On the veranda, after a supper of pork scrapple with pig’s knuckles, ears and nose, Sally Monroe passed me a corncob pipe loaded with her solstice-infused weed. After one good blast on the longest day of the year, I found myself adrift in Never-Never Land with Captain Hook and Peter Pan. She said it’d keep me going all night, and well into the next day. Told me I’d be higher for longer. And I hadn’t even tasted her husband’s moonshine yet. How high is high, and for how long?
Sally ran the bakery at the Giant Eagle Supermarket in Sommerholm, the county seat. By night and on weekends she grew weed in the back of her chicken coop. Earl, her husband, worked as a blast hole driller for the Amalgamated Coal Mine Company, night or day, depending on his shift. But he always found time for his moonshine operation. Tonight, however, he was relaxing on the veranda. Tomorrow, he’d be competing in The Annual Miner’s Summer Solstice Donkey Race with his prize donkey, Alfred the Great.
June 21, 1974. I was a city-boy hippie living on the West Coast, come home to Appalachia to attend my sister’s funeral. After the service I told my brother, Jack, over a few joints that I wanted to try some good old fashioned moonshine. Jack owned a beer distributor, so he had connections. We climbed into his ‘54 Chevy pickup and he took me up into the hills to meet his good friends, Sally and Earl Monroe. My soul had been pushed to the limit that week, and I was ready to let the demons loose.
We were expected for an early supper. The house wasn’t the tarpaper shack I was expecting, but a rambling brick one-story, spread out into the hillside with a sagging veranda that wrapped itself around the structure like a snake curling around a rock for a nap in the heat. The chicken coop lay partially hidden in a dense stand of maples behind the house. Sally, a tall, lanky woman, gray hair falling over her shoulders and wearing an apron over a print dress, greeted us at the screen door. It was so hot she was in her bare feet. Earl was due from his shift any minute.
When Earl got home, he led Jack and I up into the hills to see his still. It took us a good hour of strenuous walking to reach our destination. There was no path, not that it mattered—I couldn’t see a thing. Earl told me he took many different routes to the still. Didn’t want to give the Feds any evidence he was making hooch. He was lean and grizzled, but looked younger than I’d imagined. We came to a rock formation and entered sideways between a crack in the stones, then made our way down into a leaf-carpeted hollow. I smelled the profusion of Spring, mingling with the fade of Autumn. The living come to visit the dead. Except for the burble of the creek that meandered through the center of the trees, I’d never been in a place so quiet. Behind another smaller formation lay the still. A man dressed only in overalls greeted us. Earl introduced him as Hal, his partner. Hal didn’t say anything; just nodded, and spat some black tobacco juice out one side of his mouth.
A pile of cut maple lay nearby. Looking like it had been hammered into shape by a concrete block, a giant, bulging copper pot topped with a conical lid sat precariously askew on an iron ring over a low-flamed fire. Earl picked up a piece of maple and banged on the sides. “The bottom here is filled with corn mash, and heated over the fire at a hunnert and seventy-five degrees. The steam, which contains the alcohol, rises into the lid—up here.” He then touched a misshapen pipe that stuck out from the lid and tilted down into a smaller pot. “It moves from this here arm and down into this pot, the Thump Keg. The extry water is condensed and makes the vapor a whole lot stronger.” He gave me a toothy grin and winked. “Then it goes to that container over there, the Worm Box, and into coiled copper tubing submerged in cold running water from my creek. It all condenses agin and turns to pure liquid alcohol. There it is, dripping out the end into that oak barrel at the end.” He patted the barrel. “This is my Sleepy Hollow Shine.”
Earl grabbed a clear glass jug from a wooden box, held it up to the light, and gave it a swirl. I gazed into the liquid lightning and gave a sigh. We then headed down one of his invisible paths. This time it took only twenty minutes to reach his house. Without a word, he walked us over to the chicken coop. I wondered if he was going to grab a chicken for dinner and cut off its head. We followed him through a roost of chickens, over to a door hidden behind a hanging burlap sack. The odor of chicken shit hung in the air, mingling with the curl of humidity. He knocked. Sally opened it and ushered us into a long, low-slung room. Multiple grow lights hung from the ceiling. She led us down rows of burgeoning marijuana plants, all laid out on tables. Just smelling the mountain-piney tar in the heavy, humid air made me want to get high. She said chicken manure was the best fertilizer. Said she’d only be a moment. Supper was ready, and she was just collecting some solstice-infused grass.
Sally’s weed was working its celestial wonders on me. The veranda seemed to be swaying. That, or mooing to me softly. I was sinking farther and farther into oblivion, digesting the scrapple, when Earl passed the jug around and I took my first sip. I was able to note, before the total eclipse of my mind, that we passed the jug around just as we passed the weed. No separate glasses or pipes. Like sitting around an ancestral fire with the tribe. All of us connected. My epiphany ended there, with the thump of my first sip. My throat lit up. Fire zigzagged to my head, and I felt as if scorch marks were left on my scalp. No wonder they called it white lightning.
Jack and I passed out on the porch, heads slumped in our laps. Earl woke us at five in the morning and we lamely helped him get Alfred the Great ready for the donkey race. I was still drunk and stoned, staggering around the corral like a wind-up toy on uneven ground, trying catch the beast. Alfred snorted and pawed the dirt. Must have thought he was a racehorse. That, or he was high, too. Earl left for Lysippus, pop. 206, riding Alfred bareback, boots scraping the ground. The race had been held there for eighty-nine years, and Earl was the reigning champ two years running, the favorite to win this year’s edition.
Sally drove Jack and me to town and parked her battered 1968 Chevy Corvair convertible on Main St. in front of the only bar in town. It was seven o’clock in the morning. The place was packed with coal miners just off their shift, covered in soot. The cinderblock walls, pockmarked and stained with the grime of ages, were devoid of any decoration. There were few tables. Concrete floor. Old, rusted radiators hugging the walls. When I went to order a beer, the bartender winked and served me a tall, warm glass of Earl’s Sleepy Hollow Shine. Just what I needed.
Later, as we stood outside the bar, Sally passed me the pipe. A gun went off somewhere in the haze. The donkeys kicked up a glimmer of dust as they moonwalked down the street toward the finish line, the miners bobbing sleepily on their backs. Earl put his legs out behind him and leaned into Alfred the Great’s neck, grasping the mane, donkey and man in perfect slow-motion molasses harmony. They eclipsed the field by three lengths to the cheers of the crowd. By that time, I, too, was three lengths gone into the limbo of the shine, cheering the solstice-infused pot. How high is high, and for how long?