Ripley is an unusual-looking dog who tends to inspire a lot of conversation on the street, where folks often make a game of speculating about what breeds came together to create her. The prevailing theory is that she is somewhere between a pit bull and a corgi — she’s got a wide handsome face and a brindle pattern, a brawny chest, and short, sort of dainty legs with white paws at the end. Like all of them, she is a good dog.
A woman holding an unlit cigarette between her fingers approached us the other day in a parking lot in Whitesburg, Kentucky. She was excited to see Ripley and told me that she had a similar-looking dog, but more red-colored: a boxer-chihuahua mix. For a couple minutes, the conversation followed the usual progression.
She asked if Ripley was male or female. It turned out she’d approached me with intent: her dog, a female, was around six years old, and she thought it was time to breed her and had been looking for the right mate. Ripley caught her eye but alas — not the desired anatomy. “I would’ve paid you a stud fee,” she said, ruefully. Then she got back into a car with some other people and gave them the news. They all groaned.
Somewhere in eastern Kentucky, two flags on the same pole: one was the confederate flag and the other bore the Star of David. In Marshall, North Carolina—not far geographically or orthographically from Mars Hill, North Carolina—a set of train tracks ran alongside the French Broad River, nothing between the rails and the water but a steep embankment. The Appalachians are accessible mountains. When I think of the Rockies I think about gear and lightweight but wind-resistant jackets — it sounds expensive — whereas in the east you can just pull the car over at the side of the road and go walking into the woods without too much trouble. There are black bears, but they are generally benevolent.
I followed the path of the French Broad River for a while through the mountains. We camped a few years ago on the shores of a reservoir created by Douglas Dam on the French Broad, near Dollywood; I wrote about it for the Awl. That whole area — Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, the Smokies — is a regional center of gravity, one end of a tourism pole whose other end is Branson, Missouri. (Dolly Parton has stakes in both places, naturally.) In nearby Erwin, Tennessee, a couple guys were working behind the counter of a coffee shop and one of them mentioned Branson. What’s that? their customer asked. They answered in perfect unison: “It’s the Gatlinburg of the midwest.”
On Sunday in northern Alabama, the only things open were gas stations and churches, including two that advertised themselves as “cowboy churches.” A Cullman, Alabama, newspaper article from a couple years ago describes one of those churches, the Lonesome Dove Cowboy Church, and its leader, Pastor Tim: “Each Sunday he comes to church wearing a pair of blue jeans and a pearl snap shirt while keeping a tight grip on his well-worn Bible. Wearing his cowboy hat and boots, he uses Western and rural culture to help explain the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Church is held in an air-conditioned barn.
The way that country lyrics are written is so particular to country music that the words stick out when they turn up in other genres. In North Carolina yesterday, a radio station played blocks of uninterrupted bluegrass; the title of one song, written from the perspective of a man worrying about his wife going astray, was “If You’re Thinking You Want a Stranger (There’s One Coming Home).” The setup and delivery seemed so perfectly country, and indeed — the music was bluegrass, but (I was vindicated to learn) it turned out it was a cover of a George Strait song. Along these lines, for my money one of the best country couplets comes from Joe Diffie and his cowriters: “Is it cold in here / Or is it just you?”