November 8, 2009

New video. Michael and I produced this standing outside Tamara’s Cafe con Leche in downtown Apalach.

Seafood Festival video

Apalachicola Seafood Festival

November 8, 2009

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Rolled into Apalach with Brother Boydly Friday. Hopped aboard Buddy Ward & Son’s shrimpin’ boat, Buddy’s Boys during the annual Blessing of the Fleet. Queen Isabel and King Retsyo (Stan) did the blessing and waved at the crowds gathered in Apalach’s downtown waterfront. We hit the carnival fairly hard with a round on the Loop-Dee-Loop that had Michael speaking in tongues and nearly upchucking on the poor young girl seated a few rows up.

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We camped in our usual spot behind the shrimp boat marina and backed by a 40-foot-tall mountain of oyster shells. Sometimes a few would slide down the side in the middle of the night, stopping again at their angle of repose. It sounded like oysters skiing.
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We ran the Red Fish Fun Run, a 5K through Apalach’s old neighborhood and back to the historic Gibson Inn. We shot some magazine photos in Tate’s Hell State Park under the long-leaf pines and beside the saw palmetto. We drank coffee with Tamara at Cafe Con Leche, listened to blues at the sponge shop courtyard Friday night, drank rum on the back patio of newly-opened Green Door shop, and we listened to Tracy Lawrence sing with a large, well-lubricated crowd. In a half-hour of concert action we had front-row seats to two drunken fist fights. That kind of entertainment never makes it on the itinerary but it always fascinates.

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Here is why I have a huge crush on Apalachicola:

- Cafe con Leche plays good music, serves strong coffee, and lets me sit and work for hours. They also have good art books to look through and Tamara is pretty dang cool.

- The buildings are old and amazing, especially when reused well: The Green Door, The Garden Shop, the new raw bar, the Oasis Bar, the Gibson Inn bar, the Book Store.

- Locals get together and belt out the blues in the side courtyards of downtown businesses.

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- Rusty old shrimping boats still tie up to the downtown waterfront and they actually work. Tin oyster houses still shuck and package on the same waterfront.

- Richard Bickel’s gallery shows the best images ever taken of the fishing industry in northern Florida and overall local life.

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- In November it is cool, sunny, and the bugs have frozen.

- They have a pageant, elect a seafood queen and king who then stand at the bow of a rusty shrimping boat and wave at the crowd in order to bless the fleet.

Ends and Beginnings

November 6, 2009

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Chattahoochee ends at Lake Seminole. It’s odd to say that since it hits a dam, not an ocean. But technically, the ‘Hooch is over and the Apalachicola begins.

Upper Lake Seminole might be where time began. Or where the sludge became a tadpole. Or where Adam and Eve frolicked (many Biblical historians believe this intersection of the Chattahoochee, Flint, and Spring Creek matches descriptions of the Garden of Eden, right up there with the Tigres and Euphrates Valleys. Whatever story you like, it’s a wild place I just paddled through…

Two days ago, Ricky took me on a jon boat tour of Red Lake, we caught an 8lb blue catfish from one of his bushlines (line with hook hung from tree branch overhanging river).

Next morning at dawn I loaded up and paddled down through Miss Eden’s Garden of Primordial Sludge. Possibly most beautiful day of trip, 20 miles from Neals Landing to Sneads Landing, arriving at sunset.

Ended with bright red harvest moon (or close enough) rising over Lake Seminole, most likely in recognition of the birth of Edie Rains Marty, daughter of a couple of my best friends.

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Coon Hunting

November 6, 2009

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Met the Blackburn boys – Scott, Rusty, Ricky, and their friend Randy. They were drinking beers and eating wild hog bbq and collard greens at the Neal’s Landing Campground at the top of Lake Seminole. We went coon hunting the next morning.

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Chattahoochee Dundee

November 5, 2009

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It is a difficult thing to introduce a man who lives as large as Tony Knighton. My introduction came Saturday night at his farmhouse near the George Andrews Dam. The owners of the Log Cabin Restaurant, near the river, recommended I stay at their friend Tony’s house rather than sleeping at the boat ramp on Saturday, Halloween night. They called Tony and sent me over.

Tony answered the door in jeans and no shirt. He waved me in and said to make myself at home. He sat back in his lazy boy. Football was on the big tv. Tony kicked back the lazy boy and two pistols and an uzi appeared on the coffee table beside him. A shotgun leaned against the wall behind his head.

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A few days later, over breakfast at Waffle House in Dothan he told me a story. The legend happened years earlier when Tony, now 56 and a bachelor, was married. It occured less than a mile from his house at the Log Cabin Restaurant.

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Tony got the call that a group had gathered in the street near the Log Cabin to gawk at a four-foot-long alligator in the road. Tony went to investigate the commotion. He pulled his truck up and wedged through the crowd with his wide frame of close to 300 lbs (“of pure concrete”). He picked the alligator up, one hand on mouth, one on tail, and placed it in his truck. He drove to the Log Cabin and paraded the gator inside, clutching it to his chest.

The patrons screamed and fled out, leaving Tony to the wrath of his wife, who then left as well. Tony likely did not think this far into the plan and so he took the gator back to the truck and released it in the woods.

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The next day, Tony put his shirt on for work, the same one he’d worn the night before. Not until he got to his office at the Farley Nuclear Plant, did he smell the reptilian ammonia. The gator had pissed on his shirt, leaving a yellow circle above Tony’ belly and a terrible odor. Now they call Tony, “Chattahoochee Dundee.”

Tony lives a life as big as he is. He recently had a serious shoulder surgery so he is taking his weeks of sick leave accrued over 36 years at the nuclear plant. He lives alone so he had room for me and we got along well, the man has a heart to match his humor. We just didn’t talk politics.

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We fed his Black Angus cattle hay, we fed the three horses oats, we rode around his 300+ acre property in his new toy, the Kawasaki Mule, or in one of his three white Ford pick-ups. We met one his four “bastardly bachelor” friends who live in a row of three trailers and one house that Tony rents to these four single, 50-something men.

I went to Dothan with Tony for his shoulder’s “physical terrorist” session and we watched movies at his house during the day. We drank whisky at night. Tony has no children and only his nephew, Waylon, to share the land with and possibly will to. He talks about buying land in Montana, maybe Wyoming, but I can’t see him moving for good, leaving the land he grew up on, the friends, women, bachelors, and the legend that precedes him wherever he goes in these wide, rural counties.

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Tony sent me off with two packages of ground venison, sausage, and a couple frozen tilapia filets. If stories had weight, the ones Tony gave me would have sunk Morpheus right there at the east-bank dam boat ramp where he dropped me off on a crystal clear Tuesday morning, November 3rd. I kinda missed him as the thick current grabbed Morpheus and pulled us away. But glad to be moving again. To somewhere.

Back at it

November 3, 2009

Getting back on Hooch this morning after two days exploring around Columbia, AL with Tony – story coming up.

River down here runs through a wild agricultural plain with little interruption. Some people fish it, but it’s generally just me and Morpheus.

And gators the size of my canoe. They bang rays on the clay banks and splash into the water like an amphibious tank when I slip by.

M-O-N-E-Y

November 3, 2009

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Something shifted Saturday night and the fever broke. It has been hot and thick – 85 degrees, humid, and threatening rain for weeks. Then Halloween blew in, the clocks fell backwards, and Sunday morning opened earlier and clearer. The winter light is here, too. White and sharp. It sounds like an orange juice ad, but being outside all the time really simplifies things – nothing’s better than waking up to a clear, sunny day with dry Canadian air shoving out any attempts from the humid Caribbean.

But I woke up in “Uncle” Tony’s house Sunday morning so that new light came in through the second-floor guest-room window of the farmhouse where he lives a bachelor life. Tony Knighton is a legend in his own time, his own mind, and in at least a few counties in two states. When I first met him he was shirtless in his recliner with an uzi, two pistols, and a shotgun within arm’s reach. He was jovially ornery following the debacle of the Georgia-Florida football game and from drinking whisky since 1pm with his “bastardly bachelor” crew.

That was interesting and has only gotten moreso since I’ve stayed at his house now for two nights, leaving tomorrow. But I must tell how I got here.

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Thursday night I landed Morpheus at Abbie Creek “park” in Alabama’s Henry County. The ‘Hooch here runs through a vast agricultural plain and some of the most rural counties in the south. Cotton, peanuts, soybeans, and some corn grow in long, rolling fields. All of them are being harvested now or soon. White people live in one place, black people in another. There are white churches and black churches. All-black schools still stand, not looking too old. People say the “n” word.

It’s like Morpheus has become a time traveling machine. I stepped out of him at Abbie Creek and, like a ghost, Frank Money appeared in a Chevy minivan. He pulled right up on the grass to look down the ramp into Abbie Creek. Nothing else moved.

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He introduced himself: “Frank M-o-n-e-y. I was raised here. Used to plow this land. My daddy sold the state 113 acres for this park and he never set foot on the land again. Hated selling it. They made him – imminent domain and paid him $10,000. We still have 300 acres up yonder and I live up on the hill with my wife, Dora. We got kinfolk all around. I’m 90 years old.”

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My map said Abbie Creek had drinking water and I needed to fill up. The park’s well had busted years ago, Frank told me. He could take me to his house to fill my jugs. I hopped in.

Frank pointed out his nephew’s place, his son’s, his brother’s, his sister’s, the goats, his dad’s old place. All within a 3-iron of his and Dora’s modest home. As I filled up in the yard, Dora came out. Said they’d been married 69 years. I made their photo in front of a large tree they’d planted when first married. Dora gave me two jars of preserves she canned – fig-strawberry and pomegranate. Frank took me on a tour of Halesburg, their town. Main St. had a closed-down store, a closed-down gas station, and a small city clerk’s office. Post office gone. White Baptist church and white Methodist in town and a few black churches out of town. Frank said most black folks had moved out of the county when they weren’t needed for the field work. He dropped me off at the boat ramp. He drove off then nothing moved again.

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I spent a night there and slid downriver, past Columbia, AL. I pulled into Omussee Creek Campground, a nicer park with bathroom and pavilion. I’d stay here. This is where I met JD and Joel, two twenty-something country boys with a rather worldly view. JD couldn’t believe I got to travel for work and Joel was about to join the Merchant Marines so he could see the world. They showed me their rope-swing up Omussee and we launched off into a still-thick dusk and brown water.

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Then I met an older gentleman, the park manager, in the pavilion where I’d left my stuff. He introduced himself as James O. Money. He’s Frank’s younger brother, 79 years old. I made the connection and we chatted a bit. He said I could sleep under the pavilion since it looked and felt like rain.

Next morning, Halloween, it rained. I hung out slow, no rush. Asked J.O. Money if there was a place to watch GA-FL football game. Nothing in Columbia and Log Cabin Restaurant near George Andrews Dam, a mile downriver, might not open til late. Game is at 2:30 CST. As I left, J.O. offered to pick me up at dam and take me to his house, a few miles away in Columbia. We could watch the game.

I paddled into the Andrews Lock, rain falling again. Jimmy Santiago came out to lock me down. I had spoken to him on the phone and asked about getting a bite to eat at Log Cabin. He told me it wasn’t open until 6. He asked if he could help out in any way. I asked if he had a TV in the tower. He did. Auburn-Ole Miss game on. He told me to come up. He’s alone up there and would like the company. I tied Morpheus into lock and climbed straight out of him up ladder on lock’s cement wall. We watched football for a few hours while it rained on Morph.

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I called J.O. and asked if he still wanted to watch GA game with me since Jimmy had to shut down the Lock at 4pm. J.O. was happy to have me. Met me below dam and we watched game on his big screen as his great grandson who lives with them, his parents divorced, got ready to be Thomas the Truck for Halloween.

As we watched the game, J.O. told me about fighting in the Korean War and driving big trucks through long mountain tunnels, no idea what they’d find on the other side. He told me of returning home and hearing his young bride had died in a car crash while he was overseas for 14 straight months. It nearly killed him, he said. His deceased wife’s only sister helped him and they ended up marrying and remain together with four kids, seven grandkids, and a few great grandchildren. We ate bologna-cheese-and-souse sandwiches after the game, as trick-or-treaters came by, toted by long trailers pulled by golf carts and trucks. Both black and white kids came to the door, once or twice they came up together. I wondered what the older Moneys thought of that.

At times this graciousness is tainted by a racism as entrenched as the streams cutting down to the Hooch. I’ve tried to suspend judgment and merely observe throughout this trip but, lately, I wonder how deep lies the hatred and fear and why and how much passes down through generations like a slow-drip poison?

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J.O. then drove me back to the dam ramp where Morpheus was locked. But we stopped at the Log Cabin Restaurant, less than a mile from the river. I’d heard it was good and wanted to check it out, since there are so few restaurants this close to the Hooch.

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I met Nancy and Jean, the owners. They were immediately gracious and it did look good – warm and dry and smelling of fried seafood and hamburgers. I wanted to stay. Nancy warned me against sleeping by the boat ramp on Saturday Halloween night. I agreed and was tired of sleeping restlessly in exposed areas like that. She said I should stay at Tony’s, the last house down the dam road before the river. She called him. He said “come on.” I did and that’s how I got here. He is John Wayne, David Allan Coe, and Crocodile Dundee, and he impersonates Elvis. He’s nice as hell and we enjoy each other’s company.

The story of Uncle Tony awaits…

Escape v Find

November 2, 2009

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Warning: The following post is long and full of words punctuated by periods, mostly.

One of my favorite travel writers is William Least Heat-Moon. He met a woman during his epic river journey, River Horse, and I’ve always remembered what she told him in the middle of that trip. It lives in my head as this: “Men go on a journey to escape, women go to find something.”

For a while I could see the distinction. But now I cannot. I’ve known enough women who’ve journeyed to escape and I’ve been on enough wanders to find something that I can’t draw such a fine line anymore. The escaping and finding as the two threads working over and around each other – that makes sense.

The other morning I went to find the source of the creek below my tent. I’d slept on the edge of a steep bowl carved out by a narrow stream that wove its way down four little cascades. It had carved out a 40-foot concave wall layered from bottom to top in dark gray clay, almost hardened to rock, still-decomposing humus layers, and the forest floor and its Medusa-tangle of roots. The water cutting through the slot leading to this ampitheater of sediment and moss and fern was almost clear, a tea-colored tanin from the roots the only thing clouding it. In twenty yards the little stream hit the wider, faster, browner Kolomoki Creek and another half-mile, the Chattahoochee. Creek and Cherokee and maybe Seminole Indians lived here, their burial mounds and other historic artifacts on exhibit six miles up Kolomoki at a state park.

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Two fictional characters join me on this trip and most others. Huck Finn, of course. He takes to the river to escape being “so cramped up and sivilized” by the small town, Miss Watson, and the widow. Of course, he found the fleeing Jim and they go on to escape and find things together.

The other character is less known. Gus Orviston in David James Duncan’s The River Why is a young man older than Huck but not yet an adult. He escapes to a cabin on an Oregon river where he can live out of reach of the urban development that ruins his childhood rivers and, like Huck, so he can live his way – In Gus’ case, as a fly-fishing angler and nothing else. Huck escapes downriver, Gus heads upstream, to the source of his river. In an epic overnight ramble, the river grows smaller and smaller, the forest taller and darker. When Gus reaches the tiny bubble of a source, he drinks from it, of course.

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I did not drink from the source of this creek and it did not take an overnight epic. I followed it up from the cascade. It took me down fifteen-foot-tall hallways of thinly layered, crumbling rock and the exposed underworld of the forest over my head. On some sections my shoulders barely fit between the curving walls, like a mini, wetter, darker version of a desert slot canyon. The water flowed over my feet atop smooth bedrock and fine-grained sand in pools. After a quarter mile entrenched in this gully it emerged to become a more typical forest creek.

It began to splinter, small tributaries bringing in new water. I followed them short distances to a leaf-covered bog where a barely visible surface of water seemed to strain to emerge, like a mushroom out of forest duff. Or the flow came from empty spaces between roots, or straight out of black soil. A coyote saw me, jogged off, stopped, obscured by bushes, and watched some more. I looked into eight different tributary springs. I saw a shell pile in the center of the creek bed, water washing over the barely consolodated white shells left by people a thousand years ago.

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When I was young – I mean real young, when memory and dream worlds spill into each other (though, if a dream becomes a memory, what’s the difference?) – I spent many afternoons by the creek that lived at the bottom of a forested gully. It seemed like a distant trek to reach the bottom, behind a few neighbors’ backyards and down a steep hill of ivy and tall hardwoods. In my mind, it looked like this creek – sandy pools and quick slides over bare rock. I’d walk it up and down, had my favorite “rapids” where I’d release leaves at the lip of the drop and watch the little red, orange, yellow, or green boats slide down the chutes. I built pool-drop topography into the clay beneath our deck and I brought a pitcher of water down to pour at the top. I watched the instant-creek wash down the course and then I’d start over.

Today, a few days after my walk up that creek, I met two young men at the Omussee Creek boat ramp. They had found an old aluminum boat in a swamp and had “saved it.” They painted it cammoflage and today they used two shovels to paddle up Omussee Creek with some rods, a package of chicken gizzards, and cigarettes. They were eager to explore other creeks in the area, both of them new to this part of Alabama. Joel, the older one, told me his philosophy for living: “Float like a leaf on the river of life.” They returned after the sun went behind the trees and we jumped off a rope swing they’d built on Omussee.

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And Happy Day of the Dead from my new second mate, Juarez…

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Self-Portrait: The Flourescent Years

November 2, 2009

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And then I launched off my first and possibly only rope swing of the trip, a must. JD and Joel were co-conspirators.

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And I ate a lumberjack’s breakfast at a diner in Ft Gaines, the new one: the Ice House Restaurant. Eating in this way might be my greatest talent for to share with the world.

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They grow many peanuts down here, thanks to the Hooch water. I ate some and discarded the shells, thus connecting the full circle.

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Lock, Rain, and Teal Walls

October 28, 2009

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David H and I had campfires by the lake for two nights. We paddled downwind from Eufaula and we stuck close to the bank because things are more interesting over there. David’s a photographer so we made pictures. For instance, we found a blue metal staircase leading from the lake edge into a tangle of green overgrowth. We climbed out of Morpheus and macheted through the mess and emerged thirty feet above the water under a hardwood forest where an old brick-and-tin-roof pavilion used to house parties. Fenced off now and locked, we could only look through the metal at the old couches, fireplace, and fridge.

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We paddled on and camped at a small clearing in the woods. Ate and built fire on little beach below red clay bank.

Paddled 14 miles to within sight of Walter F George Dam the next day. Should have explored Drag Nasty Creek because of its name and because it has many gators. But we were dilly dallying too much and had to mush on. Cypress poking out of the water more and more, growing in rows out from islands’ sandy points. Their leaves have faded to a soft red. They look nice when the lake surface smooths.

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Woke to rain on Tuesday morning. Paddled through mercury water and fog toward dam. The lone lock master answered our call – a pull on a rope at the dam’s edge sounded a fog horn. He emerged to the scaffolding above us and the steel gates opened. We paddled into a 100-yard-long concrete cell with water below and sky above. The gate closed behind us. We tied up to a steel post on the wall. The water and post dropped together. Concrete walls rose 88 feet off our shoulders – the second highest lock on the east coast.

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Then the lower doors spread, over 100 feet of steel prying open to daylight and the Chattahoochee, a river again.

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Rain fell hard. We explored a steep canyon of Cemochechubee Creek, a tributary that cuts through Ft. Gaines 130-foot-high bluffs. We ate a burger and I checked into the Ft Gaines Inn. A $34.99, Internet-laden, teal-walled escape, 25″-TV escape from the inches of rain falling outside. Should be clear tomorrow.

Float into unkown land: cotton farms, peanuts, corn, cattle. The river a winding thing again, utilitarian in its middle age.

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I also met a few people, from Eufaula to Ft Gaines:

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