Monday, September 12, 2011

Cardinal Concerns

September 10, 2011

I am making a calculation that a sane person should never make. I am thinking of the cost of gas and the miles per gallon that a fifteen year old Ford delivers, and the length of drive, and coming up with a dollar per piece number for the fruit I am hunting today. Grateful that I am so capable of ignoring these kinds of calculations, I coax Carl into the truck and head east, the late afternoon sun behind us, pushing like a wind at our backs.

I stop in Fallsville for gas. Out of habit, I check the pot, but it is too late for coffee, so I just scrounge for the cash I have on hand, and Sky makes the calculation – $10 dollars =2.8 US gallons. Her old pump has a problem with high prices, so you simply ignore that part of the machine and dispense the correct volume. I am humming the tune to an old Vince Gill song:
…There was no road too winding, nowhere too far, with two bucks of gas and my old yellow car…
 I nearly abort the trip and spend the rest of the afternoon talking to Sky. She is willing to make another pot.

This time of year - early Fall - something very southern - both in cultural and botanical meanings of the word - begins to ripen. Huge purple black berries hang singly or in pairs from small-leaved vines that tend to rise above the ground to perfect picking height. Muscadine, vitis rotundifolia, also known as Scuppernong. The flavor is unlike anything else on earth and is concentrated in the thick tart skins. Tough and resilient, unlike their cultivated vitis brethren that demand babying and chemical codling, they do have one inconvenient habit - their hideout is a good eighty miles distant.

There are botanical lines drawn in the thin topsoil of the Boston mountains, and one of those lines is highway 7, running north south from Hot Springs to Harrison. If you drive its length, you will cross another line – the Arkansas river – running perpendicular, about half way along your trip. Highway 7 runs through both the Boston and the Ouachita mountains, but the river separates them into the distinct environments that they really are. To find muscadine, you must go south, below the river, or, and this is where luck comes in, go east to the other side of highway 7, where things are also to their liking.

Today I am in a foul mood. There is no particularly good reason, just a series of minor irritations – forgot my walking stick, forgot Carl’s collar, got a late start, forgot my thermos, made the mistake of listening to national news on NPR - but as usual the wind, the road, the thinking time, do their job, and when I pull off the highway three hours later at the secret spot, I have changed for the better. (It also helps that I have stopped at a cemetery along the way and photographed a humorous juxtaposition of outhouse and signage). I carry a full pack of camera gear and tripod just for the pleasant weight of it all, and head downhill.

Muscadine choose their homes carefully, and only fruit when they damn well please, so I pass stand after stand of vines with no grapes attached, before getting to the spot I know from years past, and there they are, waiting. The vines climb on understory trees and stay about six feet off the ground, and there are plenty, but I am also about ten days too early, the grapes green and hard as rocks. The cost per grape has escalated since I will have to return, but I am also thrilled to see them at all, considering the droughty, unbelievably hot summer they have had to endure.

When I reach the actual bluff line, and the view west into the setting sun, I begin looking for a spring that I remember, knowing Carl needs water. It is not where it should be, and I begin walking up a narrow drainage in pursuit. The sides are moist and there has been a hatching of eye gnats and mosquitoes that are driving me to use language I generally reserve for humans. Just as I am about to retreat, I hear the wonderful sound of moving water, and turn the corner to see a tiny clear pool, and next to it, a Cardinal flower in full red bloom, shyly acting as if it is no big deal, just an everyday display of magnificence.

Cardinal flowers surprise with the intensity of color, and with their late-year appearance when so much else has lapsed into end-of-summer depression, or pre-winter preparation. I have seen them in flower as late as thanksgiving in the Ozarks. They can reach several feet high, and the flower head is a cluster of individuals, each with unusual stamens that stick out above the petals, and demand closer attention. The scientific name Lobelia cardinalis, refers both to the early (1500s) botanist Von Lobe, and, of course, the color red. Like muscadine, they choose location carefully, and it is always near water.

As we hike out, I choose another route, one that will follow the bluff line for half a mile before climbing back to the truck. Carl walks ahead, and I can see the effects of arthritis and age in the odd movements of his hips. Two years ago, Carl’s kind and gentle veterinarian, Gerald Kelso (recently retired), had taken my hands and placed them on Carl’s hips and made me feel the grinding of bone on bone, the total absence of cartilage - the explanation of Carl’s increasing difficulty climbing into the truck, of his occasional yelps of pain. “This did not happen overnight,” Kelso told me, “he’s been dealing with it for a long time.”

Light is falling fast. I have dallied along the bluff longer than I intended. Dusk and sandstone can be siren calls to a photographer, and it takes serious effort to break away and head up into the dark woods. I have taken no more than a dozen steps when I get tangled in a low-hanging vine – the tripod on my pack snagging it and pulling it down over my head. As I curse and work to free myself, I see dark round grapes hanging everywhere around me - muscadine in profusion - the southern bluff exposure bringing them to ripeness before their higher, shaded cousins. I fill one of the pockets of my vest to bulging – not enough to make jam or wine, but enough to secret away in the freezer for a mid-winter burst of flavor and a reminder of the heat of summer.

The climb has been rough on Carl, and he’s unable to put even his front feet into the cab of the truck. I lift them, one by one, making comments designed to help him maintain his dignity, then hoist his rear end onto the seat. He gives me a sideways glance of gratitude then stares out the windshield, waiting for the door to close. As I stow gear in the back, I am thinking of another dog and another man. Years ago, while working together on a book project(Buffalo Creek Chronicles), the writer Gary Lantz would drive over from Oklahoma and pick me up for a day of discussion and exploration. His old dog Jack would be in the back of the jeep, having been lovingly lifted and prodded and pushed into position. Three friends on the road, the two middle-aged men in the front knowing without speaking of it, that they are working under a time constraint of their own, that speed is of the essence.

It is fully dark when I pull back onto the highway – the kind of dark that is only possible away from cities and street lights, and yard lights. With just an occasional exception as I pass a house near the road, the only lights visible are moon, stars, headlights and instrument panel. I often feel as if I’m flying a small airplane at times like this. My preference for older trucks makes for a louder level of road noise, a constant rattle of metal parts, the roar of wind through open windows, and the roadbed can take on the appearance of earth at a great distance.

A blinking red light on the dash informs me that I have misjudged the gas. The dial is pointing deep into the red and I have sixty miles to go. I know that at 9PM, there will be no open station between here and home. An error has been made. I think of stories of WWII bomber pilots coming back to base, flying over the ocean, fuel gage on empty, no way to make it back. There must be a moment of calm acceptance. Nothing you can do will stop what is about to happen. There is no creative solution. The engine will sputter and stop, and then there will be only the sound of the wind, and all will change.

I could think of scenarios – a makeshift leash for Carl and a hike down highway 16 in the dark, all the way home, or perhaps to a homestead with a light in the window and a gas can in the barn, or leaving Carl and flagging down the next rare vehicle, or climbing the side of a mountain to find phone signal and a friend three hours away in Fayetteville. I refuse to think about it now. The choice will come soon enough, after the engine dies. Now, I just stare out of the windshield, watching the white and yellow lines moving, the moon challenging my headlights, the reflected eyes of deer mocking me. And I wait, almost euphoric, for the glorious silence, the feel of the wind.