Friday, September 09, 2005

A Southern crossing

Snow is rare in the Ozarks, the only major American highlands between the Appalachians and the Rockies. The people of Missouri and Arkansas call them "mountains," although they don’t rise more than 3,000 feet high at any point. Close to the southern edge there is a squashed and rancid carcass of an armadillo on the road. No one has explained what the armadillo was seeking at that altitude.

— With apologies to Ernest Hemingway

The last time I plunged into this shallow end of the South I was still a college kid from out West.

I drove all day, all night and most of the next day, along the green spine of the Ozarks, down postcard-perfect blue highways, across Missouri’s sole toward the Boot Heel, stopping just short of the Mississippi, where I took a summer job on a tiny weekly newspaper in Arkansas.

Now, almost 30 years later, my daughter is graduating from journalism school in Missouri and I’m back on this road. Same road, same light, same towns like dust I left behind. They flash on the screen in my mind like old slides from a projector.

And now I live here in the South, so I see the place from a different perspective than 30 years ago. It occurs to me somewhere between Shreveport, La., and Oxford, Miss., the place hasn’t changed much. The road doesn’t change; the traveler does.

I’m older now, I’ve seen other roads, and my mind is strewn with sundry images of a vagabond newspaperman’s life. I can’t help it. My eye lights upon something and my mind snaps a picture that gets thrown on the disorderly pile of an untidy memory. Some are family snapshots, some are oddities of solitary moments, some are just dirty pictures from war and love. Now, my daughter’s graduation from college.

Someday, I reckon, I’ll create some sort of filing system that will put these images in some logical order in my brain. You know, the Little League pictures before the wedding before the babies before the divorce before the war dispatches before Texas before whatever comes last. Sort of a story that I’ll never be able to tell in polite company. But it would be nice to keep them, even though I cannot pass them on. That’s what scrapbooks are for. Memories aren’t transferable, except in this way: I write about them.

And now, as I make this Southern crossing again, it’s all about the pictures.


This roadside rock shop, just north of Clinton, Ark., is run by a grizzled little lump of a fella, 80 if a day. He’s missing several fingers. I asked for a certain kind of stone, and he showed me a chunk of glass, but not the stone I was hunting. I was moving toward the door when he spoke.

"Wanna see a pitcher?" he asked conspiratorially.

Long ago, my amateur curiosity turned pro.

"Sure," I said, and followed.

He yanked a dirty string on a bare bulb in a fusty back room full of boxes of rocks. He stuck his truncated paw into a hidey-hole behind a dusty shelf and pulled out two slices of what he called "pitcher agate." He held one out and traced his best finger-stump along a delicate natural line in his sedimentary gem.

I just smiled.

He did it again, more overtly, as if I was missing something.

"That’s really very pretty," I said.

"No," he grumbled, "that’s a boob."

I looked at him, then the rock, then at him again.

Once more, he traced his stub along the natural line of ancient sediment.

Sure enough, there was the silhouette of a young woman’s breast.

"Sure enough," I said.

Then he showed me the other stone. Several thread-like lines converged in an vaguely pornographic archipelago of watery squiggles. It looked like … well, it looked like the unfurling blossom in a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.

"You know what that looks like, yeah?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said, playing the part he expected me to play: a guy who’d get a kick out of ancient, accidental and abstract erotica.

"I keep ‘em hid because if the wife knew, she’d come in and break ‘em up."

Maybe I should have felt sad for him, or been repulsed. I was neither. In his stones, he saw something that made him feel young again, and he hid them like a teenage boy hides girlie magazines under his mattress.
It’s only human to invest stones with metaphors and meanings. We see pictures in them. At the end, on stones, we carve words that summarize our lives. With stones, we declare lifelong love. Within stone walls and fences, we sometimes hide.

The road is just a long slice of stone, too, and out here, I see "pitchers." Just like that old man, I see them in my own way.


Along the way, I pass through or see signs for Southern places with other places’ names: Nevada, Memphis, Mexico, Florida, Grenada, Oxford, Stuttgart, Evening Star. I’m wondering if Southern settlers wanted to live up to some higher model … or merely yearned to be somewhere else.

Then I see the turnoff to Hell, Ark.

OK, so not all my theories work.


My daughter is a newly minted photojournalist. She is my mirror image: She shoots real pictures and imagines the words.

On stage to accept her degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, she snaps a photo of the dignitaries there and walks off. And as she leaves the stage, she walks into a new life.

At dinner later, she no longer talks about little-girl things. She talks about her dreams, her fears, her own disheveled mental filing system. She reflects fondly on newspaper stories we worked together. She talks about other stories she wants to tell in her photographs. She talks about family. She tries to talk about the feeling deep down in the heart of her heart of her storyteller’s heart, but it’s hard to describe. And although she’s traveled in Europe alone, she still talks about going someplace.

"I think better when I’m on the road," she tells me.

She’s my girl.


I’m standing on a dusty road near Bragg City, Mo., when a picture flashes across my screen: A teenage girl walks past a teenage boy. They say Hey, but not much more. The girl runs home and tells her mama she just saw the man she’ll marry.

"Who?" her mama asks.

"I don’t know," the girl responds. "I never saw him before."

To be honest, I didn’t see this happen, but the picture is among the others in my mind. It was in 1934. The girl was my grandmother at 16 and the boy was my grandfather.


Blue highways return me to Rector, Ark., where I took a summer job on a weekly paper during my last year of college. It’s still the same, more than a post office, less than a county seat.

That long-ago summer, I met Wendell Crow, a vagabond poet who once published the Clay County Democrat. He was very old back then, but he still had black ink in the creases of his hands. He invited me, a wet-eared kid, to his house one night and after supper we went up on his roof, where he tried to talk about the feeling deep down in the heart of the heart of a storyteller’s heart, but it was as hard to describe then as now.

But I understand now. I just can’t describe it either.


William Faulkner and I have a complex relationship.

I prefer Hemingway’s muscular, indelicate narrative to Faulkner’s florid, entangled, almost Gothic prose. Faulkner doesn’t care. That makes our relationship complex.

But until I wrote a couple books, Faulkner was something I wasn’t: A real writer. When I became an author, too, I became aware of the debt I owed him and all the others who came before.

I wanted to say thanks, so on the way home to Texas, I detoured to Oxford, Miss., where the old guy lived and died.

Around sunset, I found his grave in Oxford Memorial Cemetery. I sat for a while and wondered how he’d describe the feeling deep down in the heart of the heart of a storyteller’s heart, but I’m pretty sure his answer would be knotted up worse than cheap fishing line. So I just sat and asked nothing.

They say it’s good luck to share a spot of whiskey with Ol’ Bill, so I did. I also left a few pennies on his stone, although he was past caring.

I also took something.

A picture.


The last day of driving crossed Mississippi, Louisiana and the last few miles home into Texas. I’d gone 2,000 miles in five days.

Larry McMurtry, another writer whose been this way, once said life is about answering two questions: How should one marry, and where does the road go?

Different journeys. Trouble is, you never know the answers until too late. This was just one journey, and the road goes conveniently home. It’s hard to tell if it made any difference, but I’m glad for the journey anyway.

Ask me again in 30 years.

1 comment:

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