VanZandt’s General Store
You can hardly keep track of the countless times that you let Fido out into the yard for his daily constitutional. Then, go back five minutes later, and he’s standing patiently at the door waiting to come back in. You DO, of course, remember those very few times when he failed to return for an hour or more. It is agonizing to say the least! And when he returns, he always rolls his eyes when you scold him for scaring you half to death and obediently accepts the inevitable tongue-lashing with a smug expression. But, do you know where he has been? Do you ever find out? Isabel, Ray, and I went down that path a few times when I was a younger dog, but now it’s no longer an issue. It’s understood to be just something that we dogs do.
In cities and other populated urban areas, highways, turnpikes, and wide boulevards might define the route for my clandestine journey between point “A” and point “B.” But, here in the mountains, narrow, primitive roads are many times the norm.
if you live in my county and drive a car with a worn suspension, you are acutely aware of the fact that Old Dial Road is only partially paved. The part of it that wends it’s way along the Toccoa River and Lake Blue Ridgeis referred to as an ‘all-weather road.’ Well heeled counties call them “dirt roads” and immediately pave them, but counties with limited resources call them “all weather roads” and tolerate them for decades. The “all weather road” is made up of an amalgam of crushed stone, red clay and several decades of automotive and truck fluids that have leached into it and sort of bind it all together. Based on my travels back and forth along this road, I would wager that it is held together with putrefied “road kill.” My habitual route covers approximately three miles on this picturesque country road on my monthly trip to see Pete Van Zandt in the tiny town of Dial.
On this road I encounter farm tractors of every size and shape, vintage work trucks and vans, horse-drawn wagons, an occasional tourist, and sometimes, Matthew Tipton my friend with the U.S. Forestry Service. Even though I’m older, most of the traffic on Old Dial Road doesn’t represent a threat to me because I can usually hear most of these vehicles coming from a half-mile away.
To access Old Dial Road I have to traverse a grassy, century-old logging road, a number of rolling meadows, and two bold branch creeks. My journey takes me under huge shady bowers of Rhododendron, past small herds of grazing White-Tailed deer, and across a rusty steel bridge, long abandoned by the State of Georgia and a host of well-meaning historians. Even though we are well into the 1980’s, Isabel often says that this part of Georgia still hasn’t withered under the spotlight of the ‘twentieth century.’
On my monthly trips to Pete VanZandt’s Store, half the fun is the journey involved in getting there. The first time I disappeared for over an hour, Isabel noticed my absence and almost threw a fit. Since then, she has learned to take my forays in stride, and now she barely even notices my comings and goings..
It all started about ten years ago when I became bored and disenchanted with the dry Purina puppy-chow that I found in my bowl every morning. I just knew there had to be a better life for me out there somewhere, and I decided to ‘bolt’ one afternoon when Isabel let me out for my run. Foolish me! At first I savored the freedom, fresh air, new scents and awesome sights that awaited me on my journey, but after an hour, I was completely lost! I had made it to what I now know to be Old Dial Road and, frankly, it seemed endless. As I trudged along the riverbank, I finally came to an abandoned stretch of road that would lead me across a rusty one lane bridge. I had managed to dodge oncoming trucks and tractors, growling farm dogs, and a toothless old man in an ancient Chevy who tried to get me into his car. It was refreshing to travel that grassy road near the bridge, but like most joyful events, it too ended after half a mile. I suppose it rejoined a new section of “Old Dial Road” because I found myself standing looking straight ahead at a weatherbeaten General Store with a narrow front porch complete with several well-worn rocking chairs moving quietly in the breeze.
The store had a large front door made of tiger oak, with a single, massive pane of plate glass, seemingly held together with fifty coats of paint, and the door was standing wide open as if ready to welcome hungry customers and lost dogs. I was so grateful to be back in civilization that I didn’t hesitate to partake of the implied hospitality of Van Zandt’s general store.
Business must have been light that day, and there was only one customer being waited on at the time. A tall man with reddish brown hair, wearing a white butchers’ apron, was standing at a huge maple butcher block busily hacking at a rack of pork ribs with a heavy cleaver. “There, Ms. Prentis, these should weigh about four pounds,” he said as he dropped the freshly cut ribs onto a piece of white meat paper on his white porcelain meat scale. “Now, will there be anything else Ms. Prentis?” “No thanks, Pete, that will do us just fine,” she replied, pulling a twenty dollar bill out of her wallet. As she turned and walked to the front of the store, the man named Pete turned his gaze to me. “Oh, oh,” I thought, “he’s going to throw me out of the store.” Instead, he leaned down and looked me directly in the eye. “Where did you come from, boy, I’ve never seen you around here before.” I wagged my tail and panted, grateful for a kind word. Wasn’t much else I could do. He wiped his hands on his white apron and started walking toward the open front door; “c’mon out on the porch, and I’ll fetch you a bowl of water.” Although my paws were starting to hurt a bit, I gingerly followed my benefactor out the front door to the porch where he ran some water into a ceramic bowl from a bib hose valve nearby. I guess I inhaled the water because the dish was empty in less than a minute.
I was concentrating so hard on my drink that I never heard the truck pulling up near the porch stairs, but when I looked up, there was somebody familiar just getting out. “Hey, Pete, where’d you get that nice dog?” “Not my dog, Ranger Tipton, he just wandered into the store, and I thought he looked a little thirsty; do you know this critter?” “Sure do, and he’s a long way from home, aren’t you, Homer!” It was Matthew Tipton, and he was a welcome sight for me at that moment. “This is Homer, Ray Whitlow’s dog from over in Morganton; what are you doing way over here, boy?” By now my tail was wagging non-stop, and I was yipping like a fool out of sheer happiness. “Do you want me to carry you back home, Homer?” Needless to say, I thought he’d never ask, and I came up with an enthusiastic bark to seal the deal. Matthew Tipton spread out a small blanket and helped me up into the passenger seat of his SUV for the trip home, but not before Pete brought out some delicious meat scraps from his ‘scraps box’ under the butcher block. Positively heavenly! As we pulled away, I knew that this was one address I would try never to forget, and I just prayed that I could find it again.
Turns out, it was an eight mile drive back to the Farm, certainly not as direct as my trip to VanZandts. Isabel gave me the obligatory tongue-lashing but evidently decided not to tell Ray. Matthew scratched my head and pulled a few ticks out of my fur before leaving the Farm. Later, I experienced some modest diarrhea from the fatty scraps, but, all in all, my first trip to VanZandt’s store (the first of many) was pretty spectacular. I wonder how far it is to Nashville?