Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 6

After Vachel Lindsay’s death-defying day in Tallulah Gorge, he resumed his trip, walking the railroad tracks leading north through Clayton and Dillard in Rabun County, GA.


Mountain View from Clayton, GA

Approaching the North Carolina state line, he diverged from the railroad and spent a precious quarter to take a stagecoach for three miles on the road leading up toward Highlands. Soon, though, the weary traveler was back on foot:


The little streams I crossed scarcely afforded me a drink. Their dried borders had the footprints of swine on them.

Lameness affects one's vision. The thick woods were the dregs of the landscape, fit haunt for the acorn-grubbing sow. The road following the ridges was a monster's spine.

Those wicked brogans led me where they should not. Or maybe it was just my destiny to find what I found.

About four o'clock in the afternoon, after exploring many roads that led to futile nothing, I was on what seemed the main highway, and drugged myself into the sight of the first mortal since daybreak. He seemed like a gnome as he watched me across the furrows. And so he was, despite his red-ripe cheeks. The virginal mountain apple-tree, blossoming overhead, half covering the toad-like cabin, was out of place. It should have been some fabulous, man-devouring devil-bush from the tropics, some monstrous work of the enemies of God.

The child, just in her teens, helping the Gnome to plant sweet potatoes, had in her life planted many, and eaten few. Or so it appeared. She was a crouching lump of earth. Her father dug the furrow. She did the planting, shovelling the dirt with her hands. Her face was sodden as any in the slums of Chicago. She ran to the house a ragged girl, and came back a homespun girl, a quick change. It must not be counted against her that she did not wash her face.

The Gnome talked to me meanwhile. He had made up his mind about me. "I guess you want to stay all night ? "

"Yes."

"The next house is fifteen miles away. You are welcome if what we have is good enough for you. My wife is sick, but she will not let you be any bother."

I wanted to be noble and walk on. But I persuaded myself my feet were as sick as the woman. I accepted the Gnome's invitation.

Lindsay had arrived at Mud Creek Flats, between Dillard and Highlands. Studying an old map, I see that what he called Mud Creek Flats is near today's Sky Valley, the resort development sprawling across an especially beautiful valley to the northwest of Rabun Bald.

We were met at the door by one my host called Brother Joseph — a towering shape with an upper lip like a walrus, for it was armed with tusk-like mustaches. He was silent as King Log.

But the Gnome said, "I have saved up a month of talk since the last stranger came through." With ease, with simplicity of word, with I know not how much of guile, he gave fragments of his life : how he had lived in this log house always, how his first wife died, how her children were raised by this second wife and married off, how they now enjoyed this second family....

After the lady of the house rose from her sick-bed to cook for the whole clan, Lindsay considered her life:

Let us watch her at the table, breaking her corn-bread alone, her puffy eyelids closed, her cheek-bones seeming to cut through the skin. There is something of the eagle in her aspect because of her Roman nose, and her hands moving like talons. It is not corn-bread that she tears and devours. She is consuming her enemies, which are Weariness, Squalor, Flat and Unprofitable Memory, Spiritual Death. She is seeking to forget that the light of the hearthstone that falls on her dirty but beautiful babies is kindled in hell.



Sky Valley, Georgia

For decades, magazine writers had been exploiting a freakish caricature of the rustic mountaineer. I can’t decide if that’s what Lindsay was doing here at Mud Creek Flats. He had an active imagination, for sure:

Next morning was Sunday, a week since Easter. Only when a man has sadly mangled feet, and blood heated by many weeks of adventure, can he find luxury such as I found in the icy stream next morning. The divine rivulet on the far side of the field had been misnamed "Mud Creek." It was clear as a diamond….

After breakfast the wife helped the Walrus to drag the cot out of doors. When she was alone on the porch I told her how sorry I was she had been obliged to cook for me. I thanked her for her toil. But she hurried away, without a pause or a glance. She kissed one of those miry faced babies. She walked into the house, leaving me smirking at the hills. She growled something at the host. He came forth. He pointed out the road, over the mountains and far away. He broke off a blossoming applesprig and whittled it.

"So you've been to Atlanta?" he asked.

"Yes."

" I was there once. What hotel did you use ? "

"The Salvation Army."

"I was in the United States Hotel."

Still I was stupid. He continued:

"I was there two years."

He put on his glasses. He threw down the apple-sprig, and, looking over the glasses, he made unhappy each blossom in his own peculiar way. He continued: " I was in the United States Hotel, for making blockade whisky. I don't make it any more." He spat again. "I don't even go fishin' on Sunday unless —"

He had made up his mind that I was a customer, not a detective.

"Unless what?"

"Unless a visitor wants a mess of fish."

But I did not want a mess of fish. Repeatedly I offered money for my night's lodging. This he declined with real pride. He maintained his one virtue intact. And so I thought of him, just as I left, as a man who kept his code.

As he left Mud Creek Flats to walk the rest of the way to Highlands, Vachel Lindsay had plenty to think about:

I thought of the Gnome a long time. I thought of the wife, and wondered at her as a unique illustration of the tragic mysteries of the human race. If she screams when seven devils enter into the Gnome, no one outside the house will hear but the apple-tree. If she weeps, only the wind in the chimney will understand. If she seeks justice and the law, King Log, the Walrus, is her uncertain refuge. If she desires mercy, the emperor of that valley, the king above King Log, is a venomous serpent, even the Worm of the Still.

But now the road unwound in glory. I walked away from those serpent-bitten dominions for that time. I was one with the air of the sweet heavens, the light of the ever-enduring sun, the abounding stillness of the forest, and the inscrutable Majesty, brooding on the mountains, the Majesty whom ignorantly we worship.

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