harry hits the road


Chapter 13: Rockin' The REDNECK RIVIERA

I beat it out of Birmingham on yet another rainy day, steering one-handed with Vicodin-numbed nerves. A renowned herpetologist has agreed to let me try turtle wrangling on his bio-diversity preserve in north Florida. That means driving six hours eastward rather than continuing to go westward ho. It also means attempting a fair amount of manual labor with my broken left wrist in a brace. The two silver dollar sized critters on the floorboard of my Smart Car make it worth the risk.

“Yee-ha!” I holler like a drug crazed cheerleader, guzzling a vial of 5-Hour Energy Drink. “Bak-wa! Kun-ya! Let’s go Joads!” 

The red eared floating turtles I’ve lately come to love remind me of childhood wonder years, before the parental wars, when I cared for one of their kind in a plastic bowl with a plastic palm tree. Like me, they’re regarded as outlaws in many quarters. And yet, Muse’s jealousy of them not withstanding, they have a noble literary association.

I acquired the turtles by conspiring to commit an illegal act in Chinatown. Because they allegedly spread salmonella poisoning, they’re no longer sold in most pet stores. With the assistance of a Chinese-American friend, Lin Yang, I found them on the black market in a corner souvenir shop. It took her less than five minutes to consummate the deal. My total cost was $12 plus $3 for a can of feed.

“For just a white guy like you alone, it would have been $100,” Lin said.

If my turtles don’t beg for or return the petting and licking affection I might exchange with a dog, they are far easier to care for. I need only change their water every day, and drop a few feed pellets into their tank every other day. Their individual sexual identities and reproductive capabilities remain undetermined for the first several months of their lives, so there’s no worry about dealing with turtle eggs. And as Lin noted at the point of purchase, “They won’t talk back.”

Thanks again to her assistance, my turtles have Chinese names befitting their coloration. The darker green one is phonetically known as bak-wa, which means “white guy.” The lighter green one is kun-ya, which means “Chinese guy.”

The turtles provide a unique teaching and bonding experience for my pre-teen son and me. Prior to departing Sag Harbor, I gave Harrison a quick summary of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the scenes describing a turtle’s struggle to cross a highway as a metaphor for the human condition.

“The protagonist Tom Joad returned from prison carrying a turtle under his coat for his younger brother,” I noted. “He told a guy he met on the road, ‘Kids like turtles.’”

“I’m not a kid anymore, but I do, too, ” Harrison replied. “The turtles need American names. Let’s call them Bobby and Clyde Joad.”

And once again I say so be it, as I speed across the Alabama border onto the Florida panhandle with Bobby and Clyde, bak-wa and kun-ya, sloshing and clanging around in their blue and white speckled turkey basting pan, falling off strategically positioned seashells and then crawling back on again, bound on an inexorable journey to meet up with reptilian relatives they don’t even know they have.


“They’re the rats of the world.”

Ray Ashton says that in such a matter of fact way I don’t know how to respond.  It’s a hot as hell Tuesday morning, and I’m standing in a sand dune at the Ashton Biodiversity Research and Preservation Institute about 15 miles outside of Gainesville, Florida, listening to him slander Bobby and Clyde. He’s a former University of Florida biology professor and a full time conservationist. With his frizzy gray beard, his battered leather sandals, and his stomach bulging through his khaki work shirt and shorts, he’s starting to look like a Demon out of Muse’s fairy tale.

“Red eared floating turtles are an invasive species,” Professor Ashton declares. “People have let ‘em go all over the world, and in places like Europe, they’ve taken over certain bodies of water and just outclassed the local population of tortoises and other amphibious species.”

Prof. Ray Ashton

I ask if it’s true that my turtles spread salmonella poisoning.

“Actually people spread salmonella,” Professor Ashton says. “Your species of turtles are usually farm raised. If it’s not done right and the water gets all crappy from the food they eat and their feces, it sets up a medium for salmonella, and then it goes to the turtles. If people buy ‘em like this, then they end up getting salmonella. Just make sure you wash your hands after you handle ‘em.”

I tell Professor Ashton I wear disposable plastic gloves. He nods approvingly, but I’m not liking the way this is going. Outside of finagling grants from some university or tree-hugger foundation, there’s no money in this for me. I am strictly on an eco-sensitive side trip, and all I’m getting is insult added to my wrist injury. Worse, having seen my black nylon brace, Professor Ashton won’t even let me touch one of his goddamn gopher tortoises.

“I’m more worried about the tortoises getting hurt than you,” he says. “They can be up to 16 inches long and weigh 30 pounds. When you pick ‘em up, they try to kick and get away. If you drop ‘em, even though they’re big tough armored guys, it’s like droppin’ an egg sometimes. That can cause some trauma.”

I’d take further offense were it not that gopher tortoises are an endangered species whose existence is threatened by real estate development in their major  habitat areas in Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. As their name implies, they live in underground burrows, and they are a so-called “keystone species” that plays host to many other creatures in the eco-system.

“The gopher tortoise provides shelter for over 400 species,” Professor Ashton says. ”The tortoise acts like a bat. There are a lot of species that only live in caves because of the bat guano. The same thing goes for species who live in tortoise feces at the bottom of the burrows.”

In lieu of wrangling gopher tortoises, Professor Ashton takes me to an indoor lab where he keeps three different species of baby tortoises in plastic boxes. There are dark shelled Mediterranean tortoises from Greece, lighter shelled European tortoises, and round shelled Russian tortoises. He allows me to hold a Mediterranean tortoise about the size of one of my floating turtles in the palm of my uninjured right hand.

“It’s kind of tickling me,” I say, giggling.

Professor Ashton snatches it away. “We don’t want her to jump off,” he says.

I ask what’s the difference between a turtle and a tortoise.

“Your little turtles have webs between their toes,” he replies. “Gopher tortoises do not. Their hind legs are kind of elephantine and their feet are shaped like elephant feet.”

He adds that turtle/tortoise distinctions are often mangled by English linguistic customs. They are all reptiles of the order Testudines and the superorder Chelonia. But generally speaking, turtle is a broader term than tortoise. As he puts it, “All tortoises are turtles, but turtles are not tortoises.”

“So there’s really nothing wrong with being a turtle,” I say. “It’s kind of like all humans are primates. But not all primates are human. Would you rather be a man or a monkey?”

“Matter of taste,” he says, chuckling. “Out here in this part of Florida I like to say we have seven sub-species of redneck. But most of ‘em are pretty good people, and we all look out for each other.”

As I climb back into my Smart Car with Bobby and Clyde, Professor Ashton offers one more salient fact. “There are no known species of turtles or tortoises that care for their young,” he says. “They lay their eggs, bury ‘em, and move on. When the eggs hatch, the little ones have to fend for themselves right from the get go.”

“Now that does give me pause,” I say.

“Oh, yeah? Why?”

“I might have been better off born a turtle.”


When I merge onto Interstate 10 heading west again, I see the same dark clouds that seemed to have followed me most of the way from Maine. They belch torrents of rain just as I pass by the state capital in Tallahassee. This is one nasty, gnarly stretch of road. The pavement is heat cracked and potholed and littered with remnants of blown out eighteen wheeler tires, shredded black donuts bigger than the door panels of my Smart Car.

I cut south down a two-lane blacktop called US Highway 231 for close to fifty miles, whip a right onto US Highway 98, and cross a causeway to Panama City Beach. The raindrops are a billion needlepoints. I can barely see through the windshield. What little I can see looks like the set of a low budget horror movie crammed with cheap motels, fast food franchises, tattoo parlors, liquor stores, petting zoos, and miniature golf courses with fake castles and pirate ships.

I pull over at a joint called Dick’s Crab House, just because I like the raunchy name. Couple of beers and crab cakes later, I call Muse.

“I am trying to decide if it is worse when you are here,” she says, “or when you are away on this stupid road trip.”

“Nice to hear your voice, too. And yes, my wrist still hurts like hell. Thanks for asking.”

“You know I grow up with a playwright in the house,” Muse says, ignoring my sarcasm. “Around my stepfather, I was always shush-shush, quiet, quiet, tiptoeing across the floor on eggs shells. When he was writing, he did not want to talk to anybody, see anybody. If the phone rang, he picked it up without even asking who was calling, and told them he doesn’t want to talk. Then he hangs up. Many times who was calling were friends of my mother or me. It was painfully embarrassing.”

“Thank god for answering machines and caller ID,” I say.

“You mean thank god for Secretary Muse,” she says.


“Bitte, bitte, bitte. Danke, danke, danke. I am getting your mail from the post office for you. I am paying the bills with the checks you leave behind for you. I am fetching FedEx packages delivered to the American Hotel for you. Everything is for you, for you, for you. I have no more time for myself.”

“Aw, now. You know I appreciate it, darlin’.”

“Don’t you darlin’ me with your Texan charm school. I am fighting to make ends meet. I have three portrait commissions for European aristos that are due next month. They are giving me a show at Bensonitti Gallery next week that I must get my work ready for, but you will not be here to attend. My other tenant in Halsey Hose is behind on the rent. My son Otto next year goes off to college. I have to come up with $50,000 tuition. My bills keep piling on. Everybody is making me pay through the noose.”

I burst out laughing.

“What is there that can be funny?” Muse asks in an unamused tone.

“It’s pay through the nose, not the noose.”

“Okay, so you make fun of my Germ-English.”

“No, no. I like pay through the noose better.”

I promise Muse that from now on, I’ll get one of the waiters at the American Hotel to pick up my mail and pay my bills.

“I like being the mistress better than the Secretary Muse,” she says. “When this stupid road trip ends, maybe we can go back to the way things used to be. The ex-wife you divorce -- can’t you just marry her again?”

“Get back to you on that,” I say, clicking off.

I check into a high rise Holiday Inn overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. They stick me in a seventh floor room that reminds me of tourista brothels in Old Mexico. The air conditioning rattles like a rusted truck radiator. The chairs and tables are rotted rattan. The bedspread is beer stained tropical flora chintz. The floor is covered with brown tiles slicker than wet vomit. The bathroom and the kitchenette reek of Pinesol.

Between unpacking the Smart Car, popping a Vicodin, and guzzling two Pina Coladas at the hotel bar, I throw three different kinds of hissy fits, each more viciously vulgar than the one before. All the hell I want is a nice f-ing clean quiet place to stay for a goddamn f-ing week to catch up on the f-ing crap I call my writing and check out a few flat bellied f-ing beach babes while I wait for my f-ing wrist to heal.

“Is that too goddamn f-ing much to ask?” I ask myself out loud.

“Yes, it is, you demented warm duscher,” I answer when the Vicodin and the rum kick in.

I detest myself for being such a snob. This here is the heart of the redneck Riviera, for Christ fucking sake. A slice of pure, unadulterated, ticky-tacky, tits-and-ass Americana. I should be cherishing every unsightly sight, sucky sound, and stinky sweaty smell. I should be living in -- no, make that luxuriating in -- every holy shit moment.

But first I’m going to pop two more Vicodin and sleep on it.


I awake the next morning to the strains of Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” playing on the poolside speakers outside my window. My left wrist is too sore for me to write, but the jingle inspires me to embark on a mission far nobler than mere R&R. When in Margaritaville, study the Margarita Villains. I decide to conduct an anthropological survey of the seven sub-species of redneck to which Professor Ashton alluded, documenting my findings with a Flip camera.

Child in Dippin’ Dots store

I throw on a bathing suit and a flowered shirt, pop another Vicodin, and flip-flop down the open air hall to the elevator bank, fixing to kick start my day with a nice cold beer. I can see the sun’s about to poke out from behind the dark clouds that’ve been on my tail, and I mumble a Buffet line.

“People claim there’s a woman to blame, but I know it’s my own damn fault.”

The elevator bell rings, and the door slides open. Out steps this great big old bald guy with a neck the size of an oil drum, a black mustache, and muscular arms tattooed with a silhouette of the late NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt Sr. on his left biceps and “#3 The Intimidator” on the right one.

“Moanin’,” he says.

I’m still bumble brained and drug drowsy, so I just nod at him and flip-flop into the elevator. When I turn around to press the “L“ for lobby button, I see the guy staring at me with his nostrils flaring like a bull with a hornet up his ass.

“Must be a dang Noo-uh Yo-ack-uh,” the guy hollers.

I can’t even manage a comeback grunt, much less a “beg your pardon?” before the doors close, but I can still hear the guy hollering as the elevator descends.

“Sumbitch ain’t even got the mannahs to say moanin’!”

I come to my senses feeling elated. That was a classic example of the redneck sub-species Capus Wrenchus, or “wrench head.” American dialects comprise three major geographical bands: Northern, Midland, and Southern. I recognize Capus Wrenchus’s dialect as Southern because he drops his “r’s” (as in “moanin’), and diphthongs (as in “Noo-uh Yo-ack-uh”). His so-called drawl is an auditory illusion: it sounds like he “talks slow” but he’s actually adding extra syllables to each word.

Sign in Hooter’s restaurant

I celebrate my first anthropological find by answering his shout out with my drug crazed cheerleader’s refrain: “Yee-ha! Bak-wa! Kun-ya! Let’s go Joads!”

My research goes even more swimmingly at the Holiday Inn pool, where I pop open the day’s first brewskie and identify redneck sub-species number two -- Obesus Disgustus.

“I’m tarred a drankin’ burr,” says a magenta haired female hippo waddling toward the thatch-roofed cabana bar. “Gwine a get me a Planter’s Punch with sum hard likker.”

Obesus Disgustus isn’t merely fat: she’s disgustingly obese and flaunting it. Her breasts, abdomen, and thighs bulge like sunburned bowling balls from a two-piece bathing suit that begs for five more pieces, and her butt spans three barstools. The way she rolls her “r’s” and rhymes “tired” with “hard” identifies her accent as a Midland mountain twang a la Loretta Lyn, the “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

I quickly discover that Obesus Disgustus is accompanied by a Jamaican au pair and a pre-adolescent male offspring, Disgustus Diabeticus. The snot-nosed kid is shorter than mommy, but he’s downing Classic Cokes faster than she’s downing Planter’s Punches, and he’s referring to his caregiver with an N word that’s not nanny.

I toast my two latest finds with a second brewskie, and venture forth from the Holiday Inn to lunch on buffalo wings at the local Hooters. A wall sign that reads “Caution: Blondes Thinking” alerts me to the presence of an archetypal example of the most svelte and arguably most appealing redneck sub-species, a Canarius Ignoramus, or “yellow haired airhead,” in orange shorts and white tank top. Her attentiveness as a waitress and an uncharacteristic pang of guilt compel me to buy a tank top for Muse.

“She’s just gonna love it,” Canarius Ignoramus gushes when she rings me up.

After lunch, I stop at an outlet for Dippin’ Dots, which serves ice cream with the air extracted so that it’s shaped like little BB balls. There I encounter the male counterpart of my Hooters girl, Slimus Dimus, a rail-thin dude who couldn’t spell the word “cat” even if I spotted him the “a” and the “t.”

“Alls I knows, Dippin Dots is the ice cream of the future,” he says.

I return to the Holiday Inn at happy hour, which rednecks observe between noon and midnight only on days ending with the letter “y.” There’s a commotion in the lobby involving a man and a woman in their late twenties. I recognize them as exemplars of the sub-species Intoxicus Repere, or “knee-walking drunks.”

“Tammy, I never called you a whore!” the man shouts. “Maybe when you sober up, you’ll remember what I did say!”

 “And maybe you’ll grow buffalo balls!” Tammy returns.


Miniature golf course

I spend the balance of this anthropologically productive day and night feeding Flip video footage into my Apple, popping Vicodin, and enjoying salt rimmed glasses of the adult beverage extolled in Jimmy Buffett’s jingle. Since I’m a born again redneck, I see no reason why not to repeat this regimen with intermittent tanning and body surfing breaks for the balance of the week. Such hound dogged persistence pays off physically: my left wrist seems to feel no more pain.

When I call Muse to update her on the new and improved condition my condition is in, she thinks I’m no longer in my right mind.

“You know always I am your biggest supporter,” she says. ”I think you should already stop taking the Veek-a-deen. It’s poison.”

“Takin’ Vickyding, not vig-a-dum,” I reply, slurring.

“You sound like that drugged out gold digger Anna Nicole Smith.”

“Dig for she shells, not gold. Push I gotta idea for book ‘bout my row trip.”

“Ja? Und was ist das?”

“You heard a chick lit? Sex anna City? Eat, Pay, Lub?”

“I can’t stand that specious crap.”

“Das good, real good. Cuz I gotta whole new genie. Male point a view. Gonna call it dick lit.”

“I don’t understand your ieek-a-deen babble.”

“Dick!” I holler. “Like penis! Lit, like with a match! Dick lit!”

“Okay, I get it. You set your cock on fire. I hang up now.”


Photograph Captions and Credits: 1. Prof. Ray Ashton (HH3) 2. Child in Dippin’ Dots store (HH3) 3. Sign in Hooter’s restaurant (HH3) 4. Miniature golf course (HH3)