Note to the reader: Last year I published my firsthand account of enduring Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans for the storm’s four-year anniversary. I wanted to write something for the fifth anniversary this year, but as I have not been back to the Gulf area since, I cannot comment on the current state of the area or the lasting effects this disaster has had. There are other, better qualified writers already doing so. So instead, I present to you this tale from the road during my time as a post-Katrina refugee.
You can read my previous piece here.
The town of Bucksnort in Hickman County, Tennessee is absolutely no place to find yourself stranded. Avoid doing so at all costs. If you never believe anything else I say, trust me at least on this.
It has no post office. It’s so small the United States Census Bureau has no statistics on it, so I cannot tell you the population density, other than: ain’t much. Near as we could tell the town was little more than a glorified truck stop, with nothing other than a motel, a diner, a bar/auto mechanic (they shared building space) and a gas station. The beds at the motel were hard as a wooden bench, and the food at the diner, though filling, was an unremarkable selection of standard Southern fare.
While the area is thick with deer, local legend (meaning: printed on the back of a T-shirt sold in the diner) claims that the name actually comes from a pre-Civil War local who sold “snorts” of moonshine for a dollar apiece.
My girlfriend and I wound up there when Lovecraftian noises erupted from our car as we crossed through the state on our way to California from our post-Katrina refuge in Roanoke, Virginia. This was followed very quickly by a shaky, unresponsive steering wheel. With zero chance of making it to Memphis for the night as originally planned, we limped off the freeway into the first town we came to.
If it had just been the two of us, we might have attempted to coax it along to someplace more substantial, but we also had our dog and two uncooperative cats, not to mention what personal effects I’d been able to salvage from our flooded apartment. What remained of our lives was packed into the back of that little two-door Honda Civic, and becoming stranded on a dark road in a strange state was a risk neither of us was willing to take.
The mechanic–a chain-smoking, stringy kid all of maybe nineteen years old, who lived in a room above the bar–had some bad news for us: he did not have all the parts he needed for the repairs, would in fact have to order then from Kentucky, which would take about four days. He was quite likely lying to us (I know for a fact he grotesquely overcharged us), but what choice did we have?
The boredom that followed over those next few days was the worst I’ve ever encountered. My experiences in the hurricane, hellish as they were, were at least not dull, and you knew that sooner or later they would end. This, though, was interminable. There was nothing to do other than eat at the diner and watch Law & Order reruns and crap movies on the one TV station that came in clearly. The motel room was more of a prison cell than a place of rest, the bed a deeply uncomfortable place for sleeping and an even worse one for sex.
We tried the bar one evening after dinner, if for no other reason than to ameliorate the boredom with a bit of alcohol. It was exact kind of dive you expect in a town named “Bucksnort”: the smoke-stained wooden interior, the ubiquitous large belt buckles on the men and peroxide hair and push-up bras on the women, twangy accents and a deficit of complete sets of teeth all around. The largest Confederate flag I’ve ever seen hung behind a stage at the far end of the venue. Though the proprietors were nice folks who bought us the first rounds when they learned we were Katrina refugees, ultimately the booze and conversation couldn’t distract us from the knowledge that we were trapped there.
All of this might have been bearable if we’d been in a good place emotionally, but we were not. Our separate experiences with the hurricane had wounded us both deeply, and the longer we stayed in Bucksnort the faster the small measure of peace we’d found in Roanoke unraveled. My dreams were filled with galvanized corpses of flood victims grasping at me, desperately seeking succor I was helpless to give, and waking every morning was to wash ashore from a sea of guilt and sadness. My girlfriend fared no better with hers.
On our third day there, unable to bear the tedium any longer, one of us—I genuinely forget whom—suggested we hike the trail running up the hill behind the motel. Just to have something, anything to do. It was either that, or endure the cinematic colonoscopy that is Stuck on You once again. So up the hill we went.
It became evident very quickly that no other human had made that ascent in some time; after less than twenty feet the worn footpath gave way to the bramble and detritus of a woodland area well into the act of reclaiming lost territory. There were places where the trees bent together overhead to knit a sort of tunnel, huge primordial spider webs stretched across the expanse. More than once we had to stop to pluck the sticky threads from our faces while the dog romped and frolicked through the underbrush, dashing off after some unseen critter or another, tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth.
It took us about an hour to make the climb. The trail banked at one point, curving like a fishhook around the hill’s far side; from the small overlook there all we could see was the rolling auburn-dappled forest of the Tennessee back country in early fall. And when we finally reached the top we found, nestled by itself in the middle of a tiny quiet meadow, a grave: twin obelisks of thick polished granite surrounded by iron fencing.
No one had tended the tiny cemetery in a very long time. One stone had lost the battle with entropy and toppled over onto its side, and both were stained and weathered from long exposure to the elements. The fencing likewise had long since become rusted and warped, parts of it nearly consumed by the surrounding earth.
It was as unsettling a tableau as one could expect to come across in the woods. My girlfriend instantly loved it. “It’s so creepy,” she said, in the exact voice another might say “That’s really cool.”
Creepy, yes, but fascinating, and oddly peaceful. The idea of these two stones, alone in the forest at the end of a long-forgotten path, was something out of a fairy tale. They were very old, too: while much of the writing was worn away, we could still identify them as the markers of J.H. Rains (1845 – 1911) and Margaret Rains (1852 – 1909). They’d been buried at the top of that hill for almost a hundred years, and from the look of things, we were their first visitors in several decades.
The sun was rapidly heading down into the western foothills, so we lingered only long enough to take these few pictures. Neither of us spoke much. We went to the diner and bar that night to ask around, but none of the townspeople we spoke to knew anything about the graves or a family named Rains, or much cared. Their attitude is best summed up by the sweet-natured, wall-eyed waitress who served us dinner: “Well, ain’t that a thing! Now, would ya’ll like to try the chicken-fried pork chops tonight? Gotta nice home-style applesauce and buttered green beans on the side.”
The mechanic, mercifully, had our car fixed the next morning, and $1200 later we were able to leave Bucksnort. We made it without further incident to California, where we began the process of rebuilding our lives; first as a couple, then later as individuals.
I did some cursory investigative work while preparing this essay, but could turn up nothing on J.H. and Margaret Rains in Hickman County or anywhere else in the state, or any trace of a genealogy. I expected this. Given that a Google search for Bucksnort unveils sweet fuck-all, I doubt either their births or deaths were ever recorded on paper.
I wonder about their lives sometimes. Perhaps J.H. had been a Confederate bushwhacker in his youth and a moonshiner later on, Margaret the proper wife 19th century Southern tradition demanded. Had their families owned slaves? How did they make a living during Reconstruction? They must have been persons of some means, as someone put a great deal of time and care into fashioning their burial place.
Likely as I’ll never know. Whoever the Rains once were, all they remain now is a forgotten piece of history tucked away in the Tennessee hills.