October 28, 2014
You’re familiar with that “good dog” feeling that gets us in a car, happy as hounds. I got to feel it again last week when I left for the University of Memphis, where I’d be the most recent visitor at the River City Writing Series. As I left Lake Charles the news was all about ashes from Ebola-contaminated material headed for our landfill, hysterical restraining orders against it, and waggish suggestions that Louisiana had finally found something they wouldn’t dump in their own soil and water.
Once I got familiar with the enormous SUV foisted on me—again—by the rental place and headed up I-10E, my thoughts fell out of the headlines and into career, job, children, the writing, money, time, body, all the worries of busy-mind. It occurred to me that we are the horses we ride in on, whether pampered with alfalfa or winter-pastured in thorny fields.
We’re a lot of things. I used to be a Churm in a 130-year old Italianate: unadorned, roughly elegant, windows taller than myself through which the world poured gold. Now I’m a low-slung Churm, green-tinged like cypress paneling, and prone to flooding. I used to have raccoons in my attic; now I have snapping turtles in my drainage ditch. I was the complaints of crows but now am a sudden disaster of white wings untangling on the St. Augustine grass—a white heron, this time, not Samael.
Under it all, Southern Illinois shale and sandstone, poison ivy, quarter horses and Whataburgers and the smell of linseed oil in my aunt’s studio. The grind of a bike chain that never knew oil after the first factory application. Smell of pool water, of hay, of the heat of the summer day. Thirsty roar of a big green Impala sucking cruisoline in overdrive.
I turned north on Louisiana Hwy. 61 and submerged deeper into some inexpressible mental activity, the waking equivalent of REM sleep. When I came to, I realized I was between towns, surrounded by open fields, and had no idea if I was still on the right road or who’d been driving the truck so diligently on this lovely fall day in the deep South.
Here, I believe, is the road you’ve been looking for; the two-laned, well-maintained, dry, high-crowned road you had in mind when you swore you’d buy a Harley to celebrate your new job; the road for antiques so genuine they aren’t labeled as such; the uninterrupted road I thought nearly gone in interstate America. You may or may not want to honeymoon on this road—I didn’t see a decent hotel for 350 miles—but if you were feeling kinky you could pretend you were in a Sam Shepard play.
Hwy. 61 turns into other state roads that run up through a dozen small towns, as well as the bigger cities of Alexandria and Monroe. The route cuts a corner of Arkansas for a few miles then crosses the river to Greenville, Mississippi. Cars passed, but singly, at ten-minute intervals. More than once someone waited to pull out until I passed, and I thought they’d be on my bumper to the next town and didn’t want the pressure, but when I remembered to look back, they were gone. There was very little inter-town traffic; everything was local.
See the Donut Cafe, a lone house on stilts with exhausted fridges and scrap metal on the porch, and cars both functional and junked in the yard. A lawyer’s office in a log house next to the highway. A shallow curve south of Monroe reveals a sudden brown field daubed with white bolls. Do locals mourn the colorful, broken-windowed snowcone stands? Main Street’s empty buildings, everywhere. (“If you say, ‘I need to go out to the Walmart,’ you’re from the South,” Cheryl will tell me in Memphis. “The article ‘the’ tells it.”) Outside the Country Cupboard Cafe, an enameled sign nailed to a light pole on the empty street: Reserved for Mr. C.
A lot in Mer Rouge with a horrific train wreck, engine and tanker cars crushed like aluminum beer cans, still pouring mystery liquid, a giant blue tarp billowing with it like a sail. Chief of Police Mitch Stephens: “This is Mer Rouge, we’re pretty much known here for our train crashes. I believe this will be the third or fourth one in the past two years.”
Bonita, Louisiana, “The Town on the Grow,” a car parked on foot-high tree roots. Lots of trees and cacti. A head floating above the undergrowth, the head of a woman squatting; she and a dog emerge from the weeds looking relieved, the woman is pretty as she walks up the side of the road in the dust; she waves and smiles naturally and sincerely, as if welcoming you to her place of business.
Fields turned over darkly, fields green with young corn, fields outlined by giant bales of cotton wrapped in bright yellow plastic. Rice fields in raised ponds, tractors with strange paddle blades mounted to PTO shafts. Big Bayou, Crooked Bayou, Bayou Macon, Little Lake Bayou. PeePaw’s bait shop, a helicopter flight school, a crop-dusting school.
I became a slightly different Churm on this road, and yet another by the kindness and hospitality of Sonja Livingston and the MFA students at Memphis. Later today I’m reading and talking to students at Mt. San Jacinto College, in Menifee, California, with support from Poets & Writers, and writer and department head Ricki Rycraft. Come on out. Who knows who I’ll be by then?
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