Chapter 16

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Highway Haiku # 16

Insidious weed

Pernicious vine, I see you

Grow in dog’s design

 

Driving long distances – even in the company of a fine dog or tolerably pleasant human – one eventually is forced to come up with ways to entertain oneself.

On the interstate, one thing I do, and maybe most of us do, is peer into the cars I’m passing, or being passed by, to check out the occupants. I’m not sure why. Is it to see if, against all odds, it might be someone we know? Is it in hopes of making a love connection, or at least some eye contact to break up the interstate monotony? Maybe that quick sideways look is just to check and see if the person in the other car is giving me the quick sideways look. Usually, they are.

For me, it evolved into a game. Based on that quick sideways look, that split second glance, based solely on their appearances and their vehicle, I would, wrong as it was, come up with a fictional back story for the other driver.

It’s an evil little game — catty, even — full of the worse kind of negative stereotyping, and isn’t stereotyping almost always negative?

Rarely would I look at someone and imagine “he’s a pillar of the community … a loyal husband … a devoted father … a churchgoer who really means it … on his way to tutor disadvantaged children.”

What fun would that be?

Instead I’d assign them drinking problems and jobs they hated, cheating spouses and dirty little secrets, sometimes even specific dog breeds: That guy in the Subaru has a Lab that, being a Lab, is tearing up his leather sofa at this very moment; that guy in the pickup truck has a coonhound that he leaves tied up behind his mobile home, causing it to bay all night long.

When I found myself getting too cynical and single-minded, I’d switch to word games. While best done with a human partner, some can be played solo. Highway Text Twist, for example, which I like to believe I invented, involves taking words on billboards and rearranging their letters into other words – the longer the better. (Helpful tips: Miles can be turned into smile. Hampton, as in the inns, can be turned into phantom.)

Then there’s haiku, the composition of which had kept me busy through several stretches that were short on scenery. Driving through the south — treading that fine line between keeping myself occupied and becoming unhealthily preoccupied — kudzu, not haiku, became my obsession.

Actually, it was a pre-existing condition, tracing back to a 1990’s visit with a woman in Georgia who harvested kudzu and made baskets from the vine – one of a handful of southerners who were trying to make the most of the fast growing, invasive weed, brought here from a foreign land.

Early on in this trip, I noticed that kudzu often grows in the shape of a dog. More often, it’s a giraffe, or elephant, or an anteater, but if you look hard enough, you can find dogs. Once I spotted my first kudzu dog, outside Oxford, Mississippi, I began searching for more, and finding a surprising number of them.

We humans often do that – seeing things as we want to see them rather than as they are, and then getting so certain that the way we are seeing them is right that we see them only that way, failing to appreciate what else they might be.

The Oxford dog was a fine specimen — his proud head and shoulders formed by clumps of the weed climbing high up a telephone pole; his hind end and the slope of his back fashioned by strands that had encircled and climbed up a guy wire, attached to the pole.

(“Guy wire,” it should be noted, is the correct term. At first, I thought guy wire might be a lazified version of “guide wire,” which would make imminently more sense. Leaving out consonants and syllables is a practice by no means limited to the south. You just tend to notice it more there. I’ve found the same to be true when roaming Craigslist: You are more likely to find quaint variations in accepted spellings, like ads for “Chester Drawers” or “Rod Iron” porch furniture, while in Craigslist’s southernmost reaches.)

I parked across the street from the kudzu dog in Oxford, and spent 30 minutes taking photos of him (Yes, he was a male.) He looked more like a dog from some angles than others, and his appearance kept changing as the sun shifted and clouds passed overhead, creating new and subtle shadows that added definition and nuance, or took those things away. At times, I could see an ear, a haunch, an eye. At other times, he just became a weedy blob.

Though a menace, kudzu can make for some breathtaking panoramas that, given a chance, come to life with characters and creatures, even the occasional unicorn. The trick is sitting still and gazing for a long time – but not so long that it starts climbing up your leg. When that happens, it’s time to move on.

Sometimes the shape weeds take when left untamed can be quite charming.

Sometimes, when not snuffed out, they can get ugly and suffocating. Just ask a tree. Kudzu – wispy and innocent-looking as its tendrils are in youth – grows into a vine that’s thicker than prison bars. Once it gets a grip, it sees no reason to let go.

***

Passing through the South, John Steinbeck had only one thing he wanted to see – not a good state of mind to be in, as it tends to preclude seeing all else, including little spots of beauty and promise that might be hiding on the periphery.

What Steinbeck was focused on, ever since reading about them in a newspaper while in Texas, was a group known as the Cheerleaders.

cheerleadersNearly every day, in the winter of 1960, middle-aged white women would gather outside a newly integrated elementary school to yell, taunt and spit at two black girls, who were escorted there daily by U.S. marshals.

Steinbeck’s focus on race relations was understandable, given that, of all he saw and commented on in his journey, the Cheerleaders were a reflection of what was probably the biggest story in America at the time.

At gas station stops in the South, he wrote, people would note his New York license plates and his passenger’s curly blue-grey locks and take a second look inside the cab of Rocinante.

“Thought you had a nigger in there,” at least one would come right out and say.

In New Orleans, Steinbeck left Charley in the camper, and donned a cap in an attempt to disguise himself and look less like a Yankee. He took a cab to the school. He watched as the self-appointed leaders arrived to lead the crowd in jeers. Amid the screaming and taunting, he wrote “the littlest Negro girl you ever saw” arrived in a car and, walking between two U.S. marshals, headed to the doors of the school:

U.S. Department of Justice photo

U.S. Department of Justice photo

“Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first skip the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.”

The scene would serve as the dramatic centerpiece of “Travels with Charley,” and, arguably, its climax. By far it was the book’s most volatile chapter, its most stereotype-laden chapter, its bravest chapter, and the one most debated, rewritten and tinkered with before the book came out.

It’s not where the book ends, but it is where the trip did, figuratively, I think, for Steinbeck.

After Louisiana — after seeing firsthand how firmly the tendrils of hatred can grip and how quickly they can spread — he hurried home to New York, as if the distasteful scene left him not wanting to see any more America, good or bad.

***

Nostalgia – and to my knowledge, there is no cure for it — washed over me in big murky waves as Ace and I cut a swath through the South, headed in the general direction of what we were tentatively calling home.

It started in Houston, triggered first by Clyde the cartoonist, then by sights, sounds and smells as I passed into Louisiana and through Lafayette. Decades ago, I ended up there when sent to cover Hurricane Andrew. The brunt of the storm passed through in the middle of night, blowing the roof off the motel I was cowering in — as opposed to standing out in the middle of the storm and getting blown and pelted like those brave TV reporters do.

Between old songs on the radio and familiar sights on the road, misplaced memories surfaced on the way back east – 90 percent of them good ones. I wondered if the rhythm of the road was partly responsible for that: The beat-keeping “thwack-thwack” produced by cracks in the pavement; the steady pitch, sometimes high, sometimes low, of rubber on road surface; the repetitious chorus of signage — Exit Ahead, Food, Gas, Lodging … McDonald’s, Burger King, Cracker Barrel; and the never-ending stream of white dashes on asphalt that, were they Morse Code, would simply be saying “oooooo.”

Does it all serve, like a hypnotherapist, to regress me into the past, or is it just that, given time and space and freedom, that’s where minds of a certain age tend to go – assuming they stay awake? Thankfully, those lane divider bumps (good technology) help keep me alert. So do rumble strips, providing drum rolls whenever I edge onto them, and always causing Ace to briefly wake up and check on me.

Roads aren’t just metronomes, though. They’re music.

Some roads are pop roads, such as Interstate highways. On them, you’re not likely to see anything you haven’t seen before. Then there are classical roads, like Route 66. There are alternative highways, which often lead to something new and interesting; country roads, which may or may not take you home; and jazz roads, which meander, make abrupt turns and have unpredictable riffs. There are also blues roads, which take you through dark and swampy terrain, with grey moss dangling from trees, past one-pump gas stations and fading signs for businesses long defunct.

With the radio blasting, Ace and I traveled a murky stretch of I-10 – a combination blues/pop road – through the Atchafalaya Swamp, whose name itself is almost musical.

Despite trying to take different routes than we took on our first swing west and back, we ended up on some of the same roads we traveled months earlier, before we started following Charley’s trail. It was on that earlier leg of the trip that my kudzu obsession took root, and I started stopping, turning around, backtracking and detouring to photograph kudzu that was growing in the shape of dogs.

That’s when I started thinking about the similarities between stereotyping and (long word alert) anthropomorphization, or, put more simply, looking at and interpreting the behavior of animals as if they were humans.

It’s a mistake, and most of us make it, with dogs in particular, but – as with stereotyping – it is how we humans make the first feeble step in our attempts to comprehend something.

Assigning canine traits to kudzu – I’m pretty sure there is no long word for that — isn’t a big problem in our society. Possibly it’s limited to me. But given both dog and kudzu can be looked at as parasites, given how they both latch on and never let go, and given how much the leafage of the latter sometimes resembled the former, I couldn’t help myself as I made my first swing, in summer, through the south.

That’s also, as you might guess, when I started thinking I really should be doing something more with my life.

John Steinbeck was exposing the ugly face of racism when he passed through; I was photographing kudzu, because it looked like dogs.

That said something about the times, and how – while still not totally rosy – they’ve have changed much for the better when it comes to race relations. It said something about the different sort of mission I was on – one, unlike Steinbeck’s, revolving primarily around dog. But it probably also said something about me.

I’m not sure I wanted to know what.

Stopping on the edge of New Orleans on our first swing west, I’d looked into the possibility of staying there a few weeks and engaging in a worthier pursuit.

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A pelican left grounded by the BP oil spill; photo by Joel Sartore, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

I called and emailed several organizations and agencies in hopes of signing up to be a volunteer cleaner of wildlife left tarnished by the BP oil spill in the gulf. Spewed oil, like spewed vitriol, does not come off easily, and I for one, am not going to trust a big oil company to do the job.

When I read that volunteers were getting free housing, I saw it as a chance to serve society and save money – though I wasn’t sure what Ace would do while I was scrubbing ducks. I heard back from only one of the three groups I contacted, and it told me only experienced wildlife scrubbers were wanted.

Good thing those rules weren’t in effect during the civil rights movement, I thought to myself, or I’d still be passing through the south Steinbeck portrayed. Passion for a cause should be encouraged, not extinguished. Mostly sane people with mostly good intentions should never be turned away when they’re offering to help a cause that needs help.

Sometimes, when it comes to making things better and correcting injustices, a touch of insanity can even help push things along, which I guess is why, through history, we’ve had groups that follow the rules for bringing about change, like the NAACP and the ASPCA, and groups that take some glee in bending them, like PETA and the Black Panthers.

Instead of bathing birds, we ended up in St. Bernard Parish – going there not to make the world a better place, but to talk to some people who try to make it better for dogs. Wild creatures in the gulf weren’t the only ones affected by the oil spill. The gush in the gulf had a trickle-down effect, though the trickle was more of an ooze.

St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans, was still recovering from being left under water by Hurricane Katrina when the BP oil rig exploded, contaminating the gulf from which more than half of parish residents make their livings. They’d evacuated from a natural disaster, and returned to rebuild, only to be hit by an unnatural disaster that required more work and more sacrificing – sometimes right down to the family dog.

The St. Bernard Parish animal shelter took in 60 dogs in May of 2009; in May of 2010, after the spill, 288 were dropped off by their owners, many of whom had temporarily lost their livelihoods. “Most people just say they can’t afford to take care of them anymore,” a parish animal control officer told me.

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The devastation of Katrina had led to a new and bigger shelter for the parish, with financial help coming from the Humane Society of the United States and FEMA. But once it was up and running, and especially after the oil spill, it quickly started overflowing with dogs.

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Animal shelters are like prisons in that way, and maybe some others. However much their capacity is expanded, they generally fill up quickly with wayward and unwanted souls.

In locations southern and rural, those dogs have a harder time finding homes, and as a result, they are regularly shipped to points north by rescue organizations that have found they stand a greater chance of being adopted there. More than 150 years after slaves traveled the Underground Railroad to freedom, a massive network of animal rescuers now shuttle dogs northward – out of kill shelters and into, usually, no-kill ones — providing them shelter and sustenance along the way.

Likely, it’s wrong to make the comparison – to equate so intense a chapter of human history with shoving dogs in a van for a drive north. To do so seems to trivialize the pain and suffering slaves went through, and suggest, in blanket manner, that the south, then and now, is a place one needs to escape. But both the Underground Railroad and the south-to-north dog rescue pipeline represent pathways to hope, lifelines even, and both showed that good has a way of bobbing to the surface, counterbalancing all the evil, and sometimes triumphing over it.

St. Bernard Parish is not named after the dog breed but after the actual saint – or, more accurately, after St. Bernard’s Pass in the Alps, which is named after the patron saint of mountaineering. In the 1600s, the dogs were brought to a famous hospice there, where they developed their reputation for rescuing humans in the mountains, and where, it is said, rugged and adverse conditions honed their strong instinct for survival.

There’s another lesson, learnable from dogs, and from the St. Bernard in particular: Hard times make us stronger, and survival skills can be used to save more than just your own neck.

Maybe, I began to wonder again, there is a hero in all of us. That driver toting shelter dogs north can be considered one, or that wildlife rescuer dabbing oil off a pelican, or even that volunteer at the parish shelter cleaning up the poop.

Most of them don’t make it into history books, or the newspaper. Most don’t give a whit about any glory. They just keep reporting for duty, as if helping someone or something is, in itself, treat and payoff enough.

***

After nine months wandering the country with Ace, we were both behaving more like strays. We were pounding the pavement. We were sniffing for scraps, or at least bargain buffets. We were accepting of, though not begging for, handouts, be they offers of free meals or an available futon. When we happened upon some place pleasing – a shaded bed of pine needles or a comfortable rock on a sandy beach — we’d hang out there for a while.

Traveling with a dog — and describing the species as society’s ultimate freeloaders isn’t too far off the mark — had taught me a thing or two about that fine art.

I have mastered the head tilt (actually, it comes naturally to me, as I am easily puzzled). Like Ace, I’ve become quick to thrust out my paw to strangers. I am still working on the soulful stare — that look dogs can work better than any other species, and turn even the most grizzled of us humans into putty: head cast downward, big eyes cast upward.

While I’m not naturally effusive, not the sort to lead the pep rally, I do my best to exhibit a friendly demeanor. (The south’s a great place to learn that). I don’t lick hands, or jump up and down when dinner is served. Nor do I, in gratitude, spend an entire evening nuzzling and leaning against the person who served it.

With the strangers who took us in, I think it was Ace who most often clinched the deal. With the old friends and relatives into whose homes we’d been welcomed, one, at most, wanted to see me badly enough they were willing to tolerate my dog. Far more wanted to see my dog so badly they were willing to tolerate me.

That might have been the case with an ex-wife, who, along with her husband, didn’t balk much at all when I suggested that – for purposes of spending some time with my son – Ace and I stay at their house for 10 days.

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At their home in New Albany, Mississippi, Ace got along fine with their dogs — Molly, a two-year-old beagle mix, and Huey, a scruffy little terrier who was 15. Ace made himself at home and didn’t seem to feel awkward at all. Given the alternative would have been 10 nights at a motel room, at $50 or so a night, neither did I.

My ex-wife informed me upon arrival that Ace was overweight (not a totally incorrect assessment at the time). Then, for 10 days, she went on to treat him to, among other things, pancakes, bacon, cheesecake, hamburgers and hot dogs.

My son Joe and I played a lot of tennis, and video games, and some Highway Text Twist (patent is not pending) on the side trips we took to Memphis; to nearby Oxford, where he attends the University of Mississippi; and to Tupelo, where, because of a timing error, we missed out on that town’s annual Elvis look-alike contest for dogs.

***

I don’t know if it was because the ground was dewy, or if it was out of respect, but at Alabama’s Coon Dog Cemetery Ace seemed to be stepping extra lightly as he weaved his way through the tombstones.

Other than the 215 dogs buried beneath us, we were alone on a drizzly Friday, and it was quiet, except for chirping birds and the whining of gnats and mosquitoes dancing around my ears. Even more were hovering around Ace’s.

Ace walked past the grave markers of Flop, Train, and Daisy. He stopped to sniff some artificial flowers, then continued past the final resting places of Patches and Preacher and Bean Blossom Bomma. He paused at the grave of Smoky, again at Squeek’s, and once more when he came to Easy Going Sam, whose rusting collar is looped over the cross marking his grave. Ace gave it a sniff, too.

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The Coon Dog Cemetery– other breeds need not apply – is an eclectic mix of memorial markers, ranging from fancy engraved stones to etched metal signs to bricks marked with Sharpies to carved wooden crosses, each bearing a dog’s name and a brief epitaph that sums up his or her qualities, some stated more modestly than others.

“He wasn’t the best, but he was the best I ever had,” reads one.

“He was good as the best and better than the rest,” says another.

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The cemetery in Cherokee is at once haunting and comforting, a reminder of the powerful, difficult to relinquish (not that we ever do) connection between dog and owner — especially when dog and owner were hunting buddies.

The cemetery got its start when Key Underwood buried his faithful coon dog, Troop, there on a dreary Labor Day in 1937. Underwood marked the grave with a rock on which, with a hammer and screwdriver, he chiseled Troop’s name and date of death.

After that, other hunters started showing up with the corpses of their coon dogs and burying them in the grassy meadow, not far from where coon hunters used to gather to share stories.

The cemetery permits the interment of coon dogs only, according to the Colbert County Tourism & Convention Bureau, which now maintains the property. Only about three dogs a year are buried at the cemetery nowadays – a reflection of the declining popularity of the sport, in which the dogs track raccoons and chase them up trees before the hunters shoot them down.

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Every year on Labor Day, a festival is held at the cemetery, hosted by the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunters Association. The cemetery is cleaned up and decorated, and attendees come from hundreds of miles away to pay respects, hear bluegrass music, eat food and watch the liar’s contest.

As southern traditions go, the coon dog cemetery — segregated as it is — is still one of the more charming ones.

While all buried there are coonhounds, not all are southern dogs. Many of them, after their deaths, are brought from northern states to be buried in a place that provides the status their owners feel they deserve.

***

Northbound, with summer over, I no longer had kudzu to entertain me. The leaves had turned yellow and dropped, leaving only spindly vines.

After my first close encounter with kudzu years earlier, when I helped the basket-maker harvest vines – and got a bad case of poison ivy in the process – I’d come up with a far-fetched retirement plan: opening, somewhere in the south, “The Kud-Zoo.”

I’d buy some large, kudzu-contaminated parcel of land, just off an interstate highway, and watch as it took the shape of animals, assisting in the process when necessary with shears, guy wires and maybe one of those trucks with the hydraulic man-lifting buckets.

I wouldn’t so much be trimming the unwieldy growth into the shapes of animals; rather I would see the animal within first, then, through trimming and guidance, free that form.

My small staff would include various kudzu artisans specializing in kudzu baskets, kudzu wine, kudzu tea, kudzu soap and kudzu cigarettes. We would have an old school bus, painted as if it were covered with kudzu, which — when we weren’t busy running the roadside attraction (i.e. the non-summer months) — we’d drive to schools to give presentations about kudzu, and how, given we’re stuck with it, the more things we can figure out to do with it, the better of we’d be.

The plan never came to fruition, probably because it never got past the daydream stage. Generally, my big ideas linger there. When they are acted on, they make no money, or perhaps even lose some. No matter how silly, though, they serve a purpose, because an un-engaged mind is like a homeless dog – a waste of tremendous possibilities.

Almost always there is impracticality and delusion involved, but being so easily obsessed is still a good thing. Whether it be getting hooked on taking pictures of kudzu dogs, or blogging, being a knight errant like Don Quixote, or a mountain builder like Leonard Knight, life goes better when there’s a mission, no matter how crazy it might be.

SONY DSCComing near to what seemed to be the end of my journey, with winter getting closer, and the air getting colder and clammier, we passed through a little bit of Arkansas, a lot of Tennessee and another state I think Steinbeck might have spent some time in – depression.

My normal diversions failed to amuse me. Highway Text Twist was out of the question because half of the billboards advertised Jesus, and it’s hard to make words from his name. Most of the rest were for adult “superstores,” a word that, while you can’t use all 10 letters, you can get “posturers” and “resprouts” out of.

Not even the kudzu was much worth looking at. Bare now, the vines were no longer dogs and animals — just stick figures of hunched-over witches, weary sharecroppers and hopeless skeletons.

Like Steinbeck after Louisiana, I leaned a little heavier on the gas pedal, wanting to move on to a place that felt more like home, and a mission that felt more noble.

 

ROADSIDE ENCOUNTER

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Name: Underdog

Breed: German shepherd mix

Age: 3

Encountered: On I-40, then at a liquor store parking lot in Maumelle, Arkansas.

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Backstory: Being passed by another vehicle on Interstate 40 in Arkansas, I glanced over and saw this face looking back at me. He rode in the passenger seat of a pickup truck, his head poking out the rolled down window.

The truck pulled a trailer, with the name of the owner’s business painted on the side: “Leaf Removal and More”

When the pickup pulled off at the next exit, I followed, all the way to a liquor store, where, in the parking lot, I parked alongside it. I asked the driver if I could take a picture of his dog, whose name, I learned, was Underdog.

Underdog’s owner, who had stopped to pick up some New Year’s Eve essentials, is owner and president of Leaf Removal and More. He used to live in Little Rock, but through hard work, through leaf removal, and more, he’d saved up enough to get a new place in Conway.

“I got me a house by the lake,” he said. “Were happy there.”

 

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