I’m an old Vermont codger now, but I grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee.
My wife, Joanne, recently died. No pity needed. She lived to see eighty and went on her own terms.
In her memory, even though it was now a collection of overgrowth and abandoned buildings, I decided to visit our old hometown.
“Jackson, you’re beyond too damn old for a hiking trip,” they told me.
“Just ‘cause an octogenarian can drive, command a chessboard, and walk a mile a day… That doesn’t mean he needs to be ruffin’ it up Appalachia. Hunters half your age disappear down there.”
But that didn’t stop me from returning to Bear Trail Falls...
My family lived in a house a few miles outside the trading post-turned-village. We were pretty darn isolated, so I was something of a lonely kid.
Most people grow up with five or more friends, and twenty or more acquaintances. There weren’t that many kids around Bear Trail Falls. So those that I did meet, I was sure to befriend.
Thinking back, I really only had three companions.
Johnny Leewood was my first best bud. We’d often meet up and rumble around the local swimming hole. We got along famously. Only thing I didn’t like is he called me “Jack”, not Jackson.
I hate that. Johnny got lost exploring the namesake path that surrounded Bear Trail Falls. Maybe that’s how I learned to last so long and strong.
Coping with an absent best friend at such an early age toughens you up, like it or not.
Sam Vickers was the next kid I got to know, and by default, my next best friend. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but he could make me laugh like nobody else.
Sam and his family eventually moved to Knoxville, where his pa got a factory job.
Finally, the last good friend of my early years wasn’t a boy, but a sweet little girl named Joanne. For me, it was love at first sight.
It took *her* the ages of thirteen to nineteen before she felt the same way.
I loved Joanne so much. And going back to Bear Trail Falls felt like falling for her all over again. Visiting our old haunts. Scaling our favorite ridges...
My last day there, I hiked to the top of the mountain where she first said she loved me. It was beautiful.
Headed back down the mountain, rounding a trail bend, I got a bad feeling...
I heard a low, deep grunting, and knew once I turned the corner, I’d see a big ol’ bear chomping down on some deer carrion...
Indeed, I saw predator and prey.
No dead fawn, though....
A dead hunter.
And no menacing black bear. Something small and frail.
After it glimpsed me, it stopped eating.
It looked up at me, face coated with gore. It took a big, long sniff of the air...
The child smiled.
“Hey, Jack! Long time no see!”