are slow and reluctant to
part with cherished myths, and none has
been more persistent than the old
canard about mountain 'characters'
with their feuds, their moonshine...."
A mountain man
once told me, leaning back in his cane-bottomed chair, "Now, you heard
about that big man with the hammer and about that big man with the train
engine, but let me tell you about the biggest man of them all—and that was a
man with a machine. He roared through the night, his machine packed tight with
crystal-clear juice in widemouthed Mason jars, and he hangs in there because
wouldn't nobody ever rind him if he went off. Got a cold cigar clamped in the
corner of his mouth, hands burned full of calluses on the steering wheel,
yellow eyes like a hoot owl pointed down that road in the moonlight, his right
foot on the floorboard.
screams, his tires skip on black ice, the road comes up at him full of trees
and rocks like a landslide, revenuers warm his seat up behind. An old possum
staggers in the road, he near 'bout chases it under a tractor trailer; hang in
there, boy, or they'll pick you and your machine up off the mountainside, cover
you over with laurel blooms and send you home to your woman in a bushel basket.
He slides to a stop, shuts down his engine, lights his cigar, looks at his
watch. The bottles tap together in the trunk in time with his breathing. Boys,
that was a record run!"
We drive into the
land of man and the machine, the western North Carolina mountains, where Junior
and Curtis are household words and the heroes behind the wheel are real flesh
and blood, where only a greenhorn thinks Thunder Road was a myth. We are on our
way to the 24th running of the Chimney Rock Hillclimb, the organized version of
the local pastime.
We move in behind
a '56 Cadillac, two-toned baby blue and rust. The driver sports a thin white
ring of hair on his head; the missus and mama sink the chassis on the right,
their hair rolled into gray doughnuts under Sunday hats and over lace collars.
The road has run out of passing zones and it looks like we're stuck behind an
old codger, his car belching out oil as he crawls through the hills.
But wait. The old
man's head tips up for a peek in the mirror, his passengers rock like dummies,
the rear end of the Cadillac drops and sends out a blast of smoke. We're off!
His hands slide around the wheel, arms straighten out. He sets up for the first
turn, in wide, one broken brake light winking at us as the left rear tire tags
the center line. Four slick tires move in deep, the right rear half on, half
off as he nips the apex of the turn, off fast. Grandpa pops a stone in our
grille for good measure as we sit rocking on our set of Detroit suspension
options and wide ovals. A wide left, a hairpin, a flash of baby blue, and he's
gone. Fog on the mountain, a layer of exhaust settling in low under the
Carolina pines; long gone and another young smart aleck gets a driving
"If we could have caught him, we could have given him an entry
While the ice
chest drifts back and forth across the back seat and the tires moan, we watch
the curve signs with respect. We have entered the land where roads that snake
through the hills are drawn like maps on the minds of the inhabitants.
The first batch
of roadside stands appears, nestled in the curves so that when a fellow gets on
his brakes at the first one, he might get stopped in time for the second.
Doesn't matter, all sell the same things, use the same molds. We stop for a
roll of film.
through here one time from Florida. I mean he come through! Busted up 17 pots
and took the legs off three flamingos and put his new Cadillac up against that
tree yonder." The proprietor points at an oak, healthy but for one long
scar painted black. "You could smell the burnt-out brakes two mile. Had his
foot on 'em since he left Kings Mountain. Might as well have used my tree. I
could've told him he won't gonna have nothing to stop on by Lake Lure no