Buying Moonshine in the Wilds of Tennessee

I joined the Indiana University Indianapolis Law School, where I first started teaching, in January of 1970 (see “How I Became a Law Professor,” January 27, 2010). That summer two of the members of the faculty, Ronald Polston and Rodric Schoen and I (for reasons I don’t remember—this sort of thing was not in my usual repertoire, not even at age 26) decided to hike the Appalachian Trail from eastern Tennessee through the Great Smokey Mountain Park into North Carolina. I decided to keep a journal of this adventure, and the first entry (marked “Indianapolis 8/23/70, 5:40 a.m.”) simply says “If God had meant us to be awake at this hour he wouldn’t have given us daylight. Ron, our putative leader, promises me the trail will be all downhill in an uphill sort of way. What am I doing?”

We drove to Cosby, Tennessee, left Ron’s van at a small motel there, and then the hike began in earnest. At the motel the night before Ron had snored with the stutter of a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner, but he assured us that this wouldn’t be the case once he was out on the trail. I was suspicious of this. Where are the people he went camping with last year? The year before? Why weren’t they with us? Perhaps I should have made a few phone calls.

We began our adventure at Pisgah National Forest at Davenport Gap, and then climbed Snowbird Mountain and proceeded for four days along a 40-some mile trail roughly paralleling the northern part of the Tennessee-North Carolina border. The backpacks each weighed over 30 pounds, but my shoulders soon explained to me that that was an error, and, in fact, mine weighed several hundred pounds. To make the journey more enjoyable, Ron decided to quit smoking (having been a three pack-a-day man for all his life). As you might guess, he only mentioned his desire for a cigarette every time we passed a leaf. Climbing was no fun, but the views were spectacular, and, for all my bitching, we had a good time and a number of mini-adventures.

Finally we arrived at Hot Springs, North Carolina, where Ron and Rod announced we would now march back 41 miles to Cosby, Tennessee. In one of the greatest persuasive speeches of my life, I talked them into waiting there while I hitchhiked back to Cosby alone to fetch our vehicle. After some grumbling, they acquiesced, and I set off down the road, thumb out when cars passed by. This seemed like a better plan than it turned out to be. I’d forgotten how much walking (on my very sore feet) was involved in hitchhiking 40 miles along relatively deserted highways (one could sleep quite safely in the northbound lane of NC 209, though the southbound lane, the direction I was not going, was bumper-to-bumper). The sun was hot, my body ached all over, I hadn’t bathed in four days so that I emitted an interesting odor, and for some reason I had stupidly carried my backpack with me instead of leaving it with the two Rs. For over nine miles I hiked without success in thumbing a ride until a fancy sports car blew by me in a cloud of dust, only to screech to a halt a hundred yards ahead, and then slowly back up to where I stood. The driver was a handsomely dressed man in his thirties who grinned at me and said, “I wasn’t going to stop, but you should patent that look of rejection. Your shoulders slumped and all the air went out of you—it broke my heart and I just couldn’t keep going.” I climbed in and, due to the olfactory experience I immediately provided him, he probably regretted his change of mind at once. However, he gamely took me a good part of the way, before wishing me well as he deposited me at the turn in the road, not more than twenty miles from that motel in Cosby.

Having then walked less than a mile, I was pleased when an older couple in a pickup truck came rumbling slowly by me, stopped, and waved me aboard. Nice people, but they looked and sounded like Ma and Pa Kettle, and they were amused that I was a Yankee. “Lost are you?” Pa Kettle asked with a big satisfied grin. “No,” I replied, “I’m just trying to get to the motel in Cosby.” Pa nodded as if I’d agreed with him. “Always having to rescue you Yankees when you come down here and get lost in the hills.” Glad of the ride, I just smiled and thanked them both for helping me get my bearings. To my surprise, after about a mile, the truck suddenly pulled off the country road and into a little farm, where apparently the Kettles lived. “Just come in and sit awhile,” I was told. Bamboozled, and a bit alarmed, I went into their kitchen and was served a tall glass of ice tea. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, I finally asked if I should resume hitchhiking. “Nah,” Pa told me. "Done resting, I guess. Let’s get going.”

Back in the truck he told me that he went to high school with the woman who owned the motel, and was quite garrulous until I innocently asked him if moonshine was made around here. He slammed on the brakes and, brow lowered, eyes squinting in suspicion, Pa snarled, “You a REVENUER??? Feeling the heat of his concern, I babbled convincingly that I was not. “What are you?” he drawled, still unconvinced. “I’m a . . ." I began, starting to say “law professor” until it occurred to me that the word “law” wouldn’t calm him down one bit, so I simply chose “teacher.” “Not a revenuer, son?” “No, sir.” He nodded to himself for a few seconds, thinking it over. Finally, he said, “Want to buy some moonshine? Just a pint? Ten bucks?”

Now there’s a question. Tell me—what would you say in this situation? “No” might offend him, and with “yes” I risked being branded a federal agent cleverly disguised as a smelly Yankee, with who knows what consequences. I gulped and managed, “I guess I’d like that.” He started the truck, turned onto a better road, but immediately stopped at a general store. Taking my money, he shooed me out, and then drove off, ordering me to stay put, saying he’d be right back. Bamboozled again, I just watched him disappear, hoping he was a man of his word; my backpack was still in the truck.

But Pa Kettle soon did reappear with the promised purchase in a paper bag. It was a clear liquid in a jar, and certainly looked real enough. Then Pa carted me to the motel, where I thanked him and he flirted with the motel owner, to whom I paid a dollar to take a quick shower [AND IT CAME TO PASS THAT I WAS CLEAN!), before driving off to fetch Ron and Rod back in North Carolina.

About a year later, having had a number of other drinks, a friend and I, timidly, tried the moonshine, worried that we’d instantly go blind or grow an extra toe or something. It tasted mildly alcoholic, nothing more. Happy as I am with my existing number of toes, that was fine with me.

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013


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