I was in what men refer to as "stage five". My hands and feet were sweating uncontrollably; my legs were crossed tightly and bouncing up and down; my face was distorted and any sort of concentration was impossible. "Holding it" was no longer an option. I looked up the road where one deserted Ozark highway crossed another and saw what I knew to be the only gas station between here and our destination, which was still a full hour away. As the Subaru rolled into the dusty gravel drive our eyes grew wider with a mixture of horror, bewilderment, and waning hope for the future of mankind. This was no cut-and-paste shell station. This was one of those "ol' Joe-Bob's sto'e" kind of places that seemed to be the town gas pump, general store, diner, and possibly the city hall. Outside an armada of ancient pickup trucks was posted and armed with everything from shot guns to rifles. A stray mutt wandered here and there in search of handouts or a truck tire to mark. Not stalling to rethink this decision, I bailed out of the car and sped into the store. Had I not been so rushed, I might have realized exactly what I was walking into.
The lifestyle of an outdoorsman has always led me to beautiful, wondrous, and "how the fuck did we end up here" places. In my wanderings of the Ozark wilderness I have come across many interesting and unique creatures: Notoriously superstitious black bears who, avoid humans like the plague; Mischievous gangs of elk, who roam the food plots of the Boston Mountains and harass hunters; Horny skunks that try and crawl in bed with you. But of these strange creatures none remain such an enigma to me as the Arkansas hillbilly.
A defining feature of these people is the location in which they tend to be found. Deviating from outdoorsmen or nature enthusiasts (hippies), who usually live within the confines of civilization and journey out to the wilderness for their adventures, hillbillies thrive upon the shady line between the outskirts of civilization and the beginnings of "where-the-shit-are-we." In such a setting I was first exposed to these awkwardly mystic people.
The entire Beasley family lived on a desolate dirt road, nestled deep in the pine thickets of southern Arkansas. The Beasleys and Knights all belonged to the deer hunters' camp also found along this road. My father held strong ties to this area through family, so it was natural that we returned here many times a year to hunt and visit. And it was on any given visit that we would be greeted by a rural parade of sorts. A round fellow in a trucker hat by the name of John Beasley, the senior of the Beasley family, would ride his four-wheeler (hillbilly slang for an ATV) between his house and the deer camp just down the road. Anywhere this man traveled on that sputtering four-wheeler he was escorted by a gang of scrappy, backcountry dogs. However, this is in no way uncommon among hillbillies. The uniqueness in this situation is the fact that only one of these twelve dogs happened to be his own. And of all of the rottweilers, beagles, and mutts that faithfully followed his every footstep, his dog was the fat wiener dog, which he kept happily perched in a milk-crate that was bolted to the front of the four-wheeler. The rest of the pack belonged to other Beasleys that lived along the road. He had come to inherit the gang by simply by feeding them table scraps and occasionally patting one on the head. This was one of my first encounters with the home and humor of these country folk. The Beasleys instilled in me the enjoyable novelty of redneck company.
Most have seen or at least heard of the legendary film, Deliverance. While the movie may be somewhat of an exaggeration, when alone in the Arkansas backcountry, it is difficult not to let your mind entertain the suspicion that you could be stalked by some insane hick with a shot gun, banjo, and overalls. The night had fallen and some of my friends and I were hiking through a maze of country roads by moonlight. Finally, we found a large bluff over the Buffalo River where we lay down for sleep. Having already sneaked past a dark and disheveled house in this apparent nowhere, we were glad to lie in hiding and wait for morning. Just as we were nodding off to sleep, something changed in the sound of the summer breeze. I eventually became conscious of a roaring engine clanking up through the steep maze of roads. Cy and the rest of my friends seemed to be too comfortably asleep to worry about our impending doom. I listened. The louder and more distinguished the noise became, the more my thoughts turned to fear.
"Who could be out in such a place at this hour?" I thought to myself. "Could they be heading for that house? No, it was farther back. Are they coming from the house? There was a beat up truck in the thicket across from it. But that was missing a wheel. It doesn't sound like a healthy truck. Maybe there were people in that house, and they saw us and this is their land, or at least they think it is, and now they are out looking for us with shotguns to kill us and feed us to their hunting dogs! But wait, they can't find us here. We are off of the road and the brush is too thick. It is ok. We are not going to die. I can hear voices. What? Son of a Bitch! Why are their headlights shinning towards us? We are going to die! Hell no we're not! You can out run them. What about my pack and gear? Fuck that, just get out of--. Why the hell is Cy running at the truck with his Boy Scout pocketknife in hand! We are going to fucking die!"
Immobilized by panic, I stared after Cy as he disappeared into the headlights. I cringed, waiting for shouts of, "Get the hell out?a here boy!" closely followed by the boom of a shotgun. But the only sound was that of the idling engine. Eventually it was shut off, and I heard Cy's voice conversing with another in calm civilized tones. It turned out to be a country couple that was driving around looking for a scenic view to spend the night under. The threat actually came from a can of mace, which Cy almost earned, rather than a shotgun. Through chatting with them we discovered that upon seeing him they nearly shit their pants, as we did ours, when he rolled like a ninja out from the woods. Though not exactly Deliverance, the principle remains the same: hillbillies should be humored and enjoyed but always with reverence and a boy scout pocket knife handy. For you never know what to expect form a couple of folks up in the hills. This is a lesson that I wish I had remembered at that lonely gas station.
As the glass door shut behind me, a dusty diner full of haggard old men craned their necks expecting to see someone they were familiar with but instead received me: a tall kid wearing strange new styles of clothing, girly long hippie hair, sandals, and liberal politics. There they sat in their mud-covered boots, worn carhearts, hunting caps, and century-old plaid jackets. They sipped on dark coffee as they watched the mornings hunting and fishing shows. The glare they gave me could have curdled a year's worth of milk. I still have trouble looking old people in the eyes. They seemed to wonder why I had stopped there, as if I had just barged in uninvited. My hands dripped cold sweat and the back of my neck burned ice. The beaver damn of my bladder was desperately failing to hold back the ocean of piss my damn kidneys had manufactured. I had no time to hunt through this lions' den for the restroom. I swallowed my heart and asked the wooden man behind the counter where it was. He raised a shaky, wrinkled hand towards the rear of the store. I shut the door to the small, dingy room behind me and hastily relieved myself. As I did so, I first began to observe my surroundings. Of course, there was writing on the wall as in any public restroom, but this was a different kind of writing. Statements such as, "The south will rise again and slavery will rule this land from sea to shining sea," where scrawled upon the wall. I had always known hillbillies to be good God fearing people, but I was dumbfounded and half scared when I found Bible verses written upon the wall next to little reminders such as "suck my cock." The only Bible verses that did not threaten those who had not found Jesus with death and damnation spoke about acceptance of slavery.
But by far the climax of my observations came when I read the inscription beside a hole in the wall twice the size of my head. It read, "Real men can punch through drywall!" My mouth dropped in a confusing mixture of disbelief and realization. What was more is that the puncture continued into the wall and through an outward bent piece of sheet metal surrounded by imprints of knuckles. Scrawled beside the previous message were the words, "and sheet metal too."
Two minutes later we firmly locked the car doors and sped out onto the highway hoping to get out of bullet range in time. It was through this incident that I learned the respect I now have for hillbillies and rednecks alike. I now maintain that they should be dealt with much like bears and lightening. Though an amazing and wondrous part of nature, if not shown reverence and respect for their power, they can turn on you (or a good bit of drywall) without even a warning. And it often takes an event such as this confrontation to learn this lesson. I am just thankful I got off easy, unlike so many that had to learn the hard way.
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