Nov. 26, 2008
By Roger Emile Stouff
(Part III of IV)
There at Tremont an institute has been established in the Smoky Mountains.
It’s an environmental education center inside the park, and teachers, students, parents, or just plain ol’ tourists like us are taught all about the park and the care of it. The programs are intensive, if you want them to be, and residential, too. It’s a unique and great idea.
Like Elkmont, it was a logging community long ago. It’s most famous and probably first residents were William Marian Walker (1838-1919) and wife Nancy, who settled the area around 1859. Legend has it that Walker was such a good shot with a gun, he wasn’t allowed to participate in contests. He was a beekeeper, Samaritan to struggling families during the Civil War by doing some firewood cutting and chores, and oh, yeah, a polygamist with 26 children. Go figure.
Soaked to the bone from the waist to my chin from a spill in the cold water of the middle prong of the Little River, I donned a fleece jacket over my soaked tee-shirt and headed upstream anyway, grumbling like a mad gnome, I’m sure. I had taken all the paraphernalia out of my fishing vest and stuffed it into the pockets of my jacket and dutifully went about my business.
And that business was trout. Trout, dangit, trout! Author Harry Middleton fished at Tremont and stood in this same river, wrote about all these peaks in On The Spine of Time: An Angler’s Love of the Smokies. It was here he met Swami Bill and his main squeeze, Kiwi LaReaux, and countless other wonderful characters in the Smokies.
I won’t deny that while he is very often melancholy – a condition I am acutely familiar with – when I discovered Harry Middleton’s writing I was moved in a way I had not been since Tolkien. It was here, in the Smokies, maybe not at Tremont but certainly among these smoothed slopes and towering heights, that Harry wrote:
I slipped back away, out of the candlelight, and took note of the clouds moving slowly across the night sky and thinking why I hadn’t used time more and worried about it less. Fished more, loved more, risked more, spent less time trying to mend the past, undo old mistakes, regretting lost friends, trying always to exceed what is expected of me, breaking musty resolutions, making new ones, making a living instead of just living. Everything comes and goes, comes and goes.
Altitude does something to a man’s need to measure or even keep track of time’s passage. The convenient measurements of hours and days mean little up here, here where it is all stone and shadow, sunlight and forest, and moving water. Trying to take time’s pulse in the high country seems a frivolous notion: a waste of time. Time has a way of defining its own symmetry and fulfilling its own rhythms. Days are days, though, and are best used by spending each one fully, nothing saved. For years I tried collecting time as though it were precious stones, certain that if I gave myself completely to earning a living fifty weeks a year, I could wrench a year’s worth of solace, solitude, relaxation, joy, and fulfillment out of two weeks’ vacation. It never worked. I never felt better, only empty and exhausted. These days I try not to divide time but only use it, use it all, as it comes, living through it all like fire moving through dry grass leaving only ashes. Because things come and go. Come and go.
So I headed for a spot of flat water which draped down into a plunge pool, where I could present my tiny dry fly to trout I was sure where there, there at the seam between the fast water and the slow, where they feed. I crawled, slithered, teetered, slid over, sidled around and otherwise slowly, carefully made my way over boulders I could have held in my arms to others I could have carved a buffalo from, life-size. I held my fly rod in my teeth when I needed both hands to negotiate a passage through cold, fast water. Sometimes I stuck it in the waistband of my waders at my back until I got to a place I could stand safely.
I cast, and got a hit. Subtle, barely noticeable, but a hit for certain. I put the fly back, at the seam, and let it drift diagonally in font of my, 40, 50 feet away, along the margin of slow water adjoining the fast flow from the pool above. And a hit again.
This time, I set the hook and half-caught half a trout.
I say that because when I set the hook by lifting my rod tip, the little four-inch fish came with it, erupting from the water, flying through the air after my rod tip as if mad as hell at it and determined to catch it and kick it’s behind, and as it passed over my right shoulder I saw the beautiful, if tiny, iridescence of it and said aloud, "That’s a rainbow trout!" and then my rod carried it away, and as the line stretched out behind me and the trout reached the taut end, it flung off the hook and was gone back into the frigid river from which it came. The whole thing lasted maybe two seconds, max.
Well. There you go.
I made a few more casts, got a few more delicate hits but no hookups, so I went back downstream to find Suzie, who had a few nips at her lure as well, but also no hookups. I cast a bit with her, no luck, so we packed in and headed downstream for a place called Metcalf Bottoms. There was a trailhead there to something called Greenbier School, six-tenths of a mile, and so we decided to give it a look-see.
This was a steep ascent about half the way, and I’m telling you, it was difficult for this out-of-shape lil’ Injun. I huffed and puffed my way up the first 90-degree hill (okay, it wasn’t of course, but it sure felt that way) and when we got to the top, we were going downhill. Suzie and I reminded ourselves that we’d have to come back uphill on the way back, but like troopers plodded on.
We found the school, out in the middle of nowhere, but I reminded myself that it was in 1880 that the people of Sevier County established the school and there was an Appalachian community here, now unseen except in shadows of wooden beams and joists. It’s made of yellow poplar, donated, as was the land. The beams are notched with dove-tail joints, quite impressive if rough. Local history has it that classes started in 1882, and some kids walked nine miles through cold and snow to attend. It also served as a church until another was built later.
It was dark and musky, and though I can’t put my finger on why, I felt a kind of cold myself there, unlike in any of the other structures we visited. I could say I heard children in the shadows, pencils scraping on paper or chalk on slate, but you wouldn’t believe me if I did. Regardless, I spent less time in Greenbrier School than any of the other Appalachian buildings we visited.
So it was Day 3, and I was up one half-caught half-trout of dubious dimensions. Well, there’s always tomorrow.
We got back into the car and, in fading sunlight, wound through the mountains back to Pigeon Forge. The river beside the road, low and tempermental, remained beautiful, and I was tempted to count the minutes, hours and days before we’d have to go home, but then I thought of Harry.
As we rounded our way out of the park and to Wears Valley – an incredibly beautiful expanse of rolling foothills and sweeping views of the Smokies between Pigeon Forge and Townsend – I reminded myself that Harry died at 43, a year younger than I am now. I reminded myself to use my time. Not count it, not divide it, subtract, add, multiply or fractionalize it. Use it.
Because things come and go. Come and go.
(To be Continued…)