When I was a kid, Dad took our family ‘on patrol’ on Sundays. In a beat-up green Jeep, plastic windows zipped up or down, weather depending. My brother and I would complain and try to get out of the trip if we suspected it might involve long-winded visits on stuffy couches with relatives who we thought were ancient but most likely were about 10 years younger than we are now.
But if Dad wanted to drive off-road over craggy old stream beds with a fire tower as our destination, we were the first to snap our seat belts tight. We loved the bouncing, the wild feeling of discovering something new, going ‘off trail,’ red clay mud spattering the jeep tires. Wild.
I thought of Dad a few days ago, while ‘on patrol’ in Cades Cove (at a slower pace and not in a jeep) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He loved outdoors. Fall got him going. “That’s a hemlock leaf,” he’d say, picking up the leaf and showing us the spines. “The red one there in the path’s a maple.” Then he’d make us guess on our own, encourage us to remember them. All of which came in handy when I needed a leaf notebook for biology class. (Our teacher bestowed an ‘A’ on said notebook, but never returned my work. Saw it later in the principal’s office. Maybe the principal’s son got an ‘A’ too?).
When Dad drove our family car – a factory issue Checker Cab, 70s gold-flake painted with a vinyl black top – he’d always urge me to ‘get your head out of the book’ and enjoy the leaves. For a minute, I’d snap the book covers shut, lean back and let the leaves flood my face with shadows and light and green and red and gold, a stained glass kaleidoscope that dizzied my brain, spaced out my thoughts. Made me believe I could live in another world. Then I’d rebel, flick the book back open and delve into an imaginary land.
Something about fall and turning leaves and returning to East Tennessee drives me to sew sinews into the bones of my past, stitch them to my future. While my Dad loved to find new trails, my mother’s side of the family embraced the recurring comfort of annual reunions in cabins with fireplaces and a full kitchen from which fierce chili-cooking contests would launch. Reunions in Townsend, the so-called ‘quiet’ side of the Smokies.
In honor of fond memories, I cajole my husband to go with me to Cades Cove. But we pick the wrong day – a day where cars choke the 11-mile one-way asphalt loop through the old cabin-studded farming community. Once we find the Abrams Falls trail head, we release held-in breath, relax, strike out with fresh faith on the 5-mile round-trip hike to the falls.
“See?” I ask him. “This is nice, right? Worth the Atlanta-like traffic, hmm?”
Once he hits the trail, his faces takes on the features of a 5-year-old and I see a camel-colored Boy Scout shirt wrap his torso. He’s at home. He’s thinking about what it would be like to hike the Appalachian Trail. We walk for a while, silent, listen for the water, a woodpecker, crunching stone underfoot.
The Abrams Falls hike will always belong to my cousins, the firsts, seconds, the once-removed, the thirds of the Vannoys. For years on the Saturday of the reunion – the last Saturday in October, usually about one week past peak leaf-peeping season – the grown-ups assigned the oldest cousin the task of leading a hike and getting us out of the cabins so they could sit and talk in peace. Or cook. Or whatever boring things they did while we were absent.
On this day, each time my boot strikes a root or lifts over a rock, ghosts of cousins’ former selves prowl ahead of me. Skinny kids, freckled faces, elbowing ahead, eager to be first. Calling out taunts. Pretending they’ll show how brave they are by plunging into midnight dark water cold as frost on summer’s last grass. (In October? None of them dared.) Today we’ll settle for watching other’s kids in the deep pool beneath the falls.
On our next trip, a few days later, we arrive early Saturday morning in the rare hours where the one-way loop’s closed to cars – starts at 7 and ends at 10 a.m. We unload our bikes, tuck water bottles into a backpack (I suggest hubby take the backpack). And I bike 11 miles without ‘walking’ my bike on the toughest hills. Like the tough Girl Scout I was.
So much fun we try it again on Wednesday morning, summer grass fog-swept, tree leaves dusky summer’s end green, a few days before September ends.
Later we discover it’s the last day of the season when the loop will belong only to walkers, bikers, wild turkeys, bears, hawks and deer. After that, the leaf-peepers invade.
Cades Cove calls us to remember the passing of seasons.
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