Mandy Newham-Cobb illustration
A bear for Jane
Nothing about her countenance ever suggested her trip to Tennessee had been a horrid mistake, or that her American adventure was not proceeding exactly as she’d expected. No responsible travel agent would have recommended touring America just like you tour Europe, with nothing but a knapsack and a smile and a little money. A young woman doesn’t tour America alone, and without a car. But Jane had decided that was what she would do. Her primary destination in America would be Sevier County: because, as the explained, “I rather like Dolly Parton.”
And so, about 20 years ago, she got off the Greyhound bus in downtown Knoxville. She had a reservation at what must have been the only bed-and-breakfast in Pigeon Forge. She liked the name.
Back then, the city’s charms were not obvious to the casual tourist. Disappointed in her walk around a near-deserted downtown, she headed back toward the bus station. On the way, she encountered a friend of mine, an uninhibited artist, just the sort of guy who approaches unusual strangers. He got in touch with me, and we spent the weekend entertaining Jane.
We showed her the Old City’s second-hand shops, and took her to a Three Stooges showing at the then-unrenovated Tennessee Theatre. She found the lads delightful. Or she politely claimed to. She slept on an apartment sofa, and the next day, she caught a ride to Pigeon Forge.
I quietly grieved to picture it, an Englishwoman trying to get around in Pigeon Forge without a car. I offered to drive up there in my old Volkswagen Beetle and show her around. I was young and had nothing better to do.
Her lodging, an old-fashioned farmhouse by a creek, ensconced in woods, was a version of Pigeon Forge I’d never imagined. I wondered if Jane somehow willed it to be there.
Cheerfully she got in my car, and as we entered the Park, she remarked, “I’d like to see a deer—and a bear.”
She pronounced it “deah” and “beah.” She announced her expectation in the same tone she might order a gin and tonic.
Deer I could promise. I was less certain about bears. Bear sightings have become more common since, but at that time, in 100 hikes in the Smokies, I’d seen maybe two bears. One was theoretical, a treed furry ball, outwaiting the photographers 60 feet below. But even that had been years ago. I explained to Jane that black bears were shy, and pretty scarce.
“We probably won’t see a bear,” I said.
“Oh, but you must have faith, Jack,” Jane said.
Anyone who saw us might have thought we were a couple, not people who lived 4,000 miles apart, in different countries, and who’d met the evening before. We picnicked together—she had packed little sandwiches, and brought enough for me—and took a couple of short hikes, looked at some old cabins, quoted songs, and laughed. She was a good hiker, which surprised me—her long legs taking her swiftly across rocky creeks and up rooty trails like a very proper heron. And even on a summer day, she did not appear to sweat.
The sun was going down by the time we got to the end of the Loop. I tend to tarry in the Cove, and will always associate the cantilever barn at Cable Mill with late afternoon, because I’ve never seen it before 4 p.m. A couple more cabins, and as we left, the sun sinking low. It had been a lovely afternoon. I was hoping she’d forgotten her original order.
“It’s such a pity we didn’t get to see a beah,” Jane said.
I hadn’t disappointed her yet, and didn’t even want to acknowledge that exception. The traffic was a little too slow for my straight-shift Beetle. I had to stop now and then just to open up some space. I was starting to look for the exit when Jane said, “Oh, what’s that?” and I looked down to the left, toward the creek. And there was a mother bear and two cubs trundling behind her, coming our way. Right our way. The wagon train of cars had stopped, and the mother bear approached as if she knew somebody in the car right in front of us. The bear rared up and leaned on the car, at the window, to see if she recognized anyone inside. Then she and her cubs ambled on, right in front of my car.
I had never seen an uncaged bear so close. But I spent most of that time watching Jane, who was utterly fascinated, mouth open, eyes wide. She would not have been more impressed if Dolly herself had strolled up from the creek, in high heels, singing “Mule Skinner Blues.”
I had to restrain her from getting out of the car to greet the bears personally. (“It’s just not done,” I said.)
The following year Jane came back, and brought friends.