Big Fish and Turtlegators

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
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13
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Trip End Jul 02, 2007


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Flag of United States  , Alabama
Sunday, May 13, 2007

'Stars fell on Alabama'; it is etched on the license plates. And it turns out to be more than just an overly-abstract advertising slogan. It refers to an old black myth, in which one destiny of the land was erased by a shower of falling stars, and a new one inscribed in its place.

This is Alabama, the deepest of the deep south, a fated and fairy-tale land, where there is violence and there is enchantment and there is mystery. Fiction and fact are a little harder to distinguish here. They coexist comfortably in the same spaces and the same voices.

The stars shone brightly on me, night-busing south and sleeping fitfully. I arrived in Montgomery, and i was collected by Laura. Laura who lives with her father on the green banks above the old marina they operate, comfortable on a gentle bend of the Alabama River. Laura who doesn't have a lot of couchsurfing visitors through her neighbourhood, but who happened to have two at once. there was me and there was Kwinci. And Kwinci puts all my travels to shame.

You walk about the river, and are stunned by the lack of fences. The dogs range ahead and snout in the brambles. A hare breaks cover and bolts away. Birds rush the hot sky and are gone. Turtles plop into the green water and peak up to watch you pass.

By the old sewage pipes, in the still and milky pond waters, Laura tells me there are turtlegators. They have shells like a turtle but snouts like an alligator. long necks and spiny tails. and they can be big and grouchy. Her father, the river captain, emphatically backs this up. It sounds far-fetched to me, too perfectly and absurdly southern. Like his many other tall tales.

When Tim Burton filmed Big Fish, he chose Montgomery as the place to capture his whimsy on film. The captain talks with the same whistled accent as the film's protagonist. And both of them are fantastic storytellers.

He sits, at the dining table or out on the porch with the sun over his shoulder, or on the deck of the boat with a beer in his hands, or splay-legged in the grass picking burrs from the dogs' tails. I sit with him and immediately there is a tale to hand, and he is transporting us throughout Alabama and the world. But all the world feels like Alabama, is permeated by the same veils of mystique. And when he does turn his memory and his voice to Alabama, he colours seem to heighten and the shadows to lengthen. And he recounts how his practical jokes ended his time as an altar boy, or how the kitchen hand quit his work with the family and started a successful restaurant in Chicago, or how his yardsman was taken by Klansmen and thrust off of a bridge.

He is an old boy of Alabama, and he takes us to breakfast with the other old boys. They mash butter into their grits and skewer eggs with shakey hands, and introduce themselves formally. The supreme court judge, the cattle farmer, the author. There is among them the racist, the jew, the communist. They are a diverse bunch but they share the same penchant for tale-telling, the same sharp humour and welcoming handshake. A banker whispers to the jew 'did you ever see a skinnier boy?'.

The author is Wayne Greenhaw and we meet him for a few afternoon drinks. He brings books and signs them, but there is nothing proud in the deft scrawl of his name. He is earnest and compelling, and the first American i think i've met who speaks too quietly. His entourage of far younger folk from the publishing and writing milieu come across as raucous and a distraction. Kwinci and i have many questions. Most go unanswered in the din, and that seems in keeping with this place. A thousand stories but few straight answers. That blurred line that is not a lie but also isn't the plain and unadorned truth.

They are a friendly and hospitable people, these of the south, but it is also a secretive land, and they like their quiet houses surrounded by trees, and their sleepy streets with no traffic or bustle. amidst the privacy and secrets there is shame buried not far down. The birthplace of the Confederate states, the birthplace of the civil rights movement, where the Klan have ridden with impunity and a Governor has stood on schoolhouse steps and pumped his fist and proclaimed segregation to the sky. The confederate battle flag still flies proudly and brazenly, and there are black people still living in tiny two-room homes down by the railyards where the trains whistle and carriages collide.

The southern rhythms flow here too, carried by the rivers. They are organic and ancient, and they slow as they flow further south. The greenery reclaims everything and the new fades quickly into the dishevelled. Around the houses by the marina we have our own stories to tell. Laura has travelled and returned home to take an active role in the ongoing civil rights work. Kwinci has travelled and still hasn't reached home, the road confronting her and her bike with long hard miles. I have travelled and am travelling still, but in Alabama i feel lazy and doze off often, and wake up wondering exactly where i am going.

I wander the banks of the river, stare hard into the pond and doubt the existence of turtlegators. The turtles scramble off of warm logs and plop into the river. I peer into Alabama, the sleep river and rusted riverboat, the hard bridges and dusty downtown. I shake my head as the sun makes me sleepy. I try to understand this fated country, and the hatred that it has nursed, and the jubilant freedom it has tasted and the frustration of the fading aftertaste. There are a few straight answers but a multitude of possibilities.

In the cool of Laura's house we have google to bring us clarity. I discover information about Martin Luther King and the Klan and the past as well as ongoing struggles, and about the Alligator Snapping Turtle. But it doesn't help. There is no perfect, sharply-focused and crystallised image of Alabama; no adequate portrait, as the many murals in the state capital attest. they offer snapshots of moments that seem fantastic and distant. Instead there is a rich and mysterious country, where enchantment lies thick along the river and the railroad and the hills and the sleeping town.

And i felt the enchantment, and didn't want to leave. This place of rest and tranquility of poetry and story-telling, of vibrant sunsets and murky waters.

One last stroll along the riverbanks before i leave, and i have learned to tread more softly but the birds still take wing and the hares thump away. The turtles are plopping into the green water. And moving under the surface of the pond is a long-necked silhouette, which never surfaces and soon dissolves. And i don't know what i've seen and finally it doesn't matter, because the magic of Alabama is that it is suspended between belief and disbelief, fact and fiction, story and story, destiny and destiny, the stars aligning and realigning and falling a thousand times over.
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