With One Hand Tied behind My Brain: A Memoir of Life after Stroke

Most would not expect a book about a stroke to be entertaining, but this memoir will force you to laugh through a tragedy, then cry, then laugh again.

Avrel Seale was fifty, did not smoke or drink, had low blood pressure, and had hiked more than two hundred miles the year a stroke nearly ended his life. In an instant, he was teleported into the body of an old man—unbalanced, shaky, spastic, and half-paralyzed. Overnight, he was plunged into a world of brain surgeons, nurses, insurance case managers, and an abundance of therapists.

Beginning three weeks before his stroke to set the stage, Seale leads us through the harrowing day of his stroke and emergency brain surgery with minute-by-minute intensity. We then follow him through ICU, a rehab hospital, and a neuro-recovery group-living center, where we meet a memorable cast of other stroke survivors and also those recovering from auto accidents and gunshots. Finally home, Seale leads us through a new life of firsts, including returning to work, to driving, to playing guitar, to camping, and even to writing a book—all with one hand.

What emerges from his humor (“elegant but devastating”) is a revealing critique of the hospital experience, the insurance industry, and rehab culture. And his nothing-off-the-table quest for recovery shows both the sobering struggles and inspiring possibilities of life after a stroke in twenty-first century America.

272 pages

The Great Fire and the Silver Sea

My family sails alone upon an open silver sea.
Other family boats come into view.
But the seas are choppy, and we mustn’t get too close.
We wave. With shouts, we inquire after their health and sanity,
Then float apart as if immigrants en route to a new world.

I while away hours at a time on deck
Working out comforting old tunes on my guitar.
My wife works a puzzle below deck,
Periodically taking the Zodiac to restock our rations
From a resupply depot on an island not yet burning.

Our three teenage boys rise separately each morning,
Eat three bowls of cereal each in the galley,
Help me with the rigging, or a loose cleat, or an engine problem,
Then return to their dark quarters.

But we were not seeking a new world.
We were forced to flee to sea, each and all,
For word came that the whole world was on fire,
From the mountain tops right down to the marinas,
And everyone had to take to water.
No one could say how long the fire might last.

Each day, between the guitar and the puzzles
And the naps in the hammock in the hold,
I climb to the bridge
And look for smoke on the horizon.
Does a clear sky mean the great fire is over?
Or has it merely yet to reach our town?

As my binoculars scan left and right,
The radio crackles with voices
Arguing over the evacuation order:
“People have house fires every year!”
“No, this fire is different!”
“How can fire be different? What does that even mean?!”

We do our best,
Trust the fire is coming and stay at sea,
Wonder what the town will look like
When the great fire has burned itself out
And we at last return to port.
Will we even recognize it?

We are circling on a silver sea,
But perhaps we are headed to a new world after all.
This wouldn’t be all bad.
The old world was sparsely forested,
And fire opens seed cones.


New Epilogue to Monster Hike

This epilogue supplements my 2017 memoir Monster Hike: A 100-Mile Inquiry Into the Sasquatch Mystery. The book details a through-hike along the length of the Lone Star Hiking Trail in Sam Houston National Forest in Texas.

Epilogue – On Kelly’s Pond

I began writing Monster Hike the day after I returned to Austin. It spilled out of me quickly, and in six months I had a draft. For six more months I edited and rewrote it and proofed it again and again, cutting this and adding that, until it felt truly finished. To my surprise, I found a willing publisher almost immediately, and by mid-November — almost exactly a year since I had finished the hike — the book was out.But much had changed in that year.

For ten months, Donald Trump had been president. That was one change.

Another World Series had come and gone, and this time it was none other than the Houston Astros who had prevailed in another thrilling seven-game series, against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Houston had needed that lift, as much of the region had been submerged for weeks in August and September by Hurricane Harvey. Great swaths of Sam Houston National Forest had been shut down by the historic deluge, and as winter approached, the hiking and multi-use trails were being reopened little by little as they dried out and became passable.

In doing research for my book, specifically about fatalities or missing persons reports within SHNF, I had come across a harrowing account from May 2017, six months after my hike. A toddler had gone missing at Stubblefield Campground. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I mumbled to myself as I read the online article, of course thinking of Bob Garrett’s story in which a sasquatch apparently reached into a tent to try to snatch a small girl. All of East Texas was braced for a tragic end to the story, but little Ezra was found in a briar thicket about four hundred yards from camp twenty-four hours after he’d wandered away. He was a little scratched up and thirsty but otherwise fine. The detail that caught my eye from the news accounts of that episode was that an unspecified agency was en route in helicopters with thermal cameras that they just happen to have at the ready, which might detect the boy’s heat signature. They were not the ones who found Ezra, but rather an aunt who had flown to Houston that day from California to join the search.

• • •

I had not been back to Sam Houston National Forest since the Monster Hike — too busy writing and enjoying the privileges of fatherhood. But I had wanted to go back. Of course I did.

Thinking about bigfoots so much while writing the book had made me skittish about going back, and it was time to “get back on that horse” with regard to camping and hiking, and perhaps to check the final box of my investigation — to see one. Since the book published, I was now “out” as a sasquatch believer, and most every conversation started with, “Have you seen one?”

“Well, no I haven’t seen one, but I’ve heard them.” Cue look of skepticism. “And I’ve found tracks.” Cue more skepticism. I wanted to be able to just say, “Yes, I’ve seen one!” Maybe this would be the trip.

Wade messaged to see if we could reinstate our New Year’s camping tradition after a year off. We could go back to Sam Houston — nearly two years to the day since the “Knock-knock, who’s there?” episode, just for a one-nighter.

Yeah, that sounded good.

Wade left it to me to determine where we would camp and hike, and I perused maps for areas with trail loops and primitive camps I had not been to before.

As I’ve said, when you are within their range, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to where you might see one. Could be six miles in and a thousand yards off the trail, or it could be a parking lot, or crossing the highway, or walking over the lake on a bridge. Going into remote areas within their range doesn’t seem to increase your odds, according to the sighting reports.

Indeed, there was one spot that seemed to be particularly “hot,” and that place was not remote but rather one of just three developed campgrounds in the forest, Kelly’s Pond.

At sunrise on New Year’s Day, 2018, we rendezvoused at my house. There was a dusting of rare snow on my windshield. The forecast called for a low of 21 degrees that night. As we were car camping and not backpacking, we loaded the bed of my truck with the dutch oven, my homemade plywood chuck box, camp chairs, firewood, and anything else we deemed useful. Wade, having read my book, this time took his 12-gauge shotgun, and a 9mm Glock pistol for good measure.

The mile-long dirt road leading to the pond was lined with pullouts, and to our surprise every third or fourth one was occupied by a vehicle. Some had pop-up campers, some tents, some were just cars with tarps staked beside them. One of the sites was occupied only by a plain white van with a dent in the side. “Why don’t they just put a vinyl wrap on that thing with ‘pedophile’ in all caps?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Wade replied, “you know that guy’s wearing a clown costume.”

The dirt road passed through an open gate, and inside was a beautiful clearing next to two large ponds, collectively “Kelly’s Pond.” Eight concrete picnic tables, liberally spaced, adorned a gentle grassy slope north of the pond.

There appeared to be just two parties within the campground, which was two more than we expected for a night forecast to be 21 degrees. The first we came to was a large RV, a 36-foot Rexhall Rexair, with a car parked next to it. Every such campground has a park host, and I took this to be the one assigned to Kelly’s Pond. Leaving Wade to scout the best campsite, I approached the RV and knocked softly on the door.

A woman in her twenties with hair dyed pink and gray answered the door.

“ ’morning,” I said. “Are you the park host?”

“Nope.” She smiled. “We’re just boondocking — boondocking across the country.” I was not familiar with this term. She descended the metal stairs and explained in friendly tones that there was no host, and that they had arrived three days earlier. Soon, another Millennial appeared behind her in the doorway and likewise came out to visit. This one had blue hair, tattoos down both shoulders and a nose ring that protruded down and out of both nostrils. The free-spirited couple, River and Carrie, respectively, were nomads, motoring across America, camping and making money by doing search engine optimization and other freelance drivers of internet business wherever they could connect to wifi.

From the rearview mirror of the car parked next to the RV hung what appeared to be a sasquatch air freshener. “I like your air freshener,” I said, motioning to the cardboard bigfoot dangling beneath the mirror.

“Oh, thanks!” said Carrie. A few months of promoting my book had left me much less coy about broaching the subject, and I forged ahead. “Have you all seen or heard anything out here?” They had not. But they had also been sealed up in the Rexair every night. I told them about the book. Carrie said they had an Instagram following of 5,000. “I can post about it,” she volunteered.

Wade had settled on a site, and I left Carrie and River so I could help him pitch camp. It was about one hundred feet from the campground’s other visitor, who had set up his or her two-man tent not at an established site with a picnic table but right next to the pond. It was a great comfort to see that campsite, someone having such a laid-back time, just fishing and “kickin’ it” by this serene pond surrounded on three sides by miles of open forest. That site was the very picture of relaxation.

After Wade and I had set up camp, we decided to go for a hike, something modest, maybe three miles out and back. We divested ourselves of all unnecessary weight but kept cameras and water at the ready and set out to the north along the Kelly’s Pond Trail. We navigated past several muddy sections in single file, and eventually we crossed Highway 1375. Then we decided that was enough and headed back to camp. On our way back, a half mile or so from our sight, we decided to veer off the trail and just sit in silence and see what the forest would show us. It was peaceful, and uneventful.

Back at camp, the short afternoon of midwinter told us it was time to get to cooking. In my dutch oven, we fried a pound of ground beef, then stirred in a tub of mashed potatoes, a package of corn, and gravy, then scooped it out into our mess kits over and over until we couldn’t contain another bite.

Glancing at the tent by the pond, we wondered what sort of hike the resident had gone on and when we would see him arriving back in camp.

Now the sun had dipped below the trees, and I talked Wade into taking a walk around pond before we turned in. As we passed near to the other tent, I noticed a couple of towels a few yards from it, and a pair of flip-flops, as if he or she had been sunbathing.

We walked around the pond counter-clockwise, staring into an endless forest to our south, and ended up near the Rexhall Rexair. The young ladies had a healthy fire going, and we stood there in the dusk and falling temperature and chatted with them.

One thing led to another, and before we knew it, we were again talking about bigfoot. Carrie said she had read a comment on a Sasquatch Chronicles message board that indicated the location of the Torn-Up Camp. I always figured it was somewhere on Lake Conroe, but that is a huge shoreline, and certain follow-up videos that I remember showing the water had either been removed from YouTube or edited to remove the geographic clues.

But Carrie told us where the campsite was claimed to be, and I figured we would swing past it on our way back to Austin in the morning. Frankly, it freaked me out a little that the purported ‘Torn-Up Camp’ was quite this close to where we just had raised our tent.

We talked a lot about the Bob Garrett school of research out here. “Obviously, I believe most of what he claims,” I said. “I do wonder sometimes why all the helicopters in these stories are Blackhawks. That’s such a conspiracy theory cliché.” Carrie and River and Wade laughed in agreement. “Always Blackhawks!”

“So,” I said at length, “I wonder where that guy is in that tent over there by the pond?”

“Oh, that?” said Carrie, “we haven’t seen anyone over there since we got here, three days ago.”

It wasn’t until that moment that it finally sunk in that there were no cars at that campsite. What’s more, this was definitely not a backpacker. This was a car camper; he had driven in. The tent was one of a car camper. The stove was not a backpacking stove. The overturned chair was a camp chair, not a backpacking stool or hiking chair. This was someone who had left everything precisely where it was, gotten in his car and driven away. At least three days ago. This was an abandoned camp.

Did Bob Garrett not say, “We find this thing kind of thing [abandoned camps] all the time out there”? Three in the same area as the Torn-up Camp? Four hundred dollar cabin tents, just left … people just driving off with their stuff everywhere, abandoned in an instant?

The comfort that the pondside campsite had been to us only minutes earlier now morphed into a sickening dread. What had he or she seen those days ago, when the forest was warm enough for flip-flops and sunbathing? What had burst from among the yaupons? What had he caught sight of while fishing, and summarily decided to put down his fishing rod or stew pot, run to his car leaving his flip-flops right where they were, crank the engine, and never look back?

We had talked to River and Carrie until dark, and now it was time to face the night, not in a locked 36-foot RV, but in the flimsy two-man tent that my sons used on Boy Scout campouts.

Wade set out his audio recorder on the concrete picnic table fifty feet away from ours. Next to the dying campfire, we sat under a full moon as the temperature dropped into the thirties, then twenties, and listened to coyotes going off a short distance away. A barred owl sang the famous refrain, “Who cooks for yooou?”

“Dude…” I said softly, shaking my head and motioning to the abandoned tent, “that is so messed up.” Wade was in full agreement.

A short while later, we startled at a loud bang against the truck. I rose from my camp chair and jogged to it, scanning the ground for whatever it was that was thrown. A rock? A large stick? An acorn? I could spot nothing.

Our tent was not staked down, and before we turned in, Wade and I each grabbed a corner and pulled the tent and all its contents to where its door-flap was within twenty-four inches of the passenger door of the truck.

We zipped up the insubstantial tent door and crawled onto our cots, the loaded shotgun and Glock beneath Wade’s, the G.I. Tanto knife, adorably, next to mine.

We were tired, and the night was still. I was wearing four layers, which packed me into my sleeping bag so tightly I could scarcely turn around in it, and I was sleeping in the same tuque with sewn-in headlamp I had taken on the hike.

I drifted to sleep, and at some point into a nightmare, the kind that splices perfectly onto your consciousness because it starts with you waking up in the same location. In this dream, it was just moments later, and I was awoken by a sasquatch, which was inexplicably already in my tent and holding my hands at my sides with his. I screamed for Wade to help me, but with my lips paralyzed with sleep probably sounded only a weak “ayyyyy! …ayyyyyyy!”

The night passed without further incident. Neither did the audio recording reveal anything suspicious later.

I woke up before first light, rose to sitting, and began lacing up my ice-cold boots, which woke up Wade. “Dude,” I whispered, as he groggily came to. “Dude … let’s go driving around. Predawn is active.” We both knew this all too well.

With the truck heater blowing as hot as we could get it, we rolled the mile out of the campground to the main road, wondering what might have transpired overnight for folks out there along the turnouts. We went north to 1375, then east across Baker’s Bridge spanning Lake Conroe, me narrating the three sighting reports — the husband and wife accounts separated by an hour on the very same predawn morning Wade and I were visited nine miles away, and the poor guy in 2001 who stopped on the far side of the bridge to take a leak, saw one six feet away, shook for two days, and gave up deer hunting for good.

As the forest lightened, we turned back toward Kelly’s Pond but continued south past the turnoff along the gravel Forest Service road. For four and a half miles we descended slowly, bisecting a large peninsula in the lake and scanning the passing forest for shadowy figures of unusual height and build, until the water appeared suddenly before us.

We killed the engine and looked around. We got out and walked in different directions to pee. Some views in the Torn-Up Camp video matched up to what we were seeing; in other regards, it looked quite different. It had been four and a half years since the video was shot in the summer of 2013. The forest certainly takes on a different look summer to winter, but there could have been other forces at work too. The Forest Service might have cleared part of the area, or the rumor mill might have just gotten the location wrong altogether.

We walked around for ten minutes or so, then, satisfied that we would glean no more knowledge from this macabre pilgrimage, headed back up the peninsula to break camp. The Cracker Barrel in Bryan was calling our names.

Back in camp, Carrie and River came across from the Rexair, cups of coffee steaming violently into the chilly air. “Thank goodness!” Carrie said. “When we got up early and saw your truck missing and your tent still here, we thought you’d abandoned your camp too.” We all had a good laugh at the misunderstanding. We could laugh, now that we were headed out of the forest and they were safe overnight in their wheeled fortress.

I gave Carrie a copy of Monster Hike I had thrown into the truck at the last minute in case we ran into anyone who might have been interested. We finished breaking camp and heaved the plywood chuck box and the rest of our gear into the bed of the Silverado. But I had one last thing I wanted to do. As I walked toward the abandoned campsite, I unclicked my phone from its belt clip, turned it horizontal, and began shooting video. I effortlessly channeled Bob Garrett himself.

“Hello in the tent,” I said. I walked to the red canvas camp chair lying on its back, panned to the flip-flops near the beach towel. A thermos sat on the grass with a pot balanced on top of it. I lifted the lid to find a dried residue of stew and a dirty spoon. There was the fishing rod and tackle. The high-end camp stove.

I approached the tent door. “Hello, the tent.” There was no response. “Hello, the tent.” I was genuinely concerned about opening the door. Would I find a dead body? I exchanged glances with Wade, swallowed hard, and unzipped the flap.

To my great relief, there was no corpse. But I did confront a strange sight: in the corner an empty sleeping bag. And directly in front of the door, a stack of plastic bins, several of them laden with new batteries. Was it a deer hunter replenishing the batteries on his trail cams? Was it a squatcher doing the same, one who got more than he bargained for? We would never know.

We pulled onto the highway and noted the blue metal sign: “ADOPT A HIGHWAY – NEXT 2 MILES – NORTH AMERICAN WOOD APE CONSERVANCY.” A few miles away, another read, “ADOPT A HIGHWAY – NEXT 2 MILES – SOUTHEAST TX BIGFOOT RESEARCH TEAM.” It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just Bob Garrett. There were now so many researchers out here they were competing for highways to adopt.

When I got home, I became Facebook friends with Carrie. We messaged back and forth, expressing mutual gratitude we had met. She had enjoyed the book.

On January 6, she messaged again: “Hey Avrel! So today we were driving around out near Double Lake Recreation Area and saw three Blackhawk helicopters flying around over a wooded area before departing over Lake Livingston, I believe. It was the first time I’ve ever seen one of those in real life … I was surprised to see them! It was in broad daylight, around 3 p.m.”

—A.S. June 2018

Monster Hike: A 100-Mile Inquiry Into the Sasquatch Mystery is available here.

New Book: Monster Hike: A 100-Mile Inquiry Into the Sasquatch Mystery

It’s impossible to believe it’s been more than two years since I’ve posted on my blog. But there’s a good reason: I’ve been busy. And I’m very happy to announce the release of my ninth book: Monster Hike: A 100-Mile Inquiry Into the Sasquatch Mystery, published by Anomalist Books.


From the back cover:

This is the true story of two journeys — one of the mind, one of the body.

The journey of the mind was from curiosity to belief to knowledge of one of the enduring mysteries of our time: the existence of sasquatches. I had read about them for years, but wanted to see for myself. So I undertook a second journey, a 100-mile solo expedition across one of America’s hottest bigfoot sighting areas, Sam Houston National Forest in East Texas.

This personal memoir — at turns frightening, funny, and philosophical — explores the fundamental questions about this persistent mystery: What are these creatures? Why, after thousands of encounters with humans, do they still go unacknowledged by science, government, and mainstream society? And what does all of this tell us about the dangers and the rewards of believing in something mysterious?

Available on Amazon here. The ebook should be available shortly. Here’s my book trailer:

Writing this book and getting it published represents two huge items off my bucket list. It’s also required more courage than just about anything else I’ve ever done, which is the reason I ultimately decided to go forward with it. I will likely write about this phenomenon in the near future.

I plan to build out a page on this blog with photos and possibly sound files to enrich the experience of the book. I hope you’ll give Monster Hike a try, and let me know what you think.

Be safe out there!

The Song

My father lies upon his bed in afternoon sun
Hands on stomach, fingers splayed as if still holding the oboe
Eyes closed, chest rattling his coda of half notes and half rests.

A year on, and my son sits in his cafeteria,
Holds the euphonium, breathes his first note.
Is that his own breath in that brass,
Or is he some new mouthpiece of my father,
Invisibly tweaking his embouchure
Adjusting his posture
Dilating his airway
That the Song might go on
Another verse if not forever?

And does my son hear the ancestral call
Of Wagner, fox hunt, shofar, didgeridoo
Back and back and back to the first
Who stood clad in the ram’s hide on a hilltop
And blew through something louder than his throat,
That the stars might know
We are here.


Cows. Who knew.

We all thought the end of days
Would be a flash and then
Encircling ash and nuclear haze
Would spell the end of man

Or maybe it would be a virus
Taking us out by billions
Returning Earth back to the reign
Of unfeeling reptillians

Who would have thought that in the end
It would not be a battle
But the apocalypse that brought us low
Would come from gaseous cattle?

A mushroom cloud would have been
A damn sight more dramatic
Than this quite lame extinction
From bovines aromatic.

I think that I can safely say
That even nuclear accidents
Would have been more fitting
Than death by heifer flatulence

Where in the Bible does it say
That Armageddon would be
A bunch of livestock breaking wind
And raising up the sea?

Such an epic history
Cannot have an ending
That is so very juvenile
And something so offending.

What can we do to stem the tide
Of this bacterial comeuppance?
Perhaps the only answer is
Bean-O in great abundance.

Angus, Hereford, Jersey
Charolais and Holsteins too —
Who knew that the Four Horsemen
Would actually say “moo”?

Can’t we invent a vehicle
Perhaps a fancy airplane
Or some efficient automobile
That runs on Elsie’s methane?

We can name it Taurus
In honor of the brutes
That threatened to end the world itself
With unceremonious toots.

Can all of civilization
Be wiped out by a toxin
That emanates astern the legs
Of volatilized oxen?

No, we cannot be done in,
This cannot be our parting.
The history of humanity
Can’t end with some cow farting.


For Time Is Short

And now, my sons,
Let us speak of weighty things,
For time is short.
Let us not speak of weather, but climate.
Let us not speak of fish, but whales.
Nor of celebrity, nor sport, nor even bodily health.

Let us speak of history, or better, mystery.
Let us speak of prophets and their promises.
Let us speak of what we see in clouds,
For these are visions, and visions are the future.

Time is short so let us turn from screens that filter reality,
And instead hurry to the forest to hear the owls echoing at dusk
And see the night wood sparkle with fireflies,
A galaxy writ low and close
That we might fly through it
With our feet on the ground

Time is short so let us climb the nearest mountain,
Not the highest,
And speak of nothing.
Our footfalls crunching out our purpose and meaning are enough.
Let us float down the widening river and submit to its pace
And surrender to its wisdom.

Time is short, so behold the arc of history,
Then seize your segment of it, and twist.
Do not be passive or soft or incurious,
But keep a fierce heart within a hardened chest,
And a restless mind within a bowed head,
That you might matter beyond your suburb,
And at the end of days the Maker might say
We were worth the effort.

My sons, let us speak of weighty things,
For I am dying.
As are you.
As are we all.
Oh my sons, time is short,
So let us live.
And when we speak,
Then let it be of the only wisdom:
Let it be of love.

Son! (My Journey to Jerry Reed)


In 1986, I was a freshman at The University of Texas and had just undergone something akin to a religious awakening after hearing a little-known local guitarist named Eric Johnson. I was ravenously learning dumbed-down versions of every song I could off his debut record Tones and going to hear him in concert at every chance.

My friends and I were listening to him at the Austin Opry House late one night when he switched off the distortion pedal and proceeded to play a magnificent country instrumental that left us all practically in tears of astonished joy. I remember him calling it “Tribute to …” to … to someone or other. I couldn’t quite remember the name because he had said it before the song, but I thought the initials were J.R.

It’s a reminder of how long ago this was that I couldn’t just pull it up on my phone with a Google search that guessed the title before I could finish typing it. Nor could I look it up on the internet when I got home because, of course, said internet did not exist. In those days of yore you got tipped off to great new music by phone calls from buddies, from scanning magazine racks (which is how we discovered Eric), from late-night conversations at Whataburger, from concert reviews printed in these things called newspapers. That is to say, if you didn’t hear a title clearly the first time, you weren’t guaranteed immediate or even eventual clarity.

The 1986 magazine cover that started it all.

Moreover, Eric has always had a practice of playing songs in concert years before he records them. (Never one to rush in, he would not commit this particular composition to a recorded medium for two more decades, when at long last he included it on his 2005 record Bloom.)

During the winter break, I returned from Austin to my hometown of McAllen and erelong found myself at La Plaza Mall sifting the wares of the only music store in the greater metropolitan area, Musicland. There, I made my way back to the cassette wall and thenceforth to the country section, a place I had not visited since my “kicker phase” in junior high school. I located the R’s and began digging for the person to whom Eric had made such a magnificent sonic tribute, for surely his recordings would be life changing. Remembering the initials as J.R., I soon was walking excitedly to the cashier with purchase in hand: The Greatest Hits of … Jim Reeves.

I returned home to my parents’ house and with nervous anticipation tore the cellophane off the box and popped the cassette into my tiny silver jam box, pressed play, and waited. A lush string section swooned into motion and a gentle baritone voice began to croon sentimental lyrics from the mid-century. OK, I thought. Artists can be multifaceted. Patience is the better part of valor. I’ll wait for the guitar solo. It never came. The second song began, more mellow and devoid of guitar riffs than the first. At one point there might have even been a warbling organ solo.

I began using the fast-forward button to scan each track, hoping against ever-receding hope that the very next song would be a shredding guitar instrumental. When the final song, titled “Is It Really Over,” really was over, I conceded defeat. I had opened the package and played the tape; there was no returning it to Musicland. I shook my head. With a deep sigh I chunked the tape into a junk drawer and put my Tones cassette back in. To this day I harbor an irrational, undeserved bitterness toward “Gentleman Jim Reeves.”

I do not remember just when I learned the true object of Eric’s tribute, but it was several years later, and probably after hearing the song two or three more times in concert, listening ever harder to Eric’s introduction of it. Yes, it was clear now. It was “Tribute to … Jerry Reed.”

I knew a Jerry Reed, of course. We all did. But he wasn’t really a guitar player. He was a supporting actor in low-brow comedies. He was “Snow Man” in Smokey and the Bandit. Oh, I knew he was a recording artist, but he was mainly a singer, right? Or more like a proto-rapper, speaking the words to as many songs as he sang. At any event, he had way more in common with Ray Stevens (“Guitarzan,” “The Streak”) than he did with the cerebral and virtuosic Eric Johnson. Reed was a novelty act. Upon discussion, my buddies and I remained firmly convicted that Eric was referencing some other, lesser-known Jerry Reed, probably some picker from the 1940s long forgotten by the mainstream, not this over-the-top hayseed comedian.

The epiphany came about 1992, when I came across an album by Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, and there it was, visual confirmation, Jerry Reed, the Snow Man, on the CD cover. These two Jerry Reeds were one and the same person. I’ll be damned. I mildly enjoyed the Chet Atkins collaboration, Sneakin’ Around, but there was not much on this record to commend him as an axe god. It was highly produced easy-listening country, with a lot of “We’re so old now!” banter between the two. I didn’t get it. (It’s more endearing to me now than it was then.)

As the years rolled on, I moved from electric guitar to nearly exclusively playing acoustic, and became enthralled with the solo-acoustic master Tommy Emmanuel. As I read and listened to interviews with Tommy, I learned that his principal influences were Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and … Jerry Reed. He even named one of his songs “Ol’ Brother Hubbard,” after Jerry’s real surname. It was confirmed. All roads led back to Jerry Reed, the one I had grown up knowing only as a clownish redneck, folding up his straw cowboy hat and yelling “WHEN YOU HOT … YOU HOT!!!”


Jerry as featured in Scooby Doo


Finally, and with the awesome empowerment of YouTube, I turned my attention squarely upon this late man from Atlanta, he who had figured in popular culture one way and in music history another. What was it about his playing that had such a deep effect on virtually all of my musical heroes?

As I started to explore his catalog I discovered that there were not two Jerry Reeds, but three. The first was the one I had always known, the one who paid the bills with the talking blues and basically a country comedy act: “She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft,” “Tupelo Mississippi Flash,” “Amos Moses,” and “East Bound and Down.”

The second Jerry Reed, ironically enough, was not far removed at all from Gentleman Jim Reeves. This one, more in evidence on his earlier work, was earnest, had barely any accent at all, and layered his songs with the “Music City” sound fashionable in Nashville in the 60s and early 70s — lush string sections, drowning reverb, warbling female back-up singers, and plenty of extraneous instrumental layers (I need more harpsichord!!!), all courtesy of the producer who discovered him, Chet Atkins. This Jerry’s lyrics spoke earnestly of love and of life, as in “Today Is Mine”:

When the sun came up this morning
I took the time to watch it rise
And when its beauty struck the darkness from the sky
I thought how small and unimportant all my troubles seem to be
And how lucky, another day belongs to me …

Then, there was the third Jerry Reed, the one I had been searching for, off and on, for three decades, and had finally found, present but widely dispersed among the Scooby Doo cameos and Smokey and the Bandit clips. This Jerry was nothing less than a musical savant, and now I heard the source of all the musical references accruing down the years. Now I could hear the influential runs and chord structures curated in Eric’s “Tribute” and in Tommy’s covers. This Jerry Reed had dexterity, yes, but his real gift was a seemingly effortless mastery of and blending of country and funk. To achieve this, he shifted with endless creativity between pentatonic and mixolydian modes. He would relentlessly work and rework double-stop runs, deftly forging the sickest, funkiest breaks in the history of the genre, endlessly massaging the flat-5, flat-7, and minor-to-major 3rd blues notes, ingenious counterpoints that featured simultaneously ascending and descending lines, chromatically and rhythmically building up monuments to funkiness and then harmonically breaking them down piece by piece just as deliciously. The best, most representative works of this Jerry are “Honkin’,” “Jiffy Jam,” “Pickie, Pickie, Pickie,” “Swingin’ ’69,” “Alabama Jubilee,” “The Claw,” and not one but two completely different songs both titled “Struttin’.”

True geniuses usually are not fully aware of their gift, and there’s a telling vignette I love related by Craig Dobbins, author The Guitar Style of Jerry Reed song book: “At the 1990 convention of the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society in Nashville, I stood in a small group next to Jerry as we listened intently to French guitarist Jean-Felix Lalanne play an impromptu note-for-note rendition of ‘Funky Junk.’ As we applauded Jean-Felix, Jerry scratched his head in disbelief and said, ‘Son! Did I write that?!’ ”

The truth is, as I’ve grown to love one Jerry, I’ve grown to love all three. He found space in his career and life to express all three sides of himself, and in so doing he’s taught me once again, if from the grave, never to  judge a book by its cover. The mind of a Vivaldi can indeed glow from within a Ray Stevens. The court composer and the court jester can share the very same skin.

Sir, for all of that, I salute you with the exclamation you loved best: Son! 


New book release – Staggering: Life and Death on the Texas Frontier at Staggers Point

Dear Trailhead readers,

I’m happy to announce the release of my latest book, Staggering: Life and Death on the Texas Frontier at Staggers Point

247 pages


Here is the back cover blurb:

“In 1829, recent arrivals from Ireland began moving to a patch of wilderness near the Brazos River in Mexican Texas. They came seeking freedom and fortune. What they found was malaria, war, the constant threat of gruesome Indian massacres, wolves, panthers — and an abiding happiness that has kept many descendants there to this day. At Staggers Point, near modern-day Bryan, Texas, they collided and coexisted with four other cultures: Americans, American Indians, Mexicans, and enslaved African Americans. These families bore witness to the greatest political upheavals of nineteenth century America, and their lives spanned the full range of human experience — from scratching out a living on a primitive frontier; to fleeing and fighting bands of Comanches and other American Indians, the Mexican army, and common criminals; to the joys and sorrows of raising children beyond the reach of civilization. Though they were common pioneers, to us their experiences, their feats, and their very survival are staggering.

“Driven by a desire to understand his heritage, essayist Avrel Seale has unearthed nuggets of little-known history from diverse sources and blended them with social commentary to produce a revealing and fast-paced history of nineteenth century Texas.”

This has been a fantastic journey of discovery about what life was like for those living here in Texas in the not-so-distant past. I hope that readers of this book will learn something and enjoy the ride. The book is available in print for $14 at:


and the Kindle eBook is available for $4 at:


Carl Seale – Eulogy


Carl Seale

Eulogy – September 14, 2014

First Presbyterian Church, McAllen, Texas


I’m Avrel, the youngest of Jan and Carl’s three sons, and I want to thank all of you for being here.

Dad enjoyed Bob Newhart, and especially the bit in his show about “Darrell and my other brother Darrell,” so I think he’s especially amused today by “Jessie and my other pastor Jesse.” Thank you, gentlemen, for everything.

Ruth, thank you for that beautiful tribute and all you and Mike have meant to our family through the years.

Dad’s decline was lengthy and difficult. My mother has been nothing less than heroic and inspirational, and I know you all will lift her up as she begins writing the next chapter of her remarkable life.

I also want to say a very heartfelt thanks to the two people who, next to Mom, did the most for Dad over many, many years: the local son, Erren, and Fernando. No thanks is enough for all that the two of you have done.

And thanks to all of you for your many kindnesses. Sometimes I think death exists by design to remind us of humanity’s inherent goodness, because that goodness is so on display at times like this.

* * *

Carl Seale was known to many of you for the passion around which he organized his life, music, and the public form that passion took. Straight from Central Casting, the maestro with a silvery mane and professorial beard cut a striking figure as he strode on stage to applause and brought the symphony to attention with his upraised baton.

But to say that he was from Central Casting is not to imply that this was some sort of act or pose. Carl Seale was the genuine article. He was an intellectual heavyweight with a clear and distinctive artistic vision that drove him. He did not chase trends but spoke from a place that was original and timeless. He was from the old school, in which one’s art was forged by years of disciplined study and a mastery of theory and form. And to his students he did not hand out easy A’s. To his family and friends, he was, of course, much more than a stock character.

He descended from English and Scots-Irish pioneers who, audacious and stubborn, had ploughed their way across the South and Midwest for three centuries, finally converging on the East Texas town of Athens. There, in 1936, Carl was born in the bedroom of a tiny wooden house. He was the third of four children born to a refrigerator repairman and a church secretary. He was the first in his family tree to attend college, a fact made more remarkable because he would ultimately earn a doctorate, and made more impressive still by the fact that he was dyslexic, though he made so little of this that I only learned of it two years ago while editing his autobiography.

If he was an intellectual heavyweight, he was also a ham, plain and simple. Show business ran in his blood. His grandfather was an itinerant band leader in Iowa, and while Dad’s mother was a girl, the family toured the Midwest playing the vaudeville circuit as “The Musical Hewetts.” He was fascinated by and envious of his cousins, who were circus acrobats known as the Flying Beehees.

Dad adored circuses. My earliest memories of him are not musical, but acrobatic. In sessions we called simply “Tricks,” he would lie on the floor and, one at a time, balance us above him on his feet — now I’m sitting in a very precarious high chair, now I’m flying like Superman with his feet on my belly and looking down into his grinning face. When we could little afford it, he bought us a trampoline, and it became a central part of our family life for years. I remember Dad lying on the trampoline with us under what were then darker skies, and staring up into the heavens. And as he adored circuses he also loved magicians and performed magic for his four grandsons.

Although he could silence a rowdy 80-person orchestra with an icy stare, he also reveled in abject silliness. He never missed a chance to costume up for a Halloween party or a church carnival. And he delighted in trying to embarrass us in public places by seizing our hands and skipping, or else trying to convince us to walk through a shopping mall or airport terminal in some synchronized goofiness: “Let’s do hand motions!” he’d say, eliciting from us a mortified “Daaaaaad!”

There are lots of other interesting nooks and crannies of his personality I could mention — the yoga and Pilates he took up in later years, his interest in UFOs, how he doted on the tortoises that roamed the backyard — what more perfect pets for one afflicted by slowness.

I think the biggest gift Dad gave me was entirely unintentional but a precious gift all the same — he gave me a model of audacious vision and tireless work. He showed us boys what it is to dream big — “I think I’ll write a ballet based on Toltec mythology, get it sponsored, then recruit a hundred people and partner organizations to help me carry it off.” — or — “Let’s move to the Valley, rent a dilapidated farm house in the middle of a citrus grove, and spend every waking moment getting it into a livable state!” And then, whatever it was, to see that project to completion. Others will have different takeaways from the life of Carl Seale, but that’s mine: Dream big, and do not stop working until that dream has become a reality.

Though he was often absorbed in his next big project, he also nurtured the creative seed in the three of us. When Ansen, was a teenager, Dad mail-ordered a canoe kit, and he and Ansen spent a couple of long weeks in the dining room screwing together its numerous parts and cutting the vinyl that covered it before paddling it down the Rio Grande. Who’s to say that episode and others like it didn’t help Ansen realize that he could build anything he wanted if he set his mind to it, even a digital camera, even his own beautiful works of art?

When Erren was 10, Dad cast him in the lead of Amahl and the Night Visitors. Erren and Ansen shared the role, and both learned the entire opera in English and Spanish. Erren later starred in Dad’s own opera, The Atonement. Who’s to say those experiences didn’t pave the way for his learning Spanish, or his memorization abilities, or for his attention to detail and the aesthetic sense that has been the common thread of his career and his own contributions to this community?

When I, at age 13, finished writing my sequel to The Chronicles of Narnia, Dad drove me to the print shop, ordered seven copies, and had them bound. This encouragement to creativity was lifelong. Just 10 years ago, I mentioned to him that I was thinking of recording a solo guitar album, and before I knew it, Dad had found a sound engineer and paid for the studio time.

Only once do I remember him pushing back on one of our quixotic projects. I was 10, and we had just seen the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. Of course I immediately commenced planning my own full-scale reproduction of the musical to be staged in the vacant lot at Tamarack and 3rd. As the only person I knew with a beard, Dad was cast in the title role; he did not know this. As I informed him of my plan to suspend him from a cross using Erren’s scoliosis brace, he snapped. “Avrel, if you want to stage a full-blown Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar, you’ll have to do it without me!” I wonder where I got the audacity for such ideas.

Decades later, about 10 years ago, I did finally make a movie, and he agreed, very readily, to be in it. With his regal bearing, he had always reminded me of a king, and that’s just how I cast him. Nor did I have to twist his arm to get him to write and record the entire soundtrack. He was listening to that music when he left us on Wednesday afternoon.

As I was helping him bathe a few months ago during a visit, he lamented, “All dignity is gone.” For a dignified man, he had to accept a lot of indignities. He greeted his diagnosis with anger, as anyone would, but he soon taught himself to live a productive and satisfying life despite a handicap that grew just a little bit worse every day for nearly 20 years. He met each new milestone with anger, then stoic pragmatism. Toward the end, he wore a bracelet Mom had given him for Christmas inscribed with one of their sayings: “It is what it is.” The only thing I ever really heard him say about his future was, “It’ll be OK … until it isn’t.”

For a public figure, Dad was an extreme introvert and did not open up easily to others. We joked this week that his idea of engaging deeply in conversation was remaining in the room. But his illness softened that hard shell some. This week my brother reminded me of the line from “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”: “… And we all lose our charms in the end.” I think, to the contrary, Dad gained some charms in the end — more patience, more openness. I’m reminded of a verse about God’s mysterious ways written in the voice God, Who says: “O Son of Man, My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy.”

On Wednesday afternoon, an hour after he had died, I stood at the foot of his bed, staring at his feet, and marveling that they had once held my skinny little body up, seemingly halfway to the ceiling, so that I could fly. Dad, you held us up in lots of ways, large and small, and because of that, we’re still flying. Thank you. Thank you for making the world around us a more beautiful and interesting place. We love you. I love you.


Photo by Erren Seale