THOSE PARTS, NOT HERE — I'm somewhere in Alabama. Or maybe even Mississippi.
At the moment, I'm in the left-hand lane of a crested highway. It's four lanes: two going my way, two going the other way, with some green but mostly brown grass in-between.
Nearing a crest, America's Deep South is spread out before me, waves rising up from the black top as bug-kill cooks on the windshield. The soundtrack is six-speaker, two-woofer Creedence Clearwater Revival, banging comfort to my head, right foot slamming into the floor board.
Bloodshot eyes on high for the law.
The scenery includes cars on blocks, dogs on chains and barefoot children on bare lawns. Signs pass, proclaiming things "for sale," "for rent" or ... "foreclosed."
Mansions. Trailers. Rolling farmland.
Cotton. Peanuts. Wal-Mart.
(It's The Red States at marked speed plus 30.)
John Fogerty is in sync with the pavement bumps. A green air-conditioned John Deere tractor is just a blur on my right-hand side.
I close fast on a white-and-rust pickup truck, four-wheeler in the bed, sticker of the Confederate flag on the back window, and as I flip my eyes up left into the rearview mirror, a pickup driver behind me flips something else.
My dashboard hula girl shakes as I toggle up the iPod and the gas.
Behind me, the New South; in front, the Old South.
My destination? Tuscumbia, Ala., and its coon dog cemetery.
"Well, Mr. db, that ain't your momma's fault where she had you."
"Here" is frequently used in the South. At least among the people I keep running into.Particularly when they ask where I'm from.
"You from here?" they would ask, their heads tilted, one eyelid up, one side of their mouth down.
Or, "You not from here, are you?" they say, giving me the upside-down V look, their stares beginning at my sandals, continuing up past my Hawaiian shirt to my long stringy-ass hair, then back down again, lingering a bit on my mirrored Gargoyles, before pretty much stopping for good on the beaded hemp bracelet on my wrist.
And just to make the askers nuts, I'd reply, "I'm not from your here, wherever your here may be. But even when I'm back there — in my here — well, they think I'm not from there, either."
That pretty much ended the questions, since they figured I'm not from around anywhere.
Luther Olen Bishop would have none of it.
db: "Mr. Bishop, can you meet me at the coon dog cemetery to do the interview?"
Mr. Bishop: "L-O!"
Mr. Bishop: "NO ... L-O!"
db: "No? Why not?"
(I'm multitasking at 78 mph, Mr. Bishop in my right ear, CCR in my left, one hand on the steering wheel, the other writing notes that look like this: Turn rite at where Grandma ... )
Mr. Bishop: "No! Not N-O ... call me L-O! Meet me at my house for some barbecue first, then we can go up yonder to the coon dog cemetery."
db: "Oh, L-O! I get it. Thanks, but I ate. How about ... "
L.O.: "You aint ate barbecue like this. We famous barbecuers ... people come from all over to L.O. Bishop's farm for my barbecue, we got it in the stores, we just got done feeding the railroad. Got churches lined up to serve it at their fundraisin' and prayer meetings. Already got your plate made for you here waitin'."
db: "Uh huh. Thanks, but I'm full. How about we meet at the coon dog cemetery?"
L.O. "Son, where you say you from?"
Twenty minutes later, I was standing in L.O.'s smokehouse. On L.O. Bishop Road.
L.O. is decked out in camouflage bib overalls, camouflage T-shirt and camouflage hat, with two bulldogs at his feet. Not sure what he's trying to hide from, but he was pretty hard to miss.
He has been talking to me for the last 20 minutes, after being asked, "Hi, I'm db. How are you?" (Don't ask L.O. a question you don't have a half-hour for.)
I've know the guy all of what, 10 seconds, when I find out, "That white house right over there [there isn't exactly where L.O.'s "here" is, since it is about 50 yards from the end of the finger he is pointing] ... that's where my daddy had me when he was 62 years old."
Only a driveway separates L.O.'s birthplace from his home.
"Ain't never lived in but three places all my life, " L.O. says while trying to move a sitting bulldog off his foot, "and that's only because the Post Office changed our ZIP code twice."
"We Bishops been here since my great grandmother, Eleanor Bishop, got stuck in the snow Christmas Eve night, Eighteen Hundred and Fifty Two. Eleanor made it this far in a one-horse covered wagon with seven kids inside, including my granddaddy, who was 7 at the time. Been here ever since, no need to go elsewhere. We've all had long, healthy lives — in fact, we had to kill a man once, just to get the cemetery started. Come on, lets get you some barbecue."
I let ESPN Outdoors photog James Overstreet go first, just in case these parts needed a barbecue cemetery. Inside, it was exactly like the movie, "Honey I Shrunk the db," had Disney instead picked me over those damn kids.
Picture this: If you've ever been around those old brick barbecue pits you find in parks, or the ones all crooked, like in the backyard of your oldest relative, you're halfway there. Now stuff the bottom part with twigs and old newspaper, drench it in a gallon or so of explosive fluid, light it, jump back, watch the ball of fire go skyward, then toss some meat on the old black grate — or, as in my uncle's case, the old metal refrigerator shelf he took out of his beer fridge in the basement, since now it's just used for kegs of Genesee Cream Ale.
That's what I was standing in ... minus the twigs and Genny Cream.
"L.O., this is the biggest smokehouse I've ever seen," I say as Overstreet takes his one good eye out of the viewfinder and looks at me while shaking his head, knowing as he does, this is the only smokehouse I've ever seen.
Two long troughs hold 1,200 pounds of meat -- or "Hog, db, hog," which I was told used to be a pig -- until it gained about 200 pounds and grew into barbecue.
At each end, there's a huge brick chimney. "We cook it for 18 hours in direct heat. If you overcook it, you are going to keep tasting the barbecue both going down and coming up."
I was cooked — and I'd only been barbecued for a couple of minutes.
True story: Eight hours later, when I checked in to the Comfort Inn in Decatur, Ala., the front desk clerk said to me, without looking up, "You requested a nonsmoking room; there will be a $200 charge to get the smell out if you smoke in there."
He didn't seem to buy my smokehouse story or the fact I hadn't smoked cigarettes readily available by commercial means since 1978.
The coon dog cemetery
"Yonder" is relative. And it don't matter if it is up or down yonder. So is "a spell," or "ways," or even "thereabouts."
If you ask directions and you hear any of the above, this is exactly what it means: "Hit the potty first and pack a lunch."
This is how you get from L.O.'s to the coon dog cemetery that is, as he says, "Just down yonder":
Get in your old station wagon and take a left out on L.O. Bishop Road.
Drive your age — not the speed limit — which in L.O.'s case is 72 mph.
Round up your age-based mph on the road that has the yellow, squiggly-line sign.
Drive past the school bus sign with the bullet holes shot through it.
Turn left at the big barking dogs.
Swerve, but run over the squirrel anyway.
Drive "a ways" down the dirt road.
Turn left and point out the driver's window where Eleanor Bishop got stuck in the snow in a one-horse covered wagon.
Turn right at Coon Dog Cemetery Road.
Speed up at squiggly road sign.
Turn right at arrow nailed into a tree.
Slide to a stop between garbage can and old wood shelter.
Punch this into your GPS: N 34° 37.808' W 087° 58.013' Elevation 833
When I looked down at my GPS, this is exactly what I saw: my car symbol with a huge question mark over it.
I had somehow managed to drive to somewhere that wasn't there.
And this is exactly what my GPS was saying to me, "There is a BETTER route." But it never bothered mentioning exactly where it was, nor how to get to it.
L.O.: "db, welcome to the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Cemetery."
I was looking at a statue of two dogs barking and holding on to a tree. "Coon dogs treeing a raccoon," I was told.
Again, L.O.: "For your dog to be buried here, the dog would have had to been a true coon dog: If he chased a deer, possum, squirrel, he wouldn't be let in. Only cemetery like it in the world."
And even if your lhasa apso did manage to chase a raccoon out of your garden shed and up the neighbor's tree, don't bother making the trip here.
"It's only for real coon hounds, like a bluetick, redbone, black and tan, treeing Walker, Plott ... and some others I can't remember right now."
One man and one coon hound started it all.
"Troop was the first buried here. Key Underwood brought his old coon dog, Troop, here to their favorite hunting spot and wrapped him up in a cotton sack and buried him on Labor Day, Sept. 4, 1937."
"[Now] near 200 coon dogs from all over are laid here to rest. We had this one guy bring his dog here and we had a full-blown ceremony for it. And I was doing pretty good and all until that red-headed fella went over, grabbed a tree and starting crying and looking like his old dog did."
This fall, one man from Pennsylvania is bringing his beloved coon hound for burial. "No charge. Doesn't cost anything to be buried here. But somebody is going to have to vouch for the fact that it is a good coon dog — they have to witness to that fact."
Every Labor Day, there's a celebration of what Key Underwood began back in 1937. "We get 300, 400 people up here for bands and barbecue ... good barbecue ... good eating. And we listen to the music and have a liars contest."
db: "A what contest?"
"A liars contest. You know, people get up and tell — I believe the word for it now is 'embellishing' — about their dogs. I learned that word a few years ago because I found out that some things I thought I lied about turned out I was just lucky to have embellished on."
Moma, Easy Going Sam and Track
In a field of flowers and grass stands a weathered board. It's gray and streaked with age. And carved on its face is a hand-lettered name: MOMA.
To learn more about the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, visit its Web site at www.coondogcemetery.com
To learn more about L.O. (if you don't believe me) visit his Web site, www.bishopsbbq.com
Silent testimony to a beloved hound, now gone.
When I was first told about this place, I laughed — as I'm sure some of you did as well. A cemetery for coon dogs? Come on!
(Did the raccoons build it? Chuckles all around.)
Then I came to the Freedom Hills of Alabama and walked among the graves of these hounds, and saw them as what they were: cherished friends.
Dogs only in species, for those buried here were family.
L.O.: "These dogs were a big part of their owners' lives. The dog was like a best friend to them. They hold these dogs up in high regard, they going to be treating these dogs right."
Old Blue. Died 1963.
Trafl. 5/1951 to 1/1958.
Drum. May of 1960 to July of 1969.
Skid. A world-champion bluetick.
Henson. A blue rock. 7/27/1994–8/25/97.
A simple homemade rusted piece of metal pays tribute to: Bear 1975-1987. And through a hole on top pokes a single rose.
Down the row, a yellowing photograph of a man and his dog: Old Roy. Died 1974.
At the end of the row, Easy Going Sam. Atop a cross, there's his dog collar. And a tribute wreath made of leather and rusted bolts. The plaque declares, "Last one on the wood. 4-8-89 to 9-12-02."
And back among the trees, with a red plastic flower adorning the grave, lies Track (1976–1989).
Track's epitaph is a suitable epigram for dogs of any kind, but especially for those lucky enough to have owners who loved them deeply: "He wasn't the best, but he was the best I ever had."
He spoke with tears of fifteen years, how his dog and him traveled about
His dog up and died, he up and died
After twenty years he still grieves
— lyrics of "Mr. Bojangles," by Jerry Jeff Walker
Don Barone is a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association. Other stories of his can be found on Amazon.com. For comments or story ideas you can reach db at www.donbaroneoutdoors.com