One Day with My Father

Sometimes a day is more than just a day, and a trip is more than just a trip, especially if it involves a day and a trip through old familiar places encumbered with memories etched deeply from telling and retelling, especially if the trip involves a grown son and his father. Then it becomes a special day that remains vivid over 30 years later, flush with memories called up that day, old memories, but newer memories too, memories that inform the older ones.

It was the autumn of 1985. I remember because Uncle Grady had passed away the year before and Sherrie and I would not marry until the following year. I had driven from Atlanta to Mississippi to visit my parents, when Father suggested we take a trip over to the Delta. Father loved the Delta, its flatness, its vast fields of cotton and soybeans, its lakes, brakes, and bayous. He had been born and raised there, and I had been born and partially raised there, enough so that even though I came of age in Tupelo, in some indefinable way I still thought of the Delta as home.

Father and I rose early the next morning. He was not one who saw the need to wait for daylight if you were taking a trip that day. After a hearty breakfast with Mother, biscuits, bacon, and eggs, off we went in Mother’s Buick, me at the wheel. Father had just turned 60. I was 32.

We took old Highway 6 west out of Tupelo, driving through rolling hills of farm and forest. The shadow of the Buick stretched far out ahead us as the sun rose behind us. The late September air was still warm, but had those first, hard to define hints of fall, a palpable dryness, perceptibly cooler nights.

We passed through Pontotoc, and as we approached Oxford passed the turnoff to Camp Yocona, the Boy Scout camp I attended growing up. This reminded us of the Milams, our next-door neighbors and their eight boys and two girls. Their third son Johnny was my age and we had gone to Scout camp together.

The camp is located just a couple of miles from the Yocona River, which was originally called the Yoknapatawpha, a combination of the Chickasaw words yocona and petopha meaning “split land.” The Yocona flows into the Tallahatchie River which flows into the Yazoo, which essentially meanders along the eastern boundary of the Delta before flowing into the Mississippi at Vicksburg.

And yes, that is where William Faulkner got the name for his fictitious county of which Jefferson stands in for his hometown of Oxford.

We zipped around Oxford on the bypass. When we had first moved to Tupelo in 1962, we would drive through Oxford and the Ole Miss campus on trips back and forth from the Delta. On every trip through the campus’s spreading oaks and stately brick buildings graced by tall columns, I dreamed of the day I might study there.

Those trips through Ole Miss had ended abruptly in October of 1962. James Meredith became the first black to enroll there, and racial tensions were running high. President Kennedy called out the National Guard and federal troops to restore order after the State Highway Patrol, who had been maintaining a semblance of order, were withdrawn.

That October morning, in the days when filling station attendants pumped your gas, checked your oil, and cleaned your windshield, we had stopped for gas on the east side of town. Imagine our surprise and unease to see the attendant wearing a well-oiled revolver in a well-used leather holster on his hip. Like their forefathers a hundred years before, apparently they were ready to take on the Godless Yankees. Sadly, some of them did. At least two people died from gunfire in the riots that followed.

That day Father wisely opted to take the newly-completed bypass around Oxford, and we did so from then on, initially for safety, later for convenience as we did that morning in 1985. Besides, we were planning to stop about 25 miles on at a filling station in Batesville at the intersection of Highways 6 and 51.

Our first home in Tupelo had been a rental on Madison Street. Next door was a small apartment house, two apartments downstairs, two up. That spring four young women, all student teachers, rented one of the apartments, and we got to know them as parking for our house and the apartments was in the shared backyard. One of the young women was from Batesville where her father owned a filling station. On our next trip to the Delta, we stopped and introduced ourselves. These stops became regular features of our trips.

After a short visit, Father and I headed west through town passing the Piggly Wiggly on the left and the offices of Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Association, the local electrical co-operative, on the right. My grandfather had served on the board of TVEPA which involved monthly meetings in Batesville. After the meetings he would head for the Piggly Wiggly to buy staples for the farm: flour, cornmeal, sugar, coffee, tea, and such, essentially anything the farm did not provide. As soon as I could drive, I would drive him there and back whenever I was staying with them.

As we left town, we took the bridge over the Illinois Central Railroad tracks, which was the original route of the City of New Orleans, the train immortalized by Arlo Guthrie in the song written by Steve Goodman. Later the City of New Orleans was rerouted through Yazoo City and Greenwood.

Unless one is crossing the Mississippi River, all of the routes into the Delta, whether from the east on Highway 6 from Batesville or Highway 82 from Carrollton or Highway 8 from Grenada or from the south on Highway 49 from Jackson, have one thing in common. There is always one last hill. Sometimes you top it and there stretching to the hazy horizon is a flat tabletop of land, green and lush in the summer, gray and fallow in the winter, cut by meandering bayous and brakes. Sometimes it sneaks up on you, the hill after hill getting lower and lower, further and further apart, until the land opens up around you, as flat as the surface of a billiard table as far as the eye can see.

Entering the Delta from Batesville is one of the latter. As soon as you leave town it begins to feel like the Delta, but when you see the old, narrow, concrete and steel truss bridge spanning the Little Tallahatchie River, old because it was built nearly 50 years ago, narrow because it was, well, built nearly 50 years ago when cars were smaller, you know you are nearly there. The thump-thump of your tires rolling over seams in the surface of the bridge that you are really back in the Delta.

For those born and raised in the Delta, something comes over you when rolling down that last hill or crossing that last bridge. For me, despite all the Delta’s contradictions, it is like returning to a place where I know I belong, a place where I understand the people, regardless of race, and they understand me. That must be why it feels like home.

Cotton and soybean fields stretched far into the distance. Soybean combines, their courses marked by the thin haze of chaff rising in the still morning air, worked back and forth across the fields. Large, green John Deere cotton pickers scythed across the fields eight rows at a time.

Soon Father and I crossed the bridge over the Coldwater River which flows into the Tallahatchie, bumped over the tracks of the new route of the City of New Orleans, and rolled into Marks. At the four-way stop, we turned south on Highway 3. Had we gone straight for another 18 miles we would have come to Clarksdale and the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, the Crossroads, the birthplace of the Delta Blues. In 1936, Blues legend Robert Johnson recorded “Cross Road Blues” later covered by Elmore James. Legend says the song refers to this particular place. Then in the late 1960’s Eric Clapton of Cream combined “Cross Road Blues” with another Johnson song “Traveling Riverside Blues” to create the blues-rock classic “Crossroads”.

Highway 61, sometimes called the Great River Road because it generally follows the Mississippi River, is also referred to as the Blues Highway because it connects the Delta with New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis. The highway runs within a short drive of Bob Dylan’s hometown Hibbing, Minnesota, whose album Highway 61 Revisited is arguably his best.

But we did not go to Clarksdale that day although a plateful of tamales at Abe’s Bar-B-Q is always a welcome treat. Instead we turned left towards Lambert, four miles south. Besides we were having lunch in Sumner with Aunt Charlene, the widow of Father’s brother Grady. Although dropping in on kin unannounced, even close to mealtime, was not considered rude in those days before cellphones, Father knew that Aunt Charlene would appreciate a call and that it would give her the opportunity to put together something special. So he had called her the day before.

We were ahead of schedule, so in Lambert, we cut over east to 6th Street and headed south on Highway 321, then as now, mostly gravel, running arrow-straight 12 miles to Brazil. Two miles south of Brazil, it sweeps to the left for four miles before intersecting with Highway 32 just east of Webb.

Brazil was our destination, or actually Hiram, two-and-a-half miles north of Brazil. That was where Father spent his last few years of farm life before joining the Navy in World War II, where I had spent summer after summer and countless weekends with his parents whom I adored.

In 1940, my grandparents’ farmhouse has burned to the ground. My father, the youngest of their eight children, was the only one still at hope. He was still in high school. The three of them moved into Brazil. In addition to running the farm, Grandfather and Father cut cypress from the bayou and oak from the forest beyond the cow pasture, hauled the timber to the sawmill on the place, and began sawing lumber for the new house.

The next spring, Grandfather paid two brothers and a black man, itinerant carpenters, $300 to build the house that he had drawn on a piece of brown craft paper with Grandmother’s input. That was the house I remembered and the house for which we were headed.

And there it stood, still shaded by oak and mimosa, and protected from road dust by a tall row of hedges. The cowbarn in the distance, the chicken house out back, the smokehouse, they all still stood, though they looked a bit more rickety than I remembered.

We pulled in through the gap in the hedgerow and parked beside the cascading wisteria. The old concrete sidewalk was cracked but the steps to the front porch were in good shape. Before we even opened the screen door to the porch, several faces appeared in the open door to the house, black faces, questioning faces, the faces of an older woman and three small children.

“Does A.J. still live here?” Father asked.

Smiles broke out on every face.

“He sho do,” said the woman. Then I recognized her. It was Loovie, A.J.’s wife.

She invited us into the familiar living room, and there was the man that Father had plowed fields with, had sweated beside in the hot Delta sun, had joked and laughed with at the end of a long day. He and Father recognized each other immediately.

A.J. rose from his chair, and the two men shook hands warmly as A.J.’s grandchildren stared up at them with smiles. The two men looked into each other’s eyes and searched each other’s faces for traces of the young men they had once been. Although of a similar age, A.J. looked much older that Father, no doubt as a result of the hard years spent outside working and later managing the farm.

It had been at least 15 years since I had been in this house on this farm which had been so central to my life growing up. And, yes, it seemed surprisingly small. I had spent entire summers here as a child, and even up through my high school years would find at least a week or two to spend with my grandparents. I was glad that people who understood, people who remembered them, lived in this house, still tended Grandmother’s irises in the front yard.

Father and I only stayed a few minutes, long enough to catch up on each other’s families. A.J. and Loovie’s son Willy, whom I had played with as a child, was out working the fields, so we missed him.

We bade everyone good-bye, but before leaving the farm, we drove across the railroad to the Lot. The house where A.J. and his family had lived when I was a boy still stood on the left close to the peach orchard Grandfather had planted. The mule barn was a rotting derelict, but the tractor sheds were in good repair. Grandmother’s garden site was a soybean field. We decided not to risk the old bridge across Possum Bayou. The bamboo thicket, the source of material for spears and whistles, still flourished by the wellhouse.

Cool, sweet water still flowed from an iron pipe in front of the wellhouse. When I was very small, the women on the place still fetched water here.  Waterlines had been run to all the houses on the place now, but the water still flowed from the iron pipe. Many times Grandfather and I had stopped for a cool sip on a hot afternoon, maybe even splashed a little water on our faces and necks. Father and I could not resist. We got out, placed our cupped hands under the flow, and took deep gulps. The water was as cool and sweet as we both remembered.

Continuing on south, we passed the Vinson place on the way to Brazil but did not stop as Mr. and Mrs. Vinson had passed away. In Brazil we were sad to see that Mr. Tate’s store was closed and falling apart. We stopped at Mr. Word’s store which was open, but we did not know the current owners. Where Miss Nettie’s store had stood was a pasture where two horses grazed leisurely.

The Brazil Baptist Church, built the year I was born 1953, looked exactly the same, a solid, brick structure with a small cemetery off to the side. Father’s family had attended the First Baptist Church in Webb until helping to organize the church in Brazil in 1940. Grandfather had lead the singing there when I was growing up.

On Sunday mornings he would tune the television to the Florida Boys or the Happy Goodman Family and sing along to the gospel songs he knew so well. He loved to sing and had a rich baritone voice. Grandfather’s mother was a Blackwood, the same family that had in the 1930’s produced the members of the Blackwood Brothers, the Grammy-winning Southern gospel quartet. As a child I attended Blackwood family reunions with Grandfather and Grandmother.

When it was time to leave for church, Grandfather would turn off the television, take his director’s baton from the mantel, and off the three of would go.

We left Brazil a little sad and headed for Webb where Father reminded me of Grandfather’s friend Mr. Ed Turner. Mr. Turner ran Turner Brothers, a clothing store. An interesting phenomenon of the Delta is the large number of department stores owned and operated by Jewish families, the Kantors, the Goldbergs, the Kornfelds, and in this case, the Turners.

When their house burned in 1940, the Father’s family had needed to replace everything, including their clothes. Mr. Turner had refused payment at the time, reportedly saying, “Henry, I know you’ll pay me when you can, but I suspect you have more pressing needs for your cash right now.”

Father’s brother Dick was an outstanding football player, and had once tackled an opposing player so hard that he knocked the ball carrier out. Father laughed again as he told the story of how he and Dick were in Turner Brothers the next week when Mr. Ed asked the boys to step into his office. Pulling open his desk drawer, he motioned to the revolver resting there, then looked at Dick and said, “Dick, if you ever hit me like you hit that boy last Friday night, I swear I’ll shoot you!”

Mr. Ed held out as long as he could, then erupted into laughter. The man loved a practical joke. Within a year, Mr. Ed had to make good on a promise he made to Dick. He had pledged to give Dick a watch the day he turned 18 if Dick agreed to foreswear Co-Colas, Delta-speak for any carbonated drink, until then, which Dick did.

Sadly, Turner Brothers had been replaced by a generic dollar store. In fact, Webb itself looked none too lively, so our stay was short. We still had a little time before we needed to be at Aunt Charlene. Sumner and Webb are less than three miles apart. Rather than head north on Highway 49W, we decided to take the old Webb-Sumner Road along Cassidy Bayou. We stopped at Woodlawn Cemetery to pay our respects at the Catledge plot. Grandfather had been buried there in 1972, Grandmother in 1974, and Uncle Grady in 1984.

I still miss my grandparents. They were such a formative influence on my life. To this day, any time I am in the Delta, I make time to stop by their graveside for a silent prayer of thanks for all of the love and discipline and instruction that they provided.

We still had a few minutes, so we ran by the Mississippi Power & Light office on the Square in Sumner. Mother’s sister Jean’s husband Charles might be in the office. He was and we had a brief but good visit, catching up on family. Aunt Jean and Uncle Charles had four children: Marsha Jean, Charlie who was my age, Sandy who was my sister Jo’s age, and John.

Charlie and I had played all over Tutwiler as young boys. We pedaled bikes or ridden motorcycles, dipped for crawdads to sell and collected Co-Cola bottles for the refund to buy Cokes and comics, climbed trees to swing on vines, walked the rails across the railroad trestle, hunted and fished, and hung around the airstrip where Uncle Grady and Bill Williams had their crop dusting service. Basically we ate and slept at the house and roamed the rest of the time. I could still hear Aunt Jean, “Cholly, Greg, you two get in here and wash up for supper.”

Charlie passed away in 2012. He was only 58 when cancer took him. His challenges in life were many. He has a beautiful daughter and a grandson that looks remarkably like him.

Bidding Uncle Charles good-bye, Father and I got back into the Buick for the half-mile drive to Aunt Charlene’s. When Uncle Grady retired from managing the Michener Place, he bought a house in Sumner, a spacious story-and-a-half wood-framed house with a wide, deep front porch supported by four stout columns. The house sits on Walnut Street on the south side of town and faces Cassidy Bayou right across the street. The backyard is dominated by an Indian mound crowned with three spreading oaks.

Before moving in, they had the exterior bricked. Ollie, Aunt Charlene’s maid and cook since forever, had moved into town with them but had declined the offer to move into the house with them. She had always had her own place and still wanted one, so Uncle Grady had purchased a mobile home and installed it in the backyard between the house and the Indian mound.

The first thing I noticed when we pulled up the gravel drive was that Ollie’s home was no longer there. I had forgotten that she had passed away. I had known her all my life. She often called me Little Jimmy because I looked so much like my father as a boy. I had visited her in her little wood-framed house out on the Michener place and I had visited her in her mobile home here. In the late 1960’s, she had sat with the family in the First Baptist Church when Charles Grady and Mary Ann were married. It was hard to believe, but she was gone now.

Aunt Charlene greeted us at the front door. She was a short, plump, bespectacled woman, wearing her usual print dress. Her eyes twinkled behind her glasses as she hugged and kissed us both. She still reminded me of Aunt Bea, only with less flutter. We retired to the parlor and began the delightful process of catching up on all the family news.

After a half hour or so, a stout black woman appeared smiling from the doorway to the dining room, wiping her hands on a checkered apron.

“Miz Charlene, dinner’s ready.”

“Thank you, Essie,” Aunt Charlene replied and we all rose as Aunt Charlene led us into the dining room.

“How you, Mistah Jimmy?” Essie asked.

“Fine, mighty fine, Essie,” Father answered. “How about you?”

“I gets by,” Essie replied. “I still stays up to Tutwiler. Comes down here to help Miz Charlene out from time to time.”

Essie looked me up and down. “My, my, this must be yo boy. He look just like you,” she said.

“He is. This is Greg.”

“Pleased to meet you, Essie,” I nodded.

“Likewise, Mistah Greg,” Essie replied with a bob of her gray head and a hint of a curtsey.

I did not offer her my hand. It would have made her uncomfortable. She knew it and I knew it. Ollie I would have hugged. In fact, I would have already been back to the kitchen to speak to Ollie, but Ollie was gone and Essie and I had only just met.

“I’ve knowed yo famly since, well, since forever,” she added which was no doubt true.

The Mississippi Delta is 200 miles long and only 70 miles wide at its widest and being farmland is sparsely populated. For instance, Tallahatchie County, where Sumner is located, has 24 people per square mile as opposed to 1,500 per square mile in the state capital, Jackson. The largest town, Charleston, has less than 3,000 souls. Sumner, one of the two county seats, had less than 500.

As a result, seemingly just about everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, either knows or knows about or is kin to or has a friend that knows everybody else. A common refrain when meeting someone for the first time is, “I believe I know some of your people.”

For instance, in July of 2016, I was in the Delta for my Aunt Jean’s funeral when I was ticketed for speeding out on Highway 49 just north of Sumner. I went to Sumner the next morning to see if I could pay my ticket.

I climbed the steps into the cool, musty courthouse, the very one in which the murderers of Emmitt Till were tried and acquitted much to the shame of all involved. There I was directed across the street to the Justice Center located beside the small brick building that had once housed the County Health Department where I would bring my grandparents for their monthly B12 shots back in the 1960’s.

The day was shaping up to be a hot one. I was already dressed in my black dress suit for Aunt Jean’s service and broke a sweat just crossing the street. The thermostat in the Justice Center was set to Arctic which immediately chilled my sweaty skin. There was a young black woman at a desk. I gave her my name and my business, and she checked her files. My ticket had not yet been turned in. Then she looked up at me.

“My granddaddy used to work for a Mistah Catledge up from Brazil,” she said. “You must be kin to him.”

I laughed out loud. “Yes, yes, I am. That would have been my grandfather,” I said. “My uncle managed the Mitchener Place for years before retiring and moving into Sumner.”

“You sounded like you might have been form a round here,” she noted and nodded her approval, an unspoken acknowledgement of what we both knew, that being from the Delta was like being a member of a club, a non-dues paying club, at least in the monetary sense, but a club that neither time nor space can ever weaken or dissolve the bonds that tied its collective members together.

We talked about the weather and what brought me back to the Delta. Of course, she knew the Thomases. Uncle Charles had run the Sumner office of Mississippi Power & Light for years. She offered condolences on the loss of my aunt. We were members of the club.

Now properly introduced, Aunt Charlene, Father, and I sat down at the table. Aunt Charlene insisted that Father sit at the head of the table. She took the other end and I sat on the side. Fine china, crystal, and silverware sparkled on the lace tablecloth. A platter of fried chicken was surrounded by a galaxy of bowls: butter beans, crowder peas, creamed corn, fresh tomatoes, squash casserole, and boiled okra. Steam rose from a plate stacked with wedges of fresh cornbread. The entire room was filled with the heady aroma of Southern cooking. It smelled like home.

We passed the dishes, loaded our plates, and ate to non-stop conversation, how Charles Grady and Mary Ann were doing in Atlanta, my prospects for marriage, Father’s plans for retirement. We ate until we were filled, then had peach cobbler with a dab of fresh butter and coffee. We complimented Aunt Charlene and Essie on a truly outstanding meal.

Stuffed, we retired to the den with a second cup of coffee and more conversation. Father had known Aunt Charlene since at least 1935. I had known her all of my life. During my college years in the early 1970’s, I had joined my friend Bobby Fancher for a weekend at Sumner’s First Baptist Church. Bobby was essentially interviewing for a summer job as youth minister at the church, a job he secured.

I stayed the weekend with Uncle Grady and Aunt Charlene. I reminded Aunt Charlene of that weekend and of how she was appalled at what I had planned to wear to one of the events.

“But Aunt Charlene,” I had protested. “It’s just an informal get together at the church.”

She had brooked no discussion. “Come with me,” she had said. “You are not going to my church dressed like that.” She meant not in slacks, shoes, and a striped, long-sleeve pullover shirt.

“I assume you brought at least one collared shirt,” she then asked.

“Yessum,” I answered.

She opened Uncle Grady’s closet and lifted out a sports coat. “This should fit you,” she said. “You may select your own tie.”

Like practically every Catledge male I have ever known, I was already over six feet tall and well filled out at 18. Of course, the sports coat fit.

We laughed at the story all over again. In many ways, Uncle Grady was considered the dourest of Father’s brothers, but a heart attack and his subsequent recovery seemingly changed all of that. He became more voluble and genuinely seemed to relish time with his extended family.

But as a small boy, Uncle Grady had always treated me kindly, indulgently even. In addition to owning the 500 hundred acres that Grandfather had farmed for him and managing the he Mitchener Place, Uncle Grady was a licensed pilot and part owner of a crop dusting service along with Bill Williams which was based in Tutwiler.

I must have been no more than five years old the first time he took me up in a Cessna 150, just the two of us. He even put me in his lap so that I could pretend that I was flying. We buzzed my grandparents’ farmhouse and Grandmother, unbelievably small even as low as we were, came out, shielded her eyes from the sun, and waved. I waved back furiously.

One day, Uncle Grady even convinced Mother to go up with him, to my knowledge the only time she ever got in an airplane. She sat in the back and I sat up front with Uncle Grady. Mother was tense but seemed to enjoy most of the flight. It was the landing that really had her worried. Uncle Grady said, “Don’t worry, Caroline, it’ll be so smooth you won’t even realize when we touch the ground.”

We dropped down low over the grass strip, skimming along right off the ground.

“See what I mean,” Uncle Grady said. “You didn’t feel a thing, did you?”

Mother breathed a long sigh of relief. “Thank God,’ she said, just as Uncle Grady reduced power and let the plane drop the final foot to the ground.

Mother shrieked, then reached forward and slapped Uncle Grady on the shoulder, hard.

“Grady Catledge,” she shouted.

Uncle Grady just laughed. I did too.

Aunt Charlene, Father, and I laughed at the story all over again, there in the cool den.

Soon, all too soon, Essie appeared at the door.

“I’z finished cleaning up, Miz Charlene. I be calling Sonny Boy to come pick me up if’n that’s OK.”

As was customary and accepted, Essie had had her dinner, which was the same one we had, in the kitchen, then put away all of the leftovers and cleaned up.

“That’s fine, Essie,” Aunt Charlene answered.

Father placed his large hands on his knees. “I ‘spect we’d need to be heading back to Tupelo. We’ll be glad to take you home, Essie.”

“You sho that ain’t no trouble?” Essie asked.

As is usual in family partings, at least in the South, maybe everywhere, but certainly in the South, it took a while: admonitions for safe travel, love to be shared with this person and that, the seemingly small things that strengthen the bonds that tie people who love each other together. Father’s family was so close that in my very young days, I did not know which of my aunts and uncles were his six surviving siblings and which ones had married into the family. I still think that is special.

Eventually, we were loaded up and ready to go. We backed down the driveway and rolled down the windows for one last wave good-bye to the sweet woman waving back from the front porch. Aunt Charlene would survive Uncle Grady by 15 years. Several years later after she had moved into a nursing home, Sherrie and I paid her a visit. She looked remarkably the same, a little slower, a little more fragile, but her fingers were still nimble. Our conversation was accompanied by the soft clicks of her knitting needles as she worked on another placemat. A neat stack of her work was stacked on her desk, and insisted that we take a full set for our dining room table. We still have them.

We drove back through the Square, across the railroad tracks and past the still stately but decaying Delta Inn with its mansard roof, gables, and balconies, and out to Highway 49E. On the short drive, Father and Essie spoke of their respective families, the celebrations, losses, and sorrows. Her family roots ran deep in the Delta too. Both families had sweated in the hot Delta sun and shivered in the cold Delta winters, although ours had certainly been the better off all those years.

It was only five miles to Tutwiler. As we neared town, we passed the airstrip tucked into the angle where Highway 49W and 49E converged. For reasons I have never been able to discover, Highway 49 begins in Gulfport and proceeds north to Jackson and on to Yazoo City where it splits into 49W, which runs roughly up the middle of the Delta through B.B. King’s hometown Indianola, and 49E, which runs along the eastern part of the Delta through Bobby Gentry’s (and my) hometown Greenwood. The two highways merge at Tutwiler and continue up through Clarksdale before crossing the Mississippi River into Arkansas at Helena.

Once in town, Essie guided us to her home in a set of row housing.

As Essie got out of the car, she said, “Thank y’all fo bringing me home. Can y’all wait here just a minute?”

Without waiting for an answer she hurried into her home and returned with a two-pound block of yellow cheese wrapped in plastic with a generic white label. In the early 1980’s the federal government began distributing stockpiled cheese to those individuals who were needy, on welfare, or on social security. Everyone called it government cheese.

Essie offered the block of cheese to Father.

“Thank you, Essie, but we’ve got all the cheese we need,” he protested.

“I knows you do, but I wants to say thank you fo going out your way to bring me home. ‘Sides, I know how Miz Carolyn like that gov’ment cheese.”

It was a moment fraught, weighted even, with so much of what makes the Delta the place that it is: an elderly black woman with very little, maybe just getting by, but offering a gift, a token of thanks, a statement of ‘I too have something to offer. I helped prepare and serve your meal and for that I was paid. I accepted your ride which, even though I know was freely given with no expectation, I would offer this thank you, this declaration that I too have something to offer other than my services.’

And Father understood this, as did I. “Thank you, Essie,” Father smiled, “She surely does.”

Father stepped from the car and accepted the cheese, then gave Essie a big hug. I got out and hugged her too, the mild formality of our earlier introduction gone now. We knew each other, had traveled together, if only five miles. I had eaten and enjoyed food she had prepared.

We were not equals, at least in our particulars. She was black, elderly, poorly educated, and poor. I was white, well educated, successful, and reasonably well off. But we were equals in our humanity, our need to love and be loved, our dreams and desires, the importance of home and family, our respect for other people, our respect for each other.

Leaving town, we passed the shuttered barbershop/pool hall/domino parlor of one of Grandfather’s cousins, Oraien Catledge. I had accompanied Grandfather there many times for a haircut. Oraien’s son, also named Oraien, although hindered by failing eyesight became a photographer of note in Atlanta, taking stark, unflinching portraits of the inhabitants of Cabbagetown, a former mill village just east of downtown Atlanta.

From Tutwiler, we turned north on Highway 3 through Vance, Longstreet, Denton, and Lambert, fading little towns with more storefronts shuttered than open. Combines and cotton pickers were still working the fields as the afternoon slipped away.

At Marks, we turned east towards Tupelo, the sun now sinking behind us. Father napped part of the way. We climbed into the hills, again our shadow raced ahead of us. We made it home just as the sun dropped below the horizon, just in time for supper. The last thing we needed was another big meal, but that had not stopped Mother from preparing one. Or us from eating it.

It was just one day, but a particularly good day. Father and I had just talked all day, letting the memories of people, places, and events pour out spontaneously. There had been other days with Father, many other days, my first dove hunt, my first college football game, days spent working in the yard, traipsing through the woods, learning to make a bamboo whistle, but those days became less and less frequent as I grew older, left for college and eventually a career.

As the years passed, and Father slipped into senility, we still had good times together, running simple errands around town, joining his friends at Shockley’s for coffee, snippets captured as time, distance, and other obligations allowed. But that one golden day with Father in September of 1985 was more than just a day or a trip, but a journey together, metaphorical as well as physical, and its memory still lingers enhanced by the accretion of additional memories, still rich and vivid, complex and comforting, especially as all I now have of Father are memories of our days together.


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Filed under Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta

The Arc of Totality

First things first. A solar eclipse at 98% of totality is not 98% as awe-inspiring as a total solar eclipse. It is maybe 20% as wonderful. I know. Now that I have seen both.

On the August 21, 2017, my wife Sherrie and I joined a few friends from Mississippi and a couple of thousand other people at a small, private airport in central South Carolina. At least a thousand drove in to join the thousand who flew in.
There was a grass airstrip, an unmanned control tower, a lake, several tents and pavilions, and restroom facilities scattered across acres of rolling, sun-drenched, green countryside. Campers and tents were clustered in the wooded areas on the periphery. Rows and rows of airplanes glistened in the morning sunlight: some home-built; some restored, vintage planes from World War II; some production models by Cessna or Beechcraft or Piper. People sought out the shade under the wings.

It was hot and humid, so we too gathered in the shade at the edge of the enormous, white tent set up for lunch: Sherrie; my old friends Vergil and Charlie; Charlie’s wife Tupper, and their granddaughters, Ella and Leigh Leigh. It was the first time we had met Tupper and the girls, all of whom proved to be as delightful as expected.

Suddenly at about 1:30, word circulated. The eclipse had started. I looked at Sherrie. “A squirrel is eating the sun,” I said. “At least that is what the Choctaw Indians thought.” We slouched in chairs with our funky, single-use eclipse glasses and regularly checked the progression. Ella and Leigh Leigh were fascinated by Vergil’s welder’s goggles and took turns looking like Junior Birdmen.

As the moon’s occlusion of the sun progressed from 25% to 50%, we noticed our surroundings change. It was like an increasingly cloudy day. At 90%, the very air took on a strange shimmering quality, but a brief, unfiltered glimpse at the sun revealed what still appeared to be a huge, fiery ball.

By the time we reached 98% of totality, we were all locked into our eclipse glasses watching the thinnest slice of orange sun shrink thinner and thinner. The chatter of excited voices filled the air. Suddenly, the last, least sliver of the sun winked out and the world through our dark glasses went black.

I slowly lowered my glasses, unsure of what to expect. All I could do was stare at the sky above. It was totally black. The moon was a flat, black disc that hid the sun. An irregular ring of pure white light, the corona, flared around the moon. I realized that I was holding my breath, had been from the moment had I dropped my glasses.

The temperature dipped perceptibly. The chatter of excited voices ceased and was replaced by the chirr of night insects. Awesome, otherworldly, all of the usual adjectives came to mind, all so insufficient as to be trite. It was easy to see how frightening a solar eclipse would be to a people with no knowledge of what was happening or why.

For over two minutes we reveled in the strangeness, trying to comprehend and articulate in hushed tones what we were experiencing. We took pictures that turned out poorly and promised to be better prepared the next time. Then with a cheer we rejoiced as the sun peaked out from the other side of the moon’s umbra.

There are at least two, sometimes as many as five, eclipses somewhere in the world each year. It is a matter of orbital mechanics and the plane of the ecliptic. The earth’s rotational axis tilts about 23° off of the plane of the ecliptic, its path around the sun. The moon circles the earth in a path that moves from 5° above to 5° below the ecliptic. Additionally, the moon’s rotational axis is nearly 7° off of its orbital plane.

These conditions combine to give us the rising and falling tides, the waxing and waning phases of the moon, and the seasons in their regular progression, things that make life on our planet a thing of transcendent beauty. These conditions, along with the speed of the earth’s and the moon’s respective rotations and orbits, also make total solar eclipses a rare occasion.

The human mind knows all of this, can predict with certainty when an eclipse will occur, but none of this detracts from the experience, it is so singularly unusual and, well, weird.

If one believes in God, and I do, it is another opportunity to thank Him for a universe of such majesty and wonder, for the stars, and planets, in their courses, and for the ability to understand and appreciate something so rare and moving and humbling.

Later that afternoon after fond farewells to friends old and new, we all headed for our respective homes, a new image vividly etched in our minds. And, yes, we are already making plans for the next total solar eclipse in the United States in 2024. We are now officially Totality Junkies.

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Filed under Eclipse, Solar Eclipse, Totality


For those who share these memories …

How often it is, a long unheard but well remembered song triggers a cascade of memories, unbidden yet vivid, some pleasant, some bittersweet, some heartbreaking. This morning “Bell Bottom Blues” by Derek and the Dominoes popped up on my iPhone as I was out running errands, and it happened.
Suddenly I was back in the college grill shooting the breeze with my usual group of guys and girls, when one of our friends walked in with that loose-jointed saunter we all knew so well, his lank, shoulder-length hair swaying with every stride. With a bemused smile and a sigh, he slumped down in our booth and plopped his books onto the table just as “Bell Bottom Blues”, no doubt selected by one of us, ten cents a song, three for a quarter, dropped onto the spindle of the jukebox.
He had a rather long, clean-shaven face with angular features and wire-rimmed glasses perched precariously on his nose. He perked up at the opening guitar chords and proceeded to expound on how wonderful it was to have friends who understood and appreciated good music as opposed to so much of the drivel passing for music on the radio. In fact, he expounded almost all the way through “Bell Bottom Blues” so that we did not get to really listen to the song. But that was our friend, and his foibles were accepted along with his many fine qualities because, well, because he was our friend.
I lost a little part of me a few years back when I heard that he had, in the words of one of our gang from those days, “finally succeeded in drinking himself to death.”

Our friend’s family lived a few south of the campus in a house his parents had designed and built on land purchased from his mother’s mother. It sat in a densely wooded area, a two-story, white, wood-framed house, reached by a gravel road running down the left side of a large pasture before diving into the woods and winding through the trees to a small clearing just large enough for the house. We were always welcome there.
His father was a usually taciturn but occasionally engaging artist who had moved into management at the advertising firm to better provided for his family. He composed symphonies on the side. My friend’s mother had taught school but now kept home. She had wavy hair, freckles, and a ready smile and warm hug. His younger sister was a delicate flower with long, straight hair who loved horses. His younger brother was the only high school aged kid I knew who was an avid Elvis fan.
From this milieu sprang my friend, a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, bass, piano, and drums, to my knowledge) who could read music and excelled at math and science. He was prone to the outrageous statement such as “Steve Earle is god!” His musical taste ran from the Romantic symphonies of Shostakovich to the acoustic harmonies of Bread to the blues of Mose Allison to the Southern rock of the Allman Brothers. Our tastes coincided on most points, but I could not quite make it all the way to Bread. America was as far as I could go down that road. He was smart, frequently unfocused, always open-handed, a chain smoker, and a true friend.
There was always a place at his family’s dinner table, even if two or three or more were hanging around. His mother insisted on patching my torn jeans with the most colorful swatches she had. Through the family, we added another member to our loose coterie, a recent graduate of our college who had met the family through his electrician father who had wired their house.
One Christmas the girls in our gang suggested we each decorate a square of fabric in some appropriate fashion, which we did. Then the girls used the squares to create a quilt to present to our friend’s mother. It made up in love what it lacked in aesthetics. She treasured it.
Our gang enjoyed those times hanging out with our friend and his family. It was our home away from home, a house was filled with good conversation, music, and laughter. I believe that in our heart of hearts, we thought this was the ideal family, the kind of loving and accepting family and home we hoped to create someday.

We progressed through our college years. Soon, my friend’s younger sister began dating another classmate of ours. One afternoon the two of them were pedaling bikes on a country road near her house when a motorist struck and killed her boyfriend. Devastated, her life spiraled out of control. I might bump into her at a concert or music venue, out of it, unaware of where she was, abandoned by whomever she had come with. I would load her up and take her home.
Around this time, my friend’s father began an affair with a woman in his office which led to a divorce and more heartbreak.
In those pre-social media days, time, distance, careers, and families led us down different paths and we all lost touch except for sporadic and unexpected contact. I learned that my friend began a career in information technology and that he had lost his mother to cancer. Then I learned he was in a hospital in New Orleans, dying. Then he was gone.

All of these memories and more erupted into my mind unbidden, whole, intact, nearly palpable, and all in the blink of an eye, the space of a heartbeat. Music, that most abstract and evocative medium, was certainly the trigger, but it must have been more than that. How many times have I heard that song? Who knows? The driver’s seat of an SUV has little enough in common with a vinyl-covered booth in a campus grill, a parking lot with a college campus.
For whatever reason, it happened, revealing the arc of all those lives, rich in detail at times, frustratingly patchy in others, each joy and sorrow and loss acute and real.
It is a blessing that with each remembering, those people, those friends that shaped our lives so, are etched more deeply in our hearts and minds, where they can be clutched more dearly and treasured for the times that were precious, where all that happened can be pondered upon, searched again and again for answers and meaning.
All that and more because “Bell Bottom Blues” popped up on my iPhone, and I was suddenly 20-years-old and my friend strolled into the campus grill with a grin on his face.

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Filed under Loss, Memory

Beside Still Waters

I have recently completed the first revision of my novel, Beside Still Waters. Here are the first two chapters. More will follow. If there is interest!



The rays of the weak winter sun, diffused by high thin clouds, flooded the kitchen with pale, white light. The old man’s hands rested on the checkered tablecloth that covered the kitchen table, big hands, weathered, curled in repose.
It was warm and quiet in the kitchen. The only sounds were the susurration of gas vaporizing in the heater, tiny tongues of blue flame heating the waffle pattern of the ceramic bricks cherry red; that and the soft, domestic clattering of his wife at the stove. A one-pound coffee can half-filled with water sat steaming on the fender of the heater, releasing moisture into the stove-heated, dry air.
From time to time the northwest wind, sweeping unhindered down from the Great Plains and across the Mississippi Delta, would whip another gust against the house with enough strength to rattle the windows. But inside it was warm and protected and redolent with warmed-over leftovers.
The old man told a story which was at one moment rich in vivid, life-giving detail, draping flesh to bone, then opaque, lost in a frustrating paucity of telling features, like an old man’s memory, which it was, dredged up from over a lifetime ago, memories long buried, subsumed, as a long-suppressed shame, which in part it was, but recounted now with a firm conviction that the years of silent, unshared retrospection had imparted, obliterating any uncertainty or equivocation of thought, will, or intent that might have existed at the time.
He shifted his gaze from the boy across the table and stared absently out the window across the ocher stubble of the pasture and field to the gray smudge of the distant forest, a diminished remnant of what it had been when he had first come here, still rich in thick stands of oak, wild brakes, sloughs and bayous, small game and deer, gray and red fox, too. But it was only a shade of its former self, too little left to sustain the bear and panther which were hunted out long ago as the shadowed world they roamed was remorselessly reduced by axe and plow and given over to pasture and field, the woods still wild but no longer primeval, subdued now, diminished if not tamed.
His wife, almost as old as he, adjusted the heat on the stove as she warmed their supper and listened with belying inattention. She knew some of the story but not all. She never had. They were of a time and place, another world really, where the orbits of men and women, the things they shared and discussed, even if married to each other, overlapped far less than in these days.
But it was more than that, much more. There were things he talked about with men, men who shared the same goals, desires, and hopes: bank shares and loans, cotton prices and gin rates and yields per acre, things he would never have even thought to share with her. Just as he would never have presumed to interfere with how she managed their home and household expenses or raised their children.
But it was even more than that. There had been men he could not understand with motives he could not fathom and threats he could not ignore, things that he wanted desperately to shield her from.
But even that was not the whole of it. He had never shared with his wife, the mother of all his many children, the only woman he had ever loved, all that he had risked, all that he had dared, the part of him that he had sacrificed during that first year of their marriage.
The house in which they now lived was larger than that other one but still wood-framed, still simple, still painted white although green striped fabric awnings stretched over metal frames shielded the windows from the remorseless Delta summer sun. That other house, long gone now, had been warmed by wood-burning fireplaces, cooking done in a wood-burning stove. Now gas appliances made all of that easier, although he was not convinced it was better, only easier, but there was something to be said for that.
It had been winter then too, when it had all started, not deep winter with the ground frozen iron-hard and brittle branches rattling in the northwest wind like the sound their antlers make during the tentative jousting of bucks in rut, but that last gasp of winter when one senses that spring is just holding its breath waiting for the right moment to exhale.
The old man paused and without conscious thought ran the blunt fingertips of his left hand along the scar on his left temple just above the templepiece of his wire-rimmed glasses. The scar was as wide and long as his forefinger, not deep, not even puckered, faint, lighter than his sun-browned face, almost white. His big hand drifted down his cheek and across his mouth, then dropped back to the kitchen table.
“This all happened a long time ago, 1905, to be exact. Your grandmother and I had only been married about a year,” the old man spoke slowly, softly.
He hesitated and looked at the boy across the table not sure exactly why he felt compelled, after all these years, to tell the story or why he chose to tell it now, to this boy, one of their many grandchildren. Was it because the boy had spent so much time with them, had followed him all over the Place until he knew every inch of the farm and woods as well as the old man did, had listened enthralled to so many old stories?
His decision made, the old man continued, “You know, I’ve never told anyone this before, but I have to now. Son, old age doesn’t just take your strength, it takes your memories too. Almost everyone else is gone now. All but one, and she doesn’t know the entire story, no more than I do. When the two of us are gone it will be lost.”
The old man hung his head. “And I don’t want the story lost,” he said, even as he thought, too much had happened, things that had shaped him and consequently his entire family, even this smooth-faced, eager boy across that table from him.
He raised his dark eyes and looked into the boy’s face, unlined, innocent, trusting, on the verge of manhood, just a few years younger than he had been when it had all started. The old man paused. Could he have been that young, that innocent then? No, not quite so much. After all, he already had a family at that time and responsibility for a farm, the farm which he now owned and on which he still lived.
“I wadn’t much older than you when I first came to New Bethel,” the old man sighed. “But I already had a couple of crops behind me when it happened.”


With a gentle pull on the reins and a light touch of the brake, the man eased the creaking wagon to a halt in the middle of the bridge. The mules stood patiently in the weak, late winter sun, their hindquarter muscles twitching in that peculiarly equine manner to the perceived presence of imaginary flies. The only sound was the soft rattle of trace chains and the occasional hollow thump of a hoof against the sun-bleached planks of the bridge when one of the mules shifted its weight.
The man draped the reins across his thigh, stretched his back, and lifted the brown hat from his head to run his fingers through his short, dark hair. Settling his hat back on his head, he re-gathered the reins, but instead of calling up the team, he leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and let his eyes drift over the edge of the rail-less bridge to the still, brown water of Flautt Bayou far below. The low-angled rays of the sun filtered through the trunks of the cypress trees rising from the murky water in fluted columns like ancient architecture, casting alternating bands of light and dark across the water, sun and shadow.
The man pulled his makings from his coat pocket, folded the paper into a little trough which he filled with tobacco from his pouch, and rolled a cigarette. He struck a match on a bolthead of the wagon’s seat, lit his smoke, and again stared at the water.
The sluggish water was brown, but not really muddy. It was so still that one had to take it on faith that the water in the bayou even moved at all, except after a heavy rain. Rather, silt and untold number of decaying leaves and other vegetation had released tannins giving it that distinctive flat, almost milky, brown color, like cloudy tea. The occasional bubble broke the otherwise surface, gas released by rot and decay in the murky depths. The man knew all these things without even thinking, knew it as one understands and internalizes his world.
Even seated on the wagon, it was obvious that the driver was a tall man. His attire was as dull and monochromatic as the surrounding countryside: hat, jacket, tie, trousers and boots, everything was some shade of gray or brown. Only his stark white shirt relieved the monotony.
He shifted on the hard wooden seat and stared at his wrists protruding from his coat and wondered why it was so hard to find a coat that fit his frame and had sleeves long enough to cover the wrists on his inordinately long arms. One of the mules shook its head. The abrupt movement was transmitted up the reins and brought the man out of his reverie. The day was fading, more cold already seeping into the chill, late winter air. He had just enough time to make his last delivery.
The fruit trees, their root balls wrapped in heavy burlap, had been delivered to the train depot in New Bethel from Stark Brothers Nurseries on Monday. The rest of the week he had been at the depot by dawn to rewet the burlap, load the wagon and make his rounds, delivering the trees that local farmers had ordered months ago. Many of the farmers ordered and planted in the fall, but some preferred the spring. The Mississippi Delta’s long growing season and relatively mild winters allowed for success either way.
As a representative for Stark Brothers, it seemed that between selling and delivering trees that he had met nearly everyone in Okaloosa County in the few short years he had lived north of New Bethel. But the time away from the land he farmed meant that fewer chores had been accomplished, although the extra money was welcome. Any money that he didn’t have to borrow to make his crop was money he wouldn’t have to worry about repaying.
After one last draw on his cigarette, the man rolled the last shreds of tobacco and flimsy paper between his fingers. The remnants cascaded from his fingers only to be lifted away by the winter breeze, as ephemeral as the smoke that drifted from his nostrils. He flicked the reins and the mules eased back into their plodding gait, pulling the wagon off the bridge with a clatter and into the ruts in the hard-packed dirt road. The Gentry place was not far, but it would be dark by the time he made it home. It was his last delivery and Mattie would have supper waiting, maybe squirrel stew, one of his favorites.
He hated being away so much this week and not just because of the untended chores. The baby was due soon, their first, and the strain on the once slender wisp of his young wife was obvious. Not that she ever complained. In fact, the patience and serenity that was so inherent in her character, if anything, seemed to be enhanced by the mere idea of the new life growing within her.
The road stretched away through gray, fallow fields, stubble from last season’s cotton was barely visible, having been cut and plowed under after last season’s harvest leaving softly rounded furrows after the winter rains. Soon turning plows and middle-busters would be digging deep beneath the dry surface to reveal the moist, black earth below where the moisture from those winter rains and snow was stored. Jake knew from experience that the Delta got more rain in the winter than in the summer, his rain gauge and records didn’t lie, but it sure didn’t seem that way.
Maybe it was because he was indoors a little more in the winter, or maybe it was because in the summer he was always concerned about whether he was getting too much or too little rain. Too much early rain could flood the fields and drown the crop; too much rain later could mean that he wouldn’t be able to plow the rows to kill the weeds that would sap the moisture and nutrients and choke his crop, compelling him to the alternative of sending the hands into the fields for the exhausting, back-breaking work of chopping the weeds out with hoes. Too little rain at any time could stunt the crop, and if it was dry for too long it could burn the cotton up in the fields. A lot could go wrong, either way, during the planting, growing and harvesting seasons.
No, he thought, winter was somewhat of a respite for farmers. Not from work, there was always plenty to do, but it gave them the opportunity to think of weather in the abstract rather than the particular. In many ways it was a hard life and a challenging one, the only life he had ever known. It was such a part of him, so deeply planted, that he never even thought in terms of whether he actually cared for it or rather he would rather do something else.
Making a crop was what he did, how he provided for himself and his family, but it was more than that, too. There was a deep satisfaction that he felt but hardly ever articulated, even to himself, but it was there nevertheless: the relentless, renewing wonder of growing things; empty, desolate fields erupting with life; then tended, cared for through growth, blossom, maturity, and harvest; ever new and ever beautiful, but in its own way a violent struggle, the struggle for life anew.
A wagon wheel dropped into a rut with a jarring thud, jerking the man from his contemplation. The fields on either side of the road were giving way to the scattered frame houses of farmhands on the Gentry place. Twisted tendrils of woodsmoke curled upward from brick chimneys into the still air before slowly dissipating among the bare limbs of black-trunked trees spreading above shacks of weathered boards huddled desolately along the road.
As the road curved, the man could just make out Mister Gentry’s Commissary through the oak saplings, saplings he had delivered here only a couple of years ago, his first season in Okaloosa County.
A sharp crack almost like a pistol shot shattered the winter stillness. The man jerked his head around toward the nearest house to see two men, bodies clutched together in a frantic, clawing embrace, hurdle off the porch and land with a dull thud on the hard ground.
The man hesitated, realizing he had only heard the door of the hovel slam open against the wall. It looked like it was barely hanging from its hinges. He stared at the motionless bodies amid the softly settling dust. Slowly the more slender man, the one on top rolled to the side and up onto his knees, his mouth bleeding, a smear of blood on the front of his patched and stained overalls.
The man hauled back on the reins and flipped them around the brake pole and leapt from the wagon before it even stopped rolling. Charging across the yard toward the two men, he came to a halt and gaped at the body of the larger man lying face-up on the ground. Thick, dark blood, nearly black in the fading light, oozed around the blade of a small hunting knife which jutted from his chest and was already soaking into the man’s clothing. The man recognized the body still sprawled out on the ground. It was one of Gentry’s hands, Rad Timmons.
The man’s mouth tightened into a grim line as he stared at the kneeling man. “What happened here? You hurt?”
The smaller man gradually became aware of his presence and pulled his stunned, anguished face up from staring at his cupped, bloody hands. Tears pooled at the edges of his eyes and made moist tracks down his dusty cheeks. It was not a man. It was only a boy, Rad Timmons’ oldest son, Henry.
A flat, hesitant voice answered, “I – I don’t know, Sir. It’s hard to say just what happened. Is he dead?”
The man squatted by the body carefully avoiding the spreading puddle of lifeblood, already beginning to soak into the packed dust, and kneaded the still-warm flesh of Timmons’ neck, searching for the pulse he never found. The sweet-sick miasma of cheap liquor hovered around the dead man’s face. The man grimaced, swallowed the bile rising in his throat, looked sideways from under the brim of his hat.
“He certainly is, Son. How about you? You hurt?” he asked for the second time.
The boy, his blood- and sweat-soaked overalls and shirt plastered to his chest, rose slowly, unsteadily to his feet. Tall for his age, he looked no more than 15, and rail thin to boot. He was so thin and dazed that he looked insubstantial, as if he might disappear in bright sun or be completely dissipated by a strong wind.
No, Sir.” The boy’s voice was flat. “Only from being hit.”
The man stood too. “Wanna tell me what happened?” He prayed it was an accident.
“He come home drunk again. H–he kept hitting Momma. He wouldn’t stop. I tried to make him stop. You know how he could git.”
The man really did not really know that much first hand but had some idea based on his few experiences with Rad Timmons, what he knew about some of the company Rad kept, and certain things that he had heard, some of which he believed.
“Go on.”
“That’s when he started hitting me. I hit him back, the first time I ever did that.” The boy sighed. “That’s when he went crazy-like. He kept hitting me, harder and harder. The next thing I knew he had a knife. Everything else is just a jumble ‘til we landed in the yard. Did I really kill him?”
“I’m afraid so. Let’s get him covered up. Where’s your momma?”
He looked up to see a woman standing in the doorway, simultaneously tugging at her torn dress and apron while trying to push stands of her disheveled hair back under the faded rag tied around her head. Her thin, almost gaunt, face already livid red where her husband had struck her, could not hide the stunned expression on her face nor the deep lines that life had carved there.
“He’s daid, ain’t he, Mister Jake?” Her gaze was steady but the question caught in her throat.
“Yes, Vertie, I’m afraid he is. Are you hurt?” Jake felt curiously uncomfortable looking at her, kept involuntarily averting his eyes. He had never seen a woman who had been beaten.
She sagged against the doorframe and a sob wracked her shoulders, whether from the death of her husband or the fact that her son was responsible Jake could not tell. Both facts had distinct and profound dimensions that the new widow would be forced to plumb, if not articulate, after the shock wore off, but not now. Now they were just part of the enormity of a single act.
“I’ll be alright,” Vertie replied, gingerly drying her battered face with a corner of her apron. “Besides, a coupla bruises ain’t my biggest worry right now.”
As uneasy as he was looking at her, Jake could sense the weight that was beginning to settle on the woman, inevitable and crushing. She looked like she might collapse at any moment.
Jake started toward the porch, but the boy leaped up ahead of him, gently placing his arm around her shoulders for support, taking care to keep his blood-smeared hands and clothes from brushing her. Jake watched as the boy’s dirty, tear-stained face softened as he comforted his mother. Not the first time, I’ll bet, thought Jake.
The boy looked down into his mother’s upturned face. “Don’t worry, Ma. Everything’ll be alright,” he whispered.
Brave young man, Jake thought, especially considered what just happened. I hope he is right.
The distant, happy, unaffected chatter of children drifted over the fields in the crisp air and brought Jake’s attention back to the task at hand. “Where are the other children?” he asked.
“Down by the slough, playing,” Vertie answered.
“They weren’t here for any of it?’
“No, thank heaven,” she sighed.
“Probably for the best. Mister Gentry up at the house?” Jake wasn’t sure if the Gentrys had returned from their trip.
“No, he and the family’s been visiting kinfolk for the last coupla days. Should be back later tonight.”
“Sounds like him. Wouldn’t dream of traveling on Sunday or even being away from home, would he?”
“I reckon not.”
Jake thought for a minute. “If you’ve got something to cover him with, I’ll unload these trees over at the Commissary and bring the wagon back so we can load the body and take it into town. I expect I had better take the boy along with me.”
“No, no,” she pleaded, clutching her son more tightly to her. “Please don’t, Mister Jake. Henry’s only a boy.”
“I know that, Vertie,” Jake said, staring at the boy, “and I know how much you depend on him, but a man is dead. The sheriff has to be told, and he’ll want to talk to him. But first I ought to get this body to town. Doc Tate ought to have a look at you, too.”
Gathering herself together, she pled, “Oh, no, no, I cain’t go into town looking like this. Folks think poorly enough of us as it is. I’ll be alright. Besides, I got the kids to gather in and feed.”
“Well, alright then, but let’s get this cleaned up. Don’t call the children up ‘til we are gone,” Jake said with finality and turned toward the wagon.

It was less than a quarter-mile to Gentry’s Commissary, a large, low building with a wide, deep porch that ran all across the front and halfway down both sides. As Jake suspected there was no light within. The Commissary would be locked. A black and tan hound resolved itself from the dusty gloom of the crawlspace as the wagon rattled up to the porch. The dog stretched, head low and hindquarters high, then clambered up the steps onto the porch, waiting expectantly to be petted.
Jake pulled the wagon right up to the edge of the porch for ease of unloading and stepped right onto the porch. The old dog ambled over and Jake scratched him behind the ears.
“Hey there, Old Fella,” Jake said into the deep brown eyes.
The hound closed his eyes in apparent bliss. When Jake withdrew his hand, the old hound moved aside, walked in a circle, and settled on the well-trod planks and dropped his chin to his extended front paws as he watched Jake unload the trees.
Jake lined the trees up neatly along the south wall to provide them warmth from the morning sun. He considered going to the wellhouse for a bucket of water to rewet the root balls, but decided against it. Too much to do, and the trees would keep until tomorrow when one of Gentry’s hands noticed them.
Jake reached down to pet the old hound one last time before settling back into the wagon seat and turning back toward the Timmons’ house.
By the time Jake got back from unloading the trees at Gentry’s Commissary, the last of the sun’s rays were brushing the distant treetops, burnishing them all golden even as their lower limbs and trunks were dissolving into gray.
Jake knew that Mattie would soon begin to worry a little, not much, but a little. She knew as well as he that a mule could pull up lame or a wagon wheel might cause a problem. Life had its uncertainties, as Jake knew now more surely than ever before. There was just not much he could do about it at the moment.
Vertie Timmons had cleaned her face, straightened her hair, and changed into a clean, though shabbier, dress than the torn one she had removed. She had also found a faded but clean piece of blanket to cover Rad’s body, the outline of a man’s body distinct despite the sickening way the handle of the knife held the blanket clear of the chest. Like a teepee, Jake thought.
Henry had changed his overalls and washed up. The boy’s hair was still damp. In his ragged coat, he stood beside his mother on the porch, his arm again around her shoulder.
“Time to go, Son,” Jake called softly.
What a grim job, Jake thought, having to load up your own father’s body, especially when it’s you that’s killed him. It was going to be a long ride into New Bethel.
Henry embraced his mother and reassured her again before stepping down from the porch to help Jake. They loaded the limp, sagging, unwieldy body into the wagon bed. There was nothing left but a small pool of drying blood. With the toe of his boot Jake kicked some dust over it, but though obscured, the stain remained.
Jake looked up. Vertie was coming from the porch with a sloshing pail of water.
“Leave it, Mister Jake. I’ll dash some water over it,” she said with finality and a sense of resignation.

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Filed under editing, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized, writing



The man paused to catch his breath. Rivulets of sweat streamed down his face to collect on the tip of his nose, tremble for the space of several heartbeats, then drop to the limb on which he rested astraddle, creating an ever increasing dark puddle on the rough oak bark. Climbing a tree was harder than he remembered. His abraded palms and scraped shins were testimony to that. But he had been twelve then, and now he was north of 60.
The air was still warm from the late afternoon September sun, but the first hint of dryness and autumn cool was noticeable, just like it had been when he was twelve and he and his father had hauled a few 2X4’s, some 1X6 planks, nails, and hammers into the enormous oak that dominated their front yard, spreading its branches into the neighbors’ yards on either side, out into the street, and back over their own house.
The horizontal fork, ten feet off the ground, equidistant from the massive, four-foot thick trunk, and the street, had been selected as the ideal spot. That afternoon a little platform, about four feet wide and six feet long with little two foot high walls on three sides, had been constructed, father and son working together, rare but not unheard of. There had been countless groundballs thrown in the backyard and untold pass routes run, but to build something together, that was different.
His father would surprise him again the following month, October, on a Saturday in mid-morning, by suggesting that after lunch they drive over to Ole Miss for a football game. Trips with his father, just the two of them, had been rare, and had never included a college football game, much less an Ole Miss game. The afternoon had been crystalline as only a sun-drenched October afternoon in Mississippi can be, the long, long, hot summer finally supplanted by autumn.
He had thought his father was a football genius with eyes that missed no detail: a flag was thrown in the offensive backfield and his father said “Holding”, then another was thrown during a punt return and his father said, “Another clipping penalty.” Only when the boy was older did he learn that nearly every flag in the offensive backfield was for holding and nearly every penalty on the returning team during a runback was clipping. Even then it did not matter; his father had played football and knew football. Practically everything the boy knew about football, and a lot about life, he had learned from his father.
He would see many more college football games, most with people other than his father, but this was his first and it still lived in all of its idealized, autumn-hued clarity, the precisely lined, emerald field, Ole Miss in crimson and blue, Vandy in black and gold, the rickety bleachers on the visitors’ side, the only seats available for walkups. Funny thing was, he could remember the mood and feel of the day as if the intervening years did not exist, but he not the score. Ole Miss must have won for the memory to be so wonderful.
His father was gone now, lost first to dementia, then completely gone, gone and buried, resting beside the man’s mother under a patch of ground so flat and grassy that it seemed improbable that it held their earthly remains even though he could clearly remember the sickening, hollow thump of dirtclods striking their coffins as the workers began filling the holes in which his parents now rested.
Rested, the man continued scooting out on the limb, gripping the limb desperately on occasion, the rope tied about his waist tugging gently, his goal in sight. The fork that was his destination was not as level as the one had been over 50 years ago, but the man knew how to correct that with shims. Settling into the fork, the man took hold of the rope that ran from his waist to the bundle of lumber and tools on the ground and braced himself. Hand over hand, he pulled the swaying, shifting load up into the tree and settled it across the fork, lunging for the hammer before it slipped from underneath the knotted rope, just as his father had done years before.
The treehouse had been the boy’s own personal retreat. As a man remembered the smell, the feel of Friday afternoons, no school for two days, homework deferred. Even as a man, some Friday afternoons felt almost the same. It was the smell, that first hint of dry fall leaves, that first caress of coolness in the air. It came back in a rush, unexpected, unbidden, welcomed, embraced, the feel of that last year of complete innocence when his world had been narrow, protected.
When he was twelve years old, he would race home from the junior high school – another transition being that sixth graders went to junior high that year – with the latest delivery from the Scholastic Book Services or a new treasure from the library tucked under his arm. Folding up an aluminum lawn chair, he would thrust his book inside, tie his rope to the corner of the chair, and toss the free end of the rope over the limb by the treehouse. Scrambling up the trunk, he would walk out along the broad limb to the treehouse, then pull up his chair and book and settle in among the leaves, leaves on the cusp of changing color but still holding onto summer’s green, a green now gone a little dull and tired, the long, golden rays of the setting sun slanting through them, burnishing them with hints of the colors to come.
It was peaceful, serene. The world passed beneath him unaware, unconcerned, just as it did today in the tree in his own front yard. The man pulled out the first 2X4, seven feet long, and laid it along the left side of the fork. The limb dipped a little at the far end. The man drove a 16d nail through the 2X4 and into the limb at the near end, grabbed a couple of 1X’s and scooted to the far end.
The man brought no level. Rather he decided to eyeball it like his father had done. There was a time for precision as practiced and taught him by his father, but there was an organic quality to a treehouse. It had to fit in and grow from the tree. Sliding the shim under the low end of the 2X4, he sighted along it. Level enough. He drove another 16d nail through the 2X4 and the shim and into the limb. Scooting back to the fork, he drove a couple of more nails to secure the 2X4.
The man was sweating again. The temperature hovered at that range that was absolutely perfect for a person at rest, but only at rest. A little exertion was all it took to start him sweating.
Dropping another 2X4 onto the right side of the fork, the man quickly and surely nailed it down. He quickly arrayed the pre-cut 1X6’s (all five fee long) across the fork on top of the 2X4’s.
They were new, yellow planks, not the grey, weathered ones, reclaimed from some other project that his father and he had used. As a boy he had never used a new plank, board, or nail. All had been scavenged from abandoned projects or repurposed, the nails carefully knocked straight only to frequently bend again when used. If nothing else, as a boy he had developed some pretty impressive hammering skills. At first the boy’s father had said he hammered like lightening. His momentary pride sank at the follow-up: You never strike in the same place twice.
Although true, It had been said in jest, not to be mean. His father had probably heard the same thing from his own father. The boy’s father had grinned, ruffled the boy’s short hair, and said, “Here, let me show you how.”
The man quickly lined up and nailed down the planks and was left with a mostly level, reasonably flat platform seven feet long by five feet wide. He imagined it was the same size as the one his father had built, but knowing childhood memories assumed it was larger.
The man stretched out lengthwise on the platform letting his drying sweat plaster his shirt to his chest while he stared up though the shifting leaf patterns, sun and shadow, light and dark. The greener tops of the leaves still maintaining some of their luster compared to duller lighter undersides.
Why was he doing all of this, building a treehouse of all things? The man honestly did not know. He loved his wife, even more deeply than ever, with a love too deep and committed to be attributed to habit or inertia. He had always been faithful to her despite the opportunities available to most men, having learned the difference between desire and love before he had met her.
His entire family, children, grandchildren, in-laws, nieces, and nephews were a never-ending source of wonder and joy to him. That he could be so loved by so many still filled him with amazement. He accepted it but could not understand it. Why him? He knew he did not deserve it but was thankful for it every day. No, that was not it.
But it could not be his job either. He had been reasonably successful in his career, remarkably so considering his frequent reliance on circumstance as opposed to actual planning. While his job was not perfect, he enjoyed it more than not, as much as any man wondering if he could afford to retire yet, and it paid well, meeting their needs with enough left over for the occasional indulgence.
No, it was none of those things. Maybe it was being nearer the end than the beginning. Maybe it was the loss of so many from those innocent days: parents, teachers, neighbors, Sunday School teachers, even contemporaries, people who had shaped his life, the last living touchstones with those days. The freedom and innocence could never be reclaimed, but faint glimmers like emotional memory washed over him from time to time. Like this afternoon.
Shaking his head and rising to his knees, the man laid the short 2X4’s on the deck and nailed the 1X6’s, three for each pair of 2X4’s, to them to create the kneewall (shinwall?) that would go around three sides of the platform. The boy’s father had thought that would be perfect: three walls with little 45% pieces tacked at the corners and longer uprights at the front joined by a crosspiece. And it had been perfect, perfect for the boy.
Sitting in his lawn chair with his heels resting on the corner of the low wall, the boy had read his first science fiction novel, Mission to Mercury. It was one of the last juvenile books he read, but it added fuel to the fire that the dawn of manned space flight had already lit in his heart and mind, a passion that ruled off and on for years, nearly but not quite shaping his career. He also read his first adult (in terms of not written for children as opposed to a euphemism for raunchy and steamy) novel, The Beasts of Tarzan.
No boy of his age and time had escaped the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies of the 1930’s and 40’s, and few enjoyed them more. That summer his mother had dropped him off at the hospital gift shop on her way upstairs to see his father who was recovering from routine surgery. In those days children were not allowed on the wards, and the lady who managed the bookstore lived only a few houses down the street from them.
Armed with an incredibly generous 50¢ and faced with a virgin field of comic books arrayed before him, he had eventually settled on the best four at 12¢ each. The problem had arisen as he approached the cash register. The revolving paperback rack had never in his short life caught his attention, but it did this day.
The cover had been mostly burgundy-colored, EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS across the top, THE BEASTS OF TARZAN right below. On the bottom half of the cover, Tarzan, a monkey on his shoulder and a spear in his hand, had sat astride a bull elephant with an African warrior in the foreground. The boy’s eyes had never left he book as his right hand reached out of its own volition and set the comics on the glass cabinet on the other end of which was the cash register.
He had lifted the paperback from the rack and had begun thumbing through the book. This was not a Tarzan he knew. This Tarzan was both more sophisticated and articulate and more savage than M-G-M’s Tarzan. He had been transfixed. Inside the front cover there had been a list: Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan, The Beasts of Tarzan, The Son of Tarzan. The list went on and on, more than 20 titles. The boy had flipped back to the cover. Yes, plain as day in the top right corner, “Tarzan 3.” He had sensed rather than known that he had stumbled onto source material, and a wealth of it at that.
The decision had been difficult. The comics were a known quantity, not so the paperback. For the love of heaven, it had no pictures at all unless you counted the cover. Finally, fatefully, the boy had returned the comics to the rack and laid The Beasts of Tarzan on the shiny glass counter by the cash register. The man could not remember if he had four cents for the tax in his pocket or if his neighbor lady, the cashier, had covered for him. He knew that she would have. Neighbors did that in those days.
Slipping into the waiting room the boy had dived into The Beasts of Tarzan. It would take him a month to finish the novel. He had no idea what Stygian meant or what a denizen was, so he spent a lot of time with a dictionary. But the door to new worlds had been thrown open, and Burroughs introduced him to Africa, Barsoom, Venus, and Pellucidar.
The man smiled at the thought, memories coming unbidden yet welcome. He knew that if he rummaged around in the closet long enough, he would find that book, his name in cursive on the flyleaf with a ballpoint pen drawing of a loin-clothed Tarzan, one foot resting on a log, spear in hand, quiver and bow across his back.
The man rested, his back against the newly erected wall, his legs stretched out on the floor, ankles crossed, and listened. It was surprisingly still and quiet, little if any breeze, the leaves not even fluttering, very little birdsong. In the distance a dog barked half-heartedly, sporadically, and a solitary crow added its raucous cry on occasion. Then the man heard it. The most wonderful sound, children’s voices at play from the empty lot down the street, rising and falling, crescendo and diminuendo, words indistinct but emotions evident, laced with excitement: Tomorrow is Saturday, and we have not a worry in the world.
The man knew he could never reclaim that, knew when he started this folly that he could not, did not care. His muscles were tired. His wife would have dinner ready soon. He had called it supper as a boy.
But before that, he would climb down and settle into a comfortable chair in the living room with a tumbler of ice and a little bourbon splashed over it at his elbow. His wife’s soft, domestic clatter would drift in from the kitchen. She might even join him with a glass of wine. But until she did, he would look out through the French windows across the lawn to the tree and the tiny, plain treehouse, bathed in the light of the setting sun.
He would pick up his ereader, maybe pull up and read a little of Burroughs’ A Fighting Man of Mars, hold on to the feeling, the illusion, a little while longer, knowing it was fleeting, temporary, maybe a little childish, not really caring.
He would climb down and probably never climb up here again. Maybe his grandsons would though. Maybe they would climb up and lay claim to the treehouse, ask him for some planks and some nails to add on to it, make it their own, make it special. That would be the best, the very best.

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In the Garden

Last Sunday as people were filing down the aisle of Myers Park United Methodist Church to receive Holy Communion, the organist played a brief passage from “In The Garden”, an old hymn written in 1913. Hearing it, I was transported to another time and place, Mississippi in 1968, to be precise, to Brazil Baptist Church, a small country church where I had worshipped with my grandparents every time I visited them, which was often.
I was fifteen in 1968, still largely innocent, my young life still unmarred by grief or loss, the only members of my extended family, two uncles, had passed away before I was born, but that would soon change.
Our country was in turmoil. The war in Viet Nam was raging. Inner cities were burning. School systems were struggling with desegregation. Tupelo, where my family lived, had so far avoided most of the racial tension tearing so much of Mississippi apart. With Freedom of Choice in effect, our schools were slowly integrating. Full desegregation would be completed within a year with no riots and very little rancor.
The Rascals, Cream, and the Doors provided the soundtrack that summer with “People Got to Be Free”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, and “Hello, I Love You” respectively. But in a year that had already seen the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” might have better exemplified the times.
As was my want, I was spending a couple of weeks with my father’s parents on the farm outside of Brazil before school started back up in September. I was headed to high school. A sophomore. As irony would have it, the Democratic Party had scheduled their convention and the Brazil Baptist Church had scheduled their annual revival for the same week, August 26-30, 1968.
The sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, had dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination and was replaced by his VP, Hubert Humphrey. An early frontrunner RFK was dead. A strong peace candidate in Eugene McCarthy was gathering delegates even as George McGovern began collecting former Kennedy delegates. The Democratic National Convention had all the makings of a circus, just not the one we expected.
Pop no longer actively managed the farm, but still checked on the fields every day. I would drive him on his rounds and to visit friends. I would take both Pop and Cat to the clinic in Sumner for their B12 shots. In the evening we would watch the news as we ate supper. Pop and Cat, who had lived through the Spanish-American War, the Great Depression, two World Wars and the Korean Conflict, multiple assassinations, race riots and lynchings, shook their heads again in disbelief.
They were inveterate readers of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal and devoted to the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC, current on local, national, and world affairs. However, nothing in their long lives had prepared them for 23,000 uniformed police and National Guardsmen with tear gas and nightsticks descending on 10,000 young protesters in one of America’s great cities.
As an obedient, first-born, rule-following child, I was as appalled as they were. That would change too, but not yet. My life was still too insular, too sheltered.
After supper we would head to Brazil Baptist Church where a Revival was in full swing, the gospel preached nightly and voices raised in hymns of praise. After church, we would return to the farm and Pop and Cat would head to bed, usually by 8:00. I would sit up to watch the drama of the Convention play out on TV. Or turn their huge box radio to a station in Memphis or New Orleans and listen to Top 40 radio which was still vibrant.
Brazil Baptist Church had been founded in 1940, and the solid, brick building had been erected in 1953, the year I was born. It was carved right there in the cornerstone on the southwest corner to the left of the door. My grandfather Pop had been instrumental in both. He even led the singing on Sunday morning, his rich baritone rolling through the small sanctuary. He and my grandmother Cat still attended and supported the church.
Mike Pinion was a local boy and church member who was attending Mississippi College. That summer he was involved with the Revival in some capacity and convinced a young teen-aged girl from Webb, whose name I cannot recall, and me to sing a duet one evening. Reluctant I may have been, but relent I did. Pop and Cat were delighted when I told them. The young woman and I selected “In the Garden”, rehearsed throughout the week, and sang for the congregation on Thursday night.
Now that I have grandchildren in whose accomplishments I rejoice, I have some idea of how Pop and Cat must have felt hearing me sing in their church, particularly Pop who had led so many hymns in that very sanctuary.
Sadly, within a year Mike would be dead, killed in a car wreck. Three years later I would enroll at Mississippi College. By that time age and health had compelled Pop and Cat to move into an apartment with their widowed daughter, Sadie, who was a nurse. That was the last summer I would spend with my grandparents.
College and career, marriage and relocations pushed me literally and figuratively further and further from that little church. I learned grief and loss first hand, losing close friends and eventually all of my grandparents.
Forty years after that last summer with Popo and Cat, my wife Sherrie and I took Dad to the Delta to visit the places of his youth. Alzheimer’s was inexorably stripping away his memories. It seemed like the thing to do. It may have been forty years, but I drove the 115 miles from my parents’ home in Tupelo to Brazil without a map, as unerringly as if I had driven it only yesterday.
We pulled up at Brazil Baptist Church. The church was locked, but the condition of the building, fresh paint and clean windows, the mown grass and edged sidewalks, and neatness of the tiny, adjacent cemetery indicated that it was still maintained and in use. Sherrie took a picture of Dad and me in front of that little church.
It would be another six years, the summer of 2014, before I passed that way again. Mom had succumbed to cancer the year before and now her brother Jim had been taken by a stroke. On the drive back from his funeral in Greenville, I detoured through Brazil.
The churchyard was unmown and weedy. A heavy padlock was attached to the front doors. The cornerstone had been removed, chipped out of the surrounding brick. Delicate tendrils of honeysuckle clung to the brick on the western-facing wall. Several window panes had been shattered leaving gaping black holes like hollow, lifeless eyes. I peered through the jagged holes in the panes at the dim sanctuary, every pew still in place, the pulpit a lone sentinel, hardwood floor scuffed by thousands of dress shoes, work boots, pumps, and high heels. So many congregants, so many sermons, hymns, revivals, marriages, and funerals. I turned away a little older, wiser, and sadder.
In the fall of 2015, Dad died. In the summer of 2016, Mom’s sister Jean, the last of Mom’s nine siblings died. I attended her funeral in Rome, Mississippi, again detouring by Brazil on my way home.
I was shocked. The church was gone. Tall stalks of corn rose from the ground where it had once stood. The old oak tree still shaded the small cemetery, surrounded now by a cornfield.
All of this and more flashed through my mind in an instant as those few bars of “In the Garden” rang out in the stately sanctuary of Myers Park United Methodist Church, a flood of thoughts fleeting like a series of shooting stars that only register in the mind’s eye after they have passed.
Memory. At one moment vivid, full and complete, then imprecise, vague and frustrating. I can remember the lyrics to “In the Garden” but not the name of the girl with whom I sang that duet. Did Mike handle the music only or did he also preach that revival? I could get in my car and drive 600 miles to where that church once stood without a map or a single wrong turn, but I cannot remember a single other thing about that revival.
Sherrie had seen me wipe a tear from my cheek and asked me about as we left the sanctuary. I tried to explain, shared the high points, but what I could not convey was how transient that time had been, that hovering moment on the cusp of maturity, or the depth of loss that had washed over me, how memory had flooded in carrying all else away. Just an instant, an instant that my meager skills cannot begin to convey or contain or encapsulate in a thousand words.
“I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.”

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The First Edit

To begin with, writing a novel, particularly if one has literary as opposed to purely commercial pretensions, is an act of, if not hubris, at least egotism.

To believe that one has something important or worthwhile to say and the ability to say it in a compelling way, a way that engages the reader and seduces them into investing their time and maybe coin to enter that created world, to become complicit in that story, may be the height of folly. Unless one is a genius, which I am not.

Nevertheless, you have a story, and you have characters, and you have lived with it long enough, through fits and starts, until the day comes, the compulsion overwhelms you, and you sit down and seriously set to work. And it is hard. As hard, as arduous, as frustrating, as rewarding as anything you have ever done, but the compulsion has become an obsession, and you keep writing, through the inspired stretches and the dull slogs.

Days, weeks, months pass, and eventually you type “THE END” at the bottom of your manuscript. You have strung together over 100,000 words in some sort of coherent fashion. You stretch your stiff back and sigh, filled with a sense of accomplishment and more than a little emptiness, as at the end of a long anticipated and fulfilling journey.

It is your first novel, and you think it is good. You do not have an editor much less a publisher, so maybe you share it with a circle of writer friends or with family and friends whose opinion you value, but share it you do, and you receive feedback.

Feedback and a healthy dose of humility. Your readers generally profess to like your novel, some of them a lot, but for some reason they do not think your novel is as perfect as you do. Almost every one of them has at least one recommendation that will make your novel better, which leads to one of two responses. Either your hackles rise, your neck stiffens, and you swear you will never change one word, not one jot, not a single iota. After all, what do they know? They’ve never written a novel. Or you pause, take a deep breath, and ask yourself why several readers have made similar observations.

Perhaps a few found you syntax convoluted at times or thought they had to look up too many words. Maybe some readers were caught off guard by a character’s action which which they were unprepared. Or maybe some expected a particular scene to be more fleshed out, more dramatic, and felt let down when it was not.

So you print out a hard copy for yourself, close the laptop, and sit down to actually read your novel as a reader would, to read it straight through without making minor edits along the way. Maybe you keep a pencil handy to make notes in the margins. That’s acceptable. And it slowly dawns on you that maybe some of those comments have merit.

First there is the style thing. Writing, for me at least, is an ongoing tension between the workings of my subconscious and the discipline of craft. Words, phrases, and sentences bubble up unbidden. I know what I want to say, but how I say it springs from some place deep inside, shaped by a lifetime of reading, hopefully more influenced by the better writers I have read. The conscious part, the craft, is the struggle to wrangle those words and phrases into some sort of coherent, cohesive, hopefully lucid form.

Your read-through reinforces what you felt during the writing: the flow of words, the rhythms and subtle meter of the prose is exactly what you wanted. That will not change.

But you do notice that the actions of one of your characters especially really does seem to come out of the blue, the emotional trigger never fully explained. You realize that you have lived with your characters for so long, know and understand their desires and demons so well, that every decision and action seems logical and crystal clear to you, but you have not explained all of that to the reader. His actions can still come as a shock that only makes sense in retrospection. You make a note.

You reread one of the climactic scenes and realize that it is a bit anti-climactic. It was fraught with possibilities you ignored in order to get on to the next, more dramatic passage.  You make another note. You notice a loose thread, an unresolved piece of business. You make another note.

Looking back over these notes, you end up making even more notes. You begin writing new scenes clarifying motives. You flesh out other scenes. You rearrange one scene, then another. Each change creates a cascade of other changes, some minor, some profound. some passages need to be completely rewritten.

A new or redrawn scene, a passage that would never have existed had you not listened to one of your readers, becomes one of your favorites. It throbs with a tension only realized when you let it play out. It ebbs and flows with unspoken conflict and resolution between several characters, closes multiple loops simultaneously.

You put in the work. You hone this, trim that, flesh out the other, and before you know you know it you have finished the first full edit of your novel, and again you sit back, stretch, and sigh. Then you pull the trigger and make it available as a free .epub download from and set it up to channel out to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others.

This blog started out as both a thank you note to my wife and step-sons and close friends who took the time to read my first draft and share their thoughts and an announcement of the new version’s publication, but then it morphed to include an unusually long and rambling rumination on writing in general. It seems ironic that a pursuit as lonely and solitary as writing a novel eventually acquires aspects that are, if not collaborative, at least participatory, in nature. There is no doubt that it is a better novel for their input, more complete, more robust. I will never be able to thank them enough.

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Late Afternoon, Thanksgiving Day

Late Afternoon, Thanksgiving Day

Late afternoon, Thanksgiving Day
5:09 post meridian to be exact
Exactitude unrequired yet oddly noted
Backyard air inert but tangible
Bereft of the just-set sun’s last rays
Yet holding the fading light of dying day
Hovering among columns of dark trunks
Trapped under autumn’s lingering canopy
Glowing golds, riotous scarlets, exhausted browns
Still clinging to branch and twig
Waiting to fall and complete the carpet
On the still-verdant lawn
Already lightly covered since the last raking
All motionless in this moment’s preternatural calm
One lone leaf falls
Carried on no current
Tumbling straight down
Like a tattered, dropped tissue
Then stillness again
Not a single leaf aflutter
Even in the upper reaches of the tallest trees
Air so still that it conveys no sound
If there were sound to convey
No breeze-whisper
No muffled bark of the dog two houses down or the one across the street
No sighing hiss of a passing car
Not even the faint laughter of children at play in the cul-de-sac
Absolute still and quiet
Then another leaf drops
Straight down like the first, silently
Yet another thing for which to be thankful
This silence, this stillness
After the familiar, well-loved faces and voices at table
Tables groaning with nature’s bounty
Even those distant brought near
By phone or photo and text
Family even beyond blood, bonds of love
But now, the quiet
Like a held breath
Fragile equipoise
This season of death, nature’s last rattling gasp against the life-sustaining bounty it has provided
Each day shorter than the last
For only four more weeks
Until that longest of nights
Until the sun begins its inevitable, inexorable march back north across the sky
Tracing the ancient analemma
Towards equinox, then solstice
Towards warmth and renewal and rebirth
The old familiar cycle
Its rhythm built into the heavens
Inherent in stalk and trunk, leaf and bough
Buried in sinew and bone
Even as a third leaf falls
Straight down
Through still air

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An Open Letter To Americans

I have carefully and intentionally kept silent during the entire divisive 2016 election cycle, but the post-election vitriol, the hurt and sense of loss, the sense of frustration and vindication, and the prospect of an even further divided country compels me to speak.

I received the franchise in 1972 and have voted in every primary, runoff, and general election since then. I have not always voted my party affiliation, and even that has changed more than once over the years. I have probably voted for as many losers as winners. There have been candidates I did not vote for who, once in office, delightfully surprised me, and there has been the opposite, candidates I supported who greatly disappointed me. I have on more than one occasion felt that I was voting for the lesser of two evils.

But no matter who was elected, that person was my president, my president because I am an American. Furthermore, I believe in and participated freely in the democratic process that put that person in the White House whether I voted for that person or not.

My polling place is Providence Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. The church has been there since 1765. The current sanctuary dates from 1850. One of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers is buried there. He is but one of my many ancestors in that graveyard who fought in the American Revolution and practically every American conflict since.

Every time I go there to vote I look at that graveyard and I am humbled, humbled by the patriots’ sacrifice and blood shed in revolution, civil war, world wars, and countless actions around the world to create, shape, and defend this country. Every time I have taken a seat in the balcony of that sanctuary, which used to be the slaves’ gallery, or wandered over to the slaves’ cemetery just beyond the old stone wall, I am humbled by patriots’ sacrifice and blood shed in struggles against injustice and inequality that have wracked our republic. And through all of these vicissitudes, our republic has endured.

Make America great again? America is continually being made great, not just by one person in the White House, but by Americans, Americans of all stripes, not just Latino-Americans or black Americans or white Americans or Asian-Americans, not just LBGTQ-Americans or straight Americans, not just by deplorable Americans or elite Americans, but by Americans. It takes each and every one of us to keep making America great.

The framers of the Constitution of the United States of America were not a particularly harmonious lot. They may have all been white men, many of them well off, but they argued and bickered and held widely divergent views. Nevertheless, they had one thing in common: they would let nothing, not personal or ideological differences, not all of the wrangling and finger-pointing, not issues of states’ rights versus federal power nor the rights of the individual nor slavery, nothing, stand in the way of creating our Constitution without which there would be no United States of America, this America to which you and I are heir.

They may have pushed some of those issues forward to be dealt with later, tragically in some cases, but that fierce determination to work together, to compromise, and to create something new, vibrant, and living is our heritage, as much a part of our heritage as the document and republic they created. And we must be zealous of that heritage.

Every four years on the Wednesday after “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November” since 1972, no matter for whom I voted, I have waked up with a prayer for our president-elect, a prayer that our new president would be led to wise decisions and actions for all Americans. Every Wednesday morning, I have waked up with a prayer for my country and the hope that no matter how much I might agree or disagree with my new president, that that person would rise to the challenge of representing not just me but all Americans.

Having voted now in twelve presidential elections, I have some idea how people on both sides feel. I too have waked up on Wednesday hopeful and exhilarated, and I have waked up depressed and fearful. I have even waked up hoping I had done the right thing the day before. But no matter who was elected, our republic has survived. It has survived the results of every election since 1789.The genius of the framers of our Constitution is that they created a government strong enough to survive the actions of any one person.

I still believe that America is a promise, fulfilled for many but not for all. Every American knows that we still have a long way to go. But as sure as the turning of the earth, we will never get there until we decide, as a people, as Americans, that nothing, not difference of race or culture nor fervently held ideological views nor the varieties of self-expression, nothing, will stand in the way of our striving to realize the promise that is America, for all Americans.

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Paria Canyon 2016

It was just after 1:00 PM on Thursday, April 21, 2016, when Stuart greeted me with a big grin and hug in the tiny airport in St. George, Utah. He was clad in his usual travel attire, convertible cargo pants topped with a Hawaiian shirt.

Actually he should have greeted both Vergil and me, but Vergil’s flight from Houston had been delayed and he had missed his connection in Denver. I knew. I had awaited his arrival anxiously, but in vain, first at the gate and then on the plane. Instead, his seat was taken by a young Mormon fellow headed home for some serious backpacking and hunting. After chatting briefly, I turned my attention to the music on my iPhone and my ereader.

Travel for Stu and me is somewhat easier as we live in Portland, Oregon, and Charlotte, North Carolina, respectively. For Stuart it was a simple connection through Salt Lake City, for me, one stop in Denver. Vergil, however, lives in Gulfport, Mississippi, which usually means multiple connections. This time he had to change planes in Houston and Denver. Houston had been the holdup: the late departure ensured a late arrival in Denver.

Stuart had arrived earlier in the day and had already been by the Bureau of Land Management office to pick up our backcountry permit for Paria Canyon in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. Paria (rhymes with Maria) Canyon is a long, deep, narrow canyon nearly forty miles long. It begins at the White House Trailhead near Kanab, Utah, and ends at the Lee’s Ferry Trailhead where the Paria River empties into the Colorado River near Page, Arizona.

Additionally, the canyon can be reached via Buckskin Gulch which is accessible from the Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass trailheads. Buckskin Gulch is longer, more narrow, and host to a number of pour-offs which might have anywhere from ankle- to chest-deep pools to be crossed, as well as climbs where a rope would come in handy. We opted for the White House Trailhead.

Our permit was for six days and five nights. Our rough plans were to head into Paria Canyon, camp near the Confluence where Buckskin Gulch merges with the Paria, dayhike up Buckskin Gulch, then move up and down Paria Canyon, camping and seeking out interesting sights and side trips

But first we needed to know when, or if, Vergil would get to St. George, and I needed lunch having subsisted on only an airline snack all day. Stu and I hopped into the little, white Hyundai Santa Fe Sport SUV that he had rented and headed for St. George. We stopped at the first place we found to eat, a Wendy’s which was conveniently located next to a Walmart which we needed to finish our food purchases.

During lunch, Vergil texted that he had a flight to St. George arriving a t 8:45 PM. As he needed to return home before Stu and I did in order to leave for Spain to bring his younger daughter Gracie home from a semester abroad, he had already reserved a rental car. We agreed that Stu and I would shop for food and fuel, then head to Kanab. Verg would rendezvous with us at the Best Western Red Hills in Kanab later that night.

Vergil had already realized that he had forgotten his fleece hat and asked us to pick one up for him when we went to Sportsman’s Warehouse for fuel. That was noteworthy as he always forgets something, even his boots on one memorable occasion.

Stuart had brought the freeze-dried breakfasts (Breakfast Skillets, Ova Easy Eggs, etc.) and dinners (Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Teriyaki, etc.) with him. We purchased soft tortillas, cheese, and summer sausage for lunches: pre-cooked bacon and bagels to augment breakfast; and Clif bars, peanuts, and M&M’s for snacks.

We returned to the airport to gather Stuart’s luggage which had come in on a later flight. With Stu’s luggage in hand, we headed for Sportsman’s Warehouse.

I quickly located an Under Armor knit cap for Verg and we grabbed the isobutane fuel for our stoves. I also bought a cheap pair of sunglasses, and by 5:00 PM, we were off to Kanab, 80 miles away. We selected the southern route, UT 59 and AZ 389 through Hurricane, UT, Colorado City, AZ, and Fredonia, AZ, in order to avoid the congestion getting through Zion National Park which we had both visited and hiked several times.

The sun sank behind us as we headed east through the darkening desert evening, catching up on this and that as old friends do. Stuart, Vergil, and I have known each other for well over 50 years, so there is always plenty of talk. We checked in to the Best Western Red Hills about 6:40 PM, around the time Vergil finally left Denver.

Kanab is a quaint little desert town tucked up against a plateau of Navajo sandstone which rises over 800 feet from the desert floor. It is populated by roughly 4,500 souls struggling to determine whether to remain quaint and small or grow and cater to the tourists who flock to southern Utah to visit Zion and Bryce Canyons, the Escalante-Grand Staircase, and Arizona’s Vermillion Cliffs. The town has two street lights and several fine eateries as well as a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s, and roughly a dozen motels that range from the chains like Best Western and Comfort Inn to the places like the historic Parry Lodge and the Sun-n-Sand. At least two more motels are under construction.

UT 89A runs due north from Fredonia into Kanab but ends at the first traffic light where it intersects UT 89. Straight ahead takes one north on UT 89; a right turn takes you east, then south. We continued north, passing an assortment of eateries, auto parts stores, filling stations, and motels. Three blocks later, UT 89 takes a 90° left turn at the Parry Lodge which was originally built in 1931 to accommodate movie stars and crews when filming on location in the Kanab area.

Just past the Parry Lodge is the town’s second traffic light and the local LDS church. And there on the next block is the Best Western Red Hills, our home for the night.

As we checked in we inquired about places for dinner and were directed to the Rocking V which was right next door or down one block to Houston’s Trail’s End. Then I asked the young man behind the desk, “Kris, if you were going out tonight for dinner, where would you go?”

Kris didn’t hesitate.

“I’d go to Escobar’s, a Mexican place out east on 89.”

“Thanks,” replied. “That’s where we’ll go.”

We had asked for and gotten a ground floor room for ease in unloading and loading gear. Stu and I pulled around and dumped our gear in the room: a suitcase and duffle bag for Stuart and a duffle bag for me, a 120 liter Patagonia Black Hole Duffel weighing 45 pounds. We dropped off our daypacks too and headed back through town and out to Escobar’s.

Escobar’s was all we hoped it would be, small and funky with great food and cold cerveza. It was a converted fast food place with limited seating. We opted to sit indoors as the temperature was already headed for the 40’s. Stuart’s Corona and my Dos Equis (Negra Modelo not available) were soon followed by his camarones and my chili Colorado burrito.

With full bellies, we headed back to the motel. Soon we had gear strewn all across the room, both queen-size beds, the bureau, the table, and both chairs as we began making last minute decisions on what to take. I was sorting the food into three piles of as nearly equal weight and volume as possible when Vergil called. He had arrived safely in St. George and picked up his car, actually an enormous, black Dodge Ram pickup truck with a crew cab. Stuart gave him the motel’s address, and we settled back to await his arrival.

A couple of hours later, we began to wonder where the heck Vergil was. Then we got another call. He was at 125 West Center Street, in La Verkin, Utah. Right address, wrong town, not even on the way to Kanab. Only Vergil. Destination corrected, he arrived an hour later, looking neat and fresh as usual, his button-down shirt tidily tucked into his jeans.

It was pushing midnight when we crawled into bed, Vergil and me in one queen-size bed, Stuart, the restless sleeper, in the other. It is the same way the tent on the trail. Stuart carries a one-man tent, and Verg and I share a two-man tent. Old habits.

The next morning, we sat down to the complimentary breakfast, coffee for Vergil and me, Pepsi for Stuart, a full breakfast for Stuart and me, a glass of milk for Verg. We’re funny like that.

Breakfast out of the way, we dressed for the trail and finished loading our backpacks. I equivocated over whether to take my Patagonia R1 fleece or my Patagonia down sweater. I opted for the R1, the only time I have not taken my down sweater since the day I bought it, which proved to be a mistake.

I tossed Vergil the fleece hat I had bought him.

“Glad that’s all you forgot this time,” I laughed. “I mean, you did remember your boots, right?”

He gave me that loopy grin of his.

“Yeah, I got them,” he replied, then paused. “But I can’t find my rain shell. Or my polypro shirt.”

“You’re kidding, right?”


“Do I need to make you a checklist?” I asked.

“You already did,” Verg reminded me. “Didn’t help.”

“I guess next time I could fly to Gulfport and help you pack,” I offered.

We both laughed.

Stuart chimed in, “Good thing there’s a camping store here in town.”

With that, we headed to Willow Canyon Outdoor, a faux adobe structure filled with clothing, gear, and books for the outdoor enthusiast plus an espresso bar. Stuart and Vergil bought matching, red Outdoor Research polypro zip T-neck shirts. Stuart had forgotten his hiking stick which he was able to replace with a nice shock-corded model from Helinox.

Vergil also bought a nice, lightweight Outdoor Research rain shell and, since he had brought his MSR hydration cell but forgotten the tube and bite valve, neither of which were available at Willow Canyon, a brand new Platypus hydration system. He had also forgotten his camp chair but elected not to purchase another. His purchases were already well into three-digit range.

I bought a map.

Completely geared up, we returned to the Best Western and stuffed the last few items in our backpacks and tossed the packs and our trekking poles into the bed of the pickup Vergil had rented. We had made arrangements to leave the car at the motel. So we piled the rest of our luggage into the car and parked it around back. We were ready to go at last.

We headed back through town, turned left at the second traffic light, and proceeded south on UT 89 towards the White House Trailhead less than an hour’s drive away. The weather forecast was for high 60’s to low 70’s during the day and mid to high 40’s at night. There was a chance of rain on Sunday, but today, Friday, was warm and sunny.

We drove through the russet desert with the plateau dominating the northern horizon, Vergil at the wheel, me dozing in the front seat, Stu messing around in the back.

I awoke from my nap and asked, “Shouldn’t we be getting close?”

Stuart looked up from his iPad. “Should be,” he said.

“Gotta be close,” Verg added.

I looked at my watch. We had been driving for over an hour.

“Well, let’s see where we are,” I suggested.

Stuart and I had left our phones with our luggage in the Hyundai, but Vergil had his as he was planning to use it as his camera for the trip. I opened the map app on his quaint, little iPhone 4 and pressed the arrow symbol to pinpoint our current location.

I looked up as we passed Cottonwood Canyon Road, then back down at the map.

“We missed it,” I said.

“What?” Vergil exclaimed.

“Yep, it’s about four or five miles back,” I added. “The turnoff was right after we crossed the Paria River.”

Abashed, Vergil took the first opportunity to turn around and back we went. And there it was, right at the Bureau of “Land Management Visitor Info. Paria Contact Station” sign.

We checked in with the ranger, topped off our water, and headed two miles down the dirt road to the trailhead. The BLM only allows 20 backpackers to enter Paria Canyon daily although they do not restrict how long one can remain in the canyon. Friday, April 22, was the only day available in late April when I applied for our permit, so we were surprised to see so few vehicles in the parking lot, and at least one of them was filled with picnickers.

We dropped the tailgate on the truck and booted up. Vergil and Stuart were hiking in ankle-high, Gore-Tex lined boots, Vasques and Lowas respectively. I was in low-top Merrill Moab Ventilators, very breathable, not waterproof. Additionally, Stu and I were wearing neoprene socks over sock liners to keep our feet warm when wet and lightweight Outdoor Research Sparkplug gaiters to keep detritus out of our boots. Vergil had opted to not bring his neoprene socks determined to steer clear of deep water.

One of the less pleasant aspects of canyon hiking these days is that the BLM requires one to bag and pack out all human waste, and yes, that includes Number Two. When Stuart picked up our permit in St. George, he was also given three yellow mesh bags, one for each of us. They looked a lot like potato sacks, but inside of each was six large, foil, zip-locked pouches, one for each of our six days on the trail.

I eyed those pouches and wondered aloud if a few doses of Imodium would lessen my need to use them. I mean, backpacking with bags of poop lashed to your pack. Good grief. Nevertheless, we tucked our bag of pouches under a compression strap, hefted our packs, posed for the requisite trailhead photos, and headed down into the gully.

It was 11:36 AM on Friday, April 20, 2016.


Entrance to Paria Canyon © James Gregory Catledge 2016

The canyon was wide and shallow at the trailhead. The Paria River was ankle-deep, narrow, silt-laden and turbid. We were headed for the Confluence where Buckskin Gulch merges into Paria Canyon. Within the first 30 minutes, we had crossed and re-crossed the river so many times that I had lost track. It didn’t matter. My feet were wet but comfy. At every immersion, the water would cool my feet, but my body heat quickly warmed the thin film of water trapped inside my insulating neoprene socks. Perfection.

As we descended ever so slightly, the canyon walls slowly rose around us although the canyon was still very wide. We plodded through soft, dry sand; slogged through thick, clinging mud; waded through cold, murky water; picked our way through rocky stretches seeking the best footing. The inside curves of the riverbed frequently had elevated shelves of packed sand covered with thin scrub eking out enough moisture to survive and anchor the sand in place.

Occasionally a stiff breeze would whip up the soft, dry sand clouding the air with fine, stinging grains. Vergil has bought each of us a keffiyeh or shemagh. The keffiyeh is of uncertain origin but has been worn by Semitic desert dwellers for centuries and lately adopted by modern armed forces operating in the Middle East.

The ones Vergil got us were 42” X 42” of loosely woven cotton in a green and black pattern. Stuart opted not to bring his, but Verg and I did. Verg wore his folded diagonally and tied around his neck, but I tried the traditional, open desert style, folded diagonally, wrapped over the forehead, and brought around the lower half of the face and tied behind the ear.

I wore it over my OR Swift cap and usually pulled down below my chin, but when the air was filled with flying sand and my friends turning their heads this way and that to avoid it, I simply pulled my keffiyeh up over my nose and kept walking, my eyes protected by my sunglasses.

IMG_0110.JPGThe Keffiyeh © James Gregory Catledge 2016

No wonder the keffiyeh had been worn for centuries. It filtered out flying sand, it captured cooling breezes or kept my head warm as needed. I ended up wearing all day, every day on the trail. It is now part of my standard loadout.

About three miles in the deepening canyon is crossed by a set of high-power electrical lines, a handy indicator of high far we had walked. We had been told that there was a tiny slot canyon on the left with some petroglyphs, but we never found it or them. We also ran into a couple of women here who were backpacking out. They did not know where the petroglyphs were either.

It was about 1:00 PM, so we began to cast about for a likely place for lunch. And found the perfect spot: a broad, elevated shingle with the usual scrub and a stout, twisted cottonwood tree. The day had warmed up making the shade welcome. The spot was actually an established campsite. We dubbed it Cottonwood Terrace.

After dropping packs, we pulled out lunch: tortillas, pepperoni, and cheese. As usual Vergil passed on the cheese. Stuart and I pulled out our chairs, an REI model for Stu and an Alite Mayfly for me. Vergil leaned up against a convenient log. He did not look his best. He had been a little slower than usual on the trail, stopping often and leaning over on his trekking poles. Additionally, his face was flushed and his hands shook.

“You alright, Brother?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ll be OK,” he replied. “Back is killing me though.”

“Want to call it a day? We can camp her,” Stuart offered.

“Naw. I’ll be alright. Let’s go on,” Vergil said although he regretted that decision later.

After lunch, we saddled up and headed out. Almost immediately, the canyon walls began to close in. we were entering the Narrows, the last four miles in to the Convergence, no place to camp, no place to get above high water if there should be heavy rain upstream. Once you enter the Narrows, you’re committed. You have to go all the way.

As the canyon narrows up, sunlight rarely reaches the bottom even at midday. Rather the top of the wall high above blazes read and orange in the bright sunlight and the reflected radiance bathes the lower reaches of the wall in soft light. The walls are riddled with clefts and smoothly wallowed out holes. In places the walls are streaked dark gray, almost black but mostly they are ever hue on the red to yellow spectrum.

Scattered along the cliff walls were some unusual formations, narrow clefts starting at the top of the wall that abruptly flared out to several feet wide before disappearing into the murky stream. Being an inveterate sticker of my head in weird places or climbing up on things for photos, I headed across the stream for a photo op among one of these flutes. The water looked deep inside the recesses, so I planned to stop just short of stepping inside.

I was about ten feet away from the cleft on mucky but reasonably solid ground. The water was ankle-deep. I reached out to take one more step into a deeper pool, maybe a foot deep. My right foot never touched bottom. I sank up to my ankle in thick but insubstantial, sucking mud, quicksand actually, then up my knee, then up to mid-thigh.

Paria CanyonApr_24_4088.jpg

Quicksand!   © Stuart Worley 2016

I threw both hands out wide. My left foot was still on reasonably solid ground, and my immediate reaction as to struggle to get out, which only made things worse. I was now in to the top of my thigh. I weird calm came over me, and I relaxed and quit sinking.

Vergil, to my left, was reaching for me with his trekking pole, but I was pitched away from him and couldn’t reach back. Stuart was documenting the entire event with his camera. I slowly and carefully worked to regain my balance, and once that was accomplished grabbed Verg’s trekking pole with my left hand.

“Brace yourself,” I suggested, a good idea as I outweigh him by at least 50 pounds.

With Verg well braced and me balancing on my left leg, I began to steadily pull my right leg out of the goop. I was wearing low-top Merrill Moab Ventilator hiking shoes, and you guessed it: my right shoe began to slip off my foot. Now the last thing I wanted to do was to have to try to fish my shoe out of that mess. No, actually the last thing I wanted to do was lose it irretrievably and have to hike in Crocs.

I clenched the toes of my right foot which kept the slippage at bay and continued to pull. With a sickening sucking sound, I finally pulled my foot free. The quicksand closed without a ripple, smooth and deceptive, waiting for the next unwary soul.

My leg had come out so slowly and the water had been so deep over the quicksand, that my leg was washed practically clean.

“Wow! That was exciting,” I laughed.

“I’ll say,” Vergil added.

“Catledge, I swear,” Stuart added, no doubt thinking about the time I impulsively headed across iced-over Blair Creek only to crash through thin ice near the far bank.

I am normally a thoughtful, careful person, but I will admit to the occasional impulse that banishes reason far to the background and gets me into tight spots. Another good reason to never go into the backcountry without competent friends.

We continued through the Narrows as the sunlight continued to climb the canyon walls and the temperature started down. It was increasingly obvious that Vergil was not feeling well. He was stopping more and more often, but there was no going back. We were too deep into the Narrows.

As usual, he refused help. We offered encouragement. I insisted that he eat and drink something although he insisted he wasn’t hungry or thirsty. But after walking five or six miles with 30-35 pounds on his back, he needed the calories.

Soon we passed Slide Rock Arch which is not actually an arch, but created when a house-sized slab sheared off the wall and crashed down to the canyon floor, then tilted back against the canyon wall creating a covered passage. It was a rare and encouraging landmark in an otherwise featureless stretch. It was only a little more than a mile to our campsite.


Entrance to Buckskin Gulch © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Twenty minutes later, I saw clear water entering the Paria from the right. It swirled and eddied before eventually blending with silty Paria. We had cleared the Narrows and reached Buckskin Gulf. It was 6:00 PM. We snapped a few pictures and turned left down canyon at which point we walked out of Utah and into Arizona.

Five or ten minutes later, we came to a point where the canyon bent sharply back to the left with sandy, scrub-covered tiers rising 40-50 feet on the right side of the river in the middle of the bend. There were even a few scrubby cottonwoods up there.


Exiting the Narrows, Friday, April 22 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Stuart started up the near, higher side to see if there was a place to camp. I continued around the bend until the river doubled back on itself and started up the tiers from the downriver side. About 40 feet above the canyon floor, I found a nice, large, almost level shelf. Stuart was about 20 feet above me and not impressed with what he saw.

“What’s it like up there?” I shouted.

“Not too bad,” Stu replied. “Rocky. Some small sites. How bout down there?”

“Plenty of room. I think you’ll like it. Come on down.”

Stuart retreated the way he had come where Vergil waited, spent and in pain. I headed down the way I had come and met the two of them at the downcanyon side of the rise.

We were picking our way up when Vergil spotted a small snake. We rushed to investigate and found a young rattlesnake, so young, in fact, that it had no rattles, only a button, having not even shed its skin for the first time. It moved slowly in the cooling air, headed for the undergrowth. We were so captivated that no one thought to pull out their camera.

Everyone agreed that the lower, downcanyon side of the rise was the better site. We were a good 40 feet above the river with commanding views of the canyon to the north and to the south as well as the full sweep of the horseshoe bend. We dropped packs and began pulling out gear. As usual Verg and I were tenting together and Stu was solo. I say tenting. In fact, we both brought only the poles, tent fly, and footprint, leaving the tent body at home to lighten our loads.

Paria CanyonApr_23_3901.jpg

First Camp, Friday, April 22 © Stuart Worley 2016

Stuart brought his MSR Hubba and I brought my MSR Hubba Hubba NX. With the poles fitted into the grommets on the footprint and the stretched tightly over the poles and attached at the pole ends, one has a very stable and well-ventilated, some might say breezy, shelter.

In a matter of minutes, shelter was pitched, sleeping pads and bags had been pulled out, and everything was covered with sand. Our campsite was high and dry but also windy. In fact, so windy that in the blink of an eye, my 20 ounce Alite chair was picked up and dropped 20 yards down a gully on one side of our elevated campsite. I clambered down, retrieved it, and made sure it was secure from then on.

We all shucked our boots and set them in a likely place to dry. Between the breeze and lack of humidity, that should not be a problem. Nor was it. We started every day out with dry boots. Verg and I slipped into Crocs, and Stuart put on his Teva water shoes.

From our commanding perch, we noticed a lone backpacker headed upcanyon. He saw us too and called out. He headed up, we headed down, and we met in the middle. He was a young Frenchman, whipcord thin and wiry with an accent so thick I had trouble understanding him.

He had been in the canyon several days, working his way up and down the canyon, exploring. We asked about water conditions down canyon. He reported that the spring at the ten-mile point near the first fault crack was feeble but that Big Spring at Mile 12 was pouring right out of the canyon wall or the Moses Rock as he called it, an obvious reference to Exodus 17:6-8 where the recently liberated Hebrews are thirsting in the desert when Yahweh commands Moses to strike a rock with his staff causing water to gush forth. We immediately settled on Big Spring for our third night in the canyon.

I noticed that Frenchie was carrying a ÜLA backpack and asked him how he liked it. I had been considering one at one point. He raved about it. Maybe my next backpack, sometime in the future.

The Frenchman headed on towards Buckskin Gulch, and we set about preparing dinner. We considered scooping water from the Paria and letting the silt settle out before filtering but decided to take advantage of clear pools of water left behind by the receding river from which the silt had already precipitated. Stuart slipped down to the pool at the bend of the river below us and filled his 10-liter Sea to Summit bucket. When he returned, we simply filtered from that. At 2.8 ounces, I added one to my gear as soon as we got home.

Dinner the first night was a departure from Vergil’s favorite, Mountain House’s beef stroganoff. Instead we tried Mountain House’s Chicken Teriyaki. Either it was very good, or we were hungrier than expected. The three of us ate two packages which advertised 2.5 servings per package. As usual there was a debate as to who would get to eat from the foil packaging. I offered to use my cup for dinner which meant I was the only one with a dish to clean up.

We sat around after dinner, and Verg and I enjoyed a cup of Starbuck’s Decaf Coffee Via, one of our indulgences. As the temperature dropped and the breeze picked up, we all three began to add layers. Soon by common agreement we decided that our sleeping bags would be warmer, and we each clambered in to our sandy sleeping gear.

As usual, I started out using my bag, a brand new Western Mountaineering EverLite bag, 8 ounces of high loft goose down in sewn-through, box-constructed configuration. Total weight 17.25 ounces. It is rated down to 45° F, which means I am usually good to at least the high 30’s.

We all slept somewhat fitfully that night. The wind shrieked through the canyon all night long. A near full moon brilliantly lit the canyon walls and eventually found its way all the way down to us, causing the tent wall to glow faintly in the soft, lambent light.

The morning dawned clear, and the Paria which had been wide and silty the day before was now shallow, narrow and crystal clear. I headed up to the rockface where we had hung our food. A previous hiker had jammed a forked branch down into the rocks over a deep cleft by the wall. Wedging another desiccated limb into a crack in the wall, they had placed the far end of the second into the fork of the first. We had tied our foodbags together and stretching out over the cleft had draped them over the horizontal limb.

It didn’t look great, but it was the best we had, and it worked. No camp robbers got into our food.

We rose at 7:00 Am and had a good breakfast of Ova Easy eggs and precooked bacon wrapped in tortillas. Verg and I had a cup of Coffee Via Columbian Roast. Yum.

By pre-arranged plan, the only firm one we had at this point, we had decided to spend two nights at this location and spend the day hiking up Buckskin Gulch, but first everyone crawled back into the sack and wait for the warming rays of the sun to creep deeper into the canyon. We climbed back out at 10:00 AM.

By consensus we agreed that our campsite out on the point was too windy. We decided to move up to a more protected spot that Stu had earlier discounted. No sooner had Stu pulled his tent stakes than I heard a shout of warning form Vergil. I snapped my head around just as Stuart’s airborne tent grazed the back of my head.

I watched in fascination as the wind carried it off the point of our elevated campsite and 20 yards down the slope. I dashed down after Stu’s tent, and just as I grabbed for it another gust picked it up and lifted it over my outstretched fingers, back up the hill, past my tent, and dropped it back at Stuart’s feet where it had been pitched. Stu grabbed the tent, and the three of us stared each other in surprise.

“What the heck.”

“Did you see that?”

“Are you kidding me!”

We shook our heads in disbelief, and went back to moving camp.

I pulled up my stakes uneventfully, and hefting my tent overhead, headed uphill. Several rock formations provided windbreaks and Stu and I re-pitched our tents at the new location.

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Relocating Camp, Saturday, April 23 © Stuart Worley 2016

That accomplished, we pulled out our little REI Flash 18 Packs. At 10 ounces they make a great daypack that also doubles as a stuff sack.

We each tossed our hydration systems, lunch, snacks, and extra layers of clothing (including raingear) into our daypacks and then booted up.

About ten minutes up Buckskin Gulch we found an ideal campsite on the north side of the gorge. It had several tiers, very flat, and more trees than we had seen in one place since entering the canyons. A party of three was setting up camp on the lowest tier. We marked it down for possible future use, particularly the highest tier, and headed on up canyon.


Buckskin Gulch © James Gregory Catledge 2016

The walls rose and narrowed simultaneously, at one point narrowing to only six feet wide, and the trickling stream completely disappeared.


Buckskin Gulch, Saturday, April 22 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

At about two miles up the Gulch, we came to a rock-fall that appeared to be easier to climb over going upcanyon than coming back down. We claimed victory and turned around. Vergil’s back was better to day, but no one wanted to take a chance.

We settled in to our new site, both tents nested among protecting boulders with all additional tie-downs staked out. As we had the night before, we piled rocks on top of our stakes. It had been an easy day, and Vergil’s back was still doing fine. We dined on beef stroganoff and had settled back with our coffee when we heard voices of what turned out to be a large group down on the canyon floor.

It looked like a large family, two or three adults and the rest kids. They were headed upcanyon at a reasonable pace but paused to call up to us to confirm directions and mileage. We shared that it was at least eight miles to White House Trailhead and be sure to take the right fork at Buckskin.

They thanked us and continued on. It was about 8:00 PM.

“Wonder where they’ve been all day?” I asked.

“No idea,” Stu replied. “We sure didn’t pass them earlier. Course we were up Buckskin most of the afternoon.”

“Well, they only had daypacks, so I guess they came in from White House. Still …” I said.

“Yeah,” Verg added. “They’re going to have some whipped kids by the time they get out.”

“Roger that. With luck it’ll be pushing 11:00 o’clock before they get out. Getting colder too,” I said zipping up my R1 fleece. “And they look pretty lightly geared.”

“Good reason to keep moving,” Stuart noted.

We all shook our heads in disbelief.

We were early to bed again.


Down canyon from Camp 2 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Day Three dawned, still clear. In fact, the night had been so clear that when Stuart got up in the middle of the night to relieve himself, he set up his camera on his tripod, and got a beautiful picture of the Big Dipper hovering between the moonlight drenched canyon walls.

We rose at 8:00 and feasted on egg, bacon, and cheese burritos. We leisurely broke camp and were on the trail by 10:30.

At one bend there would be tall columns of stone, tapered at the bottom so that they resembled pipes in a pipe organ, at the next turn deep clefts with stair steps leading deep into the rock, shafts of sunlight filtering down from 200 feet above. One formation resembled nothing so much as a pair of praying hands, palms together, raised in supplication.


A Sense of Scale © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Stuart and I were so busy with our cameras that it took us nearly four hours to walk four miles. Vergil’s back continued to hold up.

On the left side of the canyon at another bend in the river, there was yet another tiered shelf of sand with a mixture of scrub and large cottonwoods. we were at Big Spring. We climbed up and began scouting for a likely spot to set up camp when we ran into the people we had seen camping in Buckskin Gulch the day before. They were from Pocatello, ID, a man and his wife and brother. They were even older than us. We chatted for a few, and they headed back up the canyon.

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Big Spring Camp, Sunday, April 24 © Stuart Worley 2016

We found a nice wide flat spot close to the canyon wall which included a convenient overhang in case the weather turned wet. And it looked like it might. High, thin clouds began to roll in.

Stuart and Vergil went down to the Moses Rock to get a bucket of water which we nevertheless filtered. We pitched our shelters, and hung our socks up to dry. We set our boots under the overhang just in case.

I was lolling in my Alite chair when I felt something brush the back of my head accompanied by a fluttering sound. I swapped across the back of my head once, then again. I thought it was a large butterfly. The third time it brushed my head, I swatted harder and knocked a small gray and white bird with a russet crown to the ground, some sort of flycatcher, I believe.

Stunned, the small bird hopped up under the log beside me and cowered in a convenient crook. I pulled out my camera and shot a close-up. Something bright green clung to its beak. I had noticed caterpillars the same color scattered about on the cottonwood leaves. I still could not imagine what he had been after on my head. I pulled off my cap and looked at the back, and there on the dark olive of the cap was the Outdoor Research logo in bright green, the same color as the caterpillars.

All through dinner, the cloud cover increased and the temperature dropped. We made it our third early night in a row. As the temp dropped, I snuggled deeper into my bag. Eventually, I climbed all the way in and zipped the bag up. I was warm but pushing the lower limit of my bag’s range.


Canyon Abstract © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Monday morning broke cloudy and noticeably cooler. We could sense the moisture in the normally dry air and suspected we would see rain before the day was over. We soon had all of our layers on for warmth. We powwowed over breakfast and looked at our options: head further down the canyon with borderline gear, spend another night here and dayhike downcanyon, or head back and camp in Buckskin Gulch. With the wind picking up, we thought that Buckskin would be more protected. We selected the third option, planning to ease out to Cottonwood Terrace for the last night.

Plans made, we cleaned up after breakfast and packed up. Walking, as usual, warmed us up and we pulled off layers. We were back at the Confluence in a little over two hours. The Paria River was still clear, still only a shadow of what we had seen last Friday. The wind had continued to rise and the temperature had continued to fall throughout the morning.

With the wind whistling down the even more narrow Buckskin Gulch, we decided to push on to Cottonwood Terrace for the night. Maybe we could take a better look for those petroglyphs.

We headed back into the Narrows, and within two miles, the Paria River simply disappeared, dried up and gone. Assuming this might be the last water we might see on the way out, we backtracked to the nearest pool and filtered enough water to fill every container we had. We each carried four or five liters as we headed back out.

There was no sense of urgency. We meandered along taking photos and talking. We cleared the Narrows a little after 5:00 PM. In the widening canyon we could see darker clouds to the north and west, and it must have been raining there because a serpentine flow of foamy water came twisting down the canyon floor, gaining strength and volume by the minute.

It is impossible not to be moved by these little wonders of nature, knowing that in but four short miles, the flow would reconnect with its receding waters downcanyon. Then it started spitting rain. We hustled on towards Cottonwood Terrace, adding the rain factor to the equation.

We dropped packs at Cottonwood and cast about for tent sites. The sand was deeper and softer than we remembered. It would be a challenge anchoring our shelters. The temperature continued to fall, and we soon had on every layer off clothing we had brought. And we were still cold. Howling wind and intermittent rainfall didn’t help.

The rain was an irritant, but the wind was a huge factor. Wind chill as an abstraction becomes very real in these situations. It robs the body of warmth that becomes increasingly hard to replace. Our layers of fleece, wool, and polypropylene were designed to trap air in small spaces so that our bodies could keep that air warm, but our rainshells did not block all of the wind and those warm pockets of air were being depleted faster than we could warm them back up. It was not a winning equation.

“Well, what do you think?” Stuart asked.

“I’m with you fellers,” Vergil replied.

I pointed out the obvious: it was getting colder, it was raining, the river was rising, even if we got the tents pitched and anchored, the wind would be whipping sand and rain under the rainflies, and the trailhead was only three miles away. I had initially been reluctant to walk out early but was being swayed by the safety factor.

“Let’s cook and eat dinner. Maybe that’ll warm us up. Then we can decide whether to camp or push on,” I suggested.

Verg and Stu agreed.

Using a log and two flat stones stood up on edge, I created a windbreak and lit my stove. We decided to try the Mountain House Beef Stew which proved to be our least favorite dinner. Everything, beef, potatoes, carrots, everything was diced into the same sized cubes, about ¼ inch to a side. It was just not very beef stew-like.

But it was warm and filling. Only we were still cold and getting colder. We had planned for temperatures at least a few degrees cooler than the forecasted high 40’s nights, but we were already below that and falling. The wind continued to be the real warmth sapper though. It was shaping up to be a miserable, cold, wet night, and I was seriously regretting opting for the R1 fleece rather my down sweater. I’ll never make that mistake again.

At 6:00 PM, by consensus, we decided to head on out to the White House Trailhead three miles or so away. With the river filling back up, we dumped most of our water to lighten our loads and saddled up. We had already put in a solid nine miles but were determined to set a fast pace.


The Gathering Storm, Monday, April 25 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

The river continued to get wider and deeper, evidence that the dark clouds to the north and west were dumping heavy rain upstream. Light rain came and went with maddening frequency. The only way to stay warm was to keep walking. We were now spending nearly as much time in the water as out, deeper water at that, as we trudged through stretches of rock and sand and mud and water.

We made pretty good time and covered those three miles in a little over an hour. We climbed out of the canyon at 7:15 PM. The parking lot was full of vehicles. People were setting up tents in the adjacent campground as the rain continued to fall. We had backpacked 12 miles with about 35 pounds on our backs, more than any of us done in a while. But we had made good time and were in good shape.

We got a stranger to take our picture: three old guys swathed in most of our clothes. Piling into the truck, Vergil cranked her up and turned on the heater. Soon we were headed back to Kanab in the increasing rain, tires humming on wet pavement.


Trail’s End, Monday, April 25 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Back in Kanab at the Great Western Red Hills, we got a room for the night, not ground floor this time but conveniently located next to the guest laundry. We hauled our gear up and proceeded to strew it all over that room.

By 9:30, Stu and I were showered and changed. Verg, as usual, was focused on washing clothes and opted not to go with Stuart and me to find something to eat. We tried out the Rocking V but found it too high end for our tastes. We both wanted a hamburger to the exclusion of anything else.

Houston’s Trail’s End was already closed. Apparently 10:00 PM is the witching hour in Kanab. We ended up at the Wendy’s/Walker’s Convenience Store/Gas Station right across the street from the Kanab Bureau of Land Management Office. We got our hamburger just before they started closing up. After eating, we grabbed some milk for Vergil at Walker’s and headed back to the motel.

It rained all night and was still raining the next morning. Coming out early we thought we might have extra chances to get into the Wave before Vergil left on Thursday, but that was not to be. After a late breakfast at the motel, we checked in at the BLM office where we learned that the last 10 miles to the trailhead for the Wave is a compacted dirt road, considered a challenge when wet even for a four-wheel drive vehicle, which we did not have. Our disappointment was somewhat mitigated by the absence of blue sky for contrast and the flat light conditions created by the overcast and rain. The Wave would have to wait.

With the Wave out and Vergil scheduled to leave on Thursday, Stuart decided to head back early too. I looked into changing my flight and was shocked at the cost, but my only option was renting a car, paying for another two nights in Utah, and wandering around in the rainy desert. The weather forecast was for continued rain and very cool temperatures. I bit the bullet and booked a flight home for Thursday.

We spent the rest of the day checking out Kanab and shopping for gifts for family. Denny’s Wigwam was suitably tacky, but the Little Hollywood Land Museum with its movie sets from countless Westerns filmed in the area, relocated and preserved, was pretty cool. I even found teardrop-shaped turquoise earrings for Sherrie. The pair I got her several years ago had recently become a singleton. I found some neat scarves for Annabelle and Sawyer, our fashionista granddaughters.

We finally got a meal at Houston’s Trail’s End and enjoyed it.

The next morning, we decamped for St. George, heading back west on UT 89, but first we decided to go by Coral Pink Sand Dunes Park. The dunes were more yellow than pink, no doubt because the sky was overcast. After a short stop we headed on. I rode in the Ram truck with Vergil. We cut back down to UT 389 rather than take the slower route through Zion.

It was still cold and spitted rain the entire way to St. George. The plateaus to the north and west were covered with new snow. Stuart wanted us to see the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site, and Vergil and I wanted Stuart to see Snow Canyon State Park. We headed to the dino site first, and it was wonderful.

Apparently back in 2000, a local optometrist, Dr. Sheldon Johnson, was leveling a hill on his property in St. George when he uncovered a thick level of sandstone. Flipping over the large blocks, he discovered perfectly preserved dinosaur tracks. Eventually thousands of tracks made by dinosaurs and other animals were discovered from what had been the shores of an ancient lake some 200 million years ago.

Now the site is a museum with catwalks over the excavations and scientists hard at work teasing fossils form the surrounding rock. There are even life-size representations of the creatures, Dilophosaurus, Megapnosaurus, Scutellosaurus, and Protosuchus, arrested in mid-stride in the tracks they once made. Dimorphodon hovers overhead. It is truly fascinating. I purchased 200-year old fossilized shark’s teeth for my grandsons, Jake and Dylan.

We lunched at the ubiquitous In-N-Out Burger, then headed to the Best Western Travel Inn on East St. George Boulevard. It got exciting when Stu, while making a left turn, startled a pedestrian in the crosswalk who gave Stuart a piece of his mind in no uncertain terms.

Once checked in, we all piled into the Hyundai and headed up to Snow Canyon. In 2009, Vergil and I had spent several days in St. George when our buddy Ralph McCumber had needed to be hospitalized with severe gastric issues. After Ralph’s release, we had camped in Snow Canyon and done some dayhiking.

With its cinder cones, lava tubes, both red and white Navajo sandstone petrified dunes, rich black basalt, scrubby green sage, and shifting dunes, Snow Canyon is a study in contrasting colors and textures. There is no backpacking, but the park is covered with trails, even if like us, you don’t necessarily feel the need to restrict yourself to trails. We had wandered and scurried and climbed to our heart’s content.

Of course, with the overcast and rain, it was less than vivid but still spectacular. We drove about and took a few pictures, then headed back to the motel to pack for Thursday’s morning departure. For our last night together, we walked a couple of blocks to George’s Corner Restaurant, a cozy, funky retreat with live music-one guy, his guitar and harmonica.

Vergil had the grilled ribeye; Stuart ordered the battered fish and rings. I had the smoked turkey club. The food and the music were good, the company even better. We walked back to the motel with full bellies and finished packing.

Vergil and I were on the same 7:25 United flight to Denver. Stuart’s Delta flight to Salt Lake City left an hour earlier. Having two vehicles was working out great. We set every alarm we had and turned in early.

Stuart’s stirring around roused Verg and me. We bid him a fond farewell and tumbled back into the bed for a few more minutes. By 6:00 AM we were on our way to the airport. We dropped off the truck and went to check our bags.

The St. George airport only has two gates, only one of which they apparently use. One security line accommodates both TSA Pre-check and the common folk. For some reason, my boarding pass had not been flagged as usual for TSA Pre-check, so we had to wait until those three people were cleared before it was our turn.

Then the fun began. I had won the lottery and got wanded, then tested chemicals that could be used to build a bomb. Next the ultra-vigilant screeners became suspicious of the two irregularly shaped lumps, each about the size of a large potato, stashed in the bottom of my daypack. I must admit they did look suspicious on the screen, although they were only sandstone blocks holding petrified shark’s teeth all swathed up in bubble wrap for protection. The TSA screener unwrapped one to satisfy that all was safe, and I was free to go.

Vergil had gone through with no complications, and we entered the boarding area to find Stuart waiting patiently for his flight. He looked up somewhat abashed.

“I misread my boarding pass,” he admitted. “I got here before the airport was even open.”

We all had a good laugh and sat down together for those last few minutes. Stuart’s Delta flight was visible through the window. The United jet Vergil and I would take was parked way around to the left. We had seen it as we walked in.

For some reason, Vergil’s layover in Houston had increased from one-a-half to six hours. No one at Ticketing had been able to explain why or correct the issue. He was less than delighted as he had a quick turnaround to leave for Spain.

Soon Stu’s flight was called, and with one last embrace, he was gone.

Vergil and dozed until our flight was called. We headed through the same gate. The jetway had been swung way around to the United jet parked around the corner. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible in adjacent seats and settled in for the one hour 41-minute flight.

Despite the lack of activity at the airport, we still got away late. It was snowing when we landed in Denver. Naturally our connecting flights were nearly as far as they could possibly be from our arrival gate. We hustled through the airport, paused long enough to use the restroom, bid a hasty good-bye, and boarded our respective flights.

There is a particular poignancy saying good-bye to old, old friends that you only get to see once or twice a year. The previous October, my father had the stroke that ultimately took his life. I got to Tupelo the morning after his stroke and moved into the hospital with him. Vergil drove up from Gulfport the next day and stayed the week as I moved with Dad to hospice where he spent his final few days. Vergil would come drag me out just to get me away or just sit with me in Dad’s room. That is the kind of friend he is.

I was lucky in my seat, a bulkhead seat, and because the bulkhead did not extend all the way to the deck, I could stretch my legs all the way out. The two seats beside me were empty, but I couldn’t flip the armrests up as that’s where the tray-tables were located. I called Sherrie to tell her that we were leaving Denver on time and settled in.

As we flew over Kansas, the beverage cart came by. I hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before, nearly eighteen hours ago. I ordered the heartiest sandwich on the menu and a rum on the rocks, then caught up on my sleep.

In between naps, I thought about the trip. Had we made the right decision coming out early? I thought so and still do. Could we have stayed in? Undoubtedly, although it would have been a miserable night with at least the potential for hypothermia. It might have come down to breaking park rules and building a campfire.

Considering the ease of travel in the canyon, I would like to go back and do a point-to-point, from White House all the way down to Lee’s Landing on the Colorado River. We only saw 12 of Paria Canyon’s 38 miles. That’s for another year.

Our plane landed right on time, 3:16 PM EDT, and I headed for baggage claim. Warm 80° F air spilled in from the open doors as I descended on the escalator. Cold rain to snow to warm sunshine in less than six hours. Sherrie was already there, waiting patiently at the carousel with that radiant smile of hers. I was home again.

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