Mandy Newham-Cobb illustration
My father was raised in Pike County, Ken., where the hills are high, the air is crisp, and the men have their own notions about romance. In his early courting days things were easier; everyone knew everyone and everybody wanted to get married and have babies, so it was simply a matter of making arrangements.
I jest to some extent, but as I watch my father—happily divorced since the 1980s—date while in his seventies, I still cannot help but feel something is missing. His suitors are mostly attractive widows of his deceased real estate clients. The ladies bring dinners and baked goods right to his front door. It’s more like “Meals on Wheels” than dating.
Being the daughter of this self-professed “Mountain Man” should have prepared me for dating the same practical, no-frills kind of guy my mom fell for, but it did not.
The fellows I knew in the Appalachian area where I grew up took the words “travel is a curse” to heart. “Travel” to me, a wanna-be globe hopper, meant anywhere from out of town to Timbuktu and anywhere in between. “Travel” to my mountain man ex-boyfriend (circa high school and slightly beyond) meant going to his brother’s house—down the road. Hopping in the pickup and heading out was OK at first. For really special occasions, we’d go to his sister’s—the other direction down the road. Making these singular left or right turns weekend upon weekend for years was not enough for me, and the pick up truck without air conditioning was not good for my big 1980s hairdo.
I moved to a more metropolitan area for college, but found the men there equally ‘mountainesque.” Still seeking romance and life adventures as promised on cable television, I dated more mountain men and got the same results. Trips to the drive-in theater were replaced with hunting trips. Trips to exotic destinations, like, say, Dollywood, were replaced with fishing excursions. Cuddling up to watch a chick flick was replaced with NASCAR races. New ideas and suggestions were strictly taboo, and no amount of arguing ever changed the outcome—I once suggested tasting hummus and one would have thought I was a serial killer.
Home and auto repairs were another challenge. Paying people to do what one could do oneself was a ridiculous notion (like leaving THE road). Whether one had the skills or not to do the repair was not the point—one tried it on his own, only enlisting the help of family or a very close friend as a last resort. It goes without saying that the only payment required for assistants was cold beer. Thriftiness and manliness go hand-in-hand in the mountains.
I’m not Paula Deen—cooking has never been nor will ever be my forte. And that’s probably a good thing, because no girlfriend or wife could ever cook as good as a mountain man’s Mama, and we girls all knew that going in. Beyond this, one needed to pass the assorted other “Mama Tests” before being given girlfriend status. The matriarch of the family is a proud and hardworking person, and most often gets final word. Cooking, cleaning, fidelity, fertility and language skills had to be mastered before receiving the stamp of approval. The language skills test could go either way, and one had to be prepared with a few colorful expletives just in case. Meeting Mama was always the point when I knew it was time to fish or cut bait. She was a young man’s first love, after all, the one to measure up to at all costs. Orphaned single guys were in short supply, so I did my best. Did I pass? Well, honestly, no, and after various attempts I gave up and was beginning to accept the prospect of always being single.
Throughout college, I wondered what it would take to have a little romance and adventure in my life. What was the secret recipe or code word I lacked? Was I to build a deer stand, climb up into it and wait in a lace teddy, and if I did, would I get attention or would my perfume simply scare away the deer?
In the end, my mountain man came from Michigan, where a mountain is a hill and bears are in short supply, but his mom approves—even if I still can’t cook—and I couldn’t be happier. The truth of the matter is though, that I now understand why women still flock to my father. His quiet talents and understated romantic gestures are priceless. What the mountain man lacks in storybook romance, he makes up for with loyalty and pride—proudly not asking for directions (should he actually leave THE road) and loyalty to his town, his family, his pickup truck, and to his woman, who he can surprise when she least expects it. There is nothing more beautiful then freshly picked wildflowers, even if they come in a Ball jar.