Storytellers, Stories, and Conversations by the Side of the Road

New Mexico Ghost Town. Photography by J Gera;d Crawford. So more of his artistic photography on Caleb and Linda Pirtle.
New Mexico Ghost Town. Photography by J Gera;d Crawford. See more of his artistic photography on Caleb and Linda Pirtle.

I grew up in a world occupied by storytellers.

Their stories were better than books.

Their stories became books.

I would sit in the back of Mr. Wyche’s Country Store while men played dominoes, or at least talked of playing dominoes, and traveled the forgotten roads of their memories.

A little truth.

A little fiction.

A little fact.

Some contradiction.

I sat on the back end of rowboats in the sloughs of Caddo Lake – me and a hook, a cork, and a worm – and heard real fishermen talk of exploits past and present.

I stood on the front steps of an underpass in Leverett’s Chapel where we all had gathered when the big storms came rampaging through East Texas.

It was a time of tornadoes.

Our world was thick with oil derriecks.

The winds weren’t always kind to them.

So we went underground to watch the ligtning strike the oil fields and thunder growl in a distance sky, and the men told stories.

Past storms.

Past lives.

Past loves.

Pass the bottle.

In those days, storytellers did not know they were telling stories.

They were simply carrying on a conversation.

I never outgrew their stories.

Nor did I ever stop listening to conversations by the side of the road.

My travels over the years have never been measured in miles, only in people. The places I’ve gone, the sights I’ve seen, the mountains I’ve climbed, the rivers I’ve crossed, the backroads I’ve walked have never been as important as the people I’ve met along the way.

Their voices stay with me. So do the stories they have told me.

The voices may come from down the road, at the counter of a diner, on the bar stool in a beer joint, sitting in the front yard of a mountain cabin, along a stretch of spun-sugar sand, back in the darkness of a pine thicket, amidst the downtown traffic jam of a city at sundown, or from the faint memories of a distant past.

Everyone who crosses my path when I travel has a story to tell. It may be personal. It may be something that happened last week or the year before. It may have been handed down for more than a single generation. On numerous occasions, I’ve simply sat for awhile with the oldest man whittling and whistling on a courthouse lawn, spent time with the ladies who fight to preserve our past and our architectural heritage, or bumped into strangers who have elbowed their way into chili cookoffs, watermelon thumps, shrimp or crawfish boils, intergalactic chicken fly-offs, contests for tobacco spittin’, prune spittin’, rattlesnake milking, jalapeno gobbling, and turkey galloping, as well as festivals to honor roses, dogwoods, autumn leaves, sweet potatoes, jazz, bluegrass, and the blues.

Those voices, those stories reflect the personality of the land itself.

Mountains fade into the distance. Beaches are timeless. The tides come and they go, but once they have gone, they are gone forever. The town I’ll never forget today is forgotten tomorrow. The city is an abstract sculpture of steel and glass, but so is the next one, and the next one.

Voices remain eternal. Some people collect coins and stamps, model ships and lighthouses, driftwood and sea shells, cars and boats, paintings and homemade crafts.

I collect stories.

I find them most when I listen to other voices, while traveling to other towns.

Not all of them are on the map.

Not all of them want to be.

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