In the park across the street, there is a lake bursting like a dilated pupil within a square iris.
The lake is staked in the middle with an aerating fountain, giving the effect of having a belly button.
Running down on one of the lake’s hilly sides is a faux waterfall, sculpted of pink concrete and river stones (purchased by its creator from Joe’s Garden Kingdom).
The water that runs down the flayed walls is turned off at night and in the summer months when there are water shortages.
The park is a gathering place: Kids and mothers feed the ducks stale Wonder bread. Pre-adolescent boys with acerbic faces and puppy limbs catch fish with canned sweet corn and hot dog coins
The park is bordered by four streets lined with mid-century bungalows. On one street of the perimeter, in one of the bungalows facing the park, Tom and his mother perfect the art of observing.
They watch: the cracks in their dishes, the bubbly rust on the charcoal grill, the hummingbirds draining their red feeder-water, the wrinkles on each other’s faces.
In the late afternoon on the front porch, Tom and his mother watch the children in the park and fluttering leaves of the sycamore tree at the edge of the lake positioned like a diving board over the water
its hanging branches growing a few inches every year closer to the lake’s surface, reaching (but not reaching) for a mouthful.
In the words of Barbara Reimensnyder Duncun* and several thousand years of fieldwork:
Water can speak and give answers.
In July, 2014, the family traveled to Indian Boundary, TN, a state campground located one hour away from Smokey Mountains National Park, down roads that wind up and down hills like tributaries.
The family got lost (a lot) since it is common for the locals in the area to steal road signs.
Indian Boundary had a gate at their entrance. At 5:00 A.M., the campground host opened the gate.
At 10:00 P.M., he locked campers in and late-night visitors out, opening it for no one (except for) in the words of the campground host:
You-all are lucky because I have an ambulance coming to pick up an old woman who’s sick; I had to open the gate anyway. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have let you in.
Each day in TN, they got lost and the pressure of the locked gate hung like a yoke of heavy water.
There wasn’t always a gate at the entrance to the family-oriented campground. In the past, (according to some locals at the beach) Indian Boundary was overflowing in rough characters, each night howling across campfires and (in one incident) knife-fighting.
In response, the park rangers erected a gate, a curfew, and brown signs reading, No Alcoholic Beverages. TN state troopers agreed to parole camp sites and subjugate rule-breakers.
Twenty years later, having broken curfew, the family was regarded as rule-breakers. The cops showed up the next night at dusk, four officers in black.
They said: Don’t hang your trash on the lamp post
She said: I’m sorry. We didn’t know.
They said: There was a complaint. Someone reported that you were loud last night.
She said: I’m sorry. My 5-year-old daughter was throwing a fit as were getting ready for bed.
They said: Someone also reported that someone was peeing in the woods.**
They said: There’s no alcohol allowed. Do you have any alcohol?
She said: No sir.
They said: You-all are from Illinois. Where-abouts?
She said: Thirty minutes from St. Louis.
She wanted to say: Get the fuck off our campsite.
Over the course of the next four days that they stayed in TN, the incident was like bitter tea in the mother’s mouth.
She felt the kind of pissed-off that results from being humiliated, from having kids on their pink and red bicycles stop and stare.
Water can be a pathway to another world.
Tom’s mother is dying. Tom watches for seven months the minute bucklings of his mother’s body. Until she becomes still like a dry pebble.
At his mother’s funeral, Tom watches the line of visitors like a creek in a forest, the words flowing from the priest’s mouth, the casket dissipating like flood waters.
…usually at each recurring new moon…it is customary…for the whole family to go down together at daybreak, and fasting, to the river and stand with bare feet.
The family goes to Smokey Mountains N.P. Driving on the Cherohola Skyway, they stop at the scenic overlooks and read the signs, the information barely discernable under yellowing, crackled epoxy.
One sign tells about “The Long Man,” the Cherokee river spirit. The sign says:
The Cherokee believe that rivers are inhabited by a river spirit named ‘Yunwi Gunahita’, or ‘The Long Man’ who is always murmuring to us, trying to teach us lessons, if we would but listen.
The family passes Joyce Kilmer National Forest. They have heard about this place. It is supposed to have spectacularly big trees. The family decides to stop.
The family goes on a hike, a 2-mile loop, according to the map in the visitor parking lot.
The rhodendron maximum dominate the forest scene, their fist-sized, white flowers dangling over the streams of water and moss-covered rocks. They are impressed but not by the majestic poplars. In Illinois there are lots of big trees.
The family doesn’t realize that the trees in the Kilmer Forest are big by Eastern standards.
It is difficult to verbalize in another language, for another culture, exactly what makes a place sacred.
The sun stretched out over the lake like a body on a rack, Tom sitting on his front porch content as a brook.
The families in the park stop their motions to look at Tom: why doesn’t he sit inside and watch TV, what is the thing wrong with Tom that produces his aloneness.
Tom is looking at the sycamore tree and the ripples on the lake.
There is something, human-like but not human, on the lake. No one else in the park notices.
Tom watches it like a disciplined sentry, like a dog on point. For minutes.
For hours sinking away.
It is growing out of the water, sliding over the lake’s surface at the rate of the full moon above.
It is making its way to the sycamore, its spumescent form slipping like a finger across ice.
Tom does not go to bed that night
The thing comes to rest on the lap of the trunk, lying inside a shallow cup, barely discernable except for its head in the mountains and its feet in the sea.
…the use of going to water for newborn infants; for people who have had a family member die; for various kinds of conjuring; for people who have bad dreams; and as part of traditional preparations for the stickball game.
At an unmarked fork, the family follows two hikers down the wrong trail. Having no children, the two hikers are soon out of sight.
Assuming that the trail is a loop trail, they continue walking for two hours. The trail goes up and down mountain ridges covered in bright button mushrooms and dead leaves.
The girls are tired. They are not enjoying the moss-covered rocks, the rhodendron blooms, or the mushrooms anymore.
The family is running out of water. There is only half-a-bottle left.
The mom and dad are afraid: the same afraid they felt when the oldest daughter was a baby and couldn’t nurse and was losing weight.
The way to the visitor parking lot like a drop in the forest mist, they argue:
Mom: No way. It’s a loop trail.
Mom: How long did it say? In the parking lot. On the map.
Dad: I don’t remember.
Mom: Oh, my god.
The matter was decided when the two hikers who turned around, pass the family, and tell them that they were lost.
The family turns around. The mom carries the tired youngest daughter on her back for a mile. Unable to carry her further, she makes her walk the rest of the way back.
The youngest daughter goes silent. She staggers. The mom worries that she is dehydrated. She holds her hand.
The mom picks wild blackberries and gives them to both her daughters.
The family eventually makes it to the visitor parking lot. In their car, there is water in the cooler and a feast of unsalted almonds and organic granola bars in the daughters’ travel bags. The youngest perks up.
On the way back to Indian Boundary, they stop at a gas station and buy more food.
A cigarette bucket in the middle of the picnic table ornaments their meal of chili-dogs, Fritos, salt-water taffy, and orange soda.
On the drive back, the mother revisits her fear on the trail, dripping wet in uncertainty.
If somebody’s lost, it’s up to the Creator to point the direction.
When Tom wakes up the next morning, the thing is no longer there.
Tom leaves his front porch and walks to the sycamore tree.
Tom should be getting ready for work: brushing his teeth, making his coffee, those sorts of things. Instead, he takes his shoes off and walks into the lake, till the water covers his ankles.
He doesn’t mind the mud or the filamentous algae, which continues to grow despite treatments of algaecides and inert dyes (also from Joe’s Garden Kingdom).
When somebody’s sick, you take him to the creek, wash his face by dipping with your hand, and wet his breast by the heart.
It feels to Tom like the navy-dyed water is filling him with strength. His body like a swollen
plastic water-jug, anticipating release.
…the spirit gives strength like Baptism.
Here is what the family knows about the Joyce Kilmer Forest:
It is named after a poet.
It is located in North Carolina off the Cherohala Skyway, on the left.
It is a place where they got lost in the woods for 4 hours.
Here is what the family doesn’t know about the Joyce Kilmer National Forest:
Joyce Kilmer was a man (not a woman). He was a religious man and a veteran of WWI. His poetry, including his famous work, “Trees,” is not regarded as good poetry by critics.
More hikers have gotten lost in the 18,000 acres of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness than in any other place in North Carolina.
Kilmer is an old-growth forest. The Cherokee believe the link between medicine and magic is deepest in old-growth forests.
Kilmer is a remnant: In the middle of the 20th century, an estimated 3 billion American chestnut trees succumbed to Cryphonectria parasitica, an Asian bark fungus.
25% of the trees in the Joyce Kilmer Forest used to be American chestnuts.
Now the hemlocks in Kilmer are dying, downed by the woolly adelgid (another Asian pest).
The U.S. Forest Service used dynamite to fall 150 dead hemlocks. In their view, it was a matter of public safety.
Chainsaws are not allowed in Kilmer.
The Cherokee believe that little elf-like creatures, the yumwi, live in the oldest trees. Though they like playing tricks on humans, they protect the very young and the very old.
Cherokee legends speak of yumwi guiding lost children out of the forest back to their clay houses.
There are connecting trails in Kilmer Forest: extending far north and west of the memorial loop trail to the Tennessee state line into the Cherokee National Forest where the campground, Indian Boundary is located.
…it is important to look…not in its cultural context but in its physical, ecological context
Families in mini-vans and black Tahoes, pulling boats and pop-up campers, bicycles and Thules
are going to water
muddy water, salt water, hot-spring water, dammed water, pool water, sacred water,
water churned by ski boats, water warmed by cooling turbines, water stocked with rainbow trout, speckled with blue herons and duck blinds, pierced with bridge tresses,
infested in e-coli and zebra mussels that slice pink toes
…religion is never disconnected from the physical natural world.
So too, does Tom and this family go to water, a driblet in the assembly,
to water that has been paid homage to
with plaques, peach-hued condos, information and park rules
a swim beach, fishing pier, boardwalk, parking lot and steel trashcans,
activities and amenities.
Water that has been made accessible
that has been garlanded with rope threaded in red buoys and an aerating fountain
It was the water that brought the family to Indian Boundary and the facilities (nicer than Smokey Mountain N.P.)
the lake surrounded in spectacular Appalachian mountain views and a 3.2 mile biking trail
offering glimpses of wildlife and a peaceful setting,
which the family drank till dusk.
*A collector of Cherokee stories. Resides on Camp Creek, a tributary of the Tuckaseegee.
**The six-year-old daughter had, in fact, popped a squat in the woods earlier that morning.
Katrina Knebel is an English teacher in the St. Louis region and director of her high school’s Writing Center. She has earned an MA in English and is looking to pursue her doctorate in Creative Writing. You can find more of her work at Spry and After Happy Hour Review or follow her here.
Photo by Diego Torres