Sea Stories

This was a long-awaited day in which the pieces finally came together to allow us a day on the beach at Gulf State Park. Our memories of this beach as a place with pure white sand, turquois water, and warm water and air have persisted for over 40 years. I have wished to come back here many times for that experience. The conditions today were not as perfect as they were on that memorable day, but they were pretty good. The water was warm and felt good. (That’s after I gathered my courage to get into the water. The authorities were flying a purple flag along with the yellow one, and that purple flag indicates a hazard from sea life. I thought it was primarily a jellyfish warning, so I talked with a guy who was fishing. He confirmed that it is a warning for jellyfish, which are more of a problem later in the summer. But he also said that it was a warning about sharks. We were near a huge fishing pier, and he told me sharks congregate around the pier because people clean their fish and throw the carcasses back in the water. Hmm.) We were 100 yards from the pier, and the fishing activity was pretty far out on the pier, so I didn’t really think I was shark bait by going in the water where I was.

 

We left the beach at about 4:00 and headed for a local seafood restaurant (DeSoto’s). Don’t tell anyone, but we were attracted by their “earlybird senior special” menu. I ordered fried oysters, because I am still taken aback by how good they were a couple days ago. E ordered grilled shrimp.

 

When we got back to the campground we saw that a fisherman was cleaning his catch out at the end of the dock. Several pelicans and a Great Blue Heron were hanging around looking for handouts. E was excited to go see the birds. I was looking for an opportunity to talk with an interesting-looking fisherman. We both got what we wanted. As the fisherman began to tell his story it turned out to be a great story for sharing.

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Dr. Gary is a retired veterinarian from Iowa. For the first 20 years of his practice he was a traditional vet, primarily serving dairy farms. By that point in his life he was pretty burnt out, and could barely rub two dimes together to show for all his work. He had a friend who wanted to invite him to a conference on acupuncture. As he tells the story, he thought acupuncture was pretty much a hoax. He told this to his friend before he found out that his friend was an advocate of acupuncture. Gary was embarrassed to have offended his friend, and to eat humble pie he agreed to go with him to the conference. Well, Gary must have had an open mind, in spite of his skepticism, because this was the turning point in his career. He went on to become one of only a handful of acupuncture-certified vets in the country. He turned his practice into an acupuncture veterinary practice.

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A few months ago Gary lost his wife, Vicky. She must have been a wonderful person, and they must have had a lovely life together. Gary is working through the stages of his grief, and it seemed like he really appreciated the opportunity to talk. We learned a lot about Gary’s life and family in this brief time of listening to a fisherman’s stories.

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After the stories, and after the fish were cleaned, I was able to enjoy my second beautiful sunset at the Bay Breeze RV Park.

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Unexpected Discoveries in North Georgia

Two things emerged from our family discussions about what to do today: a “scenic drive” in the Georgia countryside and a visit to an eccentric artist’s “Paradise Garden.” I wasn’t listening very carefully when they were talking about visiting this artist’s garden, but I did manage to catch that he was “hard to describe,” and that “you have to see it to understand it.” I like some art, and I wasn’t averse to having a look, so I agreed to go along with this. For the scenic drive, I mapped out a route through the North Georgia mountains, with a place called John’s Mountain as the centerpiece. Everyone seemed glad to have a plan, and we set out to see what Fall in North Georgia looked like.

After about a half-hour’s drive M announced that we had arrived at Paradise Garden. From outside the chain-link fence I couldn’t see much, but what I could see wasn’t all that impressive. I wasn’t expecting much. However, a sign that stated that Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden was listed on the National Register of Historic Places got my attention. I also paid attention when M & A told us about a Swedish couple they had met here the last time they were here. This couple had traveled all the way from Sweden just to see this place. Hmm. OK. Let’s have a look.

His welcome sign was certainly warm and inviting:

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The visit to the gardens started with a short video that told us all about the artist. To call him an artist requires a bit of explanation. He was a Baptist Preacher who turned to making art in his 60’s as a way of expressing his vision of the gospel. He had no art training or background. He had a vision one day and felt he had heard a calling from God to do art. For the rest of his life he worked tirelessly, and ended up producing some 40,000 works of “art.” A lot of his “art” was 3-D “sculpture” made from odds and ends (bicycles, hubcaps, bits of mirrors and tiles, basically anything he felt like using). The “Paradise Garden” was his outdoor collection of a lot of these things. It was in a pretty sorry state of disrepair, having seen much better days. (Howard passed away in 2001.) This picture of one of Howard’s “selfies” probably communicates more than my words can:

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Here’s a mural he made:

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One feature of most of his art was that he wrote scriptures and other messages in just about everything. It was clear that he was using his art to spread his interpretation of the gospel. Pretty cool.

It turns out that this fellow has quite a following! He is known among artists, and he represents that genre of art known as “Outsider Art” or self-taught art. He’s in the same category as Grandma Moses. We didn’t get to see many of his paintings, but apparently his paintings fetch fairly high prices (thousands of dollars).

I like his leopards. Here’s one:

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After we left Paradise Garden we headed out into the hills for our “scenic drive.” For a time, it was less than impressive. The fall colors were past their prime, and we are spoiled by the northeastern hardwood forests that predominate in upstate New York. At one point things started to get more interesting as we began to wind our way up and through some more mountainous terrain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Then I saw it: a sign for a “Scenic Overlook.” I quickly expressed my opinion that we should have a look! M turned out, and we found ourselves on a gravel road. I think we all had expected a simple pull-off and a scenic view, but this was not to be. We wound our way up and around for a while until we got to a parking area. A parking area, but no scenic overlook. The gravel road seemed to go onward. M’s vehicle is not 4-wheel drive, but I urged him onward. His wife was not pleased as we found our way on a mountainous, gravel, switchbacky, one-lane road. At a couple of points we encountered opposing traffic, and M didn’t even stop. He pushed onward. I think everyone in the car was pretty nervous as we wound back and forth up the mountain. There was a bit of discussion about how we were going to turn around if we needed to. (We wouldn’t have been able to.) Oh, and we also were low on fuel.

Well, eventually we did get to a scenic overlook, and it was worth all the trouble. It turns out this was John’s Mountain. It was lovely.

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After that it was all downhill until we got to our dinner destination: Crawdaddy’s in Rome, GA, where we enjoyed some authentic Cajun fare.

The Search for the Perfect Jam

Our strategic location of Claytor Lake State Park not only allowed us to enjoy the facilities of the park, but it also put us within reasonable reach of two different events listed in the Mts. of Music Homecoming booklet. There was an Appalachian farm market with music in the nearby town of Pulaski, and there was a traditional “old time” jam at a Mexican grill in the not-too-nearby town of Pearisburg.

 

I was able to spend about an hour kayaking around on Claytor Lake in the morning, before the thunderstorms moved in. I loved it.

 

We headed off toward the town of Pulaski to experience that Appalachian farm market with music. When we got there we found that it was … meh. There wasn’t much on offer from the farmers’ market, and the band was nothing to write home about. It was not something we wanted to spend our whole evening on. So, we did what we could. We headed for the “old time jam” at that Mexican grill in Pearisburg. Our GPS led us to … the Walmart!

 

We were a bit mystified. There was supposed to be a Mexican grill here, with jamming, but we didn’t see one. I drove around the parking lot, and lo and behold – a Mexican grill. We entered with some trepidation, because there were only a few cars in the parking lot, and we couldn’t hear any music. But when we got inside we found three gentlemen and a lady off to one side singing and playing instruments. They welcomed us warmly, and immediately asked if I had an instrument. When they heard that I had a guitar they enthusiastically encouraged me to bring it in and join the fun.

 

The songs they were doing were all over the map. Some folk music, some country music, some bluegrass, an occasional gospel song, and some originals that one of the fellows had written. These folks were salt-of-the earth people who were simply gathered together for a fun night of making music together. I contributed quite a few songs, which is really not what I usually do. I just felt comfortable doing so, and it was easy to do. They brought us right into the circle. During the course of the evening I got them to introduce themselves and tell me a bit about who they were. Here are two of them: T-Baby Reed – the guitar man and Earl Thornton with the baritone uke:

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And here is Addison Dobbs with his mandolin (He’s really the only one who consistently lead bluegrass tunes):

 

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And here I am joining in:

 

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It was a really unusual evening, and much different than I had anticipated. But it was a great, authentic, Appalachian music experience. This is what we came here to find.

Feastival!

At this point in the trip we faced a fork in the road, and we took it. Our original plan had us heading to the Asheville area and focusing on non-musical interests. There were no more Blue Ridge Music Trail events closeby. However, a few days ago E discovered that Virginia’s Crooked Road (which we explored pretty thoroughly in 2015) was holding a 10-day, Mts. of Music Homecoming celebration. There were all sorts of events going on all over southern Virginia from June 9 through June 17. We found that we would be able to catch quite a few of these events if we headed back up to Virginia at this point. This decision was a no-brainer.

 

The first event we decided to attend was billed as a “Feastival.” It was a catered church-picnic type of event, with a bluegrass/gospel band, a couple of highly accomplished musicians, and talks by two local authors who have written books about the food in Appalachia. E had already heard of one of these authors, and had recently placed a hold on her book at the library, so when she saw that we would be able to meet this lady and hear from her, it seemed like a great opportunity.

 

The event was being held at the Dinwiddie Presbyterian Church, outside the town of Hillsville, VA. A couple miles short of the destination our GoogleMaps directions brought us to a dirt road with a dark, forbidding entrance, low-hanging branches, and prospects of hills and switchbacks that I just wasn’t willing to face. I phoned our contact person at the event, and with some help, we were able to come up with a better route. The only problem was, now I had to turn the trailer around on this crooked road. With E’s help, and our pair of walkie-talkies, we made it happen. We arrived at the Feastival about 20 minutes late.

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Fortunately, the eating hadn’t started yet. We missed some music, but there would be much more of that later.

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The authors (Ronni Lundy and Libby Bondurant) told interesting stories, and they helped us understand more about the culture of Appalachia. I have become more and more convinced that the people of this area are judged very unfairly by outsiders. The stereotypes are hurtful, and for the most part very untrue.

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The music was provided by a band named Changing Lanes, and they were joined by a guitarist named Mac Traynham and a banjo-player named Edwin Lacy. Evidently these two fellows are well-known mountain music “sages.” (Keep that name, Mac Traynham in mind as you read future posts in this trip of ours. We were to learn more about him later.) The music was good, and most of what they played was gospel. I love the fact that gospel music plays such a big role in traditional mountain music.

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Oh! We found an RV park just a couple miles down the road from the Dinwiddie Church. Good thing, because it had been a very full day!

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A Mountain Climb and a Mountain Jamboree

With promising weather, and with us camped on the side of a mountain (Stone Mountain), the ideal way to begin the day was with a hike to the top of the mountain. The Stone Mountain hike was about 1.7 miles, with about 800 feet of elevation gain. It was billed as a “strenuous” hike, but with statistics like those, it was hard for me to accept that it really was strenuous. I reached the top in about 45 minutes, and only the last 10 to 15 minutes or so were hard work. The amazing thing about this mountain, and this hike, is that the top of the mountain is one solid mass of granite. I suppose from a distance the mountain has a really striking appearance, but from the vantage point of the mountain itself, it was just sort of weird. It felt weird to be sitting atop this mass of granite, looking out over the Blue Ridge mountains and the Yadkin valley to the south. It was beautiful, and the wind was strong, and it was pure joy to sit and soak it in.

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When I returned from the hike it was almost time to head for Sparta, NC where we hoped to find some music in the evening at the Alleghany Jubilee. We had read that the village of Sparta was cool and interesting, so we left ourselves plenty of time to explore it. I found a few mildly interesting things in the town, but mostly it was just an ordinary small-town-America kind of place.

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The Alleghany Jubilee was a homerun, however. The band for the evening was Rise and Shine, and they provided a great variety of bluegrass, old time, country, and folk music. The main thing, however, was the dancing. Unlike Floyd Country Store where everything is pretty much continual flat-footing, here there was all sorts of dancing. There was a lot of flat footing, but there was also a lot of two-step, quite a few waltzes, some line dancing, and even a square dance (where everyone seemed to know what to do even without a caller).

 

The highlight of the evening was meeting Anges and Dottie when the band was taking a break. The two of them took turns telling me various perspectives on the history of the Alleghany Jubilee, the importance of traditional music, and the various people and places that were a part of the story. These two ladies were the height of friendliness, and they were full of joy. They made it a special evening. Agnes and her husband are responsible for initiating the Alleghany Jubilee 23 years ago. I’m glad they did it!

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As the evening drew to a close, the band announced that their last number would be a gospel song. At this, all the members of the audience formed a circle and urged us to join them. With everyone holding hands, the band played its gospel song, everyone in the circle took a bow toward one another, and the evening was over. All in all it was quite a special evening.

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Jamming Progress

Our original trip plan itinerary showed us doing a lot of nothing today. All we had to do was pack up from the festival and move about an hour down the road to the Stone Mountain State Park. The relaxing “down time” in that plan sounded good. But when I realized that we were less than an hour from the Blue Ridge Music Center, and that there was old-time jamming there on Sunday afternoons, the temptation to abandon the relaxing day in favor of more music was too great. So, we headed out of town on route 89, climbed the mountains, and found our way to the Blue Ridge again. This would be our third time here, and our second time joining in on the jamming.

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This style of jam suits my abilities perfectly. It is relaxed, open to uninvited participants, and the musicians are non-judgmental. They even slowed down Fisher’s Hornpipe enough to enable me to play it on the mandolin. It’s just a relaxed good musical time. I found myself picking up the structure of the old time fiddle tunes better than I had ever been able to do before. The Blue Ridge Music Center was designed to attract tourists, so all sorts of people stop by to listen during any live musical event. Today was no different. E was struck by how thoroughly one woman seemed to be enjoying the music. (I find it kind of ironic that I was a part of the “band,” as far as this lady is concerned, but I was as much a tourist as she was. Different strokes for different folks.)

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After we left the music center, our next challenge was to find our way down to Stone Mountain State Park without mishap. The GoogleMaps directions wanted us to turn off the Parkway at a road named Mountain View Road. When we got there I thought it looked too dubious. With its low-hanging tree branches and dark entrance, all I could think of was impassable switchbacks and the nightmare of having to back the trailer up a long, winding road in the face of a too-low underpass. No, Thank You, GoogleMaps. I kept going, and the GoogleMaps voice was nice enough to re-route us. We left the Parkway on route 21, and found our way down, and down, and down, and around, and around, and around, until we eventually reached our destination: Stone Mountain State Park.

Competitions, Interesting Folks, and Some FINE Music

Today was the main day of competition in a million different categories. In the main building, the folksinging competition took place all morning long. On the main stage, there were competitions in bluegrass and in old time, for every conceivable instrument, in adult and youth categories. In the evening, each band performed its second of two competition songs or tunes. After all the bands, individual dancers performed for competition. When all the performances ended, the prizes were awarded. There were five prizes awarded for each category of competition.

 

We spent quite a bit of time at the folksinging competition. It was pretty amazing to see how many competitors there were, and it was eye-opening to see some of the talent that people have. I was particularly struck by one little girl as she competed in youth folksinging. Even though her entry was for her voice, she also accompanied herself on the fiddle.

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After she performed, I went to find her and her dad to discover more about her. Her name is Lake Carver, and she is only 7 years old. I was pretty awestruck by her.

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Lake Carver

We noticed a fellow wearing a GreyFox 2016 T-shirt, so we struck up a conversation with him. I wondered if he was from the northeast. Nope. He and Clare were here from Nashville. She is a talent scout for GreyFox. We found them to be fascinating people, and we talked for quite a while about various mountain music topics. Once I realized that Clare was a talent scout I made sure to mention some of my favorite artists. I hope this ends up helping some of them!

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Clare and Jeff   –   Howdy, Y’all!

In the afternoon we took a free shuttle bus into the city of Mt. Airy to re-acquaint ourselves with “Mayberry.” (Mt. Airy is the city that Mayberry from the classic TV show, The Andy Griffith Show, is modeled on.) One of the venues on the Blue Ridge Music Trail is the Earl Theater in Mt. Airy. This is where the Saturday morning live radio show, The Merry-Go-Round takes place. Although it was too late to catch today’s broadcast, we watched a short documentary film about the Surry County old-time fiddle style.

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Back at the festival, we were able to watch as the awards in the youth category were announced and handed out. Sure enough – Lake Carver won an award! (I was not surprised in the least.)

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The first-place winner in the youth folksinging category was a girl named Karlee Keepher from Sparta, NC. (You can see her standing to the side in the photo of Lake receiving her award.) Karlee absolutely stunned us with her voice. Clare, the talent scout, commented on Karlee’s singing as well. Clare said that she is an up-and-coming Alison Krauss. Now that is high praise, especially considering the source.

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