It finally happened. It’s Wednesday, 6:30 in the morning, and for the first time at this hour I have the back deck all to myself. I’m not being anti-social. All of us adults were out here last night until 10:30. I love being around my family. But I also love the quiet of the early morning.
Time to contemplate. Time to reflect and remember who I am.
At this point in life, I have completely forgotten what it’s like to travel with a gaggle of little humans who are between the ages of 4 and 7. They talk in rapid fire sentences like a machine gun. They have mouths like an air raid siren at decibels loud enough to blast away stone and wake sleeping bears in these mountains.
But for the time being, there is quiet.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. These mountains get in your soul. I’m looking off in the distance at layers and layers of peaks and hollows all the way to the horizon. Long, thin sweeps of fog down in the valley like a bridal veil draped across the treetops and forgotten. A bank of clouds above the far ridge, reflecting the pinks and oranges of the morning sun. I wouldn’t call it majestic. Maybe just serene.
A man could find himself here. Could be part of the reason that I have come to this place. Always aware that I am no longer the married couple that I used to be. Constantly in search of the much older man I might become.
This moment. This scene in front of me fills my mind with a lot more questions than answers.
From within the house, I hear little feet. They sound like thundering elephants on the wood floor, reverberating like the skin of a bass drum. They are whispering.
My chair on the deck is almost hidden behind the kitchen window in the corner. If I don’t move, there’s a chance they won’t find me. But they know I’m up. If the sun is up, Grandpa is somewhere.
The back door opens. To my amazement, there is no squealing. They come around the corner, two pajama-clad munchkins. One has a Dalmatian under one arm. The other has an elephant and a bright green iguana. They are both rubbing sleepy eyes.
“Good morning, Grandpa.” Their voices make me forget the mountains.
They don’t ask because there’s no need to ask. They both crawl up in my lap. One on my left thigh and the other on the right. Knees pulled up. Bare feet trying to find cover. Two heads leaned back against my chest right under my chin. Wispy hair tickling my nose. Me holding one pair of legs in each hand.
For the next little while I get Dalmatian kisses and learn more than I ever thought possible about the dietary habits of iguanas. My coffee is getting cold, but that doesn’t matter. I am soaking up the memory of a moment in time that I cannot hold still. I’ll turn around soon enough and they will be teenagers.
Today is Dollywood day. It is the kind of day where the American family with 1.8 kids goes in search of world class entertainment at the expense of a second mortgage. A day at Dollywood is largely consumed by hours spent standing in line. We pay for this luxury, knowing that if we really wanted to have fun, we could stand in line at the DMV for free. We buy hotdogs that cost more than ribeye steak. Tote small children who are too tired to go on with life. We rub on enough SPF 1000 to coat a large whale.
At my age, I have earned the right not to go to Dollywood. I have paid my dues, my parental obligations. So, I watch as the clan is packing snacks and water bottles and extra lotion. Children are hyperventilating with excitement.
I wave as they head out the door. “Bye. Y’all have fun.”
Eric writes a quick note and turns to show it to me just before he heads for the car. “Save Me,” it says.
What I now have is a day to myself. I pack a few salty peanut granola bars, a bottle of water, my camera with a couple of lenses and the tripod. I drive up the Little River Valley through the National Park. We covered some of this the other day when we went for a hike up to see Laurel Falls. But this time I enter the valley from the west end near Townsend.
There is a lot of this area that is heavily commercialized. I’m guessing, a long time ago, that people would come here to get away from it all. Time to relax in the mountains and enjoy the cool mornings. One day some local entrepreneur realized that all these people needed somewhere to play putt-putt and to ride tubes down the river. They’d need a hotel or two and 64 varieties of pancakes and a place to buy wood-carved bears.
Sadly, commercialism has overrun a few of these mountain towns. Coaster rides and cheap souvenirs spewed forth. People even pay to see goats on a roof.
This is why I am crawling down a steep set of rocks beside the Little River. There is a constant hum of cars on the road above me going somewhere, but I am alone on the side of the river. Camera in hand, I am prepared to get wet, if necessary. I am in the hunt for a picture suitable for framing.
I am not a great photographer. I have only ever framed one picture which I took, not counting kids. None of these may be worth keeping. But I like trying.
I pick my way out into the river by way of the rocks I can reach without pulling a hamstring. One slip and I’ll be wet. I’m not sure what I’m after. Like I said, I’m no pro. I only know that this place feels ancient and beautiful and green and alive.
These are the oldest mountains in North America and these waters have been cutting channels through and around these rocks since before the time of the dinosaurs. They existed before the mighty glaciers slid toward the equator. Tectonic plates shifted when the command was given. Water and land separated, and the Smokies rose to the voice of the Creator.
The cool water moves past me with the sound of a great force. I am inadequate to duplicate through a lens what this place stirs in my senses. I am small. The river is all consuming. My life is full of uncertainty. The river is steady and unceasing. All around me there is evidence of great storm surges balanced against the serenity of a quiet beauty.
This thing, whatever it is, right now, may never come this way again. It is a gift you cannot buy. It is the reason we all seek to interrupt the routine flow of our lives by finding the places and the solitude that restores us.
I really hope the kids enjoyed Dollywood.
I know I did.