We spent a shiftless afternoon in a hot, slow city: Natchez. For most of the day there was no shade where I could leave Ripley in the parked car, so we drove around, went for walks here and there. I sat on the patio of a coffee shop. There was shade out front for the dog, but no wireless at the cafe, so I tried to read a book but found myself listening more to the people at the table next to me. It was one of those horrible places where you ask about the internet and the barista suggests that instead you try a “conversation.” Anyways, somebody told a story about a pair of “gay hairdressers from up north” — Horace and his husband, very sweet people — who lived on a lake somewhere nearby.
The campsite, adjacent to a swamp in the Mississippi Delta, seemed nice and remote. When I set the tent up I didn’t consider the possibility that afterward, as I built a fire and cooked dinner over it, I might wonder the whole time about whether there were any alligators nearby, and if so how precisely nearby they might be. Ripley ran around freely until I heard a large splash coming from the water, and considered it’d be better to keep her close. The surface of the water was otherwise still but the marsh made noises: something created a clacking sound that built in intensity before finally petering out. And then again. Ripley lives her life on a hair trigger. Leashed, she growled in the direction of whatever she heard, or saw. At one point I think she barked at her shadow.
Ripley is an unusual-looking dog who tends to inspire a lot of conversation on the street, where folks often make a game of speculating about what breeds came together to create her. The prevailing theory is that she is somewhere between a pit bull and a corgi — she’s got a wide handsome face and a brindle pattern, a brawny chest, and short, sort of dainty legs with white paws at the end. Like all of them, she is a good dog.
The subject of this tale, as told by the mayor of a tiny town in eastern Tennessee, was a moonshiner, which has little bearing on the story itself.
I had a taxidermy job. And there was this fella from over the other side of Elizabethton, toward Bristol, had a zoo. And he came down there one day and he had this dead ostrich and these dead iguanas — lizards. He wanted me to mount them for him. Well, I took them in and I put the lizards in the freezer and I skinned out the ostrich. And he didn’t come back and give me a deposit or anything, so I didn’t do anything with them.
We crossed the eastern continental divide at, I think, 3,100 feet, past the on-ramp for the Blue Ridge Parkway and just ahead of Boone, a college town thronged with well-appointed young people and, apparently, their parents. This area is North Carolina’s high country, evoking a pleasing symmetry: each end of the continent has a place called the high country and each has, at its high points, a hydrological divide, two guideposts directing the downward flow of water to the oceans. The eastern continental divide is less dramatic than the western divide, the Great Divide, because the Appalachian mountain range is much older than the Rockies, formed 480 million years ago to the Rockies’ 65, or so, million. The eastern mountains have much longer to be worn down and smoothed over.