The Deep South (And I’m lovin’ it)

· Long Read

Notes from a 2012, ten-day adventure in Alabama, by Chintan.

Kali and I in Henry's Round House
Kali and I in Henry’s round House


Driving along Interstate Highway 65 from Huntsville, Alabama, in my Dodge Ram Conversion Van, heading south towards Birmingham, I laugh as I realize that this is also called the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway. It shall be difficult feeling free while seeing that fascist’s name every 50 miles, so I immediately exit, and travel a scenic road that brings me to the Rickwood Caverns State Park. There, a rotund ranger named Scott engages me in delightful conversation that runs the gamut from politics and religion, to the absurd, and ends in a realization that we share a passion for the radical comedian, George Carlin. Who woulda thunk it that after passing numerous Jesus signs and one or two “Save America, Fire Obama” signs, that I would encounter a kindred spirit in a state park?

It is day one of Apart-I: a vacation from marriage, and a golden opportunity to write, read, play only my music, meditate, hike, swim, dive inside this 69-year-old being, and see if he still exists. So far, I have only good thoughts about my dear wife, my kindred spirit, love of my life, ball and chain… and I may even go through a period of missing her, but for now in Unit 17 on the 16th of September, 2012, at two in the afternoon, I am thrilled to be simply alone.

The prior occupant left a stack of wood. I have a picnic table, water, and no electricity, but Scott assures me that till around 7pm I am welcome to plug in behind the camp office – to charge, type, check email, and anything else of an electronic nature.

I think I shall stay put, perhaps hike a bit to build an appetite, and just enjoy the quiet, and the feel of pen on paper. I have been thinking of myself as a visitor from the mid-twentieth century, and I love the feelings conjured up. I can use a cellphone and a computer. I can somewhat understand the fast-paced speech of the 21st century denizens. I am capable of driving 75mph if absolutely necessary. I can facebook and google, and could probably figure out how to blog and twitter, but I declare that I do not like this century very much. I don’t think it is just because I am old, although I’m sure it has something to do with why I am so sickened by much of the culture: the new inventions, the endless strip malls, the giant ‘malwarts’, the new music, the violent, choppy, no-acting-ability-necessary films, the plastic wraps.

Prior to heading out on my ten-day adventure, I purchased a package containing two flashlights. I didn’t think about what I was doing. I needed light for the first night of camping, so I grabbed it. I practically stabbed myself attempting to dislodge the two lights and four batteries encased in almost impenetrable plastic. The flashlights are advertised as indestructible and waterproof. They even float. So why the need of all the plastic to protect them? When I finally freed all six items, I was shocked (yup, still able to be shocked) to discover that the four batteries were individually wrapped in even MORE plastic!

Time to walk, and utilize one of the four pairs of white socks purchased along with the batteries. They were NOT wrapped in plastic.

I hiked 1.2 miles of fairly rugged terrain, encountering one lizard, one deer and thousands of tiny blackfly-like insects who all seemed hell-bent on entering my eyes. I made a game of it by rhythmically waving my Maine baseball cap every seven seconds, which outsmarted them. While on the walk, which extended another 8/10ths of a mile while I searched for the unmarked shower facility, I thought of Henry Miller, Nikos Kazantzakis, Nancy, Peter, George Carlin, Osho, Scott the Ranger, Ronald Reagan and Kali Gata Lucero Brasilito, oh, and Jorge the Magnificent. I do believe that Jorge is the main draw to return to Costa Rica.

As the sun descended behind the oak trees, I gathered firewood and arranged some kindling, leaves and a few paper scraps. For paper, I used store receipts, some tissue, and the light cardboard strip that was used to keep the pair of socks together. First, though, I had to peel off the PLASTIC adhered to that piece of cardboard, to ensure that the advertising would not be smeared if the socks fell into a puddle, or were lifted skyward during a tornado.

Yeah, the 21st century still has campgrounds, wilderness, family farms, community dance, paperback novels, sex, live music, theater, a few clean rivers, oceans not yet dead, and of course the 112 methods of meditation, whereby we humans can, with some effort, some dedication, get off the bridge between the animal and the divine… or so I’ve heard told.

On my agenda during this two-week sojourn is the desire to go into a few of those 112 methods, to see if I can trick myself out of my present malaise.

I love this campground. It feels so good to be alone. There is no one to answer to, no questions, no subtle energies to figure out, no expectations, no time constraints. It is 4:30pm, and I can eat or fast, write or read, sit or walk, play music, or enjoy the silence, light the fire, or go into the darkness.

Freedom is my God. If I can be free, what else do I need? Just the basics – a bed, food, drink, eyes to read, a pen in hand, and a little money to afford the basics: a room, heat, an occupation that feeds my soul.

And now that I think of it, do I really need all that? And the answer is mostly no!

So off to bed, and after some tossing about in the junkyard of the mind, I fell asleep, and awoke at midnight to the sound of RAIN. There is an old saying that one should “seek God, but tether your camel first.” It is a phrase that comes to me often. Within 10 minutes, I was able to dress, grab all my stuff off the picnic table, dry off, and laugh myself to sleep.

In the drizzle of the early morning, I managed to prepare a cup of shade-grown, organic, free-trade French Roast coffee, and pack up my stuff. Checking email, I discovered, much to my delight, a response to a fan letter I had written to Sonny Brewer, author of “The Poet of Tolstoy Park,” and damn, didn’t he invite me to have a cup of coffee, and he lives in Alabama. Let me do the math – a cup of coffee with an author who inspired me, a 400-mile trip in a van that gets 17 miles to the gallon, with gas at $3.69 average.

Yup, sounds good to me!

Sonny Brewer before the round house
Sonny Brewer before the round house

The Poet of Tolstoy Park, Fairhope Alabama

As I drive along the monotonous interstate, I constantly avert my eyes from the sickening sight of road kill, the bloodied remnants of opossums, armadillos, turtles, and whatever species of canine that populate the region. I never get used to the sad reality that these creatures, who exist in a no-mind world, a world so much more lovely and real than ours, are slaughtered by the millions. They simply follow their primitive, uncorrupted instincts, only to encounter the horror of our collective insanity as we speed along the straight and ever-widening pathways leading to our own demise. Was it Chief Seattle or Black Elk who warned that we pale-faced brothers would eventually rot away in a desolate land, strewn with our own garbage? Well, here we are, not quite dead, still looking good, well-dressed, manicured, and growing in all directions. There are more of us now: more cars, bigger trucks, faster planes, more banks, taller buildings, and everywhere we go, we are not alone as we plug in, turn on, skype, phone, email, blog, twitter and text. We are moving so fast and are so distracted with all our toys that we do not notice that the temperature in the lobster pot is increasing ever so slightly.

Well, at my age, I can look back six decades and clearly see that things are worse now than then, even if only by one or two degrees. I was born into a world at war, two years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think I remember the earth shaking just a bit as I toddled along the floor that lovely August. The world was already poisoned, and I believe my first impulse was to get busy and clean it up, make things right, especially for the non-human inhabitants. I have not succeeded, but I still have 10 to 20 years left, so following my breakfast of organic oatmeal, organic raisins, organic pumpkin seeds (for the prostate), organic banana, organic soy milk, organic bread and organic peanut butter, I shall have the second cup of organic French Roast, fair-trade, shade-grown coffee, roll up my sleeves and get to work. Yes, I am a fanatic and proud of it! But I am not perfect. Last night, instead of an organic healthy meal I ate ice cream that was not organic, but it was so good for the soul and the taste buds.

I am taking my sweet time getting to Fairhope, Alabama, and the coffee date with Sonny Brewer. And now is a good time in this narrative to give some context to this madness. My wife and I sold our home in Maine a couple of years ago and set out to find the perfect place to be. We explored Europe, Costa Rica and a bit of Mexico. We also travelled throughout our homeland, explored the southwest, couldn’t find the right place, and returned to the East Coast. We were staying with our friends Carol and Daniel on their estate outside of Huntsville, when it was decided that it would be a good idea for me to go off on my own for a while, while my wife spent time with her best friend, Carol. While staying with Carol and Daniel, I read Mr. Brewer’s book, and was intrigued by his true account of a miraculous healing.

Lumbering along in the slow lane, I shifted my gaze away from a squished armadillo to my right, and my eyes fell on a cow lying on its side on the grassy median strip of the highway.

A cow?

Yes, a cow! A fully grown, 900-pound cow. Sixty-nine years meandering around the world and I could not even imagine such a thing. I believe it is dead, but perhaps it simply wandered off the farm, noticed the lush vegetation, and with no competition from other cows, ate its fill, and settled in for a nap. Chances are, however, that it was struck by something larger than a Volkswagen, most likely a ‘malwart’ truck. Did the poor unfortunate killer stop to assess the damage and notify the farm bureau? Is some poor farmer wondering what has become of his beloved number 8736?

Perhaps I’m blowing this way out of proportion, but I believe this abomination could be one of the signs of the impending apocalypse. I mean for Christ sakes, it’s a cow, a domestic critter that at top gallop can’t approach three miles per hour. How do you miss seeing something like that? I can understand hitting a deer. They are not only exceedingly quick, but are known to leap out of the forest and land smack in front of you – one of the reasons, by the way, that I do not drive fast and never at night!

I slow down even more, and dwell on the approaching end times, conjuring up all sorts of horrors, real and imagined. I read the news today, oh boy, 10 million Muslims in the street, fully prepared to kill or be killed, because their prophet was maligned in a YouTube video. Only a few deaths so far, but the video now gets more hits on the web, which will get more of those crazy Arabs insane. What’s wrong with them? They should evolve their puny consciousnesseses, and come on down here, convert to the Southern Baptist brand of Jesus-loving Christians and become peaceful, prayerful, pious, pontificating, pure, Koran-burning, lynchmob-loving lunatics.

I may not be a great writer, but you gotta love my ability to throw together in one paragraph total justification to be torn apart by competing mobs of Muslims and Christians.

So here I am just 30 miles from my Fairhope, Alabama destination and not even noontime and I have managed to become thoroughly depressed. I need cheering up. Rummaging through my CD collection while keeping one eye and one hand engaged in driving, I select a two-CD set entitled “Every Tone a Testament.” Be-Bop-A-LuLa it ain’t! What it is, is a wonderful collection of poems, songs and speeches detailing the history of black folk in America, from slavery to something approximating freedom. Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and one or two other actors recreate the speeches of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Dubois, Sojourner Truth and other lesser-known liberation pioneers. Martin Luther King, Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis speak for themselves. John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Paul Robeson and dozens of other black musicians bare their souls and shout out stories of bondage, lynchings, marches and the joy of overcoming.

I sing and shout right along, feeling very at home in this black world which I’ve embraced from my earliest recollections. My first encounter with the northern brand of racism came in the early 1950s when I was just a child, a pasty-faced little cherub whose whole world was the safe and kindly Presbyterian Church, the prison-like grammar school down the block, and the two-bedroom, first-floor apartment in a lower middle-class inner-city neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, which I shared with my parents, maternal grandmother and younger brother. My mother had been pressured by the landlord, a black-clothed Simon Legree sort of character, into showing the vacant third floor apartment to prospective tenants. He said that he would trust my mother’s judgment, and for her to take deposit money from anyone she deemed worthy. His only stipulation was that no coloreds be even considered. I happened to be there on a Saturday morning when the nicest middle-aged couple you could imagine showed up, neatly dressed, pleasantly demeaned, the wife speaking openly with my mother, while the husband joked with me, asking who was this little cowboy, and who was my favorite superhero. Just delightful people… and black as black could be. My mother dutifully informed Simon Legree, and then sat quietly throughout the evening.

There were never any deep discussions in my home, and I was left to wonder about this black and white world. I was happy to be white, the color of purity, honesty, freshness, the same color as Jesus and God, but wondered why the blacks were getting such a raw deal. My little black and brown schoolmates were rougher than me, and kind of scary, but I liked them just fine and they seemed to like me. Initially, I just figured they weren’t as bright or as clean as we white people and therefore should get themselves educated and wash with Ivory Soap. That of course was not my own idea but one of the prevailing myths held by northern white people as they nervously co-existed with their less fortunate dark-skinned, very-distant relatives. Down in Dixieland there was a different myth, as whites openly demonstrated their hatred and fear of their ex-slaves , while keeping them in their place with a policy of apartheid; whites only, colored entrance in the rear, colored water fountain, what you lookin’ at boy, get to the back of the bus.

Approaching Fairhope with Martin Luther King shouting out the words “Keep movin’” I pass Martin Luther King Boulevard and marvel at how far we as a nation have come. We gots equality now, equal rights, fair housing and a black president, and we can sit anywhere we wants to. Why child, just look over yonder and sees all them men, white and black together cleaning up the side of the road and all the black men dressed so nice in matchin’ white clothes. The two white guys ain’t got the nice white clothes and they seem to be takin’ a smoke break. I can see some writin’ on the shirt of one of the black men. It must say “Nike” or “Life is Good” or something like that, but gittin’ closer I can make it out – BALDWIN COUNTY CORRECTIONAL FACILITY.

Here’s Leonard Cohen’s take on what’s happening in our brave new century:

Everybody knows the fight is fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
And everybody knows.

Everybody knows the deal is rottin’
Old black Joe still pickin’ cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows.

I’m looking left and right as I sing along to some anonymous gospel choir. I’ve been immersed in the black experience for close to an hour and I feel young, rebellious, thrilled and nearly black, and I want to share this feeling of camaraderie with the drivers to my left and right. It seems that every car that passes, or sits awaiting a traffic light has a black occupant, but they all seem to be texting and talking, and the few that do look my way quickly turn the other way. “Crazy old white guy!” Can’t blame ’em none, they don’t know me!

What is this insane desire I have to be seen, to communicate, to grasp the larger truths, to teach, to heal, to make it all better? That’s not really a question, for deep inside I know who I am and whence cometh the insanity, the static and the pure innocent love. Well Mr. Hill, there is knowing and then there is knowing, you know? Yeah, I know. I DO know. I really do. Everybody knows, yes, everybody knows.

And here I am in Fairhope. It is clean and bright, very cute indeed. Where is all the black folk?

Stuart's hut in Fairhope, Alabama
Stuart’s hut in Fairhope, Alabama

Henry James Stuart – the film?

[Several days later.] The narrative was interrupted by all good things, and I became too blissed out to just sit and write. I have used my time alone very well, I must say. I feel lighter, more muscular, thanks to numerous workouts at the gym, and much hiking through town and country. I have stayed away from media and focused instead on heart-opening encounters with people. Staying at a campground a few miles north of Fairhope, I discovered a wonderful little community center in the town of Daphne, paid the $5.00 per month membership fee, and was treated to morning exercise groups.

I have read voraciously, listened hungrily to more than a dozen cassette recordings of Osho, taken in the wisdom of Marietta Johnson and her Organic School, and breathed in the essence of Henry James Stuart (“The Poet of Tolstoy Park”) in his ancient round house, in the company of his reincarnated self, the enlightened sage, Sonny Brewer, who I am pleased and honored to call my friend.

One of my objectives was to find my voice as a writer, but more importantly, I have rediscovered my heart, that disturbing middle chakra that can wreak havoc on the chief justice, residing on the supreme court of the mind.

Leaving Fairhope at noontime yesterday, following two glorious hours with Sonny, it was all I could do to keep my emotions in check. It was not for myself that I efforted so gallantly, but for the sake of the motorists on either side who had no need of a blubbering old man wandering into their territory. I controlled, yet not as tenaciously as usual, and throughout the six-hour drive, I could feel that special lightness that accompanies the feeling of love. Surprisingly, everyone I encountered during the trip and at the Wind Creek State Park seemed to be in love as well. Funny how that happens.

The sun has set and my back hurts from too much readin’, writin’ and typin’, so it is into my cozy van I go.

Next day. A good night’s sleep and up at 5:30am. Before retiring last night, I noticed a flock of somethings swimming to shore. I investigated and discovered eight Canadian Geese, so I gathered some cereal and crackers and was soon surrounded as they fretted and fought for the crumbs. Over coffee this morning, I finished the book “Implosion Conspiracy,” the account of the Rosenberg trial by Louis Nizer. What an incredible story. I have so many books to recommend: The Chosen by Chaim Potok, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Freedom or Death by Kazantzakis, Cry, the Beloved Country by what’s his name, and especially The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer. Sonny tells me that there is some consideration to turning it into a film. I believe that the producer of the film “Sling Blade” has the film rights and if you’all buy the book and put pressure on the guy, perhaps it could happen. Having visited the poet’s home in Fairhope and spent several hours with the author, I can guarantee that it would make an inspiring film. The beautifully-written book is a simple story of a man who is given a one-year death sentence by his physician, and instead of adhering to the “wisdom” of the medical deity, leaves his comfortable home in the mid-west and journeys to Fairhope, Alabama, builds his own home, retreats from society, becomes a long-haired, bare-footed hermit, defies the disease that is ravaging his body and somehow, “miraculously” attains vibrant good health. There is much more to this TRUE story, but the so-called miraculous healing was the thing that most resonated with me. It is a prejudice of mine. It has been my experience in life. I have seen it countless times. I have also seen countless times how adherence to a belief in sickness can literally kill a person.

Well, on that happy note I must end this narrative. Sorry about all the gaps. Oh, I finally found the black folk – I mean the ones that were not wearing the white clothes and cleaning up the joint. They were mixed in with the white folk at the Daphne Recreation Center, working out together. I got to work out each day with a great bunch of old folks, sweating away on treadmills, exercise bikes, nautilus machines and free weights, while watching Fox News’s fantasy world, and thoroughly enjoying dialogues with all those great people. Time is a funny thing. Back in the 1950s and 1960s I can’t imagine that those people could have been together in so intimate a setting. Today we are all one big happy family, at least at the Daphne Rec Center, and in just about every setting I visited in the Fairhope area.


Chintan (David Hill) is a writer, and author of Mastering Madness.

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