Chop wood, carry water

July 9, 2014 : Tupelo, Mississippi : [ Day 43 ]

There really isn’t a way to verbalize the experiences of the past week or so. All of the descriptive power of the English language comes up tragically short in explaining how much it means to me, and to this journey. Even the photographs cannot convey the underlying message.

It’s funny how things just tend to work out, when you are open to what the world has to show you. We spend so much of our lives being uncomfortable in the uncertainty of things that don’t matter at all. It is far too easy to become blinded by the pressure of expectation, from without and from within, until we lose ourselves in an endless, desperate rush toward a finish line that just isn’t there.

For me, it felt like being trapped in a windowless room, painting from memory things beyond the walls that kept getting harder and harder to remember. All the colors becoming meaningless, the scenes no longer making sense. Context becoming more wishful thinking than observable reality.

Now, something has shifted. Nothing has changed, but everything is different. All I can say is that going all in on a pair of fives, as reckless and perhaps foolish as it was, has turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made. That desperate charge is gaining me some ground, and the dam-burst has created a new world in which to be a part.

I came across a blog post recently that delved into the meaning an old Zen proverb:

“Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”

The meaning is basically this: one does not need to live a monk’s life to benefit spiritually from the search for what they call enlightenment. It’s not an all-or-nothing choice, meditation can be coincidental with the performing of daily tasks and chores. The point is to not let the mind wander, but rather to keep it in the present, focusing on the moment at hand.

Be present, be loving, be honest. Chop wood, carry water.

It’s so simple, and part of me feels foolish for taking the all-or-nothing approach, for betting the world on a pair of fives. But I think it was necessary. If I didn’t pull the plugs and flip the tables, I’d never have seen the forest for the trees.

I used to think that nonexistence is freedom, or to echo Kris Kristofferson, it’s just another word for nothing left to lose. But I see now that it’s not. Freedom is what we make it, how we let the necessary things in life fit with the things that keep us fulfilled. Finding that balance is the hard part, but like anything else, persistence and time makes the world what it is. Like mountains.

Anyways, I met up with Melissa (SquirrelyGrl from ADV) in Chattanooga. She is amazing – it’s like we’re the same person, but in a complementary way. She showed me around the Chattanooga area, even took me caving in Georgia. Being a mining geologist and a former amateur caver (of sorts), it was awesome to get underground for a bit. It’s been a while.

Howard's Waterfall

The cave entrance. When it’s not so dry, that’s a waterfall along the creek. Pretty neat!


Inside, it opens up, and there are awesome mineral formations. Stalactites go down from the ceiling (think “hanging tight”), and stalagmites go up from the floor. They are created by the dissolved minerals contained in one drop of water at a time, which slowly accrete to form beautiful structures over years that sum hundreds or thousands of human lifetimes. Persistence and time. Mountains and caves offer similar metaphors.


We made a motorcycle effigy out of the Georgia clay, and left it behind for good luck.

Cloudland Canyon falls

That same day, she drove us to Cloudland Canyon State Park in north Georgia, where we hiked down to see the waterfalls.

Cloudland Canyon falls

What a beautiful place.

Dangerous duo

We got some strange looks from tourists, as we were still wearing the mud from the cave. Oh well.

Cloudland Canyon sunset

We caught the sunset from back up at the canyon rim. Perfect.

Poopy Puppy

Since it was the holiday and all, we had ourselves a little fireworks show on the 4th of July. The night before, we caught a much bigger show from a vantage point on Lookout Mountain above Chattanooga.

Meat Bags

But more importantly, we replaced my badly-worn front tire, and spooned a new TKC80 on the rear of Melissa’s custom GS500F. The Tiger also got an oil change – I feel MUCH better now.

Georgia gravel

Poking around some two-track in north Georgia.

Confederate gravesite

Checking out a Confederate gravesite.

Joe Wheeler State Park

We made it to Alabama! I’ve never been, and I can’t say why. It’s pretty down there.


Playing around with the cameras in camp.

Alabama pines

Alabama pines… Melissa has an eye for photoggin’. I can’t take credit for this shot.

Chasing waterfalls

More waterfalls!

Muscle Shoals Sound

Then we rode to Muscle Shoals, Alabama and spent a few days checking out the area. I wanted to see Muscle Shoals because my favorite singer / songwriter / musical hero is from just north of there, and does his recording at Fame Studios across town. Muscle Shoals Sound has a lot of history – so many legends have recorded so much timeless music within those walls.


We were told that the public has only been welcome for tours for the last few months, and its new owner will begin renovations to re-open the studio about a month from now. So we got really lucky!

Florence campsite

We camped on the Tennessee River in Florence, Alabama, across from Muscle Shoals proper. The cities of Florence, Sheffield, Muscle Shoals, and Tuscambia are together referred to as “The Shoals” or the quad cities.


Melissa introduced me to boudin, a sort of cajun rice sausage thing. It’s amazing. Between the boudin, the bourbon, Moon Pies, and Deliverance, it was a very “southern” experience. Not a bad way to be. I dig the south.

Lost Highway

It’s a long story, but this is the perfect beer for this journey. The Lost Highway is a sort of theme I’ve centered my life around for the past 12 years, since I was a roaming ghost-town photographer on the Dakota prairies – hence, the name of this website. The name implies a journey, a dream, something that’s gone or changed. I can’t really explain it.

Wilson Dam

“You can throw me in the Colbert County jailhouse,
You can throw me off the Wilson Dam…
But there ain’t much difference ‘tween the man I wanna be
And the man that I really am…”

— Drive By Truckers, “Never Gonna Change

The crossing

Crossing the Tennessee River from Florence into Muscle Shoals.

Brooks BBQ

This is supposed to be among the top 10 barbecue joints in the South, and among the top two in Alabama. But don’t take my word for it, go check it out!


Sipping wine and bourbon around the campfire. Melissa and I parted ways in Muscle Shoals; she headed back to Chattanooga and I continued west into Mississippi. The week I spent with her, riding around and caving and exploring “The Shoals,” was the best week of my entire life so far. I don’t know how else to explain it.

On the Natchez Trace, I kept looking in the rearview, hoping I’d see her there. But of course she wasn’t. Wishful thinking I guess. It’s not often that you meet someone else who “gets it,” someone you connect with like a life-long friend even though you’ve only even been aware of their existence for a couple of days. It’s taken 30 years so far, and the odds of it happening twice in one lifetime are probably as close to zero as mathematics allow.

C’est la vie, I suppose.

But right or wrong, the mountains are calling, and Horace Greeley’s advice to Civil War soldiers searching for a new life feels applicable today, though I’m not a veteran of any kind.

“Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”


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