Hello friends and family!
The past few weeks I’ve been meandering through Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. These are states with poor, rural populations that live alongside small highways or tucked away up in the woods, the dirt roads bleeding red clay after the rains. What else can I say that I haven’t already? The armadillos exploded into red smears on the side of the highway, the people living in their margins, the hardline political expressions of intolerance, the poverty, the despair. It’s all the same. Dry counties where you’re 100 miles from the nearest beer, men in overalls strolling through their fields, cows kneeling in the heat. “Foster Parents Urgently Needed.” The towns abandoned on Sunday morning, the church parking lots half-full with parishioners. I whir through these places on backroads, avoiding the Interstate, camping in overgrown campgrounds. After a while all the grimness starts to blend together and blur.
In lieu of belaboring this point for another 1,000 words I’m going to change gears and sketch out a few of the fascinating people I’ve met along the way. Despite spending most of my time alone in the wilderness, I tend to collect strange men the same way I collect fossils. Somehow I always end up in the company of eccentrics, dipping my toe into their world for a few brief hours or moments. It helps to sate myself on this occasional socialization so I can go another week on my own without saying a word to anyone. I hope you enjoy these vignettes about the people my path crosses on this journey.
On a bus ride back from a tour of Mammoth Cave I sit next to a retired guy from New England who shows me photos of his wife on his phone. We compare notes on caves we’ve visited and loved. He and his cousins are on a road trip, and they’ve just been to the Ark Encounter. I ask him what that is and he tells me it’s a to-scale reconstruction of Noah’s Ark, in line with how it’s laid out in the Bible. I didn’t realize the Bible specified the dimensions of the ark, but it’s true: “three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.” I ask if there are animals on board and he laughs. I don’t think this is a stupid question, though – if you’re going to build a massive ark out of cypress and coat it with pitch, as per God’s instructions, surely you’d also bring onto the ark “two of all living creatures, male and female.” But no, just plastic animals in their pens. Later, I wondered how these men felt about the cave tour guide explaining the 300 million year geological history of Mammoth Cave; the slow shaping of limestone layers and the slow winnowing of those layers into underground caves. I assume the sort of people who believe that God drowned everyone except a 600 year old man and his family also tend to believe the world was created just a few thousand years ago. Did they sit there through the ranger’s talk, shaking their heads, knowing in their hearts that it was all hogwash? That the cave had been, rather, shaped by God? That the freakishly large cave crickets that clung to the damp cave walls were descendants of passengers on Noah’s Ark, along with the forefathers of the big brown bats and the birds in the forest and the deer grazing by the side of the road as the bus barreled past?
“I’m Old Robert,” he says, introducing himself with a handshake. We’ve just met at a National Forest rest area in Arkansas, both of us admiring the view. You have to imagine this man, an old white man dressed all in black, speaking with the marble-mouth drawl of young Elvis, ok? “Now, I’ve been comin’ here since I was able to drive, and before that – well before that people brought me here since I was a baby.” I ask him if he comes to fish. “Naw,” replies Old Robert, “my Daddy fixed me for that. His legs would start shaking and his eyes would glaze over – it was a narcotic for him!” In turn, he asks me if I ride horses, giving a bewildered look at my Blundstones. There’s something a little off about Old Robert, a directness of his gaze that makes me wonder if he’s the local eccentric, but we chit chat about the area and about where he’s from. He calls me ma’am. When he bemoans the state of the world and tells me to stay out of Little Rock after dark because of the murders and the crime rate, I assume he’s just the sort of old man who watches a lot of Fox News and listens to local talk radio. Towards the end of our conversation he asks me which way I’m going, and I can feel him about to invite me – to what? To drop by his church, to come over to his home? For a split second I entertain the notion of becoming Old Jenny: living on his farm, driving his family insane with confusion, inheriting his shiny black pick-up truck when he inevitably keels over in a year or two. But Old Robert hesitates, or reads something hesitant in me, and says never mind. There’s a pause, and then he tells me to take care of myself, calling me ma’am one last time, and drives away.
I go foraging for mushrooms with JD. He’s got a soft Kansas drawl and a camper van and blasts new-age chant music as we hike. “Do you have an Indian name?” he asks me, and I shake my head. “Mine’s Wandering Deer. I actually get mistaken for a deer a lot.” He isn’t Indian, obviously. He’s a white guy who claims he’s been unemployed for the past year as a protest against paying income taxes to big government, which is how I’m going to explain my unemployed status going forward. We’ve met at a campground in Kentucky and he’s offered to show me where to find some mushrooms that, he tells me, “will help you vibrate at a higher intensity.” He’s that kind of guy, full of woo-woo beliefs about 5G cell towers and chemtrails and herbal supplements and electro-magnetic frequencies. He tells me that raw veganism can cure cancer and allowed him to stare directly at the noonday sun with no ill effects. In fact, he says a vegan diet raised his cheekbones so much that they obscured the lower half of his vision (while I wonder if this explains the whole staring-at-the-sun thing). We spend a few hours hiking, harvesting red reishi and chicken of the woods mushrooms. At one point he pulls out a portable water-tester and sticks it into a murky puddle of water he calls “a spring” (that was to my eyes “a dirty puddle of rainwater with gigantic dead crickets floating in it”). He deems it pristine, noting that he only buys his water from grocery stores because tap water has fluoride in it. Later, when he asks me what I’m doing for dinner, I make something up about having to call my mom. See, I do have a limit. I draw the line at drinking magic mushroom tea, brewed with dead cricket bath water, in a confined space with an unvaccinated Covid-denier.