Mandy Newham-Cobb illustration
In the Smokies with Dad
Saturdays, when it was rainy, Dad and I would “run errands.” We’d go to hardware stores and automotive stores and paint stores and lumber stores. Everybody at all the loading docks seemed to know Dad, and he always had a challenge for the men behind the counters. I grew up thinking of Knoxville as a dreary, rainy city, because I never saw most of it except in the rain. If it were Saturday and sunny, we wouldn’t be in Knoxville at all. We’d be in the mountains.
Our house was almost an hour from the Smokies, but my dad would drive up there as casually as other dads drive to the liquor store.
He was a trout fisherman, and he knew the places where trout lived. He liked company, but didn’t demand it. When he did have company, he had surprising patience for his companion, the skinny, absent-minded kid who had a hard time remembering how to tie a fly onto a lead.
There was a lot that I had a hard time with. I was repeatedly astonished, and frankly a little skeptical, that he could so easily tell one creek from the other. I half-wondered whether he was pulling my leg when he claimed to remember the first time he was there, at that particular creek, the last time he was there, what he’d caught. His memory of an individual creek’s personality seemed almost supernatural to me. He referred to them by name. When he talked about the Middle Prong, he spoke as if he were talking about a specific, distinctive city, like Pittsburgh or Birmingham.
“Oh,” I’d say. “Middle Prong. That’s the one with the cold water, and all the rocks in it.” But the mountains swallow teenage sarcasm whole.
I spent more than 100 Saturdays hiking and fishing in the Smokies with Dad. He tried to teach me some basic stuff, and was patient with me. I tried to recognize scenes in the deep woods, and failed. It’s probably not something you can learn with flash cards.
I tried not to be a dope. I learned to cast a fly, and could do it pretty well, in terms of landing it where I wanted it, and occasionally catching something big enough to keep. I did have one chronic issue. I’d get distracted, looking toward a perfect pool where fat trout were sure to dwell, and on the back cast I’d hear a “shik!” I’d look up, and once again the barbed fly was hung up in foliage about 20 feet above my head. And then what do you do? You’re standing shank-deep in a cold creek holding your dad’s fly-fishing rod, and its long line is securely attached to a maple branch 20 feet above your head.
There is no graceful solution. I would have learned it by the third or fourth time. Pull it too hard, and the line might break, and leave that impossibly delicate fly, the one Dad picked out for you to use, up in the leaves. You’ll probably have to re-tie the lead, too. I’d just stand there in the cold water and regret it, like you regret a car wreck.
At least once, disgusted with myself, I locked the reel and left the rod standing in the creek, as I waded to the bank and sat on a rock. After an hour or two, Dad would come back and survey that singular situation, his rod standing alone in the creek, hanging from a bough, with a funny smile that seemed both melancholy and a little flabbergasted at how the same person could keep doing that again and again.
Dad had a device he could put at the end of his rod and cut the fly free from the leaves. He always came prepared, though I got the impression he never needed it much, himself.
Dad knew creeks as close friends. Maybe it’s a certain personality, maybe years of discipline, but Dad knew creeks and he knew trails and he knew trees and he knew mountaintops from a distance, as easily as any old man can tell a ’39 Plymouth from a Chevy or a Ford.
If by some tectonic freak Mount Fujiyama happened to suddenly appear in the vicinity of Greenbrier, I’m afraid I wouldn’t notice it unless my dad remarked on that singular oddity.
And, of course, as soon as he satisfied his engineer’s mind about how it had happened, he’d want to hike it and reconnoiter its trout streams.
In spite of multiple traumatic experiences with lofty foliage, I learned to love mountain creeks, and their moods, and how they changed with a few yards of wading, or with a 15-degree shift of the sun, or how a raincloud and rain can change them, utterly, into a landscape from a dream. Creeks were fascinating to me. But I never got to the point that I knew them personally, as I think Dad did. I watched them helplessly, like you might watch a beautiful woman whose name you’ll never know.