Sunday, October 29, 2006

so i got down south, atlanta to be exact, and noticed right away that it wasn't what i'd been led to believe. not that anyone consciously told me, the south is all rednecks, but somehow i'd picked up some impressions somewhere, maybe the media, and was surprised now to see a vibrant, diverse city with lots going on. people pointed the way to a youth hostel/place to stay and i parked my pack for the first time. i had no desire to go to florida, though it was january, and knew of no place between atlanta and florida that had promise, so this was as good a place as any. actually i was thinking about money- did i really have enough? probably not. i asked around about jobs and was told they were hiring out at the airport. i didn't even have an address.

a kid befriended me and said he had a place to stay that i was welcome to share. he'd been taken in by a rich fellow, he said, who had left him alone in a condominium. i went there with him. it was posh, elegant- the kid was alone. he'd run away from mississippi, he said, and had walked about halfway. he seemed a shade young, maybe 18, but i couldn't tell; turned out later he was 17. i didn't put two and two together and think of him as a runaway at that moment, but he was. he was nice enough to me- and i stayed there a couple of nights, sleeping on a couch. it was strange, though- the place was new, fancy. it seemed like he wanted me there maybe to protect him. yet there was no one else around. we played cards a little, watched tv, talked. i went to the airport where i got a job as a dishwasher at an airport diner. within days i was promoted to grits-cooker- ahead of lots of black guys, who had probably been there longer, and probably even knew how to cook them- but who didn't seem to hold it against me nevertheless. i knew nothing about grits- had to admit that to them- but they didn't care & said they'd teach me whatever i wanted to know. this was hartsfield international - now a major airport- and it was possible that people like jimmy carter were passing through there regularly. i barely looked up from the job, though- still trying to figure out what a 'grit' was. that night, going 'home' i jumped my first train, in the city of atlanta, and it took me off the path, veered a little, into a strange part of town. i jumped off, endangering myself slightly, and used numbers of the streets to find my way back to the condominium.

when i got there- it was morning, as i'd worked the night shift- the kid said we had to go now, and we did. collected our stuff and left, walking down the street, seeing our own reflections in the fancy windows of office buildings on one of the peachtree streets (avenue? court?) where we were, back toward the hostel, which was only a few blocks away. but we were accosted by policemen, who pushed us into a movie theater entrance, and then checked our id's, finding nothing much on me in the process, but speaking contemptuously to me. maybe they were mad at me for harboring a minor, but i didn't feel i'd done anything wrong. maybe they were just looking for the kid, as they then told me to get on down the road, go back north from whence i came, and that nearby northbound highway would be good enough. i took their advice, left the kid behind, & quit the airport job on the spot, though they now owed me money which i'd have to return to get.

up in the mountains i tried jumping on another train, but this one didn't go anywhere, or didn't go very fast, and i remember kind of sitting there, in the rain, waiting to see if anything would happen. i didn't even want to go that far- further up north, after all, it was just january; here, at least i was in the mountains. it wasn't too cold, but it was rainy, drizzling.

i got back on the road at just the right time, because a car full of young folks came along and invited me to their commune/house up in the hollow up against clinch mountain in bean station, tennessee, northeast of knoxville. this was the sunflower family, they explained, and they led a tenuous life in this hollow, as they didn't have jobs at the moment, and an incense factory down the road might hire some of them, but hadn't come through yet. they asked if i had money for grits, and i gave them some, but that turned out to be cig-grits, the hand-rolled kind, which they bought at the grocery at the mouth of the hollow, as they had some food back at the house which they shared when we got there. i set up a tent up on the mountain there and stayed with them a few days, almost a week. at one point we set out somewhere and a back wheel of their truck fell off, leaving those of us in the bed sort of bouncing on the wheel drum, as the truck threw sparks off behind it. this, someone explained, was the bloody 9-w highway that went from new orleans to washington dc, one of a very few that cut through the mountains, and a very dangerous and curvy one in many spots. bean station was the site of a well-known truck stop, near where the other road that cut through the mountains, coming down from cumberland gap, cut diagonally through the other way, and went over clinch mountain. it was a special place, and i was grateful that they'd let me stay in it for a few days, and i let them know that, and eagerly pitched in on whatever they were doing. but at one point, that was burning down an old rotten outhouse, and a crazy woman emerged from the house, and pitched a basket of love-letters into the fire. the letters, unfortunately, flew back at her, due to the vagaries of wind currents and bad luck, and this caused a lot of psychic distress, i guess. i didn't know her, or anyone really, but she apparently was important in the lineage of the ownership of the small farmstead, unlike folks like me, who were more or less expected to drift in and out, i guess. the place was heated by a woodstove, was pleasant, and had a fog settling in the hollow at nights that i could walk down into in the morning, when i came down off the mountain where my tent was pitched. it was one of the few times i actually used my tent- most of the time, on the road, i'd never use it, as it was too auspicious if i was just off the road in some trees somewhere. here, at the farm, it became a place to live for a few days. i met a couple who had actually met each other in a cemetary in new orleans- they were both travelers looking for a place to rest, and were very alive, not into voodoo at all. some other people were on a quest to find all the natural ways of altering one's mental state, including jimson weed, morning glory, wild lettuce, wild hemp, peyote, etcetera, and were quite up on all the details- though i myself found the fog and the mountains altering my mental state enough as it was; this was not a quest i needed to push, especially. if we turned right at the store we went up clinch mountain, through a town called fern hill, and the oxygen got kind of thin, and the view spectacular, even in january, but they said they didn't like to go that way, because there wasn't much in the way of supplies up there, and they didn't completely trust the brakes of whatever vehicles they were driving, on the trip back down. there were several vehicles on the farm, but none in especially good shape, and i didn't see the truck again after its wheel had fallen off. they complained that they'd paid someone money to go up to chicago to bring back a truckload of natural foods, but they'd disappeared, hadn't come back, and they were wondering whether to do it again, or just make do. i couldn't help them- i was headed back to atlanta, to get my measly paycheck, and then was on the road, westbound, hopefully to mardi gras and out to california.

i didn't get a true picture of commune life, as they were kind of in crisis- many spoke of leaving the farm- and life wasn't truly stable. the woman with the letters and her grief over something terrible in her past, back in alabama- that kind of took over the house, even with its wood smoke, and upbeat, backwoods fresh-air feeling. the sun came up over the mountain in the mornings and one day i knew it was time to get on, so i did, but i left a piece of myself there- i thought, if i could ever settle down, a llittle house out in the hollow, back in the mountains, where it didn't get too cold in january, where there was a steady supply of wood for a morning fire and grits, was not a bad way to go. i'd yet to hear any of the bluegrass the mountain was famous for- apparently it extended all the way up into virginia- and the community was also a down-side, as we were always in a group, and they'd give us a collective dirty look, wherever we'd go. it might not be a place to get friendly with the neighbors, or to put one's kids in school, but at that time, to me, the difference between country and city was clear. the city was potato chips and plush carpeting that i was allergic to; the country was a wood smoke with a pot of oatmeal on it, oak leaf-softened ground, a mountain with a history. i could see myself coming back one day, and i did- but that time, about a year later, it was empty, the people gone- and i didn't ever really know, after all, who really owned it. it was a hill away from the highway, bloody 9-w, so i got on it, and started back for atlanta


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