Epilogue: The Horseshoe
Dec. 3, 2008
By Roger Emile Stouff

horseshoe.jpg (232073 bytes)
The Horseshoe on Abrams Creek
(click to enlarge)

Thereís a fair quantity of cautious pessimism in me. I come by it honest. My father was quite disgruntled with Mr. Murphy for stealing and making famous what had been up until then known as Nickís Law. Iím not as adamant about it as he was.

I wear my life vest when the boat is under power; I carry a compass in the woods and a canister of pepper spray when walking the dog to ward off potential predators, two-legged or four. That sort of thing.

But I keep thinking about when I was in the Smoky Mountains a few weeks ago. We had stopped at the visitorís center at Cades Cove, a magnificent valley in the mountains so utterly beautiful it made my heart weep. Suzie asked one of the center people if there was any good fishing nearby.

"The Horseshoe on Abrams Creek," she said, and though I am not sure, I think I saw her eyes widen a little with something like reverence. Maybe a little fear. "Itís the most treacherous, dangerous mile of fishing in the whole park."

I declined at once. It was too much. I knew the little rivers we had been fishing were exhausting and difficult for an inexperienced boulder-hopper, and I am certainly too out-of-shape for something called the "most dangerous" anything.

She sold us an edition of Smokies Life magazine which had an article in it about the Horseshoe.

The Horseshoe is where Abrams Creek makes such a drastic loop in its course, it resembles a wide horseshoe. Once you get into the Horseshoe you pretty much have to complete the whole mile because itís next to impossible to get out of the creek, so youíre wading much of the time, too. Sheer bluffs, tangles of rhododendron, many obstacles contribute to the Horseshoeís reputation.

"Tell your editor if he wants to see you again alive, heíll extend your deadline a week," the author advised other writers wishing to fish the Horseshoe.

But Iíve been thinking about it a lot, and you know, I think Iíll go back there and do it one day: Fish the Horseshoe on Abrams Creek. Iíve rarely pushed myself hard for satisfactionís sake. Not like a marathon runner or such. Iím terrified of flying. I hate taking medicine of any kind, even for a headache, because I donít want that synthetic gunk in my system. I have to be really feeling bad to take medicine. Heights give me vertigo, and they say I drive like a "paw paw."

But yeah, I think Iíd like to fish the Horseshoe. I think itís because I still feel that one day Iíll go somewhere wild and I might not come back.

Itís difficult to know why, or how. By choice or fate. Certainly, I stand looking into deep forests and an unseen coercion tugs me into them; I follow streams and rivers and bayous upstream and down incessantly. Standing on the Roaring Fork three weeks ago, I could have followed it up the mountain to see where it began and discovered, I am sure, the secrets of the creation of all things. But I always turn around and return. I know my place. I know my limitations. I have only lived this long by being afraid of places like the Horseshoe on Abrams Creek.

You have to get into the Horseshoe at the trailís end at Abrams Falls. They recommend strongly you check in with the ranger station so that if you donít come out an hour or two before dark they can come get you. Theyíre used to it. Theyíve rescued many a hiker, fisherman or just plain lost tourist from the Horseshoe. They expect it, even. You start early. You start early because you donít want dark to catch you in the Horseshoe. They wonít find you until a long, long night passes.

I guess Iíve always felt like Iíd be somewhere like that when it happens. When I vanish. Itís only cowardice that held me back for many years. Much as Iíve wanted it. Much as Iíve ached and agonized for it, I was afraid to step out into the path and not turn back. And worse yet, I knew that no paths are endless anymore. Eventually Iíd run headlong into a highway, or a city, or a river bustling with ships and barges and shimmering slicks of petroleum. And the spell would be broken. Then Iíd have to turn back and go home, holding the fragments of a broken spell in my hands.

But it might not be by choice, either. I might slip on a loose rock and plummet to my death. Perhaps Iíll be making a crossing of Abramís Creek and the current will push my legs out from beneath me and Iíll wash away. Whoís to know? Grim thoughts, I know. Terrify me, too.

But you know what? You canít appreciate surviving if youíre never afraid of dying.

I lock all my doors at night. Keep porch lights on. Own firearms. People worry me more than the Horseshoe does. Nature is not malicious. People call nature cruel, but itís no such thing. Nature is just indifferent. Life and death are rotational in the wild and nobody grieves it. It just is. It just must be.

Maybe Iíll find the places my grandfather used to go when I was a child and I couldnít find him, even though he had just been right there. Maybe itíll be the secret route my father took back of Sawmill Bayou and emerged back in the cove, even though my fishing pal and I followed him in and could do more than turn around after we lost sight of him. Can there be a secret, instantaneous route from the Horseshoe on Abrams Creek to Grand Avoille Cove. Oh, yes. There is, if you can cast off the veil and cloak of unbelief.

So yeah. One day Iíll fish the Horseshoe. Maybe Suzie will want to make it with me, maybe a fishing buddy will come. Having a partner will help quell the voice of Nickís Law whispering in my ear.

I wonít be repelling off cliff faces; I wonít be free-hand rock-climbing, hang-gliding, racing cars or parachuting. I probably still will never fly again, and I donít want to white-water raft or pull 60-pound catfish out of underwater holes barehanded.

But yeah. You gotta be afraid to appreciate surviving. And the Horseshoe might be the place to survive just a little more. For now.

Iíll come back. I will, until I donít. Whatís out there? Something of value. Something I didnít have before. Something worth living and surviving.