Thursday, September 10, 2009

Orville Hicks

The mountains have always been mysterious...the Appalachian people have a culture and a language all their own, the hills are protected by the ghosts of Native American Indians, and now, newcomers (self included) have claimed this territory as their own and are changing the face of the land. Golf courses are nestled beside Christmas tree farms, and outlet and boutique shops have crowded out apple barns and general stores. Range Rovers travel down winding roads, blasting past rusty trucks loaded with fresh mountain produce. Tucked into a small patch of land off 321 between Boone and Blowing Rock, however, true Appalachia is preserved. Welcome to the dump.

The trash dump operates on mountain time, is run by mountain people, and is the best entertainment in town. Normally a trip should take only long enough to toss a bag over the edge of the dumpster, but it could last the entire morning, depending on who is in charge for the day.

You were in luck if it was Orville Hicks. Orville grew up in 'these here parts", and knew every nook and cranny of every hill, every wrinkle and toothless smile of every mountaineer. He was true Appalachia, from his talk to his walk. Shuffling along in his over-hauls, a scruffy snuff-stained beard, engineer's cap perched at a jaunty angle, Orville was one of the last surviving artists of the "Jack Tale" genre. These were Appalchian folk tales, hill-country fables. Think Aesop with a twang.

Orville ruled the dump. His throne was an old board that rested on two concrete blocks, with a hand lettered sign posted above that read "Liar's Bench." Beside it sat a cardboard box labeled "Toss old shoes in here". Orville collected gently used items for the local Appalachian familes and was always trolling the trash for treasures that could be recycled. On a slow day, Orville would sit on that bench and spin yarns for anyone willing to listen; and if you were smart, you would be willing to listen. My children used to beg to go to the dump, in the hopes that Orville would be on duty. If a carload of children pulled in, Orville would amble up to the window and  grinning ask, "Wanna hear a tale?" The answer was always Yes! and they would hop out of the car and settle at his feet. He would spin tales in his mountain drawl about growing up in the hills near Sugar Mountain, where he and his siblings would bunch galax for extra money. Florists would pay a quarter a bunch for the heart-shaped glossy green leaves that grew on the moist mountain trails. Orville's mother would reward the children with Jack Tales if they had finished their chores. Who needed television when you could hear about donkey eggs and good ole mountain dew while resting at the foot of  dear old mother? He talked of a simple folk with complex values, hard-working and honest people, until they had a little too much of that mountain dew, dew, dew. His flat, long vowels reached far back into the woods; you could smell the musty mountain dirt and see the fog settling in the valley as Orville leaned back on his bench and pulled us into his world.

Orville has retired from the dump now. He is the author of several books, has recorded DVD's, and is on the lecture circuit with his Jack Tales. He is in high demand at schools around the country and has even been invited to the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian Institute to share his folk lore. Even there, in the high-brow society of Washington, DC, you can spot Orville in his trademark overalls, plaid flannel shirt, and a big ole toothless grin lighting up that grizzly old face. Washington has it's rules of society, but Orville has values, and values trump rules any old day.

It's not the same going to the dump anymore. Now we just toss trash and leave. The young kids working there have no tales to tell; they barely even speak. But each time, we sneak a peek at the Liar's Bench, just hoping to glimpse Orville on his throne, with a grin on his face and a little ole jack tale to tell.

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