Southern Legitimacy Statement: Along with Rosey Grier I was born in Tyler deep in the piney woods. Soon after that blessed event my mother rode the train to L.A. with her baby, but I returned to Texas every summer through adolescence. Eventually I traded LaLaLand for the Deep South where I worked as the Sports Medicine desk for WebMD for two years. Then I started a physical therapy clinic with a friend in Birmingham and ran it for ten years.
Joey Kennedy (a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer stirring pots as one of the bonafide liberal writers in Alabama after leaving his editor post at the nearly-gone Birmingham News) and his wife (an excellent writer in her own right) remain my most trusted Southern confidants. I can’t stand Roy Moore and I used to like seeing Charles Barkley around town when I lived in Birmin’ham.
I’ve made pilgrimages to Falkner country, to the Delta, to Nawlins and to Tuskeegee and I’ve spent a lot of time with my brother at his place in New Bern. I’m not as charmed as everyone thinks I should be by the Redneck Riviera yet I’m living in NE Florida at this very moment. I know what comes after, “Why’d y’all have to go and do that?” I’ve never found the baby in a king cake, and I prefer Alabama red ‘Que sauce to the Carolina white, the Tigers over the Crimson Tide and Gulf shrimp over mudbugs. Once I bought tamales from a small shop in Vicksburg where the proprietor honestly believed they were originally a Southern invention. You better believe I’ve never flow the stars and bars but I know the history.
We are advancing across eastern Turkey in Reza’s diesel sedan, our German plates announcing our “otherness.” The macadam’s stippled surface is humming its desolate harmony. The sound hypnotizes me. Just before I allow my eyes to close, I notice the road is higher than the surrounding desert. I conclude it must be built on top of older roads. I imagine we’re driving upon an almost geological stratification of roads. Our tires are rolling over a stack of fossil roadbeds built by ancient civilizations. Alexander’s armies probably crossed this desert on the bottom one.
When I open my eyes again, I see three shepherds squatting on their heels, their herd of fat-tailed sheep foraging on the finger-high clumps of vegetation. Except for the slow turning of heads as they watch us pass, the sheep and their shepherds are motionless. Maybe they too are pondering the nature of the highway. I suspect shepherds think a lot as they tend their flocks in the open desert. Aren’t they the ones who invented astronomy out here? Maybe a religion or two?
We are traversing the vastness of eastern Anatolia where desiccated steppes alternate with jagged escarpments. The people we met in western Turkey were friendly and kind. I was happy. Far into the desert now, the few people we see up close have cruel eyes and unwelcoming gestures. In the land where the biblical ark may or may not have landed after the flood, the hot wind has absconded with my happiness.
Periodically we come upon depressing mudbrick villages where wicked little boys loiter by the highway. We are approaching the first dun-colored buildings of one of those graceless places when a band of those boys appear. We’ve learned to accelerate as they bend to pick up stones and we’re past before they start throwing.
Like the wicked boys, vultures are ubiquitous in these forsaken villages. The cheerless spirit of this place percolates through me and gnaws on my soul like one of those vultures. I am longing for some sign of solace when, on the far side of one of those dismal villages, my gaze splashes into a small river. It’s the first flowing water we’ve seen in this bereft landscape. I devour every glimpse of its nurturing presence.
Opening our much-refolded map, I find the river and trace its countless curves with an index finger. I am afraid I’m going to discover the water dies in the desert like Afghanistan’s evaporating river. We meander, my finger and the river, southward through an analog of this forsaken land until we reach a much larger river. It is the Euphrates and my finger merges with it. I am surprised, then I am relieved.
It occurs to me if I were to drift downstream through desert and time, I would encounter what remains of Babylon and Ur. The roots of civilization were fed by these very waters. Thinking this soothes me, and thus steadied, I close my eyes again and float away.