I envisioned a quick Saturday afternoon run to the grocery store to pick up supplies for supper. Buck’s plan was a little more complicated. Two hours later and the Publix parking lot, a mere five miles from home, was nowhere in sight. His route took us on a surreal drive to memory lane. When he turned left instead of right (toward the store), I knew he had something else in mind. Some itch he wanted to scratch. After 35 years together, I don’t need a road map to know we’re going off the grid.
The detour wasn’t far, really, but it might as well have been on another planet, or at least in the early part of last century. Buck’s destination was an old fish camp down on the Escambia River, a place where his parents had a rough cabin back in the early 1940’s. A homemade sign pointed the way to the fish camp. We left the pavement and entered the land that time forgot. Buck was like a coon hound, nose to the wind. Good thing the old black Lincoln was already covered in springtime pine pollen.
We passed a half-hidden clay pit on one side or the road. Old azalea bushes gone wild and patches of daffodils suggested spots on the other side of the road where an old homestead might have been. We came upon a sign: “Pay Station Ahead. Prepare to Stop.” No friendly “welcome to the fish camp” stuff. From this point on, hot wires were strung on either side of the road, adding to my growing feeling of foreboding. What were they for? Then I saw a couple of horses, and wondered if this rag-tag entrepreneurial venture included horse riding as well as boat launch and picnic fees.
Another half mile or so down the dirt road, we came upon a red “Stop!” sign, with “Pay here” scrawled below it and an arrow directing us to a cabin-ish dwelling a little further up on the right. I was startled to see several folks sitting at a dilapidated wooden picnic table. A stout woman with a wild pile of red hair pinned in a messy topknot was poking food at a lanky baby the color of the red clay yard where he lolled nearly naked in a stroller. A pewter-colored part Pit yard dog with a weirdly human expression trotted over to check me out when I lowered the window to let the folks know we were just passing through and going to turn around. A skinny man with a black beard and a billed cap stared, expressionless. The woman smiled, though, and used her spoon as a pointer. “Y’all can go down to the point and look at the river.”
“It’s okay?” I said.
“Sure. Go on down to the point,” she said. The bearded man never blinked or twitched. The strange toddler stared, too, in a very un-baby-like way that I’ve been unable to forget. Something Hieronymus Bosch about that kid.
On the way back, Buck stopped the car and pointed over to a tree-shaded area on my side. “That’s where our cabin was,” he said. “The water’s just a few feet away. You could walk out the back door and go to the dock. I had a little skiff and could scull to the main river. There used to be another cabin next door, too.”
By the time we passed the “Pay” sign again, several more yard dogs and men who looked like clones of the first had assembled. We waved and drove on back to the 21st century. I felt a little dizzy. Guess time travel can do that to a person. Something about the re-entry.
One more unscheduled stop as we were headed in the general direction of the grocery store took us to a side road off a side road. It was a house Buck built for his first wife and young children back in the late 1960’s. We passed it slowly, turned around at the end of the road, then sat for a few minutes to see how the home had weathered the years. He looked, and finally spoke. “You know, in it’s day, that was quite a nice place.”
I’m glad we ate spaghetti last night. I needed the grounding quality of pasta in my belly. Even so, the strange baby and the pewter dog were in my dreams, along with terrifying untraveled narrow roads over mountain passes so frightening I couldn’t drive them alone.
Buck is scheduled for a nuclear stress test and echo-cardiogram early tomorrow morning. I try not to read anything into yesterday morning’s perambulations or last night’s dreams.