noticing our dogs.

Howard, cigarette resting in an ashtray, stepped back up. Just as he drew his stick back, a distraction intervened and alas, Howard grazed the cue ball…and nearly scratched. The distraction – a fervent slap on the back with a loud, cantankerous “Jimmy! You done for boy! Your momma gone wear your hide out! Git on home now, lickity split!” The warning to Jimmy came from a long-bearded furrowed brow – one where you see the eyebrows meet in the middle, outside edges turned-up, squint tight – an expression that says “I mean business!” Jimmy practically swallowed his cigarette whole, but managed to spill some Coca Cola into his mouth with a piece of ice to douse it. His first step was quick as a wink toward the door, but he wasn’t through it before the bearded one said, “your Momma gonna whip you back into shape, but your hide is mine tomorrow. Damn cigarettes, killers, even a sixteen year old will choke to death, you have enough of ‘em.”

Jake’s turn, and what a turn it was. I spectated while Jake ran a half-dozen solid balls into every pocket on the table. Campbell however, spectated differently. I noticed he kept looking at our dogs, the Chocolate Labs, Roadie, Bart, the skinny dark golden, and Molson, who stood next to me wherever I turned.  Then finally we caught a break, as Jake missed a sure sho  if he didn’t hammer it so much.

As I stepped up, eyeing a striped ball corner-pocket leaner, I prepared to shoot. While setting up, my sixth sense noted Campbell was within about a foot of my left ear. He was close enough for me to hear him inhale “mmm,” as he drew a deep breath, then said, “Whut kinda dawg is dat?” I noted Campbell was staring at Molson, and looking very perplexed. His expression included a slightly protruding lower lip, a puzzled sliding of his eyes left then right – not looking at anything but clearly trying to search his memory banks for a clue. “Golden Retriever,” I answered. Then after recalibrating my shot, I sent the cue ball sharply to nudge in the leaner, in hopes it would return to my end of the table to help line up the next shot. As the white ball settled close-by, I knew the fifteen ball needed to drop next. But before I could set my sights, Campbell, with a mild tone and diffused-eye look, surrounded my right ear with his close-talking presence. He stated matter of factly, “Rutreever you say!” clearly having never set eyes on a purebred of such distinction. I think I may have sunk the shot, but the result was inconsequential. The important thing was to remain respectful, say “thank you” when told “good shot,” and to realize no dog breeders lived within a hundred miles of Robbinsville.  A mangy mutt was a damn good dog around here.  A purebred show-pony Golden Retriever – though pet royalty to our little interloping group – was a canine foreigner, an unfamiliar and unacceptable concept in this neck of the woods.

As soon as Howard and I prevailed, thanks almost entirely to Howard, we shook hands with Campbell and Jake, then skedaddled out the door with our group. Escaping any more questions from Campbell, fresh air greeted us.  The dogs, apparently feeling we’d been victorious, did a victory lap by marking some main street territory on the way back to the Inn. We ended the night by quietly smuggling the canines into our rooms. Sleep came quickly, despite a squeaky mattress wrapped in plastic with an old non-fitted sheet on top. The drive, overeating and competition had taken a toll.

Tom’s Service Station, by David C. Tyler

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Service Stations 

There are a multitude of roadside service stations. Some are really not service stations at all but just gas docks with a place to pay. Some also offer diesel, and some stations have convenience items – you know, snickers, fruit loops, beef jerky, velveeta – all the food groups. Other stations have service bays, many offering state emissions inspections, while others offer service with the luxury of a convenience store attached.

Full service stations usually charge the most for gas since inevitably people will stop and ask, “Do you know what this, cha-clung, knock-knock, burp-idge, gurgle-gurgle squeak is all about?” They’ll fill-up as they wait to hear what the car-doctor has to say. “Well, that’s your piston-head prodding the distributor cap to talk to the exhaust chamber about it’s belching, while nudging the radiator to knock-off with the steamy-leak that you think is gurgling.” To which the unsuspecting, uninformed, uneducated in the ways of technical college know-how, replies, “Oh-my,” and promptly screws the top back on the gas-tank, and drives off until a tow truck has to retrieve them. Or they come back when they’ve raided the piggy bank to make a small down-payment on the repairs which cost more than the book value of their means of transportation.

Then there was Tom’s BP station.

Tom’s

Tom’s station sat at the intersection of US Highway 64 West and Highway 281. This is the epicenter of the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge mountains in North Carolina located between Cashiers and Brevard. It had a nice, albeit small, square roof over the gas pumps, and a pitched roofline with an inviting green awning out front – well at least a sliver of green showed from under its current white mantle due to the blizzard in progress resulting from the meteorological marriage of Wedge – a super-cooled artic air infiltration, Gulf – abundant Gulf of Mexico humidity spawning winter precipitation, and Spin – an upper-atmosphere cyclonic devil born in the Pacific northwest.

This meteorological trifecta created a white-out and extremely hazardous driving conditions as we floated along Whiteside Valley road in route to Brevard. We were following a stranger we’d met a few miles back who generously offered to help free us from Old Man Winter’s grip.

We prepared to turn left into Tom’s service station and convenience store behind our new-found savior, Sam Turner. A rental house sat to the right, parallel with Hwy 64, while the station sat at an angle visible to both roadways, making it the center of the mountainous road network of Whiteside Valley, and thus the center of this universe.

As I prepared to enter Tom’s, you could sense the fierce mountain surroundings. Their dusky outline was forever imprinted in a Kodak-moment on my brain, though due to the snow-filled atmosphere, the Blue Ridge’s massive profile was barely visible. One could still make out the translucent dance of light between the waves of snowflakes and the flood lights on Tom’s road-corner sign.  Twilight was being sucked into the black hole of the storm and nightfall.

We were desperate to escape the bone-chilling storm that was exhaling artic-sourced cold on us. I quickly followed Sam inside while my wife Ella and our two young boys headed for the restroom out back.

“Hey Sam Turner,” a man uttered from just behind the counter to our left as we fervently shook off the storm’s icy embrace. His voice was vaguely familiar, a gravelly well-rounded baritone with an effortless delivery, as if no exhaling was ever necessary when words left his mouth – sounded like Tom who Sam had called after I’d knocked on his door less than an hour ago.

Sam said, “Tom Bradley,” and that was all, no hello, no further banter, but plenty of communication passed from Sam to Tom in the manner of his tone – respectful and low on the reverberation meter. Thanks to familiarity and our mission already being known, no howdy or how are you’s were required. “This here David we talked about.  He’s the one we done figure needs a road plowed,” said Sam.

Elsewhere a few men were gathered at what appeared to be the lunch-counter, some pausing to contemplate what Sam Turner had drug in, in light of the weather. Others continued to talk softly to avoid drowning out Tom, the proprietor.

The surroundings were classic. I expected the tidy rows of remote convenience store staples, one filled with toilet paper, ex-lax, BC headache powders, Tums, and a lonely last bottle of Pepto-Bismol. The next was full of pork rinds, Wise potato chips, Chicken-In-a-Biscuit crackers, Vienna sausages, Twinkies – essentially every healthy low-cal item you could consume.

But that is where the similarities to all those scattered, sparsely stocked rural stations ended. Tom’s was not about nutrition, household staples, or gasoline. Tom’s store was a welcome-mat to both the network of Whiteside Valley natives as well as wayward souls who stumbled upon this cultural window to the local hamlet. And though all the residential and resort-like finery of Lake Toxaway lay just over a hilltop north – comprised primarily of Atlanta’s second-home southern gentry – Tom’s was dominated by its own distinct aura, emanating from the local’s environment and married to the history of this erstwhile remote mountain outpost.

A sampling of the food offerings – local mountain-clover honey, country ham, pickled okra, Hoppin’-John, (for those who might think Hoppin’-John is a one-legged man, this southern staple is actually edible, made of an amalgamation of black-eyed peas, onions, green peppers, vinegar, rice and bacon), North Carolina vinegar-based barbeque, collard greens with plenty of fat-back, sweet tea, fresh-squeezed lemonade (did someone say Arnold Palmer?), unsliced bacon, whole pickles (complete with tongs to fish out these former cucumbers from a gallon jar), blackberry jam, boiled peanuts, dry roasted peanuts and Coca-Cola in the bottle (everyone knows dropping peanuts in your coke bottle frees you up to smoke or do whatever you want with your free hand), white bread (locals don’t clear the shelves during snow events in the mountains, so an inventory of this bread fully bleached of all nutrients was still available), individual pecan pies (comprised of 80% molasses, 18% pastry shell, 2% crushed pecans), and everyone’s favorite – Goo Goo Clusters (you’ll just have to find out for yourself what this concoction is all about, as a description would risk an R-restricted rating at the movies).

A sampling of non-perishable offerings — handcrafted wood-carved picture frames adorned with acorn shells, a snowglobe (ironic given the unabated snow-storm outside), several rebel flags, and various hubcaps.

The experience – priceless, as Tom’s panoply of goodies set a tone as comforting as Sam Turner’s living room, located a handful of miles south.

Interior florescent lighting fused with the soft glow of neon hung in the windows advertising RC Cola and Winston Salem Cigarettes. This merger of lights illuminated a wisp of pork-scent smoke hanging just above our heads, the thin haze a friendly, yet ghostly ruby-red hue. The glint off the stark white metal merchandise rows was softened by this meandering trail and warmed customer’s faces. Randomly bunched inventory was haphazard, leaving shelf-space either vacant or overstocked. The wooly-attired, overall-clad patrons were milling about, some smiling and gesturing hello with a nod of the head as they focused on their shopping.

Altogether the store exuded simplicity and the balm of unpretentiousness. Mix these ingredients with conversation and you have life. Tom’s managed all this effortlessly and thus had life abundantly.

Given we’d just come through an adrenalin draining drive of terror to reach Tom’s, I was puzzled as to how the locals seemed unfazed as they talked, gathered and ate, unconcerned with road conditions. No one even mentioned the white outdoor transformation. But then it occurred to me, every truck parked outside was just that, a truck. Nothing but trucks were visible except for a souped-up sedan parked on the side.  And as any southerner knows, trucks have a four-wheel drive pedigree around these parts, just as clearly as an old plow is mated to a mule.

To these stout southern-bred mountaineers, the blizzard continuing unabated just beyond Tom’s welcome mat would become a springtime footnote. The snow melt would contribute to perfectly chilled gurgling streams, ideal for trout, the run-off filtered through the aquifers of jumbled and rounded mossy rocks. Just outside Tom’s, the melt would carry nutrients in its runoff, cascading forever downward through the countless mountainsides, ravines and gorges of Whiteside Valley. This giant aquifer nourished the nymphs and their mayfly frenzied spring-hatch. The hatch in turn would feed the trout, fueling the existence of the fly fisherman, stoking the imagination of anyone who dared fish the swift-gurgling waters. In short, Tom’s offered both an ideal shelter and sustenance a few steps from heaven.

The Chase

 

 

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The Chase
A short story by David C. Tyler

A mutual disdain was evident as John trudged by the dog, carefully avoiding the yellow snow to pluck a long object from behind the wood pile. He walked back to his truck, wielding a windshield ice scraper that appeared to be equal parts horse manure shovel, yard rake and janitor’s school broom – an effective device for scraping away Old Man Winter. However, there being no let up in the intensity of the storm, John’s handiwork to unbury his truck was a temporary solution. All surfaces, orifices, natural or man made objects were under a constant fluffy barrage, the flakes becoming a coating, the coating becoming a blanket, the blanket a welcome visitor to the Whiteside valley. They served as a reminder that weather in the extreme was a part of life here, and were an acceptable change of pace, not an affliction as viewed by Atlanta.

John said “just let me get her cranked up a mite, as she needs ta cough for she get’s a running” as he started to climb in, adding “Tom’s taint far, ‘bout five mile up a few rollin’ hilltops, nothing so tough as you all ready done come through. We’ll ease on into it; flash your brights if there’s any problem, any problem at all.” “Sounds good John, we can’t thank you enough for offering to help,” I replied. John eased into his driver’s seat like he was easing into a hot tub, nice and slow to get acclimated to the temperature, finding just the right setting down spot as though it was a horse’s saddle. The flakes infiltrated his truck cab as though they wanted to be close to him.

John then cocked his head – right ear down with a reassuring smile while raising his left arm, elbow high and pointing towards us. John Turner then slowly placed his first two fingers on top, and his thumb underneath the brim of his cap, you know – a southern sign of respect, a gentleman’s gesture — as if he was ready to undock a charter fishing boat and assure us we’d have smooth sailing.

I wondered for an instant if the wind and cold might make it difficult for John’s truck to crank, but a moment later heard the reassuring growl of that eight-cylinder Ford pickup roar to life. Injecting copious amounts of gas into the pistons set forth a deep-throated gallop, as though all the thoroughbred under-the-hood horses reared up and snorted at Keeneland, anticipating a trip around the track. As the throttle eased back, those horses settling into the starting gate at a smooth idle, John performed a two point turn and made his way out and to the left onto a smooth white pathway that we assumed was the road, framed by small undulations and trees on either side.

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“Well, cross your fingers and toes that we can ease out behind John and keep up,” I uttered softly, lacking confidence in the ability to maintain traction, given Whitewater Falls road’s challenges just a couple of miles back. However, we found a comfort zone a few car lengths clear of John’s snowy dust-trail on a relatively level road-grade. I glanced at the speedometer which read a whopping 15 miles an hour, then noticed an aberration in my side-rear view mirrors.

On the driver’s side the snow kicking off the tires was a uniform rainbow arch of a pinkish-hue, a fusing of white with the red of our taillights, floating away and vanishing at an even-keel as we moved forward. On the passenger side, the rainbow arch was under attack by small chunks of snow being flung into the exiting archway, a relentless set of mini-explosions surging up from grade level. These small irregular disruptions had a deeper reddish glow due to the snow being thicker, less diffused than what the tires expunged. At first I thought the exhaust pipe was closer to the rising snow-level than normal, and with the engine working harder to keep the traction control in check, more carbon monoxide was belching from the tailpipe, causing the mini-chunk barrage.

But then I spotted something else, something alarming in the passenger rear view mirror. Two eyes, a snout, flopping ears, and a flopping protrusion that resembled a narrow fly-swatter moving rapidly up and down – all moving in unison, rising and falling into what looked like white gravel being flung everywhere. It dawned on me that I was viewing a dog chasing our truck – not a particularly unusual site but most dogs give up after an initial sprint – after the ‘let me show you who’s the boss, you nasty, fumy, noisy, boxy, rolling-contraption passing through my territory.’ It also occurred to me that this athletic canine must be John’s dog to be so determined. I thought John would be pretty upset to know his dog was chasing us up the road, subjecting himself to being pancaked by an oncoming semi. What’s more, I didn’t even know the dog’s name.

“Ella, do me a favor and look behind you near the shoulder of the roadway, assuming we’re on the roadway and tell me what you see. I need to keep an eye on John as he seems to be ever-so gradually speeding up.” The boys heard me as well and all three craned their necks and positions to full-stretch in order to catch a glimpse of the ruckus. “Daddy,” Christopher exclaimed, “I see the dog who pee-pee’d on Mr. Turner’s wood pile, and he’s chasing us!” Another glance at the speedometer confirmed we were moving up to and through the 20 mile an hour barrier. “Are you sure that’s the same dog,” I asked, and Chris said “yessir, looks like he’d like a ride.”

A ride for the territory-marking, nonchalant mutt wasn’t what I had in mind. And when John Turner started down a hill cruising a bit faster, there was not a chance I’d stop our two-wheel drive Yukon or flash our headlights at John to let him know about the dog, because he’d hit the brakes and risk us sliding into his back bumper. Rather, my objective was to maintain contact with both the road and John’s pole-position at a sustained moderate pace. Yea — nope, not a chance we’d stop.

That dog would just have to find his way back home, just like all the others who chase cars, before being splattered under a random tire they could never quite bite-off. After all, any normal dog recognizes it is imperative to hastily return to their domain, instinctually returning to guard their fragrantly marked territory, as most canine’s realize the folly of the chase before becoming road-kill.

Only this mutt was on a mission unlike any other. Apparently more interested in running after John Turner than staying close to home and maintaining territorial rights, he appeared relaxed in gait, flinging fresh powder in every stride. He stayed right off our bumper as we gained confidence in the driving conditions, reaching over 30 miles per hour as a mile clicked off the odometer since leaving John’s. Ella, Christopher and Cameron kept a watchful eye, with constant updates, “that’s one stubborn dog,” then, “that dawg can flat run,” followed by “no, he can fly!”

How long could he keep up became the question of the moment, a moment that ran into and past a couple of minutes, a reprieve from white-knuckle driving. This overdue entertainment in a small freight-train of long-legs, tongue wagging, ear-flapping inertia was maintaining remarkable speed and exhibiting amazing endurance. “Crap, this dog is probably going to have a heart-attack and keel over any minute, just when we’d gained a friend and helping-hand in John,” I said remorsefully.

While I tried to keep eyes-forward, the chase became all-consuming. And while there are a number of fast dogs out there, the obvious being Greyhounds, Vizslas, Dobermans, and German Shepherds (watch out criminals), deer-hunting bred Weimaraner’s can hit 35 miles an hour or about 8 miles an hour faster than the fastest human, Hussein Bolt at the peak of his sprint, and they can maintain a high-rate of speed over distance. Given the color of this dog’s eyes and coat, I was certain we were watching a new speedy breed, a mutt mix of one-part hound dog and one-part Weimaraner.

With the length of the chase now well over two miles and coming up on three, we were in awe of his endurance. This cross country track star even took a momentary pit-stop to mark a random roadside protrusion, then caught us again in a flash as though the snow was firm and springy, though we’d encountered plenty of sparse traction as evidence to the contrary.

“We’ve got to stop Daddy, he’s gonna die!,” Cameron said, echoing my very thoughts. Only then a solution presented itself – no, not us slowing down to check on the poor beast, no, not chasing another dog, not pulling up lame, nor hitting the proverbial endurance wall as you might expect. There being no quit in this remarkable participant in the dog chases machine war, a solution soon presented itself in a form of intervention from Mother Nature in an unexpected way. For you see, Mother Nature’s unpredictable weather, such as the winter bomb her uncle had dropped on us, is just one way she disrupts our daily lives. And while our chaser had proven to be unfazed by the accumulation already on the ground, another of Mother Nature’s afflictions reared-up, literally, the inevitable call to nature. For just when I thought we’d hit 35 mph and tucker that dog out, he put the brakes on and could be seen hunching his back, drawing his legs more tightly together, butt pointed downward to let loose his last meal.

The boys, being well-schooled in the art of pick-up poop baggies for our own golden retriever walks, were greatly amused by the broader freedom of this outdoor playground that had no pooper-scooper requirements. They commenced to chortling, hee-hawing, and ha-ha’ing so enthusiastically, their stomachs ached and their eyes watered. “Mommy, Daddy, dog’s going number two!” they said simultaneously, tickled to death by the circumstances that allowed us to speed ahead and break free of the chaser. As I laughed heartily in concert with their hearty laughter, I assumed the speedy breed would return home, leaving us to wonder if he’d tested his endurance limit. “What a relief,” said Ella. “Literally,” I said, as the rear-view mirror sadly returned to a monotonous monochrome white-vapor.

The boy’s mouths were agape, in awe of the retreating cross-country star. “Daddy, do you think the dog will be okay,” asked Christopher, and Cameron added, “do you think he’s thirsty?” After some thought, I said, “he looks plenty healthy to me and I’m sure will find some water, or snack on some snow. Yea, that trail-blazer will be just fine, particularly with an owner like Mr. Turner.” And on top of that, for the first time in memory, Ella’s natural motherly instinct of caring for the poor doggie did not overwhelm her, as she instead refocused on our predicament.

“How’s the traction?” she asked. I replied that all seemed well as we headed up a considerable hilltop that went on for over a half-mile before another short dip, only to head uphill again. That seemed to be a constant in western North Carolina – it’s all vertical geography-gain coupled with an elevation in awareness – sights, smells, senses – anything biorhythm-related becomes elevated.  After all, isn’t North Carolina where the phrase “communing with nature” comes from? – defined as a fusing of people, culture, tradition, mountain fairs, mountain air, mountain honey, and jamborees with plenty of jaw-boning, jowls, and mountain pickers jamming?

Then before you could brush the snow from your eyelashes, I saw John’s taillights growing brighter and he signaled left. And through the cascade of flakes, creating a fog-like effect, appeared a beam of light at the end of which was a green glow. As we drew closer, a rusty original BP station sign came into view, elevated just a few feet off the ground unlike the modern day sky-scraping signs that keep the neighbors awake at night. It was a traditional painted metal sign with rust surrounding the top, illuminated by a flood-light propped on the ground. Flakes were evaporating from the hot surface as they struck the light, adding a mist to the furious snowfall that passed through the beam and threw off just enough light to reveal a parking area in use by a few other trucks and an old green nostalgic GTO.

As we parked, John Turner was already out of his truck, stamping out fresh tracks toward our Yukon, motioning us to join him in Tom’s BP store. “That wasn’t so bad with you leading the way, John,” I said and thought how much better the ride and traction was the last few miles versus that snake-like staircase of Whitewater Falls Road, coiled and ready to strike your vehicle without warning.

Then as I watched the flakes quickly cover the brim of the John Deere cap, I had to say, “John, I’m sorry about your dog. He ran so hard and for so long to keep up with us, miles literally, but finally turned back home. Hope he’ll be okay.” John cocked the right side of his head slightly lower, his right-eye squinting as though to give thought to the dog’s predicament. His forehead ruffled like a Shar Pei as his scalp lowered to meet his rising eyebrows.  It became clear in that expression that he was searching empty memory-banks.

“Dawg, what dawg,” John inquired. “You know, that lean, long-limbed dog with the grey and black coat and those golden eyes?” I asked. John hesitated a moment, the wrinkles gradually dissipating as a twinkle emanated from his eyes and they opened wide. “Oh, THAT dawg, that ‘taint my dawg,” he said. I was a bit dumbfounded for a moment, but managed to say, “well guess we just assumed he was yours, given his extraordinary effort to keep-up.” “No, never really liked that dawg anyhow.” And that was the end of it, the track-star, new speedy-breed was relegated to the ranks of an unwanted guest.

Why not Atlanta

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WHY NOT ATLANTA

By David C. Tyler

In the heart of the Midwest raged a battle of nerves. In the seventh game of a historic winner-take-all, an incomparable streak of ineptitude was due to be broken. In the heat of November — yes, an uncommonly hot and humid November night in Cleveland — the pressure was so great, it rendered one respected manager void of reason.

In the announcer’s booth, an extraordinary former athlete with a mind uncluttered by pressure, spun a tale of the emotions and grave consequences facing the Chicago Cub’s manager, Joe Madden.  The announcer, John Smoltz, a former do-it-all pitcher and Braves Hall-of-Famer, recanted a pre-game decision by Madden who said he would not bring in tough-lefty, John Lester, during a ‘dirty’ inning cluttered with runners on base.

Why, you ask, would Mr. Lester be disdained during a ‘dirty’ inning?  Simple – though he could sever the right wing off a mosquito on a pitch to home plate, Lester couldn’t hit a Chick Fil A cow straddling first base– his mental block on throwing to first being so pronounced, even the fish in Lake Erie had heard of his woes.

A rule of thumb managerial debate-gate ensued.  The debate – well, John Smoltz – extraordinary citizen and former World Series wiz – insightfully said he would never “make a change that makes the other team happy.” However, Joe Madden ‘managed’ to do just that – he gave an early hook to a “dealing,” almost unhittable starting pitcher on cruise control, Kyle Hendricks.

Happy faces exuding instant stress-relief followed in the Indian’s dugout at this unexpected change. After-all, Kyle — with his cool under pressure veneer, whose pulse rate barely registering a blip — was carving up Indians one by one. Yet there was Madden, after one measly walk by Kyle following what should have been a strike-out to end the inning, calling for Jon Lester who couldn’t hold John Candy on first with a two-ton bungee chord.

Suddenly a comfortable lead felt less comfortable, the 108-year Cubs reign-less span showing signs of being extended. Madden, who had just broken his own rule of thumb, also maddened the Cubbie faithful, spurring enough second and third guessing to shake the pillars of Chicago’s Wrigley field.

Tremors of hope rolled thru the partisan Indian crowd.  Suddenly, a seemingly improbable comeback began – a wild pitch by Lester and a stumble by his ancient battery-mate, Catcher David Ross, a not-so-spry 39 playing in his last career game, promptly ensued. Ross looked concussed, wobbly and woozy all in one very ugly wild pitch debacle that allowed the only two-run error since the 1911 World Series – that 1911 play made possible only because the catcher refused to chase the ball.

The Cleveland faithful, overmatched to that point by fervent Cubs fans cheers, began to rock, stomp, fist-pump and down-right whistle while they worked. This proud but floundering Indian franchise was once banished in Game Six of the 1995 World Series by none other than the ONLY professional sports championship team in the history of the original deep south – the Atlanta Braves. Thus while expectations remained subdued, boisterousness from the Cleveland diehards took flight after such a managerial faux-pas. Prayers turned to raucous cheers as they plotted to turn the tide of their own 68-year championship drought.

That ‘95 series ended just a month after my 21 year-old, first-born was born — a win forever frozen in Atlanta time.  The magnitude of our ’95 World Championship is a win only core southerners – proud parishioners of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Carolinas — could understand.

On queue, a franchise that couldn’t keep the Atlanta Braves from gaining a fleeting footnote on the grandest stage in this ancient big-league “show” began an illogical and impossible four-run deficit comeback. The major league’s two longest drought-ridden teams found themselves in an improbable tie — through hits and homers that defy all historical markers – only to have mother nature send a reminder of their decades of ineptitude in the form of an insulting damper, a pesky rain shower.

But just as the Cubs found themselves with a runner on third, one-out, 90 feet from the lead in a 6-6 game, the weight of 108 years felt too leaden, and left a fleet footed base runner, none-other than Atlanta’s very own Jason Heyward — stranded — sending the emotionally-strangled matchup into extra innings.

While a 17-minute rain delay ensued, in the finale of this craziest of games just prior to the tenth inning, all Atlanta paused to wonder — could the Braves find their way back? Could Atlanta shake a mere 21-year championship drought? After all, that’s just a blink in baseball time compared to the combined drought of droughts for the Cubs and Indians. Straining to unbury memories of former success, each team looked desperate to be the first to rip free of their combined one and three-quarter century drought and thereby rid themselves of an unprecedented methuselah-like era of emptiness.

As the baseball gods extended the Cub-Indian drama to an extra inning before bestowing a crown upon baseball’s king of pain, the Cubs, Atlanta soul-searched for memories of Braves glory. Visions of the Braves’ Hall of Fame pitching trifecta danced in our heads — Greg Maddox, the record-breaking multi-year Cy Young winner who was ironically a Cub all-star prior to anchoring the Braves pitching staff — Tom Glavine, a lefty change-up magician who nearly became an ice hockey pro — John Smotlz, who could pitch in any pressure cooker role — all three lead by Hall of Fame manager, Bobby Cox. Coupled with timely hitting by the likes of yet another future Hall of Famer, Chipper Jones, and the hit of hits from David Justice – the ’95 World Series clinching homer, the Braves vanquished our city’s major sports championship void.

Those Braves World Series moments, freshly recalled with Mr. Smoltz gracing the broadcast booth, left us to ponder – could our fair city once again challenge baseball’s vaunted elite through their youth-movement, pursue sustained excellence and once again climb from the cellar to stare down post-season nerves?  Can the Braves refashion their 90’s resume for success –- a decade of pitching prowess, timely managerial moves and hitting highlights – much like the Cubs of 2016? Might Atlanta feel the thrill of hanging on every emotional pitch ever again?

As we fast approach Spring training, post-Cub’s Billy Goat curse being broken, we now yearn for a similar Braves ascension to baseball’s greatest stage, and for the south to rise again.

We say bring on 2017, inaugurate a new ballpark, and start the climb.