By Bob Heafner © 1984
Issue: September, 1984
"Feels sorta strange sneaking out of your own home, don't it Caleb?"
"Well, if our kids catch on to our camping trip plans, they'd camp out on our door step to see that we didn't go and I been looking forward to this for weeks."
Caleb and Henry stood in the early morning light shouldering the gear they had packed up for a two day stay down in the Dan River Gorge. The Dan River Gorge is within sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mayberry and Meadows of Dan, Virginia and the Gorge and the Dan River has been the favorite camping and fishing spot for the two old friends since they were boys.
"I didn't used to have near this much trouble convincing my mama to let me go camping when I was a boy!"
"I know what you mean, Henry. My youngun's say, 'but you'll get snake bit.' I was watching out for snakes before they was born. Had to if you lived up in a hollow back when I was a boy. Wasn't a child I knew that couldn't spot a snake and steer clear of 'em. We even caught snakes once in a while and played a prank or two. Never been bit yet!"
The two old men made one last check to make sure they weren't forgetting anything important like coffee and were on their way.
They conceded to their age by driving to the closest point to the river. Once they would have walked all the way but cars weren't around for convenience then.
With each step they took down the mountain path, they pushed the years back to their youth. They were pointing out familiar landmarks and remembering the people who once populated this gorge where today no houses stand.
Their favorite old time camping spot was reached in about two hours and both men sat up fishing lines before they even unpacked their gear. With the important work done, they fixed up their camp.
Wood was gathered to keep a good fire going long into the night. Besides using it for cooking, the nights could get pretty chilly even in the middle of summer without a fire. Their food sacks were hung from tree limbs to keep the "varmits" from getting into them. Both men had a good afternoon fishing and had pan fried trout to eat that night. After supper, as darkness began to set in, they sat beside their fire with a cup of coffee.
"Sure is the life, ain't it, Henry?"
"Sure is." Henry slapped at his neck. "Don't remember there being this many bugs, though. Reckon we better get out our bedrolls before it gets any darker?"
"I'm with you, Henry. Going to sleep good tonight. Always did love to lay back and look up at the stars."
Henry hardly heard Caleb because he was busy dusting every rock and twig off the patch of ground where he intended to sleep.
Both old men settled in for the night and snuggled down in their bedrolls. This was a time of quiet when both of them enjoyed the sound of frogs croaking and the swish of green leaves as the wind stirred through the trees.
After a while the silence was broken by Henry. "Caleb, is the ground over there as hard as it is over here? Don't remember it used to be so uncomfortable.”
"Aw Henry, you're getting soft as a city slicker. Been used to sleeping in beds too much."
Henry got up and moved his bedroll. "That's some better, didn't realize I was laying on a tree root over there. Good night, Caleb."
"Good night, Henry."
Caleb wouldn't have admitted it for the world, but the ground didn't feel none too soft to him either. It made him sad to think of the days when neither one of them would have even noticed, but then Caleb chuckled to himself. There probably weren't many men their age who would still "tackle the wilds."
Although neither man knew it, tackling the wilds was just what they were both about to do. Both men had been asleep for a few hours when Caleb felt a nudge. He opened his eyes and saw Henry over him with a nervous expression on his face. "I heared something, Caleb. Something big sounding. It was off over that a ways, across the river."
"Henry, you woke me up to tell me that? Probably nothin' more'n a rabbit! I never thought you'd turn scared on me spending just one night in the woods! Go on back and get some sleep and, for Pete's sake, let me get some too! I don't want to hear any more about big noises!"
Henry was now more mad with Caleb than scared and he felt like he had to convince Caleb of what he'd heard. "If you're so all powering brave, let's us just go see if there's something over there! You're more afraid of losing sleep than anything. You can nap tomorrow."
Before Caleb could reply, there was a noise. Both old men paused with their mouths still wide open and turned to face the direction of the sound. It was a definite crunching sound of something walking. That part didn't particularly scare either one of them. They knew that even a small animal sounded much larger by the sounds it made on dry leaves and twigs. What did bother them was the fact that this wasn't the sound of just twigs crunching. They could hear branches being snapped off.
Suddenly it dawned on both men at the same time. They turned back to stare at each other. Caleb was the first to say it - "A BEAR!" He said it in a tone of voice that was both a question and an answer all rolled up into one.
Henry blinked hard and said, "Caleb, I'm getting too old to climb trees."
Caleb was already scanning all the possible choices for trees that would be easy to climb. "Well if you keep standing around here you might not get any older!"
Both men spotted the same tree and ran for it. It was big enough that the bear couldn't break it or shake them out of it. They grappled for a while trying to be the first up the tree. Finally, after a great deal of arguing and fussing, Caleb gave Henry a boost up to the first limb. Then Henry gave Caleb a hand up into the tree. They both climbed as high as they could and still think the size of the limbs would support them. Then they sat hugging the tree trunk as they panted, trying to catch their breath. Henry asked, "Caleb, what time do you make it out to be?"
"How should I know. Left my pocket watch over by that rock!"
"Guess we'd better stay up here til daylight."
Below them, the noise had stopped and they listened closely. They had just about talked themselves into going back down when the noise started again. This time it was coming straight towards them.
Into the campfire's circle of light stepped two boys that looked like they were in their mid-teens. Caleb recognized one of them to be Johnny Reed, Claude's boy.
"Caleb, ain't that young Johnny Reed?"
"Shush, Henry, they'll hear us," said Caleb, but it was too late. Both boys were looking straight up at Caleb and Henry.
"That you, Mr. Henry? What are you doing up in that tree?"
"Hunting for owls, what else would we be doing up here?" Caleb and Henry climbed down about as fast as their rusty joints would allow them to and joined the boys on the ground.
"What are you two young fellows doing here, Johnny?"
"We're not really supposed to be here. I told my parents I was camping out over at Sam's and Sam told his parents that he was at my house, and we both sneaked off down here. This place where you're camped is our favorite spot. Our parents are scared to let us come down here alone, but.... You won't tell them, will you? We'd get into a lot of trouble."
"Well, it ain't right to deceive your parents, but tell you what, our children would have stopped us if'n they knowed we were coming here too. Guess that puts us all in about the same boat. We'll make a deal. We won't tell if you don't. That way none of us gets into trouble. If you're fixin' to camp here, why not just join us. We already got a fire going, or what's left of it. We'll stoke it up and heat up some coffee."
Now there were four sitting around the campfire. Johnny asked, "How come y'all know about this spot? Sam and I thought we were about the only ones that knew it was here."
Henry was the one that answered. "Caleb and I was coming here, to this very spot to camp and fish when we were your age. 'Course it was a mite different then. There used to be families and houses all up in here. Lumber was big then."
Caleb pointed out his hand and said, "See that spot down the river a ways? That's where the old Splash Dam used to be. They'd build it, up and the loggers would roll logs down into the river. When the water had built up high enough, they'd bust the dam and the force of the water would carry those logs all the way down to Kibler Valley. Used to have a train down there that could carry the lumber out. There was even a boarding house down in here.
Caleb was watching to see if the boys were getting that look on their faces that his children sometimes did when he started telling about the "old days", but both boys seemed to be really interested. These were stories they had never heard before.
Johnny stared at the river and said, "Imagine that. I wonder how many people have had this for their favorite spot? I never thought about it before. How many years you reckon it went back?"
Caleb said, "Don't rightly know, but both my daddy and grand-dad fished this very same hole. I guess when it comes to fishing, people never change. This has always been the place to beat all others. You and Sam don't seem very different than Henry and I was at your age, not when it comes to feelings about fishing and camping. Only thing that's changed is we used to wear overalls instead of blue jeans."
Johnny surprised the two old men by saying, "Sometimes I think, what would it be like if we could just live here, make our own little place to stay, fish some - things like that."
"Folks used to do just that, and it was a nice peaceful way to live, but it's a darn sight harder than it sounds. Still, makes a nice day dream for a man, don't it?"
It was a strange combination, two old men and two teenagers camped together, but they all shared a common bond - They loved this place. All four thought it was the most beautiful, peaceful place on earth. They shared a respect for it and each other because of it.
The next morning, all four packed up camp and headed out. Caleb and Henry pointed out other things about the Gorge as they walked along.
"There don't seem to be much you two don't know about this gorge," said Johnny.
"I guess, between the two of us, we've probably walked over all of it, up, down and sideways," Caleb chuckled and added, "'specially long about the time that Henry and I were determined to find that old "lost silver mine" that people said was in here somewheres. We know a lot more interesting places and good fishing spots, if you youngsters would be interested."
"Sure would. Do you think we could do this again?"
For the rest of the hike back to Caleb's pickup truck, the four new fishing buddies spent the time plotting the next time all four would "sneak away," together this time.
Henry watched the boys heading toward their homes and said, "Caleb, it does my old heart good to know we aren't the last. I was afraid when our generation passed, the simple pleasures we enjoyed so much would be gone, but there goes a whole new generation that will love it just like we do. Makes me feel good inside, Caleb, mighty good."