A large convenience store/fast food joint near the highway, an all-night place with old burnt coffee tormenting the air with the smell of its age, a dozen or so idle, slightly marijuana-eyed teenagers in baggy pants pacing back and forth at the entrance, a fat sheriff's deputy creeping slowly in a dark-brown cruiser as I pulled in.
Ya know... I told her we could just meet at the Huddle House down the road... I'm not fucking Batman... Good Gawd... I'm in the hometown to visit family, not to hunt down the fucking Riddler...
* * * *
I found a seat at a booth farthest from the door, stirred a cup of the worst truck-stop coffee I've ever had (and trust me, former reporters know shitty coffee), watched the door patiently, enjoyed a strip of venison jerky.
Not being able to eat any other red meat and now living in an Ohio town where eating Bambi is often frowned upon, I savored every bite of the forbidden deer flesh, like a man savors every drop of water in the desert. The coffee may have tasted like it was brewed with Lucifer's ball sweat, but I was glad I'd bought the venison treat earlier in the night at another gas station.
There are, of course, numerous things I miss about living in the Rural South - the food is one of them.
I had a good idea who I was looking for, despite never meeting my subject in person. I'd committed her photo to memory - or, at least, the online avatar she presented as an authentic, true image. One can never be too sure...
Four large white women in too-tight clothing, one Asian kid, a toothless man in a Stars & Bars adorned biker teeshirt, an elderly couple stopping by the counter to ask directions passed through the front doors as I waited.
I had my shitty coffee and my venison to keep me company. It's late at night on a Sunday, and I'm supposed to be on a family vacation. Instead, I'm alone and waiting for a complete stranger in a damned truck stop.
Kinda normal Sunday night for me, now that I think about it...
* * * *
Somehow, she managed to sneak by me. Into the booth slid a young woman, dressed in a black hooded sweat shirt, Capri-style jeans, and eco-friendly sneakers.
"Sorry I'm late. Please tell me you're Jason, because this'll be really creepy if you're not."
"That's me. You must be ________... because if you're not it's more than fucking creepy."
A few moments pass. My twilight stranger seems to be studying me, as if she's suddenly noticed some typo in a favorite book or loose thread in a favorite shirt, some flaw that she's never noticed before.
"You're really Jason? Oxford Fucking Ohio Jason? You know, you weren't kidding when you said you look like a fratboy or a cop..."
I get that a lot, for some reason. I pretend to be insulted, then grin politely. There are worse things to be mistaken for when one reaches an age over 30. Like, well, a senior citizen, for instance...
"Get that a lot. Don't sweat it. Hey... tell you what... so where are we going? This coffee -"
She nodded. This was, she explained, the rendezvous spot. She wanted to make sure I wasn't a serial killer, or psycho-rapist, or, well, a cop or fratboy, in a place with lots of witnesses.
Completely understandable. Use the same technique myself.
* * * *
We headed out to the parking lot, she gave me directions in case I found myself lost, and we hit the road in our separate vehicles down country roads I'd once navigated daily but, a decade later, seemed almost foreign.
I tapped on the steering wheel as I followed her late-model pickup's taillights. The regional country/bluegrass station was playing a familiar standard, the Carter Family's version of Wildwood Flower.
Down cracked gray asphalt and beneath a canopy of oaks and pines, I followed close behind, not trusting my sense of direction. Finally, we turned onto a gravel road, a driveway.
At the end, an old farmhouse, windows lit and welcoming, tucked inside a cocoon of dark treetops. A bonfire burned to one side, with six figures crouched around it, a keg of beer and a table full of homemade food glowing in the light...
Well, I'll be damned. Beer? Beats the hell out of hash browns and eggs at a diner...
FUCKING SWEET! I like these folks already.
* * * *
For the record, not my first visit to an honest-to-God anarchist commune.
First such trip, however, to one in Virginia, of all places, under the cover of darkness and maybe 30 minutes from the farm where I was raised.
Not at all shocking, in retrospect - it is, after all, the mainstream media who's made a big deal about the Old Dominion going from some mythological Red State to some equally illusionary Blue State status during the last few elections, that a governor of Virginia is the chairman of the DNC, that it's the influx of supposedly "progressive," educated-class white liberals from more civilized urban centers who've somehow changed the Commonwealth...
The mainstream media, for the record, knows absolutely jack and shit about the people of my home state, the nature of the Rural South, or the appeal it has for both the collectivist and the individualist, the philosophical socialist and ideological libertarian.
Instead, they've merely constructed an easily digestible version of what being a Virginian means, as if we're somehow not the descendants of Powhatan, General George Patton, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson and George Mason, Patrick Henry, as if we're all good ol' boys, toothless yokels, and former slaves in need of another fascist Reconstruction.
The powerful tend to do such things, after all, because it's easier to simply construct a stereotype than to acknowledge the true diversity and beauty of a group of people, or of individuals, or the dread unwashed masses that scare the living shit out of Republicans and Democrats alike.
Widgets and demographic-based stereotypes are easier to brand with the marks of conformity than reality.
Red State? Blue State? Good God, aren't we a nation of people anymore? Is this now the United Two-Color Crayola Box of America? Who the fuck came up with that dehumanizing jingoist horseshit anyway?
* * * *The young woman's boyfriend, a big burly man with long hair and bushy beard, greeted me at the car. It was an honor to meet me in person after our communications back and forth the last few months, he said, and he was glad to welcome me to their little experiment in 21st century cooperative living and mutual aid.
A small group, sure, but nice enough and realistic in approach. They're not isolationists, not ideologues, not even professional protesters. My hosts, it turned out, represented folks from all sectors of society...
The boyfriend was a few years older than me, a former dot-com venture capitalist from the West Coast who'd developed a conscience and actually owned the land, the oldest gentleman held two post-grad degrees, the other man a self-described "professional drifter" who never finished high school and was trained as a mechanic. The women, too, were equally diverse - my escort was a trained horticulturist, the other two college drop-outs.
A few other folks drifted in and out from the house - neighbors. A couple of local guys were manning a spit above the fire, roasting a pig (friends of the college girls, my hosts explained) and smoking what smelled like homegrown tobacco from pipes. There were a few women quilting on the porch - one was the mother of the mechanic, visiting, while the rest were friends.
There was even, yes, homemade corn liquor in Mason jars. A fine vintage. I'm a bit of a connoisseur of homemade bootleg spirits...
My arrival coincided with the tail-end of what looked to be one hell of a neighborhood cook-out.
* * * *
It would be easy to write the group off, in fact, as just another midlife attempt at a hippie commune, an attempt to turn back the clock not to a simpler America but to that romanticized, failed agrarian reproach of the 1960s counterculture.
No, that would be unfair. These weren't folks who'd come out to the country to grow weed, fight the Man, or tune out of the modern world in favor of manufactured primitivism. All but the Charlie Daniels-looking owner of the property were from the South; half of the group were native Virginians.
"Out here, we're just able to be ourselves, free. And you're welcome to join us."
That was the common refrain of the night. The conversation was wonderful, the company good, and political debate intriguing. Discussing my own political philosophies online does, indeed, sometimes lead to some very interesting offline situations.
* * * *
A learning experience and, yes, a social experiment that as someone from Virginia, I can claim as evidence that "Change You Can Believe In" comes not from Blue State/Red State rhetoric, not from chest-beating politicians or their campaigns, not from power-hungry Washington or Richmond plutocrats but from individuals, from people.
And one of the benefits to a Libertarian former venture-capitalist and a Green Party - supporting plant expert falling I love, buying a farm in the middle of fucking nowhere, inviting friends willing to work for their supper a place to live rent-free?
Best homemade organic salsa and home-cooked Brunswick Stew (made with free-range chicken and mechanic-shot squirrel, vegetables from the garden) I've had in a long time.
Went well with the beer. And the White Lightning didn't hurt.
Sure beat the hell out of hanging out in the hometown alone, in a damned truck stop, drinking shitty coffee.
I made my way back to the lovely hometown at about one in the morning, swung by the Huddle House to use the WiFi and start writing again.
I hit the sack at three in the morning, curled up with a book of my father's, found on a relative's bookshelf recently, from his supposedly "conservative" college days, something I used to read in secret, as a teenager, more than his stash of Playboys...
...A book called Patterns of Anarchy, a literary anthology. Quite entertaining, actually. Especially passages underlined, back in the 1960s, well before I was born...
And to think... the Old Man, in his march towards senior-citizenship, thinks I gained my knowledge of radical political thought from "Communist" undergrad professors or, worse, "Liberals."
Heh, I learned it from you, Dad. Thanks for never throwing out books and encouraging me to read things other than the fucking Hardy Boys!
Maybe that ol' Rebel spirit the South is known for, well, maybe it's not dead after all.
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